Tips For Surviving NaNoWriMo

As we all know, National Novel Writing Month, better known as NaNoWriMo, is just around the corner (though considering it’s done all over the world these days, it might need a name change). If you are not familiar with the tradition, it’s basically that every year authors try to write a novel in the course of a single month, usually one that’s around fifty-thousand words, and always in November. Of the authors that choose to participate each year, some do it independently, while others do it through an international organization that can hook them up with other participating writers in their region and even let them know about local events centered on helping authors during the month.

I’m on the fence on whether or not I’ll be participating this year. I’ve three other books at various stages of editing and I have to decide if one of those books needs to be rewritten (if so, then I’m participating because that’s basically starting from scratch). Even so, I thought I’d serve the writing community and do my civic duty by posting some notes on how to survive and get through NaNoWriMo with all your fingers still attached to you and your sanity somewhat intact.

Because let’s face it, writing fifty-thousand words in thirty days? I don’t know about the rest of you, but normally that many words takes me six to eight months. Cramming all that work into a month, we need all the help and advice we can get.

So first off, don’t get stressed about the word count. To get fifty-thousand words written in thirty days, you’d have to write approximately 1,667 words, or about 6.7 pages per day.* I know for a lot of writers it’s difficult to get that much out in a single day. The thing to remember is not to feel upset if you can’t force yourself to get that many words out per day. Remember, all good stories take time, and there’s no prizes for meeting daily quotas (the NaNoWriMo organization hands out badges, but they’re like the ones from Audible, nice to have when you get them but they don’t make much of a difference after you get them) or getting the full fifty-thousand words written out besides bragging rights. Besides, if you have to force yourself to put out words when your heart is not in them or just to meet a quota, your first draft might not turn out so well.

That’s another thing: remember that this is a first draft. And a rushed one, too. So if you look at what you’ve written and wonder what the heck you were thinking, that’s a normal reaction to a first draft. They’re supposed to be full of errors and passages that make no sense to you upon the second read-through. It’s during that second read-through that you touch it up and get it closer to the gem that you know it’s going to be.

Now that we’ve gotten the tips that’ll keep you in a good frame of mind out of the way, let’s cover how we actually survive NaNoWriMo:

Prior to November, research and prepare. We’ve still got twenty-two days till NaNoWriMo kicks off. During that time, it might help for you to get an idea of what you’re working on, where it might be heading, and maybe learn a bit more about the subject matter you’re writing, especially if it’s a topic you don’t know very well (like a murder mystery in Tang China or a coming-of-age story set in an ROTC unit). Now I know a lot of you might like to write by the seat of your pants, but just doing a little bit of prep can be helpful, especially if it means you don’t have to stop midway through writing because you realized you don’t know a thing about car maintenance and you lose four days because you got a car maintenance manual and needed to cram all that info in.

It also helps to prepare so that you can make plans in case you have to stop writing for any reason. Whether you need to attend a wedding midway through the month or you have to put the metaphorical quill down because you have a Poli Sci exam coming up you need to study for, having a contingency plan in case that happens can work wonders.

Speaking of which, while it is important to get out as much writing as possible, make sure not to neglect your life just to write. Many of us have day jobs, school, families, friends, and a variety of other things that require our attention. While it is important to write and maybe give up a few social obligations or fun outings to work, don’t neglect the real world entirely. I find the real world can not only give me great ideas for stories, but also reenergize me so that when I sit down to write, I’m not restless and looking for a distraction or yearning to go out and see the latest horror movie or something.

And while you’re working so hard, remember to take care of your health. In some ways, NaNoWriMo is like the last three weeks of a college semester: you’ve got a ton of work to do, only so much time to do it, and you’re willing to get maybe four hours a night of sleep and eat ramen noodles three times a day if that’s what it takes to get through it on top. I’m advising against that. There are no consequences to not getting out the full fifty-thousand words, so your health shouldn’t be a consequence of trying to. Get plenty of sleep each night, eat healthy meals, and get some exercise too if you can, even if it’s just going for a walk. You’ll find you’ll have more energy for writing if you do, believe me.

It’s also healthy to take an occasional break. We all need time to recharge and let our brains focus. So if you feel approaching burnout or writer’s block, or if you can’t figure out where your story should go next, or if you’re just so tired of writing about a princess trying to cover up her father’s murder so she doesn’t have to marry against her will, then maybe a trip out to the movies or to the bar with your friends or some fun family time or an all-night Mario Kart tournament with your roommates might be what you need. Studies actually show that ideas come more easily to you if you’re distracted, so there’s even more reason to take a break right there.

And if you need a little motivation to keep you going, reward yourself for certain milestones. For every five-thousand words or so you put out, reward yourself with something fun. This could be a favorite dessert, watching Netflix for a little while, whatever you want. Give yourself something extra special when you reach fifty-thousand words and/or finish the book (I suggest some wine, some celebration music, and later a good movie with a friend). You’ll find it much easier to write if you have something to look forward to after all your hard work.

