Sunday, November 29, 2009

Six Tips for Writers

Several readers have approached me recently asking if I have any tips for them on writing. Funny you should ask, because I have advice to give on just about everything, regardless of whether I actually know anything about it. Luckily, I do know something about writing, and although I don't claim to be a trained mentor in this area, I'm happy to share what I've discovered along the way.

1. Don't Try to Impress Anyone
I think the number-one most important writing tip is to focus on telling a great story about something you really care about, and not to focus on trying to write pretty words. When I was a teenager, I remember focusing a lot on trying to write beautiful prose with not enough emphasis on the story and the characters, because I figured if I wrote enough fancy words, I'd sound smart, and people would like my stuff. It took me a while to realize that I didn't really care about "being taken seriously" as a writer and just really wanted to write great stories, and that made me a much better writer. You really have to write for yourself and not with the idea of whether someone else will think what you're writing sounds good.

2. Think the Story All the Way Through
It's also important to think the story through before writing it. Before I started writing Rising Shadow, I sat and thought a lot about all the characters and their back stories, who their families were, when their birthdays were, and so on. Then, I outlined all five books in the series (not in excruciating detail, just at a high level) before I started writing, and this has worked out great, because I'm planting little seeds in book one that won't mean anything until book five. I think J.K. Rowling does this amazingly well in the Harry Potter books, and I want to provide that same "aha!" moment when you go back and re-read my books as you recognize the little clues I'm laying out.

3. Don't Edit as You Write
The next most important tip is never to try to write perfectly in the first draft. Just get it down on paper. I wrote Rising Shadow in about six weeks and then spent nine months revising it. Just write. Really.

4. NOW Edit
I think the most important part of writing is the editing process, which thankfully I really enjoy. I have no problem slashing out whole sections, and I love getting criticism. This can be hard for a lot of writers--they feel that their words are precious or channeled from above, which makes it very hard to cut things that don't work. It's very important that you get over that barrier. If a scene really doesn't work but you love it, just cut and paste it into another file "for later" so you don't feel like you're throwing out your hard work but you're not keeping stuff that doesn't work in this particular story.

5. Don't Try to Force Inspiration
This is a hard one for control freaks, but really, you can't just say "I'm going to write a novel now" and pluck a topic out of the air. To put in the time and effort required to write a book, you have to write something you really care about, something that lights a fire under you every day. Otherwise, you'll quit after five pages and think you can't do it. If you've tried to write before and didn't get anywhere, you probably didn't have a good story to tell.

So how do you give your muse a little nudge? Read books, see movies, talk to people about what interesting things they're doing, and, my favorite technique: listen to people on public transit and start imagining them as characters and what their lives might be like. One of my favorite characters, Jesse, was inspired by a guy I heard talking to his friend on the train.

If you're at home and can't get out to stare at strangers, think of a topic that you are interested in and sit down to research it. Pretty soon, you'll start stumbling upon stories that spark an idea. This is the part where your family and friends think you've gone mad. "I was thinking about plows, because, you know, I like plows, and I found this story on the Internet about a man who found a thousand year-old plow buried on his farm, and then I started thinking, hey, what if there was a strange message carved on the plow that lead the man to solve a mystery that had been buried for a millennium!" Like that.

6. Learn the Rules
Lastly, get a good book on grammar and punctuation and learn the ins and outs of the mechanics of writing. I recommend The Elements of Style by Strunk & White. Learning the different between that vs. which, its vs. it's, your vs. you're, proper use of commas and semi-colons, and so on will make you a better writer, as you'll have the tools you need to express yourself without struggling. It allows the words to flow out of you much more smoothly, and it saves you a heap of time in the editing phase, allowing you to focus on editing the content, not the mechanics. You can also check out a blog like Meghan Ward's Writerland, which lists all kinds of writing tips including grammar and punctuation. If you want to break the rules, great! But you better have a good reason, and you better know the rules so that you can break them intelligently.

So there are six tips that I think are important for writers. Check back here for more tips in the future. I'm only blogging about once every week or two, because despite what all the experts say, I don't think you have to blog every single day to have a good blog. On the contrary, I think it's important to blog only when you have something important to say. But then again, I tend to disagree with the experts on a lot of things.

Or maybe I just like breaking the rules.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Avoiding Fame and Fortune

People who know me might describe me as a wee bit obsessive. And nothing feeds that side of my nature quite like stats. Oh, the joys of Google analytics! The ability to pore over my clicks and how long people stayed on each page. Oh look, I finally have some readers in Scotland! But shoot, they only stayed on the site for two seconds. Wait, I can cross-reference everything with the cPanel report! Hey, I have four new fans on my Facebook page today, but page interactions are down. How can I better target my ads? And on and on and on.

And then yesterday, I found myself getting depressed. Now, it might have had something to do with working too many hours at my job despite having mono, but a big part of it was the endless racking my brain trying to figure out how to break into a wider market, to make the book go viral, to really give my book wings.

