Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

Monday, November 5, 2018

Voices in my Head (#amwriting)

I have written approximately 70% of a new novel. It uses a few characters from my published novels and has a bunch of new folks. I’ve mentioned that I write without an outline or even a firm ending. (I am a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants.) Before I start the first draft, I have a clear idea of an inciting incident: the thing that lets the protagonist (or at least the reader) know the ordinary world is about to change. And I think I know who the protagonist will be.

I say I think because, although rare, sometimes another character throws a fact-filled, emotionally powerful tantrum and convinces me that they need to steal the story. The last time that happened, I killed the original protagonist. The king is dead. Long live the king.

Much of the arguing between characters revolves around who gets to be the bad guy(s). One might think characters want to put on their best face, be the protagonist’s best buddy, or mentor, or occasionally not-quite-center-of-the-road sidekick. And these potentially helpful people do jockey for position. But when it comes to BAD . . . let me digress to make the point.

I have sold many character names at charity auctions. Only once did an auction winner ask me to use their purchased name for a nice character (and that individual bought the name as a gift for a friend). A couple of winners expressed no opinion. Most wanted to be bad. We all have a dark side. And If we can experience it risk free, many of us jump at the chance.

Most of my characters approach the casting couch with little regard for their long-term welfare. It’s all about ME right NOW. Issues such as the future years that character might spend in jail, the increased probability of dying an early, violent death, the fact that their better nature is hidden, are not my characters’ concerns when the prospect of a bigger role in the story is up for grabs.

My new novel includes three brothers. One of them will be the primary bad guy. The oldest brother keeps arguing for primogenitary succession. Dear old dad was not all sugar and spice, and the next generation takes it several steps farther. As first born, he is the natural leader of the pack. Second son argues that being stuck in the middle causes him to have the most repressed anger at parents and siblings. The youngest maintains he has put on a facade of sweetness and light for forty years. Now his darker nature is in full revolt.

They all make such good cases, I’ve taken to referring to the villain in the WIP as “The Grandmaster.” It’s a reference to a high level of expertise in the game of chess that requires strategic long-range thinking. Each brother has embraced the name and is bending their nature to make it fit.

One of the fun aspects of being a pantser is letting these guys battle it out, not knowing who will win. I remember when I wrote Bad Policy (Seamus McCree #2), I was sure I knew who had done it. All the clues pointed to a certain individual until I realized that character was a puppet for the real evil person of the story. Now that was a fun discovery.

With 30% of this book still to write, anything could happen. Maybe I’ll let you know how it turns out. More likely I’ll sit at my desk and chortle and make you read the book to find out which brother (s?) did what.
* * *
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

This blog was first posted in the Writers Who Kill blog.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Autumn as a Metaphor

Earlier this week, I crossed the 50,000-word mark in the first draft of my newest novel. I’ve set a target of 1,000 words a day, which I have been meeting and exceeding. I’m enjoying the process of getting to know characters and their challenges, and at this pace, I’ll have the first draft complete by the end of November.

This is a perfect time for me to be working on a first draft: Autumn is a metaphor for my writing process. Hey, you’re thinking: You're a numbers guy, not exactly poet material. Let me try anyway—Autumn is a time for planting seeds, and only in Spring do we discover which ones will grow into something.

With leaves off the trees, my view of the woods changes. The gaudy colors that draw tourists now coat the ground, still a beautiful sight though it will soon be covered by snow. With Summer’s dress stripped by cold and wind, what’s left to observe are the structural bones of the
land.

Rocks, once hidden by ferns and grasses are now visible, poking from morning-frosted ground. I can see the mosses and lichen, indicators of clean air, covering the now visible rock. These rocks are a physical reminder of the region’s geology, of how glaciers scraped topsoil from the ground and dropped erratics (rocks from other areas) as the ice melted.

This is the ancient history of my woods. I can “see” them today without knowing the effect of glaciers, but I can’t know them and understand the hows and whys of their existence without this deep knowledge. Glaciers are to my woods as the Irish Famine is to the McCree family as it brought Seamus McCree’s ancestors to the New World. Nothing that comes after will be the same.

In Summer, the forest appears as a unified whole, composed of many species and generations. With the leaves off, each tree shows its complete form, from which nature will hang a new set of clothes the following Spring. Each tree tells its individual story in straight or twisted trunk, in limbs broken by wind storms or sheared off by the weight of snow storms when they still held their leaves. Some trees lean in toward an opening in the canopy. Those exposed to prevailing winds lean away from it. In the slanting rays of Autumn’s sun, each tree casts its own long shadow across the land.

