Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Authors Should Know: Copyright, Piracy, and Digital Rights Management

You've worked hard on your book. Is someone going to steal it?

Even before they’ve published, new authors tend to be concerned (sometimes overly so) about copyright, to the point where some are reluctant to share anything about their book projects out of fear someone will “steal” their ideas. In general, such concerns are the mark of a novice; experienced, professional authors may choose not to talk a lot about a work-in-progress out of concern for mucking up their creative process, but they aren’t worried about theft at that point; they know that what makes a book successful isn’t so much the idea as how it’s rendered on the page, using all the talent, energy, and skill an author can muster. They also understand that as soon as their original work is “fixed” in “tangible” form, it’s covered under US copyright law, so something as simple as an email stored in a digital file is protected by copyright—there’s no registration or notice required.

You may hear of other ways to “copyright” your work, such as mailing your manuscript to yourself or showing it to friends. These were pre-digital safeguards for proving that you were the author and attaching a date to your work. If you save your files in your computer, the author and date are electronically attached automatically. Of course, if you want to pay to have your work registered with the US Copyright Office (the fee is $140), you can do so at any time, pre- or post-publication. The primary advantage to registering pre-publication is that should you need to bring a lawsuit against someone for copyright infringement, preregistered copyright entitles you to seek compensation for statutory as opposed to actual damages as well as reimbursement of legal costs. And in any event, before you can take legal action in the United States against someone for copyright infringement, you’ll need to register your copyright, but you can do this at any point during the life of your book, which for US copyright purposes (covering books published after 1978) is the life of the author plus seventy years.

Before you plunk down your money for copyright registration, consult an attorney who specializes in intellectual property and/or educate yourself on the details of copyright using an authoritative guide like The Chicago Manual of Style, a reference widely used by publishers not only for detailed explanations on matters of copyright and fair use, but also for matters of usage, grammar, punctuation, and style. There you’ll find specifics on copyright notice, which is no longer required under US law (if you’re publishing elsewhere, the laws are different) but is strongly advised as a deterrent against infringement. Copyright notice is printed on the copyright page—on the flip side of the title page in print editions, and more commonly at the end of an ebook.

Sadly, copyright protection has done little to combat the problem of piracy, which plagued the music and video industries before spreading to books. As the Google books project proved, little effort or expense is required to scan and upload a book. (For the record, Google attempted to include in their project only books for which they believed the copyright was expired or “in question"; much legal wrangling ensued with authors). 

As a deterrent to piracy, some publishers embed DRM (digital rights management) into their ebooks. If you're uploading your own ebooks with individual vendors, each will ask if you’d like to enable DRM. I don’t use DRM, because from what I understand, pirates can more or less instantly break through the DRM barrier, while DRM restricts readers to a single device for reading a book.

The truth is that pirates focus on “hot” titles, the ones from which they’re most likely to make a profit. If your book is one of those, use a service like Muso, which for a modest monthly fee will scour the internet daily for pirated versions of your books and, at your request, remove illegal files from hosting services—and you can try Muso first, for thirty days, free of charge, to see if your books are being pirated. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

One Author's Publishing Success: An Interview with Autumn Dawn

Author Autumn Dawn, a former student from North Pole High School.
Like many writers, I was a teacher first. Following a news article on my latest novel, I received an inspiring email from a former student, now a fellow author who writes under the name Autumn Dawn.

I wanted to thank you again for teaching my North Pole High School class,” she said. “I’ve made good use of it. It makes me emotional thinking about what I would have done without teachers like you. So many stories would have gone untold, and I have over twenty works published now. Two were published in NY, two are with Amazon’s publishing arm and the rest are self-published.”

As teachers all over the country prepare to start a new year, I hope they’ll find encouragement in this example of what a difference they’ll make in the lives of their students. Not every one of them will find the success Autumn has, or take the time to acknowledge how you’ve helped them along the way, but your creative efforts in the classroom do have an impact.

After reconnecting, Autumn and I thought it would be fun to swap interviews; you’ll find her interview with me on her blog.

You pointed out that the two of us had something in common: school counselors/academic advisers told us that we’d never make a living as writers. How did you get past that?

I’m stubborn and competitive, and I like a challenge. Writing made me happy, and the stories didn’t stop just because someone disapproved. For the record, I was almost forty before my parents saw any sense in it. My father admitted he thought I was wasting my time with writing, which I knew, but at least he didn’t say it out loud.

