Q and A with Professional Editor Claire Baldwin

My first dalliance in publishing was a self-pub offering during a foolish time in my life when I under appreciated the difference a professional editor could make in the assembly of my manuscript.

Yeah. That was dumb.

So when it came time to getting feedback from a pro on my latest project, I was super nervous.

It was going to be her job to point out my sagging middles and cavernous plot holes.

And I knew quite well that before she was done, I was going to be one of many authors who can relate to a meme remarkably like this:

Editor pic i.jpg

The professional editor I chose was a lady from the UK named Claire Baldwin, and she ended up being a joy to work with.

She caught mistakes that went unheeded by multiple beta readers as well as the customary grammar correction gadgets.

She also helped me break through my word count barriers. Before Claire, my book was a paltry 28,000 words, and I believed in my heart and soul I could add no more. I now have 33,000 and I’m only half way through my largest round of re-writes.

Claire was also kind enough to answer some interview-style questions for a nosy author with a blog (below).

So for readers and writers who are curious about the editorial side of publishing, here’s a wee glimpse of what it all looks like from an editor’s point of view:

Q: Does your job as an editor make you happy, or does it make you look forward to retirement?

A: It makes me very happy. Like most editors, I’ve been a bookworm since childhood, and I feel so lucky that I’ve been able to turn that into a career. Of course, there are ups and downs, as with any job, but on the whole, I’m not sure when I’ll ever retire.

Q: After working with books for profit, do you still read for fun?

A: Yes, definitely, and I would say it’s impossible to do the job if you don’t always enjoy reading for pleasure. Every book an editor reads contributes to their knowledge of the market, even if they’re not strictly ‘for work’, so the lines are blurred about what constitutes reading for fun anyway. Time pressure from the sheer volume of manuscripts can get overwhelming, though, and when the submissions pile up, the bedside reading pile also starts to teeter at dangerous heights.

Q: Have you edited any books so good, you get distracted from the edits and found yourself reading it to learn what happens?

A: On my first read of a novel, I always immerse myself in the story to find out what happens, and writing a few notes and thoughts along the way doesn’t distract me from that. It’s on the second read that I go through a manuscript in more detail, dissecting and checking over things more slowly and carefully, making notes and editorial suggestions.

Q: How does working with British authors differ from working with American authors?

A: In terms of the editorial process, there isn’t a noticeable difference between British and American authors (apart from a character walking along the ‘sidewalk’ rather than the ‘pavement’ etc). Individual authors all have different quirks and approaches, and often different needs from an editor, and that varies regardless of where they’re from.

Q: Is there any genre you despise so completely you would neither edit nor read it?

A: No, good writing and story-telling will always draw me in (and sometimes the weirder the better – I was enjoying reading some spoetry the other day). And the delineation of what lies in which sub-genre can often be quite arbitrary. But for editing, my experience and focus have always been on fiction, particularly historicals and fantasy, so that is what I’m best placed to work on.

Note from Nosy Author: I was not hip enough to know what “spoetry” is before I Ms. Baldwin mentioned it, so I looked it up. The internet says spoetry is “poetic verse composed primarily from the subject lines or content of spam e-mail messages.”  Isn’t learning fun? I think it’s fun!

Q: Do editors tend to be writers as well, or can the skills of writing and editing be exclusive from one another?

A: Yes, there is lots of obvious crossover, and many editors are writers as well. In the UK at the moment there seem to be a particular raft of editors turning their hand successfully to novel writing. But being a brilliant editor doesn’t necessarily mean someone will be a good writer, and vice versa. There are different skills necessary which make each exclusive from the other too.

Q: Are there editors with so distinct a style, you can tell when he or she has worked on a manuscript, or is the idea to be the unheeded force that makes a novel extra lovely, like great bass lines in a rock song or subtle makeup on a beautiful woman?

A: The idea is definitely to be the unheeded force, the great bass lines in a rock song J. A good editor should never impose any personal style on an author and their manuscript, but work with that author to bring out their voice and the full potential of their book.

On the commissioning side, though, editors are recognized by the types of books they acquire for a publisher, with their taste and style coming through in the list they build up. There also used to be a trend (not as common now) of imprints being named after the editor who ran them, whose stamp of approval was enough to convince the trade that a book that editor had selected was one worth really getting behind.

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Many thanks to Claire Baldwin for making this post possible (and more interesting. I’ve interviewed myself before. Reviews were less than favorable). If you’re inclined to seek out her expertise in handling your next novel, you can send her a proposal / request for a quote on https://reedsy.com/#/freelancers

The Story of [my/your/his/her/its/their] Life (as told by a semi-reliable narrator)

2. Born to Write.png

Some people are born to write.

They work themselves into a writing frenzy, and before you can say, “Whoopsie-daisy,” they’ve typed up their publisher’s next best-seller.

These are what the queen of England might refer to as, “Lucky bastards.”

And she’d be right.

For the rest of us, writing is less a birthright than it is a life-long learning process at which we get better over time.

So there I was, trying to turn my congealed vat of alphabet soup into a novel, listening to a guy with tenure and a sports jacket tell me how it’s done when Mr. Sports Jacket proclaimed the following:

1.5. Life does not happen in Stories.png

And I said, “What?”

He went on to say that we use our fictional works make order out of chaos; that stories are fabrications made by us, not hanging in the air like apples on a tree waiting to be gathered and distributed to out family and friends.

flights of fancy.png

And I said, “You’re mistaken, Mr. Sports Jacket.

