books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Living with Robot Overlords: How to Survive in Our Cyborg World

by Anne R. Allen


Everybody tells us that to succeed as writers in the e-age, we need to be active in social media. And once we get the hang of it, most of us find it a lot of fun. Cyberspace can feel like a big old playground for writers. Look! I can type something on my little keyboard in the privacy of my own home and reach 100,000 people.

Yes, we had over 100,000 hits on the blog in the last month—and that doesn't count the several thousand who read the blog in their inboxes and rss feeds. Thanks guys, we love you!

You can also publish books and reach appreciative readers without groveling for decades to get your work read by some unpaid 20-something intern in NYC who thinks books with protagonists over thirty are, like, totally gross.

You can go on Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, etc. and meet people from all over the world. And make friends. Some of whom may even buy your books.

You can get paid—sometimes rather handsomely—for said books. Every. Single. Month. Without all the waiting. And pleading. And filing of lawsuits.

It's all so darn wonderful.

Until something goes wrong.

Which it does with fair regularity. Funny how nobody talks about that part. But here's the thing: out here in Cyberia, you're dealing with robots—technically, lines of code called algorithms—not actual people, and robots are dictatorial and merciless.

And in charge.

I got a little reminder recently when a blogfriend contacted me on Facebook to say she had some new craft items posted on Pinterest. I've always avoided Pinterest—I'm sure it's lovely—but it's one more time-suck that I can't fit into my overwhelmed life.

(Ruth Harris says she's afraid "overwhelmed" has become the new normal. I have to agree. And I think robots are partly to blame. They were supposed to make our lives easier. Instead they keep us on hold for hours, interrupt us with scammer phone calls at all hours of the day and night, and demand six passwords before we're allowed to sneeze.)

Anyway, there I was, hoping to take a look at my friend's craft items on Pinterest. Since I wanted a quick browse, I clicked on a handy button that said, "sign in with Facebook".

KAPOW!!

My computer went nuts. It was like it had been taken over by the Borg from Star Trek. A window came up that said something like:

"Welcome to Pinterest. Resistance is futile. You have been assimilated."

I clicked away, totally freaked.

Later I went to check my email and found over 50 emails from my FB friends, either saying they were now following my "pins" on Pinterest, or "I think Pinterest is a waste of time. Stop spamming me with these emails."

You guessed it. Clicking on that one "sign in with Facebook" button had automatically, without my knowledge or consent, signed me up for Pinterest and sent emails to all 744 of my Facebook friends, telling them I was now enslaved to Pinterest and wanted them to be too.

Yikes.

I know this kind of stuff happens every day, and younger people will say it's my own stupid fault. When anything goes wrong in Cyberia, it is always the fault of the user, because robots don't make mistakes. If you don't have the secret robot-whisperer decoder ring, you deserve whatever happens to you.

But I'm old. I grew up at a time when businesses didn't view seller-customer relationships as adversarial. Marketing meant enticing customers, not bullying them.

And there were actual humans in charge.

Sometimes I fear the CEOs of these big companies are like Mickey Mouse in the classic Sorcerer's Apprentice scene (based on the Goethe poem of the same name) from Disney's Fantasia. It's the one where junior-wizard Mickey conjures up 1000s of animated brooms with buckets to do his grunt work, but totally loses control of them. Here's the link to the Fantasia scene on You Tube. 

I often wonder if the people in charge are as clueless as Mickey about the powers they've unleashed.

I certainly can't single out Facebook and Pinterest for blame in hijacking me. Every big online site is built with the same semi-sociopathic mindset: any human who wanders by is prey. The job is to trick us into doing something we don't want to do by making us feel ignorant and powerless.

Which means we often feel as if we live in a world invented by Mad Men's Don Draper and run by Dr. Who's Cybermen.

And maybe we do.

I didn't know Google was reading my mail until the time I mentioned in a note to my neighbor that I saw she'd had a new refrigerator delivered. For weeks, everywhere I went online, I was hit with a barrage of ads for refrigerators.

I also learned the hard way that you should never tweak your LinkedIn profile, because if you change one word—say change "mystery" to "comic mystery"—messages will go out to every person you've connected with on LinkedIn—including your boss at your day job—ordering them to all congratulate you on your "new job".

And forever after, on that day, you will receive "congratulations on your work anniversary" emails from all your contacts who have been instructed by the robots to send them.

And like Facebook, LinkedIn does sneaky things to get you to share your email address book with them. Once they have it, they will save the cached list forever and use it try to get those people to join up. That means that whenever you visit, even 15 years later, you'll see pop-ups saying that your stalker ex-boyfriend, your deceased Aunt Marlene, and that awful hairdresser who made you like Dana Carvey's Church Lady—all want to connect with you on LinkedIn today.

The fact this stuff might get you fired or scare you into to calling the police to enforce that restraining order does not matter to them.

Because you're human, and they're not.

And then there's the way they always try to get you to "endorse" people from a menu of ridiculous options. The robots ask something like, "Do you endorse Anne R. Allen in hedge-fund management, raising alpacas, ghostwriting, or pole dancing?" So people choose ghostwriting, since it's the most likely option. It just happens to be wrong. This gets me lots of emails from people wanting a ghostwriter who end up disappointed.

So does anybody at these companies care that this stuff is creepy, time-wasting, misleading and invasive?

Nope.

Because nobody is doing this stuff. It's all done by the bots. Like Mickey Mouse's relentless brooms.

Most of us are impacted by out-of-control robots these days. And it's not just the NSA bots reading your email and flying robots shooting up third world weddings. The dangers are everywhere.

Huge retailers and banks are getting hacked because nobody seems to be in control of the tech they're dependent upon. And even if they're not hacked, they're riddled with errors nobody seems to be able to fix. I spent two hours in my insurance agent's office last week while she was on the phone with six people who gave her six different answers because their robots were unable to communicate with each other. She says tech glitches on her company's website have tripled her workload in the last year.

And for writers, the impact can be devastating. I've spent most of the last two weeks on the phone on hold, trying to reach tech support humans after some robot has tried to mess up my life.

Robots vs. Authors


Authors who self-publish or publish with a smaller press without a tech department can have their careers destroyed by a simple glitch (or any malevolent troll who knows how to fool the robots.)

Here are some things that have happened to me or authors I know:

  • Something goes wrong with your blog and half your readers can't comment because of some robot feud/bullying going on between Blogger/Google and WordPress. (Sorry guys. I do not know how to fix this problem. If anybody knows, do tell me!) 
  • All your email from Amazon is suddenly thrown into spam and you lose super-important business communications. No matter how many times you report it as "not spam," it's still relegated to the spam folder, where it doesn't show up for days. (Apparently Google's robots are also feuding with Amazon's.)
  • Your book gets pirated and Amazon threatens to ban you for life because the pirates are underselling them—but you have no idea who or where the pirates are or how to force them to stop stealing your book.
  • You get reported for spam by a troll on FaceBook or Google Plus for a simple announcement on your own page and you're frozen out of your account.
  • Somebody reports you for a typo or "objectionable material" for using a correct but uncommon word and your bestselling book loses its "buy" button and you no longer have an income until you rewrite the book according to some illiterate's standards.
  • The bestseller you were counting on to pay the mortgage goes from 1000 sales a day to zero, even though you're doing all the same stuff to promote it and you have great reviews. 
  • Somebody leaves a review of your cozy mystery saying they hate it because the hero tortures little girls and uses foul language. Only there's no male protagonist, no little girls and the worst word anybody uses is "flibbertigibbet."
  • You publish a paper version of an ebook and try to link them so the reviews show up on both pages. All the reviews disappear for two weeks and your sales stop.

Some of these problems can be solved, and some can't.

Mostly we need to BE AWARE they can happen, so we can back up often and stay diversified. If one site's robots turn on you, at least you'll have books on other sites.

Complacency and naiveté are the enemies here.

