books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Self-Editing 101—13 Questions to Ask Yourself about Your Opening Chapter

This is usually Ruth's week to post, but she's busy proofing galleys of her much-anticipated new novel The Chanel Caper. And next weekend, I'll be busy teaching THE TECH-SAVVY AUTHOR workshop. So we switched. On March 3rd, look for Ruth's post on why we like a tough, flinty heroine.

OK, let's talk editing. Editing our own work can be tedious. And painful. But it's essential. A paid editor can only do so much. We need to do most of the heavy lifting ourselves.

I've recently gone back to an old, multi-rejected project in hopes I can get my new publisher interested. Now that Boomer Lit is an up and coming genre, I'd love to get my comic Boomer novel, The Ashtrays of Avalon out there to readers.

Revisiting the old manuscripts (I had about 14 versions—tip: don't do this) I had to forget about being an artist and put on my editor's hat. It's always hard to block emotional ties to a work and imagine how a publisher might see the manuscript.

As usual, the opening chapter took the most work.

Introducing your reader to your characters and your fictional world may be the single trickiest job a novelist has. You have to present a lot of information at the same time you're enticing us to jump into the story. If you tell us too much, you’ll bore us, but if you tell us too little, you’ll confuse us.

An editor I respect a lot once told me to write my last chapter first and my first chapter last.

It sounded a little crazy, but I later realized what he meant is that it's a lot easier to get story momentum if you know where it's going—something I didn't do with this book—and your first chapter is going to need so much polishing that you shouldn't dwell on it when you're writing that first draft.

That's because when a writer is first diving into a novel, we’re not introducing the characters to a reader; we’re introducing them to ourselves.

All kinds of information about your protagonist will come up. Maybe she lives in a noisy apartment building in an ethnic neighborood of a city with a fascinating history. And her next door neighbor is a professional dominatrix. Or she feels a deep hatred for Justin Beiber. This stuff will spill out in your first chapters. Let it. That’s the fun part.

But be aware you’ll want to cut most of that information or move it to another part of the book when you edit.

It helps to remember this formula: first drafts are for the writer; revisions are for the reader.

Even if you’re not going the agent/publisher route, you need to keep your reader in mind. Self-publishers are judged, too, and reviewers and readers can be snarkier than any agent.

Here are some questions to ask yourself that should help in the revision process.

1) Do you have a Robinson Crusoe opening? That’s when your character is alone and musing. Robinson Crusoe is boring until Friday shows up. So don’t snoozify the reader with a character:

driving alone in a car/wagon/boat
musing while traveling on an airplane/bus/coach/spaceship
waking up and getting ready for the day
out on a morning jog
looking in the mirror

Especially looking in the mirror. It’s not wrong, but it’s seriously overdone. (Yes, I started my first novel this way. I think a lot of us do, especially if we're writing romance.)

The easiest way to show your MC to your reader is to show how he interacts with the world. Two or three other characters is ideal: not too many or the reader will be overwhelmed.

2) Is your opener bogged down with physical description of the characters, especially of the police report variety? All we know about Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice is that she has “fine eyes.” We don’t have to be told height, weight or hair/eye color unless it illuminates character (see #3.) Let us know what kind of person he/she is and the reader’s imagination fills in the blanks.

Unusual characteristics like Nero Wolfe’s size, Hercule Poirot’s mustache, and Miss Marple’s age show who these characters are and make them memorable. But we don’t need to know the hair/eye thing unless the characteristic is important to the story—like Anne of Green Gables hating her hair and dying it green. (And can you believe the idiots who pictured her as a hot blonde in this new edition of the public domain book?)

3) Does your MC have a goal? Are you letting the reader know what it is? Characters need goals in each scene. But the protagonist needs one goal to rule them all—a compelling, over-arching objective for the whole book. He can’t be easily satisfied. He must need something very badly. This especially important for memoir writers: “I was born and then some stuff happened and I met some people and then I had a catastrophe but I pulled myself out of my misery and now I love life and God and multilevel marketing”—is not going to keep readers turning the pages.

A novel or memoir needs to be about one big thing, and the character has to have one big goal. Too many goals? You may have a series. Nothing wrong with that, but figure out what the goal is for this particular book.

4) Does your MC have strong emotions we can identify with in the opening scene? We don’t have to identify with the situation, but with the emotion: If the character is furious because his roommate keeps playing to As Long As You Love Me over and over—even if you’ve never heard of Justin Beiber you’ll identify with the anger, because everybody’s been angry.

5) Have you started with a POV character about to be killed? Or facing a challenge in a dream or videogame that turns out not to be real? If you get us intrigued and then say “never mind”, the reader will feel his time and sympathy have been wasted.

6) Do you introduce your MC as close to page one as possible? Don’t waste time on long weather reports or descriptions of the setting. Although that was a convention in classic novels, it feels like filler now. Modern readers want to jump into the story and get emotionally involved.

A line or two about the setting or atmospheric conditions will set the mood, but a modern reader doesn’t need the kind of long descriptions of exotic weather or far off lands that Victorians loved.  Even if we’ve never been there, we all know what London, or the Alps, or rain forests look like because we’ve seen them in films and on TV.

7) Does the chapter have the right tone and establish theme? You don't want to set up false expectations in your reader. If this is lighthearted chick lit, you don't want to start with a gruesome murder. You don't want chirpy dialogue at the beginning of your dark fantasy. If you're going to be dealing with a theme of climate change, drop in a few hints right away, like the penguins who just arrived on a Malibu beach. Or in psychological suspense, you can hint at the dark secrets of the hero's family with ominous noises coming from the basement or the locked door to the attic.

8) Does your MC come off as a Mary Sue? A Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) is the author’s idealized fantasy self—an ordinary person who always saves the day and is inexplicably the object of everyone’s affection. A Mary Sue will make your whole story phony, because a too-perfect character isn’t believable (and is seriously annoying.)

