The RULES of Writing and Other Nonsense

Now for something completely different

AsQuinnMention “rules” to a writer and one of two reactions generally occur. Either the writer’s eyes light up with plaintive hopefulness that finally they are about to hear the One Great Secret that will make writing easy. Or, the writer responds like a cornered wolf ready to rip your face off.

Despite that, I am bravely putting on my editor hat and we’re going to discuss some rules for writing. (No face-ripping, please.)

RULES. I have only one hard and fast rule for writing: Don’t bore the reader. As long as you are engaging the reader, then your writing is working.

What about “good” writing and “bad” writing? The written word is a form of communication. If it communicates to a reader what the writer means to say, then it’s good writing. If it fails to communicate, then it’s bad. Any other criteria for judgement is entirely subjective and a matter of taste.

That said, there are a few “rules” every writer should know. Only let’s not call them “rules.” “Rules” seem to run counter to creativity (which I could argue exhaustively, but some other time), plus sometimes open me up to face-ripping, so to make this more palatable, let’s call them “Tools” instead.

TOOLS EVERY WRITER SHOULD MASTER

  1. Spelling.
  2. Grammar.
  3. Punctuation.
  4. Story/Narrative form/structure.

When I say “master” that’s precisely what I mean. You practice and learn and pound the principles into your noggin until you know them inside and out. Unless and until you have mastery of those four tools you are no more a professional writer than a guy who can’t tell the difference between oak and pine is a professional carpenter.

A lack of mastery of those tools tags you as an amateur, but mastery will not necessarily make you a great storyteller. Once spelling, grammar, punctuation, and form and structure are second nature to you, however, you will be ready to use the most powerful tool of all:

THE READER’S IMAGINATION

Storytelling is much like a magic show. The magician dazzles with misdirection, sleight of hand, patter and showmanship. Those skills allow the magician to control the audience and keep their attention focused right where the magician wants it. The writer does the same thing. Great writers understand and exploit readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief and ability to enlarge the characters and stories in their imaginations. Less-than-great writers don’t trust the readers to “get it” and don’t trust in the power of their own words. They try to do the reader’s job, and in doing so, their prose is boring.

Example: A door and a dog.

Now “dog” is a wonderfully evocative word and just about everyone knows what a dog is, and in many cases all you need to say is “dog” and the readers know what you’re talking about. But you want to paint a picture. You want to tell a story.

The writer who doesn’t trust his words or readers might write something like this:

I saw a big, black, shaggy dog in the yard. He guarded the door. He was scary. He stood 28 inches at the shoulder, and his head was square, and his fur looked rough, like nobody ever brushed him or petted him or called him, “Good boy.” A dog bit me once, when I was seven years old, and the scar is faded, but I still remember the incident vividly. The real scar is on my soul. My heart started pounding and my palms grew sweaty. I was terrified. The dog turned his head. His eyes were yellow. They were filled with hate and viciousness. I thought about running and thought about the dog catching me if I did run.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with the above paragraph. The problem is that it’s static in that it leaves nothing for the reader to do but watch. (The writer already filled in all the details and told the reader how to think and feel about it.) It also defuses the tension by burying the real problem. It’s overloaded with information that all sounds important. But what is the reader supposed to worry about? The mean, but unloved dog? The narrator’s boyhood trauma? Dog bites? When everything is important, then nothing is important. There is no suspense.

A writer who trusts his prose and the reader will keep the focus where it belongs.

She was inside and I was outside. All that separated us was a door. And a dog. Right now that dog glared at me as if it owed me money and I’d come to collect.

As a writer I trust the reader to fill in the blanks about mean, scary dogs and their own childhood traumas, while focusing on the narrator’s real problem about how to get to the desired prize on the other side of the door.

The right details build a word world for the reader to inhabit. Too many extraneous details turns into reportage, fact after fact after fact with no indication as to what is important and what’s not, leaving the poor reader with no room for his imagination to work.

