We’ve reached the final segment of Ask the Authors, which will bring our series to a close. This has been a fun series and we’ve covered a lot in regards to writing. In this segment, our panel members will answer follow-up questions for each segment and wrap things up, so let’s get started. We’ll skip over the introductory segment, as there are really no follow-up questions as to the panel members identity, but if you missed that one, you really should pop in and check it out. Our panel had a great line up, with DeAnna Knippling, Chris Dibella, Carol Riggs, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Janet Garber, Art Rosch, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili and Jordan Elizabeth.
I want to thank each and every one of our panel members for their participation. This blog is a labor of love for me, which means I can’t pay for guest posts, etc… The time and energy each author took to respond to all of my, sometimes lengthy and open ended questions is greatly appreciated. When asked if they would be up for another round in the fall, many said yes, so it looks like we have another round of Ask the Authors still to look forward to.
Our first segment takes A Look at the Writing Process, where each of our panel members found different things most challenging, from sharing and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to self confidence, to marketing and finding readers, to the actual act of writing. The process is never the same for any two authors. Some prefer to write without distractions, while others like to write with music or other things going on in the background. Many authors like to write in public places, such as coffee shops, while others like Tim Baker find this too cliche or just need their privacy for writing, like Carol Riggs. We approach our writing in different ways, as well. While Janet Garber writes in vigenettes, Cynthia Vespia writes her first drafts by hand, and authors like DeAnna Knippling just let the characters go and see what happens, and most of our panel members are morning writers, like Chris Barili. Most of our panel members claim to lean toward character driven stories, but I’m with Cynthia Vespia in thinking that all stories must be a little of both. Most, like Art Rosch and Chris DiBella say the titles of their books just come to them, usually before actual writing begins, while the book is still in the design stage. Be sure to check it out and see what each of our panel members’ best pieces of advise for upcoming authors.
The follow up question for this segment is: What are your top five writing rules for success?
1. Write what you want, don’t follow the trends
2. Characterization is key
3. Have fun with world building
4. Think outside the box
5. And of course show don’t tell
1. Learn your craft. Whether through college studies, mentorship, reading a lot, whatever. Learn what makes good stories.
2. Learn the business of your craft. All the writing in the world does you no good if you don’t know how to get it sold.
3. Find your writing tribe. A support crew of fellow writers is crucial for keeping you going.
4. Submit. Everywhere. You don’t get published if you’re not submitting.
5. Get your ass in the seat and do the work. Don’t wait for the stupid inspiration fairy or muse to sit on your shoulder and whisper bullshit in your ears. Write. Then write some more.
1. Jot down phrases and ideas when inspiration hits no matter where you are.
2. Work on making the language sing.
3. Submit like crazy
4. Don’t take rejections personally. Just move on.
5. Don’t ever give up!
One, be yourself. Write to please yourself. There is no other way to achieve authenticity other than to make your writing a means of exploring yourself, your humanity and the nature of your life experience.
If you’re writing fiction you need a great villain. Nothing propels a story like a character that you hate, someone whom you want to see brought to justice. I pay special attention to writing my villains.
Write with feeling or your readers will not feel anything. Emotion is the fuel of story. Be a storyteller, engage readers with plots that invoke high stakes. The ultimate investment in a story can be the life or death of the characters, or the survival of a society, or the triumph of a civilization. All the elements of story break down into conflicts of virtue versus destruction. What makes a story interesting, however, is when it’s difficult to tell who is good and who is evil. Things aren’t always simple.
A good book has three attributes. It should be entertaining, informative and inspiring. I can loosely define inspiration as the evocation of insight. Insight feels good and you know when a writer provokes an understanding of the human condition.
That’s not exactly five rules, but it’s an overview of things I put in my writing.
Tim Baker: I really only have one rule…keep writing. If you want to be succesful as a writer you have to keep writing. Not only is it the best way to hone your skills, but the more you write, the more chance you have of being succesful.
Chris DiBella: I don’t have any rules for writing “success” because the term success will vary from person to person. What works for me may not work for other writers, and vice versa. There are a million blogs posting the same 5 to 10 rules for how to be a writer, but none of them seem to be putting out any books themselves, so why take advice from someone who isn’t successful doing what they are trying to tell you to do? There’s no secret magic formula, but you can’t be successful if you don’t write…..so just go write.
1. There ARE no rules.
2. Everyone writes lousy first drafts; get the words down on the page and learn to revise.
3. Always have other people check your work for inconsistencies, grammar, punctuation, etc.
4. If you truly love to write, never give up!
5. Not everyone will love your book; it’s subjective and there’s no way your writing will speak to every single person.
1. Write. Don´t stop.
2. Don´t copy anyone else. Find your own voice.
3. Craft your stories.
4. Be humble. Be proud.
5. Keep it up.
P.S. Just write if you have something to tell, and then forget about it all. I don´t believe so much that we can predict success though we need to do our best for it. I see authors who might be famous, and they might not be the best ones, or even the most influential ones, or the ones that are still going to be recalled a century from now. I would rather quote Jorge Amado and say that writing is like living:
“The world is like that – incomprehensible and full of surprises.” Jorge Amado – Brazilian Author.
- Never give up on your dreams.
- Write what you know. Write a book that you would want to read.
- Don’t write a shocking scene just for the shock value.
- Don’t write in a genre just because its selling; write in that genre because you’re passionate about it.
The second segment was on Character Development. Many of our author panel develop characters from real people and composites of people they know, or at least give them realistic qualities and flaws to make them feel more human, easier to identify with, and most admit to having a little of themselves in their characters. Chris DiBella, Jordan Elizabeth, Janet Garber and Art Rosch even offer up real life examples. None of them openly admited to creating characters from archetypes, but I maintain that all characters fit into archetypes, whether the author does it consciously or not. Chris Barili offers his method of character development using a character triangle to determine what the character’s motivation is, what the character’s fear or flaw is, and what it is the character truly needs. It is clear that for all of our panel members and myself, our characters often come alive and take over what happens on the page, surprising even their creators at times. While Art Rosch and DeAnna Knippling like to take a more psychological approach to character development, authors like Tim Baker use life observation to ‘keep it real’. And I don’t think any of the panel members would disagree with Carol Riggs when she stated, “The more rich development you can give to a character, the more the reader can identify with them.” After all, that is what we’re striving for – characters that readers can relate and identify with.
The follow-up question for this segment: How do you evoke emotion in your readers?
Cynthia Vespia: This is one of the most important parts of storytelling, and one of my favorite parts as well. Developing characters that readers resonate with is what stirs emotion. If they can see part of themselves in the character they will gravitate towards them more and that makes them care what happens to them in the end.
Chris Barili: You do that by creating a character they empathize with, then killing him or her, usually. No, wait. That’s the George Martin approach. Seriously–build a character about whom readers care, then put them in situations where they are threatened.
Janet Garber: This is admittedly not always easy. I concentrate on creating relatable and sympathetic characters.
Art Rosch: If you write with feeling your audience will respond with feeling. Fiction is mostly about overcoming obstacles. You cause your heroes to act bravely and unselfishly and your villains to act with malice and manipulation. If you create a lovable hero, (that is, someone with flaws who intends to do a positive thing) your readers will respond. I don’t know if emotion can be taught. Writing is a very psychological pursuit, and our emotions are unpredictable and all but uncontrollable. So…be a psychologist.
Tim Baker: By giving my characters real emotion and letting the reader see it. Whatever emotion the characters are feeling in a particuklar scene I try to have them think and react the way any of us would (as much as allowable for the story anyway).
Chris DiBella: I just try to make my characters as real as possible and hopefully my readers like them enough to care about what happens to them.
Carol Riggs: I write in first person for (what I think is) the most close, personal experience. I also try to include a lot of sensory images—smell, taste, sounds, and sights to make things more real. With crying and sobbing and sad emotions, often less is more; otherwise it starts feeling melodramatic. And if the character is going through general experiences the reader can relate to (betrayal, loss, anger at a friend or parent) that helps make an emotional connection.
Jordan Elizabeth: I rely on my own experiences when writing. Many of the emotions I write about are ones that I have experienced, so I’m able to write from the heart. If its a funny scene, then I’m laughing out loud. If its a sad scene, I have tears drenching my cheeks.
DeAnna Knippling: One of my pet peeves is when an author is obviously playing for my emotions rather than letting the combination of plot, character, etc., do the work in a more logically consistent fashion. You’ve seen it every time a beloved character gets wiped out and it really doesn’t affect the narrative, other than to “inspire” the rest of the characters to carry on or set the grounds for “anything could happen!!!!!!!”
If I want a reader to cry, I better have already wept bitter tears over the manuscript as I was writing it.
