Converging My Brands

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If you visit my Amazon author page, home of Bafflegab Books, you’ll see some pretty crazy titles in my indy-pub product line. Decide to Play Drunk Poker… A Million Random Words… I’ve gone to some lengths to extend the whimsical end of my brand, because there’s no telling what nonsense I might like to publish later, and I want there to be an established place for it in my oeuvre. The silly books sell almost not at all, but that’s okay because they defend that end of my brand and, more crucially, my precedent right to throw anything out the window and see if it lands.

My writing books sell best. Always have, always will. We’ll get to why that breaks my heart in a minute, but first let’s look at which ones are my workhorses and why. The two strongest sellers in the Bafflegab line are, far and away, the little book of SITCOM and Comedy Writing 4 Life. Like their granddaddy, The Comic Toolbox, they’re the right book at the right time for comedy writers (or any writers) at a certain stage of their development. Since there are always writers passing through stages, there’s an ongoing market for those books.

These are not big books, nor are they expensive. I make them short and I price them attractively for three reasons. First, I want to make it easy for any reader to discover my brand. Second, writers don’t often have a ton of money, and I don’t want to price-gouge. Third, it fulfills my deep purpose to be read by readers all around the world; more readers buying more books for less money is of greater value to me than fewer readers buying fewer books, even for more money.

To tell you the truth, I have no way of knowing if I’m maximizing my earn on these earners. Probably not. I sell through Amazon and Amazon only, and I know I can do better than that. But my hustle – getting the books where people can see them – well, that’s not a strength of my game. I need readers to find their way to my books because I’m just never going to be their broadcasting agent as I should be.

So I don’t price my products scientifically and I don’t market them strategically. Yet I seem to be doing okay. Every month, Amazon sends me money – some hundreds of dollars if I may be frank – and it’s money I don’t have to work for: The writing is long done, and the bookkeeping is Amazon’s hassle. The key to my (modest) success has been building a (modest) catalog in which no one title is more than a revenue trickle, but taken all together they add up to a revenue stream. That’s why I keep writing new books. That’s why I keep throwing them out the window to see if they land. Because one under-performing book isn’t such a much, but ten under-performing books is a product line. Continue Reading »

Day In, Day Out

by Deanna Zachgo

by Deanna Zachgo

A few weeks ago, I signed up to take part in a giant survey on happiness. I learned about it via an NPR podcast on TED talks. Three times a day, the program sends a prompt to my phone and asks a series of questions to gather data on all kinds of things—pets, food, procrastination, sleep habits.

What I had not anticipated was the way the app would create The Observer mind for me, helping me to notice and understand what I’m doing, day-to-day, week to week. It turns out that I’m an optimistic and productive and happy person—if I get enough sleep and can get outside regularly. It also turns out that when they ask the question, “Do you HAVE to do what you are doing right now?” I can almost always answer “no.” And the answer to the follow-up question, “Do you WANT to be doing what you’re doing right now?” is almost always yes.

Those two questions in combination are a revelation. How do I spend my days? It’s pretty much always the same. During the week, I have breakfast with my beloved, then walk my dog for a couple of miles, then come back and start writing. Or sometimes, I procrastinate for a while, then start writing, but either way, I usually get to work sometime in the morning. Turns out, that makes me happy. I love writing, even when I…er…don’t. There are days it’s challenging, hard, and days I hate the work I’m doing, but I’d still rather be doing it than almost anything. It’s my choice to write. MY choice, not anyone else’s.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Annie Dillard

When I went to New Zealand a year and a half ago, I missed my then-not-quite-a-year-old granddaughter a lot. A lot more than I thought I would. Being so far away often gives me a great magnifying lens on my life, allowing me to see what really matters, and that time, it was her. I made a decision to set aside one afternoon every week, and one weekend night a month to spend with her. Continue Reading »

Perfecting the Mashed Genre Recipe

By Flickr's qthomasbower

Mashup by Flickr’s qthomasbower

Today’s guest Jeannie Ruesch wrote her first story at the age of the six, prompting her to give up an illustrious, hours-long ambition of becoming a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader and declare that writing was her destiny. That journey to destiny took a few detours along the way, including a career in marketing and design.

