Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Things Not to Do ….

The Week You Release Your Book

I am doing this all wrong.

My book “Keeping Score” went live over the weekend. (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00E6GHQYM) Since I published it on my own, every single reader is one I’ll have to get myself, at least until the proper number of reviews kick in and Amazon starts to recommend it. So yesterday, I Googled “book marketing plan” and found a terrific one. Unfortunately, the plan recommended several steps to take before officially launching one’s book.

First of all, apparently I should have booked my cover designer months in advance since the best ones book up early. And, yes, it did take her a few weeks before she had time to do my cover, and then a few weeks after that as we went back and forth, all lovingly chronicled in the blog post below. So, okay, I guess I should have booked her two months before, but I was busy doing things like querying agents and publishers and all the things one does when one would prefer to have someone else do the publishing heavy lifting.

Also apparently I should have lined up about five reviewers to post something official on Amazon so when the marketing stuff started, there would be a few five-star, glowing testimonials to greet my would-be readers. Again, Jami fail. I am currently begging my friends to post reviews while begging near-strangers to buy my book. Hopefully those near-strangers will be drawn in just by my funny prose describing the story. PS, thank you Janie for writing that review. You are currently my best friend.

I also should have lined up my guest-blog appearances well in advance. Well, I didn’t know when my book would be available. I actually did have two blog appearances lined up that I had to postpone because I took so long to settle on my cover.

But probably the biggest mistake I made during this whole thing was releasing my book when I’m in the middle of buying a house and less than a month away from moving. That was a really stupid move (ha ha) on my part!

Granted, we’re only moving 15 minutes down the road, rather than the 17 hours down the country that we did a year ago. But this time we are buying, which means we have to deal with home inspections and wind insurance and all kinds of things we didn’t have to deal with before. And our house is small, which means we’re going to be putting a lot of stuff in storage and then building a second story. So basically this is a big complicated detailed nightmare.

Today, for instance, I wanted to spend time emailing friends and bloggers and doing some more work on my current WIP. Instead I had to attend a termite inspection (no termites, but apparently there is some fungus somewhere. Yay. Fungus.), drop off a package at Fedex, and pick up some boxes.

I haven’t started packing yet. I would like to get everything out of the house and into the storage unit first, but since the sellers are giving us some of their furniture – but we don’t know which pieces yet – I have to wait for them to get back from vacation and give us the list of what they’re giving us before I can decide what goes in storage. BTW, does anyone want a recumbent stationary bike? I know I won’t be taking that.

When I get really stressed, I tend to spend my time making detailed, elaborate to-do lists rather than actually doing anything on said list. So I have two long ones – the house sale/moving one, and the book marketing one. Currently neither of them has a single check mark.

So I guess it’s a good thing I’ve lined up some guest bloggers to take over duties while I pack, move things to storage and try to keep from pulling out my hair.

So it’s possible you might not hear from me directly for a while. It’s also possible I’ll get my shit together, start crossing off items on my to-do lists, and keep my hair intact.

In the meantime, please buy and review my book!

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Birth of a Cover Design (Kate Middleton had it easier)

When I decided to self-publish my book “Keeping Score,” one of the tasks I was particularly concerned about was the cover design. While I’m confident about plot, structure, characterization, and other writerly things that make a story resonate, I’m not a visual person at all. I’m not someone who sees scenes unfolding in her mind; I’m more likely to get into the head of my characters, to understand their motivations. That’s also why I’ve never liked the “character casting game;” I don’t have a strong sense of what my characters look like and really don’t care who should play them.

So when it came time to work with a designer, I was a little stressed. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I did know what I didn’t want – I really don’t like photographs on covers; I think it makes the book look amateurish. And of course it is an amateur book, so there’s no reason to advertise that even further. “Keeping Score” is about a devoted mom and her 9-year-old son; it’s his first summer playing travel baseball. There’s a lot of crazy baseball parents, and the competition ruins my heroine’s relationship with her best friend. So, there are a lot of elements that the cover could highlight.

