books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How to Start a Blog: The Basics for Non-Geeks.

A lot of my readers are already bloggers. You guys can skip this—although if you have anything to add, I’d sure appreciate it. My post this week is mostly for the lurkers (love my lurkers!) who know you’ll probably need a blog eventually, but feel intimidated by the whole process.

Lots of sites give tips on how to make your blog successful (Nathan Bransford had a great list of Seven Tips on How to Build a Following Online last week) but it’s hard to find the A-B-C basics for set-up. I had to learn by trial and error myself, making a lot of mistakes along the way. So here’s the stuff I wish somebody had told me.

Before you start, you’ll want to: 

  1. Decide on a focus for your blog. Successful blogs address a niche. Yes, writing is a niche, but the more you narrow your focus by genre and subject matter, the more you’ll stand out.
  1. Think of a memorable name. You might use something that suggests your genre, like “Riding, Roping and Writing,” or pinpoints your setting, like “Hoboken Horrors,” or accentuates your protagonist’s hobby, like “Macrame is Murder.” Or you can be unimaginative like me and call it YOUR NAME’s blog—maybe reducing the ho-hum factor with something like “Susie Smith, Scrivener.” The advantage to using your own name is—
    1. When somebody Googles you, your blog will come up, instead of that old MySpace page you haven’t bothered to delete and the rave Amazon review you gave to your ex-boyfriend's awful PublishAmerica book in 2006.
    2. You don’t get boxed into one genre. (I strongly advise against starting different blogs for different books. One is time-consuming enough.)
  1. Decide what tone you want to set. If you write MG humor, you don’t want your blog looking all dark and Goth, and cheery colors will give the wrong message for that serial killer thriller. Romance sites don’t have to be pink, but they should be warm, inviting and a little sexy or girly. Also, if you have a website or Twitter page, aim to echo the tone and color in order to establish a personal “brand” look.
  1. Choose a couple of photos from your files to decorate the blog. Usually one of yourself for your profile, and another to set the tone. And of course your book cover if you have one for sale. Try to keep with the same color scheme and tone.
Now you’re ready to start:

  1. Go to a friend’s blog. If they use Blogger or Wordpress, there will be a link at the top that says “create blog.” I suggest using one of these platforms because they’re easy to connect with other blogs. Blogger previews every blog you follow on your “Dashboard” so you can keep up with new posts from friends. Also if you’ve already got a Google account, you’re half-way through Blogger’s hoop-jumping. Cyber-savvy folks will give lots of reasons why other platforms are better, but, as I said, this is for non-geeks.
  1. Click on “create blog.” Follow directions. They’re easy.
  1. Choose a template. Don’t mess with the design too much, except in terms of color—a busy blog isn’t a place people want to linger. And don’t add animation or anything that takes too long to load.
  1. Pick your “gadgets.” There are lots to choose from. But again, keep it simple. I suggest just choosing the basics like “about me”, followers, subscribe, and search. You can go back and add anything you want later. Just go to your “design” tab to find more.
  1. Set up privacy settings. I suggest making no restrictions on new posts. Word verifications are annoying and keep people from commenting. They’re great for screening out spambots, but I’ve yet to meet a spambot in my year and a half of blogging without word verification. But DO have every comment over a week old sent to you for approval. (Old posts attract more spam.)
  1. Sign up for email notification of new comments so you can respond to them in a timely way. (Thanks to Emily Cross and Michelle Davidson Argyle for cluing me in on this!)
  1. Upload those photos. But not too many. And NO MUSIC. People read blogs at work. And on their phones. Even though you’re sure everybody on the planet adores the classics of the Abba catalogue, some of us don’t. Trust me on this.
It’s that easy. But don’t forget to:

  1. BOOKMARK your blog, or you may never find it again. You’d be amazed how many people set up a blog only to have it disappear forever into cyberspace. 
  1. Keep to a schedule. Decide how often you want to blog—I suggest once a week to start—then do it. Preferably on the same day each week..
  1. Write your first blogpost. A post should be 300-600 words (do as I say, not as I do) presented in short, punchy paragraphs. Bulleting, numbering and bolding are your friends. Make a point and present it in a way that’s easy to grasp. As to content, offer information and interesting observations, not navel-gazing. If you have more to say than fits into a few paragraphs—great! You have material for next time.
  1. Go comment on other people’s blogs. That’s how you get people to visit yours. 
Congratulations! You are now a blogger.

More on blog etiquette in a future post.






Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Dark Force Invades the World of Children’s Literature: A Tale of Two James Freys

I sure did upset some people when I expressed my envy of YA/MG writers in last Sunday’s post. I said—in what I intended to be a humorous fashion—that the children’s wing of the book business looked to me like rainbows and unicorns compared to the dark fortress that is most of American publishing.

