Social Capital

A lot of attention gets paid to social media without really understanding a fundamental concept - social capital.

In addition to all its other characteristics and traits, social media transactions depend on - for lack of a better term - a currency. You earn it as you give and pay it when you ask.

This makes a certain amount of sense if you think of the pesky neighbor who always wants to borrow your lawnmower but never returns it with gas in the tank. It doesn't help matters if he returns it with a bottle of beer when you don't drink beer.

That underscores a different - and more common - problem with social capital. So many people work to "create compelling content" without realizing that their "compelling" is my "no thanks." What should have resulted in a deposit to their social capital account winds up being a big fat withdrawal.

Most of the time - and I think, most people - fall into the "revenue neutral" portion of the continuum. Sometimes what they post is interesting enough but not engaging. They're the crazy uncle who tells a story about his trip to the grocery store when some kid was whining for candy and his mother wouldn't let him have any. They're the people who scour the web looking for "compelling content" to "share."

If you want to build up your social capital, don't do that. Reach out to somebody and talk with them. Authors, artists, creatives of all stripes can make a huge impression by reaching across the web to talk with fans. Congratulate them on a new job. Sympathize over their recent loss (even if it's only hair). Treat them like people - not contacts you count like coups. Every time you do that, you get a few bits of social capital. Every time some lurker sees that, you get social capital. Every time somebody notices that you're not asking for something but offering something without expectation of payment, you're earning social capital.

Sure it's only a few tiny slices. You need to do it a lot to get a pile big enough to make a difference, to accrue enough in your account to be able to spend it effectively.

When you spend, you don't spend little slivers. You spend big chunks.

Every time you ask somebody to look at your book, or read a new 5-star review, or even just link to your website, you're spending capital. A lot of people are running a deficit budget and wondering why things aren't moving.

Even things that you'd think would pay off big - like recommending a book that's not yours - can backfire on you if the person getting the recommendation doesn't like the book you recommended. If they remember who promoted it to them, they'll blame the you - not the author. The obvious advice is "don't recommend a book you don't like" but too many people recommend books because the author asked them to - or because the author is a friend. If you love it, say why. If you only liked it, say why. If you didn't even like it - or its in a genre you don't read - don't do anybody any favors because you're spending social capital that's difficult to recoup.

Before you make that next social media post, remember: You earn in pennies but you spend in Benjamins.

Image credit:
Steve Snodgrass: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass
Creative Commons: SA-BY

Crafting Dialogue–or Avoiding it Altogether

Photo by Brian Lary from freeimages.com

My TV-watching habits, well documented in my earlier stint as an RMFW blog contributor, have started me thinking a lot about dialogue recently. Going to the movies last night kicked those thinky thoughts into high gear, so today I’m going to translate those thinky thoughts into writey thoughts.

Many new writers think that dialogue should mirror the way people talk in real life. Well, in a way it should, but in most ways it shouldn’t, because when people talk in real life they’re quite often repetitive, stutter, and boring. Not that what people say isn’t important, but when you’re writing a book you don’t really want lines and lines of dialogue discussing how much toilet paper you really need, where it’s cheapest, and whether the generic brands are suitable for every day use. In real life, this is an Important Conversation. In a book, not so much.

I think the ways in which dialogue should mirror real life are mostly about speakability and appropriateness to the situation. I get thrown out of a story bigtime when someone says a line of dialogue that I can’t imagine someone actually saying. Usually this is because the dialogue is too precise, too grammatically correct, or artificial sounding. If I try to say it out loud, it just sounds off. Reading dialogue aloud helps with this. If it doesn’t come trippingly off the tongue, it might need some revision. (I’m reminded of Harrison Ford’s comment about dialogue in the original Star Wars: “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”)

So, this is a good theory. My TV-watching habits have given me some examples that both break these rules and follow them, but still manage to be great examples of good dialogue.

Aaron Sorkin is often touted as a great TV writer because his style is immediately recognizable. I’ve often argued (mostly to myself) that this doesn’t make him that great a TV writer, because it’s my feeling that stylistic quirks shouldn’t pop up in TV dialogue (and probably not in written dialogue, either) unless those stylistic quirks are particular to the character. Stylistic quirks in dialogue that reflect the author tend to bother me, because it makes the reader immediately aware of the author behind the curtain.

