Publication Primer: 15 Points to Ponder

You can’t hang out in writerly circles more than a minute or two without hearing the topic file0001336424447of traditional publication v. self-publication discussed. It’s big; very big. And for a very good reason.

Used to be, it was a matter of pride, vanity (hence the old moniker “vanity press”), and bucks: if you wanted to see your name in print and had the money to see it happen, you paid someone to publish your book. You could be pretty sure no one would ever buy it, and it was also a good bet that if anyone ever did, they’d be sorry. The quality was notoriously bad, from the printing to the binding and usually the writing itself (because if it was worth anything, a traditional publisher would have eventually accepted it), and the cost was notoriously high. The companies producing those vanity books seldom offered editing services, and if they did, their input was minimal. I’ve heard of books being produced with missing pages, upside-down pages, and other glaring errors, with the author having to pay for a re-print if he wanted them corrected. Not good.

file6681269982727Traditional publication is usually defined as publication through a company that pays you to publish your book rather than the other way around. In recent years, traditional presses have been going under at an alarming rate, and at the same time, with the advent of personal computers and easy-to-use writing software, authors are churning out manuscripts like never before. The result is a raging flood of authors seeking publication in a market that’s only equipped to handle a trickle. Not good.

Enter Amazon. On one hand, we might blame this Internet behemoth for the publishing world’s bleak state, as its innovations have changed the face of the industry forever. But it must also be acknowledged that this user-friendly site has made it possible for anyone with a moderate amount of computer savvy to produce a good quality book—print, e-book, or both—for NO INVESTMENT WHATSOEVER. And to sell it online to a virtually unlimited number of buyers worldwide, paying Amazon only a small sales commission for each book sold.

Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Producing a book through CreateSpace, the publishing division of Amazon, is a bit more difficult than waving a magic wand and chanting a spell. But it’s not only possible in the real world, but practical, which is why I’m gearing up to do it this year. Twice.

A writer friend was recently going through the Valley of Despond we all go through uponfile00055331537 having our manuscript rejected by our publisher of choice. I’ve read the book she submitted, and it’s a good one; I wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true. From the acquisition editor’s comments, it was apparent (s)he didn’t “get” the story. Since it’s nothing unusual or complicated, the editor was probably too hurried to take the time to see what it was all about.  (See my statement above about the glut of authors vying for the small number of traditional publishing slots.) Understanding that, though, doesn’t make the rejection hurt any less.

I have a great deal more experience trying to get published than succeeding at it. But I’ve been traveling through the writing world long enough and rubbing shoulders with enough successful authors to have learned a few things.  Based on that experience, I offered my friend some words of wisdom. Okay, maybe the words aren’t all that wise, but I thought I’d share them with you all here on Ys Words anyway. There’s nothing new or startling in the list below, but here’s more or less what I told her:

1 – Everyone has his own ideas of what’s good, what he likes, what he doesn’t like. Just because someone in high places doesn’t happen to like your story, that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

2 – Every writer thinks she’s the cat’s pajamas, that her writing is worthwhile and meaningful, and if someone doesn’t understand it, they’re missing the boat. Even if her writing truly stinks.

3 – No writer is in a good position to judge his own writing honestly. See above.

4 – The writing professionals see a lot of garbage and can recognize quality when they see it; if they find fault in it, chances are it’s not very good.

5 – The writing professionals see a lot of garbage, and every time they see a proposal, they expect it to be more of the same. They take a quick look, and if nothing pops out as being exceptional, they make a snap judgment as to the whole thing.

6 – At one point, after a certain number of rejections, every good writer thinks he’s been kidding himself and can’t really write after all. He’s wrong.

7 – At one point, after a certain number of rejections, every lousy writer thinks he’s been kidding himself and can’t really write after all. He’s right.

8 – Remember #s 2 and 3 above? We all need outside feedback from people who know something, not just people who know and love us.

9 – Caveat to the above: see Point #1. Don’t take anyone’s opinion too seriously; nobody’s God but God.

