Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

Recently I wrote a post on “Handbook for Mortals,” which covered the controversy about a first-time author and former band manager whose YA novel made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, and how the Twitter YA community uncovered that the author got there by making bulk orders from bookstores. All in order to apparently get a movie deal with the author as the main character. Yeah, that happened.

Well on Monday the author of that very book, Lani Sarem, wrote an article for the Huffington Post defending herself. She pointed out that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and that she ordered the books for conventions and book signings, going through the bookstores rather than her distributor so that sales counted towards the NYT Bestseller List. She also said that plenty of people had bought books at these signings/conventions, and that she’d already locked down the rights for the movie so she could have more control over the five movies (seriously? Five?) based off the series she was writing, and to star in the film.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the wake of this article. Some is sympathetic, and others not so much. And Sarem does make some points. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the years, authors do order in bulk for events like conventions and book signings. And authors do show up in adaptations of their works from time to time. Could all the media coverage of this book and its author, including the coverage from two weeks ago, have actually been detrimental to something positive?* Did one Twitter community accomplish something that another failed to do with the Ghostbusters reboot?

Well, I did some research, and slept on it, and I thought about it. And while there are some interesting points, there’s still some stuff with this situation that doesn’t ring right. Not least that movie thing (five? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! Let’s get to even one and see how that goes! And you as the lead? Really? I don’t know if that’s a sign of a control freak or a narcissist or both).

First off, the buying in bulk thing. Yeah, authors do buy in bulk for events. However, most of the time they buy through their distributors, as it comes with a discount, and it still counts as sales. It’s also considered more honest than what Sarem did. She literally says in her defense she bought through bookstores simply to get on the NYT Bestseller List, which would get her the movie deal. And while she’s technically right that there are no “rules” against doing something like this, there’s a subversiveness about it that doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that, as I mentioned in the previous article, behavior like this got her fired from a band she managed. Heck, tactics like this was used in an episode of Lucifer, and it felt just as subversive there as it does here. It actually reminds me of the time I played an online game and used a cheat code to get to maximize my stats just so I didn’t have to do the hard work of building them in the first place.

And that’s the major problem here: Sarem was looking for ways to immediately reach the top and get her movie deal, rather than get their through hard work and talent. Even if she wasn’t doing technically anything “wrong,” it was still dishonest and meant to be a shortcut to fame and success. That’s why people are upset, and made such a big deal about this. Sarem used a cheat code, all for a film deal, and it got exposed. That’s why she was taken off the NYT Bestseller List.

Because in the end, there is no defense for trying to skip hard work and make things easy. Especially when it comes to literature.

So while Sarem may have a good defense, there’s plenty here that just doesn’t sit right. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize there are ways to get a great novel on top of NYT Bestseller Lists, and this isn’t one of them.

Also, Sarem’s cover art may have been stolen from another artist. I’m not kidding you, the cover of the book apparently bears a striking resemblance to an art print called The Knife Thrower by Australian artist Gill Del Mace. And if you look at them, they’re very similar (can’t post it here because of possible copyright issues, but here’s a link to the creator’s website if you want to check it out). Where does it end?

But what do you guys think? This seems like it  might become an ongoing issue or story, one I may revisit on this site in the future, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Was Sarem being dishonest or innovative? Did Twitter go insane again, or was it a cross between Spotlight-style reporting and grassroots activism? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

*As for the quality of the book, I’ve looked at reviews from both before and after the initial wave of articles about Sarem’s unique methods. Some like it, but a lot more find it a mess that seems to have been written by a junior high schooler. Of those who’ve written reviews after the controversy broke, they admit they know of the controversy, but they try to focus on the book itself, which I’ve done myself with different movies and films. If they’re definitely trying to stay unbiased, then the reviews don’t bode well for Sarem regardless of the efficacy of her tactics.

Handbook for Mortals: How One Author Scammed the NYT Bestseller List, and How a Twitter Community Exposed It

This isn’t directly about self-publishing, but it is related to what we work hard to do, so I’m posting about it.

Over this past weekend, a friend of mine posted an article from The Daily Dot on Facebook about how an author had scammed the New York Times bestseller list. Obviously, I got curious, so I checked it out.  According to the article, the YA community on Twitter had noticed something weird about the NYT YA bestseller list. A new novel that nobody had heard of, Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem, had appeared out of nowhere and knocked The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The novel follows a girl with magical abilities who goes to Vegas, works in a magic show, and has a love triangle (that old chestnut. That old I’m-going-to-waste-my-natural-talents-while-doing-one-of-the-biggest-romance-cliches-ever chestnut). Lani Sarem, the author, is described as an actress and former band manager.

