A True Indie Success

Well, I’m back.

I won’t bore my readers with lengthy explanations as to why I’ve been silent on this blog, or ruminate on how to make the time, and how that’s easier said than done.  Much easier said than done, as I’ve learned in the last few weeks. Instead, I’ll doff my cap, humbly apologize, and move right along. You can’t get back on the horse without putting your foot in the stirrup…or something like that.

So, right to it. In my time “away,” I had lots of time to miss reading. Especially reading Indie work.  In such a lapse as this, it would have been easy for me to step back from the Indie Writer’s world completely, and let it run along as it does. In fact, I was so deep into my work that I didn’t read anything, let alone write. I’ve built a habit of reading and reviewing Indie work in the last several months, but like any habit, if you let it lapse long enough, it can fade away. You lose the routine.
Fortunately, in the midst of my busyness, I had a wonderful reminder of why we do this. Ryan Casey’s debut novel What We Saw came in the mail.

What we SawSome time ago, Ryan started a crowd sourcing initiative on Pozible, to raise money to have his book printed in paperback. It was very successful–his goal was reached in twelve hours, and he ended up raising close to double his goal in the end. He said it was an experiment, and it’s one we can all learn from–know what you want, find out how to get it, and just do it. It was also a wonderful example of how well the Indie Writer’s community works together. You don’t find this kind of collaboration in the Traditional Publishing Industry.

I contributed a modest sum to his campaign, and the reward was a copy of his paperback. Living overseas from him, I didn’t receive it until recently–such is the way of snail mail. But really, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been doubting myself lately in terms of my writing–never making the time, at a loss for ideas, spinning my wheels on ideas I have developed. I recognise all of this as part of a cycle I’ve been a part of for years–it means I’m winding down, and will soon put down the writing for years, until I get the urge to try again. Or, that’s been the pattern.

Receiving Ryan’s book reminded me of two points: that achieving your dreams can be as simple as pursuing them with abandon, and–this is the important one–it’s not impossible to achieve them. Not even close to impossible. Here was the physical proof: a genuine professional grade paperback novel, written by a young guy in between his studies at University. And this isn’t vanity press; he’s made some real money off this venture. It’s an excellent book. It’s got legs. And all because Ryan had an idea, a dream, and a plan to go out and grab it.

When I was Ryan’s age, I was at University, writing my never ending novel on a Palm Pilot with a fold out keyboard, whiling away the hours at coffee shops and pubs, completely lost in this fantasy world I’d created. I see part of myself in Ryan’s creative energy–the difference is that he went further than I ever did, and he grabbed the golden ring. I used to regret that I never finished my book, but now, I just see it as unfinished…for now. Seeing this kind of tangible result is a great motivator. It’s a reminder to keep looking out for your dreams, to keep moving forward. But mostly, I see it as a held out hand. This is a fellow writer saying “come with me, we’re going the same way.”

Now, of course, Ryan isn’t the only one who’s achieved some measure of success, and he’s not the only Indie I find inspiring. J. M. Ney-Grimm, Lindsey Buroker, David A. Hayden, Brian Rathbone, and so many others whose books I’ve been reviewing on this blog–all of these people are hallmarks of what makes this community great. Look them up on twitter, find their blogs, read their stories; you’ll find that each and every one of them is just like you. And if you’re not a writer, do all those things anyway. There’s a greater lesson to be learned here besides how to publish your work online. Personally, I think it’s one of the greatest lessons you can learn in life, and all of these people are living embodiments of it. I can sum it up in the words of non-profit guru Dan Pallotta: “You can have all the things you want, or all the reasons you can’t have them.”

And it’s really as simple as that.

I’ve got lots of work to do, and lots coming up on Speaking to the Eyes. Bear with me as I get back into the swing of things, but watch this page for upcoming reviews of J.M Ney-Grimm’s Troll Magic, news about a great contest by Indie juggernaut J.F. Penn, and of course, the ruminations of a writer/reviewer trying to learn his way through the world of Self Publishing!

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Build the House Before the Rooms: a Case Study in Framing

Recently I mentioned a series of four short stories I’m trying to write to get back into my deadlocked project. The main idea is to have all four stories in the same release, using a frame story to link them together. It’s a great convention, and can bring seemingly isolated stories together into a cohesive book–but like any writing technique, it’s easy to do it poorly.
I’ve never tried a frame story before, so I thought I’d do some practical research and look at some examples. Here are three of note:

Shades of GrayStar Trek: The Next Generation

We’ll start with the bad. This episode of Star Trek is often pointed to as one of the worst in any of the series, because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. It also points to a larger problem in television: the clip show. I’ve always thought of a clip show as little more than a marketing tool–it’s a way for producers to reel in potential new viewers by showing them the “best” clips of a series–but most of them are, in fact, frame stories.

The episode starts with Commander Riker getting injured on an away mission. He slips into a coma, and has a series of dreams–which, of course, are shown to the audience as clips from previous episodes. The premise is so on the nose that the writers might as well have grabbed the camera and shouted: “Do you remember this one? Huh? Do you??” I admit that Star Trek has some lousy episodes, but this one is plain ridiculous.

/Vitrol. Anyway, the thing with clip shows is that it’s difficult to introduce a plot while cramming in all those clips from past episodes. And that’s the issue here; the writers concocted a interesting problem for the characters to overcome, but neglected it in favour of showing clips. Riker’s illness could have made a good episode if they concentrated on it, but it’s pushed to the side. The point of this episode from a production standpoint was that they didn’t have the budget to do a big show, and were forced to recycle. Because of that, much more focus is put on the clips than the central problem the frame story introduces, and the episode as a whole suffers for it.