Her first novel, a fairytale-like historical romance, was published in 2009, but the darker side of life had always captivated her. After a dinner conversation with friends about the best way to hide a dead body, Jeannie knew she had to find a way to incorporate suspense into her writing (the legal outlet for her fascination). Today she continues writing what she loves to read—stories of history, romance, and suspense.

Of Jeannie’s recent novel Cloaked in Danger, Flashlight commentary said, “Far from the average romance, Ruesch’s second novel defied my expectations and swept me into a whirlwind of wit, romance and intrigue.” Jeannie is also the creator of the WIP Notebook a writer’s tool to help you stay organized while you write (see her website for more information). Connect with Jeannie on Facebook and Twitter.

Perfecting the Mashed Genre Recipe

Write the story of your heart. Let the words flow. Be one with your scifi-YA-literary-thriller-with-the-alcoholic-zombie-lead-set-in-the-Civil-War novel. (Well, the alcoholic zombie might be too much.)

In a dozen ways, we’ve been told to write the book we’re passionate about. But what about when your book mashes genres or creates new ones? How do you feel about throwing a little avocado in your coffee? What about some vampire action in your literary book? Writing a book is like making a great stew: the flavors and aroma you create depend on what you stir into the pot. So how do you discover the right recipe for a yet-to-be-proven genre?

Despite my cooking analogies, I’m as far from a cook as you’ll get. If there’s a way to burn it, overcook it, and undercook it all in the same meal, I’m your gal. But I’m determined to become a master chef in mashing genres, since that’s where my passion lies. Imagine Judith McNaught’s historicals meet Lisa Gardner’s suspense, and you’ll get what I’m aiming for. My recent release was my first historical romantic suspense. Writing it was an exercise in self-doubt—was it enough suspense? Enough romance? Did I kill off enough people? (Only one. No, actually two.)

Readers choose their favorite genres with emotional gusto and expectations. The problem is you might not understand just how far you can smash those flavors together until you’ve already dished up your masterpiece. Continue Reading »

Cultivate the Gap and Watch Your Readers’ Eyebrows Bounce

expectations gapWhen my youngest was a wee lad, there was a period when I knew I was failing him as a parent. Day after day, from the moment I woke him up to take him to the sitter’s until I tucked him into bed (for the last time), we were locked in one power struggle after another.

I wanted him to have a playful, imaginative childhood, yet the word I uttered with the most frequency was no.

Worse, while I retained the upper hand, I was under no illusion that would persist. Short of formal therapy, I’d already exhausted every resource at my disposal. I’d bent The ToolMaster’s ear whenever he could call from his enforced work absence. I combined his advice with that gleaned from seasoned and skillful parents. I’d worked on my reactivity and consistency, picked my battles, used time-outs, positive reinforcement, logical consequences, yada yada.

Still, it seemed that my son knew all my moves and counter-moves in advance, could push me to the limit, so I was always on the cusp of acting more childlike than him. It was a discouraging, humbling experience and ironic, given that my patients often thanked me for my parenting counsel.

But one hot July evening, as my son and I launched into our post-dinner script, I clutched a new, secret weapon to my breast.

A Hero in a Red Sports Car

It came courtesy of Dr. G, whom I’d been fortunate to meet at a conference on spirituality in medicine. A Corvette-driving, six-foot-tall woman in her early sixties, G’s practice was devoted to cognitive behavioral therapy. She was good at it, too — so much so that she was under contract to provide mental health services to the province’s physicians. (Doctors make extra-demanding patients because of challenges around vulnerability and trust.)

I don’t recall confiding in her about my worries, but G was full of entertaining stories. At some point in our luncheons together, she talked about hamster-wheel relationships and how she worked with clients to shift them. She had plenty of examples — all anonymous or derived from her personal life — and I glommed onto them.