 How to Survive the Giant Data-Squid


German journalists seem to be more aware of perils of technobot dictators than the rest of us. They've invented a wonderful word for the companies whose bots and algos have taken over our lives:

"Datenkraken"

The word means something like "giant data-squid," and for me it conjures up an image of some devil-offspring of Dr. Who's Daleks and the Kraken from Clash of the Titans.

The Germans have noticed that while we've been frantically busy posting selfies to Facebook, taking sides in the Amazon/Hachette standoff, and Tweeting about Kim Kardashian's butt, somebody decreed—

"Release the Kraken. You will be exterminated."

The Cylons are winning, people! (I figured we needed a Battlestar Galactica reference as long as we're doing a SciFi mash-up here. You didn't know I was a secret SciFi nerd did you?)

So do we all give up on our careers and/or hitch a ride on a TARDIS to take us back to the 20th century?

Or maybe we should find an old mimeograph machine, copy our books in that weird-smelling purple ink, put the pages in three-ring binders and hawk them on street corners?

Probably not altogether practical solutions.

But we need to go into this with our eyes open. Don't think that because the Cyberworld is so easy to get into that you will have smooth sailing the whole way.

And one thing we can do is collect information on how to get past the robots and reach the humans.

It turns out that instead of having a panic attack/temper tantrum (usually my first instinct) we need to take a deep breath and go on a hunt for flesh-and-blood earthlings.

Solution #1 Search for a Human Being


For Amazon problems, I've had good luck reaching humans through Author Central "help." You hit "contact us" at Author Central "help" and choose a category. Then you will be allowed to choose another subcategory and perhaps a third. Then they will ask if you want to contact them by email or telephone. Since I'm a phonophobe, I usually choose email, and I generally have a response in a matter of hours and a solution from an actual human within a day or two.

Of course, sometimes the email people (still underlings, although mortal) can't solve something, so they turn you back over to the robots with a dead-end, canned message that says something like, "It is not our policy to remove reviews that refer to authors as 'tiny-brained pinheads'. Contact us again and your computer will explode, you tiny-brained pinhead."

Then it's time to get on the phone. Don't yell. They get yelled at all day. Shock them by being nice and asking how "we" can solve the problem. Amazing how well that can work. I've found that Amazon people are generally polite and helpful on the phone. Sometimes if they make a mistake, they'll even call you and apologize.

That happened this week. The robots sent me a rather startling email on Wednesday I knew wasn't meant for me, and yesterday a very nice young man phoned from Seattle to personally apologize for the robots' behavior.

So you can reach a human for Amazon help...unless you're trying to get them to remove negative reviews. The Zon will not remove a negative review unless it obviously breaks the Terms of Service, and they may remove good ones that break the ToS if you get pushy.

I've had some luck with Facebook by contacting them through Appeals@Facebook.com. They don't care if they've solved your problem and they don't respond, but sometimes when you write them with a request, the problem will magically disappear a few weeks later.

And Twitter, strangely enough, likes you to contact them via the good old U.S. Snail. I was able to deactivate an account by writing to Twitter, Inc. c/o: Trust & Safety/ 1355 Market St., Suite 900/ San Francisco, CA 94103

I haven't tried to contact LinkedIn, because they do such creepy stuff I fear further contact might make it worse—like making eye contact with that weird guy who sings off-key Abba songs every morning on the bus.

I have no idea how to reach anybody at Google. But I've thought of sneaking into their Mountain View offices posing as a vegan caterer or a massage therapist.

On the other hand, Google's robots tend to be very good at what they do. Somebody tried to hack this blog this week and the Google bots caught them before they did any damage and immediately alerted me to change my password.

Still, it would be nice to know how to find a mortal being when necessary.  Has anybody out there figured out how to get through to earthlings at the Big G? If so, please share.

Solution #2: Look for a Human Being Who Is Impacted By the Problem


If the regular channels don't work, go higher up. Don't demand to talk to a supervisor. Go to the website and find somebody whose job depends on the company's reputation. Preferably somebody close to the top of the food chain.

I learned this trick from my uncle, whose grandfather founded a major American manufacturing empire. My Uncle Don taught me that when you have trouble with a company, it's a waste of breath to get mad at the underlings.

You should call the sales department—the guys directly impacted by the company's reputation. And if that doesn't work, send a registered letter to the CEO.

This has worked for me a number of times. When I found some crazy stuff on my credit report and couldn't get help from the usual channels, I called a salesman for Experian. Five minutes later, all the bogus stuff was deleted.

And when I was sick and tired of ATT's useless robot voice-mail, I sent a nice note via registered mail to a head honcho at the central office. A few days later his secretary called me—she thought my letter was a hoot—and fixed everything.

And just last week, after being on hold for over an hour with my bank's tech department, I hung up and wrote a nice note to the manager of my local branch. He phoned the next day and connected me with the proper person and said he'd forward my letter to his boss.

Hooray for the U. S. Postal Service! Yes, it's often the fastest way to get results these days.

Solution #3: Escape to the Real World


Take some human time. That's what I'm going to do. I often spend five or more hours a day answering emails, Tweets, FB posts, Google Plus and reading and commenting on blogs.

Jessica Bell, who guested last week, said on FB last week that she has the same problem. Lots of people chimed in. We've all become slaves of the Datenkraken.

So as of this week, I'm going to declare Thursdays my offline days.

No social media. No email. I'm going to be:

1) Working on my WIP
2) Reading books
3) Hanging out with flesh-and-blood earthlings of various species.

I need to get my life back to human speed, or my doctor says I'm going to be a casualty in this war with the Cylons. I'll bet  you'll be healthier if you take a day off too.

Scriveners, if any of you have had luck reaching helpful humans in Cyberia, our readers would love to hear about it. If you have an e-address or phone number for them, do include it! If you've had nothing but encounters with Cybermen, Cylons and the Borg, tell us about that too. At least we can commiserate about living with robot overlords.


Contest Winners!


The answers to last week's chapter endings contest were 1) B, 2) E, 3) A 4) C 5) D

The winner of the first part of the contest is Romance author and book reviewer Suzie Quint. 

Suzie got every one right. She's also the only one who entered. Suzie, email me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com for your prize.

I was kind of shocked that nobody else entered this part of the contest. I thought all writers would be aware of the styles of James Patterson and Dan Brown. And the New Yorker says "only 21 people in the country haven't read Gone, Girl." Plus Kate Atkinson and Catherine Ryan Hyde are two of the best writers working today as well as being mega-sellers. Reading one of their books is like taking a master class in writing. Try it!

Remember that to succeed in the business of selling novels, you need to know what novels are selling.

Writers who are in the query process absolutely need to do market research in the bestseller list, and indies will do better if they know the competition, too.

The winner of the best last sentence of your first chapter, chosen by Amazon #1 Bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde is Suzanne Purvis

Suzanne, contact me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com for your prize.


BOOK OF THE WEEK


NOW IN PAPERBACK! Only $10.79





Here's an appropriately Halloweeny book. It's #1 in the Camilla Randall comedy-mysteries--a wild comic romp set at writers’ conference in the wine-and-cowboy town of Santa Ynez, California. When a ghostwriter’s plot to blackmail celebrities with faked evidence leads to murder, Camilla must team up with a cross-dressing dominatrix to stop the killer--who may just be a ghost--from striking again.

Here's a great review from Sandy Nathan that got eaten by the robots, but now is BACK! 

Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years. Nothing makes me angrier than reading a book set in my home Valley that gets everything wrong. Like where the roads are, how to get from here to there, what the Valley feels and lives like. One famous writer I know actually did this: bollixed up the whole place.

But not Anne R. Allen! This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets.

Speaking of which, Ms. Allen's literary characters are pretty crazy/zany by themselves. I love Camilla Randall, her ditzy, former debutante heroine, and all the rest. The action gets pretty frenetic when dead bodies start showing up. I heartily recommend this book. I can hardly wait to read the rest of the series.

