Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Value of Awards

The winners of the Hugo Awards – the science fiction community's equivalent of the Oscars – were announced by the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) at the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention (aka "Loncon 3") in London this week. In fact, given the time zones, as I type this Loncon 3 is in it's last hour.

If you don't follow the science fiction industry you can be excused for not knowing about the Hugo Award. The award is named for Hugo Gernsback, a man often credited as being the, or at least a, father of science fiction (which he originally called "scientifiction"). His contribution to the establishment of science fiction as a recognized genre was not creative – or at least not creative in the way H.G. Wells's or Jules Verne's contributions were creative. He was a businessman who, early in the 20th century, recognized the popularity – and profit potential – of stories we today call science fiction and began the first pulp magazine devoted to them. Actually he founded three. I've read that Gernsback's recipe for a good science fiction story was three parts story to one part science (even if the science was sometimes little more than a stand-in for magic). As an editor he had an eye for stories that inspired readers' imagination and made scientists more heroic than they had ever been before.

Gernsback did well for himself as an editor and publisher mostly by cutting every corner he could (his cheapness was the stuff of legends), paying writers and artist almost nothing (when he paid them at all), and generally living by an "all's fair" business ethic. As nearly as I can tell, no one who ever worked for or with the man had fond memories of the experience. But his popularizing of what had been a marginal type of story, motivating a generation of youngsters to want to be scientists, and giving the first great names among science fiction writers their (unpaid) start is what he's remembered for today.

This year – as with just about every award ever bestowed anywhere for any reason – the announcement of the winners was not greeted with universal approval and acclaim by the general public. There were murmurings of cronyism, or of politically motivated choices, or of votes indicating popularity of the writer rather than the merits of the works, or that only safe stories that didn't challenge the establishment were selected, or, or, or, ... and could we at least get through something without Game of Thrones winning?
I have no opinion on this year's Hugo Awards – I haven't read a single one of the nominated novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, graphic novels, or related works. I will say that two people I like won in their categories and two other people I like didn't win in theirs and leave it at that.

The winners of the Hugo Awards are decided by vote. This year they were decided by about 2,500 votes cast exclusively by members of the World Science Fiction Society. What does it take to become part of this august body? $50. That's the annual fee for the lowest level of membership in the WSFS. But if that's all it takes, how come only 2,500 people voted? The WSFS has to have more members than that. I'm sure it does. I'm also sure that if every single member voted, they'd still be a statistically insignificant fraction of the number of people who read the books or stories or graphic novels and saw the movies and TV shows. The number of votes can't be that important; after all, the Oscars are awarded based on the votes of only six thousand people. (Note I foreshadowed this point by linking the Hugo to the Oscar in the opening sentence.) Of course this is a false comparison. With the exception of the honorary members, the people who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the folk who vote for the Academy Award of Merit, aka Oscar – are all professionals in the industry who understand the craftsmanship and effort that went into the productions on which they vote. (Of course, statistically their mostly white men over sixty, but that's an issue for another column.)
In other words, the Oscar is voted on by six thousand professional peers of the nominees and the Hugo is voted on by twenty-five hundred fans of the nominees willing to pay $50 for the ballot.

Am I saying the Hugo Award is meaningless? Of course not. The Hugo may not be all that the WSFS would want it to be – and it's certainly not on a par with the Oscar – but no award is meaningless.

Not only can winning an award be a validation of your own work, it becomes part of your public identity – your brand as a writer. Awards and award winners have an affect on people – even those who don't have a clear idea what the award is about. Even being nominated for an award elevates the writer in the eyes of the buying public – which is why you see "nominated for...." on so many ads. Being a finalist carries weight – a potential reader unsure of choosing between unknown writers will feel a little safer plunking down $9.99 for a title that made the finals. And of course, once you've won an award you are forever an award-winning author.

So go for those regional, themed, and literary competitions. Check each one out first – it's basic common sense to make sure it's legitimate and respected; there are a lot of scams out there. If an entrance fee is required, use your own judgment as to whether or how much you're willing to pay. It's gratifying to have someone else nominate one of your published works, but writing specifically for a contest helps you build the discipline for finishing what you start, meeting guidelines and expectations, and delivering a story on deadline. It's all about developing professional standards.
And boosting your award-winning brand.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

When Is the Write Time?

If you’re a writer and unless you’re one of the fortunate few, you likely write in addition to holding down another, more "regular" job. That usually presents a challenge or two with respect to time management, doesn’t it? I mean, employers are notoriously demanding when it comes to insisting that you do...you know...actual work and stuff for them, and as often as not your writing gets pushed to the side due to overtime, critical deliverable deadlines, and on and on and....

