Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Is Amazon Getting into the Author Marketing Business?

I just received an email and a survey from Amazon's KDP program asking me a number of questions.

Every single question was geared toward determining what I have done to market my books. From writing on this blog to hiring the lovely Consetta Parker, they wanted to know everything.

What was the hardest thing about marketing? What was the most expensive? What was the easiest? What was I doing currently?

Then, they started asking questions about how much money I was spending on such efforts.

The email stated thusly:
As part of Kindle Direct Publishing’s ongoing effort to provide you with better services and support, we would like your feedback. Please help us by taking this short online survey which asks about your opinions and experiences with book marketing and more.
I think it's a prudent move for Amazon to get into book marketing, but they don't need to do a whole lot for it. All they'd need to do is hire a few readers to elevate the good stuff on the site and review it. That would be marketing enough. If I had to pay a small premium to get Amazon to read my book and decide whether or not it should get a review and better algorithm results, I'd be happy to do it. My books are well-reviewed enough and sell well enough that I wouldn't imagine I'd have a problem qualifying for something like that.

I'm not sure what I'd pay, but if Amazon is getting into that business, I'd certainly consider it.

But are they diving in to just take more money from the stereotypical bad self-publisher who can't figure out why their book isn't selling?

I've heard that Amazon's model isn't to sell 1,000,000 copies of a bestseller, but to sell 1 copy of a million poor sellers. To them, it's all the same. If they could do the same thing with marketing services to the same people, that would make lots of financial sense.

A survey from authors who utilize their desktop publishing is clearly an exploratory step. We'll see what comes next.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Writer's Rules Revisited #14

I've been catching up ever since I got back from SheVaCon, where I had a great time talking about writing. It made me realize very much that no matter how many answers I had to offer others for their writing, I would never be 100% sure of those answers in my own writing. I don't think any of us can be. We're all searching for that extra help or bit of guidance that will put our stories over the top, but we're too close to them and so we have to rely equally on our knowledge of the craft and the opinions of those we trust.

But that's neither here nor there, I suppose.

Also, for those interested, there's a new interview with me about Operation: Montauk at Indie Author Land. 

And for you Star Wars fans, be sure to check me out on the Full of Sith podcast which seems to be taking on a life of its own that I can't explain.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 herePart 9 herePart 10 herePart 11 here, Part 12 here, and Part 13 here.

44) Know your mythology. Know your classic story structure. Know your Robert McKee, know your Joseph Campbell.

This one seems easy, but a lot of people seem to forget it. And while these specific examples might not ring true for you and your writing, you need to find mentors somewhere, whether its in the printed word or in person.

Knowing your mythology and your fairy tales is important. Although as writers it might feel like we're constantly reinventing the wheel, we're really not when it comes to many of the ways stories are put together. In classic mythology and fairy tales, things are tackled in a different direction than we're used to and you'll never know when an established story tool or trope is lurking for you to discover that will help you unlock the problem you're having with your current story. I'm amazed at how often I can get stuck on a story and go back and revisit tales that seem completely unrelated. Though I might not find my specific answer, reading one story will get my mind thinking and spin off another great idea, then another, and soon enough my story problem is solved.

This is where Joseph Campbell comes in. Know his work inside and out. His book The Hero of a Thousand Faces ought to be required reading in writing classes. It dissects what similar traits heroes of different archetypes all share through mythology and modern stories. Studying Campbell, in my opinion, will help you dissect and hone your craft in a way that is invaluable. If the book seems to dense for you, fall back on his PBS special with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. That PBS special taught me as much about writing and myself as much as any creative writing course or seminar I ever took.

