Friday, April 25, 2014

Special Guest Skylar Hamilton Burris: The Challenge of Genre Labels

Skylar Hamilton Burris is the author of two novel-length sequels to Pride and Prejudice, a collection of poetry, and a collection of literary criticism. Her latest novel, When the Heart Is Laid Bare, is a contemporary story of healing and friendship. She earned a dual degree in English literature and economics from the University of Virginia and holds a Master's in English from the University of Texas. Skylar is the editor of Ancient Paths Literary Magazine, which has published quality short fiction and poetry for over fourteen years. Her short stories, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Big Pulp, The First Line, Spring Hill Review, The Lyric, Voicings from the High Country, The Penwood Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, Small Press Review, and Montgommery's Journey.
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           Publishers like to fit novels into the tidy boxes of genre. This makes them easier to market and sell to readers who know the general type of books they seek.  From romance and young adult to science-fiction and horror, genre labels give readers an idea of what to expect. Publishers are reluctant to bring to market books that break the conventions of the given genre to which they are assigned. Your Christian fiction can’t feature characters who swear or have sex outside of marriage. In contrast, your new adult romance ought not to have characters who are too chaste.  Your genre thriller probably shouldn’t be written with a great deal of literary flourish. These sorts of rules are unwritten, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. An author’s genre label will determine where his or her books are shelved and how they are ranked within categories, and it will help to direct readers. Labels are necessary, but they can also be limiting.
These labels pose a special challenge to authors who blur genre lines or whose books don’t fit neatly within the conventions of a single category. Last year, I read Stephen King’s Joyland. The book is labeled Hard Case Crime on the back, but fans of the hardboiled detective genre may find it a little too whimsical and insufficiently focused on the mystery. It has some chilling moments and hints of the supernatural, but the book isn’t quite a horror novel either. Joyland might best be classified as a coming-of-age story, but that label probably wouldn’t appeal to King’s usual audience. So the publisher chose a genre and ran with it. Stephen King is a big enough name that a slightly inaccurate label won’t prevent millions of people from buying his latest book, but labeling poses a greater challenge to debut and midlist authors whose works don’t quite fit within the confines of one particular genre.
At places such as Amazon and Goodreads, I have found my novel Conviction stocked on a variety of virtual shelves, including Christian fiction, literary fiction, historical romance, Regency romance, inspirational romance, and Jane Austen sequels. While it has some Christian characters (a vicar is one of the major players) and a few Christian themes, it doesn’t closely follow all of the big publishing house rules of what is and is not allowed in Christian fiction, and the religion of the characters is not the focus of the story. Although the book clearly provides a romantic plot with the typical “happily ever after” ending, it is written in a literary style that is not commonly found in the romance genre. My third novel, which will be released May 1st, is also difficult to classify. The book is a story of grief and healing and male friendship, which might qualify it as literary fiction, except that the two romantic subplots consume a fair portion of the focus. On the other hand, one of the expectations of the romance genre is that the hero and heroine will be in face to face scenes for fifty percent of the novel with romantic tension throughout, but When the Heart Is Laid Bare begins with the death of the hero’s wife, and he’s understandably in no mood for romance.   While the book has Christian themes, it involves a character who is shaky and growing in his faith and breaks some of the unspoken “thou shalt not’s” of the Christian fiction genre.
What’s a genre-blurring author to do? I found a small press Christian publisher who was willing to be a little more flexible in her boundaries than most of the big houses, and I accepted the “Christian fiction” label even though I don’t like the idea that it might limit my readership by turning off a non-Christian reader to a book he or she might actually enjoy. Other authors, after much reading and research, modify their books to fit more neatly within a specific genre. Some choose to self-publish their genre-bending books. For writers and readers alike, genre can be both a challenge and a tool. 

P.S. I’ll be happy to send a free copy of "An Unlikely Missionary" to one person randomly picked from those who comment below.

Books by Skylar Hamilton Burris

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Bucket List

A person very close to me was told that she didn’t have much longer here on earth.  After the emotional breakdown, she collected herself and calmly said, “I guess I have to make my bucket list, don’t I?”

