books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, May 24, 2015

10 Tips for Choosing the Right Book Title in the E-Age

by Anne R. Allen


I'm not going to pretend that picking a title for your book is easy. In fact, it gets tougher all the time. We have to consider a lot more than how grabby a title looks on a bookstore shelf these days.

In choosing a title now, we have to think about SEO, keywords, categories, and also-boughts as we fight for visibility in the ever-expanding digital marketplace.

I've struggled with a lot of my own book titles, and I realize could have made better choices for my early books if I'd been a little more tech-savvy at the time.

I can be stubborn. My editor for The Lady of the Lakewood Diner hate-hate-hated my working title, which was The Ashtrays of Avalon. But I didn't want to change it. I thought it was hilarious. He thought it was gross. And yeah, Mark, you were right. Sigh.

Traditionally authors have always been warned by agents and editors not to be "married" to their titles because publishers regularly change them based on marketing strategies and other factors that seem to have little to do with the story.

Even though publishers usually know what they're doing in terms of targeting the right demographic, the changes can be infuriating. Especially if a title goes through many versions between acceptance and publication.

Self-publishing guru Joanna Penn details the journey her book titles have gone through in her blogpost, "On Changing Book Titles and Covers". She shows that even marketing experts can't predict how a title will perform until authors are really certain of their audience.

What Joanna says is: "It takes time to get to know your own voice as a writer. It takes a few books to really get to grips with what you're writing, who you want to be as a writer, how you want your brand to look and also what your books even mean."

With self-publishing, it's possible to change titles even after publication, and Joanna has had good luck with her changes.

But don't make the decision to change titles of published books lightly. You'll create confusion for your established readers and you may lose your reader reviews.  Also, older things always come up first in a Google search, so your old title will be with you forever on a SERP.

Title dilemmas are not a new problem, although it has been compounded with the fragmentation of the market in the electronic age.

But it's amazing how many classics had to go through a title make-over before they achieved success.

Here are some examples of books whose titles were changed before publication


  • Jane Austen’s First Impressions became Pride and Prejudice.
  • Philip Roth’s The Jewboy, or Wacking Off, became Portnoy’s Complaint
  • Jacqueline Susann's They Don't Build Statues to Businessmen became Valley of the Dolls
  • Rick Moody's F.F. became The Ice Storm. 
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's Trimalchio in West Egg became The Great Gatsby
  • George Orwell's The Last Man in Europe became 1984
  • William Golding’s Strangers from Within became Lord of the Flies. 
  • Carson McCullers The Mute became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta became The Sun Also Rises.
  • Evelyn Waugh’s The House of the Faith became Brideshead Revisited.
  • Alex Haley’s Before This Anger became Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
  • Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s At this Point in Time became All the President’s Men. 
  • Stephen Crane’s Private Fleming, His Various Battles, became The Red Badge of Courage.

From which we can see that authors don't always make the best choices in titling our own work. (I do know that some authors have had heartbreakingly bad titles inflicted on them as well. I'm not saying the publisher is always right.)

But in the age of self-publishing, authors should make sure they get lots of editorial and reader feedback before settling on a title.

Here are some tips for choosing that perfect title:

1) Always Do a Thorough Search for Your Title


You can't copyright a book title, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with choosing a title that's already in use. Publishers have been recycling titles for centuries. Sometimes oldies but goodies work better than originals. In fact, some mass market lines regularly reuse titles they know work well.

But a recycled title can work against you, big time, so make sure you Google your title idea before you decide to go with itand go through several pages of search results.

You definitely don't want to share your title with a mega-seller. Calling your book To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind is perfectly legal, but it's going to disappoint a lot of readers and set you up for some unpleasant comparisons.

And you really don't want to use a title if it's been previously used for porn or something you don't want your name connected with.

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do if somebody chooses your title after your book comes out. When my comedy, The Best Revenge, debuted in 2005, there were only two books with similar titles. Now there are about twenty. I have thought of changing it, but it's so perfect for a book about a woman who writes a newspaper column called "Living Well" that I can't give it up.

2) Look at Titles That Don't Work for You as a Reader


Have you heard about a book from a friend and thought, "meh, that doesn't sound like it's worth my time"? Often that feeling comes from an uninspiring title.

Failed titles can be: 
  • too short 
  • too long
  • too broad or generic
  • uninformative
  • wrong for the genre
  • appeal to the wrong audience
  • unintentionally comical

As an example of the latter, I remember an American's thriller manuscript that came into the UK publishing house where I worked. It had the title A Passing Wind. The whole staff went into giggling fits. (North Americans, "passing wind" is what the Brits politely call farting.)

A broad, generic title like Love and Hope, Love is Forever, Living my Life, or Making Choices tends to sound amateurish because it doesn't tell the reader anything about the story and doesn't indicate genre. Broad topics can also sound grandiose. If you take on a huge subject like War and Peace, you'd better have the writing chops to go nose-to-nose with Leo Tolstoy.

One word titles are problematic. They do make an impact and can look great on a cover, but they can fall flat unless they are the name of a fascinating character or you choose a really hooky, precise word like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or Louis Sachar's Holes.

Bill Morris wrote a great post at The Millions about the appeals and perils of one-word book titles.

Big, all-encompassing words like "Hope", "Loneliness" ,"Lovers", or "Dreams" are usually too unfocused to work in a title. They tell the reader nothing except that either you think you're famous enough that your name alone sells a book, or you're an amateur biting off more than you can chew.

But don't get too specific, or nobody will know what the title means.

I think one of the worst one-word titles ever is the name of one of the best TV series of the last decade. It's called Treme. Yeah. What does that mean? How do you pronounce it? Does it rhyme with "creme" as in a faux dairy product?

Nope. You only know what it means if you've been to New Orleans. It's the name of a historic neighborhood in The Big Easy and it's pronounced Tre-may.

But that title means nothing to most people. And you can't ask for something you can't pronounce. At least it could have been made more dynamic with a few more words, like "Down in the Treme". Or they could also have used a title from any jazz song ever recordedsince the soundtrack is pretty much a journey through jazz and Cajun music history.

(And seriously, get it from Netflix. It's about New Orleans after Katrina, but it's not a depressing wallow. It's got some of the best acting and writing and musical performances you'll ever see. I felt bereft after I watched the last episode. I felt as if I'd lost a whole bunch of good friends.)

Titles that are too long can sound amateurish too, unless they are used for comic effect, like Ally Carter's I'd Tell You I Love You but Then I'd Have to Kill You. They also pose problems with marketing because they often get truncated.

And your cover designer will curse you.

You usually have to be a pro to get away with a long title. Bad long titles red-flag a newbie. I don't think a lot of people would buy the following (seriously, I met potential editing clients with book titles almost this bad.)

  • My Life as a Railroad Brakeman and Ladies' Underwear Salesman in America's Heartland in the 1950s before the Country was Overrun by Those People
  • Why my Son is Going to Hell along with his Whiny Wife and their Ungrateful, Ugly Children: You Call That a Mother's Day Gift?
  • 101 Crafts to Make from Dryer Lint When Your Slimeball Husband Leaves you Destitute When he Runs off with a Bimbo Named Tiffany. 
Anything that says, "this book is all about me and my unresolved issues" is probably not going to sell all that well.

So what's the right length? According to studies, two to four word titles work best.

3) Study Titles that Work 


Here are some title categories that are "tried and true."

