Thursday, September 27, 2012

Post-UB thoughts on self-promotion

I spent a week talking about self-publishing over at UB. The last post was about promotions, which a lot of writers dread. Myself included. Self-promotion isn't easy, but you need to do it.

I dread housework -- but that has to be done, too.

I strongly believe that there is an audience for anything. Any movie, any book, any music album, there's a paying audience out there who will enjoy it. The difficult part is finding them and telling them why your book/movie/album would be enjoyable for them.

Everything about self-promotion ties into either finding your audience, or communicating with them.

And yes, it's a lot of work because there are seven billion people out there and even with all of the internet's gee-whiz social networks, those audiences are hard to find.

And no, it's not easy to communicate why your book is interesting in the small amount of time people will give you before they tune out or are distracted by some shiny thing. There's a dose of luck involved too, which you can't plan for.

They say the first rule of self-promoting is to get out there and be a real person with real interests and real input to give. I'm not so good at that; I read many blogs, each day, and have nothing to add. Move on to the next one. There are many blogs that I simply can't post comments to (I wish I knew why, and yes I've tried to get around it.) There are some online communities that I wander through on occasion, such as Absolute Write. I tweet once or twice a day. I mark books I've read, on Goodreads, but don't have enough opinion to write a review. Pinterest has fallen off my radar for a variety of reasons.

Maybe I'm not a real person with real interests. :)

But my audience is out there somewhere. I know a few things about them: they like stories that move, active characters, authenticity and detail, darkness without being hopeless, and a dash of whimsy.

I just need to find them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BTW, this is going to be horrible

I recently finished Disciple, Part V, which turned out to be an unusual story -- it contains three chunks, and one is a novella (37k), one is a short story (10.5k) and one is... what are you (6.5k) anyway...?

In any case, the same plot structure applies to each chunk as in a full novel: inciting incident, first plot point, subsequent plot points building to a climax and then a resolution.

The thing that I'm going to talk about being: I nearly dropped the ball on both climaxes, this time. Luckily, my gut notified me that it was going to fix that, and the phrase it used is going to become part of my stock vocabulary:
BTW, this is going to be horrible

This is what did NOT happen.
Photo by Gavin Spencer, on
because -- and I'm not clear why, no -- I had plotted out both the novella and the short story with these soft, squishy scenes for climaxes. Maybe it was because I was still recovering from the end of Part IV and I wanted to hug my characters, tell them everything was going to be okay, and give them hot chocolate with marshmallows. 

Well, around here you don't get that: you get pummeled with snowballs and... no, no spoilers.

Why do I say the scenes were squishy? There was a lack of tension because the stakes were not high enough. Stakes being all those things that the reader is supposed to worry about: the character's survival, physical health, mental wellness, current and future happiness, etc. I generally put stakes in two categories:
  • Long-term: a character's survival and happiness over the course of the next few months/years/stories -- including the rest of their lives. 
  • Short-term: a character's immediate survival and well-being. This covers the next few chapters, possibly to the end of this story. 
A scene can have an impact on the long-term stakes, short-term, or both. When it comes to a climactic scene, the more the merrier. I would go so far as to say that a climax that doesn't threaten both short- and long-term well-being isn't much fun.

In both the novella's and the short story's climax, I had laid out how important this was to the long-term stakes of the entire Disciple story... but neither one offered much threat on the short-term scale. Surviving the scene was not an issue, and to be honest one of them was a little too close to fun rather than tense.

Not that my characters aren't allowed to have fun, mind you, but these were serious situations with serious implications. In both cases, the antagonists needed to bring their A game and establish what they were willing to do to get their way. They're here to win, too, after all.

But the short-term threat can't be something so unexpected and irrelevant that it's obviously tacked on to raise the tension. While I'm revising this raw pile of Part V into a first draft, I'll be trying to give the reader a feeling that there's another shoe that's going to drop.

How many things are at stake in your story's climax?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Perceptual distortions in combat

I posted over at Science in My Fiction today -- more detail on perceptual distortions reported by people who have been in combat situations.

This is related to a popular post about panic back in February -- well, it gets a lot of panic-related Google search hits, at least.

This also ties into the O entry from the A to Z Challenge: On Killing, and my attempts to understand institutionalized killing. Or at least the rationalizing that goes into it, and what the men who are doing it need from those around them in order to handle it psychologically.