Our third segment was on Action and Dialog. While all authors want dialog that flows smooth and sounds realistic, different authors take different approaches to the task. While most of our panel members agree that listening to people and being able to hear the dialog spoken in your head are great ways to approach this, Carol Riggs offers the really great advice to read your work aloud, and Art Rosch offers the advice that dialog should always serve a purpose, rather than being just a space filler. In true life, we tend to talk just to hear ourselves sometimes. In writing, that sort of thing just takes up space on the page and the only purpose it may serve is to bore the reader, and of course, we don’t want that. Achieving a balance between action and dialog seems to come natural for many of our panel members claim the only trick or secret is to keep the story moving and not let it get too bogged down with details. Tell readers what they need to know, but keep things moving. If you missed this segment, be sure to drop in and check it out, because it features excerpts of dialog scenes from authors Chris Barili, Janet Garber, DeAnna Knippling, Cynthia Vespia, Tim Baker, Art Rosch and Margareth Stewart.
The following is a reader comment left regarding Dialog. While a couple of our panel members replied directly in the comments, DeAnna Knippling’s reply seemed spot on to me and I wanted to include it here.
Reader Ken Hughs said:
Lots of excellent advice there.
I’m always on the lookout for ways to analyze dialogue a bit deeper than that. For instance:
Who talks more? Does she say a lot on her favorite subject (an expert, or just concerned about it) and less on other things, or is she nervous or social enough to chime in a little after everything– or so full of herself she does both?
How organized are his sentences? A longer sentence can mean he has a more complex complete thought, unless it’s a run-on; several short sentences could each mean new thoughts still coming in behind the last ones. Or the most eloquent person might be the one with the simple line that says it all.
Adjectives and adverbs? Someone passionate, or more in tune with their senses, is more likely to pile on the modifiers, while others are plainer-spoken. Similes and metaphors take this even further– if you can keep someone from becoming cliche about using their job or background to compare things too.
DeAnna Knipling: It sounds like the commenter, Ken Hughes, is doing some good things with pacing. Huzzah! Once you get past the point of being able to make dialogue that sounds natural and gets the point across in a scene, the next step is to start working on the pacing of the dialogue–and all the issues Mr. Hughes mentioned are relevant there.
To back up a bit for writers who aren’t quite down in the weeds of studying pacing yet:
- Pacing is the art of connecting content (what you’re writing about) to form (the layout of the little black marks on the page, for writers). When the word lengths and patterns, sentence lengths and patterns, scene lengths and patterns all line up with the meaning of the story somehow, the story is “paced well.” Pacing is about building your story like a woodworker, choosing your material and construction techniques to fit the final purpose of the project. Any element of a story can have pacing.
- Each character’s dialogue will also have its own pacing, just as Mr. Hughes says, and it should depend on the nature of the character.
- The examples that Mr. Hughes gives are excellent examples of what to consider with pacing dialogue.
- I’d like to add that anything that you add between pieces of dialogue also reflects the pacing of the dialogue, so if you have chunks of description between bits of dialogue, the reader will take them as pauses in the conversation, or as the POV character’s mind wandering during the conversation.
Mr. Hughes and DeAnna bring up another issue here, which we haven’t really touched on.
Naturally my follow-up question is:What methods do you find effective in controlling your pacing?
Cynthia Vespia: I don’t. I just write what comes to me.
Chris Barili: I don’t know. I just go with what the characters are feeling, I guess. Their tension tells me how to pace a scene.
Janet Garber: Ah. You must make every scene count. Have it lead readers somewhere, to the destination you intend.
Art Rosch: I’ve watched a thousand Samurai movies. They’re great for offering templates for action sequences. Samurai didn’t waste effort in useless display and they were completely focused on surviving the next duel or battle. Unless you’re writing about super-heroes your characters need to operate within reasonable physical parameters. I act out movements and gestures at my chair in front of my computer. Does this look reasonable? Can my characters do this-and-that?
In my novel Confessions Of An Honest Man, I have a 70 page battle sequence that takes place in Afghanistan. It’s a much admired passage with editors and readers. It has an arc, or several arcs. There’s the build-up to an initial confrontation. A mini-climax occurs early in the scene. But it doesn’t end there. A greater threat appears unexpectedly and my hero must cope with expanded dangers. Each time a resolution seems to occur another and greater threat appears. The point of this sequence is that my hero learns things about himself, learns that he has more courage than he thought. There’s outer action but there’s also my hero’s thoughts and emotions as the scene(s) unfold. This pendulum between action and a character’s inner dialogue offers a means of pacing.
Tim Baker: When writing action I try to write only the action. By this I mean if I’m writing an action packed scene I don’t stray away from the action with anything that will slow the reader down. I want the reader to be able to be in the action.
Chris DiBella: I’ve never thought about trying to control my pacing. When I get to action scenes, I just try to write them in a way where I’m describing enough that it paints a picture for my readers. I don’t have a formula for how many pages an action scene should be. I just write them until I feel it’s time to move on with the story.
Carol Riggs: I try to keep some sort of tension, question, or compelling forward movement on every page, whether internal for the characters or external to them. I use cliffhanger-type chapter endings to keep the reader turning pages. It’s also important not to rush the “big moments”—sometimes the pace needs to be drawn out on powerful scenes to heighten the impact or emotions. In an action scene, short punchy sentences help move the pacing along.
Margareth Stewart: Word count and daily targets; otherwise, it does not flow. Sometimes, I feel like I am a General to myself: “for instance, no chocolate if I don´t finish 2.500 word count today”, and there it goes. Other times, I need to be a little more flexible because things do happen in between word counting, not with the plot or story itself, but in terms of living – ordinary living – bills to pay, a tire to fix, and so on. Another good and productive management is during November Writing. Besides that, I use the same method for editing – this week I have to review 50 pages and by the way I am late, so I will have to do extra work at the weekend. Therefore, I have told my kids, we can only go to the cinema if I can complete the goal before Sunday. By the way, that´s another point about being a writer, we feel quite weird and funny.
Jordan Elizabeth: I tend to just write, write, write. I don’t plan my stories ahead; I just go off a basic plot idea in my mind. Pacing falls naturally into place.
In our third segment, our author panel members discussed Setting, where author Carol Riggs suggests basing fictional worlds on real life places as a good method of world building, and travel for authors is recommended in order to expand on their true life experiences that shine through in their writing, although most of our panel members have written about places they have never been or don’t really exist, like Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA fantasy. DeAnna Knippling loves to write about Victorian England, and all agree that sensory details should be added to make the setting feel more real. This segment also features setting excerpts from Cynthia Vespia, Art Rosch, Chris Barili, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber. (Strangely enough, I just realized I gave no follow-up question for this segment, although we could do a whole series on world building and setting. Wow!)
Our fourth segment covered the topic of Publishing, which many authors opt to do themselves these days. Our panel members were a nice blend of traditional, small press and self-published authors, with three strictly self-published authors: Art Rosch, Chris DiBella, and DeAnna Knippling; one author who is strictly small press: Jordan Elizabeth; and five who have done a hybrid combination of small press and self-publishing in one form or another: Cynthia Vespia, Margareth Stewart, Tim Baker, and three authors who have done a combination of traditional and self-publishing: Janet Garber, Chris Barili, and Carol Riggs. Together, they bring their own experiences to the table to talk about the pros and cons of each publishing venue.
I have two follow-up questions for this segment:
Are your books available in print or digital format, or both? Why?
Cynthia Vespia: Both. Because I like to have my work available in as many formats as possible to appeal to different readers. Next I’ll do audio books.
Chris Barili: Both. And why wouldn’t you do it that way? You’re robbing yourself of readers if you ignore one medium.
Janet Garber: My books are in print and in digital form and the first traditionally purchased book is on audiotape as well.
Art Rosch: I need to emphasize a huge fact with regard to the whole publishing venture. It takes money to market books. I don’t have money, I’m living on a fixed income. I started my enterprise by going to Smashwords.com and e-publishing three of my books. I did the same at Amazon. An author can publish digitally for free. I designed my own book covers, using my stock of personal photography and my skills in Photoshop. Such as they are.
I am now about to turn my novel, Confessions Of An Honest Man into a paperback on Amazon. I have no illusions about getting sales. I just want to have a physical object, MY BOOK, in my hands and have it be available to people in my environment.
Tim Baker: My books are available in print, digital and audio (not all of them are currently available in audio, but the ones that aren’t are in production.) The reason why is simple…give more options to people and increase your chances of being read.
Chris DiBella: Both. There are still people out there (somewhere) who like to read physical copies of books.
Carol Riggs: All my books are available in both print and digital formats. This is important, because some readers prefer print and some prefer digital.
Jordan Elizabeth: Both (except for Kistishi Island. I have to sell 500 ebooks before it will be in print). I like having a combination of formats. Some people prefer print and some prefer ebook. I’ve heard from a lot of readers that they have to use ebooks because of eyesight problems. Print books are great for book signings.
DeAnna Knippling: Yes and yes. See writing rule #5. I really ought to be working on audio as well. Readers should be able to read conveniently.
Which publishing platforms do you use? Which do you recommend? Why?
Cynthia Vespia: I’m focused on Amazon at the moment because that’s where the majority of buyers/readers go. I’ve also used Smashwords and Barnes and Noble for digital.
Chris Barili: Amazon and Smashwords for my self-published stuff. I prefer Smashwords because they distribute to a bunch of other retailers, saving me time.