Also, my husband and high school sweetheart, John, is extremely supportive. We’ve been married since 1994 and every day is a blessing.

You’ve not only made a living as a writing, you’ve also earned a six-figure annual income from your books. Tell us a little about that journey, and what the money does and doesn’t mean to you as a creative individual.

It was a huge validation, of course. Someone wanted to read my books! We’d just moved to Washington and I hoped to make some money to help with groceries, and suddenly my sales numbers shot up! We watched in amazement, and all the guys at John’s work were cheering like it was a sports event as John shared the latest stats. I could say “HA!” to all all the doubters.

As for the money, I had to find a good accountant to help with that. We did our best to be practical, opened a Roth, bought our first new car ever and paid it off quickly. I also got some professional book covers and editing, which were a huge part of my success. It paid for plane tickets to see family in Alaska, things like that. I’m a practical girl, and did my best to bring value to our lives. 

You’ve managed to write twenty books while raising three active children. What advice do you have for other moms who write?

A book is a good place to hide when the toddlers are running rampant. Invest in a set of headphones and place the computer so you can see the kids but not the TV. Also, I’m not a soccer mom. We keep things simple and relaxed here without a lot of running around. I simply don’t have the temperament for it. Sports are fine and every kid should learn to swim, but there should be balance. We eat dinner together every night and the house is clean. We talk about our day and if one of the kids is having a problem, I notice and we talk about it. I can’t do that if everyone is running full tilt at all times, and I can’t write if I’m stressed.

Honestly, housekeeping, cooking and dealing with teens is a big job, so I have to stay organized if I want to write. And sometimes, John cooks.

You said, “I didn’t know until I was an adult that I was a gifted person, but writing was always an outlet for a kid that wasn’t quite in sync with the others.” What encouragement do you have for other kids who aren’t “quite in sync” with the rest?

Skip childhood. Kidding! Best case scenario, I’d love to see gifted kids discovered in school and given the help they need. To my school’s credit, I believe they tried. I actually needed counseling as an adult, and once I suspected I was gifted, I devoured books on it and haunted websites. I read things and think, what? That’s unusual? I could do that, why didn’t someone tell me? My mother said I was a weird kid, and she hated to see me “waste all my time reading”. Little did she know I was preparing for my future job.

If your kid gets a 99% verbal on the PSAT, she’s probably gifted. It won’t matter if she doesn’t know how to sew. You should discuss college or a good tech school, however.

I didn’t realize it was odd to carry books from the library stacked to my chin. I finally learned to drive at seventeen so I could spend time in the bookstore. I didn’t know how to talk to kids my age, and later Mom told me that they wanted to skip me ahead a grade. She refused that and the gifted program because she didn’t want me to feel “pressured.” ARRRGH! I wondered what happened to my friends; they seemed to all disappear from my classes in middle school, and now I know they were in the gifted program.

I saw some of them again in the AP and honor classes, but by then I hated school. High school was a prison sentence and I wanted out. Being an adult was much better.

I don’t regret not attending college. If I want to learn something, I pick up a book and read. While you can’t learn to dance that way, it’s great for teaching yourself website design, Photoshop, computer stuff and gourmet baking. We tell our kids that apprenticeships, tech school and the military are excellent ways to get an education that won’t put you in debt for years, but never stop learning, and never give up. You were custom made for a job, and if it doesn’t exist yet, create it! 

You’re incredibly imaginative and prolific. How have readers discovered you and your books? After twenty books, do you find you still have to work to promote your new titles, or do your fans find them?

Thank you. I’ve always enjoyed creating worlds no one else has dreamed of, and I’m very careful not to repeat myself. I like to keep things fresh, and my readers appreciate that.

I post new books on my site, blog and Facebook. That’s it. I should have a mailing list, but I don’t. I find that frequent releases are the best way to generate sales, and I usually have at least one ebook free. I think happy readers are the best word of mouth.

Autumn Dawn

Autumn is a professional writer and stay at home mom with three kids, a dog and an active imagination. She’s married to her high school sweetheart, John, who is known to bring her flowers "just because.” After 34 years in Alaska, she moved to Washington with her family to enjoy a state with actual seasons. She started self-publishing in 2010 after a string of rejections that read, “We love your writing, but we’re not sure how to market it.” She published on Smashwords, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, which lead to a number of bestsellers. After The Charmer hit #1 on Barnes & Noble for fantasy romance, she threw herself into editing and uploading her backlist.

