Writing Tips: Sharing is Caring

BookBaby is a self-publishing website that I use for promotion tips. It’s totally free and helpful. Recently, I shared a link for a free download they were offering to Bookbaby members (a $10 value). One of my Facebook friends thanked me for doing so, claiming she’d seen the
“crab-in-a-barrel” mentality among authors.

I could understand why I wouldn’t want to share an inside tip on YA/sci-fi because that’s what I write. Still, unless there’s a case of direct competition, I don’t see the point of keeping away valuable information. I do charge a consultation fee, as do most people who mentor inexperienced writers. Most people offer free tips if their blog content isn’t totally self-centered. Have you run into this?

Open Letter to online reviewers

ImageDear Reader,

I read your review, the one where you gave me one-star and compared the first few chapters of The Lost Testament to an “eighth grade assignment for a short story.”

You’e not alone. Another one-star giver said it was “just bad” and “uninteresting.” Someone else called it “not worth finishing.”

I’m not going to pack up my laptop. My wife isn’t confiscating my belts and shoelaces. Really, I’m okay.

But, there are some things you, as a reviewer, should know.

As a writer, I appreciate the time and effort you spend giving independent writers like me a chance. You could stick to the works of the Big 6 or disregard indie authors altogether. It’s a credit to you that you do otherwise. Thank you for that.

Likewise, if you think my work is crap and you have spent $1.99 of your hard earned cash on me, then, from a certain perspective, it is your God-given patriotic duty to announce to the planet (Kindle is practically worldwide, after all) your opinion that a fourteen-year-old and I are on equal literary footing.

Writers who have hit it big barely blink at what reviews say. Indie writers, whose ability to sell a book might live or die on a review, count on it. It’s up to us to put out the best work we possibly can and pray it is reviewed well in kind. Of the thousands of books I’ve sold, you’re not the first person to think something negative. You’re just the third to publish it publicly about this book.

Like you, I’ve read some BAD writing in my day. I’ve taught literature for eight years. One of my students wrote a slave narrative about how she and her sisters, Meg, Jo, and Beth, escaped to the north. THAT was bad writing (plagiarism, actually), and if you think my writing is close to that, you must not read teenage writing very much.

Speaking as both an author and a publisher, I’m asking that if you going to give an independent author like me lower than a three star review, don’t leave one at all. Here’s why:

  • You say you didn’t know what to expect? Amazon allows you to preview a few chapters before you buy. Usually, if a book is crappy, you can smell it by the first few pages. Preview it first if you’re skeptical.
  • You could have returned it for a full refund, no questions asked, no comments left.
  • You could have read ALL of the reviews first. Marlene Wagner said it was “an inspiring story of how [faith] can change a life.” Jodi Cornelius and K. Wagner highly recommend it. I promise I don’t know those people.

Something I’ve learned in the past five years and five novels is that you’re never going to please everyone. There’s always something to improve. Likewise, I’ve also learned there are some people who will never be pleased no matter what you do. Whichever you believe, sir/madam, I hope you will take my suggestions to heart. The next indie author will appreciate it, too.

Sincerely,

Brian Thompson

What’s coming in 2014

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Ready for a Christmas party? So am I. Almost. Maybe not so much.

My blog has been an accurate reflection of my writing time once school started. Some of you know I have returned to the classroom as a high school literature and journalism teacher.

In between the lessons and grading, I don’t have very much time to blog or write, or party, for that matter. I snatch the moments I can and work with them, meaning to others, I might seem antisocial for not hanging out.

For 2014, I commit to blog and even vlog (yes, a video blog) once a week with information on my writing and marketing journey. There has to be something from my triumphs and/or mistakes that can be of use to you. I plan on sharing those.

Also, in 2014, my fifth novel, Sophomore Freak, will bow right before the summer. It’s the second book in my teen sci-fi novel series, Reject High. The third installment has been languishing on my flash drive for some time. That’s on my to-do list, too. There’s also a sequel to The Revelation Gate there. As you can see, I’m asking Santa for some extra writing time.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Margie Lawson’s Highlighting Editing System

I always liked to color, but this is a little different.

