Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Difference Is In The Details: Authors vs. Book Writers

I know I was supposed to make this blog more about Speculative Fiction in general rather than just about writing Speculative Fiction, but much of what I feel led to share is as much for readers as it is for writers.  I want to get into some author interviews, book reviews, etc. later on, but for now what has come to me to share is about helping to educate new writers to some things to make their writing better, which in turn helps readers understand not only what to look for as a reader but also, hopefully, how to find better writers so that their reading experience is more enjoyable.

Part of what we do in our service on the field is equipping.  The better we can teach others to teach others, the more solid the overall foundation, and the stronger the base of believers wherever we are.  In this blog, I am hoping to do the same thing for Speculative Fiction.  The better writers write, the better the overall foundation of Speculative Fiction in general, and particularly Christian Speculative Fiction will be.

One of the issues with the relative ease of self-publishing today is that there is no stern-faced, intentionally-critical, gatekeepers at publishing houses serving as a filter for bad writing anymore.  Surely books that are produced by traditional publishers still have that in place, but the majority of books today are published either as self-published titles, published via vanity presses, or published via small house publishers which are sort of something in between those two.

Self-published titles really only have the vetting and quality control the author chooses to impose upon themselves.  Often this varies from none whatsoever to sorely inadequate to not quite enough.  While I have read a few (very few) self-published titles that were actually solid quality and would have passed muster at a traditional house, most would have benefited greatly from some additional editing.  Vanity published titles are little better given the conflict of interest which would exist from wanting to entice an author to pay for their publishing vs. risking running that author off by telling them their work needs work.  Small press are probably the best of the three because most small press publishers do have editors and try to provide some level of quality control.  Their primary focus is building a reputation, and they don't want a reputation for poor quality.

So how does someone who is wanting to self-publish handle the quality control issue?  There are a number of things to keep in mind.  Again, this applies to readers as well in knowing what to look for and learning to recognize even from book-jacket blurbs or online descriptions how to spot potentially problem books.

1) Details are important.  Out of the self-published books that clearly have done a fairly decent job of editing, this area is probably the one that I have seen the most failures.  This is not just with self-published books, though, as editors rarely provide enough scrutiny in these areas, so holes in the details creep into traditionally published books almost as much as anywhere else.  Things like anachronisms, defying the laws of physics without explanation (I say without explanation because in Speculative Fiction, defying physics either through magic or currently non-existent technology is a staple of the genre, but if you do it, at least have thought through how it works), inconsistencies in story, character, timeline, etc., not attending to normal details of logistics and support (this is a HUGE deal with Fantasy where massive armies move without any thought to how they are fed and paid, horses travel for days on end without consideration of how they are fed and watered, etc), and other things that an author would pay attention to, but where the book writer just doesn't pause their storytelling long enough to really think through the details.

It drives me crazy when a small nation fields a massive army for war without any thought of how that army was equipped, how it is fed, how they are paid, and what the ramifications of the workforce are back home while the majority of the workforce is off at war.  How about when a historically set story discusses an invention that wasn't around until 60 years after the story is set?  Does that drive anyone else crazy?  What about when horses are ridden for miles and miles day after day and no mention or thought to provision for those horses is ever dealt with?  Other examples are when I have seen someone mentioned in one place with one backstory/history/timeline but later in the story some of the details change.  This kind of thing can drive alert readers nuts and generally show poor planning and attention to detail on the part of the book writer.  These are areas where it is clearly evident when you encounter a genuine author vs. a book writer, as an author will pay attention to these details and render a smoothly operating, consistent world whereas the book writer will deliver something akin to a Hollywood movie set, with the fronts of the buildings looking passable but with no depth of substance behind the facade.

Being an author is more than just being a good storyteller.  It is about taking pride in what you produce and working hard to ensure that the world and work you are creating is as full, complete, and realistic as possible.  An author should have all of their research, notes, background, world-building, etc done and for the most part no more than 20% of that will ever see print.  The difference between a book writer and an author is that 80%.  The author knows their world inside and out and has thought through the details to a degree far beyond what will appear in the story.  A book writer may not think beyond what is needed for the story, which almost invariably is where the holes in the details manifest.  Truly discerning readers will know the difference between the care and attention to detail that an author puts into their work vs. the inconsistencies of someone who is merely a book writer.

2) Planning and Pacing are Vital.  Have you ever read a book that started off in a really amazing way, but then either bogged down to a quicksand-stuck pace or wandered off aimlessly for chapter after chapter before meandering back to the main plot?  This is something a solid content editor for a publisher would normally catch, but even grammatically well-edited manuscripts from self-published writers can find themselves subject to these pacing and planning issues.