Janet Garber: I used Lulu.com and was satisfied with their speed and the look of the final product.
Art Rosch: I think Smashwords is great. There’s all the support and information you need. Amazon is, of course, the giant, but as with everything in digital publishing, it’s all automated.
Tim Baker: I use CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing and ACX (for audio). Since those are the ones I use – those would be the ones I recommend.
Chris DiBella: I use Amazon and CreateSpace. It’s easy to set up and get my books out to potential readers from those sites.
Carol Riggs: Three of my books are traditionally published, and the publishers distribute in various ways (Entangled Teen uses Macmillan, for instance). For self-publishing, I use CreateSpace and Amazon KDP; it’s relatively easy to release a book on these platforms.
Jordan Eizabeth: My publishers use Ingram and CreateSpace. I can’t speak to the ease of use.
DeAnna Knippling: It’s not so much which ones, as how you decide which ones to use. I’m starting to look at these things as, “How does this company treat its readers? Are the readers happy with the experience?” Another good set of questions is, “How does this company treat its writers? Does it pay them promptly? Does it have good reporting? Do they have good avenues for books that aren’t bestsellers to reach readers? Is the damn site hard to use?”
Our fifth segment of Ask the Authors covered the topic of Genre Differences. Again, we had a nice mix for this topic. Among our author panel members we had: Jordan Elizabeth, who writes YA Fantasy and Steampunk; Carol Riggs, who writes both Fantasy and Science Fiction; Tim Baker, who writes crime action adventure novels; Cynthia Vespia, who writes speculative fiction for adults and teens; and those who dabble a little in all of them: Janet Garber, Chris Barili and DeAnna Knippling. They discuss the use of tropes when writing in the different genres, and also the differences in the creative process, the different types of research required, and the differences in audience and marketing. No follow-up questinos for this segment.
In the sixth segment, our author panel discusses The Business of Writing. According to Jordan Elizabeth and Carol Riggs, marketing can make or break you in the world of writing, and in today’s digital world, much or all of those duties fall upon the author, requiring us to treat writing not only as a job or a passion, but as a business. Today’s author may be responsible for everything about their book, from writing the book, to editing and cover art, to publishing, to marketing and promotion, and everything in between. While many of these tasks can be hired out, not all authors can afford to do so. I didn’t have any follow-up for this segment, mainly because the next two segments were follow-up to this.
For the seventh segment of Ask the Authors, our author panel discusses the many ways there are to Building an Reader Platform. Most of our panel members prefer face-to-face events, over online activities, but it seems they continue to use the Internet and social media to promote their books, feeling that both are needed. Some panel members come up with some very creative ideas, like Tim Baker, who had a tire cover made for the spare on his Jeep with his logo on it, or Chris DiBella, who had customized tee-shirts made telling the world that he is their next favorite author. Who knows? It might work.
The follow-up question for this segment is: What methods have you found successful for obtaining reviews?
Cynthia Vespia: Asking. I ask other writers, or I seek out bloggers who do reviews.
Janet Garber: Approaching authors who write in a similar humorous fashion; writing reviews myself as a pay-it-forward tactic; bugging people who enjoyed the book.
Art Rosch: I completely suck at this and it’s my own fault. I must have social media halitosis. There are billions of people who don’t know about me. I’ve been hammering at this for many years and haven’t cracked the code yet. I do recommend one author-marketing guru (among the many who haunt my email inbox). That’s Mark Dawson. He refunded my money long after the expiration date for one of his courses and he didn’t have to. He teaches at a good pace and he has much to offer to authors who want to market independently.
Tim Baker: I haven’t found a successful way to get reviews. People generally don’t like to write them. I’ve done everything from blog posts, social media requests and even offered to include people in a book if they wrote enough reviews. It’s the thing I find most discouraging about writing.
Chris DiBella: I don’t like to hound people for reviews. There are some authors who post constantly about it, and I find it annoying. We all want reviews, but it seems some authors will only ask for reviews from people they know will give them a favorable review. I simply do not like that approach. The way I look at it is the reviews will come in time – or maybe not. They’re nice to get, but I don’t stress about it. I also have my own little rule of thumb of not to trust any book with less than 15 reviews of all 5-stars (unless there’s some bad reviews in there too). Anyone can get 15 friends or family members to write a good review. It’s that first bad review I usually trust the most. Same goes for my books. My first bad review was actually pretty spot-on with the critique. She liked the story, but drilled me on editing. No friends or family members would have left a review like that. I pulled the book and re-edited it. Of course it sucks to get bad reviews, but they can be turned into a positive. And for the love of everything you consider holy, please stop arguing with readers who give you a bad review. Let your fans battle it out for you.
Carol Riggs: My publishers used NetGalley for obtaining reviewers from bloggers. A newsletter also works decently for requesting reviews. I try not to ask for reviews too much, however, because it’s off-putting. Either a reader will leave you a review or he/she won’t. No one should be obligated; an author doesn’t get honest reviews that way anyway.
Jordan Elizabeth: Author friends have told me they have good luck when posting free books on Facebook in exchange for reviews. I haven’t had luck that way. I usually reach out to bloggers. Most of the time, they are willing to review.
Just a note: I also see the other side of this issue, as I do honest reviews in exchange for ARCs right here on Writing to be Read. The problem I’ve run into is that since I’m supplied with a free copy, at times Amazon will not aknowledge my reviews because they can’t verify the sale. I imagine those exchanging reviews on Facebook might run into the same type of issues. So, even if you can give away some e-copies in exchange for a review, there is no gaurantee that Amazon will acknowledge it.
DeAnna Knippling: Asking nicely. I was using Instafreebie for a while, but I think that exhausted its readers fairly quickly, because it was mostly a platform for trading newsletter subscribers, not a sustainable model. What new readers was Instafreebie bringing to the table? Not as many as the authors themselves had brought. I did well by it, but I think that was a matter of getting in at the right moment and not “what a great site for reviews!”
I think your best bet is to treat reviews like a pyramid. At the base, write good books and make it easy for readers to read more. Next level, make it easy for your newsletter subscribers to get review copies. I have an ARC list. Up from that, whatever social media sites you’re on, keep an eye out for ways to attract reviews OR newsletter subscribers. At the top of the pile is a review that will be seen widely, a review on a radio show or in a newspaper, things like that. Go for it when you see it. But be more loyal to your base of writing good books and making them easy for readers to read them.
In the last segment, our author panel members discussed many of the issues involved in Book Marketing and Promotion. This is a big topic for many authors, including me, because unlike writing, it does not come natural to us. It is such a big issue that a couple of our panel members, DeAnna Knippling and Janet Garber, bowed out of this segment, rather than express the frustration of not having the answers. But those panel members who did participate had some insightful things to share. They talk about their favorite social media sites for promotion, marketing and giveaway sites, marketing platforms, the effectiveness of author websites and blogs, newletters, press releases and interviews. Be sure and catch this segment, or you’ll never know why Chris DiBella’s mother is his greatest marketing tool.
The follow-up question for this segment is: Many of you said in last week’s segment that you preferred face to face events over Internet and social media marketing and that you found face to face marketing to be more effective. What type of face to face events have you found to be effective?
Cynthia Vespia: The reason conferences don’t work is because there are waaaayyyy too many writers all vying for attention at these things. Also, the majority of the writer conferences only alot 1-2 days for signings and sales that are usually only a few hours long. That is not enough time to make a dent in sales or really do any type of networking with your readers, especially when there are so many other authors there doing the same thing. Some of the more popular ones get all the attention. So imagine you’re a little fish in a sea of whales…how do you get noticed? I’ve run into some very bad etiquette at some of these things before, as well. The guy next to me would skate every sale I tried to make by talking over me and offering a free book. How do you compete with free? You don’t.
So the face-to-face events I prefer are my own individual signings, smaller book fairs, or (and I hate to mention this because it was a well guarded secret before) but I do the comic conventions and they work the best. Plus, they’re alot more fun.
Chris Barili: I’ve found genre cons to be MUCH more effective at selling books and gaining followers than writing conferences, and if you think about it, it makes sense. A genre con is full of fans of whatever genre you like. They’re LOOKING for genre stories. At a writers conference, writers are there looking to SELL stories.
Janet Garber: I find book fairs and readings most enjoyable as I get a chance to speak with the potential readers. Being a guest at a book club meeting is great too because you hear your characters discussed as if they were real people and you learn what readers liked and didn’t like.
Carol Riggs: I personally like/prefer book fairs or festivals over bookstore signings, because they’re more informal. I feel less “on the spot,” and I don’t have to make a microphone presentation. Instead, I can conversationally chat with people who come up to my book table. It feels more like a relationship that way, instead of a “buy my book” spiel. For instance, last summer (as well as this coming summer) I will be participating in the Lane County Fair in Eugene, Oregon, with a book table. Last fall I was also part of the Literacy for Libraries author event in Eugene, and I enjoyed schmoozing with fellow authors and with the crowd who wandered through the building. Sometimes authors can band together and create their own events at libraries and bookstores; it’s less intimidating than going it solo. The purpose of these events aren’t to sell as many books as you can, but rather get to know your readers and get your name out there—that’s an important marketing tip that a seasoned author shared with me.
