Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reasons Why I Don't Read Self-Published Works

I'm not criticizing the entire self-publishing industry, but I think even self-pubbed authors admit there is a stigma attached to veering from the traditional publishing route and this is why.

Reason #1: This woman.

If you didn't see this going around yesterday, check it out now. Self-published author, Jacqueline Howett, received a less than glowing review of her book and reamed the reviewer for it. She, as an individual, acted unprofessionally and I certainly don't think all self-pubbed authors would behave the same way or that even the majority would. The greater problem is she defended sentences like:

"Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance."

What?! I would have given it a much worse review. And not only did she defend her writing angrily and with more improper grammar, she showed us all she has no desire to improve her writing, and this I think may be a more widespread issue with self-publishing. As if the writer said, "Crank off a book and post it to Amazon. Become Kindle millionaire."

Reason #2: Covers like this

I don't want to specifically insult this author. This is just one of many bad covers I see from self-published works. The book itself has a five star review if you would like to read it, but this is why I won't.

I am a designer. I went to school for six years, I've worked in the industry for eight more and now everyone with a bootlegged copy of Photoshop thinks they too are a designer. Doing a fade out effect, a few dropshadows and slapping some Comic Sans over a photo does not a book cover make. What this says to me: "I put this together in five minutes."

If you don't take your cover seriously, what makes me think you took the pains to seriously edit your work?

Even though I am a designer and could probably put together a decent cover, I wouldn't. I have a friend who worked for Houghton as a book cover designer and you can bet if I self-pubbed, I would have her do it because she is a professional. If you're thinking of self-pubbing a work, contact her. She still does freelance.

Which brings me to...

Reason #3: If it was really good, an editor would have bought it.

There. I said it. Going the traditional publishing route is hard, and so I feel the pain, but I also get the feeling that after a book is rejected by a list of agents, an author goes, "Fine. I'll just publish it myself."

As I wouldn't deign to know the ins and outs of the book cover design world, I wouldn't assume I know more than the publishing professionals. Editors and agents read more books than you and I could ever read. It's their job. And they read books that we haven't heard of: new books, debut books, books from established authors. They know where the industry has been. They know where it's going. They have a crystal ball, and when you work with them, they'll share their knowledge with you to make your work better.

Maybe the book wasn't rejected because it was bad, but because it wasn't as good or original as something else. And if it wasn't as good or original as something else, why would I want to read it?

Reason #4: Time

I don't care if a book is only $.99. I don't have time to read it. As of now I have at least thirty books piled on my desk all waiting to be read. Books I know that are good. Books that have five star reviews from friends of mine with similar reading taste. Yes, I listen to a ton of indie music from unknown bands, but listening to song takes five minutes, not hours or days. When I have time to read a book, I have to KNOW it's worth my precious time, and three five star reviews from an author's friends and family does not convince me of that.

Reason #5: I can read pre-pubbed works for free!

I have author friends. We exchange works. We critique. We share ideas. If I'm going to read something not yet ready, it makes more sense for me to do this, so in turn, I can get feedback on my work. And I know it's coming from someone with talent, committment and a desire to improve.

But ah-ha! I am a hypocrite. I have read self-published works and they were good, but what did they do differently? The authors combatted the stereotypes above.

Check out my friend Karen's books. She hired an editor. She worked with an illutsrator. She has a website. She markets herself. She goes to events and does speaking engagements. She's showing a serious committment to her work, which is something I can stand behind.

And we've all heard of Amanda Hocking (or if we haven't we should have) Self-published Kindle Millionaire. She did the same. Put a lot of time and effort into writing, editing and marketing her book.

Of course now because of her success, we're probably going to see a slew of self-published works, and the question bodes will they take the time to edit, invest the money to hire a cover designers, and give their blood, sweat and tears to market it? Probably not, which is why I still won't go out of my way to read a self-published work.

What about you? Have you self-pubbed? Do you read self-published works? What is your opinion? And are there any good ones I'm missing out on?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Day My Calculus Class Was Mortified

I'm saving my trip into the garbage can for a later date because the day my calculus class was mortified is more relevant to my current work.

In it, are two girls who are extremely close and as I was writing it, I thought their relationship could be construed as lesbian-y (Not that there's anything wrong with that. I just hadn't intended that type of relationship for this particular work.) My agent disagreed, saying teenage girls are like that: always sitting in each other's laps, hugging, kissing on the cheek, etc, which is true. I did that, and consequently several people, most of my Calculus class, thought my friend Vanessa and I were in a romantic relationship.

It probably didn't help that we both had trendy short hair cuts, or wore ratty jeans and t-shirts most days. And I'm sure it didn't help when she sat in my lap one class because there was a hair on her seat, but there was one event in particular that clinched it.