One earmark of an author is generally that before they begin writing, they already have an outline and a chapter plan.  They know where they are going, and they have a road map to get there efficiently.  Book writers, on the other hand, often just start writing and have a general idea where they want to go, but no real plan of how, or how quickly, to get there.  This almost invariably leads to problems with pacing and wandering plots.  If you are reading a book and the pacing is radically off, or the plot starts wandering, generally you find yourself putting that book down and having little desire to pick it up again.  Diehard fans, or friends and family, may plow through to the end, but discerning readers are more likely to toss it on the "wasted time" pile and move on to the next book.  When we tell a story, it is not for our benefit, but for the benefit of the reader, and so it behooves a storyteller to put the time and effort into planning out an outline and/or chapter plan before one begins writing so that the reader feels the story is staying on track and is getting there at a reasonable pace.

3) What You Say, Say Well.  This is the biggest clue that prospective readers can use to save time and money avoiding poorly written books.  A book blurb, which is the description designed to introduce the story and entice the reader to buy the book, is at least ten-times more difficult to write well than the book itself.  If you find a book blurb that is truly well written, introduces the main conflict of the story without synopsizing, and raises questions that make you want to know the answers, chances are it is written by an author, and is a book worth taking a chance on.  If the book description is vague, confusing, muddled, off point, uninteresting, overly detailed, or reads like a Cliff's Notes description of the book, it means the book writer may not have the ability to say well what they have to say.  An author agonizes over, tweaks, shifts, changes and crafts the book blurb to achieve that effect of enticement.

The book blurb is generally the first bit of marketing a reader may encounter for a book, so taking the time and care to craft the blurb well shows an author that cares about their craft and about everything they write.  Book writers, on the other hand, couldn't care less and the blurb is merely an afterthought, like washing one's hands after using the restroom.  They do it because it has to be done, but do not take the time to learn how to craft it well.  Beware of poorly-written book blurbs, as they are often a clear warning sign that you have encountered a book writer rather than an author.

4) You Get What You Pay For.  This is tricky as I have found a few (very few) bargain priced, self-published books that I would have happily paid two or three times that cost for.  In general, however, price can sometimes indicate a difference between an author and a book writer.  Book writers who self-publish use free giveaways and bargain prices to drive sales, hoping to make up in volume what they miss in price.  The problem is, a $0.99 bad book is still a bad book and is unlikely to entice me to drop another dollar on a bad sequel.  When I spend $10 or sometimes even $20 on a book, and it is a fantastic book, I am very likely to buy other books, even at the higher prices, because I know I have found an author I like and that my money is well spent.

Think of it this way.  You go to a movie with the family.  Tickets now, even at reasonably priced theaters, are at least $8.  So a family of four is looking at usually around $20-$24 for a movie that they get to see one time, and depending on the environment and behavior of the kids and/or other movie patrons, may not even get to fully enjoy.  Now say you spend the same $20 on a really good book.  Everyone gets to read it again and again, and you can even loan or share it with other friends, family members, etc.  That is for the top-priced books.  Most books, even from traditional publishers, you can get in ebook format for under $10.  So now you have spent half the price, the whole family can enjoy it again and again, and you can even loan it to friends and other family members.  Which is the better bargain?

An author is not ashamed that their book costs more, because they know they have put the time and effort into producing a quality book, and that discerning readers will know the difference and will tell others.  Word of mouth advertising is priceless in the life of a true author, because it is that rave review from readers who have experienced the true care and quality of a genuine author that will continue to draw readers to books, even at higher prices.

Again, this is not to say there are not very, very good bargain books out there.  I am thrilled when I spend $0.99 or $1.99 and get a really great book.  I generally then have a new author that I will follow and continue to read, but I am not bothered by spending much more for a really great book, because I have paid for quality and gotten what I paid for.  Also, however, I am not overly disappointed when I pay nothing or $0.99 for a book that I cannot even finish due to the poor quality of the work by the book writer.  I wasted a dollar, sure, but it could be worse.  My encouragement is for self-published authors (and I mean authors, not book writers) who truly put the time and the effort into quality, don't be ashamed of your work.  Put that higher price tag on it and benefit from the quality you put into it.  I can promise you readers won't be scared off by a $5.99 or $6.99 price tag if they know they are getting a book by a truly quality author.

On the reciprocal side of that argument, readers, don't get too attached to that dollar you just spent on a bargain book.  If it is at least worth what you paid for it if the cover art and blurb was well done enough to entice you to buy it.  Beyond that, you might just look at it as an unsatisfying candy bar or bad cup of coffee and just take it in stride, confident that you have one more book writer to cross off your list of "will buy again" storytellers.  Keep seeking for quality authors and loyally support those who deliver quality writing.  Eventually the market will correct and the divisions will become clearer.  Book writers will eventually come to realize that there is a discerning public of readers out there who demand quality and it will drive them to either become real authors or to find a new hobby.

