Tag Archives: fiction

The Advantage of a Reader’s Guide for Writers

So, I’m convinced we can learn anything from any source we encounter, especially when we’re not looking for it. The trick is to recognize it as a lesson when we see it or hear it or feel it or taste it…you get the idea.

Monday night, when I finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir (and then watched the movie to see how close it is to the book—pretty close, with a few disasters omitted and a slightly different and modified ending plus epilogue), I didn’t fully close the book until I read through the supplemental materials at the end, including “A Conversation with Andy Weir,” “An Essay from Andy Weir: How Science Made Me a Writer,” and, most relevant to this post, “A Reader’s Guide” because I wanted my money’s worth. I suspect most readers would’ve closed it after reading the final lines, and that’s understandable, as I would usually do the same. And anyone but the avid consumers of knowledge would feel okay with leaving the rest of it on the table because the important part, the story itself, is now over.

But as I was reading through the reader’s guide, being kinda nerdy that way, I realized it was unintentionally giving me a lesson on how to write a novel.

Now, let me be clear that I’ve been studying how to write a novel for many years. I’m not learning anything new per se, just better understanding the lessons I’ve already picked up along the way. But for new authors, or those who are out of practice, or those who are in-practice but still clueless, there is much to learn from reading books on writing. But, incidentally, there is also much to learn in the reader’s guides for novels you might like. You know, learn by accident doing something you already like doing. Win-win. Just figure out early that you’re learning something useful.

Here’s an example:

After finishing with the movie, I started listening to The Story Grid Podcast, hosted by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl, the episode titled “The Martian and A Christmas Carol,” or simply “The Martian Carol,” as it’s referred to on The Story Grid website, and took some mental notes as they broke down The Martian’s global genre, which is Action Adventure, and its specific plotline, Man Versus Nature. If you look at the first paragraph of the reader’s guide you’ll see the passage,

“A castaway story for the new millennium, The Martian presents a fresh take on the classic man-versus-nature battle for survival by setting it on the surface of Mars—a planet completely hostile to sustaining human life.”

Why is this caption important for the writer? Well, it tells you the genre and plotline right there in the opening line. If you visit The Story Grid website, which is all about teaching writers how to edit their books, you’ll see that knowing your genre is the most important first step in writing your book. If you know what kind of genres your favorite books fall into, you’ll have a better understanding what conventions are needed once you start writing the book of your dreams.

So, considering that, let’s look at some of the reader’s guide questions. Again, these are taken directly from the reader’s guide at the end of The Martian paperback. There are twenty in the book. I’ll highlight the first three to make my point. Very slight spoilers in the questions. Also note that I won’t actually attempt to answer these questions the way they’re intended. Rather, I will briefly discuss why they’re helpful for writers to think about:

Question #1: How did The Martian challenge your expectations of what the novel would be? What did you find most surprising about it?

This is a great question to ask yourself when you finish writing your book because if the answer is “it didn’t” or “er…nuthin’,” then maybe you didn’t try hard enough to write a compelling story. So a good follow-up question might be: What would’ve made the novel more surprising yet natural? Of course, the ideal solution would be to anticipate this question before writing so that you can consider what surprises the reader might find before you write right past them.

Question #2: What makes us root for a character to live in a survival story? In what ways do you identify with Mark? How does the author get you to care about Mark?

More specifically, why should the reader care about Mark? Or, why should the reader care about your character? If we consider Mark Watney’s plight, how he handles it, and whether or not we care, then we can begin to understand what it takes to get us to care about a particular character, including the ones that we write about. Isn’t that an important part of writing fiction: getting the characters to an empathetic state?

Question #3: Do you believe the crew did the right thing in abandoning the search for Mark? Was there an alternative choice?

If we can answer this question honestly, then we can begin to see the consequences of our characters’ choices and how those consequences feed into new consequences, if we’re honest with ourselves and make a decision early on not to take the easy way out. If Andy Weir had been asked this very question before he wrote the book (assuming the story was a disembodied entity just waiting for a book or website to latch onto) would having the captain spending so long searching the evacuation area that she discovers Mark alive and well, though unconscious, be the easy way out? What if she found him and assumed he was dead? Would that still be the easy way out? Would that make the story better, worse, or basically void of the point? Isn’t abandoning the crewmate without certainty of status far worse, and thus harder to write but with a more satisfying payoff, than the alternative, easier choices? Doesn’t that choice give us a story?

Clearly, reader’s guides are handy for writers to read along with the novel itself because they can train authors how to anticipate the questions that avid readers might have when reading their books. Many novels don’t have reader’s guides attached, but for those that do, like The Martian, which is really a fantastic book through and through, as is the Blu-ray version, if you’re an author, I would take a little bit of time going through the questions and answering them honestly for your education. The more reader’s guides you examine, the more likely you’ll ask similar questions for your own books and preempt answers to your readers’ questions.

Just a thought I had Monday night.

And, for the record, I highly recommend reading the book if you like stories about humans overcoming ridiculous odds to survive nonsurvivable situations while exploring places we’ll likely never visit ourselves. But I also recommend you read it before visiting the reader’s guide. It helps to know the story before trying to answer questions about it. Oh, and the movie is great, but the book is better.

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Why It’s Okay to Write for Fun (Part 1): The Importance of Literature

“The Importance of Literature”

Writing has been my passion since I was 13 years old, and I started not because I had some lofty ambition to become a best-seller, or even publicly known, but because I had an active imagination that was best expressed in words. I didn’t know how to make video games at the time, and my toys, which I was outgrowing, did not inherently create the explosions I had seen in my mind, or any “automated,” interactive, constructive, or destructive scenarios I wanted to play out. Because I wanted to tell stories somehow, I figured writing was the best way to go, if not the only way.

And the crazy thing about that is, at the time, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading.

Whether it deserves it or not, I blame the education system for the latter issue. In junior high and high school (actually, my junior high had become an official middle school the year I reached eighth grade, so I’ll say middle school and high school for this point), I was forced to read books that were written decades earlier, addressing topics I had neither knowledge nor interest in learning about. One in particular, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, I had to read twice, once in eighth grade and once in ninth. I didn’t enjoy it either time, and was notably upset when I was told to read it a second time. In tenth grade, I had to read Nectar in the Sieve, which bored me so much that I never finished it, even for a grade. Granted, I’m sure I would appreciate both books more today, now that I’m a 40-year-old adult who doesn’t need explosions to enjoy a story (even though it still helps), but I still would never automatically gravitate toward either.

The stuff I read in high school that I could read again and enjoy today include The Great Gatsby, which I believe is the book I’ve read more times than any other and will probably read again because it’s so freaking good (I honestly need to read all of Fitzgerald’s works to truly appreciate his genius, I think), The Catcher in the Rye, which was my favorite at the time, but has since been supplanted by Mr. Gatsby and friends, and To Kill a Mockingbird, which was just a brilliant piece of writing through and through. Each of these books had an important place in 1990s high school literature, establishing a foundation for society and whatnot, but none of them had ever turned me on to reading.

It took Alex Garland’s The Beach to get me to see that novels could actually take place in the modern world, present universal truths relevant to today and tomorrow, and still be interesting, and ultimately to get me interested in reading more books.

It was not an easy thing for me to become a regular reader of present-day fiction. It took me months to finish reading The Beach, and the only reason I bought it was because I had flipped to a page where the main character was talking about Super Mario Bros. I was impressed that someone had thought to bring pop culture into fiction, and I wanted to support any book that considered me its ideal reader. Kamala Markandaya, the author of Nectar in a Sieve, clearly wasn’t aiming to capture a 15-year-old boy who still watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on Saturday mornings. I’m sure Markandaya had a compulsive urge to write the novel and knew that there was an audience for it. Maybe it was unfortunate that some educator believed I was that ideal audience. But, for as much as I appreciated the effort, The Beach didn’t captivate me the way it probably wanted to. Well, it did at first, so that’s not a fair statement. But it lost momentum for me when I realized I was basically reading Lord of the Flies (another classic) in a modern skin, which ultimately didn’t appeal to me. If I were to read it again today, now that I’ve built up my reading experience to sustainable levels, I might enjoy it much more. Might.