Jordan Elizabeth: I prefer craft shows and library events. The crowds are manageable, and as I write young adult, many teenagers and children come with their parents. Parents and grandparents are also eager to buy gifts. Because these events are smaller than most conferences, you’re able to have a one-on-one conversation. You get to really understand what types of books these people read and you can gear them toward the book like might like the best.
DeAnna Knippling: Some people are great salespeople. I am not. That’s not some kind of subtle insult or anything. I’m learning. But I’ve always found networking more valuable to me than selling per se. If a sale comes out of it, great. And I’m not like, “Here’s my business card, call me!” To me, a face to face event means that people are far more likely to put their hair down and tell me things. Interesting things. Gossip. Rumors. Scandalous lies! And I love connecting other people and providing a safe place to talk. I have a SF/F/H writer group, the Colorado Tesla Writers, that is basically just a Facebook page and a monthly meal for people to hang out and feel like Real Writers(tm) and let our hair down. That’s it. I’m not sure what it’s effective at, but people tell me that it is, so I keep doing it.
To wrap up this last segment, I want to thank our panel members for the great writing rules. If you create characters who are not only realistic, but who the readers can identify and empathize with, and if you write with emotion which comes from your soul, you can evoke in your readers and make them care about your characters and your story. And while pacing is important and can be controlled with tension, conflict, action and dialog, most of our author panel don’t consciously write with pacing in mind, but rather it seems to come naturally. Also, we may need to pace ourselves to get the story out, as well as controlling the pacing of the story itself.
It does make sense to offer your books in as many formats as possible, because readers aren’t all the same. Amazon and Smashwords appear to be the favorite for digital publishing and CreateSpace was preferred for print publishing, although I believe they have made some changes and now Amazon is also providing print books as an option, so that may change.
Reviews are an author’s calling card these days, and it seems the best way to get them is to ask, whether in a newsletter, in person, or in the book itself, but it’s best not to be pushy. Genre conventions, book fairs and festivals, book signings, and library events are the preferred face to face events to make connections with readers.
Well, it’s time to bring our time with our Ask the Authors panel members to a close. I do hope we’ve provided some helpful information and advice for all you authors out there, and maybe even made you smile once or twice. Thank you all for joining us. Be sure to watch for round two, this fall, where we will have several of these panel members back, as well as inviting other authors to join our panel. The best way to be sure not to miss out on this and all the other great content here on Writing to be Read is to sign up for email notification of follow me on WordPress. I hope you all will drop in frequently.
Next Monday, on Writing to be Read, I’ll be interviewing author Mark Shaw, who has optioned his book, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, for film. Something all authors dream of and some actually get the opportunity to do. How exciting. We’ll also be talking about his new book, Courage in the Face of Evil, which is to be release in June. Don’t miss it!
I want to extend a big thank you to our panel members, Carol Riggs, Tim Baker, Jordan Elizabeth, DeAnna Knippling, Chris DiBella, Art Rosch, Janet Garber, Margareth Stewart, Chris Barili, and Cynthia Vespia. You guys and gals were a great panel and together we created a great Ask the Authors series. I feel it was very successful and I had a lot of fun with it. I hope all of you did, too. Until next time.
Frequently I rant about the time I have to spend marketing and promoting my writing instead of actually writing. It’s no secret that marketing is not my favorite author hat to wear, and I know a lot of other authors who feel exactly the same way. But the fact is, in today’s writing industry, the author must carry most, if not all, of the load when it comes to promoting their work and marketing their masterpieces.
Now, I’m a struggling author, just as many of you are, so I don’t have a big marketing budget and I can’t afford to hire someone to do my marketing for me. My promotions are limited mainly to social media marketing, usually the kind that’s free. Even when I have a little money to put into marketing, I don’t really know what avenues would be effective enough to be worth it.
A lot of the information about book marketing that is out there on the Internet today is geared toward marketing your non-fiction book, whether it be self-help, or how-to, or even a cookbook. These articles tell you how to show potential readers why they need your book, how your book can help them, which is great, except most of their strategies do not apply to marketing fiction.
As a result of this discovery, I’ve been doing some research of my own into the matter, but I’ve found that the effectiveness of any marketing strategy depends on many factors, and results vary from author to author. In this eight part series, we’ll take a look at my findings and interview seven different authors to learn what they’ve found to be effective in marketing their own work. All work and no play makes us all very dull writers, so we’ll get to know a little about each one of them and their books just for fun.
It’s my pleasure today to interview speculative fiction author, Cynthia Vespia. I have review several of her books, including her Demon Hunter saga: The Chosen One & Seek and Destroy and Hero’s Call, Lucky Sevens, and Life, Death and Back. In addition to her great storytelling, Cynthia is also a talented cover artist, designing most of her own covers, as well as working freelance.
Kaye: Would you share the story of your own publishing journey?
Cynthia: Once upon a time I was a young mind hungry for books. I’d read Piers Anthony; C.S. Lewis; and comic books (my favorite being The Punisher). Then one day I stumbled upon a book by Dean Koontz called Intensity. To make a long story short it got me hooked and I knew then I wanted to write. My first novel, The Crescent, was written after seeing a documentary about female gladiators narrated by Lucy Lawless. I self-published it back when self-publishing wasn’t cool. It was fun to see my book in print. Flash forward to today and that same story is in pre-production as a feature film.
Along the road I’ve written several more books and short stories, each of which I’m very proud of. I received a Best Series nomination in 2009 for Demon Hunter.
Kaye: What made you decide to go with self-publishing?
Cynthia: I was published by small publishing houses but I never really saw any benefit when I could do the same things they were doing and they weren’t even really promoting me much. So much like a lot of other authors I’ve gone the indie route.
Kaye: As a fantasy writer, what kind of research do you find yourself doing for your stories?
Cynthia: Honestly, the majority of my work is completely created in my head. Recently the type of research I’ve been doing is for superpowers, modeling, and locations for the Silke Butters Superhero Series. And for my upcoming apocalypse trilogy there was a lot of research regarding weapons and safe-houses.
Kaye: What’s the most fun part of writing a novel or short story/screenplay? What’s the least fun part?
Cynthia: The most fun part of writing for me is in the initial creation of the characters and their backstory. It’s like a sculptor molding clay. You breathe life into your subjects.
The least fun part is in the aftermath which is marketing and promotion. It’s so difficult to posture yourself out in front of a very large crowd of other writers all clamoring for attention.
Kaye: What is the strangest inspiration for a story you’ve ever had?
Cynthia: Probably Sins and Virtues. I was at Alcatraz in SF and I went inside one of the prison cells for a photo. Afterwards, I felt a heavy cloak of energy from what I could only feel was a former prisoner’s spirit.
While writing Sins and Virtues I started to see visions of prison escapes that I had no business knowing about. If you read the first chapter you’ll get a taste of what I mean. That feeling stayed with me throughout the entire novel. It only left when I was done writing.
Kaye: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Cynthia: I’ve heard quite a bit of good advice over the years. I seek it out, and write it down in my journal. Lately, I’ve been falling back on one from Arnold Schwarzenegger where he said “earn it so nobody can say they gave you shit.”
Kaye: What do you see as the pros and cons of independent/traditional publishing?
Cynthia: Sadly, the pros and cons are one in the same in that everyone can publish a book. There’s a lot of good work being published that would probably never see the light of day due to the politics of traditional publishing, but at the same time I’ve seen a lot of awful books out there too.
The other things I’ve been noticing is that it’s no longer about the writing. It’s become a numbers game. How many FB followers or Twitter followers do you have? How many likes did you get? How many reviews did the novel receive? How large is your fan base?
I struggle with that because I don’t have the time to spend all day on social media when I have other things that take up my time like earning a living. There’s people now who are even cheating the system with paid “likes” etc. to bump themselves up into the top spot. To me, that’s not what writing should be about. It’s about the story, not how much attention you can get for yourself. Sorry if I’m coming off very negative but I’ve been doing this for a very long time and the business model has changed so much now that I hardly recognize why I started writing in the first place.
Kaye: What do you do for cover art? DIY, or hired out, or cookie cutter prefab?
Cynthia: I always do my own cover art. That is one of the beauties of going indie, you can have complete control over your cover. Although, I do have to point out that the comic book look of the Karma character in my Silke Butters series was done by an artist named Ka Rolding, whom you can find on Deviantart.
I also create covers for other authors too, so if you’re in need of a custom cover please look me up at http://www.cyncreativeservices.com/authorstudio
Kaye: What’s your favorite social media site for promotion? Why?
Cynthia: None…lol. I’d rather do a face-to-face event than spend time on social media promoting. But if I have to choose I like Twitter because it makes you think and be clever with your 140 characters. BTW, you’re all using hashtags wrong!
Kaye: How much non-writing work, (marketing & promotion, illustrations & book covers, etc…), do you do yourself for your books?