The principle was radically simple: When stuck in a scripted relationship, disrupt the pattern. Do something fresh, something completely unexpected so that neither party can return to the previous relationship trajectory. (She never said as much, but by her examples and common sense, I understood this to exclude anything destructive, disrespectful, or cruel. In other words, follow the Golden Rule.)

So it was, on that sweltering July evening, when Frank and I began another of our tussles over the bedtime routine, that I had a different consequence to use when he refused my request to go up for his bath. My inspiration? Continue Reading »

What to Do with a Franken-Draft

big manuscript

photo by Frisno Boström

Please welcome today’s guest, Dianne K. Salerni, fifth-grade teacher and author of a magical “fast-paced and exciting” (Library Journal) story for 8-to-12-year-olds called The Eighth Day, a “promising start to a new trilogy” (Kirkus).

What’s the book about?

When newly orphaned Jax Aubrey awakes to a world without people the day after his thirteenth birthday, he thinks it’s the apocalypse. But then the next day is a regular old Thursday. Has Jax gone crazy? What’s going on?

Riley Pendare, Jax’s sort of clueless eighteen-year-old guardian, breaks the news: Jax just experienced the Eighth Day, an extra twenty-four-hour period between Wednesday and Thursday. Some people, like Jax and Riley, have the ability to live in all eight days. But others, like Evangeline, the teenage girl who’s been hiding in the house next door for years, exist only on this special day.

At first it’s awesome to have a secret day. But as Jax gets to know the very guarded Evangeline, he discovers that she is the sought-after key to an ancient spell rooted in Arthurian legend. And Riley—who forgets to pay bills and buy groceries!—is sworn to keep her safe from those who want to use her to eliminate the seven-day world and all who live there.

Jax tries to protect Evangeline, but with his new friend’s life on the line, as well as the threat of human destruction, he is faced with an impossible choice: trigger a real apocalypse or sacrifice Evangeline.

With a whole extra day to figure things out, it couldn’t be too hard . . . right?

You can learn more about Dianne and The Eighth Day on her website and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

What to Do with a Franken-Draft

So, you’ve written a huge, rambling monster of a first draft—something so mangled and ridden with plot holes you aren’t sure it can be saved. I’ve certainly done it, and since I write “fat,” my monster usually has a ridiculous word count, too (like 100k for a middle grade novel). You might be tempted to grab a shovel, bash the thing over its head, and bury it.

Don’t. You can save Franken-draft.

The first thing I suggest is outlining your book. Yes, outline it after you’ve written it and even if you had an outline before you started writing the thing. You may have had a plan, but what did you actually put into the manuscript? A simple two-column table in a Word document works for me. I use the left-hand column to summarize the events in each chapter. The right-hand column is for recording changes I need to make.

To help guide my revision choices, I also use a separate color-coded outline to analyze the pacing and how various subplots are woven into the story. Again, I work chapter-by-chapter, boiling the events down to one or two sentences, summarizing the contents of each one. In this example, I assigned purple to the central mystery, blue to a secondary mystery, and yellow to the romantic subplot. The color-highlighting helps me see where the various plot elements appear and make sure that one doesn’t disappear for too long, or that the romance doesn’t overwhelm the main story line. I can now spot what needs to be cut and rearranged in my monster. Continue Reading »

Apply Now for the Bill Ferris Hyundai Accent Residency

Hacks for Hacks: Sense of Humor RequiredWarning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

So I hear you didn’t get your Amtrak Residency. You may think the next logical step is to stuff your laptop into a bindle and hop aboard a freight train under cover of darkness, but that’s a terrible idea. There’s nowhere to charge your phone on those things. If your best work requires that you endure slow, uncomfortable travel through the middle of nowhere, consider applying for the Bill Ferris Hyundai Accent Residency program.

About

Bill Ferris' 2003 Hyundai Accent

Your chariot awaits.

The Hyundai Accent residency is designed to inspire writers by treating them to a view of the beautiful American countryside, as seen through the passenger-side window of Bill Ferris’ 2003 Hyundai Accent.