And let’s not forget to build a support network around yourself. The NaNoWriMo organization attempts to do this by putting you in touch with other participants in your area and with community events, but whether or not you decide to participate in these events, you should still have people around you encouraging and cheering you on. Friends, family, lovers, authors you’re friends with online or offline, they should all be there for you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have people cheering me on and willing to read my work every time I publish during the rest of the year. Imagine how motivating it’ll be when you know there’s a group of people standing behind you when you do the writing equivalent of a 5K.

Finally, take a long break when you’re done. Not just from writing so you can get your creative juices to recharge, but also take a break from whatever novel you were working on once you’re done. I always feel that a month or more between drafts allows for writers to come back to their first drafts with fresh eyes so they can see where they made mistakes in the first draft and correct them. If you start editing immediately after finishing the first draft, you can only see it as the baby you just poured so much time and energy into and miss quite a lot. Better to take a break and let it lie until you’re ready to look again.

I’d like to wrap it up here and wish everyone participating next month good luck. Whatever you do to make the month of November one of the most productive and crazy of the year, I hope you found these tips helpful and that you have fun trying to get a full novel out in thirty days.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year?

What tips do you have for getting through the month and writing as much as you can in so little time?

*That’s if you write like I do, which is Times New Roman, 12 point font, and double spaced on 8.5” x 11” paper. Otherwise it varies.

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

New Modifications on Amazon to Look Out For

It’s a good time to be independent. That’s part of the reason this site exists: to make sure authors know that it’s a good time to be independent and we’re here to help you make the most of it. And it’s about to get better: recent announcements from Amazon about modifications to ongoing programs are bound to benefit authors, especially of the independent variety.

The first announcement is a coming change to the KDP Select program and deals with how authors are paid. Currently, authors whose books are available through Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Lending Library are paid based on how many times those books are “borrowed” through these services. Starting July 1st though, Amazon will start paying authors based on how many pages a customer reads the first time they read the book. If a page is on the screen long enough to be registered, it’ll add to how much the author is paid.

According to Amazon, authors who write longer works and feel short-changed by the current pay-by-the-rent format can stand to earn more if they can write long stories that are exciting and keep the reader involved. At the same time an author who writes a 100-page thriller novel is encouraged to maybe see if they can extend the story a little bit longer.

Of course, one shouldn’t write a book based on this sort of formula (or possibly on any formula(, but it might give some authors encouragement to try a few new things while giving other authors who already write longer books hope for a little extra income through KU and KLL.

The other announcement deals with changes to reviews and rating. You ever get that low review where someone just takes offense at something on your cover art or a typo in your author bio on Amazon or just to say “I did not like this book. It was totally stupid?” Sometimes they don’t even buy the book? Had my first of those recently, brought down my rating a little. Thankfully, with this little change these sort of not reviews will matter less in the grand scheme of things.

Currently, Amazon rates its books by averaging customer reviews. If you have a book with eight reviews, for example, and you have five four-star reviews, two five-star reviews, and one three-star review, your book’s rating will be 4.1 out of 5. Under the new system though, which they are already testing, reviews that are recent, have been written by a customer who bought the product, and are found helpful by other customers will be given more emphasis than other reviews. So if you have a five star review that’s been found helpful by twenty people and it was written last month by someone who bought the paperback, it’ll be given more weight in the rating than other reviews.

This is a huge change in the review and rating system, and has a number of positive benefits for both Amazon and people who sell their work through Amazon. It’ll not only prevent those fake reviews intentionally posted to bring down ratings, it’ll stop false reviews meant to pump up reviews (Amazon has had a heck of a time trying to stop these reviews, even suing companies that provide positive reviews to authors for a price). And if products have a few flaws around release, once the updates are done and people start reviewing the updated product, the reviews dealing with the product flaws will be less prominent and matter less in the long run.

Right now they’re still experimenting with the new system, and it’s only covering a small group of products, but once Amazon starts using it for all their products, it’ll change everything about the reviewing system! And it can only benefit. Assuming an author writes a very good book, customers looking at the reviews will get access to the most helpful reviews first and foremost.

Like I said, it’s a very good time to be an independent author. And it’s going to get even better. With more chances to get paid for writing the stories you love and not having to worry about length, and a new ratings configuration that keeps bad reviews from totally ruining your rating, authors stand to prosper more from doing what they love and do best. And I cannot wait for these programs to become available for all.

What are some modifications you’d like to see done to Amazon or other book distribution sites?

What are you looking forward to with these new changes?