Until next time,

David G. Johnson
Author of Fools' Errand and Mystic's Mayhem
Books 1 and 2 of the Chadash Chronicles
Available everywhere February 4th, 2014

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Great Juggling Act - Keeping Things From Falling

It is rather ironic that I am writing this post.  It is almost like a doctor who smokes but advises his patients to stop smoking.  There are times when I fail woefully at this crazy juggling act, but more often than not it is because somewhere I have violated one of the key rules I will outline below.  I do know WHAT to do, and even know HOW to do it to keep many things going at once, but the discipline to practice these rules consistently is the difference between successful juggling and things hitting the floor.

1) Know your limits:  Juggling, like any skill, takes practice, and new jugglers don't start juggling with fifteen balls at once.  They usually start with two or three and once they have achieved a level of comfort and expertise with those, then they will begin to add a ball at a time and practice with those.  Once again, when mastery has been achieved, they can continue to add more and more objects until the really good ones can keep a mind-boggling amount of things in the air at once.

Juggling priorities and life tasks is no different.  If you dive right in and try to balance a job, spouse, children, church/ministry, social engagements, and then toss writing, editing, publishing, marketing, etc on top of all that, you are going to wind up with quite a few things on the ground and a life woefully out of balance.  The problem is, with writing, especially for those self-published authors, you often have to be everything from cover designer to editor to typesetter to marketing guru all at once.  So how do you add one ball at a time to a busy life?

Start small.  Start with just writing.  Don't get ahead of yourself and try to phase everything in all at once.  And at first, don't try to do it all yourself.  Focus on writing and getting that routine added to the rest of your life juggling act.  Once that is done, you can start looking at laying some early marketing groundwork next.  Start a blog, join a few Facebook groups, start building that platform from which you will eventually launch your books.  If you wait until you have gone to print to start building a platform, you will find yourself behind the curve and overwhelmed.  If you start these types of steps early, then when it comes time later to go to market with your writing, you already have the writing routine and the blogging/platform activities successfully added to your juggling routine.

Next is to not try to do it all yourself.  Invest in your work if you believe in it.  Be prepared to pay a cover designer (unless you have those skills already), and an editor, and a formatter.  If you try to climb the learning curve on all these things at once, once again you will find balls you were already successfully juggling falling onto the floor.  Eventually, as you learn to master new skills, you can decide if you want to take on more aspects yourself, but initially, remember the juggling rule, and add one ball at a time.

2) Learn to prioritize:  Jugglers know which ball they need to worry about next.  Balls that are two or three places away in the rotation don't get any attention until their time in the rotation is up.  I have seen interviews with successful jugglers who have juggled as many as 15 balls at once.  When asked how they keep up with everything, the answer is, "I only worry about two balls, the one I am throwing and the one I am catching."   That is the key.  What needs to be done next?  Handle that.  Repeat.  Simple, right?  Where we often find ourselves dropping balls is trying too hard to multi-task.  We worry about things that aren't imminent and in the meantime urgent tasks get missed.  We soon find ourselves overwhelmed and hopelessly buried.

In Steven Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is "Keep first things first".  He lists a quadrant chart where activities are plotted in their respective quadrants.  The quadrants are: "Important-Urgent, Important-Not Urgent, Unimportant-Urgent, Unimportant-Not Urgent".  If you can plot out your pending activities in a chart like that, it can really help prioritize what needs to be done.  Obviously "Important-Urgent" items are the ones you should be worried about.  Every week, few days, or possibly every day these items may move into different quadrants, so keeping at least a mental eye on where they are can help you focus on only two balls at a time, the one you are throwing and the one you are catching.

3) Eliminate distractions:  One thing they almost always warn folks about in an audience for a juggling show is "No flash photography".  Flashes at the wrong time, especially when jugglers are juggling things like knives or other objects potentially dangerous to themselves or others, can cause catastrophic effects.  They can force the juggler to take their mind off the task at hand, which, even for a split second, can be very dangerous and result in a cascade failure.

This happens in our life-juggling too.  Something shiny, flashy or fun can take time and focus away from our juggling act and can cause things to hit the ground.  If there are activities, like going to the movies, going on vacation, a volunteer activity at church or in the community, organizing a block party, or any number of one-time, non-routine events that consume time and attention, be sure to plan for these things and adjust your juggling act accordingly.  If you want to add this new object into your juggling routine for a short time, think about which other activity can be taken out to make room for it.  Since it is not a regular thing, you may not want to devote the energy and effort required to be able to add another ball to the juggling routine, and in these instances simply taking a break from one of the other activities that you normally juggle.  That can free up temporary bandwidth for the shiny new but temporary activity while not causing any major disruption in your regular routine.

If you focus on honing your skills of multitasking with these three rules of discipline in mind, you can find the time, effort and energy to balance your writing with the rest of your life and find the way to keep all the balls in the air without feeling overstressed or winding up in a cascade of falling elements of your life.  Wishing you all success in 2014 with your writing and your juggling.


David G. Johnson