The festival ripple effect

I’ve been increasing the number of book festivals and other festivals I’ve been taking part in for book signings. Some are very successful for me. Some I just barely break even at, and others, are complete flops.

The flops can be soul-crushing, but I have realized something as I’ve increased my appearances. The number of page views of my books and online sales increase after a festival, even a festival that’s been a failure. That doesn’t mean that I’ll go back to the flop festivals. However, it makes attending break-even festivals more attractive to continue attending.

Another benefit that I’ve found in attending these festivals is that I get leads and offers for speaking engagements. These speaking engagements are always successful. Even if I don’t get paid a stipend for speaking, I sell my books afterward.

The third benefit of these festivals is that I sometimes get leads for future story ideas.

On the flip side, festivals take up a lot of time and cost money to attend. This summer, I have a festival every other weekend, on average. The costs definitely add up as I do more festivals.

Overall, I think writers should definitely put themselves out there in the public and doing book signings at festivals where your potential readers attend. Just remember that sometimes the best festivals aren’t book festivals. You may find a craft or street fair that draws in many people who like your books.

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Writing serial fiction

UntitledAlthough it’s not a popular form of writing any longer, I’ve had the opportunity in recent months to write a serial. It has been a fun experience that I hope will continue because I’ve come up with a few more ideas for serials while working on the six-part story called “The Anger of Innocence.”

The serial is a horror story running in The Catoctin Banner Newspaper in Frederick County, Md. I write and edit stories for the paper on a freelance basis. When the paper went through a major redesign earlier this year, I convinced the publisher to try out the serial in the Arts & Entertainment section. I write a few local history columns for newspapers, and I have noticed in my research many of the old newspapers used to run serial fiction. I saw it as a way to entertain readers and give them a more-rounded newspaper-reading experience.

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While a serial can run for any number of parts, you should keep a few things in mind when planning to write a serial. Here’s what I learned:

  • Make sure your story has enough hooks. While I like to have my story parts end with a cliffhanger, I can’t always do that. However, you still need to keep the reader coming back whether it’s with a cliffhanger, unanswered questions, or a fascinating situation. I tend to use the old movie serials as my inspiration.
  • Serials work with all genres. While the serial I’m working on is horror, the other ideas have are a romance, a coming-of-age story, and a historical thriller. Since I write primarily in the history and historical fiction genre, I find it interesting that my serial ideas are from outside of my area of familiarity.
  • Find a way to recap each story. You can’t count on everyone reading your serial from the first part so you need to recap just enough to familiarize new readers with the situation, the characters, and what has come before without boring or turning off existing readers. You also need to consider how long the recap will be. Each of the story parts I’m writing for “The Anger of Innocence” is around 1,300 words. If I spend too much time summarizing what has happened, I won’t have time to move the story forward.
  • Each story should be complete. Even if I use a cliffhanger ending, the story part still feels complete. A situation happened and concluded. While I will use a cliffhanger to entice a reader back because they want to find out what happens, I don’t want readers to feel unsatisfied with the current part they are finishing.
  • Write the entire story before it starts running. Certainly, you can publish your story parts as you go. It definitely makes writing a serial more challenging that way but is it better for the reader? I started publishing “The Anger of Innocence” with two parts left unwritten and the last part not even planned. As I’ve written the last two parts, I have found things that I could change in previous parts before they were published. I have also found a few other things (luckily, nothing major) that were already set in stone because they were published. I’ve had to work around them. I’m all for challenging yourself to write better but only if those improvements make the reading experience better for your readers. Don’t give yourself an unnecessary headache because you find you have written yourself into a corner because you didn’t plan out how your serial would progress.

When this serial finishes, I’ll talk with my publisher to see if she wants me to do another one (I hope so). I will also look into bringing this story into print, most likely as an ebook.

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Are you a marketing tortoise or hare?

blue-growth-chartWhen my book, The Last to Fall: The 1922 March, Battles, & Deaths of U.S. Marines at Gettysburg, launched, I worked to promote it and get it into bookstores. It felt like an uphill battle at times. There’s a lot more bookstores than there are me and my co-author.

This leads me to an observation that I’ve found as an independent author. The difference between independent authors and traditionally published authors is like the story of the tortoise and the hare.

