Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Halloween. No day can evoke more tingles and shivers than October 31st. For a change, a few of us at FTWA thought we would share a story that scared the crap out of us. Most are movies, but movies are stories, right? So here we go…

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Robert Lewis

There always seems to be that ONE movie that scared the crap out you as a kid. Maybe it was The Legend of Boggy Creek, maybe The Omen, or maybe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For me, however, it will always be Herk Harvey's 1962 "Carnival of Souls" starring Candace Hilligoss. Not only is it eerie and scary as hell, it also has one of the creepiest-looking dudes ever seen on film:

See what I mean?

The story is about Mary Henry (Hilligoss) who is out one day driving with friends. They're challenged to a drag race and during the race her car careens off a bridge and into a river. She's the only survivor. A church organist, she moves to a new town, new job, so she can start over.

But then she starts to ... see things, including the man above. Strange events begin to happen to her, like one moment she's in a busy department store and then it's suddenly empty. The only people she sees in these strange, surreal moments are zombie-like, staring at her as she passes by. I can't tell you more, as I don't want to spoil the film, but needless to say, it's a VERY effective horror flick. I can still remember watching it one Sunday afternoon on Channel 5 KTLA in Los Angeles, and how I had nightmares all that night and rest of the week. There were nights where I would wake up, the San Fernando Valley winds howling, the trees outside my window scratching and clacking on the glass, seeing that man's face in the corner of my room, watching me.

Carnival of Souls. If you've never seen it, get ye to The Netflix!

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Darke Conteur

I have always been drawn to stories that frighten me. It's like an addiction; I can't get enough even though I know I'll get very little sleep afterward. Most movies I watched as a child were the old, campy B movies; Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, something I watched on television to kill a Saturday afternoon. It wasn't until I saw the movie CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1973) that I was truly scared.

Actors led by Alan Ormsby go to graveyard on remote island to act out necromantic ritual. The ritual works, and soon the dead are walking about and chowing down on human flesh.

Part of the flesh-eating zombie trope that exploded in the early '70s, by today's standards it's campy and stupid, but for a ten year old, it gave me nightmares for three months. I learned to jump from the doorway to my bed in one leap and I am proud to say that I can sleep with the covers over my head and not suffocate! It should be a part of any ghoul's zombie collection!

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Cat Woods

Movies don't scare me. Not in the Friday the Thirteenth and Nightmare on Elm Street-murderer-on-the-rampage-for-no-reason sense. These are child's play. Fiction at its finest, yet fiction none-the-less. Actors can shake their hockey sticks all they want and I remain unfazed.

The movies that strike terror into my heart are psychological thrillers.

When a movie could be reality? That's when the goosebumps pop and I literally shiver from the inside out. Only one honest-to-God-teeth-chattering movie stands out in my mind. Cape Fear.

Childhood fears: One Halloween when I was about six, my sister and I had to visit our biological father. After dinner, he watched a double header of B-rated horror flicks.

Terrifying shadow creatures lived in the basement and drug people down the stairs to brutally torture and kill them in the first movie. With no place else to go, my sis and I cowered behind the couch and listened to the screams of the dying victims. That night we had to sleep in the glass-walled library with the door closed off to the rest of the house. My sister never recovered, and to this day she cannot go down into a basement without every single light on.

The second movie was about scientists injecting liquid into people's brains, turning them into mindless killing machines. Something about the glazed expression in their eyes and the personality flips caused by the drug scared me far more than the basement creatures ever did.

I guess that night killed all hope of Freddie Krueger terrorizing me. However, it left the door wide open to the darkness residing in the depths of the human mind.

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Matt Sinclair

Like many people, when I think of scary stories, my first thoughts tend toward movies, where the images are so evident. There was a movie whose name I quickly forgot, but its opening scenes have remained with me ever since. Picture this: I’m a small boy, age 7 or 8, getting his last few minutes of television in before summer vacation. My family owned a home toward the eastern end of Long Island, where the TV reception was awful (or my parents knew that television and summer vacations were a bad mix.

It didn’t matter what I watched, as long as it was TV. I turned it on and found the beginning of a movie. A young woman receives an unexpected package. She opens it and finds a set of binoculars. For reasons lost to the young boy I was, the woman was excited and immediately went to look through the binoculars. The she let out a blood-curdling scream as her eyes were impaled.

Just then, my father rallied the troops and I turned off the TV, but that confusing moment of horror remains.

In a sense, I hope some reader here knows the name of the film so I can view it as an adult and possibly understand that it wasn’t what I thought it was. Perhaps it was acid around the rims of the eyepieces. That would be much easier for me to handle.

*  *  *  *  *

How about you? Any super-scary stories to share?

Friday, October 28, 2011

That Spam I Am—If You Don’t Know the Difference Between Meaningful Interaction and Spamming You are Wasting Your Social Media Time (and Mine).

by Sophie Perinot

You know what drives me crazy (currently)? How much of what passes for author interaction at social media sites these days resembles spam.

I made the connection a few days ago while clearing out the spam comments at my blog. They almost all start out the same, with a sentence that looks like the writer (probably a bot) might actually have read my blog post—“I enjoyed this post. This topic is really very intesting...”—then they turn into self-serving sales drivel. And while I was gleefully emptying the spam filter it occurred to me that I’ve been seeing lots of this same sort of “let me say a polite thing about you so I can talk about ME, ME, ME” stuff on twitter, in on-line writing groups, and on facebook lately.

