Month: October 2013
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As writers, we all want to get published. But over the last few years, the landscape has changed drastically. Gone are the days where your only recourse was to stick your manuscript in an envelope, mail it to a publisher, and await a response.
This week, I thought we could look at avenues to being published.
For most of us, we’d submit a sample of our book (usually three chapters, a synopsis, and a cover letter) to a slush pile (a publisher’s unsolicited manuscripts department). Then we wait to hear back from the publisher. At this point, we’ll either get a form rejection, a positive rejection (offering feedback), or they’ll ask to see the rest of the book. If it’s the latter, it’s a waiting game again, with eventually a similar outcome – a form rejection, a positive rejection, or acceptance (yay).
You outlay no costs with a traditional publisher. Remember this. Traditional publishers do NOT charge. Your only expense will be stamps and envelopes (if you use snail mail), or after your book’s published you might spring for the launch or a publicist. The other positive with a traditional publisher is branding. Imagine having ‘Penguin’ or ‘Allen & Unwin’ or ‘Text’ near your name. There’s an inference that by being accepted by a traditional publisher, you must’ve met some standard of quality. Publishers will get your book into bookstores.
As far as royalties go, you’ll only get about 7–10%. Most of the big traditional publishers are not open to unsolicited submissions. The only way to approach them is via an agent. (Should note that there’s nothing wrong with smaller boutique publishers, though – some of which are producing our best books.) Going the route of a traditional publisher can take time. I waited fifteen months to ultimately be rejected on one occasion. Many publishers also don’t want you submitting elsewhere while your book is with them, so it can be a time-consuming process going from one to the next and so on.
The other route to traditional publishing is getting an agent. Getting an agent largely involves the same rigmarole as submitting to a publisher (outlined above). The benefits of an agent is they can submit your work to publishers who are closed to unsolicited submissions. Agents, however, will also take a percentage of any deal struck.
You can either out-source the work required (e.g. editing, proofreading, layout, cover design) or do it all yourself, (although given your closeness to your work, you’re likely to miss things in editing and proofreading that a fresh set of eyes wouldn’t). There are printers everywhere, and you can even have access to the big mobs (e.g. MacPherson’s) that the traditional publishers use, ensuring your book looks great. Many self-publishing houses offer publishing packages that allow you to have everything done.
You have full control of your book. All the royalties are your own, which means that you should be able to make your investment in the project back in a short time. You can sing, ‘I did it my waaaaaay …’
Distribution is potentially the biggest issue. You’ll independently have to try distributors – e.g. Dennis Jones – to get your books in bookstores. Paying for the services (e.g. editing, design, layout, etc.) is an outlay for which you’ll have to allow.
Similar to self-publishing, but a group will provide all the services required from go to woe, although often there isn’t attention to detail and no real editorial guidance. Hypothetically, you could publish gibberish. There’s no real quality control, as all you’re doing is paying them to furnish you with a product. At the end of it all, you’ll have a book that’s yours to try and place in bookstores or hawk on street corners.
It’s a straightforward process. You have a book at the end of it all.
Again, can be expensive, no distribution. Sometimes, the quality of the book can be average.
Partnership publishing provides the services required to publish your book, e.g. editing, layout, and cover design, to produce a handful of copies of your book. For all this, you’ll have to pay a hefty sum. Additional books (your books) can be purchased from the publisher at ‘discounted’ author prices, or you pay for additional print runs at higher rates.
You should get professional services. Partnership publishers will (or should) provide that run of professional services that traditional publishers do. They’ll market your book on their website.
Expensive. Partnership publishers will usually take half your royalties. Some partnership publishers are unscrupulous and will tell you what you want to hear (e.g. Your book is absolutely brilliant!) or that you are ‘invited’ to be published to get your business.
PoD (Print on Demand)
This is a service where you set up your book with a PoD (e.g. Lulu). This will mean meeting stylistic requirements and then uploading your manuscript in the format they specify (usually a Word document, or a .pdf). Then, if anybody wants to buy your book, they order it from the PoD, and the PoD simply prints out a copy specifically for them.
Do it yourself, ready-made availability, easy to do for somebody who just wants to do it.
As with anything when it comes to volume, the more you have of something, the cheaper it is per unit. Here, you’re charging people per one unit, so it’s always going to be a bit more expensive. The margin for profit is smaller because it’s more expensive to print one book at a time.
