Monday, November 25, 2013

How to Talk About Your Writing During the Holidays

It doesn't matter if you are a first time writer or a New York Times bestseller. Inevitably, there will come a point where you feel compelled to discuss your craft in a public or semi public forum. Maybe it's over Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe it's at a cocktail party. Wherever it is, it makes sense to have a plan on how to deal with this situation before it comes up. A writer who can't describe their own book is sending the wrong message.

The Goal of the Discussion
Keep in mind, I don't really want to have a trite conversation about my books. The idea of reducing 75,000 words and a year of toil into a 5 minute uninformed conversation isn't my idea of a good time. I would love to have an engaging dialogue about the theme, characters and twists in my plot, but the odds of that happening are close to zero. So the compromise I came up with is part diplomacy and part marketing. I want to say just enough to end the inquiry politely and if I'm lucky increase curiosity about my work.

Disclaimer: If your work is controversial, sensitive or not suitable for the situation you are in, it might be best to avoid all discussions about it. The holidays are stressful enough. The last thing you need is your cousin accusing you of giving grandma a heart attack because of your Fifty Shades of Gray slasher horror comedy novella.

The Diplomatic Marketing Method
Diplomatic marketing is a four part process:
  1. Setup is where I announce or introduce the fact that I'm a writer. This is the easiest part. Someone you just meet asks what you do or someone you know asks how your writing is going. The key is that I don't set up on my own. If no one asks about my work, I don't discuss it. Blatant self promotion is a faux pax I try to avoid.
  2. The Pitch is where I give the "famous bastard child description" of my novel. The idea is to transform a complex, nuanced narrative into something that anyone familiar with popular culture can digest and understand.  This will often wind up sounding like a Hollywood cliche, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
  3. If the pitch generates interest, my next goal is creating anticipation. In the flirt stage I tease something about the story, but I make it clear that if they want to know more, they'll have to read the book. This could lead to a semi earnest claim that they will 'check your book out' or in extreme cases they might try to download your book on the spot (hint: it pays to make sure your book is available online before the party starts, just in case)
  4. Finally I deflect the conversation. In most cases, people aren't asking about my work because their dying to hear about my story. They ask me what I'm doing so I can turn around and ask them what they're doing. This is a natural social dynamic and since I don't want to talk about my book longer than necessary, I'm happy to help. There are several directions I can go; are they thinking of writing a book? what are they reading now? what was their favorite book? The direction doesn't really matter. The discussion of my book is effectively over until the next casual conversation starts. Then I just repeat the process.

Diplomatic Marketing in Action

A typical cocktail conversation goes something like this:

"So what do you do?"
"I'm a writer. I actually own my own publishing company."
"Really? What do you write about?"
"I working on a criminal espionage novel now. It's sort of a mix between Scandal and Homeland."
"Really, I love Scandal. Did you see the last episode?"
"I haven't had a chance to yet. What happened?"
"It was great. Blah, blah, blah."

Of course, there are several ways this conversation could go sideways. Maybe they never heard of those shows your referenced or they hate them altogether. Maybe they want to tell you about how all self-published books are crap or about all the money you won't make. Maybe they'll try to force their vague "idea" for a book on you as if you don't have enough of your own and they're too busy or important to write their own book. There's no way to get around that. 

On the other hand, the conversation could go unexpectedly well. The person you're talking to might turn out to be a fellow author eager to discuss business and craft. They could have a relative or spouse who can help improve your finished product. They might even buy your book one day. You won't know what will happen unless you try. Diplomatic marketing isn't foolproof, but it's better than going in blind.

In The Successful Novelist,  David Morrell advises authors to never reveal their role as a writer in polite conversation. This is one of the many areas of the book that I disagree with. For all its potential pitfalls, talking about your work in a thoughtful and concise manner can lead to connections and readers. Even if the conversations don't go well, you'll gain valuable practice learning how to pitch. It's a skill that might come in handy if you ever find yourself trying to get that novel turned into a tv show or movie.

So how do you talk about your books during the holidays? Leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Just How Long is a "Novel" and How Much Should it Cost?

My article last week talked about word count as a tool of measuring progress before a story is released (see Why Word Count?).  I got quite a bit of feedback on that subject, but many of the responses focused on the relationship of word count to the price of a book after it is released. This raises an interesting question; what is the relationship between a story’s length and its cost? I have my own ideas on the subject, but as always, I'm interested in what you think as well.

