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April 24, 2011

Rob Farquhar, Author's Brand

I had the idea of tracking down the Dilbert strip where Dogbert is about to offer Wally the "brand awareness" experience, but I've not read Dilbert in years, mainly because of the relentless cynicism. I know that the working environment that gave birth to Dilbert can't help but breed cynics, but that's part of the reason I got the hell out of Sydney.

Last post, I wrote about how every aspiring author, whether they decide to self-publish or not, needs to engage his or her prospective audience before said author queries an agent or publisher regarding his or her book.

This, according to the writing blogs I'm subscribed to, is where branding comes in. As I understand it, when my book appears with my name on it, my readers will asssociate my name with the kind of entertainment my book provides and will expect that any future books with my name on them will entertain in a similar way. That's my brand.

Not quite clear enough? Well, you know the name Stephen King, right? Wrote It, The Shining, Cujo, etcetera. You think Stephen King, you think horror, even if you've never read any of his books. It's the same way you think of Tim Tams, Monte Carlos and Milk Arrowroots when you think Arnott's, because the Arnott's brand means biscuits to you (if you're Australian).

Other examples of author brands that leap to mind are:

* Anne McCaffrey: Dragonriders, Psychics as Transport Service
* James Patterson: Fast-paced thrillers
* Kathy Reichs: Bones - okay, Forensic science crime novels
* George R. R. Martin: Not Your Bitch (ahem) gritty political fantasy

So, if I'm going to get serious about authoring, not just writing, then it behooves me to put some consideration into how I'm going to present myself to a potential buyer or group of buyers. Who am I writing for, aside form the obvious answer of "myself"? What sort of person is likely to buy Slamdance? How am I going to get that person's attention and how will I then get that person to trust that an Obi-Wan Roberti book is the entertainment he or she is looking for?

While I haven't finished the first draft of Slamdance yet, a couple of folks have assured me that it's never too early to be working brand-related matters out. Therefore in this post, I'm going to run through Joanna Penn's work-sheet on developing a brand:

1. How do you want to be known? What words do you want people to associate with you?
I want to be known as an entertaining author, a writer of light-hearted action books that crack along yet don't take themselves too seriously.

Words? Hmm. Okay, here's some random brainstorming: Fun, badass, high-tech, silly, humour, romance, action, cool, explosions, robots, toys, cyborgs, clones.

2. What are your goals for the next 3 years? What words are associated with that?
Here's the scary job interview question, and I don't quite get the second part of it, or at least how my answers generate words. Maybe I'm interpreting "goals" wrongly?
- Finish and publish Slamdance. Out, on the shelf.
- Write at least two sequels. Dedicated, deep, ongoing.
- Develop another - I hesitate to use the word, "franchise" but it's appropriate short-hand - franchise to write in. Diverse, Broad.
- Here's one thing I thought of ten minutes after the three points above: Make a steady income. Quality, Dependability, Professionalism.

3. Will your books be in a particular genre?
Yes. Slamdance is action science fiction, with a dash of urban fantasy. Urban SF?

4. Who do you admire and want to emulate in writing and also as a brand? Find their websites and keep screenprints of what you like and don’t like. Use them as a model (but obviously no plagiarism!)
This is a good one. Okay, straight up: Scott Sigler, Elizabeth Vaughan, Spider Robinson, David Gerrold, Anne McCaffrey. Breaking down their websites I'll leave for another post, though!

5. If you have a website already, enter it into Google Keyword tool. Are you happy with the keywords associated with your site? Do you need to change your focus?
Hm. The only result Google Keyword coughs up for my URL is Naftali Herstik, the cantor of the Jewish synagogue. Google finds my host's last name, Herstik, more of an identifier to than any of my content. Time to get my own top-level domain name, perhaps?

6. What images do you want associated with you and your brand?
Hm. Joanna, do you mean "images" literally here - i.e. pictures - or do you mean it as a metaphor? If we're talking pictures, well, Michael Zacher's pic of Slamdance is something I definitely want associated with my brand - although it is rather static...

