The Self-Publisher’s Dilemma

Tempting...very tempting...

Like everyone else, I’m very interested in how ebooks are going to change the publishing world, especially since I hope to be a part of that world in the near future.  Lately one of the things that has been coming up is the idea of self-publishing.  With ebooks on the rise, and easy-to-use self-publishing platforms readily available, why not just self-publish and cut out the middle man? That way, you make more money per book, and can sell your books for less.  Seems like a win-win-win situation.  But…

There’s always a but.  In fact, in this case there are two “buts” that I’ve noticed when it comes to self-publishing.

First, now that anyone can pretty much put anything up on the kindle, there is a lot out there.  And, I hate to say it, but a lot of it isn’t very good.  I have nothing against self-publishing; for some people, it’s a better way to get their stuff out there, and I’m sure there are a lot of great stories available that wouldn’t otherwise be.  But there’s also a lot of not-so-great stories available.  What this means is that trying to find a good self-published story in the murky sea of words out there is difficult.

True, there are some traditionally published books that aren’t so great, either.  I know I can think of several times I’ve read something and wondered how it got published.  On the other hand, writing is so subjective, that those same books were highly recommended by other readers, so again, personal opinion plays a large role here.  But, back to the point, with traditionally published books at least there’s some kind of filter.  With self-publishing, that filter has been torn off so it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s good and what isn’t.  Which is exciting, yes, but also difficult, and leads to my second issue:

How do you make your self-published book stand out from the rest? This is something I argue about with my husband all the time.  As I’m researching agents and working on my query letter, he’s asking me why I don’t try self-publishing and bypass all that, and the reason is, I know my own limitations.  Would I be good enough at marketing myself to become well-known? Probably not.  True, in today’s world authors are expected to market themselves anyways, but in going the traditional route, they have some help.  A lot of help, actually.  If you self-publish, you go it alone for everything.

This means marketing, finding an editor, scheduling your own book signings and talks, everything.  Amanda Hocking, one of the kindle millionaires that everyone has been buzzing about lately, says it best in her post here when she explains, “I am continuously overwhelmed by the amount of work I have to do that isn’t writing a book.”

On the other hand, it’s clear that times are changing.  There are some great comments on Nathan Bransford’s blog about all of this, and how mid-list authors will be the first to switch over.  Already Barnes and Noble announced it will welcome self published authors through its self-publishing platform, PubIt! Shari Lopatin took a look at this platform and the issues it raises over at her blog, if you want to check out her post.

As for me, I still want to go the traditional publishing route, if only to prove that yes, I was good enough to get in that way.  But I have a feeling that, as things change, more people will turn to self-publishing and not as a last resort, but as just another option.  What do you think?

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Hey, I finished writing a novel! Now what?

Alright, after months of silence I’m back.  Today is actually a pretty momentuous day for several reasons, and not just because I finally got off my lazy butt and started blogging again.  I also…<cue the music>…finished my third draft of my current WIP (work in progress)! Exciting, I know.  And while it still has another half dozen drafts to go (probably more than that, if I want to be entirely honest), I now have what I refer to as a “readable draft.”

A “readable draft” means that the plot makes sense throughout and the story is basically finished, so I can now have someone else read through it.  I don’t like to share my WIP with anyone until it gets to this point because honestly, my first drafts are just a confused jumble of words, full of inconsistencies and terrible dialogue.  Now, at least, these plot fails are surrounded by bits of story that makes sense.  Yay!

What happens now, you might ask? Well, first I need to con someone I trust into reading this draft and giving me some good feedback.  Actually, I like to get two people to read it at this point so I can get a good variety of criticism.  The list of people I will let read a first readable draft is very small, which is how I think it should be.  All you prospective writers out there, don’t let just anyone read an unfinished piece because it’s really not going to be your best work yet.  Find someone who reads a lot and can take a look at your story as a reader and let you know what works and what doesn’t.  It has to be someone who knows you well enough to be brutally honest, but who’s opinion you trust enough not to get angry and take it personally.  These are tough qualifications, which is why my own list is so small.

Another thing I’ve learned is to give my first readers plenty of time.  They are doing me a huge favor, so I don’t want to rush them, but I also find it’s helpful to give them some sort of timeline.  Most people operate much better when they know they have to get something done by a certain day.  Otherwise, your manuscript might just sit in a corner of their rooms for the next three months.  Generally, I give them a month, which accomplishes two things.  First, that’s more than enough time to read a manuscript and give some general critiques on it, and two, that gives me a month away from my story so when I do get it back, along with their suggestions, I can look at it with a fresh set of eyes.