Some trees are survivors of earlier trauma. Trees that years ago had their central shoot broken have a crook in their trunk where a branch turned upward to become the new central lead. A few seem to grow straight from rocks, their long roots exposed before they plunge into the ground. A half-dozen trees grow in a straight line. Not planted by humans, they came into existence because a long-dead nurse tree that crashed to the ground fed them with its rot, allowing this next generation to fill the space its falling created.

The evergreens stick out from their deciduous brethren: two separate survival strategies on display. The ground and water determining which will work better for this acre or that.

What a dull forest (novel) I would have if every tree (character) were the same. How shallow my understanding if all I can see is their Summer finery.

Plants alone do not make a forest. Without animals, they couldn’t last long. Strategies for animal survival become more obvious as Autumn sets in. Chipmunks and red squirrels forage under my sunflower feeders, stuffing their cheeks with seeds to store for Winter. Bucks and bull moose thrash about leaving scratchings on trees and bushes where they try to scrape off the itchy, drying velvet covering their antlers.

Insect-feeding birds migrate south where they can still find bugs. Geese pass overhead in long, honking skeins. Ducks and kingfishers leave the lake before it freezes over. Sometimes a few stay too late and the ice catches them, forcing them to wait for an Indian Summer to give them one last chance.

Autumn brings with it tiny disasters that suggest how the plants and animals will react when Winter comes: the early snow when leaves are still on the trees; heavy rains that flood low-lying areas; hunters looking for food or trophies. These character tests set the stage for Winter’s ultimate challenge to survive. But that’s a blog for another day, another season.

After my daily writing, planting seeds for the future rewriting that eventually becomes a publishable novel, I often take long rambles in my woods. And every day I learn something new about them.
* * *
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

This post is a slightly modified version of a blog that first ran on Writers Who Kill on 10/21/18.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Free or Not to Free—THAT is the question


Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1) Cover
Whether to give a book away is not the ONLY question facing authors who have control over such decisions, but it is one with implications.

When Amazon first made electronic book self-publishing easy, one of the successful promotion strategies was to give away a book—particularly the first book in a series. Readers were just getting used to eBooks and eReaders and getting one of your books into a reader’s hands was a successful strategy for becoming known. In the early days a free promotion could generate tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand downloads.

Fast forward to today and the situation is different. Few people are just now buying their first eReader, so succeeding by getting your book to be one of the first downloaded is like trying to hop on a train roaring down the track at fifty miles-per-hour. Even if they don’t have a dedicated eReader and want to try out eBooks, they can read them on their computer or smart phone.

Readers who want free books have dozens of newsletters to provide them links to free books in the genres they prefer to read. The only way for an author to stand out in a crowd is to pay for promoting his book.

Many voracious readers belong to Amazon Unlimited or other subscription services, where after paying their monthly subscription, it costs them nothing to read their next book—but unlike free promotions, reading those books provide authors compensation.

Lastly, I have an untested suspicion that we have fostered a large group of people who will only read free books (electronic or print from libraries) and will not pay for their pleasure reading. A subset includes people who download stolen books, upon whom I wish the worst of computer viruses. If my primary writing goal was to have people read my books, then free is fine, but I’d like compensation for my writing, which means I need to find readers willing to pay for their reading pleasure.

Before Saturday, I focused on reduced-price promotions of my books. I have had limited success with half-price sales or $0.99 sales of electronic books. Whenever I have promoted a sale, my Kindle Unlimited pages read for all the books in the Seamus McCree series increases significantly. I’ve read anecdotal evidence that the same happens when authors give away a book in their series.

Saturday I began an experiment: I reduced the Kindle eBook price of Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1) to free for five days (the last day is May 23). I also dropped the price on the second book in the series, Bad Policy, from $3.99 to $2.99. The prices for the other three books in the series remain at $3.99.

I’ve taken out ads, will send out my newsletter, and have written this blog. We’ll see how this works. My hypothesis goes something like this: For every 1,000 downloads, say 10% read the book. Of those, say 10% become fans and read the entire series. At current pricing, it costs them $15 to buy the other four books. Under those assumptions, each 1,000 downloads will result in $150 of sales ($100 of royalties). Plus, I expect I’ll end up with more read Kindle Unlimited pages, and I hope the publicity will spur sales of other books in the series to people who have read and liked some but not been motivated to buy the next in the series.

Regardless of how it works out, one thing I know is that I will not set up free promotions for the later Seamus McCree novels. It’s one thing to give away the first in the series in hopes of attracting new fans; it is quite another thing to set up readers' expectation that if they just wait long enough, they can get all the books for free.