Ghostwriters in the Sky is available in e-book for only $2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA iTunesKoboInktera, and at Barnes and Noble for NOOK.


OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Looking for an alternative to Goodreads? BookBzz is a brand new site where you can present your books in an attractive online format. And once listed, for bookbzz.com to promote them for you. Listing is quick and easy... and it's free (and always will be, they promise!). Despite being simple to use it has some sophisticated marketing tools built in. It comes with a "Tell a Friend" Book Marketing and Reviews Engine and audience management system and you can (optionally) gateway to other marketing services (reviews engine, price and discount management, newsletters, reward promotions and affiliate programs).

Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

MUSEUM OF WORDS MICRO FICTION CONTESTNO ENTRY FEE. The competition is for very short fiction pieces of up to a maximum of 100 words. The winner will receive a prize of $20,000, with three runners-up each receiving $2,000. This contest is open to writers from all countries and entries are accepted in four languages: English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. All stories entered must be original and unpublished. The last Museum of Words contest attracted 22,571 entries from writers in 119 countries. Deadline November 23, 2014.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

How to Write Chapter Endings That Make Readers Want to Turn the Page


Chapter endings. We don't hear as much about them as we do about beginnings, do we?

But compelling chapter endings are just as important to writing success as grabby beginnings. Especially in these days of the "Look Inside" feature on most retail sites. 

These days, a book can sink or fail on the strength of the "Look Inside" and how much it makes the reader want to go onwhen going on means actually, um, paying for the book.

Just for grins, I decided to check the "Look Inside" of some of the most popular novels right now, and checked the last sentence of the first chapters. I thought some of them were typical of that author's style, but others were surprising. So I came up with...


A "Chapter Ending" Contest 


I chose some random books from Amazon's top twenty bestseller list and copied the ending of the first chapters from the "Look Inside".

Can you match the ending of the first chapter to the book title or author?

If you get the right combination of numbers and letters, you'll be eligible to win a copy of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE, written by one of those top-20 bestsellers, Catherine Ryan Hyde (with a little help from moi). Or you can choose POLISH YOUR FICTION (see below), by our guest, Jessica Bell.

And to make the contest even more fun, add your own chapter ending sentence or sentences (up to 40 words).

Catherine Ryan Hyde herself will pick the best one (think how cool that would look in a blurb or query!) More below. 

Stop by next week to find out if you've won. I'll have the answers and the winner's names in next Sunday's blogpost


The Bestsellers


1) Inferno by Dan Brown, 

2) Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

3) Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn

4) Take me With You by Catherine Ryan Hyde

5) Burn by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

The First Chapter Endings


A) I felt an immediate, intense need to get inside. By the time I'd gone twenty feet, my neck bubbled with sweat. The sun was still an angry eye in the sky. 

You have been seen.

My gut twisted and I moved quicker. I needed a drink.
***
 B) Earlier tonight, her original mission had gone horribly awry. The coo of a single dove had changed everything.

Now she had come to make it right.
***
C) "I'll be up," August said. "Just knock."

Then he spent the rest of the day wondering how big a mistake he had actually made.
***
D) "This isn't a drill, gentlemen," she said, looking up at the Bennett safe house, growing rapidly now on the flat screen. "Welcome to life and death."
***
E) Around the table, guns were pulled from holsters and pointed at her. One breath. One shot.

Ursula pulled the trigger.

Darkness fell.
***
And now here is some great advice on how to write your own chapter endings from Australian writing teacher and author Jessica Bell, editor of the IndieStructible Anthology and author of a great series of writing books. She's going to tell us how to write chapter endings that will make those readers plunk down their hard-earned cash to read what comes next. 


HOW TO WRITE CHAPTER ENDINGS THAT MAKE READERS WANT TO TURN THE PAGE 

by Jessica Bell



A good chapter ending is like having one mouthful of your favourite food left on your plate, but not yet feeling full, so you go for seconds ... and we hope, thirds, and fourths.

The key to a great chapter ending is to introduce a new conflict.

It doesn’t have to be much; a hint of what is to come in the next chapter will suffice. Nor does it have to be anything groundbreaking. It could be as simple as revealing something that changes readers’ opinion about a significant character, or reveals a new motive. Or it could be as complex as hinting at the conclusion to the story, but not revealing enough information for the reader to be entirely sure that’s the case.

In other words, end with something that poses a new question, or hints at an answer, for the reader.

You may think it’s difficult to do this at the end of every chapter. If so, your chapters might be too short. Could you be mistaking the end of a scene for the end of a chapter?

Chapters do not need to end where a scene ends. You can have multiple scenes in a single chapter. Most authors divide their scenes with a line space, or a centered symbol such as three asterisks.

I advise you comb through your manuscript to locate all the turning points in your story and reorganize your chapters so they end where the turning points begin. On some occasions it might simply be a case of rearranging your sentence order to give your chapter endings more punch.

Have a look at the following examples and consider how much more powerful the second version is as a chapter ending.

Weak chapter ending:


I stare at my computer screen, clenching my teeth, flexing my fists under the desk. I click my email closed to reveal a shot of me and Celeste as teenagers in our murky green school uniforms, her feathery blonde hair teased high enough to nest squirrels, my fringe gelled into a wave big enough to surf through. 

It was three weeks before I decided to skip tryouts for the football team because she told me she was pregnant and wasn’t sure if it was mine. She blew cigarette smoke into my mouth, in the hope I might get turned on and forget about it.


Strong chapter ending:


I stare at my computer screen, clenching my teeth, flexing my fists under the desk. I click my email closed to reveal a shot of me and Celeste as teenagers in our murky green school uniforms. 

She’s blowing cigarette smoke into my mouth, her feathery blonde hair teased high enough to nest squirrels, my fringe gelled into a wave big enough to surf through. It was three weeks before I decided to skip tryouts for the football team.

Because she told me she was pregnant.

And wasn’t sure if it was mine.


What does the second example do? It ends on something that is bound to change readers’ opinion of Celeste. And not only Celeste. It could also change readers’ opinion about the narrator. 

For example, the reader might have more sympathy for him now and want to read on to see if he receives any concrete evidence regarding his paternal status.

Sure, the first example triggers this reaction too, but it’s definitely weaker. 

Why? Because this new information is hidden between distracting description, and it makes it sound like something the narrator just thought to mention because he was reminded of it. 

But by isolating those last two sentences in the strong example, not only does this new information have a more powerful impact, but it also shows it has great significance to the plot.

Here’s a checklist so you can polish your own chapter endings


1. Do your chapter endings pose a new question, or hint at an answer to a question related to your plot?

2. If not, locate the turning points in your story and end your chapters there.

3. If necessary, rearrange the sentence order so that the most impactful information is the last thing you read.


Jessica Bell is a contemporary fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter/ guitarist and the Publishing Editor of Vine Leaves Literary Journal as well as the director of the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop on the Greek island of Ithaca. She makes a living as a writer/editor for English Language Teaching Publishers worldwide, such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, MacMillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Connect with Jessica online: Website | Retreat & workshop | Blog | Vine Leaves Literary Journal | Facebook | Twitter


How about you, Scriveners? How are your chapter endings? Do they leave your reader hanging on the proverbial cliff? Do you have any questions for Jessica? 


The Contest


Choose Part #1 or Part #2 or both.

Part #1: In your comment, match the numbers of the books to the letter of the quote you think belongs, in this format 1) A, 2) B, etc. 

We'll have the answer in next week's post.

If there's more than one winner I'll go to Random.org and choose a winner.

We will gift that winner with a copy of the ebook HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE

Part #2 Give us the ending (up to 40 words) of your own WIP's first chapter (or segment, if it's a short story.)

We will gift a second copy of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE to the author of the best final sentence of your first chapter.

For either prize, Jessica has generously offered a copy of POLISH YOUR FICTION from Jessica if you prefer, or if you already have HOW TO BE A WRITER.