The hero's name

This is the oldest type of title in the book, literally. A title simply stating the name of the protagonist has been around since the birth of the novel. Names made up the most common titles in early fiction. From Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Madam Bovary, Mrs. Dalloway, and Auntie Mame, to Olive Kitteridge and Coraline, the protagonist's name can be a pretty safe choice for a title.

Then there are protagonist's names with embellishments like The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Charlotte's Web, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Bridget Jones' Diary, and The Talented Mr. Ripley

The antagonist's name


Sometimes the villain gets top billing, as with Moby Dick, Hannibal, and Jaws.

Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is one of the most clever villain titles, because even though Rebecca DeWinter is dead, she casts a shadow over the entire story. The fact the main character has no name but "the second Mrs. DeWinter" makes this title all the more compelling.

The main character's occupation or title:


The Master Builder, The Vagabond, The Sot Weed Factor, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Master and Commander, The Continental Op, The Good Soldier, Gladiator.

A family member's occupation or title:


The Mermaid's Sister, The Duke's Children, The Time Traveler's Wife, Father of the Bride, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Baker's Daughter, The Unicorn's Daughter, The Bonesetter's Daughter.

You've probably noticed that daughters have been in vogue recently. Here's a piece with an infographic showing how titles involving daughters have expanded in recent years.)

Setting is good:


Mansfield Park, The Country of the Pointed Firs, Brokeback Mountain, Wuthering Heights, Cold Mountain, Mystic River, Echo Park, Dune, Tinseltown,  Telegraph Avenue.

These let readers know where the story happens—which helps them decide if they want to go there. Remember you want your title and cover to give as much information as possible to your potential reader without confusing or overwhelming them.

Or use the setting with embellishments:


The Amityville Horror, Murders on the Rue Morgue, The Last Time I Saw Paris, The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, The Bridges of Madison County

The main character's place of origin


The Virginian, Bastard Out of Carolina, The Man from Snowy River

The main event or inciting incident:


The Hunger Games, The Great Train Robbery, Escape from Alcatraz, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Death of Ivan Ilyich....(or practically anybody). "Main event" titles are informative and contain the hook, so they're great choices.

Theme:


These advertise the book's big picture: Pride and Prejudice, Of Mice and Men, War and Peace, The Beautiful and the Damned. These are especially good for literary fiction.

Quotes from the Bible, nursery rhymes or the classics:


A Time to Kill, The Sun Also Rises, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Blithe Spirit, Along Came a Spider, The Golden Apples of the Sun, Tender is the Night, Infinite Jest, His Dark Materials

In fact there are so many from classic literature they have their own Wikipedia page.

Quotes from songs or song titles:


Catcher in the Rye, Go Down Moses, Norwegian Wood, Sometimes a Great Notion, and most of Mary Higgins Clark's oeuvre from While My Pretty One Sleeps (1990) to I've Got You Under My Skin (2014)

NOTE: If you take a line from a song rather than the title, make sure it's in the public domain. Song titles can't be copyrighted, but quoting even one line from a copyrighted song can cost you big bux.

Lines from the work itself:


The Silence of the Lambs is a reference to Clarice being traumatized in childhood by screaming lambs.) 

To Kill a Mockingbird also comes from the book's dialogue, as do Gone with the Wind and Waiting to Exhale.

I did this with my title, The Gatsby Game. The anti-hero Alistair refers to his social climbing as "playing the Gatsby game."

4) Use Keywords to Match your Title to your Genre


Authors can run into real trouble if a title sets up the wrong expectations in a reader, so it's wise to keep keywords in mind, especially for genre fiction.

You'll really confuse people if you title your literary novel Her Secret Billionaire Lover, call a cozy mystery Blood of the Demon, or name a gritty thriller The Blueberry Muffin Mystery

Browse bookstore sections or Amazon bestseller lists to find common keywords.

  • Romance titles tend to use words "love" and "romance" and "heart" a lot. Regencies feature a lot of dukes and other aristocrats, and contemporaries have their modern equivalent, billionaires. Other common romance keywords are "kiss", "rake", "seduction", "duke", "bride", "wedding", "rogue", and "wild". Just browse the Romance books on Amazon for the most common.
  • Erotica titles have become more subtle in the wake of Fifty Shades, but if you want to make sure your readers know what to expect, words like "bondage", "chains", "submission" will reach the right audience.
  • Mystery titles vary depending on whether they're cozy, noir, or gritty. A whole lot of cozies have puns in the titles these days, often involving food, like Assault and Pepper or Flourless to Stop Him
  • Darker mysteries use words like "body", "shadows", "dead", "dark", "farewell", "murder", "kill" and "corpse."
  • Westerns and Western Romance identify themselves with words like "cowboy", "boots",  "rider", "sagebrush", "lonesome", and "trail".
  • Paranormals tend to do a lot with "blood", "demon", "night" and "dead," and "howl."
  • Space Operas often use "stars", "space" and "alien", and "empire". 
  • Fantasy is probably going to have "swords", "sorcery", "wizard", "mage", "dragon", king", or "magic" in there somewhere.

I'm not saying you must use keywords—I know the cliché aspect can be off-putting—but you need be especially wary of using the wrong keyword for your genre.

There is no one rule for titling a particular genre, but the most successful titles are the ones that are clever enough they let your book stand out from the crowd while signaling to the reader what they can expect.

What you're looking for is something that's hooky and pinpoints your genre while offering something unique. (I did say it isn't easy.)

5) Put a Hook in the Title


Hooky titles are more important than ever in these days when so many more titles are competing for a reader's attention. A hook is something that presents a question or piques curiosity.

  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
  • The Way We Live Now (Do we live differently now? How?)
  • The DaVinci Code (I've heard of DaVinci, but not his code: what is it?)
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (That one made me grab it before I even knew what it was about. That's an example of a longer title that works.)
  • And a lot of people have wanted to know what was so great about Gatsby.


6) Use Specifics Rather than Broad, Poetic Strokes.


The kind of title that worked for a big novel a century ago may leave today's reader cold. People want instant information about the book's content. 

Tom Corson-Knowles of TCK Publishing gives an example of a book called Pen, Pencil and Poison that didn't sell well until its title was changed to The Story of a Notorious Criminal.

I know—the first one is much more clever and represents better writing, but "notorious criminal" is going to sell better than pretty words.

Norah Ephron's memoir about aging, I Feel Bad About My Neck was a megaseller. But a book titled "A Woman of a Certain Age" probably wouldn't sell so well (especially without Ms. Ephron's name attached) even though it's more poetic.

7) Use Simple Words


You also do better with simple words rather than ones people have to look up—or ones you've made up yourself.

I have to admit I resisted the novel Quincunx for years even though lots of friends recommended it. I didn't know what a quincunx was and I wasn't sure I wanted to. If it had been called Dark, Twisted Victorian Families, I might have been more eager to pick it up.

Lots of Fantasy writers make up stuff with their world building, but make sure people can pronounce the words you put in the title. It's hard to go to the bookstore and ask for The Sword of Mzplyxan or the Death of the Vrypyttrx.

8) Analyze Your Title


Lulu has a title analyzer that purports to tell you the likelihood a title will become a bestseller. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but it may help you decide among several possibilities.

I did a little test putting in I Feel Bad About My Neck compared with the generic His Sweet Kisses, and "Neck" scored only a 21% chance and "Sweet Kisses" scored 61%. So use it with several grains of salt.

