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

Roll up the partition: Where does artistic responsibility begin?

I’m a fan of Beyonce. Was a fan, until her latest album permanently turned me off and unplugged me from fandom.

Hardly a “hater,” but I disagree with its direction.There’s no artistic responsibility there — meaning, I won’t take my preteen niece to a Beyonce concert (not like I was itching to do that anyway). This music is for grown folks now.

Problem is, grown folks aren’t the only ones buying her tunes.

I do not want my young daughters growing up too fast. Will that make them sheltered? Maybe in the eyes of some. But my wife and I cannot teach them accountability for their actions and let them sing “Partition” and “Blow” too.

Bring up artistic responsibility to musicians or authors and they may feed you a line about how they are not role models, how parents should keep a tighter reign on their children, blah blah blah.

Look at it this way: if you put leftover food uncovered out on the street and cats get into it, the neighbors will complain. What do you do then? Kanye shrug and blame it on the neglectful cat parents? You put it out there.

For me, my rule is this: some day, my daughters will read my books and ask me why I wrote so and so. If I can’t keep my head up while I’m explaining it to them, I don’t write it.

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!

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?

Writing in a time crunch

My writing process is insane. Don’t try it at home.

I envy those writers you read about who can flick their muse on and off like a light switch. I have, what my editing Jackie Rodriguez calls “writing jags.”

Imagine if your writing muse had the stomach flu. One moment, there’s nothing, and the next, there’s everything. 

One day, I might not write anything, the next, I’ll churn out thirty pages. I don’t pretend to make sense of it. I just ride it out.

You can imagine the flux I was thrown into halfway through my fifth novel when my second daughter was born. In addition, I went back to teaching full-time and we have a four-year-old in Pre-K as well. My peak writing times are — you guessed it — when I’m in school. Balancing my after-school commitments and family time is tough, but you do what you have to do.

To get through it, I grab any and all writing time I have. Ten minutes before I get my daughter up for school, five minutes while she plays in the bathtub. A half-hour when my wife is nursing our newborn, and maybe twenty minutes during my lunch break. My muse has learned to live with it and gradually, so have I.

So, tell me, if you’ve had a similar situation in your field, how have YOU done it?

What’s in a name?

Shakespeare famously said in Romeo and Juliet, that “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

So, why are the names of your characters important?

They’re probably not terribly pivotal, but I try to make them meaningful in my novel-writing. To me, it’s like naming your child — if you happen to have 20+ of them. Any old name would work, but does it fit them? What purpose does it achieve?

My characters are less cardboard cut-out inventions and more “friends in my head.” Though I use a character building worksheet, I don’t refer back to it much after the personality is established. You don’t want your character to do something because you (the author, Almighty Oz, the string-pulling deity scribe) say so, but because they do so as a function of who they are. If I care that much about a character’s ideals, morals, and motivation, I’m less likely to label them “John” (no offense if your name is John), and keep going.

For example, Jason, the protagonist in my new book, is a scrawny, 15-year-old black kid with anger issues. He’s been suspended from school for fighting and sent to an alternative school. On his first day there, a bully picks on him and Jason fights him — not because I told him to, but because a 15-year-old kid with anger issues, a messed up home life, and fresh off of punishment really wants to keep his iPod. To do that, he fights for it. But, is he fighting for the right to keep his property, or for MORE than that?

Could Jason be called “Mark”? Probably. It’s about what fits your character as you go along, and I always pictured him as a Jason. Do what works for you. After all, a rose could be a “table,” but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

I’ve been followed, too

If you’re a minority, you might have one of these stories. Thankfully, mine doesn’t end with a bullet.

During my freshman year at Morehouse, I hung out with a group of about 11 other young men. We hailed from different parts of the United States – Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Georgia, etc.

One day, we walked around Phipps Plaza — a fairly upscale shopping mall that used to have a music/video store in it. The dozen of us went into this store and split up. Our presence brought the attention of a white store employee, who asked us if we “needed something” ad nauseum.

This morning, I recounted the story to my wife, saying, “I can understand why we got followed. After all, there were 12 of us.”

Wait, what? 

Twelve educated, well-dressed, African-American men cannot walk together in a group and disperse into a store without drawing suspicion? What if we were dressed in designer business suits instead of jeans? Would that have made a difference?

I have a real problem with the point-of-view that says “We’re going to keep an eye on you, just in case you do something. If you actually do something, that justifies our suspicions. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.”

