Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why I Turned to Self-Publishing--and How It's Working

I’m on Darcy Pattison’s blog today, discussing “Dodging Trends: Why I Turned to Self-Publishing.” An excerpt:

“If a book is good enough, it will find a home.” I’ve heard that a lot in the publishing industry, especially from editors and agents.

There’s just one problem. It’s not true.

Stop by to see the whole piece. While you’re there, see her other guest posts on Alternate Publishing, including Joni Sensel on using POD to Finish a Series. Here’s the basic blog link. Be sure to poke around—Darcy has lots of useful info!

And an update—I’ve now sold 51 copies of The Eyes of Pharaoh so far in February.

I’ve sold about 70 copies of Advanced Plotting so far, but since that book has a higher profit margin, I’ve made as much from Advanced Plotting as from The Eyes of Pharaoh.

I’m not getting rich (yet! I can always hope!) but I made over $200 in direct deposits in this month's Amazon POD and e-book sales. Of course, part of that is from my mother’s new cozy mystery, Murder on the West Glacier Trail, which I set up on my account, but it shows that indie books can sell.

If Kate Foland had known how her bed and breakfast guest would change her life, she might have left her at the airport.

When Kate’s guest is shot to death while hiking in the Alaskan woods, Kate feels compelled to investigate. Sandra Allison seemed like a perfectly nice young woman. So who would want her dead?

Murder on the West Glacier Trail is available in print or e-book, on Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Friday, February 24, 2012

Plot/Character Exercises

We've been talking about how conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. Let's look more closely at character.

Six basic human needs influence character:
Growth (working toward a personal goal)
Contribution (feeling needed, worthwhile)
Security (knowing the future)
Change (desire for variety, excitement)
Connection (feeling part of a group)
Independence (personal identity and freedom)

Which of these are most important to your main character? Create conflict by setting up situations which oppose that person’s needs.

Exercise—Write a story, starting with plot.
Come up with a challenge – a difficult situation for someone. This can be anything from facing the first day of school to wanting to make a sports team to solving a crime to fighting zombies.

Then ask, What kind of person would have the most trouble in that situation? Plan or write a story about that character in that situation.

Exercise—Write a story, starting with character.
Write a brief character sketch, covering basics such as gender, age, personality characteristics – introvert/extrovert, optimist/pessimist, etc. – with a few likes and dislikes. You can base this on someone you know.
How would they define or describe themselves? (“I always…I never…I’m the kind of person who….”)
•    If these statements are true, a situation that challenges the belief will create conflict. For example, if you have a character who is honest, put him in a situation where there is a good reason to lie.
•    If these statements are false, a situation that exposes the delusion will create conflict.  For example, if someone sees himself as courageous, but isn't really, a situation that requires courage will be especially painful because it shakes up his view of himself.

So, what situation will most challenge this character? Summarize or write a story about that character in that situation.

You know you need both an interesting character and a strong plot to make a good story. As you develop an idea, think about how your character and plot interact, and design your character for your plot. As you write the story, work back and forth between plot and character.

One more exercise:
Look at your work in progress. What is the problem? Why is it important? Why is it difficult? (See the post From Idea to Story Part 2: Setting up Conflict.)

Given those answers, is your character the right character for that situation? Could you give your character different needs or desires, to make the situation more difficult for him or her?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Selling Books with a Loss Leader

Last week I talked about the importance of having multiple books available, if you are an indie author. This gives potential readers several “entry points” to your work, and can also mean every successful act of publicity leads to multiple sales to one customer. Having several books available also provides special publicity opportunities.

I can also make use of publicity tactics such as a “loss leader” title. This means you offer one book at a deep discount, or even free. People are much more likely to try a free book. If they like it, they are more likely to pay several dollars for other books by that author.

Many writers trying self-publishing offer their first book for free, trying to gain fans. But how much does it help you to have a new fan, if you don’t have anything else for them to buy? Will they remember you in six months or a year when you get another book out? Will they even recognize your name if Amazon recommends your next book? The whole point of a “loss leader” is to drive sales to your regularly-priced books. It’s pointless if you only have one title out.

One note – many indie authors offer all their books for free hoping to build readership. Many readers have gotten burned by books that are mediocre or worse. Some readers now refuse to buy $.99 e-books and won’t even “waste their time” trying free books. However, if you have a normal price of $3-6 and offering that book for free for a limited time, you can bypass some of the stigma associated with free books.