Cynthia: All of it! I’m a one woman show. It’s honestly extremely exhausting. Like I said, I just don’t have the time needed to put in to make a dent. I even bit the bullet and hired a couple people this year and it still didn’t make a difference. But I’m trying every day. That’s all you can do is try, right?
Kaye: You participate in book events on social media often. How effective do you see Facebook release parties and cover reveals, etc… being?
Cynthia: It depends on the crowd and your time slot. I’ve had some that were very active (including my launch party for Karma) and then others where nobody interacted at all, or not until later on. I find them effective for exposure. I’ve actually gained quite a few new FB friends from events so I’ll continue to do them. But I will suggest going in with a game plan and do some interactive posts, don’t just ramble on about how your book is for sale.
Kaye: What works best to sell books for you, as far as marketing goes?
Cynthia: For me, I like face-to-face conventions. Because of the genre I write in I can easily blend into comic cons. I liken it to an actor doing a stage play over doing a movie. In that regard, they get immediate audience reaction when they are doing a play, rather than waiting for box office receipts from a movie. The same can be said about conventions. I get an immediate reaction from readers (some have even come back the next day to compliment my work) where as stuff online I don’t really see what is working and what isn’t. Also, during conventions I keep a tally on how many books are selling and my 2009 Best Series nominee Demon Hunter is still the biggest seller.
Kaye: Why do you think some authors sell well and others don’t?
Cynthia: Again, it’s all who you know. And a lot of that comes from great networking. There’s something to be said for word-of-mouth. I also believe some genres sell better than others, that’s just the way it goes.
Kaye: Which author, dead or alive, would you love to have lunch with?
Cynthia: J.K. Rowling or George RR Martin. I’m fascinated by the amount of detail they’ve both put into their respective worlds of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones.
Kaye: What kind of Chinese food do you order all the time?
Cynthia: I don’t always eat Chinese food but when I do I prefer orange chicken and lo mein.
I want to thank Cynthia Vespia for joining us and for sharing her marketing strategies with us. If you’d like to learn more about Cynthia, check out her author profile, here on Writing to be Read, or check out her website.
Be sure to catch Writing to be Read next Monday, for Part 2 of Book Marketing – What Works?, where I will interview the co-authors of the Silverville Saga books and Wild West Ghosts, Mark Todd and Kym O’Connell Todd, who will share their experiences in marketing and clue us in to which ones have been most effective.
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Today, I have have a real treat for you on Writing to be Read. My interview today is with a very funny guy, who is a successful independent author. He’s a family man, with a background in business, so book marketing and promotion is just another part of the job for him. He’s got two books which have both been recently released, Poggibonsi: An Italian Misadventure? and The Navigators, which we will learn more about right here.
Dan has so much to share with us that I’m going to structure this interview a bit differently than I have on interviews in the past. The first part will allow us to get to know Dan a little as a person. The second part will delve into his marketing knowledge, followed up with the last section which will probe into his writing techniques, what writing means to him and questions on craft. So, without further ado, let me introduce to you, independent author Dan Alatorre.
Kaye: You are a family man, Dan. What are your secrets for juggling writing with family?
Dan: I think if you are a writer you need to prepare yourself for the inevitable “you spend too much time on the computer” conversation/argument.
That’s just how it works.
So, my recommendation is, give work its proper due and give family its proper due and give writing its proper due. How you balance that is, you have to decide whether or not spending time with your young children is important or not. (Answer: IT IS.)
When my daughter goes to her dance class or a Girl Scout Daisies Troop meeting, that’s writing time for me. When she’s going to one of her little girlfriends’ birthday parties, that’s writing time for me. However, I make pizza from scratch every Friday afternoon for my family and that’s family time. I don’t write then. When she was younger, I would write after she went to bed at 8 PM, but often that is time that should be spent with the spouse. Adult time.
Me, I get up at 4:30 in the morning to write for a few hours. That’s how I manage it. I also watch very few TV shows, and the ones I watch are all recorded so I can skip all the commercials. In other words, I utilize a lot of time saving devices but I am also thinking about my stories pretty much all the time, so when I sit down to write I’m ready to let loose. If we are at Busch Gardens and I get a good idea, I will excuse myself for a moment and tell the idea into my phone – and then get right back to the family. So they lose me for a minute or two but I got my idea captured.
And I’m not talking about being there half-hearted – you need to be there 100% for your kids especially when they’re young. But there’s always two minutes here and there if you have a great story idea. Nobody’s going to complain about that. What they complain about is when you take all that family time for your writing and then keep doing things like excusing yourself at Busch Gardens. That’s not gonna fly.
Now, with all that said, every spouse of a writer is going to understand occasionally you are in the zone and you just have to keep going. Whether that is getting up early or working late or whatever for a few days or a week, they get it. They can see it on your face and every time you talk to them you are excited about it. I’m just saying, if you are willing to give them what they need, they will give you what you need. Be generous with them and then be very selfish when you need to be. That also works.
Kaye: A lot of your stories come from your own experience as a parent, things you learned from your daughter, Savvy, and they make us laugh. Do you have a knack for finding the humorous side of things to use in your stories, or is it something you have to work at?
Dan: Both. (I hate when you offer somebody a choice and they choose both things, but in this case it’s really true.) I’m a funny guy. I have a knack for finding the funny things in life, and that’s rampant in certain characters in my stories. Sam in Poggibonsi is a scream – she steals the show. In Savvy stories, my daughter does.
I’ve always had a good sense of humor and I have always been able to make people laugh. When I was a child – I have six brothers and sisters – so around the dinner table it was tough to compete for mom and dad’s attention. Cracking a joke or being able to slip in a funny comment was a way to bring the house down and get a little recognition. I was not a class clown in school, though! Okay, maybe a little. But I was the guy who would do a stand-up routine at the variety show or write stuff for the newspaper.
Before I started writing a blog, I was putting stories on Facebook for my wife’s friends and my friends. I would put a post up at five in the morning and by dinner time there would be 100 comments saying how I made everybody cry before they went to work! Other times they would be a bunch of comments saying how hilarious that story was and that I should write a book. Eventually I listened to them.
But the subject matter of those early stories was my daughter – and anybody who spends five minutes around little kids either decides they’re a pain in the ass or they are amazing and brilliant and hilarious. I fit into that second category. My daughter cracks me up and now that she knows she can, she has her routines that she does that bust me up every single time. So she inherited a funny bone from me and from her mother. My wife is very funny, too.
Kaye: What is the one thing you hope to teach your children?
Dan: It’s a little early to try to teach them this particular lesson, but I have been fortunate enough to come from a large family so my nieces and nephews have gone through college and are making their way in the world. The advice I give to them as young adults is: pursue your passion. Whatever gives you joy in life, do that for a living. Don’t worry about the money, because if you hate your job you will be spending your money on being happy. If you do what you love, you can get by and a lot less money.
Nobody listens, but that’s the advice I give.
At her young age, my daughter enjoys ideas of being a fashion designer and a singer and a writer. Right now she can keep all those thoughts in her head. When it gets closer to the time when she actually has to decide, I hope I am able to be behind her 100% in whatever she chooses. And I hope she chooses with her heart as much as with her head. I work with too many new authors who are 35 and 45 and 55 finally started writing, when they wanted to do it their whole lives. I think we need to follow our passions much earlier in life. I’m not sure Americans foster that in our children.
Kaye: How would you describe yourself in three words?
Dan: Hmmm… only three?
Intense. Hilarious. Smart.
But I think not in that order. I think if you asked three or four people who have read my stories, like three or four of my critique partners that I use all the time, they would say smart and then funny and then prolific or something. I don’t know if they would go with intense.
Kaye: What did your road to publication look like?
I found an agent through a friend and the agent kind of started doing things along the traditional path of publication, which is known to move at a glacially slow pace. I came from the business world of Fortune 500 companies, and business moves fast. If you say you’re going to read something in six weeks, I need to be able to call you at six weeks plus one day and get your thoughts on it.
Traditional publishing doesn’t work that way. They they say six weeks, and then you call after six weeks and they say they need another six weeks. That’s why books take two years to come out. I’m not saying my way is better, I’m just saying after being exposed to that type of a slow process, I realized it was not for me. I have no problem working on a project for two years and polishing it, I just have zero patience for giving someone your finished product, a book that is ready to go – and letting them sit on it for two years.
So the agent and I parted ways and I have not really considered going traditional since then, but I am not adverse to it. It is good for certain stories and it is not good for really unique or groundbreaking stories. That may change, but right now that’s the case and that’s been the case for a few years. I don’t really see it changing, but I do see the role of traditional publisher changing. In my mind, they have to get quicker. To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t come across their desk every day, but then again maybe it does. There sludge piles are so big they’d never know. They’re never getting to a lot of the good stuff, and since the majority of trad books don’t earn back their advance, I’d say their selection process sucks and their competency level is questionable at best.
Kaye: With your background in business, it seems like promotion and marketing are pretty second nature for you. In fact, we found each other because you were looking for authors to swap interviews with, because you know that interviews are good marketing tools. What was the most fun interview you’ve ever done? Why?