My editing partner, Jackie, introduced me (not in person) to Margie Lawson — whom she calls one of the premier writing teachers in the nation. After a primer on one of her workshops, I tend to agree.

Her EDITS System is this — highlighting different elements of your writing in different colors. Dialogue is blue, thoughts are yellow, setting is green, orange is tension, and pink is involuntary (visceral) response. Underline in red ink (I prefer purple) for action and taglines.

Once you finish, flip the page upside down and look at the colors. What’s out of balance? In my first chapter, I had a ton of thoughts and then a ton of dialogue, no visceral response, little about setting and tension. Those were the major weaknesses. I revised, and now, it’s MUCH better.

Grab some of your writing and give it a try. Next time, we’ll take a look at a paragraph of mine and dissect it this way. Hope this helps!

Here’s an idea: HOW you can get to 100 Beta Readers

Last time, we talked about Beta Readers (a test audience for a book) and their importance.

Boy, are they important.

Too often, you get the “do-this-and-it-will-work-for-you” and not the how. Like, “Get 100 Beta Readers.” You know 100 people, but they may not want to sit down, read your book, and rate your chapters, right?

My friend Lisa said she needed to start from the ground up. Here’s what I did and I guarantee it’ll work for you.

I have a friend, Adrienne, who is totally on my team. No matter how long you’ve been writing, there’s one person you can count on to be on your side. If not, e-mail me. I’ll be your person or help you find one!

Adrienne’s bought all four of my books and she works for a high school (my target market — score!). Identify your target market (the people you’ve written your book for) and find someone well-connected in it.

By chance, she hands my book to a student we’ll call “Tee” and says, “Read it, and if you like it, rate it on Amazon.”

“Tee” read Reject High in one day, loved it, and immediately wanted to read more. She became a Beta Reader. I asked her to recruit some other Beta Readers for me, and she’s uncovered six in one week.

Recap: Start with one person in your target market who’s enthusiastic about your work. Leverage their connections to help you get other people involved. They have to be excited about what you’re doing. Be aggressive and persistent, but friendly as you go. Hope this helps!

 

Plotting: I’m a believer. Are you?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m in the midst of writing my sixth manuscript. It’s the third in my Reject High teen series.

I got stuck. Like all four wheels spinning helplessly in the mud stuck.

I didn’t want to try writing out my plot.

For my first three novels, I created my characters, wound them up and let them go. My major plot points were a function of their behaviors. While I knew where they were going and how it would end up, I let them guide me through the “how.”

With this book, it was just different. I couldn’t do that anymore. My characters were letting me down (they’re teenagers, so there’s that).

So, I turned off my cellphone and iPad, stepped away from my laptop and started writing with my main character, Jason. Once I finished his arc, I worked on his love interest. Three hours later, the entire plot was done.

I’d never thought I’d say so, but I’m a believer in sketching out plots on paper now. Are you? What’s your process?

Barnes and Noble: The inside details (or lack thereof) of a rejection letter

When I talk about publishing, I use quirky comparisons for effect. For example, my “ketchup and cheese” rule:  just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s good.

Have you ever bought generic ketchup or cheese? Off-brand ketchup and Heinz have one thing in common — they’re both red. Cheap cheese melts like hot glue, and while I’ve never tried eating Elmer’s, it can’t taste much worse than budget cheese.

For me, rejection letters are like asking out a pretty high school girl and being told “no.” She’ll never tell the real reason why she rejected you. It could be your personality, or your wardrobe, among other things. It’s an unsolvable mystery with no closure.

I recently applied for all three of my books to be shelved at B&N. Shelving is one of the nine streams of income you need as an author. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that this is a discussion you can only have if you are listed as the author of your book(s), and not a self-publishing company.