As a frame story, this fails because the frame does nothing to really connect the clips. There’s an excuse that Riker’s illness forces him to relive painful moments, and this is supposed to provide a thread for the episode to follow–but it really doesn’t hold up. The whole episode feels disconnected and thrown together, and as a result is largely forgettable.

The lesson here is that when using a frame story…use the frame story. Don’t introduce a convention then leave it behind, you’ll just confuse your audience.

The Illustrated Man–Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is an unquestioned master of science fiction, and this is probably one of the best introductions to his work. It’s a series of short stories (all but one previously published in periodicals), which, like most great science fiction, deal with the human condition. The stories are often dark, but they all put across some great questions. It’s a really nice collection, and a seminal work for sci-fi enthusiasts.
The frame store here is about a man who comes across a vagrant covered in tattoos–tattoos that move. The vagrant explains that a woman from the future inked them, and that they each tell a story. As the man gazes into the animated tattoos, we transition into one of the eighteen short stories in the book. It’s simple, effective (to a point), and intriguing. But it doesn’t entirely work.

Again, we have a disconnect between the frame story and the short stories written around it. The stories include some of Bradbury’s great classics–The Veldt, Marionettes Inc., and a personal favourite, The Rocket–but they don’t all have a clear connection to one another. The ‘human condition’ theme is vague enough that it covers almost all of science fiction, so it doesn’t really serve to string these stories together.
“But,” you say, “that’s what the frame story is for!” And you’d be right–the purpose of a frame is to create some sort of cohesive narrative. But it’s difficult to do that with such disparate stories; it’s like building a house with rooms that all have different heights. Your ceilings won’t match up, and your roof will end up a jagged mess. Of course, I wouldn’t say this collection is a mess–Bradbury is an excellent writer, and he makes it work. But for those of us who don’t have dozens of classics under our belts, this book can serve as an example: put some careful thought into how things are linked together.

I, Robot–Issac Asimov

And here we come to the shining example of how to do a frame story right. In my opinion, anyway–I have to admit I’m partial to Asimov, so I’m a bit biased. It also features one of my favourite characters in science fiction, robot psychologist Susan Calvin. This book is such a great example of a frame story that it doesn’t seem like a frame at all. It’s more like reading different chapters of the same book.
In fact, that’s kind of what it is. It’s a collection of Asimov’s robot stories, of course, but the collection as a whole is set up as a sort of history of robotics. Dr. Calvin is being interviewed by a reporter looking for the “human angle” in robotics, and she tells him a series of stories in loosely chronological order. The robots are the real characters in this book, and because we sympathize with them, we see how “human” they really are; this in turn tells us important things about ourselves. Which, as I’ve said before, is exactly what science fiction is about.

That’s all well and good, but why does the frame story work so well? Calvin is a peculiar character; she’s cold and generally emotionless, but is excitable in a certain way when she talks about or works with robots. She’s like them–she understands them. And because she’s the one telling the stories, we understand them better too. Her intent in telling these stories to the reporter is to give him a more accurate view of robots, rather than treating them like literal machines, and each of the stories in this collection dance around a similar issue. The frame story is carefully interwoven with the rest, so well that you wouldn’t think that it was written apart from them.

And that, I think, is the secret to writing a great frame story. You build the house so the rooms fit inside it, so to speak, not the other way around. The reader has to care about the frame as much as they do about the surrounding stories. It’s not just a convention, a tool for writers–it should be an integral part of the narrative as a whole.

But, that’s just my opinion. Like I said, I’ve never actually written a frame story before. I want to hear your ideas: what works (or doesn’t work) for you in a frame story?

How to Bake a Cake–or a Story

Choc-o-late Cake Please, by Darwin Bell c/o Flikr

It’s no secret that I’ve been in a bit of a creative slump lately. I’ve got lots of great ideas, and was charging full speed ahead with them in an ambitious project–but it’s since fallen flat. There are many reasons for this, some of which I’ve talked about here, but reasons aren’t solutions. In that respect, I’m spinning my tires somewhat. You can’t correct a problem until you know why you failed in the first place, so I’ve put my mind to why I’ve stalled.

Writing a story is like baking. You have to have the right ingredients, throw them in at the right times and in the right quantities. Sometimes you even need to let it “rise” a while before you start fine tuning it. And if you bake it too long (i.e. work it to death), it’ll end up as a burnt lump of gross. The thing is, every writer has their own recipe–and most writers are convinced that their recipe is the best. Many of them are right–it works for them–but there are lots of writers out there who haven’t figured out their recipe yet. Finding it is just part of the writing process.

Fortunately, it’s gotten easier. With the advent of Indie Publishing, we have an amazing community of like-minded people who (instead of competing with each other for reader’s dollars) are happy to help each other find their way. I came across one such person recently, after reading a fantastic article on his blog: Beware the Under-Cooked Story Concept by Larry Brooks over at Storyfix.com.

Go read the post–it’s an important thing for writers to read. It was a revelation for my own Tapestry Project; it crumbled under its own weight, although I can’t figure out exactly why (except that I’ve crammed too many ideas in there). This post made me take a second look at what I’ve written–and lo and behold, I found a major issue. I don’t have a concept.

This is like baking a cake without a recipe. If you’re not a great baker, you’re going to get hopelessly lost as you try to find your way.