Frankly, it’s cheesing me off.

It’s gotten particularly bad in writing and reading related facebook groups. When I join a group devoted to say “Lovers of Mysteries with Dogs as Their Main Character” (okay I made that one up, but I don’t want to point fingers at actual groups or communities), I expect folks therein to share information on good books with doggy detectives, or links to websites to help me in researching or writing same. Instead what I am getting these days are nearly naked advertisements—“My book ‘It’s a Dog Eat Dog World’ just got a super-duper review at ‘Dog books R us!’ Read it here. Or better still buy my book here, or here, or here.” Come on fellow writers, if I want advertisements there are plenty running along the top or side of every darn website I visit. You’ve got a personal facebook page, probably an author FB page, and doubtless an author website to share good reviews and “buy it now” links on. You can even directly and unabashedly promote your book at those locations (though the jury is out on how effective that will be for you). But the essence of communities/groups (even in the virtual world) is dialogue.

A hybrid of “boast posters” are the folks who share EVERY blog post they’ve ever written or will ever write to a facebook group, or to twitter for that matter, irrespective of whether it’s on topic. Sure, if you (or if I) have written a post that is germane to the topic of a group or comment thread (or touches on one of the subjects that you assume people follow you on twitter to hear about) then posting your link is a worthy public service. But if you are just slapping up everything you can think of to increase your name recognition then spare us and save yourself the time (because pretty soon I for one am going to stop even looking at your posts because I already KNOW what they will say—some version of “look at me.”)

As writers today there is a great deal of pressure on us to market our own work, and very specifically to have a presence in the virtual world. But I presume that an annoying presence seldom sells a book. If you join any community of like-minded people as part of your “building an internet presence” campaign, you should try to interact with fellow members in a genuine, non-agenda-driven, manner. And just for the record the interaction is neither effective nor genuine when it amounts to commenting on topics started by others in true spam form (“I am fascinated by cocker spaniels but for a really great blog on poodles, more specifically MY poodles, click here”).

People can smell a fake a mile away—just like I can pick out the spam comment at my blog even when they are cloaked in an attempt to look like a genuine response. And if you are a spammer not a genuine community member you are wasting your time. Because the truth is I buy two kinds of books: 1) those receiving notable reviews or buzz from reviewers I trust (whether that’s a “R”eviewer in the print or digital media or the guy I sit next to on the bus every morning and discuss books with); and 2) books written by friends (folks I’ve gotten to know through writers conferences, through on-line communities and through their blogs). You are no friend of mine if you spam me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Comes a Time

By Matt Sinclair

A little over a month ago now, I made a big decision. The novel that I'd been working on for years—tweaking here, there, and everywhere as I shifted scenes and fixed problematic points of view—was giving me fits. I still loved the basic story and the characters, and I was excited about a suggested story thread that came from my critique group, but I had a nagging feeling there were major problems that I'd not really addressed adequately. So I looked back at the notes a friend and fellow writer gave me when he served as a beta for me a few years back.

There it was, tucked behind the pleasantries and atta boys were unsubtle recommendations of moving some details up, building tension earlier, removing other scenes and details altogether, and generally doing the things I was slowly doing already. But even moreso.

What was different this time from the last time I read his comments? Me. I'm a better writer now, more informed, with a more critical eye than I already had developed back then. And I understood, the time had come: Fish or cut bait.

Yet, there I sat in my little boat, unbaited hook at the ready, line dangling in the water of the skiff, unsure what to do. So I asked my wife. She's a very sensible woman (though she's obviously vulnerable to matters of the heart, otherwise she would have wised up and sent me packing long before I popped the question.) But when I asked her thoughts about the manuscript, she said what I think an agent would say: "Trunk it and write something new that's more marketable. A trunk is not forever."

I had a box ready.

I suspect most writers of book-length work have novels that just weren't good enough. In a sense, it's a rite of passage. You need to learn how to write a book before you can get one published. In my case, it's not as though the novel that meant so much to me was irreparable, but I finally recognized that it would take a lot more work than I was willing to commit right now, especially since the market for literary fiction appears to be as welcoming as mold and probably not as warm or fuzzy.

But why should I share this little tale of seeming woe with you? Because it's not a sad story. It's also a little different from the stories you've probably heard others tell. This isn't about agents saying no or about whether I should self-publish or not. The story isn't ready. And it won't be soon. While we all write for our own reasons, I'm not ashamed to say that I want to earn some money at this, and I wasn't doing it with that novel. Not yet, anyway.

Know what your time is worth.

Writers must always be ready to work on something new, something different. We must always explore. Right now, I'm about 8,000 words into a novel that's chock-full of college kids, alien abductions, and talking cats and dogs. More importantly, I'm enjoying it. Like its erstwhile predecessor, it may end up in a trunk. But I'll make that decision when the time comes. For now, it's time to write.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Do You NaNo?

by Jemi Fraser

November means a lot of things to a lot of people—fall is over and winter's setting in, it's Thanksgiving in the US, shopping season begins if you celebrate Christmas (and you're more organized than I am) and it's report card season for teachers like me. For writers it also means NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.

It's the month when a bunch of crazies writers, decide to write a 50k novel in 30 days. That's an average of 1667 words a day, every day for the entire 30 days of November.

So, why in the world would anyone want to do it? What's the incentive? Fun, fellowship, and that competitive push that won't let you take a night off. There are prizes too. Once you've registered your 50k at the end of the month, you can claim your prizes: splendiferous blog badges, glorious certificates you can print off, and ... pride! Not so much in the monetary value department, but important nonetheless.