9) Don't Treat Nonfiction Titles like Narrative Titles


A lot of advice on book titles lumps together fiction and nonfiction, but nonfiction titles serve a different purpose. They don't have to stimulate the imagination like a novel or memoir title—instead, they need to grab attention and promise to fulfill a need.

This makes keywords essential for nonfiction book titles. And old-fashioned title like "What Color is your Parachute"  does not work in today's search-engine driven world. Titles require subtitles that contain keywords now. So the 2015 version of What Color is Your Parachute has the subtitle "2015: a Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career Changes."

If you blog, you probably know something about what blog titles get you the most clicks. The same goes for nonfiction book titles. Numbers and lists work well. So do how-tos, questions and answers to questions. Shocking statements do too,  like "Why you Should Never…" and "What you Don't Know About..."

What works best for nonfiction is a short, standout title that grabs the reader's attention, and a longer subtitle that explains what makes this book different.

  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking
  • Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
  • Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10
  • The Residence: Inside the World of the White House


10) Use Social Media to get Feedback from your Readers 



This week Frances Caballo wrote a great post on marketing (in which she quotes me, so obviously it's brilliant!) She suggested "It’s always a good idea to involve your readership every step of the way. How? Ask your readers for their ideas for names of your characters or ask them to help you select a book cover."

So why not titles? My current WIP has the working title of So Much for Buckingham (The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5.)

It's a title I've always wanted to use, because "Off with his head! So much for Buckingham!" is the most famous line from Shakespeare that Shakespeare never wrote. (It was added to the play Richard III by an 18th century London actor-manager named Colley Sibber.)

This is a novel about how people's lives can be destroyed by things that never happenedbut get reported and repeated until they're accepted as fact. Like the story about Richard III murdering the princes in the tower. 

And, well, there's a cat named Buckingham. And dead reenactor playing the part of the Duke of Buckingham, and the ghost of Richard III, who says the whole nasty rumor about the princes was started by...the Duke of Buckingham.


So Scriveners, would you read a mystery-comedy called "So Much For Buckingham?" What if it had a picture of a cat on the cover? Or Richard III? Or a cat dressed like Richard III? Let me know in the comments! 

How do you title your own books? What's your favorite title of a story or book you've written? What's a brilliant title that made you want to buy a book? Can you think of a title like "Treme" that worked against itself?


BOOK OF THE WEEK


THE BEST REVENGE: Only 99c this week

30 weeks on Amazon's Humor Bestseller list!

Read how it all began, to prepare for Camilla #5

The Best Revenge is the prequel to the Camilla Randall Mysteries. We meet Camilla and Plantagenet  in the big-hair, pastel-suited 1980s. A spoiled 1980s debutante comes of age and discovers strengths nobody knew she had when she loses everything in this satirical romp. It takes her from the doors of Studio 54 to the coke-fueled parties of Southern California to a cell in the LA County Jail accused of murder. We know she didn't do it, but who did?  



THE BEST REVENGE: How it all began! When Camilla Randall, a 1980s New York debutante, is assaulted by her mother’s fiancé, smeared in the newspapers by a sexy muckraking journalist, then loses all her money in the Savings and Loan Scandal, she seeks refuge with her gay best friend in California. But her friend has developed heterosexual tendencies and an inconvenient girlfriend, so Camilla has to move in with wild-partying friends. When a TV star ends up dead after one of their parties, Camilla is arrested for his murder. She must turn to a friendly sanitation worker, a dotty octogenarian neighbor and the muckraking journalist who ridiculed herwho also happens to be her boss. 

The Best Revenge is on sale at Amazon and Nook. Also at Smashwords, AppleKobo

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. Deadline July 15.

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes. Deadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

Page and Spinea literary magazine for emerging writers. Submit your stories and poems and get payment plus feedback! Stories get up to $20, quips and poems $5. Submissions considered between Oct. 1st and June 1st.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Paid Reviews: Why Authors Should NEVER Buy Amazon Reader Reviews

by Anne R. Allen


Last month the Seattle Times reported that Amazon is suing a bunch of paid review mills.

Unfortunately, many paid review sites don't feel they're doing anything wrong. A spokesman for one of the companies Amazon is suing said:

"We are not selling fake reviews. However we do provide Unbiased and Honest reviews on all the products…and this is not illegal at all." (Caps are his. Apparently using mid-sentence caps makes you look more sincere.)

This stuff may not be technically illegal. (We'll have to see this play out in the courts.) But buying customer reviews is definitely against the Terms of Service of most retailers and can get you kicked off Amazon for life.

It can also draw the ire of the vigilantes who hang out in the Amazon fora, Goodreads, and BookLikes, who are some of the nastiest cyberbullies on the 'Net. To them, an accusation equals guilt and you are never allowed to prove your innocence. These are people who learned their ethics from the Salem witch trials.

So you really want to stay under their radar.

I understand why they are annoyed. It seems as if every day I get followed by another paid review mill on Twitter. And their sites are slick. They make it seem as if paying for reviews is a part of the process of self-publishing.

It often does seem as if paying for an online "customer review" is an accepted aspect of doing business these days. You hear all the time about businesses paying for five-star ratings on Yelp and other review sites.

But don't do it for your books. If you've been tricked into paying for reviews, ask that they be deleted.

Otherwise, you could get in big trouble. Soon. 

What's the difference between a customer review and a professional review?   


It's OK to pay for a professional review from established magazines like Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, or Midwest Book Review. I don't know if they're worth the price, but they're not in the same category as paid "customer" reviews.

The reviewers at those journals are trained and vetted professionals writing for well known magazines that have a reputation to uphold—not a bunch of guys in a cafe in Sri Lanka stringing together a few words for five bucks.

UPDATE: 

I just saw this comment from author Anthea Lawson on The Passive Voice, which picked up this post:

 "Actually, PW has dropped their paid review service (and kudos to them for doing so!). They offer other paid promotional opportunities to indies, which may or may not be of use.

If you go to the PW Booklife website and click around, you can find how to submit your indie title for free for consideration. Then it’s a multi-step process, but if your title meets their criteria, you’ll get a review in PW. My most recent historical romance picked up a starred review that way." 


Thanks for the info, Anthea!

Professional reviews like the ones from Kirkus can't be posted on retail sites in the review section. You can paste a small quote from one of them into the "editorial reviews" section, but not in the review thread.

The consensus from authors who have bought them seems to be: they are not worth the hefty price!

What is considered payment for a review? 


Unfortunately, a number of common practices in the traditional book world are considered "payment" in the online world.

Even a free book is considered payment by Amazon, so book review bloggers are required to post disclaimers when they review a book they received from the author or publisher. 

Reviews that come from a paid blog tour are also not eligible as customer reviews. You can only quote from them in the "editorial reviews" section.

Amazon also does not permit reviews (or votes on reviews) to be posted in exchange for any kind of compensation—including bonus content, entry to a contest or sweepstakes, discounts on future purchases, extra products, or other gifts. And the free book must be given before the review is posted with no stipulations about what kind of review must be written.

If you do offer a free or discounted product in exchange for a review, you need to make it clear that you welcome both positive and negative feedback. 

This includes trading reviews


Review barter between authors is strictly forbidden as well. Anybody who says, "I'll give you a five star if you give me one" is asking you to pay for a review in kind.

No author should review another with the expectation that the review will be reciprocated. I see authors all the time who complain that author "X" hasn't given them a review, "even though I gave him a rave." Let go of that expectation. Nobody owes you a review. If you did get it, you might not be pleased, anyway.

