Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Plotting mischief

You know how sometimes the safest course of action is to admit when you don't know much about a thing? That's me and plotting. So if you're looking to learn plotting from a maven, you've got the wrong girl. I've taken scads of workshops and read even more craft books about how to properly plot a book, but I still do it all backwards.

By that I mean I typically start a book or story not with a plot but with the theme, the why. "Why am I even writing this story? What can I, and by extension my characters, learn form it? Why does it matter?" To mangle a Nietzche quote, if I know the why of a story, I feel like I can get away with a whole lot of absurdity in the how.

After figuring out how I want readers/characters/me to feel or what I want us to think about, my next priority is character arc. Because the best way of getting readers to think about or feel things is to put a character through some harrowing experiences, right?

And I ... guess that's plot? The experiences the characters have to endure?

In reality, I don't think too much about plot until a book is done. At that point, I lay structures over the top of my just-drafted mess -- I like Save the Cat and Michael Hauge's structures for this step, and Jami Gold has wonderful resources on her site for beat-sheeting these things -- and see how well my organically-grown series of hows fits. Usually they align fairly well. There are patterns in how Western folks tell stories, and we tend to follow those patterns even when we don't realize we're doing it.

After tweaking to make sure the story roughly fits a recognizable shape, I do a hunt for story promises. If I have a character behave one way at the beginning and a different way at the end, I need to make sure something plotty has happened to effect that transformation. Sometimes this step requires new scenes or scene rewrites or complete re-thinking of a whole section. Identifying and making sure to pay off story promises is my second layer of plotting, and it's probably the most important one for genre fiction. People on airplanes and beaches and up late at night don't read to be confused or dismayed, and if I promise them something, I for damn sure must deliver. (Can't say the same for students in literature classes, so the rules in literary fiction are very different.)

Finally, I have my poor critique partners read the story, and they almost always tell me my ending sucks. It's okay. The are of course right. You sort of expect endings to suck when they haven't been precision engineered by an expert plotter. But even at this point, when I'm trying to hit the final beats strong, it's still more about the why than the plot. I don't do a five-point finale for the sake of having five points. If the princess actually is the castle and the why of the story doesn't need a twist here, I won't add stuff just for the sake of tidy structure.

Here's what I never do: plan plot twists before I start writing. If a plot twist happens and it's right for the story why and the character arc and it passes all the structure and promises tests after the draft is done, that is the BEST MOMENT EVER. I love plot twists!

I just don't know how to craft them from outside the story. I gotta be in the trenches when those bombs land on me. And you know what? That's okay. Your process is not my process, and we all need to do this writing thing the best way for our unique brains.

My brain plots by flinging why-sauced spaghetti. And I own that.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How Complicated Is The Plot: Depends On Word Count

Oh, dear readers, complicated plots are my jam...and often jam me up. I love them. Simple storylines aren't fun for me to write. I don't believe characters live one-dimensional single-thread lives, so the plots cannot, by definition of having "well-rounded characters," be simple. And yet, feedback on my early works was often "this is too complicated."

~record scratch~

Wait. Wut? There's such a thing as too complicated?  Alas, yes. Yes, if you've: a) tried to pack too much in too short a work; b) haven't properly led the reader through the maze you've created; c) withheld crucial information in a mistaken attempt to create mystery.

Complicated plots and short stories aren't impossible, but they take a real master of the craft to pull off that combo well. Last week we talked about leveling up; penning a well-executed complex short would be my "11." Now, give me 250k words and I can spin some hairy scary complicated stuff. With that kind of word count, it's only natural that I'd find my favorite genre is fantasy, right? My high fantasy stuff is infinitely more complicated than my urban fantasy stuff because of word count. In high fantasy, I have the room to guide the readers along many paths, gotchas, and oh-no-they-didn't's. In UF, I have less than half that; at 90k I have to pare back the options and challenges my protag faces in order to keep the reader's head from exploding.

Knowing how much information to include/reveal and when is what separates the novices from the masters. Too often, we authors think we're being tricksy, sneaky, or slick by hiding information from the reader to make the Big Reveal surprising. Too often, we're just annoying the reader because what we're leaving out are the frickin' clues necessary to move to the next stage of the story. Not our best moments. Hopefully, our CPs and editors catch those "insert vital info here" gaffs before the book goes to press.

None of this is to say that I always strike the right balance of complications to chapters. It's a point of continual improvement for me--I always want to do more--but I've learned that it's better to remove a plot thread than to lose the reader.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Come Into My Parlor....

Spinning the Spiderweb of Complicated Plots.

I like Machiavellian maneuvers.

One of the things I've enjoyed most about writing fantasy is that the genre allows for that.

One of my absolute favorite things is hearing readers or reviewers comment that they did NOT see that coming.

How do you do it?

No Idea.

My suggestion is simply to remember that some people lie. SOme people lie a lot. And some people, the truly scary ones, remember all of their lies.