9) Do we know where we are?  If the MC is thinking or talking to someone—where is he? As I said, we don’t want a long description of the scenery or the weather, but let us know what planet we’re on.

10) Have you started with dialogue? Readers want to know who’s speaking before they’ll pay much attention to what they say.

It’s just like real life: if strangers are shouting in the hallway, it’s noise. If you recognize the shouters as your boss and that dominatrix next door—you’re all ears.

11) Have you kept backstory to a minimum in your opener? Backstory can be dribbled in later in thoughts, conversations and mini-flashbacks—AFTER you’ve got us hooked by your MC and her story.

12) Have you plunged into action before introducing the characters? The introductions can be minimal, but they have to make us feel connected enough to these people to care

Example: If you hear some stranger got hit by a car—it’s sad, but you don’t have much curiosity about it. If you hear that dominatrix got hit bu a golf cart driven by a guy who looked like your boss, you want to know when, where, how...now!

13) Is that prologue REALLY necessary?  

Sigh. I've got one in that novel I'm revising. Yup. I've got a dreaded prologue and I sent the book to my editor with it intact.

But the manuscript was also rejected more times than any sane person would want to admit. One of the biggest reasons agents gave? The prologue.

If you have a prologue and you want to go the agent route, it's best to rethink. If you're self-publishing, you can take your chances with your readers. If you're with a small press--well, my editor hasn't let me know if I can keep it yet.

Here are some reasons why agents hate prologues

People skip them.

The reader has to start the story twice. Just as she’s getting into the story, she’s hurled to another time or place, often with a whole new set of characters. Annoy a reader at your peril.

When an agent or editor asks for the first chapter—or you have a preview of the book on Amazon—you’ve got a major dilemma.  Do you send the actual chapter one—where the plot starts—or that poetic prologue?

Agents hates the prologueses, precious, yesss:

From former agent Colleen Lindsay:
“In pages that accompany queries, I have only once found an attached prologue to be necessary to the story.”

From agent Jenny Bent:
“At least 50% of prologues that I see in sample material don't work and aren't necessary. Make sure there's a real reason to use one.”  

From agent Ginger Clark:
“Prologues: I am, personally, not a fan. I think they either give away too much, or ramp up tension in a kind of "cheating" manner.”

From agent Andrea Brown:
 “Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.”

From agent Laurie McLean:
 “Prologues are usually a lazy way to give backstory chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”

Even usually ultra-tactful publishing guru Nathan Bransford says:
 “A prologue is 3-5 pages of introductory material that is written while the author is procrastinating from writing a more difficult section of the book.” 

Ouch.

I know you’re all wailing. But try removing the prologue. Read chapter one. Does it make sense? Could you dribble in that backstory from the prologue into the story later—while the actual plot is going on?

A prologue can sometimes be like a first draft—something for the writer, not the reader. Not the overture, but the tuning-up. Like a character sketch, a prologue usually belongs in your book journal—not the finished project.

Go ahead and write one to get your writing juices flowing. Use it to get to know your book’s basic elements. It can be mined later for character sketches, backstory and world building, but try to cut it in your final revision.

But I know. Sometimes you can't. I couldn't.

So what about you, scriveners? What do you want to read about a character first off? What makes you want to go on a journey with this character? What do you find difficult about introducing a character?


And the free tickets go to....

Random.org has spoken and the winners of two free tickets to the March 2nd TECH-SAVVY AUTHOR seminar I'm teaching with author Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter/radio star Dave Congalton and a host of other tech-savvy folks are:

1) Janice Konstantinidis

2) David Schwab

Congrats, Janice and David!

Places are still available. More info in the "Opportunity Alerts" below.


Opportunity Alerts: 


1) BiblioPublishing is looking for submissions of out-of-print or new books for publication through their small press. This 25-year-old press (formerly called The Educational Publisher) is branching out from educational books to other nonfiction and selected fiction. They're especially looking for self-help and sci-fi. They provide cover design, formatting and distribution, but ask your ms. be pre-edited. They publish in print as well as all ebook formats.

2) $2000 Grand Prize. NO entry fee. Call for Entries—The Flying Elephants Short Story Prize, sponsored by "Ashes & Snow" artist Gregory Colbert. AndWeWereHungry, a new online literary magazine, seeks literary short stories for its debut issue fiction contest. THEME: "And We Were Hungry....," or "Hunger." For isn't it, to quote Ray Bradbury, hunger or "lack that gives us inspiration?"  Prize: One grand prize ($2000) + three finalists (each $1,000) + eight runner-ups. Deadline: March 31, 2013.

3) Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

4) Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo  NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.

5) Tech-Savvy Author Workshop: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, Anne will be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd. Students get in for half price.

6) FREE BOOK!!! FREE on Amazon Feburary 24-28. Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie  ROXANNA BRITTON, a biographical novel about a real pioneer of the American west. The author is Shirley S. Allen, author of the bestselling mystery Academic Body and retired professor of creative writing from the University of Connecticut. (Also Anne's mom.) It's a delicious page-turner and a slice of real history based on family records and stories. Roxanna Britton was Anne's great, great, grandmother. This book is now available in e-book with a lovely new cover! This your chance to read it free.

Free! Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie


This week Anne is visiting Alex South at Alex South's blog, Ten Stories High.  for his "ten questions" interview.

And our blog has been nominated for "Most Useful Blog" in the Paying Forward Contest. You can vote for us--and your favorites in many categories at the above link. Thanks for the nomination, Misha!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

12 Social Media Mistakes for Authors to Avoid

Are you "building platform" or just annoying people?

This week, author Mary W. Walters blogged that promoting your books on Facebook and Twitter is a total waste of time for book sales.