I have passed myself off as an author, bartender, a jail nurse, and a raggle-taggle gypsy-o. I knew a man who killed two people with a hammer who wrote me poetry and told me he’s taking me to Applebees when he gets out of jail in a hundred fifty years.

What do you mean, “Life doesn’t happen in stories?”

I have since learned that the psychologists are on his side. They say there are 2 governing voices in the conscious mind: the experiential self which feeds the brain raw data, and the experiential self which spins the data into a story for interpretation and storage.

Experiential Self: This jail cell is uncomfortable. What gives?
Narrator Self: Well, you remember that time you killed 2 people with a hammer?
Experiential Self: Yeah?
Narrator: Well, this is likely a consequence of that specific choice.
Experiential Self: Oh.
Narrator Self: Or maybe your just an unlucky victim of “the man.”
Experiential Self: Yeah. That must be it.

Some time has passed since this well-meaning fellow with tenure broke my brain with this statement, and after discussing the whole thing with writers I respect, I think I know what Sports Jacket Man meant:

1. Life happens in poorly-edited stories. If we didn’t edit out the times we slept, crapped, scratch, or stuttered, the story of our lives would be a tedious read.
2. Not everyone leads the life of a weirdo. Those who do the day job thing may go for long periods without mishap, whereas someone who’s restless, fearless, or accident prone will have stories to tell his friend on a more regular bases.
3. If you think your life happens in stories, you are not wrong. You can’t tell a writer their life doesn’t happen in a series of stories any more than you can tell a photographer life doesn’t happen in a series of still-lifes or a psychologist that life doesn’t happen in a series of Rorschachs.

Not only does the story come from any number of things a writer sees and hears, often it comes from things that everybody sees, but only one guy or gal chooses to immortalize / satirize it.

One of the fellows credited with pioneering the now ubiquitous concept of “topical comedy” is a Canadian born comic named Mort Sahl. It’s said of him he never wrote a single joke for his act. He’d just walked out on stage with a news paper and improvised a routine out of whatever he read.

Before Bill Cosby’s fall from grace, his stage show was incredibly reliant on biographical narrative. It seemed like he couldn’t so much as turn on his windshield wipers in error without finding a way to funny it up and work it into his act.

5. Dumb guy.png

Anyway, to sum up, stories are everywhere, if you don’t feel like you’re a born writer, it’s okay to write anyway.
You might even help you appreciate the prestige slightly more when you become an awesome writer.
And that’s all I got this week.
If you’re curious what this platform would look like as a clunky-but-sincere YouTube video featuring a handful more graphics and my enthusiastic speaking voice check out the link below:
If you’d like me to keep videos like this so one day, there’ll be enough of them to binge-watch, please like, subscribe, or let me know in the comments.
Take it easy. Loves you. Bye.

What’s in a name: 5 tips for reluctant brand-builders

For marketing wizards to whom self-promotion comes easy, branding is miraculous.

It’s the invisible psychic force that compels grocery store customers pick up a full-price box of Lucky Charms over a less expensive bag of Marshmallow Mateys.

Marshmellow Mateys

The way this miracle works is not terribly mysterious. The brand name carries with it a lifetime’s-worth of seeing commercials and growing up with that brand. There’s a promise of quality in certain names that compel customers to choose the tried-and-true brand over a product that is unbranded and unfamiliar.

Full Disclosure Time: When I was first introduced to the concept of branding, I did not believe it was miraculous.

In fact, my reaction to it was much like the one I have when multiple, consecutive disco selections are played on the oldies station where my Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot used to be… a mild anaphylaxis and the words GET IT OFF ME!

To me, it seemed branding was what happened to cattle when the old-time rancher wanted to mark them as part of his herd.

Not fun. Though I managed to find an online image of a “fire brand” online that does not make me queasy.

Bee-Grade

Also, I’m a little too ADD to synonymize myself with any one genre or writing style. It’s hard to say which character’s gonna keep me up nights until I get around to telling his or her story.

To be clear, I do not condemn anyone who’s great at brand promotion. I stand in legitimate awe of authors without whom we couldn’t imagine the genre as it is today, such as fantasy sans George R. R. Martin or mystery sans Arthur Cohnan Doyle.

But Doyle rather famously hated Sherlock Holmes! He even tried to kill Holmes and abandon the brand, but he reluctantly revived Holmes because together, Holmes and he could reliably make money.

Happy Holmes

Not exactly the dream-come-true we often think writing careers should be, right?

After much contemplation and having to rewrite this article a couple times to minimize my own nhilism on the subject, here are 5 strategies for writers who have hith..loathe to pay homage to the branding beast:

1. Pick a genre and stick with it, come what may (my least favorite option). Some lucky ducks sustain a passionate, life-long love affair with their brand which happens to include a particular genre and writing style. Others stick to the brand when the love grows cold and figure, “Oh well. If it was fun, they wouldn’t have to pay me to do it.”

2. Screw branding and write what you want. This is not necessarily the thing to do in the midst of building your fan base, but it’s a right and proper thing to do at either end of your writing career. Pre-Audience you will feel free-er to explore what you like / what audience responds to. Established You may get enough love from the book community to trust your audience will go with you on new and out-of-the-way journeys. The era in between is when brand defiance makes your (and perhaps your publicist’s) life a bit harder.

3. Cultivate multiple brands at once. Some writers have a small collection of pen names and personas for different audiences. This means slower potential growth for each of their brands, but they always get to write what they want. By using an alias or ten, you can write a picture book, a lit fic novel, a gardening manual, a military sci-fi saga, and “choose your own adventure” pornography series and never need to worry you’ll alienate your audience. The ones who wouldn’t like your latest title don’t even have to know it’s you.