When I hand over my glorious manuscript, I have also learned to be clear about my expectations.  I don’t want any line editing, or paragraph by paragraph notes, or anything ridiculous and hugely time-consuming like that.  No, these kinds of critiques should come later from your writing group.  Don’t have a writing group? Join one! I’ll talk more about why in a later post.  But getting back to this topic, what I want from a first reader is just this: Is my story interesting? Why or why not? Does it make sense? What doesn’t work in it? Any suggestions to make it better? Those are pretty much the only things I ask at this point.

When I get back my feedback, that’s when the real work begins.

Review of the Undead

Alright, as promised I’m doing my first “fiction Friday” book review.  Since we were talking about zombies on our camping trip, and that led to me deciding to do book reviews on my blog, I thought it would be fitting if I started with a zombie book.  So, in honor of this theme, I chose “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” by Carrie Ryan.

First off, this book has a great title.  Really, it’s the best zombie title I’ve seen, about a thousand times better than “Dawn of the Dead,” etc. (although Shaun of the Dead is a pretty good title, too, now that I think about it.  But since that’s a movie, it hardly counts).  But the question is, does it live up to its title? To be honest, when I first read this book a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so sure.  I definitely had mixed feelings about it, but since then I’ve found myself thinking about it at random times, and it stuck with me enough that I went out and bought the sequel, “The Dead-Tossed Waves,” even though it was still in hardback and I don’t actually like hardcovers on principle.

The basic plot is this (no spoilers–you could get most of this from the back of the book): Mary lives in a small village in the middle of the forest.  On all sides of their village is a fence, and on the other side of that fence is…you guessed it.  Zombies.  Hence the hands and teeth.  Her village is ruled by a Sisterhood of nuns, who teach them that they are the last people alive.  Shortly into the book, however, their fence is breached, and Mary and her friends have to venture out into the world, trying to find life in the midst of all that death.  Mary’s eventual goal is the ocean, but along the way she’ll have to decide between the two men who love her, subsequently destroying her friendship with her former best friend (actually, it was already pretty rocky by this point), and mending her relationship with her estranged brother.  She’ll discover truths about the forest, and the sisterhood, and the zombies on the other side of the fence, but most importantly, she’ll discover truths about herself.  And yeah, that sounds vague and lame, but I’m trying really hard not to give any spoilers here, so take it or leave it.

And now for the fun stuff.  First off, I love how they never refer to the undead in this book as “zombies.”  Instead, they call them “the Unconsecrated,” which sounds religious and creepy and really helps to make this book unique from all the other zombie books out there.  The Unconsecrated themselves are done really well; these are slow moving, relentless creatures who spend all their time hovering at the fence, moaning.  When they see people, they moan louder, and their fingers are all bloody and broken from trying to get in.  Later in the book, a new kind of Unconsecrated is introduced–a fast one, speeding back and forth and throwing itself at the fence with a ferocity that terrifies all the villagers.  And with good reason…

The characters in this book are well-done as well.  The main character, Mary, feels very real to me.  I like her because she’s not perfect, but she’s interesting and curious and strong.  A born survivor, she decides what she wants and she goes for it, which could be taken as selfishness, and really, it is that, but it also makes her a very intriguing character.  And it’s clear that she’s a good person, she just sees things from her own perspective.  I actually thought she was similar in many ways to Katniss from “Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (great book–I’ll be reviewing it later)–both of them are strong female protagonists who look out for themselves first, although Katniss was a little more sympathetic to me because she loved her sister more than herself, whereas Mary comes first for Mary.

The other main characters are Harry, the boy Mary is supposed to marry, and his brother, Travis, the boy Mary actually loves.  What I liked best about them was that Harry wasn’t a total jerk.  Usually in those movies where the main female is with the guy she doesn’t love, he actually turns out to be a jerk, making it that much easier for the girl to move on to her actual love.  Real life isn’t like that.  People are all mixed bags of good and bad, and the characters in Carrie Ryan’s book are no exception to that.  In addition to Harry and Travis, there are Cass, Mary’s best friend, and Jed, Mary’s older brother.  Both of these characters are interesting because they start off as pillars of strength for Mary to lean on, and then they end up turning on her.  In fact, all the relationships in this book are handled very well.  I kept thinking certain characters would end up with other characters, and looking for the familiar patterns repeated over and over again in books and movies, and I kept being surprised by how things actually turned out.  That doesn’t happen too often, and it’s refreshing when it does.

