That Point of View thing

Television and the movies have had a tremendous impact on the way we perceive things. It’s rare when a TV show or film allows the viewer to see only what one character sees. And yet, such a limited viewpoint is often touted as a principal means of linking reader and character. You only see what that character sees, only know what she’s thinking, only feel what she’s going through.

Film ignores all that. There’s a well-known scene near the end of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” in which three of the main players face off against each other in a cemetery.  The camera switches from an extreme close-up of one gritty character after another, switching faster and faster as the tempo of the music builds. Who’s going to shoot first? Eyes squint; sweat beads on foreheads; jaws clench. It’s quite suspenseful and dramatic. But it wouldn’t work all that well in a book.

You can choose to put your reader in the head of a single character or in the heads of all the characters in your story. The second option is the only one which would allow a reader to “see” all three of the faces mentioned above. If limited to a single viewpoint, only two faces could be examined, unless the point of view character is looking at a reflection.

So, which viewpoint option is better, omniscient or limited? I prefer limited, and I believe most commercial fiction today is done that way. But there is plenty of well-read material that isn’t. I suspect this is not the result of a consciously made decision. I’m guessing it was simply easier for the writer to proceed that way, and in light of the impact TV and movies have had on us, it was done without any forethought at all.

Well then, one might ask, if limited viewpoint is harder to do, why do it?

Because it gives the writer more options. If the reader knows what every player thinks at any given moment, the options for suspense become limited. Will Mary leave John? If we’re in Mary’s head, we already know the answer, but we don’t know if John does unless he somehow communicates that knowledge. As a writer using limited viewpoint, you can choose to dwell in John’s head, stewing over what decision Mary will make. And when she finally does show her intention, it’ll give John’s reaction more punch.

Another issue of concern when using omniscient viewpoint is the possibility of overdoing it. Constantly switching back and forth from one character to another can be tiring and has often been compared to watching a game of ping-pong. Mary thinks this. John thinks that. Mary decides this. John decides that, etc. Neck pain ensues.

Dedicating yourself to one viewpoint character doesn’t mean you can’t use others. It merely limits you to one per scene. Many popular novels feature only one POV character for the whole book. That’s fine, too, although personally, I’d chafe at such a restriction. I like seeing things from the bad guy’s perspective now and then. The same goes for the heroine’s lover, and maybe her boss, or even a grandparent. I’ve been known to use non-human viewpoint characters as well, dogs in particular. (Who wouldn’t want to know what’s really going on inside a canine brain?) Non-human viewpoint characters are pretty common in works of science fiction and fantasy.

In my writing classes, I often ask students to draft scenes from the perspective of a non-living entity. Their responses have included a clock, a rental cabin, and a host of other items. It’s just for fun, but it serves a purpose. It’s a quick way to gain an understanding of the technique.

–Josh

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A Necessary Evil — Part IV

So, you’ve followed all the suggestions, gotten all the feedback you could stand, made all the updates, corrections, and edits; you’ve picked all the nits, tied up all the loose threads, thanked everyone you could think of, and now it’s time to release your baby into the world. The book you hold in your hand is the culmination of hard work, possibly some of the most intense work you’ve ever done, and you want it to succeed. Right? Who wouldn’t?

One of the most common, and natural, inclinations is to organize a book launch party. These can be modest affairs or range much wider into major celebrations. The two biggest limiting factors tend to be how much money you have to spend and/or how many influential people you can persuade to attend. Many who are new to the publishing world are reluctant to shine a light on themselves. But that’s silly. No one else is likely to do it, and you deserve it. You’ve accomplished something most folks can’t even dream of doing. You’ve written a book! You’ve entered a world populated by some of the greatest names in literature. You’ve earned the right to take a bow. So take one!

Where you throw your party is up to you. They’ve been held in homes, clubhouses, schools, shopping malls, bookstores, libraries, museums, churches, outdoor pavilions, subway tunnels, public parks, sports venues, animal shelters, and virtually every kind of retail establishment one can think of. Authors tend to be creative, so the variety of books being published is legion. So, too, are the places chosen for those launch celebrations.

You’ll need to start early and concentrate on your mailing list. Hopefully, you began to build that list long before you typed “The End” on your manuscript. You’ll want to invite as many people as you can, especially if you intend to sell books. This is fuel for your book’s launch. The countdown should begin long before your invite the audience.

