Monday, April 28, 2014

My 15 favourite proofreading tips

Don’t you just hate it when you see a typo in work you’ve just published, posted on a website or sent to a client?

Creative Commons image: Wikihow
Every writer needs to learn how to proofread. As a professional editor for over 30 years, I have a few favourite techniques for effective proofreading. Here are some, plus a few ideas I picked up from some other professionals.

1. Plan for proofreading. Set aside a number of hours in your schedule. Proofreading is a step as essential as researching, outlining or drafting. Never send your work to an audience without checking it over. Set aside enough time to allow you to proofread your work more than once. 

2. Leave it alone. When you re-read your own work, you often don’t see what you actually wrote — you see what you intended to write. Put the document aside overnight, if you have the time. Leaving some time between writing and proofreading will help you spot the keystrokes you  did not intend to make.

3. Post a list over your desk of words you often misspell, and the conventions for the document — whether you’re using Canadian, British or US spelling; acceptable short forms; units of measure; whether you use the Oxford comma or spaces around em dashes, and so on — that could change from one project to the next.

4. Proof once on-screen. Take advantage of the spelling checker function of whatever word processor you use. Look for the wiggly red lines and fix the errors they identify. 

5. Don’t depend on the spelling checker. It can’t tell whether you meant form when you typed from, and it doesn’t always know when you typed its when you should have typed it’s. 

6. Don’t depend on your on-screen proofreading. We don’t read words on screen in the same way that we do on paper, so you’ll find different kinds of errors — and miss different errors, too — depending on which medium you use. Print out your document and read it on paper.

7. Proof BIG. One of my favourite proofreading techniques is to print out the document at large size, twice as big as you would normally. When I was a magazine editor back in the days of waxed paper galleys, we would copy our 8 x 10 inch pages onto double-size ledger paper (11 x 17 inches). The mistakes would practically jump onto your face. If your printer can’t handle large-format paper, you can still print out your document with 18-point type. You’d be amazed at the difference.

8. Use a brightly coloured pen to mark the errors. If you use a graphite pencil, it’s harder to see the corrections you made when you’re entering them into the computer file.

9. Read it backwards. This will take your attention away from the meaning of the text, and reduce the tendency to fill in errors with your intentions.

10. Read it aloud. Hearing the wrong word reinforces reading it.

11. Read headlines and sub-headings in a separate pass. I find that the errors that I miss are often in display text, which seems counter-intuitive, as this is larger and more visible than body copy. After you’ve read and re-read the body, go back and pay close attention to only the display text.

12. Review different elements separately. Take another pass through the document to proofread image captions, tables, page headers and footers, call-out text, etc.

13. Take another pass to review numbers, facts and the spelling of names.

14. Read  it over once more, just to make sure.

15. Get someone else to do it. Someone unfamiliar with the text will find more errors more quickly than the author.

What’s your favourite proofreading technique? What’s your most common error?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Hopping on the Writing Process Blog Tour

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I’m it, twice! I was tagged by two different bloggers for “My Writing Process” blog tour: Mohana Rajakumar and Autumn Birt.

In this tour, I have to answer four questions about what, why and how I write, then link to the bloggers that tagged me and tag two (or three, depending on whom you ask) more authors in turn.

I have tagged Fred Brooke, Gary Henry and Terry Tyler to follow me.

Now for the questions.

1.       What am I working on?

The project closest to completion is a memoir in novel form, tentatively titled Broken Boots. It’s the true story of my father-in-law, who was drafted into the Red Army in 1941, just before Germany invaded the USSR. The manuscript is now with my capable editor.

At the same time, I’ve been working sporadically on another work that crosses genre boundaries, Dark Clouds. I published the first chapter, “The Mandrake Ruse,” as a free short story a couple of years ago, and have posted other random chapters on various blogs.

Dark Clouds is genre-buster, combining high-tech spy thriller with contemporary paranormal mystery. And a love story, too.

2.       How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I like to combine elements of various genres. Broken Boots combines biography with military action thriller—the subject has, alas, passed away and so I have to fill in some of the details with impersonal research about the Eastern Front of the Second World War, and my own imagination. But it’s still true to the story.

