Sunday, June 30, 2019

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This will be short and sweet. I'm leaving on a jet plane to participate in a writing retreat that I had to cancel last year because of my husband's emergency open heart surgery. (Fun times!) I've never been to a writing retreat so I'm stoked and hope to write a huge hunk of this new book I'm writing. 

The more ephemeral goal is to find the path to writing enlightenment: how do I bring writing up a notch. The one aspect of writing that most people don't talk about is that there are plateaus in your ability to write. Every writer I talk to wants their current book to be the best they've ever written. And that's what I want, too. There is a point where you've stopped flailing with voice, pacing, and plot. Sure, you struggle to keep these balls in the writing air, but you know that you need to do that. Believe or not, that's a hard hurdle to jump. But say you have the basics down, and now you have the luxury of stepping back and viewing your writing with objectivity, its strengths and weaknesses, and you ask yourself, how to I capitalize on my strengths and chip away at my weaknesses?

The longer you write, the slower the learning curve. The first five years of my writing seriously, the direction up was phenomenal. I learned so much and improved to the point where I could get a book published and pickup some nice kudos. Then I plateaued out. I wrote a ton more and could see my writing improve until I reached another plateau. By about the fourth plateau, the changes were incremental but critical. And here I sit. On the fourth plateau. This is where you are a decent writer but not much more than that.  I've been sitting on this fourth plateau for a couple of years now, twiddling my thumbs, occasionally have small campfires and toasting marshmallows, planting a few daffodils when I have the time, but I'm not moving upward. It's lonely and frustrating. I want more. I'm hoping this retreat will give me insight in how to get better. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Industry Groups Want You!

You bite the bullet and you lock-down a domain name and pay for hosting for a website for a year. At this point your next step is to join industry groups. Genre is easier than, say, straight fiction. Romance, Science Fiction, and Mystery all have robust national industry groups that would welcome your membership checks. Many of these groups have monthly meetings where you can meet industry professionals or just writers who are having the same struggles you are. Industry groups like Mystery Writers of America or Sisters in Crime will keep your toe in the water while you write that first book or that next book. Also, I've found that the mystery writing community is a rather fine bunch of people, and who doesn't need more fine people in your life?

At a certain point you have to bite the second bullet and acknowledge that you are running a business: a writing business. It doesn't take a lot of money to learn how language works, cultivating your voice, and then writing the best book you can possibly write. It takes discipline but not a whole lot of $$$. Joining industry groups is also minimal sunk costs, and, more importantly, it gives your name a face. All industry groups I have belonged to offer great classes, motivating speakers, industry insights, and all around information about the business of writing. These insights might not get you a publishing contract ASAP, but they will give you invaluable information about the minefield you're about to walk through. Because at some point it's likely you will enter the phase where the real $$$ pedal meets the metal.

The convention circuit.

The focus of these cons varies greatly, and whether you attend any of them depends on where you are in the process and how much you have to spend. Many of the classes/advice offered in the industry cons are also available through the industry groups for free or nominal fees as perks of your membership. But the sheer numbers of agents/editors and industry professionals at these cons makes it worth attending a convention if you can afford it. If you do a Google search on writers conferences, it will take you hours to plow through all the possible cons you can attend. Based on my perusal of various Google searches, the industry cons break down into two different categories: those cons geared toward improving your writing and those cons that are network oriented, i.e., how to write successful query letters, polish your pitch, common mistakes in trying to market your book, etc. There are industry cons for every step of the process in writing a book, from typing "Chapter 1" to typing the "The End."

 All you need is a credit card.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Biz

I've been talking to a number of other authors about the biz as it stands today. Sales are way down, across the board, and those markets that seemed to be hot two years ago--specifically paranormal and Young Adult--have now seemed to have worn out their welcome. What is selling? Um, nothing seems to be selling from what I can gather. As I am currently writing a paranormal YA novel, I'm a little depressed by this news.

Where does that leave you? In some ways this is very liberating because, hell, take chances, get messy (Ms. Frizzle, I do love you so much). You really do not have much to lose by letting those creative critters that are currently doing the rumba in your brain let them loose and snake around some wild ideas that might actually work. I've always found that writing to market is dangerous, which is why I am going to write this book because it's yelling at me to write it.

