Unified Theory of Writing

In physics, scientists since Einstein have tried to create a unified field theory that ties the interworkings of gravity and electricity and magnetics together.  Think of it: if we knew how they related, antigravity might be possible.

As an engineer who is passionate about becoming an author, I seek the unified theory of writing, an equation that will unlock the secrets of creating great works of art that are also engaging and readable.  Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Writing = Storytelling + Technique

I define storytelling as the “what and when” and technique as the “how.”

Storytelling informs you of when you need a fast or slow pace; technique shows you how to speed or slow the pace.

Storytelling informs you of when you need to show and when you need to tell; technique shows you how to show and tell.

Storytelling informs you of what elements need to be included in your story for plot and character development; technique shows you how to incorporate these elements.

So, which is more important?

The easiest answer is neither.  Let’s assume that the best theoretically possible piece of writing ranks at 100 on our scale.  Both elements contribute equally to the total.  If you’re at 50 on the storytelling and 0 on the technique, the best you’re going to get is a 50.  Same with the reverse.  I think that a publishable piece needs to achieve a minimum in the range of 70 to 80.

However, I consider technique to be the more important field of endeavor for the beginning writer.  Here’s my reasoning:

  1. Technique is easier to learn.  It’s simply a set of rules that anyone can pick up.  There are hundreds of books and 10,468,115,924,245,209 blog articles (I know; I counted them all) explaining this element of writing.
  2. Learning technique quickly improves your writing.  Take a beginning writer and teach him to use proper grammar, to show instead of tell, to use tension in every scene, to add emotion, and not to info dump.  That beginner is going to go from producing unreadable dreck to creating something that can at least get his ideas across.  This allows him to be able to focus on what he wants to say and boosts his morale.
  3. A good portion of storytelling is intuitive.  Humans are natural storytellers.  To an extent, the talent is ingrained into us, especially if we’ve spent our entire lives watching stories unfold on television and in movies and reading them in books.  I’ve seen a lot of beginning writers who start out at 1 on the technique scale.  I’d say it is unusual for one to start below 10 to 15 on the storytelling scale.
  4. To transition from an intuitive storyteller to a good storyteller, you need to study the types of stories you want to tell.  The best way to do this is to read and analyze those types of stories.  However, if you don’t understand fully the techniques being used to perform the storytelling, you’re missing the first fundamental step in determining why the author chose to tell the story that way.  Understanding technique is crucial to understanding storytelling.

 

How Your Beta Reader Is Ruining Your WIP

Resist the Urge to Explain.  RUE.

If you’ve read this blog any, you’ve seen me give this advice many times.  How, then, did I get sucked into doing it in Chapter 2 of Power of the Mages?  A beta reader.

My protagonist is keeping something from his boss, who logically should be able to help with the situation.  The protagonist’s sister confronts him over it.  His response is that he knows as much as his boss.

One of my beta readers was bothered by the situation.  If the problem could perhaps be resolved by the character telling his boss, he should just tell his boss. 

I get the response.  Is there anything worse than a contrived plot device where everything could be resolved if the characters just talked to each other (Yes to all those wiseacres out there.  The holocaust was worse.)?

In my case, however, the situation reveals two important character traits: he thinks he knows as much as anyone else, and he doesn’t like asking for help.

I needed to solve the problem by setting up the dilemma before the scene in question and by consistently showing these two traits.  Because of the particular exchange with the beta reader, I instead wrote this really horrible scene showing the protagonist agonizing over whether to tell his boss.  It turned out dreadful, and I spent a lot of time trying to fix it.

If you’re like me, you’ll add a scene on the scantest of excuses, but removing one takes an act of congress.  That’s why it took me a long time to figure out that I just needed to delete the entire thing.

