Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”

(Note from Mary to subscribers and other regular readers of The Militant Writer: Please see note and update at the end of this post. Thx.)

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blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.

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Note to readers: I have traditionally posted my writing tips to another blog but I am thinking of merging that blog with this one. What I need to know is this: Are those who are used to reading about self-publishing and related political issues on The Militant Writer also interested in knowing what I’ve learned about how to write (or, rather, how I write), or should I keep these two worlds separate?  Let me know what you think.

And an update: I AM making progress on my mission to find a publicist who is not just any publicist. We are very excited here, but not sure enough to talk about it in public. Stay tuned!

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photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Book Publicist Wanted: But not just ANY book publicist

Book promotion is a career option with a big future. This is what my ideal book publicist – the book publicist of the future – looks like.

Media technologies conceptI am looking to hire a book publicist, so this post is sort of a job posting. It is also a blueprint and discussion paper for other writers who are looking for really effective people to help them promote their books, and it is a primer on the state of the industry for people starting out in the book-promotion business.

In future (starting now, for some of us), a freelance book publicist will be one of the two truly essential members of an author’s team – the other being (of course) the editor. Soon, great book publicists (like great editors) will only represent the books they love and believe in, and the fact that a specific publicist has taken on your book will act as a credential for the quality of the book itself.

Needless to say, for that to happen, the world is going to need a lot more freelance book publicists than it has right now. Unfortunately most of the ones who are around today – they mainly work for publishers – are just not going to make it past the jump.

I am going to tell you why existing book promotion methods have become ineffective, what does work, and why book promotion is becoming a really exciting and potentially profitable income option for enterprising, creative people who love books.

Why Traditional Book Promotion Doesn’t Work

In the past, book publicists have worked primarily with traditional media (newspapers, radio, television) on behalf of traditional publishers. There are two reasons why this approach is of no use to those of us who are producing quality books independently today – and, in most cases, not to traditionally published authors either.

For self-published authors, traditional outlets are next-to-impossible to crack – no matter how good our books are. Unless our sales suddenly skyrocket as a result of years of dogged hard work, or there is a spontaneous word-of-mouth epidemic, or we engage in some ridiculous public stunt — in other words, unless we become “news” – no one in the traditional print media or the broadcast sectors is going to even look at our books, much less review them, or interview us about anything. To them, we are pariahs.

There are several reasons for our pariah-hood: 1) If traditional media open the doors to one self-published author, kazillions of others will inundate them with their books and demand equal time. At least when media receive books from traditional presses, they can be fairly sure that the books have some merit – no matter how slight it may be. There are no such guarantees with self-published books, many of which are garbage. Who has time to sort the wheat from the chaff? 2) It’s a lot easier to work with the devil you know: publishers’ promotions people and writers’ agents make sure authors and their books arrive on time for interviews, and may even supply book summaries and questions for the interviewers to ask. And if media outlets say “No” to those publicists because they aren’t interested in a book, the publicist doesn’t take it personally. God knows what a self-published author might do if media outlets said “No” to them. To them, it is better to say nothing. 3) Publishers and media people know each other. Many have been friends for decades. To promote a self-published author over a traditionally published one would be like cheating on a spouse. Besides, isn’t it better to go down on the Titanic with your friends than to try to survive alone? 4) Publishers and booksellers buy ads in newspapers and sponsor events. Nobody wants to threaten that (very) thin thread of income.

But perhaps of even more import than the pariah status of self-published authors is the fact that, increasingly, book promotion through traditional media doesn’t work for any author. (Not that it ever was that effective.) People just aren’t reading newspapers and magazines cover to cover they way they used to. TV audiences are no longer captive, either: thanks to PVR/DVR, people only watch the programs that they want to watch. How many people download a book review or author interview from Netflix?

So what does book publicity look like today? Well, aside from the inundations of book promotion by self-published authors on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, we have traditional book-promotion strategies that no longer work – and people who have been trained in those strategies who are no longer useful.

What Book Publicity Must Look Like Now

Those of us who have chosen the freedom of self-publishing over the traditional route need to get creative. We need to think about how our books are going to be received, by whom, and where. We need to think about unusual ways to tell the people who we know are going to love our books that they exist. The routes we need to take to find these people are not the traditional promotional routes. Trying to get reviewed or interviewed in the places where every other writer goes to be reviewed or interviewed just doesn’t work. (Not that it helps traditionally published writers much, either: traditional promotion is like throwing blurbs at blank walls to see what sticks: it’s a one-size-fits-all approach that fits about as well as one-size-fits-all fits anything.)

What we need is a promotional program that is specifically designed for each of our individual books. If I have two books to promote (which I do right now, although several others are waiting in the wings), I need two promotional programs. I need to sit down with my book, think clearly and honestly about its prospective audience (and recognize that it is not for everyone–no book is for everyone), and devise really ingenious ways to find its audiences and tell them about my book. Once I’ve found them, I need to make contact. After that, the quality of my book will do the work for itself. People will love reading it, and they will tell other people, and once the ball is rolling, I’ll be able to turn my attention to one of the other books I want to tell the world about.