Well, it seems I was wrong. Somebody has been hunting the unicorns.

His name is James Frey.

This is the James Frey who cashed in on the big market in I-was-lost-but-now-I’m-found recovery tales that were hot stuff when Oprah was the queen of the American publishing universe. He wrote a heavily fictionalized memoir called A Million Little Pieces and passed it off as truth. When he got caught, he had to apologize to Miss Oprah on camera and take a major chewing out—after her endorsement had made him rich and famous, of course.

Well, now that Oprah is phasing out her show and book club, and the new hot stuff in the industry is Young Adult fiction, Mr. Frey is chasing the bux again by starting a sweatshop “factory” for YA writers.

His idea is that if you put a bunch of writers in front of a bunch of keyboards, they’ll come up with another Twilight—sort of like the old speculation that if you set enough chimpanzees tapping away at enough typewriters, they’ll eventually come up with Shakespeare’s plays.

But since chimpanzees are expensive to feed and care for, Frey thought he’d use MFA students from places like Princeton, where protecting yourself from scammers isn’t high on the academic agenda.  He came up with the world’s most draconian contract, offering YA writers $250 per manuscript, for which they retain legal liability and marketing responsibility—but relinquish copyright. That’s right. All their ideas and characters belong to Frey, to assign to other writers or even appropriate for his own work.

And he actually signed up a bunch of newly minted MFAs. It’s so embarrassing how needy this impenetrable industry can make us, isn’t it?

But there’s a footnote to this creepiness I haven’t seen mentioned: there’s another James Frey: James N. Frey—a writer who’s been around since the 1980s, writing nine novels and five how-to guides—helping and coaching young writers—not eating them for lunch.

This is the James Frey who wrote How To Write a Damn Good Novel —still in print since 1987. His latest writing guide, which came out this year is  How to Write A Damn Good Thriller

I had the chance to study with James N. Frey at a writers’ conference at California’s Asilomar in the late 90s. He taught me more about novel structure in one workshop than I’d learned in years of pouring over how-to-write books and endless copies of Writer’s Digest/Market/Poets and Writers, etc.

His Damn Good Novel was one of the first guides for novelists that used Jungian archetypes and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” theory to structure a novel. Mr. Frey took this concept of story from screenwriters—the one George Lucas used for the Star Wars films—and applied it to novel writing.

During our workshop, Mr. Frey hammered home the fact that certain a storytelling structure is hard-wired to the human brain, and that’s why it’s been around since Homer.

Here are some notes I saved from that workshop:

1) Introduce your hero in his native habitat—before he receives the Call to Adventure. This is why opening in the middle of a battle doesn’t work. You have to meet the traveler before you can understand the journey. (I’m not talking getting-up-in-the-morning, teeth-brushing native habitat—show her/him in a scene that involves conflict—but before the main journey starts.)

2) You need ONE hero. You can have as many gatekeepers, allies, mentors, and shapeshifting sidekicks as you want, but you can only have one protagonist.

3) The hero must return from his quest. This is why so many modern novels leave us feeling empty and unsatisfied. An ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it has to provide resolution. We must know the hero’s journey is done and see how he/she has been changed by the experience.

I don’t know Mr. James N. Frey, and he isn’t aware I’m writing this. Although, OK, he did call me a comic genius at that conference, which has given him a warm place in my heart. But mostly I can’t help feeling compassion for a writer who is only one initial away from confusion with the Darth Vader of publishing.

I thought he deserved to have somebody speak up for him and say he’s not this new Dark Disturbance in the Force you’ve been reading about—but more of a Yoda, full of wisdom and solid advice.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Beth Revis Explains it All for You--what we all need to know about YA

When I wrote on Sunday about YA/MG fiction seeming like a welcoming world of rainbows, bluebirds and unicorns in comparison to the Phantom Zone of adult fiction, this is what I was talking about—here’s a quote from today’s post from the wonderful YA writer Beth Revis.

“YA doesn't care about the rules. The YA genre is one of the few genres where you can have a contemporary romance beside an action-based sci fi and no one bats an eye. YA books care about telling a good story, and the rest of the rules don't have to apply. In adult books, you have someone like Nicholas Sparks, who always writes one type of book. In YA books, you have someone like Laurie Halse Anderson who can write a contemporary novel about rape and a historical fiction about the American Revolution and they can sit side-by-side on the shelf. Adult authors who genre bend are rare (Neil Gaiman, I'm looking at you), but since YA is, by definition, genre-bending, authors get to place the story over the genre tropes (since there are no genre tropes).”