Beta readers are essential to your success and your learning to be a better writer.  You are too close to your work to properly evaluate it.  However, not keeping your beta readers’ comments in perspective can ruin your work faster than not using them at all.  Here are some of the ways:

  1. Beta readers aren’t readers – A reader is willing to let you lead them on a journey.  A beta reader is actively searching for flaws in your work and is going to discover them whether they exist or not.  Their thinking is that, if they don’t make any comments, they’re not doing their job.  Their unmerited comments can then lead you to over explain.
  2. Beta readers have preconceived notions – Whereas a reader will let you reveal the plot and characters by the events that unfold, a beta reader is much more likely to decide in advance how a feature of your society works or how a character should behave.  These notions then can cause you to change something that negatively impacts your vision.
  3. Beta readers have pet peeves – Everyone has issues that bother them much more than it bothers anyone else.  Beta readers, especially those who aren’t self aware enough to understand their own pet peeves, will vehemently argue against you doing something that remotely approaches these issues.  This vehemence can lead you to make changes impacting plot lines and story arcs for no good reason.

Your best bet is to get to know your beta reader.  Analyze the comments to detect their hot button issues.  Use your judgment.  Don’t take a single person’s advice if it seems wrong to you.

I’ll follow up this post next week with advice on how to become a better beta reader.

The Ethics of Marketing

Great news!  We have a guest blogger today.  JC Farnham, the blogmaster extraordinaire from Supercritical – The Alchemy of Writing, has written an excellent post for us.

Being in a similar self-publishing situation as Brian, I’d like to talk further about something mentioned on the Ethics of Marketing a few days ago. As a graduate of marketing, I thought it might be particularly useful for me to add my thoughts on the subject to provide a different point of view for the followers of this blog.

First, a bit of technical background.

Marketing Ethics is a strangely tricky subject, as I discovered during the aforementioned course. Even for an official governing body to make a ruling on an incident is oddly difficult. To this end each case is often settled on the merits of that case alone. On occasion a precedent is set to which judges are compelled to act but, only when these pre-set rules come into question, can that be done. People have to make mistakes.

We are in a position today where the market is in flux, more so than in the past (though it remains to be seen, it may be settling)—particularly with the advent of new and easier self-publishing routes. Previous rulings on matters of ethics have to be transferred to fit these new cases. Now, I’m not a lawyer, but research, logic and experience from my degree modules tell me that things are always somewhat uncertain. This is probably why we find an awful lot of stories coming out about fake or dishonest reviews and such similar devious situations. Unfortunately it’s easy to cheat, tempting perhaps… thankfully our industry tends to police itself. To wit, when an incident comes to light, people tend to stop buying those products—the books go without saying of course, but people also stop buying into the brand itself, the author.

It regularly falls to the individual to discriminate between what is right and what it wrong. Don’t make it hard on yourself. If you are looking to publish, you probably aren’t looking to do it just once. You need to acquire a kind of staying power, and that doesn’t come from a good campaign for one book. Be a brand to be believed in.

I particularly find the subject of reviews interesting. It has been shown time and time again that people typically use reviews as a way to inform their decision making processes. While I don’t like to think I rely solely on the opinions of others when it comes to choosing on which books to spend my limited funds, I’m well aware that if a product has more reviews I’m more likely to take the risk of buying…

Regardless of what those reviews said.

Now like Brian showed in his post, it’s easy for a rather crafty author to get this glowing reviews. I would like to go on record saying that, any review is better than no review. People seem to worry that bad review could mean the end of their income, and though that is a warranted worry, if you have a professional quality product all exposure is good exposure. One only has to read about Lady Gaga to realise that. My point is that all reviews carry weight. One may want more glowing reviews than bad, but the fact one has either shows your product is engaging. The problem comes when you do something off and you can’t shake it. The United Colours of Beneton come to mind with their increasingly morally grey advertising campaigns (I’m not sure how showing pictures of dying men helps them sell their services, but each to their own…). It makes people wary of striking up a dialogue with them. Controversy certainly helps garner some kind of interest it seems, but it’s usually best not to be that kind of brand… That should go without saying. Common sense.

To ask people to provide you with favourable reviews therefore is rather dishonest and it doesn’t show you, the brand, in a good light to do so. Strive for honest reviews.