I can't get into details but I had a character do two full novels of lying to another character> I gave a few hints and then walked away and continued the story. When the reveal came, everyone was surprised. Well, everyone but me. I had already laid out the groundwork.

Yeah, I think that's the secret. Plant the seeds and walk away for a while. 

Sorry. I got nothing else.

I have finished the first draft of the last novel in my BLOOD RED series. On to new projects.

Keep smiling,


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Best Fantasy and Science Fiction

The first book in my Chronicles of Dasnaria series, PRISONER OF THE CROWN, is up for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Book at Fresh Fiction! You can go there and vote for your favorites in multiple categories. I'm super delighted that this book was nominated. It's up against tough competition, so I don't expect it to win, but getting the nod is so gratifying. 

Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is "Spinning the Spiderweb of Complicated Plots."

I'm finishing up a week at SFWA's Nebula Conference and running low on brainz at this point. But I also think that, on the best of days, I wouldn't have much to say about this topic. I don't really think in terms of plots, since I'm a character-driven writer. When I do think about my own plots, the spiderweb analogy doesn't work at all. Plots feel more linear to me than that. They go from beginning to end, with many threads weaving along the way.

The most complicated effort I ever dealt with was what I called a braided timeline. In THE PAGES OF THE MIND, THE EDGE OF THE BLADE, THE SNOWS OF WINDROVEN and THE SHIFT OF THE TIDE, events in each story co-occurred with events in other places with characters in the other books. Making sure they interfaced correctly gave me headaches.

But I don't have much more to say about it than that.

To assuage your thirst for great blog posts, however, here's one from Jaycee Jarvis: IN DEFENSE OF BETA HEROES. She mentions THE TALON OF THE HAWK and Harlan. Really wonderful words!

Saturday, May 18, 2019

My Levels Are Not Your Levels


This week’s topic:  "People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?"

Do people always say this?
Well, ok then…

Far be it from me to try to define levels for anyone but myself. Each author’s path is different, in my opinion, based on what they write, what they prioritize and care about, what they want to give their readers, their own goals, events happening in their real lives…so what I might think in terms of my own writing career is only applicable to me.

I’m pretty much content, actually, just writing away.

In the past, in 2010 I made a conscious effort to get a much better grasp on the craft itself (i.e. not ‘just’ be an unpublished storyteller who scribbled the story once and didn't edit or revise) and learn not to head hop, not to tell vs show, not to rely on lazy words (adverbs ending in –ly or the word ‘that’) etc. The result of that was my first published book, which sold in 2011.

Then I concentrated on getting another book released, this time as an independently published author, which required me to learn some new skills on the business side (getting a cover, having the formatting done, uploading to ebook seller sites, navigating production of a paperback and an audiobook…)

Simultaneously I was working on learning to write the second book in a connected series, not just standalones.

At that early stage of my career, I thought I could never write an actual SERIES, with the same characters recurring and advancing a series plot arc. I was in total awe of people who could do that. (Well, I still am! Jeffe, Nalini, Ilona…there are some authors who do it so well and with such richness of plot and world building…) As one who is pretty much a total pantster, I believed it was beyond me to do such a thing and keep my Muse interested in writing the books, because if I plan out a book too much in advance, the Muse clams up, dusts off her hands and says “We’re done with that book.” So how was I ever going to keep a series moving forward?

Well, now I’ve done that, with my award winning Badari Warriors scifi romance series (released the 8th book, more on that below)…

So my next self-challenge is to start a new series at the same time I’m continuing to write the Badari Warriors.

I don’t really know what other ‘levels’ I might want to tackle someday. I guess I’ll wait and see!

I just released CAMRON and here’s the blurb:
Dr. Gemma Madarian is far from her home in the human Sectors, kidnapped along with hundreds of other humans to be used for horrifying experiments conducted on a remote planet by alien scientists. 

She and another prisoner, Camron of the Badari, are the only survivors of a deadly crash landing. She’s paired up with the genetically engineered soldier by their mutual enemies and sent fleeing through rough country, hunted for pleasure by an enemy officer and his ferocious trackers.

The enemy wants a triumphant kill. Gemma and Camron want to survive.
Camron never dreamt of having a mate but Gemma shatters his preconceptions and makes him desperate to do everything in his power to save her life and claim her for his.

There’s no help or refuge to be had in the desert where they’re fleeing for their lives.

Or is there?

Will Camron and Gemma live to fight another day and explore the growing attraction between them, or will ancient secrets and bitter rivalries end their bid for freedom?

This is the eighth book in the Badari Warriors world (and the seventh book in the numbered series) and each novel has a satisfying Happy for Now ending for the hero and heroine, not a cliffhanger. Some overarching issues do remain unresolved in each book since this is an ongoing series but romance always wins the day in my novels!

Amazon     Apple Books     Nook     Kobo     Google

Friday, May 17, 2019

Leveling Up Ain't for Sissies

Ah, video game metaphors. I do love them so. 