The residency includes round-trip travel from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to my parents’ house in South Sioux City, Nebraska. I plan on taking the scenic route, meaning we’ll see iconic sights like Carhenge; the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota; and the endless, endless corn fields of Iowa. I’ll tell you, there’s no scenery quite like agribusiness.

Each residency winner will be given accommodations in the shotgun seat, which reclines pretty far for sleeping purposes. We will stop at only the finest rest stops, with bountiful snack and pop machines. Continue Reading »

Provocations in Publishing: “Engineering Serendipity”

iStockphoto photog Paladex

Coined by the British aristocrat Horace Walpole in a 1754 letter, [serendipity] long referred to a fortunate accidental discovery. Today serendipity is regarded as close kin to creativity — the mysterious means by which new ideas enter the world. But are hallway collisions really the best way to stoke innovation?

− Engineering Serendipity, April 5, 2013, New York Times, by Greg Lindsay

Here at the new PubSmart Conference, seated this week in an unseasonably chilly Charleston, South Carolina, the term “engineering serendipity” came up on a Thursday panel several of us were doing about discoverability.

PubSmartDiscoverability, itself, is not quite a word yet, according to my unabridged Merriam-Webster. But when I checked out this term engineering serendipity, I found that it has been with us for some time.

Not that any of us on the panel felt that engineering serendipity wasn’t useful. Kathy Meis, founder of Bublish (a serendipitous name if ever there was one) is one of the five main movers behind PubSmart. She gave us the term as she moderated our panel, which included NetGalley’s Tarah Theoret; Books I Love app’s Elizabeth Dimarco; the eminent Laura Dawson of Bowker and its SelfPublishedAuthor.com site; and me.

If you don’t find yourself naturally comfortable with workin’ it, you may not be tomorrow’s author material, no matter how pretty your prose. 

I’ll just point out that this conference is doing a great deal to rebalance gender representation on publishing-conference panels. Wednesday, I moderated a panel of five women. Thursday I sat on a panel with four women. More sessions have been all- or mostly women.

And as for serendipity and its engineers, I’ve been looking over my shoulder all week. Surely some wry creature, probably in a Citadel cadet’s dress whites, is there to get off a big wink at me. It’s an odd, if pleasant, thing to find yourself returned to your Deeply Southern hometown by a career that’s moved you as far away as Rome, Copenhagen, Bath, London.

I may still wear my white spring linen jacket to this morning’s conference brunch, damn it, despite the forecasts of only 66 azalea-cooling degrees today.

But this thing of engineering serendipity.

Continue Reading »

Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?

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Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Storytelling Checklist

While it’s not a requirement that all of these 6 storytelling ingredients be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.

  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character

Let’s flog the first pages of this bestselling author’s new series novel. Although it will attract readers familiar with the series, it still needs to stand alone on a bookstore table—and an editor’s desk. Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—there are folks who reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason to reject it.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover bestseller lists for April 12. Let’s see just how strong the opening page is—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.

“Long live the King.”

At the sound of the deep, grave voice, Wrath, son of Wrath, had an instinct to look around for his father . . . a spark of hope that the death had not occurred and the great ruler was as yet still with them.

But of course, his beloved sire remained gone unto the Fade.

How long would this sad searching last? he wondered. It was such useless folly, especially as the sacred vestments of the vampire King were upon himself, the bejeweled sashes and silken coat and ceremonial daggers adorning his own body. His mind cared naught for such proof of his recent coronation, however . . . or mayhap it was his heart that remained unswayed by all that now defined him.

Dearest Virgin Scribe, without his father, he was so alone, even as he was surrounded by people who served him.

“My lord?”

Composing his visage, he turned around. Standing in the doorway of the royal receiving chambers, his closest adviser was like a column of smoke, long and thin, draped in dark robes.

“My honor to greet you,” the male murmured, bending low. “Are you ready to receive the female?”


My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Continue Reading »

The Art of Creating Memorable Villains Whatever Your Genre

Today’s guest is Lisa Alber, author of Kilmoon, A County Clare Mystery. Lisa describes herself as “ever distractible,” and you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on Kilmoon, her first novel; she is currently working on the next novel in the series.

