Category Archives: Evaluation Tools

Feeding the Foundation

As we grow not only in our craft but also as people, it’s important to establish or re-establish the foundation of why we write, what success means to us at this moment, and what fulfillment means across our lifetimes. And yes, those things can completely change in the span of a few years. Our perspectives shift, our goals change, our focus narrows. As that happens, it’s essential to revisit the foundations on which we built our dreams and goals in the first place.

Here are some general questions to help you consider the root of your inspiration for writing.

1. Why do you write?

This question gets passed around a lot, it seems. But dig deep. “Cause I’ve just gotta!” is a fine answer, but what compels you to do it? Dig deep. “Because I have unresolved issues,” is probably a more honest answer for all of us.

2. What do you want?

“Duh, to be famous.” Sure, that can be your answer. But consider the possibility you won’t be the next J.K. Rowling. Now, what do you want?

3. What is your writing routine?

Has it changed in the past few years. Does it need to change? What’s not working about it?

4. Are you still chasing dreams and goals that are rooted in a genre in which you no longer write?

For example, when I started writing, I wanted to write literary fiction. At this moment, I write mostly YA, which is a much faster market and demands faster manuscript turn-arounds. My goals need to change to fit the genre I’m writing, at least for now.

5. Do your short-term goals need re-evaluating to reflect where you are right now?

I had to re-evaluate my short-term goals when writing YA, as mentioned above, and those will constantly need to be reconsidered depending on the project.

6. Do your long-term goals need to change to reflect where you are right now?

For example, because I’m not writing literary fiction right now, and I had not considered I’d be writing YA, my long-term goals for my career need to adjust to include YA.

A Writer's Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld
A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

There are some great resources out there to help you reflect on these things while also help you build your craft and routine.

I highly recommend The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron for an all-out overhaul, but be warned, it takes a lot of commitment to finish. Finish it. Commit to it. It’s worth it.

A Writer’s Guide to Persistence by Jordan Rosenfeld has been extremely valuable to me recently. I see it a lite version of The Artist’s Way. That’s not to demean it in any way; I simply mean it’s shorter and more compact.

Both books have been extremely valuable to me, and I hope they are for you as well.

About Kristin Luna:
Kristin Luna copyKristin Luna has been making up stories and getting in trouble for them since elementary school. She writes book reviews for Urban Fantasy Magazine and her short story “The Greggs Family Zoo of Odd and Marvelous Creatures” was featured in the anthology One Horn to Rule Them All alongside Peter S. Beagle and Todd McCaffrey. Her short story “Fog” recently appeared on Pseudopod. Kristin lives in San Diego with her husband Nic.

Business by the Numbers

In order to be a professional author, to make enough money to live off your art, you need to treat your writing career with the same respect and diligence as you would any other type of business. Though it is possible to make money following intuition alone, it is very difficult to make consistent profits off feelings and hunches. For me, it seems like putting on a blindfold and stumbling around hoping to fall into a pot of gold.

Instead, businesses need to be able to quantify their success or failures objectively in order to make informed and useful decisions. Large corporations hire fleets of analysts to do this work for them. However, don’t let the math intimidate you! Writers, especially indie authors, typically don’t have nearly enough data to need someone devoted to the math. Additionally, there have been some very smart people who have already done most of the work for you. All you really need to do these days is to know which tools to use and which numbers to pay attention to.

Even still, I know how trying to dig into data can be intimidating. However, if you break the process down into 5 easy steps, it all becomes a whole lot more approachable.

STEP 1: DEFINE YOUR PRIORITIES
The first thing you need to do when approaching any statistical analysis is define what you care about. There are ways to quantify just about anything you want to know. In fact, sorting the useful information from the noise is often the hardest part of any analysis. Approaching your pile of data with specific questions will help you get specific answers. So, what is it that you hope to get out of your career as an author?

STEP 2: PICK YOUR TOOLS
There are tons of statistical tools choose from. Some are more intuitive than others, some more flexible, and yet others more comprehensive and powerful. Unfortunately, the more powerful the tool, the more difficult it is likely to be to use, and the more interpretation the results will require. Though it is a constant give and take, there are a few pieces of software that I think achieve a good balance and that I would recommend even for people who hate math.

