Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why Should You Blog?

Recently I posted a link to my blog on a LinkedIn group called Writers and Author’s Circle.  It was the post about how to have a successful agent pitch session.  I quickly received this comment: “This is not the place to self advertise your commercially- motivated blog. If you want to join a conversation you are very welcome but remove this spam; stuff like this is driving the proper members away.”

I just as quickly left this group (so the proper members wouldn’t be driven away) but the incident did get me thinking about this process.  Is my blog commercially motivated?  I will admit that I first started blogging years ago because all the marketing experts at the time were saying that an author HAD to have a blog.  Without one, no one would ever know about your books and you would never have any sales.

Did it work?  Does my blog give me greater visibility?  I think so.  Has it led to book sales? I highly doubt it.  If that ever was a path to book sales, I don’t think it is now.  Facebook and Twitter are much more efficient for that purpose.  Besides, I believe I have a lot more writers than readers here, and other authors are not the best market for my novels.

Of course there ARE more commercial blogs.  Fiction writers who blog about their characters every week, and nonfiction writers who blog about their topic of expertise probably do boost their sales.  Bloggers that feature author interviews or sample chapters certainly aim to boost their guests’ sales.  And there is still a strong belief among authors that going on a blog tour will generate book sales.

I launched this blog based on the idea that readers would want to know what’s involved in being a novelist, to see the writer’s life from the inside.  Over time it has evolved into a place where I share what I’ve learned about this passion and this business called writing.  I get to express my opinions, and other writers enter into dialog here. Sometimes I just report recent events that have affected my work.  Sometimes I use this space to explore my own thoughts and attitudes.  Ultimately I have to say that I find blogging very rewarding, but not financially so.

So why should an author blog?  Maybe we should be asking why people read blogs.  Probably not to find new books to read, but maybe to be entertained.  Maybe to learn more about what it’s like to be a writer.  Maybe to learn more about the writing business, or the writing process.  And maybe just to get to know a writer better.  If you want to fulfill any of those needs then you definitely should try posting something every few days.  You might find it rewarding too, even if it’s not commercially motivated.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Best Path to Better Writing

There is no shortage of classes on line, at colleges and at writers conferences that promise to improve your writing.  All may be valuable (I regularly teach writing classes myself) but I believe that the best way to become a better writer is through reading… but you have to read the right way.

Read technically – If you want success in a particular genre, read what’s popular in your genre and note the commonalities.  Look at the book like a product being sold. How long a book do these readers prefer? (Fantasy novels and thrillers may range over 100,000 words.  Mysteries suspense books skew closer to 80,000.) How long are the chapters? How many major characters? How important is the setting? What are the conventions in this particular genre? (Cozy mysteries keep the violence off screen; hard boiled detectives have strong if untraditional moral codes; in Westerns, cowboys are more philosophical and skilled than they ever were in real life.) You may not choose to stick to these conventions, but you have to know and understand the rules to break them successfully.

Read emotionally – Let yourself just be a reader and FEEL the book you are reading. If you react strongly to a particular scene, ask yourself why.  Is it because of the use of particular details?  Key words?  How did this writer get you to feel this way?  When you read dialog that really feels right, try to figure out exactly what the reader did in that dialog.  If you find yourself breathlessly flipping the pages, back up and see how that writer hooked you so solidly and dragged you along.  And what if a scene doesn’t move you?  Go back and try to figure out why you didn’t like it.  Then you can say, “Well, I know not to ever do THAT!" 

Read comparatively – When asked how I learned to write mysteries I usually answer truthfully, that I outlined three books I particularly loved and deconstructed them.  Thru this technique I was able to compare these favorites objectively.  I could see how plots were developed, what they all had in common, and how they varied. In later years I’ve come to compare books in a different way.  I find it valuable to read more broadly, in a variety of genres. I’d never write a romance or science fiction myself, but I learn things from these other genres that I can apply to my own writing. Every novel has SOME romance in it.  Why not learn how to display that from the experts?  Every fiction author has to deal with suspension of disbelief.  The best sci-fi authors excel at that.  And while I’ll never write poetry, I have learned about how to use the language and a bit about rhythm and flow from reading it.