Like I said, nobody in the community had heard of the novel, and they got very suspicious when they heard that the book was published by GeekNation, a movie and pop-culture website that just got into publishing last month! And in that time, they put out a book that hit the top of the YA bestseller list? Obviously, some were confused by this, and the community, led by writers and YA enthusiasts Phil Stamper (@stampepk) and Jeremy West (@JeremyWest), started investigating. What they uncovered is mind-boggling.

Turns out, there’s practically no physical copies of Handbook for Mortals.  None.  It was listed as “Out of Stock” on Amazon, and no Barnes & Noble seemed to carry any physical copies. No one from the YA Twitter community came forward with a copy. And yet the book was already a bestseller, with the author herself planning on starring as the lead character in a movie version of the novel! How exactly does that happen?

Turns out, the author and her publisher were placing bulk orders for “events” like conventions or author signings at various booksellers across the country. When ranking its bestseller lists, the NYT relies not on the actual number of books sold, but number of reported orders and sales from booksellers. So they see that this one book in the YA category is getting a ton of orders in bulk, and without any indicators to present something fishy, there’s a new entry on the bestseller list.

That’s actually kind of clever. Horrible, as all cons are, but still kind of clever. Now if there were actual copies of the novel, it might have worked.

It only got crazier from there. Remember when I said Sarem was a band manager? Well, one of her former bands was Blues Traveler, and they admitted through Twitter that Sarem had done similar stuff when she was their manager, and they fired her for it (they later took down that tweet, but it’s already out there, so…). So we’ve got an author and her publisher, one of whom has done bulk orders to boost visibility of a product/group, using bulk orders to send a book up the NYT Bestseller list.

Well, Twitter’s YA community wasn’t happy about it. Stamper and West started encouraging bookstore employees through DMs to come forward about this. As it became more apparent that there was something fishy going on, the NYT finally took notice and saw what the YA Twitter community had uncovered. They later released an updated list, with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas back on top, and Handbook for Mortals nowhere in sight.

It later came out that Sarem’s whole goal was to star in the movie version, but she needed buzz, so she got the book onto the bestseller list. If she could get it on the list, she’d be able to get funding for a movie. God, that’s horrible.

So what can we take from this story? Obviously, if you notice something suspicious, you’re perfectly capable of doing Spotlight-style sleuthing and discover  conspiracy. But it just goes to show what happens when you try to skimp on hard work and still make it to the top.

There’s no substitute for hard work. And the majority of authors, no matter if it’s their first or sixtieth book, work as hard as possible. We write, edit, edit several more times, try to get good covers, and do our best at marketing our stories. This applies whether you’re a traditionally or independently published author. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we don’t. Still, we try our hardest. But when someone tries to game the system and build hype by being fake, there’s always going to be people who notice.

And sometimes, when they notice, they can bring down an entire scam and keep someone unworthy from getting a literary and acting career.

Prisma: An Inadvertent Cover-Creating App?

Prisma app logo

A friend of mine has told me that covers should look good, because people unfortunately do judge books by their covers. With that in mind, I try to create the best covers I can, using what resources I have and looking to friends when I can’t do something with a cover. And recently, I came across an app that I think I can add into my cover creating resources: Prisma.

I got this app on the suggestion of a friend, who told me that it can be used to make your own artwork out of photographs (I’ve got my own apartment these days, and I’m looking to put some more art on the walls without breaking the bank). Prisma is a recent creation dating back to June 2016, and was created by Alexey Moiseenkov. The app relies on artificial intelligence and a neural network to take photos on your phone and turn it into art. The best part is, you can choose from forty different art styles–or as they’re called in app-language, “filters”–in turning your photos into art. Some of these filters come standard when you download, while I believe others can be bought from a store.

Take this selfie of me, pre-filter:

Now put it through the Comic filter:

Not bad, right?

Now here’s a shot of my multivitamins:

Put it through the Roy filter:

It makes no sense to me, so it must be art!

Yeah, it’s a fun app, and the filters allow for some really wonderful, one of a kind pictures for your personal gallery. But I realized soon after I made some art pieces with the app that there were further uses for this app than just stuff for my wall. Perhaps uses that even Mr. Moiseenkov hadn’t thought of. What if you could use this app to give your cover a special touch?

Yeah, we work hard on our covers. We learn Photoshop, we download stuff from the internet, we take special shots in the middle of the night while it’s snowing heavily (or is that just me?). But sometimes we feel like there’s something missing, something that makes the cover perfect. Why not add a little art to it?

For example, here’s a cover provided to us by our good friend Joleene Naylor, who downloaded it from CanstockPhoto.com. The photo was uploaded by a user called–I kid you not–remains:

It’s a good cover, and gives an idea of what sort of story it is. Problem is, the impression might be a bit too general, to the point that you worry it seems too run-of-the-mill.