When I’m editing, along with clarity and consistency, I’m looking for any place where the writer is interfering with the reader. Most writers, in my experience, can’t see how powerful, how good, their stories are, and so they tend to pile on the words to make sure the readers really and truly get it. Cutting the extraneous words is the cure. Here is my list of the major offenders:

  • Stage directions. Your characters are not puppets and you do not have to jerk every string. Example: “He reached across the coffee table and picked up the remote control in his right hand. He pointed the remote at the television set that sat against the south wall. With his right thumb he pushed the power button. The TV went dark. Silence filled the room.” Unless all that reaching and pointing is vital to your story and indicative of something really, really important going on, cut it. “He turned off the TV,” will suffice.
  • Control your dialogue tags. Writers get bored with “said” and I get that. Readers get bored and/or confused with “barked, hissed, ejaculated, interjected, interrupted, crooned, whispered, smiled, laughed, etc.” Dialogue tags have a purpose: Indicate who is speaking. The dialogue IS the action. There is rarely a good reason to pile on a bunch of adjectives and adverbs to tell the reader how it’s done.
  • Explainery. “He kicked the garden gnome over. Then he stomped on the cute little button nose, smashing it into the empty brain case. He hated garden gnomes.” Well, duh. The first two sentences show the reader all they need to know about the character’s opinion regarding garden gnomes. The last line is just you, the writer, not thinking the readers are smart enough to get it. As a reader nothing bores me faster than the writer wandering on stage and explaining to me what just happened.
  • Telegraphing.
    “He decided to leave. He walked out the door.”
    “He was so angry. ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ he said.”
    “By this time tomorrow, not one would be left alive.”
    In the first two examples, no need to tell me what you’re going to do or how you feel. Just do it. In the third example, I would stop reading. What’s the point? I already know what’s going to happen.
  • Action out of order.
    “They ran when the building collapsed.”
    “She slapped his face. How dare he call her a slut?”
    Rearrange those sentences. Cause then effect. Action then reaction. Stimulus then response. Putting your action in order prevents what I call “stutter stops” where the reader has a micro-second of wondering, Huh? Why did…? Oh, I see. Enough of those and your reader will start trying to rearrange your sentences for you and then they aren’t paying attention to the story.
  • Throat clearing. We all do it. We start sentences with “obviously” or “as you know” or “it’s been my experience” or some other bit of nonsense whose only purpose is the writer stalling while he gets his thoughts in order. Cut those, brutally and without regrets. Your readers will thank you.
  • Editorializing or justifying or apologizing. I see this a lot with timid writers. Their words are powerful, they sense the power, and it scares them. So they backtrack and try to soften the blow or to make a case as to why they said what they said. It’s much like explainery, except the writer isn’t explaining what a character did, they are explaining themselves. This is a tough one for writers to handle on their own. My best advice is to be aware that if you find yourself worrying that readers will think you, the writer, is a bad person for saying such things, then chances are you are justifying or apologizing. You may need another person, an editor, to point it out to you.

There are other ways writers get in the way of their own stories and interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. Covering them all would take a book. But if you start with these, I guarantee your writing will improve and you’ll get rid of much of the fluff and filler bogging down your story.

Fun With Formatting: Emails and Text Messages in Ebooks

“An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic “documents” such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter” (from Wikipedia)

All well and good, but what do those look like in an ebook? Notes and letters have a fairly standard format: offset margins, extra space before and after, sometimes italicized. Visually, it is easy to clue the reader in that they are looking at a note or letter. But what about an email? Or a text message?

I recently completed a book where the writer used emails and text messages. One chapter consisted entirely of emails and another chapter was a text message conversation. This particular author writes funny, quirky, sexy, offbeat romances. She likes her ebooks to be pretty and to stand out from the crowd–she wants them to look fun. (Which is tons of fun for me.) She wanted the emails to look like emails and the text messages to look like text messages.

textemail1For text messages inside the body of the ebook I used a sans serif font, bolded, and offset.

Would readers be confused if the text message looked the same as everything else? I doubt it. I know, from my own reading (and I read a LOT!) that visually interesting ebooks stand out. I am delighted by small touches–ornaments, unusual formatting, pictures–that break up the solid chunks of text.

For the chapter that consisted entirely of text messages, I pulled out the stops, using color blocks and right and left text alignment:

textemail2This is a tad over the top, but it fits with the playful tone of this story. For a story with a more serious tone, I would probably not use color blocks. I could use deep right/left margins to make the text messages appear to be in centered blocks. I might give them a border, too, to keep them from running into one another. Or, left align the text and have extra space between the messages. The key would be, as in all things ebooks, consistency. Pick a look, stick with it, and readers will happily follow along.