For anybody thinking about jumping on the YA gravy train, Beth’s post today is a must read. Actually, it’s a must-read for anybody writing fiction. The truth is YA has become mainstream fiction these days and I think it will soon dictate the style of all fiction. And from what Beth says, that’s a good thing.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wimpy Kid Eats George Bush’s Lunch

 Last week George W. Bush’s memoir gave Random House their best opening day sales in seven years—170,000 print copies.

BUT—on the same day, Middle Grade fiction writer Jeff Kinney launched his fifth book for Abrams in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and sold—375,000 print copies.

Yeah. Do you wonder why so many agents are looking for KidLit and passing on that brilliant stuff you’re writing for grown-ups?

You kind of have to wonder if it’s time for us all to give up on our chosen genres and start penning middle-school-nerd/angsty-teen sagas. I admit to giving it serious thought myself.

Not only are children’s authors more in demand, but the whole KidLit industry is more fluid and open. Children’s publishing isn’t bound by the rigid agent-as-gatekeeper paradigm. My unrepresented YA writer friends get to go to conferences where they engage in actual editor-to-writer communication. That’s right. Without five or ten years of groveling in agent inboxes to get there. And then—even if the editors pass—they get detailed letters full of helpful suggestions.

If you’re a writer of adult fiction you probably suspect I’m deeply full of batcrap, but I swear it’s true. Ask any writer who’s a member of SCBWI. While a new writer of adult fiction can spend years—even decades—trapped in a Phantom Zone of  rejection and silence, children’s writers seem to live in a warm, welcoming world of rainbows, bluebirds, and effing unicorns.

Oh, do I sound a little bitter?

Well, yeah. I guess I’m kind of tired of reading all those articles on how if you aren’t getting partial requests on 75 % of your queries, you’re a bad writer. Or if you don’t have an agent yet, you must be calling your work a “fiction novel” and mass cc-ing every agent in AAR, addressing them all as “Snookums.”

The truth is, if you’re not getting any reads, it might mean you don’t write for people under eighteen. Full stop.

This phenomenon doesn’t just affect the unpublished masses trying to break in. Established writers are jumping into the kiddie pool as well—big name authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Carl Hiassen, and Stephen Hawking. Pay it Forward author Catherine Ryan Hyde says she can’t even get her adult fiction published in this country any more—even though it wins awards in the U.K.—but her new YA book, Jumpstart the World is getting huge buzz. 

There’s a reason why this has happened—and its name is Harry Potter.

As J. K. Rowling kept the industry afloat through an entire decade—while becoming richer than the Queen—publishers learned that one phenomenal kids’ book can outsell thousands of adult titles, and if it spawns a series, it can have the return-customer power of crack cocaine.

Why? Kids tend to group-think more than adults. The instinct to fit in with the herd is necessary for young humans to survive. This means children and teens can be manipulated into thinking they can’t survive without the latest fad.

The Potter/Twilight type-blockbuster doesn’t happen with grown-up books because adults individuate and outgrow the fit-in-with-the-herd-or-die instinct. No matter how well Dan Brown is selling, if a reader isn’t into religious conspiracy-lit, he won’t buy it.

The result is less risk-taking and diversity in adult publishing—why take a chance on something creative and new when there’s no likelihood of top-notch returns?

So a lot of us who are exhausted with fangs, gimmicky monster mash-ups, and serial-killer torture-porn are turning to YA when we want fresh contemporary fiction. But reliving the horrors of high school isn’t exactly escapist reading for a lot of us. The truth is, most grown-ups like to read about people like ourselves doing interesting/fun/stupid/brave/inspiring things—with maybe a little non-PG-rated sex thrown in.

But publishers say that kind of commercial fiction “doesn’t sell.” By that they mean a single title doesn’t earn six figures on launch day. And OK, when it takes approximately 2.2 U.S. Presidents to add up to one Wimpy Kid, I realize it would take hundreds of midlisters to compete with KidLit sales numbers. And each adult midlister needs an editor, cover designer, distributor, and at least a perfunctory amount of hand-holding while she sells the book. All costing $$$. Yeah, I get why we’re not the best business choice. Sigh.

But a ray of hope has emerged in the last year, and it’s coming from e-readers. Most Kindle owners are adults. Sales of Kindle books have already topped a billion.

So maybe we should all self-publish our adult books for Kindle while we’re researching that dystopian post-apocalyptic steampunk high-school-zombies-on-Mars epic that’s going to break us into the Big Six publishing fortress. (Can anybody lend me a teenager?)