Some unscrupulous authors may approach another with this blackmail game: "I gave you a 5-star, now you give me one, or I'll change it to a one-star." Don't fall for it. It's better to lose the one review than get on the wrong side of the Zon or its vigilantes. Do report the blackmailer to Amazon.

Amazon doesn't always pay attention to reports of abuse, but any author who gets reported for blackmail repeatedly might find themselves banned from the site. When abuse reports reach critical mass, something is usually done.

Some of the vigilantes believe no author should be allowed to write a review, but this is silly in these days where nearly everybody who reads has tried their hand at writing a book. But you do need to make sure your reviews are always honest and there is never a direct trade or a quid pro quo.

But be careful when reviewing something in your own sub-genre or any author who might be considered "a competitor". Amazon's TOS say "You may not write reviews for products or services that you have a financial interest in, including reviews for products or services that you or your competitors sell. This has been interpreted in different ways, but everybody agrees it's a no-no to trash a competitor's books.

And please, please, please don't send me your book expecting me to review it. We average 100,000 hits a month, have nearly 4000 subscribers, and we LOVE every single one of you, but I have at least 200 books in my TBR pile. I read in a limited number of genres—I prefer cerebral comedies and classics—and I do leave an Amazon review if I enjoy a book, but I'm a very slow reader.

This blog is my way of giving back to the writing community. I get no revenue from it. It takes time I might otherwise spend reading and writing. So please do allow me some time to write my own books. (And deal with some heavy-duty health issues I'm fighting right now.)

But we do appreciate every one of our readers. We just reached 2 million hits yesterday!

The new plague of paid review mills


I'm sure the current spike in fake reviews comes from the rise of the e-book bargain newsletters—like Bookbub, Kindle Nation Daily, and Ereader News Today—which have become the advertising medium of choice for indie authors. (The Big Five make liberal use of them for marketing their backlists, too.) .

Unfortunately, most of the big newsletters require a large number of 4 and 5-star reviews on the US Amazon site to accept a book for promotion. I wish they'd find a more reliable method of choosing books, because this has brought authors a major incentive to game the system.

It also gives a huge weight to reviews at the US Amazon, so other countries' sites, plus B & N, Kobo, Apple, etc, get very few reviews at all.

The problem is momentous for authors who write for an older demographic. If your readership is older people, it can be an exercise in tooth-pulling to get even a handful of reviews, even though readers may gush about how they love your work on FB or email.

Several years ago, there was a big expose of review mills in the New York Times, and Amazon removed 1000s of reviews and most of the review sites were shut down. But they're back...with a vengeance. My friend who blogs as The Wordmonger said he got something like 19 tweets a week last month from different review mills promising 5-star reviews for a price. And Mr. Monger doesn't even have a book out. 

The worst are the review companies who say they will write "honest" reviews with no guarantee of stars. DO NOT FALL FOR THIS. If you pay, the review is not acceptable to Amazon, even if it's honest.

This happened to a friend of mine. She paid for three or four of what she believed would be "honest" reviews.

Now a vigilante group is harassing the author, stalking her, trashing her reputation online, and making threats against her and her family.

This author is nearly seventy and has been writing her whole life, but she's new to the Amazon world. She didn't realize that all paid reviews are a no-no.

There's a reason for her confusion. The review mills are very clever at lying to their customers. Some even use the Amazon logo on their site and claim to be Amazon affiliates. I've seen them when they follow me on Twitter. They say that they provide "the correct way" to get Amazon reviews tell newbies it's the only way to make the bestseller lists.

But they are flat-out lying. 

So how do we get reviews?


I know it's not easy, especially if you write for my generation. (Yes, I'm a Boomer who is very much feeling my age this week.) The problem is we simply aren't in the habit of writing online reviews. And we're usually put off by those emails demanding we do "homework" after buying a product. But we need to start writing them. It's one of the few ways to fight this stuff. Bring in some grown-ups! 

If you want to know the right way to get reviews, here's a helpful piece by Kimberly Grabas at Your Writer Platform and another great one from marketing guru Penny Sansevieri.

Do follow all the steps they suggest. Randomly sending queries to the top-rated Amazon reviewers can lead to grief. Many of the established reviewers are very anti-self-publishing. So carefully research each one. Mass-querying hardly ever works, and it can backfire, big time. Don't do it.

Here are some tips from a bunch of pros about how to market your book. None of them involve paying for reviews. (I'm one of 18 people interviewed for this piece. I don't know if I've ever been called a "one of the world's foremost thought-leaders" before. LOL.) But there are some fantastic tips from some of the best marketing people out there!

How about Amazon's other review problems? 


I know a lot of you are thinking, um, paid reviews aren't exactly the only problem on Amazon.

Every article I see about the paid review lawsuit is followed by comments from authors who feel the whole Amazon review system is in serious need of a clean-up

I agree there are BIG problems beyond the paid review stuff. Almost any author who is trying to sell books these days has run into the trolls and sock puppets who seem to spend their days leaving nasty or idiotic reviews (for books they obviously haven't read) for no particular purpose except to wield the power they probably don't have in their real lives.

There are also armies of Dana Carvey wannabes who love to one-star random books for "profanity and too much sex" (which they probably don't realize may actually boost sales). Others are trying to push some other political or religious agenda.

And lots of humor-challenged politically-correctibots seem to have nothing to do but lurk around Amazon attacking works of humor or satire that go over their tiny heads.

There's also lots of unpleasantness generated from the Amazon fora, which are the domain of long-time Amazon denizens who predate the ebook era and tend to hate ebooks and indies. These Amazon message boards (as opposed to the Kindleboards) started as a site for discussion of videogames and game reviews and are still dominated by a pervasive old-school gamer mentality.

If you heard anything about the #Gamergate controversy last summer, you know the attitude I'm talking about.This is an aggressive, intolerant, testosterone-fueled universe where innocence is a crime and everybody is assumed to be guilty of something. It's an attitude that can be dangerous to readers and writers alike.

(Remember people judge others by themselves. People who accuse everybody they meet of gaming the system are only telling you about themselves.)

The gamers-of-the-Amazon-system are often in competition with each other for the lucrative "top reviewer" status which gets them free stuff to review (not just books: they get electronics and videogames and other cool, expensive stuff.) A lot of their antics have to do with competition amongst themselves, but innocents often get caught in the crossfire.

And there are other petty-theft games some scammers like to play on retail sites, like leaving a one-star that says "I never received a copy of this book." Usually the person has placed the same "review" on dozens of books—sometimes all in one day—the only day that "person" has ever reviewed anything. If there's no "verified purchase" tag, it usually means this "reviewer" is a sock puppet for a scammer trying to blackmail the author into sending them a free book or product.

Sock puppets (multiple fake identities) are used for all sorts of nasty purposes. Amazon seems to have no restrictions on the number of aliases a person can have, so a handful of malevolent trolls with time on their hands can wreak serious havoc on any number of vendors at the same time.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn't often respond to complaints about sock puppets and bullying behavior. Maybe this is because the bullies seem to be doing a good job of policing the site for free. But it's a bit like hiring the Hell's Angels to work security for your rock concert. That kind of stuff can backfire in nasty ways.

I hope Amazon will consider doing something to fight the bullying and scammy behavior on their site as well as the paid review people.