I was lucky enough to find a cover designer who was willing to humor me and try to create on paper some of the crazy ideas in my head. My first thought that since it was a funny book, I wanted the cover to be funny. There’s a scene where my heroine, Shannon, puts on catcher’s gear in order to help her son Sam practice pitching. I envisioned a cover that had a woman in professional clothes wearing catcher’s gear and crouching down as her son pitched to her. Unfortunately, my ability to visualize things like perspective isn’t really strong. There’s really no way to get a pitcher and a catcher in the same shot and have either of them larger than ants. Since Mom and son wouldn’t be right next to each other to throw, so my designer had Shannon in her gear standing behind a kid who was ready to hit. It wasn’t funny; it was just confusing.

Take two. Since another theme of the book was crazy overinvolved baseball parents, I suggested keeping the kid at the plate, but have a bunch of parents behind him, hanging off the back stop fence. This would take care of the perspective problem. My designer worked diligently with me and accepted my suggestions – for instance, I told her that the kid wouldn’t be alone at the plate, but the catcher would be behind him. Unfortunately, with the kid hitter and kid catcher front and center, by the time my designer had sketched everything out, the cover looked like it belonged on a kid’s book. Even though it had taken her weeks to come up with the drawing I said I wanted, luckily my designer was very understanding when I asked her to go back to the drawing board.

Take three. This time I went for simplicity. Since the throughline of the book was how the competitive baseball scene destroyed the relationship between Shannon and her best friend Jennifer, as well as the one between Sam and his best friend, Jennifer’s son Matthew, how about a simple drawing of the four of them squaring off on a baseball field? And after a month’s trial and error, that’s what I got. My designer went above and beyond the call, developing a 3D technique for realism’s sake and scouring the web for models and kids’ baseball uniforms.

There are many indie authors who make a big deal out of their cover reveals, but I’m not one whose decision to buy a book is influenced by the cover. Maybe if I’m at Barnes & Noble going through the new fiction pile, a good cover might draw me in. But when I’m downloading new fiction to my Kindle, it’s all about the plot, the price, and whether I’m already a fan of the author. (This is why I haven’t bought J.K. Rowling’s latest. Good reviews aside, the plot doesn’t draw me in enough to look past that $10 price.)

So without further ado, I give you the cover of “Keeping Score.”


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Being Your Own Boss – It’s Not as Easy as it Looks

There are many different definitions of the American Dream, but being your own boss is one of the top versions. Imagine setting your own hours, being accountable only to yourself, building a business you might one day hand down to your children. Unfortunately, for all the benefits that being a business owner may offer, there are a lot of disadvantages as well. Some folks are just better off working for someone else – or not working at all – than going out on their own.

As a freelance writer/editor, I’ve been on my own for over 10 years. I’ve also hired several business owners and freelancers, in the process of selling/renting/buying homes, overseeing construction projects, and working with others to make my own writing better. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to deal with a person who is clearly over her head. And just because that person excels at a particular talent does not mean he should go out on his own selling it. If you’re thinking about putting out a shingle and advertising your wares, here are some things to think about as you consider going solo:

Owning your own business does not mean you won’t have a boss. Every single client is your boss. If you have trouble being accountable to one person, multiply that feeling by the number of clients you need to support yourself.

There is nothing more important than your time management skills. Time management is the ability to accurately guesstimate how long a particular project will take you, and plan accordingly. Similarly, time management means having the ability to foresee stumbling blocks and taking those into account. If you believe it takes you five hours to read and evaluate a manuscript, but it’s really closer to ten, you and your clients will be unhappy.

Speaking of stumbling blocks, are you the type of person who easily steps over them or do you find yourself getting flustered? There’s no IT department when you’re on your own. If your internet goes out because your neighbor’s landscaper cut the cable, do you whine about missing emails, or do you pack up your laptop and head to Panera?