NOTE: If you have a WordPress blog, do NOT sign in with your WordPress ID. Google will have a hissy fit. They demand a Google ID because they are a big tech company and can get away with whatever they *&%# want. If you have gmail or are on Google Plus, you have a Google ID. If that doesn't work, send it to me in an email and I'll post it.

Amazon #1 Bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde will judge. 


Entries close on Thursday, October 16th at Midnight, Pacific Time

Winners will be announced on this blog on Sunday, October 19th. You will have one week to claim your prize. Contact me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com to get your book.

***

BOOK OF THE WEEK


Want more advice on how to self-edit your manuscript? Check out Jessica’s new release:

 Polish Your Fiction: A Quick & Easy Self-Editing Guide.





Are you ready to publish or submit to a literary agent? You might be. But is your manuscript as squeaky clean as you think? This book will help turn your manuscript into a shiny book. With more than ten years’ experience as an editor and author of both fiction and nonfiction, Jessica Bell offerstried and tested advice on the quickest and easiest ways to polish different areas of Writing Style, Consistency of Prose, Grammar, Punctuation, Typography, and Layout.

Each section is armed with a numbered checklist for moments when you need that “at-a-glance” reminder and nifty Microsoft Word tricks that will save you time. At the end of the book there are also magnificent accounts of editorial mistakes other authors have made during their careers, to show you that no matter how many times a book is edited, something always slips through—so don’t be so hard on yourself!

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Do Authors Obsess Too Much About Book Reviews?

by Anne R. Allen


Whether we're newbies or superstars, traditional or self-publishers, pretty much all authors stress about reviews: getting them…and surviving them.

Getting Reviews is Tough  


From the time our first book launches, we're told our number one job is to get reviewed. We send out ARCs, desperately query book bloggers and give away as many books as possible in hopes that some kind soul will write a few lines saying how they liked the book.

Some authors also use the new pricey book review sites—the ones where you have to pay $30 a month to be listed on a site that gives away free copies to people who probably won't review anyway.

Or they pay to get reviewed at Kirkus ($400-$550) or Publisher's Weekly ($149). (These are not illegal like paid online "customer reviews," but many experts, like Joel Friedlander, consider them a bad idea.)

For a report from the review-chasing front, here's a great post from Molly Greene that includes her experiences with one paid review site. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't all Kumbaya and rainbows.)

We start out hoping for a bunch of rave reviews from big name book blogs or prestigious print journals, but after 100s of rejections from overwhelmed sites, we're grateful for a lukewarm mention on a blog with a readership of two people and a parakeet.

And then there's the biggie: getting reviews on the all-important retail and reader sites.

Nothing looks sadder than a naked, unreviewed book on Amazon or Goodreads. So we plead for people to accept free copies of our pricey, expensive-to-mail paper books on Goodreads and give away as many ebooks as we can on Amazon and Smashwords.

Some desperate authors even cross ethical lines. This is dumb and can get you kicked off Amazon permanently, so don't succumb to temptation to do stuff like:
  • Paying review mills or somebody at Fivrr to churn out generic one-line 5-stars. 
  • Trading reviews. 
  • Establishing "sock puppet" accounts for ourselves so we can review our own books and/or trash other people's. 
People do these things because they're told they gotta, gotta, gotta get those reviews. They've probably heard that they need a certain number of Amazon raves—maybe it's fifty, or a hundred, nobody's quite sure—to make the bestseller lists and get promoted by the algorithms. (A myth: more on that below.)

But we all try to reel in as many reader reviews as possible, begging everyone we meet to read the book and write something. Anything. Preferably something nice.

Only mostly they don't.

Most sales and giveaways generate very few reviews. Lots of scammers use Goodreads and other sites to get free hard copies they can sell on EBay. And the few who do write reviews can be downright nasty.

There's a bizarre reviewer subculture in the Amazon-Goodreads jungle that revels in giving nasty reviews to books they haven't read. It's a game for them. They'll glance at a few lines in the free "look inside" sample or simply reword other negative reviews. They often buy and return an ebook within minutes so they can get a "verified review" stamp on their one-word one-star.

The motivation of these people isn't entirely clear to me, but apparently some are competing to rack up a lot of review numbers—some write dozens per day—which can make them eligible to get free products to review. Others are playing Amazon like a videogame. The rest are just mean people who must be having terrible lives.

But the thing is, none of this stuff is helpful to readers looking for their next read. The abuse also hurts the reputation of genuine reviewers and sends authors into despair.

Surviving Bad Reviews is Tougher


The first time you get a snarky, negative review, it feels like a personal attack. When somebody says cruel things about the baby you've spent years bringing into the world, you hurt in a way that's impossible to convey to non-writers.

You'll be overwhelmed with the urge to punch out the reviewer and/or run away to live out your days in some Unibomber cabin.

But the truth is, bad reviews only mean one thing: you're a published author.

All successful authors get terrible reviews. Every. Single. One. Here's a hilarious sampler of one-star Amazon reviews of classics from the Huffington Post.

But Bad Reviews Don't Always Bring Down Sales.


In fact, bad reviews can actually stimulate buying.

It happened to me.

I got a swarm of one-stars on my buy page for my Camilla Mysteries Boxed Set as "punishment" for standing up for a bullied writer on a high profile publishing blog. Probably not a wise thing to do at the time my mother was dying and I'd been diagnosed with a breast tumor, but I thought I was in a safe place when I wasn't (there are no safe places).

Even though the blogger wisely deleted the troll-infested thread almost immediately, the mean girl army had already been deployed and had orders to swarm.

"Swarming" a buy page with one-star fake reviews is a major sport on Amazon. It has even happened to the Zon itself. Its new Fire phone has over 1500 one-stars, apparently as a protest from Greenpeace, who don't like Amazon's environmental policies.

But when it's just you and you're already stressed this stuff can be pretty upsetting. I dreaded booting up my computer every morning for months. I knew better than to go to Goodreads, the native habitat of that particular denomination of meanies, but I had to go to Amazon occasionally. 

Each time I had a new review it would be one or two stars, containing a veiled personal attack that also showed the reader hadn't read anything but the "look inside".

Then a weird thing happened. 

My sales started to climb. And climb. After a couple of weeks, it hit the bestseller list in humor.

One day I woke up and found I was ahead of five Janet Evanovich titles and my favorite humor book of all time, Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy




The book sold over 2000 copies that month and stayed on the bestseller list for half a year.

Thanks, Mean Girls!

Of course if I'd reacted online to the bullying, the attacks would have escalated and might have done damage to my career. (The Manners Doctor is going to do that in the next Camilla mystery with hilarious results).

I knew better than to acknowledge these people in any way after having a run-in with them a few years before when they took offense to this blog. The gang still wields power. Several well-known authors who have reacted publicly to their cruelty have been the recipients of nasty backlash. But I have reason to hope the power of the review bullies may be diminishing.

For one thing, your own target readers will probably read between the lines, which is what I assume mine did.

Plus negative customer reviews that stress what some people consider a book's flaws may give other readers a reason to buy.

"This book is unrealistic and went by so fast it was exhausting" can get somebody who loves a fast, funny read to press the buy button.

"There's bad language and too much sex" can be a ringing endorsement to somebody who's looking for some racy entertainment.

But I think a lot of people have stopped paying attention to customer reviews entirely. Lots of retail sites, like Kobo, don't have them. Besides the bullying and swarming and paid review scandals, there are other issues:

  • Lots of customer reviews are just plain dumb. Reviewers seem to misspell everything on purpose and compete for the most idiotic remarks. And of course some people goof on them for comic effect. Clever humor writers use them for some pretty hilarious stuff.
  • Amazon doesn't even require 20 words any more and B & N never did. I saw a one-star review on a popular book last week that just said, "ewww". 
  • Goodreads actually encourages people to "review" books they haven't read.
  • Spoilers. Amazon no longer requires "spoiler alert" tags, so the nasties are having a great time giving away plots in order to ruin somebody else's read. 
  • Review trolls often give the plot of an entirely different book, and that isn't forbidden either, according to authors who have complained. I heard from one writer last month who got a review that faulted him for writing about a "hero who left his pregnant wife for a whore." Thing is, the hero wasn't married and nobody was pregnant. No sign of a sex worker, either. Somebody going through a rough divorce was apparently using online reviews for therapy. Would Amazon remove the review? Nope.

