Doing An Excerpt

Have you ever been excited for a new book and gone on an Internet search when you hear there’s an excerpt of it online? Or have you ever just finished reading a book, really enjoyed it, and found the first chapter of the sequel near the end?

Excerpts are great ways to get people interested in your upcoming work as well as work that’s already out there. For each of my books, I make sure to put up an excerpt on my blog prior to publication so that people can see what they’ll be getting should they decide to buy the book. And depending on what portion of your book you use for your manuscript, you can possibly increase your sales tremendously.

But which portions do you pick for your excerpts? Here’s some tips that might help:

1. Should you use the first chapter? Some writers out there reading this will say “Of course you use the first chapter! What else would you use?” That might not always be the best option, though. Take a Stephen King novel: sometimes it takes several pages (occasionally several hundred pages) before things get interesting. And an excerpt is supposed to be interesting. So if your novel is about a haunted house and your first chapter just involves your main character sipping coffee in an outdoor café in Paris and meting one of his fans, it might not be the best choice for an excerpt. (It would be how King might open a novel of his, knowing him).

But if your first chapter is interesting enough that it will entice the reader into reading the story, go for it and use it for an excerpt. If not, then you’ll have to choose a different section of the novel. Now how do you choose that section?

2. Find a section that’s the right level of interesting. What do I mean by this? If you ever watch a late-night talk show (The Daily Show comes first to my mind) and an actor is one of the guests, they will usually play a clip from their latest film. If it’s an action film, then they’ll play a clip with the actor’s character in a bit of a jam. It won’t be a clip from the climax or something that reveals too much about the plot, but it’ll be enough to make viewers wonder what the heck led to this situation, how the character will get out of it, and what will happen after that. If it’s a romance, then it’ll be right as something juicy is about to happen but the clip will end before that juicy thing can happen. If it’s a horror story, the clip will depict a tense moment right before something happens and will end right before the biggest scare yet occurs.

I guess one could call this method “feeding the fans a little bit and making them want more.” It’s quite effective and marketers use it all the time for movies and TV (you should have seen me when I saw a clip from an upcoming episode of this show I like. I freaked out and couldn’t wait to see it on Sunday). And if you can translate the above concept into literature, you can have a wonderful recipe for choosing excerpts.

Now just two more items to recommend:

3. Brevity is sometimes better. I find the best length is somewhere between two-thousand and five-thousand words. Remember, you want to give the readers just enough to get them very interested and make them want to read even more. The best reaction you can get from a reader is “Wait, that’s the end? I want more!” So having a short excerpt can work very well for getting that sort of reaction, especially if the scene in the excerpt is very well-written and has a good hook to it.

And finally…

4. Wait for the final draft to give out an excerpt. The final draft is the stage of the novel when you’ve done all the edits you can and can’t do any more. What you have is the final product and changing anything might be doing the work a disservice. It’s the perfect draft to draw an excerpt from as well. And it’s better than doing an excerpt from a draft with plenty of grammatical or spelling errors or something. Am I right?

Do you have any tips for creating an excerpt? What are they?

Taglines

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

“In space, nobody can hear you scream.”

“Who you gonna call?”

Hopefully not the grammar police. Especially not for that last one. That’s a class-A spelling felony.

The statements above are recognizable to plenty of fans of science fiction and comedy-horror. They are the taglines for famous franchises: Star Wars, Alien, and Ghostbusters. And just saying them brings to mind billions of images, along with associations with and overwhelming emotions of heroism, friendship, screwball comedy, terror beyond imagination, and the possibility that anything is possible.

Based on all that, one could say that taglines are a great promotional tool. and if you aren’t lucky enough to have a publicist, coming up with the tagline for your novel or other creative work usually falls to the author. And it’s important to come up with a great, memorable tagline for your story. Doing so accomplishes two things.

  1. Before the book is even read, it intrigues the reader enough to find out more. Hopefully their investigation to find out more means they’ll ultimately read your book.
  2. After the book is read, the tagline (hopefully) evokes memories of flipping through the pages, wanting to know what happens next; of heroics and romance and terror and joy and characters so vivid, you’d swear they were real.