Aside from knowing myths and legends, knowing the art of story structure is equally important. When we build a story, we're building something of a house. And though the architecture can vary, there are hallmarks to all styles of architecture you need. We need the foundation of character, walls built of action and dialogue, and a roof of rising action and a climax. Knowing the ins and outs of story structures that can work and have worked through recorded time can help you get through points in your story where you're stuck as well. Even though you might want to drag things in a different direction, going back and relying on your craft might keep you on a path that will give you a better and more disciplined story. Read lots of books and find the spines of their story, dissect them. Watch lots of movies and do the same thing. Examining what has worked for others and applying that to your work will help you immeasurably.

That brings me to Robert McKee and his incredible book Story. Read this book. Download the audio book and listen to it in the car. Consume it. McKee is one of the most talented teachers I've ever come across. Granted, his approach is geared primarily to the art of film, but many of those principles of storytelling apply to all mediums. I'll often re-read this book as I'm in the midst of plotting a new story or screenplay, asking myself questions about it as I read McKee's analysis of stories and films through time. It's an invaluable resource and happens to fit with my views and philosophies on writing. It might not be for you, but it's worth checking out for a different perspective one way or the other.

There are a few more books I'll recommend that every writer read.

Plotting: A Novelist's Workout Guide by Aaron Allston - Aaron is a friend and I was graced with an early copy of this book and found it immensely helpful. In the same way McKee's book got me thinking about my story, Aaron approaches it from a slightly different but equally valid and important approach. This is a must read.

Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman - Goldman is responsible for some of my favorite books and movies, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance  Kid and Marathon Man to The Princess Bride and All the President's Men. His view on writing, Hollywood, and screenplays is fresh and an entire course in writing in a neat little book. Also check out the sequel to this book.

There are plenty of other books that have inspired me as a writer, but if I were picking the top four, these are the ones I'd force on you.

45) Irvin Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back, said, "A director is always guessing." So is a writer.

I can't emphasize enough how often we don't know the answers. We just don't have them all. We're guessing. And once we realize that we don't have the answers, we open ourselves up to find the answers.

It's why we're all constantly studying. It's why we're all constantly learning.

But it also goes back to what I've said in previous rules. We look for every excuse to not start writing. Hell, me writing this series has been a massive dodge to make me feel like I'm still writing when I should be working on my novel. But one reason we don't keep writing is because we feel out of control, we feel like we're guessing, we don't feel like we know all the answers about our story. Guess what: we don't.

The part of my writing I guess and second guess the most are my beginnings. The first lines of a story are some of the most important and I get too focused on getting them right the first time. But until the story is written in full and we chisel down the marble stone of that rough draft into something presentable, we have absolutely no idea what that proper starting point might be. Sure, maybe we got it right the first time. But maybe we didn't. Intellectualizing the knowledge that the words you put down first might not be the right ones but that you can come back to them later when you do know what the right words are is incredibly helpful.

You're just guessing. We're all just guessing.

Don't let that get in your way.

46) Read your dialogue out loud to yourself to make sure it's natural. That's what Tennessee Williams did and look at how that turned out.

This rule was originally written down in my notebook when I was focusing on screenwriting. I, like many other writers, I think, are fascinated by the processes by which other writers produce their work and one day I happened upon Tennessee Williams's method of dialogue. For those who don't know, Tennessee Williams wrote some of the best plays-turned-movies you've ever seen. From A Streetcar Named Desire to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the man had an ear for dialogue and character that is hard to match.

I read that he would speak all of his dialogue to himself, tweaking it with every pass until it sounded right. And it really blew my mind at that point. Sometimes, approaching your words in a different direction or a different means of communication helps you see things you simply couldn't before.

I've since applied this to my novels as well. I'll read through whole chapters out loud, looking to fix dialogue and errors. Errors that never seem apparent on the written page always hit like a record scratch when you're reading out loud. And it forces you to evaluate every single word, which is important if you've seen a particular chapter in your book a thousand times and tend to gloss over it because you "just know that part is still right."

Do everything you can to change up how you're doing things or hear things in a different voice and think about them in a different way.

It will pay dividends in the finished product.

47) If it helps, write parts for dead actors you admire, then rewrite them in your revision for living actors. It gives you two different perspectives on the character and adds an extra, easy layer of depth.

