How to Incorporate Backstory That Hooks The Reader

Spoiler warning: Spoilers for the John Rain series by Barry Eisler. Also, The Detachment reached #1 on the Kindle store this week. Congrats, Barry!

I don't often read series out of order, but Barry Eisler was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Detachment when he visited the blog. The Detachment can be read as a standalone, although there are references to events from previous books.

 While I often find “here’s what you’ve missed” sections boring, I enjoyed the backstory passages in The Detachment. They actually made me eager to go back and read the previous volumes. Now why would that be? Time to dig out the old magnifying glass.

Spoilers: Good or Bad?

One of my favorite Threadless T shirts
I hate spoilers. Once I turned on the TV and accidentally watched last 10 min. of The Usual Suspects (I hadn't seen it before). Whoops. I also figured out the ending of The Sixth Sense halfway through and was grumpy the rest of the movie because I'd missed out on the surprise.

But do spoilers actually decrease enjoyment?

Spoiler alert:  A recent study says no.

Top Five Book Picks of 2011

I usually don't do book reviews, but once in a while, it's fun to blog as a reader rather than a writer. Here are my favorite books that I read this past year.  I read many other fantastic books as well, but if I have to limit myself to five...

(Listed in the order in which I read them.)

1. Plain Kate by Erin Bow

I have already gushed about Plain Kate -- the poetic language, the heartbreak. I loved this book so much that I bought two copies – one to keep and one to underline and analyze. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes fairytales and bittersweet stories.

Tips On Responding to Public Criticism (Inspired by Steve Jobs)

The Internet is an interesting place. When people interact through computer screens, it increases anonymity and decreases inhibitions while dehumanizing the person on the other end. This is why online interactions tend to be so polite and respectful.

Um, right.

The truth is, if you spend enough time on the Internet, you’ll eventually take your turn as a punching bag.  As a blogger and future author, I'm very interested in how people react to public criticism. A while back, I ran across this video of Steve Jobs during a question-and-answer session. A man asks an insulting question, and Jobs’ response was quite impressive. It's worth taking a look.

Let's break down this response see if we can come up with some generalizable tips for dealing with public criticism.

Do Re-readers Tend to Be Revisers?

So today on twitter, agent Holly Root proposed a theory:  Editors tend to have been re-readers as kids; agents were rarely re-readers. (via Molly O'Neill)

I don't know about agents and editors, but that made me wonder how re-reading and re-writing are related for writers.  I proposed my own hypothesis:  Writers who like revising were re-readers as kids. Writers who like first drafts, not so much.

People on twitter started weighing in, some who fit this pattern, and some who didn't.  Which made me curious enough to put up a little unscientific poll. 

What are your rereading and revising preferences?  (Email subscribers and people reading in feed readers will need to click through to the web page to take the poll.)

Hope you enjoyed this post!  To get regular updates from the blog, please use the subscription options in the sidebar.

The Psychology of Attraction: The Intertwining of Sex and Aggression

"His gaze flickered to my lips. I got that. He was once again furious with me and once again perfectly ready to have sex with me. The conundrum that was Barrons. Apparently it was impossible for him to feel anything as far as I was concerned without getting angry about it. Did anger make them want to have sex with me? Or was it that he always wanted to have sex with me that made him so angry?"

--Shadowfever, by Karen Marie Moning

So I’m looking back over the "Psychology of Attraction" series, and so far we have fear, uncertainty, and now aggression. Which makes me think I should clarify some things before y'all stage an intervention. This series is not meant to be a picture of how healthy relationships work, or even how the majority of relationships work. They’re interesting tidbits that might be useful for a novelist. As often is the case, the healthy cases don’t always make interesting stories.

Actually, that's an interesting thought -- that the pathological makes for more gripping stories. Is it true? Is it desirable? Which dovetails nicely into today's post.

When I was researching the article on fear, I ran across some old studies exploring the relationship between aggression and sexuality. The basic idea was that the experimenters made test participants angry and then tested them for sexual arousal.

Showcase The Sexy, But Don't False Advertise (and other lessons I learned when writing my book pitch)

Disclaimer: I’m not a professional slush reader, nor am I a veteran indie author who’s A/B tested dozens of cover blurbs. But I had a decent request rate for my query letters (52% asked for partials or fulls), and agent Jim did use my unmodified query to pitch Midnight Thief in the DGLM newsletter. (Jim also asked to use it as an example in his classes on query writing, which did amazing things for my ego, until Secretly-Supportive-But-Very-Mischievous-Husband asked if the class was called “How Not to Write A Query.” Ah, what are our loved ones for, if not to keep us humble.)

These are the lessons I learned while I was writing my query. Hopefully you will find something helpful for your own queries, book blogger pitches, etc...

1. Showcase the sexy

You’d think that a writer would know what’s sexy about her novel, but that wasn’t true in my case. My first query draft began:

SFFWRTCHT and How To Do A Social Media Event

Today we have a guest post from Bryan Thomas Schmidt.  Bryan runs #SFFWRTCHT (Sci-Fi writer chat), a weekly twitter chat that interviews science fiction and fantasy authors. He blogs about the event's origins here, and today, he shares some tips about how to run social media events.

In late October 2010 at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, I found inspiration for utilizing social media and my past experience in entertainment and journalism to bring authors together to discuss and learn about the craft and business of writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Knowing I wouldn’t likely attend many conventions the following year, for budget reasons, I decided to bring the panel to us and created SFFWRTCHT, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat. My little idea grew within months to a major platform and has cemented my reputation and network in the industry, leading to opportunities I had only dreamed of. So Livia asked me to blog a bit about how to do a social media event, and I offer the following tips.

On Turnips and Routines

Me: I added something to my novel that I love.

Secretly-Supportive-But-Very-Mischievous-Husband: [Tears eyes from computer screen.] What?

Me: In the second scene when Flick and Kyra eat dinner, he takes the turnips out of his bowl and  absentmindedly pushes them to Kyra, and then she EATS THE TURNIPS.

SSBVMH: I see.

Me: That adds like sooooooo much. Do you know like HOW MUCH that adds?

The Psychology of Attraction: Uncertainty

A while back, I was reading a romance. In the story, the girl meets a charming, handsome guy, and things are proceeding as usual. But then, out of the blue, a boy she’d hated for years suddenly kisses her and runs away. ZOMG! I was mildly interested in guy number one, but when guy number two showed up, I really took notice.