The reality is that as soon as one book grabs the market that does not mean that a hundred books on wizards will sell, yours being one of them. Generally speaking, it takes two years to get a book to market. Two years. Chew on that. I will say that only series that I thought took the wizarding concept and gave as good a ride as Harry Potter was Grossman's The Magicians series; as a rival to the Harry Potter series, the Magician's was a contender. Grossman's books had a completely different and much smaller audience so perhaps it wasn't as much of a financial success for him, but the writing was a zillion times more sophisticated, as were the themes, and he certainly gave Rowling's world building skills a run for their money. He also didn't have to deal with the issue of writing a children's book with adult themes (or an adult book that was also catering to children, JKR's perpetual dilemma). He wrote for adults and it freed him in many ways to write a dark and gritty tale that was mature (he avoided the sight gags that JKR loves so much) and, for lack of a better word, urban. I have issues with books two and three of that series (I have book reviews on my website so check out why those books didn't quite work for me). I had issues with Rowling's last book for the same reason. Both authors let the world-building triumph over plot and character arcs, but that's a separate issue entirely. As usual, I'm digressing.

Anyway, so nothing is selling and you have this great idea but the only books that you see for sale feature wealthy young adults with a romance shoved in there for good measure. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians, I'm looking at you (and a host of other books featuring wealthy protagonists). You have a gritty, dark tale of wizards who are in college and they have sex and they drink and take drugs and they are mean to each other and betray each other and... Okay, that book has been written (see Grossman's The Magicians series). BUT, write your idea like you want to write it. Don't discount passion. It matters. I am sure that a zillion people told Lev Grossman, do not write about wizards. Are you crazy? That market is so ten years ago. And now he has a television series based on his novels. He didn't listen to those naysayers and neither should you. Even though I have critical issues with his books (book 2 is very weak), I cannot deny that he really cares about these characters. He identifies with Quentin and loves Alice. I hope that Lev Grossman has an Alice in his life and that it's not a fantasy of the woman he wishes he has. And that love for someone special or even hope for someone special comes through in neon letters. So write about what you care about. I was disappointed in book two, but that hasn't stop me from having all three books in a prominent place on my bookshelf in HARDCOVER.

I have read books that if I pulled them apart they would actually hit my "fail" buzzer, but the passion of the author for their story pulls me along, and while my finger might be poised about the "fail" button, it never quite pushes it, because you, author, you trickster, you, bamboozled me with your words.

Bamboozle, people. Write what you love because the market is moving so quickly, what you think will be selling will not be selling in a week.

I keep postponing this, but next week we talk about the authorly-type endeavors worth investing $$$ in.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Day Late, but Man, It's Hot

Yes, I'm a couple of days late, but I've spent the last couple of days grousing about the heat. I am NOT a warm-weather person. By virtue of the fact I've lived in a suburb where it routinely climbs into the high 90s and low 100s for most of the summmer, I have become immune to temps below 90 degrees. Above that I become a creature of discontent. Even, sigh, a malcontent. So, yeah, it's been hot. How hot, you say? It was 100 degrees in Berkeley today. IN BERKELEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! That's how hot it was.

Anyway, we are returning to our regularly scheduled program because I do have air-conditioning and, therefore, I am slightly less of a malcontent at this moment. Even though it is--checking the weather app on my phone--94 degrees at 6:45 pm.

What do we have today? Well, it was announced that some big mucky muck who runs Waterstone in the U.K. has bought Barnes and Noble. He has big plans to revamp it and bring it back to being, gasp, a bookstore. His formula of catering to the local markets has worked wonders with Waterstone, and he plans to implement the same strategy with Barnes and Noble in the U.S.

I’m so happy for this news. Unfortunately, you need a behemoth to fight a behemoth. It has been no secret that B&N has been hanging on by its fingernails for years. It probably got a bit of a bump when Borders went under (my chain of choice), but it hasn’t been able to sustain a working model that challenges Amazon. And at this point, it’s the ONLY entity that can challenge Amazon and their monopoly over publishing.

Sadly, the reality is that if this is not a go, and B&N does go under, authors might as well hang up their cletes. What will be available for sale will be limited to what sells big: Oprah picks, self-help books, and the odd mystery. Serial killer books seem to be selling well, so those will be published. You will have NO depth in the market because publishers need to sell books to survive. If the market shrinks by the demise of B&N, then the bookselling market will look a lot like what you can find in airports. The big sellers. Not the quirky, wonderful books that are increasingly hard to find.

Of course, always go to your independent bookstore and buy a few books. But I ask that you also purchase the odd book from B&N. In my opinion, they are the only game in town that can challenge Amazon and their ownership of the entire market. Amazon are already publishers. They own the self-publishing market. And they do it well. Full disclosure: I self-published a book through them and it was a seamless and professional process. They know what they are doing. That is part of the problem. Traditionally, publishing has been somewhat hidebound and resistant to change, and Amazon took advantage of this clutching of pearls and a smugness devotion to an outdated model, waltzed right in, and took over.

Amazon is now opening brick and mortar stores (where you don’t need employees because you can self check out books like a head of lettuce). If B&N goes under, you will see all the major publishers take a huge financial hit and few will survive. Irony doesn’t quite cover my championing of an entity that ten years ago I deplored because of their deep discounts and how that affected the indie bookseller. All of that was true at the time, but we need to pick our battles.