What are your organization skills like? Do you routinely update your to-do list and scratch off about 80 percent of your items per week? Or is your to-do list written on the back of napkins or used envelopes? Do you have a to-do list? Being your own boss requires you to juggle many activities that seem only tangentially related to the work you perform (quarterly taxes, anyone). If you have trouble keeping track of and accomplishing everything you need to do, freelance work may not be right for you.

Are you comfortable being available 24/7? Many freelancers want to work for themselves in order to have a flexible schedule. Most clients will respect your wish not to work on weekends or during your children’s afternoon soccer games. But if you’re constantly missing deadlines for personal reasons and ignoring emails and phone calls for days, your business will dry up quickly and you’ll have angry ex-clients badmouthing you.

Organization and time management are key to running a successful business. But if you don’t have these skills, you might consider hiring a “traffic manager” to answer your queries and keep you on track.

Being your own boss is the American Dream. But it can turn into a nightmare if you treat your job more like a hobby. Having angry clients is one thing. Having an angry landlord is something entirely different.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Whose Story is It? Choosing a Point-of-View

Many emerging – and even some established – writers struggle with the issue of point-of-view. While we learn in middle school the difference between first person, second person, third person limited and omniscient points of view, we do not learn about the benefits and drawbacks of each one. Writers should make a deliberate decision not only about whose story it is, but what is the emotion they’re trying to draw from the reader.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained the difference between surprise and suspense by comparing the sudden explosion of a bomb under a table to that same bomb ticking away for 15 minutes before the explosion. That example can also be used to explain the difference between first and third person. The “I” narrator has no idea that the bomb in her life is about to explode, while the “she” narrator may be well aware that it’s there and about to affect a dozen lives. Ask yourself: Do you want your reader to feel surprise or suspense?

Surprise! I came home early and caught my boyfriend in bed with my mother. Surprise! My new boss is my college ex-boyfriend. Surprise! I came home to find my wife missing and our house in shambles.

First person “surprise” is the best way to tell the story when you want your reader to feel as close as possible to your protagonist – to “be” your main character. (This works in a particularly creepy way when you’re using first person to tell the story of a serial killer or other sicko.) It is also a popular form for detective and mystery fiction; the reader likes to play along and try to solve the mystery as she has the same set of clues as the protagonist. It is, by its definition, limited to the main character, and efforts to move past that limitation usually result in a book that doesn’t work.

Writers should use first person if they are telling the story of one person, and if they are consistently in their main character’s head. First person also has the advantage of letting the writer avoid lots of description, narration, back story and history. The main character herself is the setting, and nothing should be in the book that the main character does not know first-hand.

First person can also be used with more than one main character if the writer is deliberate about switching off between them and giving them both equal time to tell their stories. (Don’t ever try this with more than two characters.) The main challenge is developing a personal voice for each character so that it is obvious in each sentence who the “I” is.

Second person is generally only used by writers of “choose your own adventure” type books. There have been a few brave writers who’ve tried to write a novel this way, but they are not widely read.

Writers who chose third person want to go beyond the thoughts and impressions of their main character, or they have more than one main character. Romance publishers advise their writers to use third person, showing the perspective of both romantic partners (and no one else). The third person POV offers two perspectives; limited and omniscient.

Third-person limited is limited to one or two main characters. The advantage of this perspective is that it allows the writer to tell one (or two) person’s story, but also to give the reader information that the protagonist does not have. This option does allow for lots of description, narration and back story. It also gives the writer the ability to describe other characters and events in a way that the reader can make judgments independent of the main character. For instance, the protagonist may think her husband is an upstanding guy, but the writer can drop hints to lead the reader to believe he is, in fact, the murderer.