On to emails. I’ve formatted emails before, but this was the first time that I had a long string of them. The headers had to be included (because they are an important part of the story). I considered (briefly) placing each on its own “page.” But no, that would have killed the sense of rapid back and forth. This is what I came up with:

textemail3I set off each header with two lines (horizontal rules) and sans serif font with the sender bolded. For the body of the email I used regular serif font and a block paragraph style. To my eyes there is no mistaking these as anything other than emails. It’s a style that would work for any story that has emails, whether in a string or as a stand-alone.

So there you go, one way to handle text messages and emails. What about the rest of you? Have you found a fun/interesting way to make emails and text messages stand out in your ebook? Inquiring minds want to know.


Samples are from Penny Watson’s Sweet Adventure. Sweet-Adventure-ebook-cover-blue2

Got Workflow? Step by Step to Better Books

Sloth is my deadly sin of choice. But you know what they say, If you want to figure out the fastest, most efficient means of getting a job done, find a lazy person. That’s me. I want to get my work done for the day so I can kick back with a can of Pringles and watch Gordon Ramsay on Hulu.

Producing books for public consumption is not nearly as difficult, complicated or time-consuming as writing them in the first place. Even so, it is a real job (as opposed to an afterthought) and it takes some skill and planning. To do the job right–produce a great product–requires a workflow that makes sense and doesn’t involve anybody’s head exploding. (And please, please don’t come in bragging how you one-step book production by using InDesign or Scrivener to compose your work, then create print and digital and pdf files in one fell swoop. One-size-fits-all might be fast, but it does NOT produce reader-pleasing products.)

I often work with a team–writer, cover artist, editor/s and proofreader. This must be coordinated and everybody has to be kept in the loop and on the same page. I have to make sure everyone has the same tools. (For instance, I do the majority of my work in a text editor and in InDesign, two programs not every writer or editor owns or is familiar with.) Almost everybody has Word–or a word processor that produces .doc files. Anyone with a computer can read a pdf. For that reason, working files used by multiple people are passed around as either .doc or .pdf files.

Taking into account that there will be changes to the text in every step along the way, I prefer starting with the ebook (easy to modify) then use the text that has been edited and proofread to create the print-on-design edition (not so easy to modify).

HOW IT WORKS

Step 1: The Original

workflow1The very first thing I do when I receive a manuscript is create a project folder and do a Save As of the original. Save As is important. There is no reason to NOT make multiple copies of the file. Your computer has plenty of room, and there will be cases when you NEED a previous version. I’ve come up with a file-naming system that helps me keep track of the files. I date the versions, too. My naming system might not make sense to anyone else, so I recommend you come up with something that makes sense to you. As long as it is easy to remember and searchable, it will work.

Step 2: Scan and tag

workflow2I scan through my version of the original .doc file and make styling notes (chapter heads, special formatting). I note hyperlinks and images placement. Then I use Find/Replace to tag italics, bolding and underlining.

Step 3: Clean Up

workflow3I Select All and Copy, then transfer the text into a text editor. Here I do a thorough cleanup which includes finding “illegal” characters, deleting extra spaces, tidying special formatting (italics etc.), and making sure the punctuation is “printer” punctuation and not “manuscript” punctuation. I also start a simple text file that is called “Notes_…” where I jot down the table of contents entries, any special formatting required, and other bits. (If you are doing your own ebook formatting I HIGHLY recommend you not skip the Clean Up step. No matter how good your Word file looks, it’s going to be full of hidden goobers and grabby formatting.)

Step 4: Create a Mark Up Document

workflow4I do a Select All and Copy the clean text and transfer it back into a new Word doc. I style it as a manuscript (Courier font, double-spaced), create a navigation guide (apply the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles to chapters and sections), and restore special formatting (italics etc.). If I have made styling notes, I highlight those. (This sounds like a lot of work, but it only takes a few minutes.)

Step 5: Format the Proof Ebook

workflow5I do a Save As of my cleaned up text file as an html file. I always ask the writer/publisher what kind of device on which they read ebooks. This tells me whether they need a MOBI file or an EPUB file (they look the same, but the underpinnings are different), and I make that version first.