In my case, for example, when it comes to the novel Rita Just Wants to Be Thin, I want to reach women everywhere who love reading good fiction and are interested in body-image issues. Men will be interested too, but my primary audience is women. I know how to find these women: I just haven’t had the time to do it. The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid is likely to attract a very different audience. Here, John (my co-author) and I are looking for readers who love to read an unputdownable, thinking-person’s romp. We have a particular focus on those who love Westerns or historical fiction set in the early 1900s, but also on those who have a passing acquaintance with the story of Don Quixote (which includes those attending performances of Man of La Mancha and the opera Don Quichotte), readers of lesbian fiction, and several other groups. I have tons of specific ideas (some ingenious) as to how to reach my audiences for both books.

As authors, we can come up with a lot of great ideas for book publicity ourselves, but such lists are potentially endless and we can’t think of them all. We need creative input. We need help from someone who approaches our book as a reader, rather than a writer. We need to brainstorm ideas, and then focus on the best ones … and then we need to act on them. Consistently.

We can’t do a great job of book promotion on our own—especially when we’re writing the next book at the same time. It’s too time-consuming. It’s also disheartening to us and frowned upon by others. If we do it the wrong way or too often, it can damage sales rather than improving them. We need someone who loves the books we are promoting to help us. And we need to pay them. (And I don’t mean promising them a share of royalties. I mean paying them a reasonable hourly rate that is based on their education, experience, and the ideas and energy they bring to the table.)

Who Is NOT the Publicist I am Looking for

I am not looking for someone who has done a lot of promotion for the books industry, who thinks that he or she knows how to do it and that traditional methods are the way to go. Yes, I am interested in being interviewed on Between the Covers and getting my books reviewed in The New York Times – who wouldn’t be? –  but that’s not likely to happen in the near future (see section on “pariah-hood” above), and it doesn’t matter anyway because such coverage will only reach a tiny part of the audience I want to reach. My audience is a specific segment of the huge huge world of readers, and most of them don’t listen to CBC or read the NYT.

My audience is also international. The new books world breaks down all borders. Therefore I am also not interested in promotions people with a purely Canadian focus.

Publicists who offer to help me create an effective social media strategy incorporating Facebook and Twitter, and to help me build a great website and an attractive blog, are not welcome either. These platforms ONLY sell books for people who are already selling tons of books, and even then they probably don’t –  in and of themselves – sell books. As I’ve explained before, you can’t sell books on Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, I am not looking for former or current literary agents who are trying to earn a few shekels because their traditional paths to riches are closing down (which was the logical future given the state of the industry five years ago, as I described in the first-ever post on this blog: “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature, and what publishers can do to stop them.” That was then.)

The Publicist I AM Looking for – Right Now

I am looking for a book promotions person who wants to work with me because he or she has made him- or herself familiar with the range of writing I have done and do, loves my fiction, and wants to work with me to promote my books (specifically Rita and Don Valiente at the outset) in unexpected, fun ways that no one else is using. I want him or her to have an Internet focus and a real-world focus rather than a traditional-media focus.

I am looking for someone who is already interested in the kind of work I am describing. Someone who is just starting out in the field would be ideal. An advanced student in a communications program would be welcome. This is a very part-time gig to start with.

The candidate must be an avid reader of literary as well as popular fiction, and must be creative, energetic and gutsy. Promotion is the really fun part of writing and publishing, and I want to work with someone who gets that. Someone who moves as fast as I do, and thinks as fast as I do. I want someone from whom I can bounce ideas, and who will bounce his or her own ideas back.

I want someone who will see me as a mentor as well as a client and employer. After many years in the books business myself – as former editor in chief of a publishing company, former executive director of a writers’ organization, and an author with more than thirty years of experience, I have been involved with all kinds of traditional books promotion. I know what works and what does not, and I have been intimately involved in the transition to self-publishing (read back through the history of Militant Writer blogs for evidence of that.) I have a wealth of innovative and unusual ideas for my books. To a book publicist who is building up a stable of clients, the ideas I am exploring and want to test are going to be valuable in promoting other people’s books as well.

If you’re in Toronto, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.

This will be a very part-time position at the start, but the hourly rate will be reasonable (you will need to suggest a reasonable rate at some point in our discussions). Just because I want to work with people who have new ideas who also want to learn doesn’t mean that I think that they should work for free.

Those who are interested in helping me promote Rita and Don Valiente should contact me via mary at marywwalters dot com I’ll get back to all emails within a day or two.

To my writer friends: comments and additional thoughts are, as always, sincerely welcomed and appreciated – not only by me, but also by other readers.

 

Amazon vs Hachette and the erosion of author solidarity

Writers need to remember that both sides are making more money from our talent than we ever can

Like many other writers, I am caught in a sticky predicament when it comes to the battle between Amazon and the publisher Hachette, in that supporting what is growing into a cause célèbre for many traditionally published authors means diminishing our own work and reducing our (mostly paltry) incomes.

For those who have missed this story, Amazon has begun to delay the delivery of books by Hachette authors significantly, and to create impediments on searches for Hachette books on the Amazon site: apparently due to a dispute between the two companies over ebook pricing. (See the LA Times for details.) No less a celebrity than Stephen Colbert is now urging all of us to boycott Amazon in support of Hachette authors, of which he is one. The New York Times is outraged. So are many noted writers (Malcolm Gladwell and James Patterson are two, both also published by Hachette) and several writers’ organizations.

Those of us who are caught in the middle of this firestorm are primarily established writers who have chosen to go the self-published route for some or all of our new or out-of-print titles, and to use Amazon as our publishing partner. Typically, we ourselves have had books published with traditional presses in the past, and as a result we have strong connections (e.g., through membership in writers’ organizations) and even long-term friendships with other authors who are still published only by established presses. These presses include not only Hachette but all publishers who could receive similar treatment from Amazon in future, which is most of them. Solidarity is at stake here, and in a pre-self-publishing world, we would have easily and strongly stood together. Now, over this issue and several others related to it, such strength in unity is impossible.

