An Experiment in Marketing

The undeniable truth is that writers are ultimately responsible for marketing their books themselves. Nobody questions this state of affairs in the realm of self-publishing, of course, where the author is responsible for every aspect of his or her book. But even writers with big contracts from major publishers will tell you that a great deal (okay, the lion’s share) of the publicity work ends up landing on their plate.Having recently secured a publishing deal with a small press in Canada (where I’m from), I now find myself in the position of having to execute a marketing plan for my own book. Marketing is not my strength. In fact, as a purely creative type who wants to spend all his time living in his own make-believe worlds (I know, I sound like a fun person to spend a Saturday night with, right?), taking on the burden of building a fanbase is an unsavory business I would much rather avoid-or at least leave to the professionals.

Fortunately, I have a writing partner on the project so I don’t have to go it alone.

First, we set to the task of brainstorming some ways to get the word out about our coming book. Before too long, an obvious target for our efforts emerged: social media.

On my own, I would hardly consider myself a social media guru. I check Facebook almost every day, but I post updates infrequently (no more than a couple of times per month). I don’t have a Twitter account, and don’t even get me started on this Google+ nonsense. Frankly, it seems entirely too time-consuming, as though I could spend all my time promoting myself and never find the time to actually write. I guess some people are wired for it more than others.

Like my writing partner, for example. Thank heavens for small miracles.

Just over two weeks ago, we started our campaign by opening a Facebook account for one of the main characters in the novel. Just as it’s important to keep a blog active in order to see eventual success, we knew this would only have a shot at working if the account stayed active and busy, and built up a significant number of followers very quickly.

We met our initial goal (we have north of 500 Facebook friends now), so we expanded our effort by cross-posting all our updates to Twitter. We aim for three or four new updates or links everyday, to make sure we don’t disappear from people’s home pages. The effort does seem to be succeeding, as the activity on the page is significantly greater than any buzz I’ve ever managed to build or maintain on my own behalf.

The next step, which just kicked in earlier this week, was the formation of a blog for the same fictional character. We’re just beginning to get hits on it, and several people have already subscribed. At first, I’ve written blog posts that function as a teaser trailer of sorts for the book itself, introducing one of the novel’s central mysteries. As time goes on, we plan to tackle subjects and research that hint at possible sequels.

I have no idea whether these efforts will be successful in the long-run, but so far they seem to be exceeding our modest expectations. I have reason to be optimistic.

These are, of course, just a handful of ideas. There must be lots of others. What sorts of marketing efforts have other people tried? By all means, chime in and maybe we can do some brainstorming.

Sloshing through the Slush Pile ““ Beginner Concerns

You wrote a story and submitted it. Good for you! Pat on the back! It takes courage to not only write but to submit! But, your story wasn’t chosen? That makes me sad, especially after all that effort. So, how do you get your story through the first reading also known as the slush pile? It’s no great mystery. I’ve been a slush pile reader and have judged the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA) short story contest and I’m here to share some of the common writing mistakes made by beginning writers.

Actions speak louder than words
There is the saying that actions speak louder than words. For the writer the saying should be reworded to: a character’s actions and reactions, based on his value system, are more revealing than a mere listing of movements and setting. Feelings, actions and reactions, what’s worth fighting for, our successes and failures in that fight and how they affect us – those are the things which move your reader and create your story.

Damn, I hate lectures …
Information dumps are bad any time – back story, setting, telling me what the character is thinking. When I hear the “professor’ lecturing me on what it’s like in space when I want to know how the character will solve a problem, I’m gone ……. and please, stay away from omniscient musings on the human condition!

The sleep inducing setting
Starting a story with a list of items the character sees isn’t exciting. Not even in real life do we note all the details in a room when we enter it. But we do notice things which affect how we feel or cause us to react like a dead body on the floor or the missing captain and the view screen showing the planet’s surface growing larger.