So that’s why I’m focusing first on getting two more books published. Once I have four on the market, I may take a few months off to do a major publicity push. That’s not to say I’m doing nothing now – of course I’m telling friends about my books, mentioning them in context on blog posts here or in guest blog posts, sharing news on Facebook, and so forth. But I can resist the pressure to spend dozens of hours a week just focused on publicity. Writing the next book is more important.  
"Hey, this book is available now!"
This also gives me time to learn more about what seems to work and what doesn’t with publicity. I can explore some new social networks, test out a few things in small ways, and in general prepare now so I won’t be overwhelmed later. I can even tweak cover art, description blurbs, tag words and so forth to find the best combination for selling my work.

And I don’t have to feel bad if I only sell 10 copies of a title in a month. 10 copies is a drop in the pool, and maybe the ripples will start reaching out now. In the meantime, I can focus on writing the next book.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Write a Strong Plot: Be Cruel to Your Characters

For a strong plot, you need plenty of dramatic action. (This doesn't necessarily mean fights and car chases. The drama can come from interpersonal relationships or even a person's own thoughts. But dramatic things should happen.) But it's not enough just to have dramatic things happening. It's not just What but also Who.

Your main character needs to be able to overcome the challenge you set for him – but just barely. We don't want to watch superheroes fight weaklings. We want to watch superheroes fight supervillains – or even better, weaklings fight supervillains, and barely win, through courage and ingenuity that overcome the stronger foe.

Conflict comes from the interaction between character and plot. You can create conflict by setting up situations which force a person to confront their fears. If someone is afraid of heights, make them go someplace high. If they're afraid of taking responsibility, force them to be in charge.

You can also create conflict by setting up situations which oppose a person’s desires. If they crave safety, put them in danger. But if they crave danger, keep them out of it.

In The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar never dreams of being a leader or a rebel. But when her family, the government, and even the gods fail to stop the evil high priest, she's forced to act. In the Haunted series, Jon would like to be an ordinary kid and stay out of trouble. But his sister is determined to help ghosts without letting the grown-ups know what she and Jon are doing, and is constantly getting him into trouble. The reluctant hero is a staple of books and movies because it's fun to watch someone forced into a heroic role when they don't want it. (Think of Harrison Ford as Han Solo.)

Even with nonfiction, you can create tension by focusing on the challenges that make a person's accomplishments more impressive. In my book Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker, written under the name M.M. Eboch, I made this incredible athlete’s story more powerful by focusing on all the things he had to overcome – childhood health problems, poverty, a poor education. In Milton Hershey: Young Chocolatier (also written as M.M. Eboch) the story of the man who founded Hershey's chocolate is more dramatic because he started with little business experience, and had an unfortunate habit of trusting his overzealous father.

Exercise:  Ask yourself these questions. They may lead to new story ideas, or you can use them to further develop characters in your current work.

What are you afraid of?

What's the hardest thing you have had to do or overcome?

What's the hardest thing you've done by choice?

Ask other people the same questions, for more ideas.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Stop the Insanity! Publicity Can Wait

I’m doing a series of Wednesday posts discussing my career decisions and the reasons behind them. Last time I talked about committing to indie publishing. Now I’ll go into some specific details.

Decision #4: Focus on writing four books. Save major publicity for later.

With traditional publishing, debut authors face a lot of pressure to make their first book a success. The logic is sound: if your book does well, especially in the first six months, your publisher is more likely to acquire your second book. (Sadly, the days when publishers would stand behind a promising author for three or four books, helping them to build their reputation, are largely gone, at least at the bigger publishers.)

With self-publishing, you don’t have that pressure for initial success. Sure, we’d all like our first book out to be a huge success. But you don’t have to worry about your sales numbers impressing the bean counters.

In fact, there are good reasons to delay a major publicity push. Few people agree on what makes a self-published book a success, but the experts do seem to agree on one thing – for an author to find success through self-publishing, she needs to have multiple books available.

This works in a couple of ways. First of all, with several books, you broaden your appeal. You have more ways for readers to find your work. For example, with Rattled, I decided to experiment with a cover that suggested more of an adventure, rather than the traditional romantic suspense cover (quite often a couple of naked torsos embracing, with a dark blue wash). Rattled may attract readers who don’t normally go for romantic suspense, but it may not appeal to romantic suspense readers. On the other hand, the Whispers in the Dark cover is much more standard for romantic suspense. If I can appeal to readers with one or the other, and they like that book, they are more likely to try the other one, regardless of cover.

Your blurbs work in similar ways. Rattled is a “treasure hunting adventure in New Mexico.” Whispers in the Dark is about “a young archaeologist who stumbles into danger as mysteries unfold among ancient Southwest ruins.” Both fit my tagline of “Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Adventures” and my Kris Bock “brand” of action in southwestern settings. But some people might find the idea of an archaeologist and ancient ruins more appealing, while others might think a treasure hunting adventure sounds fun.