4. Use your brand as a buffer between you and your audience. You know how if you start an LLC, you insulate yourself from certain legal woes while reaping personal rewards from the business you built? Your brand can insulate you in a similar manner from fools who want to be jerks to you based on the way you write and carry yourself. When trigger-happy critics open fire on your latest creation, or some internet troll uses trashes your name in a post in all his comma-splicing, run-on sentence glory, don’t take it personally. As much as they might want to think they’re worth your time and raised blood pressure, they haven’t actually attacked you. They’ve attacked your brand. And if you play this crazy marketing well enough, your brand’ll be bigger than your haters.

5. Define your brand by what your books have in common. This is the item on my list that gives me the most hope for my own books, because I’ve never done the same thing twice, even in my series which went from kinda-sorta novel to graphic novel. The only thing they truly have in common is a common writer, and sometimes that’s enough.

Part of what inspired my change of heart on branding vs. the writer’s voice was learning that Marathon Man and The Princess Bride were written by a guy named William Goldman.

Buttercup's Baby.png

In his own estimation, the only things those works had in common were as follows: pain, anger, and the most relatable characters die miserably.

Quoth he…

“…I was the guy who gave Babe over to Szell in the “Is it safe?” scene and… I was the guy who put Westley into The Machine. I think I have a way with pain. When I come to that kind of sequence I have a certain confidence that I can make it play. Because I come from such a dark corner.”

(This may or may not be a digression from the topic at hand. I concede, I may have merely thought William Goldman is awesome and wanted to call attention to more of his words)

In summary, branding can be scary.

Take whatever approach you need to make it less scary, ’cause marketing’s a thing that will help you better dispense your stories.

And, as the ancients who govern the sad, disco-esque oldies stations might say, “Write on!”

 

To Be Continued: 7 Tips for Writing Your Sequel

I’ve been picking at my own sequel for about 4 years, now.
I know, I know…
Pick Your Sequel
Alas, it’s shameful but true.
The second book in my vampire series has been something of a best seller for the publisher who picked it up. Therefore, a similar, follow-up title should be an easy way to engage readers and make money.
Right?
So why can’t I seem to finish this sucker?
Is it good, old-fashioned procrastination or perhaps laziness on my part?
Well, 2 books in the series were therapy books. I wrote them in a truly terrible time in my life when I hated everything and cried a lot.
To finish the sequel, I’ll need to revisit some dark issues, and I don’t wanna. I like to think that’s not who I am anymore.
Nevertheless, for not-me writers who want badly to send their characters on a second or third adventure in a series, here are 7 ways to learn from my errors and (potentially) expedite the second coming of your protagonist in the form of his or her sequel.
(Unless you’re a romance writer. Then, you’ll hurt your readers’ feelings, if it takes 2 whole books to get a “second coming”)
1) Ask yourself early and honestly, “Does the story I’m writing strike me as a series or a stand-alone novel?” If you’re a consistent underwriter, it may take all your guile and fortitude to fill one, great book. If on the other hand, you have so many ideas your speech-to-text can’t keep up with you as you spit them out of your face, you may have the genesis of a series ricocheting around in your head.
2) Re-read your first book. I’ve been advised against this course of action by those on the business side of publishing because, if your novel is a year or more old, you will likely see 10% awesome prose and 140% embarrassing mistakes within its pages. This could shake your faith in that novel and make you less enthusiastic when promoting it on your platform(s).
*Hint: If the author doesn’t believe in his or her book, the reader won’t either*
However, the grand thing about sequels is they allow you mend plot holes and explore ideas that were hitherto uncharted isles on the sea of your written words. My favorite example of this is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys freak out when Harry strikes up a conversation with a snake at the local zoo. For all we know at that point in the series, this is something all pre-teen can wizards do. We learn later in The Order of the Phoenix how only a few wizards can do this, and the ability to speak parseltongue makes Harry weird, even by Hogwarts’s standards. It doesn’t much matter whether Harry’s snake-charmer routine was a carefully planned part of his backstory or the idea occurred to Rowling as she explored her own make-believe world, but to me, this part of The Order of the Phoenix reads like she looked back at her first book a little before she wrote the second and thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if [previously non-existent story line existed]?”
3) Pick a genre for all seasons. Trends like vampires, dystopia, and steampunk will always have a bit of a following,  but if you were, say, writing a vampire novel minutes before everyone got sick to bloody death of Twilight (like the idiot who’s writing this post), you may have unwittingly set your book up for failure. That doesn’t mean you can’t write the books you want to write henceforth. It just means your book sales may suffer if you don’t pay attention to marketing trends and seasonal demand. For instance, if you indeed have a vampire book to peddle, you might consider hyping in September so you can catch the Halloween crowd. Or, if you’re  working on a steampunk adaptation of Taming of the Shrew at the same time Quinton Tarantino is wrapping production on his movie adaptation, it may be wise to have your book on deck as a kindness to readers who are seeking an antidote for such a movie.
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4) Pick a genre you think you’ll be crazy about in 10 years. This will reduce the odds that the joy of writing will leave you. Can you imagine being Danielle Steele and harboring a secret hatred for all things tawdry or Stephen King a hatred for all things horror? How bad would that suck to live the dream of being a full-time author and still hate your job?
5) Decide how passionate you are about your characters. Are they dear friends? One time flings? Are they precious enough to you you would undergo the tears and toil of branding / rebranding yourself as an author in order to share them with the world? We’ll talk about pros and cons of branding at a later date, but if your marketing strategy has made you beholden to the branding beast, it’s gonna make a sequel in that genre hard to avoid.
6) Set realistic goals. This is actually something to keep in mind throughout your author’s journey, but I personally stink at goal-setting when it comes to my follow-up titles.
My attitude takes a nose dive somewhere about 50 pages in, and I go…
I Just Want it to be Done.png
The best antidote I know for this kind of thinking?
Pace yourself.