Dark Clouds breaks the rules of the urban paranormal genre by mixing it thoroughly with the high-tech spy thriller. If you’ve read the first chapter (just click the tab under “Free stories and chapters” in the right-hand column), you’ll know that it’s the story of the Witch Queen, her immune-to-magic son and his wife. The plot from there will involve international spies, the oil industry and a political conspiracy.

3.       Why do I write what I do?

I don’t remember whether it was Samuel R. Delany or JRR Tolkien who said that he wrote stories he wanted to read, but could not find. I wanted to write a story about dragons that showed how they represented the deepest and most powerful expression of the natural environment, but could not find any. I really wanted to get away from the fantasy trope about kings and princesses.

Parts of stories seem to pop into my head, actually: beginnings, endings, scenes in the middle. Extending those ideas into a complete narrative, with a beginning middle, end, believable and interesting characters and a good style, as well as enough fact to keep it all hanging together, is where the hard work comes in.

4.       How does my writing process work?

It varies. For example, one day I heard or read a challenge to come up with the scariest opening for a scary story for Hallowe’en. My first thought was “He always knew when his mother was about to arrive.” Then I thought, why is his mother so scary? For some people, it might be the thought of having to clean up the house before she gets there, but that wouldn’t make much of a Hallowe’en story. So, what’s scary about Mom? How about if she’s the queen of all witches? Then I thought, to make it more interesting on a personal level, what if Mom the Witch Queen doesn’t like her son’s wife? Maybe they’re both witches — enemies on a metaphysical plane as well as rivals for the hero’s attention.

I don’t know where the next element for the story came from, but I decided to make the hero, Matt, immune to any form of magic.

Once I have these basic elements, the next step is to create a story arc — where the story will go, in the broadest terms. From there, I can create an outline, and break that into chapters. That will tell me what kind of supporting characters I have to have, and also whether I need to do any research. I have to have some kind of direction before I can start filling in details.

I always write from an outline. I even outline chapters, at least in my mind. But it’s always better to have it on paper. That way, I don’t forget things.

That’s not to say the outline cannot change. As I write the story, I’ll realize there are details and back-stories to create. I may have an inspiration that will spin the tale in a new direction. But I still have to reconcile the outline so that the story makes sense.

I usually rewrite chapters two or three times, and then rewrite the whole book at least twice. That’s before I get to the editing stage. I like to have at least two people besides myself edit a book, and at least one of them has to have some kind of professional background in editing and/or publishing.

Autumn Birt
It takes a long time, but I feel it’s important to have a quality product for my audience.

Thanks again to Mohana and Autumn!

The tour continues

Now it’s my turn to tag three bloggers.

Frederick Lee Brooke is author of sci-fi thriller Saving Raine and mystery thrillers Doing MaxVinyl, Zombie Candy and Collateral Damage. His blog is Author Unplugged.

Born and raised in Chicago, Fred has lived in Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, France and Germany and now lives in Switzerland.

Terry Tyler is the author of six books, including You Wish, which I reviewed. Her latest is Kings and Queens. Living in the UK, she has a blog about writing and also writes about self-publishing for the UK Arts Directory.

Gary Henry, blogger at Honest Indie Reviews and IndieUniverse, and author of AmericanGoddesses and two collections of stories. He is also managing editor of a glossy monthly print magazine and an avid runner.

Over to you!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Ocean of Fear: A geeky thriller that I could not put down

Author Helen Hanson describes her writing as “thrillers for geeks”

There’s a certain geek factor in all thrillers. Many thriller authors write loving descriptions of cars, guns, bullets, bombs, or bullets. I have read several descriptions by different authors about how a bullet bounces around inside a skull and precisely what it does to a human brain.

But I actually enjoyed the geek factor in Ocean of Fear. Hanson made the geeky-technical aspects integral not only to the plot, but also to one of the main characters. 

What makes a good thriller?

To make a thrill, an author needs to build tension. The readers have to care enough about the characters and believe the situation enough to say “Oh no, don’t do that! You shouldn’t have done that!”

When the tension snaps, the author has to surprise you. It’s not a thrill when you know what’s going to happen

There are a lot of those moments in Ocean of Fear.

