• Eau de cabbage

    An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. –H. L. Mencken I’m not an idealist. Wait, I take that back. All writers are idealists of a sort. Writers live in ideals–the ideals of the perfect writing life, for example. We [...]

  • Indie Book Marketing—Step Two (Title, Cover Art, and Blurb)

    I know the early steps of this series seem pretty rudimentary: our first step was having a finished, edited book. Our step today involves all the trappings of said book: title, cover art, and blurb. And yet each step is crucial. To build buzz, you are going to need a finalized title, finalized cover art, [...]

  • theprincessbride

    Framing a Story in Fantastical Fiction

    My kids picked up a summer cold. I’m sure there are gloomier events that can occur in life, but on a gloominess scale between 1 and 10, the summer cold is probably about a 7. Therefore, I popped in The Princess Bride to alleviate the gray mood. What’s better than sword fights and daring rescue [...]

  • Duplicity, Directness, and Other ‘D’ Words

    It’s hot here. As it’s the middle of summer, that’s not surprising. The other evening, I languished on the futon in the guest room, my head at eye level to a shelf of books I rarely see any more. One caught my attention: A Farewell to Arms. I used my lazy summer arm reach, one [...]

  • de(re)construction NOW AVAILABLE from Provision Books Midway

    From the Introduction: The poems in this collection were written between 1994 and 2000, the first poem inspired by an event that was the catalyst for my long, sometimes ugly, but necessary journey away from counterfeit gods to the one true God of the universe. They are in rough chronological order, although some have been [...]

Eau de cabbage

cabbage_flower

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup. –H. L. Mencken

I’m not an idealist. Wait, I take that back. All writers are idealists of a sort. Writers live in ideals–the ideals of the perfect writing life, for example. We idealize such notions as time and health and great ideas. We idealize our own stories. But in the real world, I’m not an idealist. And sometimes I wonder if this lack of idealism walks hand in hand with an essential lack of creativity. Imagination is idealistic. It doesn’t dwell in the land of current reality, but what could be reality if we as creative individuals put our minds to solving problems. Believing that the world could be a better place is the essence of idealism.

To be honest, I don’t agree with Mencken’s soup analogy, as there is more than simple idealism going on. If a chef were to add the essence of rosewater to his soup, he might give it a sweet edge that enhances it. That is what creative people do. They play with ingredients, mixing a little of this or that to give their work spice or fragrance. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t begin with a foundation of soup. If rose petals become the primary ingredient instead of vegetables, then it’s no longer distinguishable as soup. It’s rosewater. Hot rosewater. And hot rosewater should be bathed in and not consumed as a dinner course.

So a writer, as a creative idealist, might very well add rose petals to his soup to see how the flavor comes out. I was carried away on this line of thinking after considering whether it’s a good idea to mix genres. Writers do it all the time, but what is the end result to all this mixing? In the science fiction and fantasy world, the result is often a weird gloppy mess that resembles a Dr. Seuss meal. Perhaps the characters are in space, initially tagging the story as science fiction, but the sylphs and magical incantations have muddied the broth to such a degree that the story no longer resembles science fiction. It’s fantasy at that point with a few science ingredients, rather than the other way around.

Some of these notions, these splits are arbitrary. Keeping to my food analogy, we think of vegetable soup as being composed of, well, vegetables. A strict scientific definition informs us that most of the “vegetables” are actually fruit because they bear seeds. At the same time, rose petals, by a strictly botanical definition, are a vegetable. In the realm of taste, though, there are foods that are strictly vegetables and some that are strictly fruit, and then there is an overlap, where the two circles on the Venn diagram meet. While you might accuse me of overextending my metaphor at this point, I am.