One of my favorite pieces of statistical software is Google Analytics. I believe it to be one of the more powerful, flexible, and user friendly options available. Most importantly, it is free. After all, Google is the company made their fortune off being able to quantify the Internet. So, it only makes sense that their statistics software would also be top notch. Need help installing and configuring the software? The Google Analytics community is fairly robust. I’d recommend starting HERE. On the other hand Google Analytics has a lot of data and power. It can get quite involved and distracting if you let it. Be cautious as obsessively monitoring every page view can easily become a time sink.

Additionally, if you use Word Press for your website, I’d also recommend installing Jetpack. It comes with all sorts of useful widgets, one of which is a basic statistics program. Though you won’t be able to do any manipulation or dig into the data very far, it’s often good enough to give you a general idea.

Finally, most publishing platforms come with some sort of basic statistics modules. This will allow you to track sales, geography of purchases and several other metrics. One of the limitations here is that you track exactly what the distributor allows you to track. Almost always, their statistics are better than what you are given access to.

STEP 3: TAKE A STEP BACK, WAIT, AND LOOK FOR PATTERNS TO EMERGE
Chances are that you already have an audience that is interacting with your web page. So, the very first thing that you’ll need to do after installing any new statistics software is to allow for time to pass. Initially, I’d recommend continuing as you were for three weeks to a month so you can get a feel for how your business runs before you make any changes. Without a baseline, you’ll have no idea what is “normal” behavior and what is a reaction to a change you make. I’d also recommend establishing a new baseline each time you make a major alteration to to your business strategy.

Once you get to the point where you start running social experiments (Step 4), you’ll need to be willing to take a step back from the keyboard. Statistics takes patience. You can’t reasonably expect your consumers to respond immediately to your actions. Also, the initial reaction of a consumer group isn’t necessarily going to be their long term response. I’ve spoken to several indie authors who have tried raising the price on their books only to see an immediate drop off in sales. At that point, many of them lowered the unit price in a panic and swore they’d never ask for more money. However, *some* of the authors who stuck it out and let their new price stand for a few months noted that their sales returned back to their original baseline or even increased! Patience is key. So is being willing to risk and knowing how much you are willing to risk.

XKCD_CorrelationSOURCE: http://xkcd.com/552/

The bulk of statistics is finding the long lasting, consistent patterns in the noise. You want a change you can believe in. Just because you see a big spike, doesn’t mean that one event was caused by the other, nor can you even say that the spike is significant. Let’s say you spend $100 on advertising and sell 15 more books than your baseline sales. The next week, you spend another $100 and sell 2 more books than your baseline sales. Chances are that there is some deeper explanation in the first spike that differentiated it from the second. Any consumer group is going to have patterns in how they choose to spend their time and money. Find those patterns that represent a real response and you’ll be able to take advantage of them.

Let’s take my own website, www.NathanBarra.com, as an example. When I first looked at my own baseline, I noticed spikes of activity first thing in the morning, for a couple hours around lunch time, and in the evening. Additionally, I tended to see a spike in views on Mondays. Over the course of the week, the number of page views slowly died out until no one visited over the weekend. These patterns repeated over a the course of the month, so I had faith that they were a true look at my audience. Once I had the baseline, I needed to understand what the patterns meant.

STEP 4: INTERPRET THE PATTERNS
Now it is time to go back to the goals we established in Step 1. Are you into writing to make money? In that case you should be tracking the Number of Units Sold and how many visitors Click Through from your website to a point of purchase. Additionally, you can gain some insight if you pay attention to your Audience’s Geographical Origin. If you plan to do a book tour, make sure you go to the places where you have lots of fans. If you have no readers in a particular region, try to find out why. Are your marketing dollars beings spent to reach the widest audience possible? Are your books even available to that audience? Do you need to devote more advertising money to that demographic? Additionally is your marketing proving effective? Do you see any spikes up to a new plateau or steady growth in purchases following a marketing push or promotion period?