There are rules for NaNo. You can't start the novel until November 1st. You can outline, plot, write character sketches, research and think as hard as you like, but you can't write a word until the 1st. Sadly, as a pantster I do none of those things. In fact last year I had no intention of doing NaNo. I was knee deep in edits for another story and wanted to focus on that. But, when I sat down to write on November 1st, it wasn't my old story I wrote, it was a SNI (shiny new idea) that burst into my head as I typed. I hadn't plotted a thing or even planned a character. But that first sentence jumped out of my fingers and I was off with the other crazies writers.

At the moment, I'm revising another story (last year's NaNo story in fact). I feel like I'm getting near the finish line with it. I want to keep focusing on it. Which means I won't be doing NaNo this year.


So if you want to friend me over at the NaNo site, I'm jemifraser. See ya there!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Writing Superstitions and Rituals

by Cat Woods

Two days ago, our own RS Mellette issued a challenge to writers everywhere. "Come forth, my fellow scribes. Come forth from your burrows and burgs. Unite together in a common cause and claim a world-renowned good luck phrase to be heard throughout the generations."

Sad, isn't it, that writing is such a solitary experience we have no universal truths of our own?

Sadder still, when you consider everything that does. Friday the Thirteenth equals bad luck, while a bee flying through an open door guarantees a visitor will appear soon. Black cats and ladders, broken mirrors and broken legs? Even classical music has its own Curse of the Ninth.

RS—and the upcoming Halloween holiday—got me thinking about writing superstitions and rituals. Where do they come from, and why do we use them? Do they really work, or are they nothing more than placebos for our artistically thirsty souls? In a nutshell, superstition is the act of attributing an outcome to a completely unrelated event. The more frequently a coincidence "succeeds," the more likely it will become a part of everyday practices and rituals.

After careful research—and an unofficial poll of authors, agented writers, experienced scribes and newly minted ones—I realized writing does not have a universal superstition or a must-do ritual because every writer is as unique as every story ever told. Writing is highly personalized, and as such, we bring our own personalities to the process.

Consider the following: 37 of the 45 writers polled admitted to having some sort of quirk.

  • Manuscripts must end on an even numbered page. Period. If not, the story is doomed to failure.
  • Chapters cannot have thirteen pages in them, nor can books end with a mere thirteen chapters.
  • No characters can have the same initials as anyone the writer knows in person or bad fortune will befall said real life person.
  • Each manuscript has its own "writing spot." If a new manuscript is typed in a previously used spot, the ghosts of the old characters will affect the personalities of the new characters.
  • One writer refuses to eat anything sweet whenever the antagonist is on the page for fear s/he will be tainted with the sweetness.
  • Conversely another sucks on lemon drops while penning the villain's scenes.
  • Back in her querying days, one writer used to wiggle her "jazz fingers" as the email took off through cyberspace. You know, their own personal cheering section...
  • Another aspiring writer swears off coffee until a certain number of responses returns to her inbox so as not to use up her "good stuff" quota on her caffeine addiction.
  • More than one writer claims that successful writing is all in the pen. Certain writers adhere to the use of certain utensils, some going as far as refilling their pens with ink.
  • One scribe uses a single pencil per manuscript. If the manuscript is short, she breaks the pencil in half at the end so it can't be used for a second story. If the manuscript is long, she literally writes her pencil down to the nub.
  • One writer—back in the snail mail days—signed every query letter with the same ballpoint pen. Incidentally, she used this pen to sign her agent contract. She hopes, of course, that the good karma associated with it will someday lead her to a publishing contract, which she will sign with the very old and tired Bic.
  • Whimsical attire. Anything from smoking jackets to fuzzy slippers, and robes to hand-knit gloves, clothe writers world-wide while penning their words. One writer admitted to wearing a splash of green every day during the writing of her rough drafts—EVERY DAY—because green means "go" and she swears the color nudges her muse in the right direction.
  • Pipes, whiskey, chocolate, Baileys and chai tea. Vices run rampant in the writing world. Some with the purpose of calming nerves, while others to simply keep idle fingers not so idle when the words cease to flow.
  • One writer swears by a single coffee mug. The only time she drinks from it is when she's writing a rough draft. The only time she spikes it is when she completes her first read-through.
  • Totems or mythical muses can grace the shelves and minds of writers everywhere. These little critters are said to ignite creativity and provide good juju. These are especially prolific during the frenzy of National Novel Writing Month.
  • Writing every day is another common theme. However, one writer takes this to the extreme. He literally writes every single day. Even if it is only one word. One month he wrote 32 whole words. He does this so he is continuously making progress on his novels. Before starting this practice, he said his projects rarely made it to completion. Now, they always do.
  • Some scribes wear their MC's personalities to achieve better characterization, and have been known to prance around in outfits better suited to a television set than an office.
  • More than one writer rearranges the letters of favorite authors' names to create pen names. Obviously it worked once...

As you can see, the methods to our superstitious madness are as varied as the writers we meet.

So, dear scribes, what rituals or superstitions do you have regarding the writing or publishing process? Do they seem to work or do you simply enjoy the mystique that accompanies such whimsies?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What Do You Say...?

By R.S. Mellette

There's something missing in the literary world that is prevalent in the performing arts. That is a unique way to wish an artist good luck.