There is science. And there is fantasy (and chick lit and mystery and so many other distinct genres). And there is a this place in the middle where they meet because so much of life is still mystery to us. The Venn diagram has managed to get my mind out of the soup pot. Going back, I’m shuddering at the idea of adding even a little cabbage to rosewater–eau de cabbage? If you’re going to start with a foundation–and you should!–please add appropriate creative ingredients to the mix. Otherwise, your work is going to smell, and so much for my attempt at appreciating idealism.

photo credit: Lawrence OP via photopin cc

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Indie Book Marketing—Step Two (Title, Cover Art, and Blurb)

Heather Day GilbertI know the early steps of this series seem pretty rudimentary: our first step was having a finished, edited book. Our step today involves all the trappings of said book: title, cover art, and blurb. And yet each step is crucial. To build buzz, you are going to need a finalized title, finalized cover art, and a finalized blurb.

As for choosing titles, some authors like titling things and some don’t. I’m in the camp that enjoys it, until it comes to series titles or personal taglines (we won’t even go there…I use my author name versus a tagline because I genre-hop).

The main two things to remember about titles are:

1) If you’re writing a series, you want a title you can work with when developing future titles. In other words, they’ll all need to be along the same vein. For example, I considered Gingerbread House for one of my mystery titles. If I’d gone with that, the entire series would have needed to reflect that fairy-tale theme.

This is where your early readers, blog readers, or your Facebook author page followers can truly help you. If I get stumped on a title, after brainstorming with several talented titling peeps, I will come up with 2-3 options and then throw those out for my reader public to vote on. Almost every time, the majority will veer toward one over the other, and I know THAT will be the most marketable title. This is where indies have a major edge. We can go directly to our readers and see what strikes their fancy (read: what they will buy!).

2) You want something catchy, yet different. But don’t stress taking a title that’s already out there. Now, even if I named my book Twilight (yeah, not a clever move), my series title (not to mention cover art and content) would set the book apart. So plagiarism isn’t an issue. However, you probably want something that doesn’t have 100 same-title books on Amazon so yours is quickly visible in searches.

Some longer titles can work, but they have to be memorable. It’s easy to remember The Fault in our Stars, but not so easy to remember The Day Mrs. Jamble Walked an Elephant and Found a Zebra.

Once you’ve settled on a title, you’ve gone a long way toward determining cover art. I could go on at length about the importance of cover art, but I’ll nail this down to three main points:

1) Make your cover something that would draw your eye if you were browsing on Amazon or in a bookstore. I say this because many of us write what we would like to read, so it makes sense that our covers need to knock our own socks off (be brutally honest with yourself here). Also, if you have a professional-looking cover, it can open doors that would otherwise be closed.

2) If you are planning a series, take into consideration that you will probably want the series covers to coordinate on some level. For instance, if you get a stock art model, you will need to use that same model if it’s the same main character throughout the series, OR you will have to get clever about how much of that model we see. If you buy a pre-made cover, make sure the overall setup isn’t hard to replicate for the structure of book two.

3) Make sure your cover reflects your genre. We all know cowboy romance covers have a different look than sci fi covers. Go to the top sellers in your genre and check their covers…do they convey a flirty, romantic feel (lighter colours, cursive lettering)? Or a darker, more ominous feel? People on the cover or submarines/planes/etc? Get that vibe going and look for cover art pics that will make it clear what genre you’re writing in.

There is so much information on how to make sure your cover art is effective, but I want to recommend Joel Friedlander’s The Book Designer blog for this. He showcases and reviews indie book covers every month so you can see what works and what doesn’t.

Finally, you want to come up with a kickin’ blurb for your book. I actually use the same Amazon blurb (description) for my back cover copy. It’s just easier that way.

There’s actually a great post on The Book Designer about this topic here. I agree that the blurb needs to stay on the short side. Readers lose interest quickly. You want to let people know who the main character(s) is and something about the driving plot, while still hooking them in to read more. The biggest problem for authors is our tendency to give away too much information.