There’s nothing wrong with classes and critiques, but there is no better way to improve your own prose than by paying attention to that of others.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Human Element

In this blog I’ve discussed several facets of the publishing business – submissions, editing, marketing and more.  But one part of our business that I haven’t gotten into is more ephemeral and harder to define. For want of a better term, I’m calling this side of the business the human element.

It is true that writing is both a skill and an art, while publishing is a business. But a publisher is more than a venture capitalist, investing in the potential value of a product.  That is because a publisher doesn’t simply invest in a book.  He also invests in the author, and dealing with the artistic temperament of a creative fiction writer is often much more challenging than dealing with that writer’s work.

For example, editing is the process through which good manuscripts become great manuscripts. At Intrigue Publishing, like most small presses, that process is collaborative.  Professional editors know how to improve pace, strengthen characters, and fill plot holes. But only the author knows how to present his theme, establish the chosen atmosphere and preserve her own voice. We want to end up with the best book possible, but we never want to take the book away from the writer.  Better to let the book and the writer go than to have an unhappy or bitter author in our stable.

The same applies to cover design.  Our job is to create a book cover that will get a reader’s attention, express the book’s genre and tone, and prompt the reader to pick that book up. But authors feel, often very strongly, that what matters is that their cover represents their story accurately.  So for many writers it can’t be a great cover if it depicts a scene that doesn’t actually occur in the book, if characters are facing each other who don’t meet in their story, or if the heroine is wearing a gown she would never wear.  This type of thing may not matter much to the big six publishers (or are there only five now?) but we don’t want to have one of our authors out there promoting their book but hating the cover.

Every press is bound to make decision an author doesn’t favor (we’ve debated the font, page layout and even chapter heads with writers) but we consider every choice carefully and always stand ready to explain why a writer’s preference isn’t followed.  We must never forget that it takes a special person to create a novel others will want to read, and that the publishing industry really rests on that human element.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

There is a handful of questions that every published author hears from time to time.  One of the most frequent is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  I usually give some smart aleck response like, “Over at Ideas-R-Us” or “Aisle 4 at Costco – cuz I need a lot of ideas.” If the actual question is, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I might say, “From behind the preposition at the end of that sentence.”  But today I’ll try to actually answer that query.

THE NEWS – Most of the ideas for  my crime novels and short stories come from newspapers and television newscasts.  Despite their efforts to be objective, reporters can’t help but present some theories about crimes they report on.  Whenever I hear that I like to play a “what if” game.  What if that isn’t what happened at all?  What if there’s a totally different motive? What if the witness (the arresting officer, the spouse) is lying?  Then I spin a story from that.  And it doesn’t have to be a crime story.  Sometimes a creative journalist will report on someone just doing something weird or unexplained.  I can make up a reason for the person to have base jumped from a city building or started a flash mob in the Metro that relates to a crime.

OTHER WRITERS – Sometimes another writer and I will brainstorm story ideas.  This can be a lot of fun, each reacting to the other’s plot points with a lively, “and then THIS might happen” or, “but at the same time, across town THIS is going on.”  We might leave that conversation with a clear story in mind, but the result is always that we go home and end up writing two very different stories that happen to take off from the same place.  This can even happen when I’m reading someone else’s story.  I might get to a point and say, “No no no… THAT’S not what happens next…” and then I’m off on a story all my own.

YOU – Story ideas often come up in unrelated conversations with friend and fans, and not even always in person.  For example, in trying to be both funny and provocative, I posted this on Facebook recently:

“Why is a school zone 20 mph? That seems like the optimal cruising speed for pedophiles...”

Well, it did turn out to be a conversation starter, but among the responses was a friend’s post with evidence that the low speed limit might actually help stop the bad guys.  It was a news story with this headline: Teens Chase Kidnapping Suspect on Bikes, save5-year old girl.  Two teenage boys are being hailed as heroes after they chased a car carrying a kidnapped girl… on their bicycles.  Depending on your audience it may or may not matter that the teens were African American and the little girl was white.  But really… with a little imagination I could pull half a dozen good stories out of that little report.  Couldn't you?

So that’s where I get MY story ideas.  How about you?  AND, if you’re a writer, what common questions do YOU get?