Dan: I did an interview with Kathleen Townsend that was just hilarious. That was probably my best written interview prior to this one, but it was done for a different reason. I was just trying to make her laugh and her readers laugh. In this interview, I’m trying to cull a little more in depth because your readership skews different from hers. I hope authors understand interviews are certainly done to sell books, but sometimes they’re done to educate and sometimes they’re done to entertain. The best ones are a combination of all those things.
Anyway, one of the best interviews I ever did was when Jenny and Allison interviewed me for the release of The Navigators. We set up a three-way video call that we recorded. That was really a lot of fun.
The interview that hands-down was the funniest interview I ever did was interviewing the author of the bestseller The Fourth Descendant for a trilogy she was releasing called Project Renovatio. We probably spent two hours doing the interview and we probably laughed hysterically for one hour and 50 minutes of it. The 10 minutes when we weren’t laughing is most of what we used for the interview. The other 90% was just a hilarious good time. We became great friends – we were good friends before that interview but we were great friends after that interview. It was just nonstop laughter. Completely unusable, and it wasn’t outtakes, it was just making jokes and laughing.
One of my great joys in life is I can go to that interview if I’m having a crappy day and I can look at the outtakes and within 10 minutes I’m laughing my butt off. There’s a snippet of it on YouTube. Most of the time she (the interviewee) is laughing and wiping her mascara out of her eyes because she’s laughing her so hard she’s crying. Great interview.
Kaye: What’s your favorite social media site for promotion?
Dan: Specifically for promotion? Probably Facebook, and in that, Facebook ads. It depends on what you’re trying to do. New authors need to build an author platform, and Facebook is really good for helping do that, but there are a million ways to waste your money when you are trying to pay for advertising.
Probably for every good add source I paid for, I have paid for 10 bad ones. My advice to people is this: track everything. Look at your reports every day and when you run an ad try to the best of your ability to only run one ad with one promoter at a time. If you run five ads on Mother’s Day and do well, how do you know which one sold all the books? You don’t. If you run your ads one at a time and track your results, you will. Then you can replicate your success, if it’s replicate-able.
That’s not always possible, but to the extent that it’s possible please try to track your results. Quit giving to the people who don’t give you results.
Kaye: What do you do for cover art? DIY, or hired out, or cookie cutter prefab?
Dan: I had the great pleasure of working with Perry Elizabeth for many of my early book covers. Perry designed a number one bestseller for me, as well as designing a number one bestseller for a friend’s debut novel. She designed maybe six of my first seven book covers. She’s brilliant. She has a gift.
Like many things (I came from a business background having gone to the president circle with two different Fortune 500 companies) and in that world the saying “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” doesn’t apply. They would say, “If it’s not broke, fix it so it’s even better.” Something like that. Maybe I should’ve paid more attention in all those meetings.
Anyway, when you have good success you have to look if you can make bigger success. Sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no. In the case with Perry, she is very devout in her religion, and I knew some of the risqué subject matters in my stories would not be something she would appreciate her name being associated with. So I had to take it upon myself to find other people to work with for those. I can’t put one of my partners in that position, you know? So I had to put other titles with other artists – and I am very fortunate they’ve done a terrific job, too! Look at how eye catching The Navigators cover is. That’s all part of it, making your book stand out. I’ve been very fortunate to work with so many skilled people.
Now, I have on occasion tried to design my own book cover or to buy an image and work with that, and I have had some decent success with it. But here’s a tip for new authors: even if I know exactly what I want the cover to look like, I still roll it out on my fans.
How did I find cover designers? I joined author groups and asked everybody for referrals. I looked at books I liked and saw who did the covers. I shopped. You can spend hundreds of dollars (and occasionally under a hundred) on covers that look as good as ones that cost thousands, and usually for new authors money is in short supply.
For example, The Navigators I bid it out. I didn’t really know what the cover should look like, so I gave a brief synopsis to three or four cover artists, and then I posted their mock-up results on my Facebook page so my friends could vote. One cover jumped to the front, hands down – and that’s the one I went with. And it was very successful.
With Poggibonsi, I pretty much knew what I wanted from the get go. I wanted to portray sex and humor in a single image that could potentially be iconic. If you ever saw the poster for the movie M*A*S*H, or Jaws, or The Godfather, we know that when something is a hit it tends to own that image. And with Poggibonsi, I knew that the cover would convey very simply and easily a large portion of what the story was about. Additionally, like the name Arnold Schwarzenegger, Poggibonsi is not easy to say or read or pronounce. My thinking was what Arnold said: it’s hard to say but once people hear it they can’t forget it. And I think that’s the case with this title, too.
Kaye: Poggibonsi: An Italian Misadventure just came out last month. What can you tell us about it?
Dan: Poggi jumped into the cold cruel world on April 20, and it’s burning up the charts! I’m so happy. Poggibonsi is without a doubt my funniest book I have ever written. It’s going to do amazing because it’s just knock-down drag-out funny as hell.
In the story, I take on so many things that are just absolutely not funny! Infidelity, death, getting fired, you name it. And in the process I make you laugh at every single step. Some of the characters are the funniest people you’re ever going to meet, and one in particular absolutely steals the show. On the other side, it is in insanely romantic romance story! And it’s hard to make a romance that’s really romantic while also being funny, but I think I threaded the needle pretty well on this one.
Kaye: What is the strangest inspiration for a story you’ve ever had?
Dan: Hmm. Strangest.
I was talking to an author friend of mine the other day and I was explaining to her that she was very creative in setting up a new world or a situation that is different from our current existence. I, on the other hand, have taken things that we are all very familiar with and looked at them from a very, very different view point. I’ve never tried to create a fantasy world like she has. So my complement to her was how creative she is at that, and she’s great storyteller in addition. My complement to myself was that I can take things that everybody knows and all of a sudden they are questioning everything about it and laughing their butts off or crying their eyes out or being scared to death of these things that they already knew.
Now, as far as the strangest places I’ve drawn inspiration, if you start with the premise that I have pretty much dealt with the world as we know it, then the inspiration has been unique insights on things that are common place.
So, my inspiration has come from everywhere, which doesn’t help anybody who’s reading this to figure out what inspires me, but I am inspired by the same things that I find humor in. The common situation or as Alfred Hitchcock used to do to Cary Grant, taking an ordinary man and putting him in extraordinary circumstances. Having an ordinary situation with ordinary people become somehow extraordinary. Taking your life as you know it and turning it on its head and giving you a roller coaster ride but doing it in such a way that you like the characters and you’re rooting for people to succeed – and at the same time, with my stories nothing is what it seems. All of a sudden you have skated out over the thin ice and there are there you are being blindsided by things you didn’t know were coming.
In Poggibonsi, you think a certain situation can’t get any worse, and it gets so, so, so much worse, and people are sending me emails saying, “I did not see that coming!” They love the roller coaster ride. I try to give them a good one every time.
Kaye: Did you always want to be a writer?
Dan: I think so, yes. My direction in life was to create a career and then do the writing in your spare time. That’s probably how most people do it and that’s what I would recommend, too. As long as you make time for everything, you’ll be okay. If you don’t make time for everything, you’ll be very frustrated that you’re not doing your writing – so make time for everything!
But like I said, I went to work in business before I started writing in earnest, and once I started writing in earnest I didn’t want to do anything else.
Kaye: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Dan: I am absolutely a plotter, but let me explain.
Before I really start writing a story, I will percolate on it for a while to get some ideas going. Before I start writing in earnest, I am throwing ideas into a folder. Once I sit down I have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The that’s my outline – sometimes nothing more than that.
But just because I have AN ending does not mean that is the way the story ends. It simply means that that’s the direction I’m heading in; that’s the way I intend to go. If I get a better ending, I am absolutely taking the story there, but if I don’t come up with something better, this is the destination I’m going to end up at.
That gives you the best of both worlds. You can be as free and crazy as you want and you still have a path to get you back on track. Or, if you really find some new destination, you go there.
But it’s been my experience that probably 75% of the books that never gets finished by the writers don’t get finished because they got excited, they started writing, they had a couple of good ideas – and then they ran out of steam. Jim Patterson – yes I call James Patterson “Jim” – said it’s better to spend an extra month on the outline then it is to start the story not know where you’re going with it.
Having a goal and having a destination, that will help you finish your story. I think 90% of writers block and unfinished stories happens because of the lack of an outline.
But again, it is not locking you in a cage, it is simply directing your creativity. Having an outline does not stifle your creativity, it directs it.
Kaye: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
Dan: I wrote a blog post once where I put like 20 memes in it and then I explained what each of them had meant to me at different periods. One of them was Hemingway saying write every day. Every day, get up and bite the nail. That’s so important because the more you work at something the better you get at it, so don’t stop.
The other was something along lines of, “Every great story is this: nothing is as it seems.”
I thought the simplicity of that second one was overstated. Like almost like it’s too simple so it’s stupid. And then all the sudden I read it like a second or third time and I was like oh my God it’s brilliant.