10 – The one who quits is finished. There will be no more chances for the writer who won’t take them.

11 – Being traditionally published is better than self-publishing. Anyone can self-publish, but being traditionally published is validation that you actually deserve to be published.

12 – Self-publishing is better because you have complete control. You can write what’s on your heart in your own unique style and not worry about having to please a publisher. Moreover, instead of getting a small royalty from the publisher, you keep the bulk of the earnings and give a small royalty to CreateSpace.

13 – Traditionally published books are more prestigious and are overall better quality than self-published works (except for the self-published books that are better quality than some of the traditionally-published ones).

14 – Traditional publication is a great learning experience. But now that it’s becoming easier and more profitable, self-publishing is a good option for those books that are not quite mainstream.

I didn’t tell her this next one, because she’s been around the block enough that she didn’t need me to. However, I’ll add one more point for these purposes:

15 – Generally speaking, writing is not a money-making proposition no matter how you do it. In both cases, the hardest part is selling the book once it’s produced. In both cases, the author who makes millions at it is the exception, not the rule. Write only because you can’t not write, not because you need the income.

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Not a Snack, But a Meal

file4561296767054One of the fun things about writing in this electronic age is the opportunity it affords to meet all kinds of people from all over the world. In the writing realm, misery loves company — or maybe it’s a matter of like minds tending to gravitate toward one another.

However it works, shortly after the publication of my first novel, I met (virtually) a writer in Nova Scotia. She had been working on a novel of her own for some time and, while diligently honing her craft and improving the story, she was making contacts in the writing world in preparation for when she had books of her own to promote. She was one of the first to blog about my first book, The Story in the Stars, and I loved her immediately — because she loved the book, of course, thus proving herself to be a woman of impeccable taste. Later, I interviewed her here, and then after that, she wrapped up her review of Words in the Wind with one of my favorite quotes: “When I reached the end I kept wanting to turn pages but there were no more!”

So when Janet’s debut novel, Heaven’s Prey, was released last year, I rejoiced for her. And I bought it — and read it — and was impressed! I went into it expecting to like it (because I like Janet, of course), but otherwise, it wasn’t what I expected. Though the writing style is clear and uncomplicated, the story and theme are heavy-duty. Definitely not a quick snack, but rather a meal that requires a bit of chewing.

If you were to pick up the book and read the back-cover blurb, this is what it would say:Heaven's Prey

A grieving woman is abducted by a serial killer—and it may be the answer to her prayers.

Despite her husband’s objections, 40-something Ruth Warner finds healing through prayer for Harry Silver, the serial killer who brutally raped and murdered her niece. When a kidnapping-gone-wrong pegs her as his next victim, Harry claims that by destroying the one person who’d pray for him, he proves God can’t—or won’t—look after His own. Can Ruth’s faith sustain her to the end—whatever the cost?

But, as is usually the case, the blurb doesn’t convey the depth and the power of the story. I can’t say I loved it and wanted to read more, because it’s a disturbing tale. But it’s skillfully written, and I definitely appreciate the nutritious food it provides for thought.

So, in part because I thought it’s a book worth bringing to my blogfellows’ attention, but also to return the favors Janet has given me, I invited her come by to talk about her story. I told her I was curious about a number of things concerning Heaven’s Prey and asked if she’d mind answering a few questions. She graciously agreed. So let’s give a warm welcome to Janet Sketchley.

Janet Sketchley headshot 350x350•    What was the inspiration for this story?

Sometimes I pray for people I see in the news, either victims or villains. One day this question hit me: it’s one thing to pray for an offender locked away in jail, but what would you do if you met the person face to face?

•    You labored over this for years, as I understand it, reworking and revising it over and over. Did you ever think of setting it aside and writing something else instead? Or were you always determined to present this specific story to the world?

Years and years, Yvonne! Although I didn’t work at it full-time. This was my first serious attempt at novel-writing, and I had a lot to learn. Since I ignored the advice to write short material first, re-writing to correct my mistakes took a lot of time. I did set the story aside a few times, once to write a second novel manuscript, but something kept pulling me back to it.

