And the experiment begins

I have two projects in the works right now, one a UF out on submission with my agent, and the other, a hardboiled romance, I’m debating what to do with. I bounce back and forth between wanting to try self-publishing with this title or pursing more traditional options. For the past year or so, I’ve been wanting to dig into the D.I.Y. elements of publishing that are now open to authors, and you can see by a post I made a couple weeks ago, that I’ve been pondering possibilities. Well, I’ve recently begun a piece of that possibility.

What I have written on Harbortown (about 50k) words to this point, I placed on Google Docs, invited about a half dozen reader/reviewer people I’ve connected with on twitter and feel could provide me with some honest feedback, and gave them the ability to comment directly in the document, much like you do with any Word document. The goal here is to work with a continuous feedback loop, using ideas/concerns/comments to develop the story into a stronger version than what I could normally on my own. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a very objective eye with regard to my writing, unless it sits for a couple of months before I look at it. The far more immediate feedback helps not only spur ideas and keep elements on track, what works well and what doesn’t, but it’s also inspiring to write more, when you have people involved in your work.

Given the scope of this story (I’m on pt 2 of 5, and currently at 50k), I will be doing this for a while, and may add some more commenters to the loop, depending on how well this turns out. It’s not exactly crowd-sourcing, but having interested people involved in you work, who you know will give honest feedback is a fabulous thing to have when writing. I know that some writers don’t like anyone to see their work until it’s done. They have worries that it will distort their process or stress them out or whatever the case may be. My brain doesn’t work that way, for better or worse. I thrive on the interaction, so I hope that this experiment will prove fruitful and I can build upon it. We’ll see how it goes.

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The Ways We Can Tell Stories Are Changing

Much has changed in the past five years in publishing, which kind of goes without saying. It has allowed us writers to think a bit outside the box when it comes to the content we produce and how it’s put out there to readers. I have yet to do much with self-publishing, but it is readily apparent that the boundaries of the playing field for authors has greatly expanded. We can put out short stories, novellas, and such to go along with novels that come out, whether legacy or self published. It’s an ability to go beyond the norm for the readers as well as a method to help ourselves with things like discoverability and extra income. Things like this, of course, get me to thinking on the possibilities.

I have two projects going at the moment, and one of them is a something of a hard-boiled/noir/romance mashup called Harbortown. It follows the rollercoaster ride of Detective Rachel “Rehab” Rollins and the guy she must train to replace her after she’s been forced to retire.  The story arc takes place over these final six months of her job. Now, I may end up writing this all as one, full length book. If my agent likes it and sells it, I’m more than likely to go that route, but it’s also spurred on some other ideas.

Like, what if I wrote it as a series of novellas, released over the course of that actual six month time frame, on the actual days that each novella begins, sort of like reading it in real time? There could be short stories during the in between times. Then the whole thing could be compiled at the end in one volume. I could have a blog that follows the goings on in the town during the entire six months, also played along in real time, bits of news, things about the town and characters, kind of like a daily/weekly news update. The whole idea here would be to have readers experience the story along the same six month time frame that the characters and town do.

Might be fun, yes? Might be colossal, epic fail. Who knows, but regardless, it is very, very cool that publishing is such now that it allows for this kind of pondering. The ways in which we bring our stories to the reader have expanded quite a bit in the past few years, and likely will even more in the future. It’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Music and Story: Setting the Tone

There are a number of authors out there who like to build music soundtracks for particular books they’re writing. I personally have yet to do this, until now. My (other) current work in progress is a crime fiction story, a rather dark, unapologetic tale of love, violence, and how personal demons can destroy. The heroine likes music. She has a secret thing for singing that nobody knows about. It’s not a big element in the story far as that goes, but it’s a character thing I like a lot, and due to the emotional makeup of this character, she likes to play music that represents how she’s feeling at any given time. If this isn’t a story to build a soundtrack to, I don’t know what is.

Like the story, this aspect is a work in progress. I keep my ear out now for things that tie back into the story or characters. I think music can be a powerful addition to story, much like in movies. As a writer, if you have something that plays to what’s in the story, it can actually effect your writing. It can be quite powerful, honestly, and I wish I had the where-with-all to do it for every book, but it’s also a fair bit of work, and I”m not one of those folks with an ipod full of music to search through. Anyway, if you’ve not tried writing to music or find it distracting, the trick is not necessarily to pick things you normally love to listen to, but to tailor them to what you’re currently writing.  Got a love song that encapsulates what’s going on between your two protags? Play it while you write. It will have an impact. Even purely instrumental works can do this.

