Archive for Writing

Writing advice from a six-year-old: Bewaaare the dark and stormy cliche

My daughter, wife and I sat in the TV room. It was just before bedtime and my six-year-old was watching a movie she hadn’t seen in a while.

My wife and I were trying to talk to her about the actors involved, the special effects, the storyline, how the movie wouldn’t be so spooky if it happened in real life… You know: All the usual stuff parents distract themselves with when they’re desperately trying to avoid having to actually watch a particularly bad kid’s movie.

My daughter watched the movie for another moment, then she looked at me and said:

“All bad guys always brag about themselves.”

Whoa.

I was impressed. The blanket statement wasn’t really something you can apply to all villains, but from someone with her level of exposure to “bad guys”, it was very observant.

This revelation came from the mind of a child raised on Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. (Yeah, I see problems with that list, too. My wife and I know there’s a problem and we’re trying to fix it.)

In storytelling, it’s a tricky situation. We want to avoid cliches because they can make for a predictable and by-the-numbers story. However, we still want to introduce conflict, adventure, appealing characters and all the ingredients that make a great story, and there are a limited number of ways to do that. 

Granted, sometimes celebrating a cliche leads to great entertainment. The movie Office Space, the TV series South Park and the movie series Austin Powers are good examples. I see those as something to work up to, but they’re not something to emulate unless you understand what makes them work.

"You've won this round, He-Man, but I'll get you next time... Neeext tiiime!"

Some people (think Aardman Animations’ Wallace and Gromit) tell brilliant stories without falling into many cliches – I remember when I watched “The Wrong Trousers” for the first time, I was amazed at the creativity of such a unique and entertaining story. Yet for a plotline, it used a cliche of a jewelry heist. I didn’t care (until writing this article, I never even noticed), because everything surrounding it is so well done.

My point in writing this is to illustrate how cliches are sometimes necessary as part of standard story structure, but when done incorrectly they can make your story formulaic. A six-year-old may like it. Your intended audience may not. So be careful. Beware the dark and stormy cliches. Determine if they’re really needed, or if you can change them into something more creative and surprising.

One predictable cliche is that, when writing an article about cliches, I finish by using one. Instead, I’d rather wrap up with advice I’ll remember for my own writing, as a paraphrased recommendation from my daughter:

“Bad guys don’t need to brag about themselves.”

Self-publishing audiobooks: My experience with ACX

ACX, or the “Audiobook Creation Exchange”, is a company dedicated to the production of audiobooks. …Or perhaps “production” is the wrong word. But it wouldn’t look as smooth for the marketing copy to say “a crowdsourced program that puts authors in touch with audiobook readers, and vice versa, and provides a low-cost way of doing so”. 

In my case, I finished my book Dev Manny #1: Superliminal. I’d already published it as a paper book and ebook, and then I decided to try out ACX and publish it as an audiobook.

How does ACX work?

The process was easy: Upload a sample of the book for potential actors to read (I used the first chapter of the book), then describe what kind of voice and reader you’re looking for. You’ve got plenty of options – you can specify various accents, ages, and traits like “comic timing”.

Here’s what I specified what I was looking for in my “Superliminal” narrator:

Once I specified what I was looking for, my next step was to wait. In this case, it wasn’t for very long: Within a day or so I had three auditions for the voice of Dev Manny!

Then it was up to me to pick the one I liked best, and work with the narrator to get the voice just the way I wanted it. Then I set up a contract with them (this was brokered by ACX). This is where ACX shines, because while authors can pay narrators for their time (starting at around $200 per hour, and I would keep all royalities), authors can alternatively pay nothing up front, and split the audiobook royalties 50/50 with the narrator. This last option is what I did.

After that, the narrator does the rest of the work in the process of physically narrating the book and editing that effort. After another approval process from me, ACX took over, then placed the audiobook in Amazon, Audible.com, and the iTunes Store.

Is ACX worth it?

In my case, yes. ACX is great. Thanks to ACX, I have a great-sounding audiobook available of my work for a very low cost, and sales/distribution/royalties are handled for me. I’m very happy with the results.

I have only one complaint about ACX, and it’s small: At the time of this writing, they do not support direct deposit of royalty funds. Once your royalty balance hits $50, they mail out a check. ACX is partnered with Amazon – you actually use your Amazon ID to sign on to the service. Other Amazon services and partners support direct deposit (like KDP, CreateSpace and crowdSPRING), and it would be more convenient if ACX supported this too, but they don’t.