If your goal is to acquire reviews, you may want to be more selective. While you won’t have to pay retail for printed copies of your own book, there is still a cost involved. This is critically important if you intend to give away “author copies.” In the land of the Big Five, these are called ARCs or Advanced Review Copies. They’re often produced without a finished cover. Some are even generated before the final editing has been done. You can have pre-release, proof copies of your book printed and distribute those if you’d like. The cost is the same whether it’s a finished copy or a proof.

You’ll want those reviews posted on Amazon, first and foremost, and then anywhere else the reviewer can think of. This includes Goodreads.com, Barnes and Noble, and any other retailer carrying the book. There are also a host of book review sites online. Some are better than others, but that’s a whole different discussion. What you don’t want to do is pay for reviews. Amazon doesn’t take kindly to it, for obvious reasons. Besides, who would put any stock in a paid endorsement?

Whether you serve food and/or beverages is your choice as well. Ditto for entertainment. When I launched Treason, Treason! I offered a free, signed copy of the book to anyone who attended the festivities in period costume. Quite a few folks took me up on the offer, and we had a good many American Revolutionaries milling about during the affair. It added flair and made the evening more interesting. It also helped to draw traffic from the general public since the launch was held in a retail store on the town square.

Media contacts are important, so you’ll need to send out press releases to local papers. Don’t forget radio and TV; you never know who might turn up, especially if you can boast of a celebrity or two in attendance. That could give your book a real launch!

But what about after the party? Stay tuned….

–Josh

 

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Time’s Running Out!

There’s not much left of this year, other than a couple of football games, the usual bleating and blathering from the pols–left, right and center–and, of course, tax prep. On the positive side, a new textbook on writing is soon to be released.

I’m not quite ready to do a complete cover reveal, or even give away the title. At least, not quite yet. But I can say that, just like its three predecessors, this one will feature a nude on the cover and some helpful, mostly humorous commentary on the craft.

And while I’m painfully aware this excellent new book completely missed the Christmas sales season, there’s no reason why it can’t still be added to a writer’s resource shelf. And for good reason. In addition to a collection of tips and techniques newbies will find useful, the book contains a wealth of information on writing historical fiction and/or working that material into memoirs and other non-fiction pieces; there’s a healthy chunk devoted to writing character emotions, and there’s even some goodies on marketing what you’ve written. And it’s all nestled in a package that’ll keep you smiling.

Stay tuned. It’s coming soon!

–Josh

 

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Adios Georgia Writers Association

For years I have looked forward to the Georgia Author of the Year (GAYA) competition. Sadly, I won’t be looking forward to it in the future because the sponsoring organization, Georgia Writers Association, after 53 years, has turned its back on many, if not most, of the writers in the state.

They’ve decided that self-published authors aren’t really writers. They’ve said as much in the qualifications for their award. Here it is in their own words (here’s the link):

Can I nominate a self-published book?
No. Traditionally books and chapbooks are eligible however. These are books that underwent a selection process with the publisher, in which the author was subject to acceptance or rejection; books that were professionally edited during the publication process and the book did not require the author to pay for the publication.
 

I take this to mean that unless a writer is willing to sell the rights to his or her work, it’s somehow unworthy. Or maybe it’s unworthy because the writer was eager to get the book in print and wasn’t willing to mark time for the two to four years it takes to navigate the “traditional” approach. Then again, the subject matter may only appeal to a narrow band of readers which would not offer a publisher a big enough return on their investment. So, once again, it’s clearly unworthy. There are other possibilities, and I’ll get to them as well.

Isn’t it ironic that an organization which claims to be all about writers can’t find one capable of composing a paragraph without typos and grammatical errors? (See paragraph above.) A copy of Strunk and White (check it out here) will clarify the use of semi-colons and may also address the issue of run-on sentences. And can someone please explain what  “traditionally books” are? As for “chapbooks,” how are they not home-grown? According to Wikipedia (link):

chapbook is a type of street literature printed in early modern Europe. Produced cheaply, chapbooks were commonly small, paper-covered booklets, usually printed on a single sheet folded into books of 8, 12, 16 and 24 pages. 

Perhaps GWA should change its name to GE&AA (Georgia Editors and Agents Association) since they seem to be the ones whose interests the organization has at heart.