They could start by limiting the number of identities a person can have. I can't think of any reason a person would need more than five pseudonyms for review purposes. If they have hundreds, I think that would be a pretty strong signal they're up to something.

How to Fight Abuse: #1 Write Reviews


The best way you can fight the abuse of the review system is to leave honest reviews of the books you read. Amazon no longer requires 20 words for a review. Even one or two words will do, although a thoughtful review saying why you liked or disliked a book is always more helpful.

Every real review dilutes the pollution coming from review mills, scammers, trolls, and out-of-control vigilantes.

How to Fight Abuse: #2 Report It!


When you see abuse, report it through the drop down menu next to the review. They ask you if you find the review helpful or unhelpful, and right next to those buttons is one for "report abuse".

If you're a customer, you can also make a comment on the review, but never comment on a review of your own book. (An author shouldn't use the comment thread even to thank the reviewer. This is against the Goodreads TOS and much frowned-upon at Amazon as well. If you want to thank a reviewer or offer a copy of your next book, do it through Author Central.)

In my forthcoming mystery novel, SO MUCH FOR BUCKINGHAM: The Camilla Randall Mysteries #5, an author comments on a review and ends up being terrorized—online and off—with swarms of obscene one-star "reviews",  destruction of her business, hacking her accounts,  death and rape threats, and other horrors.

This isn't so farfetched. I know authors who have gone through this, for much smaller offenses than my heroine. It happened to me early in my blogging career when some moron in the fora decided to misinterpret one of my posts.

These vigilantes don't just fight fire with fire. They fight a glow-stick with a nuclear bomb. And they never let facts get in the way of their need to find somebody to torment.

It's always best if a customer reports abuse, rather than the victim. As authors, we are vendors, not customers, so if the bully/sock puppets pose as customers, they're the ones who are "always right."

But if customer complaints achieve critical mass, Amazon might act, the way they're doing with the paid reviews. I have discussed the problem with a number of well known authors, and their complaints fall on deaf ears. Complaints need to come from customers, not vendors.

Meanwhile, do not fall for the pitches of the paid reviewers. As much as you want to qualify for that Bookbub ad, the risks are too great. The vigilantes know how to game Amazon and use the rules against you in sadistic ways most of us can't even dream of.

Don't risk being a target. Don't pay for reviews and stay safe!

For a great analysis of the cybertroll and book bully problem and how to deal with them, see Shari Stauch's post at Where Writers Win. And Eden Baylee has a great post on Bad Reviews and Bad Author Behavior on her blog this week.

What about you, scriveners? Have you ever been approached by paid-review companies? Did they tell you they were Amazon affiliates? Have you ever been bullied by the vigilantes on Amazon, Goodreads or BookLikes? What do you think we can do about the problem? 

For more on what authors need to do to stay under the radar of the vigilantes, see my post on May 18th at The Kill Zone. 


BOOK OF THE WEEK


Six twisty novels of danger, love, and laughs, wrapped up in the Union Jack 

From comedy to thrills, this box set has something for everyone. Whether your tastes run to laugh-out-loud escapades, spies, mysteries or just Brits behaving badly, these six authors, half in the US and half in the UK, offer up a selection of delicious reading. Enjoy this unique box set at an unbeatable price for a limited time.




***99c Limited Time Offer *** 

Six Award-Winning Bestselling Authors bring you

British Bad Boys

Mystery! Romance! Intrigue! Comedy!
Now available at Amazon US and Amazon UK
plus Nook, iTunes and Kobo


The set includes Anne's Sherwood Ltd. 

"It's an hilarious lampoon of crime fiction, publishing and the British in general. Anne Allen gets our Brit idioms and absurdities dead to rights...Its digs at the heroic vanities of micro-publishing and author narcissism are spot on...Whether you enjoy crime suspense, comedy or satire - or all of them together - you'll have enormous fun with this cleverly structured romp. Highly recommended!" Anne is "obviously a Brum lass masquerading as a Yank"...Dr. John Yeoman




Follow Camilla's hilarious misadventures with merry band of outlaw indie publishers in the English Midlands. Always a magnet for murder, mischief and Mr. Wrong, Camilla falls for a self-styled Robin Hood who may or may not be trying to kill her. It follows Ghostwriters in the Sky, but can be read as a stand-alone. (And sets the scene for Camilla #5, due in July)


OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. Deadline July 15.

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes. Deadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

Page and Spine--a literary magazine for emerging writers. Submit your stories and poems and get payment plus feedback! Stories get up to $20, quips and poems $5. Submissions considered between Oct. 1st and June 1st. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

How NOT To Win A Writing Contest: 7 Deadly Story Sins

by Dr. John Yeoman


Have you ever entered a short story contest and failed to win? And wondered why?

You may have made one or more of these seven 'killer' mistakes. How do I know? Since 2009, I've judged more than 6000 entries in the Writers' Village short story award. And I've given every contestant feedback on their entries.

I can honestly say that 99% of my contestants have been delighted. Many have revised their stories in line with my suggestions and gone on to see them published elsewhere.

Around 40% of my contestants have entered time and again across six years - more to get a critique, they say, than to win a prize. (I sometimes wonder why I offer prizes at all…)

That said, a few folk were not happy that they didn't win. It's understandable. We all fall in love with our stories and, if others don't love them, we take it personally.

Remember judging will always be subjective. Other judges might have different opinions or rank them in a different order. Every time I announce the winners I agonize over whether #3 should have been #2 or vice versa, or whether I've overlooked some hidden depth in a runner up.

One judge might give top marks to a prose poem that glitters with metaphor. Another might look for deep sensibility, a sensitive exploration of relationships that stirs us to the soul.

Some love Annie Proulx for her knotty, power packed syntax. Others adore the ethereality of Ian McEwan, Still others are biff-bang, meat-and-potato fans of Tom Clancy. We're all biased and I'll state it clearly here:

My own bias is for strong structure.

I like a story to tick like the proverbial Swiss watch. Take any little thing out (or put it in), and it stops working. If everything else in the story works, its unity of structure is the deciding factor.

How can you improve your chances in a contest? And win a four-figure cash award? By avoiding these errors.


Seven Killer Mistakes that Can Ruin Your Chances of Winning a Writing Contest



#1. Your story looks boring.


That's not what you expected, was it? You expected me to drone on about wondrous opening lines, sympathetic characters, clever plot ideas... Yes, I'll get to all that. But the first thing a judge or expert reader takes in, consciously or not, is the story's visual appearance. Does page one appear as a boring slab of text, unvaried by dialogue or paragraphs of different length?

If so, it suggests the story will be dull as well.

Either the writer has not been professional enough to insert carriage returns at key places or everything in the story will have the same cadence. A snore of tedium.

True, that rule can be broken. You can write long unbroken paragraphs, at times, and get away with it. But you'd better have a darned good reason.

#2. Your first paragraph is a bad advertisement for the story.


What genre do you write in? A story that aspires to literary fiction - and explores the nuances of moods, perceptions or relationships? Then it should engage us at once with the power and sensitivity of its language. Its command of form. The originality of its ideas.

A crime-suspense story may be written in a more mundane style but it must open with a mystery, hanging question or intriguing incident that compels the reader to read on. And so forth.

In your first fifty words let the reader know the genre of the story you're writing in, and give them a fast sample of your skills. Not sure of your story's genre? You're writing literary fiction.

#3. Your last paragraph fades away.


