The other day I had a long discussion with an author friend, and we were bemoaning a book we’d both recently read (I couldn’t make it past the 20% mark) and discussing all the problems it had (aside from the lack of editing), and he suggested to me that it might be valuable to create a series on how to write a better book.
WOW! A humorous blog with me, about me, focused on my wants and needs, and what I think and feel, with the lovely Patricia Carrigan.
NEWS: A guest blog with the always charming Wren Doloro. The Women of Russell Blake.
INTERVIEW: A brand new interview with author Mel Comley.
MORE NEWS: Another guest blog on how to promote your ebook!
None of what I lay out is new. Nor is it controversial. But it is often ignored by writers at their peril.
What follows is part one of a series of blogs that offer tips on writing a better novel.
TIP # 1: Eliminate unnecessary words. If that seems familiar, it’s because it is the first commandment from Strunk & White. And it’s a good one. Too often we get all wrapped up in word count and novel length, and I think that creates pressure to be less critical of our word choices than we should be. Some writers tend to use a paragraph where a sentence would suffice, or a sentence where a word would be more effective. I’m not counseling that you cut your work down to the bare minimum (although that’s never a terrible idea), but rather that you eliminate any lazy words – words you insert that add nothing, or that you overuse – one good tip is if you suspect you’re overusing something, use the “Find” feature in MS Word and see how many times it appears in your doc. As to lazy words, I’m talking about words like “few” or “or so.” “A few soldiers ran…” “It was a mile or so…” Try to be specific. No sentences or thoughts are improved by the insertion of lazy words. If it was a mile away, say so. If there were three soldiers, or six, or a dozen, say so – do the work, think through how many there were, and give the reader that specific information. Sometimes it’s okay to have ambiguity in a thought (to me, especially with character descriptions, I find that less is more and that they work better with the reader filling in the blanks), but mostly it’s just the writer being lazy.
TIP #2: Don’t be lazy. If a reader is to be expected to invest hours into reading your work, you owe the reader your very best effort. A shoulder shrug and the thought, “That’s good enough,” cheats you both. If you are questioning whether it’s good enough, it probably isn’t and you know it. So stop being lazy and do it better. Only once you feel that you couldn’t have expressed an idea or thought better should you be done with it. And you should turn each sentence over with that idea in mind. “Can I do this better? How?” If you take this approach, you’ll find your writing improves considerably because you are demanding more out of yourself.
TIP #3: Write fast, then rewrite. I don’t like to edit as I go. It breaks up the flow, and I wind up mewling like a bitch kitty in a corner, trying to polish each sentence rather than getting the story out on paper (or in this case, the screen). I’ve found that it works better to write at a decent clip and then do multiple drafts, rewriting only once the story is done. Basically, in my approach, the first draft is only 1/3 of the work. The second, which is where a lot of rewrite time is invested, fixes the more awkward language and grammatical gaffes, and then third is more for pacing, polishing and looking for echoes.
TIP # 4: Watch for echoes. Surely you can think of more than one word for anything. If you can’t, get a thesaurus. Nothing bores a reader faster than repetitive use of the same word. Go for variation, but be sensitive about trying too hard. Sometimes using a word like door twice is preferable to portico, and chair works better than chaise. Sometimes not, but usually you want to steer clear of the obscure. Because job number one is to tell the story in as gripping a manner possible, and showing off your scrabble skills might wind up coming off as pretentious or labored.
TIP #5: Use description as punctuation. You should establish a pace, a cadence to your flow, and balancing dialogue and exposition is one way to create a rhythm. Description can be mesmerizing or tedious, and when it’s done well, it can establish valuable pauses in the narrative.
TIP #6: Know the rules, but be okay breaking them if it creates an effect you are after. One of my favorites is “Show, don’t tell.” That comes from the more important idea of “Keep it entertaining and moving.” But sometimes for stylistic reasons you want or need to tell. I don’t get too hung up in this, as most of these rules are well-intentioned ideas, not mandates. When writers become dogmatic about rules (no adverbs, never end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) they are defeating themselves and confusing helpful rules of the road with narrowly-interpreted absolute laws. Mostly, I find that those who care about this stuff past a certain point got themselves a degree where they’re emotionally invested and there can only be one right or wrong. Again, I’m not saying be ignorant of the rules, but rather learn them well, and then follow them to the extent that doing so makes your writing better.