That's because Social Media is not for selling books. It's for making friends—friends we hope will help us in our careers sometime. It's for networking, not a direct sales tool.

Mary Walters is right when she says, "Most book-reading folk...aren’t interested in advertising and promotional copy, or in watching writers pat themselves on the backs for winning awards or getting great reviews. They are interested in discussions and opinions about books. They are interested in two-way exchanges about literary matters – not in one-way communications."

One-way communication is a misuse of Social Media—and that's why it doesn't sell books. 

And why we find it so annoying. 

Author Elizabeth Ann West rebutted Mary Walters' post in a comment on The Passive Voice . She pointed out: "The problem is most authors start using social media in a professional capacity for the first time when they publish and guess what? It takes a large amount of time the first few months to figure it out and test it out and make social connections."

In other words, they blindly jump in and start screaming "buy my book" at everybody instead of making friends with people who could then suggest your book to readers in your target demographic. 

It's like going to a Chamber of Commerce mixer wearing a sandwich board advertising your restaurant instead of schmoozing a large company's event coordinator and getting her to use your restaurant's banquet room for future company parties. 

Don't wear a sandwich board to a cocktail party. Be subtle. Make friends. Anything else is misusing the medium.

I've made a list of some of my unfavorite misuses of Social Media here. I admit upfront that this is a very subjective list, so please feel free to vent your own pet peeves in the comments.

And if things I find annoying have made zillions for you in book sales, we want to hear about that too.

I think authors have probably learned their most irritating habits from “marketing gurus” who tell them they’ll make more money if they’re just “bold” enough to use social media “like an expert.”

Be wary of "experts" in new tech fields that are constantly evolving. What was OK a few years ago can be deadly now because it’s been abused or overused. Yesterday's "surefire sales tool" can be today's spam.

So here is my subjective and by no means comprehensive list of what NOT to do in social media.

1) Spamming* somebody’s Facebook wall. A person’s Facebook "wall" is like their home.  Posting something there is like putting up a billboard on their front yard. Do not do this without permission.

If you’d like somebody to share your promotional material or make a plea for charitable donations, send an email or DM. And don’t be surprised if they say no. I know your "Ban the Roach Brooch" cockroach rights foundation seems like the most important cause on the planet, but everybody has one and when they spam my wall, I make a note NEVER to give to any of these charities.

The only time it’s OK to post on a person’s wall is to send a personal message that's about THEM and will enhance their page. Stuff like: "Love all the cockroach cartoons on this page", "Congrats on your new book," "I’ll be at your book signing tomorrow—save me a cupcake."

2) Creating a Facebook page and Twitter account for every one of your books, short stories, launches, life events and rainy Mondays. No, I will not Like and Follow your 50 different Like pages and Twitter accounts. You are not respecting my time, so no—actually, I DON'T like you.

In my opinion, an author only needs one Twitter account, one blog and at most, two FB pages: one for yourself as an author and one for your personal page (FB now requires a personal page in order to comment on most pages, so the personal one is useful, if a little time consuming.)

But no matter how much you love to spend time on Facebook to avoid that WIP, chances are most of your readers don't. (Your ideal reader is busy reading books.)

But if you must put up a new FB page every time you finish a chapter of your WIP or whatever you consider  to be a momentous occasion in your life, don't invite random fellow authors outside of your genre. We're busy promoting our own books.

Do join supportive, non-spammy writing groups like Indie Writers Unite —where membership is by invitation. But forming a group and automatically adding names without permission is not a good idea—no matter how good your intentions.

Which leads me to…

3) Creating an “event” or “group” and adding people’s names without permission. At least ten people I know launch a book in any given week. When you include me as a "member" of your launch "party" so I have to opt out and say why I'm "not going," I'm sorely tempted to tell you the actual reason. Don't push me.

I realize that FB encourages you to add the names of everybody you know to all your "events", and may even disguise the addition of names as "invitations," but don't go there. Mark Zuckerberg should not be anybody's role model for good manners.

Unless you know I’m a fan and a reader of your genre, don’t tell me about your book at all. I’m not your audience. I can cheer you on if you get a request from an agent or a great review, but I’m not going to read a whole page of your BUY MY BOOK ads.

If you spam me, I’ll remember you, but not in a good way.

4) Responding to Tweeted links without reading the article. If I tweet a link to a brilliant post at “Mystery Writing is Murder,” don’t tell me I’ve ruined your day because you just started writing a mystery novel and you don’t want to hear that it’s “murder.” That’s the name of a top-rated blog by Elizabeth S. Craig. If you don’t like the title of a blog or post, tell the blogger—ON THE BLOG.

If you want to start a Twitter discussion with me, say something like, “I just started writing a rom-com mystery novel like your Camilla books. Any tips?” Then—when I have time—I'll be happy to help.

But clueless arguing with a title isn’t going to make you any friends. And that’s why you’re on social media. To make friends. Not rack up a list of people who think you’re a jerk.

5) Tweeting as a fictional character and expecting people to respond as a character in your own personal fictional world. I’ve had people tweet to me in Pirate-speak and then get incensed that I didn’t Pirate-tweet back. And it wasn’t even Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Or they take offense at one of my general-audience tweets because it isn't about their fictional time period or planet. I am tweeting for anybody interested in the publishing industry—not for you in particular.

If you like to be twee, find other twee Tweeps to talk pirate or baby or aardvark or whatever language you like, but don’t expect professional writers to have time to play games with you.

These days, most people are on Twitter for information. It’s the best way to find out the most current news on a given topic, like the latest merger of the Big 6-5-4, that strange sonic boom in your neighborhood or whether your aunt’s neighborhood is under 30-foot drifts of snow.

When you send somebody an @ message that demands some sort of game-playing, you are behaving like a spoiled child grabbing Mommy’s arm and saying “Mommy, Mommy, look at my Barbie!” while she’s driving in rush hour traffic.