Ultimately, there were three things I didn’t like about this book.  First of all, I felt like some parts were kind of glossed over.  Not to sound like a pervert or anything, but the author never actually mentions if Mary is sleeping with one or other of the boys in this book.  It’s inferred by the situation, but the fact that she doesn’t spell it out kind of bothered me, because it left me a little confused about their relationship.  Second, I wanted to know more information about the Sisterhood.  Mary starts to find out some disturbing facts, but then she’s forced to leave, and the book ends without that being resolved.  True, there’s the sequel, but I still felt like I needed just a little bit more closure.  On the other hand, this lack of closure is closer to real life, so maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  And third, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ending, but then again, it’s a zombie book.  There’s no way a zombie book can end too happily.  Think about it–once there’s one zombie in the world, that’s the beginning of the end, really.  Unless they’re like the zombies in “28 Days Later,” which can actually starve to death.  Hint: the Unconsecrated are not that convenient. So really just the first thing bothered me, and just a little bit.

So, all in all I would say that on first read, I liked this book.  On a star scale, I would have given it a solid 3 of 5.  Then I sat on it for a while, and now, I’d actually give it at least 4 stars, probably 4.5.  And if you want to know the truth, the reason this book stuck with me is one line.  Just one line in the book that resounded with me so strongly I couldn’t get it out of my head.  Mary says, “He was everything.  Why couldn’t I see that he was everything?” And with this one bit of dialogue, I could feel all the regret and anguish that looking back always brings when you realize you’ve made the wrong choice and you can’t fix it.  Even now, my heart aches for her, and she’s just a bit of words on a page.  So that’s my conclusion–this book is a good idea with great details and characters that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.  Read it.

Sudden Bursts of Inspiration

Yesterday I was taking a shower, and suddenly I had a whole scene just pop into my head.  A scene from a book I wasn’t writing.  It included dialogue, character descriptions, narration, everything! Aside from the bizzaro factor, it was awesome!! I hurried out, pulled out my trusty ole laptop, and typed it down as fast as I could.

Anyways, I was wondering if this kind of thing happens often to anyone else? It’s a very rare occasion for me, although I know other authors have said they’ve had whole books practically fall into their heads.  J.K. Rowling, for example, claims that the idea of Harry Potter just came to her, fully formed.  Lucky…Also, I wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson and his whole little people thing in this post here, so apparently it does happen.  Just usually not to me.

Now I’m left in a quandary.  Previously I mentioned how I was having trouble writing.  I started about three different stories and then just stopped, then started something new.  It’s been an ongoing issue ever since I finished the first draft to my sequel and decided I needed to write about different characters now.  Anyhow, I finally managed to get into a story, and I’m now about 17,000 words in, so it’s coming along, but now thanks to this flash of inspiration I have this new story I’ve started, which is exciting and interesting and unlike anything I’ve ever written before (kind of sci-fi punk/dystopian future).  So.  Which should I work on?

I know how I am.  As soon as I actively stop working on a story for more than a couple of days, that story is dead.  I might look at it later and think, hmm, that’s a pretty interesting story.  I wonder where I was going with that? But I won’t go back in and finish it.  I’m not sure why, but there are probably a good fifty unfinished bits of stories on my computer, some of them really long, and there they’ll sit.  Unfinished forever.  It’s like the great story graveyard, or something.  So now, do I resign my 17,000 words to this little bit of literary limbo, or do I put aside the 5,000 words I typed in my rush to this new story?

Conundrum.

Writing versus Reading

I came across this post by agent Nathan Bransford asking whether people spend more time reading or writing, and since this is an issue I’ve struggled with personally, I thought it would make a good topic for my own post.  I’ve heard that you have to read in order to write–agent Janet Reid makes a comment about this on her post here where she says, “The idea you’ll write a novel without reading is like saying you’ll play pro basketball but not practice with your team. You’ll just show up and people will throw you the ball.”

However, I’ve also heard it said there are two kinds of people, those who read and those who write.  Personally, I’m more inclined to believe Janet Reid’s take on this, and not just because she’s the shark.  Most people I talk to who actually love to write, love to read as well.  If you don’t love to read, there doesn’t seem to be much point in creating yet more words.  That’s like people who hate to eat becoming chefs.  Does it happen? Maybe.  I don’t know.  But it certainly doesn’t make much sense.

Whenever I write and I get into the flow of my book, I feel like I’m reading.  In fact, when I’m really into it, there’s hardly any difference between reading and my writing except that my fingers are moving.  These are the parts of my manuscripts that are the best, versus the sections where I’ve had to painfully plot along, stringing a few words together, just trying to get through a scene.  So, since reading and writing are very similar if you’re in the flow in each, then it makes sense to me that the more you do of one, the better you’d be at the other.  The more books you read, the more stories you absorb, the better you’ll be at creating your own.  This is especially true if you read critically–analyzing bits of dialogue, character description, etc., while still enjoying the book.