I mean, it helps that I could build a society where the main religion is not pacifistic by nature (so that an OK for violence has to be tacked on, as with Christianity) and there is both a justification for and an expectation of certain levels of violence at both a personal and a societal level. And there isn't the mental dissonance of a universal love thy neighbor message. Though how much impact that message has can be hard to judge...

Let's stop before this turns into a ramble about societal structures that permit violence. I'll try to save that for a real blog post.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

If I can't trust the online reviews...?

I'm late to weigh in on the kerfuffle over paid reviews and using sock puppets to write your own reviews. So I figure you already know why it's happening.

I understand why authors pay for reviewers and use sock puppets. I sympathize, even. There's so much out there to distinguish yourself from -- it's a sea of people screaming for attention, waving promotional flags, and shooting off rockets. The deck is stacked against you, and it's a huge deck.

A blogger posted recently that he was struck by how he can't trust any online review of a product, when he thinks about it. And that's true. Who are you going to believe: fifty reviews on Amazon, or your mother saying "I couldn't put this down"? My mother and I don't always like the same books, of course, but there are a lot fewer variables involved in deducing whether I'd agree with her than whether I'd agree with fifty random people who may or may not actually exist.

It made me think of Pandora. uses a "genome" (Music Genome Project) to analyze the music you tell it you like, and introduces you to new music based on that. It's done a good job on me, overall. It figured out that I like David Bowie, on its own, and it introduced me to a number of musicians who I wouldn't have found otherwise. It's had trouble figuring out why I don't like Led Zeppelin, but I have trouble explaining that in any case. (I ought to. I just don't. Pass the Pink Floyd, please.)

For example, here's why Pandora said it picked a particular Celldweller song for me: Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features house roots, four-on-the-floor beats, electronica influences, danceable beats and affected backup vocals. Now, I don't know what those terms mean in a technical sense, but Pandora's right. It's a track I like.

Maybe we need a system like that for books. TvTropes has been kind enough to create a definition for nearly every story element under the sun, so the "genome" exists already. We just need a way to tag stories appropriately and software that takes your profile of likes and matches you up.

Because I have as much trouble finding books I like as anyone else. In all the upheaval that ebooks have brought to the publishing world, there's one definitely good aspect: the free samples. I've downloaded dozens of free samples of ebooks, and I've bought exactly one of them. There's a second that I've been meaning to buy, but my physical TBR pile is a big enough problem.

If people are worried about the honesty of the reviews they're seeing, I can be rigorously honest about why those dozens of samples failed to sell me their books. But I'm not here to be a grouch.

LOL: look for my new blog, Book Grouch, wherein I will beat up your sample... submit your sample and wear your honestly earned bruises proudly...

So: if we can't trust online reviews, is there a better way? Or is risk simply a part of life?

In other news, I am blogging about self-publishing over at Unicorn Bell this week, so see you next Tuesday.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Unicorn Bell week: self-publishing

I will be posting about self-publishing at Unicorn Bell this week!

Index of self-publishing posts:
Nuts and Bolts
More Nuts and Bolts
Am I Ready?

I will post tomorrow, because I wrote it a while ago and it's getting stale, but not on Thursday. Meanwhile, thinking about what's next. Finished the raw draft of Part V last night...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Three tips for learning Photoshop

Michael Offutt (of Slipstream fame) commented on Tuesday's post about getting comfortable in Photoshop Elements and how Adobe's Creative Suite is big and scary (true) -- so, a few thoughts.

Photoshop is a huge, powerful piece of software. I've been using it for 15+ years and I still learn new things about it every so often. I have never used Photoshop Elements, which I understand to be a pared-down version of the full monster. So bear in mind that these comments are based on the full Photoshop. 

If you want to teach yourself to use Photoshop, there are tons of how-to books out there. Just jumping in and playing around with the filters and the healing brush is fun, too. But if you really want to get comfortable in P'shop, here are some things I advise you focus on mastering. Not just playing around with.