6) Blogging your WIP and asking for critiques and praise. If I see that anybody is blogging pieces of a novel in progress on a blog, I skip it. I figure they’re clueless beginners. (A WIP can never be traditionally pubbed if you give pieces away, even in rough draft. You are violating your own future copyright.)

Update: Please note: I said Work In Progress. By that I mean the rough draft of  an unfinished novel. Blogging is self-publishing. It's fine to self-publish good, solid edited work on a blog as long as you realize you're giving away your first rights. No agent will ever be interested in it unless you get a following of over 100K—which is very tough for fiction. You are essentially publishing the book as a serial. That's fine.

What's not is composing your book online and expecting the general public to function as your editors and beta readers.

People who do this tend to be the same kind of newbies who will accuse you of “stealing their idea” of writing a novel about a lonely, brilliant, disaffected youth who can’t get published because the system is rigged against him.

When I catch a whiff of this kind of amateurism, I run.

If you want critique, join a critique group. I highly recommend CritiqueCircle.com

If you’re a published professional giving us free stories about your main characters, or edited-out scenes from a published novel, again, that's great—that’s for your fans and they’ll love it. (Although you'll want to run it by your agent or publisher first.)

But be aware where you are in your writing learning curve. Most people do NOT want to read a beginner’s practice fiction unless they're getting paid to.

7) Blaming people you’ve friended or circled because you’re getting email notifications whenever they post. Your notifications from Facebook and Google+ are YOUR responsibility.

Unfortunately the default mode for social media is they send you an email every time your friend’s cousin’s Beagle farts, so as soon as you sign up, go to your home page, go to “Privacy Settings” (via that tiny gear icon on the upper right.) Then click “notifications” and turn them off.

Some guy circled me on Google+ and I circled him back because he’s a writer. (I’m not doing that any more.) A week later I got a furious email from him saying I’d been spamming his inbox, so I should uncircle him. I did. Immediately.

But he kept getting my posts (I only post there once a day or less, but for some reason it was making him furious) and he kept emailing that I had to stop. Finally I told him that HE had to take me out of HIS circle (and turn off his notifications) and I had no control over his settings. It didn’t end well. He’s out of my circles and onto my list of Jerks to Avoid.

8) “Thanking” people for following you by sending spam. It might seem like good manners, but a thank-you for a follow is generally unwelcome. Especially if the “thank-you” is posted on somebody’s Facebook wall.  Or loaded with spam. If you really want to thank somebody, retweet one of their tweets.

An automated message that says “Thanks for the follow, now you  are my minion: so go like my FB Page, LinkedIN profile, circle me on Google+, follow my blog and BUY MY BOOK and I’ll teach YOU how to be the kind of successful author I imagine myself to be!! Bwahahah!!!” is not good manners in anybody’s world.

9) Following and unfollowing immediately after you get a follow back. People do this to rack up numbers on Twitter. Which is idiotic. Numbers on Twitter mean nothing without engagement.

It’s like re-calibrating your scale to show you weigh 30 pounds less and expecting that to make you fit into size zero jeans. Or turning off the fire alarm to put out a fire.

You want real people who respond and retweet your stuff. Not just ciphers you’ve duped into being one of your statistics.

10) Tagging a photo that’s an ador worse, pornwith the names of all your Facebook friends. People are doing this ALL the time. I don’t know if they mean to or if it’s one of those diabolical Facebook “games” where if you click on the answer to a stupid question, spam is immediately sent out to all your friends.

Never, ever tag a photo with a person’s name without thinking long and hard. Especially if the photo isn’t of that person. I guess it’s a way to game Facebook into posting the photo on that person’s wall—but what do you gain by that? Now somebody thinks you’re a moron. And that benefits you…how?

You can sign up to have no tagged posts go up on YOUR wall without your permission in your "Privacy" settings, but it will not stop that photo from being posted on a lot of other people’s walls.

And if the photo is unflattering or unprofessional, don’t tag it, ever. Ask the person first if they want to be identified in your photo. I’ve become a fat lady in middle age. Most photos of me are hideous. NEVER take a photo of me and put it on the Interwebz without my permission, or you're going on my $%*! list for a good, long time.

11)  Not posting share buttons or your @Twitterhandle on your blog. Even if you’re not on any social medium but a blog, you can have a social media presence if your fans tweet your links and post them to FB, Google+, etc. But you make that very tough if you don’t have a “share” button (They’re available in your list of “gadgets” or “widgets” on your dashboard.) I have a bit.ly icon on my toolbar that I can use to share your posts, but most people don’t. (If you want the handy share function and url shortener on your toolbar, visit bit.ly.com  for a quick download.)

Also, try not to make your title too lame to tweet. Even though your content is great, it’s not worth sharing if I have to take the time to make up a good title for you. Lame titles are things like "Blue Monday" or "Thoughts". Good titles are questions, lists and answers. Stuff like: "Can You Write a Publishable First Novel?" or "12 Tips To Get Out of the Slushpile".

And if you don’t have your Twitter handle on your blog, I can’t credit you and you won't even know I tweeted you.

12) Hiding your identity behind a whimsical name or avatar. Don’t put a picture of a baby rhinoceros in a tutu as your avatar. Or call yourself @HoneyBooBooFan or @SexyBeast247. If you’re an author who wants to succeed, you need to be professional. The Internet is not Kindergarten, a celebrity fan club, or your favorite bar. For a rant on bad avatars, read the quote from Porter Anderson in my Feb 3rd post.

Treat Cyberia as your workplace. Because that’s what it is. Look and act professional and show you’re proud of who you are. That means letting us know your name or pen name every time you Tweet or comment on a blog.

***

A word on *spamming. Most people know that Internet "spam" is an inappropriate, unsolicited advertisement for a product. 