Now put it through the Candy filter:

Nice! Not only does it look like it was painted, but the effect kind of brings to mind a strange, Warhol-esque vibe. Maybe this story takes place in Greenwich Village in the sixties, and there’s a hippie girl who isn’t so into peace and love, or something. Slap on a title and author name and you’re good to go to publish!

Bottom line, there’s plenty of potential for creating covers with Prisma. With so many different styles to choose from, there’s sure to be a way to make your cover look special. Download it to your phone, give it a go, and see for yourself.

 

Dragon Speech-to-Text Software: A Review

Back in December 2016, my boss recommended that I try Dragon, or some other speech-to-text software. I don’t remember how the subject came up (I do remember it was during the office Christmas party, so it probably had something to do with vacation plans and plans for life), but he said that as a writer (something that becomes common knowledge for anyone who gets to know me) it could be helpful with how quickly I write.

Now, I admit at the time I was a little skeptical. I’d heard of programs like that, but I didn’t know much about them, and I can be a little wary when it comes to new technologies. But over the next month or so, I heard from several writer friends who had used Dragon, either because they wanted to try it and see if it works, or because various medical conditions or health issues prevented them from actually typing their stories and blog posts. So, with a lot of gift card money, I ordered Dragon from Amazon and decided to see if it could help.

After a few hiccups in getting set up (turns out my laptop needed to upgrade its audio equipment, and I kind of forgot to register my copy of the software on Dragon’s website before starting out), I started testing it out. And it actually works very well.

The way Dragon works is that once you download the program onto whatever computer you use to write, you boot up the program and turn the microphone settings on, signaling to Dragon that you want to record what you’re saying. Dragon picks up what you’re saying either through the computer’s built in microphone or through a microphone headset that comes with the software (I prefer using my computer’s microphone, but that’s just me). Dragon will then record what you are saying to it into a Dictation Box (usually pops up when I’m using Dragon to write a blog post, like this one), into a tool known as the DragonPad, which functions similar to Notepad programs, or onto Microsoft Word, whichever you prefer.

Dragon also takes commands. For example, if you usually use italics to emphasize a character’s thoughts, you merely have to say, “Italicize this word through that word,” and those words will be italicized. Dragon comes with tutorial programs to teach you the basic commands and how to use them when writing, and there are plenty of videos online showing you how to use the program if you need more help.

I spent the first couple of sessions with Dragon just learning how to use it. It takes a few sessions for the program to get used to your voice, which is why I highly recommend you use it in a space where the only noise will be from you. Background music from a stereo, noisy kids, or any other distractions may confuse Dragon, especially during the first couple of sessions. But Dragon does get used to your voice eventually, and with more practice, it has an easier time transcribing your words as you want them to be transcribed.

Not only that, but you can actually teach the program new words. Usually when you boot up the program, it will ask if there are documents or emails they can use to learn your speech patterns or any particular words you use a lot that aren’t in a standard dictionary. This is very handy if you tend to write fantasy or science fiction. I was able to take the outline for the final book of my science fiction trilogy, and use this option to teach the program certain words in the story, including a few character names that probably won’t make the list of popular baby names in the United States. It’s a very handy feature.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with Dragon. It will still mishear words and commands you’re telling it. I often find myself having to go back and make some corrections, like when Dragon hears the word “them” as “him” and vice versa. It also sometimes lists numbers as numbers instead of words, and unless you configure it so that it always does numbers as words, it can get a little annoying.

Still, I find Dragon very helpful. I still type some parts, especially with words that Dragon doesn’t know or when I make corrections. But for the most part, I’m now speaking my stories, and my stories are being written faster. What used to take a couple of hours to write can now take as little as half an hour to an hour. A chapter that took two to three weeks to write now takes three to four days. I speak my story, making corrections as I go, and it unfolds before me. All in all, I would recommend at least trying it out.

Now I know that this isn’t for everybody. Some of us just love to type or write in spiral-bound notebooks. But for those of you who are interested, here are some tips I’ve gleaned from using Dragon. Please be aware that I’m still new to all this is well, so if you have a tip and you don’t see it here, please leave it in a comment below.