However, what it did accomplish initially was to break the wall that Nectar in a Sieve and required reading like it forced before me. Even though it wasn’t the book that turned me into an avid reader, it did give me cause to explore other titles. I think it was Tunnel Vision by Keith Lowe that finally got me to take reading seriously (even though MTV published that book, and I don’t believe it was ever one to be taken seriously), and that encouraged me to look up the author who wrote the book that the John Cusack movie I had seen in college a couple of years earlier was based on, even though I didn’t like the movie as much as I’d wanted to but was curious about the book that inspired it, since I knew it was based on a book, and that, of course, was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, who became one of my favorite authors, as About a Boy is in my Top 10 favorite novels of all time (up there with The Great Gatsby and Syrup by Max Barry), and definitely the right one to discover, even if his latest, Funny Girl, isn’t particularly great.

I write all of this to express the importance of not just of reading, but to love it, and to find works that allow you to love it. By finding and reading books we love, we can develop a healthy reading habit that can carry us through the rest of our lives, and teach us things along the way. Right now, I’m reading The Martian by Andy Weir, and even though I lost my taste for science fiction back in the ‘90s, this book reminds me why I don’t have to eschew it completely. It’s so good, and I daresay its goodness has much to do with its relevance to what I know and understand and enjoy. Ready Player One is another one that straddles the lines of sci-fi, pop culture, adventure, and pure entertainment, a book that I absolutely loved and absolutely would’ve missed out on had I not refined my taste for reading years earlier, in spite of the damage that high school literature had caused me during my formative reading years.

That said, the books that reached me did so because they touched on a point of personal identity that other books like The Good Earth could not do. This isn’t to say that I think The Good Earth is a bad book. Not at all. It’s a classic for a reason. I’d even consider it a valuable resource if I ever wanted to familiarize myself with early 20th century Chinese dynasties. But, as of now, as it was back in high school, it’s not my thing.

However, families are relevant, and family sagas are universal, and that’s what The Good Earth ultimately is written to be, so there’s probably much to glean from it that’s relevant to all of us, and I just didn’t know how to appreciate that as a 14-year-old who looked forward to watching whatever was popular on Saturday mornings back in 1990.

I started writing my first major story, City Walker, the same school year I had to read The Good Earth the first time (1989-1990). It was an action-packed random events story about a man looking for a television repair shop. If I had been well-read, even as a 13-year-old, I would’ve realized that I was writing a meandering story that had no sustainable plot line. But I was watching a lot of television in those days, and I knew what made a story worthwhile, even then, and I knew as I was writing it that what I was writing wasn’t anything particularly good. Even when my English teacher offered to read it whenever I’d finish it, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t show her. Thinking about it all these years later, knowing all that I know about story now, I can safely say that what I had written over the course of two years was not a story, but a series of pointless events. But they were pointless events that allowed me to get my worst ideas out of my system. They also allowed me to develop a cast of characters that I actually did like, and wanted to see more of. This lead to me writing an updated version of the story as a screenplay a few years later. It still wasn’t good, but it was better.

Literature didn’t teach me structure, not as I understand it today, but it did teach me value. I knew from the books I didn’t enjoy that the story I was having fun writing was not great. Perhaps that slaps the face of anyone who has ever said, “If it feels good, do it.” No, you really shouldn’t, not unless you’re going to learn from it, and sometimes what you’ll learn is that you shouldn’t do it, even if it feels good. I didn’t enjoy The Good Earth when I read it, and come to think of it, I don’t recall enjoying The Great Gatsby the first time I read it, either (the fact that I love it now tells me that I should reacquaint myself with the classics, now that I’m at a point in my life that I can appreciate them). But it did teach me the idea of scope. It did teach me that actions have consequence, and that even characters we don’t like can still be memorable. I don’t remember a lot of the things I’ve read in my life, but I can still remember vividly how poorly Wang Lung treats his wife, and how creepy it is that the grandfather wants the warmth of the baby to help him sleep at night, and how systematic O-Lan’s birthing ends up being each time her water breaks and she heads into the bathroom to deal with it. Oh, and the fact that I remember these characters’ names also says something about it. I didn’t like it. But I sure as heck remember it. I vaguely remember the characters in Anonymous Rex by Eric Garcia (they’re dinosaur detectives disguised as human, if I recall), but I don’t remember much about the story itself. Bits and pieces. Of course, weirdly, I enjoyed Anonymous Rex far more than I did The Good Earth. I wonder if I did simply because it was unconventional and not at all the kind of book my Honors English teacher would’ve assigned me in eleventh grade English. Or, maybe because I didn’t have to read it, I decided that I wanted to read it. All a bunch of maybes.

Ultimately, if we want to write, we need to read. In the years I wrote stories without reading other people’s published stories, I had a lot of fun, but I also wrote a lot of crap and didn’t learn anything. These days, I learn plenty. More on that next time.

Next Week: “The Importance of Experimentation and Ignoring Fear

Friday Update #9: Superhero Switch and the Coming of Christmas Brings Snow in Miami

Welcome back to Drinking Café Latte at 1pm. As you’re aware, Christmas is coming fast and hot (well, depending on where you live, I guess), and that means eggnog, gingerbread coffees, cookies, and all sorts of goodies are on the way, and I’m here to let you know about some goodies that are coming your way from me.

Goodie #1:

For those of you who have been reading Cannonball City: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year One this past year (the anniversary of its worldwide release is coming at the end of the month), I have great news. Its sequel, Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two, is now free for a limited time. How limited is this time? Hard to say, but I’ll keep it free throughout the holidays for sure. However, it’s best to pick it up while you can, before I put the price back on. You know what happens when you procrastinate? You forget. And then you lose. So, don’t procrastinate.

This freebie comes with a trade-off, however. My plan since day 1 has been to develop and release a bite-sized version of the series, where the Annual Editions are broken down into individual story units closer to the length of a traditional thriller or adventure novel. The individual stories would add up to the same universal conflict, but due to the way that conventions dictate how a story unfolds, the core story points would inevitably change. Essentially, A Modern-day Fantasy Annual Edition and A Modern-day Fantasy (Standard Edition) would develop at different speeds and in different ways, while keeping the story line roughly the same.

Because I don’t want to confuse readers with the option to choose the bulky Annual Edition over the easier-to-manage Standard Editions (which would take two or three books to equal the story of an Annual Edition entry), I want the pricing to make it easy. In short, I’d rather readers stick with the Standard Editions. The Annual Editions serve as my original vision for the story, but experience has since taught me that the Standard Editions make for a better fit (and more satisfying read). It doesn’t mean they will be over before they begin, but it does mean the story can be delivered at a more sensible pace.

So, the trade-off for Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two going free for the holiday season is that Cannonball City: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year One will now cost you $4.95 to pick up. So, I hope you were one of the people who contributed to its 543 free downloads this year, and not one of the procrastinators who kept putting it off.

It should be noted that I don’t plan to make Cannonball City permafree again. It was free for a year to introduce readers to the character of Jimmy Knightly, but with the Standard Editions on the planner, I don’t see a reason to keep it free, as one of those books will surely come out with a free price tag. Likewise, Superheroes Anonymous will be free for a limited time, but limited times run out before you know it.

Moral of the story: Don’t put things off. You’ve got a good goodie to get, so get the goodie while the getting is good.

Goodie #2:

A year ago, I released an e-book called The Fountain of Truth, which is a collection of three holiday-themed fables, one of which is a revision to the classic tale of how Santa Claus began, one which teaches us to listen rather than to assume, and the titular title reintroducing a story I like to share on Facebook every Christmas Eve about speaking truth. This year, I am preparing another holiday-themed collection called Snow in Miami, which will feature an update to my flash fiction story “Unexpected Weather,” with two new stories, “A Black Friday Tale” and “The Pear Tree,” included. In this book, the three stories will be threaded together through the lens of a husband and father who must learn how to actually be a caring husband and father through his sharing of holiday stories with his wife and son. We get a sense early on that his wife and son are just people who live in his house and demand things from him that he doesn’t want to give. But throughout the course of telling and hearing these stories, he begins to understand just how lucky he is. So, you’ll actually get four stories for the price of three.

I don’t have an estimated release date for Snow in Miami, as I’m still having to split my time between work, CPT test prep, and other projects. But I do expect to upload it to Smashwords before Christmas. However long it takes to get through the channels to the other stores will depend on that upload date.