If you “trade reviews” with fellow authors, you have to expect an “unfavourable” review or two, but that never stopped anyone. Meyer and her Twilight fans care little who tries to trash them. Paolini didn’t (and doesn’t) worry about what people thought of his writing in the early days. He published his novels, caught the hearts of his readers and fought to improve with each succeeding book. Their success isn’t based on ensuring the only reviews they have are favourable. Their success is based on firstly having a product that speaks to their target audience, and secondly on being a brand to be believed in.

Let’s summarise. Don’t worry too much about your reviews or your critics. You shouldn’t need to pick and choose. You’re bound to get some harsh ones, some weightless, uninformed but ultimately good ones, some almost-too-perfect ones… but all that matters is getting those reviews (that’s another subject altogether of course). Unless you’ve found the winning formula of pleasing everyone (and let’s face it, there probably isn’t such a formula) there will always be someone who didn’t engage well with your story. It happens. Everyone is different and entitled to their opinion.

Things being uncertain in self-publishing is not an excuse to bend or break the rules. There are precedents, albeit ones previously related to traditional publishing, but, if you get found out, it will come back to haunt you. Even if you don’t let to progress to court level, bad stigma is exceedingly tough to shake.

It’s difficult to name names on those who did this badly, but here’s an example that should relate well to the subject of stigma effecting opinion. It remains to be seen whether J.K. Rowling enjoys success with her adult fiction (for the price set financial security should damn well be certain however many units she shifts…). She is known for being a children’s author, a good one at that, but one never the less. She has a stigma, good or bad, attached to her. “Can she really transfer the same skills over to adult fiction?”, “Will it be worth it?”, etc. Only time will tell. The great thing is she’s trying none the less.

Let your work stand up for itself without being pushed alone with the more “glowing kind of solicited reviews”. I hope you catch my meaning there. If not here it is, spelt out:

Don’t force the good reviews. It’s not worth it and people will be suspicious of such complete praise.

That being said, word of mouth buzz is ridiculously efficient. Get people talking about you and you might well find your sales rising rapidly. China Mieville seems to have managed this on the strength of his imagination alone. He’s often tipped as being tremendously creative and a truly remarkable talent, and that reputation whether you personally think it’s earned not (I do, but who am I) allows him to sell to people who would be otherwise unsure of his subject matter. You have to pick up his fiction to find out, and therein lays the trick.

Achieving this means getting your brand out there. Whatever you decide that means for you. Reviews are a must, as are many other marketing tools, but remember to reach your target customers where they hang out, and do it honestly, and with really weight behind you. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than your words seeming hollow whether you mean it or not, or for that matter falling on deaf ears.

Review of Make a Killing on Kindle

If you want to be a successful, self published author, you need two things.  I’m not talking about lightning strikes, people like the author of 50 Shades, who somehow wrote the right thing at the right time.  I’m talking about having a realistic shot of making a decent amount of money to supplement your income or, possibly, even to replace your day job.  So, what are those two things?

  1. A quality product – My blog is mainly about trying to make you a better writer, and you’re going to have to spend a lot of time to get to a level where you produce something worth selling.  Once people get to that point, though, a lot of them put their book on Amazon and expect to become millionaires.  What happens?  They sell about 10 copies, maybe one or two of those are to people they don’t know.  You also need:
  2. A marketing plan – You need a systematic approach to getting your book before the public.  There are millions of books out there.  How is someone supposed to find yours?

That’s the purpose of this post.  I’ve researched a lot of books on marketing ebooks, and this is the one that caught my attention.  I’ll read a few more on the subject before finalizing my plan, but here’s my first review on the subject.

Make A Killing On Kindle (Without Blogging, Facebook Or Twitter). The Guerilla Marketer’s Guide To Selling Ebooks On Amazon  by Michael Alvear

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: It’s well written for the most part.  The author does his best to make the material entertaining and pretty much succeeds.  It’s a fast read and crams a lot of useful information in a short space. 

In Chapter 1, Mr. Alvear explains why blogging and social media is a waste of time unless you’re already a successful author.  This viewpoint is contrary to most of the advice out there and really drew my attention.  I’ve always had a problem with the concept of social media.  It’s like: Step 1 – spend a lot of time and effort to build a devoted following; Step 2 – ?????; Step 3 – profit.  I think that converting your “followers” to “buyers” isn’t all that easy.  The author makes much the same point.