Don’t look at the grueling pace set by another author and pressure yourself to pump out a brand new book every 3 months. Instead, give writing your best shot every day, and accept that your best might vary from day to day. Otherwise, it’s super easy to get intimidated by the work you’ve cut out for yourself and give up midway through.

7) Decide if your sequel / prequel has to be an equal to your first book. Some writers are exceptional at writing and would rather publish nothing than see the quality of their books decline. Others are okay at writing but exceptional at marketing. If you are exceptional at marketing, you likely know already that you don’t have to be the best author if you can be the loudest, shrewdest, or most charismatic. Also, your publisher, your agent, or your own, sweet self will have an easier time promoting a lack-luster book than no book at all.
So strive for quality, but not perfection (?)
I can’t in good conscience tell you to value quantity over quality. I’ve just seen a lot of authors paralyzed by perfectionism to the point they never publish a single thing. I’d hate to see that happen to you, and I want better things for you and your books.
As always, the preceding has been typed by the loving hands of a dim-witted goof with lots of experience doing things wrong by her books. I hope the knowledge of these things helps you to dispense your books somewhat right-er.
Or “write-er,” if you like.
 

    

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Q and A with Illustrator Karen Swartz

Previously, on Self-Writeousness…
Last week, I wrote a blog post in which I fan-girled a wee bit over a splendid illustrator from Saint Louis named Karen Swartz.
(The pictures above are both her handy work, and I love them beyond reason)
Now, I’m kind of an illustrator, but if I had to categorize my illustration style, I’d have to say, “Inexpensive.”
And sometimes, you get what you pay for, y’all.
Karen, on the other hand, is the reason bedtime reads are still the makin’s of magical childhood memories.
Anyway, in striking up a casual conversation and asking permission to use some of her pictures for this blog, I also summoned my courage and asked if she could answer some questions from her perspective as an illustrator for whom art is not a hobby but a thriving, honest-to-goodness business.
The details of this impromptu interview are as follows:
   Q: Who (in the art world) inspires you?
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   Q: On projects like picture books or covers, do you prefer it when customers know what they want or when they give you maximum creative leeway?
   A: I always want my customers to be forthcoming if they have expectations, but I love when I have artistic freedom. Even if I’m given a very clear description for an assignment, I try to “read between the lines” as much as possible and clear important things (like character design) with my client while I’m brainstorming.
   Q: How have most of your clients found you (website, word-of-mouth, ect.)?
   A: I meet most of my clients in person, since I vend at numerous events around the country every year.
   Q: Does art still bring you joy, now that it’s your job, or does it make you look forward to retirement?
   A: It still brings me joy, and always will! There is nothing I would rather do for work!
        In any self-employment situation it’s really important to rely on habit over emotional motivation. If I’m not feeling a particular piece of work, I make myself sit down and work on it anyway, and it always becomes enjoyable.
        I’ll enjoy art even more when I can hire a secretary and an accountant one day!
   Q: Is there any subject matter you could not bring yourself to paint or draw (based either on you artistic limits or personal convictions)?
   A: I steer clear of graphic imagery as I just don’t enjoy it and I like to keep my work pretty family friendly.
   Q: As someone who is self-employed, how do you set boundaries between work and free time?
   A: If I were single I would be much worse at this (I used to work as long as I was awake), but since my significant other works more normal hours, I call it a day when he comes home.
       Sometimes preparing for an event means I work in the evenings, but most days I just try to get up extra early so I can feel like I got enough done when 5-6pm comes around.  My schedule has become so much healthier in recent years.
   Q: As you change styles and perfect your craft through the years, can you look back at your old work with satisfaction, or is the feeling akin to that of the actors who cringe when they view scenes from their older movies?
   A: I always try to do my best work and approach mistakes with the mindset that no image I make will be perfect, but it will certainly be better than the last piece I made.
      Mistakes are important, and allow improvement, so while I would not show old work in a portfolio, looking back makes me proud of my progress. Sometimes I wonder what I was thinking when I look at old artwork, but it’s usually because of the subject matter. I was a weird kid.
So that’s all I got for you this week.
Many thanks to Miss Karen for humoring some nosiness on my part.
If you saw something you like and want to peruse her other works, check out her website at https://www.keaswartz.com

Picture This: A Closer Look at the Art of Illustration

Illumination

In the American corner of the book world, there’s a weird rite-of-passage inflicted on young readers somewhere between ages 9 and 12.

The social expectation is that young readers will embrace the chapter book and esteem the illustrated works of their youth as nothing more than “kids’ stuff.”

Usually, this clever ruse to advance the reading levels of our youth works to the mutual advantage of parent and child. The child acquires a valuable life skill, and the adult has to do fewer dramatic readings of Captain Underpants.

This has not always been the humanity’s attitude toward books with pictures.

Back in Europe’s Dark Ages, before the novel, the printing press, or public education were facts of life, literature was not fun and accessible.

It was exclusive and boring.

Persons with power (including but not limited to the head honchos in the Catholic Church) had mostly managed to stifle literacy in non-clergymen so they could keep the knowledge contained in the written word to themselves.