However, on the flipside of this I’ve found that the more I read, the less I actually write.  I just have no self-control, and when I’m reading a good book, all I feel like doing is reading that book.  Writing, schoolwork, household chores, and all that important stuff just go right out the window.  Not only does this lead to some interesting fights with my husband, but it’s really not good for my attempts at a writing career if I’m not spending any time actually writing.  I try to pass it off as research, but I’m not really fooling anyone, least of all myself.  The worst part is when I’m in the middle of a series, because this can lead to days, weeks even of my doing nothing but reading.

So, how do you balance your reading and writing habits? I know someone who only reads on the lightrail to and from work, and when she’s home, she keeps the book closed.  Personally, I’ve found that I just need to have periods of time when I’m not reading a book.  Like right now, for instance.  Since I took that lovely hiatus the past couple of weeks, I’ve been staying away from books for a while, just so I can get my word counts back up again and get into my own writing.  I’d be interested in hearing any other suggestions people have for balancing these two.

Published in: on June 23, 2010 at 9:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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Write or Die!!

Alright, I admit it–I fell off the wagon.  The last time I posted here was…well, I don’t even remember, and that’s sad, but really that’s not the worst part.  The worst part is the fact that I stopped writing entirely.  True, there are some very good reasons (some would call them excuses), but the fact of the matter is, I’ve found the longer I stay away from my computer, the harder it is to go back to it.  If I take off more than two days in a row, for example, I have serious trouble trying to get back into a story and I practically have to re-read everything I’ve written in that story just to start writing again.  Trust me, this is not the most efficient way to go about writing.

So last week I finally forced myself to open my laptop, sit down, and just write something.  It was hard.  I wrote about 150 words and then played a few rounds of spider solitaire, but at least I started.  I’m now over 10,000 words on that story, and most of those words are junk–I can clearly see the parts where I was forcing myself to grind out the words, but at last I finally found myself getting into the flow, and I’m now looking forward to sitting down and getting some serious work done on it this afternoon. And honestly, what first draft isn’t full of junk words? Or at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself.  ; )

What I’ve found is that there will always be a reason not to sit down and write.  The world is full of excuses; all you have to do is look around you and you’ll see something else you could/should be doing instead, so the key is to just ignore all that and force yourself to get to that computer and open it.  Once you start, the excuses will eventually fall away.  And even if you’ve taken off a few weeks/months/years, it’s never too late to get back to it.  Really.  So, to my fellow slackers out there, I say sit your butts down and get to it! I will be doing the same.

Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 3:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why aren’t there more evil female villains?

Best villainess ever...

The other day, Cassandra Jade had a post asking people about their favorite female protagonists.  Check it out if you haven’t already–lots of good characters listed.  Well, this got me thinking about the flipside of the coin, and I tried to come up with a mental list of favorite female villains.  Surprisingly, I could only think of a few, and now I’m wondering if my memory is just really shoddy, or if there really is a shortage of female villains.

When I say “female villains,” I mean truly evil characters.  Not the bitchy boss, the lying friend who isn’t really a friend, the snarky whatever.  I mean the kind of villain who wants to kill or hurt people, or take over the world, or…well, be really evil.  Can you think of any good ones? So far, I’ve thought of the White Witch from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis, Umbridge from “The Order of the Phoenix,” by JK Rowling, and, well, I’m sure there must be many more, but I’m mostly drawing a blank.  I know a lot of the different fairy-tale retellings have the evil witch or stepmother figures, and there are some female villains in different series; Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake books have some good ones, for instance, but they all feel almost like minor villains since they only really affect the one book they’re in, and not the series as a whole.  But maybe I’m just being picky.

If you think of any good ones, let me know.  I’m curious, and I’ve now decided I’ll have to have a good female villain in my own future writing.

Published in: on May 21, 2010 at 11:41 am  Comments (7)  
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The art of world building

I read an interesting post by Nathan Bransford today where he posed the question, “if you could live in the world of one novel, which one would you choose?” Now, I always like questions like this, maybe because the nerd in me likes imagining what life would be like if I were in each of the worlds I read about.  I’ve come to a few conclusions over the years; I wouldn’t want to be in any of these sword and sorcery novels where I’d have to do a lot of running, and nothing where my life is constantly in danger or where the world is very uncomfortable.  And by uncomfortable, I mean worlds like Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” where you have to walk around with a gas mask to breath the air and there are gangs of super-fast zombies traveling around.  In fact, any world with zombies is automatically O-U-T.