And yes, I got rejected. I won’t be dating that particular pretty girl anytime soon.

The buyer responsible for religious fiction decided not to stock my books, The Lost Testament, The Revelation Gate, and The Anarchists because: a.) the jackets (covers) weren’t compelling, b.) they did not have good advance reviews in trade magazines, c.) they did not have quotes from other writers working in the genre, d.) they did not have articles/reviews in the “usual consumer media,” or e.) my marketing and promotion plan wasn’t good enough.

How do you determine the poison pill(s) from five, very different reasons? 

What makes a jacket or cover “compelling”? Good art design and engaging back cover copy that will sell the book. But what’s “good”?

To a degree, book selling is science, but it’s also a crap shoot. When a legacy publisher picks up a novel, it’s thinking the book is good enough to sell at least two years in the future (it takes that long to edit, produce and market it). That’s a HUGE risk.

For indie/self-pub authors (some places consider you self-pub if you’re indie), advance reviews in places like ForeWord, and Kirkus (the ones you don’t pay almost $500 for) are hard to come by, as are quotes from authors in the genre. The Lost Testament and The Revelation Gate were endorsed by Christian fiction authors Stephanie Perry-Moore  and Michelle Sutton, respectively. My marketing plan for both was involved.

So, that at least narrows the field to three possible reasons for rejection, right?

The moral of the story is this: these details are not really details — it’s a form letter. The key is to do all of the things they request to the best of your ability anyway, and if you’re not good enough to “date,” there are other shelves in the world. Try becoming a Follett vendor (giving you the ability to be shelved in 800 college bookstores across North America). Also, solicit your local small bookstores. They usually love indie authors.

Hope this helps!

If you REALLY want to know. . .

It’s just the two of us here, so I can be direct and honest with you, right?

After all, that’s why you visit my blog in the first place – to know my unadulterated thoughts. The thing is: I adulterate a lot. It’s politically-correct, and a largely accepted practice. Isn’t it? If someone in your inner circle asks you “How are you doing?” and it’s the worst day of your life thus far, would you open up, or something like “I’m good.” (I tell the truth to the right people).

This week, I’d like to answer some recent questions my way.

Q: How’s the book going?

A: Well, book selling is essentially retail sales, and retail is seasonal. The reality is that, while Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. are popular sales outlets, they pay 60-90 days out. So, even if I made a lot of sales this month, I won’t see a dime until July. Their profits allow them to sell merchandise lower than everyone else, which undercuts my ability to do so through my own site.

Am I going to top Suzanne Collins’ numbers next week? Probably not. Will I sell enough to sip coffee, listen to Pandora, and hire a publicist, marketing firm, and accountant so I can write my next three books? Not yet. But I’m working on it. In the meantime, I’d appreciate your help spreading the word about The Anarchists. I’d do the same for you 🙂

Q: Why can’t I have a complimentary copy of your book?

A: Because my parents – the people who helped give me life – pay for their copies. And, unfortunately, when I go to the grocery store, they won’t give me complimentary food. No matter how much I ask for the hookup.

Q: Why don’t you just (enter simple, but time consuming task)?

A: The first two years of starting up are the hardest for a small business. Great Nation Publishing is a month away from being two years old. Often times, a bank will not loan a start-up money until it’s been in operation for at least two years. At that point, you get a shot.

What that means is I do my own marketing, publicity, bookkeeping, and event planning. In between, I write, and occasionally spend time with my toddler and pregnant wife . So, while your suggestion is a GREAT one, I simply don’t have the time to do it. However, if you’re offering to help. . .

Just a little insight this week. Hope this helps!

When throwing money isn’t an option

Say you’re a start-up solopreneur (as my friend Kemya Scott likes to call us D-I-Yers) with this great, new book. You are persuaded beyond a shadow of a doubt that this magnificent creation will save its owner time and money. Or, at the very least, entertain them.

The problem is — nobody knows about it.