This is a trick that I used a lot when I was starting out as a writer and still use it occasionally, but not as much. I used it primarily on screenwriting, but have done it now and again in my prose. I tend to lean on Peter Lorre far too much. 

We all have our favorite actors and performances and it's very easy to visualize them doing a wide array of things. We can hear them clearly and know what they would and wouldn't say. If you have side characters that you're running into problems with, this could add that extra oomph into your descriptions of them and their dialogue that will get you through your draft.

But afterwards, you don't exactly want them to be easily recognized as the actor you fashioned them after, so in revisions, tweak and revise with a different actor in mind. How would Phillip Seymour Hoffman interpret a part written for Peter Lorre? How would Harrison Ford reinterpret a part written for Cary Grant? 

It causes fascinating juxtapositions and gets your mind moving in a way that lets you get through your drafts on autopilot. Through a third or fourth revision, those problem characters should have taken on a life of their own that you won't need that Hollywood crutch, but it's a powerful tool to place in your writer's toolbox. That's the most important thing about writing is having as many tools at your disposal for as many problems as you can think of so you don't lose your momentum on a piece. It's relying on structure, craft, storytelling, character, and every trick you can think of to get that first draft produced. Until that's done, you've got nothing. With cheats like this, you're much more likely to get to that point.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, Part 10Part 11Part 12, and Part 13If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

ShevaCon - Panel Schedule

I'm heading out tonight for SheVaCon, which starts tomorrow in Roanoke, Virginia. I'm excited to meet people, sell and sign some books, and hang out with two of my favorite pals, Janine Spendlove and Aaron Allston.

I wanted to leave my schedule with you in case you could make it. This is a great convention with lots of great seminars to be had.
Feb 8

E-publishing how does it work - Bryan Young, Anne B Walsh, Elaine Corvidae
1:00pm-1:50pm Harrison/Tyler Room  
Intro to graphic novel writing - Bryan Young, Elaine Corvidae
3:00pm-3:50pm Bent Mountain Room  
Feb 9  
How to Kill your Character - Robert West, Betty Cross, Leona Wisoker, Janine Spendlove, Gail Martin, Bryan Young, Aaron Allston, Heather E Hutsell
12:00pm-12:50pm Washington Lecture Hall  
Beating Writer’s Block - Paul Dellinger, Leona Wisoker, Janine Spendlove, Betty Cross, Bryan Young, Mark Rainey, Jim Bernheimer, Heather E Hutsell
2:00pm-2:50pm Harrison/Tyler Room  
Evolution of Weapons in Sci-Fi  - Janine Spendlove, Bryan Young
3:00pm-3:50pm Harrison/Tyler Room  
Sci-fi in Romance/Romance in Sci-fi - Janine Spendlove, Gail Martin, Bryan Young, Aaron Allston 7:00pm-7:50pm Harrison/Tyler Room  
Feb 10  
Writer’s Q & A with Janine Spendlove, Bryan Young, and Aaron Allston
11:00pm-12:50pm Washington Lecture Room

That last one might end up being my favorite. A general writing Q & A with myself, Janine, and Aaron? That's going to be gold, I tell you.

I hope to see many of you there. I'll have copies of all of my books on hand.

Of Trademarks and Space Marines

What do you think of when you hear the term "Space Marine"? For many, it conjures images of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. For others, it's the tough hombres of the Colonial Marines in the Alien franchise. For a certain sort of gaming nerd the image conjures one of a tabletop miniature in a war game published by Games Workshop.

It's a term that's been part of science fiction for decades, but one greedy corporation is now making a grab to associate it with their use and their use alone, and siccing lawyers on anyone else who wants to use it.

The site I edit, Big Shiny Robot, brought this to my attention and it should be terrifying for writers of all stripes, but particularly indies.