Brooks boils it down to one thing: if your story doesn’t have a concept, it’s not going to work. It seems unilateral, but that’s because having a concept is such a crucial part of any story. And, importantly, a concept is different from an idea, which, incidentally, was all I had with Tapestry. As he says in the article, an idea is a place to start, but “not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension” does it become a concept. What does this mean?

Your story isn’t just a narrative, a collection of “stuff that happens.” And if it is, it won’t be very engaging. Brooks has a clear description for this kind of writing: episodic. TV shows and serials get away with this because it’s the nature of their format–they’re supposed to wrap up a simple dramatic question each week, then move on to the next. An episode has a plot and a theme, but not necessarily a concept.

A concept addresses the dramatic tension that arises from plot and theme. If the theme the why the story should matter to the reader, the concept is how that gets across. If the plot is the path the reader follows, your concept are signposts along the way. Without a unifying concept, your story ends up as a jumble of details and thing that sounded better in your mind than they are on paper.

I won’t reiterate the article, where Brooks nails down a concept much more clearly than I could, and tells you how to develop one from a neat idea. But I do want to touch on one really important point he makes: at the root of your concept are three crucial questions. If you can’t answer these concisely, you probably need to do some thinking before you put words to paper:

  1. What is your hero’s core goal?
    If your main character doesn’t have anything to do, why are you bothering to write about it? Even Anton Chekov–who was famous for writing plays in which nothing really happens–had a goal for his characters. This is your hero’s journey, the quest–the plot.
  2. What opposes that goal, and why?
    Of course, every story needs an antagonist. Whether it’s the hero’s nemesis, the environment, or himself, the core conflict of the story is arguably more important than the hero’s attempt to overcome it.
  3. What’s at stake?
    I talk a lot about stakes. They’re crucial. Last week I mentioned that Harry Potter’s climactic battle didn’t have high stakes because Harry was never at any conceivable (literary) risk. The conflict was there, but I didn’t think the stakes were. The result was a long series of really great books that, to me, ended with a whimper.

Okay, so that all sounds like writing 101, and you’re probably well familiar with these points. But I bring them up because answering them will give you your concept. Separately, they’re essential elements of a story, but I don’t know how often people look at the interplay between them–I know I’ve failed to do that until now. They’re just ingredients; you still need a decent recipe to make the final product palatable. Looking forward, these are the three questions I’m going to ask myself before I start writing.

One more thing: Brooks keeps a blog, as linked above, but he also works as a sort of literary consultant. His blog is called Storyfix for a reason: he helps people overcome the deficiencies and problems in their work in the hopes of ending up with a more solid final product. I was lucky enough to get a look at his $100 questionnaire (there’s also a $35 version), and it’s very detailed. He’s looking at each core component of your story–some of which you may not even have considered–and guiding you to a cohesive environment for those components to live in. but, I’ll let him put it in his own words: you can find out more here. You can also find him on twitter.

Tune in next week for another Indie Review, and a new experiment I’m trying to breathe new life into my writing!

How to Make the Time

Time goes by so fast by JanetR3, c/o Flikr

A while back, I posted about how we give ourselves permission to procrastinate, and that the excuse of “I don’t have enough time” is a thin one. The moral: you won’t have the time until you make the time. So I thought it would be nice to follow up today with how you can do just that.

I used to be a House Manager at a live theatre company–essentially, my job was to make sure our patrons were safe and comfortable before the show and during intermission. A large part of it was customer service–but really, the job was all about time management. It was important to learn how to manage my time so that less important things–like making sure the doors are unlocked–don’t take away from time spent on issues like getting change to the bar, resolving seating issues, and heaven forbid, medical emergencies.

Time Management isn’t just about hitting your deadlines or making sure you have time to complete projects. It’s about making the most use out of the time you have, identifying what you don’t have time for, and knowing what’s most important to get done right now.

And all of this relates to writing just as well as it does House Management, or any other job. Let’s address it in a few simple points:

Prioritization

This is the big one. If you’re focusing on the little things, you’ll never get good at time management. It’s as simple as not knowing where your energies need to go–if you spend all your time on something that doesn’t matter in the larger picture, you’ll find yourself running out of time to complete the big projects. It sounds pretty straight forward, but I’ve found that it takes practice. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell what should get your attention first–but sometimes, it’ll surprise you.

For example, you might think that designing a cover for that book you just started is a long ways off. You still have edits, revisions, formatting. The book cover is the last detail you want to think about when you’re in the middle of your first draft. But really, it’s a crucial thing to think about early on, maybe even before you start writing. The cover is how people are going to find your book, especially when they’re shopping online. You also need to think about branding; your books should all have a similar ‘feel’ to them, so it’s easy for readers to make the connection between your works. If not, it’s easy for them to pass your other books by.

Allocation

Prioritization is how you order your task list; Allocation is how divide that time between tasks. Another common mistake in time management is allocating too much time to a relatively unimportant project, and too much time to something else. I’m really bad at this when it comes to a specific example: research. I love researching things, to the point where I’ll research a topic just for the fun of it with no end result in mind. But when I have a particular story to write, I can get tied up in research enough that I use up time I could have otherwise spent writing–and that’s when I start missing deadlines.