I used to watch Sports Night back in the day when it was on. That was a great show. I wish it hadn’t gotten cancelled so soon. But especially toward the end of its run, every character sounded like Aaron Sorkin to me. Later, I started watching Studio 60, and I lasted about two episodes because the Aaron Sorkin-ness of the dialogue permeated every character and every line. That just didn’t work for me. (I haven’t watched West Wing, but based on clips I get the impression the balance might have been much better on that show.) Basically, my thought is that if every character sounds like you, the writer, then you, the writer, aren’t doing a great job of inhabiting and individualizing your characters. (I could be wrong. After all, Aaron Sorkin isn't exactly unsuccessful.)

My next example is Hannibal. If you really focus on the dialogue—the structure and word choice, length of sentences, etc.—you quickly realize that nobody ever talks like that. It’s a very stylistic approach to dialogue, but the characters don’t all speak in the same cadences. Nobody on that show talks like somebody would in real life, but they don’t all talk like Bryan Fuller, either. But the dialogue is so stylized that a lesser cast of actors would have a very hard time pulling it off. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just an observation. In fact, the writing here is so well structured and so well acted that I didn’t even tune in to the overly stylized dialogue until partway into the second season. If you can pull off that kind of charged, carefully weighted dialogue in a piece that is, at its core, genre fiction, then you’ve done something pretty damn impressive. Hats off to you, Mr. Fuller. (And Mads and Hugh and Gillian and everybody else in the cast...)

The next two examples—and they’ll be short—are examples of lack of dialogue. This is something else that’s hard to pull off in a story or a book without relying on POV to carry your narrative, but I think it’d be a great exercise to try just to see what you can tease out of yourself.

Wall-E is a fabulous example here. About the first third of the movie has no dialogue whatsoever, but during that time the film manages to do a lot of heavy lifting, including some major worldbuilding and introduction of two characters with very distinct personalities. We’re able to immediately tune in to the vibe of the world, the story, and the two main characters without either of them saying an intelligible word. Would this be hard to pull off in a book? Sure, but if you try it, I bet you’ll learn a ton about how you structure your stories and whether or not you’re using dialogue as a worldbuilding/characterization crutch.

The second example is Logan, which I saw last night, and which is still burning up my brain because holy crap what a freaking good movie go see it immediately. Without dishing any spoilers, there’s a character in that movie who doesn’t speak a word until about the last third of the film, and yet we’re able to tune in immediately and know exactly what’s up with them from the moment they appear on screen. Everything is projected through body language and interaction with the other characters. Again, hard to pull off in a book? Maybe. But try it. Body language is a difficult thing to convey in narrative, and if you try to present a character using only that tool out of your toolbox, I bet you’ll learn a lot and end up with even more weapons in your arsenal.

I’m going to end this with a quick moment of Blatant Self-Promotion… My latest book, Call Me Zhenya (which has a lot of dialogue because I like dialogue) is on sale for .99 right now at Amazon, so this would be a great time to grab it! I promise you’ll get at least a dollar’s worth of entertainment out of it.

(Thank you for your patience with this quick moment of Blatant Self-Promotion.)

Writing Romance – Starting with a Great Hero

Which came first, the plot or the character? Likely a question as old as fiction writing.

I’m not going to answer this question so you can relax.  But what I am going to say is that, at least for romance novels, readers fall in love with characters.  Not plots.  So where do we start writing a romance.

My opinion is that we start with a hero.

Let me tell you a story.  Years ago, I was driving back to Westcliffe from Pueblo West, along that stretch of Highway 50 that is straight and barren.  I zoned out for a moment.  When I zoned back in, for just an instant I didn’t know where I was.  My “what if” took off and, by the time I got home, I had the beginnings of the plot for True Valor.  More important, though, I had Nic.