Leveling up. Within geek culture it's accepted terminology for gaining new skills after time and effort spent integrating the last set of skills acquired. Toons get stronger. Fireballs crit more often. Mana pools deepen and armor gets better. I'd love for the same to be true for writers. 

If only.

The parallels are there. We add skills on top of skills, building our craft and customizing our 'build'. So why is there a photo of a bloody lioness in this post? Because when it comes to leveling up as a writer, it's a take no prisoners sport. 

Jeffe did a great job of breaking down the ways in which writers talk about leveling up. However. I will argue that the only meaningful way to level up as a writer is to keep your eye on what you can control. You. Your craft. How you do your job. You can absolutely set a financial goal and begin working toward it. But the fact of the matter is that you cannot force anyone to buy. You hope what you produce is compelling enough to bring all the readers to the bookstore. But, ultimately, what appeals to people is out of your control. (Yes. Even if you know your market and deliver reader expectation. Sometimes shit just happens.) But look. What can you control: 
1. comprehending your market and your readers
2. comprehending reader expectations and writing a story that delivers in spades
3. mastering your personal process
4. mastering boundaries both for yourself and for your loved ones and readers
5. setting and mastering craft goals that build one atop the other
6. accepting your current level rather than postponing writing because you're ulcerating for the next level

Last book, I went after telling words. Knew. Thought, Felt, Wondered, Saw. Heard. All the telling words. Next book, I'm going for murdering narrative and going for action attached to dialogue. These skills relate to one another and follow in logical order. I couldn't go for action without having put a stake through the heart of the telling words and finding better ways to talk about what my characters experience. Yeah, there are days I'm that lioness above - the blood I'm covered in is my own. In order to level up, I have to dig into my bad habits. I have to be brutal about my excuses and my own BS. There may be ice cream and chocolate occasionally involved. If I'm doing this right, if I really am leveling up, I should be providing my readers with better, more engaging books. Even if somedays are bloodbaths. 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Next Projects, Next Level

My friends, I've been a bit radio silent the past few weeks, but it's because THINGS HAVE BEEN AFOOT.

Some of those things involve just doing the work.  At any given time, I'm drafting one thing (currently, PEOPLE OF THE CITY), expecting or working edits on another thing (THE FENMEREJOB) and copy-edits/final proofs on yet another (SHIELD OF THE PEOPLE). And if you've been paying attention to my blather, you might recall that PEOPLE OF THE CITY will mark the end of Phase I of the full Maradaine Saga, but also that it's the last thing I've got currently announced, and if things go to schedule (things are currently on schedule), the drafting of that will be done later this year.

So, I needed to have something to do next.

WELL GUESS WHAT.  I can now tell you a bit about that.  I have signed contracts for two more novels with the wonderful people at DAW Books: THE VELOCITY OF REVOLUTION and A CONSTABULARY OF ONE.

First, what these books are NOT.  They are not Phase II of Maradaine.  And not because I don't have EVERY INTENTION AND PLAN for Phase II-- I do, and I hope I've earned some good faith about delivering books in a timely manner.  BUT, I also feel I need a bit of a palate cleanser before diving into Phase II.  But it is definitely on the agenda.

First, VELOCITY OF REVOLUTION.  This is going to be a standalone dieselpunk fantasy novel, in a brand-new secondary-world setting. In a post-war, post-colonization city, occupied by foreign administrators, rebellion is being sparked by a mysterious messiah figure, and an undercover cop of mixed heritage has to infiltrate the local cycle-racing rings to find his way to this leader.  


Second, A CONSTABULARY OF ONE.  This is not Maradaine, but it is set in the same world.  If you've read A PARLIAMENT OF BODIESthen you might have an idea of what this book is about.  Briefly, it follows one secondary character from the Maradaine Constabulary as she ends up stuck in a city on the other side of the world.  She'll have to navigate her way through the foreign culture, struggle to earn her way home, and fight for the new chosen family she forms there.

So, it's not part of the Maradaine Saga, strictly-- it's more or less standalone.  But with the comparisons of Maradaine to the MCU: This is the Guardians of the Galaxy of the world.

With both of these novels, I've set a new high bar for myself, taking on new challenges.  Both of them are going to be hard, but I think I'm ready.  I'm super excited about both of these books, which should be coming out in 2021.

(And then?  We'll get to Maradaine Phase II.  But let me get Phase I done first, and we'll talk.)

Back to work.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Writers: Level 11

clip from This is Spinal Tap
When I hear any type of creative say "I want to take my [art] to the next level," I inevitably think of the Rock Opera Album (ROA).

No, no, it's not the cold medicine having its way with me. 