For indie authors, there are many good reasons for selecting Amazon to fulfill the role of publishing partner for our self-published books, most of which involve both financial considerations and the ease of getting books created and distributed. CreateSpace (Amazon’s print-on-demand publishing arm) and Kindle Direct (Amazon’s e-book-creation arm) are easy to work with, user-friendly and professionally staffed, and they offer basic packages at reasonable prices. They also offer a range of add-on services (e.g. editing, book design), depending on what you want, need and/or can afford.

The distribution advantages are obvious: almost everyone in the universe has an Amazon account. Amazon delivers what you want, when you want it, and at a lower price than just about any other company (especially other bookstores these days, since Amazon’s innovations combined with the booksellers’ own lack of foresight have put most of them out of business). A writer may choose to make her books available on a number of platforms (Barnes & Noble, Chapters, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.) but no writer can afford not to have her books also available on Amazon. Some of us even choose to have our books available exclusively on Amazon, due to the additional advantages Amazon offers us for choosing to limit our sales to its sites.

Yes, Amazon’s forward thinking–embraced by readers everywhere–has overturned the literary landscape. And yes, its innovations have driven most booksellers out of business due to its accessibility, range of offerings, and lower prices. Yes, Amazon has also started hammering at the bedrock of traditional publishing houses: its practice of treating the biggest of the big publishers no differently than it does me, a self publisher, may ultimately bring down Hachette and many other companies that have for decades made their livings off the backs of writers.

Amazon is a hell of a good company for writers who are working with it, rather than with one of its competitors. I get up to 70% royalties on my ebooks, and my readers can buy them for $2.99.  I can even give them away for free if I want to, in order to promote sales. (Publishers typically sell ebooks, which cost next to nothing to produce, for $10 to $15. Their writers get $1.50, and the publisher keeps the other $13.50. Even with print books, self publishers do far, far better financially per book sale than they do with traditional presses.)

What other writers want to do re: publishing their works is their business. However, with this Hachette-Amazon argument, if I choose to “support my fellow writers” and boycott Amazon, I am essentially telling people not to buy my books. And if I don’t support this boycott, I am a turncoat.

For a range of reasons that have to do with my choice to self-publish, in the past few years I have felt a steely and disapproving silence from some of my fellow authors, mostly the mid-range ones, and now here is another divisive issue that threatens to drive an even greater wedge between us.

Writers who ask me to boycott Amazon because of its treatment of Hachette have failed consider (and a lot of them don’t care) that my books are not accepted for sale in bookstores, not reviewed in traditional media, not eligible for most awards and grants, and not available in libraries. Why? Because I do not publish with an “established press.” But I’m supposed to give up book sales to support those companies that do have other avenues for promotions and sales? I think not.

Author John Greene is quoted in the LA Times article as saying, “The breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

I disagree. American (and Canadian, and British, and Indian, and Australian, and so on) literature will thrive just fine without publishers – editors’ imprints will fill their roles in future, and much less expensively for everyone concerned.

Medium-sized and major publishers have done nothing at all for me, ever. They have not rejected my manuscripts so much as they have refused to even look at them, because they base their selections on what will sell, not on “the breadth . . . and quality of [the] literature.”

As Hugh Howey says in wading into this issue, “Publishers could have realized years ago that they are in the story development and delivery service, but they thought it was all about books. Which pretty much underscores all that has happened since.”

It is the publishers I am refusing to support, but that’s not how a lot of authors see it. But I can’t afford to be politically correct on this one. My unwillingness to support Hachette (and their agitating authors) vs Amazon is partly principle and partly economics – not being James Patterson, J.K. Rowling or Stephen Colbert, I can’t afford to support a cause that impacts my own income so directly. But here’s the bottom line: I’ve fought long and hard to get what I (and my reader-reviewers for the most part) believe to be quality books into print and available on the market, and any boycott of Amazon prevents those books from reaching readers. How can I urge that?

So my message to my fellow writers is this: do what you want when it comes to getting your books to print. Just don’t let issues like this one rip us apart. We’re all in this together, talking to our readers. The rest of them are only intermediaries who have figured out how to make more money off our talent than we ever can.

 

 

Is “dictating” a story the same as “writing” a story?

Businessman dictating notesIf you record a short story and then transcribe it, did you write a short story?

In my editing life and in my online reading, more and more frequently I am coming across passages of creative writing — both fiction and non-fiction — that “sound” to me as though they have been dictated into digital voice recorders, transcribed (which the apps do for you, in part), and then edited (often minimally) before being released into the world.

Why do I get the sense that some creative prose I’m reading started in an oral format? In part it is the phrasing and vernacular, but particularly it is the way the material unfolds. When we speak, most of us tend to go in circles: repeating ourselves and coming at the same topic from different directions until we get the approach that suits us (and our content) best. Our thoughts are frequently unfinished because we forget what we’ve just said. With writing, we edit out half-formed attempts to say it properly, and only leave the most effective statements. Then we might fiddle with the wording a little or a lot before we move on to the next sentence. Or at least that’s how I do it. I think that when we are working on the page, we take more time to think about what we are saying before we put it down, much less before we put it out there.