  1. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it. You don’t have to have the entire story in your head before sitting down to write (or speak), have a general idea. The more you plan, the less you find yourself stumbling over your words or taking long pauses to figure out what you should say.
  2. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t sound like an audiobook narrator. Audiobook narrators are generally paid actors who are provided a script ahead of time. They’ve read over and review the material and practice plenty of times before they go into the recording booth, and even then, they make mistakes which are corrected in future takes. When using Dragon, you’re basically putting down the first draft. So if you make a mistake, or you don’t sound like William Defoe narrating Stephen King, don’t be discouraged. It’s a first draft, so mistakes are okay.
  3. Find a quiet place to write. Like I said, noisy spaces interfere with Dragon picking up your words. I heard from one woman who said that when she played music on her radio while writing, Dragon sometimes picked up what the radio was saying instead of what she was saying.
    If you would still like to listen to something while you write, you can put in your headphones and narrate while iTunes or YouTube or whatever program you use place your favorite tunes. Dragon will actually quiet the music you’re listening to while you write so that it seems more like it’s in the background rather than blasting into your ears.
  4. Don’t expect to master Dragon all in a single session. Like I said, I’m still learning how to use it, and I’ve had it for about a month or two. Like any craft or any tool, it takes a lot of practice to get very good at it. Don’t sweat the mistakes.
  5. Have a glass of water nearby. This may just be my thing, but narrating my stories makes me thirsty. If it’s also your thing, then definitely have something to drink nearby.
  6. Use those learning tools. Even if you don’t write science fiction or fantasy, those tools are quite handy for any writer. Perhaps you write a story with a lot of Polish characters with those long Polish last names. Or the French language shows up a lot in a short stories set in Paris. Or use an expression or slang term particular to a certain area and it’s not well-known outside of that area. It’s times like these when the word-learning tools are helpful.
  7. When using Dragon for a blog post, go over it before publishing. Like I said, the program does make mistakes on occasion, so if you’re used to writing a blog post and then publishing it straight away, DON’T!!! Check over it first to make sure Dragon didn’t mishear “won’t make” as “don’t take” and then you can publish. Trust me, it’ll avoid all sorts of problems

If you are interested in trying Dragon, you can get it direct from the manufacturer, Nuance Communications, or from Amazon like I did. And it might also be available at Best Buy or other electronic retailers, though I don’t know that for sure. If you’re getting it for home, make sure you’re buying the home version when you check out. And please, make sure your audio software is up-to-date, and that you register your software on Dragon’s website before downloading the program.

If you have Dragon, what is been your experience with it?

What tips do you have for using Dragon?

Backstory isn’t Character

(IMPORTANT NOTE: I will be differentiating character, as in a person, and character, as in aspects of a person, by capitalizing the former and leaving the latter lowercase. So from here on out in this post, Character refers to people, and character refers to qualities of a Character.)

Happy New Year, everyone! I thought I’d start off the New Year with an informative post about something I see a bit too much in fiction: writers mistaking a backstory for character.

In particular, I saw this quite a bit in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which I saw in theaters, and Star Trek Beyond, which I saw on DVD recently (and since not everyone has seen those movies yet but might want to, I’ll keep this spoiler free). Both movies introduce new Characters with really sad backstories: Jyn Urso in Rogue One and Jaylah in Star Trek Beyond. However, these Characters’ films don’t spend a lot of time establishing their characters beyond being exceptionally good warriors and survivors. The most we learn about them is their backstories.

Now, a backstory is important. It tells us where a Character comes from, and can imform certain aspects of their character. However, backstory isn’t the same thing as character. A Character’s character is personality and how Characters react to situations.It’s their interests, their pet peeves, what they look for in friends or romantic partners, and how they change over the course of a story. That’s what authors and critics talk about when they speak of character development and character arcs and character in general.

For example, in one of my novels-in-progress, Laura Horn, the titular character also has a dark backstory. A very traumatic event occurred in her life when she was a kid, and that informs how she interacts with the world around her quite a bit. However, that’s not all there is to her. Laura likes animated movies and musicals, and uses them to de-stress. And even before the dark incident in her life, she was introverted and shy. She didn’t like to put herself out there, and preferred quiet to excitement. And, when it comes to the people around her, once they show her how much they care for her and how kind they are, she will become fiercely loyal and go to great lengths to protect them. That’s character in a Character.

An even better example is the titular character of the TV series Chuck, and its titular character Chuck Bartowski. From pretty early on in the series, we’re told Chuck’s backstory (and this series ended five years ago, so I will go into details). His parents weren’t always around in his life, so he was raised mostly by his older sister. He went to Stanford but his best friend betrayed him, framed him for cheating, and slept with his girlfriend. He was expelled, and moved home, where he started working at a Best Buy parody. But that is not Chuck’s character:

Chuck is a smart guy. He’s an accomplished engineer and programmer, and his smarts often help him in his crazy, espionage-filled life. Chuck enjoys science fiction and other nerdy interests, and will go on for hours with his best friend Morgan. He’s kind and caring, and tries to be optimistic despite how awful life can be sometimes to him, though occasionally he is seized by despair when things go terribly wrong. And although he hates guns and violence, he will go to whatever length necessary to protect his friends and family from trouble. And he tries to be the straight guy in a world where weird stuff is treated normal in his daily life (if you know the show and where Chuck works, you know what I’m talking about). That is Chuck’s character.