The ROA is a one-off for a band who usually release 3-minute story bites in a collection of 10 or 12 songs. The ROA, on the other hand, is usually one dramatic story told over the course of multiple wall-of-sound 12-minute sagas that are more akin to orchestral works than 5-piece sets. The ROA never quite makes it to Broadway territory because the ROA is still performed by the same rock band through every song. A better way of saying it might be that Broadway brings you into the story and makes you a part of it; the ROA are bards regaling you with an epic saga. Classic "show vs tell," yeah? Naturally, all the "respected" critics commenting within a decade of the release date always hate the ROA, regardless of the band. "It's too too," is usually the review in a nutshell. However, 20 or 30 years later they change their tunes. Examples? Tommy, when it dropped, was panned as a self-indulgent, ego-stroking, drug-fueled-delusional flop. These days, it's iconic and often credited as launching the genre of rock opera. Pink Floyd's ROA The Wall is their second best-selling album.

Thus, to me, "taking it to the next level," means to push boundaries, try new things that break away from what the artist is best known for. The artist is itching to throw off the shackles of expectations--both consumer and record label/publisher/gallery--that have dictated previous works.

What's the "next level" in writing? Whatever pushes the author to let go of their formula and take a risk--be it the type of story they're telling or in how they're telling a story.

Level up, my friends, all the way to 11. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?

I don't know. What is YOUR definition of success?

I've been writing professionally for around 27 years now. for the last five or so, I'm actually making a full living at my writing. Sometimes just barely, but there it is.

here are a few levels I'd consider.

Level one: I'm writing.

Excellent! What are you writing? When are you writing? Are you following a schedule? ARE YOU FINISHING THE PROJECTS YOU START?

The last two are the important ones. Make a schedule and stick to it. Finish what you start. That last one is a killer for a lot of careers.

Level Two: Are you submitting?

if you aren't you're never gonna sell a damned thing.

Level three (interchangeable with level two.): Did you finish a project?

Same answer. In this day and age, the chances are incredibly slim that any publisher especially among the big 5, is going to consider your work if the manuscript isn't complete.
No. Seriously. Not kidding.

Level Four: Did you get an agent?

Gonna have to happen. Good luck! Mind you, I spent most of my career until five years ago without an agent. Yes, I sold the vast majority of my work all by myself. Do you know about contracts? No? Either learn or get an agent They're about equally difficult.

But, Jim, what if I want to self-publish?

Knock yourself out. SERIOUSLY consider an editor, a layout freelancer and an artist for book co0vers because 1) You can't edit yourself worth a damn. no matter how good you think you are. 2) Layouts are a nightmare and sometimes it's worth the invested time and money to get it done right. 3) You nephew's picture? The one you keep on the fridge? Probably isn't going to be good enough to catch anyone's attention. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are rare.

Level Five: Did you finish a novel? Did it get into print?

Excellent! Rinse and repeat.

Level Six: Did you survive the reviews?

We've discussed this before. G0od review? Cool! Move on. Bad review" Sucks! Move on.

Level Seven: Have you developed a thick skin?

Work on it You'll need it.

Level Eight: Are you making a living at this yet?


monkey, dance!

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Leveling Up - What Does It Mean to You?

This week at the SFF Seven we're talking about leveling up and what that means to us.

Actually, the topic is phrased as: People always say they want to take their writing to the next level. Well, what are the levels, as you see them?

It's a really good question. I think we're trained - by school, and job performance appraisals, and so forth - to regard the work we produce in terms of levels. Ladders to climb, milestones to reach, levels of income, acclaim, and success. But is that really valid with creative endeavors?

I'm thinking no.

At the same time, however, we absolutely want to progress, to grow and do... more and better.

I've been doing a fair amount of mentoring, largely for SFWA but also answering questions for aspiring writers informally, and I find myself having the same conversation with all of them. At some point, I end up asking them to list out what they want from their writing careers. This is because my answers to the questions they ask - on whether they should try for this workshop or if it's time to look for an agent or countless other choices - all depend on what their priorities are.

Basically, there's no one career path for a writer. There are tons. And whether you prioritize making money to earn a living at it, whether you want to create ART (in capital letters), whether you want to win big awards, and so on, all of these things require different priorities.

So I ask these younger writers to make a list of the various categories:

  • Financial
  • Artistic
  • Ego
  • Altruistic
  • Practical

They can add more, but those are mine that I came up a long time ago, to categorize my goals for my writing career. Then I ask them to list goals in each category. So they might look like this:
  • Financial
    • earn $70K/yr at least
  • Artistic
    • Write books I'm proud of and love
  • Ego
    • Win the PEN/Jerard award
  • Altruistic
    • Honor Grandmother & Papa's lives
  • Practical
    • Great agent for both fiction and nonfiction
These are actually the top goals in each category from my own list from a LONG time ago. I wouldn't make the same list now. Revising this list of priorities would be part of the process of leveling up.

So, I I know I'm not really addressing the question, which is really more craft-based. For that I'd say leveling up in my craft is pushing myself to write things I think I can't, to go for more complex and deeper-reaching stories.