The Length of a Story

The rise of independent publishing and e-books has given writers the ability to release work of any size no matter how large or small. By separating the story from a dead tree we can publish anything from a haiku to War and Peace. This has resulted in ambiguity about what is and isn't a “novel”. There are several definitions of story size, but my company works with the general idea that:

  • A short story is 10,000 words or less
  • A novella is between 10,000 and 50,000 words
  • A novel is 50,000 words or more

There may be other narrative forms smaller or larger than these three, but I write in this range so that's what I'll discuss. The rest of this essay will have the same logic even if you consider it for works outside these three sizes.

The Price of a Story

Prior to e-book publishing, there wasn't a big market for individual retail sales of smaller works. The price per copy of a short story wasn't an issue because most of them weren't available for sale on their own. Now short stories and novella sales are common place. But how much should they cost?

I've heard from several authors and readers who reject the idea that one author's short story could cost the same as another author's novel. I've heard some author's advocate higher prices across the board to increase the perception of self-published work in general. I've experimented with different price points since 2012, but I plan to adopt the following price model as of February 2014:

  • Short stories will be priced at $.99
  • Novellas will be priced at $2.99
  • Novels will be priced at $4.99 for the electronic version and $5.99 for the paperback

The release of my next novel A Taste of Honey will have a direct relationship to the price. The novel will initially be sold in parts as three e-book novellas (See One Novel, Four Books). The first novella will be free to increase interest and, the other two will be released at $2.99 each. The full novel will be available for $4.99 with a bonus short story. With this kind of release pattern readers can try the novel for free, buy the episodic versions if they want to read the story early or they can wait and save $1. I get multiple releases and potentially multiple revenue streams. Everybody wins.

The Connection between Length and Cost ?

The one troubling idea I've encountered in this discussion is that the longer work should cost more by default.  I understand that a reader might not want to pay $4.99 for a 5,000 words story, but length has little connection to quality. O'Henry, Nin and Poe produced literary classics that were less than 10,000 words. I wrote a 120,000 word abomination that shouldn't even be released. The idea of charging $5.99 for it is sinful. Readers want good stories (See Great Expectations) not necessarily long stories.

But charging based on objective quality is impossible. If the writer is also the publisher who sets the price, their inherent bias, positive or negative, will unduly alter the price. I don't think any author throws out a book that they believe is bad, but every book that comes out isn't good. Even "good" books aren't agreed upon by everyone. Quality itself is a subjective concept in reading, so it can't be used by itself to set price.

I've said before the right price of a book is the price that readers are willing to pay (See Selling Books Like a Drug Dealer). What do you think? Do books of a certain size need to have a specific price for you to buy them? Does the popularity of the writer or the genre play a role? Leave a comment and let me know.

Have fun.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Why Do We Word Count?

It is counter-intuitive to try and measure the progress of art that is being created. As far as I know, composers don't count the number of notes they put in a new song. Dancers don't count their steps. Painters don't agonize over the number of brush strokes per day. But when I hear writers talk about their work, the number of words they put down per session or the number of pages they write is a barometer of progress. Why? Is this kind of measure helpful? Does it even make sense?

Wasted Words
Like most writers, I keep track of the number of words I string together in each session. There is an emotional boost that comes from knowing that I saved 1,500-2,000 words after an evening of creating lies. Is that uplifting feeling a sham?

If I write 2,000 words of exposition that has to be cut later, wouldn't it be better to write 100 words that show instead of tell? I can write 60, 70, 80,000 words or more, but if the story has to be trashed because it's horrible then what was the point?

Between 1993 and 1999, I wrote a science fiction novel called The Salvation Strategy. It was 120,000 of the most convoluted, derivative and scatter shot words ever linked together in desperation. It will never see the light of day. The only reason I'm admitting to it is because I know no one will ever read it.

Is Fewer Better?
When I decided to start writing fiction again in 2012, I thought that word count didn't matter as much as progress within the particular story. I work from a detailed script (See Building a Better Plot) so as I write I'm aware of how much of the story I've told and how far I have to go. Knowing my narrative destination gave me a mental finish line that seemed more relevant than endlessly throwing words on the page, hoping that some critical mass of content could turn my story from a disjointed mess into a masterpiece. This idea trickled down into my reading, I routinely avoided authors who I felt released books that were bloated and unwieldy. I suppose on a certain level, I became a minimalist snob.

Writing Exercises
But I recently came to a revelation; the practice of writing is similar to exercising in the gym or training for a sport (See Why Your Writing Practice is Like Your Gym Membership). If each word is a rep and each writing session is a workout, then my craft can become stronger as I continue writing. Seen from that standpoint, my Salvation Strategy wasn't snafu seven years in the making. It was a process of squeezing the cliché out of me, to let some fresh ideas push through. It taught me both how to find my own voice and develop the mental stamina to write. If I didn't go through that 120,000 process, my craft might not be as good as it is now. (I'm sure some people think I need to practice for another seven years before my writing is any good, but that's not the point of this story.)

