My Nonovels Experiment

photo credit: jdlasica via photopin cc

photo credit: jdlasica via photopin cc

So, I’m always looking for new outlets for my writing, and I recently ran across a site called Nonovels. It’s an interesting little site, made more interesting to me because it’s trying to do some really cool things. The guiding idea behind the site is fairly simple. A lot of people who won’t read novels, or simply don’t have the time to read novels, will read short stories. However, no one wants to read crappy short stories. Nonovels aims to provide solutions to both issues, while taking advantage of the explosion in mobile technologies.
A big part of the site is a set of training courses, most of them free, that center around short story best practices. The courses are primarily designed for beginning writers, but they do offer very sound advice. It’s the kind of advice that most fiction writers, me included, learn through extended, painful, trial-and-error. For example, one piece of advice they offer is to limit the number of settings you employ in a short story. This might be obvious to seasoned writers, but not so much for novice writers.

To be fair, like most writing rules, that one isn’t set in stone. Some writers can and do violate this piece of advice. I’ve done it. It is possible to sketch an authentic setting with a few well-written lines, but it’s not easy. As a guide for early forays into short fiction, though, that advice is invaluable. The other advice they offer on characterization, voice, point of view and so on follows the same essential principle: don’t overcomplicate things.

The other thing they offer, which is the selling point for me, is dealing with the entire formatting and submission process to turn the short stories into Kindle-ready products on Amazon. They take a percentage off the top of the royalties for this service and, to me, it’s worth it. Yes, I agree, the dedicated writer can do that formatting and submitting and cover creation. It is, however, time consuming and takes me away from the writing.

The base price they set on Amazon for Nonovels short stories is $2.99. I blinked at that, right at first, until I considered everything they’re doing in terms of managing submissions and offering training. Plus, it’s still a heck of a lot cheaper than any Kindle-ready fiction from one of the big publishing houses. What you’re really paying for is helping to develop a cohort of writers that will, with any luck, produce work that transcends the current crop of Fifty Shades of Terrible Writing and that Twilight horror.

Like most writers, I have ideas that don’t nest comfortably in a pigeonhole. That is great from a creative standpoint. Unfortunately, those stories generally prove difficult, if not impossible, to place in publications. So, over the next few months, Nonovels is going to be the place where those stories go to live.

I’ve got one short story live already. It’s a shiny, new Contingency Jones story called, “An Afternoon’s Work,” and you can get it over on Amazon. For Prime subscribers, you can borrow it free. I’m also working on a follow-up Contingency Jones story that I’m hoping to get finished and live sometime in the next few weeks, so keep your eyes open.
I’ll keep you all updated as this experiment moves forward and the Nonovels site develops and expands.

Are you on Nonovels? Got some thoughts on this experiment or the Nonovels site? Leave a comment and let me know!

5 Tips for the Aspiring Writer (or any other creative type)

photo credit: laughlin via photopin cc

photo credit: laughlin via photopin cc

As someone who’s been at this making a living at a creative endeavor thing for a while, I feel the occasional compulsion to offer “sage wisdom” from my time in the trenches. Like all advice, you can and should take or leave whatever parts of this advice suit you.