Her bucket list included travel to far away exotic places.  I supported her.  There was no way I could crush her spirit by pointing out she was too weak to accomplish anything on her bucket list.  She eventually figured that out herself.

Like many of us, this person put off all the things she wanted to do, to accomplish the things she had to do.  There was college, a career, and bills.  When she was not working, she did not have the money.  When she was, she did not have the time.

That is the same with the majority of us.  We let money, time, family, and careers get in the way of the things we are most passionate about.  We want to wait till we retire to get take that cruise; wait until we have more time to write that book.  But the thing is we may never live to retirement.  Or we may be too old and feeble, or too poor to do the things we want to do when we retire.  The time to do them is now.

I recognized that 11 years ago when I had a brush with death due to complications in childbirth.  I had all these stories in my head but was waiting until I wrote my dissertation, got my career on the right path, got a good steady job, got more time, (you can insert your obstacles here) before I wrote those stories.  But after that near death experience, I realized that if I died, those stories in my head would die with me.  So when I recovered and went on maternity leave, I immediately set out to pen and publish the stories.  I went at it with a dedicated passion.  That was the number one item on my bucket list: to be a published author.  Six years later, I finally accomplished that. Oh yes, I do have more things on my bucket list, but they are things that if I don’t accomplish, I wouldn’t really care. 

As a kid, I always heard older people speak of what they could have been had they had the opportunity.  I made a promise to myself since I was a child, to never look back at my life when I’m older and regret that I didn’t do the things that I wanted.  And it’s driven me to accomplish a lot academically.   It was the impetus behind my desire to have a family at all cost.  But socially and recreationally, there is still a lot I want to do before I kick the bucket.

So for you guys procrastinating and putting obstacles to achieving the things you want to do in life, I say like the Nike commercial, “Just do it.” Don’t wait until you are told you have limited time to do the things on your bucket list.  Make your bucket list your “to do” list and do them now.

Monday, April 21, 2014

SEO insights

The Novel Spaces blog has been running since July 2009, and a look at the pageview stats is revealing. What terms are people searching? Which key words are most effective at garnering those clicks? Here, standing out from the more than 1060 or so posts of the last five years, are the top 10 as determined by pageviews to date:

10. 4 Literary Agents Looking for Novels by Marissa Monteilh: 751
9.  So, It's Your First Convention As A Guest? by Dayton Ward: 820
8.  Q & A With Susan Schulman, Literary Agent by Liane Spicer: 1026
7.  Comma Abuse by Jewel Amethyst: 1091
6.  When's the Best Time of Year to Release a Book? by Marissa Monteilh: 1202
5.  Spotlight on the Caribbean Adventure Series by Carol Mitchell-Ottley: 1259
4.  Giveaway: Free Sex With Angelina Jolie & Justin Timberlake by Liane Spicer: 1271
3.  Naked Came the Stranger by KeVin Killiany: 3203
2.  So, Sex Sells, Huh? by Marissa Monteilh: 3561
1.  Looking for Pre-made eBook Covers? by Eugenia O'Neal: 7416

Interesting stuff. Take the top post, for instance. It scored more than double the hits of the one that's next in line. Makes one wonder: exactly how many indie authors are there out there anyway? Then it seems that anything with 'naked' or 'sex' in the title gets lots of hits (surprise, surprise) but I doubt our writing blog is what these Googlers seek. Although some tell us the day of the literary agent is over, the evidence seems to suggest that hordes of people are still searching for them. Advice seems popular too, whether on punctuation, conventions or the timing of book releases. And Caribbean adventures still rock!

I'm not suggesting that we take this information to heart and tailor our posts around these topics and key words. After all, a pageview is just that; it brings the human to the page, but does not guarantee said human will remain long enough to read or comment. (The average time spent on a page, I've read somewhere, is all of 15 seconds.) But it cannot hurt for us to try to use search engine-friendly key words in our headings so that our demographic can find us.