And that's when I realized the hard truth: the only thing that was flying away was the fun. And wasn't that what this was all about in the first place? How did I start out with such noble intentions and still fall prey to the lure of rosy fantasies of fame and fortune? It happened one statistic at a time, that's how.

I think stats are important. They help you see how people are finding your book and who your audience is, all of which helps you make better decisions about advertising. Also, searching the web every morning for my name and book title has helped me find reviews and be able to respond quickly when there have been mistakes. But stats are a tool, not a drug. Looking at them frequently in hopes of getting a rush of excitement is setting yourself up for an ugly crash. And more importantly, it's taking you away from the really important work: writing.

So instead of wasting spare mental cycles thinking about how I can cross the chasm and make it to the big time, rather than daydreaming about getting fan mail and being asked to do book signings, I think my new approach is going to be to try to avoid fame and fortune. I'll check my stats every couple of days to make sure my ads are on target, but with the goal of making the book available to those who want to read it, which was my original intention. I'll keep posting interesting links on my Facebook page about volunteerism, physics, World Toilet Day, and all the other topics I find interesting, not because I'm trying to increase interactivity but because I find something cool I want to share. And most importantly, I'll get back to work on book three, which has been subsumed by my work on marketing book one and trying to finish book two.

So give it a try with me. Put away your book-signing pen and get back to writing. Avoiding fame and fortune isn't easy, but as long as you remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint, you'll have a much better time doing it.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Have I Turned Into a Megastore?

I've heard a lot of horror stories about how megastores buy books at 55% off the retail price and then sell them for well below what they paid for them, just to get people to come into the store and buy other stuff. Because they can charge a large markup on other items, they make their money in other ways and use books as bait. Customers want to get the best deal on a book, so they go to the megastore instead of the local bookstore, which doesn't sell items like lawn chairs at a nice profit. The independent bookstores can't compete, they go out of business, and the megastores become the only game in town.

I've been thinking about this a lot, as I've been trying to decide what percentage to set for my wholesale price as I get ready to sign up with Lightning Source, which appears to be the answer to my quest for distribution. I don't want to lure people to a megastore with my book, and I'd prefer that they not be sold in places like that at all, so I'm probably going to set my wholesale price at 50%, which allows independent stores to make a small profit (they actually only get a 40% discount after Lightning Source takes its 10% cut), and it means that Rising Shadow won't be carried by megastores, which insist on a 55% discount before they'll carry your book.

But as I was smugly thinking about how cool I was for turning down potential sales from the megastores, I got to thinking about how I give my book away for free as a PDF on my web site. I might lose some sales this way, but it means that people who can't afford to buy the paperback can still read it, and other people will still buy the paperback because it's annoying to read a 380-page book online. As I've said in previous posts, I'm not trying to maximize my profits. I get my paychecks from my technical writing career, not from writing fiction. But what about people who are trying to make it as a full-time author? Aren't I essentially doing the same thing as a megastore, undercutting other authors by giving my book away for free?

I was especially troubled by this when I read a comment to Cory Doctorow's article in Publishers Weekly, in which he talks about his latest project that involves giving away content for free. The reader blasts Doctorow with the following comment:

yup old cory, you made your nut and so you can give it all away for free
now. You're selfish cory, other writers like us havent made it like you
have. We now have your mud rut to follow after your tickertape
parade... so new writers will not be able to make a living at their
writing...becuase you see, according to CORY, everything is FREE. While
he lays in his piles. Your conceit is stunning

Certainly, one could argue that this writer's poor grasp of grammar, punctuation, and spelling is a much bigger barrier to his success than the fact that "old cory" gives away content. But does he have a point? Am I contributing to the ruin of my fellow writers? In short, have I become a megastore?

I finally concluded that it's not a comparable situation, because I'm actually only competing with myself. I'm not giving away other writers' content--I'm giving away my own. The fact that Rising Shadow is available for free might stop someone from buying it in paperback, but it's not going to stop someone from buying another writer's book any more than having a copy available in the local library is undercutting my competition.

The key to all this is quality and content. If you write a great story, people are going to buy it. Even if they read it online or borrow it from the library, many will still buy it. They might put it on their Amazon wish list and request it as a gift. Or they might decide they just have to have it on their bookshelf (or Kindle). Either way, I don't think we should be afraid of giving away content out of a paranoid protectiveness of profits*. I'm certainly doing things a little differently (see the subtitle of this blog), but I'm not harming other writers along the way. In fact, I'm hoping this blog is helpful to writers figuring out this self-publishing thing for the first time.

So I'm relieved to conclude that I'm not a megastore (and neither is "old cory"). Although now that I think about it, maybe my sales would improve if I gave away a lawn chair with each copy of Rising Shadow.

*Disclaimer: alliteration intentional. I liked the way it sounded. Please don't make a snarky comment about it--snarky comments are my job.