Critical Awareness

Tsunami of CrapNANOWRIMO is here, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. It is an endeavor in which folks attempt to complete 50K words of writing (a short novel) in the month of November. I applaud the initiative. Writers write. To be bluntly obvious, that’s what makes us writers.

If you have aspirations of being a professional author, the best way to find out if you have what it takes is…wait for it…by writing.

And, in my humble opinion, the best way to learn is not just to write, but to actually finish something.

Sadly, NANOWRIMO is typically followed by the December Deluge, also affectionately known as the Tsunami of Crap, in which large numbers of people publish the content that they’ve written in November. Completing something does not mean it’s ready to be published.

And, if you’re new to the craft, let’s face it, do you really think that your very first effort is professional quality? Really? I mean, my first stories were dreck. Quite frankly, they’ll never see the light of day. Nor should they. Other writers, such as Stephen King in his book, On Writing, have said the same thing.

Which brings me to the topic of Critical Awareness, which I define as the ability to evaluate the quality of your own story as a saleable product. Unsurprisingly, this is a learned skill, just like anything else. It’s also something that writers, on the whole, are notoriously bad at. After all, it’s hard to be objective about something that you’re so close to, that you’ve spent so much time sweating over.

It turns out that Critical Awareness is a skill. Like any other skill, you have to work to develop it. Here are some techniques to help you develop the capability to evaluate your own work:

  1. Time: Let the story sit for a month or two, while you get involved with a new project. Come back and read the story again when you’ve acquired enough distance from it to be suitably objective. This is one of my key tactics; I’m never in a hurry to publish my stories.

  2. Regular Critiques: Let others critique the work while you’re developing it. Writing groups are great for this. Most groups provide opportunities to review chapters in ongoing works. A good group can help you gain insights into your story, such as inconsistencies, worldbuilding gotchas, characterization problems, etc.

  3. Beta Readers: Beta readers can read a finished work and point out flaws in the work. Unlike critique groups, which typically review individual chapters on a periodic basis, beta readers review the entire story. This can help provide insight into structural problems, plotting problems, pacing issues, etc.

A note on the people who do critiques or Beta reads… You need people with some writing background who are willing to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Your mother is probably not a good choice. Just sayin’.

Writing is creative, but publishing is a business. Finishing a story is good, but deciding to publish should be based on a clear evaluation of a work’s prospects in the marketplace. Will it sell? Will it enhance, or detract from, the author brand you’re trying to establish? Critical Awareness is a crucial skill for success in the business.

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Blurb Writing Exercise

This is a writing exercise developed by my friend, John Dwight. He ran this exercise for the Hourlings Writing Group back in March.

INTRODUCTION

A plot can be described by the following high-level template:

When [situation], a [specific person] must do
[something] or else [stakes].

Strangely, this is mostly what a good blurb must get across to the reader.

TASK 1: IDEATION

Each victim, er, participant receives three index cards. Drawing on their knowledge of the SF field (including books, movies, and TV), they must write down three ideas that they find particularly interesting. Each idea must be written on a separate card and should include both the idea and the source that it was drawn from.

When everybody is done, each contestant, er, participant should:

  • Hand the first card to the person on their left.
  • Hand the second card to the second-most person on their left.
  • Hand the third card to the third-most person on their left

In this way, each participant should receive three cards from three different people.

TASK 2: BLURB WRITING

Each participant should take the ideas from the three cards they now possess, and synthesize these into a sentence or two that conveys the information from the basic plot template.

EXAMPLE

When I participated in the exercise, my three cards were:

A young boy has a mark on his palm that indicates he is the king everyone has been waiting for over many generations.

    — The Belgariad, David Eddings

There are guide books or rules within the built worlds for how things work (the actual sociology and physics).

    — The Dancing Gods Series, Jack Chalker

Alien Parasites with ability to assume control of a human host body. Some are peaceful companions. Some are…not.

    — Stargate SG-1

The first thing I tried to do was distill my cards into a discrete list:

  • Mark of a promised king.
  • Rules for how the world works.
  • Under assault by body-sharing beings.

And this is what I came up with for my blurb:

When a wizard accidentally releases demonic body snatchers into the world, only a young man who bears the mark of the old High Kings can save the world. To do so, he’ll have to rewrite the Laws of Magic, or humanity will never be free.

A fun exercise, and a useful one, I think, for anyone who’s ever had to create a blurb for a story. First, try to distill your story down to its essence, expressed as a set of bullet points. Second, try to express the overall plot in a compelling way.