Yay absolute power 😑

The problem was, since the populous at large could not read, they also could not tell the difference between a book of priceless, irreplaceable parchment and a stack of grocery lists.

As a result, the only documents that survived the semi-perpetual sackings of Dark Age Europe were the illustrated texts. Even the commonest man could interpret pictures on a page as something rather special in contrast to a book of words that meant nothing more to him than any other book of words.

Just Keep Scrolling

Later on, when the printing press and more widespread literacy came along, elaborate color pictures were phased out for the same reason (I believe) they get phased out for grownups, today:

Expense.

Illustrations are expensive, time-consuming endeavors, and the common man only had / has so much disposable income for books.

Therefore, more cost-effective books became the standard, and those containing illumination-style artwork became the relics of the rich.

Now, there are those who could argue that if authors do their jobs right, their books should not need illustrations.

That’s true to a degree, and I reckon lots of authors like the challenge of conjuring visions of dragons for their readers with some carefully-chosen magic words.

Likewise, the revival of the comic book industry and the gradual elevation of the graphic novel as a genuine art form have greatly helped legitimized books with illustrations.

Yet, there’s still a stigma on illustrated works that sometimes gets them dismissed as “childish.”

This is unfortunate because historically, the illustration of text was irrelevant how good the book was. It was merely a means of adding value to the text.

If you do not share my opinions on this topic, feel free take this all with as many grains of salt as you require. As a lover of kids lit who never completely outgrew illustrations, I think we “grownups” do ourselves a disservice if ever we dismiss illustrated works as “kids’ stuff.”

Also, let’s be real, Fellow Writer whose ears have been relentlessly pelted with the dogmatic phrase “Show, don’t tell” over the years. Can you say with certainty that an adjective-filled paragraph describing the tremulous awe of looking a dragon in the eye is more exciting to our readers than actually showing them a dragon with the help of an illustration ?

Dragonish.png

Let me give you one of my favorite examples of how, as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

For reasons that would take time to explain, I got to work with a terrific artist named Karen Swarts in producing the illustrations for a Jeff Scott book called Mallory and the Dragon.

The story begins with a little girl and her grandfather in a kitchen having breakfast. The little girl is between 7 and 8 years old and Grandfather may or may not be wearing a poncho.

That’s it. Those were the only clues Karen got in the context of the story about what the drawing might look like, and this is what she came up with:

1-Mallory-and-the-Dragon-Interior-final-KS

(I have since become a hopeless addict of this lady’s work. If you’d like to see more of her stuff, check out https://www.keaswartz.com)

In short, I guess a book with illustrations, once we reach a certain age, is like pants with no pockets. It’s not necessarily a hardship if they aren’t there, but it’s generally a nice surprise if they are.

And while anyone would complain about a garment with pockets / a book with pictures isn’t necessarily crazy, I think it’s safe to say that person has different priorities from me.

How to hype an aging book: too old to be “new release” and too young to be “classic”

Old books

As a rule, there are two kinds of books we discuss as book-lovers. One is the new release (“new,” as in “negative 6 months to one year old”) and the other is the classic.

I understand why this is so.

Classics are well-loved, perennial favorites, and new releases are our fellowship reads by which we bond with our fellow book-lovers as we semi-collectively take the same flight-of-fancy with a bold, new protagonist for the first time.

But what about the book that is neither a new release or a classic?

Unless the algorithms that govern the hyping of Amazon books have changed a whole lot in recent history, authors must obtain a significant number of reviews in the first few days or even hours after his or her book is released (I want to say the number of reviews is between 30 and 50). Otherwise, that book, like an uncourted debutante, languishes in a corner, unloved and forgotten before it’s gotten so much as its first wrinkle.

With so much value placed on new releases, how can authors hope to promote their books if they are too old to be “new release” and too new to be “classic”?

I’m still trying to subdue the elusive marketing beast with the rusty, old harpoons aboard my own authorship, but here are some avenues for the dispensing slightly older books that I have unearthed in my Melville-esque quest:

Joke book

In order from least to most expensive…

1. Offer books free in exchange for reviews. This item is #1 on my list because as a fledgling author, my well-meaning advisers said things like, “Never work for free,” and “Don’t undervalue your merchandise. You’ll make it look cheap.” To folks who may have heard similar advice and are hesitant to disobey it, consider this: your book doesn’t have to stay free. In fact, a limited time offer might spur potential reviewers toward acquiring your book, even if they don’t read it right away. Also, in the case of pursuing reviews, it’s less that you’re giving your work away than it is a trade; 1 review in exchange for 1 free book. That beats the living hell out of a Kirkus review, which costs $425 for one, lousy review (I can’t say enough nasty things about Kirkus, actually. If you like’m, cool, but I think they’re slimy, dishonest predators). For more on how to offer an e-book to potential reviewers, check out www.netgalley.com or www.goodreads.com/giveaway

2. Talk to the local press. Whether it’s your hometown or a town you’re merely passing through, sometimes news days are slow, and reporters could use a human interest story to help fill the pages of their periodicals / time allotment on their broadcast. If they say “No thank you. We’ve got bags of author interviews,” that’s that, but sometimes they don’t. And again, it costs you nothing to ask.

3. Donate your book to a library. There’s no guarantee anyone will pick it up, but unlike giving away dozens of free copies to individual reviewers for maybe one read apiece, you can give away one copy and potentially get dozens of people to read it. My favorite is Little Free Library, but if ever you visit a brick-and mortar library that is a trifle underfunded, they’ll likely be overjoyed to take any free books in good condition, including yours.