Her income for 2011 was $100,000, far exceeding her best year with traditional publishing. In 2012, Amazon acquired Dorchester Books, which had picked up two of her books, and Autumn gave Amazon the rights to publish When Sparks Fly and No Words Alone (from the Sparks Series), believing that diversification is good business. While Autumn is grateful for the opportunities traditional publishing provided, she remains passionate about self-publishing. Keep an eye on her blog for news about upcoming books!

Iron & Hemlock

Life can change in the blink of an eye.

It was just an ordinary day when lightning struck and sent Jordan spinning back in time. Trapped in Victorian England, practical Jordan will have to abandon her disbelief in magic. Pursued by a sexy golden griffin and a dark fae who wants her blood, she just might rediscover the thrill of falling in love.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Writing Exercises: Are They Worthwhile?

From the Writing Picture Prompts Pinterest board

Isn’t it wonderful, being a writer? The joy! The freedom!  Anywhere, anytime, inspiration may strike.  And we’re ready, with our notepads and laptops and smart phones, ready to spin our ideas in whichever direction they want to go.  That snippet of dialogue, that flash of insight, that exquisite image – from any of these, an entire poem or essay or novel can grow.  We just have to run with it.

But run where? There are so many possibilities. So many directions. Freedom, it seems, is also a curse. What is a novel, after all, but what author David Stevenson once described as a million ways to go wrong?

If brain research is any indicator, poets have the right idea when they work within forms.  While the rest of us run freely, poets quietly and mindfully hold the writer’s equivalent of a yoga pose, enjoying the broader creative perspective that paradoxically comes from constraint.
“We break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” Jonah Lehrer says, citing a study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam which shows that obstacles of form force us to think in a broader, more interesting ways. Want to broaden your perception? Open up new ways of thinking? Find the connections between ideas that seem unrelated?  Find a roadblock, or as poets call it, a form.
Calling the brain “a neural tangle of near infinite possibility,” Lehrer explains that without constraints, our brains zero in on what not to notice, and as a result creativity suffers.  “The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle,” he says, “a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and banalities, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this helps explain the stubborn endurance of poetic forms: because poets need to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables, or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, they end up uncovering all sorts of unexpected associations.”
This is why writing exercises can be so effective, even for experienced writers.  Cognitive push-ups, mindful poses – these actually nudge us toward originality, not away from it.  Plus the stakes are low, and that never hurts.
Blocked? In a rut? Stuck in the forever-middle?  Indulge in an exercise, ten or fifteen minutes of writing push-ups and poses, and see what creative ways of thinking you unleash. Then as O’Connor suggests, start looking for the limitations imposed by your work as it unfolds.

Not sure where to start? You'll find writing exercises at The Self-Made Writer, at Poets & Writers, and at the Warren-Wilson website. Pinterest even has a board of Writing Picture Prompts.

This post also runs at www.49writers.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Blurbs for Your Book

There’s a lot of confusion out there about book blurbs: what they are, what makes a good one, how many you should have, and how to get them.

In theory, the term “blurb” has two meanings: a commendatory assessment of a book written by its publisher (aka jacket copy, flap copy, back cover copy), and a commendatory assessment of a book written by someone else (aka endorsement). In traditional publishing, “blurb” generally means the latter—an endorsement by someone else—with the other terms (jacket copy, flap copy, back cover copy) used to describe promotional material written by the publisher. Especially when they come from respected authors, blurbs (endorsements) are a means of discovery for readers, and they offer social proof.

If you publish traditionally, your publisher (and sometimes your agent) may contact respected authors with blurb requests, following up with Advance Reading Copies (arcs). But your publisher will also ask you to suggest authors who might blurb your book, and of course if you’re publishing your own work, the entire task will rest on your shoulders.