Games Workshop, the company behind the Warhammer 40k game, has started asserting that ANY use of the term Space Marine infringes on their trademark and intellectual property. Recently, they went after the author MCA Hogarth and forcibly removed a self-published title on Amazon from the author.

Then it gets worse.
In their last email to me, Games Workshop stated that they believe that their recent entrĂ©e into the e-book market gives them the common law trademark for the term “space marine” in all formats. If they choose to proceed on that belief, science fiction will lose a term that’s been a part of its canon since its inception. Space marines were around long before Games Workshop. But if GW has their way, in the future, no one will be able to use the term “space marine” without it referring to the space marines of the Warhammer 40K universe.
Games Workshop is asserting that ANY use of the term is theirs. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. This is over the line.

Now, here is her cover for the book they have an issue with, Spots the Space Marine:

Does that look like anyone, in a hundred years, would confuse this with the battling tabletop marines of the Warhammer 40K universe?



This is not something that we can let stand. Those of us who work in the creative industries know how difficult it can be to fight against these corporations with deep pockets and expensive lawyers, and here were are scraping together scratch for a cup of coffee. Ms. Hogarth needs help with this and can't possibly afford a lawyer to fight these guys.

What can we do?

Well, I have a proposal and it goes way beyond just writing letters, either to Games Workshop or our congressperson. It goes beyond screaming about this from the highest hilltops that we have on the Internet. An age ago, when I was in high school debate, there was a technique we'd use to spread the opposing team thin, so they couldn't possibly answer every argument, inevitably drop some, and would then lose the debate.

Let's spread Games Workshop.

Gather every artist and writer we know and let's all write or draw our own personal interpretations of what Space Marines would be. The world could always use more iterations of military space fiction, it could always use more creative interpretations of what a Space Marine could be. We'll all put our short stories for sale, make art prints and sell those. Anything you can think of.

If suddenly there are hundreds of new Space Marine stories for sale, it certainly would dilute their claim to ownership of the phrase, it would put many more ideas of what Space Marines could be into the aether, and it would force them to police more vigilantly the term. It's going to cost them more money than it's worth trying to track all of the instances down and the more of us that get shut down by their greed machine, the more negative publicity it creates for them.

Or, they could simply drop it. I understand protecting their intellectual property, but this novel, and any story that happens to use the incredibly generic term "Space Marine" simply isn't their IP.

Who's with me?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Writer's Rules Revisited #13

It's been a while since we've done one of these. Aside from being busy with revisions and work and new writing, things have been hectic.

I've got a couple of other posts to point you to in case you're interested. The first is a small talk about writing I had with comics legend Walt Simonson. His take on fairy and folk tales really opened my eyes about some things and reinforced others. The other thing you might be interested in checking out is my series on Gamemastering on Big Shiny Robot! Gamemastering and storytelling are sister endeavors and there are some things I've elaborated on there that would definitely spark some creative juices for writing, though I understand if it's not for everyone.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 herePart 8 herePart 9 herePart 10 herePart 11 here, and Part 12 here.

The first on this list is specifically for screenwriting, but the other two in this installment are applicable to writers of every medium.

So, without further ado, we begin.

* 41) Try to avoid, where possible, the thoughts and feelings of characters in the scene setups and action. It won't play visually.

There are two very good reasons for this rule. The first is that saying that a character feels a certain way in a scene setup isn't going to help the director and cinematographer figure out where to put the camera, and that's what scene directions are for. And actors are going to bring their own unique take on the character, so your preconceived notions of what they might be are going to be thrown out the window.

One of my favorite quotes from George Lucas involves this very subject. The character of See-Threepio was supposed to be a very oily used car salesman in all the original drafts of the screenplay. "Eventually, you actually take a real person and stick them into that character, and that real person brings with him or her an enormous package of reality. I mean, Threepio is just a hunk of plastic and without Tony Daniels in there, it isn't anything at all."