Meanwhile, we can take heart in knowing we’re not alone—and even the former leader of the free world gets his keister kicked by wizards, sparkly vampires, and wimpy kids.
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If you want to read more of my bon mots: starting next week, I’ll be on staff at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog—one of the fastest growing online destinations for publishing industry news, essays and commentary. Whether you’re looking for MFA application advice, Twitter tips or you just want to stay informed on the latest in all things literary, they have something for you. Check it out. It's unstuffy and full of information. Kind of the HuffPo of publishing news sites.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nathan Bransford’s Decision, Self-Published Kindle books, and You

Everybody who reads this blog probably knows I’m an obsessed long-time fan of Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford. When I read his Friday post saying he’s left the publishing business, I felt a personal loss. I know he promises to keep up his blog, and I’m not losing my agent, like Natalie Whipple, Lisa Brackman, Kristi Marie Kriddle and so many others. But “knowing” somebody with Nathan’s kindness and integrity in the business always made me hopeful.

The news that he’s leaving for a more lucrative position at the tech news site CNET seemed like more bad news for kindness and integrity at the end of a disastrous week.

I was helped a little by the hilarious post from The Rejectionist suggesting “reasons” why Nathan has left us (one of which involves Jonathan Franzen’s fear that Nathan might make the cover of Time.) It had me laughing through my tears.

But now I’ve thought it over, I’m not sure the news is all bad. When I spoke with Nathan at the Central Coast Writers’ Conference last September, he said electronic publishing will dominate the business sooner than people realize—and self-publishing will be a strong factor. Most people in the traditional publishing world have poo-poo’ed the electronic self-publishing movement, but not Nathan. He said we’re at the dawn of a wonderful new era when writers will have control over our own careers.

Maybe that’s partly why Nathan left agenting. I’m sure there’s more money in reviewing and advertising e-readers than representing people who write for them. Crystal-ball watchers are pretty sure agents will still figure into the new publishing paradigm, but chances are they won’t be making the kind of money they used to. The days of big advances are pretty much gone, and fifteen percent of a $500-$1000 advance isn’t going to pay for a lot of New York office space.

The Pied Piper of the electronic self-publishing movement is mystery writer J.A. Konrath. His plan and subsequent success are detailed on his blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. Every writer should read it in order to understand our current choices.

What Konrath is doing works, as you can see detailed on his blog. He’s making real money while long-time traditionally published writers are going back to their day jobs.

The reason is this: traditional publishers charge a lot for e-books—especially those written by superstars—basically treating them like hard-cover releases.

But Konrath and his disciples charge $.99 to $2.99.

How do they make money?

They get big royalties—ones they don’t have to share with anybody. Amazon offers a 70% royalty on a $2.99 Kindle book. Compare that to a 5% royalty on a standard paperback…well, you do the math. And, selling at those prices, they sell A LOT. Konrath is now outselling Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich and Jonathan Franzen.

Everybody’s argument against his plan is, “He’s Konrath—an established author; that would never work for an unknown.”

But this simply isn’t true. Many writers are having success with it. And the generous-spirited Konrath helps by posting about other self-Kindlized books. Two writers I follow—Karen McQuestion and Elisa Lorello—have had such fantastic sales with Kindle that now Amazon is publishing their books in hard copy through Amazon Encore. Elisa Lorello had never been published before when her romantic comedy Faking It made it to #6 on the Kindle bestseller list a month after release.

Yes, of course there will be a boatload of crap books dumped on Kindle, just as there have been with self-published books since POD technology came along. And please, PLEASE don’t throw your NaNo book out there before you do LOTS of revision, or you’ll end your career before it starts. You’ll thank me later. I promise.

Readers will probably depend on review sites to choose reading material. There are already e-book review sites springing up, like Dirt Cheap Kindle Books. The cream will rise. As best-selling author Dean Wesley Smith said in a Friday blogpost   “A book WILL NOT SELL at $2.99 or even $.99 if it sucks. Readers have taste that won’t be overpowered by simple low prices.”

Of course, to succeed as a self-publisher, you’ll have to spend more time polishing your work than ever. You won’t have the agent/editor process to get it up to professional quality. I'm sure that independent editors with good track records will be much in demand. Every writer needs an editor. Even Jane Austen depended more heavily on an editor than people realize.

Of course, everything could change in a nanosecond, especially if prices of traditionally published ebooks come down. And as Dean Wesley Smith said in the same post, “This new world is changing so fast, nothing that I say here could be valid by this time in 2011.”

In fact, even the argument that quality will rise to the top may be wrong. On Karen McQuestion’s blog yesterday, author Scott Nicholson offered what he calls “the worst novel ever written” (his own first book) for $.99. He wants to see how many people will read a book that costs less than a dollar, when even the author admits it’s terrible. I don't predict major sales, but then, I wouldn’t have given much hope to the Bridges of Madison County, either.

I’m following all this with fascination. I’m working on cover design ideas for my two backlist titles. And maybe the rest of them. Since we have to promote our own books and design our own advertising campaigns anyway, why not get paid a reasonable percentage of the profits?

Nathan Bransford is carving out a new place for himself in this brave new e-publishing world, and maybe we all should be considering it, too.