  1. What you’re doing matters. With that said, it may not matter as much as you’d like or to the people you want it to matter to. Being creative and putting it out there for the world is the definition of leading by example. Even if your book or art or music isn’t changing the lives of millions of people, if you’ve ever gotten a positive review on Amazon, sold a painting or received some likes on that YouTube video where you did a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” (and kudos to you if you did cover that song, you madman) you reached someone. You jolted them out of their grind enough for them to take the time to say something or do something. That is huge! Don’t underestimate it.
  2. You should expect poverty. Being wildly successful and making (insert your fantasy sum of money here) is unlikely. There is no accounting for why some things sync with the cultural or international zeitgeist and some things don’t. By all rational measures, The Shawshank Redemption should have been the highest grossing, most Oscar-winning movie of the last 20 years. Every movie with the name “Twilight” attached to it should have made exactly $0 and gotten relentless trashed by anyone with the mental development of the average 3rd grader. Yet, Shawshank bombed at the box office and was ruthlessly snubbed by the Academy. Twilight was, as of late 2013, closing in on $5.8 billion in total revenue and still being defended by fans with a cult-like zeal. Maybe that’ll be you, but don’t bank on it.
  3. You can make a living with your creative endeavors. It is possible to achieve that goal. It isn’t easy. It isn’t always reliable. It is, however, entirely possibly to make enough to live on from year to year. Tens of thousands of people are doing it right now.
  4. You’re not as good as you believe you are. I know, I know, that sounds mean and cruel, but it’s almost always true. It’s the rare bird whose actual skills are in line with their perception of their skills. In the early days, you’re almost never as good as you imagine. Later…much, much later…the asymmetry sometimes goes the other way, but assume your work is about 50-75% worse than you think.
  5. Persistence pays off. Creative fields are a nightmare to break into because the margins are wafer thin for most of the places that buy that kind of work. They aren’t looking to bring along a promising talent. They’re looking to slap recognizable names onto the cover of the magazine or the front of the theater because that brings in paying customers. If you give things some time and you’ve got any real talent, you will start to book gigs, get clients, sell stories and see your work out in the world.

There you have it. Five tips for aspiring creative types. Did I miss something you think should be on here? Think I’ve got something on here that shouldn’t be? Got a good recipe for Tiramisu? Drop a comment below and let me hear about it.

8 Steps for Getting Amazon to Send Customers an eBook Update Email

ereader screen with text

photo credit: Andrew Mason via photopin cc

If you’re like me, you occasionally revisit your kindle content. You probably find errors that need to be repaired or you want to add content to the eBook, such as preview chapters for a new book. While the process to for making changes to the content is pretty straightforward, getting Amazon to send out an update email is less straightforward.

Amazon offers some instructions for it, but they aren’t exactly clear as glass. To begin with, while the update to the content is more or less or less automatic (assuming no critical errors in the file), that’s all that happens. New customers get the updated version of the file, but anyone who bought it before the update is still wandering around with the old version.

To get Amazon to send out an update, you need to inform them that you’ve made the change. This isn’t straightforward either. Here’s the steps you’ll need to take to make this happen.

  1. Go the instruction page
  2. Scroll down to the bottom of that page where you’ll see a “Contact Us” button to the left.

It looks like this: Amazon Contact Button

  1. That will take you to a menu that looks like this:

Amazon contact menu

(Unfortunately, there is no update email option, so you have to gamble a bit here.)

  1. I recommend selecting the Publish Your Book option and selecting the Corrections tab. It should look something like this:

Corrections option

  1. Fill out the subject line with something along these lines: “Requesting Customer Update Email”
  2. Enter the details in the box below
  3. Be sure to include salient information, including the title or ASIN number and the major changes you made to the book
  4. Send

It’s important to note that this process is not a guarantee. Amazon determines whether or not the changes you made constitute a “major” or “minor” change. Major changes result in a customer update email. Minor changes do not.

Assuming Amazon does send out an email, it can serve as an excellent way to draw reader attention back to you and your work. You might even pick up some sales for your other work.

The Difficulties of Writing a Novel Organically

photo credit: rthakrar via photopin cc

photo credit: rthakrar via photopin cc

Writing novels is hard work. Everyone who thinks otherwise is either not trying hard enough or has never tried it at all. None of which to say writing novels isn’t fun. It is, with the possible exception of some manga series and Aaron Sorkin’s run of scripts on The West Wing, the most expansive form of fiction a writer can embrace. You get to take all the space you need to tell the story you want to tell. That is incredibly liberating, but can also be problematic for an organic writer like me.

I don’t like outlines. I never have. I used to drive my professors crazy in college with my obstinate refusal to write them. Seriously, unless I was looking at a full letter grade drop on a paper, I just didn’t do them. For me, outlining is a lot like giving myself spoilers for the whole book.