Which leads me to the one series I would like to live in: Harry Potter.  Who didn’t see that one coming? Embarrassingly enough, from the comments it looked like about 90% of the people answering wanted to live at Hogwarts.  So, instead of being bothered by my lack of originality, I decided to take a closer look at why everyone wants to be a wizard in the world of Harry Potter.

What’s there not to love about Hogwarts? Before going, you’re told you are special and belong in this whole other, better world, where you can do magic, live in a really amazing castle, and take classes that are full of fun things like how to ride a broomstick or transform items into other items (and honestly, even potions seemed like a pretty cool thing to learn).  True, there’s that whole He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named thing, but really, it seems like a small price to pay.

J.K. Rowling is able to create a whole separate world, with so much detail and so many fun little facts that it feels like a real place.  And while I’ve read many other books that accomplish this just as well (see “Boneshaker” above), none of them seem nearly as fun.  This is why I think the Harry Potter books are so popular; the characters are good and the storyline is good, but again, I’ve read books that are just as good and better.  But the world of Harry Potter is such a fun place that readers love these books, just for the chance to belong in that world for a couple of hours.

I’m still working on the art of world building in my own work.  I know the key is including plenty of little details that might feel insignificant or pointless at first, but that illustrate how this new world is different from other worlds.  If done right, these little details will eventually tie in to the main plot, becoming important, much like the room of requirement in the Harry Potter series, which started out as a comment from Dumbledore about a room full of chamber pots in the first book and became very significant in later books.  But what else do you need to do to make your world come alive? Suggestions? Comments? Thanks, and happy writing!

Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm  Comments (6)  
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Loving those intuitive writing moments

Alright, I’m back from my writing-cation, and I almost met my goal.  I got to about 19,000 words for the weekend, and I was aiming for 20,000, so not so bad.  Definitely more than I’ve ever written in a three-day period before.  And the best part is I have one last chapter and I’ll be done with my first draft.  Then the real fun begins…

One thing I noticed while writing is that I began to get more intuitive lurches.  Things like, “you need to have this character show up now,” etc.  The longer I wrote, the more I felt like I was getting a little bit of help, little nudges in the right direction.  I talked about this briefly in an earlier post–the ability to write intuitively without a real plan, but I wanted to talk about it some more because it is the part of the writing process I’m most interested in.

There was an interesting post by Tribal Writer recently about how you shouldn’t write what you know, but instead, “write what you want to know, or write what you don’t know, but will discover in the telling.”  I found this intriguing because I always felt like writing what I know would be problematic, since I like to write fantasy, or at least have a supernatural twist to my stories, and at least so far in my life I have yet to develop magical talents.  The day is still young, but I don’t really see that in my future.  So, instead I would start with something I know, and then imagine how that would change.  For instance, my current WIP is about a fourteen-year-old girl who is locked into manacles by the god of death and forced into another world.  Not something I would know much about, but as I wrote I’d try to picture what that would be like, and go from there.

I think the best writing advice is not “write what you know,” but “write what you love.”  If you’re enjoying what you’re writing about, then other people will enjoy reading it.  It’s sort of how you can tell if someone is smiling when you’re talking to them on the phone, you can tell if a writer is having a good time.  And while writing, you just need to trust that your subconscious will help you out, if you relax and listen to it.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 9:51 am  Comments (1)  
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Writing waves and embarassing English majors everywhere

Well, today I made my goal.  7,061 words, to be exact, which is actually the most words I’ve ever written at one time.  One thing I discovered was that there is a definite wave to my writing process.  I don’t know how anyone else works, but I had periods of a lot of productivity interspersed with periods of just slowly grinding out a few words. 

I noticed that I’d have some success, and then I’d reach a point where I felt I could stop for the day, but if I kept pushing it, I’d get through a slow word grinding period and into another productive flow.  This makes me think that writing is similar to running a marathon, or any other physical  activity; you might think you’re at your limit, but if you just ride it out, you’ll actually discover that you’re capable of doing a lot more than you originally thought. 

That’s my only thought for the day.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I ended up going to happy hour with my sister and her friends, and found myself the only english major at a table full of physicists.  Naturally, that meant I had to drink enough beer to understand what they were saying, which lead to the one english joke I know, which is “how much does a Hemingway?” Heh, heh.  Alright, so not so funny, and I think I think I misrepresented engish majors everywhere.  Sorry, guys. 

Anyways, tomorrow’s the last day of my writing-cation, and if I’m going to make my goal of 20,000 words, I’ll have to write another 7,000 words, which honestly I’m not sure is going to happen.  I’ll keep you posted.  Until then, happy writing!

Published in: on May 13, 2010 at 10:07 pm  Comments (1)  
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