Short Stories That Are Too Short

Last semester I took part in a creative-writing class of about seventeen people, including our instructor. This class taught me many things about writing and gave me several new insights into my craft as well as many new tools to write more compelling and interesting stories. It also gave me a few ideas for articles, such as this one:

My classmates and I each had to turn in three short stories during the semester (two original short stories and one edited story). A few times people turned in stories that were really short and just had the barebones of a story. There were numerous reasons for why one or another student would turn in stories like that, with very little meat to it if any. Usually it was something along the lines of having their deadline sneak up on them and rushing to get something written and printed before class (I remember one girl was actually stapling the typo-plagued copies of her story together in the first few minutes of class before she turned it in. She later said that she’d rushed to get the story done, and had spent the first hour or so just wondering what the first few words should be. We all laughed at that, mostly because we’d all been there at one point or another).

However while other students were pressed for time, one or two said they were afraid that if they wrote anything longer it would be too long! When we heard this, we often told the student that their fear of making the story too long had actually made it far too short.

I’ve always defined a short story as between a thousand and ten-thousand words. This leaves a lot of room to work with, even for authors such as myself who are better suited to more expansive works like novels. Yet a lot of authors fear that getting close to twenty-five hundred words is going too far, getting too long, crossing into a territory reserved only for longer projects. Why?

I think it might have something to do with magazines and getting published in them. Many magazines, especially ones that pay, have a maximum word-limit, usually around five-thousand words or so. This creates pressure on the author who wants to be published. They want a wonderful and engaging story but at the same time they’re hampered by the feeling that they can’t go over a certain word limit or they won’t get published in this or that magazine. Even self-published authors aren’t immune to this: many indie authors write stories and send them out to magazines, often to get people to read their work, along with maybe a desire for income and maybe a small wish to show the critics of self-publishing that we can get published in the same magazines as traditional published authors and still have quality work.

The thing is, a story is going to be the length it needs to be. You can’t help it. Twice I’ve thought up and even written short stories that turned out that they needed to novels. And even when a short story manages to stay a short story, I find that a story that needs to expand to four or five thousand words or more is going to expand that length. As much as you try, you won’t get it down to twenty-five hundred without sacrificing quality. At least, not very easily.

I usually end up writing short stories between four and five thousand words. In fact, I try to make sure they stay that length. I’ve tried for shorter but that usually doesn’t happen, and longer stories do sometimes happen, though they often get shorter when I start to edit. The thing is, these stories are going to be as long as they need to be and sometimes you have to accept that. If you want to write a story that’s shorter than what you usually write, do it more as an exercise, as a way to get better at saying something in less words than normal. Don’t feel like you have to make a story shorter, but just try and see if you can. And if you can’t, don’t feel disappointed about it. Just meant that story wasn’t meant to be that short.

And if you’re worried about getting published, there are plenty of magazines, anthologies, contests, and podcasts that accept longer short stories and even short novelettes. Just do your research, you’ll find them. Or don’t go looking for them at all, but try and put together a collection of short stories. You have full creative control then and can make your stories whatever length you desire.

Or perhaps short stories aren’t your thing. They’re certainly not my area of expertise, though that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Either way, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of authors don’t do short stories and they’re excellent. Just stick to your area of strength and see what amazing stuff you can do there.

But if you do endeavor to create amazing short stories, just remember not to let the length of your story become an inhibition and a drag rather than a tool for successful writing. As I and my classmates have learned, length is important, but it’s by far not the most important thing to keep in mind. That would be the story itself.

 

On an unrelated note, thanks to Ruth Ann Nordin for the new background on this site. I was kind of attached to the old one, but I like what’s here now. It’s warm and welcoming, if you ask me.

Writing a Series

A lot of authors write series. Some make all their money writing long series rather than stand-alone novels. A few are even paid by their publishing companies to keep writing series even after the story has gotten old and there are no new ideas or places for the characters to go (*cough* *cough* James Patterson and the Alex Cross books *cough*). But writing a series is a lot tougher than it looks. Rather than keeping a reader’s interest for about 300 pages, you have to keep it for several times that amount and over several books too.

While there is no one way to write a series (is there ever “one way” to go about anything in this business?), there are some tips and strategies that can make writing a series a bit easier. Here are some of mine, gleaned from years of writing various different series in my teens and publishing one of them once I got into college.

Decide who your main characters are and what sort of story you’re going to write with them. I feel that it’s important to nail down who your main characters are pretty early on, because they often end up influencing where the story goes through their actions. You don’t have to go into each character’s entire history at this early stage, but you should have an idea of who they are, what they like and dislike, maybe what sort of environment they grew up in, and what they want and what you from them in this series. That information will come in handy when you’re planning out the series.

Make a roadmap. When you have your characters (and if you’re writing this story in a world different from the one you and most of your readership live in, a general idea of this world), then you should plan out the series and what is going to happen. You don’t need to go into every single detail on what happens in each book, you can save that for when you write each individual book. Just have a general idea of what will happen in each book, how that might fit into a greater arc if you have one in mind, which characters you might introduce or kill off or whatever, etc. It’s kind of similar to outlining a novel, in a way (for tips on outlining, click here), only for several books. Creating a roadmap can also be helpful in keeping a record of what and when you need to research a subject and can allow you to keep notes of what’s happened in previous books in case you need to refer back to something for the current book.