Kind of a bummer, right?

Maybe you’ve got kids, and all of the responsibilities that come with them. Yeah, they want to eat every so often, and they’re always growing out of the clothes you buy them, and there are those times when they need to demonstrate to you how the homework they’re doing is far and away beyond anything with which you might be able to offer assistance.

Pretty humbling, that.

So, in and around all of the other demands on your daily schedule, you still need to find time to write. How do you do it? Where do you strike the balance?

For me, my preferred time to write is early in the day. Reality, however, has seen fit to laugh at my personal wishes. It seemed that no matter how early I would try rolling out of bed and hitting the keyboard in the hopes of logging a few hundred words before the day got to cranking on all cylinders, one of my darling offspring would wander down the stairs and into my inner sanctum for some Daddy-Daughter Cartoon Time. Sometimes, this happened early enough that it became Daddy-Daughter Crappy Late Night Infomercial Time.

In recent years, my most productive writing time tends to come late in the evening. After everyone else in the house has gone to bed, I’ll close the door to my home office, take up position in my favorite recliner with my laptop, and pound keys until my eyes cross. On a good night I can work for three or four solid hours before heading to bed. That tends to be my weeknight schedule when I’m working on a novel, and I supplement that with a few hours on a Saturday at the local library. If I’m collaborating with my writing partner, it’s not unusual for us to retreat to his apartment on a Sunday, where he’ll work in his office and I’ll set up shop on his living room couch, and we’ll work separately with the occasional interruption for comparing notes, brainstorming an idea, eating chicken wings, or all of the above.

I’ve also gotten really adept at seizing whatever rogue writing opportunities present themselves. Lunch breaks during the week, sitting in a doctor’s waiting room or in the airport terminal or even on the airplane flight itself, or during the two hours when I’m perched on the bleachers at my daughters’ martial arts school. That last one usually ends up being a very productive session, because the school doesn’t offer access to the internet, so there are no social media distractions. Huzzah!

While I can and do engage in these guerilla writer tactics, conducting hit-and-run ambushes on my laptop while on my way to and from other activities or obligations, my bread-n-butter writing time comes during those late evening hours. It’s what works for me.

What about you? How do you balance your writing time with the other demands on your life?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Want To Buy Some Snake Oil?

You've seen him in Westerns, the traveling medicine man with a magic elixir guaranteed to cure whatever ails you. Well, he's back. And he knows a sucker is born every minute.

I'm talking about people all over the Internet who claim they have the secret formula to selling books. What makes this offer so enticing is: 1) we all hope there really is a secret to success; and 2) we want someone else to do the hard work for us.

They will do the work but the price is high with no guarantee of success. I'm not going to say they prey on writers but the truth is, there is more money to be made by selling advice, services and promises than selling novels.

I'm looking at the stack of marketing books on my shelf. No, I didn't buy them, I actually won many of them or were “gifted” them by friends. They were outdated even when they were published because things change so fast in this industry. I didn't even bother to read them, to be honest. Now with the Internet, social media and e-publishing, these books are dinosaurs.

I'm more concerned with sites online that start out as blogs and turn into advertisements. It seems that once these bloggers get my trust, they go into sell mode. I understand they want a monetary reward for their advice but we're all struggling here to make a living off our writing.

The worst of it is, most of their advice is trite and repetitive. Because, bottom line, there is no magic formula, no one-method-fits-all. We are square pegs and they offer round holes. When we follow their instructions and fail, we blame ourselves. What did we do wrong?

Novices are the easy target. Their lack of knowledge and expertise in the publishing arena make them doubt themselves and trust all the “experts” out there. They shell out money for online seminars, book doctors, publicists and marketing books, always searching for the holy grail.

No stranger wanting to sell you snake oil is going to tailor strategy to fit you as an individual. Plus, if this same info is being passed out to everyone, what makes it so special?

I recently had an author ask me to do his marketing for him because he was “too busy writing.” Sure, I could probably do it, but what it would cost him would be more than he would profit by book sales. And failure would allow him to blame the person he handed all the checks to—me. This is a fail/fail situation for both of us. Besides, I have my own writing to do!

I say save your money and go on the Internet, cast about for info from peers and those of us in the trenches. Yes, it takes time and patience, but more than that, a strong curiosity. It takes imagination, which presumably we all have in spades. It means honing marketing skills the same way we hone writing skills. Learn by trial and error what works for you and concentrate your energy in that direction.

The daunting task holding you back might be where to start. Okay, here's my bottle of snake oil. I have something I call the Posse. Ask to be included and when I find something that has expanded my knowledge in promotion, I will pass it on to you. Free of charge. It's up to you to read these posts, absorb them and apply the medicine.