Once I know, I mean really KNOW, how it’s going to turn out, I lose fire for the story. It becomes an exercise in following instructions (even if they are from me, to me) and nothing sucks the joy out of writing faster – for me – than extensive directions.

So, when I go to write a novel, I don’t outline. At most, I try to have an idea of where the novel needs to end, in general, and then I write. Granted, I try to write in a way to aims at that end point, but the rest is a mystery. The whole process becomes one of discovery for me, which I find exhilarating and fun.

Writing a novel that way does, however, pose difficulties. For example, I never know how long it’s going to be, which means I can’t anticipate how long it will take to write. I find out how long the book will be when I write the last sentence. That makes it very difficult to make announcements about when the next book is going to come out, since I have to finish before I know how long edits will take.

That uncertainty proved especially problematic as I worked on the latest installment of my Sam Branch series. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. The page count swelled to 250 pages. Then it went to 300…350…400. Just before I got to the 400 page mark, I was living in active fear.

I literally didn’t know how the book was going to end or, at least, not how to get the characters there, with over 100,000 words already written. Fortunately, insight hit and I managed to wrap it up around the 450 page mark, but it was still huge. In fact, in my head, it had swelled to monstrous, unwieldy size.

Surely it couldn’t hold the attention of readers at that length. Surely, it must be bloated with useless, unnecessary words, sentences, paragraphs and scenes. Had I, setting out with the best of intentions, spent the better part of a year writing 450 pages of crap that I would need to throw out?

My lack of an outline also denied me the comfort of knowing that I had stayed on task. All the assurance I had were my instincts that the book was written to the length it needed to be. No longer. No shorter. As it turned out, my fears were the only things bloated beyond all proportion or reason. My alpha readers all enjoyed the book, festooned with typos and grammatical errors though it was.

While I firmly believe my novels are better without outlines…since I quite probably wouldn’t write them if I wrote outlines…it makes it hard to play fair with readers. I can’t tell them things they want to know, because I sincerely have no clue. Of all the difficulties of writing organically, I find that one the hardest.

Webinars, Writing and Delivering on Your Promises

photo credit: sridgway via photopin cc

photo credit: sridgway via photopin cc

Most of the time, I try to talk directly about things to relate to writing, indie author marketing, branding and so on, but I had an experience watching webinars a couple weeks ago that I want to relate because it’s about delivering on promises. In a roundabout way, though, my experience does relate to the broader topic of writing and marketing because those are also about delivering on promises

So, a couple weeks ago, I watched two webinars. For those of you who aren’t familiar with webinars, they are essentially live webcasts that feature an expert or two speaking on a topic with the aid of slides. One of the webinars I watched was about inbound marketing. The other was about a piece of writing software called Scrivener. The experience of watching these two webinars could not have been further apart.

The inbound marketing webinar, sponsored by Hubspot and featuring marketing expert John Jantsch, was what I would consider a textbook example of how to do a webinar. Jantsch delivered a structured talk with supporting infographics, charts and explanatory slides. He moved smoothly from topic to topic and wrapped up his talk in approximately 42 minutes. For remaining time, Jantsch fielded moderator-selected questions to which he gave very cogent answers.

The Scrivener webinar was hosted by Joel Friedlander. It featured presenter Joseph Michael, the self-styled Scrivener Coach, and a moderator. This webinar was, by most measures, a hot mess. The purported purpose of the webinar was to show people how to write in Scrivener and then export files into ebook formats…effortlessly.

From the outset, it was clear that this webinar was being delivered off the cuff, with minimal preparation or thought given to structuring the content for maximum value. They lost a lot of valuable time bouncing control of the screen between the presenters. The content itself came across as a tour of features that the presenters liked, rather than the promised tutorial.

A major low point for me came when one of the presenters attempted to walk the other one through a new process for saving research material. While no doubt a valuable tip, it could have been shown to viewers in under 60 seconds, instead several minutes, if they practiced it prior to the live webinar.