What I did in that instance is take a germ of a plot - what if the heroine finds herself behind the wheel of the car, not knowing where she is, how she got there, or even who she is.  She needed a hero.  But what sort of hero?  Nic D’Onofrio is an Air Force PJ (Pararescue Jumper) whose nickname is Batman.  He simply can’t help himself - he HAS to rescue those in trouble.

That was a little side trip.  But let’s get back to what makes a romance hero.

Well, that sorta depends.

Susan May Warren, in her book How to Write a Brilliant Romance, says that first of all, a hero much be NOBLE.  I think she’s right.  I’d add honorable, gallant, virtuous, courageous, valorous.  In my True Heroes series, I used those in the titles of the five books. 

Did you realize, though, that within the romance genre, there are categories of romance heroes?

Author Alicia Rasley breaks down the categories this way.

  • The Alpha Hero
  • The Beta Hero
  • The Delta Hero
  • The Theta Hero.

Jo Beverly adds a Gamma Hero.

And what about the Warrior Poet?

Tami Cowden has these hero archetypes:  Chief, Bad Boy, Best Friend, Charmer, Lost Soul, Professor, Swashbuckler, and Warrior.

Confused yet?  Don’t be.  It’s all good.

Laurie King has her list:  the Duke, the Laird, the Golden Boy, the Lone Wolf, the Warrior, the Brain, The Libertine, the Black Sheep, the Sorcerer

The thing to remember here is this: 

Powerful Characters create Powerful Drama. 

So, above all, we want our hero to be a character that catches the imagination of the reader and holds her in place, flipping pages, until that last kiss.

In the next few articles, I’ll go into detail on some of these hero types and what makes them tick.  Your homework is to think about your favorite romance hero.  What makes him heroic?  Why do you love him?  Feel free to comment.  That will be fun!

Until next month, campers, remember BICHOK - Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard.

Jax

 

Random Thoughts

1. In the latest review on Amazon for The Asphalt Warrior, the first book in the eight-book series by the late Gary Reilly, a reader wrote:

"Writers, good ones, create their readers. And this book does that.”

Do good writers “create their own readers?”

I love that idea. Are you going after your readers? Or someone else's?

2. On a similar note, I’m currently reading Shot in Detroit by Patricia Abbott. It’s a finalist for an Edgar Award in the Best Paperback Original category. So, it’s a mystery. And mysteries are supposed to have a body (a victim) near the beginning. There are bodies in Shot in Detroit. In fact, lots of bodies. But the first half of this book is all character development. It’s a slow burn and a gritty build-up. The main character is dour and down—and interesting. She's different. She sees the world in her own unique way. And halfway into the book, we get the shift into that sort of “who done it?” format. It’s great to see the rules being broken—and broken so well. But I don’t think Shot in Detroit is for everybody. What book is?

3. Did "Moonlight" deserve Best Picture? I thought so. (Haven't seen "La La Land," though.) Could the story be any more…simple? More straightforward?

Does every story need layers and layers of complicated plot to pull us in?

Didn't you feel like you knew these characters, particularly after that long scene in the diner at the end?

4. I’ve had some great guests on the podcasts recently, but I highly recommend the one with Marc Graham. He makes some excellent points for up and coming writers about connecting with mentors. He talks about making a concerted effort to emulate success and how he “reverse engineered” the accomplishments of others. Marc also talks about the advantages of being “relentlessly helpful” along the way. These were some powerful insights from a guy whose first novel, Of Ashes and Dust, is being published two weeks from today. Listen here. Or check your favorite podcast provider.

5. Can reading make you happy? Have ever heard of The Novel Cure? Can you match a book to what ails you?  Can reading make you happy? Alter your mood?

There is an excellent article in The New Yorker about this topic.

The article cites the example of George Eliot, "who is rumored to have overcome her grief at losing her life partner through a program of guided reading with a young man who went on to become her husband." (Now, that is healing!) Eliot is quoted as saying: “art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.”

Agreed.

The Thrill of the Unexpected

Recently, I was preparing for a trip and was in the mood for a mystery. With nothing new out from my favorite authors, I searched on-line. I ended up downloading two books, one set in North Wales, one of my favorite places in the world, and the other in Belfast.

