Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Top 5 Grammar Mistakes, supposedly

I got an email from Grammarly.com recently about the "top writing mistakes that even the most seasoned novelists make in their work." Now, their methods did not particularly impress me and they haven't even attempted to prove that the writers sampled were seasoned novelists... but their list incited a few thoughts because I'm putting the final polish on Disciple, Part IV.
  1. Missing comma
  2. Run-on sentences
  3. Comma splice
  4. Comma misuse
  5. Definite vs. Indefinite article use
This list was generated by their auto-proofreading software, so another grain of salt is in order. Still, there are some interesting points. 

#1 and #4 -- in my opinion, commas can be argued about. They're a matter of personal style, to some degree. I view them as a pacing mechanism in a sentence and I use them to indicate a very slight pause in a thought or in dialogue. That's on top of their mechanical functions in separating out lists and parceling clauses. For example: 

The corner store opened on time that morning, which was a first, and I bought a six-pack of beer.

Commas in that sentence enclose a clause which could drop out of the sentence without impacting its readability at all. "Which was a first" is an aside, an editorial comment, and when I read it I hear a slight pause as the narrator turns to look me in the eye and snark for a moment. If you drop the clause out...

The corner store opened on time that morning and I bought a six-pack of beer. 

...you don't need a comma, but I'm not nit-picky enough to complain of someone put one before "and." 

#2 and #3 are two manifestations of the same problem: badly built sentences. Of all the bad ways to build sentences, run-ons and comma splices seem the most obvious and clunky to me so either Grammarly's software can't reliably detect the rest or first drafts are messier than I thought. 

That store never opens on time, the owner's out drunk every night and too hung-over to get up. 
His beer selection is good though he gets that much right. 

Both of those sentences are so easy to fix that I had some trouble writing them incorrectly. Are these really so common? 

Which leaves #5: "a" and "an" vs. "the." This one is actually a good point because there's a power in the definite article "the." It assumes foreknowledge. Insinuates importance.

He was the knight for the job. 

Conversely, "a/an" de-emphasizes. It can completely shift the meaning of the sentence.

He was a knight for a job.

These are very subtle, too, since they're tiny words and very common.

I've put text into Grammarly a few times and yes, it's much better than Word's auto-correct. It certainly has the impartiality that can be helpful when you've been staring at a story for too long.

Whether it's good enough to sift out the finer points of definite and indefinite articles... mmm, I'd have to try it out some more. Has anyone here used Grammarly? What was your impression?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Professional courtesy among artists

As I'm looking at Faiz's almost-final proof for the cover of Disciple, Part IV, I'm thinking about cover art again. (Previous post for Indie Life.)

Past experience
I was involved in the tabletop gaming (RPGs, you've probably heard of D&D) industry for a while in the early 90s. That was my first experience in working with artists, and it taught me the most valuable characteristics of a good artist:
  • gets the art in by the deadline
  • if not that, contacts you as soon as s/he knows it will be late
  • sends the art at the size/format you asked for
  • did what you asked, within the boundaries of artistic interpretation
Several times, production was held up by late artwork. More than once, I had to go to press with something that was obviously terrible because it was so late. Artists disappeared off the face of the earth. Needless to say, I was not working with professionals and generally, it was a headache.

Then again, I wasn't paying for professionals, so no surprise that I didn't get them.

How much will a cover run?
Your cover art is extremely important. I cannot emphasize that enough. It will be judged at a glance and steer readers toward, or away from, your work. You will use it in all of your promotional materials. It will be sitting on Amazon's virtual shelves for years. This is the flash that your story delivers the substance behind. Make it good.

Cover art should not be cheap. You get what you pay for. Yes, you can get a stock-made cover from various graphic artists for a low price... do you really want to share a cover with other books? Haven't you put enough work into your story that it deserves its own identity?

And an artist deserves to be compensated fairly. Like writers, they tend to fight their way to the bottom of the price barrel and have trouble asking for the pay they deserve. Personally, I don't want to contribute to that.