How to get blurbs for your book? Here, a few tips:

·         Readers are important, but reader reviews aren’t blurbs. A blurb should be an endorsement from a respected author of a similar book or, if the book is nonfiction, someone highly respected in the field.
·         Quality matters more than quantity. Years ago, I received a copy of a novel that had 27 blurbs, including endorsements by bookstores (no names given), pastors, institute directors, authors of nonfiction, and professors. Lost in the shuffle were a five-star review by Midwest Book Reviews and an endorsement by a well-known author. The overall effect of all these blurbs was that the author was reaching too hard to impress. The best blurbs come from respected authors of books that are similar to yours, authors with which you hope to share cross-readership, along with snippets of reviews from respected publications (well-known newspapers, Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, Foreword Reviews).
·         When deciding whom to approach, think first about which books are most like yours. Then narrow the list to authors with whom you have meaningful relationships, either in real time (through conferences, workshops, writing groups) or online. There should be a good chance that these authors will like your book, and that your work is similar enough that they might benefit from crossover readership with your readers.  
·         Your request should be simple, straightforward, and personal. Say a little about the book, how and when the arc will be delivered, and how and when the blurb should be returned (generally, by email, to either the author or the publisher). If you sense hesitation, don’t press it. We’re all busy, and some authors have a no-blurb policy.
·         Use blurbs on your back cover (one or two), on the first page (“Praise for . . .), and on your website (I use my favorite excerpts on my home page and provide the full text on a separate “Praise”page.) Blurbs that don’t make the print deadline can always be added to the digital edition.
·         From a friend who writes mysteries, I learned that some authors in some genres don’t read the books they blurb; the blurbs are done as favors within the industry, with wording provided by the publishers. It’s different in literary fiction, which I write: authors read the books they blurb. One who blurbed my novel Cold Spell even took time to write after the fact, “Listen, I know there's a lot of tit for tat in the book world, but I just want to say that my admiration for your book is sincere and profound. I'm still thinking about it. It was such a delight--to open it and see your talent pooling all over each page.”
·         Besides helping readers find books, blurbs can be a wonderful “feel-good” for the author—plus they help us see our work in new ways. About my novel Cold Spell, author David Vann (whose work I hugely admire) wrote, Cold Spell is Greek tragedy.  From the very first pages, these lives are out of control.  You’ll care for Sylvie, and also her mother Ruth, and you’ll want them not to hurt each other, but of course they will.” I hadn’t thought of the story in quite that way, but he’s absolutely right. In her blurb, author Cindy Dyson spoke of the “tenderized realism” in Cold Spell, applied to both setting and characters. I like that term—along with other observations by blurbers, it helps refine my vision of my work.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ways to Self-Publish: An Interview with Tanyo Ravicz

Traditional publishing? Author services? “Vanity presses”? Self-publishing? The options can be overwhelming.

When author Tanyo Ravicz of the independent author cooperative Running Fox Books wrote to tell me he’d left an author services arrangement to release fully independent editions of his books Alaskans and A Man of His Village, I asked if he’d be willing to share his thoughts on that experience in this Q & A.

What motivates you to write?

An irrational drive to give lasting and meaningful shape to the experience of life is what motivates me to write. The satisfaction comes from engaging other people with the result of the effort, or, failing that, or in addition to that, in the consciousness of having written the best prose I can. If my words cause people to smile or grit their teeth or anxiously knit their brows or to ponder, that’s a rewarding engagement. Still, apart from that, it’s satisfying to see something in your own way and to crystallize that vision in penetrating prose.

What made you decide to forego traditional publishing?

That feels like a trick question. Honestly, whatever I offer about publishing has to be understood as coming from someone who’s had the experience several times repeated since the late 1980s of trying to “get” a literary agent and “get” a publisher. From the manila envelope to the iPhone, I’ve seen the changes in how things are done, but I’m not well qualified to speak about traditional publishing from the inside. By the same token, of course, you wouldn’t expect me to greatly lament the disruptions to the industry.

The first editions of your books were published through one of the larger author services companies, one that’s sometimes called a “vanity press.” How did you choose this particular service? How did it work out for you?

In 2006 I published the novel A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE through iUniverse, which was then a young company and still independent. The results were excellent. I was in my 40s, we had settled down in California after the years in Alaska, and I had been having the unpleasantly familiar experience of not being able to convince anyone to take on a manuscript of mine. There was a difference this time, though, and it was called print-on-demand technology.

Absolutely revolutionary. I went with iUniverse because I’d seen one of their posters in the Barnes & Noble window and I liked the concept. They were also running an effective whole-page ad series featuring pictures of Virginia Woolf and Walt Whitman and other literary lights who had published their own work — effective, I suppose, in normalizing, if not romanticizing, the idea of self-publishing, or at least diminishing the lingering stigma, though speaking for myself I never felt much of a stigma. To my mind, the scores of literary agents and small presses I had tried with the book had made a mistake. A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE went on to win the top prize in its category in a couple of open national contests and by publishing it I was able to get out and do events and sell some books.