This is yet another instance where your followers or early readers can help you. They can tell you if your sample blurb bores them to tears or if you’ve given too much away. I did this in an early version of my mystery blurb, and was surprised that readers wanted to know less about what was going to happen in the book, as opposed to more. Again, I think it’s that hook aspect. You need to hook readers with your cover, blurb, and first chapter sample (usually it’s a combination of all three elements, although occasionally one or two of those elements will still convince them to buy).

Ruth Harris wrote another great post here about blurb writing, titled 8 Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb. I like the idea of embracing some white space. If you need to break a longer paragraph up, please do. Uber-long paragraphs will discourage people from reading through your entire blurb.

Okay! This post ran longer than I thought, but I’m hoping you’ve found some helpful tips for that second step in marketing. You’re now on track to start building buzz…you have an edited book to work with, as well as a catchy title, eye-catching cover, and killer blurb.

Next time we’ll talk in-depth about a step I can’t stress enough: early readers.

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Framing a Story in Fantastical Fiction

theprincessbrideMy kids picked up a summer cold. I’m sure there are gloomier events that can occur in life, but on a gloominess scale between 1 and 10, the summer cold is probably about a 7. Therefore, I popped in The Princess Bride to alleviate the gray mood. What’s better than sword fights and daring rescue narratives at clearing the air?

Being that I’ve already seen the movie dozens of times since it first came out in the 80s, I found it impossible to sit with my kids and lose myself in the story. Instead, I found myself examining it. It’s a popular movie–a cult classic, even–and there’s a reason for that. It’s got everything: action, adventure, high stakes, comedy, loony characters, likeable but not perfect protagonists, and last but not least, true love.

But when I consider why The Princess Bride works, I can’t leave out its framing story in my examination. The external story elements of “everything” take place in the interior story rather than exterior one, which sounds like a paradox at first glance. That’s the way frame stories work, though. They set up a thematic outer structure for the action of the inner story (or stories) to hang on. In other words, the theme informs the story, rather than the other way around.

Frame stories are hardly new in the art of storytelling. They are, in fact, an ancient form of storytelling. From Canterbury Tales to Wuthering Heights to Worlds End (from Gaiman’s The Sandman series), frame stories have come to be accepted as a valid literary form. Some writers, past and present, are so enamored with frame stories that they complicate them by creating a matryoshka-like structure of stories within stories within stories. In Frankenstein, Walton’s letters give frame to Dr. Frankenstein’s stories, which give frame to the creature’s stories, which in turn relate the story of a family the creature lived with.

If you’re confused by now, I don’t blame you. In one short blog post, I’ve set out to create an entire historical framework for this interior story I’m telling you about The Princess Bride (which I also framed with the story of my sick kids).

Rob Reiner, who directed The Princess Bride, had this to say about the frame story*:

The most important thing for me in the script is the story of the little boy who is reluctant to see his grandfather and is brought closer to him by the end of the film as a result of having had this story read to him. I love the story of the princess bride, but had it not had this other element, I don’t think I would have been as interested in it.

But why did the outer story make the other more interesting, and how did it inform the movie theme? There is much I could say about theme, such as the older generation teaching the younger about what true love means; it becomes something less frothy and more real when the grandfather is sitting by the sick child’s bed telling him about love in story form. There truly is something worth fighting for, something outside video games, which we see the boy playing as the film opens.

For a story like The Princess Bride, though, there is something even more fundamental going on. The interior story is fantastic. It’s unbelievable. The characters contend with death and live. They live because they have something to live for. In that sense, the story frame acts as a grounding element to a sentimental story we might otherwise roll our eyes at in disbelief. Through the grandfather’s narration, we’re better able to accept that the characters just happen to find four white horses in the stables for the four protagonists to ride off on. It sounds right in the grandfather’s voice.

And that happens to be the end. The movie is over, as this post should have been 150 words ago. The gloom has definitely lifted, as the kids are now laughing and making up their own stories and characters.