As eReaders become more and more prevalent – either through eReaders such as Kindle, Kobo, Sony, or through Kindle apps on their smartphones and/or tablets – more and more books are becoming digital. Years ago, this might’ve been considered quaint. Now it’s becoming more and more the norm. Given now that primary school kids are expected to have access to iPads, etc., it’s a matter of time before reading digitally becomes parallel (if not surpasses) reading hardcopies. Conversion is easy, and then you can hit online retailers like Amazon (who monopolise 70% of the market), Smashwords, and BookBaby.
You can do it all yourself, paying nothing but time. If you did out-source the work (e.g. conversion, designing the cover), the expense would only be in the hundreds, as opposed to the thousands. Uploading to Amazon is free, although they’ll take a small percentage of your royalties. Being on Amazon gives you immediate global distribution you wouldn’t even get with some traditional publishers. Ebooks are cheaper (to buy), but on something like Amazon, you get a larger percentage of the profits (70% if the cost is over $2.99, 35% if it’s cheaper).
Everybody’s going the ebook route now, so it’s hard to distinguish yourself from the pack. Many still prefer the hardcopy book. Poor conversion leads to code bloat (inflated coding in the conversion), which can affect load-up times on pages, etc., as people are reading your book. If enough people complain, Amazon reserves the right to withdraw your book. They also reserve the right to change the price of your book to something suitable if they think you haven’t priced it suitably.
As an aside …
Just to illustrate the validity of this as a route, there are authors who are (at the very least) self-sufficient simply by publishing through Amazon, and/or have been picked up by traditional publishers due to their success. So it’s worth considering. (Watch this interview with author Amanda Hocking, who made a success of it in on Amazon: click here.)
Many of the big publishers have opened up slush piles for digital imprints.
One last sidenote
Don’t forget that 50 Shades of Grey began as an ebook. Its success saw it picked up and turned into a hardcopy. Now it’s also being turned into a movie. Not bad for an ebook.
So they’re your options. The biggest difference is years ago, people thought you must publish via a traditional publisher to be valid and/or successful. Not so the case anymore. There are several avenues, each as perfectly valid as the others.
October 24, 2013
One of the enemies of interesting writing is exposition. We’re all guilty of it. At times, we need to provide backstory. The question is not only how we put this across, but how much we ask the reader to indulge us.
Let’s start with a basic premise: Bob is a sixty-seven year old widower who lives alone. His wife recently died and Bob is having trouble adjusting. This isn’t the story itself, though. The actual story is about Bob suspecting his charming young neighbour might be a serial killer, and Bob’s growing obsession to prove whether that’s the case. But, of course, we do need to set the scene of who Bob is.
So, let’s begin …
- Bob came home. The emptiness of the house confronted him. He grabbed a beer from the fridge and sank into the recliner. It was so quiet.
It hadn’t always been this way, of course. Once the house had been full of laughter and love and warmth. Bob remembered when he and Gloria had first bought the house forty-two years ago. Then there’d been the kids and lots of memories, good and bad. But now Gloria was gone. Bob couldn’t believe it. Gloria had died – a heart attack as she’d been baking scones. She’d collapsed and as Bob had held her in his hands, he’d called paramedics, but by the time they’d arrived it was too late. She was gone. Bob had cried over her body. He hadn’t wanted to let her go. The paramedics had to coax him clear. The kids, now fully-grown, had arrived and eased him away …
The first paragraph is simple enough: a man comes home and we know immediately that the house is empty and quiet. Even the act of getting a beer could be construed either as a habit or a method of coping. The twenty-six words in the first paragraph are hardly Hemmingway, but they do set the scene effectively.
The second paragraph is the evil exposition. As an aside, this is a brief example. Lots of writers – even established authors – will digress into reams of it to arm the reader with all the information they need to navigate the way through the rest of their story.
There are some nice moments in the second paragraph, but there are also opportunities to have explored Bob’s backstory evocatively, instead of just telling the reader about it.
Think about other ways we could’ve learned about Bob. There are easy methods, e.g. pictures of Bob, Gloria, the kids and grandkids might litter the mantel. Or Bob might begin to call to Gloria, to tell her he’s home, simply because it’s a habit that’s been ingrained over a marriage of forty-two years. We’re told Gloria died while baking scones; perhaps Bob feels trepidation when he goes into the kitchen, or when he faces the spot where she died.
The other thing worth considering – and a very important one at that, too – is we don’t need to know everything at once. Sometimes, as writers, we’re so immersed with our own cleverness, or to get our story out as quickly as possible, that we dump every bit of information we have on our readers. Here, these two paragraphs give us the length of Bob’s marriage, Gloria’s death, the means of her death, Bob’s heartbreak, the fact that Bob lives alone, that he has kids and they’re now full-grown, and on this list goes. But does the reader need to know all this as of yesterday?
