Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Indie writers are always looking for exposure

I have always (well, for as long as I can remember) wanted to be a writer. I still have several of the notebooks I kept as a teenager with my stories, poems, etc. And every now and then (particularly when I'm about to pack up and move again) I stumble across them and leaf through, promising myself this time I'm going to get rid of them, but I never do. And maybe that's good, because it shows me how far I've come.

Like most wannabe writers, when I was younger I dreamed of landing a big contract, becoming a best-selling author, and having legions of fans breathlessly awaiting my next book. Then I got older, watched the print publishing industry start its slow decline, and decided if I ever wanted to release my babies into the wild, I was going to have to do what I've done in every other phase of my life--do it myself. That's when I made the conscious decision to become an indie writer.

Besides, fame and fortune isn't everything it's cracked up to be. Look at Lindsay Lohan.

That being said, you can be the best writer in the world (and I know I'm far from that) and it doesn't do a damn bit of good if no one but you reads your writing. Writers, for all our introverted neuroses, want to be read. Creating something and throwing it into a dark drawer to rot in silence is like saying I'm not worthy. We need validation. And for a writer, that comes in the form of readers.

The big question is, how do you get them? There are loads of people online and in print doling out advice on this subject. Get a blog. Plaster yourself all over social media. Run contests... 

All good advice, and extremely important for marketing anything you have to sell (even if it's yourself). But every hour you spend blogging, tweeting, and liking stuff online is an hour you're not writing (like now). There was a time, back in the day, when publishers kept a staff of publicists to promote their writers, thus freeing up said writers to do what they do best, which is write. Today...not so much. Even if you manage to land a traditional publishing contract, there is just about zero chance of a publisher spending money to promote anyone but their A-list writers, who, by the way, don't really need it since they're A-list writers. Think about it--when have you ever seen a Ferrari commercial on TV? Yeah. So, whether you are traditionally published or an independent writer, the burden of self-promotion lies with the writer.

I may have been writing since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, but I've only recently (in the past two years) dipped my toe into the publishing pool, so I don't have any good advice here other than I wish someone would invent a day stretcher. I started out with Amazon (Kindle and CreateSpace) with the my first published book, Being John Bland. Created an author page, linked up my website and blog, Published my second book (Lucid),  found my way to Goodreads (thank you, Cassandra) and Barnes & Noble, published my third book (Return of the Light), found my way to Kobo and Smashwords (thank you, Suzan), blog, tweet, and like, and wait for lightning to strike.

It hasn't. Not yet, anyway, although now and then I think I hear thunder rumbling. In the meantime, I'm learning the ropes. Paying my dues. With every book I publish, I learn new ways to make it better, new ways to streamline the publishing process. New ways to promote my writing. So, I don't have any magic bullets or sage advice for anyone looking to break into the writing and/or self-publishing game other than the best teacher is always experience. Get out there, make some mistakes, have some fun, and keep trying.

Friday, July 19, 2013

What If They Were Real?

So, the other night I'm lying in bed meandering through the latest download on my Kindle, which happens to be Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf--which, by the way, is soooo utterly, verbosely gothic (can't the English just write without blathering on about how the tiniest texture of the toast is earth-shatteringly important?) that I seriously lose track of what the hell is actually happening--and a thought occurs to me (because my mind is definitely not 100% engaged in the book, but rather navigating the excrutiating labyrinth of maudlin mental gymnastics to which the main character is subjecting me--see how it feels, Glen?).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. Werewolves. We all know they're not real, right? Just like vampires and demons and all the other bump-in-the-night creatures we writers (and readers) of fantasy like to indulge.

 But what if they were? Just stop and think about that for a minute. No, I mean really think about it. If we were staring a real, actual flesh-and-blood werewolf-vampire-demon-wendigo-whatever--in the face right now, would we even believe it? Or would our logical minds just burp up a Blue Screen of Death and reboot, unable to process it?

 As writers, every one of us who has written paranormal fiction has, at one time or another, written words to this effect: No one would believe it anyway. And no one would.

Yeah, there are those deluded little vampire groupies who like to dress up like Twilight wannabes with kohled eyes and fake fangs and hang out in goth clubs drinking cranberry-and-vodka cocktails, but I doubt even they--if faced with the real thing--would be able to rationally process that kind of truth.

If I was walking down the street at night and a seven foot tall half man-half wolf jumped out at me, I'd--well, first I'd shit my pants (tell me you wouldn't)--have to manufacture some logical answer for what I was seeing in order to maintain my sanity. Costume party? Fraternity prank? Crazy person (them, or me)? Movie set I don't know about?

 Really, come on, can you honestly say you would believe it? I don't care how many books you read or write or how many movies you've seen, we all just accept that this stuff is fantasy and move on. Which means, if such a creature did exist, our staunch disbelief would be their greatest weapon. Their camouflage, so to speak.