For various reasons theatre, dance, and opera all have their special way of wishing someone good luck—or, because it is bad luck to wish someone good luck, wishing them bad luck as a way of fooling the Fates.

In theatre, we say "break a leg." There are a thousand stories about the origin of the saying, so take your pick as to which one you like.

In ballet, they say "merde," which is French for "shit." Having known my fair share of dancers, I'm surprised they don't say "chienne." God knows they call each other bitches enough during rehearsals.

In opera, Wikipedia tells me that they say "Toi, Toi, Toi." They'll also knock wood and spit—or pretend to.

But we writers have nothing. What do we say to a fellow scribe who says, "My manuscript is going out to editors today," or "My agent is reading my next book"?

"Good luck." How lame is that? "I'll cross my fingers." What are we, twelve?

So, I'm issuing a challenge to our readers and writers everywhere. A call to arms! Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the literary world is on the hunt for our own, new tradition, our own new way of communicating to one another that we are in this fight together. We might be lone wolves in the creation of our art, but we are not alone in spirit.

So writers, write! Come up with a phrase that clearly means, "I am an author in the same hell as you, and I am wishing you well."

Some parameters:
  • There should be implied history behind this saying.
  • That history should have something to do with the literary world.
  • It should sound old before its time.

Once found, we must make sure we use this phrase so that others might hear it and pass it on without knowing the origin, but thinking it has been a literary tradition throughout time.

Here are my two proposals: "Dante's Luck" or "May Virgil find you."

I like them because they both come from Dante's Inferno, a great literary work, and they both speak of one making their way through Hell to get to eternal paradise.

But I'm not the only writer here. What say you all? Offer up a suggestion of a phrase and why you think it should be the one to pass from generation to generation. We will know the winner when we hear it in a writer's group decades from now.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"Getting Over" My Genre

by Lucy Marsden

I’ve just finished Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell’s latest book, Everything I Know About Love I Learned from Romance Novels.

It’s not my intention to review the book here, but suffice it to say that it puts paid to the implicitly patronizing and slightly hysterical recent claims that romance readers are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality in their personal relationships. With chapters like “We Know More Than a Few Good Men,” and “We Know That Happily-Ever-After Takes Work,” it’s an intelligent, hilarious, and uplifting testimony to the very real ways in which the genre helps its readers articulate and celebrate strong, loving relationships.

One of my favorite things in the book (and the point of this blog post, which I swear I am getting to any minute now), was author Robyn Carr’s quote when she was asked to comment on what people learn from reading romances:

“I think the antithesis of the question is more important—what do we learn from romance novels that we shouldn’t get over?”

And I thought to myself, “How fabulous is that?” Because for every genre out there, there is a way in which it says or celebrates something uniquely important about the human experience; a reason why it draws readers and writers that goes far beyond a need for escape and entertainment. Yet to greater or lesser degrees, most genre writers and readers have encountered criticism for their genre-love:

“You’re so smart. How can you read those trashy space-operas?”


“Do you think you might ever write a real book?”

And much, much worse.

So here and now, tell me what you love about writing or reading your favorite genre. Tell me what your genre says about being human that’s so important, the things that you wish people knew about how awesome it is, the ways in which it colors your world-view that you wouldn’t “get over,” even if you could.

Believe me, you’ll be in good company!

Friday, October 14, 2011

From Goodreads to Goodbuys?

by J. Lea Lopez

So, you've taken the plunge and self-published your book. Or maybe you've done it the traditional way. You have eBooks available through the usual outlets. You've done your homework and you have a blog or website, a decent Twitter following, maybe a Facebook page, and your marketing efforts seem to be paying off. Still, every author is eager to take advantage of different ways to get their book in front of new readers.

Have you looked at Goodreads lately?

You may be familiar with Goodreads as a place where readers can place books on their virtual shelves (want to read, read, hated it, loved it, and any other colorful description you can think of) post reviews, recommend books to friends, and more. Authors can create a presence on Goodreads as well. Now authors can take one more step: They can sell their eBooks directly through Goodreads.

At first glance, it may seem like this is just another venue to add to all the others for selling your book, but let's look a little deeper. Amazon is the big name that comes to mind for eBooks, but I think we can all agree the searchability kinda sucks. Especially if you're looking to discover something new, as opposed to searching for the latest from your favorite bestseller. I can't remember the last time I stumbled upon a brilliant new author by searching through the thousands of books on Amazon. And with the uproar over fake reviews earlier this year, I am a bit more skeptical when browsing there.

For indie and self-published authors, Smashwords is a major outlet, since they convert and distribute to a wide variety of online retailers. Like Amazon, searching Smashwords to discover something new and brilliant is no easy task. I've also heard from many indie authors recently that they consider Smashwords to be more of a writer's site than a reader's site - that is, it is more well-known among writers, and sales there may be made up largely of other writers.

On top of all this, Smashwords founder Mark Coker recently discussed the results of a survey he conducted on Mobileread. He asked readers to select their most common method for selecting eBooks. The most popular answer was "Recommendations from fellow readers on online message forums, blogs and message boards." This is where we come back to Goodreads.