In the meantime, enjoy this opening sample from “Unexpected Weather”:

Mr. Carson propped his feet on his desk and lit the cigar he had been waiting all day to smoke. Chicago’s temperatures were falling by the minute, and the muzak filling the room was gradually integrating bells and chimes into its drowsy score. Christmas was coming soon, and the bonus he was sure to get from his most recent mega-sale would pay for gifts for the entire family, the neighbor’s family, and even the meter reader who occasionally showed up on his property to gauge him for his utility usage. It would be a Christmas like no other. He’d finally have the means to stock his yard with a holiday scene so spectacular that he would surely win the neighborhood decoration contest this year. He’d even hire that ice sculptor to carve out the outdoor ice bench he had always wanted to sit on, on Christmas day.

His success was a long time coming. Months of proving to the boss that he was capable of leading his office would have to pay off now. Months of top-level ignorance would have to come to an end.

He puffed on his cigar and let the smoke fill his mouth. He was forming cloud nine between his cheeks.

His chair started its backward arc toward the cubicle wall when his boss, Mr. Rivers, popped into view. He had snuck up on Mr. Carson wearing those dang moccasins again.

“Carson,” he said, “how many times I gotta tell you not to smoke in the building?”

Mr. Carson pulled the cigar from his mouth and dangled it over the edge of his desk, just above the trashcan. He wasn’t permitted an ashtray, so he made it his habit to catch the ash in the can. He kept a separate can for paper to the right of the desk to prevent accidental fires. This one just held a single plastic bag.

Mr. Rivers shrugged. Then he handed him a narrow, gift-wrapped package.

“Here, no need to apologize. I decided to make your life easier.”

Mr. Carson took the package, flipped it over and under, listening for something to rattle inside.

“Open it,” Mr. Rivers said. “Early Christmas present.”

Mr. Carson was a little suspicious. He knew Rivers had heard about the mega-sale, and per the standards of the company, sales that large warranted bonuses. Mr. Carson hoped that this wasn’t his bonus. He had been counting on a large check.

But he obliged his boss. He pulled off the wrapper and tossed it in the can to his left. A narrow green box was exposed. He opened it. Inside was a skinny electronic device.

“E-cigarette,” Mr. Rivers said. “Or vape, as they’re calling it now. Unobtrusive and mostly safe for indoors.”

Mr. Carson opened the battery hatch to find it empty.

“Sorry, batteries not included. Figured you could try it at home first, in case it’s not as safe as I assumed.”

Mr. Carson looked up at his boss, but didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure what to think about this gift. He was an authentic smoker, proud to carry around his packs of real nicotine darts with the silver lighter that had the naked woman silhouette he was so fond of. Gift from his dad on his eighteenth birthday. Refillable fluid. A real gift from a real man.

“No need to thank me,” Mr. Rivers said. “I should be thanking you for nailing the Trifecta Account today. In fact, I am.” He gestured at the e-cigarette. “Stroke of genius.”

Mr. Carson shrugged. No big deal.

Okay, it was a real big deal, but he didn’t like to brag in front of people who cut his checks. They were a notoriously humbling lot, positioned to strike down anyone who displayed too much pride for a job that was somehow enhanced by the assistance of a team, which this particular sale was not: he certainly had a right to say it was all on him, because it was. But Mr. Rivers didn’t like braggarts, so he kept his mouth shut.

“Anyway, I had a talk with the bigwigs upstairs, and they agree that your work on this account was of stellar performance, and they think you would be perfect for their starter office in Miami.” A wide smile formed on Mr. Rivers’s lips. “You start in two weeks. Isn’t that exciting?”

Mr. Carson finally opened his mouth. The smoke he had been savoring finally blew out into the opening and evaporated. The space between his cheeks was now nothing more than a tongue that had lost its taste for change.

“In lieu of a bonus, the board has agreed to pay for your moving fees instead.”

Mr. Rivers leaned over the desk and patted Mr. Carson on the shoulder.

“I’ve already asked Mrs. Williams to set up the conference room with finger foods for your going away party. You like bologna sandwiches, right?”

Mr. Carson was partial to turkey, but his boss never paid attention.

“Anyway, you’ll like Miami. Never gets cold there. Just think, you’ll get to spend Christmas at the beach. Isn’t that exciting?”

Mr. Carson thought about the ice bench he would not get to sit on, on Christmas day.

“Anyway, enjoy your last day. Again, sorry about the batteries. I was thinking I’d let you wait for the party in the observatory. I know you often talk about the big window overlooking the lake. Thought you might want to remember the view.”

Mr. Carson’s sister’s apartment overlooked the lake. They were just over there for Thanksgiving. Mr. Rivers was thinking about someone else.

Mr. Rivers’s eyes drifted down toward the trashcan to Mr. Carson’s left. He reached in it and pulled out the gift wrapping.

“Here, don’t want to cause a fire, right?” Then he found the small plant that Mr. Carson had bought a few months ago to liven up the cubicle. He snuffed out the cigar in the soil. Then he tossed the cigar in the trash. “Housekeeping will take care of your garbage today.”

Mr. Rivers paused at the opening as he headed out to the walkway outside the cubicle. He tried to look at Mr. Carson from over his shoulder.

“Good luck in Miami, Carson,” he said. “You’re going to do amazing things there.”

Mr. Carson was barren of thought by that point. The world stopped making sense to him.

***

            At home, Mr. Carson didn’t know how to tell his wife that the money in Chicago was coming to an end, and that to keep the money flowing, they would have to fly south with the birds. As he rehearsed his speech in his mind, and subsequently shot each version down as ridiculous and an invitation to make Mrs. Carson cry, he took the carton of cigarettes from his trusty brand out to the front porch and lit one stick after another. By the fifth smoke, he was feeling a bit more relaxed. The chill in the air was giving him goosebumps, and the night was steadily growing comfortable.

By the time he had stubbed out half the pack, he was feeling pretty confident in his speech. She would understand. She would have to.

***

            Mrs. Carson didn’t understand.

“Who does he think he is?” she asked, when Mr. Carson told her the news.

“The Great and Powerful Mr. Rivers,” Mr. Carson said.

“We have a life here, John. A life.”

“Yes, I know that, and you know that. But knowledge hasn’t had much power around here lately.”

They were sitting at the dinner table, and Mrs. Carson was just about to pour the wine when Mr. Carson got to the dark side of his speech. It had begun beautifully, with the news that he had succeeded at his big sale. Mrs. Carson was so happy for him that she retrieved the bottle of Chianti from the rack to celebrate. But Mr. Carson didn’t want to lose his place from what he had practiced, so he continued talking. Mrs. Carson put the cork back into the bottle before the first drop hit the glass. Uprooting everything she knew to start over in some gaudy place where the natives walked around half-naked in their front yards at Christmas time was no cause for celebration.

“I just wish you’d stand up for yourself every once in a while,” she said.

“I do. But they don’t listen.”

“Standing up for yourself requires getting them to listen.”

Mr. Carson shrugged. He knew she was right. It wasn’t like him to marry someone who didn’t see the truth in things, and she could see the truth in anything. He liked that about her, even though it caused him stress most of the time.

“Maggie, here’s the thing. The door here is closed. Once they close it, they close it. I know this isn’t ideal, especially with Christmas coming up. But it’s a great opportunity to—”

“Great opportunity? You’re already sounding like them. Have you really thrown in the towel that fast? Without consulting me first?”

Mr. Carson set his fork down. He could sense the conversation was going to interrupt his eating rhythm for a few minutes.

“This isn’t a matter for consultation. They didn’t ask me if I wanted to go. They told me I’m going. Even if we don’t go, I can’t go back to that office, not for anything other than to throw my stuff into an empty box.”

Mrs. Carson’s eyes began to tear up.

“I don’t understand why they won’t give you a choice,” she said.

“It’s called business, Maggie. Relocation was always a possibility. Said so on my contract. I just didn’t think they’d ever call on it.”

Mrs. Carson pushed her plate away and stared off to the side for nearly a minute.

“You know,” he said, “you’ve been wanting a tan for a long time. This could be your chance.”

She rolled her eyes. He noticed the corner of her lips turning upward slightly.

“Your dream body will follow. Imagine the influence of all those bikini-clad beach bunnies turning you to an obsessive fitness and diet fiend. For the holidays no less. Make all your friends up here jealous of your luscious figure.”

Mrs. Carson’s expression lightened. She was considering it now.

“Think of Nancy and her big butt. Then think of you and your smaller butt.” He brought his palms close together to signify the differences in the two butt sizes after hers would shrink.

Mrs. Carson pulled her plate in front of her and started eating.

“I should probably enjoy this dinner while it lasts then,” she said.

Mr. Carson leaned over the table, angling as close to her as he could.