Special thanks to Charles Bice, the guy you hear narrating “Superliminal”. I’m proud and impressed that Dev Manny has such a cool voice. Check out Bice’s work – he’s narrated and written many other books.

I’ve been happy enough with ACX that I’m doing it again – my book “Waking the Dreamer” is going through ACX audiobook production right now!

Self-published video marketing: Make cheap and free video ads with Animoto

Animoto is a video creation service: Pick a theme, a few pictures, music and text. The service will take your preferences and blend them together into a video. You can download the video (as an MP4 or DVD image) and upload that to services like YouTube. Which is exactly what I did.

It’s a subscription service, but don’t let that intimidate you: You can also subscribe, create and download your videos, then unsubscribe.

There is a free option, but I didn’t really like the result – you’re limited to 30 seconds of video and some options are disabled. (It actually turns out to be less than 30 seconds, since you’re also forced to have a couple-second Animoto ad at the end). If you pay for Animoto’s “Pro” account ($39), you can remove the Animoto branding and get a few other perks.

I’m very happy with Animoto’s Pro service, and will use it again for future books. For self-publishing, if you need a way to create a nice-looking, simple book trailer, you may want to check them out.

Below is what I created – I now have mini-trailers for both my Dev Manny and Transhuman series. The music and picture effects are from Animoto. The pictures and text are from me.

DIY authors self-publishing tools, services and marketing recommendations

At this point I’ve cranked two books through a full self-publishing process and have a third on the way with a traditional publisher. I’ve learned a few things and can justify a few opinions about the self-publishing process. Here’s the detail.

My current self-publishing status

Since publishing with a traditional publisher takes a VERY long time, I decided to try my hand at self-publishing. Previous options (like Lulu and others) are bad for me, since they require a higher up-front cost. However, Amazon’s self-publishing program – Createspace – is really good, because 1) it’s cheap – if you do your own cover art, it can be as low as $30-$50 to get a published book in hand, 2) there’s no minimum buy, and 3) what you create will be sold for you on Amazon.com with a 70% royalty. As a special bonus, 4) the Createspace service also ties in with Amazon’s KDP program, which is Amazon’s ebook publisher.

The downside? Amazon gives you no active marketing. In order to sell, you must have a good product, or a good fan base, or you’re willing to work years to build up multiple books and fans over time, or ideally all of the above.

To give you an idea of my level in the industry as beginning author, here’s what I’ve done to date:

Superliminal: Dev Manny #1
(YA / adult book, self-published. Available now at Amazon in paper and ebook formats)

Waking the Dreamer: Transhuman #1
(YA / kids book, self-published. Available now at Amazon in paper and ebook formats)

Ghost in the Water: League of Scientists #1 
(YA book, completed, to be published traditionally by a small publisher in early 2012)

The self-publishing services I’ve used so far

Amazon Createspace – Paper book self-publishing

Amazon KDP – Ebook self-publishing

ACX – Crowdsourced audiobook creation. I’m in the middle of making an audiobook for Superliminal now.

Kickstarter – Crowdsourced project funding. I posted about it here.

CrowdSpring – Crowdsourced art design. I used this to create the book cover for Waking the Dreamer. I posted about it here.

I also have a few websites to support my efforts, as well as being an Amazon Associate: I get the usual author’s royalty if someone purchases my books, but if the sale comes from any of my sites, I get an Amazon bonus as well (usually about 4% of the total sales price).

Cover art and the cover design

I’ve written before about what I did to get great cover art, but I also wanted to give a heads-up to authors looking for cover artists, or those who want to do the work themselves:

You might have a great cover concept. You might have a great artist. But does your artist know enough about graphic design to make book-specific cover artwork?

Even though you might be handed a great piece of cover art, what about the other elements? The book titling and fonts and placement and overall graphic design can’t look rudimentary. If you can look at the cover and tell it’s self-published, that’s a bad thing.

On publisher rejections and the publishing industry

The continuous cycle of rejections is disheartening. I’ve had dozens of rejections (or flat out no-communications) from publishers and agents. Authors who have been at this longer than me (and are more skilled than me) often claim hundreds of rejections.

The traditional publishing system is ideally a meritocracy, but many parts of it are broken.