Goodreads is huge. HUGE. They have "more than 5,700,000 members who have added more than 180,000,000 books to their shelves." I have often looked at my friends' shelves to see what we have in common as well as to peruse the books they've read and liked that I haven't read. And I find that much more enjoyable than clicking through the mess of search results on Amazon. Imagine this scenario:

A reader checks out her friend's Goodreads shelves and sees that someone recently read and reviewed two books, one of which is yours. Her friend had given four stars and positive reviews to both books. Perhaps there are some good reviews from other readers on each book's page as well. The reader thinks, "Hey, next time I'm on Amazon, I'll look up these authors and maybe buy one. But wait... I can buy this book [your book!] right here on Goodreads, right now. Well, my friend really liked it. What the heck, I'll go for it."

BOOM. Discovery. Purchase. Royalties for you. Instead of waiting for whenever the reader decides to click over to Amazon and hoping she'll remember your name or your book's title, offering your eBook for sale right on Goodreads lets you maximize the influence of many consumers' preferred method of finding eBooks. It's a convenience for readers, but it's also a potential advantage for you. Authors themselves must opt-in and upload their eBook for sale on Goodreads. Considering that there are only slightly more than 28,000 authors currently on Goodreads, if it comes down to your book vs. another author's book, there's a good chance that the other book may not be available to buy on Goodreads. Who knows, you may even win out over a NYT bestseller, or your favorite author.

All in all, it seems like offering your book on Goodreads is a good idea. You probably won't see a huge amount of sales, but they may be sales that you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. Here are a few other facts about this program:
  • The eBooks for sale on Goodreads are offered in epub format, which works with most eReaders
  • The author uploads the file and sets the price
  • Sales are split 70/30 (which is the same split you'll get on Amazon for books priced $2.99 or more)
  • Your profits are banked until you reach a specified amount, then you are paid (I've heard both $25 and $50 for this figure, but I'm not sure which is accurate. If you know, let us know in the comments!)
Inquiring minds want to know: As a reader, do recommendations from sites like Goodreads factor into your purchasing decisions, and would you then purchase a book if it was available on Goodreads? As a writer, have you or would you offer your book for sale on Goodreads?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Self-Image in The Hunger Games

by Mindy McGinnis

Yeah, you read that right.

Since publication, Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games has been the subject of more than one parental tirade against the violence depicted therein. While this post isn't focused on that topic, the one thing I do want to say is that whenever I hear an adult ranting about any book my first question is, "Have you read it?" Haven't had a "yes" answer to that one yet.

Instead, I want to focus on something The Hunger Games gives teens without being preachy, without talking down to them, and possibly without them even knowing they've learned a powerful lesson.

How tired are you of effortlessly gorgeous female teen characters? How about the rich one with the designer everything who is torn between two ultra hot guys? Or the girl from the wrong side of the tracks that's hitting an 11 on the 10 scale and the guy on the right side of the tracks who falls for her? Are you sick of perfect skin, glossy hair and full lips? 'Cause I sure as hell am.

Katniss kicks ass across the board. Sure, she can kill people in fun and imaginative ways, but the first time we see her she's using her skills to fill the fundamental need of feeding her family, alongside longtime guy friend Gayle. Her love for her little sister sends her to the stage to take Prim's place in a contest where she knows the odds are against her and her life is at stake.

And what does Katniss look like? Well ... we're really not sure. She's got dark hair, and it's usually in a braid. Due to the fact that she's from the poorest area of a poor district and has to hunt her food we can assume she's probably not terribly clean all the time and might even *gasp* smell bad occasionally.

Once a handful of professionals get a hold of her Katniss cleans up and gains attention from the world, but guess what? Ultra-hunky Gayle and super-sweet Peeta were already in love with her, before she got a dress that caught on fire and became the de facto spokeswoman for world peace.

Hmmm ... what could have possibly attracted them to her in the first place? Could it be ... her personality!?!?

One of my favorite lines from the entire series comes from a scene in Mockingjay when Katniss goes to see Peeta after he has been conditioned to despise the polished and public version of her persona, and he says, "You're not very big, are you? Or particularly pretty?" (p. 230).

Katniss even points out her physical shortcomings, in a refreshing non-self-pitying manner: "With my acid-damaged hair, sunburned skin, and ugly scars, the prep team has to make me pretty and then damage, burn, and scar me in a more attractive way." (p. 59).

Katniss has been through battles, bested her enemies, won over the world and had a guy on each arm the whole time.

And she's not "particularly pretty."

Good for her.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Following Novel has been Rated PG-13 by ... What?

by R.C. Lewis

Every so often, a hullabaloo erupts over particular books and whether or not they're fit for public consumption ... particularly by children and teens. Both sides of the argument prepare for war, comments on web articles run into the hundreds, and Twitter hashtags go viral. None of this is surprising, but amidst the fury, there is often talk of solutions.

One idea I've seen floated here and there is a book rating system similar to the systems used for films and video games. I can see the appeal—a simple label that tells parents at a glance whether a novel may have some questionable content. But the harder I look, the less appealing it seems. The analyst in me only has one thing to say about it: LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE.

Let's think about it. First, who's going to do this rating? To be remotely consistent, fair, and meaningful, it ought to be some single, independent organization doing all the rating according to some kind of set criteria. Who's going to be responsible for pulling that together? Getting publishers and retail outlets alike on-board?

What about volume? From the MPAA Theatrical Market Statistics, I gathered that the number of movies officially rated per year ranges from about 700 to nearly 1000. (Of those, around 400-600 get released in theaters annually.) The ESRB rates 1000-2000 video games annually.

It's a little trickier to get numbers for book releases, particularly since I want to narrow in on fiction. But it seems safe to say tens of thousands of new works of fiction are put out each year. To successfully rate, someone has to read. How fast can a rater read an entire novel thoroughly enough to rate the content?