Immerse your reader slowly. This is something I’ve learned over a long time, but it’s useful to remind some writers of it every now and then. Let’s say your story takes place in a fantasy or science-fiction universe and you’re the only one who knows the entirety of the world, its various pieces and factions and groups and aspects. You’ll have an urge to make sure that your reader is immediately caught up with everything, so that they know all there is to know about these worlds. I’m telling you now, resist that urge! Updating them about everything in this world of yours too early would be overloading them with information. They wouldn’t know what to do with it and they’d put down that first book before getting very far in it.

Immersing a reader in your world is like teaching a kid to swim.

The best way to go about introducing readers to this world is to imagine it like teaching a young child to swim. Naturally you don’t start with the deep end. What if your pupil drowned? Instead you start with the shallowest end of the pool. It’s good to start without overwhelming the kid, and they can get a sense and a working knowledge of how swimming works. Later you move them into deeper waters, teaching them new techniques and watching them adjust to the greater depth of the pool. As time goes on, your pupil moves deeper and deeper into the waters, learning new knowledge along the way, until they’re swimming fine in the deep end and able to handle all you’ve given them.

In a similar way you should treat the reader. Slowly take them in, giving them the bare minimum to get along in this world and how to live and maneuver through it. As time goes on, you’ll add more information and they’ll be better prepared to handle it all, so by the end of the series they’ll be able to handle all that information really well.

Keep a guidebook. This can also be helpful, especially for series in fantastical worlds. A guidebook (or whatever you want to call it) contains information on the many aspects of your world, from characters to places to objects to story points and everything in between. If you need to organize a very complicated world, a guidebook can be helpful. Or if even the world is very simple, having a guidebook could help you keep track of things. I recommend using some sort of 3-ring binder for your guidebook, so you can add more information as time goes on. Dividers will also be helpful, so get those and categorize entries as you need. Using a guidebook can also prevent any ret-conning that could annoy and upset your fans.

Writing a book, and writing a book series, is often like this.

Remember the bigger picture. This is always important in writing, but it is especially important in a series. Writing a series is like working with several hundred or even several thousand puzzle pieces, but you have to focus on both the puzzle as a whole as well as the smaller pieces. It’s not easy, keeping track of the smaller stuff as well as keeping aware of the whole arc of the series, but it’s something you’ll have to do if you want to successfully pull off a series.

Each book has a purpose. If your series has an overall story arc, then not only should each book tell an interesting story (or a segment of the larger story), but it should maybe serve a purpose. For example, the first Harry Potter novel introduced us to the Wizarding world, and to the boy we root for the whole series; Book 2 hinted at the existence of Horcruxes, explained the concept of Wizarding blood purity, and introduced other important elements that would later appear in the HP books; Book 3 gave more information on the night Harry’s parents died and their relationship with Snape, as well as introducing how Voldemort would come back to power; Book 4 brought back Voldemort in an elaborate plot as well as hinted at the denial the Ministry would be famous for in Book 5; and so on and so forth. You don’t have to, but it might be helpful to think of assigning your books a purpose in the overall story arc of the series.

What tips do you have for writing a series?

Writing a Blurb for Your Book Cover

“Blurb” is such a funny word to say, but it’s a word that writers everywhere should know, because the blurb can have so much influence on who and how many people buy or download your books. According to Wikipedia (not the best source I know, but it’s quick and convenient, so what are you going to do?), a blurb is “a short summary or promotional piece meant to accompany a creative work.” In the context of a book, a blurb is usually the summary text on the back of the book describing the story, but it can also refer to reader reviews, promotional taglines, and author biographies. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the summary text on the back of a book, since that is what often plays a role in any reader’s decision to buy a book.

Generally blurbs are at most a paragraph or two, and give a brief idea to the reader what they can expect before they open up the book to read it. This brief idea is given in three parts: the explanation, the mystery, and the promise. Here’s what I mean:

Nathaniel is a magician’s apprentice, taking his first lessons in the arts of magic. But when a devious hot-shot wizard named Simon Lovelace ruthlessly humiliates Nathaniel in front of his elders, Nathaniel decides to kick up his education a few notches and show Lovelace who’s boss. With revenge on his mind, he summons the powerful djinni, Bartimaeus. But summoning Bartimaeus and controlling him are two different things entirely, and when Nathaniel sends the djinni out to steal Lovelace’s greatest treasure, the Amulet of Samarkand, he finds himself caught up in a whirlwind of magical espionage, murder, and rebellion.