*quote pulled from the Special Edition DVD booklet

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Duplicity, Directness, and Other ‘D’ Words

earnesthemmingwayIt’s hot here. As it’s the middle of summer, that’s not surprising. The other evening, I languished on the futon in the guest room, my head at eye level to a shelf of books I rarely see any more. One caught my attention: A Farewell to Arms. I used my lazy summer arm reach, one could call it my go-go Gadget arm, to nab the book by its spine.

I love Hemingway. He was one of my childhood favorites (beginning at age 12, lest you wonder why a *true* child would go in for bullfights, exploding shells, prostitutes and promiscuity, a load of booze, and struggles with big fish). Looking back, I have no idea why his books appealed to me as much as they did. I received my first Hemingway book, Old Man and the Sea, as a twelfth birthday present. Our family was on the road, traveling cross-country, and my gift books in the car were my party. And so that trip from West Coast to East is clouded with images of the sea and fishing, the car we traveled in immersed in a gray-blue haze long before we reached the eastern shore.

I can only guess at what appealed to me: his directness. Directness is not a trait that most people value. Or I should say–people may value directness, but they aren’t willing to be that way. Being direct cuts out the noise of persona, of secrets, of manipulation. The internet encourages a lack of directness; it’s far too simple to be somebody you’re not on the internet. It’s far too easy to deceive others and act duplicitously–writing, reviewing, commenting under numerous guises. It’s also far too easy to fall for cleverness on the internet, for pithy sayings that subvert truth. It’s far too easy to confuse this kind of pithy reworking of the world with being direct and/or truthful when it is anything but. Think back on the last week of #HobbyLobby tweets and memes, and you will know what I’m talking about.

Hemingway got me thinking about my own writing and what I appreciate in books. I actually prefer complex works of fiction. It would be a shame to confuse directness with simplicity. In fact, Hemingway’s books have a markedly deceptive simplicity. But he jumps right in and tells his stories in a direct manner with sentence structures that reflect the action. Don’t mistake me. Some of the action I speak of is contemplation or is told in flashback. I would never advocate that literature go the way of all action, all the time. I would advocate, rather, a method that can be summed up this way: Get in there; get out. Those imperatives I picked up on in a George Foreman boxing workout video somebody left at my house years ago. They could apply to literature, though.

Get in there; get out. Don’t be clever; just throw a neat punch. Is this a good approach to storytelling, or not? I’m not sure. But I do know of one missing element in my literature, as well as most modern works of fiction. Two little words: The End. That’s how A Farewell to Arms completes itself. Those words tell you it was time–right there at that period–for the writer to get out.

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de(re)construction by Jessica E. Thomas

From the Introduction:

The poems in this collection were written between 1994 and 2000, the first poem inspired by an event that was the catalyst for my long, sometimes ugly, but necessary journey away from counterfeit gods to the one true God of the universe. They are in rough chronological order, although some have been shifted forward or backward for thematic purposes—a reminder that healing and growth are not always linear; however, when we choose to earnestly follow Jesus, we can be assured that, over the course of a lifetime, our trend will always be forward and up.

Download it today at Amazon.

Provision Books Midway Imprint logo

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Tools of the Mentally Ill Trade

Writing ToolsI like tools. I especially like gadgety tools that will aid me in my primary goal of ordering the world around me. The other day, being my birthday, my husband bought me a pedometer so that I could keep track of how many steps I walk. I do a lot of walking for a sedentary writer type. I clocked in at over 10,000 steps in 9 hours. The truth is I pace a lot. I’m an absentminded pacer.

What would I do without tools? In the past, I’ve imagined ludicrous ways to use tools, such as drilling holes in my head with either a hand-crank or an electric drill. When in crowds, I’ve found myself longing to have bio-implants of eyes that shoot lasers at innocent bystanders. DIY brain stimulation is also a piece of technology I’ve thought about for myself.

But I digress.  This post was supposed to be about writing tools, although I do have this strange and complicated way of turning all of the above into writing tools. You, being more practical, don’t want to know how DIY brain stimulation will help you organize a novel.