So with that goal in mind, here are some tips to creating a great tagline that will (hopefully) pull in more readers and create great associations with the book for the fans. And if nobody objects, I’ll use the tagline for my upcoming novel Snake: “How far will you go for love and revenge?”

Short, simple statements are the best. The tagline for Snake, as well as the ones I used at the beginning of the article, are all one sentence. This works to the advantage of the book, because it is easy to remember and easy to repeat. And if it’s easy to remember and easy to repeat, it’ll be more likely to be remembered and repeated. Look no further than “Who you gonna call?” for proof.

The statement evokes something in the mind of a reader. When I was writing the back cover blurb and the tagline for Snake, I wanted it to at least get potential readers interested. However, a novel where the serial killer is the main character can be…a little frightening. Somewhat off-putting. I wanted to emphasize that the main character had good intentions, even if his methods were reprehensible. So I asked myself what would I want to emphasize about the Snake in just a single statement? Well, he’s doing what he not out of any awful desires for murder. He’s doing it to save the love of his life, as well as get revenge on the ones who kidnapped her. How can I use that? Well…maybe I can phrase it as a question.

It worked. “How far will you go for love and revenge?” struck me as thought-provoking. It makes you think, “Well, I might go so far. Is the novel about someone who will go farther?” It’s why it’s the first sentence in the back cover blurb, the first image you see in the book trailer I created for it, and what I’ve been using in most of the advertising I’ve done for Snake. Hopefully it entices a few people to read it.

Get a feel for taglines. Most of all, one has to get a feel for taglines, see what works and what doesn’t work. What taglines make you excited, scared, weepy? What just make you feel disappointed? Ultimately, coming up with a tagline, just like creating a story and everything else in the business of writing and publishing, is taking in the work of those before us, and practicing and practicing until you get a feel for what works for you.

Now, you don’t need to have a tagline for your novel. As far as I’m aware, Harry Potter, anything by Stephen King, and the Bible never needed taglines. Their names and authors are enough to get their stories to millions and millions of people. But taglines are helpful. They’re great marketing tools and in some cases they can become a part of our culture and part of our fondest memories (ask any Trekkie about the phrase “Boldly go where no one’s gone before”). And the best part of being a self-published author is that you, as the author, get to create your very own tagline.

What is your favorite tagline? What are some you’ve created for your own stories?

The Components For Successful Sequels

So much more common these days!

It’s no understatement to say that Western art and culture is obsessed with sequels these days. Every blockbuster must have at least one or two continuations of their stories, artists of all stripes are naming their albums with the suffix “2.0” or “Part III”, and even literature’s greats are producing series of at least three or more books with more energy than in previous years.

Plenty of cynics would say that this sequel mania is fueled by a drive for profits, and they wouldn’t be wrong, though there are still several writers, artists, and filmmakers out there that produce sequels not out of greed, but out of a love for what they do and whom they share it with. Unfortunately, those same cynics who doubt the existence of these artists, writers and filmmakers also note that there aren’t enough good sequels out there, and sadly there’s a lot of truth in that.

Since I am about to embark on writing Video Rage, the sequel to my science fiction novel Reborn City, I thought I’d share some of my tips for writing sequels. These tips, though not essential when writing a sequel (or writing any work, for that matter), have been taken from some of the better sequels I’ve seen out there and are categorized into four distinct groups: barest essentials, setting and history, characters, and most important. The right combination of any of these components could help elevate a story from good to great, especially with a sequel.

Barest essentials. If one is to do a sequel, one has to think hard about these components when creating the story. Plenty of sequels have been rocked or bombed depending on their creator’s use of these factors.

1. Is the sequel connected or unconnected to the previous book? This may not seem like a big question, but it actually is. Plenty of series depend on an overarching tale that connects all the books together, and deciding whether or not a sequel connects to the previous book is important to think about. Most writers do answer this question before they even start the first book, but it is still important to think about before you start your sequel.