Plot points

Like any good thriller, Ocean of Fear begins with a murder. Baxter Cruise (character names are not this author’s strong suit), a grad-school dropout turned email spammer, discovers UC Santa Cruz professor, Dr. Allesandra Bisch, dead in her office. Baxter’s employer, Professor Sydney Mantis, had given Baxter a flash drive and asked him to give it personally to Dr. Bisch, as well as to look after his, Mantis’s dog while he suddenly had to leave town for a few days.

The mystery is not who killed Dr. Bisch — the author introduces the assassin in Chapter 2. The mystery is why, and the tension rises as the main investigator, FBI Special Agent Claudia Seagal, puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and as Baxter gets pulled deeper and deeper into the trap laid for Dr. Mantis. 

Hanson knows how to ramp up a story by taking it in unexpected directions. It turns out that the professors, Bisch and Mantis, were developing robotic submarines for drug dealers to use to smuggle their product into the US. Special Agent Seagal. This is the geek factor: Hanson tells us enough about robotics and remote control to make the story work, so that we understand that this story just could not happen without this technical detail. However, she never gives too much, never bores us with technical factoids that we don’t need. Every word is a plot point.

Engaging and critical backstories

Despite their unfortunate names, the characters have interesting backstories. Hanson is also skilled at not drowning the reader in long information dumps, but revealing details about Claudia’s deceased husband, Baxter’s dead parents, Mantis’s habit of seducing students, even the bad guys’ back stories as they’re needed. Readers begin to feel for the characters, to hope that their plans work out. The sibling rivalry between the two main baddies really rang true.

Two weaknesses

There are only two weaknesses with this story. First, there are the character names. The author shows us in Chapter 1 that “Dr. Bisch” is an intentional joke, but then there are all the animal names: Dr. Mantis, Agent Seagall. I don’t know if this was an intentional gag, but while there are some humorous moments in the book, it’s not overall a comedy. It’s a thriller that takes engaging, believable characters on an exhilarating ride to an explosive and satisfying conclusion.

The other weakness was the cover. It’s professionally done, but maybe a little too clich├ęd. It gave away too much of the story, instead of making me want to open the book.

But those are minor flaws. In the end, Ocean of Fear is a good, satisfying read from a skilled author.

4 *.

Visit Helen Hanson's website and blog and learn about her books.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Guest post: The best and worst of HarryWiddifield

Hi. I'm Harry Widdifield. I've written both as myself and as Sevastian Winters. I don't often do guest posts like this anymore, but on a whim, I decided to put this out there. Maybe you'll see some value in it.

When asking me to do this post, Scott asked me to consider the answers to two questions:

  1. What is the best thing I've ever done as a writer?
  2. What is the worst thing I've ever done as a writer?

These are both excellent questions, and interestingly enough, it took me about 2.5 seconds to know the answers to both.

The best:

In 1996, I had an idea for a short story about a serial killer who won “the game.” I've always thought of serial killing as a game more than a crime, and figure that we would solve more of them more quickly if police saw it as a game as well. Anyhow, I'd never written anything just for fun before, and so just for fun I wrote it.
Nine years later, after 16 years as an entrepreneur and marketing professional,  I had some time off from my four years as a corporate CEO, and thought perhaps I would turn that old story into a novel.
Before I started writing, I set out to read the classics, thinking that if I did, perhaps I'd learn enough about writing to give ol' Steve King a run for his money. (I call him Steve. He doesn't even know I exist.) When I finished Moby Dick, I figured I had the answer — the building blocks I needed to write my novel. And I asked myself this question: What if the whale was, after all, a cognizant beast, still driven by instinct, but wholly diabolical and completely human? From that thought, My Eyes Face Forward, a book I've never published, was born.
For the next three months I toiled night and day, perfecting my masterpiece, like a blind man painting by number, fully expectant that the Mona Lisa was revealing herself and the secret behind her smile.  (I said I'm not an expert. I didn't say I'm not arrogant. I was even more so then, for I had not yet learned how little I know.) I punctuated my final sentence and rushed my work off to an agent, expecting the million dollar offers to roll in. (Sound familiar? Anyone?)
I quickly found (or thought I'd found) that agents don't know the first thing about good writing, and that they are a rather snotty bunch. But one woman in New York, who has likely forgotten my name, (though I shall never forget hers), Toni Lopopolo, took pity on me. She told me to learn my craft, and she listed the titles of some books I should read:
  • Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