By then, I was ready to bail and go do something productive. However, at the beginning of the webinar, they promised that 50 attendees who stayed until the end would get a chance at a free copy of Scrivener. So, I stuck it out. I figured that another 20 minutes for a chance at free software was a small enough price to pay. Only, things didn’t work out quite as advertised…

When the “educational” portion ended and the obligatory product pitch commenced, a standard feature of webinars, we found out that the only way to get a “free” copy of Scrivener was to sign up for a $497 training program cost.

For my money, saying viewers can get a free copy of something, as a stand-alone statement, implies the free item is a no-strings inducement to stay until the end. What happened was more like getting promised a free Blu-ray player for showing up at car dealership’s event and finding out you need to buy a car to get the Blu-ray player. Maybe it’s not precisely illegal, but it’s not ethical.

The Scrivener webinar failed to deliver on all of its promises. It didn’t show me how to do anything on Scrivener effortlessly. Even listening to the presentation was an effort in trying to discern meaning. It barely discussed, let alone provided a walk-through, of exporting a file as an ebook in any format. Finally, it failed to deliver the promised 50 free copies of scrivener to attendees who endured the whole webinar.

Those failures, particularly the shady advertising, turned me off to any future webinars by Joel Friedlander and Michael Joseph, but also guaranteed that I’ll never buy anything from either one of them. If they play that fast and loose with potential customers, I can’t imagine how they treat actual customers.

All of which brings me around to writing and indie author marketing. All writing, and all forms of content when you get down to it, serves a purpose. We identify the purpose with titles, tags, and category descriptions. We identify fiction and non-fiction and, when people see such identifiers, they expect the content to conform to that.

When I say that my Sam Branch novels are contemporary fantasy with a dose of action-adventure, I’m making a promise. People who read my books know that I deliver on that promise. The books are contemporary, fantasy, and deliver action-adventure. I also like to believe they deliver good writing, but that’s always debatable.

Whether as a writer, someone producing YouTube videos, or someone offering a webinar, we should take those promises seriously. Building audience trust takes time, but one bad experience can destroy that trust forever. The Hubspot webinar promised to discuss inbound marketing and it delivered an in depth and detailed discussion. I’d absolutely roll the dice on another Hubspot webinar. The Scrivener webinar promised much and delivered almost none of it. I won’t be wasting my time with them again.

Why Facebook Pages and Ads Have Lost Relevance for Indie Authors

photo credit: Neil. Moralee via photopin cc

photo credit: Neil. Moralee via photopin cc

There was a golden time, not so very long ago, when Facebook pages actually mattered to indie authors. Your Facebook page was a critical component in your social media efforts and, for many authors, was central to your platform. Well, that has all changed. For a while, Facebook was hot on this “Promote” thing… and no one used it.

So, Facebook changed course and instituted a new name for the exact same thing. Now, instead of “Promote,” they call it “Boost.” Big shock, as with most rebranding efforts that don’t reflect a reworked product, people probably aren’t more interested in using “Boost” than they were interested in using “Promote.” Why? Well, if other authors are anything like me, they look at that “Boost” button and say, “Why do I need to pay Facebook to show my posts to people who may not be interested in my page?”

The answer, of course, is that Facebook is desperately trying to monetize itself and justify its IPO. All of that is fine. I get it. Facebook is a business and it wants to make money. Here’s the thing. Instead of finding a better way of making money, Facebook is now trying to force you to use “Boost” by preventing people who follow/like your pages from seeing your posts. So the question now becomes, “Why do I need to pay Facebook to show my posts to people who specifically, intentionally followed/liked my page for the purpose of seeing my posts?”

The answer, of course, is that you shouldn’t. But what about Facebook Ads, you ask? Well, I could keep going on about why Facebook pages aren’t relevant and talk about Facebook Ads, but I don’t need to do that. Instead, I’ll let Veritasium’s Darek Muller explain it to you…with graphs and metrics and awesome. Check out his videos below.

A Pre-Release Marketing Mistake

photo credit: ktpupp via photopin cc

photo credit: ktpupp via photopin cc

Timing is everything, so the saying goes, and I’ve learned that lesson recently in the pre-release phase of my new novel.