2. Don’t recycle old material. When we pay for a book on Amazon or a ticket to the latest blockbuster, we hope that it’s worth it, that there’s something new in the story and in the characters, that we won’t be bored in the first five minutes. Of course, we get really annoyed when what we’ve paid for is like Taken 2 or A Good Day To Die Hard, which basically took all that rocked from the previous film or films but not much else. As it turns out, people like something more than what worked in the first film. Yes, it seems like a good idea to use what worked for the last installment for the newest, but in reality there’s much more that is needed to make the story much better, and knowing that is a great start in writing your sequel and utilizing what worked in the last installment correctly, rather than just reusing it.

3. Avoid retcons. If you are unfamiliar with this term, a retroactive continuity, or retcon for short, is the alteration of a previously established fact or facts in the continuity of a fictional work (definition courtesy of Wikipedia). Retcons are popular in long-running comic book or TV shows to help new writers continue the story they want to or to accommodate new information. However fans are easily annoyed by retcons and often are able to point them out upon running across them. They will especially cry foul if they feel the retcon was done because of laziness or forgetfulness. For example, in the vampire novels by Charlaine Harris, one character was introduced as a certain shape-shifter, but in the next book that shape-shifter’s type was changed. Many fans wrote letters pointing this out, causing Mrs. Harris some embarrassment.

So in the interest of avoiding embarrassment, retcons are best avoided if possible.

Setting and history. I wrote in a previous article some ways to set up a great world, especially in science fiction and fantasy. For sequels, taking certain approaches to the world you’ve already built up can make the setting seem more real to readers and help them to fall in love even more with the established world.

4. Expand on the world. So in Book 1 you showed us a fantastical world full of magic and wonder. What do you do? Why not show more of it, in terms of places, history and culture? For example, in the Earth’s Children’s series first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, we see the world strictly through the eyes of a small tribe of Neanderthals and the little Cro-Magnon girl who grows up with them and in their culture. In the second book, The Valley of Horses, author Jean Auel expands on the peoples in Stone Age Europe, including different tribes of Cro-Magnon tribes across the continent and their way of life. This gives the readers more of a look into the fictional world of the characters and makes them want to learn more, at the same time causing them to invest more in the story.

5. Go darker. The first Harry Potter book introduced us to a fantastical world full of mystery and wonder and danger. Readers who read the first book tended to see the Wizarding world as somewhat idyllic, full of literal and metaphorical charm and made them want to go there. However in the second book, Chamber of Secrets, we discover that there’s a dark side to the magical world Harry inhabits, particularly in terms of the importance placed in blood purity and how it is wrapped up in Hogwarts’s history.

Showing the dark side of your world, if you haven’t delved too deeply into that yet, can give the readers a sense that this world could exist. Remember, the readers have to be able to identify with the setting, to believe it could exist. And if the darker parts of a setting can make a world seem all the more real to the reader, why not go there?

6. Shake things up with something new. At some point in her Southern Vampire series, Charlaine Harris added the fairy species, supposedly, because she was bored and wanted to shake things up. Similarly, shaking things up can be a great boon to your sequel. By adding something that has never been seen before in the universe of the story, you add all sorts of potential plot elements and ways to change up the story. And the ways to shake up the story are vast and endless: perhaps you could reveal that a character is related to another character in an unexpected way. Or maybe a new technology is available now that changes the entire world of the characters. Perhaps there’s even a new location whose visit will have new implications for the way your characters live their life.

Like I said, anything’s possible if you wish to shake things up a bit.

Characters. Ultimately, any story relies on its characters and how those characters react to the circumstances around them. In a sequel there are chances to expose characters to new circumstances, not just in terms of the world they live in, but also in terms of the people around them.

7. Introduce or retire a new main/supporting character. We are constantly meeting new people and losing old friendships in life. Why not do the same to our characters? Introducing a new character is a great way to explore the changing dynamics of the relationships between the characters, and if you want to get rid of a character or find reason to put them away for a while, a sequel is a great place to do so. In fact, if you retire a character for one book, you can bring them back in spectacular fashion for another book. Either way, it’s a chance to try something new by writing a story with a new character or without a familiar character.

8. Shift the focus onto another character. In the sequel to the 1991 Addams Family movie, Addams Family Values, the movie focused on Uncle Fester. Just one problem: so did the first film, and a sub-story about Wednesday’s first love couldn’t resurrect AFV from the Fester-centric plot that critics ultimately had the biggest issue with.