Are you the kind of writer that just wants to get your stories in front of as many eyes as possible? Then focus on driving up the Number of Visitors (number of unique individuals that loaded any page on your website) and Number of Page Views (the number of total pages that were loaded). When combined with your web site’s Bounce Rate (the percentage of visitors who look at exactly one page before leaving), you can understand how your readers interact with your website. Additionally, you want to pay attention to your largest sources of visitors, particularly your referrals. These days, much of your audience will likely come from somewhere else, be it social media, Google, or a link a friend emailed them. These people are your Referral Visitors. They represent how often and how widely your links have been shared. If you can understand your biggest sources of referrals, you can know where to focus your efforts to get the biggest return.

Instead, are you trying to build a steady and faithful audience? If that is the case, you need to encourage Repeat Visitors (people who have been to your page before) and Organic Visitors (those who typed your URL into their browser directly). You want the ratio of repeat visitors to new visitors (called your audience’s Rate of Return) to be as high as possible while you minimize the Days Since Last Page View.

Keep in mind that you won’t often be able to manage to make progress on all your goals simultaneously. When I first started NathanBarra.com, I wanted to get my page out in front of as many readers as possible, with the long term goal of establishing a steady audience. To that end, I started experimenting.

STEP 5: DESIGN AN EXPERIMENT AND RETURN TO STEP 3
Now that you have an idea of what “normal” is and what it means, you want to try to rock the boat a little and see what sort of waves you can make. Going back to my NathanBarra.com example, the first thing I did was change the amount of lag that I allowed between when I scheduled a post and when I first advertised it to my target audience. In the beginning, I saw that almost all my audience came from referrals that occurred after my media blast. I then went back posting and advertising near simultaneously. After a while, I started to wonder if I had become better established with a larger group of readers. I once again started delaying my media blasts and found that I had a steady flow of readers visit my page after I posted, but before I advertised. The things I had been doing to boost my audience had been working!

The key here is to change as little as possible and to wait long enough to observe meaningful results. If I were to spend see a spike in sales after a blog tour during which I also ran a BookBub campaign, which source of advertising should I focus on next time? There’s no real way to know.

Once you’ve made a change, return to Step 3. Wait, gather data, and then interpret the results. I would always recommend repeating any experiment at least twice. If you repeat your actions and see the same result, you can be confident that what you are seeing is real. If the results are different in consecutive experiments, then try to find out what is really causing your audience to react the way they did. Additionally, you need to take time to evaluate if the change you made supports your goals. If so, consider permanent implementation. If not, lesson learned, don’t do it again.

The key to any good statistical analysis is good interpretation. Take your time to think through all the possible reasons for the change, suing your experiments to hone in individual elements and actions. The longer you work at it, the more you’ll be able to determine from your results. Eventually, you will be so in touch with your audience that the statistics will just be a spot check to ensure that your audience is reacting the way you expected they would. Once you get to that point, you’ll understand why businesses focus on the numbers and leave the hunches for the amateurs.

About the Author:NathanBarra_Web
Though Nathan Barra is an engineer by profession, training and temperament, he is a storyteller by nature and at heart. Fascinated with the byplay of magic and technology, Nathan is drawn to science fantasy in both his reading and writing. He has been known, however, to wander off into other genres for “funzies.” Visit him at his webpage or Facebook Author Page.

Critiques Gone Bad – Critiques Part 3

Explosion gone badIn Part 1, I talked about why we write and why receiving a critique can be so difficult and in Part 2 we discussed what a critique is.

I’ve seen critiques gone bad – so bad that when the author tried to incorporate everyone’s suggestions, he ruined his own story and in another instance, the writer gave up writing for a while. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right group of people or even one person, who understands that observations and comments that help strengthen your work do not need to include wholesale shredding,

So, how to avoid a critique disaster?

What you can do to prepare yourself:

1) The most important thing for you, the author, to remember is that the critique helps you to switch hats – from the creative to the editorial. Remember that creative ALWAYS needs editorial and creative is usually scared to death of editorial. That is why some authors put their stories away for a while before embarking on the editorial journey – to give their creative sides time away from the work so that they can approach the revision and editing process more objectively.