Traditionally published authors are looking for their books to take off with a quick start. They have to have strong sales right from the start in order to keep their book in stores and in print. Independent publishers certainly would love to have strong sales up front, but tend to see steady sales that stretch out over a much longer life for the book.

I’ve seen that with many of my titles. They may be 5 or 10 years old, but they still sell well.

I think this is because while I can’t put an army of sales reps and publicity people selling my book hard for a couple months before they move onto their next project, I can continually work on promoting my older titles along with my newer ones. The efforts build on themselves, expanding the books exposure and sales.

The key to promotion is to keep at it. Do something every day to market your book. It adds up in the end.

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  • The birth of a story idea
  • Write & Wait vs. Write, Write, Write
  • Time to get busy!

Does a change of scenery boost your creativity?

1Someone asked me yesterday if I was a coffee house writer. I thought about it and told her, “Maybe.”

I hadn’t really considered it before, but once I did, I realized that the coffee house writers are, at their essence, writers who need the change of scenery to stimulate their creativity.

While going to a coffee house wouldn’t do me any good since I’m not a coffee drinker, I do think going to a fast-food restaurant, park, or some other different place might help me write more.

  • I have found that I often start to envision scenes and dialogue while taking a long walk or drive. (This week, I even dictated ideas into my phone while riding my bike.)
  • Last summer, during some very nice days, I took my laptop into the sunroom attached to our house to work and found it didn’t disrupt my productivity.
  • When I’m on vacation with my family, I am up hours before they get up in the morning. I typically get a lot of writing done during those times.

These things lead me to believe that maybe a change of scenery a few days a week would help me up my game. There are quite a few places where I could test out this theory and all of them are nearby my house:

  • Fast-food restaurant.
  • Library.
  • Hotel lobby.
  • Park pavilion.

I will try these places out and see which ones work best for me. The added benefit I see is that it will get me moving around, and in the case of a park pavilion, I’ll be outside and enjoying the nice weather.

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Interviewing your main characters

third-degree-interrogationMy writer’s group did an exercise last week I found both interesting and useful. It’s also something you can do with your own writing. Interrogate your characters.

You are questioned by police as a material witness about a crime your book character may have been involved in. The crime is not specified. The interviewer just wants information about your character. You don’t need to pretend to be your character (although that would be a variation on the idea). You just need to answer the questions based on your knowledge of the character.

 

Also, don’t use notes. The idea is to discover how well you know your character. The better you know the character, the easier it will be to write from that character’s perspective.

In watching my writer’s group leader perform the interrogations, it was interesting to see how he uncovered discrepancies with how the character would react in different situations or conflicting personality traits. These were pointed out to the author to consider as he or she wrote. Discovering and rectifying these potential problems before the book is published can save the author headaches later. 

I also saw that the interview could lead to the author making up missing information on the fly. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it remains consistent with the character’s personality.

Try it with your characters and see what you discover that you didn’t know about them.

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Exercise to release your creativity

cyclingI know there are many reasons why, as a writer, you should exercise. At the top of the list is the myriad of health benefits you receive when you exercise regularly. This is particularly important for a writer because our work is such a sedentary activity. You need the activity to keep from growing too wide for your desk chair.

My favorite forms of exercise are bicycling and walking for 1-2 hours 3-5 times a week. I have found that the exercise clears out my head of a lot of the clutter and jumble, worry over projects I’ve got to do, marketing I’ve got to do, and things like that. In clearing that out, it allows me to hear my muse and unleash my creativity. I’ve believed that for a long time, but it became very clear to me yesterday.

I have a short story I need to write. It’s an original story I need to write on deadline because it will be published as a serial. Even though, I had a 1-2 sentence idea about the story; I didn’t know where it would go.

Over the weekend, I had come up with an opening chapter. It works really well, but it is still in a draft form. I was scared to turn it in because as part of a serial; I didn’t know what happens in the rest of the story. I didn’t know how the story would end. I definitely didn’t know how to fill in the middle so it would take up at least six installments. I was feeling a little panicked because I’d been the one who pitched the publisher this idea.

I had a long story I wanted to run because it would give me time to evaluate whether the newspaper’s readers liked serial fiction. My goal was that while that story was running for six months, I would come up with a more localized story for the newspaper’s audience. While the publisher went for the serial idea, she wanted to have it localized right away. I came up with three rough ideas for stories (during another exercise session), and I pitched those ideas to the publisher. She shot down two of them so I agreed to write the third story, which was the weakest of the three ideas.