Case in point: I thought it would be interesting for the system of magic in my Tapestry Project to make use of foci. A Mage uses magic by manipulating one of the four elements, but if he has a focus attuned to that element, the magic is more potent. I want to use particular gemstones as foci, and started doing some research into it–and wasted all the time I’d set aside for a couple days. All for a nice bit of “flavour” that ultimately doesn’t have a large impact on the plot. I could have stopped my research short and gone back to it later, and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

The fallacy of allocation is that every part of your project is important–it’s just that some things are more important than others. Research is crucial for a good book, but you need to make time for other things too. Finding that balance can take practice as well, but ultimately, the most important thing is that you write. That should always be your priority, and the majority of your time and effort  should be spent on it.

Organization

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it’s really very important. If you’re not organized, you’ll have trouble getting out of the gate. Fortunately, it’s simple to get on the right track–just utilize your resources and play to your strengths.

I’m a “project” guy. I work best when I have a clear goal in mind, and I’m able to set out specific tasks that lead toward that goal. Checklists work wonders for me; as I complete tasks and mark them off my list, I have a real sense of accomplishment which propels me forward. Others may prefer to have a vague outline of what their end game looks like, and work toward it in an organic way. There’s no right answer here, as long as you’re organized. There’s a lot of software out there for this, everything from email clients and electronic calendars to synchronization software and memo pads. Much of it is free. Investigate what you think will work best, try it out, and use it.

Goals and Intent

Again, it might go without saying, but if you don’t have an idea of where you’re going to end up, you won’t have much luck getting there in any timely fashion.  You have to start somewhere, but you have to have a destination in mind as well.

The trick here, I find, is to have several very specific goals instead of one vague one. “I want to publish a novel” isn’t going to help you, because there’s so much work that goes into it. “I want to write X number of words each day” is a much better goal because it’s attainable, and it’s measurable. Also–and this is important–it’s something you can change day to day. Having a goal is great, but having a flexible goal is better. Sometimes life happens, and you can’t reach your destination when you thought you could–but that doesn’t mean it can’t change tomorrow.

Intent is also very important. You want to be clear about what you want to achieve; not just what your goal are, but why your goals are as they are. You want to write 5000 words by the end of the week? Fine. Why 5000 words? Why a week? What will you do when you get there, whether you can meet that goal or not? Being clear on the intent behind your goals will help you work towards them because it’s no longer arbitrary, it’s tangible.

 

Time Management is a big subject, and I won’t pretend to have covered it all here. I’d like to elaborate on this post eventually, with some tips about managing your time–but in all honestly, I’m out of it for this week! We’ll see you Wednesday!

On the shelf or in the Aether?

KoboLogoNot so many years ago, I was at home watching the local breakfast news show on TV, as was my habit then before running off to work. I was watching a segment about the best “tech toys” to pick up for the holidays–and one of them was a new-fangled technology that promised to revolutionize the way people read: electronic ink. Yes, it was one of the early e-readers that was commercially available to a wide market. I chuckled through the segment, saying to myself “that will never work.”

You see, I’ve always been a heavy reader. I can’t remember the last time I left the house without a book or two, and that’s not an exaggeration.I love books; there’s just something about living vicariously through another character or learning about something I didn’t know before that captivates me. But a big part of that experience is holding a physical book–the smell, the turning of pages, watching your bookmark migrate towards the end. Why would anyone give that up?

And so I was strongly seated in the “dead tree” camp, and never thought I’d make the transition to e-books. I’m still not sure what made me want to take the plunge last December when I bought my first e-reader–curiosity, mostly, I suppose, and the fact that my local library had started their e-book program. At any rate, I tried it…and I’ve never looked back.

Oh, I’ll still buy paper books. They’re not something I’ll ever want to rid myself of. But my Kobo is one of the best electronics purchases I’ve ever made–it’s by far the most used piece of electronics in our house. As of today I’ve spent the equivalent of 18 consecutive days reading on my Kobo.

So what made me a convert? For anyone who’s still sitting on the fence as to why you should bother with an e-reader, here’s my top five reasons:

Convenience

Using an e-reader is simple. There are things that annoy me about the Kobo–it used to be terribly slow going back to the home screen before their latest software update, it crashes occasionally–but when I look at what I’m getting out of it in the end, it’s a no brainer. Having the ability to read almost whatever I want, whenever I want is an incredible boon for someone like me. I finished a book last night, and was deciding what one I wanted to start next; usually this would entail spending an hour in the library or going over my To-Read list and seeking out a particular title; with the Kobo my library is diverse enough for any mood I’m in. I have several hundred books at my fingertips–a few million if I turn on my wifi. All of it from my comfortable spot on the couch with a dog in my lap.

It’s also simple to switch between books. I started reading an esoteric text on Kabbalah last night, in researching my Tapestry Project; I wasn’t in the mood, so I switched to Brak the Barbarian. When I finished a story there, I went to a sci-fi tale by Sam Best. My bookmarks in all of them ensure that I’ll never lose my place, even if I don’t get back to it for another few months. So easy.

Price

When I was in University, I was accustomed to spending an arm and a leg for textbooks. Fortunately, I was an English/Theatre major, so most of my texts were books I’d read over and over again, and still have in my library. Still, I spent a lot of money. Now that I’m all grown up, I can’t afford to drop a hundred dollars on books.
Ebooks, though, are cheap. Generally. At the very least, most popular titles are several dollars below the cost of a paperback–and a huge number of titles are priced at $2 or under. You can find almost any book published before 1900 for free, and an increasingly larger group of people are publishing current works for free as well. You don’t have to spend a lot of money for great books, and with the way the self-publishing world is going, I have a feeling that the Big Four are going to start lowering their prices as well. Having a decent sized library can carry an incredibly small cost. This is great news for anyone who loves to read. Of course, the initial investment can vary from $80-500, depending on what kind of e-reader/tablet you buy, but it’s a very worthwhile investment.
On top of all the free ebooks out there, most public libraries have jumped on the bandwagon. This is something that will become even more accessible soon–currently, it costs libraries a ridiculous amount to purchase ebooks, but it’s changing.