Jump cut to another story, where a girl meets an old flame. He's distant, but sometimes shows flashes of interest. As the shared moments continue, I’m avidly turning the pages. Soon, he's actively courting her -- bringing her lunch and supporting her through emotional trauma, and . . . I lose interest.

In both cases, the guy who might have been attracted to the girl was more interesting to me than the guy who  definitely was attracted to the girl. Which got me to thinking. What is it about uncertainty and attraction?

Revision Adventures: Building Strong Characters and Emotional Depth

I’m currently revising my manuscript in response to editorial suggestions -- mostly from my agent Jim, but also from feedback I received during my agent search and from my second round of beta readers.

The focus is on increasing emotional and character depth, and I thought I'd share some themes and tips from my revision notes.

1. Relationships should include both tension and harmony

Relationships will be more compelling if they include a balance of conflict and cooperation. For example, my villain is a pretty ruthless guy, but his evil deeds would have more impact if my protagonist (and my readers) believed that he was also capable of good. Therefore, I’m reworking some passages to show his nicer side. Likewise, there’s an “older brother” figure who acts as a emotional anchor. That's all well and good, but making him less unconditionally supportive and more human adds depth to his relationship with my protagonist, and the conflict actually strengthens their emotional bond.

From St. Martins, to Self Publishing, to Amazon: Q&A With Barry Eisler

Livia: Barry, good to have you here with an excerpt from The Detachment on the day it goes on sale.

Barry: My pleasure, Livia, and thanks for having me.

Livia: It's impossible to consider The Detachment without also considering the story behind it. You announced back in March that you had walked away from a half-million-dollar offer from St. Martin's Press to self-publish the book. Then, at BEA in May, you announced that the book would be published instead by Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint. Can you tell us a bit more about the unusual path to publication for this book?

How to Self Promote Without Selling Your Soul

Note:  **If you see any pop up ads upon entering my site, I apologize and please email me at liviablackburne at gmail dot com.  There aren't supposed to be any.***

My parents own an import business, and we often talked about their work around the dinner table. I remember a conversation about “Brian,” one of the sales reps. When Brian first moved into sales from accounting, he had a hard time because he felt like he was forever pushing merchandise onto people. But eventually he began to see his role differently, as a service provider who guided people toward products that matched their needs.

At the time, being my cynical high-school self, my reaction was "Uh huh, whatever makes you feel better, greedy capitalist." But I've been thinking about that conversation recently, after reading Nathan Bransford's recent article on self promotion. The gist of his post is that self-promotion is uncomfortable and somewhat unpleasant, but as a modern author, you have to do it anyways.

Now Nathan has more social media and marketing ninja skills in his left pinky than I could ever hope to obtain, and I can definitely see where he's coming from. It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and tell people about your book. But whereas many authors see self-promotion as a necessary evil, I actually enjoy it. Perhaps because I'm the daughter of entrepreneurs, perhaps because I'm an only child and attention-monger, or perhaps because my stunted MIT social skills prevent me from realizing when people are annoyed at me.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to present a more sanguine view of self promotion.

The Psychology of Attraction: Fear

Happy Labor Day! If you haven't looked at the comments in my critique styles post, take a look. People have left quite a few amusing comments. Also, I forgot to mention  that the five profiles I posted are actually caricatures of the five members of my critique group. Can you guess which one is me?

I've been reading some articles on the psychology of attraction and thought it'd be interesting to write about ways to attract the opposite sex. As writers, our interest in this is of course strictly academic -- we want to write more realistic romances (right? :-P).

Imagine that you're a young man crossing a rickety suspension bridge. It's not exactly sturdy. It sways and twists in the wind, and there's only a low wire handrail to protect you from the rocks 230 feet below. As you cross, you're approached by an attractive young psychology student. She asks you to fill out a survey and write a short story. After you finish, she tells you that she'd be happy to talk further about the experiment, and then she hands you her phone number.

What's Your Critique Style?

Five members of a critique group look over a familiar fairy tale...

The Language Connoisseur: “Little Red Riding Hood.” That's a great name! Such great imagery, with just a hint of alliteration.

The Character Empath: I loved the twist when the grandma turned out to be the wolf. Holy Cow! But maybe we'd appreciate the surprise more in Red’s point of view instead of the Wolf's?

The Pace Setter: You could stretch out the tension after Red gets swallowed. The woodman shows up too quickly. Milk the drama!

The Plot Critic: Eh, I didn't buy that whole development with the wolf dressing up as the grandma. I mean, is Red really that unobservant? Come on!

The Potty Brain: I dunno about all those references to the woodman's "axe." I mean, this is supposed to be MG! Let's not go there.

What other critique types are there, and what do they say?

How to Make Your Reader Cry: Anatomy of a Death Scene

Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for Plain Kate in this entry.

I recently fell in love with Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Every sentence is beautiful, and the story is impossible to forget.

Plain Kate is also a very, very sad book. A major character dies at the end, and Bow pulls no punches. I cried when I read it. And being a sucker for punishment, I reread the ending the next day and cried again. Then I started thinking.  People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate’s death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings.

From Words to Brain is 99 cents this weekend

From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?) 

Hello all.  I'm running late on a blog post (hopefully will have it up by tomorrow), but I just heard from my publisher that From Words to Brain is 99 cents this weekend at the Kindle store, so it's a great time to check it out if you've been meaning to.  Take care!

Yes, Reading About Edward Cullen Will Make You Sparkle

Every once in a while I present some tools in the writer’s arsenal for taking over the world. We've talked about writers as brain manipulators, and storytelling as Vulcan mind meld. Today, I will show you how Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling are actually Borg queens, assimilating all unsuspecting readers in their path.

Reading assimilation is a common experience. Perhaps you're walking to work after reading Harry Potter and find yourself wishing for a broomstick. Or you step into the sun after reading Twilight and half-expect your skin to sparkle. Psychologists Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young have coined the term narrative-collective assimilation for the idea that reading a story will cause the reader to assimilate into the “collective”, or people-groups, described in the narrative. And now they have experimental evidence.

The OCD Writer's Guide to Considering an Offer of Representation

Late in the graduate school admissions process, there's a sudden flip. You've spent a year polishing up your cv, revising your personal statement, and doing your best not to bungle up interviews. Then suddenly, you’re admitted, and everything changes. Suddenly, all these distinguished professors are courting you -- calling you up and doing their best to sell you on their department. And somehow, you have to decide where to spend the next 5+ years of your life.