Are Reviews as Important as We Think?


There was a time when one review—the kind written in the New York Times Book Review or The New Yorker—could make or break a book.

But these days, book discovery happens in hundreds of ways, online and off, and studies show reviews aren't high on the list.

I think many readers have figured out they're better off not reading them at all.

As author Barbara Morgenroth said on The Passive Voice earlier this week,

"The flavor has been chewed out of the review gum. Reviews are like freebies/free days–they don’t work like they used to. Abuse will kill off almost everything."

I fear she's right. In a study reported by Smashwords' Mark Coker two years ago, only 7% of readers reported they browsed and read online reviews before they bought a book. And I think the number has only diminished with the abuse.

So how do people discover books now?

The old fashioned way: word of mouth.

A friend recommends a book she thinks you'd like. You go to the store, maybe check the cover, blurbs, and a page or two, and unless something is horribly off-putting, you buy it. Because  you've already decided you wanted to read it because of your friend's recommendation.

Usually the store is online these days (although there's also been a resurgence of the independent bookstore) but our basic buying habits haven't changed that much.

I know it's true of me. I never browse around Amazon looking for a random book. I go and search for a specific title or author.

Coker's survey said the same thing. Even in the digital age, word of mouth is what sells books. 29% of readers—by far the highest percentage—bought based on recommendations from friends in forums, blogs and message boards. 

Plus, in spite of all the rumors that spread in indie-land about how you can't get on a bestseller list without X number of reviews, plenty of books with only a handful—even if some are one-stars—make the bestseller lists.

Again, I know this from personal experience.

My "prequel" Camilla comedy, The Best Revenge hit the humor bestseller list last spring and stayed there until I changed publishers last month. It only has 14 reviews, including a couple of one-stars from my little friends. But it was in the top 10,000 on Amazon for six months. Why? It's one of my oldest books and I think word-of-mouth buzz took that long to reach critical mass.

(Not that I wouldn't be eternally grateful for some more reviews for The Best Revenge. The one thing nice reviews are guaranteed to do is raise the author's spirits. And more reviews would allow me to advertise in the bargain newsletters.  Unfortunately a new publisher and ISBN puts your book back at square one.) 

Alternatives to the Review-Go-Round


So what if we all let up on the review pressure for a while and start simply recommending books to our friends?

Rather than lament the fact the online reviews don't work any more, Barbara Morgenroth suggests we start a movement to "tell a friend" about books we enjoy.

She put together these two lovely photos for readers to share on FB and other social media sites to spread the word.






Here's what I suggest an author can do:

1) Before a book comes out, or after a "soft launch," offer it to selected fans and a few reviewers you've established a friendship with. Always write a warm, personal email, not a mass mailing, ever. (Asking for a review is like querying an agent. A mass-mailing gets an automatic "no.")

2) After you get 20 or so reviews, stop worrying about it. Yes, you need between 10 and 20 reviews to be eligible for the bargain book newsletters like Fussy Librarian, KND, and ENT—and BookBub wants thousands, but more are not necessary to make good sales. Bookbub has become so expensive that lots of authors aren't breaking even on it anymore, so maybe that will be a blessing.

(And if you see that a book you love has only a handful of reviews, do write one. Every helpful review fights the the abuse of reviews and scores a point for the good guys.)

3) Promote your books in other ways, like guest blogposts, spotlights and interviews.

4) Present a helpful, pleasant persona on your chosen social media sites. Keep promos to less than 20% of your interactions. Be a friend, and you'll make some. Then they might read and recommend your books.

5) Build your readership with a helpful (not just promotional) blog or newsletter. Obviously I personally prefer a blog, but as long as people actually sign up for a newsletter or mass mailing it can be a good alternative. But they must choose to subscribe and you must provide a way to unsubscribe, always. Don't assume your readers have nothing to do but promote your books for you.

6) Recommend books you love…and spread the word about "tell-a-friend."

7) Put all that energy  you were using to beg for reviews into writing your next book.

8) Keep chocolate and/or wine handy when reading your own reviews...and your fingers off the keyboard!

In fact, really successful writers advise us not to read our reviews at all. I can't say I take their advice, because the nice reviews really brighten my life, but I try not to take the snarky ones to heart. And some negative ones are actually helpful.

But we'd probably be better off if we all followed Laurell K. Hamilton's advice. She said on Goodreads recently,

"I seldom, if ever, read reviews…I've found that even good reviews can mess with my muse and me, so I've learned that simply not reading is the only sane way to go."

I am not telling readers not to write reviews! 


The world still needs book reviews. I'm simply saying as writers, we shouldn't obsess. We can live with fewer than we think.

NOTE: In-depth book blog reviews are very different from most customer reviews on retail and reader sites. A book blog review is more like telling a friend. Book blog reviewers are some of the hardest working people around, and I encourage them to hang in there, in spite of idiotic mass-mailings and entitled, rude authors and publicists. (They contact me, too, because I officially have a "book blog," and they drive me nuts.)

If we stop obsessing, book bloggers' lives will be easier too.

And remember that every time you put on your reader hat and write a sensible, honest customer review, you are fighting the abuse and giving real reviews more power and credibility.


What about you, Scriveners? Do you obsess about reviews? Are you influenced by them? Do you write them? Do you tell your friends about a book when you've finished it? To start this ball rolling, why don't you recommend a book you've enjoyed recently in the comments? 

I'm going to start by sharing a "tell-a-friend" book. I've been meaning to write a review and hadn't got around to it.

BOOKS OF THE WEEK


TELL-A-FRIEND BOOK: The Goddaughter

Award-winning mystery author Melodie Campbell is Canada's "Queen of Comedy" according to the Toronto Sun. She's one of the funniest people I know. How do I know her? She comments regularly on this blog! I liked her comments and went to Amazon and bought the first book in her series. Her "Goddaughter" Gina Gallo is the Mafia princess version of my own loopy sleuth, Camilla Randall. Want great laughs and a fast-paced plot? You can count on Melodie's books. (And Melodie will be a presenter at the L.A. Bouchercon in November.)



The Goddaughter is the first in Melodie's Goddaughter series. (Her Rowena paranormal series is hilarious as well.)  And it's only $2.99 right now on Amazon US and Amazon CA. Also available at NOOK and Kobo


THE BEST REVENGE: Now only 99c!


This week I'm re-launching The Best Revenge, the prequel to the Camilla Randall Mysteries, with my new publisher, Kotu Beach Press (Mark Williams international has closed its doors.) It sure would be nice to get the sales started up again. So if you know anybody who likes funny mysteries: 
TELL A FRIEND!



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 for only 99c at Amazon US and Amazon UKAmazon CASmashwords, AppleKobo and NOOK

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


Writers’ Village International Short Fiction Contest $24 entry fee. Prizes of $1600, $800, $400 and $80. A further ten Highly Commended entrants will receive a free entry in the next round. Professional feedback provided for all entries! Any genre: up to 3000 words. Deadline December 31st.

SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

BLOCK-BUSTING: 14 Never-Fail Tricks Every Writer Needs to Know


by Ruth Harris


Stuck?

Can’t get there from here?

Something’s wrong but you don’t know what.

You’re chasing your tail in an endless loop with no off-ramps in sight.

You’re stalled out at a dead end in a dark, scary forest.

Happens to every writer and no one knows why, but your book—and you—have come to a screeching halt. You’re out of ideas, out of gas, and you and your manuscript are stranded in a dead zone.

The (boring) characters zombie-walk through the plot. Oh! There’s a plot? What plot? You can’t make sense of what you’ve created or, if you can, you wonder why you thought having your MC fall into a cootie-infested tar pit on the far side of the Planet Ding-Dong was a good idea in the first place.