A while back, I promised a short story/prelude to the novel around the end of February/early March. Just as importantly, I delivered. What I wasn’t anticipating is that the short story ramped up some serious excitement among some Sam Branch fans.

Here’s the problem…that excitement, while terrific, came too soon.

The novel isn’t ready for release. It’s not even close to ready for release. I’m just about ready to start on my first serious post-writing read through. As other novelists know, that is a time-intensive process that can take weeks, if the novel is really clean, and months, if the novel needs a lot work. Even in an ideal situation, the new novel probably won’t go live until sometime in May or June.

So, while I felt personally good about releasing that short story when I did, because I said I was going to, it was a mistake from a marketing standpoint. I should have waited until I was no more than a month out from publication to release the story. If I had, it would have whetted the appetites of the fans and helped to build momentum for when the book does go live.

Instead, I’ve run the risk of annoying those fans with a long wait until they can read the book. As mistakes go, it’s probably minor, but it’s a still a mistake that I intend to learn from and one I hope you avoid.

Scheduling and Accountability Equals More Writing

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

While it’s not an exact equation, when it comes to writing for a living, there is a definite correlation between writing more and getting paid more. The tougher part is figuring out how to squeeze more writing out of yourself. This is where scheduling and accountability come into the situation.

For years, I followed a pattern of writing in fits and spurts. While this did sometimes lead to extraordinary burst of productivity, like 50 pages on a novel in one night, it also led to a very inconsistent income. I wasn’t happy with that inconsistency, but I stuck hard to my old routine even though I knew it wasn’t working. After all, I knew me and what worked for me better than every productivity and efficiency expert that ever put pen to paper. Right…sure I did.

So not too long back, I wised up a shred. I decided that I was going to try an experiment. Instead of writing willy-nilly, I would impose order on chaos. I would take some of those suggestions I’d read about and, when I’m honest, written about and commended to others….oh hypocrisy, thy name is Eric…and put them into action.

The first thing I did was impose a schedule for doing paying work. I would do paying work during the work week, Monday – Friday, and I would do it during more or less regular work hours. I would set daily and weekly earning goals. I also set writing goals for my personal projects.

What happened next surprised me, but it shouldn’t have. My productivity increased. The first week or two, I was still struggling against the changes and didn’t meet all of my earning goals, but I was making money way more consistently than ever before. More importantly, I was also being way more productive on my novel. Instead of thinking I could maybe, possibly, somehow get it written by the end of January, I was suddenly on track to finish by Christmas. The scheduling and goal setting was working.

The big change, however, was in terms of accountability. This happened for me by chance, but I suggest you impose it by design. I’d looped a friend of mine in on most of these changes and she began to act as both an accountability buddy and as a cheerleader. Once that happened, not only was I writing when I was supposed to be writing, but also writing more to meet my goals. That novel I was hoping to finish by Christmas is now on track to be finished by the first week of December.

I can’t really express the turnaround in my quality of life. My negative self-talk dropped off by something like 90%. I’ve finally started being able to take active control of my finances. I’m sleeping on regular schedule and sleeping better. Maybe, most importantly, my stress level has nosedived. If you’ve struggled with these same issues, learn from my mistakes. Embrace scheduling and encourage accountability. It can change your life.

Improve Your Writing Time Management

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Image courtesy of pakorn/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The title of this post is a bit of misnomer, but you work with language people will recognize. As has been said many times, by many people, time management doesn’t exist. What does exist is self-management. What all time management boils down to is using yourself more efficiently and effectively with the time you have. For writers, especially those writing full-time and from home, this is a particularly challenging task.

Luckily, there are a variety of systems, techniques, tactics, and a plethora of desktop programs and smartphone apps designed to help you out with this problem.

