Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How to Get the Tears

Have you ever heard "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader". It is part of a quote from Robert Frost. The sentence is followed by "No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

The quote goes in two directions - Robert Frost later elaborated, that he also referred to the hard work a writer has to put into his work; tears, like in "blood, sweat and tears".

However, in this blog post I want to go into the more common interpretation, that without the feelings in the writer, there wouldn't be feelings in the reader. As a writer, you need to be able to feel what you write, love, fear, anger. But how can you write about extreme emotions? So, you are not allowed to write about them. Well, there are multiple ways to understand emotions.

 Mending a Broken Heart by Nicolas Raymond
Mending a Broken Heart by Nicolas Raymond (photo from Flickr) 

Most of us experience a variety of emotions throughout childhood, adolescence and later in live, being loved and cherished, falling in love, anger etc. When writing about these emotions, it should not be too difficult to recall them. I am usually so into my story, that the emotions come automatically. If not, you can try to concentrate on certain events or moments in life where you remember these emotions to be very strong. That might help.

I know that sounds so easy now, but usually it is. However, there might be situations which are more difficult, for example when you grieve for someone, when you just had a fight with loved ones or simply when you are anyways stressed out and just got another deadline on your calendar. The only way to get through that is to sit down and write. Either you try to write the scene, knowing you might have to rewrite it (actually, you might even like the undertone of how you wrote it). Or, you write something different and come back later to this scene. It all depends on what works better for you.

Having said all that, there are emotions that are more difficult to recall, such as guilt, shame, envy, schadenfreude, angst etc. They are difficult to recall because we usually try to hide them from ourselves. Myself, I remember some of them and I don't like to recall them. On the other side I know that my writing becomes so much stronger when I do so... no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

If you are not sure how an emotion feels that you want to write about, it actually doesn't matter if you did not have this emotion yet in the magnitude you would like to write about it or you simply haven't been able to recall it. In that case, you can try to use surrogate techniques such as observation or empathy.

Observation and Empathy
Watching people live, on video or in movies can be a good surrogate to see emotions. Observing their reaction and trying to feel them, can help your writing. 

Examples? Here you go: 

  • Watch the Lovabull proposal on Youtube. The cheerleader is surprised at the beginning and she knows something is on, but she maintains a professional manner. She knows she is on stage. The moment when she realized what it is, she laughs and then she is overwhelmed for ten seconds until she regains control. Try to catch that moment and feel what she might feel. 
  • In The Patriot, watch the scene when Mel Gibson as Benjamin Marin loses his faith after his second son Gabriel died. Don't listen to what he says, just watch him. He can barely breath.
  • Another movie example is Falling Down with Michael Douglas. Can you follow him the moment, when it clicks? He gets out of the car and tries to escape, but he's not there yet. He tries to see his children and gets rejected, but he's still not there yet. Very slowly he pushes the limits further until there is no way back.
  • There are also examples in real live. Have you ever watched a couple fight in a restaurant - this mixture of suppression of anger together with sudden small outbursts. Can you feel how the chest is always under pressure, when they talk. In private they would probably fight with a rapier or a broadsword, but in public they fight with a needle. 

Don't get me wrong here - I don't want you to copy these feelings, but to understand them in order to be able to produce characters that express them. You need to understand the underlying emotion and realize what it can cause when it gets extrapolated and the controlling mechanisms are taken away.

Your writer in a foreign land

The Ideal Length of Books - Then, Now and Tomorrow

Last week I confessed that my first drafts are too short. With 30'000 words, they are a kind of bare bones drafts or extended plots. However, is 30'000 really too short? How long should a novel be? Well, it depends...

The Traditional View
If you google "book word count" you get tons of links. Scrolling through them, the answer to the question for the ideal novel length isn't an easy one.

Based on Wikipedia a novel is between 60 and 80'000 words, while thrillers might get up to 100'000 words. For NaNoWriMo it is more than 50'000 words and for the Nebula award over 40'000 words. A blog post from Writer's Digest from 2012 differentiates between clients and different genres. Middle grade is around 30'000, Young Adult around 40'000 and an adult novel around 80'000 words. On the upper end, the spectrum reaches 115'000 words for Sci-Fi and Fantansy.

But why all these rules? A blog post from Harvey Chapman on novel writing help gives a hint: Publishing Industry standards.  It seems that these numbers are a sweet spot for print books:
  • "Thin novels might be cheaper to produce, but book buyers won't feel that they are receiving their money's worth - a 150-page book does not sell for half the price of a 300-page book.
  • Thick novels will be more expensive to print, meaning more units will have to be sold to reach the same amount of profit - 600-page novels are not twice the price of those of 300 pages."