So, I guess my brand is fun action SF featuring lots of cool science-fiction-y toys.

How do I then "deploy" that brand? Now, there's a good question; one deserving a post of its own...

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

Have you put any thought into how to present yourself online?

April 16, 2011

If I'm Going To Self-Market, Should I Also Self-Publish?

A couple of days ago, I was sitting in the lunch room at work with notepad and furrowed brow. The manager of the digital department comes in and asks me what I'm doing, and I tell him that I'm brainstorming for the novel I'm working on.

His immediate response was, "Self-publishing, of course?"

It's a funny thing. Ever since I Googled for tips on writing an outline, I've been filling my subscription manager with feeds from the blogs of authors and editors, and the topic they all frequently discuss is self-publishing. It really does seem as though folks who are keen on writing books aren't just using the Web to get themselves out there. They're bypassing the grind of querying publishers and waiting another two years before their book sees print.

How? By converting their texts into e-reader-compatible formats and selling via sites like Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords, who allow literally anybody to upload works to their sites for sale at zero charge.

Sounds easy, right? Well, letting you upload your text is absolutely all Amazon or Smashwords will do for you: Upload your files and make them availabe for sale. Everything else - literally everything else, from promotion to marketing to cover art to ensuring the manuscript format is right for Kindle or PDF to choosing price point - is down to you.

There, wrote the Bard, is the rub. The price an aspiring self-pub author must pay to bypass the traditional publishing grind (query letters, rejection slips, publisher-requested rewrites, title changes, etcetera) is either take on the jobs that the publishing houses handle - editing, cover art design, laying out, building buzz, etcetera - or outsource them to professionals, which costs money that the publishing house would otherwise pay.

But here's the interesting thing. Thanks to most creatively-minded people having access to a keyboard and a word processor, the size of the average publishing house's slush pile is getting outlandish. A good example is the result of Angry Robot Books opening their doors to unsolicited manuscripts in March; according to manager / editor Lee Harris, the event netted them over 700 manuscripts, of which roughly four were both publish-worthy and a fit for AR's brand (although that figure's not final).

The upshot is that publishers are now cutting their slush piles by offloading the marketing work back onto authors: If your query letter to a publisher doesn't include a website via which you're actively building buzz for yourself, your brand and/or your upcoming book - thereby giving the publisher a pre-built audience whom they know will plonk down cash for a paperback - you can expect a response of "come back when you've made yourself popular".

Therefore, quite understandably, some authors are asking themselves, "Well, if I have to put my time and/or money market my product myself, why don't I publish it myself anyway?"

As I'm aspiring to published writerhood, that's a question I've got to ask myself too.

I've been reading a lot of blog posts by authors actively pursuing this avenue, and they're more than willing to share how they went about it. It looks like serious work, but maybe not as much of a slog as it was for pioneers of self-publishing like Scott Sigler. And, as anyone keeping up with the recent saga over indie author Amanda Hocking's six-figure deal with a major house will know, there's nothing to stop me selling later works to a publisher down the track.

Still, this is something I can't approach lightly.

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

Are you publishing a work yourself? How is it working out out?

Are you in the midst of shopping a work through a more traditional route? How are you finding it?

April 08, 2011

The First Step

You know, the way the word "journey" gets bandied about so much nowadays is a pet peeve of mine. Yet... Have you ever had the feeling that you've actually started something? That, while the real work is still to come, you've taken that single step and the proverbial thousand mile journey Has Now Started? I've been feeling like that for the last couple of days. The last time I remember feeling like this was when I decided to put my suit to a certain lady in Cairns ten years ago.

On the 2nd of April, I posted that I'd been wrestling with applying Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method for engineering (yep, engineering) a novel outline to Slamdance. I kept getting stuck at Steps 1 and 2. I'd think of a one-sentence summary of the plot, but then I'd hit a wall when I tried to expand it out into a paragraph summarising the novel's set-up, three acts and ending. It was those three acts - or three disasters that befall the hero - that I had trouble with. I couldn't come up with more than one or two that fit the one-line summary I'd written, and I was never one hundred percent comfortable with those I had thought up.