Alternatively, this information could be seeded throughout the course of the story. We might toy with the reader, and tease the possibility that Bob lives alone – ah, so maybe he’s a crotchety old bachelor. But in a discussion with a neighbour, he might reveal he was married. Another mystery – Bob was married, but what happened to the marriage? Perhaps we paint him as a likely divorcee. Bob might feel a chill and quickening heartbeat whenever he goes into the kitchen and we might leave the reader with just that titbit. It’s intriguing – a hook. Later, we might fill out the details. One of Bob’s kids might show up and talk about Gloria’s death on the kitchen floor. We continue to fill out Bob’s history but do it in a way that’s interesting and evocative, instead of simply telling the reader everything. It also builds the mood and the characters, and does so while we continue to tell the rest of the story about the charming young neighbour possibly being a serial killer.
Exposition is a necessary evil at times, but it doesn’t have to become unwieldy. Think about how you intend to share any backstory.
October 17, 2013
There’s something else you also need to do: be stingy with them.
A pitfall many writers fall into is handing their characters – particularly their protagonists – everything they need to traverse their story. Let’s use the simplest example – when characters are undertaking a journey, like a hero’s quest.
Here’s a basic plot: Bobalob is a fifteen-year-old villager. An evil warlord comes to the province. Bobalob finds out he is the heir to an ancient king, and thus he is capable of great magic and wielding a mighty sword, which transforms him into an undefeatable warrior. He goes out to meet the evil warlord.
How does that sound? Interesting?
The premise might be: the archetypal good versus evil. But look at how easily everything else happens. Everything Bobalob needs for his undertaking is handed to him. He hasn’t had to work for any of it. There’s no character development, no arc. We never see (or experience) what it would require of Bobalob to learn magic or to learn how to wield a sword or to deal with this responsibility of facing an evil warlord.
Think about any skill you’ve developed. Did it occur instantaneously? If you wanted to play tennis, did you just pick up a racquet and become a champion immediately? Or was it something you had to practice frequently, suffering setbacks along the way, all the while learning about how you could improve? Was there somebody you initially couldn’t beat, who might’ve in fact beaten you regularly, until you got good enough to triumph? How did that feel to finally achieve that victory?
Characters should undergo similar transformations. We need to see progress, missteps, stumbles, so even if they’re trying to master something with which we can’t possibly have any empathy – e.g. learning magic, flying a spaceship, becoming a super-spy – we can at least empathise with their efforts. We all know what it’s like to strive for something, to struggle, the frustrations that come along with it (often we might want to give up), and the exultation when we succeed.
Nobody is instantaneously elite at anything they do. Even prodigies have to work to master their talents. So why should your characters have it any easier? Giving them everything they need is boring storytelling and it undermines any dramatic tension you might otherwise be trying to sustain. And the character undergoes no evolution. It’s a Before and After shot, with none of the in-between – and, in this case, the in-between is the interesting stuff.
You might think this seems applicable only to extraordinary adventures, but it remains applicable regardless. Whatever your story is about, don’t just hand your characters what they need. Make them struggle. So even if it’s something as simple as somebody wanting to know something about their partner, or trying to find out whether their child was truant, or whether their best friend has a problem, or whatever the case might be, make them earn it.
This doesn’t mean everything has to be some long-winded melodramatic travail. But don’t just hand things over.
October 11, 2013
I had an author – a lovely old woman – who churned out a couple of historical romance novels yearly. Her writing was good and her voice engaging. The only problem was that the characters would always get together within the first twenty-five pages. The rest of the books (another sixty thousand words or so in each book) involved the minutiae of the characters’ everyday lives, e.g. decorating the house, going on picnics, shopping, and that sort of thing.
I would tell this author that once the characters were together, the story was effectively over. This was the point where the last line should – in fairy tale speak – figuratively read, ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ The drama and captivation (of the story) should come from all the obstacles the characters had to overcome to get to this point. I cited Jane Austen as an example: Austen’s romances feature nothing but obstacles for the protagonists. That’s what hooks readers, builds their interest, and has them rooting for the characters. Once the characters get together, it’s over. Destination reached. My author, however, responded that she couldn’t bear to keep her characters apart.
It’s natural that we become attached to our characters. As we write, we get to know them; they endear themselves to us. Sometimes, they’ll surprise us, or even charm us. And, in doing so, they seduce us. We grow to love them as if they were real people. Their travails occupy our minds and, some times, because they mean so much to us, we decide to take it easy on them.