Lopopolo (which is a lot more fun to say than “Toni”) told me that those three books were the Holy Bibles of fiction writing and that I should read them and then (my eyes about popped out of my skull on this one) that I should “rewrite” my book! (The nerve of some people. She apparently hadn't gotten the memo about me being a golden god!)
Having been a businessman for a number of years, I surmised that since Lopopolo worked with the big houses in New York, that she was just checking me to see if I could take marching orders. After all, they don't write million-dollar cheques to just anyone! I decided I would play her little game. I would read her little books, make a few edits, and re-submit my work.
I started with Stein on Writing. When I finished reading, I was so astounded by what I'd read, that I immediately read it again, before proceeding on with Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and How to Write a Damn Good Novel. When I finished that, I bought more books on writing craft and then more again. Along the way, I stumbled across a few scriptures of my own, such as Story, by Robert McKee (a Bible for screen writers) Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott and Stephen King On Writing (which was more Apocrypha than Bible, but still valuable) and one that made a huge impact on me despite its tedium, (It's very technical) Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. (Buy them. Read them, Read them again, and then again. Repeat.)
I read books on writing until after a time, they all started to say exactly the same things. It was then that I sat down at my desk, once again, for the purpose of “polishing” my opus. But…
...A funny thing had happened while I was reading. (Perhaps you have experienced the same thing.) At some point between the time that I punctuated the final sentence of my memo draft on how I'd just “finished” a manuscript and was ready to be heralded onto the world literary stage as a golden god, and the time that I finished reading my first of many stacks of books on writing, little gnomes had invaded my opus, and turned it into a great big, heaping, stinking, embarrassing pile of dung! It was then that I made the choice to truly check my ego at the door and to instead dedicate myself to a lifelong pursuit of learning my craft. More succinctly, the best thing I've ever done as a writer was to dedicate myself to learning my craft. Any writer who doesn't, is just a hack (and that's a fact).

The worst

The worst mistake I've ever made as a writer was to befriend more writers than readers.  Befriending writers rather than readers is a bad choice on several fronts: writers are assholes. Writers aren't readers. Writers have no vested interest in helping each other. Very few writers learn their craft well enough to teach it. Writers are more prone to literary circle-jerks than they are to actually writing.
Writers are assholes — myself included. In fact, I'm as adept at being an asshole as I am at writing. Ask around. I have a pretty solid reputation on both fronts. It sort of takes an asshole to think that the things you have to say are worth charging money for. If you're a writer, you're probably an asshole too — at least if you're any good. Own it.
Despite what you've heard, most writers aren't readers to any real degree. I, for example, can't get past the first chapter of most books I pick up, because most of them are crap. And while there are some amongst us who can't put a book down even when it's crap, for the most part, we writers are more interested in what we have to offer than in what others have to offer. So we're not readers. We're writers.
Writers have no vested interest in helping other writers succeed. Forget what you've heard about camaraderie. Writing is a solitary profession with solitary benefits. We're not all sharing a pie. We all want the entire pie. There's no real value in banding together and doing so is just wasted time and effort that takes away from our singular purpose: writing.
Have you ever watched the contestants trying to build a shelter on “Survivor?” I'm pretty sure they don't select contestants with any experience in basic carpentry. As such, their shelters suck. I'm a journeyman carpenter, so I just shake my head. Writers are much the same. Most writers have never so much as purchased, much less read a book on writing, and yet they all consider themselves knowledgeable on writing. I've actually had someone say to me “My uncle published six books so I ought to know!” My uncle runs dispatch for a trucking company.
Wikimedia Commons
Does that make me a Peterbilt mechanic? Writers get into groups and spend countless hours arguing the merits of their positions on various aspects of writing none of them having the slightest fucking clue what they are talking about. It truly is the blind leading the blind.
The only thing worse than writers fighting with each other over the finer points of writing is writers praising each other for each others' work in literary circle jerks. I've been kicked out of every writing group I've ever been a part of, including some I've started. Reason? If a writer asks for feedback on their work, I tell them the truth.
Oscar Wilde once said: 
“If you want to tell people the truth, you'd better make them laugh. Otherwise, they'll kill you.”

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That's about right.