When I finally got “the call” at the end of my querying process, I couldn't help but notice similarities between signing an agent and choosing a graduate advisor. There is the same disorienting role flip, the scrambled attempt to figure out working styles and personality. With just a few e-mails and phone calls, you’re supposed to choose the person who will have more influence over your career than anyone else (except for you). And unlike for graduate school, this decision happens on the time course of weeks, rather than months.

So how do you do make the right decision? Beats me. I'm a brain scientist/writer, not a sage. But I will share what I did, and hopefully you'll find some useful tidbits.

Part One: Questions for the Agent

Probably the first thing that will happen when you receive an offer is a conversation with the agent. This is a lot of fun, and a great chance to ask questions.  I got most of these questions from Rachelle Gardner and Greenhouse Literary, and added a few of my own.

What are the agent’s thoughts about the book? Any ideas for revision?

After you sign on, what happens next? What's the expected process?

How many clients does the agent have and how many is she planning on having eventually?

What are the terms of the representation being offered? Is there a time limit? Is it for one book, or is it open-ended?

What happens if either the agent or client wants to end the relationship?

If the relationship is terminated, what is the policy for unsold works the agent has represented? What about unsold subsidiary rights in works that the agent has sold?

How does the agent handle subsidiary and foreign rights?

Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?

How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you? (Note: The AAR Canon of Ethics stipulates that agents should forward payments to clients no more than 10 days after receipt, but I've seen agreements from AAR agencies with longer payment periods, so I'm not quite sure how this works.)

Does the agency keep client funds in a separate bank account from the agency’s other funds? (Note: This is also stipulated in the AAR code of ethics.)

Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Faxes? Phone calls? Any other fees?

What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?

What submission strategy does the agent have in mind? (How many editors at a time? Does she usually pitch by phone, email, or both? Does she follow up after a certain amount of time?)

When negotiating a contract, are there any specific points that the agent feels is important to negotiate for? 
(You can also ask about specific contract points also. I asked about ebook royalties, out of print clauses, and non-compete clauses because they were important to me.)

What, if anything, would make the agent council an author to walk away from a deal?

What are the agent's thoughts on self publishing? Does the agency offer, or plan to offer, self-publishing services? (Note: Even in the two months since I put these questions together, the landscape has changed greatly. Many agencies are now moving into self-publishing, with a wide range of models. There are a lot of very intelligent people with very different opinions on this, so read up and make your own decision. Here is an overview of different models from David Gaughran. And here's some articles about agent facilitating self-publishing, arranged roughly from supportive to against: Joe Konrath, Mark Coker, Barry Eisler, Mike Shatzkin, David Gaughran, Courtney Milan, Bob Mayer, Kristine Rusch, Victoria Strauss, Laura Resnick, Scott Nicholson)

How does the agent see agents’ roles changing in the near future?

What is the agent’s preferred communication style: what medium, and how often?

If a client doesn’t hear back from the agent on an email, what would be an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?

How much does the agent prefer to communicate during the submissions process? Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?

Part Two: Speaking with the Agent's Other Clients.

When I was choosing a graduate advisor, I spoke with students and postdocs from his lab. It's also helpful to do the same thing with an agent. It's perfectly fine to (politely) ask for references. All the agents I spoke to were happy to provide names of current clients to contact, and I would consider it a huge red flag if an agent refuses or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable for asking. You can speak to ctheir lients over e-mail or phone, although you will probably get a more honest and spontaneous opinion over the phone. Here are some possible questions.

What has your experience been like with your agent?

Can you take me through the process of selling a book with your agent, from beginning to end?

How often do you communicate with your agent?

How long does it take for your agent to reply to an email?

How long does it take for your agent to get back to you on a manuscript?

What was it like being on submission? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?

What has your experience been like with foreign and subsidiary rights?

What were contract negotiations like once you sold your book? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?

What role does your agent play in books that you’re currently writing?

What role does your agent play, if any, in marketing your book?

For a new writer who’s just signed on, do you have any advice about how to work well with your agent?

What kind of writer would not be compatible with your agent’s working style?

Have you had any experiences in which something came up w/ your publisher (or anyone else) and your agent  had to go to bat for you?

Note: In the course of my conversations, I found it really helpful to speak to authors whose first books didn't sell. This lets you know whether the agent continues to work with authors if they can't sell the first book, and you can also learn about how long they keep books on submission.

Part three: The Agency Agreement

Agency agreements vary greatly in both style and content. Some are written in everyday language while others are written in contract language. Possible variations include whether the agent represents one book or all your work, commission rate on foreign and subsidiary rights, terms of termination, etc.

Here are some resources for understanding agency contracts.

Books: The Writer's Legal Companion and Negotiating a Book Contract are two great resources, and both have sections about agency agreements. The two books differ slightly in their advice, which is nice for getting a well-rounded view.

Websites: There are some resources on the web, although not as systematic as the books.  Kristin Nelson covers agency agreements on her blog. Writer beware has an article on perpetual agency clauses and what they mean. Passive Guy is also writes about both agency and publishing contract clauses. Not all these resources agree, which is a good thing, I think.

Ending Notes

So that's about all I can think of. In addition to this, you'll also want to take a look at the agent's sales record in your genre. If the agent posts sales to Publishers Marketplace, that is one place to look. You can also ask the agent about books that she's sold.

One word of caution. Please, please, PLEASE keep a level head. Remember that agenting is an unregulated industry. As is true with any industry, regulated or unregulated, there are many  agents who are professional, smart, and awesome, and many who are… not. It may be cliché to say that no agent is better than a bad agent, but I've had enough writer friends get burned to know just how true it is. So when you get an offer of representation, by all means, celebrate, but don't ignore red flags, and don't ignore your gut.

Even if you only have one offer, remember that you have other options. You can keep querying, you can submit directly to editors, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. For more on this topic, take a look at Anne R. Allen’s post on literary agents in the new publishing world, Nathan Bransford's post on spaghetti agents, Patricia Wrede's post on what agents really do,  and this post on trusting your gut by Caroline Tung Richmond. Don't be paranoid, but remember that you will be entrusting both your money and your career to this person, so choose wisely.

So now readers, your turn.  Did I miss anything in this article?  Share your wisdom please!

P.S. And for those who haven't heard from my twitter stream, I'm thrilled to share that I’ve signed with Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich for my young adult fantasy Midnight Thief . Jim has been awesome so far and I’m really looking forward to working with him further. I also want to give a shout out to agent sisters Carrie Ryan and Jessica Spotswood, who were kind enough to answer all my questions about their experiences.  Yay! :-)

Hope you enjoyed this article!  To get regular updates from this blog, please use one of the subscription options on the left sidebar.

KATniss and KATsa... a coincidence?