TIP # 7: It’s okay to love language. You should. You’re a writer. If your goal is to merely crank out ten word paragraphs at a second grade level, you may be a candidate for the James Patterson novel factory, but you won’t be writing evocative, interesting prose. Balance your use of language with what mood you want to create. You’re defining the atmosphere, the environment your reader will be inhabiting. Choose your style carefully so it achieves what you want. My advice is to not try to create a voice that you hope will be one readers are receptive to – rather, just write in your voice, whatever that is, and make your voice an extremely interesting and compelling one – work to develop it as such. Perhaps readers would love twenty thrillers by me, each with a different voice and style, but in truth, I believe that consistency is preferable. When I buy a Ludlum or Grisham novel, I want their distinctive, unique voice, not their attempt at a new one each book. In the end, the more you write, the more settled your voice will become, and the more confident you will be with it. That assurance is essential if readers are to have confidence in you as an author – and there’s no faking it. They’ll spot it a mile away.
TIP # 8: Read as much as you can. The more you expose yourself to, the more evolved your voice will become. I read voraciously – fiction, non, thrillers, economics, politics, you name it – anything but YA, romance or erotica (and poetry). Mainly because I’m a curmudgeon and don’t like it much. I can’t see how you could wind up being a good writer if you don’t read a lot. It’s like trying to be a good cook without eating or tasting a lot of different foods. Exposure to new ideas broadens your horizons, whether it is a device another author used to create an effect you like, or a stylistic trick you want to incorporate in your work, or a tangent the author goes off on that creates an unexpected sensation you’d like to make your own. If you don’t expose yourself to a lot of different work, you will have a limited vocabulary, which will translate into a hamstrung ability to tell an interesting story.
TIP # 9: Write as though your life depends on it. This speaks to quality. Write each book as though it was the only one of yours anyone will ever read. Because if it isn’t good, it will be. More importantly, nobody is holding a gun to your head to force you to write. There are more than enough good, and bad, books out there. The world doesn’t need any more bad ones. So if you are going to foist your work off on readers, make sure that it’s as good as it can possibly be. If you find a passage or chapter your gut says shouldn’t be there, or could be better, your job is to act as the quality control department and either axe it or fix it. You should write with pride and sincerity, and strive to improve each day. Your work is your calling card, and it will build, or destroy, your reputation. If you don’t take what you are doing seriously and assign importance to it, then you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
TIP # 10: Tell the story as efficiently as possible. Another way of saying this would be don’t waste the reader’s time. Every chapter should be there for a reason, and each paragraph within it should as well. Same with each sentence. If it doesn’t move the story forward or create an effect you’re after or provide information that the reader needs, it shouldn’t be there. I’d rather read a gripping 70K words than a meandering 85K. Cut the fat. Lose the deadwood. Cut to the chase, and ask yourself with each page, “Is this interesting?” If the answer is anything but, “You bet your ass it is!” you should lose it.
TIO #11: Don’t be a douchebag with your vocabulary. You should have as large a vocabulary as possible (in order to best select how to convey your ideas, you need the largest palate of colors possible), but you don’t need to put defenestrated or axiomatic or antidisestablishmentarianism into your book just because you know what they mean. That’s kind of douchey, and it bugs me. It’s okay to use complicated language if that’s part of your style, but don’t write Nancy Drew and then drop in an antipodal or pantheistic for giggles. Keep it appropriate to your voice. Likewise, don’t write to moron level if you don’t naturally do so. Readers hate insincerity, and if you are trying to dumb your work down because you feel it is too smart for your target audience, my advice is to go after a different audience. Daniel Silva shoots for a different audience than John Locke. Neither of them would be good at writing what the other does. So keep it real and just write what you write.
TIP #12: Don’t write for an imaginary audience. Trying to second guess what some hypothetical demographic might like is silly. Write what you like, do it with sincerity, and make it as interesting as you can. In other words, write a book you would enjoy reading. If that means you take risks and push the envelope because you’d find it boring to read otherwise, then trust that instinct. If you try to make everyone happy you wind up writing a book by committee, and please nobody. Write what you would read – not what you would read if your mom was sitting reading with you, or what you’d want to tell your priest or rabbi you read, or what your critique group might be impressed with – if you would find what you are writing boring as a reader, go with that instinct and spice it up. Don’t pull punches, but don’t try to be outrageous for shock value alone, unless you enjoy books that have outrageous, shocking scenes or language for no other reason than the effect. Be true to what you like as a reader and you can’t go too wrong.