Both of these books are the first in a series, but I’m not sure I’ll buy the next ones. As I read them, the writer part of me kept analyzing.  I could easily tick off the various character/plot conventions: Beleaguered and frustrated hero, a police detective in both cases. Check. Personal quirks to make them unique. Check. Traumatic past histories to make them sympathetic. Check. Female sidekick (also a detective) to add a feminine viewpoint. Check. Complex mystery plot with a devious and diabolical killer. Check. An attempt to create atmosphere and a feeling of place and time (one was set a few years in the past). Check.

Everything was there for me to love these books. But I didn’t. I never quite engaged with the main characters. Nor could I turn off the writer/analytical part of my brain and lose myself in the story. They weren't bad books, but they were great ones either.

When I got home I found a book from one of my favorite mystery writers (Ann Cleeves) waiting for me on the library hold shelf. It's the first book in a series that has been out in the UK for years. This time, instead of being simply an entertaining way to spend my time, the book gripped me from the beginning.  I stayed up way too late the first night I started reading, and then couldn't wait to get back to it at work on my breaks and my lunch hour.

So what's the difference between this book and the other two moderately entertaining ones? There's a number of things I could focus on, including the quality of the writing. But one aspect I immediately noticed is the difference between the expected and the unexpected. This book starts very slow. Although there's a death--a suicide--early on, neither the real mystery nor the police detective character are introduced until over halfway through the book. The whole first half is backstory and slow build-up and is told from the different perspectives of the main characters.

It's a very subtle and compelling way to craft a mystery. And totally unexpected. The characters are also atypical. They definitely aren't types, nor do they fit standard mystery characterizations. Not even the police detective. There is no checking off boxes with this book. There are subtle, tiny revelations and intriguing details on nearly every page, and the freshness and surprise in way the story unfolds makes it feels like life and makes the characters startlingly real.

This author didn't craft this story based on familiar mystery tropes or character prototypes. She ignored all that and came up with something original, something unexpected.

Ann Cleeves is obviously a brilliant writer. But I think there is a lesson here for us more ordinary genre novelists. Too often we lean on the rules and techniques we've been taught and don't even consider doing the unexpected. We may try to make our plots twisty and suspenseful, but most of the time we settle for the expected in everything else.

That's not everything it takes to write a great book, but maybe the idea of doing the unexpected will help all of us write a less ordinary one.

What Is This Blog Post About?

Into The DistanceSometimes an idea for my next post on this blog comes to me in a flash, all at once, all written in my head. Other times I struggle. Sometimes the struggle is to come up with an idea, sometimes the struggle is to pick from way-too-many ideas teeming around in my head. Today the struggle is that I have all kinds of disjointed thoughts about writing flitting around back and forth like an unruly flight of starlings, some near misses but never a collision, and no single thought amounts to a full and complete blog post. I'm trying to decide if any combination of thoughts might amount to one. Let's explore together, shall we?

One thought came to me as I binged on several movies and TV shows in rapid succession during a recent convalescence, interspersed with news coverage of the recent "peaceful" transition of power in Washington DC. No, this isn't a political post, as such. However, I saw vast numbers of people who desperately clung to their own paradigm of the world, so consumed with insecurity in their own beliefs that they simply - and quite publicly - flat-out refused to accept any reality that clashed with what they so desperately wished to be true, in the face of facts quite to the contrary. Often making up things out of whole-cloth in a shocking attempt to negate reality, and convincing themselves fully that their made-up things were true.

This got me to thinking about those who read what I, as a novelist, write. They are not reading my stories in a vacuum. They bring their own paradigm to the experience, as had I when I wrote it. To the degree that their paradigm clashes with mine, there is a sliding scale to which they are willing to continue reading. Some might accept my paradigm and still enjoy the story, perhaps even altering their own to some degree because of what they read. Some perhaps not, but still appreciating my vision of reality. Then again some, if the shift between my paradigm and theirs is too right-angle, might reject my story out of hand, some not even finishing it. Some who, I submit, are insecure in their own strata of beliefs, might feel threatened by my outlook, to the degree that they feel compelled to pen a particularly acid-laced rant in a review of my book.