Then again, we wouldn't want to snub the clientele of that Russian porn site (2081 clicks) who came here looking for naked strangers, would we...

Liane Spicer is a writer with a warped sense of humour. You can usually find her procrastinating on Facebook or staring at blog stats in vague incomprehension.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

You're In It For The Money

Oh yes, you are! And that's nothing to be ashamed of even if it sounds crass to admit your intentions aloud.

I've been blacklisted on at least one artsy site and bad-mouthed on others for blatantly saying "I like to make money from my writing." I blame my attitude on my early years as a journalist. In those days I was paid to put words on paper and I grew to like having an income. It felt good to have people reading my articles, even when my precious words were tossed in the recycle bin after a day. Now there are few newspapers and my degree languishes, but I still like the notion that my words are worth a few dollars.

Kudos to those who write simply for the sake of their art. Perhaps satisfaction comes from pieces published in literary magazines for limited readership. Me--I want lots of people reading my stories and books. I want those hours (years) I put into my work to be rewarded. This is a business for me and the IRS concurs.

Not that it's ALL about money. I have no problem contributing to Novel Spaces because I'm investing in a site I respect and hope readers will possibly invest in me. I give books away when I'm on panels to pepper the pot for sales. I've donated my novels to the local Senior Center and VA Hospital. I've even gifted to people who were too broke to spend $12 on one of my books.

Does expecting money for my work make me a hack? Possibly. I know what readers want and I strive to give it to them. They want an entertaining story, interesting characters, a few cringe-worthy moments (I write mysteries) and a satisfactory ending. But, to keep my standards high, I also give them craft, personal insights, soul-searching questions and a bit of astrology. Yes, it's worth much more than the few dollars I'm asking in return.    

What I'm against are those people who make money off of the one segment that can't afford the cash--new authors. When starting out, it's hard to resist the carnival barkers promising quick routes to the bestseller list. They come in the form of costly conferences, webinars, PR people, paid reviewers and businesses that impersonally shovel titles to the Internet. All of this can be done for free--and should be. The info is readily available in your computer if you know where to look. Since we're close to Easter, I'll liken the process to hunting for those colored eggs. The search will take exploring websites, following leads and a bit of time.

Time is money. I realize that and I also understand the World Wide Web can be a very confusing place. My solution was to start a Posse. Several years ago I decided to share my own searches with others. Authors just send me their email addys and they're in. They get emails from me pointing them to articles on marketing, platform building, inside business info, places looking for guest bloggers and yes, my blogs.

There's no charge because the effort is minimal on my part. It's my way of paying it forward. Consider it a gift from one author to another. I hope others do the same with their future network. And, who knows? Perhaps I'm make a fan or a friend who will buy one of my Christy Bristol Astrology Mysteries. Because, as the L'oreal ads say, I'm worth it!  

Friday, April 11, 2014

Be the Enabler

Newton's laws of motion are the sort of laws that must have seemed like common sense once he came up them. The first one states that "Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it." So if you are moving you stay moving unless something stops you and if you are stationary you stay that way unless something moves you.

In life we are often in a position to be the external force either stopping progress or advancing it. I like to think of myself as an enabler in the positive sense of the word, pushing people to move towards completing their goals. I enjoy contributing to other people's success, even if I remain behind the curtains. I guess I am naive because I am always perplexed when I run into the doorstops, and I must say, there are a surprisingly large number of them in the literary world. That's one of the reasons that I enjoy being a part of NovelSpaces where authors share ideas and support one another.

Perhaps the comfortable relationship in this community helped to lull me into a position where I relaxed and stumbled into one of the largest doorstops I have ever encountered. I shouldn't really talk about this, lawyers may be involved, but as I sat to write this blog, I couldn't bring myself to write about anything else. A woman introduced herself into my life and where I saw opportunities for collaboration and promotion of our common goal in promoting literacy, she saw opportunities for some sort of misdirected revenge and self-aggrandizement. Sigh.