The Amulet of Samarkand, US edition

This was the blurb on the back of The Amulet of Samarkand, the first book of the Bartimaeus Sequence by Johnathan Stroud. I was maybe ten or eleven when I first read this book. I was just coming out of my Harry Potter junkie phase and wanted something new to read. I wasn’t at first really interested in the book, but then I saw the blurb on the back and I was immediately hooked. I ended up reading the entire trilogy and the prequel, really enjoyed them, and I’ve been influenced by it ever since. And just based on that one blurb it got me to read the first book.

Let’s look at this blurb using the parts I named above. First, we have the explanation, which tells us what the novel is about. Judging from that, the reader learns that the main character is Nathaniel, he’s a magician’s apprentice, and he decides to send a djinni named Bartimaeus to get revenge for him by having him steal an amulet from Nathaniel’s enemy. The explanation stops at telling us what happens next and how it leads into “a whirlwind of magical espionage, murder, and rebellion.”

That’s what the mystery is for. The mystery’s purpose is to say that although a little bit of the story has been revealed to you in the explanation, the rest of it you’ll have to read the book to find out. All we can tell you is that there’s a lot of cool stuff there, in this case magical espionage, murder and rebellion. Usually the mystery is held off until the last sentence, meant to leave the reader intrigued enough that they’ll open the book to find out more.

Last but not least, the promise is found throughout the blurb, and it is as it’s called: a promise. In this case, the promise is telling us that this is an awesome story geared for readers just like the person reading the back cover, and that they will miss out if they do not open the book. This should be the main goal of the author when writing their blurb.

Of course, there are some things you should and shouldn’t do when writing your blurb. For instance, it may be tempting to make it seem like your book is the greatest thing that’s ever been written. For all I know, it has. But if the message from your blurb is “It’s new! It’s great! You should read it and make sure everyone else around you reads it!” and that message is too obvious or strong, it might turn away readers rather than make them want to read more. We want people to read our works of course, but coming on too strong never got anyone anywhere.

The best way to do is let the blurb and the story it’s summarizing do the talking for you. Instead of coming on strong, let the blurb subtly entice the reader into wanting to check out the story and find out more. Another way of looking at this could be like thinking of the blurb as a free sample in a grocery store or shopping mall. You get a small taste to begin with, but if you want more, you’re going to have to buy the whole product.

Another thing to keep in mind is not to put too much information in the explanation part of your blurb. Give them just enough information to form an impression, maybe give them a few images in their heads, but not too much that they’ll have a basic idea of where the story is going to go and what will happen, so why bother picking the story up? Make sure to leave some room for the mystery in the story to hint at what’s to happen so the reader will be intrigued enough to open up the book to page one.

And finally, try to do all this in as few words as possible. The blurb above is less than a hundred words and still manages to grab your attention. You should aim to write an effective blurb around a similar length that does the same thing. This isn’t just because keeping it brief is good for giving hints and mystery, though that’s part of it. It’s also because practically speaking you only have so much room on the back of your book, so you should try to keep the word count around one hundred so that the printed summary doesn’t feature tiny, tiny letters that make it difficult to read. And if the reader has difficulty reading the back cover, what are the chances they’ll want to read what’s on the inside?

What tips do you have for writing blurbs?

Following Up on Submissions

The last time I posted an article, I wrote about submitting a short story to a magazine. And as promised, I’m following it up…with an article on following up on those submissions when a lot of time has passed.

Most magazines promise on their websites that they’ll get back to you on your submission in 2-6 months. What they don’t tell you is that work and submissions tend to pile up, especially when the magazine may be an operation run by only a few or even just one person. And imagine getting several submissions at the very least every month for short stories, articles, art pieces, and just about everything else under the sun. Your submission could be lost underneath all that.

So if you find a magazine has been taking its time getting to your submission, it can be helpful to send them an email and ask politely if your story has been looked at yet. Here’s what I normally put down in an email when I’m following up on a submission:

Dear [Insert magazine name here],

I am writing to follow up on my submission [insert story name here] which I sent in [insert how long ago or date you sent it in] to see if it is still being considered for publication. If you could please get back to me when it is convenient for you, that would be great, and thank you for your time and consideration.

Hoping you are well,

[Insert name, pen name if applicable, and contact information]

It’s also a good idea to attach your short story to the email in case it got lost somewhere among the submissions.

Normally a magazine will get back to you pretty quickly after this sort of email is sent. Even then though, it may take some time for the magazine editors to get back to you on your short story. If that’s the case, it may work in your favor to send an email every month or so inquiring about the status of your short story. That way it’ll stay in the forefront of the editors’ minds.

Also, remember to always be courteous and polite in your emails. They could just send you a form rejection letter right away, so the fact that they are taking the time to actually look at your story, no matter how long that time is, to possibly publish it is worth staying on the magazine’s good side. And when the magazine finally does take a look at your short story, no matter what the result is, be courteous and thank them for the time they took to read the story you sent them. That way, if you send them something in the future, they’ll be inclined to work with you and show you the same kindness and understanding you showed them.

Do you have any tips on following up on submissions?