So, if you haven’t read Ant Farm, here is the link to get the Kindle version for free.

*****

Update on the results after two full days of the free-book promotion:


Over the weekend, ANT FARM had 4,552 Kindle eBook downloads. That was sufficient to drive it to Amazon's #1 free book in both the Suspense and Private Investigator categories. The book also reached #22 in the entire Kindle store! The promotion continues through Wednesday 5/23, so feel free to share the good news so others can discover and enjoy Seamus McCree.

*****

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Sense of Place

Clifton Area of Cincinnati, OH

If you are going to be a successful liar, you need a great memory. Lies accumulate over the years, and it takes more and more effort to keep them straight. By the time I started writing the Seamus McCree novels, (Empty Promises is #5), my steel-trap mind was already suspect. I reasoned that if I wrote using settings I knew, it was one less thing I had to worry about remembering. Oh sure, I could have developed a detailed series bible with all the invented places and so forth, but that’s a lot of work—and for me, organization is more a wish than a reality. Since it’s easy to forget where the closets are, I housed characters in residences I used to inhabit.

For Ant Farm and Bad Policy, I gave Seamus my house in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati (but moved it to another street). Uncle Mike, a continuing character, resides in the apartment complex in Waltham, MA where I lived in 1978.

Cabin Fever is set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where Seamus happens to have a camp located on the same lake where I have my home. For Empty Promises, I wanted to return to the U.P. and the story was willing. Our place—er Seamus’s place—is fifteen miles from the nearest place you can buy anything. Fourteen of those miles are gravel or dirt roads. Cabin Fever was set in the dead of winter and in that story weather and the gradual movement toward spring were their own character. Empty Promises occurs during summer, and although our place is not as isolated as in winter, it is still remote, which is an important ingredient in the story. And best of all, I don’t have to think about where the doors are or which side of the house has the screened porch.

I’ll be interested to hear in the comments how as readers y’all feel about using real locations for novels. Do you enjoy reading about real places, or would you prefer authors construct their own locations?

This blog was originally published as a guest post for part of the Empty Promises Virtual Book Tour.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Author’s Toolbox: The Auditory Read Through


Every author develops a toolkit of writing skills and techniques, preferred software and hardware, and proven processes to develop a polished manuscript. In my online course, Revision and Self-Editing (next month-long class starts October 1 if you are interested), I suggest authors add the Auditory Read Through to their stockpile of available tools.

If you are like most modern authors, you compose your first draft using a word-processing program, which means you first see your words on a screen. You may rewrite your manuscript using a screen to display your text, or you may print out a copy of your manuscript, make handwritten corrections and then convert those back to an electronic form.

Many authors have learned that they find different problems when they view their manuscript on the screen compared to what they find when using a hard copy. I know authors who change from their standard font and a single column printout and use a different font and two columns to make sure nothing looks “familiar.” In addition to these techniques, I suggest that you will discover different issues when you read your manuscript out loud.

Even if on previous read throughs you silently sounded things out in your head, you were not using your sense of hearing. Before the written word, stories were spoken, and you should listen to yours to discover a few last issues you may have missed.

Approaches to the Auditory Read Through

#1 I read it myself

One key to this approach is I try to mimic a reader’s experience.
I print out the manuscript single-spaced applying the same font, type size, lines per page and page size as the publisher uses. As I read, I’ll see, for example, a long paragraph that needs splitting or dialogue that runs unbroken for two pages. [I do not worry about exact layout, orphan lines, where words break on a line, or anything like that.]

What do I listen for? Anything that doesn’t sound right on a sentence-by-sentence basis, or as part of a paragraph, or the entire page. Whenever I stumble or trip over a word, there is a good chance I need a rewrite. This gives me the opportunity to straighten convoluted sentences and exchange flabby diction with precise wording.

I often discover I used a word several times within a short span. I might not see the multiple uses on screen or page, but my ear picks them up. Reading often reveals double words: detritus remaining from earlier rewriting (the the is my most common).

I pay attention to adverbs: are they covering for a flabby verb? Make sure every adverb is necessary. As an example, consider the line “She quickly walked to the sidewalk.” With the multitude of verbs available to describe exactly how she moved to the sidewalk, this sentence employs a lazy approximation for what the reader should visualize as they read.

Where I used multiple adjectives, can I replace them with one perfect descriptor?

Have I noun-ized verbs (xxxxx-ness) or verbed nouns (xxxxx-ize)?

Are verbs that end with “ing” appropriate?