But I also think that levels come in many forms, and what those levels are to each of us is tremendously personal. Maybe that's why we put this so vaguely, calling it "leveling up." Always reaching and growing, no matter what form that may take.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Covers That Don't Know What They Ought to Be - AND Cover Reveal

What a serendipitous topic for this week. Deceptive marketing/book covers. I was just given the new cover for Enemy Within. You'll be the first to get a look. And we can analyze. 

This cover had a very tall order standing behind it. I wanted it to do several things: 

1. Convey Science Fiction
2. Convey Romance
3. Convey that this story isn't entirely a light read - I hope to all the gods it's fun, you know? But there are -- issues. And there's a body count. The heroine has PTSD for a reason. So I really, really wanted the cover to not be all sunshine and roses. Basically, I didn't want my cover to sell the promise of a light SFR when I've been told I'm writing grim SFR. 

How do you think the cover does?

Because this is a rerelease, several of you will remember that this book was originally pubbed with a very different cover (which I cannot link in because it is the property of the publisher.) THAT cover had a very different look and feel. It was sunnier. The background was bright yellow. The heroine was in a very different posture on the cover. Over all, I felt like that print cover did a better job of conveying Urban Fantasy than SFR. But I'll never be able to prove that hindered the sale of the book in any way. I can only speculate. 

Keeping in mind that this rerelease is coming out as an ebook, I have to say I like this new cover. It's clean. It's simple (apparently TWRP has done a serious bit of reader surveying about covers and came up with a 'no more than three elements per cover' rule to accommodate thumbnails). I feel like it communicates more than it shows, if that makes any sense. Now, granted, I have no idea whether that will translate into book sales, but hope springs eternal. Or maybe wishful thinking does. 

I think above all things (and as a great surprise to me) I really love that the woman on the cover comes across as both vulnerable and capable all at the same time. That, to me, feels like a hit out of the park. Now I hope readers will agree.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

I had no idea it was THAT kind of book -- book cover betrayal

Once upon a time, there was a geeky almost-teenage boy who watched a lot of Japanese anime. Based on the amount of ninja stars and black clothing he owned, he possibly wanted to be a 16th century Japanese man when he grew up. All possibility of that happening aside, when his parents insisted on him reading fiction, guess what he pulled down from the book store shelf? Oh yes.

Now, nowhere on the cover does it confess that this is a "sprawling erotic thriller." There are no naked people on the cover (in that tiny depiction of the dude ninja and the woman, it looks more like he's killing her, right). There is no genre indication at all. So imagine how surprised this kid was when he sat down and read about ... er, ninjas? Really smoochy ninjas? Which was totally not what he was expecting. 

This is the exact kind of horror and betrayal readers experience when publishers attempt to market broadly and lose sight of their actual audience. The people who do buy the book stand a good chance of being mildly squicked at best, furious at worst. And what do you think that does to their future buying decisions? Do you imagine those people who have been once betrayed will blithely trust again? Do you think the adorable anime-ninja aficionado teen is ever going to buy a likely-looking book at the bookstore without at least three friends confirming the ninja-focus of said book?

Pro'ly not. So people, please stop doing this, even if it seems like a clever or creative way to attack the market. It might get you a few sales in the short term, but it will lose you readers in the end.

And yes, I know there is a little bit of irony in me coming at you with this advice, since my book covers strongly indicate kickass-heroine urban fantasy when the stories inside are... (oh god, not sprawling erotic thrillers?). Well, whatever they are, they aren't urban fantasy and are unlikely to appeal to the average Ilona Andrews fan. Oopsie. My excuse -- and it ain't a good one -- is that I didn't understand markets when those books came out. 

I promise to do better. So should we all.

And also, in case you're worried about that teenage boy, you needn't. He came through it, even though, sadly, he never became Japanese. He grew up and married somebody who has written... wait for it ... omg yes, sort of sweeping science fictiony erotic thrillers. And worse, she makes him read them. (I'm really sorry, honey.)

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Broad vs Niche: When Marketing Leads The Reader Astray

There's been a theme on Twitter this week about book reviewers who get mad because a book of a certain genre failed to meet their expectation that is the antithesis of the genre. E.g. "LOTR had some good characters, but it was just so unrealistic I had to give it a one star."  "50 Shades of Grey had a hot chick in it, but there was too much sex. One star."  "This could've been a great fantasy if the characters weren't so young. Harry Potter: Sorcerer's Stone gets one star."

Are the reviewers daft or 
did the marketing of the book target the wrong audience?