 No one would really believe it.

 Which makes me rethink the way I write scenes like that. Normal people get dropped into this fantastical world and we just have them calmly accept it. Or, they question it, have a moment of doubt, but they always come around.

 That's complete and utter bullshit. No one would just calmly accept that. I've been enamored with the paranormal my whole life to the point where the romantic in me wishes those things existed, but the rationale mind knows they don't. They can't.

 But what if they did?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Writing Soundtrack

I know a lot of writers create soundtracks for writing, and many publish the playlists for their musical inspiration on their blogs or websites. As a writer (and I imagine this is particularly true of screenwriters), I can often picture a scene unfolding while listening to a piece of music. It's almost like a choreographer is sitting in my head, directing the action like a conductor directs the orchestra. Naturally, the type of music varies depending on what I'm writing, but I often find it easier to write to instrumental music as the lyrics tend to get in the way of my concentration on my own words. And every now and then, a piece of music will inspire an entire scene out of thin air.

I had such an occurrence last night. I was working on preparing the ePub files for Being John Bland for submittal to Smashwords while listening to a playlist of various pieces of instrumental and soundtrack music. Most of it was orchestral, but there was some other stuff mixed in there, like Thievery Corporation and some flamenco and traditional Middle Eastern music, both of which I love. A piece by Hossam Ramzy came on from his Immortal Egypt album, Sunrise at Giza, and suddenly I had a scene from Book 3 of The 'Ru Lexicon rolling through my head.

I wasn't actively working on this book. In fact, other than an outline, I haven't even started on Book 2, but I know what each book will be about. This particular scene was a steamy love scene, something so out of character for this series that I never would have considered it if not for this music. I wrote frantically, listening to the song over and over while I did it, until I had the entire scene down, as well as the set up for the scene and events that occur in Book 2 that lead to it.

The Muse is a tricky little minx. You never know when she'll show her head, but when you get in the habit of writing, you recognize the signs and can react to the opportunity. Having this scene written will now direct the progress of Books 2 and 3 because this event is the logical endgame for the series. And I have that piece of music to thank for giving it to me.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Creating a book trailer

Regardless of whether the trailer for Return of the Light garners any sales, I really enjoyed the process of creating it. When you live with a book and its characters for so long, it can sometimes be hard to let go once the book is finished. Even if the book is part of a series, where the characters will live on, that particular part of their life--which as a writer, you orchestrated--is over. Having the chance to bring a visual element to the story takes it one step closer to making your vision come to life.

Granted, like most indie writers, I don't have a big production or advertising budget. In fact, my budget hovers near zero. But I am the consummate DIYer and willing to learn new technologies when I can see a direct purpose for them in my life, so after viewing several (and I mean SEVERAL) book trailers on YouTube and writers' sites, I decided, hey, I can do that. And here's how I did it.

First, while I'm working on a book. I scour the internet for images that look similar to my characters and the locale of the book. Not being an actual artist, I sometimes have to combine images to get the right look for my characters (a face here, a body there). As a graphic and web designer, I know my way around Photoshop, so I can 'shop the crap out of existing images. I just can't draw them.

Anyway, I took several of the ones I had collected for ROTL and created several widescreen backdrops. I then started looking around the internet for video and audio clips. That's how I stumbled upon videoblocks. They have thousands of stock video and audio clips for general use. You have to sign up for a membership (and provide a credit card number) but the first week is free and you can cancel before you have to start paying. The website says after that it's $79.00 a month, but as soon as you cancel, they send you a message offering a one-year membership for $89.00. I got everything I needed in the week, so I just cancelled. You can download up to 20 files a day, and after the first 20, they give you a release form so you can legally use the clips.

So, figuring I might want to do trailers for all my books, I found as many audio and video clips that might apply and hit my download limit everyday for a week. Then I started arranging them and fitting music to the video. Even though I have Vegas Pro by Sony, it was just more complicated than I wanted to get, so I used Windows Movie Maker to create the video. You can use whatever program you have, but Movie Maker is easy, free, and offers most of the options you'll need for a simple trailer. If you want to layer images over video, edit the actual video clips, or combine audio tracks, you might need a more robust application, like say Vegas Pro or Adobe AfterEffects.

For my trailer, I combined both video and still shots, using Movie Maker's pan and zoom features to give a video effect to the stills. Once I had all the video footage arranged in the order I wanted, I had to play with the transitions to get it to sync with the music. This is a time-consuming process ( I spent a whole weekend on it), but it's well worth it for the final effect. I then wrote a script and dropped in the captions, playing with the transitions and fades until I got the final effect I was looking for.