Update: My new WattPad friend Maximilian Frick tells me:

“Here’s a great quote from James Joyce that you may or may not know: when informed by an interviewer that some of his contemporaries considered two books a year an average output, Joyce replied: ‘Yes, but how do they do it? They talk them into a typewriter. I feel quite capable of doing that if I wanted to do it. But what’s the use? It isn’t worth doing’.”


Half-finished thoughts, repetitions and other markers have made me suspicious that (for example), at least some of the hundreds of thousands of people (many in their teens) who are posting novels and short fiction on WattPad (and even releasing them as books on Amazon) are not actually “writing” them, as I think of writing. “Writing” to me means creating on a page. It is a different process than speaking thoughts into a recording device.

Please note that I have a friend who is blind who is writing a book by dictating it. (Go, George!) That is a different issue: he is writing in the only way he can, and I believe he approaches his recorded writing as I do the page — i.e. not in haste. But maybe he (and the guy who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) are some exceptions that prove the rule.

Also, I know that some people write “free fall” — as the thoughts occur to them — not erasing but continuing to write, as Natalie Goldberg suggests doing in Writing Down the Bones, but I would argue that stream-of-consciousness writing is different from stream-of-consciousness speaking, and furthermore that most of it isn’t publishable. Some people might say that they take a long time to consider before they put a sentence into a recorder, and that what I am really arguing against is stream-of-consciousness prosemaking, period. Maybe so.

The question is, does writing on a page and then editing the result lead to a different outcome than talking into a recorder and then transcribing and editing the result? I believe it does.

Does one approach lead to greater literary quality than another? I don’t know. But I think creative writing should be written. Unless you are physically incapable of it.

I remember reading that Barbara Cartland dictated all of her novels, but I don’t call what she did “creative writing.”

Maybe I’m just a snob. And old-fashioned. Maybe the new electronic era means that I should just get with the program. Maybe when young people today say they want to grow up to be writers, they are not necessarily thinking of confronting a blank page (in any form) ever.

I may change my thinking, as I often do, but for now at least, I don’t think that dictating and writing are the same thing. Do you?

Let me know your thoughts — in the poll, the comments section below, or both.

I might write an article about this. (Maybe I just have. Maybe I should attempt to dictate the next one. Maybe articles CAN be dictated. Oh, life is so confusing.)

 

Dealing with Rejection

Today I am applying some words of wisdom that were written for the legal profession to my writing, and to my efforts to market my books. They are a good reminder that book writing and book selling are two different things:

[Despite all your well developed and respected skills in your area of expertise…] in the business-development area, you are about to go out and be rejected. You are about to go out and be wrong. You are about to go out and make mistake after mistake. Unless you see unhappy moments of rejection as opportunities to learn, and to improve in such a way that you achieve a level of skill that will allow you to be effective and get fewer and fewer rejections, you will not be successful at business development.

– Gerald A. Riskin, The Successful Lawyer: Powerful Strategies for Transforming Your Practice

An Update on WattPad

More than 200 people have “read” the first segment of my new novel, Seeds and Secrets, and a number have also visited  my short humorous essay, “Managing Writers in the Workplace: A Guide for Employers.” I find this attention is beginning to alter the structure of my days, so that I am putting my own work at the forefront both mentally and in practice. To be read, or even just to believe that you are being read, is a powerful motivator.

My writing is buried in the junkheap of obscurity. Only you can save it.

Dear Friends and Family

My writing, which I love, needs ten minutes of your time.

I have posted the first chapter of my next novel, SEEDS AND SECRETS, on WattPad, here:  It will take you ten minutes to read it. If you do, you will be helping my writing career more than you can even begin to imagine. If you vote for it, you will help it even more.WattPad is a site where writers can post their work and other people can read it at no charge. They can also vote for it (which will increase the number of other readers who come to discover it), and they can “follow” writers whose stories they like, so they are notified by email when subsequent chapters in a book are posted. The more people who read and like a story, the more who will be directed to it via the site itself (computer algorithms take care of this).

SEEDS AND SECRETS is a novel about a woman who inadvertently discovers a magic formula that helps her to get younger, or at least to stay the same age. Some of you will remember that I wrote a first draft of this book when I was living in Saskatchewan, which is where the novel takes place. With your help, I will write this book and publish it in chapters (the way Charles Dickens used to do with his). This book and your help can turn my career around.

Here’s why I need your Help

Mine is a career of which I despair almost daily. I love the novels I have written — they are like my babies — and my heart is breaking because thanks to the self-defeating pig-headed snottiness of the media, almost no one knows they exist.

I believe it’s sites like WattPad that will help readers discover the good writers of the future. (Those and an increasing but still modest number of intelligent book blogs.) As you know, I am part of the first edge of established writers who have chosen to move away from the established publishing route, and go “indie.” With publishers going down the tubes and/or intent on publishing only novels that are sure to become runaway bestsellers (i.e., those written by movie-stars and inexperienced young first-time writers who look hot in interviews), for most of us, self-publishing is the way of the future and more and more of us are choosing to “go indie” – as musicians did before us. I have been co-presenting as part of a series of workshops put on by The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) on how to get your back-list title into print, or how to start out your career as a writer independently of publishers, and the sessions have been packed. TWUC has voted to start admitting self-published writers whose books meet a peer-reviewed standard of excellence. Every day there are more and more of us out here. But it’ll be another few years before you read about any of our books in the media.