Setting not only sets the time and place for your story but more importantly is used to stimulate the senses; to evoke a feeling for the situation and to provide a context in which your character will react. Yes, some novels start with awesome descriptions of setting. So what makes that work? Setting is used as a character – it evokes a feeling. It’s no mistake that in Twilight, for example, the climate is cold, rainy and generally depressing. Similar, is it not, to how Belle feels about herself?

Writing in first person
Many a good idea was killed by this Point of View. Writing in first person doesn’t mean it’s a free license to explore your grey cells to produce copious ponderings. Writing in first person is difficult because there is only one point of view through which to reveal a world, create drama and to incorporate a story line which is interesting. It can be done. The trick is not to tell, but to show the person actively assessing and responding to his situation. Through his eyes and actions, he must reveal information about the people he interacts with, his surroundings and how he feels. First person can be a great way to get deeply into someone’s psyche, the trick is not to get bogged down in the thinking process. All the rules for a good story arc still apply.

Stories need to be dynamic
Whether they’re dynamic emotionally or action oriented, I don’t care. Have some tension, carry it through to the climax and ending. Actions need reaction. Reactions produce more actions. Show, don’t tell. Don’t list events, or actions, or use empty words like “pondered “which evoke nothing except that the writer didn’t really know how the character felt or how he should react. A story needs a plot and increasing tension with a climax. Writing a descriptive scene isn’t a story.

Proof reading and feedback
Truly, most of us cannot be a good judge of what we write, certainly not in the beginning of our careers. The act of writing is a solitary event insofar as we need to write our story. After that, it’s a collaborative process requiring feedback and revisions. Your manuscript is easily rejected because of poor grammar, spelling and punctuation, clunky dialogue or extensive monologues. Plot problems or character concerns such as inconsistency or believability are things proofreaders can catch.

Keep on writing!

The Cost of Cons

Worldcon took place in Reno just a few weeks ago. (I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything about it from the attendees. Drop us a note if you would.) Comic-Con San Diego was in July, Dragon*Con is this weekend, and World Fantasy Convention is next month. Those are some of the larger conventions. There are other smaller conventions I’m fond of such as Life the Universe and Everything, Comic-Con Phoenix, and Conduit-from which I have fond memories of being soundly beaten in a game of Magic: The Gathering by Brandon Sanderson. Then, there are the local conventions: Leprecon, Coppercon, and TusCon to name a few in Arizona. Add to those, the writing conferences and workshops available all over the country: Southwest Writers Conference, Superstars Writing Seminars, Dave Wolverton’s many wonderful workshops, Clarion and Clarion West, and the list goes on and on. I could easily have named dozens upon dozens and, for one reason or another, they’re all good!

So how do we choose? We want to go to the bigger ones for the chance to hear from and associate with well-known authors, agents, editors, publishers and the numerous fans. I attended World Fantasy Convention two years ago and found a critique partner, met and received advice from a top-notch agent, gained a mentor, witnessed bad and good pitches by aspiring authors, listened to some great panels, and made wonderful friends. If you can possibly afford to go to one of these, do it!

Okay, so if we’re meeting the big wigs at the big conferences, why go to the small ones? At LepreCon last May I met and chatted with one of the major editors of my favorite publishing house. Did I pitch? No. Did she show interest in my work? No. But when I get an agent, I can meet this editor again and have a basis for future conversation. Even if you’re self-publishing, this is where you’ll find your local fan base. It’s a great opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals from your own area.

Workshops and Conferences. I have to be honest, I’ve never been to a writing conference, but I’ve heard they’re wonderful. One of my dear friends and a well-published author found her agent at a conference. And there are oodles of classes to choose from that focus exclusively on craft. A workshop is similar, sometimes more expensive, but often more one on one. I’ve made some of my best writing friends, many of whom are on this blog, from writers seminars and conferences. These are the fellow writers that will root for you, be beta readers for you, and motivate you. Every workshop I’ve attended has not only been worth the money for the workshop, it’s been priceless for the friendships made.