Take your time with this, and if possible, work with another person. Four eyes are better than two. My son Anthony helped me on the final syncing of the captions. We played with different fonts, text colors, caption placement, transitions, etc. for hours until we go it just where we wanted it. Then we walked away for about an hour, had some lunch, and came back for the final editing. Like me, Anthony is a bit anal on details and he brings a different perspective to the process, so all these minor little tweaks of moving a caption a quarter inch or fading a split second sooner created a final product that I think captured the atmosphere of the book.

Now, I wasn't trying to give away the plot with this trailer, but rather offer a teaser about the series itself. I purposely selected music that added tension and drama to the visual effects. I collected a lot of music for this and while listening to it, I could see actual scenes unfolding in my mind. There's an epic battle at the end of the book, and while I don't have the budget to reproduce that on film, I tried to portray that with composite images and music.

A word of advice if you're going to attempt a trailer--do it in HD (1080p). The images and video won't look very good while you're working on it in Movie Maker. but once you render it in HD, they'll be clear enough to view on a big screen. Naturally, YouTube will optimize it for viewing, which will degrade the quality a little, but you'll still have a better quality video than something someone shot with a cell phone.

You took a long time to write your book, so don't rush through making a trailer for it. Remember, once you put it out there, it's there for everyone to see. Make it something you'll be proud of because people could very well judge your book by its quality.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Book Trailer for Return of the Light

I finished my book trailer for Return of the Light. It was an educational experience creating, but I really enjoyed it and I think it captures the feel of the book.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Publishing News

This week has been an eventful one in the digital publishing industry. I think we all know that print publishing is a dying breed. With access to eReader platforms and self-publishing tools like Calibre, Sigil, and Apple, more and more writers are choosing to publish their own works, and more and more traditional publishers are turning away from print and concentrating their resources on electronic delivery of products.

In response to this shift in priorities, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the governing body of all things web, announced this week it is working to bridge the gap between publishing and the web with their Digital Publishing Interest Group. EBook readers, including Kindle, Nook, Apple, Sony, etc., already use W3C technologies, such as XHTML, HTML, CSS, SVG, SMIL, XML, and various web APIs, and having these technologies standardized across the board will make getting material to the masses that much easier. What this means for the writer who self-publishes is that converting files to ePub should become smoother. Naturally, like all things web-related, it will take awhile for all the players to get onboard.

In reading through the W3C announcement, I was surprised to learn that the publishing industry, in all its forms (including self-publishing) has become one the largest consumers of W3C technology. In addition to coding digital formats, the commercial publishing industry relies on W3C technology in their back-end processing from authoring to delivering both printed and electronic products.

Other publishing news:

Barnes & Noble is discontinuing their Pubit! platform and migrating to Nook Press effective July 10th. I suspect this is a direct attempt to compete with Amazon's ever-expanding stable of publishing tools for both digital and print media, including Kindle and CreateSpace. Nook Press will offer expanded tools to help authors create and publish their works, though they've yet to explain what exactly that entails. I logged into my Pubit account this week and switched it over to Nook Press just to see what had changed, but other than a cleaner interface, I really didn't see much difference. Apparently you can add a cover image right into your manuscript, and they claim there are multiple changes under the hood to make publishing easier, but I personally don't see anything groundbreaking. Most authors who self-pub usually prepare their ePub files in applications such as Calibre or Sigil, or dump them into the Smashwords grinder and upload to B&N, so unless they're offering to do the conversion themselves, it looks more like a rebranding move.

Google won its appeal against the Author's Guild class action status this week concerning Google's library scanning project. This centers around the determination of fair use policies in classifying author's works, granting Google the right to scan in books and sell them for a profit without the author's permission, in essence making them legal pirates. To be fair, the project centers mainly around out-of-print titles and authors, the works of which are already available for free on Amazon and other publishing platforms, but in my mind it's just one more reason for abolishing DRM. Traditional publishers, much like the music and motion picture industries, are more concerned with their profit margin than taking care of their artists. Writers, musicians, artists, and actors need to stop handing over the fruits of their labor to corporate middlemen, aka, publishers and producers. Besides, unless you're an a-list talent, they don't provide any more resources to promote you than the artist could get for themselves. Which leads me to the question:

If you're still working with a traditional publisher: WHY? Other than the perceived prestige of being selected from the slush pile (which we all know just means your work happens to fit the publisher's current business model), what possible benefit can there be? You do all the work and make pennies on your book while  the publisher reaps the majority of the rewards. As a consummate DIYer, I can't stand the thought of allowing someone else to profit off my sweat.

Monday, July 1, 2013

So you've written a book. Now what?

Any writer who has been at this long enough knows all about the tedium of rewriting and editing a finished book. I remember when I typed the last word of my first novel (now over 20 years ago), I opened a bottle of champagne and toasted my success, figuring I was done.