Step 6: Proofreading

workflow6Sometimes writers hire me to proofread the ebook, sometimes they do it themselves, sometimes they hire a third party. The process is essentially the same: The proofreader goes through the ebook word by word, finding errors, and uses the mark-up document to note changes. Even if I am the proofreader, I send the ebook AND the mark-up document to the writer. That way if they want adjustments to the styling, they can note it on the mark-up document. If there are multiple readers, Word’s Track Changes* is a handy feature. The important aspect is that all changes to the text are clearly noted.

Step 7: Complete the Ebook

workflow7I manually insert all changes/corrections into the html files and finish the ebook/s. I will make the necessary versions a writer needs, and make sure everything is validated and working properly. If by chance you are doing your own ebook and you are using Word, my recommendation is that you have TWO versions of your file: Mark Up and Ebook. Do all your markup and changes in the Mark Up version and transfer it into the Ebook version. That way you won’t “infect” your ebook with Word nasties and extraneous grabby styling.

Step 8: The Smashwords Word File

workflow8Some of my clients use Smashwords. To get the best results with SW, I recommend providing an EPUB file AND a Word file formatted to SW’s specs. What I do is copy the text from the finished ebook into a new file, and strip out the html. (With Find/Replace this takes only minutes) I Select All and Copy the clean, proofread text into a new Word doc. This file is named Final_…. I do a Save As and style the new doc for an ebook. Done.

Step 9: The Print-on-Demand file

workflow9For the Do-It-Yourselfer, you can create a perfectly serviceable and attractive POD book using Word. I happen to use InDesign (because of my innate masochistic tendencies). Either way, the key to a well-produced print version is well organized, squeaky clean text. If you followed my workflow step by step, you just happen to have exactly that on hand. :)

I always save the POD version for last. Production takes longer, not only in layout and design, but because it takes time for CreateSpace or Ingrams to approve the files, the cover has to be custom fit, then a proof edition ordered, mailed and gone over. It can take a few weeks. While this is being done, the writer/publisher can already have uploaded and started selling the ebook. If by chance an egregious error is discovered in the text (it happens, sigh…) then it is a relatively painless process to fix the ebook file and upload the new version to distributors. If it happens the other way–that the POD version is finished and distributed**, then an error is discovered during ebook production–well, that error is going to cost time AND money to fix in the POD edition.

The easiest way to pass editing/proofreading notes back and forth for a POD book in production is to use a pdf reader (I use Adobe Acrobat) and make use of the highlight/comment features. If you are using Word to create your POD edition, have your other-than-yourself proofreader read a pdf version and use a Markup document to note changes/corrections rather than having them work on your formatted .doc file. Trust me on this.


As with just about everything in my life, I have to try out many methods before I discover the process that works well for me. More importantly, something that others can use with minimal hassle and instruction. This workflow works. It works whether you are going solo or if you’re working with a team. Try it, you might find your productivity increases.

* A caution–A HUGE CAUTION–about Track Changes. It was designed with print in mind and it’s a brilliant tool. For digital productions it can be a nightmare. If you intend to use a file in which Track Changes was used, clean it thoroughly. As for me, TC never touches any text I intend to format for an ebook.

**I had a client who had a professional design her POD edition, and then needed me to format the ebook. Unfortunately, the only version of edited, proofread text she had was locked up in a QuarkXpress file. It cost her extra for me to recover the text and clean out all the print formatting. A problem she wouldn’t have had if she’d followed my workflow. Save As, people, keep using Save As and maintain your markup files in formats anyone can use.


workflow10Examples are from The Metaphor Deception, by Birch Adams, now available in ebook and print wherever fine books are sold.

Fun with Formatting: Playing with Fonts and Images

First, I’m not a fan of embedding fonts in ebooks. It’s simple to do, but it’s a minefield. Not every device will support embedded fonts, some fonts have very restrictive conditions of use, others can cost big bucks for a license, and some are not complete (as in, you can get the regular font, but not italics or many of the special characters such as em dashes or acute or grave marks). Making everything behave, and doing so in legal compliance, is far more hassle than it’s worth. My opinion. And for those of you using Word to format your Kindle files, do not let Word lull you into thinking all is well because your formatted Word file looks good with your fancy fonts. It can turn into a royal mess–and let’s not get into how much bloat the file will contain!–and you can even break the ebook so the user cannot change fonts or margins. Your file will convert just fine if you stick to Times New Roman or Garamond. The conversion programs recognize those.