This week on the blog, we're talking about the latter. Why, oh why, a business would waste money tricking someone into buying their product? Are they trying to get bad reviews? Short answers are Hope and Nope. While I could write a thesis on this topic, I'll do my best to keep to the top-line point. Before that, let's clarify terms:

  • Marketing is the encompassing umbrella for the promotion, sales, and distribution of products/services from producer to consumer. 
  • Advertising is about piquing interest. This is where the adage, "Introduce the Problem, then Solve the Problem" comes into play.  Example: Wrinkles make you less attractive. Use this serum to fade the appearance of wrinkles and become desirable.
  • Sales is about converting interest into purchases. Example: Customer walks into a store (demonstrating interest). Sales person's job is to remove customer resistance to purchasing (identify what interest brought the customer into the store, present [limited] options to satisfy the interest, offer a discount) and complete transaction. 
Marketing = Plan; Adverts = Awareness; Sales = $$$

In book marketing, there are four primary opportunities to gain/lose buyers. Depending on who owns the marketing of the book is how much say an author has in the process. Indie authors can own every step or pay someone else to do it. Traditionally published authors own little to no part of the process.
  1. Cover: Front Art and Back Blurb
    • See Jeffe's post from Sunday about a cover art trad-published experience in which the marketing plan seemed to be a broad romance campaign rather than the niche sub-genre-specific campaign. The generic image suggests the publisher is after eyeballs more than sales. I'll get into broad vs niche in the next section.  
    • Indie authors have huge control over their covers, which is often lauded but can backfire worse than a generic publisher-directed cover. 
    • Back blurbs are usually written by the author to briefly summarize the book (think under 200 words) and use "grab words" to entice a reader to buy the book. Sometimes marketing folks at publishing houses rewrite the blurbs.
  2. Advertising: Creative and Placement
    • What ads look like, what they say, where they appear, how often they appear
    • Every ad-placement has rules and they often differ.
      • E.g. Sex Sells...but No Nipples (even men's nipples). Don't use the words "sale, free, % off, or discount." Images must contain 92% art and no more than 8% text. Products targeting a mature audience will only appear after 9:00PM Eastern. Creative must be static, no animations. 
    • There are lots of ways for ads to go wrong, from cringe-worthy creative to tech glitches to underfunded budgets. There's an entire industry around advertising for good reason. Getting it right is a real struggle for amateurs.
  3. Point of Sale: Convenience and Competitiveness
    • Where the product is available, in what formats, for what regions, at what price, in what time for receipt, gift options, coupons, type of payment accepted, perceived security of payment process, returns policy, troubleshooting/customer support, resale value, etc.
    • Most authors go through vendors like Amazon or Apple to shoulder the bulk of the POS, while publishers have printing and distribution networks layered in between. 
    • Yes, yes I know the other meaning of POS, and sometimes it suits this part too; especially when products are damaged, the wrong file is received, payment is rejected, etc. However, more hybrid and Indie authors are taking the risk and moving to direct-from-author POS usually via their websites in an effort to divorce themselves from complete dependency on 3rd party retailers.
  4. After Sale: Review and Retention
    • The bulk of this falls on the author, and/yet requires consumer consent prior to contact. Yes, a chicken-egg situation. A vendor may automatically send a follow-up nudge to review, wherein the act of the purchase default opts-in the consumer to additional contact by the vendor, but that opt-in does not give the author permission to contact the buyer (unless the author is the vendor).
    • Reviews are advertising. It's the closest thing to viral marketing short of in-person recommendations from trusted sources. We've blogged on the importance of reviews earlier this year. 
    • Retention through Newsletters and New Release Notifications; be they author-generated, publisher-generated, or vendor-generated the point is to get access to and permission from customers to directly market to them. It's a much lower cost with an exceptionally higher Return on Investment (ROI) than any other form of marketing. These are customers who are asking to buy your product(s). You want to know them, keep them, and sell to them for as long as you can. 
Now, about that Broad vs Niche Marketing Strategy. Using Jeffe's example (not to pick on Jeffe; she simply happened to post a great example of an initially baffling publisher decision) why would her publisher opt to target the larger romance demographic where they'd get more eyeballs but fewer sales-per-dollar? Why not target the erotica readers where people are more likely to buy what they see? Why not target the sub-sub-sub romance demographic of erotica retellings customers? Don't they have that info? Wouldn't those sales be almost guaranteed?  Wouldn't the reviews be more positive? 