If you have a story that focuses on a tightly-knit group of characters and no one character is considered the main character or the most important character, it helps to shift the focus from the growth and development of one character to another. After all, no one member of an ensemble cast is more important than the other (or should be, anyway). So juggle the focus every now and then. Every character has a story behind them, and seeing where that story takes them can make for a great story.

9. Change the nature of a relationship. When James Marsters first played the character Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer in 1997, Spike was a formidable villain throughout most of the season. However in subsequent seasons Spike’s role, becoming a reluctant ally over time and then an essential part of the main cast. Eventually Spike became attracted to Buffy, and later a hero and her lover.

Changing one character’s relationship to another and vice versa can be an excellent way to explore new territory. If you could think of two characters that might warrant having their relationship changed, go ahead and try it. You never know what might arise from such a story.

10. Conflict in a group is always interesting. This is basically the equivalent to Component #5. In the first book, the group usually learns to gel together and work with each other. What would happen if there was friction with the group in the second book? What if two characters were a couple but their friend was attracted to one of them? Or perhaps one of the characters was forced to spy on the group for the enemy, and nobody knew who that character doing the spying was. Sowing the seeds of conflict between two characters, while painful to read and possibly more painful to write (or very fun, depending on what sort of person you are), keeps readers interested and wondering how it will be resolved. I’m planning on trying it in my own sequel. Should be a fun experiment.

The Most Important Of All. There’s only one component in this category, but it’s probably the one you should keep in mind whether or not you decide to use any of the other components.

11. What would you like to see or read in a sequel? One of the best parts of self-publishing is that the author decides what they want to write and can put it out there, rather than having to put out what the publisher feels will sell. It’s the same with sequels. What would you like to see in the sequel you want to write?  New enemies? A torrid love affair? Your favorite character moving from the big city to a small town in Idaho? A new species of magical creature? It’s all up to you, and you can do whatever you want.

It’ll probably be better than whatever they’re cooking up in Hollywood right about now.

Breaking Writing Sterotypes

Every genre has its writing stereotypes. This morning I came across a tweet decrying and asking people to leave a comment at this man’s blog in view of his post making fun of romance novels and readers. The post actually made me laugh as did some the comments–and yes, I do read and write romances.

The one thing I realized while reading his blog was that the people who commented live day in and day out with untrue writing stereotypes. They were fed up with people making fun of their hard work, but very few of those people were actually trying to break away from the stigma that they were so anger about.

Why? You might ask. Because traditional publishers dictated what rules they have to follow. Different is good. But not too different. Unique stories are welcome, but not always accepted.

As self-published authors, we are in the position to write what we like. We can move away from the writing stereotypes we don’t like. We can break the genre rules and take chances.

Please share the stereotypes you would like to see broken or changed, that you like, or that you hate. If you have a related post, let us know.

Don’t Annoy Potential Readers while Marketing your Book

When I was child I went door to door to sell my mother’s crafts. Now I think some of my success was because it’s hard for women to say no to a kid, but the other part is my penchant for asking questions. I showed a genuine interest in people. Yeah, I was there to make a sale, but I didn’t let that get in the way.

Now some might say I’m a horrible marketer, because I don’t employ any of the popular techniques of marketing and promoting with my books. I don’t want to be the Tweeter that posts nothing but book links. Once or twice a day is fine, as long as there are other statuses. But when it turns into the car salesman screaming “Sale! SALE! SALE! Buy now! NOW! NOW!” it turns me away from that author.

I’m one of those people who cringe at the thought of marketing, and there is a whole long story behind it, but in order to keep it short I will say this. I don’t care about sales rank. I don’t do contest. I don’t do guest posting or interviews unless someone asks me to. If I do a giveaway, I actually give the books away for free to anyone, no strings attached; although, I may ask them to leave an honest review at their favorite book sites. If I like an author’s work, I have no problem promoting them on my blog. And I try to stay away from reviews on my books.