Regular readers will know that I write in what I jokingly call the "kickass girl genre" -- action adventure with female protagonists that could beat you up. I often look to The Hunger Games and Graceling, two popular books with similar heroines, for inspiration and guidance. After spending some time with the books, you start noticing things.

For example, has anyone ever noticed that the main characters both have names starting with the syllable "Kat"? (Katniss and Katsa). Could be a coincidence, but I also wonder if there's something about the explosive sound of the letters "K" and "T" that conjure up an impression of forcefulness. Funny enough, my main character (conceived before I read either book) also has a "K" name -- Kyra.

Sound to meaning mapping in language has its supporters and detractors, but there have been some thought provoking results. Check out this interesting article from New Scientist for some more examples.

Author Blogging: You're Doing it Wrong, but John Locke's Figured it Out

Edit:  Since writing this blog article, I've learned that John Locke left one crucial fact out of his marketing plan, which is that he paid for reviews. Given what I know about the Amazon ecosystem, I'm guessing this had a much greater impact on his sales than his blogging ever did.  So please take the post with a grain of salt.

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments on author blogging and whether or not it’s a good use of time. If you haven't already, you might want to drop by.

As a quick recap, my beef with author blogging is that writers rarely keep target audience in mind. They’re writing fiction for kids, thriller lovers, or [insert some other reader profile], but they turn around and blog exclusively for writers.

Why do writers do this? My guess is because it's hard to define a target audience in fiction, and even harder to figure out how to reach that audience with blog entries. And what works for one author might not work for another author’s audience.

Which was why I was intrigued to hear about a generalizable, “target audience” focused approach to blogging for fiction writers. And because the person presenting this plan was John Locke, self-publishing hero and first indie author to reach one million sales on Kindle, I listened.

Locke shares several strategies for launching e-books via social media in his ebook How I Sold 1 Million Kindle Books in Five Months, but what got me was his focus on target audience. Locke defines his target audience more precisely than most novelists. I think of my target audience as teenage girls, or more specifically, teenage girls who like Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. Locke takes it a step further, working up a detailed psychological profile -- who they are and what they like about his stories. In his book, he writes a profile of the readers in his popular Donovan Creed series.

I'll attempt similar workup of my own target audience here:

My target audience consists of young women, from high school through early 20s. They read to be transported to other worlds, and they actively seek sword and sorcery with female protagonists. They like to read about – for lack of a better term -- girls kicking butt. My readers are attracted to strong, larger than life heroines, and they like reading about my main character Kyra because of the cool things she can do. They’d love to be Kyra for a day or two. My readers shy away from situations that are too cut and dry. They're drawn to moral complexity, hard decisions, and inner conflict. They like a heroine with a dark side (no Pollyanna heroines please), but they still expect good to triumph in the end. My readers want fast-paced action and adventure, with high stakes and lots of plot twists. They don't want to be bogged down with things like setting details and overly flowery prose.

How do I know this about my target audience? It's a combination of knowing the kind of story I want to write and listening to the feedback  I've gotten from my beta readers. In every group of beta readers, there will be readers who love your book, and readers who hate it. Look for the beta readers who really loved the story, and listen to what they have to say. For more ideas about what to ask your beta readers, see my beta reading series.

Once you have your psychological profile, you can come up with themes that resonate with your target audience. In my case, it might be girls kicking butt, larger-than-life heroes, and tough moral decisions. And you’d would write a blog post that encapsulated these themes. The idea is that you write blog posts that resonate with your target audience, making them curious to read your book.

Locke has written several of these blog posts, aimed at target audiences for his two series. Here's one example post titled Why I Love Joe Paterno and My Mom.  It's aimed at the target audience for his Donovan Creed series, which touches on many themes, including everyday heroes, humor, and a strong woman.

Locke credits the majority of his sales to thesese blog posts, many of which went viral. Readers identified with them and shared them with their friends, and many ended up buying his books. I find his idea of viral marketing intriguing, and I’m curious as to how to generalizable it is. My own experience with blogging has been that it's very hard to predict what will go viral. I can probably guess with above-chance accuracy whether a blog will do well, but there’s a huge amount of uncertainty. Sometimes I’ll slave away at a blog post for days, just to have it fall flat, while other times I'll dash off a throwaway post that gets an enthusiastic response. In fact, I only have one blog post that truly went viral, and I actually thought was very mundane when I was writing it.  That'd be an interesting study -- see how good bloggers are at predicting a post's success, and see how much that prediction accuracy increases with experience.

Locke does give the blog posts a push with what he calls Loyalty Transfer. He looks for people on Twitter who are interested in the topic he blogs about, and reaches out to them, eventually sharing his blog post with them after he’s built a connection. For the blog post mentioned earlier, he’d look for people tweeting about Joe Paterno.  Again, target audience.  Looking for people who will resonate with your posts. My hunch here is that  you need to be genuinely invested in the conversations you strike up for this to work. If not, I can see links falling flat, or even getting in trouble with Twitter terms of service for spamming.

All in all, Locke presents an interesting approach to blogging as a way to sell fiction, and it's definitely worth taking a look for an in-depth case study of one author’s (very) successful marketing strategy.

Now you tell me. What is your target audience like, and how might you reach them?

Hope you enjoyed the post!  To get regular updates from the blog, please use one of the subscription options in the left sidebar.

Author Blogging: You're Doing it Wrong

I think blogging is a waste of time.

Now, I realize this is weird because I .. uh… blog. But let me explain. I think blogging is a great way to meet other writers, to network, and improve your craft. But I don’t think blogging, as it’s usually done by fiction writers, sells novels.

As far as I can tell, the idea of “author platform” started as a nonfiction concept. An author with an effective platform was an acknowledged expert in a certain subject -- say underwater basket weaving. This author often had an established speaking circuit, giving talks at all the important basket weaving conventions. Maybe she also ran The Wet Weaver, a helpful blog with a large following. She had access to her target audience, and when she finally wrote the Basket Weaving Manual to end all Basket Weaving Manuals, she had the means to sell it.

The key to this scenario is target audience. People with nonfiction platforms had access to people who were interested in their topic and likely to buy their book.

At some point, unpublished fiction authors started feeling the pressure to build platforms. The problem is, they forgot all about target audience. Rather than being a means to reach the right readers, blogging became an end in itself – a box to tick off self promotional checklist. Fiction writers, being somewhat one-track minded, overwhelmingly decided to blog about writing. And thus, the writing blogosphere was born, with articles, contests, and promotions all aimed at fellow writers.