I've been finding my cover artists at DeviantArt.com. The amount of talent over there is astounding. I can tell you from experience that posting a job offer in DeviantArt's forums with a $500 price tag on it will bring out the near-professional-level artists. And the aspiring less-talented ones too, but a sifting through a few dozen portfolios will hone your eye toward the signs of quality and whose style fits the style of your book best.

Are you kidding?
$500 is a lot. Too much? Well, would you sell your manuscript and all its rights for $500? That's what you're asking the artist to do -- this is a work for hire and you're buying all the rights to it. (The artist should retain the right to use this work in his portfolio, though.) You're asking for a few dozen hours of work that are backed up by years of practice to master artistic tools and find a personal style.

One law applies equally to writers and artists: in order to validly break the rules, you must first show mastery of the rules. Writers are often shot down for incorrectly mis-using grammar, non-linear story structure, and the like -- though this is open to interpretation and personal taste of course. Likewise, artists can bend the "rules" of visual presentation if they do it well. Like writing, it takes significant time and work to master visual art.

Also like writing, it's tough to earn a living at visual art. When was the last time you paid money to simply look at a painting? (was the artist still alive?)

Professional courtesy
Cheap book covers don't sit easy with me. I know how much sweat, blood, and tears get invested into a story. I know how much a freelance editor costs. Don't skimp on the cover, and don't be a cheapskate. We're all artists trying to get paid for something we love, here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Indie life: fishing for readers

Welcome to Indie Life -- the second Wednesday of the month! Time to talk about the realities of self-publishing in the middle of the ongoing sea change that ebooks have wrought.

Back in my very first Indie Life post I offered some thoughts on ebook pricing. Firstly, holy crap I've been doing Indie Life for almost a year now -- and I just found out this is the last Indie Life (more on that later). Secondly, I want to talk about why I made Disciple, Part I available for free. Thirdly, a look at the impact it's had.

First one's free
I was going to call the strategy a "loss leader" but the addiction model is more accurate. It's long been attributed to drug dealers, but I ran into this strategy the first time I walked into a Krispy Kreme shop. After watching that mesmerizing machine and following donuts on their journey through the proofer, the fryer, and the frosting, one of the smiling employees picked up a fresh, hot donut and handed it to me.

Oil. Sugar. Warm as a fresh kill. Every predatory button in my hindbrain got mashed and I was hooked. That was no accident, on Krispy Kreme's part. Hats off to their strategy. (I can only eat them fresh off the machine, though.)

Getting back to Disciple, my purpose in giving away Part I for free is to hook readers. Yes, anybody could download a 20% sample for free when it was selling for 99 cents, but giving them the whole novella gets the hook in deeper. Instead of stopping at a random point in the middle, they reach the open-ended question at the end and the cover of Part II is right there to click on.

Addiction needs reinforcement
What if I'd made Part I free when I first published it? Sure, that probably would have gotten me more downloads, but the readers would not have had something to buy when they got to that open-ended question at the end. They would've had to wait, and that means they could easily have forgotten all about me by the time Part II came out.

Crunchy numbers
Disciple, Part I became free on Amazon somewhere around December 30th. Total free downloads for January, at Amazon, was 1,424. Here's my updated sales chart (its previous incarnation):

Impact? Yes. And Part IV comes out March 1st -- not that far off. Hopefully, readers will remember. Some of them have joined my newsletter list to get a reminder. I put a link to that at the end of each book, too.

Amazon reset Part I to 99 cents at the end of January. I'm working on fixing that. 

Last Indie Life week
I got an email yesterday informing me that Indelibles is pulling the plug and inviting everyone to join the Insecure Writer's Group... which is all well and good, but insecurity is not a topic that particularly interests me. I want to keep talking about the realities of self-publishing, so I think I will. Does anyone want to join me?

Disciple, Part I is FREE at Nook • Smashwords • more!
(Kindle/MOBI format is free at Smashwords)

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