I get it - it's an industry standard that has evolved out of year long experience. Still, it has changed over time adopting new technologies as well as the overall market demand. Based on a blog post from Charlie Stross on his diary. SF book length evolved from somewhere around 50'000 in the 1930ies due to the weekly magazine style via 70'000 words in the 1960ies to the current size of 115'000 words. The blog post suggests, that the inflation between the 1970ies and the 1980ies triggered also a demand in thicker books (i.E. customers would accept higher prices much more if they also see that they get more).
You get a similar result looking at the average word count of famous novels:
  • The Crying of Lot 49: 46,573 words
  • Slaughterhouse-Five: 47,192 words
  • Lord of the Flies: 62,481 words
  • Brave New World: 64,531 words
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: 70,570 words
  • Lolita: 112,473 words
  • Madame Bovary: 117,963 words
  • Moby-Dick: 209,117 words
  • East of Eden: 226,741 words

The average word count on Amazon is about 64'000 words. Given a bell shape curve, Animal Farm with 29,966 words and War and Peace with 544'406 words seem to be the tail end.
The Indie View
Again, technology triggers a change. E-books and new distribution channels enabled the indie revolution. A writer can publish a book with 30'000 words via KDP - no industry standards, no restrictions.

Even the main argument from the publishing industry with readers expecting a certain numbers of pages to justify a certain price is not relevant anymore. With an e-book price of maximal $2.99 and a book without visible size the number of words is secondary as selling point. And even if we translate this back into the printed world, with print-on-demand, the cost to have smaller books is affordable to a writer.

However, there is the craft-vs-the-money trap again. Writers might tend to write shorter novels in order to be able to produce more books and hence, sell more books. Nothing wrong with that, but less words should mean less characters and subplots, not flat characters or lousy subplots. A shorter story needs to be less complex. Exceptions apply, however, I would go with this as a general rule.

The Outlook
So far, we looked at the impact of production and cost on the lenght of books, but we haven't factored in the demand side of the equation. What do reader want and how is the reading behaviour changing the landscape.
I don't know. I don't have a crystal ball, will say I don't have empiric data to underline an analysis. However, I do have an opinion based on observation.
I think, there will two different kind of reading behaviour, one that is time spent on reading for the purpose of reading and the other one is reading as a gap filler. I love to dive into a good strory and read for hours and I don't care if I have a physical book of 500 pages. It's the rainy-day-cozy-sofa-and-coffee reading. On the other side I have a commute of 45 minutes twice every day and I see a lot of my fellow commuters reading with their e-readers or smartphones. Now think of yourself, if you  have 45 minutes time, how far do you get. Additionally, if you have only 45 minutes you will be much less patient to read through non-action scenes as if you are deep in the story on a  rainy-day-cozy-sofa-and-coffee. You will scan these pages until you get to the next action scene.
You see, it's a different reading and I predict, that there will be a growing market for shorter novels, maybe even serials, and longer books will adapt in a way to be digestable in 45 minutes.

At least in the next decade - for everything beyond I would definitely need a crystal ball.

Happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Discovery Writer Reloaded

I am still rewriting my story and simultaneously translating it from German to English. Remember? I am glad I decided to do this. 

When I started I assumed that I would be able to improve the story, but I couldn't imagine how much I have to fix. Not plot-wise, but with regards to storytelling. I had far too much telling in it and not remotely enough showing. Additionally, some characters needed development in order to keep up with their assignment.

However, I realized there is another angle to it, that I wasn't aware before. I already knew that I am an inbetweener, something between plotter and discovery writer, and that I develop the plot during the breaks in the middle of the story. Going back through stories I wrote so far, I noticed that my first drafts always tend to be very short. I mean really short. 

I write my first drafts in a kind bare bones approach. Of course, there are side tracks and various characters, but outside the main characters and the central plot they are flat and colorless. It's the bare minimum to tell the story. 

You could also call it an extensive plot.

Please don't misunderstand me, there's nothing wrong with this approach. It simply means more work during the rewriting phase. It's a little like painting - first you do a sketch with a pencil and afterwards you color it. An then again it also means further backload the work. 

How it works out? See for your self, how the first lines evolved: 

"He had heard about the death sentence years ago on one of these old pirate radio stations. He knew this would be his last day. The night had already fallen and there was only a small sickle of purple left on the horizon. He had noticed the lights a while ago. Like fireflies they were crawling down the hill on the other side of the lake.

"Here they come. You are late guys, years late. Even for Argentinian benchmarks, you are late." 

His chuckle turned into a cough."

Not yet there, but a whole better than the first draft.

Happy rewriting
Your writer in a foreign land

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Third Hat: Marketing and Sales

As a writer you need two hats. One is for writing, where you should limit your thoughts on such profane things like grammar or the perfect word. Everything you write is good the way it is. The other one is for editing. With that one on, nothing is good enough. It has a built-in adverb-adar. At least that's what I thought so far.