“It’ll be okay, I promise.”

He wasn’t sure it would be okay. He knew nothing about Miami, except that it was hot, crowded, and the music was bad.

Mrs. Carson nodded. “Okay. If we’re stuck, I guess we have to go where the money is.” Her face was still solemn, but not like it was when he had broken the news.

“We’re not stuck. We’re going to be better off than we are here. Richer and happier. And thinner.”

She put her hand up.

“Fine,” she said. “We’ll make it work, I guess.”

After dinner, Mr. Carson retrieved the box that Mr. Rivers had given him earlier and took out the vape. He found a box of batteries in the refrigerator and popped one into the compartment. He wasn’t sure what to do with it exactly, but he started with the button on the side. The thing began to smoke almost immediately. It was as if he had put a thermometer in his mouth and a fever had set it on fire.

“What’s that thing?” Mrs. Carson asked him, when she returned to the table after clearing it.

“Gift from the boss. It’s one of those electronic cigarette things.”

“How is it?”

Mr. Carson thought about it for a moment. It was considerably weaker than his normal cigarettes. And yet, it had a certain flavor to it that he found pleasant. Even fragrant.

“Weird,” he said. “Well, different.”

He pulled the device out of his mouth and stared at it.

“It makes me feel different.”

He put it back in his mouth.

“But in a good way, I think.”
 

(end sample)

Have a good week.

Friday Update #7: A Primate Mailman and Other Marketing News

Since my last update, I’ve written part of a new prologue to The Computer Nerd, in an effort to raise the stakes of the story a little sooner. I still have to finish it and clean it up, but it’s there and in progress. Here’s a snippet of what’s to come:

            Something in the dark slammed against the handle to her locked bedroom door, and she shot forward out of her restless sleep. The ringing echo of clanging metal had barely died when the unknown force hit the handle again. This wasn’t the usual wakeup call she had every morning. If it was even morning.

A pair of stem-shaped shadows divided the dim light shining through the crack under the door and stretched across the floor toward her. They didn’t shake, just remained stock still as the source of the shadows jostled the handle, cursed, and jostled the handle again.

The woman slid her feet out from under the sheets and reached for the table near her bedside. Her robe was folded on the tabletop. She had asked the assistant who placed it there to keep it neat, but now that she needed it, she wished she had left it near her pillow where she could reach it.

“Come on, you useless tool,” said the gruff voice on the other side of the door.

The woman felt anxiety creeping up on her. She expected someone to unlock her door as they always did first thing in the morning, but they usually had keys. And they rarely cursed at the door. She didn’t know who was trying to break in, but the last thing she wanted was for the impatient man to see her undressed. In spite of her circumstances, she still wanted to look classy.

She stretched toward the table again, but the handcuffs locking her to the opposite rail prevented her from reaching all the way.

“Fine, you leave me no choice,” said the man on the other side.

The woman was given one pillow. It was hardly big enough for her head. She tried batting at her robes with it, but she merely brushed the edge of the table.

The shadows finally shifted to the side. The man on the other side of the door was changing his entrance strategy. She had no idea how long it would take him to enter, or what he would do once he finally broke in. In spite of the near frigid temperature of her room, she began to sweat.

And that’s just the beginning. I hope to upload a new version of The Computer Nerd in time for the first-year anniversary of its worldwide debut on October 20th. Keep an eye on the news.

Time for MailChimp

After an unnecessarily stressful time at my job this week, I decided it was time to pull the trigger on setting my marketing strategies to get more attention on my books, as a way to bring me closer to financial independence. Seminar after seminar I’ve been listening to this summer has universally agreed that the mailing list is the way to go, and that MailChimp is the best site for beginners to use. So, that’s what I did this week. I signed up for the service.

Now, I haven’t done anything with it yet. And I probably won’t for a while still. But what I think I’ll aim to do is to write a pseudo sequel to The Computer Nerd (more like a side story involving the bounty hunter Mr. Sanders) and make it free. Then anyone who subscribes to the mailing list through the second book can get the first one free. Then I can resume marketing strategies as usual for the third and, if I deem it necessary, fourth books.

If you’ve read The Computer Nerd and you’re wondering how on earth I would pull a trilogy or tetralogy out of that story, then I would say think of Mr. Sanders as a potential protagonist, and you might figure it out.

Anyway, I’ll be spending some time figuring out how I want to set up my first marketing campaign. It’ll be a while still before I do that though.

The Cost of Marketing

Which brings me to my other eye-opening point. I’ve listened to several of Nick Stephenson’s freebie seminars since June, and garnered a lot of information and tips on how to grow my audience. Obviously, without spending the $600 necessary to get his whole course, I can’t find out all the details, not without extensive independent research. Even though I would like to enroll, I can’t afford that right now. Too many bills and too little income.

But, this week, he sponsored the release of a new book called Broken by author Gordon Hopkins, based on Stephenson’s Leopold Blake character, and offered a 75% launch week discount on the title. Anyone who bought the book between September 10th and September 14th (his traditional five-day window) would gain free access to a new course he’s designed called Your First Six Figure Launch, as well as all six of his earlier Leopold Blake novels.

I bought the book, got the freebies, and listened to the course. And I finally learned of a detail I’ve been trying to figure out since June. Turns out, to get a really good, consistent marketing campaign going, I would need to set aside about $230 a month or so, minimum. And I think that’s before the free 2000-subscriber limit on MailChimp kicks in.

So, for someone whose bills constantly flirt with his matching line of income, I think that’s going to be a huge challenge for me. So, I don’t actually want to get the mailing list active until I’m close to launching the third book (but I’ll start it with the second).

And that’s what I’ve been thinking about this week.

Oh, and I’m back to eating healthier. I’ve lost about ten pounds since the beginning of the month. Cutting way down on the carbs to get that weight loss.

End-of-the Month Roundup: August 2016

My Friday Updates started off with a bang, and then they tapered off, and most of August has been without. “Why?” you may ask. Well, the simple reason is that I haven’t had much to talk about in August.

But, I suppose that’s not entirely true. I have actually done a lot of work, but not on my writing. I’ve been spending much of August studying, marketing in particular, but also editing. It’s the editing I’ve been learning that’s stalled my free-flow of writing. In short, I want to get my stories right, and to do so, I have to better understand the genres they fit in.

I’ve always had a problem with genre classification. I get the general genres like action and drama. But I’ve never been taught the conventions of these global genres, nor the conventions or obligatory scenes of their more defined parts (like action adventure, for example). Thanks to The Story Grid, I’ve been learning more about the genre types, and to some extent the conventions that make them work. More importantly, I’ve been giving more thought to what defines certain stories within their chosen genres, including my own stories. Especially my own stories.

I’ve been wanting to write an update to The Computer Nerd for a while, but I’ve been holding off because I want to attempt to run it through the grid (as outlined at The Story Grid website), and I want to be sure I fully understand how the grid works, and in turn figure out what I still need to do to make The Computer Nerd work. I also want to pick up Shawn Coyne’s book so that I have some kind of textbook to refer to when I give storygridding (a term Shawn Coyne coined) a try. I think it’ll be easier to graph once I know exactly what I’m supposed to do.

To be clear, I do think the story works based on the genre I’ve established. But now I’m wondering if I’ve picked the right genre. And I also think I can make it better. Even still, I have pictures in my head for improving it.

But, of course, that’s not the only thing I’ve been studying, nor the only thing keeping me up late at night.

When I do put it through a new rewrite, and eventually rerelease it, I also need to consider the cover image. I like what I have, but I don’t know that it’s appropriate for the genre. So much to consider, and I feel like no matter how much I learn about my craft, my awaiting knowledge seems to stack and stack.

There’s also the secondary concern about marketing. Whenever I do reedit and repost the story, I’ll want to do so with a change to the metadata. In short, I want this thing primed for marketing, and that means stripping out much of what’s already in there and replacing it with a more direct (and beneficial) link.

But how do I follow that?

The primary marketing tactic I see and hear all over the Internet is that the mailing list remains king. And guess what. I don’t have one. Nope, no mailing list. My blog subscription option is the best source I have for sending out new information, and most of the people who come here come to read my one comedic post about hoverboards, so they’re not going to subscribe. Clearly, that needs to change. So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the mailing list and when to start it. But, I don’t want to really push the thing until I have what Nick Stephenson calls a “reader magnet” ready, and I’m starting to think that moving the post-credits scene to a mailing list exclusively is a bad idea. That scene is really part of the book, and should remain with the book. So, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a novella about the bounty hunter who’s searching for our mental institution escapees (spoiler alert if you haven’t read The Computer Nerd) and using that as my subscription incentive.