I was walking yesterday morning and had my phone with me as I always do because it has my fitness tracker on it. It also has a voice recorder. I dictated into the voice recorder as I was walking. Over the course of a few miles, the story fell into place as I outlined, talked about characters, and spoke conversations.

I’ll transcribe the notes I recorded this week and sort them out into a coherent outline. However, it’s enough to know that by the end of my walk, my story was outlined. Yes, I still need to write it, make sure I have chapter breaks at the right points, and edit it, but that is technical details. The heart of the story is worked. Also, I can now edit the opening chapter with the knowledge of what will be coming. This will allow me to do any foreshadowing or adjust anything is needed to fit with how the story will unfold.

Most of all, I am excited about the story and not scared. It is a great story that I can’t wait to write.

So, yes, exercise to release your creativity!

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Secrets of Successful Authors: Write more

Note: This will be the first post in a series that write from time to time that look into the habits of successful authors. While I make a living from my writing, I’m still far from where I want to be. My hope is that as I examine these habits, I’ll learn just as much as you.

Successful authors write… and continue to write.

The old saying is, “Writers write.” Well, successful authors write more.

Look at your favorite indie author who is selling well. I bet you’ll also find he or she has a strong backlist of titles and probably publishes more than a single title a year, which seems to be the standard among traditionally published authors.

This doesn’t mean that such writers are hack because they write fast. I remember as a teenager reading that my favorite author at the time, Louis L’Amour, used to write three books a year when he was an up-and-coming author.

The simple fact is that if you want to make a living writing, you need to have books for fans to buy. Once you have turned a reader into a fan, that fan is going to want to read more of what you write. You need to have additional titles to capitalize on that enthusiasm. If you have 100 fans and only one book, you can only sell 100 books, but if you have 10 books out, you can potentially sell 1000 books.

Author David Gaughran writes in Let’s Get Digital that having additional titles is more effective than many platform-building activities that authors do.

A deep backlist also helps with your marketing efforts. For instance, if you have one book out, it’s hard to run a free book promotion. However, if you write a trilogy, you can offer the first book at a deal to hook readers and have them purchase the other books at the regular price. Similarly, when I sell books at a festival, I offer a “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” deal. It’s a deal that has significantly increased my sales, but I wouldn’t be able to offer it if I only had one or two titles out.

So once your current book is released, market it, but also start working on your next book.

This, of course, means you’ll need to spend more time writing. That is hard to do if you are also working a full-time job, but work to find the time.

It is a cumulative effect. The more books you get out, the greater your chances at seeing success. The more-successful you are, not only will you be more motivated to write, you will be earning more. This should help you cut back on other work.

Obviously, it will take time to build up your backlist so any extra time you can devote to your writing now will pay off down the line.

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He said, she said

people-speaking-avatar-collection_1347-100Dialogue in your story is important. It can reveal a lot about the characters and move the story forward. However, if not handled properly, it can be clunky.

I would guess that the no. 1 way of messing up dialogue is using too many tags and trying to use a variety of tags. A dialogue tag is what we connect to dialogue to identify who is speaking, such as he said, she asked, Jeff yelled, Marci questioned, etc.

 

You don’t need to get fancy. In fact, the fancier you get, the more likely you are to distract from the dialogue, and that is what you want your reader to notice.

Keep it simple. Unless you have a good reason not use it, said and asked are the only tags you need. One writer I know calls them “white noise” that readers don’t pay attention to, which is exactly what you want to happen.

The reader should take in the dialogue, see who said it, and that is all they need. Punctuation and wording can show the reader how to interpret the dialogue. A question mark means the person asked a question. An exclamation point shows the comment was made with emphasis. Repeating words imply hesitation. Actions you show happening during the dialogue can show the various emotions and state of mind of the speaker. If it is appropriate, you can also have one speaker identify another by name.

 

We are often told, “Show, don’t tell.” It applies to dialogue, and tags tell. They tell who is speaking and they often tell an action. Because of that, we should avoid using them except to identify who is speaking and we should minimize that. Don’t tell me Joe said something excitedly. Show me Joe acting agitated, throwing his hands in the air, or grabbing the person he is talking to. Use an exclamation point at the end of the dialogue line. The reader will see Joe is excited and assume those emotions will show in his speaking.