Anyway, here is my point. We aren't competing for a tiny pool of book sales, the market will accommodate a wide range of quality books. So stop, every now and then, be that external force in another writer's life. It will do you a world of good.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

There's a boulder in the road

The Pusillanimous says, “There is a boulder in the road, I have to turn back.”  The stubborn says, “There is a boulder in the road, I’ll just plow on through.”  And he pushes and pushes while the boulder does not budge.  The wise says, “There is a boulder in the road, hmmm.”  She scratches her head and examines the boulder.  She says to herself, “I can climb over it, I can go around it, or I can blast through it.”  She looks around for the tools she has at her disposal, examines each way to see if she has enough energy to accomplish the task, and whether it requires assistance from others around her.  Then she makes her decision.
(Sorry guys, I had to make the wise one female.)

I see many of these categories in the world of writing and publishing.  There are the faint-of-hearts who work tenaciously on a manuscript only to give up after a few rejections from traditional publishers.  Then there are those who submit the same manuscript over and over to every traditional publisher without making changes because their stories are just “so great”.  And even after hundreds of rejection letters or worst yet, their lifelong work falls into the black abyss of unanswered queries, they still would not change a dot on their manuscripts.

And then there are those who encounter of the obstacle of the rejection by large publishing houses and determine to find a way to get their work out.  So they make changes and expand their net to include small presses.  They look into vanity.  They look into independent publishing.  They examine each method and determine which method is the best to get their work out there, and then they move forward.

Which kind of writer are you?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Indefinite Timelines


Four years into my journey through independent publishing, I’ve learned some valuable lessons.  Among them: 1) selling books is really hard; 2) a diversified platform consisting of webpages, blogs, twitter, blogging, Facebook, and more blogging might help some; 3) it’s always a good idea to use sunscreen; and 4) seriously, selling books is really hard.

Having worked with small and smaller publishers, and having published my own books, I’m a huge fan of independent publishing.  But I won’t lie - if one of the biggies waves a sack of euros in my face, I’ll sell out fast.  Until that happens, however, I’m going to extol the virtues of going it alone.  

Here’s why: I’m the boss.  I can publish when I want to publish.  No more waiting - I can design covers or pay someone to do that.  I can do my own layouts on InDesign, and I can upload my projects to LightingSource or CreateSpace myself.  And as long as I’m willing to ignore my children, I can do this pretty quickly.

But the biggest advantage to going it alone is that it allows for an infinite timeline.  My books are never going to go out of print, and I’m never going to stop talking about them.  I published my first mystery novel Grave Passage five years ago.  And I’m still pushing it and still getting reviews.

Furthermore, I control the promos.  The promos generate reviews and the reviews generate sales.  Without question, the single most effective marketing strategy I have come across is the Kindle KDP select promotional option that allows you to give away your book free for five days every few months.  I’ve had a lot of success with this, so I’m going to give it another try today.

One year ago this month I published my archaeological mystery - The Mummies of Blogspace9.  It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve done.  So I’m giving away free copies today.  So if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, please consider downloading copies for the whole family.  Don’t delay; supplies are limited!  Click this BUTTON.  Go ahead, click it.  You can click on any letter.  Just click.  You can even click on this word.


“None of us knew what was at stake. And that’s the thing about archaeology - you never know what you’ll find when you start digging into an ancient pyramid. Maybe some burials, mummies even. But surely not a five hundred year-old secret worth killing for. 

Had I known at the onset that seven weeks later most of my friends would be dead, I would have left Peru in a heartbeat. But of course I didn’t know that. 

I didn’t know that a demonically-possessed Spanish Grand Inquisitor would haunt the crap out of us, or that a pair of undead conquistador knights would help us find the secret to putting down walking mummies. 

And surely, I wouldn’t have just sat around had I known that something was watching from inside that pyramid, some malevolent force that could animate the dead. 

But it’s all true, as you’ll come to realize.

My name is Leon Samples.  I am twenty-eight years old, and I am damned.” 


The Mummies of Blogspace9 is a taut, high-stakes thriller about a team of archaeologists who inadvertently dig up more than they bargained for. Demons of antiquity are not easily amused, nor are those who’ve sold their souls to protect them.