The thing is, we haven't created effective platform. What we've created is a never-ending writing conference. Good for many things -- forming friendships, professional development, and learning your craft. But nobody (I think) would argue that attending SCBWI conferences every weekend will catapult your book onto the New York Times bestseller list. In the same way, blogging for writers will not sell your book to the general reading population. This is even more apparent in the field of children’s literature. There are thousands of YA and MG writers (me included), blogging their hearts out to adoring readerships, while ignoring the inconvenient detail that their number of actual teens they’re reaching can be counted on one hand.

A brief aside – people will argue that writers are readers too, and that some sales are better than none. Which is certainly true. And it’s also true that some writers have successfully launched novels using their platform in the writing community (see Joanna Penn’s inspiring book launch for her debut thriller Pentecost). But it’s inefficient -- not all writers will read in your genre or enjoy your writing style. In Joanna’s case, she also sells products directed primarily toward writers, which makes the blog more effective. If you’re only selling general fiction, your conversion rate will be lower.

And you also have to look at the opportunity cost. Think about the number of blog followers you have, and suppose that a fifth of them buy your book (that’s a high percentage, IMHO). Now think about the amount of time you spend blogging. Time spent on the blog is time spent away from something else: writing another book, contacting book clubs, taking a part-time job and investing that money in advertising or a publicist. Given these myriad other options, is blogging still an efficient way to reach readers?

Sometimes in online platform discussions, someone will mention the elephant in the room, that we’re only blogging for other writers. Usually, that comment is met with thoughtful nods. Comments of “Yeah, we should think about that”. More awkward silence, and then we go back to our blogging. We can't help it. It's too much fun, and it's a path of least resistance. I ‘ve never heard anyone come up with a thoughtful, generalizable, plan for reaching targeted fiction audiences through blogging.

At least, I had never encountered a plan until last week -- when I ran across an intriguing blueprint that keeps the target audience in mind. And that was actually what I had been planning to blog about before I went off on my fatalistic rant.

But I'm already many days late on this blog entry, so I will stop here for now. Sorry to end on such a downer – I will be back in a few days with some happier thoughts. (Edit:  Here is the followup post)  In the meantime, what do you think? Is blogging a waste of time?

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Improving Creativity: The Connect Brainset

Today we are diving back into our series on improving creativity for writers, based on Shelley Carson's book Your Creative Brain. If you are just joining us, check out the first two installments: the Absorb brainset and the Envision brainset.

Today's brainset is the Connect brain set.

The Connect brain set is the closest to our usual idea of creativity. It involves the ability to generate a large number of unique and out-of-the-box ideas. Instead of settling on obvious solutions, a person who’s comfortable in Connect brainset imagines all kinds of off-the-wall possibilities. To a Connecter, a glass isn't merely a vessel for holding water. It's a paperweight, cookie-cutter, bug trapping tool, weapon, rolling pin, musical instrument, and more.

This brainset is also characterized by the ability to make unusual associations. For example, someone less comfortable with the Connect brain set might associate the word ‘cake’ with birthdays, flour, candles, etc. But someone strong in the Connect brainset might think about mud, the computer game Portal (The cake is a lie!), cabaret girls jumping out at parties, pie, cakewalks, etc.

How to strengthen the connect brainset:

Tying Related Scenes Together With a Common Element

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman is a zany tale about an apocalypse gone wrong. As might be expected from a novel about the end of the world, Good Omens features a giant cast and multiple interconnected narrative threads. When you have so much going on, how do you keep the reader oriented?

One way is through reoccurring elements. For example, set of scenes involves the angel Arizaphale as he sits down to read a book of prophecies. The scenes are nicely tied together with  a cup of cocoa.

“Steady, steady,”Arizaphale muttered to himself. He went into the little kitchenette and made himself some cocoa and took some deep breaths.
Then he came back and read a prophecy at random.
40 minutes later, the cocoa was still untouched.

There are several intervening scenes, and then the next Arizaphale scene starts with the line.

Arizaphale’s cocoa was stone cold...

A few more scenes, and then the next scene begins:

The cocoa was a congealed brown sludge half filling the cup.. .

And then the last scene in this series:

The cocoa had nearly all solidified. Green fur was growing on the inside of the month.
There was a thin layer of dust on Arizaphale, too

Can you think of other uses for recurring elements, or alternate ways to tie related scenes together?

Top Ten Posts of Year Two

We're closing in on the end of of this blog's second year. Yay! Thank you all so much for sticking around and for your thoughtful comments and support. As I did for Year 1, this seems a good time to do a round-up of Year 2's most popular articles. So without further ado, in chronological order:

1. The Power of Touch
Do you use touch imagery in your writing? Some intriguing psychological studies suggest that it may be more powerful than you think.

2. Will Self Publishing Make You Die?
I had fun writing this post. And it's interesting  how much the industry's perceptions of self publishing have changed even since I first wrote this article.

3.  How Language Affects Thought
Does the language you speak affect the way you think?

4.  Storytellers and How They Force Their Brain Activity On Their Audience
That's right. You can control people's minds.

5.Erotic Romance, Condoms, and Social Responsibility
When psychologists rewrite romance novels to include safe sex practices, hilarity and science ensues.

6. Worldview, Tolkien, and Why Catholics Write Bad Stories
In which I wonder about our idea of  "a good story" and how dependent it is on culture.

7. What Mirror Images and Foreign Scripts Tell Us About The Reading Brain
An excerpt from my essay From Words to Brain about what makes letters and writing systems special.

8.  Typing Vs Longhand:  Does it Affect Your Writing?
This is by far my most popular blog post ever. Funny, because I almost didn't think it was interesting enough to post. Just goes to show that you never know.

9. The Blogification of Writing Tips
In which I become all angsty about the value of writing blogs.

10.  On Writing Realistic Male Characters:  (aka, Men Are Jerks)
Are your male characters unrealistic? Maybe they're too nice.

And that's the top 10 for year two. Thank you all!

Improving Creativity: The Envision Brainset

We're in the second installment of our series based on psychologist Shelley Carson's book Your Creative Brain. In each installment, we discuss one of Carson’s six categories of creativity (aka “brainsets"). As I mentioned last time, these should not be viewed as ironclad descriptions of the way things are, but rather a helpful model for thinking about creativity.

Last time, we discussed the Absorb brainset. Today's brainset is the Envision brainset. 

The Envision brainset is your brain's scratchpad or mental palette -- your ability to form images of things that do not exist. It could involve attempting to see your living room with a different furniture arrangement, or remembering the smell of your favorite lamb stew.