Writing groups tend to be about writers looking for accolades rather than criticism. Guess what? Your ability to string words together into a coherent sentence or set of sentences than form paragraphs, chapters, and books, does not rank my praise. I've never learned anything from anyone who told me what a great writer I am. Learning happens when we come to terms with the fact that we don't fucking know everything and that sometimes our very best work is nothing but a heaping pile of dung! (See how I did that? I've lead you right back to the beginning, where I chose to dedicate myself to craft because prior to that my very best work was crap.)
In short, the worst thing I've ever done as a writer was to befriend a whole bunch of writers instead of a whole bunch of readers. If you want to be a writer, do two things:
  • Learn your craft
  • Steer clear of other writers.

If you follow those two rules, you'll probably do just fine.
See? I told you I'm an asshole.
Author Harry Widdifield enjoys writing both fiction and non-fiction. A self-proclaimed "Teller of Ten Minute Tales," Widdifield loves telling action-packed tales to readers who often don't have more than 10 minutes in a day to read. Widdifield writes novels and self-help non-fiction as well as satirical non-fiction, but his true passion is tales that can be fully enjoyed in ten minutes and then digested for a lifetime. Bon apetit!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday blog for writers: Don't ignore e-books

Image from Jorghex’s collection in Wikimedia Commons,  published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unreported License. - See more at: 
It baffles me that there are still authors, intelligent professionals who want to reach an audience, yet who do not use the most effective and cheapest way of doing that — ebooks.

Last Saturday, I participated in the first Ottawa Book Fest held by the National Capital branch of the Canadian Authors Association. While it wasn’t what I hoped for in terms of selling books or engaging with readers, I did enjoy talking with many other local authors. Two things struck me: the number of authors who don’t bother with e-books, and the number who use expensive “publishing services” companies — vanity publishers.

“You can’t wrap an e-book,” was one typical comment. True, there is something very appealing about the tactile experience of holding a book. That’s one reason I went to the trouble and expense of getting paperbacks of my own titles.

Paper has a number of advantages over e-books. I will take a paperback to the beach or poolside, but I hesitate to bring my iPad there. It’s hard to read my iPad in bright sunlight (although the E-Ink screens of the Kobo, Kindle and others don’t have this problem). If you drop a paperback or get it dirty, it’s no big deal. At worst, you might have to spend ten to fifteen dollars to replace it. Or maybe $50 for a big hardcover. If I were to drop my iPad in the bathtub, that would be a major disaster.
Image courtesy Steve
Taffee's Blogg-Ed Indetermination

And yes, you can wrap up a paperback book and enjoy the recipient opening it.
On the other hand, the e-book’s advantages include:
  • they’re lighter, important when travelling
  • they should be cheaper — the publisher doesn’t have to pay for paper, ink or shipping
  • it’s a lot easier to give copies to people who are not in the same room with you — or the same country.

Let’s look at some facts.

E-books outsell paper books. More than two years ago, Amazon reported that its sales of e-books had surpassed paper books, and while that’s just one (the biggest in the world) outlet, the Association of American Publishers also announced that e-books outsold hardcovers in the adult fiction category as of 2011. E-books are the fastest growing sector of the book market, and even though the AAP reported that growth slowed in 2013, it was still growing and hit $800 million, while sales of paperbacks fell to $898 million.

As Hugh Howey pointed out on his blog (which I referenced in my post in February), the book e-tailers don’t report their sales numbers.  That means those numbers do not include any self-published e-books, which according to Howey’s research, outsell all the e-books from all Big Five publishers combined.

Why limit yourself?

E-book technology sparked an explosion in the number of independent authors self-publishing books. It’s an enabling technology.

And it’s not difficult to use. It helps to know about publishing, but if you can create a word processing file, you can create an e-book. Not necessarily a good e-book, but that’s a different discussion.

That’s why it astounds me to hear writers denigrate the e-book format. For an author to choose not to publish an e-books would be like a travel agent choosing not to book air travel and sell train tickets only. Sure, there’s a market for train travel, and trains can be more romantic and evocative than airplanes, but that choice severely limits the travel agent’s career.
Photo by Alexander Henning
Drachmann (Creative Commons)

Need advice? Ask me

Some writers may feel intimidated by e-books and the need to learn a new format. But as I said, it’s easier to format an e-book. There are plenty of free resources on the net, in the blogosphere, even on Facebook. Mark Coker’s excellent and free Smashwords Style Guide gives you step-by-step instructions, with lots of time-saving tips.