That's before you consider the massive avalanche of independent e-publishing.

Oh, yeah. What about those indies?

The MPAA ratings, as I understand, are a voluntary thing, not actually required by law. But it's kind of ingrained in us now, so we expect it. I imagine indie films don't have to be rated, but how much reach do they have when they aren't? Maybe you have a local theater that does a lot of indie and art films, but you have to seek it out.

Those indie eBooks are on sale right next to their Big-Publisher counterparts on Amazon. So do we all (traditional and indie alike) submit our novels to be evaluated by the Mysterious Novel-Rating Board? I can imagine the backlog ... and you thought traditional publishing moved slowly now.

Okay, maybe instead we're all just responsible for self-rating our own novels. But wait, isn't the "problem" in the first place the fact that people so often disagree on what is or isn't appropriate for a certain age? There would be no chance for even the illusion of consistency. Even with set criteria and guidelines, you can't expect an author to objectively evaluate their own work.

When I let the logistics go, I wonder if there's really even that much value in ratings. There are plenty of PG-13 movies I find repulsive, and R-rated movies I find worthwhile. Content is so nuanced and varied, it's really hard to stick one of a handful of labels on it and believe it will mean something.

What's the answer for concerned parents and general readers, then?

One option is to read the book yourself first. That's time-consuming, though, and if your kid's a voracious reader, you're going to have a problem.

Better option: The internet is your friend. Check online reviews, especially critical ones—they're more likely to mention potentially offensive content, and you can decide for yourself if it's a deal-breaker or not. Get involved on sites like Goodreads where people talk about books all the time.

What if you're in a store or library and forgot your smartphone at home? Ask a bookseller or librarian. It's their job to know about books. If they don't know enough about a specific title, I bet they could help you find out with one of those online resources. (I've yet to find a bookstore or library that didn't have a few computers inside.)

What are your thoughts on the idea of book ratings? What alternatives do you think are the most viable?

Friday, October 7, 2011

Entertainment Value In Tough Times

by R.S. Mellette

I have a theatre degree and have spent my entire adult life pursuing a career in entertainment.

In other words, I'm exceptionally qualified when it comes to matters of unemployment and hard economic times. For anyone out there facing this issue right now, I'm with you my brothers & sisters. Unemployment depression can kick your ass. The only thing you can do is repeat your mantra, "It's the situation, not me. This too shall pass."

In the meantime, you do keep looking for work. These days that takes about an hour, maybe two, a day. Things have changed since the local want ads and long trips in the car to pass out résumés and press the flesh. Now, you hit a few websites, send out a few e-mails, remind everyone you know that you're looking for work, and you're done before lunch.

So what do you do with the rest of your time?

"Write!" everyone will say.

Not as easily said as done. Being unemployed is not like being on vacation. The ache inside your head from the worry of how you're going to make it, the thought of "can I afford this?" for every morsel of food that goes into your mouth, wreaks havoc on creativity. Yes, you can fight through it and get some work done, but don't kick yourself if you hit a block. It's natural.

So you write if you can, then what? Yes, you can do all the stuff around the house. Done. What next? I could go on and on with a laundry list of stuff, but my point is, don't forget entertainment.

I haven't done a study, or even read one, but I have a gut feeling that human beings need entertainment as much as we need dreams. Without it, we'll eventually go mad. But entertainment costs money, so what is the best entertainment value for your slim dollar?

TV? Certainly your monthly cable bill, when weighed against the hours spent watching it has a good price per minute ratio, especially if your internet access comes with it. But daytime television is less entertaining than watching paint dry, and can even get depressing. Between 24-hour news cycles of all the yuck in the world, and commercials for trade schools that cost more than you'll ever earn plying the trade, daytime TV can be like alcohol—temporarily numbing the emotions, but in the long run making them worse.

Movies in the theatre? They have the added bonus of getting you out of the house, which is important, but the price per minute is high. Best to save these for the occasional treat until you're back on your feet.

Books? If you read them in a single sitting, a book might bring five hours of blessed relief from your troubles. If you borrowed it, got if from the library—which comes with the added bonus of a free trip out of the house—or bought a used book, you've got a great price per hour. And few of us read a whole book in a single sitting. We stretch that time out over a week or so, during which the thought of the book becomes part of the entertainment value.

Books also have an intangible quality that must not be overlooked. While a movie might distract you from your troubles for a couple of hours, and maybe even for a couple more hours after you've seen it, books have a way of digging deep inside your head. You can get lost in a book.

Of course, that can be good or bad. All things in moderation. The point for a writing blog is that, in bad economic times, entertainment is a good investment—and books one of the best of the choices.

Publishers should also take note. High unemployment means a lot of people are sitting around with time on their hands. That's an opportunity to fill those hands with a book. We should be selling more these days, not less.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Self-publishing? Use the right tools!

by Pete Morin

When I began to write Diary of a Small Fish in February of 2008, I had no idea if I’d even finish it. All I had were some searing memories, a simple idea and a new “hobby.”

When I finished it and began to query in July of 2009, I had a little more than a pipe dream that I’d even get an agent. My query went 0-for-110, and I was ready to pack it in when I met Christine Witthohn at the first writers’ conference I attended, Crime Bake. She liked my elevator pitch—mostly because she’s married to a lawyer.

In April of 2010, we became a team. I went through 6 months of rewrites, and in December of 2010, Christine submitted the manuscript to a carefully selected group of editors.