And when you have good character, you have a good Character. Chuck is still a much-beloved Character because people identify with him. Even though fans may not share his backstory (I certainly haven’t been expelled because of a friend’s betrayal or had to deal with absent parents), they love that a nerdy guy who tries to be nice to even nasty people and who enjoys all the nerdy things they love is the hero of a TV series, because that’s someone like them.

So how do you know if a Character has a character? Here’s an exercise I came up with before the New Year: pretend the Character is question (I’ll make one up for the sake of the exercise) is someone you know in your daily life, and you meet someone whom you would like to set up with the Character on a blind date. Now, I wouldn’t tell this girl my Character’s backstory, because it would sound something like this:

“Edward was orphaned at a young age. He was nearly killed by soldiers working for a rogue element of the Armed Forces, but the Queen of Hell saved his life and gave him powers because she felt that doing so would work into her plans. He uses his powers to go after the secret group, as well as anyone, human or otherwise, who stands in his way or tries to hurt those close to him.”

If I told someone that, they’d either think I was kidding or insane, or they would run screaming to the nearest convent in the hopes that a nun’s habit would protect them from evil. However, if I were to describe my Character’s character, I’d probably get a much better reception:

“Edward’s a smart dude. He’s always had the best scores in school, he’s been captain of the chess team for three years running. Also pretty rational, proved that our high school wasn’t  haunted when everyone else thought it was. He’s also very loyal and caring. He’s practically raised his sister since they were kids, and I’ve never seen him raise his voice or break a promise. And he tells pretty funny jokes, lots of situational humor. He’s very political, but if you tell him you don’t want to discuss spending on defense or reelection rates in Congress, and he’ll keep quiet.”

Now there’s a Character with character, someone you’d like to date. And this exercise works in all sorts of situations. You can even use it to come up with character traits for your Character and work them into the story.

Backstory is important. No doubt about it. But it’s not everything to a Character. Their character is. Because without it, there’s nothing to identify with, and it makes it harder for readers to continue reading your story. And nobody wants that.

Reestablishing a Writing Routine

We go through great changes in our lives. It’s frankly inevitable. In fact, I remember someone telling me once in high school that in a twenty-five year period, it was likely that we would change our city/town, home, job, education status, socioeconomic status, political party, religion, and/or a whole bunch of other stuff. And when that happens, writing routines established over time and perhaps uninterrupted for years, are suddenly thrown out the window. And then where are you?

A couple of months ago, I moved into a new apartment so I could start a new job after a job search that lasted several months. Now, prior to this move, I would’ve said to anyone who asked that I didn’t really have a writing routine, that I just wrote wherever I could. Well, that is kind of true, because I do tend to write whenever I can if it’s convenient for me. But after the move, I did realize I had a routine of sorts established, and that routine no longer existed.

You see, while I was job-hunting, I lived with my dad, and in the evenings, I would settle down on the couch downstairs in the living room and write or edit while I watched whatever show I liked was playing that evening (you can get a lot written during commercial breaks). This routine lasted from late October 2015 to the end of May 2016. And my God, did it work! I edited the same novel twice and wrote more than a few short stories and blog posts that way during the job search, and it kept me sane while I looked for employment.

However, after I got employed and I moved for work, a lot changed for me. Yeah, I had increased independence, a nice location near work with a grocery store, a Target, and a library very close to where I live, and the chance to be as eccentric as I wanted within the confines of my own home without anyone judging me. But I also did not have a cable package, a TV, or a couch (though that’ll change soon with one of those). So suddenly the routine I had, which I’d been using for months and which I’d been comfortable with, was about as useful as an alchemy textbook at football practice.

For a while, I tried just writing or editing as much as I could when I sat down in front of the computer. Sadly, that worked horribly. I was moving at a snail’s pace, getting through only a couple of pages a week. A chapter could take up a whole month! With work getting busier and busier for me, I was starting to worry if I’d ever get back to the level of productivity I enjoyed prior to the move and in college.

But then a friend of mine gave me a recommendation that I found very useful. She had recently joined a group on Facebook where members sign up each month to try and write 250 words a day, and it had helped her get back into a routine of writing fiction after a pretty lengthy hiatus. That got me thinking: I can’t write every day, some days there just isn’t enough time. But what if I just tried to write 250 words every time I sat down in front of the computer? It couldn’t hurt to try.

To my utter delight, it worked like a charm. The first time, I ended up writing a little over the minimum 250. The next time, I ended up writing over 700 words! And the third, I managed to get out over thirteen-hundred words! It was amazing. Somewhere between words 150 and 250, a switch would flip and the story would just start flowing out of me like a river. In this way, I managed to get out the outline for my NaNoWriMo project in about a week or so.