I felt an obligation to give my characters the best shot I could at being published, but because of the subject matter, this was a story I decided I wouldn’t self-publish. If God wanted it out there, He would make a way. Because I loved the characters, I couldn’t trust myself to be impartial about a decision to self-publish and I was afraid if I did that, I might have been insisting on my own way when it wasn’t God’s choice.

•    What sort of research did it involve? Were you a NASCAR fan before writing it? Do you have a background in criminal psychology?

Most of the racing details came from what I learned watching Formula One. I wanted to keep Harry in North America, so I needed to research karting, NASCAR and IndyCar. That part was all fun. I didn’t do a lot of research into violent criminals, largely because I didn’t want to traumatize myself, but I did connect with a police officer and a former correctional services worker to learn those aspects of the story.

•    How has it been received? Have you had readers contact you to thank you for writing it? Have you caught flak from some?

I’ve been surprised and pleased at how well the story has been received. I was afraid it would be too frightening, or that people would be angry that I dared suggest someone so evil could find redemption. Some of my reviewers have praised the forgiveness/redemption theme, and I did have one reader contact me to say parts of it paralleled her life experience and showed her the Lord wanted to do more healing in her.

•    How has writing this book changed your view of the world, if at all?

You know, I think the biggest change has been in how I look at others. Writing fiction makes us delve to find why our characters act and speak as they do, instead of just accepting them at face value. I’m more inclined now to wonder about people’s motives and to give them the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming bad behaviour springs from bad intentions.

•    How have you been promoting it? Have you found something that works particularly well? What, in your experience, is overrated as far as book promotion goes?

Most of my promotion has been online. We did a Facebook launch party and a Goodreads giveaway, and I’ve visited as many blogs (like this one!) as I can. I’ve used up nearly all of the print copies my publisher set aside for giveaways, and I’m searching for more reviewers. Currently I’m building relationships in a few Goodreads groups. The focus there isn’t on hard-sell, but I hope some of my fellow readers will want to check out Heaven’s Prey. I really believe in this story, for readers who like the genre, but they can’t enjoy it if they don’t hear about it.

Personal relationships and word of mouth have been my best forms of promotion, and they can’t be rushed. One thing we did that surprised me with its lack of effect was a book blast. Essentially it was a freebie-pack of bonus features for people who emailed proof of purchase to my publisher within the first few weeks. We had background information, articles on some of the hot-button topics addressed in the novel, photos, a recipe… lots of cool stuff. As a reader I’d love this sort of thing. We did have some initial speed bumps with online sales, and that likely contributed to the low response, but in general readers just didn’t seem interested. I still love freebies, so with my next novel, those will go to my newsletter subscribers instead.

One bit of promotion I’d like to share with you and your readers is a print giveaway for Heaven’s Prey that’s going on right now (March 15-March 31). If there’s enough response, I’ll consider choosing a second winner too. Details are on my blog (click here to enter).

•    Where do we go from here? Do you have another project in the works?

I’m revising book 2 in the Redemption’s Edge series, Secrets and Lies, with a projected release date of November 2014. It takes place in the period of time between the end and epilogue of Heaven’s Prey. It’s the story of the villain’s sister, Carol Silver Daniels, who finds herself in danger from her brother’s enemies.

Thanks so much for having me here, Yvonne, and all the best in your writing. I’m looking forward to reading more of your Gannah series.

And thank you, Janet, for visiting today, and for providing such thought-provoking reading. I look forward to dining on the next book in the series.

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Oops…

MessMy previous post about learning from the greats is a great demonstration of how great I’m not. That post was as big a mess as the kitchen in the picture.

(That’s NOT my kitchen, mind you. I searched MorgueFile.com for a picture of “mess” and chose that from the results. Just so you know that…)

Back to that messy post: it had been a long time since I’d updated my blog and I didn’t want to delay any longer, so I was determined to do it that evening, one way or another. Problem is, I was falling asleep as I typed, so it’s not surprising there were a lot of errors in it.