It may sound like I think we shouldn’t use dialogue tags at all. If you can get away with it, don’t do.

Otherwise, only use tags when the speaker needs identification. This will be minimal in a conversation between two people. Once the speakers are identified, each time the speaker changes, a new paragraph starts. If the conversation goes on for a long time, you might need to identify them again somewhere in the conversation.

 

One instance where you may need to use more tags than normal is to keep the speakers straight in a conversation that involves three or more people. Since the conversation is not the back and forth of two people, you need to make sure the reader knows who is who in the conversation.

TIP: Write your dialogue in the first draft with no tags. Then when you re-read it at a later date, if you don’t know who is speaking, you know you need a tag or some other identification technique. This tip also helps you know in longer stretches of dialogue when additional identification is needed.

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Changes coming

Watch for changes coming to this blog beginning next week. For more than 9 years, this blog has featured different aspects of a writer’s life. I’ll be the first to admit that it has wandered at times. Beginning next week, I’ll be renaming the blog: Write Now!: Secrets and Tips to Make a Living as a Writer.

I am narrowing the focus of the blog to focus on how to make a living as a freelance writer and/or author.

Judging by my interactions with other authors and responses from students I teach, I believe I have good information to share with new and experienced writers. I’ll write about freelancing, getting assignments, running a business, indie publishing, writing, marketing, and other issues. As I read books helpful to the writer, I will pass those recommendations along to you.

I may not appear on bestseller lists all the time, but I am making a living as a full-time writer. Here’s my background that has brought me to this point:

  • I have worked in full-time positions as a copywriter, marketing writer, reporter, and editor.
  • I have had two freelance writing careers; one was more business oriented, and the second is the one I am doing now.
  • I became a freelance writer in 1988, which is probably before some of you were born.
  • I have over two dozen writing awards.
  • I teach college writing courses and workshops at writers’ conferences, which gives me insight into what writers are questioning.
  • I continue to learn and improve.

So, watch for the changes beginning next week, and let me know about topics you want to read about, questions you might have, and changes you want to see to the blog.

The ripple effect in marketing

320004_10150370257646867_270838901866_8795066_1718063802_nYears ago, there was a popular commercial for either shampoo or hair dye. The woman in the commercial was so happy with the product she said, “You’ll tell two friends about it, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on and so on.” Meanwhile, the image of the woman kept doubling and doubling until there were a couple dozen images on the screen.

It’s a great effect to have duplicated in your marketing efforts. Nowadays, it’s called going viral, and if you can achieve it, the results are phenomenal.

The problem is that there’s no sure-fire way to achieve it.

I have found one way that puts me in a good position to have things happen, though. It’s going to festivals to sell my books.

While selling my books, I almost always get requests to do talks, book signings, or other festivals.

If attending the festival is equivalent to dropping a rock in a lake, then each book I sell is a ripple. Each additional event I attend because of the festival is another rock in the lake. With enough rocks and ripples, soon that lake is looking like boiling water because of my books.

 

While I love selling my books at these shows, I delight in the additional opportunities that come my way. It’s like getting bonus sales.

It makes it hard to measure the effectiveness of a show, though. A show might only be average in sales, but perhaps, it yields a talk where I sell another two dozen books. How do I measure those sales regarding the original show?

To set yourself up in the best way for these opportunities, make yourself approachable. I always try to talk to people who stop by my booth. I am not hard sell. I point out which books are fiction and which are non-fiction. I ask what they like. I may comment on a shirt they are wearing. I will ask if they are enjoying the festival. I am trying to strike up a dialogue so they feel comfortable talking with me. I also try to stay positive and be diplomatic about controversial topics.

The key is I listen and react to what the customer is saying. One of my school teachers used to have a poster in her room that said, “If you’re talking, you’re not listening.” If you are continually pitching a potential customer to make a sale, you might not give them the opportunity to ask you about another opportunity.

If you really want to encourage these opportunities, add a line to your business card that says you are available for presentations and workshops. You can make it more obvious by creating a sign to sit on your table that says you are available.

 

So, attend a show, sell a book, give a presentation, and have the reader tell two friends about you and so on and so on.

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