Oh, the naivete. I now know I hadn't even begun the hard part. If most readers ever saw a first draft of a novel, writers would never sell books. For the most part, the first draft is, in a word, crap. And I think the more experienced a writer becomes, the worse their first drafts are because while new writers will massage and rewrite a single scene as they go, agonizing over every word, experienced writers just want to get the story down. Putting meat on the bones, so to speak, comes later in the rewrites.

My current WIP, Red Awakening, is a perfect example of that. I originally wrote the story back in 2008 for NaNoWriMo. It sat at 50K words (which is what is required to finish the month) for nearly two years before I decided to change the story locale from the original Chicago to my fictional city of Erebus. I went in and did some tweaking, bumping up the word count to 58K, then got sidetracked on another project. (This is what happens to indie writers since we don't have a publisher breathing down our necks.) In my defense, I did complete and publish three books in the gap between then and now (along with moving four times, changing day jobs three times, and still running my design business), so it wasn't time wasted.

But now I'm back with Red Awakening, and now starts the daunting task of fleshing out a Cliff Notes story. It's funny, because in my day job as a technical writer, I'm required to keep description to a minimum. Stick to the facts, ma'am. Technical writing and creative writing are two entirely different animals--same species, sure, but it's like comparing a house cat to a lion--so it's a kind of schizophrenic process for me. In one case I'm taking out fluff, and in another I'm adding it.

The book, as it stands right now, is a straight line from here to there. No side trips, no detours, no stop and smell the roses moments. Oh, it's a complete story, for sure, and a pretty good one, if I can pat my own back. Having put it aside for three years without touching it, I was able to come back to it with fresh eyes and see it for what it is. But while it could stand alone right now, it would be a less than enjoyable read because there's no depth yet. I have all the what, but none of the why. And the why is why we read books. As readers (and I'm a big reader), we don't just want to go on the journey, we want to know the people we're traveling with. We want to experience the scenery and all the adventures along the way--feel the heat or cold, taste the food, smell the roses (or the dead bodies).

That's what rewriting is about. Some scenes may get cut, others plumped up, and entire new scenes written and added. I've just finished a complete re-read and have notes to myself throughout the manuscript to expand, describe in more depth, add a scene about this or that. I didn't do any rewriting on this pass because I had forgotten most of the story and wanted to reload it into my short term memory before making any changes.The rewrite process will probably take me a month or more, depending on my day job and design workload. And then comes the editing.

A piece of advice for new writers--don't combine these tasks. I learned from hard experience years ago that when it comes to writing, you can only really concentrate on one aspect of a piece at a time if you're going to do a good job. Do your rewrites, put the book aside for a week or more, then come back and do your edits. Otherwise, if you're like me, you'll get sidetracked on fixing a scene and the next thing you know, you're introducing more errors that have to be fixed, but because you're also rewriting, you don't notice them. If you get the book where you want it before you start editing, you'll stand a better chance of catching all those little mistakes you wouldn't have missed is you'd been concentrating on them.

Editing isn't a one pass deal, either. I usually make at least three, many times four passes, and I give the book a rest in between them. Don't rush it. The more polished you can get it, the less you have to pay someone else to do. I would also advise you to make your final edits on a printed copy. Many times we see things in print that we would not have noticed on the screen. This final pass is also a proofreading pass.

And now my big secret. I don't use an editor. I know I should--at least that's the popular opinion. See, I AM an editor, and as an occupational hazard, I subconsciously edit everything I read. And because I find so many mistakes, I've lost trust with editors. Instead, I use distance and my own skill. Now, unless you are an editor, I would never advise you to edit your own work. Most people need an editor to correct grammar, tense, punctuation, and sentence structure. Believe me, I've read some indie books (and some traditional ones, as well) that could have used a good editing.

When you write a book, you know your story. You know what you're trying to say, how it should look, etc., so in your mind, that's what you see when you look at it. That's not necessarily what's in the manuscript, however, and that's the biggest danger with editing your own work. That's why, if you have the skill to do so, you need distance. Put the book aside for a week or two--however long it takes you to put it out of your mind. Work on something else to get your brain engaged in a different direction, then go back and edit with fresh eyes.

And then edit again. Mercilessly. Tighten your sentences, getting rid of fragments and poorly-structured phrases. Check that tense, voice, and vocabulary are consistent. Every character should have his own voice and that should carry throughout the book. For example, in my latest book, Return of the Light, Akim never uses contractions, but sometimes, in my haste to get a scene written, I would have him using them without thinking. In editing, I made an entire pass of the novel just looking for and correcting contractions in his dialogue.

The devil is in the details, and the details are what a reader will take from your book. Be meticulous in your scrutiny. Take your time, make it as near to perfect as you can get it. And realize, that even after you've rewritten, edited, proofed, and polished your book to a diamond-like sheen, you're still going to miss something or wish you had written a scene differently. At some point you have to let go and send it out into the world and move on to the next project. And there should always be a next project. Because, to be a writer, you have to write--and keep writing--so you can start the whole process over again.