Study

When I read, it’s not just fiction. I love to study–anything from quantum mechanics to religious texts to history books. Some of my favourite memories at school was hunkering down in the library with dozens of books and doing research all day (and not always because I had a paper to write). Nerdy, yes–but delightful.
With the Kobo, research is incredibly simple. I no longer have to bring a notebook–I can make annotations right in the text from my device. I can highlight passages, bookmark specific pages, and cross reference footnotes. Best of all, I can organize my current research into bookshelves so relevant topics are in the same accessible group–and I can compare versions of a text by going between them in seconds.
One of the best examples of this is my ongoing study of the Tao te Ching. It’s an ancient Chinese spiritual text–but because it’s 2500+ years old, there are many different versions. I have several of them on my Kobo (most of them were free, see above) and can go from version to version to study each verse. Looking at other people’s interpretations of a text is the best way to draw your own conclusions. Now, if i could only link the annotations from one version to the others…

Portability

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have several hundred books at my fingertips. All in one little device that weighs less than a pound. It’s not even close to full–and if I were to add an optional mini SD card, I could pack it with another couple dozen gigabytes of storage. An ebook is generally a few hundred kilobytes at the most–you can do the math. For a bibilophile like me, it’s a dream come true.
E-readers are also getting smaller, to an extent. Mine doesn’t fit into a pocket, though it’s just larger than a typical paperback. It’s the right size for me, and it’s easy to take with me anywhere I go. I take public transit a lot, so it’s wonderful to be able to have all of my books in one place. When I travel, I don’t have to agonize over which books I’m going to bring, or how many can fit into my suitcase (I once had to unpack in the middle of an airport because I had so many books that my luggage was over the weight limit). If someone had told me ten years ago that this was possible, I’d have thought they were crazy. Now I don’t want to be without an e-reader.

Discoverability

This is the biggest one for me. One of the cool features of the Kobo–and I’m sure many other readers as well–is that it suggests titles for me based on my reading habits. Really, it’s similar to the Amazon “you might also like” widget. Some people find it annoying, but I think it’s great–I’ve come across so many books I never would have found if not for this feature. If you haven’t guessed, I’m that guy who goes to the bookstore or library for a particular title, and spends two hours browsing the stacks because one thing leads to another. This kind of algorithm is right up my alley.
But the best part of this is that I’ve been introduced to this incredible community of indie writers. If I hadn’t bought a Kobo, I never would have found out about the great writers who are working outside the ‘traditional’ system–and I never would have bothered to step into that world myself. And while there are those out there who are still skeptical of so called self-published authors–the stigma is wearing away, but there’s still a hint for some people–the quality of writing really is amazing. Some of my now favourite books are coming from indie authors, and I’m starting to follow them like I used to follow Stephen King or Michael Crichton. The best part is, not only is the quality excellent, the authors are accessible. They want to interact with their readers, and encourage them to join their community. I’ve never sent an email to Stephen King, and wouldn’t expect a resonse if I did–but I’m in regular correspondence with some of my favourite indie authors. How is that not a great thing?

Well. There’s my rant. I promise I’m not on the Kobo payroll! But if you’re looking for a gift this holiday season, consider giving someone an e-reader. I’ve always thought that a book is one of the best gifts one can give, because it’s a sharing of knowledge and imagination that goes far beyond a simple tangible thing. What better way to top that than with a device that facilitates the wondrous adventure of reading?

How to be (in)Visible

Social, by JD Hancock c/o Flikr.

One of the greatest challenges facing an indie author is visibility. Simply put, if nobody out there knows you’re writing, nobody our there will be reading. So how do you become visible?

This is something I’ve been struggling with since I started this journey. I’m by nature a shy person, and I’m not comfortable asking people to buy or try my stuff. I tell myself that I don’t like “imposing myself on others.” This is something I’m slowly getting over, but it’s been a challenge to say the least.

When I started self-publishing, I figured that a few good words and some solid stories would sell themselves; I didn’t care if it took a bit longer, I just thought that it would eventually steamroll under its own power. This, I’ve since learned, is one of the cardinal sins of self-publishing: never assume that your work will sell itself. The biggest reason for this, again, is that nobody knows you’re out there. Even with a lot of concentrated networking and shilling, it can be a challenge to get a large audience; why would they appear out of thin air? This is the best way to become invisible to your market: hope it takes care of itself.

But there are some relatively simple actions you can take to increase your visibility. Here’s three, and they don’t take that much more effort than doing nothing:

Twitter

Social Media is the big one. You should at least have a twitter account: here’s mine. When I started publishing, I had about 40 followers, because nobody except friends and family knew I was on twitter. I still have less than 100, but it’s growing; I’ve hovered around 85 for about a month. I want to grow my twitter audience, because they’re an easy way to distribute information–but the trick is being relevant. Use hashtags, talk about things other writers talk about, and be active. And by active, i don’t just mean tweeting a lot; I mean starting and participating in conversations on twitter. If people know you’re putting some effort into it, they’ll listen.