I have published both traditionally and on my own, and I’m quite certain the quality of the writing is the same. If anything, the newer books–those I’ve self-published–are even better. A book that’s been peddled by an agent and bought by an editor doesn’t automatically qualify as “good.” J.K. Rowling’s work was rejected many times before Scholastic picked it up. Did that act alone suddenly make her work significant? Stories like this are common and suggest that perseverance may count for more than talent.

Most people don’t realize that publishers typically do small print runs for “new” authors, those without a significant track record or a large, ready-made audience. If the books don’t sell after three or four months, the retailers tear the covers off and return them for credit. The books themselves go into a dumpster, and the titles go into oblivion. In most cases, the authors have sold their rights to those titles for modest advances, and because of that, they won’t be able to sell the book on their own or in any other format. Is it possible some writers aren’t willing to go along with that scenario? Surely I’m not the only one, but apparently, because of that, my work no longer measures up.

Agents and editors don’t possess any more insight than anyone else about what books will sell. Many will tell you their vast experience in the publishing industry has given them the ability to pick winners. It hasn’t. If that were true, far fewer books would end up in dumpsters.

Finally, I don’t want to end this post without a comment about “books that were professionally edited during the publication process.” I presume this means that any editing done prior to the book’s acceptance by a publisher is also unworthy. It must be magic; nothing else explains the difference between independent editors and those who punch a clock for one of the conglomerates. Evidently, GWA has become an arm of the mainstream publishing industry.

Why else would they disenfranchise so many people?

Whose interests are being served?

Who benefits?

[I wrote to GWA on Dec. 18th, expressed my disappointment, and asked them to reconsider this new qualification. As of this date, I have not had a response. Why not let them know how you feel about their Christmas wish for indie writers? Here’s the link.]

–Josh

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A Necessary Evil — Part III

When should your book marketing begin? For most new authors, including those who’ve managed to sell a book to a Big Five imprint, the marketing should begin as early as possible. One of your goals should be to garner as many pre-orders as you can. In other words, you want to start selling your book before it’s available.

The idea is to create demand, and when the book does become available, you’ll chalk up sales from the very first day. And the more, the better, but not for the obvious reason of earning a quick return. If you can drive enough pre-sales, the online retailers will notice, especially Amazon, and they’ll work your title into their own in-house marketing designs.  Amazon has more product placement algorithms than anyone else, and another of your goals should be to take advantage of them.

So your first buying targets are the fans you already have. In the case of a first-time author, these are friends, family, and co-workers. Add acquaintances who might be interested as well as anyone who follows you on social media. Think back to old connections, former co-workers, school chums, or whole graduating classes. If these names and email addresses aren’t already in a list of some kind, build one now!

Just having the list isn’t enough, of course. You have to give the people on it a reason to order your book early. You might consider a price reduction of some kind, say half off if ordered by a certain date. Or you might provide a PDF copy of the book. If it’s fiction, you might consider providing a short prequel or maybe deleted scenes. If it’s non-fiction, you could consider a study guide or a recording of an interview with an expert–maybe even yourself!

When it comes to rewards and bonuses, the trick is determining who actually placed an order. The online retailers won’t divulge that information, so you’ll have to be more creative. One of the easiest ways to solve the problem is to have buyers email a copy of their receipt to an email address which you will supply in your sales copy. Then, whenever you receive a receipt, you can reply with an email that either has the bonus as an attachment or which provides links to your bonus material online. Either way, the buyer gets feedback very quickly, and you can keep track of sales.

Make a note of who actually bought your book in a new mailing list. These are folks who’ve already shown an interest in your work. You’ll want to go back to them in the future with your next offering. Think of them as VIPs, Very Important Purchasers.

Getting pre-sales isn’t the only reason for having and using your contact list. You’ll also want to enlist their aid in promoting your book. So when you send emails to them, don’t be shy about asking them to give you a mention in their social media. Obviously, you have to believe in what you’ve written; you can’t go into it half-heartedly. By the same token, you don’t want to try and be someone you aren’t. Be yourself!

There’s a reason you’re excited about the book. Share that! You don’t need some Madison Avenue type to draft fancy schmancy ad copy. Discuss the subject matter if it’s non-fiction, or the characters, plot, or location if it’s fiction. If reading it is apt to change someone’s life, say so! Share what you learned while writing it, where and/or how you researched it, who you talked to during the process, or how working on it changed your life. If you’re excited about the book, and you’re able to share that excitement, chances are the people on your list will feel the same way.