You need to focus on what you’re trying to accomplish and push towards that goal. If you really must be traditionally published, then you have to work within the system. This means you must jump through the hoops – do the submission/rejection/resubmission cycle, develop contacts in the industry, get your name in low-paying publications in order to simply get your name out and work towards the higher-paying jobs.

If you don’t care about traditional publishing, though, the self-publishing route can be very rewarding. A note of concern, though:

Publishing a book is a great feeling, but the act of self-publishing should still focus on quality. It’s easy to publish something now because you can do so in a single day. There’s a temptation to crank out your book without giving it proper editing and revising. Don’t. Make sure other editorial-minded people can read your work and give a thumbs-up before you publish it. 

With self-publishing, the lack of an editor doesn’t mean you don’t need one! The obligation to get your book’s quality as high as possible isn’t in the hands of an editor. It’s now yours. It’s a mixed blessing – you get more control, but it’s more work. You may have to pay for services a traditional publisher would provide for free.

How to best market your self-published work? How to get the word out?

While I have a fan base, I’ve grown it from my other projects over the years (mostly from my technology column and Digital Bits Skeptic). I’m hoping some of those readers will have crossover interest in my books. Crossover promotion is powerful. Do you have other interests that could feed a fan base?

I have very little money, and am not able right now to dump cash into paid marketing ideas. Book trailers, for example, are the current hot thing. I have yet to be convinced they pay for themselves, though you can self-produce simple, cheap, slick-looking videos with services like Animoto.

You must have a web presence. Specifically, a Facebook fan page for you or the book, or a blog-like website for you or the book. Some people say you have to do ALL forms of popular social media, but being realistic and as someone with a busy schedule, I’m personally just targeting the most popular ones of the moment (Facebook, a blog/website, and Twitter). I also try to feed all fan traffic to my author site as a main collection point.

As you make posts everywhere online in your usual forums, try to have your website be part of your signature. Get the word out to humans and search engines.

Self-publishing services and resources

After your book is published with Amazon (assuming you publish a paper book with Createspace, or an ebook with KDP):

Tag your book with topic tags. Use every available one (there’s a limit of 15 on Amazon). This increases the chance of your book matching other books in Amazon’s system (“If you liked this book, then you may also like this book…”). If you’re comfortable bothering others, get them to tag your book, too, increasing the relevancy to Amazon’s matching system.

Get people to review your book. One site for this is Goodreads. Here’s the link to my book “Superliminal” on Goodreads. In short, you offer free books and people get them via a lottery system. Then you hope they review them. I sent Goodreads five books, and of those five readers, three people reviewed the book. I’m lukewarm on this – I don’t think it got me any sales, and don’t know yet if there is a long-term benefit. I probably won’t do this again, but your experience may be different and I want to offer it as an option.

DRM and piracy protection

When publishing ebooks, you’ll have options for activating DRM (an anti-piracy, copy protection measure). I recommend you NOT do this. I don’t restrict my books in any way. Don’t restrict anyone from reading your work. To quote Cory Doctorow, “Your enemy isn’t piracy. Your enemy is obscurity.” Focus on your book’s exposure, not on keeping it from potential readers.

What company should I self-publish with?

You’ll notice I keep mentioning Amazon. There’s a good reason.

At this point, there are three major players and distributors in the self-publishing and ebook world: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. (Lesser players include Smashwords, Komo and Google eBookstore.) Amazon is far and away the market leader. I work with them because I want the widest availability and exposure (it doesn’t hurt that right now they also have the best royalty setup and the easiest systems to use.)

How much money will I make self-publishing? 

Don’t self-publish thinking you’re going to be rich. There are of course exceptions, but if you think you’re one of them, you’ll end up disappointed.

There is money to be made, but it’s not about any single book. A body of work – books and books – has a much better chance of doing so. It provides exponentially more exposure for your work, as well as an income multiplier when a reader likes your books. And each book will be better quality than the last. I’m not great, but my readers and I have noticed a quality improvement after each book I write.

If you want to be a published author, then go ahead and self-publish your book, and boom, you’re done. You are indeed a published author. But if you want to make noticeable money writing, then you can NOT depend on one book. You have to keep writing more.

 

The above is not meant to be comprehensive or absolute. But for what I’m creating, it makes sense to me.