But a lot of things that can be perfectly appropriate in small doses are not when they show up too often.

Like newsletters.

I know that some people who are very savvy—like self-pub guru David Gaughran—say that newsletters are the best way to reach your fans.

They may be. But personally, I'm not fond of them. Partly because newsletters are one-way communication.

Also, I think they have been overused to the point they have become an annoyance. I only read one in about 50 and the rest go immediately into the trash—even the ones from big name authors. Some newsletters I may have actually signed up for when I had more time, but many come from people who just took my email address off my blog or a group email.

I figure if I hate having newsletters fill up my inbox, other people do too. We can say what we have to say here on the blog and people know where to find us.

But you might love newsletters. If you do, I really want to hear about it. I may be totally wrong on this. I’ve been wrong before. If you’d like a newsletter from Ruth and me, do speak up. In fact, if there’s anything you’d like to hear more or less of from us, let us know.

I agree with the statement Mary Walters made in her post, "As writers, we should focus our promotional efforts on trying to get people to talk about our books (review them, read and recommend them, give them awards, take them to their book groups, write articles or blog posts about them) instead of trying to get people to buy them."

What we really need to focus on is connecting with readers who aren't necessarily writers. Social media Jedi Kristen Lamb said it very well in an interview this week with Alex Laybourne. "We have to stop expecting “readers” to come to us and we need to go to them. We are talking about query letters and Smashwords and Amazon and agents and then wonder why we aren’t connecting with readers. Try talking about some stuff THEY like for a change. We need to start a dialogue on mutual ground, then that leads to a relationship which will eventually translate into sales... Spend less time being interesting and more time being INTERESTED.

And what about your pet peeves? Let us know what annoys you in social media. How about newsletters? Like or dislike? 

If you have a comment and Blogger won't let you post for one of their unknown reasons (talk about annoying) don't hesitate to email me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com. I'll post your comment with my response. 


WIN FREE TICKETS!!!


If you want to learn more about what to do and not do in building your platform, and you're in the vicinity of San Luis Obispo, CA, I'll be teaching a seminar called THE TECH-SAVVY AUTHOR with iconic author Catherine Ryan Hyde on March 2nd.

The organizers have given me two FREE TICKETS to give away this week! Each one is a $75 value and includes a yummy lunch. All you have to do is leave your email address in the comments or email me at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com  to say you'd like your name to be put in the drawing for the free tickets. I will then assign each of the contestants a number and go to Random.org on Saturday February 23rd to name the winners.

Contest closes at 6 PM Pacific time on February 23rd.

The winners will be announced in the post on Sunday, February 24th. More info on the workshop in the Opportunity Alerts below.

***

Milestone: This is the 250th post on this blog. Amazing. Especially since the first 50 or so were read by maybe a total of ten people. Now we have close to 1340 followers and a lot of very nice awards. Sticking with something really does pay off.

Opportunity Alerts:


1) BiblioPublishing is looking for submissions of out-of-print or new books for publication through their small press. This 25-year-old press (formerly called The Educational Publisher) is branching out from educational books to other nonfiction and selected fiction. They're especially looking for self-help and sci-fi. They provide cover design, formatting and distribution, but ask your ms. be pre-edited. They publish in print as well as all ebook formats

2) Tech-Savvy Author Workshop: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, Anne will be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd. Students get in for half price.

3) Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

4) Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Are You Neglecting This Important Book Sales Tool? 5 Steps to a Great Product Description


Today we have some valuable advice from Mark Edwards, one of the superstar authors who made indie publishing the powerful movement it has become. He and Louise Voss made history when their self-pubbed books soared to the top of the UK bestseller lists and got them a big-money deal with HarperCollins. 

One of the secrets to their success is their savvy use of the Amazon "product description" that goes on the Amazon buy page of your book. Here's Mark's advice on how to write brilliant book descriptions of your own.

PRODUCT DESCRIPTION A.K.A. THE BLURB: AN IMPORTANT SALES TOOL YOU MAY BE NEGLECTING
by Mark Edwards

When you’re trying to sell your masterpiece on Amazon or any of the other ebook platforms, you face two major challenges. The first is visibility. This is the big one. With all those millions of books, with many more being added every day, how do you even let people know your book exists?

The second challenge – and the one I’m going to address here – is how to hook readers who catch a glimpse of your novel, or hear about it, and take a look to see if it’s something they want to read. They will look at the cover, look through the reviews and read the description – sometimes called the blurb.

The description is, in my opinion, an underrated sales tool. Back in 2011, when my co-written novel Killing Cupid was hovering just outside the top 100, Amazon showed you what percentage of visitors to your book page had bought it. I was able to hugely increase this percentage – and double sales – instantly by rewriting the description. I did this after spending a few weeks analyzing the descriptions of the books in the top ten. I realized my original description was too messy, unfocused, as much about the authors as the book.

With its new description, Killing Cupid eventually reached No.2 on Amazon.co.uk (and our second novel hit No.1 at the same time), helped us get a traditional book deal with HarperCollins, and a few weeks ago, Peter James, one of the UK’s most popular crime writers, named Killing Cupid as his book of the year. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t rewritten that description.

So how do you write a good one?

Decide who’s going to want to read the damn thing.

From the moment you conceive your book, unless you are writing for yourself (and if anyone else likes it, it’s a bonus) you need to think ‘Why would anyone want to read this?’ What’s the concept, the hook? What makes it different – or similar – to other books? Imagine you have to elevator pitch your novel – as you describe it, do you picture gasps of excitement or eyes glazing over? For every writer, this is an important step – before you spend months of your life working on this novel, think about who would want to read it, and why.

This will not only help you write a great description when it comes to it, but will help you write something lots of people will want to read!