Selection tools
To be completely honest, upwards of 75% of the time I spend in P'shop is just selecting the pixels I want to do something with. It can be surprisingly difficult. There are dozens of ways to make selections, but these are the ones I've found most useful.
  1. Pen tool - Take the time to get good at adjusting those Bezier corners. They're flexible and very precise -- the pen tool draws a vector path, not a line of pixels. This skill will serve you well in Illustrator, too.
  2. Quick mask - Not to be confused with masks in general. What quick mask does, basically, is allow you to use any of the brushes, gradients, etc., as selection tools. Using gradients for selections is very useful for making gradual changes to an image. 
  3. Lassos and the magic wand - They have their uses and they can be quick, but in low-contrast or complicated images they can become frustrating. Of them, I use the magnetic lasso most -- but it needs a high-contrast edge to work best.
Color correction
My only regret in being a print-oriented person is that I was trained to CMYK color correction. I can look at a photo and tell you which of the four primary colors is off and how to fix it.

The online world runs on RGB, though, which is a whole different universe that I do not understand. So I'm advising you to start with RGB and build up experience with color correcting in that gamut.

The main tools you want to master for any color correction are Curves and Levels, which are under Image>Adjustments. You can apply these individually or as adjustment layers so that you can tweak them later (I recommend the latter. See the next point for why.)

Layers and masking
The Layers palette is your friend. Imagine each layer as being a sheet of clear plastic that you've laid over your original picture. You can paint on it, make adjustments, mask, etc., and then you can turn it on or off at will. 

One thing you'll learn quickly in P'shop: you want to keep your options open. You want maximum flexibility, and layers give you flexibility. (Putting your color corrections on layers is included in this.)

Masks are pieces of art that block out parts of the picture below -- like actual masks do. P'shop masks can be large or small, sharp-edged or fuzzy, transparent or opaque, and they can blend in a variety of ways. Masks are one reason that you spent so much time mastering your selection tools, because once you have that selection you can turn it into a mask and play around with that bit of your picture with impunity.

Masks are applied to layers. They are independent of the layer's content, though, and can be edited separately (or together) for maximum effect. It's very much worth your time to learn to think of masks and layers as separate things that interact with each other as well as with the underlying image. 

And now you can see how easy it is to go on and on about P'shop. I spewed all this out in about half an hour, and I didn't even go into any real detail. 

If anyone's interested, I could do the same for InDesign, but that's not a program that anyone's going to buy on a lark and play around with. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Creating eBooks

When I decided to publish myself, I knew I'd need an editor and a cover artist -- and I planned to do all the graphics myself. I put the money I'd spend on that into paying for a better editor and artist. I'd never created an ebook before, but how hard could it be...?

Attempt #1: InDesign CS5
I've been making a living as a graphic designer for something like 15 years now -- print-oriented, got into it by way of proofreading, and I've been a one-woman prepress department. Naturally, in generating the layout for the print version of Disciple, Part I, I took it to InDesign and threw it down. No fuss, no muss.

Online, I went looking for how to export InDesign files to EPUB (the format used by non-Kindle readers.) I quickly found that while Adobe did put together a pile of helpful PDFs and web pages at some point, very few of them are still available and you tend to get dumped onto the "You need to buy CS6!" page.

After six hours of tweaking options and slogging through the results, I had an EPUB that made my Nook reader sprain its brain every time it tried to open the file. I might have been able to fix the files, but my butt-cheeks were beginning to ache.

Attempt #2: HTML from scratch
I kept Guido Henkel's excellent guide to creating an EPUB from scratch open and used jEdit (which was probably overkill) to create an HTML file with a simple, embedded CSS.

Calibre kindly added all the metadata and the cover art, then output it as an EPUB that looks lovely in my Nook reader. Next up: MOBI conversion, which Calibre will do too.

Clear winner: build it from scratch.
Photo by Pablo Medina,
free at
Total time invested: 3 hours, and all it needs is the final cover art. Seriously. I'm the kind of person who never pays for free software, and I'm going to send Calibre $20.

If you're comfortable with basic HTML coding -- I didn't use anything more complicated than style and span commands -- you can do this. Guido's guide includes a sample CSS that you can copy/paste and then tweak to your liking. Calibre does all the heavy lifting. The whole thing was quite painless.

Needless to say, I'm rather disappointed in InDesign. But I'm over another hurdle and closer to publishing Disciple.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A 15-second word sketch

In the last blog post, I talked about voice in a little snippet of Disciple. I also want to draw a connection here between this and my blog post about seeing. So here is a bit of context for that snippet. This is an example of my "practice seeing" put to use -- this is a 15-second word sketch:
He fixed me with a steady look and spoke slowly. “We meant to bring the Elect, but lacking him — this is no place for a girl that’s not discipled to Saint Woden. So keep your hood up. We’re hunting lamia. That is what you’ve been told.”