TIP # 13: Have fun. Creation can be painful, but at the end of the day, there should be an emotional payoff. There should be joy in it. Some might even say it should be fun. Given that the chances of any writer making real money from their work are miniscule, the work itself is likely to be the only reward one gets, so it should be rewarding. Love what you do, and love yourself as you do it. In the end, nobody gets out of this alive, and you will only have your experiences when you’re lying on your deathbed. So if you choose to occupy your time – the only time you have on the planet – writing, then make it count and do it for real, and enjoy it.
This list is by no means exhaustive. I will write more blogs on the topic as I feel inspired. A lot of this is good for me to state for myself – it’s easy to lose sight of some of these tips when you’re cranking out about a million words a year. So it’s a reminder to myself as well.
What do you think? Any tips you’ve found are helpful to your writing?
Amazon’s KDP Select program, and its feature of enabling authors to make a book free for a few days, has treated me well. Since participating in it my sales have boomed and stayed high long after the giddy glow of free is over. So what could possibly be the negative?
Glad you asked. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much reason to write this blog, other than to tout my crap in unabashedly self-promotional fashion. Which I will do, early and often, but that’s besides the point.
As every one is by now aware, if you rank fairly high on your free days, you see a bump in sales for four or so days after, due to the Amazon algorithms treating free downloads the same as paid downloads for the purposes of things like the Movers and Shakers list, as well as “also bought” recommendations. That exposes your book to a whole new universe of potential readers, some of who will buy your book to give it a whirl. All good. Everybody wins. Or do they?
NEWS: New book review for King of Swords sequel, Revenge of the Assassin, by bestselling author Steven Konkoly.
MORE NEWS: Book review for pet biography An Angel With Fur from Pets Weekly.
One well documented downside to putting your book up for free for the majority of authors is the dreaded one star review – the drive-by slam that slags your work, often written as though the reviewer didn’t even bother reading it, by a reviewer who’s never reviewed anything else. My pet theory is that free exposes you to readers who would never buy your book and for whom it was never intended – they don’t like the genre, or they don’t like whatever the topic or underlying theme is, etc. But because it was free, they loaded up their kindle with whatever was hot on the lists, and then they started reading, and…blech. That book sucks.
Sometimes a book sucks. In fact, books often suck. Sucking isn’t unknown with indie books, where authors may have failed to get professional editing or proofing, and manuscripts can read more like incoherent first drafts than finished product. Typos, grammatical issues, continuity problems, echoes…and on and on.
But professionally executed books also get one star reviews, invariably after going free. Often, the review will say something like, “I don’t normally read erotica because of all the sex, but I thought I’d give Spank Happy Oiled Gladiators a try, and was reminded of why these books suck a bag of d#cks. I couldn’t finish it. Ugh.”
What we have here is a failure to communicate. (Note that I am not saying that low reviews are always, or even mostly, unwarranted. Everyone has different tastes, so one person reads Da Vinci Code and finds it gripping, and another finds it sub-custodial twaddle. That’s what makes a market. No, what I’m describing is well documented – the spate of one and two star reviews that invariably follow a free promotion, on a book that has universally gotten only positive reviews until then – where the consensus is that it’s a decent example of the breed)
The free reader who is leaving that one star slam wouldn’t have purchased the book, ever. It’s safe to say that reader wasn’t the audience it was written for. But free brought them to it, and now they feel they must share their dislike of it with the world. Hence the one star reviews after free. It’s just a theory, but my hunch is that if you are willing to pay $4 for the epic tale of greased up, corporal punishment-crazed warriors, you know what you’re buying, and thus are more accustomed to the norms in the genre, the content, etc.
It’s rare that I put a book free and don’t see the one star effect. Many authors dread it. I tend to be more philosophical. Free brings out all kinds, many of whom aren’t going to ever like anything you write, or in your chosen genre, because the filtering mechanism that is the reader laying down his/her money to read the work has been eliminated. Just as readers get everything from complete drivel to brilliant discoveries when they download a bunch of free books, authors get a mixed bag of readers from free – from “U ar a stoopid riter and ur buk suks!” to “Scintillating, salubrious sophistry structured with sartorial slyness.”