Have I fallen into a repetitive pattern? Do too many sentences share the same form? Are sentences all the same length?

#2 Use software to read the manuscript

I used this technique with Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5) this week as the final step before sending the manuscript to my editor. I allow the software to read the words (fully engaging my ears in the process) while I follow along on the computer screen. A variety of free and for-purchase software exists to read documents. I use the voices incorporated in Microsoft Word.

Most of my POV characters for this story are male, so I chose Microsoft’s David Mobile. Unlike a voice actor, or when I read my WIP aloud, this electronic reading does not provide inflection, which allows me to pay more attention to the actual words. It does take a bit of getting used to. Microsoft mangles many proper names because it tries to pronounce them phonetically and guesses at syllables. One character is Frank Cabibi. I’ve pronounced his last name in my head as Că-BEE-bee. Microsoft David chose CAY-bǝ-BY. David also doesn’t correctly enunciate the difference between the “live” in live bait versus the one in live and let live.

The occasional auditory jar startles me back to listening with careful ears. When I read my own work, I read through typos. (I know what the word is supposed to be.) Microsoft David reads what’s there, catching, for example, “habit” in a sentence where I intended “habitat.” (The error had survived two earlier drafts.) He always reads double words, something I sometimes miss when I read my own manuscript.

Some things are more obvious when I listen to my writing rather than read it myself. I can’t catch words or sentences I stumble over—Microsoft David is too competent to stumble. However, I do catch more clunky sentences when hearing his monotone—words, not inflection, must carry the meaning.

#3 Record, then listen

I have not tried this technique, but I know authors who swear by recording themselves reading their manuscript out loud and then listening to the recording. While they record their words, they muzzle the internal editor. (This is the part I find impossible.) Once they start the playback, they are truly listening (since they are not also reading).

When to perform an Auditory Read Through

My current workflow incorporates two Auditory Read Throughs. The first is as I described in my use for Empty Promises: when I think I have a manuscript ready to send to my editor. I know the editor will find many things for me to change, and much of this polishing will be wasted effort. However, if I’ve corrected all the problems I can see, it allows my editor to spend her time spotting things I haven’t seen. For me that is worth the extra time.

I perform a final Auditory Read Through on the final, final, final, manuscript. It’s my last bit of quality control before I approve the manuscript for publication. I admit it’s probably a belt-and-suspenders approach to a clean read, but hey—it’s my name on the cover!

If you’ve tried the technique, how did you think it worked for you? If you haven’t performed an Auditory Read Through, do you think you might?

~ Jim

There is still time to register for the Revision and Self-Editing class, which you can do from Jim's website.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cowriting a Short Story

As a writer of the Seamus McCree Mystery/Suspense series, my marketing aim is to expose more potential readers to my novels. When Teresa Inge asked if I’d be interested in submitting a story for the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology, I immediately agreed. It fit my marketing needs: a Seamus short story in an anthology with lots of excellent writers that would expose a new group of mystery readers to him. [Pre-order links for Amazon and B&N.]

Over the last few years I had worked closely with Tina Whittle in founding the Low Country Sisters in Crime Chapter and become a fan of her Tai Randolph series. In the back of my mind, I hoped we might find an opportunity to work on a joint project. After receiving permission from Teresa to submit a cowritten story, I approached Tina and she agreed. Now we had to figure out what to write.

Tai is a southern girl born and raised. Seamus is a guy of the north and was going to have to travel south for this adventure to happen. Tai buys and sells Civil War antiquities in Atlanta; Seamus is a Civil War buff. That was enough of a nexus, and at the end of two email exchanges, we had the basic outline of the story. Now, how to write it?

Having talked to writing duos at mystery conferences, I knew there were as many ways to approach the writing as there are pairs who write. Tina’s series is written from Tai’s point of view in first person. My series often uses multiple POVs, but scenes in which Seamus has the POV are also written in first person. We agreed to write the first draft of those scenes in which our character was the more important POV character. We’d write the scenes in order of the story and write everything in first person. To remove reader confusion about who the “I” in the scene was, we stole a technique from the 19th century and introduced each scene with a very brief descriptor. For example, the opening scene is introduced as Seamus McCree Meets a Daughter of the Confederacy at a Soiree.

Tina Whittle
I had responsibility for writing the first scene. Tina provided me background information on what Tai and Trey would wear and how they might act in the setting I planned. After I completed the first scene, Tina composed the second, at which point we agreed to straighten out little plot inconsistencies after we had a first draft completed. (I was happy with that solution because even though I outlined the story, I’m a pantser by nature and don’t want to be strictly constrained by any outline.)