I, myself, have only been unable to finish two or three fiction books because I couldn't tolerate the premise, but there was at least one book that I literally threw across the room in rage before I even knew what I was doing. Others I have put down it disgust, only that one gave me such a visceral reaction.

The point is, each reader who comes to peruse our work is diverse from any other at the margin, and in a spectrum those differences become vast. Can we predict what any one person is going to think of our writing? In some extreme cases perhaps, but at the margin I suggest it's impossible. There are just too many variables.

I often make the point that market chasing is a fool's games. Trying to read market trends and writing to what's currently selling is the quickest way to insanity, especially given how fast our market shifts. It's why the term "sell-out" is spoken with such disdain - people who attempt to do so fail more often than they succeed and often in the process lose sight of their own original motives for writing.

Just ask any published writer who sold the first book of a series that they wrote after years of market chasing. It's exciting at first...until they realize they have to write a sequel, and another, and yet more, all based on a premise they shopped for, not one for which they felt any real passion or love. Suddenly they're locked into a vortex of having to churn out book after book on a story line they feel no real connection to and invariably grow to hate. This also consumes all of their writing energy and time and leaves little or none for them to pursue the writing they always wanted to do from the beginning.

I have always encouraged other writers to write what they like to read, write what they love to write, write for themselves. The readers will come. The right readers. The ones who will love what you write because they can sense the love, the integrity, the heart with which you write. You will be much happier writing what you enjoy, and that will come through as well. You will write better because it's what you love. And you'll save yourself a lot of tail-chasing, teeth-gnashing, and head-to-brick-wall contact.

After the Editing: When an agent says it’s ready!

Not that long ago I put up a post about what it's like editing with an agent. Well it's time to take that a step farther. Because Deity Six, my very first completed novel, has since transitioned from 1) finding an agent. And 2) going through and finishing edits with said agent. To step 3) searching for and acquiring an editor and a publishing deal. With steps 4) and maybe even 5) to be determined at a later date. So let's explore Step 3 and those smaller steps in-between.

Developmental edits:

Before this post I talked about the beginning steps of agent editing. Now here's the ending. While you're editing with your agent, unless you're book is perfect (Ha, ahahahahahaha!!!!!), you'll likely go through what are called developmental edits. These are basically how they sound; edits that address any issues with plot, characters, or things like theme.

Being as close to your book as you likely are, you probably can't see some of its problems. And even if you can, you may not know how to fix them. This being the case, your agent will go through and identify (often line by line) some of the problems that require adjustment, or even removal before the book is ready to move onto the next phase of its life.  This can go on for... a while.

For me it lasted about three months from the time I signed the contract with my agent. Yours could be faster, or longer. Either way it will be different according to the needs of your story, and how dramatic of a tantrum you feel like throwing when your agent tells you cut an entire five pages (or chapters) out of the book!  After you've made the necessary changes (and note that these are generally optional and not required by your agent, but advised before moving on), hopefully your story is in much better shape. And it's time to move on to...

Copy edits:

So far, my experience with copy edits is thus: "Hi Josh, doesn't look like we need to do any more developmental edits. I'm performing some copy edits, then it'll be ready to go out." The book didn't come back to me again, so my assumption is that whatever changes were made to the story were all so minor as not require either my attention, or my approval (such as typos and minor re-wording). So...whoopie!

Submission time:

The next part is perhaps the worst for many. This is where your agent embarks on putting the book into the "real world." And by "real world," I mean editors currently acquiring works like yours, for publishers who publish books like yours.

So here's the process as I understand it: Your agent identifies editors looking for ideas similar to yours, or enough like yours to be interested in taking it on as an editing project in order to then publish the book, and/or offer you, the author, a publishing contract. A partial submission goes to the editor. If the editor isn't interested, they reject it (duh). If they do like it they request a full manuscript, which your agent sends to them.

Now for that pie in that sky. If the editor likes the book the process doesn't end there. They then give it to some of their peers (other editors). If they like it, it then moves on to the editorial manager. If the manager likes it and agrees with the acquiring editor that the publishing house should represent it (i.e. they think they will make money off of it), then you will be offered a contract.