That’s just how it is. Welcome to the free book binge.
The other negative I’ve seen is that the fringe buyer for indie books, the reader at the margins who might have been willing to give a new author a test drive in exchange for a few bucks, now doesn’t. Instead, they download free books. Their kindles are clogged with books they will never have the time to read, but they can’t help themselves. It’s free, GD it! Getcher free stuff while you can! Obviously, poop and dirt are free, too, but most don’t load up and eat it just because there’s no cost. But the problem is that there is a glut of content that has taken those fringe readers out of the mix for indie authors, as they’re struggling to digest 1000 free books, and so aren’t buying anything right now. I believe that’s substantially contributed to the lower sales I’ve heard so much about over the last 30-60 days from many name indie authors. These aren’t folks struggling to sell a few dozen books. They are established authors with plenty of titles who are well regarded. And yet their sales are down, across the board, by at least 40-50%.
My pet theory is that this is the inevitable effect of free, and it will likely take the remainder of 2012 to rinse through the system.
What will stop the race to free for authors is the other negative nobody likes to discuss in polite company – namely, that the “bump in sales” effect free can create has gone from hundreds or thousands of sales, to only a few. The market has absorbed the promotional technique, and it’s no longer effective – just as other techniques worked until they didn’t – think .99 for an example.
In 2010, .99 was almost a guarantee of massive downloads. In 2011, not so much, and in 2012, it’s hit or mostly miss, at best. You still see some authors doing it, because they are reading “how to” books written in 2011 about what worked in 2010, but most quality authors don’t like the idea of making 1/6 the revenue at 35% commission on .99 as they would on 70% commission at $2.99. So it has lost effectiveness for two reasons – readers believe (often correctly) that .99 equates to barely readable dross, and authors believe that they are giving away their work at that price, undervaluing their product to no good purpose. Some still do it and are successful, so whatever, but most don’t anymore if they have any pricing power at all.
Free is great until it isn’t, and readers finally figure out that there’s a resource more precious than a few dollars: time. If they can pay $5 and be guaranteed of a read that gives them 10 hours of well-executed escape, that’s a better value than poring through dozens of marginal or worse books they got at no cost, only to delete them after the first twenty or thirty pages. Time is a commodity that doesn’t replenish, so in the end, I believe that most discerning readers will pay an equitable price for competent work. What that price winds up being is debatable. But it won’t be free, and likely won’t be .99, except as limited time promotions.
And now we come to the crassly commercial part of the blog. Check out the new cover below – I’m in the process of redoing the covers for Zero Sum, Fatal Exchange and Geronimo, and am almost done, so if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, get your credit card ready. That’s it for my blatant self-promotion for this episode. Now go buy something.
So there’s your installment of the view of the literary marketplace as seen through a tequila shot glass on the beach in Mexico. As with all things, your mileage may vary. In the end, the only things you can really control are the quality of the writing, the level of professionalism of your finished product, and the number of hours you invest in marketing. The rest is up to a finicky and randomly chaotic universe, so don’t quit your day job…
My last blog focused on the positives and negatives of the Amazon KDP Select scheme, particularly pertaining to the loan fees and how they compare to outright sales commissions on higher priced books.
This blog will focus more on the value of the actual promotions, and explore what, if any, benefit one can hope to garner by giving away thousands of books. I’ll do this by describing my own experiences with one of the titles I made free.
Last month, I dipped my toe in the water by making The Geronimo Breach free for three days. During that time, I saw about 12K downloads. Not too shabby. Then, when it went back to paid, a funny thing happened. After languishing for the first day, it shot like a rocket, finally hitting #165 in the paid kindle store.
All good. Or rather, all should have been good. One problem was that the book was .99 rather than $3.99, due to price matching with Barnes, which after three weeks still hadn’t taken the book down, even after numerous e-mails. And .99 was the wrong price anyway, but I digress. The point is that Amazon’s software matched it, so folks were downloading 500+ books a day at .99.
Sales peaked at day 3-4 of being paid, and then started dropping off, bottoming at week three or so.