I'd made the mistake (?) of putting ten minutes in on our cross-trainer on Monday evening; I found myself awake at three AM Tuesday (shame it wasn't Wednesday), brain churning an idea over. Half an hour later I gave up on sleep, parked myself in front of the computer, started Scrivener, turned my idea into a ten-heading outline and commenced Chapter 1.

I've worked on Slamdance before, of course, but on that morning I felt as though I'd made that first step that starts The Journey; I'd really started Working On A Novel.

I gave that Snowflake Method another go on Wednesday and Thursday before putting it down; no matter what I tried I simply wasn't happy with the results. But I don't feel as though I've taken a backward step or wasted that early morning; there were some good ideas in that outline that I might still use, and even if not, I feel as though I've actually learned something about my own way of writing.

After my abortive experiment, my current plan is to Just Write The First Draft and use it as an outline. So far, I've got 16,026 words in five chapters. If I'm shooting for 80,000, that leaves me 64,974. In order to hit this goal soon, I'm going to shoot for 7,000 words per week, at which rate I will hit 80,000 words in just over nine weeks. I reckon I can do it; I managed to win NaNoWriMo with four days to spare doing over 11,000 words per week.

While 7,000 would logically break down into 1,000 words per day, I want a couple of days' break in the weekly schedule so my brain can relax (and my wife doesn't become a writing widow). Therefore, I'm setting a five-days-of-seven target of 1,500; that'll give me a little extra if I nail it and some buffer for the days off. This might seem hefty but I know I can write 750 words in around half an hour; if I do it twice a day, I've hit my goal.

They might still be baby steps, but they're steps, nonetheless - movement - and by Jove, do they feel good.

But Enough About Me, Gentle Readers: What About You?

Have you made a start on a big project recently? Did you know what the end was going to look like? Did you know how you were going to reach the end?

Have you finished a big project recently? Did it turn out the way you thought it was going to at the beginning?
- If so, did you have a plan? How did you stick to it?
- If not, what changed? do you feel the end result was better than what you were expecting at the start?

Are you in the middle of something big right now? Can you see the light at the end of the tunnel? How've you found the work so far?

April 03, 2011

Sunday Diary Scan: Reading About Writing

Good evening all – good late evening, I should say – and welcome to Diary Scan #4! I think these have been working out well so far, especially when Vickie and I have been busy. Last week was a little on the ho-hum side, though; I'll just have to stay more busy!

On Tuesday, Un-United played the first official match of the current indoor season against a team called Hapless Tribe. As team captain I ought to sue the Tribe for misleading advertising in their team name; that was a real slog of a match (then again, our team is Un-United, so maybe the pot'd just be litigating the kettle). The first quarter closed with them leading five goals to two. We fought our way back and managed to claw a one-goal lead a couple of times, but they pulled ahead of us again in the closing seconds of the last quarter. Thankfully we equalised at the end for a nine-all draw! A great match and I was happy to shake their hands once it was done.

I tend to say of the teams that give us a run for our money that they're quick and nimble, but Hapless Tribe really put the quick into quick; they went from zero to sprint in a heartbeat, intercepting passes even when the ball was almost with one of us. A white T-shirted player would cross the field and get between the ball and our player and either hand it off to one of his or her own or dash it back toward our goal.

As mentioned in my last posting, this week wasn't great for writing. I wound up doing more brainstorming than writing. I still need to do some, but as it's looking like Slamdance is going to be a bit more character driven, I think I need to work on my character profiles more than the plot.

Or maybe I just need quit over-thinking this, stuff the outline, accept that my first draft is going to be crap no matter what and discovery-write it. After all, you can't cut or polish a diamond before you've dug it out of the ground.

In the meantime I subscribed to a bunch of writing blogs whose authors cover all sorts of
topics from getting the first draft written to the current state of self-publishing. The main thing I was looking for, though, was a guide to how much of your novel you can get away with talking about. A quick Twitter conversation with Aussie writer Joanna Penn (you can find her at www.thecreativepenn.com) set me straight on that matter and I sat on my hands until the urge to blog about the contents of my outline thus far passed.