Or ask another author who has gone through the process. Most are happy to share what they’ve learned. For free. Ask me.

If you still feel unsure, or want to get someone to produce your e-book for you, then I’ll certainly charge a lot less than any vanity publisher.

If we work together, we’ll all succeed.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The show is over

The first Canadian Authors Association National Capital Region Book Fest is wrapping up a little early, and that means exactly what you think it means: it's been disappointing.

Not the content. I enjoyed meeting fellow authors, comparing notes, swapping experiences. But the traffic, the number of potential readers and book buyers that came through, was tiny. I sold a few books, gave two away, and traded for two more with fellow authors. 

Children's author Joanne Lecuyer

The explosive Robert Barclay

I learned that most Ottawa authors here use Baico Publishing, a publishing service provider, to produce their print books. Most of the rest use Createspace, one LightningSource and one Friesen Press. 

Surprisingly, few seemed to be big on e-books. In fact, two of the panel discussions denigrated e-books. "You can't wrap an e-book," said one author. Another said "I don't even know how my books got onto Amazon."

Strangely, these panelists did not like e-books.

Well, e-books outsell paper books, at least in the developed world, and especially in fiction. Turning your back on e-books it turning your back on the future.

We need to learn how to reach readers
Almost all the authors showing books were independent or self-published; maybe five out of forty had a publishing deal, and those were with a micropublisher. So no one's getting big advances.

Author and writing coach Kevin Johns

We all enjoyed interacting, but swapping or selling to each other is not going to do us much good. "Traffic," the number of potential book-buyers who came through, was minimal. I doubt even 50 came through the door.

Laurie Fraser's book bears striking resemblances to my work-in-progress

There are lessons to learn here about promotion and publicity, but I don't think that anyone here can teach those lessons. 

This is the challenge: we need to learn how to effectively engage with larger numbers of potential readers who will at least pick up our books and read the back cover.

That's all I'm looking for.

What do you all think?

From the Book Fest floor

Today, I'm participating in the first (annual) Book Fest organized by the National Capital Region chapter of the Canadian Authors Association. The picture shows me at my half-table with my little display of books.

This is the first time I've done anything like this. The doors opened an hour ago, and it's been quiet so far, but there has been some "customer" traffic. Mostly, I've enjoyed talking to some fellow authors, including one Facebook friend, Barry Finlay. 

I've already done a two-minute reading from The Bones of the Earth and heard a panel discussion with four Canadian writers in various genres.

I'll try to post a few times through the day as interesting things happen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Think strategically

Creative Commons

On Saturday, April 12, I’ll be showing my paperback books at the Canadian Author Association’s first-ever Book Fest.

If things go right, I may even do some live blogging from there. And if you come, we may even have a chance to meet face-to-face! I know I’m excited about it.

I look at events like this more as chances to network with other writers, readers and book enthusiasts, rather than as a place to sell product. But let’s face it, authors are all trying to sell their work. As my Internet friend and fellow author Russell Blake likes to point out, writing books may be art, but selling them is business. And in that frame of mind, I am re-presenting a blog post that I originally wrote for the Guild of Dreams blog.

Thinking of authors as business people

The book field is an extremely competitive, fast-moving market. If any of us hope to carve out the slightest sliver of presence in it, we’re going to have to recognize it as a marketplace and ourselves as sellers of products. Marketers. Business people.

The authors who sell the most books treat their activity as a business.

I have to admit I’m not the greatest business type person in the world. But over the past couple of decades that I’ve been selling my words, I have learned that you’re a lot more likely to succeed at something if you have a detailed strategy to achieve it.

If you’re a writer (or anything else, for that matter), think strategically about your career. Set some realistic, if ambitious, and measurable goals. (Check out George Doran’s SMART project management approach.)

These should not be just a number of book sales. Your strategy has to list a lot of specific steps that will help you achieve your goal. What will you do to increase sales? When will you write your next book, who will review it, edit it, design the cover, take care of the production of an e-book or a paperback?