After we wrote “The End,” it was time to revise. I took the first crack to straighten out a couple of plot bobbles and smooth our first draft writing. We traded the manuscript back and forth until we both liked what we had. Version four became our submitted.

The editor had only small suggestions. Looking through the edits, it was as if we had performed a Vulcan mind-meld. (Which you understand if you are a Trekkie fan; otherwise replace with “we thought exactly alike.”) Tina and I were pleased to discover we agreed on which of the editor’s suggestions to take, which to agree she had diagnosed a problem but to develop our own solution rather than accept her suggested approach, and which ones we felt needed push-back. One sentence proved particularly troubling, and we batted that one back and forth in a series of emails until we wrestled it to the ground.

Bottom line, would I do it again? Any time Tina wants, I’m up for it. I not only enjoyed working with her, I believe that our combined story was stronger than either of us might have produced on our own. (Now, of course, she might think that’s because I dragged her brilliance down, but if she thought that, she was kind enough to never mention it!)

Would I partner with anyone? I’d be open to discussing a project, but I’d have to feel comfortable that our styles were compatible. Check out how we did. [Pre-order links for 50 Shades of Cabernet: Amazon and B&N.]

~ Jim

Monday, February 27, 2017

Cover Wars


For the past week, I have been filling out a questionnaire that will provide the basis for an interview to appear in a magazine later this year. I’ll leave you in suspense about the details so I have fodder for a future blog. One of the questions was, “How did getting/being published change your life?” My response was that after publication I spend much less time on pure writing and significantly more time on sales and marketing activities.

To my way of thinking, it’s all about exposure. I have faith that my novels are well-written and a certain segment of the reading public will like them—but only if they get a chance to read them. The problem is to find ways to make those potential readers aware of my books so they can find out for themselves just how good they are.

Since you never know what works until you try it, I experiment with different promotional opportunities. One I tried last year is called “Cover Wars.” The concept is simple: every week fifteen book covers are displayed on a webpage. The public can vote for the best cover, and the winner receives some free promotion on the website that sponsors the contest. It costs nothing for an author to participate.

Now, I think my Doubtful Relations cover is a really good cover – the kind of cover that makes you want to pick up the book and find out more. I’m prejudiced, of course, but you can judge for yourself. I signed up, waited a couple of months for my turn to participate, and early one Sunday morning the contest including my book opened.

I checked out the competition. There was only one other book that I thought was a contender. Now, those of you who personally know me know I am a teeny, weeny, bit competitive. I wanted to win. The rules were that repeat voting was allowed, but no more than once a day. But the reason I had signed up wasn’t to win; I hoped the exposure would intrigue some folks who did not know my books to give this one a try.

I posted about the contest on Facebook and mentioned it to the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, where I am currently the president. And, of course, I voted once a day for the best cover!

The other cover that should have been my competition garnered very few votes. The book that turned out to be my major competition was not a particularly strong cover; it was so busy the key message (title and author) was lost.

Some of my Guppy chapter associates got behind the contest in a big way, voting daily and encouraging others to vote. Had each of the chapter’s 700 members voted for my cover just once, it would have won by a landslide. Which tells you the contest exposure was small. The fifteen contest authors ginned up various amounts of support from friends, but there wasn’t a large group of folks out there in cyberland using this contest to find some great new books.

And that led to the marketing result: During the week of the contest, sales of Doubtful Relations declined compared to the average for the previous few weeks.

I also quickly recognized that the free contest was only free in terms of me not spending any money. I spent lots of time thanking people who let me know they had voted for my cover. And Mr. Competitive wasted mucho time tracking how my cover was doing compared to the competition.

I went to bed Saturday night with a very small lead, and woke up Sunday morning having lost by a bunch of votes. The winner had rallied her troops or bots or whatever for a last-minute push.

Lessons for me: Measure all the costs of a promotion, not just the cash outlay. Check some prior results to see the number of votes – that would have given me a clue that the contest was thin on reader engagement. Remember that whatever I tell myself about being disengaged from the result of a contest, I won’t be, so make sure to factor in all that wasted time checking to see how my entry in the race is faring.

So dear friends who are readers, where do you find out about new-to-you books that seem to be worth trying?

A version of  this blog was first posted at Writers Who Kill on 2/26/17.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why I Am All In with Amazon for Ebooks

Every Indy Author (a.k.a. Self-published Author) must make a fundamental decision about how to market their electronic books. Do they jump in bed solely with Amazon or play the field, allowing readers to purchase books from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play and others?