But easy is boring.
Our characters need to be pushed through hell – kicking and screaming (well, in our own heads at least) if required. Compelling storytelling comes through the journeys our characters undertake. Nobody’s interested in a story of a protagonist who wakes up to save the world and not only remains unchanging throughout, but triumphs with aplomb whenever faced with adversity. Nor is it interesting if a protagonist is going through any sort of upheaval which doesn’t push their boundaries.
We all have things that go in our lives. The question – as morbid as it can seem – is when does that become interesting? If somebody tells you they broke a nail or stubbed their toe, it’s mildly amusing – an anecdote that you’ll most likely forget. If they tell you they broke a nail, the finger got infected, they ran a fever, were kept awake the night with chills, they braved through it despite having to go to work the next day, the infection got into their heart, they collapsed, an ambulance rushed them to a hospital and a defibrillator was required to revive them, well, that’s interesting. That’s a story we’d probably want to hear, and one we’ll likely remember and even possibly retell.
The only thing we need to be mindful of is keeping everything in context. Don’t stack up problems for the sake of stacking. Issues themselves should both be logically constructed and have their own arcs. There’s no point writing a story about a character coming home to find their partner in bed with the neighbour, getting a phone call from their boss telling them they’re fired, and the bank sending a note that their foreclosing the mortgage, just for the sake of all these things happening. Find validation for pushing them to extremes. Find purpose in the turmoil, (even if it’s only purpose for your own justification).
Logically (and just as an example), the character might come home for lunch and find their partner in bed with the neighbour. They might go out to the local and get drunk, thus being late back for work, so the boss sacks them. Short of salary that week, they might miss a final payment to the bank, which results in the mortgage being foreclosed. There’s a logic in what’s occurring now, a causality. Now it’s up to the character to either spiral further out of control or to address these issues, (and, at some point, they will need to address things).
Think about your characters. Have you gone soft on them? Don’t let them fool you. Mistreat them. They might not like it, you might hate it, but your writing will be happier for it.
October 3, 2013
Sometimes, these events can be difficult to process. It’s not just the impact of the trauma, but making sense of the repercussions. The loss of a job, for example, might have financial implications that relate to the well-being of our families, as well as our basic ability to function in everyday society and pay bills everybody else would grumble about but take for granted.
Everybody deals with issues differently. Some charge ahead, without giving themselves time to think, accept, and reconcile what’s gone on. Instead, they bury it deep somewhere where it can bubble away until they’re ready to deal with it – if at all. If you believe in new age gurus and the like, unresolved feelings can manifest into physical ailments.
Others switch off, if not shut out the world, or medicate to dull pain – whether that’s medicating through drugs or alcohol, or even eating, or some other binge behaviour (e.g. shopping). This isn’t so much about coping but desensitizing. The pain remains. We just dampen it until we get used to it.
Few of us truly learn to deal with setbacks, to assimilate them into our lives, and to move on. It’s just not something we’re taught, either by family or in schools. So we stumble, put ourselves back together as we best can, and move on – or at least try to resume moving forward. For many of us, moving forward equates with equilibrium being restored, even though it might not have been.
Art – in any form – is something that allows us try to make sense of what we’re feeling. The reason for this is there’s no wrong or right to the outcome. It’s not like a mathematical calculation, which can have only one right answer. Stories can take any evolution to get to their destination; poets are often flaunting the rules; and painters can be indifferent to precision (as in reproduction) as long as their work captures what they’re feeling.
Put twenty people in a room and tell them all to draw the same black cat, and you’ll get twenty different black cats. Ask them to describe that same room, and there’ll be twenty different interpretations. We all think differently, view the world differently, and express ourselves differently. We are unique and no matter how similar two people can be – consider identical twins – they never are.
When you do face problems in your life, art is a perfect way to explore what you’re feeling and to try to make sense of it all. Art can deal with abstracts and help conceptualise them into manageable (or at least understandable) commodities. Moreover, art can help us find our way, to deconstruct our turmoil and reconstruct it into something we assimilate and accept into our lives. Nothing else works on quite the same level.
Next time you face a setback and are wondering how to cope with it, give art a try.
To that end, Busybird will also be hosting a Creative Arts workshop beginning Tuesday 8th October. The workshop will run for eight weeks, with three hours per session, and explore your relationship to stories through different mediums – painting, drawing, sculpting, journaling and collage – with a qualified art therapist. Feel free to email or phone us with any queries or bookings, or you can book via Eventbrite by clicking here.