Submitting Short Stories to Magazines

Have you ever written a short story and tried to get it published in a magazine? Chances are you have. Many authors, both traditional and indie, write short stories and try to get them published in print magazines, on e-mags, or in anthologies. I’ve been published in a couple of magazines and I’m hoping for more in the future (though with my writing schedule these days, it’s hard to make time for short stories). And there are benefits to doing so, including:

  • Short stories are a whole different beast to tame than novels, so writing and sending out short stories lets you know what works and what people look for in a good short story. Sometimes magazines will even give you feedback if they decide to reject your story, so you get an idea on how to improve it.
  • At the very least, you’ll get some exposure from having your work published in a magazine. At the very most, they’ll pay you some money for a nice dinner out.
  • For those critics who accuse indie authors of trying to skirt around hard work and just put any old book out, this is a way of saying “Hey, we can do it your way too.”

If you haven’t ever sent a short story out to magazine, this might give you some help in going about it. If you’ve already done it before, then maybe this’ll be a useful reminder. And like I said, you should try it. You never know what’ll happen if you do.

1. Find a publication. Once you’ve written a short story and edited it to the utmost perfection, it’s time to find a magazine. Publications like Writer’s Digest’s Short Story & Novel Writer’s Market contain may useful listing of magazines in all genres, as well as contests and agencies and conferences. You can also get info from friends or family members who write. Another blogger told me about a magazine she published a short story in, and I think that I might have a short story I could submit to them, I just have to make sure it’s ready before I send it out.

Also, it’s helpful sometimes to read the short stories they publish. This generally gives you some idea of what they tend to publish, so you’ll have a better idea of what might be accepted.

2. Read over the rules. Every magazine has its own set of rules about submitting to them and the terms you’ll get should you be accepted. They may want the short story sent in a particular attachment, or they may prefer the story in the body of the message. There may be restrictions on length, subject matter, or a hundred other things. And being published by them might mean signing over all rights to the story to the magazine, or only first North American publishing rights. So know what you’re getting into when you decide, “I’ll send it to this publication.”

3. Write that query letter. A query letter is a letter stating who you are, what you’re sending, and why you’re sending it. Once you’ve done your research, write up a query letter and send it along to the magazine with your short story. Here’s an example of me sending a query letter to a fictional magazine:

Dear Darkness Abounds magazine,

I am submitting my manuscript “Hands” (5,732 words) to your publication for your consideration. I decided to submit to your magazine because your website said you were into “dark, creepy fiction with an interesting twist on old stories” and I thought my short story matched your description.

I am a self-published novelist with two novels and a collection of short stories published, as well as short stories published in Mobius Magazine, The Writing Disorder, and the Winter 2011 issue of TEA, A Magazine (now The Daily Tea). I also write for two blogs, Rami Ungar the Writer and Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. I am also a senior at The Ohio State University double majoring in English and History and expected to graduate in May 2015.

I look forward to hearing from you and would like to thank you for your time and consideration.

Hoping you are well,

Rami Ungar
[contact information, including address, phone number, and e-mail address]

Make sure to include the word count of your story (that’s an important factor in many publications), why you’re selecting the magazine, and any relevant publications. Also, don’t make your biography too long. Just keep the relevant stuff and don’t give them your life story. You can save that for your memoirs.

4. Wait. Every magazine has its own quoted turn-around time, so you might as well be patient. However, it’s not uncommon for a magazine to let work pile up and miss your short story entirely, so if you find two or three weeks have gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it might be helpful to send an email asking politely if you are still being considered for publication (I’ll write a post about that another time).

5. How to handle the reply. Assuming the magazine didn’t lose your work in the pile of submissions they get and you get a reply, the important thing is to be grateful one way or another for their reply. If you’re accepted, that’s wonderful. Talk terms with them and then decide if you want them to publish you. If you get rejected, possibly look at getting published somewhere else, and take into account any feedback you might receive on your short story as a possible way to improve the story.

What tips do you have for submitting to magazines your short stories?

Using The Audiobook Service ACX

I think I speak for many of us when I say we’d like to have our books in audiobook form. Besides being a possible way to connect to new readers who don’t necessarily like to sit down with a paperback or e-book and another possible source of revenue, audiobooks have a prestige to them. It’s sort of magical hearing your characters come to life in your car or in your earbuds through sound and description. It’s pretty powerful.

However creating an audiobook can be difficult. In addition to a book to narrate, you need an actor to read your book aloud if you aren’t comfortable or able to do it, plus recording equipment, maybe an engineer, something to edit the book with, and then some! And that can run up in terms of costs.

As one might expect, there’s a service that tries to make the process cost-effective and easy to do. Audiobook Creation Exchange, or ACX, is a service through Audible.com, which in turn is owned by Amazon, aims to match authors and their books to producers so they can create the audiobook together. I heard about it from an acquaintance of mine who had her book turned into an audiobook and got interested in it. So after some research, I’m sharing with you how it works and if it can potentially help you gain a wider audience.