And. . .what if nothing happens? Not one of us stole a thing. Isn’t it a violation of my rights as a human being, to not be able to browse a store without “Big Brother” policing my prospective inner intentions?

You can investigate my past – I’ll tell you, I’m not a saint. I’ve done some things I’d rather not have to explain to everyone on the planet. I crashed my mom’s car in 1994. Tomorrow, I will turn 36 and she still reminds me of it, along with pretty much everything I did wrong as a teenager. I forgot to take out the trash, A LOT. I once broke curfew to drive a drunk friend home.

Still, my imperfections don’t mean I deserve to be followed, or get a bullet to the chest, do they?

The war over e-book prices

Do you own an e-reader? Are you an avid reader and/or author? If you answered “yes,” read up on the current e-book pricing decisions of the Big 6 legacy publishers (Hatchette, MacMillan, Simon and Shuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House). Here’s a quick 

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

primer.  Otherwise, you might get sticker shock the next time you go e-book shopping.
What’s the beef? From a publishing standpoint, e-books are very lucrative. They cost very little to distribute and the production costs are one-time. Inflating the price of an e-book is one sure way for a publisher to make money, which is why legacy-published books won’t EVER be cheap again.

Recently, the Big 6 have banded together to fix their prices much higher than consumers are used to paying for e-books. One of the most expensive e-books in the Kindle Library is The Greater Journeyby David McCullough. Published by Simon and Shuster, the e-book costs $19.99. Figure a few cents to transfer the file, $6 to Amazon, there’s $14 left over. At a 15% royalty rate (the average is between 6%-15% of retail), Mr. McCullough gets $3, Simon and Schuster makes $11. Multiply it out to 200,000 books sold. McCullough makes about $600,000; Simon and Schuster makes $2.2 million with no overhead (printing costs, shipping, storage, etc.) to subtract.

In a Twitter chat last week, I asked an author about their opinion regarding e-book pricing. They said “don’t have one.”

Wait, what? 

As a relatively unknown author, it’s an uphill battle to get new readers no matter how much marketing you do or how outstanding your product is. In fact, after two books, I still have to get past the friends and family that ask for free copies. Price your book at .99 cents, and you get the “impulse buy” crowd. But when the natural ebb-and-flow of sales happens (or boom and bust, depending on your vantage point), what do you do to position yourself for more sales? Drop it to .50 cents, or free?

If you are a writer, or aspire to be legacy-published, the Big 6’s stance should outrage you. In addition to all of the other obstacles you face, now you have to wonder if a reader will shell out $20 for your book or go to an online pirating site and get it for free. Indie authors, like me, are stuck between offering books for close to nothing, or pricing them as high as the market goes and seeing our sales suffer.

What do you think?

Sometimes, the best closure is worth waiting for

Anything you regret doing or not doing in your life?

I’ve got two. Here’s one of them:

In 1992, I attended an out-of-state funeral. Until then, I rarely knew the deceased. My cousin Lizzie died; the one with a mustache who always wanted to kiss me on the lips. That’s not the regret, though I REALLY regret it.

That Sunday, Mom and I dropped off my grandmother (her mother) in New Jersey and we went home. Gram (as I called her) had been coughing a lot the whole trip through Monday. My mom asked my uncle to take Gram to the hospital. He said she was “fine,” and he’d take her to the doctor Tuesday morning.

Still concerned, my mom decided to drive to New Jersey and asked if I wanted to go.

I said “no,” and continued playing my football video game. Monday was the last time I saw Gram alive.

When I was writing The Anarchists, I dug into how I felt about that – just like Damario, Harper, Quinne, and Teanna eventually had to do. For about two years, I was depressed more than a 16-year-old should be. I drank alcohol from my mom’s cabinet and did not want to live anymore. Unlike the first funeral I experienced at 6, or the half dozen or so afterward, this one hurt me to my soul. If I was a character in my book and got the opportunity to “begin again” in 1992, I’d get in that Toyota hatchback with my mom and go to the hospital without hesitation.

If I did, my last memories of Gram might be different. Maybe I needed not to go to get to this kind of closure:

One day, ten years later, I was driving to class in North Philly. The skies opened and shined sunlight through my windshield. Not to sound spooky, but I heard God tell me that Gram was in my life to help raise me, and when she finished, He took her. It was a peace I still carry, don’t understand, can’t fully describe, and wish I could pass on to you.

What’s my other regret? You know what: it doesn’t matter so much anymore. Relax, it’s not like I was going to tell you anyway 🙂

 

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