Do you remember in the old days when you actually went to an office supply store and purchased packs of 3×5 cards? My hands shake at the titillating memories. Staplers, ink, sticky notes, note cards, various grades and colors of packaged paper–office supply stores are like adult candy stores. Now, of course, our locally operated place has shut its doors and is now a dance studio or exercise gym or some such. I wonder if they sell pedometers. For writers of course. Yes, writers.

As for actual writing machines, I’ve gone from my first 286 with its Disk Operating System and the F codes of the early Word Perfect to my latest Toshiba with Windows 8 and a combination of all kinds of online shareable/editable file systems, plus Scrivener and Libre Office. One of the more useful tools I’ve found to use for writing is–aside from computer itself!–the Scrivener word processor program.

Scrivener makes organizing a novel very easy. And it isn’t all that expensive, especially if you get it while it’s on special. It’s certainly a gazillion times easier to work with than the ubiquitously used MS Word, which also happens to cost a lot. It has a corkboard for pinning virtual note cards, an outlining tool, and what the program calls “scrivenings”, which allows you to navigate back and forth between editing parts and the whole (it does more than that, but those are the parts I’ve used).

Do you remember those days when you used to write a novel, print it out, and then line up the chapters on the floor so you could see them as they were numbered, as well as move them around into different places? That’s one of the better aspects of Scrivener. You can do that on screen, thereby saving a ton of ink and paper (and thereby putting your candy store out of business).

The upshot is that I recommend Scrivener as a writing tool. It’s fun to use. All this talk of tools makes me want to pace, though. (Not to mention the fact that I’m stuck in my novel.) How am I adding steps to my pedometer while standing here staring at a screen?

photo credit: viagallery.com via photopin cc

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de(re)construction Available in eBook on June 23!

comingsoongemsmall

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Indie Book Marketing—Step One (Editing)

Heather Day GilbertBefore I launch into this series, I just want to elaborate that these are my pre and post-publication marketing strategies as of today. The big news no one wants to speak aloud is this:

Your marketing strategies will change over time, or you won’t be a relevant marketer.

Harsh, eh? I would just say that the marketing techniques I used a mere eight months ago for my debut book launch weren’t exactly the same ones I used for my second launch (this June). Why? Marketing trends have already changed, and I’ve cut things that weren’t worth the time the first time around.

This is where I see independent authors getting ahead and even beating the traditional publishing “game.” They must, by necessity, stay plugged in and be very attuned to the direct effects their marketing techniques have on their sales.

In this series, I am going to share what has worked for me, but it might not work for you. This is not a prescription for success. It’s simply a bunch of suggestions that will, in some small or great measure, help you build buzz around your book. The first step is non-negotiable, however—you don’t want to rush the actual editing process and put out a sub-par book.

I’m honored and floored that Jessica asked me to share this series. Sometimes I feel I’ve missed the marketing boat miserably. But I’m happy to share techniques that I’ve used or I’ve seen others use with good results.

And now, with no further rambling, let’s start! I will focus on fiction marketing since that’s what I write and market.

Step One: Before any marketing can start, even pre-release marketing, you need to have a complete novel that is nearly completely edited. That way, you know what you’re working with, how it ends, where it fits, your demographic, etc.

I’ll elaborate on the types of edits I use (again, it may be different for you). Please note: at all stages in-between these edits, I am going in and self-editing the book as well:

a) My crit partner is my first reader. I trust her judgment and I also love and admire her writing style. She gets my writing style, my motivations, and is willing to tell me when something doesn’t work. She’s worth more money than I could ever pay her.

b) Second in line is my beta readers. These are the earliest of early readers, those who read for content issues, character issues, etc. I try to choose readers of the genre I’m writing in. And I wouldn’t recommend over five. It’s easy to get so many conflicting opinions, you lose sight of what your book is about (too many cooks stirring the pot, so-to-speak). If two of these betas agree and mention the same issue, I know it’s mostly likely something I have to fix.

c) Early readers are third on my list. Early readers get the cleanest draft I can send them, along with the book cover art. These are readers I hope will endorse, or influence for my novel. They will hopefully prepare Amazon reviews and be willing to post when the book goes live. We’ll talk much more about the importance of early readers in my second post.

