Saturday, May 31, 2014

What's Wrong With Being Passive?

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, there are rules good writers are expected to follow.  One of the most commonly accepted rules, by editors of books and newspapers, is that good writing is always in active voice.  Recently a good friend and excellent writer raised the obvious question.  Why?

Put simply, a sentence in active voice presents the subject before the object, as in “Bill hit the ball.” In a passive sentence, the object appears first: “The ball was hit by Bill.” Passive voice often adds some form of the verb “to be” to a sentence, but one wonders why that is considered evil.  After all, people talk this way all the time.  No one will tell you that passive voice is grammatically wrong, and sometimes it just makes sense to emphasize the object of the sentence “The entire city was destroyed by that fire” makes it clear that this story is about the city, not the fire.

The fact that passive voice is very popular in governmental writing might be a clue to why the rest of the world hates it. It’s common to read that “Taxes were raised for the third straight year,” or that “the toxic waste dump was undetected for years.” What you may notice is that in the passive construction, it is very easy to leave the subject off completely.  It is consequently rather convenient to not name the person, group or entity that actually took the action. Passive sentences make it easy to obscure the blame.  You probably want your writing to be clear.  Passive writing helps a sentence be more vague.

Journalist Sydney J. Harris said, “We have not passed that subtle line between childhood and adulthood until we move from the passive voice to the active voice - that is, until we have stopped saying 'It got lost,' and say, 'I lost it.'”

So, while a writing instructor might tell you that active sentences have more pizazz, help a story to have a stronger pace and promotes clarity in your writing, I’m comfortable with the idea that writing in active voice is just the grown-up way to write.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

All's Fair...

I spent last Saturday enjoying the sunshine and warm breeze while signing books at the Middletown Arts & Crafts Festival. I was no star attraction by any means, just one of the dozens of vendors there at Middletown Community Park. I was also wondering how many other authors enjoy this kind of activity.

As time passes there are fewer and fewer bookstores in which I can do signings. Social media is nice, in fact essential, but I crave the personal interaction with readers.

Also, I've never had much success at book fairs, where I'm one of dozens of writers talking about their books. Most attendees can only buy one or two books and in a room full of authors that slants the odds against me.  Plus, many people are overcome by the variety of options, or feel they're being unfair if they buy from one and not others.  Paralyzed by indecision or guilt they may decide not to buy any books.  And how memorable can I be to readers who talk to a dozen authors that same day?

At local festivals and craft fairs I stand out better because I'm usually the only author in the place.  Yes, I have to set up a tent and table, but then I'm in a relaxed atmosphere. The folks I see neither feel pressured or guilty when they stop to chat with me.  I usually do as well at these events as I would at a book signing in a book store, and I just might spot a perfect gift for someone's birthday or Christmas. 

The Middletown Festival was a good time, and profitable.  The low point? Well, the live entertainment left something to be desired.  The high point? The fellow who sought me out because he heard I would be there.  He had bought his dad one of my books for Christmas. Dad loved it so much he needed to get more of my work for future gifts.  Of course, I was happy to oblige.

Is it worth the time and energy to sign ten or twelve books in an afternoon?  To me, it's worth it to reconnect with even one fan, and maybe make a couple new fans.  I think every indie author or small press writer should give it a try!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Author's Final Step

My next novel, Beyond Blue, has been written, re-written, edited, proofread, formatted and, as you can see, it has been fitted with a beautiful cover. As a publisher I have lots more to do but as an author, you would think my work was done. But no, I have one more crucial duty.  Now I must face the galley proof. 

In printing and publishing, proofs are the preliminary versions of publications meant for review by authors, editors, and proofreaders. They are created for proofreading purposes, but at Intrigue Publishing we also use them as the Advance Reader Copies we send to reviewers. 

They are called Galley proofs because in the days of hand-set letterpress printing, the printer would set the page into galleys, the metal trays into which type was laid and tightened into place. These would be used to print a limited number of copies for proofreading.

When we print them, one copy goes to the author.  His or her assignment is to go over that book with a fine toothed comb, read every word, looking for errors.  This is that writer’s one last chance to find anything wrong, be it a formatting error, spelling, grammar or that character’s name that changed halfway through without us noticing.  This is the writer’s final “I meant to say…” opportunity. It isn’t meant to be rewrite time, but if an author thinks a particular turn of phrase looks clunky in print and he is inspired by the perfect wording, we usually accept it.

So in addition to my other duties, I’m re-re-reading Beyond Blue. Not something I look forward to, but as editorial director I do need to practice what I preach. This being the first book of a new series, I’m not as familiar with the characters and setting as I am with Hannibal Jones or Stark & O’Brien so I have to look extra closely.

What’s the book about?  Well, I try to make this blog about my writing/publishing life rather than my writing itself.  However, if you’re good, maybe I’ll tell you a little about it next week.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Joy and Frustration of Choices

One of the biggest changes the publishing industry has had to face in the last decade or two is the rise of a variety of formats in which a book can be published.  Since Amazon launched twenty years ago the e-book has come into its own.  That fact has been a book for self publishers and small presses, but it has also made publishing a bit more confusing.

The publishing business was already confusing when all books were paper.  A publisher would sell books to bookstores at a specified discount.  Each time a book was sold the publisher would pay the author a certain percentage of the price. The bookstore discount was pretty consistent at 40%, and cover prices for hard covers, trade paperbacks or mass market paperbacks were also pretty consistent.  For those reasons, author royalties were also pretty consistent across publishers. 

Of course this process continues. But now that author or publisher can also distribute this book for use on the iPhone, iPod Touch, Amazon Kindle, Sony Reader, Barnes & Noble Nook and probably some devices I haven’t thought of. Each requires a slightly different format and pays a different royalty.  If a publisher is handling these books, the company has to take those various royalties into account, which means that royalties to authors is not consistent from one publisher to the next. In the future a standard may well appear, but at this point both authors and publishers are still figuring out what seems fair and profitable.

AND there are variations on these variations. For example, if you give exclusive rights to your e-book you can get 70% royalties and even get paid when people just borrow your book. Otherwise your royalty will be just 30%, but you may actually make more if people with other e-readers buy your book.

Beyond that, each publisher (or self-publisher) sets the price for his or her book and there is no consistency there either.  I’ve seen e-books available for 99 cents and for 12.99.  One can assume the lower the price the more books sold but how do you establish what price will bring the publisher the most money?

If you choose to self-publish, good luck deciphering the new world of publishing.  If you find yourself trying to figure out  whether or not a publisher’s contract is fair to you, just now that the publisher on the other side of that contract thought long and hard on the decisions that, he hopes, will lead to a profit for him and for you… but that noboby has it all figured out yet.