Keep in mind, Vanessa and I were the oddballs in Calculus. We were more social, hung with a different crowd and were probably the only two in there to have seen the inside of the detention room. I feel we kept the class lively, and because of our outwardness, we were often used as an example.

One lesson, our teacher explained a problem on the board using a drawing similar to the one below:

"Let's say Rachel is standing on top of a cliff and Vanessa is down below in a boat--"

He didn't get further than that because Vanessa burst out...

"Why does Rachel always get to be on top?"

The entire class exploded into laughter, but many of them had an "I knew it look" in their eyes. When we went to Calculus Camp (yes I went to Calculus Camp, don't judge) our cabinmate Christina tried to force us to tell her we were dating.

So if there's such a fine line between two very close friends and two people who want to be "more than friends", how can we as writers, distinguish these two types of relationships? Where do the lines between them start to blur and is it okay to let them blur? Think about it and think about why two characters are just friends or more than friends. What does one get from the other? How do others perceive them? How does your reader perceive them? Real relationships are multifaceted, and your characters' relationships should be too.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Day I Ripped the Crotch Out of My Pants

The previous post has inspired me to share embarrassing moments from high school and well since there are so many I'll have blog fodder for at least the next century or so.

These are the pants, not the exact pants but so close it's bringing back the memory. The artfully torn and faded bell bottom jeans that I coveted and finally shelled out $60 of hard-earned babysitting money to purchase. They were so soft, so comfortable and fell ever-so-gracefully over my blue converse with the cheeto-orange shoelaces.

I loved these pants.

And I wore them almost daily further adding to their vintage glory.

This was senior year so I was in physics with my best friend Vanessa. We were the goof offs in the class: always late, always talking, always joking, and much to the dismay of the other students, aced every project (I'm sure it didn't hurt that my dad was an engineer). Anyway, I was wearing my fabulous bell bottom jeans on the day of bottle rocket testing. (In case you don't know what that is, it's a 2 liter soda bottle that we attached foam fins to, glitter and a handkerchief parachute. You set it off with air and the winner was the one whose rocket remained aloft the longest.)

They couldn't be tested indoors, so Mr. Vine, our physics teacher, dragged the class out to the soccer field. To get there we had to hop over a very short fence. No problem. I'm five foot nine. I lifted one leg in the air to throw it over and heard:


A cool breeze washed over my thighs as I realized my fabulous bell bottom jeans had split down the middle. Panicked, sweating, cheeks flushed, I pinched my legs together to close off what modesty remained.

"What happened?" Vanessa asked.

"I split my pants," I replied in a quivering voice.

She laughed hysterically, and I had to laugh too. The teacher recorded the bottle rocket send offs (of course) so if any of his later students watched the videos they would see me, legs crossed over one another bending ever-so-carefully to avoid having my underwear captured on film forever. After class Vanessa and I used a conglomeration of safety pins to hold them closed for the rest of the day because as luck would have it, physics was first period.

And as upset as I was to be stuck in crotchless jeans for six hours, I was more upset over the demise of my fabulous, faded bell bottoms. The moral of this story: If you're going to wear artfully faded jeans, DON'T HOP ANY FENCES.

Next: The day I fell into the garbage can.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Hooray for Hormones!

I know what you're thinking. Why is there a picture of a chubby German boy on your blog?
I know because I thought the same thing as I was flipping through my eighth grade yearbook. Who is that boy? I don't remember him from school....until I read the name listing and found my own at the end. Did I completely forget what I looked like or did I erase it from my memory along with most of the horrors of middle school?

Unfortunately in writing young adult literature, I dredge up those horrid memories and think about that time a lot. Both of the photos above are of me. The first one I was thirteen. The second was three years and six inches later. But when I write about sixteen-year-old girls, I have to think about where they came from, which means I have to think about where I came from.

Thirteen-year-old me was NOT cool. She was overweight. You can see the retainer, a welcome blessing after three years of braces and headgear. She had no boobs, but had to wear a training bra because she changed out for gym. But because of the flat chest, she often forgot the bra and had to shamefully change in the restroom. The whole point was moot, because she was awful at sports, teased for that on a daily basis and also riduled for her appearance. She was spit on, bullied...oh and she was in the National Junior Honor Society, straight A student and later in the year had the brilliant idea of getting a perm.

Finally puberty came late and fast, adding six inches over the course of two years. All that baby fat turned into a figure. (thank goodness) But the second girl still felt like the first girl. Her freshman year of high school, she collected six dollars and eighty two cents in change because she always looked at the ground.