Top 3 Reasons to Market to Broad Genre:
Note: I use "publishers" here to mean anyone who has control of the marketing strategy from traditional publishing houses, and small presses, to indie authors. 
  1. The Marketing Strategy is about elevating Publisher Brand Power not selling an individual book. 
    • Seems counterintuitive, why sell a concept not a specific product? It's a longer-term strategy that's focused on the publisher's business. Their customer, in this case, isn't the individual reader, it's the middlemen, the vendors and retailers. It's about negotiating more favorable distribution deals through economies of scale. "Look at all the products we offer in this market." 5,000 romance novels is more impressive than 12 erotica retellings. Vendors counter with "look at how well we move 5,000 romance novels" because the data is more impressive than how well they moved 12 erotica retellings.
    • On a smaller scale, this is akin to how hybrid authors position themselves to agents/houses. "My author brand moved 100k books in a year" is more compelling than "Grooming Brindled Pomchicis was a B&N bestseller in the category of Caring for Vanity Teacup Breeds for the first week of August 2008."
  2. The Marketing Strategy is about Building Out Direct-to-Consumer Sales Lists.
    • In this case, the publisher's goal is to build a list of reader-customers who like This General Type of Story so they can sell books by semi-specific genre rather than author.  It's not a bad thing at all, particularly if you're a no-name debut author who's given up 70% of their profit in hopes being discovered by avid readers. Midlist authors also benefit from niche-to-broad expansions.
    • "If you like vampire stories, you'll also like shifter stories, and if you like shifter stories, you'll like alien-shifter stories, and if you like alien-shifters then you'll like science-fiction stories." This is how publishers move buyers from Jeffe Kennedy books to John Scalzi books (and vice versa).
    • To continue to earn profits, the publisher needs to lead the customer via interest to additional sales opportunities. It's like going to Target for a t-shirt, and the pants are right beside them because if you're interested in a new shirt why not buy the cute high-rise pants that won't show plumber's crack? And the undies are by the pants because those new pants might show panty lines so best pick up a pair of thongs, and the underwear section backs to the feminine hygiene section because...well, you get it.
  3. The Marketing Strategy is about moving backlists (aka existing inventory).
    • Publishers have rights to books for years and years and years. Ebooks allow them to keep selling those books without the overhead of printing and warehouse. Slap a new cover on it, something proven to appeal to a broader audience (aka naked man-chest in the romance genre), and boom new sales. Similar theory applies to taking an ebook-only offering and putting it in print for a limited run, possibly as an exclusive with a brick and mortar retailer. Suddenly, there's a print-only audience ready to be assailed with advertising. Discounts and product bundling entice readers from other loosely-related genres to dabble at low-risk to the publisher and the reader.

Broad Marketing strategies often work. We've all heard the "I didn't expect to like this, but I ended up loving it." As authors, we LOVE getting those reviews. Yet for those successes, there are also the misfires of "Ugh, The Notebook was advertised as a resale guide for Moleskine collectors. It never once mentions Moleskine!" 

If you're an author who has control over your marketing strategy, sometimes being a little less niche is a good thing. Trying to reach new audiences is part of the gig, but it's betraying the reader's trust if you advertise your elves vs orcs epic fantasy as a metaphysical healing guide. 

Sunday, May 5, 2019

When Book Marketing Betrays the Reader

Recently an old family friend asked me for advice. She was coming out with her first book, had hired someone to help package for it - formatting, cover, uploading, etc. But she wasn't happy with what that person advocated for the cover. She wanted an image that represented her author's vision of the story, which was her coming to peace with a problem, whereas the designer's cover images all focused on the problem.

I gave her my pick from the choices, and then explained that it's not the job of the cover to express the author's vision. The entirety of the INSIDE of the book does that. The cover has two jobs: 1) to entice a reader to look more closely, and 2) to convey the genre and kind of story it will be. In her case, a cover that transmitted the problem was what she needed, so readers would understand what the story would be about.

The cover above is one of my least favorite because it fails on both parts of its job, in my opinion. I don't think it's particularly enticing, as the guy looks ill enough to be mostly dead. Also, nothing about this cover communicates erotic paranormal. The font looks like something post modern, and he... well, NOT sexy. MASTER OF THE OPERA is actually a modern retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, set at the Santa Fe Opera. Kensington published it as a six-act serial novel starting in January 2014. Those covers are marginally better - at least giving a Phantom of the Opera vibe - but I think the genre communication is murky still. Also they didn't do the marketing the way a serial novel needs to be promoted.

Anyway, the zombie cover (though Assistant Carien says I'm insulting zombies by calling it that) was on the print version that brought all six acts together in one place, which came out in the fall of 2015. I asked then if there would be a digital version compiling all six and they said no.

Then, last week, I got tagged on new release congratulations for ... the digital version compiling all six acts, complete with zombie cover and a release date of April 30, 2019.


So, no. This isn't really a new release at all. It's barely a new format. Coincidentally enough, our topic at the SFF Seven this week is marketing suckering readers into reading a genre they don’t enjoy.

In this case, I'm irritated by the marketing attempt to sucker readers into thinking this is a new release from me. The cover mostly just fails to do much of anything, really.

It's even worse, however, when the marketers decide to cash in on, say, the Romance audience. I think this mainly happens with Romance, though I'll be interested in the takes from the others in the SFF Seven if they've seen it happen in other genres.

What happens in Romance is, a story with a love affair in it gets marketed as Romance, but then has an ending that doesn't satisfy the Romance promise. The affair ends in some way - with a death, a sacrificial parting, or a permanent parting of the ways for one reason or another.