In short, the more books you have, the more “entry points” readers have for your work.

But that’s not the only reason to focus on getting several books out before doing publicity. With multiple books, every act of publicity automatically has the potential for greater effect. If I sell one book, I might sell several others to that customer. If readers bought one, Amazon should tell them “You might also like” other Kris Bock books.

Next week I’ll continue this thread, talking about publicity tactics such as the discount “loss leader.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

How to Turn Your Idea into a Story: More Conflict!

Here are a few more tips on setting up conflict, following last week's lesson:

• What does your main character want? What does he need? Make these things different, and you'll add tension to the story. It can be as simple as our soccer player who wants to practice soccer, but needs to study. Or it could be more subtle, like someone who wants to be protected but needs to learn independence. In the Haunted books, Jon wants to be a regular kid, and fit in, but needs to protect his sister – who gets him into trouble and embarrassing situations. This increases the tension and gives the reader sympathy for my main character. (For a more detailed explanation of character want versus need, exploring the movie ET as an example, see my brother Doug Eboch’s Let's Schmooze blog on Screenwriting, E.T. Analysis Part 11.)

• Even if your main problem is external (man versus man or man versus nature), consider giving the character an internal flaw(man versus himself) that contributes to the difficulty. For a few examples of internal flaws, see the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride. Perhaps your character has a temper, or is lazy, or refuses to ever admit she’s wrong. This helps set up your complications, and as a bonus makes your character seem more real. (We'll discuss characterization in more depth in coming weeks.)

• Before you start, test the idea. Change the character’s age, gender, or looks. Change the point of view. Change the setting. Change the external conflict. Change the internal conflict. What happens? Choose the combination that has the most dramatic potential. For example, my work in progress started with two female cousins visiting. I changed one into a boy, and added a girl friend next door, which made for nice boy/girl tension behind the main plot.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Career Decisions: Writing for e-Readers

I’ve done two previous posts discussing some of my decisions for my career. First was committing to indie publishing for my adult genre fiction. Second was writing shorter books. The third decision is pretty simple, though my reasons may not be obvious.

Decision #3: Use shorter paragraphs.

I like to use a lot of short paragraphs anyway, as I think it can help the reader’s eyes move more quickly down the page, helping to give the impression that the story is moving quickly. Short paragraphs are ideal for action scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings. I’ve discussed this technique in previous posts such as Write Better with Powerful Paragraphing and Paragraphing for Cliffhangers and in the Advanced Plotting essay Hanging by the Fingernails.

But of course you don’t want your work to be a string of one-sentence paragraphs. Sometimes it’s more appropriate, or just feels natural, to have a longer paragraph. This often happens with description or introspection. Adult books often use longer paragraphs, on average, than children’s books. Literary titles and fantasy may use longer paragraphs than thrillers. Shorter isn’t always “right” or better.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that many people are reading on electronic devices today. That changes the way a book is laid out. Forget about all the work a book designer does to make the text readable. With e-books, the users set their preference on their device. The user chooses the size of font and the spacing of the words. Plus, some people are reading on phones or other small screens, so they get only a few lines per “page.”

What does that mean for a writer? Well, it means a paragraph that takes up a few lines on your manuscript might wind up taking an entire page on a small screen or where the user has set a large font size. In my personal experience, a paragraph that takes up an entire page is harder to read – it’s harder for your eyes to track back and forth from the end of one line to the beginning of the next line. This is true regardless of the size of the font (though it’s even worse with a small font and dozens of lines on the page).

I noticed this after publishing Rattled. I went over the print on demand version carefully, making sure the text looked good on the printed page. I broke a few long paragraphs into shorter ones, because what looked right on an 81/2 x 11 manuscript printout seemed unwieldy in the 5 x 8 book. I got it looking pretty.

But when I looked at the electronic version and tested different font sizes, the book suddenly seemed to have huge blocks of text. It almost seemed like I’d forgotten paragraphing existed in some places! I’ve noticed that in other authors’ books as well, and the larger blocks of text are harder to read. Not a lot, but just that little bit.

We live in an increasingly digital world, so it’s worth considering how your books will read on electronic devices. On my blog posts, I try to keep my paragraphs to no more than four or five lines in a Word document, knowing that will become more on the narrower blog post. For my books, if I see a paragraph going more than five or six lines, I look for a natural place to break it.

While this may not seem like a career decision, keeping up with technology and understanding how people read is part of a writer’s career. My goal is to have my work read, understood, and enjoyed. I think shorter paragraphs will help.
See Kris Bock’s books on Amazon or Barnes & Noble