Posse members out there, feel free to weigh in on Sunny Frazier's Magic Marketing Elixer. Guaranteed to go down easily with the potential for success. Works on the brain, not the pocketbook!   

Thursday, August 7, 2014

How to Not to Write a Novel #1

Ahhh, yes. Some of you out there might be cringing because this is you. Some of you out there might be cringing because this USED TO BE YOU. 

This is, for the most part, where we all start when we first decide to really, really, really, write a novel. These are also all the mistakes we all make when we first decide to really, really, really, write a novel.

In some ways this is the only way to start. With optimism, and the delusion that the light at the end of the tunnel is fame and fortune, not an on coming train.

Time and experience often crushes these idea. But authors who are dedicated, and who are writing because they love writing, will persevere. You may never get on the New York Times Bestseller list, but you might get published a different route, be it from a small press, self publishing, or one of The Big Five.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Are Readers the Best People to Fall in Love With?

Today I'm sharing a great post written for Elite Daily by Lauren Martin, which looks at the "scientifically proven" notion that readers are the best people to fall in love with. My daughter had posted this link on her Facebook page, and I thought I'd share it with you.

Lauren says that according to Cunningham research, finding someone who reads is like dating a thousand souls, and that if you date someone who reads, then you, too, will live a thousand different lives. It also mentions that readers are more intelligent. I won't argue that!

I'm sure that some of my avid readers like Orsayor Simmons, Sharon Simmons, Antionette Gates and others can relate!

Please offer any feedback if you have any thoughts on this!

LINK: Falling In Love With Readers - Elite Daily


Friday, August 1, 2014

Book Launch Parties -Do They Help?

Today is my birthday and I’m celebrating it with a book launch party.  Yeah, you heard right.  I’m having a party for the launch of my newest book, “Zapped!” Danger in the cell” which was released by Caribbeanreads Publishing on July 17th.  There is a lot of skepticism about the value of a book launch party, but I’m trying it anyway.

So why am I having a launch party for this novel when I never had it for my past titles?  There are multiple reasons.  My first novel debuted five years ago on my birthday.  And I did have a party, it was just not a book launch or book release party… it was just an ordinary birthday party.  At that time, I had no idea what a launch party was until a few days later when one of my relatives asked about a launch party. 

In addition to my naiveté, I was hoping to keep my “writer’s” identity separate from my professional identity.  I had no idea what impact writing fiction especially romance would have on my career as a scientist.  Finally, back then my book was published by a large publishing house with built in distribution.  Of course at the time my approach to writing was as a hobby.  I was one of the lucky ones.  I wrote a book, sent it to a-million-and-one publishers.  After the hundredth rejection, I wrote another and did the same thing.  This one got taken up by Dorchester Publishing and the rest is history.  I was not intimately involved in the publishing.  I submitted, edited, received galleys and poof! … a book was on the shelves of all major bookstores including Walmart.

For this book it is different.  I’m using a small publisher without the major distribution networks of the major publishing houses.  I have been intimately involved with all creative aspects from the writing to illustrations, to the cover art, to formats etc.  And without the distribution of a major publishing house, I know I have to be my primary promoter.  In terms of identity, well, I’m not trying to separate the identities any more.  This being a science adventure novel aimed at educating kids amalgamates all aspects of my professional life as an author, a scientist, and an educator.  And then there is my co-author to consider.  I’m not the sole author on this one; my eleven-year-old daughter who harassed me to write and publish it and now is getting cold feet when I mention promotion, is the co-author on this novel.

Thus when my sister suggested a launch party I immediately researched it.  I noticed authors had differing opinions on the utility of a launch party.  For some, they consider it a money sink – a huge investment for little gains.  For others, there were success stories in getting the books in the hands of readers whether or not there were major sales at the launch.

So I decided on a more intimate launch party, not at a library or book store or some extravagant venue.  I’m doing it tomorrow at my sister’s home.  It’s going to be a casual affair and since the  book is geared at kids, there will be activities for kids.  We’ve invited a targeted audience: people with kids in the target age as well as teachers and administrators of book clubs who can recommend the books for their students and club members.  And of course we invited our friends and family.

Will it work?  That’s left to be seen.  But eliminating the expensive venue has kept cost down.  Integrating it with the celebration of my birthday, means even if it is not a successful launch party, we would have one heck of a birthday party.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s a win-win situation!
I’ll let you know how it went in the comment section.  In the meanwhile, if any of you have had a book launch/book release/book signing party, let me know how it went and what impact it had on your book sales.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Creating Characters Readers Will Love

I am so pleased to have been invited to join the bloggers who write for Novel Spaces. I’ll try to keep you entertained or informed, perhaps a little of both. Look for me on the 30th of each month.