You look in the mirror and ask yourself Now what? but you have no answer. Despair and panic set in. Self doubt gnaws. Maybe like Stephen King throwing away the manuscript for Carrie, you’re poised to Select All and hit the delete button.

Get a grip.

The book is your book. The characters are your characters. The plot is your plot. You created this mess—which means that you have the answer. You just don’t know it. At least not right now.

Whether it’s a glitch or a gully, here are are fourteen ways to get that book—and yourself—going again. Some are quick and easy. Others take time and effort. Some are probably familiar. Others might be new to you.

In my (long) experience, at least one of them will help get you going again so think of this as a punch list. If one strategy doesn’t work, try another. And then another. Don’t give up until you find the one that gets you moving again.

1. A body in motion is a mind in motion. 


Get up, move around and do something physical. Almost anything. Old advice but, time and time again, movement jolts the fatigued brain and gets it moving again.

  • Take a walk.
  • Fold laundry.
  • Pull weeds.
  • Hit the gym.
  • Walk the dog.
  • Do the dinner prep.
  • Get on your bike.
  • Run a few errands.

Lots of writers including me find that mild diversion combined with a physical component that gets you out of your chair and away from the computer screen allows that blocked thought or idea to emerge from the dark pool of the unconscious.

2. Brainstorm. 


With a trusted friend/colleague/partner. On the phone. Via email or even twitter. Over dinner. With a glass of wine or a verboten calorie-dense dessert.

Chances are in the course of conversation, either you or your friend, cyber or otherwise, will come up with a clue or maybe even the answer and at least nudge you closer to making forward progress.

3. Begin at the beginning. Again. 


 The beginning is often where the problem resides. Perhaps you’ve told too much (often my own problem)—or not enough. Re-read carefully, more than once if necessary, question everything as you read, make notes, and the solution that was out of reach might reveal itself.

Maybe you need to move a scene, a paragraph or delete some dialogue if, like me, you’ve told too much and have left yourself nowhere to go.

If, on the other hand, you’ve skimped on the set up, you might need to add material that you know but your reader doesn’t.

4. Reverse Outline. 


 Steve Jobs said that you can only make sense of thing when you look back. SJ was right about a lot of things (Gee. Really?) and his observation certainly applies to writers and manuscripts-in-trouble.

The online writing lab at Purdue University offers a useful guide to reverse outlining which will help you clarify the weedy tangle in which you’re enmeshed yourself.

5. Mini changes-big results. 


Maybe all you need to do is see your book in a different font or on a different screen or in a different place.

If you’ve been working on your laptop, read your manuscript on a tablet. Or vice versa.

Work at home? Go to a coffee shop and take another look at that ms. Work in a coffee shop? Go to the park and give it another shot.

Write in Times Roman? Switch to Helvetica or even Comic Sans. Increase the font size or decrease it because sometimes the simplest change up makes all the difference and will let you see the stumbling block in a way you didn’t before.

6. Analyze your characters. 


You don’t need to be Dr. Freud, but perhaps there are too many and some of them need to be combined. Or maybe there are too few or too sketchily presented and require expansion and amplification. Do you need new characters or do the existing ones require a makeover?

Do you need an antagonist? A buddy? A helper? A mentor? A liar? A betrayer? A shape-shifter? A dog, a cat, a robot, a refugee from another century?

Does the good guy suddenly do a switcheroo? The bad guy turn out to have a heart of gold? Maybe a male character should be female (or vice versa)? (That particular trick bailed me out of a big-ass mess in Brainwashed.)

We’re talking fiction here so you are free to invent whatever/whoever you need to energize your book and yourself.


7. Plot Rehab. 


If too much happens, you have a clutter problem that will confuse your readers (and maybe yourself) and needs to be streamlined and clarified.

Not enough happens? Add incidents and possibilities. Don’t worry about going too far because you can always modify later. The point is to get from not enough to just right.

A mind-mapping app like Scapple (Mac only, $15, 30-day free trial) or FreeMind (FREE and available for Windows/Mac/Linux) can be useful and help you see connections you might have missed. For more choices, LifeHacker lists the five best mind-mapping apps.

To take another, more structured approach, a beat sheet like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat can help you bring order to the chaos. The ever-inspiring Jami Gold lists solutions to plotting dilemmas that will help whether you’re a plotter or pantser.


8. Take a second look at the setting. 


Is your setting, real or invented, working for you? Victorian London, contemporary Shanghai, a remote planet in alternate galaxy all have their place in fiction and should be thoughtfully exploited. 

If your setting is meh, your book will be, too.

Downton Abbey wasn’t a raging success just because of the plot and characters. Mad Men didn’t hook viewers only because of the booze, cigs and sex. Ditto Game of Thrones and Scandal.

In all of these super successes, the setting is as important as the characters and, in a way, becomes a character itself. Make sure your setting is doing some of the heavy lifting for you.

9. Do some more research. 


Some writers hate research, others (like me) love it. I couldn’t have written A Kiss At Kihali without the Internet. Newspaper articles about poaching and the near-extinction of rhinos and elephants initially triggered my interest but I needed much, much more info to write the book.

Thanks to Google, I got the scoop about African animal orphanages, criminal poaching gangs, wildlife conservation, Kenyan weddings, elephant and rhino veterinary, animal psychology and communication.

Whatever you want to research, odds are the Internet can come to your rescue. No more trudging to the library—everything available in the comfort of your own computer.

Live sources are invaluable. People love to talk about what they do. All you have to do is ask. Tap your network, pick up the phone and introduce yourself, send an email.

Research is a goldmine of info and inspiration, often invaluable when you find yourself stuck. Use it.

10. Rethink genre. 


The book you started as a romance has somehow veered off into darker territory and all of a sudden you’ve run out of gas. Or else you began what you thought was going to be a mystery but suddenly it’s giggles and guffaws and you’re lost and have no idea what to do next.

No wonder you’re stuck. Lots of times writers don’t know what they’re doing until they do it and books have a way of taking on a life of their own no matter what the clueless, lowly writer might have in mind.

If you step back and reconsider, you might realize your romance is really Gothic Romance or Romantic Suspense. If that’s the case (and it’s entirely possible), the book will come into sharp focus again and you will have a route out of the doldrums.

If your mystery turns into a giggle-fest, you might have a comedy-mystery instead of the complicated puzzle you originally had in mind.

Be flexible. A rose is a rose is a rose until, all of a sudden, it’s an orchid. Or even poison ivy. For a writer, roses, orchids and poison ivy all come brimming with possibility.

11. Write the blurb and/or log line. 


Both require concentration and, at least IME, need to be constantly reviewed, rethought and rewritten. The blurb and log line will strip your book down to essentials. In the process, you will gain a clear focus and perhaps even a renewed perspective on your work.

At minimum, you will come away with an elevator pitch. (For more on how to write loglines and blurbs, check Anne's post on Hooks Loglines and Pitches and Ruth's Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb.)

12. Writing prompts. 


They’re all over the net, they’re free and they can jolt you out of your doldrums. Just the right word or push in a new direction can make the difference. Choose from random subjects, first lines, random dialogue and quick plot generators.

Writer’s Digest lists hundreds of prompts to help get you out of your funk.

For an irreverent approach, there are writing prompts “that don’t totally suck” to help you get moving again.

13. Sleep Perchance To Dream. 


If you’re stuck, chances are you’re preoccupied or even obsessed with your dilemma. You’re running in circles and getting nowhere except frustrated. Why not let your unconscious do the work while you sleep?

I’m still surprised at how often I wake up with the answer to a block that’s been bugging me. I’m also often surprised by how shockingly obvious the solution is in retrospect.

Duh.

How come I didn’t figure it out a week ago? How come the answer came to me when I was asleep? Maybe a psychiatrist could explain it but my own conclusion is that’s just the way the unconscious works.

Take advantage!