4. Stage a radio give-away. If your platform is new, and you can’t picture fans signing up for a give-away on your website, contact your local radio station (by phone, not e-mail. E-mail is too easily ignored these days), and tell them you’d like to do a give-away on their morning show. This might cost you something, but morning shows are boring, and there are people at work / on route to work who listen every day just for a chance at the give-aways. Better yet, if you can line up an event later that week, then encourage the radio host to announce that anyone who missed out on this give-away can find you at Library / Book Store du Jour at your upcoming event, you can increase your odds of a successful book-signing* through radio advertising.

*Notice how “book-signing” doesn’t have it’s own bullet point? That’s because book-signings are long, excruciating ordeals seldom worth the headaches they induce… unless you’re famous already or you’ve done a kick-ass job promoting it which–let’s be real–if we were good at self promotion, our books wouldn’t be the languishing orphans we gotta bust out butts to promote years after their release.

5. Network at trade shows. Three ways authors get into trade shows are “Buy booth space,” “Speak on a panel,” or “Be famous already.” Booths can be expensive, but sometimes, you get what you pay for (for instance, Book Expo America in NYC is a yearly pilgrimage for bibliophiles of all sorts, and there’s a high likelihood of making money back, whereas high-profile conventions in Hawaii or Puerto Rico are likely to be little more than super scenic tax deductions). If you are charming and can speak with authority regarding anything at all in the writing world, that may qualify you to be a panelist or featured speaker at such an event. While you often won’t get paid to speak, someone will want to buy your book as a result of seeing you on stage. And since lots of book-oriented introverts would rather get hit by a truck than speak in public, it may be you get pegged as “That [guy or gal] who speaks at events so more timid writer-types don’t have to,” which could lead to more speaking gigs. Plus, YouTube. So many convention visitors are there specifically to get footage for their YouTube vlogs. You never, never know how much exposure you’ll get from one brave moment of mingling with the book-friendly public.

So, those are my tips on hyping older-but-worthy book titles.

If you can think of some I missed, feel free to comment. I’m still learning much of the marketing junk we all need to know to be successful. I’d love to know your thoughts on how to keep your marvelous books in the hands of readers and out of the sad realms of obscurity.

Have a splendid week. I shall word at you more soon, I hope.

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When Bad Books Happen to Good Readers: 5 things we can learn from writers we despise

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We all have our own little lists of books that inspire us to be better humans and writers by virtue of their existence. That first, great novel that made us feel like the world of fiction was full of adventure and possibilities still gives us butterflies akin to those we felt for our first love.

Then, there are other books that do not deserve to occupy space on our bookshelves next to the works of J. M. Barrie or Lewis Carroll: the kind so terrible we hesitate to recycle them because “Future Toilet Paper” is too lofty a title for these wretched objects.

While no one likes the sadder-by-wiser style lessons bestowed on us by these books, here are 5 such lessons that may or may not soothe the sting caused by the disappointment we find within their pages:

  1. Good books are things of beauty. I’ve asked multiple editors if reading is still pleasurable or if it feels like work after having done it all day. They say it is pleasurable, but they are extra appreciative of good books. Bad books are something they gotta be paid to endure, which leads us to…
  2.  Life is too short for bad books. Many book reviewers are inclined to speak of their “Did not finish” pile as though it’s a locus of shame: “Sorry, everybody. I know some of you love this novel. I just couldn’t do it.” Readers should not need to apologize for knowing a waste of time when they see one and moving on. If a book doesn’t bring you pleasure, and no one is paying you to read / correct / review it, please oh please, spend that time you could’ve spent finishing that book you hate on seeking out more books to love.
  3. There is no such thing as an unpublishable book. Agents and publishing bigwigs will sometimes describe a book as “unpublishable,” and that is misleading. What they mean by that is “I lack the patience it takes to find a market for this book.” If Lolita and Handbook for Mortals made their way onto the Barnes & Noble bookshelves by any route other than that which leads through Self-Pub Hell (not that all Self-Pub is Hell, just the inhospitable corners where-in reading its bookish contents feels like a punishment), your book can make it onto those shelves, as well.
  4.  Sometimes, the power of marketing triumphs over good narrative. As much as we like to believe excellent books will sell themselves, how much of why we pick up a book has nothing to do with its quality? Folks picked up The Red Queen because the cover art was so exceptional, readers saw it and said, “I must possess it!” Books that bear the name “William Shatner” get picked up on the regular because they break the “so bad, it’s good” barrier. One of my least favorite books is sci-fi offering that could easily be marketed as “Star Wars meets 9/11 attacks.” There is nothing subtle, creative, or good about the story. But Dude’s book is a best seller with his publisher because the cover is amazing, the publisher hypes the snot out of it, and the author knocks himself out to promote his book at event after event. So as far as the publisher is concerned, quality books are less coveted than an author who is good at marketing. Marketing will sell the book. Quality will keep it in the hands of the reader and off the shelves at Good Will.
  5. Bad books inspire us to write better books. As much as I’d like to believe the novel is an author’s gift to the world, I’m a spite writer. Some of my best work has come from my looking at someone’s awful work and saying, “I can do better.” If you aren’t a spite writer (it’s honestly better for your soul if you’re not), the best advice I’ve read, heard, and given is “write what you want to read.” If you’re sick of seeing naught but nasty stereotypes or the dialogue is atrocious in your favorite genre, think of how you would fix it, and write a better story around it than you’ve hitherto seen. If you’ve encountered it in fiction enough to get sick of it, there’s likely someone else who’s sick of it too, and that guy or gal might be your biggest fan. Unless you don’t write the book. Then, the both of you might be stuck with commiserating with one another cruddy books.