2) Submit your best work and understand what type of critique you are looking for: a reader’s critique, a line by line critique or both? A reader’s critique is one in which the reader tells you what is working and what isn’t, where she was engaged and what threw her out of the story. The points listed at the end of this article can help guide the reader on what to look for. A line by line critique happens when all the other elements of the story are working well and the manuscript is is reviewed for consistency in language, metaphors, grammar, excess wording, etc. Generally, good critiquers will not give you a line by line critique unless they know this is more than a first draft. They can tell that by how strongly your story holds together in terms of plot, consistency, style, character and setting. Only then will they focus on line-by-line edits to polish the story.

2) Understand that some people can’t help but shred, rewrite and go beyond what is asked for. Take what you need and leave the rest but for goodness sake, don’t take it personally! Have confidence in your work and move on. Know that you can’t and don’t have to use everyone’s suggestions.

3) Know you may disagree with someone’s comments but do not take issue or become defensive. Instead become curious as to why they made those comments. Was there a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of some sort? If so, the reason for the comments may need to be addressed. Sometimes a person’s comments may simply be wrong. They may offer bad or unwelcome suggestions or see problems where they don’t exist or miss existing problems. Ultimately, you must choose the feedback that works for you.

4) Understand who is critiquing. Not everyone may be familiar with the nuances of the genre you are writing in or the age level you are targeting and that may pose problems. Short story writers and novelists may have different views on pacing, description, speed of character or plot development. You need to understand the person who is responding to your work to give their comments appropriate context.explosion 2

5) Above all, be respectful and gracious. This person took time from their other activities to help you.

What you can do to prepare others:

1) Tell them what stage this is in. First draft? Final draft needing polishing before submission? This should include information about the intended market such as Writers of the Future submission, YA novel, adult historical fantasy, etc.

2) Be clear about what you are looking for – first draft I always ask for a reader’s critique. What is working? What keeps you in the story? What isn’t working? What throws you out? Do the character’s actions ring true?

3) It’s good to tell others where you have concerns. For example, 1) I’ve rewritten the beginning several times and am not happy with it. What’s working or not working? Is this the right place to start the story? 2) Does the science make sense? Is the world I’ve created consistent and credible?

Here are some points used by writers and in critique groups that I belong to. Use them to help focus the questions you want answered, or if you’re looking at someone’s work, use them as guidelines of things to look for. Some will use this as a template, while others may only touch upon pertinent points.

General impressions: An overview of what worked and what didn’t; critiquer’s theory of theme, premise & plot summary; first impressions on title, emotional response, stumbles, questions and expectations; if the story is satisfying; and how well does the title work?

Plot:
It the problem clearly stated?
Is there a full story arc?
Does the opening/hook work?
Is there rising action & a climax?
Is the resolution complete?
Did something change?
Are there plot holes?
Does each scene work?
Is there appropriate revelation throughout the story?

Consistency:
Are there places where suspension of disbelief fails?
Is the internal logic consistent?
Does the narrative flow with proper pacing, rhythm?
Is there sufficient conflict (of all types)?

Style:
Is the style of writing appropriate?
Is an appropriate narrative tone used?
Is dialogue stilted or otherwise out-of-place?
Is there a proper balance of narrative and dialogue?
Is there appropriate narrative tension?
Is Point of View consistent? The best choice or mix?
Is tense consistent?

Character:
Sufficiently developed & distinct?fireworks
Do they speak with distinct voices?
Do they change?
Do they have believable motivations & behaviors?
Are there too many characters?
Do they have appropriate names?
Do they have strengths & weaknesses?
Are the interesting?
Is at least one character sympathetic?

Setting:
Is it complete or full of holes?
If a character, is it fully developed?

Technique summary:
Are there technical problems? (its vs it’s?)

Remember that the purpose of the critique is to help us polish the gem of our story until it sparkles in its brilliance. So, keep your eye on the prize, have confidence in what you’re doing, revise, polish and above all, submit your work!