Would you be interested in reading the story of Mr. Sanders’s pursuit of our escapees?

Of course, getting people to subscribe means giving them something else to buy down the road, and The Computer Nerd is not something I plan to make a sequel or an entire series out of. It’s supposed to be standalone. Assuming they want something in the same genre, what do I give them?

I’ve been giving more thought to other stories I’ve posted or have planned to post by now–Gutter Child and Teenage American Dream specifically–and considered that maybe their stories could fit more into a mystery or thriller convention, and less in the convention they already have. So, among all of my other stray thoughts, I’m wondering if I should expand Gutter Child and turn the current plot into a subplot, and give Teenage American Dream a darker problem. I have some ideas on how I can expand them, but that will undoubtedly hold up my current plans of the other stories I’ve mentioned on this blog. I feel like I’ve been ignoring them long enough.

So, that’s how my month has been. No progress, just a lot of studying.

I also host a biannual game-making contest, which had a deadline this month, so I’ve been giving that a lot of my attention. But you came here to find out about my writing, didn’t you?

Friday Update #6: The Branding Betrayal and Other Briefs

I haven’t posted to the Friday Updates in a couple of weeks, mainly because I haven’t had much to say since my last post, but also because I’ve had other commitments and time got away from me. More on that later.

In Support of Branding

I wanted to kick off this post with a slight nitpick. As some of you may know (if you know me personally), I’m a fan of movies. I enjoy a good movie as much if not more than a good book. I enjoy them for the stories, sure, but I especially enjoy them for the experience they provide. And I’m especially a fan of movie franchises, as I can continue to reenter the worlds of my favorite characters and experience something new while hanging on the edge of my seat to the exploits of people old (but not necessarily those of old people, except for maybe Clint Eastwood, and only if he does another Dirty Harry, which I guess would be hard to watch nowadays given that he’s the same age as my grandmother, who just recently passed away—more on that later).

However, one of the things I depend on in my movie experiences is continuity, and that’s especially true of those that actually continue into sequels and more sequels. Franchises like James Bond can get away with actor changes because there are so many of them that eventually the actors will get too old to play the part, like Sean Connery, who’s the same age as my grandmother, who just recently passed away—still, more on that later). The only thing we really must have in a James Bond movie consistently is the tracking gun barrel sequence at the start of each movie, and the opening credits sequence with the dramatic song and the nearly naked women superimposing the movie’s weapon of choice. There are story points that must be addressed, too, but those are related more to the genre than to the franchise itself. At any rate, James Bond has a specific brand we expect each film to adopt, and those are the things we expect—oh, and of course the James Bond theme song by Monty Norman. Other movie franchises like Mission: Impossible also have an expected brand, with the lit fuse marching toward an explosion and the classic theme by Lalo Schifrin (I almost mixed the two composers up—I’ve watched these franchises so many times that they sometimes run together on details like that). It’s also well-known for its anti-brand of style by changing directors and storylines so much that each movie barely resembles the one before it, and really only has Tom Cruise and the opening fuse to bind all five together. Weirdly, this works out great for that series.

If you’re paying attention, then you’ve noticed that I’ve addressed two of the top three blockbuster spy movie franchises currently running. The third franchise, the Bourne series, also has a brand, with each film taking the exact title from the book that corresponds with its entry number (The Bourne Identity is the name of the first book and movie, The Bourne Supremacy the second, and so on through The Bourne Legacy, which changes the lead character but stays firmly in the established cinematic universe), and this keeps them all in the same family.

Or, at least this is true of the first four films.

Now, I just saw the latest Bourne film, Jason Bourne, on Wednesday, and even though I enjoyed it, there are a few things about it that annoyed me. And it all has to do with its branding.

Movies like this remind me why branding in a series is so important. On the outside, novels in a series establish brands by having similar covers and similar fonts from one installment to the next. Their internal content can also establish brands, with recurring themes and recurring popular characters populating them. But they also form brands by the titles they use. Novels do this. Movies do this. Even the names of television episodes (something many audiences will never even see) do this. The show Scrubs, for example, would title each episode as “My [Something].” That puts every episode into a family. My favorite show, Community, would title each episode after a fake and ridiculous course title (“Advanced Complaining,” for example, was never a Community title, but it could’ve been because each episode was titled something like that). I think branding among titles is a good idea, but keeping a continuity among titles to establish that brand is vital if the series has three or more installments and the first two are of the same style.

Before I saw Jason Bourne, I watched the Honest Trailer for the original Bourne film trilogy, and I think it does a fine job highlighting many of the trilogy’s repeat items, enough for me to recognize them when I see them in new installments. I must also say that plenty of elements within the newest movie match those of the older films (the use of the word asset, for example) quite faithfully. And I was pleased to see that the end title song, “Extreme Ways” by Moby, makes its fifth appearance in the series, over the usual hi-tech background graphic where the credits flash, with its expected differences in style from its previous incarnations. And, of course, the story is basically the same as it is in the first four movies. Even though it brings nothing new, it’s still most everything I expect from a Bourne film. Well, almost everything.

Going back to the title, there are two expectations that people like me will have whenever a new entry into the series is released: 1. The title will be The Bourne [Something]. This is how it’s lain out in the previous four films. It’s how the fifth movie should’ve been presented. It’s what we expect when we set up our DVDs and Blu-rays beside each other on the franchises shelf. 2. The title should coincide with the book that matches its installment number. In this case, the fifth book is called The Bourne Betrayal, so the movie should’ve been called The Bourne Betrayal. Even its IMDB entry mentions this inconsistency in the trivia section. What’s worse is that the movie’s plot actually supports this title.

So why change the name? I don’t know. I suspect that the studio dipped its hand where it shouldn’t have, as it often does, and decided that it would make more money or be more appealing to feature the main character’s name instead of what audiences actually expect. I mean, it worked for Jack Reacher, right?

Here’s the thing. The movie is the same regardless of what title it’s given. My complaint is about as OCD and nit-picky as OCD and nit-picky get. But I also think this inconsistency is as annoying as snot. Just give it the expected title. As long as it has the name Bourne in the title, we’ll know it belongs to that franchise. The title change has single-handedly taken a franchise I love and made it into something I love a little less. It just feels like a detached entry now. Being that it takes place 12 years after the previous three just isolates it even more.

Now, if the next Bourne movie is called Jason Bourne 6, and not The Bourne Sanction (the sixth book’s title, and the sixth title to maintain consistency), then I’ll have to stop caring what decisions the studio makes for this franchise. Seeing as how they aren’t changing the formula a lick from movie to movie, either, I’m guessing the series has had its heyday and is ready to take another long nap. I don’t know. Makes me sad, though. This really was one of my favorites for the longest time.

For those of you who write series books or make series movies, please stick to your established brands. Changing them by even the slightest angles derails the momentum you’ve created. Don’t do it. Change the stories instead. That’s what we care about being new.

Other Non-Writing Things

So, I missed last week’s post because I was distracted. We had my grandmother’s memorial the following day, and I was mentally checked out from doing anything creative or informative in the hours leading up to it. I was also exhausted from two straight days of walking several miles on the soggy beach during the hottest time of the day, so I ended up sleeping through most of it. So, sorry if you were expecting news. But I really didn’t have any.

The week before, I was supporting a friend at a cocktail party on the 29th floor of a beachfront condo about an hour from where I live. I was tired when I got home. Plus, I didn’t have any news. I did have fun though. I don’t get invited to cocktail parties like that too often.

Smashwords Sale

For those of you who might’ve been interested in buying my e-books during the Smashwords sale, the sale is over, and everything is back to full price. But, you can still find coupons for discounts and freebies in the Promotions sections in the header, so don’t worry about it. Thanks to those of you who bought something, or will buy something.

(I just noticed that most of the existing coupons are expired or soon to expire. I’ll generate a new batch at some point soon. Keep checking back.)

And that’s it for this week. I’ve spent the last few days working on my computer game, Entrepreneur: The Beginning, and I’ve been reading a lot on the Story Grid website, catching up my knowledge on how to edit, so I haven’t been writing much lately. I will soon, though. Don’t worry. I did write a poem called “My Fading Silence” a couple of nights ago, however. You can read it in my previous post. I don’t write poetry often, so it’s a rare treat.