Two years later, in 2008, still working with iUniverse, I brought out ALASKANS to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. It was good timing: I got a bump in interest in my book with the ascent on the national stage of Sarah Palin. ALASKANS is a collection of ten stories, two of them Pushcart-nominated and nine of them previously published in literary magazines, a circumstance I mention to help to dispel the stereotype that self-published work is unvetted and unprofessional.

Do people use the term “vanity press” anymore? This is archaic terminology rooted in the protectionism of the legacy publishers. It makes me think of those black-and-white ads discreetly tucked in the back pages of print magazines in the late 1900s. True, since the early days of print-on-demand publishing, an industry has sprung up around peripheral marketing services for authors, many of which play to our vanities; but what’s really happening here is a further closing of the gap between self-publishing and traditional publishing, which after all is hugely dependent for its advantage on its marketing machinery.

Recently, you’ve re-released your books on your own. What prompted you to do this?

Yes, I’ve broken off with iUniverse and I’ve brought out A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE and ALASKANS in new authoritative editions under the Denali Press imprint. It’s a way of taking ownership of my work and moving forward from here.

iUniverse has changed a lot since 2006. Actually, I hadn’t been entirely happy with the contract to begin with: I had agreed to a lesser paperback royalty percentage after iUniverse had represented to me that the discounts would be passed along the distribution chain. This was something it turned out iUniverse had no control over. It was a misrepresentation I wouldn’t forget.
Meanwhile iUniverse was swallowed up by Author Solutions, which in turn was acquired by Pearson, a division of Penguin, which has recently merged with Random House. This phenomenon of the old guard publishers getting into the author services business is interesting. Authors should be aware of what’s going on here structurally. A company of course wants to claim a share of the sales earned by the best-selling self-published books, but the ironic bread-and-butter truth is that these old publishers are partly evolving into “vanity presses” themselves, establishing divisions to encourage and profit from the “vanity” they earlier derided.

It’s not as though iUniverse did a good job anyway. They mismanaged the rise of ebooks, and speaking of my books in particular, iUniverse botched the ebook conversions. A reader took the trouble to inform me of this, and this was really the last straw as far as my attitude to iUniverse goes. Times had changed — the rise of ebooks, Amazon, Apple, Smashwords — and it was time for me to examine my options and to move on.

Personally, I needed to take stock anyway. Every now and then we look around and consider where we’ve come from and where we’re going. Finding myself again in the position of finalizing a new book and reaching out to literary agents, I wanted to have a strategy in place for averting the negative emotions that can come with the process.

Denali Press (“founded in Palm Springs, California, a publisher of quality fiction and nonacademic nonfiction”) is the result. Going forward, this is the rock under my books. I now have a direct relationship with Amazon, Apple, B&N and Kobo, a list which may grow as I choose. I register my own titles and I set the look and prices of the print books and ebooks. With drop caps, a matte cover finish, and a 5.25 x 8 trim — my choices — these print books are beautiful products that physically rival (at a more affordable price) the trade paperbacks of the big players.

The transition has cost me some months of concentrated effort, but I’ve become an exacting writer and so I didn’t mind the labor of one last time editing these two books. Also, the process of establishing a sole proprietorship, designing a logo, setting up vendor accounts, and so on, teaches valuable lessons. Financially, I’ve incurred switching costs — for example, I paid a pro to do my ebook conversions — and I’m in the red again with my writing, but I expect in the long term to recoup the losses.

Still, we all know how hard it is to sell books. One-book and two-book authors might be better advised to just stick with Amazon or an author services outfit and not to bother with setting up their own imprints.

Let me say too, Deb, that I had noticed what you were doing with your books over at Running Fox. You cared enough about your out-of-print books that you weren’t going to let them stay out of print. Emerging authors can look to you for an example of the nimbleness and adaptability of today’s writer who doesn’t necessarily reject tradition but isn’t bound by it.

What publishing advice do you have for emerging authors?

By all means try to work with a traditional publisher. A writer isn’t just a witness but also a participant, and your story as a writer, not the one you write but the one you live, becomes a part of the record of your time.