Keep Writing
Authors of writing books like Stephen King, Robert McKee and David Morrell urge us to keep writing. Their advice has merit on several levels. The more we write, the more we can learn about writing and about ourselves. This can improve the quality of our stories no matter how long they are. The dancer might not count her steps, but she will practice constantly before a big performance. A composer doesn't count notes, but does experiment night and day with different arrangements before the song is done. The writer's words are our practice.  The more practice, the better the writing will be. Some writers do focus on word count as an end in and of itself, but the key comes not from how many words are used, but how we find the right words.

What do you think? Does my analogy of word count as exercise make sense or are stories simply better if they have more words? Please comment below and let me know.

Have fun.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Early Warning Systems: Should Novels Come with Explicit Content Labels?

Recent events concerning the Great Erotica Purge of 2013 and subsequent discussions online have raised various issues for publishers. Independent publishers are even more sensitive to these developments because their books seem to be under more scrutiny. Other creative mediums have faced similar issues and have responded in different ways over the years, but one of the major responses has been the idea of informed notice. Is this response applicable to publishing? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of warning? I'll take a look at this idea and the way that it applies to my own books.

Ratings, Labels and Codes

It's not hard to find examples of entertainment regulation in American media. The film industry has the MPAA that assigns ratings based on content determined to be adult (i.e sexual). Television has a similar system, so do graphic novels and video games. Music doesn't have a rating system, but it does have the explicit content stickers for albums with "objectionable" lyrics. In addition, certain songs are recorded twice; once in its original form and once in a sanitized "radio friendly" version. Novels and theater seems to be the only form of mass entertainment that doesn't have some kind of early warning system. I can't speak to the theatrical experience, but that kind of system could have a definite impact on the selling and reading of books.

Acceptance and Rejection

There are two potential benefits to placing explicit content labels on books:
  • Informed readers: potential customers will have a better idea of what they are getting. Readers who are more sensitive to sexual content (because the vast majority of backlash in any media with regards to content involves sex (See Erotica as a Literary Pariah) can avoid titles without the need to interpret the cover or book blurb.
  • Increasing cross genre pollination: while some readers avoid stories with sexual content, others specifically seek that material out. Stories with this kind of content that don't fit into the erotica genre can have an easier time finding readers and sales if readers know that in their historical fiction or space opera they might also find erotic themes. Mainstream readers can dabble in other styles and authors can add erotic concepts to their stories without the need to categorize themselves or their work as erotic if they don't want to.

There are four potential drawbacks to book labeling:
  • Lack of surprise: if a reader knows that sexual content is inevitable, then surprise is replaced by anticipation. Subconsciously, they could be looking for the characters or situations that will lead to the sex scene instead of experiencing the story organically. There might not be an inherent problem with this. Anticipation can keep a reader turning pages and pull them more into a story. But if you want the element of surprise, the warning label takes that away.
  • Summary rejection: some readers will refuse to read a book if they know there is sexual content up front. The context, treatment and craft of the writer isn't considered.  A reader who might otherwise be willing to accept and enjoy a well written scene that evolves naturally may never experience the story because of a prejudicial judgment based on the warning label.
  • Ease of purge: Online distributors recently removed huge portions of their self-published catalog because of complaints revolving around sexual content. The purge appears to be over as books are being restored, but some of those books will never go back up. If there is going to be another purge or ban, an explicit content label could be a bull’s-eye painted on your book cover, regardless of the type of content in your story.
  • Creative retreat: some authors might be willing to insert sexual themes in their non-erotic work if they can be placed quietly inside the rest of the narrative. If there was some kind of obligation to announce sexual content up front, some authors might alter their stories or change their writing style completely to avoid the scrutiny that might come with that disclosure. The label would have a chilling effect on the craft.
Self-Imposed Systems

After weighing the pros and cons, I've decided to try and put warning labels on my next novel, A Taste of Honey. Because the book is about criminal espionage, it might not be immediately clear that the book has sexual content (although some people will probably disagree with me). The way I see it, there is a benefit to attracting readers who like shows like Scandal. I also prefer to warn off people who are looking for a more traditional spy novel. There is still a chance that my book will be rejected out of hand by readers, but I'd rather have them not read it based on their own choice, rather than feeling like I tricked them.

What do you think? Are you willing to put a warning label on your book? Would you avoid a book with a warning label or would that make you more interested in the story. Please let me know with a comment.

Have fun