Once that experiment had proven successful, I wondered if I could do the something similar with editing. It would have to be slightly different though, because editing is editing. Sometimes all you have to do work on is changing a word or a punctuation mark, and word count doesn’t change that much, but sometimes you rewrite whole sections and the word count changes dramatically. I ended up going with editing at least three pages per session, and that worked as well. After I rewrote the beginning of a short story I’d been working on and off with for over a year, I managed to finish editing the rest within a week (it helped that on the last night I worked on it, I was doing everything I could to avoid the presidential debates and I only had twelve pages to go!). Clearly this new routine I’d been working with was doing its job.

Now, I’m not saying that you have to adopt this routine if your old routine becomes impossible to do, but I am saying you shouldn’t just throw yourself into work and expect magic to happen. That didn’t work for me, and I’m not so sure it’ll work for you. Instead, take baby steps. Try writing a little a day until you find something that works for you and you’re at a level of productivity that works for you. If you do that, then I think that whatever life throws your way, you’ll be able to get back into the swing of storytelling with little to no trouble.

Have you ever had to change your writing routine? What did you do and how did it work out?

How to Deal with Idea Fragments

Imagine JK Rowling never thought of Harry Potter (I know, scary thought, but bear with me), and that you just had the idea for a boy wizard. You recognize that the story could be good. Very good, in fact. The question is, what else do you include? What does your boy wizard do? What is his world like? What makes him special enough to follow around? Obviously in the coming months you’ll come up with Hogwarts and Voldemort and all the other relevant characters and details, but until then Harry’s not really an idea but an idea fragment.

Is there a difference? Yes there is, at least how I write. To me, an idea has a bit more meat on it, like a summary or a prompt. You got this, and you can move forward coming up with all the details based on this little information. Using the Harry Potter example:

Harry is a boy who finds out he’s a wizard, and that when he was a baby, he defeated the greatest Dark wizard of all time. He goes to Hogwarts School to learn magic, and there his destiny begins to emerge.

Now in idea fragment form:

Harry is a boy wizard. That’s all I got so far.

See the difference? It’s just part of a summary. You can’t move forward without knowing a bit more, without deciding what direction you plan to go with Harry. That’s an idea fragment. And we all have them from time to time. Heck, I’m struggling with more than a couple right now. I know that with a bit of development they could be great ideas for stories, but until I add a few more details, I can’t write them down on any of my idea lists. And that makes them annoyances that you work desperately to make into full-fledged ideas. Which can be maddeningly difficult sometimes.

So in order to aid you with these fragments while you have them, here are some tips to develop them into full ideas:

  • First, write them down. Nothing is more infuriating than an idea you forget before you can find some way to make sure you don’t forget it (which is why I keep several lists for ideas and thoughts on my stories). While I’ve found losing idea fragments just to be slightly annoying–as far as I’m concerned, it’s just going back into the sea of the subconscious, to bubble up gain someday and maybe as an idea–it’s still good to write them down so they don’t slip your mind. Writing information down has actually been shown to help commit it to memory, so you’re making sure you don’t forget these possible great ideas-to-be.
  • Don’t stress on trying to turn them into ideas. You can spend your time turning over the fragments in your head, trying to do so until you’re frustrated will not help you come up with an idea. If anything, it’ll just keep you up at night and ruin your mood in the morning. So if you start getting frustrated with a fragment, here’s what you should do:
  • Take a break and distract yourself. Watch some Netflix. Read a book, especially if it’s in a genre or on a subject you’re not entirely familiar with. Go hang out with friends and talk about anything but the fragments. Dive into work, or another writing project, or your family, or whatever. When you come back to it, you’ll be a little refreshed and maybe also armed with new information or experiences to add to your potential idea. And psychology also shows that distracting yourself while trying to solve a problem actually leads to ways to solving it (there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, “The Einstein Approximation”, that illustrates this very well). So distract yourself. You never know what you might find.
  • Use a generator site. Idea generator, random word generator, story prompt generator, story plot generator, whatever generator. Do a Google search, you’ll find plenty of them. Each varies in what sort or how many parameters they require, and what sort of prompts they give as a result, but if you’re really stuck with some fragments, one of these sites might really be able to help. The downside is that some of the suggestions they give can be really silly sometimes (I tried a horror-themed one, and it gave me some odd plot summaries), while others ask for so many parameters you’re like, “If I knew all this, why would I need to be on this site?” Also, some people may feel that these sites are cheating or really lame last resorts, but it only matters if you think that.

While working on this article, an idea fragment I’d been struggling with for about two weeks finally became an idea. It helped that I was listening to a Stephen King audio book and that I read an article about a recent police operation leading to a huge arrest, helping me to think of something for the characters I had in my head whom I had no idea what to do with. So while these fragments can be a source of frustration, eventually they can become great ideas.