At some point in this process, you can also invest in an editor. For my first two novels, my agent/editor did edits–primarily content edits on the first, line edits on the second. I would strongly recommend a trial period with any editor, giving them only your first few chapters, and making sure they understand which edits you are seeking (line edits for grammar, wording, etc., or content edits). You also need to be able to respect said editor’s style and be able to integrate their edits. If not, keep looking. A good editor can teach you so much. A bad editor can undermine your writing style and even torpedo your book idea.

The basic rule of thumb is if you have any doubt about your writing polish, hire an editor. It is costly, but it will be an investment in your writing career. Even if your first book doesn’t pay off the expense, your books will be something you can stand behind as a good example of how you write.

I know we only covered one step today, but it’s crucial not to rush this step. This book will go out and represent you as author to everyone who buys it. You need to make sure your debut, in particular, is as polished and reader-friendly as possible.

Next post, I’ll be talking about Step Two: Title/Cover Art and Blurb. I might even get to Step Three!

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My Summer Reading Stack

stack of booksMy brain is taxed. And when my brain is taxed, I read. I read any books I can get my hands on. This is a good thing because brain taxation* is a sign I’m actively pursuing an intellectual project. Before I threw myself into my project, I discovered a hardback Maeve Binchy book at the library book sale. I love Maeve Binchy. The book I bought for a buck, Scarlet Feather, inspired me to go on a Binchy binge. I just finished The Copper Beech and have exchanged it for…

Nights of Rain and Stars: Why? Since you asked so nicely, this book is on my stack because Binchy’s books are a great way to relax at the end of a long day. They are bittersweet, but always true. She doesn’t hold back from writing about human failings, selfishness, or even tawdriness. Yet her books aren’t in any way dark or tawdry. Christian authors could learn a lot from her truthfulness, as Christians argue endlessly of what content should or should not be allowed in Christian fiction. The answer is that they are asking the wrong question. Content itself doesn’t matter. What matters is how the content is handled. Yes, but why that particular Binchy book? Ah, well, it takes place in Greece, which seems a lovely blue and white place to visit for the summer. I can pretend I’m on vacation.

Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo: Why?! I picked it up at my parents’ house. Hey, if you don’t want me to read something, don’t leave it sitting around. I read compulsively. I read when I don’t realize I’m reading. It might be your grocery list or that piece of mail you left on your coffee table. I’m not a snoop; I merely possess an irresistible urge to scan lines of text. In this case, it was a much-loved and simultaneously much-maligned memoir about a father whose son had a vision of heaven. My parents sent it home with me.

The Anaya Reader by Rudolfo Anaya. Why? Anaya brings together New Mexico and magical realism and beautiful writing. I don’t have much to say about this one, except that every once in a while I get the hankering to reenter the Southwest Fiction section in the rustic adobe building that comprises my local library. At one time, I read about every book in the section and then moved on to other landscapes of fiction when my brain became saturated. No longer saturated with Southwest mythology,  I’ve returned to my haunt. The sponge has dried up, I guess.

Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Corkin: Why? The subtitle reads: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesiac Patient, H.M. In other words, this book brings together a few of my favorite genres and sub genres, including biography and the pop-science of neuroscience and memory retention. The book might aid me in finishing my science fiction project, but I didn’t buy it simply for study.

That’s a well-balanced group of books, in my opinion: light reading; two fiction; two nonfiction. To my shame, I’m not reading any hot off the press books. In fact, I bypassed the new book section at the library and haven’t touched my new-release Kindle purchases.

What’s on your stack? And why?!

*not yet applicable for tariffs

photo credit: presta via photopin cc

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De(re)construction by Jessica E. Thomas

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