Make it sizzle

There’s an old saying in advertising: sell the sizzle, not the steak. That means you need to tell your prospective customer how you are going to make them feel – excited, scared, heartbroken, stimulated (intellectually or otherwise!) But with book descriptions, you need to serve up some steak too – you have to set up the story, hook the potential reader and make them feel not only that this book is worthy of their precious time and money but that they are desperate to find out what happens.

My advice is to study the blurbs of successful books in your genre. Look at both self-published books and traditionally-published books. Study the bestsellers, and in particular look at first novels, or breakout books. Work out what it was about this book that made it a hit. What made Colleen Hoover and Hugh Howey break free of the pack and have monster hits?

Structure your blurb

When I write a description I break it down into five steps:

1. Intro sentence – sum up the book in one sentence.

This can be a tagline like you might see on the cover of a book, eg ‘Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep?’ (Before I Go To Sleep). Or it could be a more straightforward description of the book: ‘Imagine if Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson sat down together to write a fast-paced medical conspiracy thriller, featuring rogue scientists, a deadly virus and a beautiful but vulnerable Harvard professor.’ (Catch Your Death)

Yes, namechecking similar authors is fine. Publishers do it all the time.

2. Set the scene – who is the main character and what is their situation at the start of the book?

The first sentence needs to set up the main character and where they are at the start. What is it about them that makes them interesting?  Are they a spy, a frustrated housewife, a lonely orphan whose family lock him in a cupboard under the stairs?

Don’t make this too long, because you quickly need to get to the…

3. Call to action and initial problems – what sets the story moving, what is the initial problem our main character faces, introduce one or two other major characters (not too many or it will get confusing).

What happens straight away to get the story moving? In your book, the call to action, or inciting incident, needs to happen in the first couple of pages or the reader will quickly get bored.

Is a body found in the Louvre? Does someone from the past turn up? Does the virginal student meet a handsome billionaire? Tell us what happens in two or three sentences. You need to get people hooked into the story; it needs to be familiar but also original – why is this story the one that your reader should buy next?

4. Cliffhanger – what happens next, and what is the big problem/dilemma/danger that will hook the reader in and make them want to read on?

You can’t give too much away – you need to lead the reader up to the point where the protagonist is on the cusp of something exciting or dangerous or life-changing. You need to be intriguing and hint at gripping events, painful dilemmas, mind-bending puzzles or a life-changing journey.

5. Summary – seal the deal; tell the reader why this book is so great and why they should read it. What kind of book is it. Make them excited!

The final paragraph can be more factual: “CATCH YOUR DEATH is a fun, page-turning thriller that also asks serious questions about how much we can rely on the people we entrust with our lives.”

If you didn’t compare yourself to another author in the first line, you can do it here.

Now all you need to do is sit back and watch your book shoot up the bestseller lists…with a little luck!


Mark Edwards is the co-author of Killing Cupid, Catch Your Death and All Fall Down. As well as being a novelist, he is a freelance marketer and copywriter. Download his FREE guide, Write the Perfect Book Description and Watch Sales Soar. You can find Mark on Twitter @mredwards. He is currently accepting new clients who want him to write their book description. To find out more, contact him here.

More on blurbifying in the archives here in Anne's post HOOKS, LOGLINES AND PITCHES.

What about you, Scriveners? How are your book describing skills? Mine could use an overhaul. I'm definitely going to work on mine using Mark's tips. 

NEWS: Anne is all over the Interwebz this week:

Whew!


NOTE: If you subscribed to get updates of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE and haven't received them, just email Mark Williams international Digital Publishing and put "SUBSCRIBE TO HOW TO BE" in the header. Send it to markwilliamsauthor at gmail dot com. Let them know if you need mobi-Kindle, epub, PDF or some other format. If you bought the book but didn't subscribe--or you bought the paper book--state that and you can still get an updated ebook.


Opportunity Alerts:

1) Free Online Calendar for Your Book Events. Popular Soda—a watchdog site for indies—Is providing some great services for indie and small press authors.  This free online calendar is open to any indie author events and contests, giveaways, and promotions that benefit the self-publishing community as well as ebook readers. If you are hosting a Goodreads event, a giveaway on your blog, or a writing contest, email admin[at]popularsoda[dot]com to have your event listed.

2) Worldwide Online Writers Conference. Kristen Lamb’s group my WANA (We Are Not Alone) is offering an online writers conference on February 22 and 23. (No I won’t be there. It’s my birthday weekend and I’m planning to take some time off from Cyberia.) But it looks great!

3)  Workshop with Anne and Catherine Ryan Hyde: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, Anne will be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd. (And it includes a great free lunch.)

4)  Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st

5) Learn to be a Ghostwriter! The only ghostwriting course in the world--via Cal State Long Beach extension ed. The term starts on Sat, Feb 16, 9-noon Pacific time. It's a live online class; i.e., they're on the phone and on a web interface every week for 15 weeks. The classes are seriously small, the information cannot be found anywhere else, and they say they have a blast every semester.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why You Should Google Yourself: It's Not Vain—It's Good Business


First: Many thanks to Writers Digest editor Robert Lee Brewer, who put this blog in his list of "Blogs that Rock" in his BEST BLOGS FOR WRITERS TO READ IN 2013 this week.

Yes, you should do frequent Internet searches of your own name. 

I have to laugh when I see writers apologizing on their blogs for Googling themselves.

They say stuff like "I'll bet you do it too" as if they were teen boys searching for MILFs and crush fetish pix.

It’s more like apologizing for balancing your checkbook.

As social media guru Kristen Lamb says “Your name is your brand.” How could it be “vain” to find out how your brand is doing?

Publishing is a business. Businesses need to take care of their brand's image. It’s why they hire public relations people. And advertisers.

I'm going to repeat Kristen's words again: YOUR NAME IS YOUR BRAND. New writers should make that their mantra. It's why you need to put your own name (or the name you write under) prominently on your blog. Preferably in the blog's header. It's why you need an "about me" page—with contact information. YOU are your product. Not a book. Not a setting. Not a genre. You.