 This first in Alber’s new County Clare Mystery series is utterly poetic … The author’s prose and lush descriptions of the Irish countryside nicely complement this dark, broody and very intricate mystery.” —RT Book Reviews (four stars) 

Of her post today, Lisa says: “I write crime fiction, so I’m fascinated by villains in all their diversity. However, I notice that when we talk about ‘villains,’ we tend to think only in terms of genre fiction such as mystery, suspense, and thriller. I suppose I’m passionate about this topic because villains get a bad rap at times (in literary terms). The truth is that villainy pertains to all genres because all stories need conflict. A story is only as good as its villain.” You can connect with Lisa on Twitter and Facebook, and on her blog, too!

The Art of Creating Memorable Villains Whatever Your Genre I once had a wise-woman teacher who said, “Your story is only as good as your villain.” Being a new writer, the word “villain” confused me. It had me imagining serial killers and blood-sucking demons, which wasn’t my thing. I didn’t truly understand what she meant until I started thinking of villains as tricksters. In mythology, the trickster deities break the rules of civilized life. They’re often malicious, but not always. They exist to cause transformation. They upend. They are catalysts. This is why the better your villain (trickster), the better your story. Another way to think about it is that without a good villain, your conflict can go flat. This potential story flaw applies to everything from literary novels to high-octane thrillers to romances. No writer is exempt from creating conflict, and for conflict you need upheaval. And for upheaval, you need trickster energy. To get your trickster groove on, consider the following:

  • Villains are people too. Great villains are the heroes of their own stories. They have reasons for acting like total cads toward their romantic leads or sleeping with their sisters’ husbands or blackmailing their neighbors or killing their parish priests. They make total sense to themselves.
  • Get as personal with your villain as you do with your protagonist. Villains grow. Character development and progression apply to them too.
  • The best villains are unique in ways that are opposite of what you would think. They have secret depths. For example, Hannibal Lecter, serial killer extraordinaire, is uber-cultured. This is why tropes such as the cad with the heart of gold and the femme fatale with the secret tragedy work—because of the opposition.
  • Create a memorable villain in part by creating a bright and sparkling inner life for your protagonist. If your villain only incites you hero to think, Wow, that guy’s strange, then no matter how unique and trickster-y you’ve made your villain, you’ve got bunk. Give your hero a bunch of attitude about the villain. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice is the classic example of this when it comes to Darcy. Continue Reading »

In Praise of Paper Books

spectatorflyleafI recently started rereading a book I bought many years ago – one volume of an eight volume collected set of The Spectator, a London daily periodical from the early 18th century. William Addison and Joseph Steele wrote most of the The Spectator’s 2500-word, witty and wise essays on serious topics of social value. A typical piece warns against the dangers of using “party lying” (i.e. propaganda) to advance a political cause. Another is an extended meditation on eternity. Several offer a serialized, detailed review of Milton’s works.

This may sound like somewhat hard going, but The Spectator is nothing if not eclectic. It includes comic short stories involving a good-natured but dim country squire named Roger de Coverley. You can find parody advertisements a quarter millennium before Saturday Night Live — for an elocution school for parrots or a dentist who offered to extract teeth from masquerade goers without removing their masks. And in one memorable exchange of letters, a prim young woman named Matilda Mohair wrote to condemn the unseemly practice of young men pushing women on swings as an excuse to catch a glimpse of their legs. Within a week, four other correspondents wrote, claiming to know Matilda and saying she was only objecting because she had crooked legs. One even said she was with child “despite her crooked legs.” It’s an exchange I could easily see happening on Twitter.

The Spectator was wildly popular in its time, with an estimated daily readership, in London’s fashionable coffeehouses and salons, of nearly 20,000 at a time when books were typically printed in lots of 500. Even before the daily issues stopped running, publishers were collecting the essays into an eight-volume set that was reprinted every few years for more than a century. It only began to fall out of favor in the late 19th century.