**Note: I have no details on this just yet and may cover it in a future post when I can offer firsthand experience. As of the writing of this post I have been updated about three occurrences following the release of my book to acquiring editors. Two rejections, as it did not fit into a specific category they were looking to use it for. And one request for the full manuscript. So... fingers crossed.

The Big Wait:

For now, this is the line in the sand. As me and my agent wait for the editor to read the full manuscript and either reject it, or send it on for approval from their higher ups. It's all about waiting now. So when you get to this part remember...this can take months. Months, and months, with a chance that you will only get a rejection. But this is the world we live in. This is the altar to which we pray, sacrifice, and divvy up an unhealthy portion of our souls to these gatekeepers of traditional publishing bliss. So settle in, buck'o's. It's going to be a long winter.

Magic-Wand Words

Remember the Disney production of Cinderella, when the good witches waved their magic wands of blue, red and green? Their glitter flowed like Fourth of July sparklers, creating magic.

That’s what my blog is about this month—the magic that happens with words. In an entire novel, only a few or at most several dozen of them may appear. When they do, they connect us to the characters, embed us more deeply in the setting and emotions of the scene, and increase our enjoyment and understanding of the story. They linger in our memories.

These are a few of my favorite magic-wand words. Enjoy! May these words that so inspired me also inspire you to dig deeper in your creative reservoir. May your current work in progress sparkle!

Nora Roberts, Spellbound:  

… an exquisite simile

And she was there, just there, conjured up out of storm-whipped air. Her hair was a firefall over a dove-gray cloak, alabaster skin with the faint bloom of rose, a generous mouth just curved in knowledge. And eyes as blue as a living star and just as filled with power.

Nora Roberts, Public Secrets

... another one

She would remember the feel of the air against her face, air so moist from the sea it might have been tears.

 Nora Roberts, Sanctuary

… a character-enriching analogy

She walked to the water’s edge, let the surf foam over her ankles. There, she thought when the tide swept back and sucked the sand down over her feet. That was exactly the same sensation he was causing in her. That slight and exciting imbalance, that feeling of having the ground shift under you no matter how firmly you planted your feet.

Katie Schneider, All We Know of Love  

...melding scene and character

The clouds are pulled thin like cotton. I understand how they feel, out in the middle of nowhere, unsure of quite where they’re heading.

Laura Kinsale, Flowers from the Storm

…skillful use of the senses

“I saw you in India.” Mrs. Humphrey had about her the slightly sour tang of an unchanged baby. “You took my clothes off.”

…expression of fury, revenge, stunning rhythm and great example of back-loading

He thought of the look on the Ape’s face, the relish of terror, the time it would take; he’d once seen two men hanged and quartered—the expression of the second condemned traitor as he watched the executioner cut down and butcher the first: that was the fear, that was the struggle, the prolonged kicking and spasms, that was the cringing, weeping, purple-faced, swollen-tongued, bloated sickening twitching entrails-sliding agony he was going to inflict.

Mary Jo Putney, Loving a Lost Lord

…fresh imagery

He wouldn’t need her, and that was as it should be. … When she was old and gray, the time she had known Adam would be the merest ripple in the lake of her life.

Annie Proulx, Close Range-Wyoming Stories

This passage slams the reader into the scene

“Hey, you’re old enough almost a be my grandmother. I rather eat rat jelly than—”

But he was edging closer and Mrs. Freeze saw his trick and the red-flushed neck swelled like that of an elk in mating season, the face beaded with desperate sweat.

...succinct characterization

“Think about it, give me a call.”

“I don’t need a think about it,” said Mrs. Freeze. She dropped the cap of the whiskey bottle, kicked it under the chair. She didn’t need that, either.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Memorable, humorous, backloading

“I don’t know where you keep finding these Mexican strawberries,” he said, referring to the beans. Bolivar … mixed them with so many red chilies that a spoonful of beans was more or less as hot as a spoonful of red ants.

Barbara Bretton, Just Like Heaven

…exquisite rhythm and backloading

…she clung to his shoulders so she wouldn’t slide off the face of the earth and into some vast unknowable universe of shooting stars and fireworks and whispered warnings that some things are too good to be true.