As a result this is a very, very difficult time for those of us who are striving to produce really good books ourselves. We have the technology and contacts and experience to produce well written, well-edited, fun and thoughtful books, but we don’t have any way of letting readers know about them. Self-published books are considered by media outlets like CBC, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, to be the poor cousins begging at the door. We are utterly ignored — the books we send for consideration are ignored, our follow-up emails are ignored, recommendations from friends in the business are ignored (by Writers and Company and Between the Covers at CBC, to name two): at this point in time, everything that has the “eau de self-publishing” is ignored (unless it cannot be ignored, Like Fifty Shades of Grey. Which is not even real writing), It’s true that the majority of self-published fiction IS crap — I wouldn’t read or review most of it myself — but it is the self-published writing that is NOT crap that threatens the whole already crumbling network of publishers, booksellers and review outlets for reasons I’ve gone into elsewhere on this blog. So it is ignored. They ignore US to protect THEMSELVES.

The reviewers do not seem to realize that by not accepting the changes that are taking place as a result of writers taking their own careers in their own hands, they are shooting themselves in their own foreheads. They are making themselves obsolete. Their old-boys network is not safe: it is about to fall around them.

In the interim, however, thanks to the fact that there is no way to get my books reviewed, or start any word-of-mouth buzz about them since my friends who HAVE read them don’t realize how important it is for them to recommend them to other people, I’ve sold about 40 copies of each of my two most recent novels.  Most of my fellow-author “friends” — who are usually great sources to one another of mouth-to-mouth recommendations — and all the outlets they control such as reading series, literary magazines, awards program, etc. — are also close to self-published authors. When I tell them I have self-published my most recent book most of them still turn up their noses at me as though I had begun to smell of something putrid. They have a big investment in the traditional publishing industry, too.When I read over excerpts from my last two novels (The Whole Clove Diet, which I am about to re-release as Rita Just Wants To Be Thin, so it’s unavailable right now), and The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, I feel like my heart is going to break. I cannot even begin to explain to you how discouraging it is to pour your heart and soul into writing a really wonderful novel (my opinion on this is echoed by those who HAVE read these two books, as you will see from the reviews on amazon.com) and to know that most of the world isn’t going to be able to find out about your book for another five years or so, when the world will catch up with you.

Helping is easy…..and free. And FUN!!!!!!!!

So please read the first chapter of Seeds and Secrets and then please tell your neighbors (and your neighbours) it is there. And tell them about my other books. I am drowning in obscurity. For now, you are the ONLY ones who can help.The one chapter I have posted so far on WattPad is free. If you want, you can sign up using a fake name so no one will know you are you. You can read WattPad stories on your laptop or your mobile device. And if you read my first chapter and like it, you can sign up to get the next chapter and the next as they are written. I hope to have the entire book done by the end of August.

The Book that’s Never Been Reviewed

 In case you missed my most recent novel (and how could you NOT have missed it, since it has received ZERO reviews from any traditional outlets. ZERO. NONE.) you can check it out on Amazon. It is funny, bawdy, a great romp, a western based on Don Quixote (who ever heard of THAT insane combination). I wrote it with my dear friend John A. Aragon of Santa Fe, and I guarantee it is a better read than almost anything you will find out there. (I’m sick and tired of being modest. I can’t afford to be modest.)

Here’s the blurb for it.

The West will never be the same . . . .New Mexico, 1922.

The orphaned eighteen-year-old stablehand Rosalind Grundy is seduced by a married woman, and faces a lynching after the pair is surprised in flagrante delicto. But she manages to escape with the aid of a strange and aristocratic old man who calls himself Don Valiente.

Don Valiente, having read too many dime westerns, has come to believe that he is a famous gunfighter. He thinks Roz is a young man named Ross, and he takes her under his wing, intending to teach her and to revive “The Code Of The Caballeros.”

Don Valiente and Roz embark on a series of comic adventures. But when they come upon a grisly murder scene and the trail of three escaped-convict killers, Roz realizes that her only chance to survive the imminent showdown and to reunite with her true love lies in her ability to separate Don Valiente’s madness from the eternal truths in his teaching.

Here’s the link. The book is only $2.99 on Kindle, and if some people I actually know would actually buy it, other people would as well. That’s how this world of algorithms works.

You can also buy it in paperback.

If you feel like it, you can also tell the CBC and your local newspaper that I am worth reviewing, knowledgeable, and fun to interview. Although of course, that part isn’t necessary. If we just wait a while (three years?), they’ll come around. If they’re still in business.

With huge gratitude and even hugs in advance for your help, I remain your previously humble scribe.

Mary

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m Checking out WattPad. Have You Used It?

 

WP

Seeds and Secrets is a novel about a woman who accidentally discovers a formula that will allow her to grow younger… or at least stop growing older.

One of the (few remaining) challenges about not having an agent or publisher is not having anyone give a damn if you ever get the next paragraph of your next novel written. I know that my kind readers will say that they care (at least I hope they do!) and I hope they will feel amply rewarded for their patience when the next book does come out. But their support is not the same as having someone say, “We need your manuscript in two months,” or whatever the deadline might be that a publisher can impose. I’ve never had that kind of encouragement, so this lack of external pressure is nothing new for me, but it is hard. I know many writers who live on advances and deadlines, and I envy that: I think it must keep them writing in a way that a vacuum cannot.