A few weeks ago, I found myself without a lot of time to catch up on twitter. I’d go a full day before checking twitter or tweeting myself. And I noticed a steady drop off on followers. People were checking their own twitter streams, realizing I wasn’t saying much, and taking me off their lists to make room for others. But as soon as i tweeted a couple useful links or started a conversation, my followers grew. And the more you have, the larger your audience and the more potential for further growth. Ryan Casey has a great post on how to properly use twitter.

Networking

Which leads into the next point: networking. I used to be very bad at this–like I said, shy guy. But in my new job, networking is essential, and I’m learning how to make effective and useful connections. Networking in the indie community is no different–and actually a bit easier.

The thing about networking is that people want to share their experience. They want to help you out, and they want you to help them in return. In the indie writing community especially, people out there are chomping at the bit to make you the best writer you can be–and it’s only fair to give back.

The first thing any indie writer should do is start creating a network of friends–fellow writers–who can help. You shouldn’t actively ask them to promote your work or teach you how to edit; that will come naturally if you cultivate the relationship. But even just a few people will help you immensely. They’ll give you writing advice. They’ll re-tweet your tweets. They’ll link to your blog. And in all likelihood, they’ve got a larger platform than you right now: everything they share of yours is going directly to their audience. And that audience, properly cultivated, can also become yours.

That’s the great thing about the indie community: there’s no finite market. Writers aren’t competing with each other as much as they seem to in the “professional” world. My readers can be yours as well, and that overlap is far from harmful (as thought in some capitalistic ventures); it’s actually helpful. Because it all helps spread the word of what the indie writer’s community is doing: revolutionizing the publishing industry.

How do you get a network? I started by following people on twitter whose work I enjoyed reading. Get in touch with the author, tell them you like their book. Ask them questions. Talk to them about things other than writing. My own network is small so far–I’m only just cluing into all these tips–but it’s growing. And the larger the network, the more people who are out there to help you when you need support, encouragement, or advice.

Outside Promotion

This one was scary for me. Not to beat a dead horse, but I don’t like asking people for things. It makes me uncomfortable to thing I’m requesting a favor, or asking them to do something they may not want to do. But you know what? It’s not that hard. And most people in this community are not only willing to help promote your work, they’re eager to do it.

That’s not to say you should spam indie writers with requests until someone complies. That’ll get you blacklisted. But there are a few simple places to start.

One I’d recommend is The Book Designer, by Joel Friedlander. He’s a designer, but has tons of useful information about self publishing. He also runs two monthly features that help writers promote: the eBook Cover Awards and the Carnival of the Indies. There’s no cash prizes or anything like that–this is much more valuable. Joel has over 17,000 followers on twitter, and I can imagine there’s many more who frequently read his blog; and when you’re in one of these features, your name (and blog) are sent out to all of them. I’ve been featured in both this month, and have experienced a significant amount of traffic because of it. Definitely check it out.

There’s also a Round of Words in 80 Days. I talk about them often, so I won’t go into length here: just follow the link if you’re interested. Suffice it to say, it’s your own community within the writer’s community, which helps people set and achieve writing goals. If you sign up, you’ll be invited to post a link to your check in blogs twice a week, and these links are promoted to others in the collective. It’s win-win.

The last thing I’ll mention about outside promotion is that if you give, people will give back. I’ve noticed that when I re-tweet someone’s book link or blog post, they’ll often re-tweet that to their followers–which means that all their followers can now see me. Share and share alike; that’s how this community works. It feeds upon itself, but isn’t diminished by that–it’s made stronger.

Now, of course, the next step for me is to translate this growth into sales. I haven’t had the chance to update my site to include links to my books–which is really a glaring oversight. I’ll get on that soon. In the meantime, my platform is growing, and now that I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve, it’ll keep growing at a decent pace. And really, it wasn’t that difficult to start.

Do you have any tips and tricks about increasing your visibility? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

 

Slow and Steady: ROW80

This week’s been a bit different, you will have noticed. Last weekend I spent a lot of time doing my cover image for The Ancestor and Other Stories, and planned to do a blog post Monday about the process. That got split into two, which you can find here and here. After that post, I wanted to concentrate on getting my book released–my personal deadline was October 23–so I didn’t have much time for a post on Wednesday, opting for a simple update and inside look at my next project. No post Friday.

This morning is the Sunday check in for ROW80, so that’s what I’m here for. An odd schedule this week, but there you are. Hopefully back to normal next week.

So, an update: I had the day off on Friday, so I had some solid time to devote to writing. Before 10:00 AM, I’d plowed through 3000 words, and finished the first four stories of the sixteen planed for this phase of the project. In a rough draft, mind you, but still.

I also worked out a kink in the story that was bothering me, and wrote myself out of that corner I mentioned last time (I think). The characters are also coming out a bit more, and I’m learning about their habits and personalities. (My characters tend to start as an idea or even an archetype, and develop as I write into fully fleshed beings). I’m learning who the major players are–not necessarily the ones I’d thought, which means a bit of plot restructuring!–and this will make things easier going forward.

A Quick Note

This weekend, fellow writer/blogger Ryan Casey did a promotion through KDP Select for his book Something in the Cellar. There was a great response, pushing the book to #1 of the lists in the short story category. If you haven’t picked it up yet, you can do so here. It’s a great book, and I’d certainly recommend it.