Authors must evaluate many factors before coming to a decision about how to sell a particular book. The size and breadth of their following, including the percentage of readers in the U.S. compared to other parts of the world where Amazon is less dominant can impact their choices. The price of the book can also matter, since Amazon will only pay 70% royalties for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99, inclusive.

Print editions have other considerations. Today I want to concentrate on electronic books.

A year ago I regained rights to Bad Policy from a small publishing company whose philosophy is to go wide, making ebooks available on every platform they could find. During the three years they controlled the distribution and pricing, 80.3% of electronic sales by both volume and royalties were through Amazon and 19.7% through other outlets. My second book, Cabin Fever, (currently, with nearly three years of sales data with the same small publisher) has Amazon at 81.9%, with 18.1% for all others.

For simplicity let’s round the split to 80/20. Choosing to become exclusive with Amazon for Bad Policy, I’d potentially give up 20% of my sales. What would I get from Amazon that could justify reducing revenue flows by 20%?

The main advantages of going exclusive with KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing platform) are (1) simplicity in the publishing process, (2) the use of a limited number of days to use countdown deals/and or give the work away for free, and (3) access to Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL).

Simplicity is nice, but not a very high hurdle. With a broad distribution, you can (with work) nearly duplicate the effect of Amazon’s countdown or free days. The difference-maker from my perspective is access to KU and KOLL.

Ant Farm, the first Seamus McCree novel, was published by Kindle Press (an Amazon imprint), so the ebook is Amazon-exclusive. KU and KOLL revenues for it represented 29.9% of revenue—greater than the 20% I was losing by cutting off alternative sales outlets.

Now, the first thing one must realize is that the extra 10% is not all additional revenue. Some people who read the book would have purchased it from Amazon had it not been available on KU. I cannot quantify that number, but my gut sense is that it is very small. In talking with people who subscribe to KU, they claim to rarely buy books, preferring to read exclusively those available through KU. Amazon probably knows for sure whether that is true, but it seems unlikely those people buy many books from non-Amazon sources—which is why Amazon pushes KU subscriptions.

Offsetting that “double-counting” are people who prefer to read electronically using their Nook or Kobo, but have a Kindle reading app they use when that is their only choice.

I decided the gains would outweigh the losses, so when I reissued Bad Policy, I made the ebook exclusive to Amazon. It’s been less than a year since the reissue. During that time, KU has generated 30% of revenue—the same result I have had for Ant Farm, which has always been exclusive to Amazon.

When I published the fourth Seamus McCree novel, Doubtful Relations, in August 2016, my experiment with Bad Policy was already producing positive results. But I was reluctant to write off the 20% of my readers who were reading my books on non-Amazon platforms. I chose to go wide, using Draft2Digital to distribute to the other platforms. Instead of the expected 20% of sales from the other retailers. I earned less than 10%.

The reasons are not all that clear to me. Perhaps since Bad Policy’s original release in 2013, fewer people are reading on alternative platforms. (I know I initially preferred Nook, partially to help keep competitiveness in the ebook market, partially because I could turn my Nook into a tablet. I gave up on using my Nook as a tablet when much more powerful tablets became ubiquitous, and because it was so difficult to navigate B&N’s website and so easy to find what I wanted on Amazon.) Although I do enjoy detailed numerical analysis, I have not taken the time to do a month-by-month comparison to determine if the Amazon ratio had been increasing in the past year.

After three months with the same low rate of non-Amazon sales, I made Doubtful Relations exclusive to Amazon and enrolled it in KU. It’s too early to know for sure how that decision will play out, but in that partial first month, KU revenue was twice what I had earned from all other retailers in the previous three months.

This past Tuesday, LowcountryCrimes: Four Novellas made its debut. I polled the other three authors to determine if they had very strong readership on non-Amazon platforms. Everyone was noncommittal, so I went with my gut, which said KU readers would be willing to take a gamble on our four novellas. It only cost them reading time to try authors they might not know, and I (technically my publishing arm, Wolf’s Echo Press) made the ebook exclusive to Amazon.

But I also decided to publish each novella separately. And there I went wide! My thinking was that if you could get all four for free in KU, there was no advantage to having individual novellas enrolled in KU. If someone wanted to read (say) Tina Whittle’s “Trouble Like a Freight TrainComing” they could order up the entire anthology and read her story. Maybe they’d give the others a try. But, if Tina did have fans who read exclusively on Nook, I’d give them an opportunity to acquire her novella at B&N as well. Plus, I found a publisher (Pronoun) who pays 70% royalties on books priced less than $2.99, double Amazon’s policy of paying only 35%. The total anthology ebook is priced at $3.99; each novella at $1.99. (So you can purchase the entire anthology for the price of two separate novellas.)