14. Run A Spell Check. 


 I know this might sound weird, but sometimes seeing words—your own words—in isolation and out of context can trigger new ideas. 

I have no idea how or why this works. 

Perhaps it’s the repetitive aspect or maybe the alternate suggestions spell check kicks up but the simple act of going through your manuscript in this disjointed way can give you a new perspective and a new idea.

What about you, Scriveners? Have you tried any of these tricks to get a book's momentum going again? I've done the spell-check thing and it works for me too! ( I thought I'd invented it myself.) And getting outside for a walk always helps. I think I do most of my writing when I'm walking around Los Osos. People see me chanting the stuff to myself so I won't forget, and I'm sure my neighbors think I'm totally nuts. What works for you when your WIP is stalling out?....Anne 

BOOK OF THE WEEK


Based on secret, real-life psychiatric experiments conducted by the CIA. Zeb Marlowe, a scarred survivor of the experiment, and Jai Jai Leland, the beautiful widow of a man who didn’t survive, must stop a nuclear threat that puts the world's security at risk. 



ONLY 99c for a limited time!



With a plot that hurtles forward at electric speed, BRAINWASHED takes place on the beautiful islands of the Caribbean, in Damascus and Ireland, the Philippines, Canada, Washington, DC--and in an underground torture chamber located on Victor Ressid's secluded private estate.

"BRAINWASHED delivers the goods: thrills, gut-churning suspense, nightmarish terror. Ruth and Michael Harris have delivered another great read and sure bestseller. I dare you to put it down!" --Bob Mayer, former Green Beret and million-copy bestselling author of AREA 51

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31.

Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Choose from Romance, Thriller, Crime, Horror, Science-Fiction and Young Adult. 4,000 words or less. The $25 entry fee is steep, but the grand prize is $2500 plus a trip to the annual conference, and the prestige is awesome. Deadline October 15th.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

10 Things that Red-Flag a Newbie Novelist

by Anne R. Allen

Beginning novelists are like Tolstoy's happy families. They tend to be remarkably alike. Certain mistakes are common to almost all beginners. These things aren't necessarily wrong, but they are difficult to do well—and get in the way of smooth storytelling

They also make it easy for professionals—and a lot of readers—to spot the unseasoned newbie.

When I worked as an editor, I ran into the same problems in nearly every new novelist's work—the very things I did when I was starting out. 

I think some of the patterns come from imitating the classics. In the days of Dickens and Tolstoy, novels were written to be savored on long winter nights or languid summer days when there was a lot of time to be filled. Detailed descriptions took readers out of their mundane lives and off to exotic lands or into the homes of the very rich and very poor where they wouldn't be invited otherwise.

Books were expensive, so people wanted them to last as long as possible. They didn't mind flipping back and forth to find out if Razumihin, Dmitri Prokofitch, and Vrazumihin were in fact, all the same person. They were okay with immersing themselves in long descriptions and philosophical digressions before they found out what happened to Little Nell.

The alternative was probably staring at the fire or listening to Aunt Lavinia snore.

But in the electronic age...not so much. Your readers have the world's libraries at their fingertips, and if you bore them or confuse them for even a minute, they're already clicking away to buy the next shiny 99c book.
 
Whether you're querying agents and editors or you're planning to self-publish, you need to write for the contemporary reader. And that means "leaving out the parts that readers skip" as Elmore Leonard said.

Agents and readers aren't going to want to wade through a practice novel. They want polished work.

All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world. Unfortunately easy electronic self-publishing tempts us to do just that.

But don't. As I said two weeks ago, it takes the same amount of time to learn to write as it did before the electronic age.

Here are some tell-tale signs that a writer is still in the learning phase of a career.

I'm not saying these things are "wrong". They're just overdone or tough for a beginner to do well.

1) Show-offy prose


Those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your high school English teacher and your critique group can unfortunately be a turn-off for the paying customer who’s digging around for some kind of narrative thread or reason to care.

People read novels to be entertained, not to fulfill the needs of the novelist. If you're writing because you crave admiration, you're in the wrong business. The reader's right to a story—not the novelist's ego—has to come first.

If there's no story, no amount of verbal curleques will keep the reader interested. Give us story first, and then add embellishments. But not too many.

Also, even though it may be really fun to start every chapter with a Latin epigraph from Ovid's Metamorphoses, unless it’s really important to the plot, this will probably annoy rather than impress readers.

Ditto oblique references to Joyce's Ulysses or anything by Marcel Proust. People want to be entertained, not take a World Lit quiz. (And yes, I went there myself. Originally, every chapter title of The Gatsby Game was a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nobody cared.)

2) Head-hopping


Point of view is one of the toughest things for a new writer to master. Omniscient point of view is the hardest to do well, because it leads to confusion for the reader.

But a lot of beginners write in omniscient because they haven't mastered the art of showing multiple characters' actions through the eyes of the protagonist.

But be aware that third-person-limited narration (when you're only privy to the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist) is the norm in modern fiction (with first person a close second in YA.) If you use anything else, your writing skills need to be superb or you'll leave the reader confused and annoyed.

And you'll red-flag yourself as a beginner.

3) Episodic storytelling


I think nearly every writer's first novel has this problem. Mine sure did.

I could never end it, because it didn’t actually have a single plot. It was a series of related episodes, like a TV series—the old fashioned kind that didn't have a season story arc.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a nice dramatic arc of its own.

Every piece of narrative has to start with an inciting incident that triggers ALL the action in the story, until it reaches a satisfying resolution at the end. It's called a story arc.

If you don't have a story arc, you don't have a novel. You have a series of linked stories or vignettes. But novel readers want one big question to propel them through the story and keep them turning the pages.

The writer who blogs as Mooderino has a great post on why we want to avoid episodic narrative, even though it worked with some classics like Alice in Wonderland.

4) Info-dumps and "As you Know Bob" conversation


When the first five pages of a book are used for exposition—telling us the names of characters, what they look like, what they do for a living, and details of their backstories—before we get into a scene, you know you're not dealing with a professional.

Exposition (background information) needs to be filtered in slowly while we're immersed in scenes that have action and conflict. This takes skill. The kind that comes with lots of practice.

Another big clue is info-dumping in conversation, often called "as-you-know-Bob":

"As you know, Bob, we're here investigating the murder of Mrs. Gilhooley, the 60-year-old librarian at Springfield High School, who may have been poisoned by one Ambrose Wiley, an itinerant preacher who brought her a Diet Dr. Pepper on August third…."

Thing is, Bob knows why he's there. He's a forensics expert, not an Alzheimer's patient. Putting this stuff in dialogue insults the reader's intelligence, since nobody would say this stuff in real life. (In spite of the fact you hear an awful lot of it on those CSI TV shows.)

5) Mundane dialogue and transitional scenes that don't further the action.


All that “hello-how-are-you-fine-and-you-nice-weather” dialogue may be realistic, but it’s also snoozifying.

Readers don’t care about “realism” if it doesn’t further the plot. As James Patterson, the bestselling author in the world says, "realism is overrated." Readers want "just the good parts."

That also means skipping the trip from the police station to the crime scene and the lunch breaks when nothing happens except the MC doing some heavy musing and doughnut chomping.

Ditto the endless meetings or arguments where people come to decisions after tedious deliberation. Those are an exception to the rule of "show don't tell." Let us know the outcome, not the snoozerific details.

Just make a break in the page and plunge us into the next scene.

6) Tom Swifties and too many dialogue tags


The writer who strains to avoid the word “said” can rapidly slide into bad pun territory, as in the archetypal example from the old "Tom Swift" boys' books: "'We must run,' exclaimed Tom swiftly."

They were turned into a silly game in the 1960s, promoted by Time Magazine, which invited the public to submit outrageous Tom Swifties like:

"Careful with that chainsaw," Tom said offhandedly.

"I might as well be dead," Tom croaked.