First, what exactly is ACX? Founded in 2011, ACX is kind of like a matchmaking/dating service with the goal of creating an audiobook. Anyone who owns the right to the audiobook of a novel (such as authors, editors, publishers, agents, etc) can go on and find audiobook producers (narrators, recording studios, engineers, etc) who would be interested in producing your audiobook. The video they have on their website (the link is below) claims that only 5% of authors get their books turned into audiobooks, so they’re trying to change that.

What do you do? If you decide to use ACX, you sign up for the service using your Amazon account. Then you search for your book through Amazon’s database. Create a Title Profile, which include a description of your book and what it’s about, as well as what you are looking for in a producer (gender, special talents or accents they can do, etc). You also must upload a short one or two page excerpt for producers to use.

What happens next is that producers will look for books that they may be interested in narrating (and hopefully they may decide to do yours if they come across it). Producers will audition by taking your excerpt and recording themselves narrating it, and then sending it to you. Once you have a few auditions, you can go over the auditions, as well as find out a little bit more about the producers auditioning for you. You can most likely find out acting and audiobook experience, hourly rate, and so on and so forth. If you find an audition you really like, you contact the producer and make them an offer.

What sort of offers are there? There are two sorts of offers you can make to a producer once you’ve made a decision, and knowing which one to use is very important, so consider them carefully before sending a producer an offer. These are the sorts of deals available:

  • Pay a flat out fee. This is where you pay for the production costs of the audiobook. Each producer has his or her own rates, and you pay that amount for every finished hour of audiobook there is (for example, if I have an audiobook produced of either of my novels and the finished product is eight hours long and my narrator charges one-hundred dollars per hour, I would pay $800). You pay this fee at the end of the production period when you have reviewed the final product and given it your full approval. The fees vary wildly between producers, usually somewhere between $50-$200 with the average being around $100. You can also negotiate rates with your producer on their rates. The upside of this is that you get all the royalties at the end of production of this and you can decide whether to do exclusive distribution rights (which means the audiobook can only be sold through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes and you gain 40% of the royalties) or non-exclusive rights (which means you can sell the audiobook through other distributors and receive 25% of the royalties through the companies listed above).
  • Royalty Share Deal. In this deal, you forego fees and instead agree to split the royalties of any sales with your producer. This deal is handy because you don’t need to pay any fees upfront. However you can only distribute your audiobook through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes with this option and you only get 20% of the royalties, with the producer getting the other 20%.

Most narrators do a combination of these methods, so you’re probably going to find someone who is willing to either of these methods. Once you’ve hashed out the details with your producer, you’ll send them the official contract, which says you’ll work together to produce the audiobook, and that Amazon can distribute it for seven years, which is how long the contract lasts.

What’s the process like? The production process takes about 3-8 weeks, depending on the length of the book and the producer’s schedule. The producer will upload the first 15 minutes of the audiobook to the ACX secure website for you to get a sample. If you don’t like it, you can stop the process there or start a dialogue with the producer to see what could be fixed. After that, the producer will upload the book chapter by chapter until the whole book is completed and the author approves the final product. Once that is done, the producer will upload the book onto Audible/Amazon/iTunes, and you as the rights holder will get a notification email.

What happens after the book is uploaded? Hopefully people will buy the audiobook. In any case, Amazon has a contract with you that allows them to distribute through them (exclusively or non-exclusively, depending on the deal you made) for 7 years. After that, you can take down the audiobook, decide to have a new version produced, or extend the contract for another year. As the rights holder, it’s all up to you.

What if I want to narrate the book myself? There’s a process for that where you can do that. Basically you produce the audiobook yourself and upload it onto ACX’s website. Makes giving an offer easier, from what I hear.

What if I decide at the last minute the whole thing’s a mess or I don’t want my book in audio form? Well, then you can cancel the contract. As the rights holder, it’s well within your rights to do so. However, if you do that you’ll have to pay a fee one way or another so that the producer can come out of this with something. Depending on what deal you took, you could pay up to 75% of the producer’s fees or $500 plus whatever costs the producer incurred for producing the book.

How do I design a cover? ACX has their own cover guidelines that are too much bother to go over here, so I’m linking the page that has the guidelines to this article. Once you have some idea of what they’re looking for, it’s up to you to create or find someone to create the cover according to these guidelines.

What’s a Bounty Payment? As I understand it, if a new buyer to Audible buys your audiobook, you get a $50 bonus from Audible. It’s a great bonus system, from what I’m told. It encourages authors to advertise about their audiobooks, so new listeners will be encouraged to get the audiobook through Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

What countries is ACX available in? At the moment ACX is only available in the US and Great Britain, though ACX is hoping to expand to other countries soon, most likely Canada and other North American countries before becoming established elsewhere. So keep your eyes peeled if you want to do an audiobook through ACX.