Jacquelyn Michard, A Theory of Relativity

…another memorable simile

He had never been able to think of that except as “innocent,” as guileless and tender as a childhood Christmas.

Tina St. John, Lord of Vengeance

...word choices

The answer came swiftly, softly at first, a dark whisper that curled around him, anchoring his soul to the earth with shadowy tethers.

---

I hope you've enjoyed these magic-wand words. If you have some to share, please do!

 

5 Important Things to Know About Self-Publishing–Part 2 … by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Part 1 of Laura's post was published on Friday, January 27th.

The Work Has To Be Competitive.

There’s a common refrain, heard around writers conferences and discussion forums, that runs something like, “If I can’t sell it traditionally, I’ll self-publish.” While there are some perfectly legitimate uses of this phrase, quite often it’s either meant or interpreted as, If the work isn’t good enough to sell traditionally, it can be self-published.

Well, it can. But it shouldn’t.

A self-published book should be indistinguishable from a traditionally-published book in quality, from cover to editing to layout. You know how you can spy the self-published book in a roomful of books for sale? That’s not good.

I will be among the first to say that self-published books can be just as amazing – or perhaps better, since they don’t have to be edited to a lowest-common-denominator committee – as any traditional book lineup. But the truth is, the off-cited tsunami of crap does exist, and we’ve no one to blame but ourselves.

The first time I made a piece of clothing, it wasn’t good enough to sell at a mall retailer. My early music lessons were in no way good enough to press an album. And my 5k time will never earn me a spot on the leaderboard. So why do we think early, developmental, or subpar writing should be published?

Imagine a boy, maybe 17, who isn’t sure he likes movies. He had to watch a few for school, stuff that never really caught his fancy and just didn’t connect with him because it was not his style or because the teacher made too much of the symbolism and camera angles and he hated writing the papers, but now he’s hearing from his friends that movies are really good. But he doesn’t want to drop $15 on a theater ticket to start, he’s going to try something cheaper first to see if it’s worth the investment, right? So he goes to Amazon Video to find a free or $2 flick. And he finds somebody’s basement-shot action wannabe with party-store costuming and bad sound obscuring the lame dialogue and whatever fight stunts their sixth-grade kid brother wanted to do before Mom got downstairs. (There are some… striking self-published movies on Amazon streaming video.)

Maybe that fledgling filmmaker will be the next Spielberg. But his current work isn’t impressive. And not only is he turning off his current audience (and setting up a hilarious retrospective to surprise him during his big talk show interview once he’s a household name), he’s probably just convinced our kid that movies really aren’t worth his time.

Okay, I know it’s hard to imagine anyone not familiar with movies in today’s society. But the truth is, a lot of people think they don’t like to read, because of bad school experiences or because reading was never valued in their family or whatever, and when they finally go to pick up a cheap book, they get something which just turns them off further.

Put out work which creates more addicted readers. Have a good critique group which constantly pushes you to be better. Make sure your stories are well-edited – both for structure and for grammar/typographical errors.

We Don’t Have to Be Competitive.

Look, we authors are not competing against each other. We’re really not. We’re competing against television and streaming movies and phone games.

No reader buys just one book a year; getting a reader hooked on another author just creates a bigger market for all of us. Promote other authors whose work your audience will also appreciate. But note that last phrase – I don’t promote just anyone I want to owe me a favor, I share stuff I think my readers will also enjoy. That does everyone good – other author gets a boost, my readers get something they like (they can’t spend all their time just waiting for my next release), and I gain a bit of additional reader trust so they’re more likely to stay with me. Pushing unrelated genres at readers will just confuse and annoy them. (And while I may or may not tell another author when I’m enthusing about their work, I never do it in anticipation of a favor owed. That’s not the point.)

I do several live book fairs a year, and I always if possible do a circuit before it starts to find out who is selling what. Then if I get someone at my table looking for something else – a Western romance, perhaps, or a middle grade adventure – I can point them directly to another author. They’re happy, the other writer is happy, the book fair organizers are happy, and I don’t have to deal with frustrated or disappointed shoppers. Everybody wins. (Well, except I didn’t make a sale – but then, I wasn’t going to, anyway, if they weren’t looking for what I sell.)