The reason I mention it is because I’ve been thinking a lot about KDP Select over the last week–and specifically, about an article by Mark Coker of Smashwords about Amazon’s treatment of indie writers. Check out his article Amazon is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns. It’s a very enlightening article, if not for the content itself rather than the comments. Coker is a direct competitor to Amazon, and although he says he supports the Kindle store, he seems to put KDP Select in a corner. The comments get even more enlightening: they mostly centre around the Shamshwords “Meatgrinder,” and how difficult it is to get a quality product out of it. Coker’s response is generally that people aren’t using it right if they’re having trouble, but I won’t get into that…

My point is that there are two very different distribution options highlighted here. KDP Select gives you great visibility and promotion on the biggest eBook retailer out there, but keep you tied to it exclusively. Smashwords gets you out to numerous retailers, providing a wider visibility, but has an arduous application/formatting process that some writers claim mangles their work. Smashwords also requires you to put their name on your copyright page–ostensibly they say it’s only as a distributor, but many readers would easily mistake that page as meaning Smashwords is the publisher, not the author.

Personally, I’ve kept away from Smashwords, mostly because of Meatgrinder. I’ve stayed away from Amazon because of the exclusivity requirement. But, as a writer trying to build a platform and get some visibility for my work, I know something needs to be done besides the regular Amazon store and the Kobo store.

Anyway, Ryan’s success with KDP Select (which isn’t restricted to this past weekend’s promotion,) is making me seriously consider pulling The Ancestor and Other Stories from Kobo, and offering it through KDP Select. I’m also considering giving Smashwords a shot with The Astrologers–because it’s the only way to get a $0.00 price point into the Amazon store without a lot of price-matching mumbo-jumbo.

I haven’t made up my mind yet, but lok for some new adventures around the corner!

Last Minute Changes

The Astrologers

Update: It appears that something has gone amiss with either the uploading of the file or the conversion process Kobo puts the book through; when you turn the page all you see is the cover. The file debugged fine, but still isn’t working, so I’m de-listing it until we can fix the issue.

So we’re just over a week away from the release of my first official eBook–save the date on October 23, where you’ll be able to pick it up at the Kobo store and Amazon. I’m working on putting it through Smashwords as well, but that may take a bit longer–they have a different submission process, which we’ll talk about soon.

But! There’s been a slight change in plans.

A friend pointed out that the four stories I intended to put into the collection–one fantasy and three horror/weird fiction–don’t fit together thematically. I’d thought it wouldn’t matter, seeing as The Astrologers (my fantasy tale) would be offered separately anyway as a freebie. But her point was that it muddles the branding, which is a very important thing to consider when making a first impression on a reader.

It reminded me of an article I read recently about JK Rowling, and the release of her most recent book, The Casual Vacancy. The post on MarsDorian.com talked about the unfortunate mistake in branding; people bought it expecting more of the same YA fantasy fun–but got a raunchy book filled with sex, drugs, and profanity. It’s all very well and good for a writer to branch out, says Dorian, but Rowling’s foundation as a YA author was so solid that young people are buying the book without even reading the dust jacket.

Which is all besides the point for me. The point is, selling a fantasy story alongside a few horror stories doesn’t really make sense. So I’m going in another direction.

The Astrologers will be released as early as tomorrow, and will remain a stand-alone short story. Instead of offering the horror stories alongside it, I’ve included a preview of Court of Sand, the first release of my upcoming Tapestry series–which takes place in the same world as The Astrologers, albeit a few centuries earlier. That makes a lot more sense.

(Update: There was apparently a mix-up at the Kobo Store; although I set the release date for October 16, it came out this morning. There’s no sense in taking it down, so you can get it here. Did I mention it’s free?)

But I’m not ditching the other stories!

The Ancestor and Other Stories will be released on October 23, as planned, for $1.99. This is a collection of three stories from the same genre, which makes it more cohesive. I still want to be writing in the horror/weird genre, but separating them from the fantasy books at least allows readers the choice between them, if they don’t like one or the other. Call it diversifying the product.

You’ve heard all about The Astrologers by now, perhaps even read the first draft on this blog. Over the course of this week, we’ll take a look at the stories in The Ancestor in anticipation of the release.

Finally, you may ask: what about the promise of a free copy of The Astrologers and Other Stories if you sign up for my Community List before October 23? You’ll still get them, but they’ll be two separate eBooks. Plus, you’ll receive the complete first draft of Court of Sand as an added bonus within the next couple weeks! But the offer will only last until the official release, so sign up now!

(Since the release of The Astrologers happened a bit earlier than anticipated, those of you who signed up for the list will receive their copy sometime within the next 24 hours).

Drop by Drop–or Splash

Image by Ian Sane via Flikr

This morning I found a nice quote on my Twitter stream:

A bowl fills drop by drop.

~Buddha

I found it very apropos to my journey into e-publishing so far. It’s been a learning curve, and I’m finding tons of little details need to get taken care of–most of which I’d never thought of before. Drop by drop indeed.

And then, sometimes, there’s a splash.

This morning, I received notification by the Government of Canada Library and Archives informing me that my application for a publisher’s block of ISBN numbers had been approved. Which means that I can now add ISBN numbers to any of my forthcoming published works, all online, all at the click of a button–and all for free. Not that I’m bragging.

Getting an ISBN number has always been a goal of mine, in a geeky spent-too-much-time-at-the-library-as-a-kid kind of way. I always figured that, as a writer, it would be one of those great measures of success. Get an ISBN number, and your book could be sold in bookstores. It could be stocked in libraries. It’s in a national database.

It’s real.
Suddenly, that bowl is filling pretty darn quickly.