That said, it’s okay to mix things up a bit by taking advantage of the capabilities already built in to the ereading devices. (I’m going to focus on Kindles because I own Kindles, but most of this applies also to EPUB devices.)  Kindles offer a menu of font families in the user preferences. The Fire tablet offers four serif fonts (Caecilia, Georgia, Palatino, and Baskerville) and a sans serif font (Helvetica). Paperwhites have six fonts (serif, Caecilia, Caecilia Condensed, Baskerville, and Palatino; and sans serif, Futura and Helvetica). Even the older models offer readers a choice between serif and sans serif. You can mix them up.

White6In css styling, it’s easy as can be. Insert this line in your style declaration:

font-family: “Helvetica: , “Futura” , “sans serif” ;

What happens is this, the device will use Helvetica, if it has it, or Futura, if it has it, but if not, it will use whatever sans serif font it has available. This is a nice touch for chapter titles and, as in the example above, a sign, or a headline, or to set off such things as text messages or computer readouts. You can customize the look further by using all caps, small caps, increasing or decreasing the font size, bold and italics. Best of all, it will not bloat the file, cause legal problems or interfere with the user controls.

*          *          *

Let’s move on to images–a subject that reduces many formatters to gibbering cuss-buckets. I’ll leave such things as sizing, text wrapping, fixing images, etc. for another day. Let’s talk about the dreaded WHITE BOX. You know what I mean. You have a nice little glyph or scene break separator that adds a touch of oomph to your ebook and it looks beautiful on the Kindle screen.

White2White1

And then a user decides to read with a sepia background or in Night mode. And even though your image has a transparent background, this happens.

WHITE BOX.

I know of some users who prefer to use Night mode on their tablets. I, myself, will use Sepia when I’m reading long form at night when my eyes are tired. I barely notice the white boxes anymore, and I’m sure users of Night mode are pretty much the same way. It’s a quirk to get used to. As a formatter it drives me nuts. Especially since I own an ebook that has defeated the White Box problem, so I knew it could be done. I finally figured it out.

White4White5Kindles will render three types of image files: jpeg, gif and png. Each has their strengths and each has their weaknesses: namely image crispness and file size. The trick to defeating the white box is the gif image. In Paint.net, the program I use for making simple graphics, when I save a gif image there is an option to adjust the transparency. I set it at 255. What that does is, everything with a resolution less than “normal”, i.e. 255, is transparent. (I should be able to do this with png images, but I haven’t been able to. So, dear readers, if any of you have figured it out, let us know.)

You do need to be careful with gif images. If they are too big they will get a distorted, fuzzy look. Not every color renders well. You should use a simple palette. Don’t use percentages so they adjust to the screen size–that can go bad quickly. Instead declare the width. Solid black images can disappear in Night mode, but if you give your image a narrow stroke of 1-3 pixels in white or pale yellow, that will take care of that.

So there you go, two more ways to improve the look of your ebooks and make them stand out.


Examples are from:

BAD TIMES 3: AVENGING ANGELS, by Chuck Dixon
BOURBONS & BLONDES, by Anthony Venutolo

The Proof is in the Proofreading

quinnproofMy biggest gripe with ebooks is a lack of proofreading. (Trad pubs are the worst offenders–isn’t anybody at least giving the ebooks a quick scan before putting them up for sale? Judging by the multiple dumb errors and piss-poor formatting, I’d say the answer is no.)

When I produce an ebook I have two hard and fast rules, Number One: squeaky clean text going into production. Number Two: the ebook must be proofread post-production. I charge people to proofread their ebooks for them, and a lot of clients take me up on it, but I’m more than happy for the writer to do it him/herself or hire a third party. I even make it easy for them by providing a markup document and instructions (since they can’t make changes in the ebook itself).

Even though proofreading is essential, some would like to argue that they can skip it. They’ve already polished the manuscript to a high gloss, even had a professional editor have a crack at it, and, in some cases I’m sure, they are sick to death of that particular project and want to get on to something else. I get that. Been there. Even so, it’s part of being a publisher and it must be done.