NOTE: If you have a really common name like Anne Allen, use your middle name or initial on everything. Otherwise you disappear onto page 57 of a Google search.

When you think of bestselling writers, what pops into your head first: "Stephen King" or "that writer from Maine"? When you think of bestselling romance, do you think of  "The Last Boyfriend" or "The Perfect Hope" or do you think "Nora Roberts"?

Stephen King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, and Dan Brown are BRANDS. Not their genre, setting or titles. This doesn't mean "they're so vain." It means they're good business people.

You want to be a brand too. (Which means you have to use a pen name if your name actually is Stephen King or Nora Roberts.) You don't want to blog or tweet as @RomanceMomma or @PeoriaDude. Don't use a picture of a landmark, baby or the Tardis as your Twitter avatar. Don't name your blog, "Sweet Savage Surrender" or "The Rubens Code" (You can't copyright a title and chances are somebody's used it before. anyway.)

What you want to present to the world is YOU, the author.

Industry insider Porter Anderson is especially unfond of those baby-avatars. He didn't mince words when speaking of them on this week's Writing on the Ether. "When people use their (or someone else’s) childhood pictures as their avatars, it’s not cute, entertaining, funny, endearing, authentic, nor—and this is most important—informative. It’s just tedious. Would you walk around town with a picture of yourself at age five stuck on your face? No? Then why are you walking around the biggest city in history with a picture of yourself at age five stuck on your face?"

I love his description of the Interwebz as "the biggest city in history." We really are in the middle of a huge virtual city—and everything we do here is "in public." That means it's super-important to know exactly what image we're presenting—and make sure we don't have any virtual spinach stuck to our teeth.

So Google frequently to see how your image is faring. Don't count on Google alerts to keep you informed. They're pretty useless. I think I get an alert for maybe one in every 1000 mentions I get.

Here are some reasons why:

1) People may be saying nice things about you. They may like you, really like you. You want to get to know those people.

People may reference your blog, discuss something you said on Facebook, or retweet something you Tweeted.

When somebody compliments your blog or gives you a shout-out, go over and comment on their blog. I've made a lot of Internet friends by approaching bloggers who have mentioned me. It's really nice to know that somebody out there appreciates your work. Those are the people you want to connect with. It's why you're on social media in the first place: to socialize.

2) A reviewer may have reviewed your book.

They don’t always notify you. Even when it’s a rave. I just found a fantastic review of No Place Like Home I didn’t know I had. I found it doing a routine check on Topsy.com this week (more on Topsy below)

I also found somebody had left three stars on the book on Goodreads without a review. (So I asked some of my reviewers who liked it to go over to Goodreads and weigh in.)

If your review is three star or lower, do NOT comment or respond to the reviewer, except maybe a quick, polite thank-you. If they reviewed an earlier version that had glitches, it's okay to say there's another version with better formatting and you'll be happy to gift it to them. But otherwise, SAY NOTHING.

But you can learn a whole lot from reading your reviews, good or bad. I know there are "art for art's" sake writers out there who don't think writers should read their own reviews. They'd prefer to sit in an ivory tower and create art and not worry if anybody is buying it. That's fine if you have somebody else to manage your career.

But if you're your own career manager, it's important to see what people like and don't like, what works and what doesn't, and who your audience is or isn't. A bad review can tell you if you need a new editor or if your grammar skills need a refresher course. And they're valuable for choosing what to put in your next book and targeting your promotions .

3) Somebody may be dissing you or misquoting you.

This happened when I got all the negative comments about my post telling grandmas how to write reviews. In those days I didn't search for my name much. I got a heads-up from a nice Tweep who had been defending me. That prompted me to do a search of my name. I found out immediately that a few people had been whipping readers into frenzies with complete fabrications about me on Absolute Write and several blogs.

I stopped in to politely correct the mis-statements. I don't recommend doing this in every case. I did it there because 1) It was a moderated forum 2) Some lovely people were defending me and I wanted to support them.

But: big warning here—don’t say anything until you’ve calmed down and are able to do it with grace. I gave myself a couple of days and then tried to be a little humorous. One guy even thanked me for being a “good sport” after he’d lambasted me for something I didn’t say.

Sometimes it's best to say nothing. Just take names and bide your time. It's important to know your enemies but you don't always have to engage with them. It's wise to pick your battles.

A recent search turned up a forum where some students were saying idiotic things about me—that I'm an uneducated, self-published author (I'm trad-pubbed and went to Bryn Mawr and Harvard.) One claimed to have read one of my books and said it was terrible, but the title wasn't remotely like any of mine. Another took the first part of a humorous sentence from this blog and cut the punch line to show I was "arrogant."

But that time, I didn't respond. 1) Nobody was defending me. It was a dogpile perpetrated by an obvious bully and his sycophants. 2) They were caught up in a frenzy and seemed too irrational to enlighten. Some people only want something to be angry about. They'll get even more enraged if you take that away from them.

But I'm glad I found the discussion. Now I know who they are and I can be on guard and make sure the misinformation doesn't spread.

4) Piracy: Unauthorized sites may be selling your books.

Book pirates not only steal money from you, but they can get you in big trouble with Amazon.

I realized I hadn't been Googling my name enough when Amazon suddenly reduced one of my titles to 99 cents. I asked my publisher why, and he didn't have a clue. We finally found a pirate site was offering it for 99 cents, and somebody had reported it to Amazon, so the Zon price-matched.

In fact, a pirate can get you kicked off Amazon completely if you're in KDP Select, because of the non-compete agreement. Nobody else is allowed to sell your book—and it's YOUR job to find out if anybody else is selling it, legally or illegally.