What is your promotion plan? How will you contact book reviewers? What is your social media plan? What will you do on Facebook, how frequently will you tweet, what will you do to increase your number of followers on Goodreads?

A collaboration challenge

As individuals, we don’t have the ability to make much noise. But if we work together, strategically, we can have a lot more impact with a lot less effort.

Regular readers know that I am a big believer in authors (and other artists) working together, sharing skills and leveraging collective efforts. I participate in group sales and in professional organizations like Independent Authors International and Bestselling Reads.

Credit: Anthea Sieveking/ Wellcome Images
My challenge to all my readers who are also writers or other artists is to come together, not just in a mutual support and admiration group, but in a strategic one. Contribute your particular skills and take the advice of others who know about their specialties.

Collectively, we can devise an effective strategy to raise our profiles, improve the quality of our work and sell more books.

Want to get involved? Tell me about it or offer your time, expertise and effort in the comments, or send me an email (you can find it here if you look).

Monday, April 07, 2014

Literary genre: haven or prison?

Creative Commons licence.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a post for the Guild of Dreams blog where I wondered about how important it is for a writer to remain within a genre. Now that I have just sent my third manuscript to an editor, I find myself wondering about that again. Without asking anyone’s permission, I am re-examine that issue.

When you start out writing fantasy — or romance, or science fiction, or mystery, or any other category — do you have to stay within it? Is writing something in another genre akin to crossing a border into a foreign territory?
For a novelist, is the genre a prison or a haven?

It looks like my career as a novelist is turning into an experiment to measure that.

My experience in the fantasy genre

My first published full-length novel qualifies as epic fantasy. I prefer the term “historical magic realism,” because  The Bones of the Earth has realistic, fictional characters alongside real, historical characters. It’s set in a real time and place, and then adds fantastic or magical elements. But for most people, “fantasy” is the shorthand term.

My next novel, One Shade of Red, stepped way out of epic fantasy and history. It’s a comic, erotic parody of Fifty Shades of Gray, and qualifies as romantic erotica. Or erotic romance. NOT porn.

My third novel (to be published) is one I started over 10 years ago, a memoir of my father-in-law’s experience as a draftee into the Soviet Red Army during World War II. So far, I’m calling it Between the Vise Jaws. But that may change.

Return to fantasy

With that done, I am now turning to a contemporary urban paranormal type fantasy, Dark Clouds. I posted the first chapter on this blog a couple of years ago.
Dark Clouds grew out of a pre-Hallowe’en writing challenge, the source of which I cannot remember. But the challenge was to write the scariest opening line I could, and in a humourous mood, I thought of “Matt always knew when his mother was coming over.”

Photo by Garry Knight via Flickr Creative Commons

And I took it from there, making Matt’s mother a witch, then the Queen of all witches. Then I thought “what if Matt, the Witch Queen’s son, was immune to all her spells?”
Once I finished writing the story, I thought it could be the beginning of a novel, or at least a series of stories. So I thought I would call the novel The Mandrake Ruse, in the style of 60s-era spy stories like Man from U.N.C.L.E. And I could write a bunch of novels about The Witch’s Son.

Now that I’ve been toying with the idea for a couple of years, I realize that I have those titles mixed up, so when I do publish the book, it will be called Dark Clouds, and the first chapter will be “The Mandrake Ruse.” It just makes so much more sense.

Does genre-hopping hurt my credibility as an author?

A number of readers, and my family, too, have asked for a sequel to The Bones of the Earth. And as you can see from the cover, it’s “Book One of the Dark Age Trilogy.” I do have rough plot outlines for two more books about Javor and his adventures in the seventh century, but I also have this burning desire to write some other stories, first.

Had I a contract with a publishing company, my publisher, editor and/or agent would gripe about this. “Readers who liked your first book want more of the same!” I can hear one of them saying. “You’ve proven there’s an audience for that story, and they’ll be disappointed if your next book is totally different.”

I think every artist or creative person faces that dilemma: those who liked your first work will come back expecting more in the same vein. Delighting them with something new and completely different is a steeper hill to climb — you’re working against the very expectations that you created.

On the other hand, I am a writer because there are stories that I want to write, and my imagination doesn’t necessarily fit into categories defined by someone else.