So I’ve decided that maybe an alternative route might be to get a few readers interested in my next book, and eager to see what happens next. For that reason, I have posted the first chapter on WattPad, where it can be read for free, as will subsequent chapters as I complete and post them. This is actually the second draft of Seeds and Secrets – I wrote the first one before I started writing The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid with John – but now that DV is up and running (my sixth book! Hard to believe!), and I have almost unpacked following my move to my new life with Arnie, and done some (quite a lot of) work for clients, and completed the first half of the PD workshops  for The Writers Union of Canada, I have started thinking about what’s next. And so I’m revising Seeds and Secrets, which is a novel about a woman who accidentally discovers a formula that will allow her to grow younger… or at least stop growing older.

The first chapter is up here now. You can read it on your computer, or download their mobile app. My goal is to have the revised draft of the whole novel up by the end of August, ready for publication. Even if no one cares if I meet that deadline or not, the fact that I will be under the illusion that a few people might be interested will be of immeasurable help to me: I know, in fact, that it will keep me writing.

However, you don’t need to do anything but click through: you don’t need to actually read a word. I am just playing tricks with my own mind and — in the meantime — doing more research for another book I’m writing, called In Defence of Procrastination.

While I’m here though, I will ask for your input. Have any of you used WattPad? Did you learn anything I should know about? Are you on there? (I can check out your book if you provide a link. Community-building is one of the goals of the site.)

I’ll let you know what I find out and how I progress with occasional updates on my WattPad Experience here. In the meantime, soon you will be reading in this space a diatribe about why I am so sick and tired of reading everyone’s whining posts about all those bookstore closures. That should make me popular. ;) Stay tuned….

 

 

 

Greedy Businesses Target Self-Published Authors

Sleazy salesman pointing

It is not difficult or expensive to publish on your own, but a lot of would-be self-publishers dont know that. As a result, whole nests of snake-oil salesmen have hatched to separate unwitting writers from their money. Most of these writers will never make back the money that is being bilked from them, and even those who do are often wasting their hard-earned cash.

As I prepared my presentation on self-publishing for The Writers’ Union of Canada’s cross-Canada professional development workshop, Publishing 2.0: Tips and Traps, I became aware that taking advantage of the naïveté of first-time self-publishing authors (or “indie publishers,” as we are also known) has become a growth industry.

Quite a few of the businesses involved in this field of endeavour used to be legitimate, contributing members of the traditional publishing establishment: printers, literary agents, book publicists and the like. With their incomes from traditional sources now eroded by the same technology that permits anyone and everyone to publish anything and everything, quite a few of these formerly upstanding companies have turned their attention to “helping” unsuspecting authors to get their books published… for a fee.

Many writers who set out to publish their manuscripts independently or to get their out-of-print books back on the market have no idea that it costs almost nothing to make their novels or non-fiction works available for sale as e-books, and that for about $500, they can get a respectable-looking paperback up for sale online. It is upon these unsuspecting souls that the newest incarnations of the film-flam artist have set their sights, offering self-publishing packages that can cost thousands of dollars. and promising little in return that isn’t available for free or at very little cost elsewhere.

These authors are being convinced by ads and on-line pitches that self-publishing is a technically challenging undertaking, requiring expertise. Paying for technological expertise is not, in fact, necessary because self-publishing sites such as Smashwords are extremely user-friendly. Nonetheless, from the beginning to the end of the publishing process, these highway robbers lie in wait — urging offset-printing services, for example, upon writers who ought to be printing on demand instead. (Offset- printed books are ones that are printed in large numbers on huge printing machines machines that are now increasingly sitting idle all over the country in the wake of the move online of so many magazines, books, catalogues and brochures. Print-on-demand (POD) books are printed on much smaller machines, one at a time, when the book is ordered. Single copies of books can be printed immediately, so no extra trees are wasted, and authors have no obligation to buy a certain number of books as part of the self-publishing option — or to warehouse those books in their basements. Today, the difference in quality between offset-printed and POD books is negligible.)

Other self-publishing authors are hoodwinked into paying companies to “promote” their books on social media ­ a strategy that is nearly ineffective unless it is part of an overall marketing plan. And the costs for overall marketing plans themselves  (also available from a host of sources) can be outrageous and unnecessary. (I have just been looking at one company that lists one of its services as “Amazon Optimization” through the creation of “keywords.” If you’ve written the book, you can pick seven words to help readers discover it, as you will be prompted to do by Amazon itself when you post your book there. That is all that “keywords” are. Snake-oil salesmen love to throw technical terms around, but most of them are easy to translate into plain language.)

Still other companies offer book distribution packages that are actually available to everyone at very little cost when they publish books online with Smashwords, Kindle, or other self-publishing outlets. (You can get expanded distribution from Amazon, for example, that includes bookstores, libraries, etc. Your royalties per book are smaller than with direct sales to purchasers, but there’s no need to pay up front.)

We are also seeing increasing numbers of expensive, needless gimmicks such as seals of approval to indicate production quality in published e-books (this one charges $125 per title. How many readers do YOU know who are choosing to buy books because they have a formatting seal of approval?), and costly competitions for awards that very few can win (and who knows whether the winners gain any sales traction from their prizes?).

Who Is Doing This?

Entrepreneurs

While there are some great resources out there — people with editing and publishing backgrounds who are charging reasonable hourly fees for their services — too many book-publishing coaches and self-publishing managers and others who go by similar titles are no more than fly-by-night operators with no significant credentials. They offer to help you get your book edited and up on Amazon for several hundreds or thousand dollars when you can do it very easily for free or at very little cost.