You have to remember that screenplays are collaborative. If you spell out every detail in your script about what is going to happen and why and how people are feeling and every look on their face, no one is going to want to make your movie. You need to write the screenplay cleanly enough that people are interested, but can see their own vision inside of it. And actors are very ego centric. They will bring whatever they feel like to the character and inhabit them so completely that I've seen some resent every bit of scene direction that gives away their emotion or emotional actions in the script.

The other very good reason is that in screenplays, more than almost any other medium, you have people scanning your text. If you have all kinds of unfilmable sentences and emotions in your scene setups, it's going to be filed in the trash pretty quickly because they are going to know that you have no idea how an actual screenplay is supposed to work.

Your story needs to be so clear with the physical actions of the character and the dialogue and the tone of the text that the emotion the characters are feeling is unmistakable.

Then you'll know that you've done your job.

42) Don't guess trends. Write what you want to read or see.

Trends move along so quickly that trying to guess at them is going to be a waste of your time. Set a trend. If you have a specific taste enough for something to write it and want to have longevity as a writer, you'll either set the trend or have the book you wanted to write available when the trend comes back in vogue.

This is especially true in the age of digital publishing and perpetual availability of everything. If you've written a werewolf love story and no one is touching them right now because they're all focused on zombie stories, it's not a big deal. For one, there will be a small market right off the bat for that werewolf love story, and if, somehow, they catch on, you're ready for it.

But think about how long it takes to write a book and edit it and move it through all the normal channels and publish it. By the time you see a trend capturing the zeitgeist of the popular culture, it would take you until the time the trend was over to be able to capitalize on it meaningfully in a way that wouldn't embarrass you too much.

So don't write what you think others want to read, per se. Write what you have a passion for. Write the book you want to read. There will be enough people like-minded enough to be interested. Trends move in cycles and if the idea and the execution is good enough, then when the cycle comes back around and your book is already out, it'll be a matter of slapping a new cover on it and you're in a very good way.

The same is true with screenplays. Trends take even longer to come around and movies take even longer to get made than books. Don't try to anticipate those things, just focus on crafting a good screenplay.

I can't emphasize this one enough.

I've seen some exceptions to this that work, but they are the exception. I've seen a couple of people capitalize very well on short-story satires of very hot and topical issues or trends, but they're short and being published digitally without support. But even then, I wouldn't recommend it. Your energy is probably better focused working on your beloved opus.

And if your focus happens to follow a major trend, understand that the trend will be passe by the time you finish. If it hasn't played out completely, more power to you. Hope for the best, but expect the worst.

43) Paranoia about theft is wasted energy.

This one breaks my heart.

I see too many people concerned that someone is out to steal their baby. There are some very easy steps you can take to prevent problems like this from happening. Registering with the WGA or the copyright office are the most effective, but possession is really the biggest factor here. (And no, mailing yourself a copy doesn't work.)

If you have a clear cut case of plagiarism, it's something you can deal with very easily. But if you're worried about someone stealing your idea, I'm convinced you have no confidence as a writer. Who cares if someone steals your story idea? First off, you're a writer. Your ideas are a dime a dozen. I literally have a bookshelf full of notebooks crammed with ideas I'll never get to. Stealing one idea from me isn't going to kill me. Secondly, even if someone did steal your idea, do you really think they'll do it as well as you? Really? Even if they do take your idea, it'll go in a completely different direction and end up completely indiscernible from your product.

I can understand being protective of something very high concept that hasn't been introduced into the aether as far as you're aware, that's a little different. But, overall, the only thing you're doing by worrying about this stuff is feeding your lack of confidence as a writer and spending anxiety on something that doesn't matter.

I'm not sure about you guys, but if I'm too filled with anxiety, my writing organs don't work as well and I get stuck more often. 

So the best advice I can give is to not worry about it. Repeat after me: No one wants to steal your screenplay or your book or your story idea. 

And if they do? You can sleep easy knowing that they could never execute it as well as you.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9, Part 10Part 11, and Part 12If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.