The next day I went back and fixed them, or so I thought. Then it dawned on me today that I’d given the wrong name for the Stephen King book I’m reading. It’s not The Shining, but rather, The Stand. Sorry about that!

I got this particular copy from the Paperback Swap Club, a group I participated in for a few years, and this one happens to be the “complete and uncut” edition. That means all that stuff the author originally wrote that the editor made him cut when he first submitted the manuscript? He later put all that back in because he was by then a big-name big-bucks author and he could indulge himself in that way. This version weighs in at a bloated 1141 pages.

As I indicated in my last post, there are many things about this book that make it stellar. Conciseness is not one of them. If I were the editor, I’d have made him cut a lot of this stuff too. I don’t love all the long, involved stories and backstories that lead up to the climax — which, though I’m on page 590, is still far in the distance.

What I do love: his characterizations. I can’t really say I love the characters, because many of them are sleazy and disgusting. Some are likeable. But they’re all believable, multi-faceted, and vividly described. He gets perfect scores on this.

The delicious similes and metaphors, such as: the flesh over a terrible burn, now healing, is “hairless andThe Stand pink, like the skin of a cheap doll”; a backpack “hung askew on his back like a shutter on a haunted house.” Describing a terrible realization occurring to one of the characters: “… a polar thought slipped up through the floor of his mind like an icy stiletto blade.” Stars gleam in the clear night, “bathing the desert in their cold witchlight.” An exhausted man plods along, “his head hanging like the bloom of a dying sunflower.” After drinking his fill of water at last, he moves on, “sloshing like a filled goatskin.”

I found all this in just a few pages, and I’ve been delighting in it.

Yes, much of the book is gross, creepy, and/or revolting. But some of it is moving in a different sort of way. Here’s the snippet I wanted to share with you last time but I was too tired.

The character is a young black woman in 1902, the daughter of freed slaves who had moved to Nebraska to farm. Not all the other farmers were willing to accept a black family, but enough of them did that they were able to prosper. On this occasion, she has been asked to sing at the Grange Hall — something wholly unheard-of for such a one, and she was a basket of nerves over it. But she agreed to do it and psyched herself up for the performance. Now, let’s listen:

And so she began to sing “The Old Rugged Cross” into the moveless silence, her fingers picking melody. Then picking up a strum, the slightly stronger melody of “How I Love My Jesus,” and then stronger still, “Camp Meeting in Georgia.” Now people were swaying back and forth almost in spite of themselves. Some were grinning and tapping their knees.

She sang a medley of Civil War songs: “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Marching Through Georgia,” and “Goober Peas” (more smiles at that one; many of these men, Grand Army of the Republic veterans, had eaten more than a few goober peas during their time in the service). She finished with “Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground,” and as the last chord floated away into a silence that was now thoughtful and sad, she thought: Now if you want to throw your tomatas or whatever, you go on and do it. I played and sang my best, and I was real fine.

When the last chord floated into silence, that silence held for a long, almost enchanted instant, as though the people in those seats and the others standing at the back of the hall had been taken far away, so far they could not find their way back all at once. Then the applause broke and rolled over her in a wave, long and sustained, making her blush, making her feel confused, hot and shivery all over. She saw her mother, weeping openly, and her father, and David, beaming at her.

I’m going to skip a few paragraphs to save time and space, and now let’s resume:

She finished to another thunderous ovation and fresh cries of “Encore!” She remounted the stage, and when the crowd had quietened, she said: “Thank you all very much. I hope you won’t think I am bein forward if I ask to sing just one more song, which I have learned special but never ever expected to sing here. But it is just about the best song I know, on account of what President Lincoln and this country did for me and mine, even before I was born.”

They were very quiet now, listening closely. Her family sat stock still, all together near the left aisle, like a spot of blackberry jam on a white handkerchief.