That’s my current thinking. Will it change in the future? You betcha. The publishing industry remains in flux, and any business (and being an author is a business) needs to continue to keep on top of trends and experiment.


I’m curious, dear blog readers: has your way of reading changed over the last few years? Do you expect it to change in the future? Those of you who are authors, what are you finding with your sales?

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on Writers Who Kill (2/12/17)

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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Nupur Tustin - Guest Author

Nupur Tustin is a former journalist who says she misuses a Ph.D. in Communication and an M.A. in English to orchestrate mayhem in Haydn's Austria. She also writes music. Her 1903 Weber Upright is responsible for that crime. I first met Nupur in the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

What is the background noise when you write and why is it there?

I'm so glad you ask. I hear the squeals, shrieks and squabbles of two rambunctious toddlers interspersed with the intermittent indignant cries of their baby brother when they tease him. Occasionally, my son will poke his head into the room, and ask: "Whatcha doin', Mom?" Or my daughter will cuddle up beside me on my bed as I write, and with the wide-eyed wonder of childhood, exclaim: "Wow! Look at all the letters. Did you write them, Mom?" My baby son follows soon after, and babbles endearments as he flashes his radiant smile at me. Not ideal, but I love it!

What is your most recent excellent read (book, short story or essay) and why?

I've recently discovered Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series, and am fast falling in love with her works. Quietly in their Sleep isn't the first book in the series, but it is the first one I read.
Leon's mysteries are set in modern-day Venice, a city that reminds me oddly enough of my birth city, Calcutta. A once-glorious city, rich in history, overtaken by corruption. And her characters have the same resigned cynicism. We've been taught to believe that the best mysteries are fast-paced, page-turners in the sense of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Yet here's an author who, like a master chef, invites you to linger over her pages and savor her writing. And her books are no less enthralling than Dan Brown's works, which I've enjoyed as well.

Are you a plotter, pantser or something in between and why?

Somewhere in between, I've come to realize. A large-scale project like a novel needs a plan to help you keep track of things. If you write puzzle plot mysteries, you're going to have a hard time inserting clues and subtly diverting and misdirecting the reader without that plan.

I think of my outline as a roadmap. Just as Google Maps isn't going to tell you which roads are going to be closed the day you set out on your trip, and won't give you precise details of landmarks you need to look out for, your plot outline won't provide you with all the small scenes that will link from one major point to the next. As you write, other ideas will come along to flesh out the main idea, and sometimes you'll change major plot points around because it's in the actual writing that you see what works and what doesn't.

Name three not-well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

I have a fondness—as you might suspect from my own choice of protagonist—for mysteries that center around historical figures. With that in mind, I'd recommend Rosemary Stevens' Beau Brummel mystery series. If you like the Regency period and Georgette Heyer's books, you'll enjoy this series.

Brummel was known for his wit, and Stevens has a light touch and is especially adept at the witty banter that characterized him. Unfortunately there are only four of these, so read at your own risk. After the fourth, there aren't any more to feed your addiction.

I'm not a huge fan of romance, but I'm beginning to notice that romance writers are wonderfully skilled at lending emotional depth to their characters and using the readers' emotional investment in the story to create and sustain tension. When writers like Amanda Carmack, who writes the Kate Haywood series set in Elizabethan England, turn to mystery, the puzzle plot combined with their ability to maintain tension makes for an unforgettable reading experience.

Another reason to like Carmack's series: her protagonist is a musician at the court of Queen Elizabeth.

Finally, if you're a sucker for real-life rags-to-riches stories, you'll be inspired by Mani Bhaumik's Code Name God. He went from a small village in Bengal, India, where he walked barefoot to the nearest school, to owning mansions in Bel Air, California. But it's not so much the wealth he amassed that inspires one, it's that science led him to God and a stronger belief in the divine. Quantum physics has always fascinated me, and when a physicist talks about seeing God in sub-atomic particles, I'm sold! By the way, it was my high school physics teacher who told me about this book. And, yes, that was aeons ago.

When you compare your first draft to your final draft, do you net add words or subtract words? In general, what is it that you add or subtract between first and final draft?