A lazy judge or agent (yes, they do exist, although not at Writers' Village) will read paragraph one then flip straight to your last scene to see how the story ends. If there's a hint of unity or satisfying structure - never mind what your story has to say - they'll read the whole work. If there's not, they won't.

BTW: A sneaky way to draft a winning story is to write your last paragraph first, then go back and write the story. At least, you'll know where you're heading. And your first and last paragraphs can now convey some teasing echo of the other - in their mood, symbol, incident or phrase.

That 'book end' structure is sneaky, it's formulaic, and it's certainly not apt for every tale. But it's amazing how often you'll find it in a winning story.

(I use this trick with most of my novels...Anne.)

#4. Your structure is all over the place.


In a short story, you typically have just 5000 words. Or less. There's no room for digression, padding or protracted scene setting. (Nor should there be in a novel.) Cut those scenes. "Impossible," you'll cry. "I spent a month writing them!"

Our limit in the Writers' Village contest is 3000 words. Strictly. In every round I have to reject around 10% of the stories entered because they were just too long. That hurts me. They were often good stories and could have been cut back so easily to the word limit, by 10% or even 30%.

Every story or novel can be cut and it will grow stronger.

#5. Your plot is a cliché.


According to Christopher Booker there are only Seven Basic Plots. (It's the title of his book.) He might have described those plots in one short page. Instead, he wrote 400,000 words to prove that just seven plots can be dressed up a thousand different ways. And so they can.

Don't worry if your plot is essentially Romeo & Juliet, or Huck Finn, or Cinderella. Don't fret that it's a cliché. (And it will be.) Give its structure a twist.

A homicidal clown? A visit to a dying parent where some Terrible Truth is finally revealed? A gentle coming-of-age story where the narrator discovers Love, the Universe and the wickedness of her Best Friend? It's all been done.

Just bring to it a fresh eye, clever language - and a new structure - and it can be done again.

#6. Your characters don't excite us.


"My people are drawn from life!" So one contestant reminded me. So what? The reader has to want to know them, if only to enjoy a shudder.

A Tip: to improve your structure, give the reader a comfortable 'seat' in your story, a single point-of-view character whose mind they can happily live in throughout the journey. Yes, you can head-hop through several different points of view, even in 3000 words, and your gamble might even work - if your plot is strong and your transitions skilful. But why take the risk?

#7. Your presentation screams 'amateur'.


A few typos can be forgiven. Spelling errors, aberrant commas, hyphens used instead of em dashes, single quotes around dialogue rather than double quotes (as The Chicago Manual of Style insists), and so forth. All convention is just opinion fossilized into dogma. But we'd better heed it.

And all authors nod.

But what a judge or agent won't forgive is the story set in tiny 9-point Helvetica type. (Always use Times Roman 12 point.) Or entirely in italics. Or that's laid out in a single unbroken paragraph. Or that has negligible margins. Or that includes second colours. Or graphics. (If you're keen on graphics, reserve them for your non-fiction.)

They all spell 'amateur'.

Should you use double line or 1½ spacing? Check the rules of submission. Contests usually insist on one or the other although both are ridiculous in this digital age. Sigh and do what the rules say. You'd be amazed at how many writers don't.

Good visual presentation is an aspect of structure. A judge will rate your presentation before they've even read your story.

NOTE: Make sure you avoid an amateur mentality as well. Here are four types I've run into. Every one had made a 'killer' mistake in their story, but they preferred to blame the judge.

*Conspiracy theorists: "My story is far better than any of the winners yet you didn't give me a prize. You're all in it together, judges, agents, publishers. Either you're blind to genuine talent or you have a secret agenda to destroy new authors. That's why my stories never get published!"

No, I don't exaggerate. I've had those emails. A few.

Let's take a reality check. Professional judges and agents - I can't answer for the others - know their business. If one or two turn down our work, that's happenstance. If ten do, something is wrong with our work.

*"You didn't understand my story." Sometimes I mark a story down, although it glows with craft techniques, because it's too cryptic. Maybe I could have understood it after a fifth reading... (Did I not once teach Finnegan's Wake?) But that's asking too much of the busy reader.

True, a studied ambiguity can give a story wondrous depth. What would The Turn of the Screw have been without its equivocal - and maddening - close?

Impenetrability is something else.

*"Your winning story twice misused a semi-colon." I get the odd protest - usually from English teachers - that a winning story was improperly punctuated, ungrammatical or otherwise philologically challenged. At times, it's true. How I've yearned to tidy up some stories!

Just one extra line at the close might have clinched them. Or a few close edits along the way. But short of correcting an obvious mistyping I can't tamper with a story.

Besides, if a story is otherwise outstanding, a few improprieties are a minor issue. If we get hung up over trifles, we've missed the point.

*"I didn't like the way you ranked the winning stories."
 I can judge only what I'm sent. The winners are, in my opinion, the best I received and they range from brilliant to darn good.


Avoid those seven errors and your entry should sail into the judge's 'maybe' pile. But will s/he clutch their throat, draw a ragged breath and gasp 'It works!'? As I do, at least a dozen times in every contest round? That cries out for another blog post entirely…

What mistakes have killed a story for you? What gross writing errors have you committed yourself? (Don't be shy. We've all made them.) Share your thoughts in a comment below.



Dr. John Yeoman, PhD. Creative Writing, judges the Writer's Village Story Competition and is a university tutor in creative writing in the UK.

He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. You can find a wealth of ideas for writing stories that succeed in his free 14-part course at Writers' Village.


     Writers' 
           Village...helping new writers achieve publishing success

Win a £1000 ($1600) prize for your short story!


Cash prizes totaling £2000 ($3200) can be won in the Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award summer 2015 for prose fiction in any genre up to 3000 words.

The first prize is £1000 ($1600), with a second prize of £500 ($800)and third prize of £250 ($400). Five runner up prizes of £50 ($80) will be awarded to short-listed contestants.

Everyone wins because every contestant, win or lose, is shown on request how their stories were graded, and given helpful tips for the stories' improvement according to their grades!

Plus this big FREE book that brims with fresh ideas to help you win story contests. 


The Writers' Village award - now in its sixth year - is one of the world's few major story competitions that specifically welcomes new writers from anywhere in the English-speaking world. And the only one that gives detailed feedback on request to every contestant, win or lose, without extra charge.

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. They even have a video on You Tube to inspire you. Deadline July 15. 

Romance Novel Writing Competition! First prize is publication by Mills and Boon (Harlequin) and promoted by WH Smith and Kobo. Open to writers in the US, UK and Canada. Submit a synopsis and first chapter, up to a maximum of 5,500 words. Submission form on the site. Deadline July 14th

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes. Deadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.

Chipotle Essay Contest for US Students Age13-18. FREE. Write an essay in 1700 characters or less. Ten prizes of $20,000 each in college scholarships. Plus your work on a Chipotle cup or bag. (Which is why it needs to be short.) Kids, this looks like a fun one! Deadline May 31.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

13 Reasons Why You Should Write a Short Story This Month

by Anne R. Allen


Mashable reported this week that the buzzword of the moment is "snackable content"—described as "bite-sized chunks of info that can be quickly 'consumed' by its audience."

That's why short fiction is hot. Ditto creative nonfiction essays. But the word hasn't reached all writers. Recently I saw a newbie writer ask for help in a writing forum because his work kept coming in at around 40 pages—like that was a bad thing.

But he based his worries on some very out-of-date information.