Before I continue, let me explain what proofreading is NOT:

  • It’s not copy-editing
  • It’s not line-editing
  • It’s not editing at all

What proofreading IS:

  • Format checking
  • Typo searching
  • Error seeking

When I produce an ebook, I expect that the writer has edited, polished, tweaked and fine-tuned. They’ve made the text as clean as they are capable. They made their grammatical choices and established a style. When I proofread I’m just looking for goofs. I don’t change text unless it’s a patently obvious error. Double words (…he spelled the the word misspelled incorrectly…) or a mixed up homonym (…happy is the bear-foot boy…) or a missing word (…nothing finer than (a) sunny spring day…) and misspellings or incorrect contractions. For anything beyond that, I will make a note to the writer and they can decide how to fix it, or not. My main concerns are my own goofs in formatting, and little gremlins such as missing punctuation or words that aren’t fully italicized or spacing issues.

There is nothing particularly difficult about ebook proofing. That said, I recommend that writers NOT proofread their own work, but instead hire out the job or find a writer friend willing to barter or trade the chore. The reason is copy blindness. When you write something down, you know exactly what you MEAN to say. Your brain is more likely to “see” what you meant rather than what is actually on the page. It’s a very real phenomenon and it trips up the best.

What if it’s not in your budget to hire a proofreader? What if all your friends are busy? What if you HAVE to do it yourself? What if you WANT to do it yourself?

There is hope.

The Tools

  • An ereading device: Kindle, Nook, iPad, your computer, etc.
  • A style sheet
  • A style manual
  • A dictionary

The Device: Even though MOBI and EPUB are different platforms, the ebooks should look pretty much the same no matter what device the reader uses. So it doesn’t matter which version you proofread. If you do not have a dedicated ereader, then you need to use an online viewer. I recommend the Kindle Previewer, Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions. All three are free downloads. All three render well enough for proofreading purposes. All three allow you to double-check your ebook’s navigation.

A Style Sheet: This is basically a log of your preferred spellings, stylings and usages. I keep Notepad open when I proofread and jot down character names, unusual spellings, etc. to give me a quick reference. Consistency is the key to a good reading experience. The style sheet will keep you consistent. I also log product names and trademarked names, then double check to make sure they are spelled correctly and to see if there is any restriction on their use.

A Style Manual: Every publishing house and periodical publisher has an in-house style. Often it is based on a particular style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Every indie publisher should do the same thing. Pick a style and stick with it. For fiction, a far simpler style reference will suffice. I recommend Strunk & White Elements of Style. Short, easy and friendly. Buy a copy (then buy extras for when your kids run off with them).

A Dictionary: Depending on spell check can lead to embarrassment. If you’re like me, you have dozens of dictionaries and thesauri on your bookshelves. Pick your main reference(s) and stick to it/them for consistency’s sake. Language changes and evolves, but it shouldn’t do so within one story. If you’d rather use an online source try the Merriam-Webster site or the Oxford Dictionaries site.

The Process

  1. You must open the ebook on something. You cannot properly proofread the ebook by going back to the manuscript.
  2. Have a markup document ready. I use a Word doc in which I’ve created a navigation guide, but no other formatting. Here is where Track Changes* comes in handy. Do all your mark up and changes on this document (which you will then transfer to your actual ebook file after you are done).
  3. Work backward through the ebook. Truly, this is the number one best way to defeat copy blindness. It will help keep your mind out of the story and on task.
  4. If you get sleepy or hungry, take a break. Sleepiness makes you dull and inattentive; hunger makes you impatient.
  5. Periodically change the font, font size and line spacing. Just making the ebook look different goes a long way toward making you more efficient.
  6. Get in the habit of questioning everything. Homonyms can be the bane of many writers. It’s so darned easy to mix up words that sound alike. Here’s a fun reference: Alan Cooper’s Homonym list. Product names are another danger area. Google is a wonderful resource. BUT, sometimes it is not enough to just get the spelling right. Companies can be very aggressive about protecting their trademarks. If you are using a trademarked product name, double check proper usage here.
  7. Use Find/Replace wisely. I rarely use Replace All when proofreading–it can lead to strange occurrences. It is human nature to repeat errors, so if you find an oddball spelling, do a quick search to see if you’ve done it elsewhere.
  8. If a passage seems off to you, read it aloud. Read it aloud to someone else. This is an excellent way to figure out if you’ve misplaced a comma or skipped a word.

And a final word of wisdom: Don’t rewrite your book. Seriously. You’re proofing the final product, the final step before releasing it. If you cannot stop rewriting, tweaking, doing “just a little bit more”–procrastinating!–then find someone else to proofread for you.