Oh, and I’ve officially cancelled my preorders for Teenage American Dream, Sweat of the Nomad, and Zipwood Studios until further notice. I will be reinstating them at some point, but not before I get an email list together or something substantial toward their development. I also need to figure out if I want to release their original short story versions under their existing titles and their novel versions under new titles. Check back here often for new information.

Friday Update #4: Market Research Continues and Other Book Updates

Short update this week. I’ve spent most of my free time ingesting more and more information about how to increase my readership and how to give readers what they want. Specifically, I’ve been watching videos from Your First 10,000 Readers creator Nick Stephenson and stocking up on relevant information about building an audience. I know the sales pitch is coming to my inbox very soon, and I’ll have to figure out what I can afford and what I can’t when the time comes. The short understanding is that to move my business forward (and we’ll have to call that what it is, won’t we?), I have to start investing in growth solutions, and that includes implementing the strategies necessary to grow and nurture an e-mail list. So, that’s what I’ve given most of my concentration to this week.

But, my research of indie trends and successful entrepreneurs doesn’t stop there. I also found out this week about an extremely useful resource called The Story Grid, both a blog and a book by highly respected book editor Shawn Coyne, which helps writers target their books with an editor’s eye. It’s in the same camp as Larry Brooks’s Story Fix, a book that I hope to review on this site in the near future, but goes even further down the editing path by identifying genre needs and expectations and providing helpful charts that measure out like a medical reading to diagnose the “works, doesn’t work” qualities of a book. Anyway, I’ve started reading the blogs associated with that site, and I hope to pick up the book (which is essentially an edited collection of these blogs, arranged in a teachable manner) sometime soon. It’s more expensive than most writing books out there, so it’s one I have to plan for. But I do hope to pick it up this summer.

The Computer Nerd

The first few blogs posted in The Story Grid (the early ones from October 2014) have already gotten me thinking about my currently released titles and whether or not they “work.” Some of them are just short stories and novellas, and have smaller structures with smaller needs, so I’m not too worried about where they stand at the moment.

But I am thinking more about The Computer Nerd (or, The Computer Nerd Scandal, if you’re coming here from Smashwords in July) and its climax, and I’m wondering if I’ve really given it all of the scenes it needs. I had this question back in April when I worked on its first post-release revision, but now I’m starting to think the resolution with the story’s villain isn’t quite what the convention needs, so I plan to write and release another small update this weekend addressing the villain’s exit from the story. I’ll be sure to announce its update when it becomes relevant, so check back here soon. But I’ve already gotten a clear idea what this resolution needs, so it won’t take me long to implement it. If you’ve already read the book, there’s probably no need to read it again—unless you want to. However, if you were unsatisfied with the way the villain exits the story, then I hope the next update will do more to please you.

Because I’m learning something new all the time, I cannot guarantee that the next update will be the absolute final. But I do know it’ll bring the story closer to its expected conventions, and that with each update I give it, I’ll feel more satisfied with the product and less certain how to improve it. So, eventually the updates will stop.

Other Books

In the coming week, I’ll likely be making changes to the status of my three novels that are up for preorder. Based on all that I’ve been learning for the last month or so, I’m finding it harder and harder to justify sticking to the schedule, or even to the plan that I’ve established for these books. In short, I’m planning on canceling the preorders for them soon, so apologies if you’ve preordered any of them since they went live last October, but based on the preorder counts of my other books that have since been released, my feeling is that I’m not sacrificing anything by making this decision. I’ll speak more to that thought next week though, as that will require a fuller announcement.

In the meantime, check out those sources I spoke about at the top of this post if you want to improve your writing and marketability, as well. They are very helpful, and I think anyone who’s serious about writing and publishing should give them a look.

 

 

 

Friday Update #3: Book Cover Changes and Smashwords Sale

So, this week I made some changes to my packaging for Gutter Child and The Computer Nerd, including genre classifications, keyword updates, and in the case of Gutter Child, modifications to the cover and description.

gutter child cover alt 10
Cover image for “Gutter Child”

Nice, right?

In both cases, I’ve changed the weaker performing genre categories to Fiction > Mystery > General (with The Computer Nerd no longer classified under Themes & Motifs > Psychological and Gutter Child no longer classified under Literature > Literary on Smashwords or General > Family on Amazon). I hope these minor changes will improve my exposure to potential readers, especially now that my keywords are much more focused than previously.

To give you an example of the kinds of keyword changes I’ve made, here is a list of my old keywords versus my new ones for Gutter Child. Feel free to skip ahead if keywords don’t excite you.

Smashwords Old Keyword List

drama, relationships, family, young adult, college, quirky, writer, teenager, truth and lies

Smashwords New Keyword List

family drama, famous relative, adoption mystery, teen young adult, college life, quirky, writer, teenager, truth and lies, obsession

Amazon Old Keyword List

adoption, college, relationships, family, writer, truth, lies

Amazon New Keyword List

family drama, adoption mystery, college life, quirky, teenage angst, truth and lies, obsession

If any of these changes improve sales or, at the very least, exposure, I’ll be sure to mention so in a future update. One of my current goals for Drinking Café Latte at 1pm is to take you guys on my self-publishing journey, experiences, and pitfalls with me. That way we can all learn what not to do together.

Book Title News:

I was talking about titles with a close friend last night and told her the names of my next three novels. She’s pretty good with labels, and I was paying attention to her reactions and suggestions for improvement regarding each one I mentioned. This conversation started because she’s not the biggest fan of the title The Computer Nerd.

So, even though I am not necessarily changing course at this stage, I am considering updating my future titles based on our conversation. She had some great ideas, and I think they’re worth experimenting with. Here’s what could happen in the coming months:

Teenage American Dream could be renamed something akin to Teenage Dilemma (or something of that nature—she likes the title; I don’t so much).

Sweat of the Nomad we didn’t talk much about, but I’m sure that will be addressed eventually.

Zipwood Studios may eventually become An Invitation to Nowhere. I really do like that title. I also like the original title, but she made a good point that the title is basically the name of a building. Like Walmart. My contention was that a book with the title Adventures in Walmart would sell. She didn’t disagree, but I’m pretty sure she’s right about a title like Zipwood Studios being less likely to sell.

Will I actually make these changes? I don’t know yet. Part of the reason these books even have these titles is because these are the titles I gave to their short story counterparts many years ago, and I like consistency between products and their upgraded versions. But I am considering it.

I’m testing the grounds with The Computer Nerd, which as of July 1st will be called The Computer Nerd Scandal (on Smashwords and its affiliates only, and only for the month of July). On August 1st, I’ll make a decision whether to keep the new title or to revert it back to its original name. It’ll depend on what kind of business the title change gives me.

In Other News:

A few days ago, Smashwords announced its Summer/Winter sale for 2016, to be held from July 1 to July 31, and I’ve decided to enroll my e-books in the promotion. So, even though I’ve already got a number of permafree titles available on my store page to choose from, you can get my other current, usually not-for-free titles either for free or at a fair discount throughout the month of July.

Participating titles include:

Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two (25% off) – $3.74

Zippywings 2015 (50% off) – $2.00

The Computer Nerd (50% off) – $1.50

Gutter Child (100% off) – free

So, if you’ve been waiting for a sale like this to check out any of these titles, now is a good time to get them. Be sure to leave me feedback after you’ve read your copies. As far as I know, the coupon codes for the discounts will be available at checkout.

And that’s it for this week’s updates.

Actually, no it’s not. I’ve spent much of this past week celebrating my 40th birthday. Here’s a picture of me pretending to blow out the candle on a vegan Oreo cupcake (made by my friend April, who’s vegan and good at it) in my new Marty McFly, Back to the Future 2 hat after I blew out the candle for real but my sister was too slow at taking the shot. This photo was taken at my celebration dinner at Mulligan’s Beach House last Saturday.

my 40th birthday
Celebrating my 40th with some 80’s nostalgia.

I’ve also spent part of the week updating a book of interactive fiction that I started about three years ago and then forgot about until recently. It’s called I Like Pigeons, and it’s very much a work-in-progress, but it’s fun to write and a nice distraction from the books I should be working on, like Teenage American Dream, for example.

So, that’s it for this week’s updates.

 

Friday Update #2: Adventures in Marketing Experimentation

I had planned on making this week’s update about Superheroes Anonymous: A Modern-day Fantasy, Year Two and its current rate of success on Smashwords and the affiliate sites, but there’s honestly not much to talk about at this time, so rather than talk about my disappointment in its current performance (okay, screw it, I will—I sold one copy so far, and it’s been out for a month, so now you’re updated :p ), I’d like to instead talk briefly about my plan to rework my marketing strategies for not just new, but existing titles.

