Monday, January 30, 2017

Five Lessons Learned as a Nano-Press

What is a nano-press? Small presses are often defined as with revenues of less than $50 million. Micro-press frequently refers to the physical size of the books (often pamphlets or comics). Wolf’s Echo Press revenues are WAY BELOW the $50 million mark, so I thought that I should come up with a distinguishing term, and nano-press sounded about right.

Last year, I decided to produce an anthology of novellas set in the lowcountry of the southeast U.S. I invited three author friends who knew the area well to participate with me. The result is Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas. It’s on Kindle pre-order for only $2.99. Once it’s officially released the price jumps to $3.99. Hurry! Hurry!

Now, the lessons:

1. Deadlines are there for a reason.

Authors are busy people. They often have multiple current writing projects, need to do their own marketing, and many have jobs in addition to their writing. For this anthology to succeed, I set target dates for each major step in the process for both the authors and the publisher: the initial submission from the authors, the first round of edits back to the authors, the second and final revisions, when the publisher owed proof copies to the authors, and when they had to give their okay.

2. Everything takes longer than expected.

I was dealing with three pros, and my first inclination was to develop a nice tight timeframe to move the project from conception to completion. The sooner revenue began coming in from book sales, the quicker authors could earn out their advances.

And then I reflected on my corporate life when I managed people. I had learned through experience that each of us has built-in biases when we estimate how long something will take. A manager’s job is to adjust the estimate for each person’s bias. Some people pad their estimates. Whatever they say can be shortened by some percent. Others assume everything will go perfectly; their estimates must be lengthened to reflect reality.

I know how long something should take, and that’s how long I want it to take. Of course, it takes longer because stuff does happen. Because I know my tendencies, I took my original timeframe and added significant “extra” time. Sure enough, we needed most of that slack.

3. The last 20% takes 80% of the resources.

Getting something close to correct takes considerable effort, but if you want to get it right, it takes a lot more effort. I didn’t measure the specific time each task took, but I suspect a version of the 80/20 rule is applicable to the effort of producing a book for publication.

I know that perfection in an 85,000-word document is impossible. However, the quality of this book reflects directly on me. Not only did I write one of the novellas in the anthology, I helped edit the others, and a quality product may lead others to want to work with me in the future on projects—or if I screw it up, convince them not to work with Wolf’s Echo Press. You can only make a first impression once!

Which means that I spent considerable time trying to ensure we had no typos (I suspect at least one is still hiding. Please let me know when you find it.) Laying out the manuscript for print meant looking at each page, finding ways to eliminate orphans, making adjustments such as inserting soft-hyphens when justified lines spaced too broadly.

And then there was all the time spent in setting up the distribution process. Choosing appropriate meta data, keywords, developing the description readers will see when they look for the book.

Etcetera. Etcetera. Thank goodness I knew my tendencies and set the timeline with “room to spare.”

4. Order Matters.

Consider this nightmare scenario: despite sign off from the publisher’s proofreader and the author, you discover a homonym somewhere in the book. My experience is that readers will tolerate a typo or two, but if they find a homonym or a character whose name changes, it pulls them right out of the story. They read it twice and then discount the author’s intelligence, the publisher’s quality standards, mentally mark down the number of stars they will give the book in their review, start looking for other errors. Not good; not good at all. We want entertainment on every page, not scrutiny of every page.

Fortunately, most homonyms have about the same number of letters as the correct word. But, let’s say it’s a name change. If this error were caught anywhere early in the process, it would be a small matter to make the fix. Late in the process, it requires change to both the print version(s) and the electronic version(s). And in the print version, if you are unlucky (I was), the change from (say) Jennifer to (say) Jess, shortens the text enough to cause one fewer line, which in turn leads to an orphan on some later page.

Decision time. Let the layout go with the orphan, or change the initial document, the print layout, and the file transferred to the distributor(s)? Of course I changed it, but it was all extra work caused by timing.

When I looked at the print proof version of the book, I discovered a major (to my mind) issue. No one—author, proofreaders, publisher (that would be me)—had noticed that one of the novellas used straight quotes (mostly) instead of curly quotes. As I paged through the paperback proof looking for anything that might be a problem, the $%^&* things jumped off the page and smacked me in the nose.

I immediately knew what had caused the problem (the author had returned edits using a program that did not recognize curly quotes) and how to fix it. However, not only did I need to fix both print versions of the book, I had to fix the two electronic versions as well—and do it in a manner that didn’t screw up the direction of the curly quote in, for example, ’cause. [Checking for the straight quote issue is now part of my processing checklist when I go from document to print layout.]