To write a good story, we must develop characters readers care about. Without strong likeable characters, the best of stories fail.

Dwight Swain, author of Techniques of the Selling Writer, states that even the longest book can capture only a tiny segment of a human being. We humans are much too complicated for the writer to create in their entirety. So we must simplify, and develop our characters to the degree each needs to be developed in order to fulfill their function in the story. Give an impression and approximation of life rather than attempting to duplicate life itself.

As the author, you need to know something about your character beyond the story you are about to write. But don’t spend so much time analyzing them that you get bored and want to kill them off.

Here are a few basic questions you should ask that will help you begin:
  • What do they want out of life, and what do they need?
  • What do they want to accomplish in their life?
  • What are their beliefs? A kind God? Life sucks or is unfair? Money is more important than love? Vice Versa. If we are very good we go to Heaven.
Some more questions that will help us know them better are:
  • Have they ever betrayed or failed anyone?
  • Has anyone betrayed or failed them? If so, how did it affect their outlook on life?
To uncover your character, have a conversation with him or her. Sit on your porch or patio and talk to her. Let her answer in first person. Don’t forget to take notes. This will help you write your story with more conviction. Once you know her life story, then it’s time to discover what’s going to fuel your book.

I like to have my hero write letters to me about what’s going on in his or her life. Three or four of these missiles and I know a lot more about them. These letters can establish a firm back story on which to create strong characters..

Often we begin with a happy character and it’s up to you to not let up on her until she’s sad, then finally angry or frightened enough to fight back. Learn what she’s afraid of and hit her with it. What does she regret? Rub her face in it. Don’t let up. Eventually she will show her strengths and stand up to life. It’s just as effective to begin with a sad or angry character and drag her through all it takes to finally become happy.

Charts of character attributes simply don’t work for me. But if they do for you, use them. Usually, I’ve written at least three chapters before I begin to understand my characters. By then I know what they think and why, how they feel and react to adversity, why they aren’t content, who and what they hate. I will continue to discover things about my characters far into the book. Are they honorable? Do they keep promises? What are their weaknesses and strengths? First draft stuff.

Characters soon become real people. They take over the story line. You may have to rein them in once in a while, and that’s what happens in real life, isn’t it? We go off on tangents but life says whoa, you can’t do that. You, as the writer, must make them behave or in the least make them pay the consequences when they don’t. If you’re too kind to them your book will be dull and boring.

Some writers prefer to have the character keep a journal during the writing of the book. It isn’t included in the book, but will give the writer more insight into this character who has taken on a life of her own.

A character who is too dumb to live does not charm anyone, so while a flaw or shortcoming is necessary, don’t overdo it. On the other hand, she can be larger than life. Maybe she can’t leap tall buildings, but when cornered she can get herself out of a fix, be it by using her mind or her physical strength.

Be realistic, though. Create someone who can learn to handle what’s going to happen. It may take a while, but she will eventually succeed.

One of my favorite characters for flaws, strength and fortitude is Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon. She takes a licking and keeps on ticking. She’s tough and believable and smart. And Barr never lets up on her throughout the entire book. Once in a while Anna does something so dumb I want to holler at her, but that makes her human. And boy does she have regrets. No one is perfect.

If you want to play a few games before you begin to write, think of your best friend. Why do you like her? Make a list of all her good traits and her flaws and try to see why you like her in spite of her flaws.

Now think of someone you dislike. Why? Again, make a list and try to understand why you don’t like her.

Here’s a difficult one. Why do you think people might like you? Make a list of your good traits. Then write down your worst flaws

When I created Katherine Kelly in Beyond the Moon, I knew precisely how strong she would eventually have to be to deal with Glen Tanner, a man damaged by war and torture while he was in a POW camp in Vietnam. But she doesn’t start out that way. Her strength grows slowly as she realizes that she can help him through their mutual artistic talents. Even then, she must have a desire to help him, have faith in her ability to do so, so that when he reaches out to her, she responds. She may have been the most difficult character I ever created, because the entire book was written from her viewpoint and the subject matter is so difficult to portray.

When we sit down to write a book, there are many things to consider. But first and foremost are the characters who will people your story. Remember, you are a creative writer, so turn that creativity loose and write. Let those thoughts and people who live in your head come out to play and think twice before you rein them in.

Next Month, let’s look into villains and how to twist and turn their personalities to make readers love to hate them.