Printing Companies

Dozens of printing companies that were established to print books for real publishers have huge off-set machines now sitting idle. They need you to help them pay the overhead, so they have re-branded themselves as publishers.  In truth, the only traditional publishers they resemble were formerly known as vanity presses. These companies are selling packages of print-only copies of your book (usually no e-books are offered) for $800 or $900 or several thousands of dollars. They do not know much about promotion and the fine print on their websites state that after you’ve paid the big bucks to buy several boxes of offset-printed copies of your book, they will help you build a website (wow!) and put you in touch with a marketing company to help you promote your book (where you will pay additional fees, of course).  One printing company whose site I visited said they would even put you in their catalogue. Now tell me, when was the last time you bought a book because it was listed in a printers catalogue?

If you are selling to a specific, known market (such as the residents of a small town whose history youre writing) you may decide to go with offset printing because the per-item production cost will be lower. But if you are not certain that you are going to sell the books you are required to purchase when you work with a printing company, using offset is a false economy. These printers who are now calling themselves publishers also say they offer editing: I would advise you to ask who the editors are, and to request their references and credentials.

Respectable Book Reviewers

Reviewing outlets such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have established branch services that are charging unwitting self-published authors upwards of $500 for a single review (Im surprised that The New York Times and The Globe and Mail havent jumped onto this bandwagon yet). The idea is that if you get a good review of your self-published book, you can use it to convince booksellers to stock your book. (If you get a poor one, you eat the money you have spent.) The trick is that most booksellers won’t stock your book anyway, because self-published books are nonreturnable.

You can also pay to have your book review included in a variety of in-house publications where publishers, agents etc. can contact you if they are interested. Humpff.

Keep in mind that your average reader doesn’t know the difference between a Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Review and one your aunt Elsie wrote and posted on Amazon. A $500 review is largely a waste of money.

Book publicists

I believe that book publicity will, along with editing, become an area of specialization that self-publishers need in future. But for now, there are a lot of people out there who say they are book publicists who have no actual experience in the field, or access to the media outlets that might promote your book, and they are overcharging for the services they do provide. Keep in mind that it is almost impossible to get noticed if you have written a novel anyway, even if you’re traditionally published; non-fiction writers usually have a better hook for interviews. And even if the book promoter is well known to the media, there is no guarantee that he or she will make any special effort to get your book noticed, no matter what you pay. Remember that if a book publicist has not read your book and fallen in love with it, that person cannot help you.

A few book-promotion companies will tell you that, for a price, they can help you become an Amazon bestseller or even get you onto the New York Times bestseller list. To do this, they use a complex system that involves a whole lot of purchasers, funded by you, all buying your book all across the country all on the same day or in the same week, which drives your numbers up in the right places. But this kind of access to best-seller lists is not sustainable and authors often end up paying more to get on the lists than they earn back in royalties.

You do need a great promotion plan – one size does not fit all — and here a creative and honest book publicist can help a lot. Remember that at this point in time, getting self-published books into bookstores, or onto radio or television, or reviewed in major newspapers or magazines, is nearly impossible… because of the attitudes of the gatekeepers of those organizations. At the same time, social media is an almost useless promotional device. Any book promotion company that wants your money for these kinds of initiatives had better offer you some proof that they can do the impossible.

Literary agents

Well, you know how I feel about most literary agents. The ones I dissed five years ago are largely out of business now or have found new ways to earn their keep from unsuspecting authors. Check their websites for further info.

Publishers

Even some publishers have turned to mining self-publishing authors for a few quick dollars. Some will take your money and publish your book with a slightly different imprint than their other publications (so those on the “inside” of the industry still know you are self-published, and will still lock you out, unread).

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, had harsh words for enterprises of this nature. Writing in the Huffington Post in January, 2014, he said:

The vanity approach to self-publishing, as witnessed by Pearson/Penguin’s acquisition of Author Solutions (operates AuthorHouse, iUniverse, BookTango, Trafford, Xlibris, Palibrio, others…), has shown itself to harm the brands of all traditional publishers. I predicted this last year. The Author Solutions business model is wholly dependent upon making money by selling overpriced services to unwitting authors. Their business model is expensive at best, and unethical at worst. It’s about selling $10,000+ publishing packages to authors who will never earn the money back. The model represents the antithesis of what the best and proudest publishers have always represented. Great publishers invest in their authors. The money flows from reader to retailer to publisher to author, not from author to publisher.

Dont Be a Cash Cow (for anyone but yourself)

The best books are not published for nothing, of course, but most of the work can be done at very little cost. The best places to invest your money are directly with a book editor, a book designer, and a book publicist, each of whom loves your book.

In each of these areas, make sure you are getting your money’s worth. You need someone who knows the business and can provide solid references. You need to check those references. You do not want to be one of a hundred books and authors in a money-making assembly line.

The writing and self-publishing community is unbelievably generous with its knowledge and its skills. Almost everything you need to know about self-publishing is available online for nothing. All you have to do is ask the right questions in the Google box. At the very minimum, check out the publication costs on Smashwords, Amazon, Kindle and Kobo before you hire a consultant. In other words, before you pay good money to anyone to get your book up for sale, find out what the work they are going to do for you is going to cost them. Don’t let yourself be bamboozled.

It has already cost you a lot to write your book  – particularly if you consider the time you spent when you could have been doing other things, like climbing the corporate ladder. Invest what you must to get the best possible book to readers. But don’t waste money until after you attain bestseller status. Then, you will be able to afford it.