5. The mystery community is generous.

Unlike much in life, the mystery community does not consider writing and reading to be a zero-sum game. One person’s success does not take away from anyone else. We root for each other and help each other along the way.

Other nano-publishers were generous in sharing their experiences in publishing anthologies. Some people generously offered to proofread the manuscript for the thrill of finding errors and because it allowed them to read the stories first. Thank you for your eagle eyes.

I’ve had the chance to work closely with three fine authors on this project (Polly Iyer, Jonathan M. Bryant and WWK’s own Tina Whittle) and see how they each crafted stories using the lowcountry setting and instructions that the novellas were to be “north of cozy and south of noir.”

Lastly, I do want to thank readers who take the time to leave honest online reviews. I think I speak for all authors and publishers when I say we couldn’t do what we do without you, and we appreciate the reviews you write to help others know of our work.

This blog originally posted on Writers Who Kill 1/29/17

Monday, January 16, 2017

Introducing Megan McCree

On February 7, 2017, I’ll be introducing a new member of the Seamus McCree extended family to the reading world. Her creation did not come easily, and I worried whether I was doing her justice. Let me explain.

Megan first entered my consciousness four years ago. I wrote the first 40,000 words of a novel set in the future. The YA main character had an older sister, a real tomboy. I thought the kids would be Seamus McCree’s distant descendants (just to keep it all in the fictional family). As I worked through the story, the sister role faded out and the first sparks of this female character were extinguished.

Then I decided to bring the story closer to the present and made Seamus McCree’s son, Paddy, a very old man—well over a hundred (medical improvements and an organic vegetarian diet worked). But Paddy at 140 was still too close to the present. That’s when I decided to utilize Paddy’s child, Seamus’s grandchild, the very old person. As I considered what internal forces would drive this character, I decided she should be female. Eventually, that project faltered and still awaits future attention. And so this as yet unnamed Seamus McCree granddaughter faded into the background.

When I started writing Empty Promises, the fifth in the series, hopefully coming out later this year, I recalled my vision of the ancient woman, and decided to bring Megan McCree to the stage. I wanted to show in this girl the seeds of the woman who in the very distant future would became a marvelous “ancient.” Because of the planned time gap between Doubtful Relations and Empty Promises, Megan will then be age three and a half.

I worried about what I knew about three-and-a-half-year-old girls. My daughter had been that age in the mid-1980s. Even my granddaughters are now preteens and teens. Could I carry off developing this short person in a way that was realistic?

When I sent a draft of Empty Promises to my developmental editor, I specifically asked for a critique of Megan, and then I held my breath. The editor had lots of suggestions, but none of them related to Megan as a character. Whew!

While continuing to work on Empty Promises, another opportunity for Seamus and family arose: a novella set in Georgia’s Lowcountry. What could be better than to bring Seamus, his darts-throwing mother, and Megan to Tybee Island, Georgia—the barrier island near Savannah—for vacation and havoc? But for this vacation to make sense in Seamus McCree’s overall arc, this story takes place several years after Empty Promises. Megan is a shade over six.

More worries for me. Could an old guy depict a six-year-old girl that mothers would accept? (Fathers accept any daughter, right dads?) Again, my development editor had no issues with Megan. I polished the novella and recently sent it to two terrific beta readers. Both know the Seamus McCree series and have an eye for errant homonyms, misspellings, misplaced modifiers, and the like. Again, I held my breath. These folks had never heard of Megan. Would they accept her?

Beta reader one gave me her corrections. She loved the story, and particularly loved Seamus’s mother. I broke down and asked if I had drawn Megan realistically. “Oh yes, she was fine,” she said. “But I really like Mom—probably because of my age.” Her grandchildren are older than mine, all out of high school. I didn’t take that as a vote of confidence on Megan.

Just this past week I received corrections from reader number two. She started her note with, “I just now finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it! I fell madly in love with Megan.”

I think I’ve been holding my breath for four years—a long gestation period even for a fictional character. It’s nice to breathe naturally again.

You can meet Megan in the novella titled “Low Tide at Tybee” in Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas to be released in print and Kindle editions on February 7, 2017.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 1/15/17.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Making Your Goals SMART

The beginning of a new year means for many the beginning of new goals. Gyms will be filled with people intent on getting into shape; weight-loss reduction programs will experience a spike in memberships; budgets will be crafted to curb “unneeded” spending and allow more savings for retirement or college or whatever. Flash forward three months and most of the goals are distant memories over which we feel guilty. Gym equipment languishes unused, some of the weight lost in January has returned by April; who knows how we’re doing against budget, but we don’t seem to be saving more.