I don’t read in just one genre — why should write in just one genre?

The most commercially successful authors stay within the categories they’re known for: John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer … it’s a long, depressing list.

On the other hand, some of the best writers have written in more than one genre, or have succeeded both artistically and commercially when they’ve gone beyond the slot assigned to them at some point in their careers:

Ray Bradbury — known for science fiction, especially Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury’s also celebrated for Dandelion Wine, the story of a young boy’s “magical summer.”

Stephen King started with horror and is still best known for It, The Shining and Carrie, but he has successfully transitioned into science fiction, non-fiction and, it could be argued, literary fiction.

Guy Gavriel Kay began writing fantasy fiction with The Fionavar Tapestry series, continued with his almost-historical magic realism, and moved to historical fiction with Ysabel in 2007.

Margaret Atwood went the other way. Established since the 60s as a main force in current literature, she surprised the book world with the dystopian science-fiction The Handmaid’s Tale, more recently Oryx and Crake — although she denies they’re science fiction.

The big question

What will this do to future sales prospects? Will readers of The Bones of the Earth who check my new publication be disappointed or delighted by Between the Vise Jaws?

Will fans of One Shade of Red be totally turned off by a war memoir?

Or will my hopes be realized: that writing in different genres will spread my appeal to new audiences?

What do you think? Leave a comment!

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Writing tips: Persuade by making it matter to your audience

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You can’t persuade an audience with unproven ideas, nor can you fire one up without appealing to their values.

Read this opening to a seminar on secure information technology practices and then answer this question: do you care?

“Why is security important to us? Because the effectiveness of our programs, activities and services depends on the level of trust our partners have in us. Central to that trust is rigorous stewardship over our digital and physical assets...”

The statement is true, as far as it goes. But for the average worker, it’s not compelling. There are too many steps between the proposition and the audience’s own life.

Image courtest Flixlist 
Someone else, working for an organization that I don’t work for, won’t trust our website as much? Holy spam, Batman! Let’s get to that IT security seminar now!

Better: “Why is IT security important to you? Because without taking these precautions, you risk exposing confidential organizational or even personal information that could be used in fraud.”

Remember what people value

Whenever I have to write something persuasive, I like to recall Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with it, follow the link, but basically, Abraham Maslow studied people and their behaviour, and organized common motivators into a hierarchy. The lower or more basic the desire, the more powerful. Maslow also stated that humans do not, generally, focus on higher needs until they’ve fulfilled the basic ones.
Wikimedia commons

So if we want to motivate people, we have to make sure we’re evoking those basic, animal needs: food, warmth, security, belonging, esteem. A job may supply those things, so promoting the employer’s success can work. Anything that contributes to the bottom line is persuasive to the extent that the audience believes the employer’s success is critical to their own.

The incidence of fraud, identity theft and other crimes facilitated by the Internet proves that people feel IT security is pretty distant from their own needs — until they get stung by some kind of scam.

The path from the IT department’s guidelines to your own security isn’t obvious, but it is real. Our job as communicators is to clear that path.

How to make it matter

Here is a suggested outline you can adapt the next time you have to get a group to buy into something important, but new or abstract to them.
  1. Start with an example — like “Erica bypassed the spam filter and filled out this sensitive information on a website. Then the information was published and her employer fired her.”
  2. Explain the problem and summarize the solution — like “Erica did not verify that the form she filled out was actually on the website of the organization she thought it was. She should have made sure that the URL had a lock symbol and began with https://”
  3. Broaden or generalize the problem — use more examples from the audience’s own workplace or experience. Make them as realistic as possible.
  4. Explain the problem, the consequences and the solutions fully. Keep the language clear and simple. Use active sentences so that the audience can follow the guidelines.
  5. End with more realistic examples — “If you encounter x, do y.” Provide solutions that the audience can use right away.

Make change less scary and difficult
Image courtesy

Change is hard, because it opens us to the unknown. If you want to persuade an audience to change the way they work — or do anything, for that matter — you have to prove to the audience that it’s important to them (not to you), and you have to make accomplishing a change as easy as possible.

Do you have an experience to share?

Have you been to a seminar or read a document that tried to explain how important something was, but failed because you still didn’t care afterward? Tell us all about it in the Comments.