When this story finally sees the light of day, I’ll build an actual soundtrack for it just for fun and for readers to enjoy if they so desire. In the meantime, here are two, the first being what the heroine, Rachel, plays on the way to an incident (she’s a cop) and the second speaks almost perfectly to the romance in the story, from the hero’s pov. Enjoy, and happy reading/writing everyone!

Would You Pay to Proof Someone’s Book?

Came across an interesting post about a debate that occurred at a conference recently, between a self-published author, named Stephen Leather and a couple of other publishing people. Apparently, it got a little heated, as these things tend to do,  around the notion of the $.99 ebook. This isn’t about that argument. The guy makes money selling books for a dollar. What other folks have to say about it to him likely isn’t going to have much of an effect. More power to him. I have my own opinion on dollar books which is beside the point of money, but I’ve discussed that before. It was something else he said that really got under my skin.

When the issue of editors, proofers, and such came up, and the obvious need for them, his stated (I didn’t hear him personally, so I can only go by what was stated in the post) opinion was that with a large fan base, some authors, who don’t need much more than light proofing, can rely on their readers to proof their books.

Yes, you heard me right. Readers can proof their books. While I don’t doubt that there are plenty of readers out there who are smart enough to be excellent proof readers, it isn’t their job to proof books. This is an absurd expectation, and frankly, disrespectful of the reader. It’s one thing to openly crowd-source a book, where you invite feedback on an unfinished story. Note the important word here: unfinished. This is a very different tack to take in producing a story (an interesting one to, mind you, and maybe for another post), but when you are putting out a book to the audience to read, the expectation and assumption is that it’s a finished product.

Why would I buy a book with this expectation? I have no desire to feel obligated to report back to the author about errors that need correction. If I’m paying you money for a story, my expectation is simple. This story is as good as you can make it. It is as error free as you are able to do. Now, the fact is, most authors, 99% even, do not have the skill set to proof their own work. Your brain is so wrapped up in the process and product that it’s just too easy to miss things. This is what good editors, copy-editors and proofers do. We pay them for their services to make our stories as good as the possibly can be. If we’re going to sell our product, it is the minimum we should be doing as writers. To lay any of this at the feet of the reader is having them pay a dollar and invest their time in catching errors that they shouldn’t have to be seeing in the first place.

I’ve stated it before, and it will always bear repeating. If you aren’t willing to invest in the appropriate services to make your book the best possible story it can be before you put it out there to readers, DON”T PUBLISH IT!

Nuff said. Happy reading/writing everyone.

Are Minimum Author Contracts As Bad As They Seem?

Was reading through J.A. Konrath’s blog today (always good to inspire discussion and thought), as is usually the case, something was mentioned that inspired a “hmmm.” It isn’t anything new, in fact the subject has been mentioned many times before, regarding how many authors are bailing on poor to mediocre publishing contracts to go to self-publishing. Many more will do so in the future, with good reason I might add. Certain authors, in certain positions, find self-publishing a far more viable alternative to legacy publishing. This is a niche group of people in the world of writers. It takes certain things to fall into place for self-publishing to be effective. This is a good thing, mind you, and more power to them and their future success. What bothers me about it, is that they are used as the example for why everyone should self-publish (minus those are are already best-selling authors). Keep in mind here, that I’m speaking of fiction. Other types of books do not particularly lend themselves to self-publishing at this point in time in the industry. So, the question keeps coming up, “Why try for a legacy publisher when you will only get crap terms, and likely make little to no money?” You should just self-publish from the get go.

The fact is, most writers who self-publish will experience the same result, albeit in a much shorter time frame. Regardless of success or failure, self-publishing will always be a faster avenue to getting published and experiencing the results, whatever they might be. But, they say, “I can get my work out there quicker for people to see, and if it does well, I might actually get picked up by a big publisher anyway.” This saves me the wait/hassle of dealing with the enormous amount of time big publishers take to do things. This is the “farm team” concept of writing. I’m not saying it’s wrong or bad, but it is prevalent. This is the idea that you can work away for little or no money and with time/effort/patience, demonstrate your value to those who will be willing to pay you for your work. There are examples of this. A number of writers have built themselves to the point in self-publishing that a big publisher has taken interest in them. This is a good thing too. It’s yet another possible avenue for us writers to work with. Again, realize that the chances for success are very small. Part of the problem is that the big leagues just don’t have room for everyone who is good. They can’t afford it. They have to pick and choose. So, some are drawn from the ranks of the self-published, others are chosen from the slushpile, while others hook up with an agent to farm their value to the big boys.