Why Set Goals Anyway?

Each of us has our own reasons for setting goals, but in general goals provide structure to help modify behavior and improve chances of success. SMART goals make it more likely you can succeed in attaining your goal.

What are SMART goals?

SMART is an acronym to remind us how to construct goals:

S stands for Specific. The best goals are those formed with a specific outcome in mind. Let’s use weight loss for our example. Setting a goal to “lose weight” is less likely to encourage you to meet your objective, than is a goal to “lose 10 pounds,” which has specificity.

M stands for Measurable. Not only should a goal have specificity, it should be quantifiably measurable. A goal such as “lose enough weight until I look good in a bathing suit” may be what you want, but it is subjective. Further, it may have several components to it. Yes, losing weight may be necessary, but so too might be increasing muscle tone. We can measure pounds lost on a scale. We can measure muscles by number of pushups or how long we can hold the plank position.

A and R can have two different meanings depending on whether you are setting your own personal goal or whether a boss/parent/significant other is “helping” you set a goal. If the goal is personal, then A stands for Attainable and R stands for Rewarding. If your goal has a top-down element to it (as in someone else is top and you are down), A stands for Agreed and R stands for Realistic.

The combined meaning of these two letters assures the goal is something you agree is realistic, attainable, and provides some measure of reward. The reward can be anything from personal satisfaction to a corporate bonus, but it must be sufficient to make the challenge of attaining the goal worthwhile.

Your spouse telling you that you will lose 25 pounds in the next six months when you think 15 is more realistic means you have not agreed. Even if your spouse is correct that twenty-five pounds is realistic; this goal is not SMART. Similarly, if you set a goal of 25 pounds, which you would find rewarding, it might not be realistic if you haven’t weighed that since you were in high school—and that was thirty years ago!

T stands for Timely. The goal must have a timeframe attached to it. “I will lose 10 pounds” can meet the SMAR components, but when should this happen. Without a specific date, it is too easy to defer changes in your behavior until maƱana—which never comes. Our SMART goal could be “I will lose 10 pounds by June 30, 2017.”

Helpful Tips on Succeeding with Your SMART Goals

We’ve developed our SMART goal of losing 10 pounds by June 30, 2017. Can we set any intermediate goals to help us stay on track and provide positive feedback along the way to achieving our main goal?

Well, of course we can! We don’t want to be in a position where we haven’t lost any weight for five and a half months and then we need to lose all the weight in two weeks. Even if we starved ourselves and dumped a bunch of water weight, we wouldn’t keep the weight off. That was not the original intention of what we meant by losing the weight.

Many goals require multiple steps to complete them. Each of those steps can be a separate goal. For example, anyone who has dieted knows losing the first pounds are the easiest. Our motivation is often high and simple changes can bring initial success. How about we set an interim goal to lose four pounds in January 2017? Specific—yes; Measurable—yes; Attainable—yes, we believe a pound a week is doable; Rewarding—you bet 40% of the way there; Time-specific—yep.

Nothing succeeds like success. You should reward yourself for attaining your interim goals. However, your reward shouldn’t be something that diminishes the likelihood of attaining your goal. So, treating yourself to a massage after losing the weight could work well. Splurging on a hot fudge sundae with all the trimmings—not so much.

Another reason to set intermediate goals is that they allow you to adjust your plan over time. You succeed with your January goal and lose the four pounds, but you felt hungry the whole month. Perhaps February’s goal is to lose one additional pound. Accomplishing this makes sure you don’t go backward, gets you closer to your goal, etc.

Visualize Success

Sports psychologists have studied the powerful effects of visualizing future success. In our weight loss example, what will change once you have lost the 10 pounds? Close your eyes and imagine how good it feels when that pair of pants you struggle to button no longer crimps your waist. Visualize each step of the process. Think of what it will feel like to slip them on—first one leg and then the other—pull the pants together to button them and the button slips into its hole without the necessity of you sucking in your gut. The zipper pulls up without any strain. The waistband has a little flex and doesn’t pinch.

Perhaps now you can wear a favorite blouse that has been a bit too tight. Mentally watch yourself in a mirror pulling on the blouse, buttoning each button, maybe decorating the outfit with a favorite necklace or lapel pin. Isn’t it great to be wearing that outfit again?

The more specific you can be about visualizing what your success looks like, the more power the effect on you.

What do you think, should SMART goals be in your future?

~ Jim

This Blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 1/1/2017.