“On account of what happened back in the middle of the States War,” she went steadily on, “my family was able to come here and live with the fine neighbors that we have.”

Then she played and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and everyone stood up and listened, and some of the handkerchiefs came out again, and when she had finished, they applauded fit to raise the roof.

It was the proudest day of her life.

Well. I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I want to hold my readers enchanted, as the character in this scene held her listeners. I want them to feel as if they’ve been taken away, so far they can’t find their way back all at once.

One way to learn to do that is by studying the masters. Even if they do sometimes creep me out.

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Learning from the Greats

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl

I don’t indulge in five-star dining very often because of the cost. But on the rare occasions when I can enjoy that kind of food, I really, really enjoy it. Great chefs are called great for a reason.

Similarly, I don’t always read books that I’d rate five stars. If the average title earned that honor, it would be meaningless, and I only give five stars to the truly stellar books. But when I do read a great book, I really, really enjoy it. The great authors have, by and large, earned their reputation.

Great Wall of China
Great Wall of China

True, there’s the question of personal taste. Hemingway’s considered one of the greats, but I never particularly cared for his writing, whereas my favorite authors (Athol Dickson comes to mind) don’t always make the “Best” lists.

Most of us writers will never be great, but shouldn’t we each strive to be the best we can? Awhile back I read a comment by an indie author posting to a group discussion who said, “I just sent my book off today. It stinks, but it’s time to get started on the next one.” Why would a writer be content to publish a book which, by his own

Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains

admission, stinks? Does he wonder why indie authors are, or at least have been until recently, held in such low esteem?

There are differences between eating at five-star restaurants and reading five-star books. The biggest one is the cost; a great book is no more expensive to read (especially if you use the public library) than pulp fiction. But it’s a great deal more nourishing.

You know what happens to your body when you eat junk food, right? Fatty fiction has a similar effect on you brain — and if you’re a writer, on the development of your craft.

Great Scott
Great Scott

I suppose the same principle holds true in any endeavor. A serious artist studies the work of the masters. An architect, a tailor, a French hornist, a photographer, an ice fisherman — anyone interested in improving his skill at his chosen endeavor would be advised to pay attention to what others have done before.

100StephenKingBooksPDFThat’s why I recently started reading The Shining by Stephen King. I’d previously found King to be a superb writer, and someone recently recommended it as his best, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I think it’s the third book he ever published (or thereabouts), and the style is a bit dated. I doubt, for instance, he uses so many adverbs these days. I don’t care for some of the language, and I can’t say I really love the story. But I tell you what — that man has a wonderful way with words. I enjoyed one section so much I was going to copy it here and share it with you, but I decided not to because I’m too lazy. So, sorry, you’ll just have to wonder what it was.

Some Christian writers are reluctant to read secular books because they’re not comfortable with the language (as in the case of Stephen King’s work) or they’re concerned about the possibility of questionable content. I’m not here to tell other people what they should or shouldn’t read. But I do believe we grow taller from walking among the trees.

 

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Backstory and Characterization

file000114053890Everybody has a history.

Our genetic background, our childhood, our lifetime experiences all work together to make us who we are.

Fiction writers know this (or at least, the good ones do). A fictional character’s history is called his backstory. If he’s going to come across as a realistic, multi-dimensional person rather than a cartoon character, that backstory has to be in place. But how do we handle the writing of it? Too much backstory (especially if it’s too soon) makes a plot so unwieldy it can’t stand up. Too little, and the characters aren’t believable. Finding the right balance is important.

Not long ago I read a book that was loaded with backstory — but it was all unseen. You knew things had happened that led up to this point, but they were only hinted at, and it left me curious. So curious, in fact, that I contacted the author to find out more. We’d previously “met” virtually through Twitter and The Independent Author Network, and he interviewed me on his blog last year. So I thought it would be fun to return the favor.

Instead of an interview, he’s graciously agreed to answer my questions in the form of a short article on the subject. So please welcome author A. R. Silverberry in a long over-due visit with Y’s Words.