If anybody has any other handy-dandy tips to make proofreading easier or more efficient, feel free to fill up the comments.

* Never, ever use Track Changes in a Word doc that you intend to convert into an ebook. Turn it off, keep it off, protect your ebook from the nastiness that Track Changes inserts.

C’mon, Book Marketing Isn’t That Hard

QuinnMarketingI see and hear about a lot of writers wanting to sign an agent and go for a traditional deal because, “The agent and publisher know how to market my book and I don’t. It’s too hard.”

Nuh-uh.

Here’s how it works: Agents know how to market to certain editors; Editors know how to market to their editorial heads and marketing departments; Marketing departments know how to market to retail distributors. What none of them know (or maybe they don’t bother with) is how to market to readers. That’s the writer’s job. Trad or indie, if you don’t know how to market, your books are sunk. In fact, if you don’t have a marketing base before you submit to either an agent or editor, your chances of even getting a second look are slim to none.

What’s a poor writer to do? Panic is not an option. Truly, marketing is NOT that hard. Basically, all marketing is: Being in the right place in front of the right people with the right product.

(Please note I am talking about marketing only and NOT about promotion. Marketing and promotion are two completely different animals. That’s why it’s called marketing AND promotion. You can market effectively without any promotion, but it is impossible to promote anything without an effective marketing base.)

There’s a lot of nattering going on about “discoverability.” Well, let’s get one thing absolutely straight: Readers have zero problems “discovering” something to read. What people are really moaning about is, how can I get people to discover me? That can drive otherwise perfectly nice people insane. So let’s take insanity out of the picture. The first thing we are going to do is forget all about promotion for now. Put it out of your heads. As noted above, you CANNOT effectively promote anything until your marketing is solidly in place.

No promotion? Jaye, you’re so crazy.

Am I? Then explain how it is I am booked solid through the next three months and I have to turn business away. Aside from this blog, I do zero promotion for my book production services. (And I’ve been informed this blog is pretty crappy promotion-wise and I could do so much better. Well, yeah, but then I’d need another 16 hours in each day and I don’t know squat about that kind of physics, plus I’d need minions, which are harder to find than you’d think.)  I do, however, quietly and consistently market my services, and it’s working out pretty well.

The two things you have to keep in mind at all times:

  1. Marketing is a long-term strategy that requires constant maintenance and awareness of what is going on in the marketplace.
  2. Your product has to deliver every single time.

You need a plan. Your plan should include figuring out:

  • Right Place
  • Right People
  • Right Product

Your marketing plan needs to be put in place long before you publish (or submit to an agent or editor). It should start as soon as you get the notion, “Hey, I can sell my writing to the world! Maybe I can even make a living from it.”

But, but, Jaye, how can I promote a book that’s not even written?

You’re not promoting anything. What you are doing is marketing yourself, because you know as well as I do that writers are part of the package. People are much more willing to take a chance (spend the bucks, spend the time) on a book if they “know” the author.

The first–most important!–thing you need to do is: Define yourself as a writer. You can’t effectively market anything–even yourself–unless you know exactly what it is you are trying to sell. This is the part that trips many writers up. They have stories, they write them down, but they don’t think about what defines their work. They don’t ponder what it is they are offering to the world. Take me, for instance. I produce books. So do a zillion other people. What defines me? Passion. It says it right in my tagline: Ebooks = Real Books. That’s been my driving force all along. That’s why I have clients who call me the “production goddess” and why I get emails that say, “So and so referred me, they say you are the best.” It’s how I get away with constantly haranguing publishers to DO IT BETTER, DAMN IT.

You don’t have to come up with a tagline–but you have to KNOW who you are.

  • “I’m the writer who makes their panties wet.”
  • “I’m the writer who will force the world to acknowledge poverty.”
  • “I’m the writer who makes people think about technology.”
  • “I’m the writer who brings history to life.”
  • “I’m the writer who makes them check under the bed and leave a light on at night.”
  • “I’m the weirdo writer and nobody knows what outrageous thing I will say or do next.”
  • “I’m the writer who….”