And do you have any idea what it's like to all of a sudden add six inches to your body? It's all arms and legs. I was tripping all over the place, constantly knocking things over with my butt and I had a permanent bruise on my hip from running into tables and counters. And now I love being tall, but not in high school when most of the boys were shorter than me and I felt like this huge, awkward, hormonal giant. I may have been outwardly attractive then, but I didn't see it.
So when I'm working on a new character, I try to get into her head. Maybe she wasn't a chubby dork turned Amazon, but where was she in middle school? Where was she as a child? How was her upbringing? What were her friends like? And what lingering childhood traumas followed her into adolescence?

Answering these questions often tells me how she perceives herself and the world around her. Someone with confidence sees things very differently than someone without. Or some people use confidence as a shield against their low self-esteem, so internally they're as miserable as the rest of us. All of this starts before your story, but it makes your story.
Often I start a new document and write a short story on a historical event for my character. Sometimes I add it into the manuscript as backstory, sometimes I don't. Either way I think it helps me build a real person.
Do you do this in your character development phase? Do you write an outline for your character's past? Jot down some earlier events? Or do you just plan it all out in your head?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Crushing Dreams

I have a self-published writer friend who is mentoring a young lady aspiring to be a YA novelist. She asked me to meet with her and talk about my journey in the quest for publication. This particular young lady is extremely ambitious, but like most of us starting out, has the starry eyed dreams of making it to the New York Times best seller list in a year.

I tried very hard not to laugh and be considerate of her aspirations, but I felt I would be doing her a disservice if I didn't prepare her for the journey because it's not for the faint of heart.

The truths I told.

You have to edit.
New writers never think of editing. I didn't. I cranked out my first book in a month and started sending it out. Unfortunately for me, I wrote a fantastic query letter for it. I got a manuscript request on the first query letter I sent. And later I got my harshest rejection to date: "There's too much wrong with it for me to go into detail." And she was right because I also didn't pay attention to formatting. It was double-spaced and that's about it. No indentations for dialogue, improperly punctuated dialogue and I think the word, or pretend word, "OK" was in there at least a thousand times.

Agents typically only sign a few clients a year from the thousands of query letters they receive.
I thought she might cry after I told her this.

Even after you get an agent, it doesn't mean your book will get published.
I saw her mind at work, picturing herself at my age, still unpublished.

You're going to get rejected...a lot.
This she seemed prepared for, which is good, but I think everyone says that until they start collecting rejection letters.

Once you've sent a query letter to an agent and been rejected, that book is dead to that particular agent.
This I wanted to tell her so she would only send out her best work.

On the positive side...
The industry is really subjective.
Someone may hate it. Someone else might love it. If you've edited your little heart out and you stand behind your work, keep sending it out.

Why the heck aren't you reading blogs, twitter, etc?
I cringe over my first novel. It's locked in a drawer, never be seen by human eyes again. Had I not researched, researched and researched online: reading agent blogs, publishing blogs, articles, Twitter chats, other writer's blogs...I'm confident my following manuscripts would be equally crappy.

And because I follow a ton of agents on Twitter...
Mermaids, vampires and books in the eighties are over done.
She said she was working on some manuscripts set in the eighties and I told her agents get innundated with those because a lot of YA writers are in their thirties (like me), and we write what we know, the eighties and nineties. Agents see this as a lazy way to get around dealing with technology or finding out how things are today.

BUT I also told her the most important thing is to write a great book, because a fantastic story about a mermaid in the eighties will get more notice than an okay book about a modern shapeshifter.

I don't think I completely dissuaded her from writing, but I certainly gave her a lot to think about.

Did I miss anything major?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Social Media. WTF.

Ah yes. The hidden joy of having a day job: business conferences. This morning was the Providence Business News' Social Media as a Marketing Tool.

I always enter these warily, expecting a thinly guised sales pitch, but this one was not. It was informative and discussed differing techniques for utilizing social media across varying industries featuring social media marketers in consumer product, design, legal counsel, insurance and non-profit organizations.

The major takeaways:

  • The majority of Facebook users are in their thirties and college-educated
  • Every one of the panelists has a full-time person monitoring their social media networks (and not an intern. Someone familiar with the brand and the way it should represented.)
  • Followers like giveaways and contests. They also like to input their opinion. Lolita Healy, Founder & President of Designs by Lolita, uses her followers to create collection ideas
  • Followers also like to vote and nominate. The Newport Art Museum allows people to upload their own art and users vote on their favorites
  • Followers do not respond as well to open-ended questions, rather a choice: Vanilla or chocolate?
  • Customize your Facebook page with the Facebook Static FBML app
  • Create an icon for your product. Alec Beckett, Creative Partner for Nail Communications created Hector, the paper mache cockatoo, for the Margarita's Mexican restaurant to converse with customers

As writers, think about how these techniques can apply to your own social media marketing plan. Can you create a Facebook page for one of your characters? Allow people to upload ideas for your story and vote? Which authors do you think take charge of Twitter and Facebook?