So I’m cheering this sale because the demise of B&N means Amazon will own the entire book selling market. The indies just don’t have the shelf space to challenge Amazon. We need a biggish store that has a decent selection so that you can browse the shelves. The indies thrive on hand-selling books, and that is wonderful and fills a niche, but it can’t compete with Amazon in terms of volume or “reach.” And given Amazon's past record of changing their algorithms so that it limits access to LGBT authors and anything that is remotely erotic, and especially if it involves participants of the same sex protagonists (remember when you couldn’t search for “gay” anything, which meant that your search would not bring up Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain?), we should be horrified at the thought of B&N going under. This is why B&N has to stay in business. Because Amazon doesn’t sell books. It sells widgets that happen to look like books, smell like books, and sort of act like books. But if their widget masters tell them, oh, we can’t promote that because it will alienate the evangelicals who buy a lot of widgets, you better believe these books will be hidden and eventually will not be sold.

Widgets will rule.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

What Must I Afford?

This is not a small question. Writing is a money pit. What are costs you must absorb?

1.  Let's start off simple. Business cards. Carry them with you as a matter of course. Yes, people still use them. I can't tell you how many times I've been in professional situations where I'd have given my right arm for an old-fashioned business card.

2. Any costs associated with a website, including domain name registration and hosting fees. Many hosting companies will provide web design services for a monthly fee. People with some tech savvy use WordPress, and for those who are really tech-challenged, it doesn't get any easier than WIX. I don't think you need a lot of bells and whistles. People don't have a lot of time to be wowed by your brilliant website. A beautiful website might sell one book, but if that book doesn't live up to the promise of a fabulous website, then you've lost a reader forever. My advice: go simple until you can afford the website designer of your choice. There are LOTS of free templates out there for you to experiment with. Again, it doesn't have to be fancy but it should be free of typos and topical. If you're writing a mystery set in the cooking world, do not populate your website with pictures of your adorable Golden Retriever--no matter how cute your dog is, and it's a truth universally acknowledged that my Golden "Bear" is THE most AMAZING dog on the face of this earth. Just sayin'.

Google and YouTube are your friends. You can glean basic web skills in pretty much no time flat. I just taught myself some basic LaTex skills all from YouTube because my job said, hey, do you know LaTex. I said, give one week and I'll have the basics down. Please note that if you do break out and go all crazy and decide to create your own website, understand that different hosting sites will NOT, I REPEAT, will not upload you files if you are using Google as your browser. I wasted something like thirty hours trying to determine why I couldn't upload and see my site on Google Chrome. Because my hosting site abhors Google.

3.  Let's say you Googled your little heart, and with your newly acquired awesome html skills put together a simple but effective web page. What do you do with all those extra $$$ floating around? You get a decent author photograph to put on the back of your books and as a promotional push for your simple but professional looking website. Lots of people feel uncomfortable having their photograph everywhere, but this is an age where readers want to know who you are, not just what you write. I deplore this level of intimacy, but that's another post. I think you need to accept that there is the professional you and the personal you. The professional "me" used to be a pastry chef who became a writer, and the personal me is someone who must confess to having had popcorn for dinner when my husband's out of town and who writes fanfiction. Truth.

What do you we have so far? A decent looking website, and an author's photograph that you can put on your website (and Facebook). I have not used any of the advertising gimmicks offered by Google or Facebook because I don't have the money. I have asked others who did if that worked out for them? Did they get an appreciable bump in sales? All I got were shrugs. I have heard that Instagram is the hot new thing, but that Facebook still works for authors in generating interest. I will say that what I think Facebook does is generate interest in you but not necessarily your books. Authors who use it as a relentless marketing push eventually alienate people. Except that readers now want a much more personal relationship with authors that has nothing to do with the books they write. I know. It doesn't make sense, just go with it. I think the rule of thumb is something like 70% personal stuff and 30% marketing.

Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. The more you get to know about people, the less you might want to read them because the veil between author and reader is now mighty thin. I tend to rant on Facebook about the political nightmare that is currently our country, so, yeah, I've alienated a ton of people already, but I made a conscious decision to voice my disgust with the current administration over books sales. I suppose if I had a vibrant career, then it might be different, but anonymity has its pluses. Just be aware that if you do use Facebook as a soapbox then it will be less effective for you as a way of generating interest in your books. I have stopped buying books by authors whom I believe are homophobic and racist, and I'd be a fool to assume that they won't return the favor because I'm a raving socialist.

Next Sunday I'll chat about costs that you might not be able to afford but that you feel you have no choice but to absorb.