So we don't want to go there by accident. Bad dialogue tags may have crept into your consciousness at an early age from those Tom Swift, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. The books were great fun—I adored them myself—but they were written by a stable of underpaid hacks and although the characters are classic, the prose is not.

"Said" is invisible to the reader. Almost any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself.

Very often the tag can be eliminated entirely. This allows your characters to speak and THEN act, rather than doing the two simultaneously.

Not so swift:

"We must run," exclaimed Tom swiftly.

Better, but awkward.

"We must run!" said Tom, sprinting ahead."

Best:

"We must run!" Tom sprinted ahead.

7) Mary Sues


A Mary Sue is a character who’s a stand-in for the writer’s idealized self, which makes the story a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author, but a snooze for the reader.

Mary Sue is beautiful. Everybody loves her. She always saves the day. She has no faults. Except she’s boring and completely unbelievable. For more on this, check out the post on Mary Sue and her little friends I wrote last month.

8) Imprecise word usage and incorrect spelling and grammar 


Unfortunately, agents and the buying public aren't your third grade teacher; they won’t give you a gold star just to boost your self-esteem.

Spelling and grammar count. Words are your tools. 

If you don’t know the difference between lie and lay or aesthetic and ascetic and you like to sprinkle apostrophes willy-nilly amongst the letters, make sure you find somebody who's got that stuff under control before you self-publish or send off your ms. to an agent.

Nobody is going to "give you a break" because it's your first novel. Practice novels belong in a drawer, not the marketplace. If people are spending their money and time on your book, they deserve to have a professional product.

Electronic grammar checks can only do so much. And they’re often wrong. Buy a grammar book. Take an online course. Not everybody was a good student in elementary school, but you'll need to brush up on your skills if this is going to be your profession. Even a good editor can’t do everything.

9) Clichéd openings


People who read a lot (like agents and editors) have seen some things so often they immediately get turned off. Even if it's a perfectly good idea. The problem comes when a whole bunch of people have had the same good idea before you.

The most common is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers, whether short story, novel, or script. There’s a hilarious video on this from the comedians at Script Cops They say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Here are some other openers too many writers have done already:

  • Weather reports: it's fine to give us a sketch of the setting, but not more than a sentence or two.
  • Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.
  • Funerals: a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. If you use this opening, make sure you've got a fresh take.
  • Dreams: we're plunged into the middle of a rip-roaring scene, only to find out on page five that it's only a dream. Readers feel cheated.
  • "If only I’d known…" or "If I hadn't been..." starting with the conditional perfect seems so clever—I used to love this one—but unfortunately a lot of other writers do too.
  • Personal introductions: starting with "my name is…" has been overdone, especially in YA.
  • Group activities: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. 
  • Internal monologue: don’t muse. Bring in backstory later.
  • The protagonist looking in the mirror describing herself: In fact, you don't need as much physical description of the characters as you think. Just give us one or two strong characteristics that set them apart. Let the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.
  • Too much action: Yes, the experts keep telling us to start with a bang. But if too much banging is going on before we get to know the characters, readers won't care. 
If you use one of these openers in an especially clever and original way, you may get away with it. But be aware they are red flags, and many people won't go on to find out what a great story you have to tell.

For more on this, Jami Gold has a great post this week on how to avoid cliches in your opener.

10) Wordiness


There’s a reason agents and publishers are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll turn off readers as well.

Remember a novel is a kind of contract between writer and reader. If you are writing to fulfill your own needs, not those of the reader, you're breaking that contract. They'll feel cheated.  And they will probably let you know.


If you’re still doing any of these things, RELAX! Enjoy writing for its own sake a while longer. Read more books on craft. Build inventory. You really do need at least two manuscripts in the hopper before you launch your career.

And hey, you don’t have to become a marketer just yet. Isn’t that good news?

For more on this, Sarah Allen has a great post this week on Top 7 Mistakes that Make Your Writing Look Unprofessional.

How about you, scriveners? What mistakes did you make when you were starting out? As a reader, what amateurish red flags make you start to feel nervous about buying a book?


BOOK OF THE WEEK


I have a new boxed set! My three Boomer Books are now available in one boxed set. The intro price is only 99c!
That's 33c a book!
 Available at Amazon USAmazon UK, Amazon CA, Inktera, Nook, Kobo, Scribd and iTunes 



The Boomer Women Trilogy


The Leaders of the Twenty-First Century was the original title for the manuscript that branched into three and became Food of Love, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner and The Gatsby Game. It would be a terrible title, of course, because it sounds too dry and pretentious for a bunch of comedies. 

But the phrase has excellent comic credentials. It comes from Mickey Mouse himself. The original Mickey Mouse Club TV program always signed off with the inspiring proclamation that the show was "dedicated to you, the leaders of the twenty-first century!" 

When my little girlfriends and I giggled in our basement "rec rooms," mesmerized by the addictive new show, it never occurred to us the announcer wasn't talking to us as much as to our brothers. We didn't see any women leaders around us, but somehow, the magic of Disney was going to propel us all to new heights. My best friend planned to be a doctor and I wanted to be a famous writer. Or maybe princess of the world. 

The heroines of these three novels, Congresswoman Rev. Cady Stanton, Princess Regina of San Montinaro, diner owner Dodie Hannigan Codere, rock star Morgan le Fay, and sporting goods CEO Nicky Conway are powerful yet vulnerable (and I hope funny) women who represent those Baby Boomer women who watched the Mickey Mouse Club with me. 

Our mothers, who fought WWII on the home front only to be lured out of the workplace to a life of suburban housewifery, often saw our generation as entitled and self-involved. But as my character Dodie Hannigan said in the first version of the manuscript: 

"We're called Boomers, but it wasn't us that did the booming—that was our parents. We just showed up nine months later and got plunked in front of those brand new TVs." 

We were born at the dawn of the television age to become Madison Avenue's most coveted "target demographic." Advertising campaigns and kid-centric programming made us the first generation to be given a collective identity separate from family or community. 

And for good or ill, they made us who we have become: women who have demanded to be treated as equals by the other half of the human race. 

I know it's still something of a taboo to write novels—especially romantic comedies—about women "of a certain age," but Boomer women have been breaking rules since the Mickey Mouse Club proclaimed our destiny. I hope you'll enjoy their stories.

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS


SCHNEIDER FAMILY BOOK AWARDS: NO ENTRY FEE. These awards honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences. Three awards of $5000 each will be given annually in each of the following categories: birth through grade school (age 0-10), middle school (age 11-13) and teens (age 13-18). May be fiction, biography, or other form of nonfiction. Deadline December 1, 2014. 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS LITERARY FESTIVAL SHORT FICTION CONTEST $25 ENTRY FEE. Submit a short story, up to 7000 words. Grand Prize: $1,500, plus airfare (up to $500) and accommodations for the next Festival in New Orleans, VIP All-Access Festival pass for the next Festival ($500 value), plus publication in Louisiana Cultural Vistas magazine. Contest is open only to writers who have not yet published a book of fiction. Deadline November 16th, 2014.

For NEW WRITERS! THE FICTION DESK NEWCOMER'S PRIZE ENTRY FEE £8. First prize £500, second prize £250. Short fiction from 1,000 - 5,000 words. Writers should not have been previously published by The Fiction Desk, and should not have published a novel or collection of short stories in printed form. Deadline October 31st.

GLIMMER TRAIN VERY SHORT FICTION AWARD $15 fee. Maximum length: 3,000 words. 1st place wins $1,500, publication in Glimmer Train Stories, and 20 copies of that issue. 2nd place wins $500 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). 3rd place wins $300 (or, if accepted for publication, $700 and 10 copies). Deadline October 31, 2014.

RIVER TEETH'S BOOK PRIZE for Literary Nonfiction. The $27 ENTRY FEE is a little steeper than we usually list, but this is for a full book-length manuscript. River Teeth's editors and editorial board conduct a yearly national contest to identify the best book-length literary nonfiction. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication. Deadline October 15, 2014.