Help other authors with their writing craft and their marketing. (And just as important – take critique and advice professionally, not personally.) And remember, there isn’t really a divide between traditionally- and self-published authors. In fact, many of us are hybrids, doing both! It’s all about creating readers, not outselling the guy at the table or website next down from yours.

Enjoy it.

Okay, this is sixth in a list of five, but it’s true – self-publishing is more work than traditional publishing, but it’s also much less constrained and carries a great potential of fun. If you keep your eyes open and your hand to the plow, you can create an enjoyable career following your dreams.

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Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy (epic, urban, and historical), mystery, and non-fiction. She enjoys helping other authors and will be teaching on writing craft and self-publishing with Ireland Writer Tours in August 2017. Find her at her website, on Facebook, and Twitter.

Lessons Learned from My First Writing Retreat

A few weeks ago I attended my first-ever writing retreat, organized by my friend and fellow writer Natasha Watts (of RMFW’s Writer’s Rehab). I spent a weekend in a cabin in the Rockies with five other writers, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my writing life. Here’s what I learned, and what I’ll be doing next time.

1. Have a plan.

To get the most out of your retreat, you should have an idea of what you’re going to work on. This can be a specific goal, such as plowing through 20,000 words of your first draft; or it can be more vague, like researching a new project. Just make sure you spend time before the retreat deciding what you’ll work on, so you don’t waste any of your precious retreat time. It’s also a good idea to have a backup project in case you get burned out on your work-in-progress. For this retreat, my main goal was to make a dent in the next round of revisions on my novel. I also had a couple of short stories to work on when I needed a break from the novel.

2. Disconnect.

One of the biggest draws of a writing retreat is the chance to get away from ordinary life—and all the responsibilities and distractions that come with it. Take advantage of this. This doesn’t mean going completely MIA, it just means scheduling your communications rather than being in touch constantly. Check your phone two or three times a day, and then turn it off. Skype with your family for an hour after dinner, then disconnect from the internet. Don’t get on social media, and certainly don’t stay on it while you’re trying to write. Minimizing these distractions helped me maximize my productivity, and contributed to the overall calm, creative atmosphere of the retreat.

3. Take breaks.

It’s easy to think you’ll spend every waking hour of your retreat toiling diligently on your work-in-progress. But in reality, nonstop writing is rarely the best strategy for your productivity, or your general well-being. Everyone has their limit, and it varies from day to day and project to project. After a few hours of feverish writing on my novel, I sensed when I was running out of steam and allowed myself to take a break—whether to watch a movie, socialize with my fellow retreaters, take a nap, or work on a different project. When I returned to the novel an hour or two later, I was refreshed and recharged enough to dive into it again. And guess what? I made huge strides in my novel revisions, even though I wasn’t working on them 24/7.

4. Be social.

Again, you may envision yourself locked in your room, writing away, for the entire retreat. But try to suppress this urge. One of the main benefits of my writing retreat was the connections I made with fellow writers. Loosely scheduled activities such as hikes, board games, meals together, and critique sessions helped us get to know each other and share valuable writing lessons. We discussed our works-in-progress, time management strategies, conference experiences, and pretty much anything writing-related—which really got our creative juices flowing and lent a great energy to the retreat.

5. Enjoy the view.

You can hole up in a room at your own home—so while you’re on retreat, take advantage of the change of scenery. My retreat took place in a cabin in the mountains, so it was perfect for hiking, hot tubbing, taking photos, and enjoying the view. If you’re in a city, visit museums, art galleries, libraries, and restaurants. Go for walks around a park, zoo, or botanical garden. Take a class or work on an art project. These things will invigorate you and get fresh ideas flowing for your next writing session.

The biggest thing I learned from my first writing retreat is that I have to do it again. I got a lot of writing done, as expected, but I also got so much more out of the experience. If you get an opportunity to do a writing retreat, take it—your muse will thank you.