Of course, in the world of e-publishing, it’s pretty easy to get an ISBN number, and it’s not a validation of your writing by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it’s a significant step for me, and one that makes this goal of mine seem more within reach than ever.

Anyway, ISBN Numbers. Why bother?

An International Standard Book Number is used to set one publication apart from another–even separate editions of the same text. It’s an important tool for librarians and booksellers, allowing them to easily categorize and track books. For eBooks, it’s a bit different. The ISBN (you might see eISBN) is obtained in the same way, and serves the same purpose. But not all vendors require one.

The Kobo and Amazon and Barnes & Noble stores don’t require an ISNB, though you can add one if you like. The Apple and Sony stores do–and by extension, Smashwords requires an ISBN if you want to be included in their Premium Catalogue, which pushes titles to both those stores (you can still publish on Smashwords without an ISBN, just not in the Premium Catalogue).

Which brings us back to the question. If many distributors don’t require one, why bother? If you don’t mind not getting into the Sony or Apple stores, maybe you don’t need one–but an ISBN is nevertheless a helpful marketing and tracking tool that could give you an edge.

Of course, there’s also the expense to consider. In the USA, there’s a service charge for getting an ISBN. On ISBN.org, they’ll cost you between $27 and $40 each to start, but you buy them in blocks of ten. Smashwords seems to offer them for free. And if you live in Canada–which encourages the creation of new Canadian Creative Content–all you have to do is go to the Canadian ISBN Service System . Sign up, and in a couple weeks, you’ll be assigned a unique ISBN publishers block. From there you’re only a couple clicks away from a unique ISBN for each new publication. Easy!

 

This might be a good time to remind everyone that my collection The Astrologers and Other Stories will be published soon–I’m aiming for a release date of October 23. It will be priced at $2.99, but I’ll be offering the titular story separately for free. Look for it on the Kobo Store and Amazon.com soon!

Formatting eBooks–for Newbs

Last time, we spoke about the very basics of doing a book cover–today, another integral piece of the puzzle, formatting!

Before I got into e-publishing, I thought I knew what publishers wanted when you submit your manuscript. There are certain protocols you’re supposed to follow–name in the upper left corner, word count in the upper right, etc. The purpose of this is for the agent or publisher to have a quick reference, and for the editor to be able to easily get around your work. In e-publishing, though, the writer is filling most of those roles, so the game is completely different.

So why not just write the book in MS Word the way you want it to look, upload it to Kobo or Amazon, and press publish?

If you do that, I’ll guarantee you one thing: the end product will look horrible.

The thing is, a lot of the formatting in MS Word–or other word processors for that matter–is done in the background, where you can’t see it. Here’s an experiment: go to the View tab,

Word Formatting Marks

Formatting Marks: note there are even dots to indicate the space between words.

and find the option that shows your formatting marks. (In Word, go to Options, Display, and Show All Formatting Marks.) Your manuscript will be riddled with symbols; this is coding Word inputs into your file as you’re writing to determine what the output will look like. What many people don’t realize is that Word is not a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get program. Far from it!

Here’s another experiment. Copy a paragraph of your manuscript, open a blank file in Notepad, and paste it. The text should go, unbroken, on one line, and you’ll have to scroll to the right to see it all. This is because .txt files, unlike files from word processors, don’t have “Word Wrap,” meaning that the text will go on forever until a new paragraph is started. Looks hard to read, right? Surely we want our manuscripts to “wrap” when we format them for eBooks, right?

Actually, no. The thing is, there’s no standard for electronic books. Many–I’d even say most–go with the ePub format, while others–like the ubiquitous Amazon Kindle books–are .mobi files. There are several other formats; the point is, they’re all programmed differently. So when you upload a particular file to, say, Kobo, it might look vastly different when Amazon gets a hold of it. The difference comes in how those files interact with the formatting marks I mentioned earlier.

I haven’t experimented with every kind of file, so I can’t tell you yet which works best–what I can say is that, for the sake of your own sanity, the easiest thing to do is start with a raw file. I do a lot of my writing in MS Word through Google Docs–because it’s accessible anywhere, even on my phone–and copy and paste the text into Scrivener. Scrivener can output into several file types, including Real Text Format (rtf) or the MS Word .doc. Of, you can export it as a text file. This is the raw text–no formatting at all.

What I’ve been doing is exporting as a text file, then opening up a program called Sigil, a WYSIWYG editor (unlike Word!). Sigilis basically an HTML editor, meaning you’ll be coding in the same way you would a web page–or an eBook. It’s really simple to use, and you don’t need any experience with HTML. Just copy and paste your work, create headings (which will create a table of contents for you), and images if you have them, italicize and bold your text if need be. That’s it! There’s a handy tutorial here, and the whole process isn’t very long or arduous (though poetry is another story–it took a while to get Muzak for the Metro to look right).

It might even be simpler, though. I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine you could output your Scrivener files as an eBook, which would open in Sigil. This way, you do most of your formatting as you work in Scrivener, and use Sigil for touch-ups.

Once that’s done, you use Calibre to tweak things like metadata and making sure everything is “just so.” But that’s a topic for another post.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to eBook formatting, but it’s a start, and it’s a lot easier than some might lead you to believe. If you want to check out a sample of just how this turns out, you can go to Amazon to find the eBook I created with this process (including a cover) this weekend, Muzak for the Metro. It’s only $0.99, and it includes a poem that wasn’t in the original collection–plus an excerpt from “Room With a Corpse,” a short story which will appear in my forthcoming collection The Astrologers and Other Stories. Check it out!