Goal Setting

One of the most basic things you can do to improve your time management is to goal setting. Goal setting isn’t the same thing as wish listing. I may think to myself or put on my bucket list, write a personal essay while sitting at an outdoor café in Paris. This is not a goal in a useful sense. This is a wish. For a writer, a goal is something is something achievable, within a reasonable amount of time, which provides a benefit, and is not cost-prohibitive.

My hypothetical write in Paris wish fails on almost all counts. Write 1000 words a day, submit a query to a magazine, write a chapter on my novel, or pursue new clients are all goals. They are all achievable. Each can be acted on or completed within a reasonable period of time. All provide direct benefits to you and none are cost-prohibitive. A goal gives you something to pursue that will probably result in positive reinforcement, be it more writing done or more money.

Plan for Your First Day Back

All of us take a day off or a weekend off here and there and coming back is often an exercise in stumbling. Among several other excellent pieces of advice about beating freelance writer inefficiency, Carol Tice recommends building a to-do list for when you come back from your day off, vacation, or weekend. In addition to serving as an accountability check and getting you focused on the right things, clearing out your brain of all the things you need to get done lets you stop thinking about them when you take time off. Good self-management also means self-care and disconnecting from your work matters to your mental health.

Software and Apps

There are literally so many apps and pieces of software out there that can help you manage your work life it would take up an entire post just to list the tip of the iceberg. In point of fact, that is exactly what Passive Panda does with it’s list of 50 productivity boosting online tools. The time management tools start at number 20, but the project management and productivity management tools are all worth a look. The thing to remember about programs and apps is that you need to find what works for you, not one that you work for. If a particular app or program feels like it’s more work than it’s worth, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to try out more than one before you commit to using one or several of the options. I do, however, advocate for starting with free programs and apps before dumping money into one.

For more thoughts on productivity boosting, you can check out the post I dedicated to that topic here.

Also, check out Jamie Wallace’s excellent post for a more in-depth look at how to leverage project management software and techniques to your writing life.

Boosting Writer Creativity

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Image courtesy of Master isolated images/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Creativity is a crucial tool for every writer, whether you’re trying to dream up a new angle on business branding or to draft potent dialogue. Unfortunately, we also write in a world that places very real mental, physical, and emotional demands on us. I know that I find it much more difficult to when I’m tired or after an argument or when some unexpected expense comes along. Fortunately, you can help train your mind to stay creative with some basic techniques and tactics.

Random Fusing

I picked this one up from The Iron Writer Challenge. Select a few random items or people and design a scenario or story around them. Just writing out a couple of paragraphs can help to cement the fusing process. The point here is not to achieve greatness, though kudos if you do, but simply to train your brain to make connections between seemingly unrelated things. If you can get your brain into the habit, you’ll likely get find it easier to be creative when you need to be.

Be Curious

There is deep link between curiosity and creativity. For a good overview of some contemporary thinking on the link between the two, David Silverstein has done a roundup on his blog here that is worth the read. On a different note, but no less compelling, is this TED Talk by physicist Brian Cox where he draws a link between the curiosity-based research and creative advancements, such as transistors and silicon chips, as well as some very cool information about the origins of life in the universe. I recommend watching the whole video. It’s a very well spent 15 minutes.

 

Develop Expertise

Expertise in a given subject or topic can serve as a springboard for creativity. In-depth knowledge enables you to see the path not taken and arms you to explore it. This doesn’t mean you need a PhD in Renaissance History or Biophysics; you’re a writer after all. What it means is reading and watching everything you can get your hands on in an area that is at your level of understanding. Start at the broad level and work in from there. For example, I’m fascinated by the Medici family, but I didn’t start by reading a biography of Catherine de’Medici. My fascination with them started when I was reading about Florentine history in the 1400’s and 1500’s to give me some context for Machiavelli’s political treatise, The Prince. Fast forward several years and I’m reading books about specific incidents in the lives of specific member of the Medici family. While I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on the level of professional scholars, I know the material well enough for it to serve as background and fertile soil for my fiction.

While everyone is going to have an off day, creatively speaking, developing expertise, being curious, and sometimes just plain random fusing can help to keep the creative juices flowing.