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IngramSpark Hardcover Production

IngramSpark I had a great training session on how to produce a hardcover with IngramSpark from fellow author Martin Wilsey today. Marty is also the publisher of Tannhauser Press, a small local press, so he’s gained quite a bit of experience producing trade paperbacks, mass market paperbacks, ebooks, audio books and hardcovers.

I enticed Marty over to my house with an offer of BBQ from Carolina Brothers, a fixture of the local Ashburn area.

Remember, bribery does work. And sometimes all it takes is food.

As you may, or may not, know, IngramSpark is offering print-on-demand (POD) hardcovers, something that Amazon doesn’t currently do. The company is currently offering a promotional code that allows both free setup and free updates of hardcovers using their web site. Both of these things typically cost money, around $50 for setup and $29 each time a publication is updated. The code is good until March 31, 2019.

I’m taking the opportunity to do a hardcover of Fantastic Defenders, an anthology that I and my illustrious co-editor, Donna Royston, published in 2017.

I’d already set up my account before Marty got here. Nothing difficult, just normal tedious stuff: personal information, address, tax information, banking information for receiving payments and credit card (for future activities that may cost money).

Marty walked me through how to set up my hardcover book. In general, the interface is clean and straightforward-forward, but there are a few potential gotchas. For example, one of the early steps involves defining the trim size of your book. Not all trim sizes listed are available as hardcovers, so it’s possible to pick one that can’t be used to generate a hardcover. And there’s nothing in the interface that says anything about this. In my case, I chose 5.5×8.5, which is identical to the size of the trade paperback.

This also lets me use the same Microsoft Word document that I used for the trade paperback. Well, almost. When defining your hardcover in the interface, you need to specify an ISBN number. That ISBN number also needs to appear in the uploaded PDF (Ingram Spark does check this, by the way).

Some options for the hardcover…I chose cloth, gray, with a stamped spine. The only text I put on the spine was Fantastic Defenders in the center; you also have an option to put text in the right and left areas of the spine. Be sure to check that your generated books are properly stamped—Marty got one book that hadn’t been stamped for some reason.

I chose “glossy” for the paper cover that wraps around the book. The site wouldn’t let me finish the initial process until I’d uploaded a cover image, so I uploaded a lightly modified (but far from complete) cover template PDF. When producing the cover of the book, bear in mind that the cover includes interior flaps.

The Help page has some useful links, including one for a Cover Template Generator. That’s where I generated the cover template that I subsequently modified and uploaded. For the template, you’ll need to specify the trim size, type of paper (I chose “cream”), and number of pages. Also, make sure you specify PDF as the format for your template, otherwise it will generate an InDesign file. The template clearly delineates the margins, the spine, etc.

Overall, the IngramSpark setup process wasn’t too hard, though there is some experimentation involved. The biggest amount of work has been getting my original cover image adjusted for the new template. Once the promotional code expires, setup and updates start costing real dollars. And kudos to IngramSpark for provided this “training period” so I can come up-to-speed on their system without having to pay a bunch of money.

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Workshop Coordinator for Capclave 2019

Workshops

I’m pleased to have been asked by Bill Lawhorn, of the Washington Science Fiction Association (WSFA), to be the Workshop Coordinator for Capclave 2019. WSFA is the organization that runs Capclave, an annual SF/Fantasy literary convention, and Bill is the Chair for Capclave 2019. I was pleased to accept the offer.

I’ve run my own writing-related workshops at Capclave since 2015, and been reasonably successful at it. But this year, I’ll be organizing the entire Workshop Track for the convention, which amounts to roughly 10 – 12 hours of educational, interactive content for aspiring writers. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

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Hand-Selling Books, a Master’s Approach

Martin Wilsey at Work

My friend and fellow author Martin Wilsey is a master at hand-selling his books. This is a picture of his him at his table at an event called Manassas Reads. Let’s examine for a moment why he’s so good at selling books at events like this one.

There are no other tables shown in this picture, but I’ll tell you what you’re likely to see. A bunch of authors sitting at tables, their books lying flat in front of them. If they’re indie-published authors, most of them are displaying books with second or third-rate covers and, the worst crime of all, they’re unable to accept credit cards.

Now, contrast that with Marty. He’s got a book rack displaying his books very professionally. He’s got little stands so he can showcase individual books, typically his newest ones. He’s got a stand-up banner to attract people to his table. He’s got a tablecloth to make his table look nice. If you count, you’ll see that he’s got eight books for sale. And, just in case somebody needs yet another reason to go to his table, he’s got free candy.

His display clearly indicates that he can accept credit cards, for which he uses Square to take payments. He’s got business cards and bookmarks. He’s even got little cards with QR codes for free or cheap short stories on Amazon.