Improving Creativity: The Absorb Brainset

Harvard University creativity researcher Shelley Carson recently published Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life. She was kind enough to mail me a review copy.

Carson divides creativity into seven distinct categories, or “brain sets.” Each brain set is a different flavor of creativity, and different people will naturally have some brain sets that come more naturally to them. In her book, Carson describes each brain set and provides exercises for strengthening it, and I thought it would be fun to talk about these brainsets as they apply to writers.

Carson emphasizes that these are not scientifically proven fact, but a model inspired by current neuroscience research. I wouldn't view these as an ironclad description of the way things are, but rather as springboards to develop your own creativity.

The first brainset is the Absorb brainset. This brainset is all about being observant -- noticing the world around you, and paying attention to random thoughts that pop up from your subconscious.

Twenty Ways to Describe Your Character's BFF

Almost every character has at least one close friend. Done well, this “bosom buddy” can act as an emotional touchstone and help us see the main character in a new light. But sometimes it's hard to show the reader how close the friendship is.  Closeness stems from a long history together -- often occurring before the start of the book.  How do you convey this closeness in their current interactions in a natural way?

I had some issues with this in my WIP. My main character has some good friends with limited screen time, and my beta readers weren't getting a strong sense of their relationship. This was a problem because the friends are a driving force behind many of my character's decisions, and without a believable emotional bond, the decisions don’t make sense.

To tackle this problem, I once again dug into The Hunger Games and Graceling. Both these books have minor characters that mean a lot to the protagonists. In Hunger Games, Katniss’ has her friend Gale. In Graceling, Katsa has her cousin Raffin and her maid Helda. I went through and picked out the little details that conveyed a strong relationship. For the curious, Gale appears on approximately 57 of The Hunger Games’s 374 pages, Raffin appears on 88 of Graceling's 471 pages, and Helda appears on 20/471 pages. (Thank you Amazon's Search Inside feature).

So without further ado, 20 ways to convey a strong relationship between two characters, with relevant quotes.

1. The protagonist can relax and be herself around the friend

“In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself. Gale. I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills …” (Hunger games, p.6)

2. Carefree joking

“’ Look what I shot.’ Gale holds up a loaf of bread with an arrow stuck in it, and I laugh.” (HG, p.7)


“I've been told to make myself pretty for dinner.”

[Raffin] grinned. “Well, in that case, you'll be ages.”

His face dissolved into laughter, and [Katsa] tore a button from one of her bags and hurled it at him. 

He squealed and dropped to the floor, and the button hit the wall right where he'd been standing. 

When he peeked back over the railing, she stood in the courtyard with her hands on her hips, grinning.
“I missed on purpose,” she said.

(Graceling, p. 56)

3. An ability to act as a team, automatically working in unison without discussion

“I almost forgot! Happy Hunger Games!" [Gale] plucks a few blackberries from the bushes around us. "And may the odds –" he tosses a very in a high arc towards me.

I catch it in my mouth and break the delicate skin with my teeth. The sweet tartness explodes across my tongue. "– be ever in your favor!" I finish with equal verve."

(HG, p.7-8)

[Note from Livia: In the previous quote, not only do Katniss and Gale act in unison, they finish each other's sentences. The next passage is nice too. This is right after Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place in the Hunger Games, and Prim is clinging to her, begging her not do this. I love how Gayle knows what Katniss wants and helps her with it, even though it's breaking his heart.]

“Prim, let go,” I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don't want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reaping tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I'll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. "Let go!"

I can feel someone pulling her from my back. I turn and see Gale has lifted Prim off the ground and she's thrashing in his arms. “Up you go, Catnip,” he says, in a voice he's fighting to keep steady, and then he carries Prim off toward my mother. (HG, p.9)

4. Including the other person in hypothetical plans for the future.

“We could do it, you know,” Gale says quietly.

“What?”I ask.

“Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it,” says Gale. (HG, p.9)

5. Jealousy, possessiveness of the other person.

“You can tell by the way the girls whisper about him when he walks by in school that they want him. It makes me jealous but not for the reason people would think. Good hunting partners are hard to find.” (HG p.10)

6. Assuming that the friend will take her side in a disagreement

Raffin soft voice broke through her distress. “Let him explain, Katsa.”

She turned to Raffin, incredulous, flabbergasted that he should know the truth and still take Po's side. 

(G, p.25)

7. Extensive knowledge of each others’ opinions.

“On other days, deep in the woods, I listen to him rant about how the tesserae are just another tool to cause misery in our district. A way to plant hatred between the starving workers of the Seam and those who can generally count on supper and thereby ensure we will never trust one another. ‘It's to the Capital's advantage to have us divided among ourselves,’ [Gale] might say if there were no ears to hear but mine.” (HG p.14)


“What dress shall it be tonight, My Lady?" Helda called out.

"You know I don't care," Katsa called back. (G p.62)

8. Shared beliefs 

“I could be shot on a daily basis for hunting . . . . Anyway, Gale and I agree that if we have to choose between dying of hunger and a bullet in the head, the bullet would be much quicker. " (HG, p.17)

9. Automatically seeking that person out for comfort

“How she wished she could take Bitterblue north to Randa city and hide her there as they'd hidden her grandfather. North to Raffin's comfort, Raffin's patience and care.” (G, p.370)

10. Fear of losing the person

“If her uncle died, [Katsa] didn't think she would grieve. She glanced at Giddon. She would not like to lose him, but she didn't think she would grieve his loss, either. Oll was different. She would grieve for Oll. And her lady servant, Helda. And Raffin. Raffin’s loss would hurt more than a finger sliced off, or an arm broken, or a knife in her side.” (G, p.50)

11. Drawing analogies to family

“[Katsa] didn't have a grandfather. But perhaps this grandfather meant to the Lienid prince what Oll – or Helda or Raffin – meant to her.” (G, p.80)

12. Familiar rituals, perhaps spanning back to childhood or other more innocent times

“Raffin sat on her bed and curled his legs up, as he had done when he was a child. As they both had done so many times, sitting together on her bed, talking and laughing. He didn't laugh now, and he didn't talk.” (G, p.148)

13. A fondness for talking about the person

“And then [Katsa] told the child, because it was on her own mind, about Katsa’s cousin Raffin, who loved the art of medicine and would be ten times the king his father was; and about Helda, who had befriended Katsa when no one else was and thought of nothing but marry her off to some lord...” (G, p.336)

14. A desire to protect that person.

“[It was] unthinkable to take this crisis to those Katsa held most dear. She would not entangle Raffin . . . . She would not involve her friends at all.” (G, p.371)

15. The character becomes a point of comparison for new events and settings. They color the way the protagonist sees things.