Self-Published Writers Make (Lots) More Money, New Data Suggests

HoweyData released earlier this week provides stunning evidence that self-published authors in several popular genres are selling many more books and making a good deal more money than most of us had previously suspected. Their success in comparison to traditionally published authors may be a wake-up call for everyone in the publishing business, from first-time writers to the biggest of the Big Five publishers. (It certainly has been a wake-up call for me: I’m dropping prices on my e-books as we speak).

Until now, the only evidence for strong sales of indie vs traditionally published books has been anecdotal reports from individual authors, many of whom seemed to be making a disproportionately large amount of money compared to the rest of us. These authors were considered to be “outliers.”

Now Hugh Howey, one of those disproportionately successful authors — well known among avid readers and the publishing cognoscenti for his best-selling self-published fiction series, Wool – has made data available (and will continue to collect and update it, he says, at his own expense) that indicates that he may not be alone when it comes to successfully selling books online, particularly e-books. His report on author earnings (cleverly entitled Author Earnings: The Report) suggests that indie-published books are getting higher scores on reviews and selling more copies than those of small- to medium-sized presses, and that the gaps between positive review scores and sales are even greater when you compare self-published books with those from the “Big Five” publishers. The primary reason? Indie authors tend to publish e-books rather than paperbacks and other formats, and they tend to charge much less for them than traditional publishers do. And e-books are selling like hotcakes.

Howey’s figures are derived from an analysis of data collected by an unnamed writer “with advanced coding skills” who has created a program that can gather and break down data from bestseller lists at a speed that was previously impossible. The initial data collection and analysis looks at book sales on Amazon and includes three genres: Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance. These genres were examined first because they account for nearly three quarters of the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, and more than half of the top 1000. Howey and his “data snoop” will look at the entire range of fiction titles in future reports, he says.

Among their findings so far:

  • In these three genres, indie authors are outselling the Big Five publishers. “That’s the entire Big Five. Combined.” [Words and italics Howie’s]
  • E-books make up 86% of the top 2,500 genre fiction bestsellers in the Amazon store, and 92% of the top 100 best-selling books in the listed genres are e-books
  • Although books from the Big Five account for just over a quarter of unit sales in these genres, they take half of the gross dollar sales — and the authors of those books typically receive only 25% of that profit
  • Indie authors, on the other hand, who keep about 70% of the purchase price of their e-books on Amazon, are earning nearly half of the total author revenue from genre fiction sales on Amazon
  • Self-published authors are, on average, earning more money on fewer books than are those with traditionally published books being sold through the same (i.e., amazon.com) outlet.

A Few Conclusions

The Report is long and complex (but not complicated). I encourage all serious writer entrepreneurs to read it carefully — and to stay updated with future installments.

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

One of the many inspiring and beautiful charts from Author Earnings: A Report by Hugh Howie

(It is also very pretty. I am including an image here from The Report, with proper attribution and an embedded link but used without permission, so if it disappears, you’ll know why. Whether it does disappear or not, I suggest you go and have a look at all the other pretty charts in Howie’s report. They are impressive and illuminating as well as colourful.)

For those who don’t have time to read The Report straight through right now, I’ll extract some conclusions that became clear to Howie, as they must to anyone who examines the data he’s presented:

  • E-books from indie authors tend to be priced much lower than those of mainstream publishers
  • Readers are more likely to buy and review books with lower prices than higher ones
  • “Most readers don’t know and don’t care how the books they read are published. They just know if they liked the story and how much they paid. If they’re paying twice as much for traditionally published books, which experience will they rate higher? The one with better bang for the buck.” — Hugh Howey, Author Earnings: The Report
  • Most traditional publishers are paying authors only 25% of e-book sales, despite the almost insignificant overhead associated with creating e-books
  • Readers are buying many more e-books than they are paperbacks and other book formats, at least from amazon (which is the biggest bookseller in the world, by a huge measure — like it or not).
  • Readers are not buying traditionally published e-books as frequently as they are indie published e-books, because indie-published books cost less. Therefore, traditionally published authors are getting read less often, and are making less money per book sold than indie authors are.

This is important news for traditionally published authors.

It is also important news for major publishers, who are going to lose their authors if they don’t smarten up.

We won’t go into the impact all this is having on good literature, but Howie believes that the data suggests that “even stellar manuscripts are better off self-published.”

A call to Action

In addition to publishing The Report, Howie’s new website, authorearnings.com, invites authors from all sectors to work together to help one another “make better decisions” when it comes to publishing their books.

Howie says that the site’s “purpose is to gather and share information so that writers can make informed decisions. Our secondary mission is to call for change within the publishing community for better pay and fairer terms in all contracts. This is a website by authors and for authors.”

When you go to the site you will be invited to subscribe for updates, contribute to a survey and/or to sign a petition.

I for one will be closely following the activity on that site — right after I lower the prices on my e-books.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #17: Get a media person to complain that there’s too much sex in your novel

Even if he is your own son.

Dan's DV Review“I tried to imagine it was my mom’s coauthor who wrote the sex scenes and that somehow my mom’s role in the writing process did not even involve reading those passages at all. That didn’t work, though.” – Dan Riskin, PhD, bat biologist, host of MONSTERS INSIDE ME on Animal Planet, co-host of DAILY PLANET on Discovery Channel, and author of the forthcoming MOTHER NATURE IS TRYING TO KILL YOU (Simon and Schuster, March 2014).

(Note: I put in the time: I’m entitled to name-drop.)