So if you think you suffered through your copy of Twilight, Slammed, or Divergent for nothing, fear not. We can thank our lucky stars not all books are like the same, and revel in the books that matter!

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Better Heroes through Fabulous Villains: 5 tips and tricks

Snidely Whiplash

Back when the Roman Empire was a somewhat smaller world-consuming juggernaut than was it before the zenith of its rise, its main rival was nation called Carthage. History teachers have been known speak of a Carthaginian named Hannibal who herded elephants over the Alps in a valiant effort to destroy as much of the Roman army as possible. These teachers tend to focus more on Hannibal’s elephants than the fact that, well, he lost! The Romans just sidestepped the large, lumbering elephants and shot the Carthaginians with missiles.

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So if history is written by the winners, why did Rome immortalize Hannibal as a brilliant strategist rather than the resource-wasting, not-winner he was?

Smarter people than I am speculate the amended story made the history books because Rome understood the power of a well-told war story. There is little glory for the hero who defeats a lame-ass villain with one punch.

Give to Ceasar

So in order to make Rome look fierce in the eyes of posterity, they had to make Carthage look fierce as well.

While revisionist history is a sad, sad thing for lots of reasons, the storytelling principle employed by the Romans to make themselves look good is pretty solid. In order to get heroic deeds from our heroes, we need to give them truly villainous villains.

To that end, here are 5 things to bear in mind when conjuring your main character’s arch nemesis on the typewritten page:
1. Motivation – This is where authors get to humanize their villains via tragic backstory, good intentions gone twisted, or… no, I guess those are the 2 biggies. In farce, the villain need be nothing more than an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Comedies like Much Ado About Nothing and The Great Muppet Caper (I would totally go to see that double feature) go so far as to give the villain a chance to explain the motivation behind his dastardly deeds, and he proudly excuses them all in saying “I’m a villain!” While that might be how the hero sees it, a villain’s villainy is generally just a tool by which he aims to achieve a goal. For instance, Captain Hook not just a mean old man who kills small boys for fun. He seeks vengeance because a while back, a sadistic delinquent cut off his hand and fed it to a crocodile. Knowing why an antagonist is what he is doesn’t make him less antagonizing, but it makes his actions seem way more believable than a villain whose evil only exists to serve the plot.

2. Charm – For my money, the best villains do not bellow and do not lose control. They are smooth-talking con men or women with style, finesse, and all the best lines. Then, around 2/3 of the way through the adventure, they do something truly cruel to a character who is precious to you, and you hate them so very much. The betrayal feels far deeper because they made you love them in the first half of the story.

3. Good points – You don’t have give your villain a cornucopia of positive attributes, but a few here and there will make him seem way more real to your readers. Does the his evil have boundaries? Is he volunteer firefighter or an advocate against child prostitution when he’s not committing genocide? And how does he see himself? Cartoonishly villain-esque as he now seems to anyone but himself and his mama, Adolf Hitler did not see himself as Lex Luthor on crack. He saw himself as Superman fighting for truth, justice, and the Aryan Way.

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4. Intelligence – few things are more disappointing than if the villain is hopelessly out-classed by the hero. The best / worst example I can think of is King Stephan from the Maleficent movie a while back. There was a multitude of things wrong with that movie, but as far as characters were concerned, every one of them could be distilled down into a 2-word, “Adjective Noun” combo:

Stephan = Angry King
Aurora = Happy Princess
Phillip = Naive Prince
Flora / Fauna / Merryweather = Ditsy Nanny

Maleficent was an “Adjective Noun” combo as well, but it was one that left lots of room for expansion. As a writer or an actor, you can do a lot within the bounds of “Scorned Fairy.” Not so much with “Angry King.” To keep your characters from coming down with “Adjective Noun-itis,” it pays to make your villains smart and amazing, or it’s not satisfying when the hero defeats them.

*Pro tip: As much as it pains us cram the complicated characters we love into “Adjective Noun” combos (like “Confused Runaway = Huckleberry Finn” or “Brooding heir = Hamlet”), its actually awesome practice for when the time comes to condense our own characters for elevator pitches, agent inquiries, or book cover summaries.

5.  Depth – Is your villain interesting enough that he / she / it / they could have their own book? While you need never explore a world where up is down, good is bad, and your hero switches places with his dreaded adversary Freaky Friday style, it’s nice to have well-developed enough adversaries that you could. In Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the first half of the book is whiny narration rife with self-pity on the part of the title character. It’s a long, damn time before we get to hear the monster’s perspective on why he’s stalking his creator and killing the folks Frankenstein loves. When the monster explains the hell he’s been through since his creator abandon him, it gets real hard to see Dr. Frankenstein as less monstrous than his tormentor. If we’d seen the plot unfold from the moment the monster awakes as a confused newborn in a 9 foot body, whose father runs screaming at the sight of him, Dr. Frankenstein starts to look suspiciously like the real villain, here.

In summary, a hero is only as good as his or her villain, and the most interesting villains are the ones are the ones who bear traits that make them relatable to us or the hero in some way.

Also, Alps and Elephants don’t get along (someone write that children’s book, please. I will twelve kinds of buy a copy).