My head cocked, on reflex, weighing that. There was more to come, I didn’t doubt. “Yes, m’lord,” I responded, quietly. “I see.”

I thought I saw the corner of his mouth pick up a little, at that.
What I'm trying to sketch, here, is the connection that my MC making with another character -- by way of what she's not being told, the existence of which she's acknowledging. This establishes that they understand each other, without them saying it to each other and, more importantly, without me telling the reader straight out.

That's the really important part, because I dislike (on a gut level) narratives that spoon-feed me everything that's going on. I don't want to be told, in narration, "We agreed that there would be more to the story later." The characters saying it out loud is even worse. I want to figure these things out for myself.

The body language does most of the work. I show it to the reader because we are all sensitive to body language (or we ought to be) and I trust them to see what I see. This makes me prone to writing down my characters' every twitch, though, so I have to keep an eye on it.

I've now spent two blog posts unpacking the content of a hundred words (less?) in a minor scene -- and I bet it's not much surprise that I could do that. I bet you could do it with any hundred words of your story: explain what's going on grammatically, its voice, the character-building context, the world-building ("a girl that's not discipled to Saint Woden"?), how it's moving the plot... I didn't even get to those last two.

Part of that is because as its creator, I could talk about my story all day long. It's also because every bit of a story is important; every bit has several jobs to do and should be treated as such.

One more note: the voice I use in Disciple is very different from the voice I use in my science fiction stories, but no matter what I write, I'm always going to assume that the readers are paying attention and seeing the things that I don't tell them directly. That's a part of my personal voice that I've identified and I'm going to stick to it.

What aspects of your personal voice have you identified?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Final polish: voice vs. grammar

I'm putting the final polish on Disciple, Part I: For Want of a Piglet. Then I'm going to publish it.

The line edits I got from my freelance editor (Debra Doyle, respectful namaste) are great. She targeted the places where I was genuinely unclear or poorly structured, and didn't complain about all the stuff I did to create a narrative voice.

A little red-inking that I did a while back.
Which is difficult. I certainly have trouble discerning between Disciple's voice and what's unclear, which is why a line edit is a must. It got me to thinking about what voice is and how we balance it with clarity and grammatical correctness.

Voice is a difficult thing to define, from what I've seen. It's hard to talk about in a concrete way, but I'm going to take a stab at it. Here's a random snippet of Disciple:
My head cocked, on reflex, weighing that. There was more to come, I didn’t doubt. “Yes, m’lord,” I responded, quietly. “I see.”
Now, when it comes to grammar, sentence structure, and voice, I tend to be more instinctive than rigorous. I let my gut make the call, most of the time. My gut says there's nothing wrong with that excerpt. OMG adverb! Yes. And an adverbial phrase, too. That's a different blog post. Let's also skip the first sentence for a moment and consider the second one. I could have said:
I didn't doubt there was more to come. 
and that would be fine and correct. It would fit the voice, even. My gut made this call, and now that I'm looking at it with my brain I'd have to say that I structured the sentence as I did because the emphasis here isn't on what's to come, it's on the narrator's lack of doubt. (The last thing in a sentence carries the most weight.)

The first sentence is more complicated and potentially unclear. I could have said:
My head cocked, on reflex, as I weighed that.
but I dropped two words to shorten the sentence. It's a quick action, a snap judgement. It's got a good, snappy verb in cocked and the implied action of weighing. The next sentence is slower, as the MC thinks a bit, and the verbs are was and didn't. Then we get into what she actually says aloud, which in my head has always been a bit slow and thoughtful. That's probably why I used a big, soft dialogue tag like responded and slowed it down further with an adverb.

Two stylistic sins, by most standards. Get the cat-o'-nine-tails and flog this writer! I will plead voice in my own defense -- but that's not a card you want to pull often. Voice is not an excuse for unclear, sloppy writing. I think you can earn an adverb and a soft dialogue tag with five thousand words of good, tight stuff, but that's only my opinion.

The quote above is just a small snippet; the reader breezes through this in no time. Which is as it should be. This is all supposed to be invisible under normal circumstances. This blog post constitutes far more thought than I usually put into three sentences. I've also slid from talking about grammar into touching on rhythm and pacing at the sentence level -- which is part of voice, too.

Stay tuned for another topic I'm going to pull into this snippet...
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