In Chapter 2, he tells you how to come up with a title for your book.  Quite frankly, I don’t think this is all that relevant for a fiction author, though he tries to make it so.  There are a lot of resources out there with tips on how to come up with a title, and I’m not sure this chapter is worth the price.

In Chapter 3, Mr. Alvear goes on at length about the importance of your cover.  The main takeaway: hire a professional? 

Chapter 4, in my opinion, is where the book proves its value.  He’s all about Search Engine Optimization (SEO).  Before reading this book, I knew it was something that I needed to research, but I had no ideas other than that.  The author provides what seems to me to be great advice on how to do SEO.  If it works half as well as the author seems to suggest, it gives me hope that my book can be some kind of success.

In Chapter 5, he illustrates how important choosing the right category for your book is and goes into detail on how to do it.

Be careful about Chapter 6.  Mr. Alvear suggests a method that is against Amazon’s TOS.

In Chapter 7, the author tells you how to write a great description of your book that both entices customers and brings the search bots to your book.  I found the tips helpful.

Apparently, it’s difficult to use HTML tags to make your book page stand out.  He tells you how to add italics and make things bold in Chapter 8.  Presumably, this is useful information.  I didn’t really get any idea of what he thought you should do with the information, though.

Chapter 9 covered the “look inside” feature, and Chapter 10 covered pricing strategies.  I didn’t find either one all that great.

In Chapter 11, Mr. Alvear discusses the importance of reviews.  I found the first part of the chapter informative.  However, I have some problems with his ethics in the rest of his advice.

Chapters 12 and 13 go into detail about your author page and using your first book to sell future books respectively.  I found both okay but not all that earth-shattering.

Chapter 14 is truly interesting.  The author did a statistical analysis based on his sales figures versus his Amazon ranking.  He’s published a table correlating the two.  Mr. Alvear then goes into detail on how and why to use the data.  This is a huge value add.

Bottom Line: Should you buy this book?  That decision logically is based on whether the increased sales you get from his techniques will outweigh the cost of the book and the time-opportunity cost involved with reading it.  My inclination is to say buy it.  I can’t say that his methods will increase sales because I haven’t experienced this yet, but they pass the smell test for me.

 

Series I’m Reading

Using the theory that “since I do reviews on this blog it serves some useful purpose for my readers to know what books I like,” I’m going to use this post to record the series I’m currently reading.  The fact that it’ll help me remember which books to be on the lookout for is purely incidental to the stated purpose above.

Read as soon as they are released (listed in order of my preference):

Robert Jordan’s and Brandon Sanderson’s Wheel of Time – This is, by far, my favorite series.  I can’t wait for A Memory of Light (1/8/13!).  I know a lot of people criticize WoT.  Yes, I admit that it drags a bit in the middle, and I don’t care for how much time he spends developing truly minor characters.  On the other hand, I love the story, the main characters, and the complexity of the world.

Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles – I’ve read through A Wise Man’s Fear.  Very few series have captured me as quickly as this one.  Even though there are only two books, I rank this as my second favorite series of all time.

John Ringo’s Paladin of Shadows – This doesn’t fit well with the rest of the series on this page.  I know this.  It’s not as well written, and it’s not epic fantasy.   Crap, it’s not fantasy at all.  However, I love me some John Ringo popcorn action.  Tiger by the Tail is to be released in January of 2013.

John Ringo’s Troy Rising – I’ve read through The Hot Gate

Read when I get the chance (listed alphabetically by author’s last name):

Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle – I’ve read through Desert Spear.

Benjamin Clayborne’s Mindfire – I’ve read Queen of Mages.

Terry Ervin’s First Civilization’s Legacy – I’ve read Flank Hawk and need to buy Blood Sword.

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn – I’ve read through Alloy of Law.  I liked the original trilogy.  The latest one didn’t do quite as much for me.  They’re not bad, though, and I’ll probably continue if he writes more.

Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive – I’ve read The Way of Kings.

SM Stirling’s Novels of the Change – I’ve read through Tears of the Sun.

Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer – I’ve read The Black Prism and need to buy The Blinding Knife.

Never to read again:

Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth – I’ve read through Omen Machine (no link provided as I wouldn’t want to cause anyone to buy this book).  I actually liked the series for the most part.  The first book, Wizard’s First Rule, was fantastic.  I get that people grew to dislike his advocating his political viewpoints so strongly, but, up until around Pillars of Creation, I enjoyed reading these, and it’s hard for me to give up on characters I like.  Omen Machine was so dreadful, however, that I simply can’t continue.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice – I’ve read through A Dance with Dragons (no link provided as he really doesn’t need any help from me in selling books).  I have no problems with the quality of his work, but it’s just not for me.  I like long series in part because I really get to know and like the characters.  The ones in this series are so dark that I end up not really caring about any of them.  Oh, except for the ones he kills off.

How do you feel about these series?

The Ethics of Marketing for the Self Published Author – Where is the Line?

When I play the boardgame, Agricola, I often encounter situations where I use the rules to my advantage.  For example, let’s say that I have two choices that benefit me equally, but one of them will hurt my opponent.  The choice is obvious.  Make the move that hurts the opposition.

In the game, food is quite important, and the impact of not having enough at harvest time is quite dire.  What happens if I see that I won’t be able to get enough, so, while my opponent isn’t looking, I snag a couple from the supply? 

That’s called cheating.

In boardgaming, the ethics of the situation require you to play to win.  You must do everything legal under the rules to improve your chances of emerging victorious.  Kicking your opposition to the curb isn’t just okay as an action, it’s considered unethical if you don’t do it.  Cheating, going outside the rules, on the other hand is considered truly reprehensible.  Get caught doing it, and you’re not going to have many opportunities to play again.

The question is: where is that ethical line in marketing?

Shill Reviews – I think that the reading, blogging, and writing communities are in agreement that the practice of writing reviews under fake names and paying for reviews and not disclosing this information is abhorrent.  The backlash against these activities can be severe and ruin your reputation.

Review Trading – This is bit more gray for me.  If I say “will you give me an honest review of my work if you give me an honest review of mine,” is this ethical if both of us are being honest?  If the relationship is disclosed, I think there’s nothing wrong with the practice.

Disclaiming Relationships – This is a major factor to consider.  A lot of people out there will have a serious problem with you if you submit a review when you know the author and you don’t reveal that information.  The same goes for you as an author if you’re getting reviews from friends but they’re not disclosing the fact that they know you.  The very fact of the disclosure, however, diminishes the impact of the review.  You have to determine where this line is for you.

Pre-reviews – When you launch a book, it’s important for you to get reviews quickly.  One method is to email advance copies to legitimate Amazon reviewers or book bloggers and have them lined up to publish their reviews as soon as you go live.  This is ethically sound.  However, you have no control over their words, so you’re leaving a lot to chance.  To game the system, you can have your trusted beta readers write these initial reviews.  Is this ethical, however, if you don’t disclaim the relationship?  This is another line that you need to establish.

Determining the Most Helpful Review – One review is held prominent on your Amazon page – the one voted most helpful.  Do you want to leave this to chance or do you want to game the system?  Let’s say that someone, say an Amazon reviewer that you have no connection to, has written you the perfect review.  It emphasizes all the positives of your work while mentioning minor quibbles as negatives.  This is the review you want all your potential customers to read.  Is it ethical to encourage all your friends to go vote for this review?

Trashing Your Competitors – In boardgaming, only one person can win, and you’re ethically obligated to do your best to ensure that that person is you.  This concept does not hold true in writing.  Some authors seem to feel that, for their work to succeed, the works of their others must fail.  Under an assumed name, they trash, fairly or unfairly, all their opponents with 1 star reviews.  First of all, this, to me, seems horrible from an ethics standpoint.  Second, does this really help the author?  Even discounting the potential for backlash, just because people buy Brent Weeks’ new book doesn’t mean that they want eventually get around to mine.

I welcome your input in the comments section.  What are your thoughts on which of these are ethical?  Any practices that I left out that you want to discuss?