 

Deepening Characters Through BackstoryAuthor Photo 2 198x300

Readers are often curious about a writer’s process. What inspired the story? How long does it take to write one? How are theme, plot, and character worked out? While writing Wyndano’s Cloak, I learned that the more I know about the characters—their needs, hopes, fears, secrets, and the past that gave rise to these things, the more real the characters are to me. Luckily, the knowing was easy, as was mapping out the plot, because, prior to starting, I had written an entire novel and lived with the characters for five years.

I’m talking, of course, about a prequel. It sits unpublished in my dresser, and for very good reason: it was my first attempt, the place where I hammered away, experimenting, learning the craft, and developing my style and voice. All good reasons to let that two-and-a-half-inch pile of pulp sleep, with apologies to the trees. Older and hopefully wiser as a writer, I’m still not certain whether I will ever be able to revise it, or even should. So many other stories demand to be written that it ends up incubating beside my socks. But it did its job. As soon as it was finished, I knew what my heroine, Jenren would face. An image flashed in my mind of the story’s climax. After that, the outline and first draft flowed quickly.

I heard the characters’ voices when they talked—Jenren, the lean and tough athlete; Petunia, the snarky countess; the count, her puffed up father; Bit, the shy betrothed of the prince of Aerdem. The world they walked in was already full and vibrant. The novel’s antagonist, Naryfel, was only mentioned in that prequel, but based on that, I knew her motives and she sprang into my mind fully formed.

The hard part was the theme. After the first draft, I seemed to have four of them. Although they were related, it was clear that I needed to select one, or the novel wouldn’t be sufficiently unified. I agonized over the decision for six months until I was certain I understood what the story was trying to tell me. It may be that my work as a psychologist was filtering into my unconscious. During the post-911 era when the story was written, I witnessed increasing pessimism about the future in the children I worked with. They saw a world with diminishing job prospects, economic meltdown, war, and terrorism. What I could say to them? What did they have to believe in?

These questions seeped into my writing. Didn’t Jenren and Bit face an uncertain future? Didn’t their beautiful, innocent world seem to be crumbling? What did they have to get them through it all? What did they have to believe in? When everything was stripped away from them, all they had was themselves and the gifts they carried inside, Jen the athlete; Bit the artist.

So there you have it. Knowing I might never revise the prequel, Wyndano’s Cloak was written as a standalone. The backstory enriched the characters and setting and fueled the plot. Unlike the prequel, everything is wrapped up. If I write a sequel, I’ll have to cook up something new. Meanwhile, those other stories clamor to be written.

Wyndano’s Cloak Synopsis:

WC Cover SmallJen has settled into a peaceful life when a terrifying event awakens old fears—of being homeless and alone, of a danger horrible enough to destroy her family and shatter her world forever.

She is certain that Naryfel, a shadowy figure from her past, has returned and is concentrating the full force of her hate on Jen’s family. But how will she strike? A knife in the dark? An attack from her legions? Or with the dark arts and twisted creatures she commands with sinister cunning.

Wyndano’s Cloak may be Jen’s only hope. If she’s got what it takes to use it . . .

Purchase on Amazon
Purchase on Barnes and Noble
Purchase on iTunes
Purchase limited edition hardback from A. R. Silverberry

About the Author:

A. R. Silverberry has won a dozen awards, including Gold Medal Winner in the 2011 Benjamin Franklin Awards for Juvenile/Young Adult Fiction; Gold Medal Winner in the 2010 Readers Favorite Awards for Preteen Fiction; and Silver Medal Winner 2011 in the Bill Fisher Award for Best First Book, Children’s/Young Adult. He lives in California, where the majestic coastline, trees, and mountains inspire his writing. Wyndano’s Cloak is his first novel. Follow him at the links below!

A. R. Silverberry’s Website
Facebook
Twitter

DISCOVER THE MAGIC OF WYNDANO’S CLOAK!

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