Grassroots is a good thing, if you’re talking about lawn maintenance. But to the novice solopreneur, the grassroots approach is a time killer. Not only do  you have to make time to learn how to market, you also have to do it and be good at it.

You’d like to hire someone, but you just can’t afford it. Everyone you ask about doing it for you comes up with an eye-popping amount, and when you ask if there’s a lower price range they say something to the tune of “That’s-my-fee-and-I-don’t-apologize-for-it.” Which is fair and their right (I say the same thing when it comes to editing — it’s HARD work!!!). It doesn’t help grease your way out from between that rock and hard place though.

It also doesn’t help that, for the most part, marketing is an inexact science with no clear Return-On-Investment formula. For example, I sent out postcards announcing my first novel with a special deal on them. Not one of them connected with me for an order.

Does that mean it failed? Couldn’t they have bought a book from Amazon or some other retailer? If they did, I never would have known the difference because Amazon does not send me sales figures by region. I didn’t follow up with them, either. In marketing, consistency is key. Random messaging is not.

Something I found that works is this: the most successful marketers are the ones that combine the traditional stuff (mailings, flyers, bookmarks, etc.) with the newer stuff (QR codes, Hashable, social media, etc.) and do it cost-effectively, not cheaply. There IS a difference.

In promotions for my next book, that’s exactly what I did. My blog tour (traditional) is virtual (non-traditional) and I’m only sending out electronic copies (cost-maintenance).

Sounds great, right? I can’t tell you how many hours I spent sifting through blog forums and websites looking for people who reviewed e-books, my kind of fiction, and were open for submissions. Eventually, my curated list came down to under 100 reviewers. I didn’t hire anyone, but it did cost me time.

Remember my ketchup-and-cheese rule: just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s good.

Lastly, be encouraged! Surround yourself with people smarter than you and keep at it!

Hope this helps.

Definitive time travel rules

Cover of "Back to the Future"

Time travel is a tricky concept to master

For my next book, I spent A LOT of time researching time travel, quantum physics, and alternate realities. All of it is theoretical, of course, which presents a number of obstacles. I found a solution that seems to work, and I’ll share a little bit of it with you.

Some Debbie Downer chaos theorists say that any mode of successful time travel within your own lifetime would destroy the planet. Makes for an anti-climactic novel, don’t you think? The call to action destroying all of mankind? Bummer.

There’s the Back to the Future theory, where you can travel outside of your own lifetime, like Marty McFly, and return to a reality resembling the one you left. To make this movie work, his parents would have to have awful memories, wouldn’t they?

My wife loved The Lake House. I still don’t buy Keanu Reeves as a romantic lead, but I like Sandra Bullock enough to ignore most of the potholes in the time-jumping plot. And, while The Butterfly Effect was critically panned, I appreciated the negative consequences of Evan’s time-jumping. He caused brain damage to himself. After all, once you change your past, EVERYTHING, from the clothes you wear the next day to the next sentence you speak, has the possibility to be different.

Here’s are three tips that I found useful:

  1. I’ve heard it said that if you write characters that the reader/viewer falls in love with, you can get away with pretty much anything plot-wise. Yeah, my soapbox on writing good characters  is pretty much always in use. But think about it: how many movies have you seen with unbelievable plots but you didn’t care?
  2. Make your theme clear. Sure, they’re going back in time. It’s cool and adventurous. But, why did they go in the first place? What’s the ultimate message? In Back to the Future, Marty was warned not to interfere with history, but he did it to save his friend. Ultimately, that was deemed an okay rule to bend. Evan in The Butterfly Effect sacrificed the love of his life and destroy his method of time travel after realizing that playing God was too dangerous.
  3. Keep it simple. If you get lost in the writing, your reader will get lost in the reading — and not in a good way. Some of my writing was once compared to that of Toni Morrison. She’s a Nobel Prize winner and a celebrated author, but I did not take that as a compliment. It was her excuse for not reading any further. Don’t let the same happen to you.
Happy writing!
B

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