“They followed Jem into a well-lit room that reminded Katsa of one of Raffin's workrooms, always cluttered with open books…" (G, p.382)

“I can't help, for a moment, comparing him with Gale, who would see that field as a potential source of food as well as a threat." (HG, p.295-296)

16. New events bring up memories of the person, and the protagonist generally has a lot of memories about that person.

“[Peeta] stops together a bunch of wildflowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can't know that the pink and white flowers are the tops of wild onions and only remind me of the hours I spent gathering them with Gale.” (p.371)

“I rack my brains for good memories. Most of them involve Gale and me out hunting . . . .” (HG, p.268)

17. The protagonist automatically seeks out the friend when she has something important or sensitive to discuss.

“I realize I do want to talk to someone about the girl. Someone who might be able to help me figure out the story. Gale would be my first choice, but it's unlikely I'll ever see Gale again.” (HG p.80)

18. The person immediately comes to mind when the subject of friends comes up

“’ Who would you best friend be?’” asks Cinna.

“Gale,”I say instantly. (HG p.122)

19. The protagonist can predict the friend’s actions.

“And Gale. I know him. He won't be shouting and cheering. But he'll be watching, every moment, every twists, and turned, and willing me to come home.” (HG p.280)

20. Joyful reunions

“The noise of their horses and their shouts brought people to the balconies, to see who’d come. A steward came out to greet them. A moment later, Raffin came flying into the courtyard.

“You've arrived!”

(G, p.53)

Now your turn. How do you like to signal a deep connection between characters?

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Do Flashbacks Make Your Butt Look Big? (aka, Baby Got Backstory…)

As you might remember from my beta reading experiment, my test readers wanted more character development in my novel. Specifically, several beta readers wanted more back story. Now my first reaction to this was skepticism.

"Oh no you DI’N’T,” I said, “I read about back-story on the internets and it’s like the evilest thing evar. It’ll bog your story down, make your readers fall asleep and make your butt look big. In fact, my critique partner added some back story to her WIP before she started querying agents and the next day she DIED.”

But then I realized that I didn’t actually know how much back story appears in your typical YA book. So, as I often do when I have questions about writing, I dug out Graceling and The Hunger Games for some analysis. They are my go-to books for several reasons:

1. So good! Not only did I love them, but they were well received by readers and critics, and both did well commercially.
2. They were published within the last five years (2008, to be exact).
3. They are in my genre (Young adult action-adventure in an alternate world).

I went through and underlined all the back story in the first few chapters. To make things more interesting, I classified back story into three types: exposition, summarized narrative, and detailed narrative.

Exposition is a simple statement of facts. For example, this passage from The Hunger Games.

When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city of the Capital. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts…

A summarized narrative is a story told in a compressed timeline. Like this passage, again from The Hunger Games:

"Hey, Catnip," says Gail.

My real name is Katniss, but when I first told him, I had barely whispered it. So he thought I'd said Catnip. Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn't bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

A detailed narrative is back story told with the same detail and pacing as the rest of the story. Like this passage from Graceling.

Oll and Giddon, and most of the rest of the secret Counsel, had wanted her to kill them. But at the meeting to plan this mission, she'd argued that killing them would gain no time.

"What if they wake?" Giddon had said.

Prince Raffin had been offended. "You'd doubt my medicine. They won't wake."

"It would be faster to kill them," Giddon had said, his brown eyes insistent. Heads in the dark room had nodded.

"I can do it in the time allotted," Katsa had said, and when Giddon had started to protest, she held up her hand. "Enough. I won't kill them. If you want them killed, you can send someone else.”

So here's what the first three chapters for Graceling look like. Blue is everything in the present time. Exposition is red, summarized narrative is orange, and detailed backstory is yellow. Every unit on the x-axis is roughly a page, although they don’t match the page numbers exactly because I made this graph by counting lines and didn’t take into account page breaks at the end of chapters.

Here is a more detailed listing of the backstory sections. The story starts on page 3, and the main narrative describes Katsa on a mission to rescue a prisoner named Grandfather Tealiff.

p.3 Start of story – Katsa in the dungeons.

p.7 One paragraph summarizing how she had set off for the dungeons this morning. Narrative then spends 2 paragraphs in the present, and then there are several paragraphs of detailed flashback describing the planning session for this dungeon raid (this is the example quoted above).

p.9-11 Three pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katsa’s childhood, how she discovered her ability to kill, and her training.

p.17-19 Three pages of exposition on the history of the seven kingdoms and the kidnapping of Grandfather Tealiff.

p.27 One paragraph of exposition about why Katsa started the Council that organized this rescue.

p.28-32 Four pages of summarized narrative continuing the story of Katsa's childhood, starting from where the story left off on page 11. Tells of how she started to work for her uncle as a thug, and how the resulting guilt spurred her to form the Council.

So what does The Hunger Games look like? Same color scheme.

The story starts on page 3. These opening chapters begin with Katniss waking up and going hunting with Gale. Then the town gathers for the Hunger Games lottery, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the deadly Hunger Games.

p.3 Story starts – Katniss wakes up. After she sees their cat, one paragraph of summarized narrative about how they found the cat.

p.5 One sentence about how Katniss’s father died.

p.6 One paragraph of exposition about how Katniss learn to hold her tongue about the government. (First example quoted above.)

p.7 One paragraph summarized narrative about how Katniss got the nickname Catnip. (Second example quoted above.)

p.8 One paragraph exposition about how Katniss’ parents met.

p.9 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss met Gale.

p.13 Half paragraph exposition about how Katniss had to take extra entries into the Hunger Games lottery in return for food rations from the government.

p.14 One paragraph exposition on how Gale feels about the Hunger Games and the government.

p.15 One sentence on Katniss’s early relationship with her mother.

p.18 One paragraph on the history of their country and the Hunger Games, delivered as the mayor's speech.

p.21 One paragraph detailed narrative about a hunting experience.

p.23 One sentence about Katniss’ father's death.

p.26-32 Six and a half pages of detailed and summarized narrative describing Katniss' backstory with Peeta, the male protagonist.

So what did I learn from this analysis? Well, I think the most can be learned just by getting a feel for how the narratives are structured. I can draw a few generalizations:

1. I shouldn't be so scared of backstory. Both Suzanne Collins and Kristen Cashore include at least one extended chunk of backstory early on in the book. I suspect that the rise of in media res beginnings make backstory even more important.