I've also got to be careful of the urge to sit and read blog posts instead of getting on with writing. I signed up to the RSS feeds of ten blogs and my feed manager downloaded the last ten posts for each. Every one of them was interesting and written well. If I keep this up I'll wind up in the same spot I was with tabletop roleplaying games; reading all about them and never actually playing. And as I don't need a table of players to write, I won't have an excuse anywhere near as good...

On a related yet technical note, I wound up trading Brief, my Firefox add-in feed manager, for Google Reader. While I liked Brief I had no way of syncing the version on my desktop with the one on my netbook; Google Reader, being online, is always up-to-date on what I've read or marked to keep.

I also downloaded Evernote at Marcus' suggestion and have been impressed so far. Very handy for managing the small stuff.

Friday, of course, was the dreaded April 1st. I got pwn3d by my fellow admin Katrina within minutes of her arrival at work. I gotta come up with a decent prank for next year... As a couple of my colleagues had birthdays over the weekend, Friday was also cake day, and we wound up with plenty of nibblies left after the morning tea was done - after the junk food fest at last week's parties, my face finally rebelled over the weekend in clusters of zits! Ergh!

Yesterday was April's Tropical Writers Group meeting, which was good as always. The group is gearing up for this year's anthology, and I've got a month or two to come up with something to submit. By the way, the Group also has a new website thanks to the hard work of Talitha Kalago! Please go and take a look!

Finally, Vickie and I headed out to shop today. We took a look at those e-readers I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. They were all fairly low end units around $150. The best of the bunch was an iriver, but it was telling that none of the controls on any of them worked. I wanted to show Vickie the screen blink phenomenon I mentioned last time but instead got to show her how dodgy they were overall. If I wind up with enough spare cash for an e-reader, I think I'll be going with a Kindle, Kobo or Sony Reader (thanks for your recommendations, folks).

Vickie was impressed with the iPad, though; I'm starting to think that instead of a netbook, I should have kept her Toshiba laptop where it was and bought her an iPad instead! Yet another reason to become a successful author...

But Enough About Me, Loyal Readers: What About You?
- How did you fare on the annual Day of Hilarity? Did you get to Fool someone? Did anyone zing you? As it fell on a Friday, did any workplace hijinks ensure?
- Here's a couple for all you creatives out there. If my experience is in any way representative, there must be a lot of you who have the sudden urge to tell the world when the muse strikes and you've had a Great Idea. How do you fight that "I wanna show my work off now!" itch when you're just starting on your work? Have you ever given folks early teasers?

April 02, 2011

Writing Issues: Projects, Outlines and Notes

This is a bit scary to write. I'm not new to blogging or (necessarily) writing, but I'm sort of new to blogging about writing, especially about writing a novel, which I'm also new to. Am I inadvertently giving away some behind-the-curtain stuff here? Should I only be talking about my work and how I'm doing it once I'm done?

Stuff it. I'm holding my nose and going into the deep end.

If you've been keeping an eye on my front page, you'll probably have noticed that my DBTC calendar tracking my 1,000 Words per Day goal has taken a hit again. After building a seven-day chain up, I broke it on Saturday the 26th and only restarted it with this article.

I have been doing writing-related work in the meantime, mainly trying to build an outline for my first Slamdance novel. That's part of the reason why I broke the chain. I've been writing bits and pieces of scenes in the week before, but I don't have a plan for where they'll fit – or even if they'll fit at all into the final novel. That's why I want to put an outline together before I get stuck into writing; I can figure out the ending and the characters and actions I'll need to get the story there. The outline I prepared for The Second War of the Worlds was a huge help in getting the rough draft written, and I'd really like to have one for Slamdance.

The problem is, The Second War of the Worlds had an easy conflict – the Martians invade again – and I knew how I wanted to resolve it. Slamdance, as it turns out, is a trickier beast. I have an overall arc in mind and I know how it will end but I feel as though the arc is going to take at least a couple of books to play out. In the meantime I need other challenges to confront Slamdance and his friends with. That was where I hit the wall. I didn't have any idea of a main conflict as obvious or clear cut as the one for my NaNoWriMo book.