The thing is, publishers have their own farm team. You can think of it like any draft in professional sports. Some prospects hold great appeal, their talent is obvious from the start, and they get chosen in those first rounds. They’ll invest in these people. They believe they have the highest potential. The further you go down in the rounds, the more chancy they believe the potential for success is. They get the contract minimum. They get a chance to prove themselves, but the odds are stacked against them. The publisher knows this, but they see something and are will to take a minimal risk on seeing it pan out. I was one of these low round picks. I didn’t get a lot of money, the investment was low on their part, and things didn’t work out as well as hoped for so they let me go. So, now I’m trying to see if another team will pick me up. Likely it’ll be for that player minimum type of contract. That’s the way the ballgame is played. You need perseverance and some luck. You get some benefits for playing with the farm team of the big leagues. You get editing, cover art, formatting, copy-editing, and the opportunity to work with professionals at little cost to yourself. You can decide to forgo the farm system and try it on your own. This costs if you want to give yourself a legit shot at the big leagues or find success on your own (see my previous post).

To say that the low end contracts are bullshit for writers (and yes, they are not great terms) and not worth one’s time, is a bit of a misnomer I believe. Outside of the niche authors in a good situation to say no, writers are really just forgoing one remote chance at success for another. So, while I can say I don’t like the “rookie” minimum contracts. It does get you in the game and give you a shot, which honestly, I don’t think is any worse than the shot one has trying it on one’s one, as far as chances for success are concerned. You’re trading control and potential income for needed services you don’t have to invest in on your own. Again, it comes down to what you are willing and able to do. How do the pros and cons fall for your particular situation as a writer? Just don’t turn your nose up at the minimum contract. You have to prove your worth and earn your spot in the starting lineup. It’s a system that allows for as many potentials to be brought on to the team as possible, and you are battling against all of those other low round picks to show your value to the team. If you prove success and still get the crap terms, well, then you have options open to you you didn’t have before.

Publishing costs, no matter how you do it

I’ve stated this before, but I am a big proponent of professional services when it comes to self-publishing. It is one of the reasons (among others) that I am still unwilling to pursue that avenue at this point in time. Given the current state of publishing, I strongly suspect I’ll head down that road before too long, but right now, I’m not. The reason for me is simple. I don’t have the resources to properly invest in it.

There are writers out there, many of whom have likely already made money selling their own work digitally, who will state that you don’t need to make this investment. They didn’t, and they’re making money. Likely, this is true. I don’t doubt it all actually. It is possible to put out a decent product without having your work professionally edited, copyedited, and to have a professional cover done. If you are happy with decent, and you’re making money doing it, then by all means, have at it and best of luck to you. I wish you every success.  For most, this success will not happen.

Why? Because the book fails to live up to certain standards put out there by readers. They expect a certain level of quality. If they get it, they’ll buy more. Happens in business all of the time. Do it right and people will keep coming back. Books are no different. Now, while professional resources will not do much for the actual talent of writing a great story, they will go a long way toward making what you do create, the best it can possibly be.  For me, this is and should be the minimum requirement for publishing a book. It should be the best possible book you can put out there to consumers. You owe it to yourself as a writer to do so. Self-publishing is a business. If you’re going to start a business, you should be willing and better be able to invest in it.

At a minimum, this requires three things: editing, copy-editing, and cover art. I did a bit of poking around just to verify my casual observance of costs to invest, and I came up with the following (relating to full length fiction manuscripts). Note that these are ballpark numbers to give an average idea of what we’re looking at here.

Editing: $1500-$2000

Copy-editing: $1000-1500

Cover art: $75-250

Formatting: $100-200

So, you’re looking at $2500-$3500 to invest in your work. This isn’t chump change. There are no guarantees of return on investment. Actually, there’s a good chance you won’t. A lot more goes into it than just putting out a good book, but that is the minimum of where you have to start.  You want to put out 3 books a year (which is a reasonably doable number)? You’re looking at $6-10,000. This is one major reason why writers with previously published backlists of books have a significant advantage in getting into self-publishing. If you’re just starting out, you’re looking at a big investment.