I tend to write sparse, and I think that's because I began as a short story writer. My journalism experience must come into play as well. So I add in words, and I'm usually fleshing out and adding depth to characters and scenes. I also often tend to assume that the reader has a hotline to my mind's eye, and can see and hear everything I do. Obviously that's not the case, so there are small but crucial details that need to be clarified and filled in as well.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I'd just come out of a Ph.D. program when the thought of writing a novel took hold of my mind. And I'd been reading what I refer to as biographical mysteries, Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen series, Susan Wittig Albert's Beatrix Potter series, and Bruce Alexander's John Fielding series. So, my love of research and biography made the general choice of subject fairly apparent. But I decided I didn't want to set my novel in England, and I didn't want to focus on a writer, or his brother in the case of Alexander's novels.

I've always loved music and the German lessons I had as a college student led me to the German composers. After that it was a simple question of deciding which one. Haydn, who was so approachable his musicians called him Papa Haydn, and who had the ability to settle disputes without getting into the center of them, seemed like the best choice for a detective. He was also interested in more than just music. He had, for instance, all the works of Shakespeare in his library, in the original English. He enjoyed shooting, and was rather good at it. His notebooks from London show him to be a keen observer of men and manners.

What language error, when you hear or see it, grates on you like the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard?

I like to think I'm pretty tolerant of most errors and, unless they interfere with my ability to read and understand the story, I can usually gloss over most. The one thing that does grate on the nerve like a shrill, out-of-tune piano, though, is hearing Haydn's name mispronounced and seeing it misspelled. It's "hy-den" and not "hay-den." And you really have to resist the temptation to add that 'e' between the final consonants.

Name three writers from whom you have drawn inspiration and tell us why.

For the Haydn series, Haydn's earliest biographers and their accounts of the composer continue to inspire me. I must have read G.A. Griesinger and A.C. Dies a thousand times, and every time I feel downcast, there's something in there that spurs me on. I have only to read a few pages for any scene I'm writing to come out far better than I anticipated.

When I decided to set a mystery in eighteenth-century Austria, the question of voice perplexed me. What voice would best convey the story? Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen series and Jane Austen, herself, provided the answer. This is the voice I love best, the one that says: historical mystery coming up.
Finally, Kate Kingsbury, I think, is a marvelous storyteller, and extremely skilled at unfolding a story primarily through dialogue. The constant "he said," "she said" of some novelists can get tiresome. But Kingsbury's skilful use of beats—I feel sure she must have some experience in the theater—makes for a pleasant reading experience. I think my ability with dialogue has sharpened as a result of reading and re-reading her works.
Yes, I know you asked for three writers, and I somehow managed to give you five, didn't I? [Editor’s Comment: It’s not the most egregious example of counting-challenged authors, so you’re safe!]

What is a piece of writing advice you think is worth sharing?

There are no rules; only tools. This is a piece of songwriting advice from Berklee's Pat Pattison, but I think it applies to any kind of writing, indeed to any artistic endeavor. Haydn would have agreed if you'd asked him what he thought about occasionally flouting the rules in the interests of creating a certain effect.

Consider point-of-view (POV), for instance. We're told, are we not, to stringently avoid using more than one when writing a scene? Yet, Nora Roberts and Donna Leon, whom I've already mentioned, and countless other writers flout this rule to excellent effect.

In Nora Roberts' Dance Upon the Air, there's a scene that subtly shifts from Nell, the main character on the run from an abusive husband, to Mia, a strong supporting character in the novel who's considering offering Nell a job. And it sizzles with tension as a result of the technique. Mia senses Nell's fear, her distrust of strangers, and sympathizes with it. If we saw things from Nell's perspective alone, the scene would simply fall flat. We are vividly shown just how strong Nell's fear is when we realize she can't see beyond it to know who can be trusted.

I haven't had the courage to try this technique myself, but I'd love to. Maybe in the third Haydn novel. We'll see.

For more about Nupur Tustin and the Haydn Mysteries, please visit http://ntustin.com. And to whet your appetite, here’s a blurb and advanced praise for A Minor Deception.

When his newly hired violinist disappears just weeks before the Empress's visit, Haydn is forced to confront a disturbing truth. . .
 Kapellmeister Joseph Haydn would like nothing better than to show his principal violinist, Bartó Daboczi, the door. But with the Empress Maria Theresa’s visit scheduled in three weeks, Haydn can ill-afford to lose his surly virtuoso. But when Bartó disappears—along with all the music composed for the imperial visit—the Kapellmeister is forced to don the role of Kapell-detective, or risk losing his job.
 Before long Haydn's search uncovers pieces of a disturbing puzzle. Bartó, it appears, is more than just a petty thief—and more dangerous. And what seemed like a minor musical mishap could modulate into a major political catastrophe unless Haydn can find his missing virtuoso.

"A standout in the genre of historical mysteries. An encore is requested!"
 Midwest Book Review

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