A couple of weeks ago, I listened in on a webinar for Bryan Cohen’s Selling for Authors series and took to heart the lessons that he shared with attendees about how indie authors can increase book sales. For almost two hours, he and webinar cohost Kimberley Grabas discussed various strategies for hooking potential readers and gaining sales from people who might not otherwise care about or even find my book. Chief lesson in that series was to use copywriting to get readers’ attention. As a result of that webinar, I rewrote my description for The Computer Nerd to better entice readers to give it a chance. Here’s an example of what it used to say versus what it says now:

Old Description:

When Anston Michaels returns home from his stressful fishing trip weekend, he finds Rebecca, his latest would-be girlfriend, sitting on his porch. They have a date, which he’s forgotten about, and she’s here to collect. Sure, that morning he nearly lost his lucky fishing pole to a sea monster that would’ve taken it to the bottom of the sea had his friend, George, not been faster with the scissors. And sure, the thought of tangling with yet another adversary to his quiet livelihood before he even gets the chance to shower leaves him feeling anxious. But, he kinda likes her, so he’ll play her game.
While he gets ready for the date, however, he checks his answering machine to discover that someone more important called while he was away, and this person is someone he can’t ignore. Even though acknowledging the caller’s request means losing the date, and most likely the beautiful Rebecca with it, he has to take the meeting. It’s a matter concerning his ex-wife, who has just escaped from the mental hospital where Anston had her committed to a year ago. The caller is concerned she’s coming home to see him, and she may not be happy. [narrative story description]
What follows is a journey into the mind of woman who seeks murder or marriage, reconciliation or revenge, or something far more sinister than any of the above, and Anston must rescue her from her madness and stop her from ruining both of their lives before it’s too late. But is it actually madness that drives her? And is it really she who needs the rescuing? [story question]
The Computer Nerd is the suspenseful but quirky tale of a former married couple who seems to constantly walk out of step with each other, even when their love still lingers just beneath the surface, even when their livelihoods are at stake. Their journey is sometimes frightening and sometimes ridiculous, but no relationship is perfect, and they rediscover their range of feelings and their depth of understanding for each other while they work together to deal with a personal crisis that combines kidnap, conspiracy, and, worst of all, forced love into a tidy little demented weekend getaway package that neither is sure they’ll survive thanks to the sociopathic third party who’s tagged along for the ride. [sales pitch]
Also comes with a post-credits scene. [side note]

Okay, right? But not great? How about this:

New Description:

Complete safety in virtual isolation? Or likely destruction in a real romance? In the program of life, we must consider all of the variables. [hook]
Anston Michaels has spent the last year living quietly alone, content with his privacy and loving his slow-paced lifestyle. His is a life without drama. His days are filled with peace. He has two friends he spends once a month fishing with, and he goes on the occasional date to keep things from getting too lonely, but his social life is controlled to his liking, and he’s pretty sure he couldn’t be happier. So, when he returns home from his unexpectedly exciting fishing trip for a night of unwind, he is surprised to find Rebecca, his latest would-be girlfriend, sitting on his porch, collecting on a date that he’s forgotten about. And he’s definitely not ready for it. What’s worse, while he prepares to leave with her, he discovers that someone even more important has been calling while he was away, someone he can’t ignore. Even though acknowledging the caller’s request for a meeting means losing the date, and likely the beautiful Rebecca with it, he has to accept it. It’s a matter concerning his ex-wife: She has just escaped from the mental hospital that he committed her to a year ago, and now she may be looking for payback. [story introduction and emotional tie]
What follows is a journey into the mind of woman who seeks mutilation or marriage, reconciliation or revenge, or something far more sinister than anything Anston can imagine, and he must rescue her from her madness and stop her from ruining both of their lives before it’s too late. But is it actually madness that drives her? And is it really she who needs the rescuing? And does Anston truly know his ex-wife as well as he thinks he does? [story question]
The Computer Nerd is the suspenseful but quirky tale of a former married couple who seems to constantly walk out of step with each other, even when their love still lingers beneath the surface, even when their livelihoods are at stake. Their journey is sometimes frightening and sometimes ridiculous, but no relationship is perfect, and they rediscover their range for understanding each other as they work together to deal with a personal crisis that combines kidnap, conspiracy, and, worst of all, forced love into a tidy little demented weekend getaway package that neither is sure they’ll survive thanks to the sociopathic third party who’s tagged along for the ride. [sales pitch]
Also comes with a post-credits scene. [side note]
If you love human interest stories with unusual twists, and you’re wondering why your marriage isn’t great or if you’re dating the right person, then The Computer Nerd is right for you. [call to action]

[end descriptions]

I’ve tagged each paragraph according to its goal. The second example probably needs more work, but I think it does a better job hitting the primary notes needed to get a reader interested. According to Bryan Cohen, the four elements to a strong book description include:

  1. Tagline
  2. Synopsis
  3. Selling Paragraph
  4. Call to Action

It should be noted that in the two weeks since I’ve posted the new description, I haven’t gotten a single download. But to be fair, I released the thing back in October, so it’s probably not getting discovered as much as it used to, either.

But this is one of the places where I’m putting my focus at the moment.

It doesn’t mean I’m finished with this experimentation, however. Along with various copywriting techniques, I’m also working on new SEO techniques, which includes experimenting with genre listing. As of now, The Computer Nerd is listed as a Fiction > Thriller & Suspense > Psychological Thriller and Fiction > Literature > Literary on Smashwords, and Fiction > Psychological and Fiction > Thrillers > Suspense on Amazon. Even though it has had decent exposure on Smashwords once upon a time, and a couple of downloads on Amazon since its Amazon debut in December, I’ve also gotten only two reviews: one five-star and one one-star review. I’m pretty sure the one-star reviewer was expecting something other than what he actually got.

For reference, the keywords I have for it on Smashwords are suspense, programming, internet, marriage, relationships, quirky, humorous, marriage problems, mental issues, programming nightmare, and the ones I have on Amazon are marriage, quirky, programming, relationships, blackmail, sociopath, love potion.

So, in the coming week, I want to experiment with genre listings and keywords to see if I get an increase in traffic. According to all of the studies I’ve been reading and YouTube videos I’ve been watching these past few weeks, I should see some change in activity.

But, words alone won’t attract new readers to my words, and that’s what I’ve been studying this week. Yep, I’ve been learning more about appropriate cover design.

Now, I feel that cover design is worth talking about in a blog of its own, so I’ll save that discussion for later (maybe next Wednesday), but I did want to give you a preview of what I’m experimenting with in that regard.

As of now, my worst seller is the quirky adoption mystery, Gutter Child, and I have a feeling all of the ingredients to a first impression are at play ensuring that no one wants to take a chance on it. Even when I made it free for almost a month, I had gotten only seven downloads. The Fallen Footwear (my current best performer) still gets that many every 3-4 days. I think the copywriting for Gutter Child probably needs a stronger claw to the throat, as well, but I’m sure the cover is playing the primary reader repellant at the moment.

So, thanks to what I’ve been studying this week, I’ve been experimenting with new cover ideas, using techniques recommended by expert designers. As of now, I’ve got the old cover—

gutter child cover alt 4
Cover Image for “Gutter Child”

Looking like this:

gutter child cover alt 6
Cover Image for “Gutter Child”

And this:

gutter child cover alt 7a
Cover Image for “Gutter Child”

I’m not yet finished, or satisfied, with these changes, but I’m interested to see whether these increase my views and downloads once I do finalize them. Hopefully they may even generate sales.

So, that’s what I’m doing this week. I hope to report the results of these changes for my next Friday Update.

Stay tuned.

The Art of Hyphenation

Recently, I revisited my novel, The Computer Nerd, to update its paperback version with the changes I had made for the e-books last month. Because print and electronic have two vastly different formats, simply porting one to the other is no straightforward task. Even with the foundation already set, I have to review how even the smallest change shifts everything around. At the end of the day, I find myself having to check and recheck the entire book to make sure nothing’s out of whack. Inevitably, something slips through, and now I completely understand the frustration that professional typesetters must feel when they piece a new book together. And though shelf space is cited as the number one reason why publishers don’t want to produce print books over 120,000 words (approximately 480 pages), I think the real reason is that their typesetters will up and quit if they have to deal with laying out anything over that mark. In short, it’s kind of a pain.