So those two are good. The best one is: the reader is your willing accomplice. On that one, if you set a realistic world and you work hard to make a good story, the reader will go along with you. As long as you do a good job, you can do whatever you want. And once you do it well, you can play the reader like a piano. You have the power and they want to go on the ride. Willing accomplice.
Kaye: The Navigators also came out recently. Would you like to tell us a little about that one?
Dan: Gosh, I’m so proud of Navs. The Navigators is a great story involving time travel. Five graduate students in paleontology accidentally discover a strange machine, and right off the bat they have to figure out what it is they discovered. As they conclude it’s a time machine, each of them has a different idea of how they should use it – so there’s immediate conflict. There is a lot going on with the characters in the story. Pretty much nothing is what it seems, so there is intrigue at multiple levels, plus it’s a real page turner. People who start reading this book have reported back that they are just unable to put it down. I’m very proud of that. It’s a real home run.
Kaye: How do you decide the titles for your books? Where does the title come in the process for you?
Dan: Man, titles are hard! They shouldn’t be, but they are.
Originally, Poggi was going to be called something like “My Italian Assistant”, but that all had too much of a schlocky 80s sex romp feel. This is not that. This is a story that goes deep in everything it pursues. The humor is outrageously funny. The romance is deeply passionate. You will laugh and you will cry and your heart will break. As a result, it deserves its own unique word.
Now, I’m not a fool. I gave it a pretty simple subtitle to explain what was going on. But most of my critique partners said I couldn’t call it that. Well, after they got used to reading a few chapters and calling it by its name, they were cool with it – and they wanted me to keep the tile as Poggibonsi.
So you have a unique title and a unique cover for a unique story. That’s either going to be a home run or a complete strike out. Right now if I can convince people to start reading it at all, they end up loving it. There are so many toys twists in surprises and absolutely hysterical moments, really some unforgettable stuff and some unforgettable characters, it’s a rare treat that readers around the world are loving.
With Savvy stories, I kicked around a lot of ideas and I was told many times not to use that title. To me, it was a double entendre. Savvy stories are stories about Savvy, which is the nickname of my daughter Savannah. I also gush about how smart and amazing children are, so savvy stories also means stories about people who are street smart. Which is probably the wrong way to describe infants and toddlers, but you get the idea.
The Navigators really required a different formula. I was writing the story and I was calling it The Fantastic Five as its working title – which is just awful – and everybody who saw it kept saying, “You can’t call it that! Find something else.”
The reason it was the “fantastic five” was because they were five characters and each did something kinda fantastic. I knew that would never be the final title but I just couldn’t think of anything good. I was just stumped. It happens.
Anyway, I was in the middle of a scene and the characters were debating about flying the time machine somewhere, and one of the characters said they were thinking about it all wrong. He said, “We’re not really driving it, we just are setting the destinations and the times.”
So the first character said, “Oh, so we are the navigators?”
Again, there is a double meaning to that.
The time machine is something they really haven’t figured out when they start testing it so they are putting in longitude and latitude and a time, and letting the device take them on an adventure. It also refers to the young lady in the story who is kind of drifting along doing the things that people probably wanted her to be doing as opposed to choosing her own life. So she too is also not a pilot yet. She’s not making the decisions yet. In the story, she ends up becoming the main character and really growing into a leadership role.
That was important because I have a young daughter, and it’s kind of a projection of her where she might be 15 years in the future.
Many of my stories are written on multiple levels. I had one beta reader asked me if a certain scene was a metaphor for the guy’s marriage. It was. Other scenes were reflections of other things, too. There’s only a little bit of that (and a little goes a long way) but when somebody discovers it, it’s like a brilliant flash of joyful light to me.
The Water Castle and An Angel On Her Shoulder came about in similar fashion. The water castle is the way a young child refers to a landmark that the story kind of takes place around. And “an angel on her shoulder” is a remark that a doctor says about the child who got diagnosed with a rare but potentially fatal heart condition in my paranormal thriller.
So, I guess when I need to come up with a title, I have my characters express it in dialogue! There you go. That’s my secret. Have a character open your mouth and hope a title pops out.
Kaye: What is the single most important quality in a novel for you?
Dan: I have to care about the characters. There are a lot of different ways to achieve that, but readers are kind of generous. They will give you a little while to make them care about a character, but you have to make them care. If you don’t, nothing else matters.
In The Navigators, I thought about starting the book at the landslide where one of the characters almost gets killed. Aside from it being some obvious action, I knew in my heart that we just wouldn’t care if somebody got killed because the readers hadn’t gotten to know anybody yet.
By contrast, in An Angel On Her Shoulder, it starts with an action scene where the wife is beginning to wonder if her husband and child have been accidentally killed, and the chapter ends with her being frantic – asking that question – but we don’t know.
Because I have the wife being concerned about her young daughter, and because I have her emotions jumping from she doesn’t know what’s going on to “Oh my god what’s going on?” – and all the people around her are saying “Oh my god look at all the blood, there’s no way somebody could survive that,” she is getting more and more frantic…
The reader cares because the character cares. She is really getting frantic and she is really nervous and we can’t help but be empathetic and then therefore we care also.
Then I’m really mean. I jump into a flashback that took place several decades before, and you have to float through that for a few chapters – so that you kind of forget about the frantic scene – and then we end up right back in that opening scene a few minutes before it happens. I know flashbacks are persona non grata, but I got to tell you, this is an amazing roller coaster ride that readers love! The way I played it, it was a stroke of genius if I do say so myself. I love that story.
Kaye: Which author, dead or alive, would you love to have lunch with?
Dan: Mark Twain, because he was very, very funny and very, very smart and apparently liked to drink. I just think sitting down and having lunch with him would involve lots of drinks and lots of laughs, and I’m not sure there’s a better lunch than that.
Hopefully one day some kid will say they want to have lunch with me, and I will fly to where they live and we will go get hammered and have the most awesome lunch ever.
Kaye: Have you ever had places that you travel to end up in your books?
Dan: Kind of. When I was going to Italy for a vacation I kept telling myself I knew I’d find a story there. And I loved Venice and I loved Rome – I loved everywhere we went in Italy. Gelato is amazing, the pizza is amazing, the women are amazing, the art and the architecture is amazing. Italy is amazing.
And I was really trying to force it. I was really saying okay, is this story? Is that a story?
It doesn’t work that way. On the plane ride home I got the idea of a man going on a business trip to Italy so I could explain a lot of the things I saw through his eyes, and then I wanted it to be a romance but I wanted it to be a comedy, too. There’s lots of things to find funny about traveling, but the romance was going to be an unconventional one, and from that little spark, I said there’s the story.
Many of the people who read it have told me I made the country of Italy into a great character in the story, and that is very high praise. I have an Italian translator who I have worked with translating my other books and she read it and she love the way I depicted her country, so I am absolutely satisfied with how that story came out. It’s an absolute home run on every level.
Kaye: What is the hardest part of being a writer?
Dan: Many people, most in fact, struggle with being able to finish their first story. They want to fine-tune it forever and they are afraid of publishing it. Whatever it is, they struggle to get the first one done. Once they get the first one born, they realize what a huge weight has been lifted off of them and they become much more at ease with writing and everything else. Unfortunately, just as many people suffer from the opposite affliction, which is thinking something is a masterpiece. What it really needs a lot of work, and they publish it too soon.
That’s not a very helpful answer, is it? But it explains this: the hardest part is knowing when the story is ready. The people who release it too soon don’t know when it’s ready, and the people who polish it forever don’t know when it’s ready.
How do you figure it out? You write what needs to be said, you give it to trusted critique partners who will tell you the things you said that did not need to be said, and then you trim out the stuff that doesn’t need to be there – and release it.
Then start writing your next one. After you do this a few times you will not be afraid to release a story and you won’t be afraid to take input from people who have your best interest at heart. You’ll have a thicker skin and a bunch of other things. That’s when you – most of you – will become really good writers. A few people do it on the first shot; most don’t.
If I could give you one thing, it would be not just confidence but enough confidence. Tell your story and don’t be afraid to be passionate and to be emotional and to really put your soul on the page. Expose yourself. Writing is the equivalent of standing naked on a stage, prepared to be laughed at and humiliated – and doing it anyway.
Write from your heart and don’t hold anything back. Not the pain, not the love, not the fear, not anything. When you put it on the page from your heart, the reader get it. They connect. The more personal you make it to yourself, the more universally understood it is. That’s where too many authors make their mistake. They don’t open up and let it pour. They write the words but they don’t write the heart. They tell a good story when they have a great one within them. They hold back because they’re afraid of what people might say or might think, or that their mom right read it or that their friend might hate it or whatever. When you can let go of that and stand naked on the stage, that is where the great stuff comes from. You may fail miserably, but you will have given it your all. That’s confidence. I wish I could give you enough of that to make you put your soul on the page. When you do, you will be greatly rewarded for it.
I want to thank Dan for joining us today and sharing his knowledge and experience with us. I couldn’t help but chuckle as I went over your answers. It’s been a lot of fun. To learn more about Dan and his books, drop by his blog.