Are you getting the picture? Put some thought into this. You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself or lock yourself into just one genre. You do need to ponder whatever it is about your writing that is consistent and passionate and a driving force. THAT’S what you will be marketing. And yes, it is perfectly okay to come up with an “Author Persona.” Many writers are shy and retiring and live very private lives. They are not comfortable putting themselves out there, bare naked for all the world to see. You don’t have to. Once you define what it is you DO, it’s not a big step to come up with a persona that fits comfortably. Set your boundaries. (Discomfort is an off-putting emotion.)

Next step is figuring out who the right people are–i.e., who are your potential readers. (If you say, “Every reader between 2 and 92 will love my books!” you are doomed. Seriously. Don’t even say that in jest to me.) Let me share a little chart I made:

Marketing1If you write in a specific, well-defined genre, then figuring out who your readers are/will be is easy. Romance, Crime, Mystery, History, Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction–all of those have One Genre Power Readers and that’s who you target your marketing to. Popularity (best sellers) tends to trickle up. First they appeal to the OGPR, then as they catch on, others higher up on the pyramid discover them. With that in mind, for those who write across genres or who don’t fit exactly into a well-defined genre, is to figure out the aspect of their writing that DOES FIT. Let’s say you write historical novels, and fantasy novels, and an occasional mystery. Trust me, there is something within all those books that is a common thread. Maybe it’s the history. You research extensively–even your most fantastic fantasies are rooted solidly in some historical era or aspect. In that case, you target your marketing at the history readers. If instead, all your stories tend to have a strong love interest and the romance is essential to your plots, then target the romance market. See how that works?

Once you know WHO to market to, then you have to figure out WHERE they are. The nice thing about OGPRs is that they tend to make their presence known. They are nuts about their genre and love to talk about it and tend to gather in communities all over the internet. I suggest creative lurking in the beginning. Give yourself time to figure out what they like and dislike, what they are reading and why, and how and where they discover books. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. (You might even discover an underserved niche that your not-quite-fits-in-the-genre stories will fill perfectly.)

Now you’re ready for the Big Question: HOW? Here, again, is where many writers fail. They sign up for Twitter, Facebook, Tumbler, Google+, and every other social media site they can think of; they create a website; they start a blog; they… They don’t have a plan. So everything fizzles and dies and they are back to thinking, Marketing is too hard!

You cannot forget that marketing is LONG-TERM. With few (very rare) exceptions, nobody bursts onto the scene full-blown and well-known. Markets must be built and nurtured and gained. It is not about tweeting “Here I am!” and expecting the world to pay attention. (It’s like I tell my husband, “If you want me to pay attention to you, do something interesting. And no, rapid-remote clicking is NOT interesting and neither is whining about dinner.”) Nobody owes you attention–you have to earn it.

Here are my suggestions for developing a plan:

  1. How much time can you COMMIT every week? Effective marketing requires commitment. Commitment will ensure consistency.
  2. Where are MY potential readers most likely to discover me? Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Wattpad? Just remember, you want READERS to find you. It might be more comfortable to hang out with other writers, but they aren’t your market (unless you write books on writing).
  3. What do I have to offer? (Aside from your books.) Marketing is about selling, but in developing a market base, the last thing you want to do is to make potential readers think the only thing you care about is their credit card. Instead, come up with a hook based on your definition of your writing and who you are as a writer. Develop a theme that draws attention. Keep it focused. Your ultimate goal is to build a solid fan base who looks forward to your writing. This takes time. Don’t be impatient.
  4. Who can help you? In every reader community/hang out, there are people others admire and look up to, and most importantly, value their recommendations. If they blog or are active on Twitter or Facebook, get to know them. Let them get to know you. DO NOT SPAM THEM. Do NOT BEG them to read your book or review it or do anything at all. If you earn their respect and their attention, you will by association earn the respect and attention of their wide circle of followers and friends. If you cannot do this without being 100% genuine, then don’t do it at all.
  5. Deliver. Your books are your PRODUCT. It is your job to make sure you deliver them to the right people in the right place and that the right people know it is the right product. That means packaging your books to target your market, using the right keywords, and distributing them effectively. And never forget that YOU are a product, too. Like it or not, you will be judged. It’s a risk you take in your bid for attention. Put your best self forward.

There you have it. Marketing. No tricks, no gimmicks, no short cuts. Define your product, make a plan, commit to it, and build your base.

If anyone wants to discuss promotion, feel free to have at it in the comments.