It happens a lot in Romance for two reasons: 1) The Romance audience is huge, avid, and passionate, therefor a tempting market, and 2) marketers (and some authors) regard Romance readers as kind of silly and short-sighted in their desire for a happy ending to the love affair. They think the readers don't know what they really want and that this book will change their minds because it's just THAT good. Either that or the marketing folks don't care past getting that one sale. The advertisers of widgets can be like that, not understanding that the book is not simply a one-sale product, but the beginning of a lasting relationship.

(Of course, this is also why the big box bookstores failed. They never understood that readers have relationships with the books they buy that goes far beyond something like acquiring groceries or the latest tech gadget.)

The thing about reading is we do it for pleasure. We scour covers, copy, and reviews to find the story that will sing to us. If we get suckered in by misleading marketing and are disappointed in the end?


(But MASTER OF THE OPERA is a Romance and the story is way better than that cover. Just saying.)

Saturday, May 4, 2019

My Adjectival Mantra for First Drafts

Not the Author - DepositPhoto

Topic: First drafts, and the adjectives we'd choose to describe them.

UGLY. I tell myself this all the time when working on a first draft, as in “First drafts are meant to be ugly.” I don’t have to have perfect prose. If there’s obviously a scene missing or some piece of action I don’t feel inspired to write that particular day, it’s OKAY. I can keep forging ahead in the story and trust my Muse to supply the missing pieces later. This little mantra is very useful to prevent “paralysis by perfectionism.” I remember when I started writing, back in junior high school (we’re not counting the fairy tale I wrote at age 7) being surprised that the books didn’t flow perfectly and beautifully from my pen onto the paper. Ha! I had a lot to learn…
So when I use this word, I’m not being pejorative. I’m encouraging myself not to be daunted.

Satisfying. I’ve had this story and these characters bottled up inside my brain long enough and now it’s time to let them fly. Or teleport. Or drive the chariot. They’re on their way to the wider world of readers, even if not there just yet.

Unpolished. This isn’t the same as ugly. This is acknowledging to myself that right now I’ve used the word ‘that’ probably a zillion times and ‘very’ another zillion and so forth. There will be a process later of cleaning out those words and other problems, including ascribing emotions and stage business to all those talking head dialog situations. It’s a considered process and part of my pre-publication ritual, often included alongside dealing with the inputs from my editor. The main point at first draft stage is to not stem the flow of creativity worrying if I’m using the word ‘that’ too many times. I am. It’s a given. But it won’t be in the final draft.

I released a box set in the last week, the first three books in my award winning Badari Warriors series, all of which were ugly but satisfying, unpolished first drafts at some point!


Ta Da! There’s no new material included, other than a brief recap of why I wrote each book (which appeared in previous blog posts) But I thought it was time to put the books together!

This Badari Warriors box set gathers the first three science fiction romance novels from this award winning series into one collection. Featuring genetically engineered soldiers of the far future, the Badari were created by alien enemies to fight humans. But then the scientists kidnapped an entire human colony from the Sectors to use as subjects in twisted experiments…the Badari and the humans made common cause, rebelled and escaped the labs. Now they live side by side in a sanctuary valley protected by a powerful Artificial Intelligence, and wage unceasing war on the aliens.
Amazon     Apple Books     Kobo     Nook

Friday, May 3, 2019

A Draft in Three Adjectives

A description of a draft in three acts:

Act 1 - Interminable
Once upon a time, the current WIP was started. It was bright. It was shiny. It was NEW! And there was every expectation that the WIP would meet the same warm welcome from its editor as the first two books of the series. Plot twist: It didn't. Broken hearted, it slunk away to lock itself in a drawer.

Act 2 - Intractable
Eight years passed. The WIP was near death, gasping its last few gasps when the drawer opened. "Guess what!" the author chirped. "We're baaaaack!" The WIP wasn't having it. Abandoned? Tossed aside? And then resurrected like some paper-based Lazarus? Nope. Wasn't gonna be that easy to bring this work back to life. But the writer wouldn't quit. Just. Wouldn't. Give. Up. Slowly, over a stupidly long period of time and with far too many words, the WIP and the writer got reacquainted. As in any good romance, they learned to trust one another again, at long last. They achieved mutual respect. Maybe even affection.

Act 3 - Imminent
And now the WIP is within a solid day's attention of reaching The End. Assured of a warm reception, (because that contract has already been signed) the WIP is barreling for a beta read and then to its editor. Which means we're right back to Act 1 for the next WIP.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

My First Draft: A Story in Adjectives

As I develop the first draft of a new story it becomes, in turns,

yikes [<--totally an adjective, as, "Well, that scene was yikes."]
ugh [<-- see above note]

And finally, YES!

Now I see you! Now I know you! I mean, you’re still kind of ugly and you smell like feet, but your shape is good. I can polish out the rest of it. And I do love you so. *snuggles my ugly darling of a manuscript*

This is the point when I can let my critique partners peek and proceed to that next step.

Which of course involves murder.