How much will my audiobook cost to buy? Depends on the length of the book in terms of hours. The more hours the book is, the more they charge. To guess at the price of your book, an hour of audiobook is about 9,300 words, so do some math and then visit ACX’s website and go to the price chart on the Distribution page to figure out how much your book will probably cost.

Should I do an audiobook? Well, that depends. Personally I’d recommend only going through the process if you feel there’s a demand for your audiobook. It’d suck to go through the whole production process and, whatever sort of deal you have with your producer, only receive a couple dollars here and there, or maybe nothing at all. So before deciding to try and produce an audiobook, see if there are a lot of people who’d want to buy an audio version of your book, and how much they’d be willing to pay for it.

 

There’s a lot of potential in audiobooks, no matter how you look at it. Perhaps your book will be read by a great many in audio form, if you decide to go this route e to produce it.   Jut make sure you feel that it’s right for you, for your book, and that there is a demand for your audiobook before you do so.

Has anyone here used ACX before? What was your experience like? What tips do you have for authors considering using it?

And here’s the link to the website if you want to do more research on your own.

Business Cards and Bookmarks

Not too long after my most recent book Snake came out, I designed and ordered my first set of business cards, which arrived in the mail not too long afterwards. The pictures below show both the front and the back of the business cards. (I’m sorry if the photos are blurry; my camera’s old, so sometimes getting a close-up on something blurs the shot).

business card 1

business card 2

I received 250 cards, which I’ve been giving out to anyone I think might be interested. I like to think that they’ve helped boost sales a tiny bit, because I’ve had a few sales since I got them (though I doubt the download from the UK has much to do with the business cards). I thought that since my business cards were doing so well, I’d write an article about designing and ordering your own cards to promote your writing. I also plan to include bookmarks in this article, as the places that print business cards also usually print bookmarks if you ask them to.

This brings me to my first point:

1. Find out what your local options are. Some of you may have local print shops who can create your cards and bookmarks for you. It’s sometimes easier to do local anyway, because you can go and pick them up yourself and work with the people at the shop. However, if it’s an independent print shop, the prices might be a little more expensive, so make sure to compare prices before choosing a place to print your cards or bookmarks. Staples and Kinko’s also make some very good cards, and their prices are usually a little more competitive. And if there’s nothing in your area, you can always go online. I got my cards off of VistaPrint, and they did a very good job for a good price, if you ask me, and they make a whole bunch of other products besides business cards and bookmarks.

2. Choose a design that fits you. A business card or bookmark should have the same sort of feel as the work you write, rather than just being a plan white piece of paper or having a picture of a bunch of books on a shelf. Think of it as selecting a cover for your book: you want it to reflect the tone, atmosphere, and characters of the story. So let your bookmarks and business cards reflect what you write. If you are a sci-fi writer, maybe you should do something with aliens or machines. If you do romance, maybe something with hearts and different hues of red and pink. Whatever it is, make sure it works.

3. Make sure all relevant information is on your cards. Name, blog address, Facebook page, Twitter handle, YouTube channel, Reddit username. If you got it, make sure it’s on the card somewhere. If you have an email where fans can reach you, or even a phone number if you’re comfortable with it, include that too (if you have or have had or think you might have obsessed fans, I’d avoid the phone number though). And if there’s room, include the names of some or all of your books. If you have too many to fit on a single card, include maybe the most recent ones, or the most popular ones. And that brings me to my next point:

4. Update as soon as there’s something to update. Got a new book out? Or maybe you’ve started a new page on a new social media platform? Time to start a new card. Yes, it’s a little bit of a hassle, but in the end, it’s a little less annoying than having to say “Oh by the way, I also recently started a page on so-and-so website/published a new book called this-and-that.” And having it on the card helps to keep it in mind for the person you give said card to. Updating them regularly also gives you the chance to try different designs and configurations for your cards (when I update them, I want to customize mine to have one of my photos from the Paris Catacombs on them. I think that’ll be very fun to do, as well as give people an idea of what sort of stories I tend to write).

5. Include a quote or something about yourself as well. On my business cards, I have a short, two-sentence paragraph describing the sort of stories I write. Doing quotes on bookmarks are especially effective, especially if the bookmark is being used to promote a new book. However, should you pick a quote, make sure it is a particularly powerful one that will entice the reader to actually check out the rest of the book. Just putting any old quote on that bookmark just doesn’t do the trick like a quote that is full of mystery and only offers a small peek into the whole story.

6. Finally, be frugal and generous with your cards and bookmarks. What this means is that you should try to give them out to as many people as you can, but try to make sure to give them to people you think would really want to read your books. It’s not an easy thing to do at first–you want to let anyone and everyone know about your work, and you never know who might be a reader–but you get good at it after a while. I learned how to do it while trying to get people interested in my meditation group at the Asian Festival last year (though that’s a story for another time).

Do you have business cards for your writing? Have they been effective?

What advice do you have on making and designing business cards?