Well, there is a third one which is for marketing and sales. Wait a minute, I hear you say. That's my publisher's and the bookstore's job. You are right and if you feel, you are in good hands and you'd rather focus on writing, you can stop reading now and go writing. However, even if you are with a traditional publisher, marketing and sales will become an increasingly important part of a writer's life. A writer will become more and more an entrepreneur, with all upsides and downsides. So, let's get started with some basics and then climb up the tree to the fruits. 

Marketing vs Sales
In a nutshell, Marketing is the planning side of how to sell your books, sales is the moves and measures to increase the number of sold books. With other words, marketing is strategic, sales is tactical. 

There are several concepts in marketing, from the 4P-model, that evolved into the 7P-model, via AIDA (Attraction-Interest-Desire-Action) to the design school model that largely bases on the SWOT analysis, and you can be sure that this is not the end of the story. Technological and social change continuously impact the different models, but ultimately they still circle around the same fundamentals. 
Following, I'll use the 4-P model (marketing plan) to make my point.

The core of the product is given, will say not depending on marketing. You hear it from all sides - write what you love. Don't write for the market. Next to all the creativity arguments there is a strong marketing argument; due to the identification and production lag your book will hit the market with thousands of others that tried the same. 

However, there are things around product you have to decide and which have an impact on the other P's and vice-versa. Print and e-books have different needs for place and different price tags. The book cover is probably the same for the front, but the spine and the back give you an additional option for print books. 

I can only scratch some dimensions here; there are a lot of decisions to be made, including font and title and I haven't even started with the audiobook angle.

Which are your distribution channels? Amazon/KDP, Kobo or you own webpage? You could also select print on demand and try to get into some local bookstores. Ultimately it all boils down to how easy it will be for a potential customer to buy as soon as he decided to - the link between desire and action in the AIDA-formula.

I already talked about price points and price elasticity in my last blog post and in April I re-blogged a post by David Gaughran about e-book pricing. However, outside the direct impact of pricing on sales, there is a psychological component to it.

A book is a typical experience good. Despite sneak peeks, book covers and reviews, a reader knows its value only after he read it. As a consequence he attributes value through various indicators, including price. In general, an e-book for 2.99 is perceived to provide a higher value than a book for 0.99. 

Last but least, giving away an e-book for free might provide you with an increased e-mail list, but you also have to be aware that free stuff might also transmit the underlying message of no value. One way to get around this could be to label the e-book 1.99 and offer it for free if signing up for a newsletter, but we are already getting into sales here.

Promotion is all about information, i.e. how do my potential customers know about my product. For books, this is the most crucial part of the marketing mix, because it has a direct link to the number of sales. The more people notice your book (attraction), the more will request more information, the more will have the desire to buy it.

In this sense, notice does not only mean see, but also be open for it or expect it. When you are not open for a message, you perceive it as spam (products offered via Facebook, unwanted e-mail offers or buy my book-tweets). On the other side they are open when they expect a message, e.g. in a newsletter or information about the progress of your new book on facebook or twitter. 

In a second step, they should have valuable information available at hand. At best, there is a seamless handover between noticing, information and the ability to purchase and receive the product as fast as possible.

Last but not least, don't forget to track the success of your promotions. Only that way you can improve the success and with the possibility of the digital media it isn't even difficult. A simple way would be to use specific links that allows the tracking of each campaign.


Sales campaigns are temporary adjustments to the marketing mix in order to increase sales. Usually it includes a promotion combined with a price reduction or a value add. You could for example offer your book for a special week with a discount or offer two book at the price of one. In addition, you have to tell the world in one or the other way (newsletter, fellow blogger/podcaster). BookBub is a typical sales campaign. 

Product as well as place might change too, but not necessarily. Offering a signed copy is a change to the product and a sales campaign during a book signing is a change to place.

You have almost limitless options and combinations - some work better, some don't. I'm following The Creative Penn podcast and the Sell more Books podcast and I'm always astonished about their tips and ideas.

Portfolio Management
As soon as you have a second book out, you can start thinking about portfolio management. Again, there is no right or wrong. However, different combinations have different advantages. Spreading your stories over different online channels might reduce the cluster risk, but it also dilutes sales. Offering some stories on KDP and others on Kindle unlimited gives you different type of income streams, you can even think of grandfathering stories on Kindle unlimited or writing a Kindle unlimited series. Again, sky is the limit.

But why do you tell me all this?
Often, when I read blog posts or listen to podcasts, the terms and ideas are mixed up. Promotion is called marketing and then the article is about sales activities, or in another example the place and product are completely ignored and it is all about getting your name out.

Marketing is much more; a strategic way of thinking in order to generate optimal revenues and sales campaigns are tactical ways to boost sales in a given timeframe.

The moment all i's are dotted and all t's are crosed, the details of the market introduction should be defined and the promotion should already have started. However, it should be a well thought-out decision rather than just the way the author always did it. And after it is published, the author has to change the hat and stay on top of it - keep the ball rolling. Then it's time for thought-out sales campaigns.

Happy selling or should I say happy marketing
Your writer in a foreign land