I reckoned that a resource on creating an outline would likely address the problem of coming up with a conflict, so I did a little Googling and found a web page for a technique called the Snowflake Method. I read it over and liked how it seemed to work, then tried it – but I'm yet to get past Stage 2. I kept trying to work up a specific threat or challenge for Slamdance to tackle and the results of my two tilts at Stage 1 just didn't cut it; the first one summed the whole broader arc up and I'd have to cram a lot of stuff up into one book to finish it, while the second was more dark in tone than I want and required an investigation plot which I'm not keen on writing.

I talked with Vickie on Thursday night about what sort of enemy I should give Slamdance and spelled out some of my ideas. She wanted to know why I was going so dark with my ideas when I had a perfectly good core of a story with just Slamdance and his friends. I replied that I couldn't just have a story with an eight-foot cyborg warrior pal-ing around with a Westie mechanic and a blogger in a junkyard.

Vickie asked me, “Why not?”

Blink.

Yesterday lunchtime, during another brainstorming session, I went back to step one of the Snowflake Method: Come up with a fifteen-word-or-less single sentence summary of the novel. Part of me worries now that it's too high concept, but at the time it was the first summary I honestly felt good about. I even giggled a bit. (Writing a cool idea – as good as exercise for endorphins.) I found it had everything I really wanted out of Slamdance since I wrote the first stories over a decade ago. While Slamdance's story isn't going to be all happy – he has those pesky Wolverine blades and although he hates using them it's my job to keep giving him good reasons to – I still want to throw in all those silly moments that run through my head when I think of him and his friends.

The next step is to take that single sentence and inflate it into a paragraph summary, and I'll get to that this weekend (between trips out, mowing the lawn and other general house and yard work). In the meantime, though, I thought I'd make an appeal for advice.

One thing I've always tried to do is carry a notebook around with me so I can scribble down ideas as they come to me, whether they're a concept for a scene or a chunk of dialogue. My main problem is processing that notebook; transcribing my notes so that I can get to them easily. I have a few Word documents, but they're not really all that good for tracking individual ideas; I might as well build a warehouse and fill it with lots of crates stamped only with a general category.

Do any of you know of a program or other method with which I can organise these little idea nuggets? A physical card file doesn't exactly work, because a single “nugget” could be filed in multiple places, like each of the characters speaking, the subject matter, the context. I keep thinking of some way of tagging each nugget with multiple tags which I can easily search. Do you use or know of anything that does this?

Now to the last topic I wanted to address in this blog post. As I mentioned both above and in my last Sunday Diary Scan, I wound up breaking a seven day writing chain on Saturday, March 26th. As I explained, I did so because I wanted to leave off writing Slamdance Book 1 until I had an outline ready to go. That's a situation I don't want to wind up in again, though, where if one project stalls in terms of writing output I don't have any others to keep my hands busy (no laughing up the back).

I need to get at least two other projects on the way; I'd like to nominate the blog as one of them, but I'm a little hesitant to do so; I'm not sure what material other than the Sunday Diary Scans and Music Mondays (of which I've only done one so far) I can use as grist for the blogging mill. Do I open up more of my work on Slamdance in the name of blogging “my journey as a novice novelist”?

Therefore, I need one or two more - maybe “works” is the wrong word – lines, that'll do, lines of fiction work that I can do when Slamdance gets a bit much or I suddenly (gasp!) finish the first draft. Thankfully, I have some resources that I can turn to, like the book The Naming of the World that Vickie encouraged me to buy last year and the weekly writing prompts that the lads of the Writing Excuses podcast end their weekly shows with. I think I just need to master the practice of quickly turning a prompt into a short outline that I can use to write a story.

Heck, I just have to do something with the most recent one, which was – where is it again? Ah:

Write an action sequence that you can appropriately title “Flaming Slapfight.”

Now, are you suddenly minding Bridget Jones and the Edge of Reason or is it just me?