It's true that short stories (up to 30K words) and novellas (30k-50K words) dipped in prestige after the demise of the fiction market in mainstream magazines two decades ago, but they have come back—maybe stronger than ever—with the ebook revolution. (Those word counts are from Writer's Digest. Some people use the term "novelette" to mean a story in the 10K to 30K range.)

A novella is no longer an unfinished, failed novel that needs "fleshing out." It's a cash cow. Indie authors like Elizabeth Ann West are building fabulous careers writing novellas that sell for more than most full length novels. For more on the novella, see Paul Alan Fahey's post Why Novellas are Hot and How to Write One. Paul's step-by-step guide, using screenplay techniques, is pure gold.

With Kindle Unlimited, the books that are the most lucrative are shorter books in a series. Novella writers are cleaning up.

And all shorter fiction is having a renaissance in the digital age. In fact, right now may be the new golden age of the short story.

The New York Times reports: "Stories are perfect for the digital age...because readers want to connect and want that connection to be intense and to move on. That is, after all, what a short story is all about."

Book marketing guru Penny Sansevieri said in the HuffPo: "short is the new long. Thanks to consumers who want quick bites of information and things like Kindle Singles, consumers love short."

EBook Bargains UK reported in April that "Amazon’s Kindle Singles and B&N’s Nook Snaps have already proven the demand for short digital material, and Vintage/Anchor see a lot of potential to engage readers with shorter offerings." Vintage/Anchor books (an division of Penguin-Random) are releasing a vintage short story a day during May.

So it's definitely time for fiction writers to start re-thinking the shorter forms. I wish that during the early part of my career when I was writing and rewriting my "practice novels" I'd been building an inventory of short pieces. They'd be a gold mine now.

1) Novels are so last century.


Most people talk about the novel as if it is somehow superior to other forms of fiction, but it's a relatively new art form. It was perfect for the age of Gutenberg, but it may not dominate the market in the digital age.

Cervantes is generally credited with inventing the novel with the 1605 publication of Don Quixote, but the form didn't make it into English until a century later—and for a long time it had to masquerade as "history" as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe did in 1719. Non-factual narratives were considered frivolous and time-wasting even into the Victorian era.

It wasn't until the 20th century that the novel finally surpassed the play as the most respected form of fictional artistic expression in English.

And even some of our most revered novels are actually novellas, like A Christmas Carol and The Great Gatsby.

So who knows what will happen in the 21st century? The times they are a-changing, especially in the publishing business. The popularity the novella, short story, short creative essay, and the serial novel is on the upswing.

Just this week, the Washington Post published a plea to bring back the serialized novel from Hillary Kelly. Kelly said that while "consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode...or a public-radio show", they are moving away from novels, which have become "bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests."

2) Smaller screens and shorter attention spans are changing the way we read.


We're a multi-tasking world. As bestselling short story writer Amber Dermont told the New York Times: "The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age…Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens."

When the Kindle Singles program launched in 2011, they sold 2 million "singles" ebooks in the first year. And you don't have to be accepted into the highly competitive Kindle Singles program to publish stand-alone stories as ebooks.

Many indies are doing it too—and agents are assisting their clients in self-publishing shorts that fill the gaps between novels. Fuse Literary has its own imprint "Short Fuse" that specializes in publishing short pieces for their clients.

The industry has figured out that the e-reader has ushered in a new kind of reading that favors brevity. More on that in my post on the 21st Century Reader.

3) Shorter works make great audiobooks. 


Audiobooks are one of the big growth areas of publishing, according the Wall Street Journal. People especially love to listen to audiobooks while driving. Short stories are perfect for that daily commute. 

And they're not such a big financial investment, so customers can pick and choose narrators and authors.

And if you're looking for narrators to share royalties, I can say from experience that most narrators prefer short works. When I put Why Grandma Bought that Car on Audible asking for narrators, I had 12 actors send me demos within the first two hours.

4) The success of serial fiction like Hugh Howey’s Wool


Indies have been producing serials for some time, and the trads may finally hop on the bandwagon. Hugh Howey made history (and a nice chunk of change) by self-publishing his sci-fi novel Wool as serial four years ago. It began as a short story, and as he wrote more episodes, he published each one separately. Later he put that first episode—a stand-alone that’s also a teaser—perma-free on Amazon. The fans ate up the succeeding chapters, offered at 99c each.

As a result of his early "snackable content", Howey is now a superstar with a top agent, a Big 5 publisher, and a movie deal.

And it all started with a short story.

I know many writers who are now serializing their work for free on  Wattpad, which is a great place to showcase short fiction and get new fans.

Note: not every author can do what Howey did. I know some writers have had negative feedback when they sold each chapter for 99c, since so many full length books can be bought for that price these days.

So make sure each installment gives value—I'd say at least 10K-20K words, maybe divided into chapter-lets. Some novels lend themselves to serialization and some don't. You want each installment to work as a stand-alone story arc with resolution as well a cliffhanger to keep the reader coming back.

5) Story anthologies are a great way to get your work in front of fans of more established authors in your genre


Short story and personal-essay anthologies are one of the best ways to increase your visibility.

Often these anthologies donate proceeds to charity, so there are no royalties, but don't let that put you off. If you can get a story into an anthology with some well-known authors in your genre, you’ll be paid in publicity that would be hard to buy at any price. All those authors' fans will be exposed to your work. For more on anthologies check my post on how to tell a good anthology from a scam.

Anthologies offer one of the best ways for an unpublished writer to break into the business. Many successful authors I network with were first published by the Literary Lab anthologies, and the Indie Chicks Anthology which gave me a leg up when I was re-starting my career.

Another plus for anthologies: some of the biggies, like the Chicken Soup series, also come out in print and are stocked in bookstores. Those anthologies can get you noticed by the old-school reader, too.

6) Published stories identify you as a professional.


Your website or blog has much more cred if you've got some publications to link to. And agents will be more likely to look at your pages if you've got publishing credits.

Publishing short fiction is still pretty much the only way to a publishing contract if you write literary fiction. I don't know of a lot of successful literary writers who didn't also publish short stories in places like The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the Atlantic or McSweeneys

But they didn't get the first story they wrote published by The New Yorker. First they had to place dozens in small literary journals—those tiny labors of love that used to cost a ton to produce and often had under a hundred subscribers.

In the old days we often had to pay $25 or more to subscribe to find out what kind of writing they wanted and get the info on how to submit to them. But these days, most literary journals are available online. They have larger readerships and you don’t have to pay a fortune to read them or find out what the editors are looking for.

And if you write genre fiction, you don't have to start your career getting endless rejections from the few ultra-competitive print magazines that still buy short stories, like Women's World, Ellery Queen and Asimov's.

Now there are are lots of genre story online zines. Here's a link to a great list of genre story markets put together by Romance author Cathleen Ross. Writer's Digest has contests exclusively for genre fiction.

7) Indie films are often adaptations of short fiction.


The holy grail of the writing world is to get a film deal. But did you know that short stories are easier to adapt for the screen than full-length novels? Cheaper too. They tend to have fewer crowd scenes and more small interior settings. Cost matters in the growing indie film world.

Just as indies are revolutionizing the publishing industry, they are also the lifeblood of the film industry. While the big studios concentrate on huge comic book spectacles and remakes of old TV shows, the more emotionally rich, award-winning films are coming from small-budget indies.