“Waking the Dreamer” cover project featured on crowdSPRING

If you’re a self-published author, you may be using Amazon’s CreateSpace to publish your book. During the book build process, you have a section for your book cover. You can choose from being able to create a book cover using built-in templates, or you can work with other advanced options. 

One option is crowdSPRING, which is what I wrote about a couple posts ago. Apparently my writeup so impressed the crowdSPRING folks that they wanted to feature me for their CreateSpace audience. So, for the time being, when a CreateSpace user clicks in the book cover section to learn more about crowdSPRING, they see me smiling back:

While I’m not sure that using my actual face is the best way to advertise anything, I hope my writeup can help others.

Thanks to Ross at crowdSPRING for helping to make this happen.

Transhuman #1: “Waking the Dreamer” is now available!

It’s done. The book was written. The costs were financed. The cover art was created. And as of today, the book was published and is available for purchase on Amazon. Get the paper book or ebook “Waking the Dreamer” now:

Book cover complete: My experience with crowdSPRING

Now that I have money to pay for a designer to craft a quality book cover (thanks to Kickstarter – see this post for detail), I was ready to get an artist.

Artists are expensive.

This is not a complaint – people should get paid what they’re worth. I just mean that book cover design is a specialty profession requiring not only artistic ability, but specialized technical skill in publishing and layout design, which means it costs money.

When I first started down the route to have someone else create my book cover, here are some standard prices (all are accurate, though I’ve kept the names private because I don’t know if the artists I approached want this information made public):

Artist 1: Will produce a very realistic, excellent quality, custom painting for the book cover of consisting of just about anything I want. He is the cover artist for a fairly popular children’s book series. Price: $2500.

Artist 2: An artist who is completely self-employed with their artistic skillset, and they do a lot of custom graphic design, specializing in book covers. This artist does a lot of design work for self-published authors, and the results are the kind of work you see when you walk into a book store. Price: $1500.

Artist 3: The art wasn’t this person’s day job, but the artwork was excellent. They had done a several book covers. Price: $1000.

…and I should mention that of all these artists, they had long lead times (meaning it might take weeks or months to finish) and that the quoted prices were their average, but each one could go up by another $500 to $1000, depending on the project.

All of the above is why I signed up for crowdSPRING.

What is crowdSPRING?

crowdSPRING is a collection of “creatives” – designers and artists and people who are all way better at creating book covers than me.

crowdSPRING provides the talent network, financial transactions, and the logistic and legal project management structure from start to finish. I (as the buyer) provide the project and the payment.

It’s a competition – I post a project, state what I’m willing to pay for that project, give details on what I want, then I watch the results roll in from any interested “creatives”. In my case, my project was about average for the amount of people participating: 17 artists submitted book cover concepts, and there were 65 total covers submitted (some were slightly changed versions of earlier submissions). Here is a thumbnail view of some of what I received. Click to enlarge slightly:

What does crowdSPRING cost?

It’s a bit of a sliding scale, depending on how much you’re willing to award for your project. In my case, here’s what it cost me:

Project award: $500
crowdSPRING fee: $75
Listing fee (non-refundable): $39
Advanced promotion: $99

In order to give out a $500 award, I had to pay a total of $713. In exchange, crowdSPRING gives me access to their network of creatives, the freelance artists and designers who compete to create what I want.

Was crowdSPRING worth it?

Yes, yes, very much yes. I love the service. However, I love crowdSPRING because of the creative talent it’s pulled together. Will that same level of talent be there tomorrow, or a year from now? Or when you start your own project? I certainly can’t guarantee that. However, crowdSPRING does have methods of tracking and rating various creatives, as well as providing portfolios of their past projects – ones in which they’ve won and didn’t win. You can browse this information free of charge, and I’d recommend doing so to make sure your expectations are met before you commit money.

With the above said, crowdSPRING also provides a money-back guarantee: If you’re not happy with the results, you can cancel the project, and lose nothing apart from the listing fee. So a failed project (for whatever reason) doesn’t mean you wasted a lot of project funds.

The short story: I used crowdSPRING to get a book cover designed by a great artist (many thanks to Darko Tomic!) and I’m very happy with the result.

 

Stay tuned for the final step in the publication process. In about a month, I’ll have a book!

Funding a book cover: My experience with Kickstarter

As it relates to my latest book, I’m trying something very new to me: Crowdsourcing and (for a lack of a better term) Crowdcreating. This post is about the former. My next post will cover the latter.