Remember that the established book world, from its editorial reaches to its diminished infrastructure to its far-flung superstructure (including bookstores and print journals) has never been especially friendly to self-published authors. In my experience, there are wonderful exceptions to this rule, but by and large I find it true. Small publishers face very large hurdles in bringing serious attention to their titles.

A third reason, if you’re an emerging author, not to hasten into do-it-yourself publishing is you’re probably not as good a writer as you’re going to become. Look at your finished manuscript two or three years from now; I guarantee it won’t seem so finished.

At a certain point, though, a pile of rejected manuscripts is toxic for a writer. If you don’t look out for your writing, no one will. Act. Act. Act.

If you’ve internalized the misconception that traditional publishing is somehow synonymous with literary quality and that the rest is dreck, you need to get past it.

Don’t fear Amazon and Apple. If as an author you’re a free agent, Amazon is your ally.

If you’re young, you probably don’t sit around longing for the lost simplicity and glamor of an earlier publishing era you never knew anyway and which may or not have existed. Considering our relative freedom to write what we want and the digital technologies that enable micropublishing, America in 2014 is a pretty good place to be a writer if you really have to be a writer. And like I always say to my friends who lament being overweight, don’t let them tell you that you take up too much of the world. It’s the world that takes up too much of you. 

Tanyo Ravicz grew up in California. He attended Harvard University and settled for many years in Alaska, mainly in Fairbanks and Kodiak. In Alaska he worked as (among other things) a wildland firefighter, cannery hand and schoolteacher. His novel-in-progress, Wildwood, draws on his experience of homesteading with his family on Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Tanyo’s classic short novel Ring of Fire, which explores the conflict between an Alaskan big-game hunting guide and the Crown Prince of Rahman, will be released in a new digital edition in 2014. His books include A Man of His Village, relating the odyssey of a migrant farm worker from Mexico to Alaska, and Alaskans, a selection of his short fiction.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writers: Is Your Beginning Good Enough?

I don't normally enter writing contests (not that I'm opposed to them), but three years ago, I submitted the first three pages of what was then my WIP (work in progress) to the Guide to Literary Agents literary fiction contest. To my surprise, I won - or rather, my beginning did.

Even so, I ended up revising the beginning of what is now my latest novel, and I'm glad I did. Here’s what Publishers Weekly says about how the novel begins now:

This lyrically written coming-of-age story from Vanasse grabs you from the opening line and never lets go: “I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory.”

Author Sinclair Lewis learned the hard way about the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.”

Don’t Try This at Home

Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.

This was the scenario that played out at a “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action.

Ways to Begin

The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.

You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.

With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked.

Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern.

Ending Thoughts on Beginnings

It’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember - they’re not.

To weigh in on what makes a good beginning, check out the “Flog a Pro” feature at Writer Unboxed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Books and Business: Relationships Matter

I first thought of business creep as the dance of an author between creative work and the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing. Then I started paying attention to the genuine creepiness that can slip in on the business side, as in the carjacking of a literary agent perpetrated by a writer that she’d rejected. How had the crazy guy tracked her down? Her frequent postings on Twitter and Facebook told where she was and what she was doing.

Creepy in a different way are writers who’ve paid for good online reviews of their books, and the freelancers who’ve paid their bills writing those reviews. I understand about the free market and all, but there’s still something chilling about a guy making $28,000 a month providing fake reviews. Google and Amazon eventually agreed, pulling the enterprising Todd Rutherford’s ads and reviews. Now he’s selling RVs while on the side running a business that creates book buzz via blogs and Twitter.

For as much as we hear about buzz, there must be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation. “I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Harper Lee did it; J.D. Salinger did it, they say.

A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do – create – and what we must do – help sell our books.

Much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With more than ten million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a Goodreads post titled The Anatomy of a Book Discovery uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.

Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis: how a “following” built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice can be overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your writing time on the business part. If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market – growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance – you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.

While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.

The profile of Emma Straub in Poets and Writers brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has more than 10,000 followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, which now includes her novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books and selected by Barnes and Noble as a Discover pick when it came out.

“I see how some writers have really great relationships with bookstores and with booksellers, and some writers don’t. I see what happens when a writer is a kind of dick to people who work at a bookstore. I am never going to recommend that person’s book,” she says. “Nowadays it really is the role of the writer to make sure that you have these personal connections with everyone you can to help things go well—and not in a gross, networky, slimy way; in an actual, genuine way. Relationships matter.”

As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.