Four months later, having heard nothing from any of them, Christine and I began to discuss the prospect of self-publishing. I am very fortunate to have found an agent who understands and embraces the changes in the marketplace.

So, I have now launched Diary of a Small Fish and joined the proud ranks of the “indie” community—or as those stuffed shirts call us, “self-publishers.”

What did I do to prepare for this? A lot of things you’ve already read about. There’s nothing particularly new I can tell you, but perhaps I’ll reinforce messages you’ve heard before. Maybe you'll even disagree with something—if you do, you're not necessarily wrong. We're just blogging here, you know.

Building a Platform

This is one of those terms that sounds more impressive than it really is, but still, a see a lot of people who think of the word “platform” as a synonym for “soapbox.” I think that’s a big mistake.

When you see someone up on a soapbox (figuratively speaking), what is the first thing that comes to mind?

He’s selling something, or he’s lecturing. Unless you know who he is, odds are you’re going to tune out or take him for a nut job.

A platform is a “following,” but not in the sense of a pied piper—that would be Grimm. A platform is what I like to look at as an ever-expanding circle of friends, acquaintances and affinity groups with whom you’ve interacted such that they are likely to have an interest in what you are doing. I believe you need to begin doing this well in advance of launching a novel and asking people to buy it.

My social media tool of choice is Facebook. I’ve picked and chosen my friends—not every single person inhabiting the realm, and not all writers. Many old friends from Authonomy, other writers who are friends of friends. Old school chums from as far back as first grade. Musician friends and local music fans from the Boston area. Artists from other venues. I’ve introduced many of these people to each other—so my old high school chums are now interacting with writer friends in UK, Australia, Japan. I make sure to post things on my page that are not just writing related. A lot of articles on publishing, for sure—things that other writers will find helpful. Book recommendations when I’ve found something special. Also quirky news bits, cartoons (thanks to brother Jim for his stellar work!), jokes, gags, you name it. The idea is to establish a track record of posting things people like to see. When your posts come across their news feed, they’re highly inclined to click and read.

The measure of success isn’t necessarily in the number of comments. I’m guessing that for every comment you receive on a FB post or blog entry, there are at least three times that number who’ve read it. So if you use Facebook, pay some attention to varying your material. Be eclectic. Be unique. Be funny. One thing I notice is the number of “likes” that come from people who aren’t even friends. I’ve gained dozens of new friends that way!

I don’t think it’s possible to fully utilize every social media tool there is. Unless you don’t eat or sleep. The best you can do—and still have time to write—is to pick one or two to focus on, and hit them hard. And keep busy enough on the others that you’ve at least got some activity.

If you’re keeping a blog, bear in mind that your blogroll is as or more important than your own posts. You get more out of commenting on other peoples’ blogs than you get from your own page. I’m very bad at this, but try to stop in for visits on a regular basis, and leave a card at the door (i.e., comment) before you leave. You’d be surprised how this results in increased traffic to your own.

Don’t post for the sake of posting. Offer something interesting or don’t post at all. Your goal is to give people a reason to return. If you take care that each thing you post is worth their time, they will return. Give them a reason to doubt it, and they’ll desert you quickly.

The trick to making social media work for you is to understand to whom you’re marketing. I do not do Facebook or my blog because I believe my market is other writers. It isn’t. They are my friends, my colleagues. We’ve experienced this changing landscape together. We’ve offered each other support, critique. I’ve bought and read more than two dozen SP novels this year alone. Other writers are not my sales market. But they are an important—critical—part of my marketing effort. And I theirs. So my objective is not for them to buy my novel. It is to make them aware of it, and give it to them if I can. Big difference, both response and what they do with it.

Building a Book Cover

If you’re now reading for the first time how important the cover of your eBook is, you really haven’t begun to do your research. Suffice to say that “don’t judge a book by its cover” might be useful as a life metaphor. It doesn’t reflect the nature of the vast majority of book buyers whose very first buying instinct—looking inside the cover—is based exclusively on that very act.

Do not make the mistake of using your own instincts to become “art director” in this. I know—you’re a creative artist! You know what “good art” is! You don’t need to spend money having someone else tell you what’s pretty!

In most cases, this is a big mistake.

I have the benefit (perhaps) of enough years of circumspection to recognize what I don’t know. Graphic art is definitely one of them (as my wife, a graphic artist, well knows). But graphic art as applied to an eBook cover that will appear on a website as a thumbnail image is an entirely different matter. You simply must have foremost in your mind that a small image of your cover must stand out! It must stand out!

To appreciate this, you need to go to the eBook websites and look at hundreds of images. Just scan them with your eyes. Note which ones your eyes stop on. Do you see any pattern? Is there a particular color that attracts more than others? Notice all those fonts? Contrasts? Design elements?

Ack! If you’re putting up a free eBook collection of shorts, maybe you can afford to let it fly and pull up an old painting from the public domain. I did that with Uneasy Living, and it came out all right, maybe. But when you’re putting a debut novel out there with the intent to make a statement, you don’t want to rely on an amateur—you. You’re not an amateur novelist. Why have an amateur cover?

If one of your main objectives in self-publishing a novel length work is to maximize sales (and it may not be), then you must hire a graphic artist who understands the online sales dynamic. It’s one of the “expenses” you simply cannot avoid—that and the professional editor (see below). The competition for book cover art is like the Agora marketplace. Prices are reflected. Have an idea what you want, listen and be flexible to expertise you don’t have.