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Welcome to the first Monthly Writing Memo! So for my own blog, Author the World, I’ve been thinking about doing a post about villains. As those of you who have been following know, I’ve been studying horror as I work on my horror film script. During this process, I’ve been wondering about the different types of villains, which in turn made me wonder about the different types of heroes in stories. So for this Month’s Writing Memo, I thought I’d do a post about heroes, and then later this week my post on villains will be up on Author the World.
In general, I think all heroes can really be broken down into a few main types, and every hero in a story usually falls into one of them. The way I’ve divided them up is by what motivates them rather than what they specifically do, or how they go about being a hero.
- The Savior –
The Savior is someone who actively tries to be a hero. They want to help people and save the day, so they seek out ways they can do this. The most obvious example of this is many superhero stories where characters like Superman or Spiderman actively seek out those in danger to help them. These characters do it solely because they want to help people and be a hero. Some want recognition, some want the satisfaction of saving people, but either way the thing that drives them is the need to be the hero. It’s a compulsion almost, and when they don’t just help when they see someone in danger, they actively seek the danger (and the victims) out.
- The Soldier –
The Soldier is similar to the Savior in that they feel the desire to help people, but the soldier does it out of a sense of duty and honor. That’s not to say they don’t have other motivations as well, but this character type is driven by the sense that it is their responsibility to help people, and they must take action. I think if you look at the movie “Die Hard” you’ll see John McClane fits into this character type. Yeah, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he is also a police officer and when he sees the problem he feels it is his duty to take action. Many of these character types are those military or police type characters, or have other positions that are focused on helping people in some way. Some other example jobs that a character can have to fit this role include teacher, doctor, or even counselor/therapist.
The goal of this character is to do their “job” and help people because they think it is their responsibility and duty. Maybe it can cross over into the Savior role of feeling driven to help people, but the slight distinction is where the Savior would say “I helped because they were in trouble,” the Soldier would say “I helped because it was my job/responsibility to help.”
- The Mercenary –
The Mercenary Hero doesn’t necessarily have to be getting paid, though some form of payment is generally the motivation for them to be the hero. They are a hero because they get something out of it. An example of this is are characters like Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure. That is a personal mission for him and he doesn’t do it for anyone else, he does it for largely selfish reasons—he desperately wants the truth and the excitement of discovering the treasure.
The Mercenary is driven by what he/she personally gets out of being the hero. They can be paid to do the job, they can be on a personal mission of love or vengeance or profit, but whatever it is they are being the hero because it serves them, not because they want to serve the people they are saving.
- The Reluctant Hero –
The Reluctant Hero is one of my favorite types of heroes to write because they don’t try to be perfect, and often try to extricate themselves from the drama, but they morally feel the urge to help when they see a situation. Unlike the Savior they won’t seek out the conflict, and unlike the Mercenary they don’t want anything for themselves, but similarly to the Soldier they feel a sense of duty.
The Reluctant Hero is someone who doesn’t want to be a hero, and they aren’t doing it because it’s their job like the Soldier. They are a person who just happens to be in the wrong place at the right time, and they morally can’t bring themselves to turn away from those in need. If asked why they helped, they would respond “I couldn’t turn my back on it, and it was the right thing to do.” They don’t feel like it’s their duty, they just feel like they were the only one there at the time who could do it, so they did.
I think the one thing that is often interesting about the Reluctant Hero is that, if someone else was around who could successfully do the saving, the Reluctant Hero would let them, but often they are put in situations where either they have to try, or all is lost.
- The Anti-Hero –
The final type of hero isn’t quite a hero at all – the Anti-Hero. The Anti-Hero is not someone who is trying to help anyone, and they’re most often not a good person. There are slight varying definitions of this, but in my opinion, the Anti-Hero is a character who ultimately has their own larger goal, but they do kind, heroic things along the way in pursuit of their goal. I think this falls into a lot of gangster characters who do wonderful things for the “little people” but who aren’t really good characters at all, and whose larger goals are really something quite unhero-like.
Another version of the Anti-Hero is someone who does dark, violent things in order to achieve something good. This kind of character is like Batman at times (The Dark Knight is the obvious example). Batman kills and commits crimes in order to make Gotham a better place, going from loved hero to wanted criminal.
Either way, the main thing about the Anti-hero is that they don’t follow the same rules as the normal hero, and that they will often commit villain-like acts in the pursuit of their goal. These sorts of acts will stand in stark contrast with the heroic elements, and it will make the audience question whether the character is hero or villain.
I’m sure there are some more minor variations of heroes, but in general, I think most heroes in stories can be divided up into one of the five categories above. If you aren’t sure about which your character is, ask yourself what motivates them to be a hero? What motivates them to commit heroic acts? If you have that answer, you should be able to pinpoint what type of hero they are.
This week I had the pleasure of watching the movie, Dead Pool. (Not the one with Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, the 2016 one about the Marvel Comic character.) This movie was so much what I expected, but also so much which I didn’t expect. In Dead Pool, Marvel has given us an anti-hero we can’t help but stand behind.
Right away, in the first scene we learn that Dead Pool, aka Wade Wilson, has an axe to grind against someone named Francis. The rest of the first half of the movie is spent giving us the backstory, so we understand the reason that axe is so sharp. Our villain, Francis, aka Ajax, not only tortures Wade in some extremely cruel and unusual ways, but in essence, he steals his life from him, forcing him to mutate in ways that make it so he can never go back. Believing that he’s lost the one thing that means the most to him, his super-sexy girlfriend, Vanessa, (and she’s not even a super hero, she’s just human), Wade takes on the identity of Dead Pool and will stop at nothing to make Francis cough up the cure.
In the movie description, Dead Pool is described as coming out of the experiment with “a ‘dark, twisted’ sense of humor, but I maintain the sense of humor was there in Wade, an ingrained part of him that even mutation couldn’t change. As we get to know Wade through flashbacks, it’s apparent that he is the perfect anti-hero, not real likeable, an ex-special forces killing machine turned mercenary. But, we also see that he has redeeming qualities through his obvious love for Vanessa and his ultimate, unselfish sacrifice, walking out of her life rather than burden her with his terminal cancer. Even though he’s not the most likeable guy, it’s hard not to empathize with him.
Okay, so his character is snarky. This may or may not be a redeeming quality. He says whatever is on his mind, prompting many chuckles from viewers, he says the things average folks might want to say, and behaves in ways which are undesirable. But the guy is honest and straight forward, in a smarmy kind of way. He makes it clear that he’s no hero and he is not out to help anyone but himself, in his quest to get Vanessa, and his life, back. You’ve got to give him credit, even if he is kind of a jerk at times. One more reason why he is the perfect anti-hero.
In fact, his character reminds me a lot of the characters Jim Carey plays, especially in the way he talks incessantly and often doesn’t think about the possible consequences before opening his mouth, or his totally outrageous behaviors. The trait certainly ticks off Francis/Ajax, creating a tension between the two adversaries, which leads to Francis/Ajax pushing harder to cause Wade’s mutation. So, in fact, Wade brings his circumstances down upon himself. In fact, that may be Wade’s fatal flaw, but he doesn’t seem to ever learn when to keep his trap shut. But then, that could be because for an immortal, a flaw really can’t be fatal.
Wade/Dead Pool may not be the most likeable character, but Francis/Ajax, the villainous character who forced the mutation on him, is even more unlikeable. In fact, it’s easy to actively dislike Francis with his super-fast reflexes and total inability to feel anything, making him a truly bad guy, and providing us with yet another reason to root for Dead Pool. No doubt that’s why Francis/Ajax is the villain. His lack of feeling also makes him the perfect adversary for Dead Pool, who heals super-fast, but feels the all pain, both physical and emotional. They balance each other out.
I’m not usually a big fan of digital imaging. I think most of it comes off looking pretty fakey. However, knowing Dead Pool came from the world of comics, I think I expected it to not be realistic and the digital imagery works for me. Comic book characters are expected to do things that seem totally unreal. They have super powers that allow them to do these outrageous things.
Which brings us to the discussion of Dead Pool’s super powers. I’m not sure exactly how his mutation has affected him or amazing feats he is able to perform beyond miraculous healing, accelerated movements and super human strength. Although they are alluded to, they are not spelled out for us. He doesn’t breathe flames or shoot webbing to swing from building on. Apparently, he puts his red tights on one leg at a time, like the rest of us, (no phone booth transformations for this guy). He uses weapons to defeat his adversaries and feels pain when he’s injured, just like a regular Joe. And he knows his limitations, too, calling on the help of Colossus and Nagasonic Teenage Warhead when the going gets tough and Vanessa’s life is on the line.
In many ways, Dead Pool was your basic super hero movie. Guys with super powers get out there and punch the crap out of one another. On the other hand, it wasn’t what I expected in a super hero at all. Dead Pool doesn’t save the world, or even his city, and his motivations are selfish. I think this movie was well written with interesting and colorful characters who are full of surprises, is filled with action, and is very entertaining. I give Dead Pool four quills.