One of the worst parts about designing a paperback book is not so much setting the page size, or even determining which size best represents the book (something we can discuss in a future post), but the finicky hyphenation that one must consider if he wants to keep his lines from stretching too far across the page.

Consider:

compressed line
Hyphenation example #1

Over:

stretched line
Hyphenation example #2

I don’t know about you, but if I have to read a continuous stream of compressed, stretched, compressed, stretched, line after line, I’d get a little eye-fatigued. Nobody wants that.

So, the best way to handle the reduction of such a visual seesaw is to hyphenate the text.

But how?

Well, the first step is to consider your source file. It’s my understanding that the best program to use for any kind of book layout, whether you’re a professional or an indie, is Adobe InDesign. It supposedly has an algorithm that really gets close to accurate on the first pass (I’ll never claim that any program will get anything perfect by itself), but at a price tag of $19.99 a month (yes, you can only subscribe to it; you can no longer outright buy it), I think the professionals and the financially talented are the only ones likely to use it.

And good for you if you’re one of the successful people who can afford such a program. For the rest of us, especially those who are producing indie books on a tight budget from a spare bedroom in our parents’ houses, or at Starbucks because it’s the only place we can afford the Internet, or the bus station because…you get the idea, we’re stuck with the average quality hyphenation feature that Microsoft Word offers.

hyphenation selection
Example of how to hyphenate in Word

Okay, yes, it’s mediocre. But it’s there. It’s functional. If you want to hyphenate your self-published novel—because the only reason you would need to worry about the hyphenation feature is if you’re self-publishing—you’re going to have to get comfortable using it. It isn’t particularly fun. But it works.

Now, there are plenty of tutorials on how to use Word’s hyphenation feature out there. A particularly good one can be found here, and if you just need to learn how to hyphenate, I’d check that link out. It’s helpful. But, if you want to learn how to hyphenate effectively, then let me share with you what I’ve learned and put into practice.

Now, before I continue, I should emphasize the title of this post. It’s not “Hyphenation 101.” It’s “The Art of Hyphenation.” Understand that art is subjective. You can decide your own formula when you’re ready to hyphenate your own paperback or hardcover. I find that this formula works best for me. And again, this assumes that you’re using Word. If you’re using InDesign, then I’m jealous, and I’m guessing you operate by different rules set by your secret society of privileged layout artists.

First of all, you should consider why Microsoft Word’s “automatic” hyphenation feature is gross and terrible and the perpetrator of your book’s greatest eyesore. It hyphenates based on space used versus space free within each line. It guesstimates where the word you’re using may naturally split, even if it doesn’t understand the word or the syllables you’re using to form it. Even though you can set parameters on how often within a set range it chooses to hyphenate, chances are it will hyphenate in the most ridiculous of places, making your book appear messy and broken.

When you choose “manual” hyphenation, you have a lot more control, and thus, you can come up with a better plan for how your book should look.

manual hyphenation
Example of hyphenation in action

Notice, under manual hyphenation, Microsoft Word gives you the option to accept or reject its suggestion. You can also cancel the current session if you feel you need a break from the monotony. I like to cancel after every few changes to ensure that I’m happy with the layout so far. The thing to consider is that hitting “undo” on a hyphenation session will erase all changes you’ve made since your session began. By cancelling every few changes and checking your work, you reduce the number of words you’ll reset if you have to undo for any reason.

And because it’s really easy to make a bad hyphenation decision (it’s often difficult to see how this hyphenation works in conjunction with the surrounding text when your windows take up so much visible space), you’ll probably want your core draft and your hyphenated draft to be two separate files. That way, if you seriously mess something up along the way, you won’t cause any real damage.

Now, when should you accept the hyphenation? Again, this is up to each artist according to his need. But I find this system works well for me:

  • Never hyphenate a word that breaks on the first two letters. Ex: If you are hyphenating the word reiterate, don’t hyphenate if the suggestion leans on breaking it at “re.” Two letters won’t overstretch a line enough to justify a break there.
  • You can hyphenate a word that breaks at the last two letters, if you want. Even though it won’t affect your finishing line much whether you accept or reject it, it could affect your starting line if a word like straighten is moved down to the next line (creating an eight-character stretchmark) by a lack of hyphen.
  • Even though it’s okay to break at the last two letters of the word, it should probably be avoided if that means leaving only two letters for the last line of the paragraph (or worse if it’s the last line of the page or chapter). Really, unless you have enough letters leftover after the hyphenated break, it’s probably a good idea not to break the last word in the paragraph.
  • If the word has three or more syllables, then it’s a good idea to manually choose the break yourself if Word is suggesting a break on a two-letter syllable. For example, if Word suggests you hyphenate sporadic at “ic,” and you don’t think moving the whole word down is the right choice either, which is what choosing to ignore it would do, then you’ll want to highlight the hyphen between “spor” and “adic,” since that would more evenly distribute the word across both lines. Again, this should be common sense, but Word does not break according to common sense. It has none. It does things mathematically. It’ll split the first line that feels too stretched, then it’ll split the next line because the first change caused a new stretch, and it becomes a vicious cycle. Make good decisions when hyphenating. Second-guess Word’s suggestions constantly. Don’t form ladders.
  • When it comes to three-letter syllables, I tend to accept them, as long as I haven’t just accepted another one within the last three or four lines, and as long as it doesn’t suggest it at the last full line of the paragraph.
  • I rarely accept any suggested three-letter hyphenations on two-line paragraphs. I just don’t see the need for it. This applies primarily to lines of dialogue that run just past the word wrap threshold.
  • I never let Word break a word where it gets the syllable wrong. You shouldn’t, either. Doing so is just sloppy editing.
  • It’s best to skip breaks on capitalized words. Odds are you’re breaking at the start of a sentence, and that’s a weird place to break anything. But you also don’t want to ruin the integrity of somebody’s name. I also think breaking already hyphenated words, like two-digit numbers, is weird.
  • Using hyphenation to break a word at the bottom of a page is probably okay, but breaking it at the end of a chapter is a little ugly.
  • Lastly, I prefer to keep my hyphenation count per page to the barest minimum. The other reason I tend to cancel a hyphenation session often is because I want to double-check the frequency of the suggested hyphens that I’ve chosen to accept and make sure that I don’t have more than three or four to a page, especially if they’re in close proximity to each other on that page. I find that if I do have too many on a single page, or more than two in a four-line space, then I want to hit “undo” and try again. This minimizes the work I have to redo. But yeah, having too many on a single page gives it that cluttered and choppy look. It’s not worth it.

So, that’s a general overview on how I like to hyphenate my books, but this isn’t a hard and fast set of rules. Writing is a medium littered with exceptions, and the art of hyphenation is wide open to those exceptions. Sometimes the line stretches too long if you don’t break that proper noun or all caps word in half. Sometimes breaking the word on a three-letter syllable on a two-line paragraph looks better than not. Rules are nice to follow, but certain conditions may present challenges that require defiance. At the end of the day, you might just have to split focus between the fo and the cus in order to keep the following line from pushing Sweeeeeeet! down to a spot by itself and pulling its origin line across the floor like a tired rubber band. But if you can avoid it, you should. Or, if you’re struggling with the ethics of splitting a good word in half, look at how your favorite books handle it. Sometimes the best strategy is to emulate your mentors. It certainly makes the heart feel better.

How do you prefer to hyphenate yours? Sound off in the comments if you’d like.

If you want additional advice on putting together your own book, I’d recommend these articles:

“Book Design Basics—Use Hyphens for Justified Type” by Dave Bricker

The above article is Part 7 in Dave Bricker’s Book Design Basics series, and the other parts are just as helpful, so you should read them.

“Why Self-Published Books Look Self-Published” by Joel Friedlander

A helpful reminder on the elements you need to keep your book looking professional (including hyphenation).

Self-publishing: Expert Advice On Typesetting for Self-publishers

A decent overview. Take notice of its “Shift + Enter” advice.

Note that some of these articles use professional terms like “rivers” and “ladders” to describe phenomena within the hyphenation universe, and if you want to use these terms, too, then check out these articles to find out what they mean. We call that educating ourselves. 🙂

Today’s Image Credit:

Palette Graphic by Liz Aragon, submitted to sweetclipart.com

Direct Link: http://sweetclipart.com/artists-palette-paint-and-brush-583

License Information: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/