The most successful pre-sale campaigns send out the first email about a month before the book’s release date. These are typically followed by additional emails designed to keep building enthusiasm for the debut.

How often you should send something depends on how interesting you can make your message and what extras you can offer. Non-fiction books on topics of interest to specific groups–retirees living on fixed budgets, government employees, people with dyslexia, anyone who went to summer camp, etc.–might lend themselves to excerpts, lists of some kind, or other content-based bonus material. Works of fiction may be a bit harder to plan for, but with a little imagination, you can find ways. Cover reveals, contests, giveaways, promotional items, etc. are all possibilities.

Unfortunately, some people won’t join in your enthusiasm, and they won’t be happy about receiving any email from you that feels like a sales pitch. So it’s important to let them opt out of future mailings. Reputable services such as MailChimp make it easy for people to do that. Honor those requests. It’s the fastest and easiest way to prevent potential problems. Remember, you’re not just building an address list of people you know; you’re building a database of fans and followers.

You’ll need them for your next book.

Stay tuned. There’s more!

–Josh

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A Necessary Evil — Part II

What’s your book about? While that seems like an easy question, many authors have trouble coming up with a quick answer. What too often comes out is something like: “It’s about this guy who finds a magic tuba while digging through his great uncle’s attic. Of course, he doesn’t know it’s magic, so he’s not prepared when he blows on it and a genie comes out. Trouble is, it’s not a very nice genie. It’s been trapped in the tuba for ages, and now it’s out for revenge. Meanwhile, the guy’s mom is trying to get back home after escaping from prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Problem is, everyone thinks she’s a pathological liar, but that’s okay because….”

Is the book about a magic tuba? Or is it about the genie? Or maybe it’s about the poor shlub who finds them. Or his mother. Or maybe it’s about how the evil genie tries to seduce the girl next door. So maybe it’s a coming of age story. For the genie. Or maybe the girl next door. Who the hell knows? As the writer, you should certainly know. Alas, it simply ain’t so for way too many novices.

It used to be that only bad writers with money to burn would self-publish. Back then there was no “traditional” route to publication; there was only “the” route. Anyone wanting to see their stuff in print had to deal with agents or wrangle an appointment to chat with an editor at a writer’s conference or fan convention. Back then–and today for anyone still trying to sell a book to a Big Five subsidiary–the missing link was the “elevator pitch.” This amounted to a 30-second summary of the book packaged in such a way as to grab the attention of an editor or agent when trapped in an elevator at one of the aforementioned gatherings. Millions of such pitches have been cast in hotel bars, too, among other places.

Self-publishing has changed a lot of that, but there’s still a need for a pitch, even if you’re not trying to get a deal with a big publisher. [Don’t look at me like that. Just lemme explain.] Your elevator pitch might just make a dandy back cover blurb, and a well-executed book blurb is essential to a profitable sales campaign. It’s nearly as important as a great front cover.

If writing one seems like a daunting task, try using this formula for starters. You can revise it to suit your needs later, but for now, this should get you going. Just fill in the {blanks} as best you can.

When {identity} {character name} {does something}, {there’s a consequence}. Now, with {time limit/restrictions}, {character} must {do something heroic} to {reach a goal} or {lose something meaningful}.

So, f’rinstance:

When rookie FBI agent Filbert Feeney finds an ancient book of spells, he uses one to catch the top criminals on the agency’s Most Wanted List. But there’s a price to be paid for using the magic, and it will cost him his life–and his soul–unless he finds a way to reverse the spell without letting the criminals get away.

Here’s one based on the Leonardo DiCaprio film, “The Revenant,” released in 2015: When legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass is injured in a brutal bear attack while exploring an uncharted wilderness in 1823, he is left for dead by his best friend. Now, grief-stricken and fueled by vengeance against the confidant who abandoned him, Glass must survive the winter terrain to return home to his family.

Will it work for every story? Probably not. But it will help you shape your thinking about what needs to go in a blurb. More importantly, it might just give customers a solid reason for buying your book.

Your blurb, in various formats, will be needed to flesh out ads and other promotional material. And yes, you might even need to use it in an elevator when you meet some movie mogul on the lookout for a new blockbuster.

A good book blurb is the next essential piece of your book marketing campaign. You won’t go far without it. In fact, if you lack a good blurb, your book and all the hard work you put into it, won’t go anywhere.

We’ll investigate yet another piece of the writer’s marketing puzzle next time around, so stay tuned.

–Josh

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