What tips do you have for figuring out idea fragments?

P.J. Boox: A Bookstore for Indie Authors

Remember in May of last year, when I reported on Gulf Coast Bookstore, a bookstore in Fort Myers, Florida that showcased the works of independent authors in the Florida area? Well, recently I was contacted through my Facebook page by one of the co-owners of the store with some very interesting news about Gulf Coast. Apparently since the store opened, it’s done rather well. In fact, it’s done so well that it’s expanded. And it’s expanded into P.J. Boox.

Opening in October of last year, PJ Boox currently houses 260 authors from about 11 countries, and plans to grow that number to 500 by the time they hit full capacity, each author getting to display ten of their books in the store. The way the store displays the books allows for readers to get a full look at the books’ covers, which allows readers to make a more powerful connection with the books. And the most interesting and exciting part, at least in my humble opinion, is that authors can actually interact with readers, from anywhere in the world, via Skype or other video-chat options, all in the store’s reading room (so if your book is featured by a book club, you can actually hear what the readers say. Hopefully that’s a good thing).

According to store co-founder and co-owner Patti Brassard Jefferson, the idea of PJ Boox came to her soon after she opened Gulf Coast Bookstore. Within a couple of months, she was apparently “inundated” with messages from authors. This inspired the idea for a larger bookstore that could host more indie and small-press authors. Thus we have PJ Boox today. And while other bookstores for indie authors have since appeared in other cities around the US, PJ Boox and its owners still manage to be trendsetters among the group.

So now to answer the most important question: how does an author get their books in the store? According to PJ Boox’s website, it’s actually quite simple. What you do is rent out space in the store for four months and send them up to ten of your books. In exchange, the store will stock and sell the books. And you get a majority of the royalties back (98% for in-store sales, 80% for online sales). Top that, Amazon! And you can pay for certain upgrades on your rental that include special online options and even more shelf space in the store. It’s not a bad deal, especially since you get some great exposure in the store.

In fact, I might have to try this once my new book comes out later this year. It might expose people to my sci-fi series.

And if you want to learn more about PJ Boox, check out their website for rental rates, books by great indie authors, and information on upcoming events.

How I Could’ve Done A Better Sale

Back in September I wrote an article about when was the best time to publish a book. That article also mentioned some opportune times to host some sales. Going off the advice of that article and my previous sale experience, I decided to host a sale around New Year’s, which is apparently a very good time to hold such a sale.

To my surprise and slight consternation, I did not sell as many books–digital or paperback–as I thought I would. I did get some good sales, including from friends and colleagues, but it was far lower than I expected, to the point that I put more money into the sale than I got back.

I’ve been spending the time since trying to figure out where I went wrong and what I could do to improve my next sale and ad campaign (probably when I publish a novel later this year). Below are the conclusions that I’ve come to, which I hope will give you some help if you hold a sale in the future.

I used only Facebook ads. In another previous post, I showed that Facebook ads could be extremely helpful in spreading the word about sales. This time though, they didn’t prove as helpful. While the likes on my Facebook page did increase from 383 to over twelve-hundred, not many of those people did buy a book. That’s because Facebook is already a free service, we get so much content from it for free. Sure, you may see ads for products on it, and you may like the pages of those products, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to buy it. You’re more likely to ignore an ad from a free service anyway, even when you’re confronted with it over and over (which is probably why I’ve never bought something advertised before my YouTube video).

So next time, I should try formats other than or in addition to Facebook. Yes, it’s a useful site to advertise and attract a fan base, but to rely solely on it wasn’t one of my better moves. Next time, I’ll look into using other platforms, including Twitter and KDP Amazon (yeah, KDP Amazon allows you to advertise through it. I heard the costs were huge, but maybe if they are, it might be worth it to advertise through a site where people are already there presumably to buy products).

I cast too wide a net. When you set up an ad campaign, you can decide who the ad is targeted towards based on criteria like age, interests and hobbies, sex, and several others. One of the main criteria though is country or countries. I wanted to get as many people to see the ad as possible, so I tried targeting as many countries as I could where Amazon operated in (most of my sales come through Amazon). Problem is, while Amazon does operate in those countries, it may not be as big as other retailers there. So when I cast a wide net, I cast a net where people would see the ad but may not buy. Meanwhile, there may have been people in more Amazon-strong countries that would’ve bought my books if they saw the ads, but didn’t because of the wide focus.

Plus some of the countries I targeted don’t have English as a first language. Yes, English is spoken there by a wide swath of the population, but it’s not a dominant language by any means. And most of my sales are from English speaking countries anyway, probably since my books are in English.

So in the future, I will try to focus on countries where most people do buy from Amazon, but English is a spoken by a majority of the population.