At the time, I didn’t know what to make of the data. I was frantic on day 5 – what was going wrong? Why did God hate me? Were the clowns behind it? What gave?
Turns out that this is a very predictable and knowable cycle for those who have done free days. Reason is because the Amazon algorithms pick up on the ranking from when it was free, and begin featuring the book on their recommendations pages about, you guessed it, 24 hours after going back to paid, as well as in the “also bought” strip at the bottom of other books your shoppers picked up. Over the next two to three days, love is in the air, and sales roll in. But then the book, whatever it is, gets pushed off to the second tier to make room for the more recent titles that did well since then. And the buying from folks Amazon was presenting you to dries up, little by little, and you’re back to your old run rate. Sort of like being a Hollywood starlet who briefly dates a celebrity, you have to be satisfied with and enjoy your moment in the sun, because it won’t last.
But knowing this presents an opportunity. It suggests a way to play the game so you can win, if you’re an author. Specifically, you can understand the phenomenon and capitalize on it. How? By running another free promotion 4 to 5 weeks after the first one. Maybe at 6 weeks, maybe at 3 1/2. Depends on sales. But you can repeat the performance.
Let’s go back to The Geronimo Breach. Thursday, it went free for 24 hours. It saw 10K+ downloads, and hit #11 in the Amazon free store last night. Most of the day, it, and one of my other free titles, The Delphi Chronicle, were #2 and #5 in Kindle free Action/Adventure.
That’s the second promotion, and it was more successful than the first – 10K in one day versus 12K in three. And the best part? I didn’t tweet about it. I didn’t do anything. Because I’d forgotten I was going to run it, and only figured it out halfway through the day when I checked my rankings. So that was with no social media at all, other than a few tweets from some friends (thanks Claude!) and being listed as free on several websites that picked it up. One of the best I’ve found for thrillers being Epic Kindle Giveaway (I follow it on Twitter at @eBookSwag), as well as The Digital Inkspot, and Digital Book Today. Others that may or may not pick it up are Cheap Kindle Daily, Pixels of Ink, and a host of others. Google them for a complete listing. There seem to be new ones every week. Most are very good for what they are, and save a lot of time.
I am now at day one of The Geronimo Breach being back to paid. Before the promotion, I was #9K-#11K overall. Today, so far, I’m at #2300 or so. At $3.49 – a sale off my usual $3.99 price to encourage folks to buy over the weekend. I’m sure if I lowered the price to .99 it would sell a lot more books, but given that I would need to sell 8 times more books at .99 to see the same revenue as at $3.49, I question whether it’s a smart idea. I also don’t want to brand myself as a buck a book author. Lord knows that is played, and there are more than enough of them out there. We shall see how sales go as of late this evening and tomorrow, but I’d say the trend is positive at this point. Even if it only stays at 2300 for four days, hey, that’s an improvement over where it was, and there are 10K more people with it on their kindle now – probably the most important thing for an author like me, who has a slew of titles and is adding to them seemingly every month. Because I believe the primary value of free is familiarizing readers with the work.
To put that into perspective, I’ve had around 70K free downloads of my work since I started giving books away. That’s a lot of downloads. A lot of folks who can decide they love, hate, or are ambivalent about me.
What is the takeaway from all this? Do Select freebie promos every 4 to 6 weeks, don’t freak out when day one sucks or starts slow (remember the algorithm, my friend) and then promote the hell out of it days 1-5 of it being paid. Recognize that the decline in sales over the next two weeks isn’t a function of an angry and vengeful deity singling you out for persecution, or that word of mouth has spread and your book sucks (I mean, either are possible, but not a given, is my point), or anything else. It’s a function of the Amazon algorithms having moved to new, fresher, more exciting faces.
Think of that first 4 or 5 days as your time at the bar where everyone wants to buy you drinks. Day 6 on is where a new kid on the block captures everyone’s attention, until you are ultimately yesterday’s news. Unlike the dating world, though, you can repeat the performance over and over (well, I suppose that is a little like dating – wink) and hopefully see a higher trough each time you decline. Then again, I’ve also heard that the effectiveness of the free days diminishes for a title each time through the cycle, so there is probably a point where it won’t work any more. But cross that bridge when you come to it.
For now, if you’re in the program, make hay while the sun is shining.