If so many of them are worthwhile, how to decide? I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford them all… in money or time. So I try to use the rules of socialization I learned as a child; be inclusive and take turns. So, a big con, a favored con, some small cons and a workshop. Too much? Yes. It’s what I attempt, but it isn’t what I achieve.

I look at what I’ve attended, what I want to attend, what has worked best, and what I haven’t tried yet. Then I figure out how much I can spend and choose what I can manage next. I try to take into consideration the time I won’t be writing, and the distance I have to travel. But I always work toward attending something, because sitting around and writing is only part of the equation. We have to get out and connect with people. After all, isn’t that what writing is really about, people? We may be reclusive hermits, but we write stories that connect with humanity. So get out there and Con.

I mean that in the positive sense, not in any way connected to criminal activity. 🙂

Pacing and Scene Selection

Today I want to talk about story pacing.

I’m currently reading one of those books that’s really gotten into my head and I’ve been thinking about why. The book is Princeps Fury, book 5 of the Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera epic fantasy series. I’m really enjoying the book and the series, although I need to finish it soon so I can get it out of my head and focus on my own writing.

Two things in particular have jumped out at me while reading this book. First, it is a big fat epic fantasy, and yet it is paced more like a military thriller: fast, unrelenting, with constant twists and escalations. Second, every scene drives the plot forward, escalating the conflict or twisting the plot. There’s no downtime, no reprieves.

For me it works, even though it’s hard to maintain such a pace for such a long book. For my wife, it doesn’t. She prefers stories where there are breaks in the tension, where the action comes more in cycles than in one long, continuous sprint toward the end. She needs the periodic emotional rest or she finds a story overwhelming.

Different readers have different preferences. As authors we need to discover what pacing our story requires. Then we need to deliver it. Some readers will like it. Some won’t. But if the story isn’t paced properly, no one will.

In a thriller or a fast-action story a hard-hitting, constantly escalating pace is required or there’s not enough emotional tension for the author to achieve the sought after experience for the readers. On the other hand, some stories have different objectives. Some epic fantasies explore the milieu (the environment, culture, history, and customs of the worlds they’ve created). That’s fine too. Many readers love this type of story as long as it doesn’t get too bogged down by all the side-tracks.

The pacing needs to be appropriate or the story dies. A common mistake that can derail the correct pacing is including the wrong scenes. Imagine a story like the movie “Die Hard” where, in the middle of the action, the hero John McLane decides to take a hot bath and drink some tea.

Wouldn’t work.

That example’s a bit extreme, but new authors often fall into the trap of including scenes just because they’re the next sequential step in the character’s journey, even if they’re just filler material between the scenes that really matter. Experienced authors have learned to recognize those filler scenes that do nothing in and of themselves to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way. They learn to cut those scenes and move on to the next important action.

For authors who do a lot of exploratory writing to “find’ the story, this can be a greater challenge because the very nature of that exploratory writing will result in scenes that are useful to the author but not to the finished work. In subsequent drafts as the author is paring the story down to its core plot line, those scenes must be removed or they will drag a story down and ruin it.

I’ve learned this the hard way. In the early drafts of one novel I wrote I included several entire chapters that, although interesting and well written, did next to nothing to drive the plot forward. It was hard to recognize that they had to go because in a slightly different story they would have been perfectly appropriate.

Just not in the story they happened to be in.

I had to learn to ask the question: “If I remove this entire scene, will the reader even notice?” The answer was “No”. I cut the scenes and no one blinked an eye.

On the other hand, in the same novel, I got a little carried away with trimming the fat and cut an entire POV and all of its related scenes. Beta readers didn’t know what was missing but they sensed that something was lacking in the story. I put the scenes back and readers confirmed it filled the gap.

It can be a tricky process, but it is vital. We as authors need to make sure we understand what emotional journey our readers will be taking as they follow our characters through the torturous adventures we throw them into. Extraneous scenes need to go. Scenes that do not deliver the correct tension, pacing, or emotional beat have to go or have to be corrected.

What techniques have you developed for identifying scenes to chop?