What is Kickstarter?

My situation is that I need help to cover the up-front costs of paying for an artist to design a cover for my latest book. So I signed up for Kickstarter, a crowdsourcing agency: You publicly post what you’re trying to accomplish, what rewards you’re willing to give depending on what people are willing to contribute, and other people pledge money to you. If you meet your goal, you get money. There are no “partial wins” – if you don’t get enough pledges to meet your goal, you get nothing and your contributors pay nothing, but you are free to try again.

What does Kickstarter cost?

At the time of this writing, Kickstarter takes 5% of the total contributed amount of winning campaigns, and then Amazon (the credit card and money processing agency) takes another 3%-5%. So, estimate 9% is cut off the top before you get any money. In my case above, my campaign earned $880. I’ll actually get about $800.

What did I learn about Kickstarter?

Instead of signing up for Kickstarter and having to pay their fees, couldn’t I instead just ASK people for money and give them various rewards? Sure, I could do that, but that’s a low-volume, non-automated method.

If you want to take a loan from a friend or family member, by all means, go for it. But if your intent is to raise a lot of money or reach a lot of people, you may want assistance from a proper tool like Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is powerful: Kickstarter gives a creator access to a massive number of potential pledges, arguably far beyond what they could generate on their own, allows the creator to easily track everything related to the project, allows pledges to maintain and change their accounts without bothering the creator, allows the creator to contact contributors via subset or en masse, and it has a built-in payment and accounting system. It’s cool.

The money does not magically appear: Your project may not be as profitable as what’s displayed in the Kickstarter promotional material. Yes, as you browse through the Kickstarter site, there are many cool projects out there. Many have raised amazing amounts of money. Many have succeeded.

My own project is not one of these. It would’ve failed without an unexpected boost from one of my family members. With two days remaining on my campaign, I was barely over halfway to my $700 goal.

If and when I do this again, I know what I need to do differently for next time:

Have a video introduction: Kickstarter’s instructions even tell you to do this. You should have a video because it’s more personal, helps generate more goodwill, and (hopefully) makes your project appear more professional. I did not do a video, thinking that something as straightforward and simple as a book cover didn’t warrant one. I was wrong.

Another reason to have a video: What I missed in the small print was that if you have a video, you will be included on the Kickstarter website’s promotional pages. If you don’t have a video, your project is never highlighted.

I didn’t have a video intro for my project. Next time, I definitely will.

Have a big fan base: I currently have about one thousand people in contact lists, and I run nine websites. It’s not enough. In terms of generating interest for a Kickstarter project, it’s abysmal.

My results were great, if you only counted my friends and family. As for fans or people who didn’t know me personally? I only had four (yes: one, two, three, FOUR) non-friends-or-family contributing to my campaign, and it’s those strangers that will really make the difference between success and failure. Otherwise, yes: You’re better off asking for a loan from a family member.

I need to have an exponentially larger fan base before I can expect to pull significant Kickstarter pledges.

What’s next?

I know that I’m lucky to have had my Kickstarter project complete successfully. My next attempt will see my results bolstered by new information, more fans and better technique.

Of course, that’s all for later. Now that I have the money, I’m very eager to take the next step: Let’s get an artist for this book cover!

Transhuman #1 update: Ready for the cover art. Kickstarter is live.

The book is complete and proofed and ready to print. I even have a title:

Transhuman #1: Waking the Dreamer

What’s needed next is a cover to put around it!

Astute readers may remember a previous post, about how I’m trying a service called Kickstarter to fund the book cover costs. I’ve created my campaign and it’s officially live. Click on the picture below to check it out and see if you want to contribute:

If I’ve impressed enough people with my plea, then I’ll have a book cover! We’ll know how successful this is in one month.

Dev and Transhuman update

I’m very thankful for weekends. I’ve got multiple projects going right now:

Transhuman #1 is in the second round of editing. Multiple people (who are not me, or one of my alternate personalities) have the book in their hands and are hopefully, frantically, excitedly marking it up as I type this.

The Kickstarter cover art advertising project for Transhuman #1 is paused until I have the second round edits complete. I’d like to be as finished with the book text as possible before I start the cover art build campaign.

I’ve started writing another book: Dev Manny #2. Check the Dev Manny website for a sample chapter!

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