Self-publishing is a lot more than just slapping 80,000 words down on the computer and tossing it up on Amazon. Some think it’s little more than this. This group of writers will never be successful. If you’re lucky enough to know people in the industry who will cut you a break on such services, you’ve got a leg up. Fact is, the vast majority of writers out there do not have the needed skills in editing/copy-editing/cover art to do it on their own at a professional level. Some writers are good editors. If you are, then you might be able to save yourself some time and money, but good editing is tough to come by and to learn well on your own. Just because you can write a great story, doesn’t mean you’re a good editor. It’s nearly impossible to do your own copy-editing. It’s just too difficult to get the mental distance from your work to see all the errors.

So, if you want to do it right, if you want to make yourself look good from the start and give yourself a greater chance at success, be willing to invest. Save. I’m sure with some work you can find more cost-effective services from quality providers. It’ll still cost. If your work isn’t worth that, then save yourself a lot of headache and don’t do it. I’ll be saving and situating myself as best I can before I make that leap. It’s not any easier than traditional publishing. Anyone who has run their own business will tell you that, and never forget that self-publishing is actually a business that you are running. On your own.

Why I Write the Broken Character

Why do we decide to write the characters we do? Lots of reasons I imagine, and I can only speak for myself, but my education is a big reason I lean in the direction I do. I have a B.S. in Psychology and a Master’s in Social Work. I also got a certificate in Women’s Studies to go along with that. A lot of my studies revolved around issues of violence against women.

I was involved in a speaker’s bureau for the local domestic violence shelter where I lived while going to school. I gave speeches to everyone from middle school to adult about the issues around power and gender, date rape, domestic violence, and all of the dynamics involved. It was a very important issue to me then, and still is, but I’m not involved in the public sphere of it anymore.

Thus, I’ve read and heard a lot of stories around abuse toward women and children. It’s heartbreaking, anger-inducing, mind-boggling, and after twenty years, still seems to be as prevalent as it’s always been. It’s a horrifically damaging problem, not only physically but emotionally as well. My education makes me particularly interested in the psychological side of things. Trauma, in all of its various forms can be ruinous and life-altering. Working through issues of abuse and violence is incredibly difficult for people. It is damaging not only when it occurs but continues throughout the course of life.  It also provides great background for character conflict.

When I wrote Deadworld, I wanted to have a character that had been shaped by traumatic events that altered her psyche with damaging results. Too often, I think, stories don’t give a real accurate portrayal of violence and the kinds of effects it can have on a person. It’s used simply as a basis for making a character problematic, tough, and gives the hero or heroine an obstacle to overcome. In some ways I guess you could say it’s a token backstory in order to make a character “difficult.”

While it does do this, it’s far more complicated than that. Damaged people don’t always behave in a productive manner. It makes relationships difficult. It makes self-image/esteem difficult. Issues of fear and trust are always at the forefront. While time and work do a lot to heal and recover, this doesn’t always happen in a timely manner. Too many stories make light of the fact that it is extremely difficult for some people to heal from the damage caused by violence. When I created Jackie for Deadworld, I knew right away that she would be a hard character and she would take more than one book to get back to any semblance of healthy.

Damaged characters don’t always behave nicely. They can be self-destructive to themselves and others. They can be self-involved, emotionally stunted, walled off from the world, uncaring, and even violent themselves. In short, very difficult people to know and love. Jackie is one such character.  Personally I find it very challenging and rewarding to try and bring a character from the depths of this personal kind of damage back to some sort of emotional health.  Perhaps most challenging, is the effort to present a character who is not overly likable by that one can still sympathize with. Who hasn’t known someone who they thought was a good person but their issues got in the way of anyone really seeing that? It’s tough to love them. You want to, but they make it so hard on you to do so.

I like these kinds of characters. Likely a lot of my own background and interests plays into this, as I enjoy playing therapist to my characters through the development of the story. I want them to heal, but it’s never an easy process. You want to smack them upside the head for being such an obstinate bitch, for turning away from that which can most help, for hating themselves and believing they deserve the horrible things that have happened to them.

Deadworld and the main characters of Nick and Jackie is my first effort at writing in this emotionally tumultuous soup. I’ve had a number of readers who just don’t like Jackie or think Nick is too weak. Emotional baggage does this to people. It’s hard to grow from it, and I want to give it the justice it deserves by showing just how hard it can be. I’ll continue to write the damaged, broken character in most of my stories. My own personal make-up makes me want to delve into them and “fix” them. It can be a long and difficult road, however, and the challenge will always be to get the reader to want to go along for the ride.