In short, he attracts people to his table. He makes it frictionless to buy from him. This is why he makes money at events.

It’s fun learning from a master…

…and to make it even easier, check out the Tips Marty wrote up last year for successfully selling books at an event.

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Author Chow: Burning Love Burger

Burning Love Burger

I was at an event with a co-worker from my Day Job, the one that actually pays my bills. For lunch, we managed to escape for a while and get a good meal from Red Robin, a burger chain.

This is their Burnin’ Love Burger, which features a half-pound hamburger patty topped with jalapeño coins (fried, breaded jalapeño slices), salsa, pepperjack cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and chipolte aioli on a jalapeno-cornmeal kaiser roll. With a grilled jalapeño on top, to boot, which I cut up and put on my burger, too.

Yum.

Oh, and that’s their Smoke & Pepper ketchup with the fries, which is sort of a tangy sauce that makes a nice change.

THIS is the kind of food that keeps that word count going. Remember, always keep your local author well fed.

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What Is Dave Working On?

Coming Soon

One of the most common questions writers get is:

What are you working on?

For most writers, that’s an easy question to answer. They just start talking about their current Work-In-Progress, or WIP.

From my day job in the Information Technology world, I’m used to multi-tasking. Due to years of on-the-job training, I find that I multi-task the same way as a writer, which most of my fellow authors in my writing group find bizarre. Or maybe it’s a peculiar form of ADHD. I dunno.

I work on a pipeline of stories at the same time, with different stories in stages like Concept, Outline, First Draft, Second Draft or Beta. Movement of a story from one stage to the next is usually driven by factors like deadlines, anthology schedules, marketing considerations, or, sometimes, I just need to work on this story right now.

I’ve sometimes confused my blog readers by mentioning stories further down in the pipeline before they’re even close to publication-ready. To add some transparency to my (unorthodox) process, I’ve now got a Coming Soon page that shows my entire pipeline and what’s in each stage.

You’ll see that I’m starting to roll some SF into the mix, as well as some Steampunk. There are also sequels to some of my existing stories on the way.

And no, I didn’t compile all this information just special for this new page. As a software developer, I use agile sprint management software to track all of my writing activities (it’s OK if you don’t know what that means). So I had all of that information already. I hope you find it interesting.

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Build a Space Battle

Build a Space Battle: A Workshop

I’ll be conducting my new workshop, “Build a Space Battle,” at Capclave 2017 tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to it. Here’s the official description of my the workshop:

So, you want to include a titanic space battle in your military SF novel or your galaxy-spanning space opera. But…who’s fighting? Why are they fighting? You’d like to make the battle realistic…but what tactics and strategies make sense? In this workshop, you’ll learn by doing as we collaboratively build an epic space battle.

My accompanying presentation is already complete and uploaded to SlideShare.net.

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Amazon Kindle Tiers

Amazon sells books in both print and ebook formats, but, frankly, most indie writers generate the bulk of their revenue from ebooks. Since most indie writers make the majority of their money on Amazon, this means the most indies are generating income from Kindle sales, borrows or page views through Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service.

Over time, as various authors have compared notes on sales, some general statistics have been developed to indicate what the different Kindle sales rankings actually mean in terms of the number of units sold. I’ve broken those sales rankings into seven distinct tiers, which are described below.

Note that these numbers are approximate, and may vary from day to day. Nevertheless, they provide a useful model for understanding Amazon’s sales and may be useful for planning purposes, as well.

Tier 1: 1 – 10

You’re selling an ungodly number of books and probably making six figures per month from just a single book. You’re also killing it in borrows and page reads from Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription service.

Sales: More than 60K books per month.

Tier 2: 11 – 100

You’re selling ten thousand or more books and probably making mid to high five figures per month for an individual title. Again, borrows and page reads will kick in additional revenue. The highest charting indies may move into this territory briefly, but generally won’t be there for long.

Sales: More than 16K books per month.

Tier 3: 101 – 1000

You’re selling thousands of books per month. At best, you’re doing low five figures. Even at the high end of the ranking, you’re still making a few thousand per month. Best-selling indies who end up in this territory for even a relatively short period may end up making more money than most traditionally published writers ever see. Borrows and page reads are a significant revenue stream.

Sales: More than 3K books per month.

Tier 4: 1001 – 10,000

You’re a real writer making real money, selling hundreds to low thousands of books per month. Borrows and page reads are still a significant revenue stream. This is where best-selling indies tend to hang out, especially if they have a large portfolio of books for sale.

Sales: More than 400 books per month.