Everyone knows a graphic artist. I was ridiculously lucky to have run across an amazing artist who I’d shared a dorm with forty years ago. I stumbled upon Dean Rohrer on Facebook, and when I asked him if he wanted to help me, he was more than happy to help. He might regret that decision now, but in the end, both of us are rather proud of the final product and thrilled to have had this project to reunite us after all these years.

Arranging Your Innards

So you have a completed novel in proper manuscript format. I have two questions for you.

Did you have an editor read it?

Yes? Good for you. You can skip this next part.

No? You didn’t have the manuscript read by a trained set of eyes? Why? You can’t afford to?

You can’t afford not to, at least if you’re serious about what you’re doing.

There are a lot of ways to get your manuscript edited. One of course is to pay for it. The web is crawling with “professional editors,” and you have to do your due diligence to choose a decent one. What kind of diligence is due? Ask for a list of clients and contact them. Ask for the editor’s own writing sample and read it.

The cheapest way to get an edit is to use the barter system. I have a very reliable, solid, professional editor. How do I pay him? I get him more business. I read his stuff—whenever he asks. I pay him any way I can, whenever I can.

I’ll close this subject with one simple statement. If you think you can effectively edit your own work, you’re wrong. There are no exceptions to this rule. Prove me wrong, go ahead.

Are you sure your manuscript has been expertly converted and formatted into the various eBook formats?

This is a closer question. There are a lot of wonky-type writers out there who are in their element playing with file formats, converting to mobi or epub or prc or whatever. I did my own for a short story collection, and it worked out okay. That is, there are no glaring screw-ups, no stray returns, missing indents, extra page breaks.

But I have to say, I’ve read at least 25 self-published novels this year alone, and without a doubt, the most glaring annoyance (besides bad spelling and grammar) is formatting screw-ups. You worked your tushie off to get your prized work to this stage. Why take a chance on your own inexpertise?

There is a small army of people out there offering the service, but again, you have to pick carefully. A badly converted book is just as bad as a badly edited one. I chose to use Rob Siders, whose service,, does the conversions for some of the big-selling authors like Joe Konrath. Rob did one hell of a job, used three different fonts, and inserted a very catchy fish hook in the chapter headings. He wasn’t cheap, but his work was meticulous, and I knew when I uploaded the files I wasn’t going to get any unpleasant surprises. In the end, it was money well spent, and looking at the book on my kindle, I have to say it looks lovely.

This is all very heady stuff these days in the publishing world. It’s like the days of the California Gold Rush, tens of thousands of enterprising folks rushing toward Sutter’s Mill with their picks, shovels and pans. Like that enterprise, in the world of self-publishing, the ones who strike gold are likely to be those with the best tools—and a little luck, of course!

Monday, October 3, 2011

You Asked: eBook Tagging

by J. Lea Lopez

A while back we asked you all what topics you'd like to see us cover here at FTWA. One reader asked about eBook tagging on Amazon, and unfortunately none of us really knew anything in-depth about it. At least not in terms of what it does for the author, and the logic behind tagging parties/lists. I've finally come across some information about this, so the question can be answered! I'm not sure the original asker really needs the info anymore, since it was Ruth Cardello, who is busy blazing her own trail on Amazon and seeing some good success with her marketing tactics. For the rest of us, here are some important things to know about tagging on Amazon.

  • Any one person (author or customer) can add up to 15 tags (think of them as keywords or category labels) to a book on Amazon.
  • If you click on a tag from a product page, you'll see other products with the same tag.
  • You can browse the most popular tags.
  • Amazon will suggest items to you based on your tags.

That seems fairly straightforward, and not exactly rocket science. It would seem that tagging is a way to make your book more visible to people looking for certain categories/subjects, right? Right. To an extent. However, you might be interested to know that clicking a product tag yields very different results than typing the tag into Amazon's search box.

It seems the more people who tag your book with a certain term, the higher your book will appear in the results when a customer clicks on the tag, either from another product page or the tag cloud. This is why you'll see groups of people starting "tag parties" (the erotica writer in me wants to assign a very different meaning to that phrase, ha!) where everyone agrees to tag each others books with the author's preferred tags. While this is good to know, ask yourself how often you browse for books (or anything) by clicking tags. For me, I might click on a tag occasionally, but not very often. More often than not, I'll use the search function and type in a topic, and use the drop-down box to search in "Books" or "Kindle Store." You can get drastically different product results this way.

Take a moment to do your own experiment on Amazon to see what I mean. I typed erotic romance into the search field and searched the Kindle store for that term. I looked at some of the titles, clicked on the first one, and scrolled down to the tags. From there, I clicked the erotic romance tag and was taken to another page of results that looked much different than when I had typed in the words and searched. I also tried enclosing the search term in quotes, and got yet another set of results. And just for good measure, I typed the tag into a separate search box labeled "search products tagged with" (which was at the bottom of the page, next to all the product tags).

Typing the tag into the special search box did yield the same list of results as clicking the tag itself, but not the same as typing the tag as a phrase in the main search box, which, let's face it, is the one that's most visible, and that most people will use. So I don't think rushing out to start or join numerous tag parties to make sure your book's target keywords are tagged hundreds of times is necessarily a guarantee that customers will find your book, but it won't hurt, either. (Something that might help a little more is thinking about search engine optimization (SEO) on your book's product page.)

Have you/would you participate in a tag party? If you have, do you think it's helped customers find your book?