2. There's more than one way to do it. Kristin Cashore uses larger chunks of backstory, while Suzanne Collins sprinkles in a paragraph here and there, with the exception of one long flashback (There's another one several chapters later that I didn't include, which is a continuation of the Peeta flashback). As a reader, both styles worked for me, with the exception of the three-page exposition in Graceling on the history of the seven kingdoms, which I remember skipping.

3. In particular, I appreciate how a short summarized story can add color and flavor to the text. For example, the Catnip story quoted above. I like how Suzanne Collins sprinkled in little stories throughout, and I wonder if there is something about a present tense first-person narrative that makes it easier to include small, short, flashbacks. From a purely technical standpoint, you don't have to worry about all that past perfect verb conjugation.  And I wonder if being so present in someone's head gives you more permission to go on tangents.

4.  I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or not, but both authors broke their most extended flashback (Katsa's childhood and Katniss and Peeta's story) into two halves of roughly 4 pages each. Is there a natural upper bound for flashback length?

Of course, simply looking at how much backstory there is isn't enough. Backstory has to be done well. So here's the question I will pose for you, dear readers. What are the characteristics of skillfully incorporated back story?

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Ebook Publishing Tips from Joanna Penn

E-books have been causing some pretty dramatic changes in the publishing industry. Whether you're a beginning writer, a traditionally published author, or a grizzled veteran with a large out-of-print backlist, you need to know about this new medium if you want to make wise decisions about your career.

Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn recently released an online course on ebook publishing, and she was kind enough to give me a review copy. I'll first share some of my favorite tips and thoughts from her course, and then give a more general overview.

1. You know how writers groan about having to hook an agent within the first few pages? Now with the advent of e-books, the opening pages are even more important. This is because ebooks are sold by sampling. Sites like Amazon offer the first few pages as a free download, and many readers decide whether or not to purchase after they read those pages.

2. For some good marketing tips, download the free e-book marketing guide at Smashwords.

3. Also, if you're looking to hire someone to help you convert your e-book into different formats, check out the E-book conversion services directory.

4. Book review blogs are a great way to get the word out about your book. There's a good listing of them at the book blog search engine.

5. There's  a lot of talk about e-book pricing and the race to the bottom for fiction, but nonfiction books are often left out of the conversation. Joanna brings up the good point that people are often willing to pay more for nonfiction, especially if the information is useful in a practical way (and especially if it will help people make money). For example, Joanna straddles the fiction and nonfiction markets, selling her debut novel Pentecost at 99 cents while selling her epublishing course for $39.99.

6. Two of the major e-book retailers, Apple iBooks store and Barnes & Noble, currently require publishers to be US citizens with a tax number. If you're not a US citizen, you can get around this by publishing through Smashwords, which distributes your book to Apple, B&N and other retailers regardless of your citizenship. You can also sell directly from your website through a service like, which offers a shopping cart service for five dollars a month.

I was very impressed by this course. It's a comprehensive introduction to e-book publishing, starting with some background information and then going to a detailed walk-through of the publishing process. The course is comparable in quality to a Writer's Digest webinar, but at half the price and with roughly twice as much content. There's about two hours of video, and all the information is also written in a PDF file for quick reference.

The course is targeted to beginners and those fairly new to ebook publishing. If you're wondering whether you are at the right level to benefit, I've created a handy little quiz with a sampling of the topics covered.

1. What are the major e-book selling platforms, and which ones are most important to hit?
2. What are the pros and cons of different e-book pricing levels?
3. How do good ebook cover designs differ from good print cover designs?
4. How much does it cost to epublish? What parts should you do yourself, and what parts should you hire a professional for?
5. How do you deal with ebook piracy?

The course also includes two screen capture walk-through videos of the entire Amazon and Smashwords publishing process.

All in all, Ms Penn’s course is a thorough and comprehensive introduction to e-book publishing. I highly recommend it to anyone thinking about diving in. You can learn more about the course
at her website. (Links to The Creative Penn are affiliate links).

Have you ever published anything electronically, or are you thinking about taking the leap?

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In Which I Wax Philosophical on Narrative Distance, POV, and Voice

Note: Congratulations to Hektor for winning the signed copy of Bamboo People. I will be contacting you for your information.

A while back, Douglas Morrison was kind enough to interview me on his blog . An excerpt is below, and you can see the entire interview here.

Talk about how the mind interprets Point of View and narrative distance.

We are social animals, so our brains are wired to interact with other people. We are equipped with many tools to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. Some of these tools include facial expressions, body language, our understanding of the situation, etc. As writers then, our job is to replicate these cues so the reader knows what the characters are thinking and feeling. It's an interesting way to look at the “show don't tell” rule -- you could frame it instead as saying that a writer should use natural emotion cues rather than just telling the reader that little Johnny is sad.

One particularly challenging social task is figuring out what someone else is thinking when it's different from what you are thinking. For example, if someone stole your friend’s lunch while he wasn't looking, you know that the lunch is no longer in his lunch box, but your friend doesn't. Somehow, your brain has to keep those two ideas separate. It seems very easy now, but actually, children have a hard time with this type of task. And as a writer, I sometimes have trouble with more subtle variations on this. For example, if I'm not careful, my main character will start reacting to situations in ways that are more characteristic of my personality than hers.

In a number of my literary agent interviews, each has pointed to an increasing importance of a strong narrative voice. Any thoughts on narrative voice as it pertains to your field of expertise?

Livia: I took an introductory linguistics class during my early years as a grad student, and one interesting thing we learned was how everyone has their own unique dialect. We usually think about dialects as something shared by people of a certain region, but each individual person also has his own way of speaking, his preferred phrases and grammatical structures. On top of that, add a worldview, a past, and how that affects the way you see the world. Put it all together, and you have a strong narrative voice. Piece of cake, right?

Your Memory For Construction Workers Is Worse Than You Think (Unless You Are One)

I recently read Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, an eye-opening novel about child soldiers in modern-day Burma. It tells the story of two boys from different ethnic groups: Chiko, a Burmese boy forced into the Army, and Tu Reh, a Karenni boy whose family is driven from their home by Burmese soldiers. When chance events throw the two together, Chiko and Tu Reh get to know each other not as faceless enemies, but as people.

There's quite a bit of social psychology research on group identity, in-groups, and out-groups, but this story actually brought to mind some vision science experiments on a phenomenon called change blindness. The basic idea is that we notice a lot less than we think we do. For example, watch this video from psychologist Dan Simons.