Include links. This should’ve been pretty obvious to me. I didn’t include links on two out of three of my ads though, expecting the readers to head over there out of curiosity and look themselves. I don’t think that’s what actually happened in real life. So if you’re going to do an ad, make sure a link or two is already present.

 

If this helped you at all, my job here is done. Sales and ad campaigns are never easy and don’t always yield the results you want, but if you learn from others and go through trial and error, they can on occasion bring in a very nice pay day.

What tips do you have for a successful sale/ad campaign?

Finding a Narrator on ACX

Many of you may remember the article I wrote on using Audiobook Creation Exchange, or ACX, which helps authors who want to put their books into audio form meet narrators and then get them onto Amazon. Well, about four months ago, after a lot of thought and getting feedback from some of my friends, family members and readers, I decided to get one of my own novels turned into an audio book. This past Saturday I finally found a narrator and finalized a deal with him.

Based on my experiences over the past four months, I thought I’d write another article for anyone thinking about using ACX to produce an audio book. This time, I’ve got tips on how to find your narrator.

First, don’t expect narrators to come looking for you. We like to imagine that the clamor to be the narrator of our audio book is like a bunch of knights taking on quests of courage and valor in order to win the hand of a princess, but in reality it’s more like you’re the princess’s father or mother and you’re writing various knights and princes to get them interested in your darling daughter. Believe me, even if narrators are proactive about finding projects to work on—and many of them are—there are new books being uploaded onto ACX every day, and yours can become quickly lost among the others.

The best thing an author on ACX can do—especially if your name isn’t JK Rowling, George RR Martin, or Harper Lee—is actively seek their own narrator. ACX has several thousand narrators, many with multiple audio samples for you to listen to and decide if someone is right for you. And you can narrow down your choices based on specific factors you’re looking for: age, gender, language, accent, and even what sort of payment they’re willing to take. When you find one you like, you can message them and invite them to submit an audition for your book if they’re interested.

Just keep in mind, really good narrators or ones who can do difficult accents can be hard to get sometimes. For my own novel, I needed someone who can do an American Urban accent, and when I first started searching the number of samples for that sort of accent was over three-hundred. Sounds like I could have my pick of the lot, right? Wrong! After eliminating narrators I didn’t like or I felt didn’t fit what I was looking for, I found that a lot of narrators who could do an American Urban accent were either busy or they charged for their services. In fact, one narrator told me after I told her I couldn’t afford to pay her that a lot of the best narrators or those who can do particular accents often charged for up-front payments and royalty shares.

That’s not to say you can’t find a great narrator who can do a difficult accent or voice who fits your budget or needs. I found one who is good at what he does and was willing to meet my needs. It just took a lot of work to find the guy.

You also have to sometimes deal with the fact that sometimes particular vocal styles, languages, or accents may not have a lot of people who can read them. I played around with the search tools a bit, and found that only twenty-two samples came up when I looked for samples of Japanese accents read by women or men attempting to sound like women. I wonder how much they charge.

Another thing to be aware of while searching for a narrator is that some books get stipends. This was something I learned while searching for my narrator. Twice in the first two weeks a book is available for auditions on ACX, it is evaluated to see if it is eligible for a stipend based on factors such as reviews, past print and e-book sales, and length. Especially length. The longer the better. If your book receives a stipend, then even if you can only afford to do the royalty share option, your narrator will receive some money after the completion of the project from Audible, ACX’s parent company. How much depends on how long the book is, usually $100 for every completed hour of audio and up to $2500. Books that are stipend eligible are marked by a green banner on the book’s profile page.

Now my book wasn’t marked stipend eligible, but it’s something to keep in mind. ACX actually recommends waiting during the first two weeks to see if your book is eligible for stipend. Though perhaps that may only be feasible for that five-hundred plus page novel that’s been selling like hotcakes you published a while back.

I have two final points to make. One, is to be aware that ACX sometimes loses messages sent through its system. This is something I learned ACX has a problem with. Messages sent to me or that I sent would sometimes disappear into the ether and I wouldn’t know if I wasn’t hearing back because the other person’s life has gotten crazy busy, or because once again the system gobbled the message up. Just a heads-up so you know when you wonder why the enthusiastic narrator you came across hasn’t gotten back to you after a week even though previous messages have always been returned in two or three days.

And finally, don’t stress out if you don’t have immediate success finding someone. It took me from early August to late November to find my narrator, and I spent quite a lot of lunch breaks looking through ACX’s databases. It can be grating if you don’t hear back from someone, or if someone you thought was a good match doesn’t pan out, or nobody you come across you like. That’s just sometimes how things work out. If you need to, take a break and worry about other stuff. When you come back, you may find things will go quite well for you.

What tips do you have for finding a narrator on ACX? How did you find yours?