My volume is part of a small (duodecimo) leather-bound, illustrated set from the 1767 London printing. Because The Spectator was so popular, you can still find individual eighteenth-century volumes in good condition for about the cost of a modern hardback. This particular volume played a role in my own life. When my wife and I were courting, I used to read the essays aloud to her. She particularly liked one that explored the value of a garden — the essayist suggests using evergreens to create a winter garden and recommends using plants native to the area, “such as rejoice in the soil.” (By the way, reading your favorite works aloud is not a bad way to find a soulmate.)

The thing that delights me most about this particular book, though, is the inscriptions written in the flyleaf by the book’s previous owners. Continue Reading »

A ‘Logic Model’ for Author Success

Logic cube“Managing our career.” “Managing our expectations.” “Managing our resources and time.” All these “management” terms being applied to the writing life — with good reason — can make it sound like we might actually need an MBA to reach our goals as writers.

In fact, in this age of the “writer as an entrepreneur” responsible for a growing share of the work required to not only create but also to sell a book, adding management skills to our repertoire of abilities is not at all a bad idea. Which is why a group of smart thinkers at GrubStreet — the Boston-based writing nonprofit that happens to be my in-town writing family — have come up with a tool to help writers become more strategic without having this task become yet another item on an already-overflowing to-do list.

And it happens to be based on a classic non-profit management tool.

Fascinated by the concept of applying a real-life management system to the often messy and unstructured process of writing, publishing and promoting one’s books, I asked authors Katrin Schumann and Lynne Griffin, who together lead GrubStreet’s Launch Lab program where this tool is taught, to walk me through it.

Called the “Logic Model” (sound like an MBA course offering? read on….), its goal is to help writers make the best decisions about where to focus their creative energies and efforts when it’s time to launch their books.

Katrin and Lynne explained that often, as launch time approaches, authors get overwhelmed by thinking that they have to do “everything:” Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, ad campaigns, bookstore talks, conference panels, media articles, email newsletters, book clubs…you name it. But inevitably, this kind of effort is depleting. We wind up doing too much, including things that don’t match our unique personality, skills, or career goals.

The Logic Model frees us from this by helping identify what our goals really are and where our true interests and strengths lie, allowing us to then develop a framework for deciding which areas it makes the most sense to focus on when launching a book.

It starts by dividing the thought process into three categories: Continue Reading »

An Agent’s Role in Shaping an Author’s Career and the Second Book

Maze at Chatsworth gardens (tiltshift)

photo by Gavin Wray

Today I want to talk about the literary agent’s role, not just in selling an author’s book, but in shaping their career. It’s a more nebulous part of the job description, beyond the editing, negotiating and contract work that comprises the nuts and bolts of the job. I’ve also found it to be both the most exciting and the hardest part of what I do.

I love thinking alongside an author about the direction in which they want their career to go. Thinking long term is an important part of the initial conversation an author should have with their agent as you want to be on the same page, and while of course that path isn’t set in stone, it’s a good idea for an author to have a general vision which she can share with her agent at the beginning.

I still believe in the old-fashioned way of growing an author–book by book, review by review, and fan by fan. And to that end, an agent’s job really begins after she’s helped edit the book and placed it with a publisher. It’s her job to then foster a relationship between the author and the editor, and in turn that editor’s publicity and marketing department, which means making introductions, setting up meetings at the appropriate time before publication, and actively participating in the outreach (either blurbs or advance reviews/conferences/festivals/film contacts/bloggers etc) along the way.

With long-term thinking in mind, an agent also has to work strategically alongside the author about what book two (or three or four) is going to be. That can sometimes involve a tough-love conversation when an agent doesn’t think that follow-up book is strong enough. I once heard an editor say (rather glibly, I might add) that everyone can write one good book but it’s the ones who continue to write better and better books that separate the good from the great. I don’t think that’s the case. I certainly can’t write one good book and I am guessing neither can she (those that can’t, teach and all that), but it is something that writers struggle with. Continue Reading »