Even if you're not in Select, you may get your book taken down because of piracy.  Romance author Elaine Raco Chase discovered this when updating one of her book covers. She uploaded it, then got an email from Amazon saying someone else had written the book and it was on sale in a number of places. She was told to prove it was hers or it would be taken off Amazon. Luckily it was a title previously published by Harlequin and she had the reversion of rights letter. But if you have a 100% self-pubbed title, and you haven't officially copyrighted the book (which most of us don't bother to do) you're in deep do-do.

Some pirates will take your book down if you ask. They don't want a hassle. And if somebody else is selling your book on Amazon, the Zon will take it down quickly once you prove it's yours. But you can't do that if you don't know the pirated books exist.

Google your name and your titles. Often. 

I also recommend using Topsy.com, which will tell you what impact you’re having right now. You can search your name for the last hour, couple of days, or month. Google is oddly anarchic when it comes to chronology, so Topsy is a must for me.

An occasional stop to Bing and Yahoo is good too. They can bring up a few things that may get lost in Google overload.

Also, a quick check at Klout.com  and PeerIndex will give you an idea of your social media reach. It’s important to see how effectively you’re using your social media time.

I'm not pretending there aren't lots of annoying things about Klout, and it can feel like a Jr. High popularity contest, but it helps you see how to use social media better. By looking at my Klout stats, I discovered that sharing images is a better use of my Facebook time than posting the useful links to publishing blogs that people like on Twitter. Facebook people seem to prefer LOL Cats and cartoons and my Tweeple like links to breaking news stories about the industry.

I think it’s because Facebook is more of an entertaining, take-a-break place, and Twitter is more of an information center.

Another great resource for finding out the state of your brand is your blog stats. I don't recommend obsessing about them, because when you start out they can seem really dismal. (I got between 0-5 hits per post for most of the first year of this blog.)

But once you start getting hits, check where they're coming from. Look on your dashboard for "Overview, then "more stats" then "traffic sources."

When you suddenly get 55 hits from one blog address, that means a blogger has probably given you a shout-out. Go visit.

And check "audience" too. It can be fascinating. You can see what kind of device people are using to read your blog. And where they come from. Although the vast majority of our readers are from the US, last week we had a couple thousand from the UK, Russia, Canada, France, Germany, Romania, Portugal, Sweden, and Australia.

Hey there, non-Yanks, speak up! We want to hear from you. I'd love to hear in the comments where all of you are from.

Then run off and Google yourselves...

What about you, scriveners? Have you done a search on your name recently? Have you found any useful information? Have you run into any pirates? Argh. And where are you from?

News:

The 2013 version of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE...AND KEEP YOUR E-SANITY is NOW LIVE.  You can read an excerpt from the book on Catherine Ryan Hyde's blog this week. She points out that many people have got the wrong idea about the book. It's NOT another manual telling you how to self-publish. It's about how to prepare to be a published writer no matter what road you choose. Lots of info on how to research agents, deal with critiques, whether you should rewrite without a contract...and much more.

If you subscribed to get updates and haven't received them, just email Mark Williams international Digital Publishing and put "SUBSCRIBE TO HOW TO BE" in the header. Send it to markwilliamsauthor at gmail dot com.  Let them know if you need mobi-Kindle, epub, PDF or some other format. If you bought the book but didn't subscribe--or you bought the paper book--state that and you can still get an updated ebook.


You can read an in-depth interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde and me about the new updates of How to Be a Writer in the E-Age...And Keep Your E-Sanity. It's over at You Read it Here First. Our wonderful interviewer is Joanna Celeste.

RUTH HARRIS'S BLOG will now have Thursday posts. Boomers, check out her hilarious "Boomer's Lament" this week. We'll both be posting over there, with more personal stuff and fun things about the stories behind our books. Next Thursday, February 7, I'll be talking about the cult of thinness and how the body size-acceptance movement sparked my novel Food of Love.

ANNE will be talking to Aussie romance writer Monique McDonell on February 5th at her blog. Plus I give the Secret Recipe for Leona's Chocolate Angel Pie from Food of Love.

NEXT WEEK: Mark Edwards, who is half of the superstar team that rode indie success to a major deal with HarperCollins with Killing Cupid, will be here. He's going to tell us HOW TO WRITE A KILLER PRODUCT DESCRIPTION—perhaps your most important sales tool in the digital age.

Opportunity Alerts:

#1 if & When--Literary Lines: Have you written brilliant lines you've never found the right novel or poem to put them in? Now you might be able get them published! A new literary magazine if & When, (pays in copies) is looking for your short fiction & creative nonfic (1500 words or less), poetry (50 lines or less, up to 5) and something I found intriguing: "Literary Lines": 1-2 original sentences that "you've been aching to use somewhere but never found the right project" (up to 5) Send your submissions to submissions@ifwhen.us in a word document, attached to an email with a subject line of “Genre, Last name.” Include first and last name, phone number and mailing address in the body of your email.

#2 Tech-Savvy Author Workshop: If you live on the Central Coast of California and you’re interested in learning about blogging, building platform and everything a 21st Century author needs to know, Anne will be teaching at a seminar called THE TECH SAVVY AUTHOR with Catherine Ryan Hyde, screenwriter and radio personality Dave Congalton and a whole crew of smart techie folks on March 2nd.

#3 Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

#4 Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERSare holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.

#5 $2000 Grand Prize. NO entry fee. Call for Entries—The Flying Elephants Short Story Prize, sponsored by "Ashes & Snow" artist Gregory Colbert. AndWeWereHungry, a new online literary magazine, seeks literary short stories for its debut issue fiction contest. THEME: "And We Were Hungry....," or "Hunger." For isn't it, to quote Ray Bradbury, hunger or "lack that gives us inspiration?"  Prize: One grand prize ($2000) + three finalists (each $1,000) + eight runner-ups. Deadline: March 31, 2013.