Tier 5: 10,001 – 100,000

You’re selling 1 to 10 books per day, which adds up over time. At the lower rankings, you may be getting some revenue from borrows and page reads, but most of that will have dried up at the higher rankings. A lot of indie books settle into this tier and steadily earn money for writers. This is probably the bread and butter tier for most indies. Once again, having multiple products is the key to success when books are in this tier.

Sales: More than 35 books per month.

Tier 6: 100,001 – 1,000,000

You’re making a few sales per month. Don’t quit your day job.The settling place for indies that need to learn more about marketing.

Sales: About 2 sales per month.

Tier 7: 1,000,000+

You’re basically not really selling at all. This is not a good place for a book to be. Ever.

Sales: A sale every once in a while, maybe.


Why are tiers important?

During an intense marketing effort, such as a launch, an ebook tends to naturally reach a particular tier in terms of sales. Amazon’s own internal algorithms even take into account different factors, such as honoring slowly rising sales more than temporary spikes, and try to optimize where the book should be in the sales rankings.

After a time, generally at the 30, 60 and 90 day marks, an ebook ages enough that sales generally fade a bit and it drops to a lower tier. What you’d really like is a book that, even on auto-pilot, settles into a high-enough tier that it continues to bring in significant revenue with little or no ongoing marketing.

Best-selling author Hugh Howey’s book, “Wool,” after five+ years in publication, has settled in at the high-end of Tier 3. This means that he makes money month after month with little to no advertising. The books also leads readers in to the next two books in the trilogy, which means that the sell-through makes him even more money.

If you’re marketing your ebook, what you really want to do is to create a campaign of some sort that generates slowly rising sales rather than a sudden spike. Likewise, you want your ebook to reach the highest level possible so that 1) you make a boatload of money, and 2) your ebook eventually settles at a lower tier in terms of sales, but continues to generate real revenue.

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Writing Tips: Sprints vs. Marathons

Marathon RunnerI’ve been in two writing groups for the last four years, both of which are open to new writers. At this point, I can’t tell you the number of times a new writer has arrived and said something like…

  • “I’m writing a dystopian YA novel…”
  • “I’m writing a werewolf urban fantasy police procedural novel…”
  • “I’m struggling with an SF thriller conspiracy novel…”
  • “I’m working on a post-apocalyptic novel…”

The common element here is “novel” and, more specifically, their first novel. Ever.

Folks, writing a novel is like a marathon. For those who aren’t overly familiar with marathons, it’s 26.2 miles long. I’ll come back to this momentarily…

In the last four years, none of these new writers have published any of these novels.

Let me repeat this. None of these new writers have published any of these novels.

None. Nada. Zilch.

Because writing a novel is hard. In order to reach the finish line for a good novel, a writer has to do a lot of things right. The story concept has to sustain a novel-length work, the characters need to be well constructed, the plotting needs to be crisp, the scenes have to move the story forward effectively, etc.

Only a few of these novels were ever finished. Even when they were finished, I haven’t seen any of the writers do the kind of ruthless editing and rewriting that would be necessary to bring the novels I saw up to what I would consider a professional level.

Admittedly, my writing groups are a relatively small sample of the overall writing pool, but all of the beginning writers had the same thing in common. The novel they were writing was the first significant work they were seriously trying to get done.

On the other hand, the writers who have achieved some degree of success seem to have a few things in common, too. They’d honed their craft by working on a bunch of different works over time before they successful completed a (publishable) novel. In the case of one author, he had a string of novels he’d either 1) abandoned part-way through, or 2) finished but had decided that they were unpublishable first drafts (that he didn’t know how to fix). Other authors honed their craft on short stories and novelettes before embarking successfully on longer works.

Now, obviously, there are people out there who have been successful with their first novel (although we don’t know how many drafts they went through to get the novel to where it needed to be). There are people who write very fast and finish novels in two weeks. But, based on what I’ve seen, that’s not the way I’d place my bets.

Runners typically train for marathons by participating in shorter races before moving up to marathons. So, if you’re a new writer, I want you to consider honing your craft on shorter works before trying to write that masterpiece of a novel that you have in your head.

And if you do choose to develop your craft with some short stories and novelettes, go for some diversity. Write that emotional story that doesn’t have much action in it. Write the origin story for the character that’s going to be the hero in your eventual masterpiece. Do an urban fantasy mystery short story. Do a…well, you get the picture. Stretch your boundaries so you’ll be ready for that novel when the time comes.

OK, your mileage may vary. I understand this. Starting with shorter works might not be the right path for everybody. But…at least consider it. I’m getting tired of critiquing trunk novels.

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