 

 

Why we (still) love Superman: 5 Tips for Writing Relatable Heroes

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My high school lit teacher was pretty laid-back, but one thing that seriously tightened his sphincter was when misinformed students referred to their main character as “the hero.” He much preferred the word “protagonist” to “hero” because in the classical sense, heroes are a highly specialized brand of protagonist who are, well, not that interesting.

Starting all the way back in the B.C. days of literature, a hero was a larger-than-life, practically perfect guy, who is permitted one epic flaw –  his fatal flaw – which 9 times out of 5 was what his nemesis used to exploit and destroy him.

And he died.

Always.

If the paragon didn’t die at the end of his story, he could be a legend, a myth, or a force of nature, but he was not, by the classical rules, considered a hero (for examples of this, think of your Lancelots, your Othellos and your Achilles-s-s).

The long suffering teacher who bemoaned our incorrect usage of the word “hero” also gave us the best writing advice we ever got in our lives:

In order to have a believable characters, they cannot be wholly good or evil.

Even though this advice ruined, like, all the Disney movies forever and ever, it was still tremendous writing advice, and I’ve never met anyone who could prove it wrong.

Yet, even within the boundaries of semi-classical heroism, there are several ways to make your nigh perfect paragon more interesting to the reader or at least understand the challenges you face in trying to make him or her less boring. The list that follows is my own top 5 tips on how to write an awesomer, more lovable superhuman.

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Since here in America, the best known fictional possesser of all these attributes might very well be DC Comics’ own Superman, I aim to use him as a reference point more than once.

  1. Weakness – Superman was the first comic book hero DC ever produced (way back in 1938, says the internet), so his creators understandably had to work out some kinks with him before he *e-hem* took off. One huge problem they cited with the early comics was that Superman was perfect. Since perfect people always win, there are no stakes, and it’s hard to get readers invested in what happens to your gallant hero’s story. To make Superman’s adventures less boring for the readers, Jerry Siegel and his team of writers introduced a modicum of weakness for the bad guys to exploit in Superman, such as kryptonite, the inability to see through lead, and the charms of Lois Lane. After nearly a century of busting Metropolis bad guys, Superman is still unlikely to fail long-term, but when he struggles to do what needs to be done, we can totally relate to him because we all know what it’s like to struggle.
  2. Motivation – True heroes like Superman or Captain America have reasons for fighting that don’t actually make sense to mortal man on a personal level. Sometimes, the only thing that drives them to do good in the world is that they were born to do it. Of course, if I’m honest, I’ve met folks who felt strongly they were born to do what they’re doing (preachers, doctors, and mommies come most readily to mind), and their approach to life might very well be reflected by the adventures of Superman / Captain America. For everyone else, there’s the more practical, less idealistic protagonist like Batman or Iron man who is motivated to do the right thing for lots of reason. Vengeance, insecurity, fear, money, love, spite, and friendship all play a part in their decision-making from moment to moment. The fact that their motives are complicated seems more real to us as an audience, because part of being human means waking up now and then and thinking ” ‘Because it’s the right thing to do’ is not a good enough reason for me to go to work, today. What else ya got?” Superman iii
  3. Growth – Here’s where protagonist like Batman have Superman beat pretty completely. See, Superman is the most human when he / Clark Kent is a misfit kid who hasn’t hit his stride in heroics. We have to suffer through a lot of endless space chases and Russell Crowe to get any humanity out of The Man of Steel, but when we find it, poor Clark is in the embarrassing throws of a nigh unto autism-style breakdown because he can hear everything, and the sensory overload is freaking him out. And that’s awesome storytelling! It’s heartbreaking and visceral and shows Clark as a kid who does not see the nonsense he’s enduring as a positive attribute. He just needs all the voices he hears to shut up so he can think, already. By the time The Justice League rolls around, he’s grown all the way into his hubris, and  he thinks what he’s doing is right all the time because he’s the one who’s doing it. Batman, on the other hand, adapts in nearly every issue. He’s moody, he’s driven, he lays the smack-down on Gotham’s most wanted, he watches movies with his adopted child, he sees the child grow into a young man,  he starts getting old and has to either build a better batsuit or train his replacement… Because he’s a human who has to adapt to circumstances that arise on his life journey, he the by no means same Batman he was in the first comic. Superman hit a plateau of awesome  early on and  pretty  much stayed there. Perhaps that’s the real reason why ancient storytellers killed off their classical heroes. Once they hit the character growth ceiling, they weren’t any fun to write anymore.
  4. A Foe Worth Fighting – I aim to cover this more completely in a whole, other article about villains, but in essence, if your villain is lame, your hero is lame. The point of the villain is to provide a challenge the hero must rise to meet. When your villain is badass, so is the hero.
  5. A World Worth Saving – This plays into motivation, but differs slightly in that a classical hero isn’t actually fighting for this world. If he’s Greek, he’s killing time as a hero until he can enter the Elysian Fields in valorous death. If he’s Norse, he’s berserk-ing ass off until the Valkyries show up and escort him to Valhalla. Not so with Superman. Smallville and Metropolis are special to him because they’re home. Home is a universal theme that stirs up all the emotions, and while it doesn’t always make us beat up bad guys in order to protect it on the regular, there’s usually something that matters to us at home that would make us want to defend it, if we had to. Also, I know plenty of cops, fire-fighters, and soldiers who identify strongly with Superman and really do beat up bad guys to protect home on the regular. So there’s that.

Anyway, those are my top 5 iotas of insight about how to better understand / write relatable heroes. If I missed any glaring ones, feel free to tell me about them in the comments. I concede heroes aren’t actually my best things (something I imagine will make itself plain in the villain article, coming soon to a computer screen near you).

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