Third person omniscient is the most difficult point of view to pull off. It’s most successful when the writer is telling a sweeping story that affects many characters; each character gets his own chapter and only in that chapter is his point-of-view shown. Unfortunately, many writers who work in the third person do not seem to understand the rules for this type of storytelling. Third person does not give the writer leeway to talk about the waitress’ tough day as she’s serving pie to the protagonist. Nor is it permissible to write a “he thought/she thought” ping-pong contest in the same paragraph. When writing in third person, especially for “pantsers,” it is very easy to make these kinds of mistakes, so sharp editing is key for success.

For many writers, the choice of first or third person isn’t a conscious one. It’s an integral part of their voice. Even so, writers need to know the pros and cons of each perspective, the emotion they’re trying to elicit in their readers, and the rules they need to follow to produce a well-structured manuscript.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Writing vs. The Story

As writers, many of us think of ourselves as artists. We paint pictures with words; we obsess over sentence structure; we envy others’ carefully crafted metaphors. We cut and edit and rewrite and do it all over again. Every single word is scrutinized.

The result of all this work is definitely worth it. Many new writers produce work with a strong voice and good flow. Furthermore, this obsession to detail means a minimum of typos and grammatical errors.

As good as that writing is, however, it’s the story itself that is most important. No matter how beautiful and compelling your prose is, it will be overlooked if the plot points don’t logically build to a satisfying conclusion. (What is a plot point? It’s a point of action that furthers the plot. Jane breaking up with Ryan is a plot point. Jane getting a dog – unless the dog is the reason she breaks up with Ryan – is not.)

Many writers finish their first draft and begin their rewrite by concentrating on specific words. Either by printing out the manuscript and going over it with a red pen, or by utilizing “track changes” on the computer, they go through line by line, word by word.

Personally, I believe this is a mistake. After the first draft, the writer should concentrate on the story, not the writing. The story and the writing are not the same thing.

The writing is the writer’s voice, her word choice, her sentence structure and allusions. The story is the plot points that take the book from beginning to end.

Many new writers, in early drafts, do not create plot points that build naturally and lead to a satisfying conclusion. Rather that working as a stair case, these plot points are scattershot – they do not build on each other, or they can be rearranged without any impact on the novel’s conclusion. This is a catastrophic error that can ruin a book’s chances for professional publication, but many writers –too close to their own writing – cannot see what they’ve created. Or they spend too much time worrying about comma placement to see that certain events just don’t serve the story. Or they are overwhelmed by finishing the first draft of a 90,000 word novel, and the thought of digging back in and doing a major rewrite is just too much. Writers who write by the seat of their pants – going where the flow seems to take them – may be more prone to these problems than writers who plan out their stories.

Here are four ways around this problem:

1. After finishing your first draft, re-read the novel and make an outline of every plot point in the story. Examine them in their naked form, stripped of description and character. Do they make sense? Do they build on each other? Are there plot points that go nowhere?

2: Utilize beta readers early on in the process. Tell them not to worry about typos or the fact that you changed the spelling of the love interest’s name halfway through the book. Their job is to concentrate on plot and character only. Is the ending emotionally fulfilling? Do the plot points work toward the ending? Are the characters consistent while allowing for growth?

3: After reading your beta readers’ suggestions, pick up your book and read it again as fast as possible. If you must take notes, only take them on major points, not typos (don’t worry, you’ll get another chance to look at them again.) Keep your beta readers’ points in the back of your mind as you read. Do their suggestions make sense? And remember that sometimes a beta reader’s suggestion tries to solve a specific problem. Try to see the problem she’s trying to solve. There may be other ways to do it. When you’re done, write yourself a report on the major changes you need to do for your rewrite.

4. Lastly, trust your gut. With my last book, in the back of my mind I was afraid that certain very funny, well-written scenes would have to go because they just didn’t forward the plot. But I needed to hear that from someone else – a someone I wrote a big check to – before I made the necessary cuts. If I’d just listened to that nagging little voice, I might have saved myself some money.

While the writing must be polished, even the prettiest prose won’t make up for a deficient story. Before pulling out your red pen and brushing up on Strunk & White, make sure the plot is as strong as it can be.