In the three years since I published my first book, I haven’t done much more than create a blog/website, write more books, and connect with people whose blogs I like to read. But as a writer friend pointed out to me that other day, I sell more books in a month then some of the author’s she knows who employ a more aggressive style of marketing and have been published longer. I jokingly told her that if I actually put some effort into marketing think how many books I could sell in a month. But it really wasn’t a joke.

Yeah, I love my books. Yeah, I’m passionate about them. Yeah, I’d love to tell everyone I meet about the story I wrote. But I don’t want to do the telemarketer’s style of promotion and pitch my book to people who don’t care.

Over the years I’ve learned that part of good, non-aggressive marketing is realizing when you’ve lost the sale. If you meet someone and are having a good discussion and you mention to them that you are an author of whatever genre and they shut down, move on to another topic, because if you push the issue, you run the risk of annoying a potential reader and not only losing their sale, but others. No one wants to feel hounded. If they ask questions or show interest, be ready to answer their questions and maybe have a business card to give them.

Remember, word of mouth is the biggest seller. Readers share with each other. If you annoy one, they will tell other readers about your behavior, and you lose even more potential readers. If you impress a reader with your professionalism, they will tell others about experience, and you will gain readers. And who doesn’t want to gain readers.

What things do you see other author’s doing that you find annoying? Why would you repeat their mistake?

Q&A: The Stalker Reader

Question: Help!  Someone please make a post for me and for other writers who might be dealing with this situation because I am too close to the problem to be objective about it.

If you’ve been receiving emails every day for about two weeks from the same person who isn’t necessarily being rude but is obviously wanting to keep you answering them with questions like “What kind of house do you live in?” or “What is it like in the U.S.?” or “What are the color of your cat’s eyes?”  I mean, these emails have nothing to do with your books, but you suspect the person is lonely and probably wants to reach out and communicate with someone but you don’t have that kind of time to email this person every single day, then what do you do?

I don’t want to be rude.  But do I have a choice?  Is there a form letter I can send out? 

Answer: I wanted to have your question answered as soon as I could and later I’ll make a post on Author Etiquette. Most people on here might not know what Ruth means by form letter. This isn’t some cold letter that you copy and send out. In the last year that we have been conversing, we have made a dozen or more form letters. What they are, are letters written to answer emails that would otherwise make you send a heated email cussing the rude reader off for whatever reader reason. Our letters aren’t a publisher’s rejection letters.

First, they are written when you’re not upset. Second, they can be modified to answer specific points in the readers email, which you should do if it doesn’t invade your privacy. And third, it provides a credible, professional image.  

I’ll use Ruth’s questions for an example.

Dear (Reader’s name);

Thank you for your emails, however, I am uncomfortable with your line of questioning (or as Dave suggested, due to work / family commitments / time restraints, etc. I am only able to speak  you on the writing/reader basis.) If you have a reading or writing related question please let me know (at your email or you can place a blog address here). I also have an author blog at (address), feel free to visit and comment.

Sincerely,

(Your name)

Of course modify this for your writing style. I’m more formal in my letter writing then, Ruth. And I open this Q&A for anyone else that might have a better solution. Anyone?

Blogging Tip #2: Get Readers to your Blog

Yesterday I talked about writing your blog for you readers. Today I want to discuss how to promote your blog to get those readers.

First you have to start writing your blog. Once you have a few posts, its time to start looking for readers to read your blog. Yes, I know that readers will come looking for your content eventually, finding you through search engines and other people. But that is a very slow climb upward. Trust me.

My first blog was at LiveJournal. I created it so I didn’t have to keep writing the same letter to friends and family. They could read all about my day. When I decided to publish my novels and start an author’s platform I started another at LiveJournal. This lasted about a year until I decided to create my author website. The decision to go with WordPress meant that I had everything in one place. Blog, about me page, extra pages for books, etc..

The next step was to promote my new site. And the best way I found to do this was to find other blogs and forums that I enjoyed and befriend those people. I dislike the ‘look at me, I’m so great, buy my book’ commentors or the ‘I’m only commenting because I want you to buy my book’ commentors. This doesn’t work. An honest question or comment has me clicking on their website every time. Another way to get readers is to offer something for free. People love free stuff.

What are other ways you’ve found to get readers? Do you have any suggestions for future posts or questions? We’d love to hear from you.