Some of our most enduring films have come from short stories. Classic films like The Birds; Breakfast at Tiffany's; Don't Look Now; Double Indemnity, Flowers for Algernon all began as short stories—and I’d need a whole post to list the stories of Stephen King and Philip K. Dick that have been made into great films.

8) Online retail sites favor authors with more titles


The more titles you have in an online bookstore, the more visible you are. You can write and publish a lot of shorter titles and have a bigger presence in the marketplace than with one long book.

Most writers can't turn out more than two or three books a year, but they can turn out a lot of short stories and novellas.

And the advent of Kindle Unlimited presents even more incentive to write shorter works. An ebook in the KU program gets a flat-fee payment per title—no matter how long it is. So a 150K-word novel receives the same payment as a 15K novelette. Breaking your book down into serial ebooks makes a lot of sense in that market.

9) Contests raise your profile and can win big bucks


Winning a story contest is a great way to promote yourself as a writer and create visibility for your books. Win a well-known contest and you can crow about it in social media and send press releases to the local newspapers to get some ink in your own hometown.

Story and creative short nonfiction contests are easy to discover and enter in the era of the Interwebz. Hope C. Clark's Funds for Writers , Poets and Writers, and the website Winning Writers are good sources for vetted contests.

And, ahem, we always list a few good ones in the "opportunity alerts" in these posts.

Entering short story contests is also an excellent way to get your career started. A big win for one of your pieces looks great in a query or a bio. Plus you might even win a money prize.

Some of those prizes are bigger than the advances publishers offer on novels these days.

Plus some of the biggest prizes in literature are still for short fiction, like the Pushcart and the O. Henry award. And the venerable "Best of…" anthologies give huge prestige to those included.

10) Shorts keep your fans interested between novel releases


Forward-looking agents are now encouraging their authors to self-publish shorts to fill in the gaps between novels. They especially like shorts that are about characters in your novels. They keep your fans interested while they're waiting for the next book.

Fuse Literary Agency even has their own self-publishing arm for publishing short work by their clients and other agented authors. It's called Short Fuse.

(Note, if your publisher has a non-compete clause, you won't be allowed to do this. Another reason to have a legal professional look over your contract before you sign.)

Consider writing a couple of shorts about your main characters while you're working on the novel. It may get you through a tricky spot in the big work as well as giving you a saleable product for later down the road.

11) Short stories make money and hold their value


In terms of labor, a short story provides a better bottom line than a novel. Not only does it take less time to write and often sells for the same price as a novel in an ebook, but it can be re-purposed many times. Also, as I said in #9, contest prizes for short fiction can be substantial

I have stories that have been published and republished up to six times in litzines and anthologies. And I can always self-publish them again in a collection sometime down the road.

And as I said above, Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program is perfect for short stories and novellas. Because you get paid the same for a borrow of a book that's 12 pages or 120,000, writing shorter books is much more lucrative. (As I mentioned above, do write in the over-10,000 word range, though, or you'll get some cranky reviews. You might want to collect your previously published stories into short collections like my Why Grandma Bought that Car.)

My Facebook friend Joyce Anne Laird writes mini-mysteries for Women's World Magazine—they're about to publish her 9th. They pay very well and only buy North American Serial Rights for six months. After that, a writer can sell the story again, or box it up in a self-published anthology. (Joyce does caution that you should buy a copy of the magazine to get up to date guidelines, and query via snail mail. They are old-school and very competitive.)

12) Writing short keeps your writing skills honed.


Writing  poetry and short stories keeps your writing from getting flabby and verbose. You can't spend three pages describing the wallpaper in short fiction. You have to learn to sketch with a few broad strokes.

In these days when readers demand "just the good parts" writing, learning to write short can help no matter what your genre.

13) May is Short Story Month


Inspired by April's National Poetry Month, a group of writers supported by the StoryADay writing challenge deemed May to be International Short Story Month. Some people are going all out and writing a story a day. But you don't have to do a NaNo-style marathon to enjoy the festivities.

You can just read a story a day at the Short Story Month site.

I'm offering my own story anthology free for three days in honor of  Short Story Month. (See below.)

Short stories:
  1. Make the perfect intro to a new author's work
  2. Are a great way for readers to get a top-up from their favorite authors between novels,
  3. Are a perfect impulse purchase on a phone or e-reader.
So isn't this the perfect time to write one?

Like any other skill, your ability to create short fiction will atrophy if you don’t use it. I find it a lot harder to write a short story now than I did when I wrote them regularly.

I admit I've always preferred reading and writing longer fiction. Most writers do gravitate to one form or the other. I know my ideas generally spool out in about 70K-80K words. Shorter is harder for me.

The reverse is true for other writers. Some great short story writers have a hard time writing good novels. One of our greatest short story writers, Katherine Anne Porter, only wrote one novel, Ship of Fools, which was more like a tapestry of many short stories woven together without a compelling story arc. Critic Elizabeth Hardwick said it was " too static" in spite of "the flawless execution of the single scenes."

There's nothing wrong with preferring one form over the other. But these days, we need to work on fiction in a variety of lengths. I'm aiming to write some shorter work after I launch the next Camilla mystery.

Do note: I don't encourage newbie writers to self-publish your very first efforts at story-writing. To succeed in publishing—whether indie or traditional—you need to put in your 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours. But you can maximize your efforts by spending more of those hours writing short fiction and creative nonfiction shorts.

***

For tips on how to write a short story, check out Jessica Strawser's post at the Writer's Digest blog.

And next week, we'll have a post from Dr. John Yeoman of the Writer's Village, where he's been teaching writing and judging writing contests for many years. He's going to tell us what to avoid when entering short story contests...and how to be a winner!


What about you, scriveners? Did you get out of the habit of writing short fiction the way I did? Have you written any lately? Have short stories helped your career? 


BOOK OF THE WEEK

FREE!! 

3 Days only! May 3-5 
  

"Anne R. Allen’s book of short stories explores womanhood in all seasons. I’ve read this book twice and get something new to appreciate each time. It is the kind of book one returns to periodically, just to revisit characters and stories like old friends that help clarify ages and stages of life and the changing world. Her poems are timely, tying stories together with theme, grace, and humor."
...Mary J. Caffrey


a short book of short stories

FREE!


Humorous portraits of rebellious women at various stages of their lives. From aging Betty Jo, who feels so invisible she contemplates robbing a bank, to neglected 10-year-old Maude, who turns to a fantasy Elvis for the love she's denied by her patrician family, to a bloodthirsty, Valley-Girl version of Madam Defarge, these women—young and old—are all rebelling against the stereotypes and traditional roles that hold them back. Which is, of course, why Grandma bought that car…




Narrated by C.S. Perryess and Claire Vogel


OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction. The theme is TRANSFORMATION. They even have a video on You Tube to inspire you. Deadline July 15. 

MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

Big Beautiful Wellness Creative Writing Contest. NO FEE Poems up to 30 lines Fiction or Nonfic between 1000 and 2000 words. $100 first prize. Theme: Body-positive living. Looking for inspirational, positive stories. Deadline July 1.

Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.

Ink & Insights 2015 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes. Deadline May 31.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS SHORT STORY CONTEST NO FEE! Open to emerging diverse writers from all diverse backgrounds (including, but not limited to, LGBT, people of color, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities) who have not been published in BOOK format in any genre. The winner receives US $1,000 and publication in the "Stories For All Of Us" anthology to be published by Random House. Opens April 27--Deadline May 8.

The Vestal Review is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.