Back Story – When do you use it? How much should you use? Is it necessary?

Here is an oldie but goodie that I thought I would re-post with some updates:


My blog this week expands on a concept that appeared as a tip in an earlier blog. That tip focused on removing writing that was unnecessary. When I completed my first book, I tried to make sure that all of my characters were fully developed. I created biographies for each of them using templates that I found on the Internet. These templates included sections for physical attributes, motivations, character traits, family background and other biographical details.

In my Frank Rozzani Detective Series, the main character has events in his back story that motivate who he is in the present time. These events pushed him into his career as a private detective and forced him to relocate. My first draft of the book had two full chapters devoted to Frank’s back story. I thought that readers would want all of this rich detail about his former life in Syracuse, NY along with his family history and the tragic events that brought him to the present day in the story. I incorporated this as a flashback. I was excited about it and sent it off to my editor.

When I received my editor’s comments, she slashed nearly all of the flashback chapters from the book. She said that it was all unnecessary and that I should be more stingy with the back story and spread it out throughout this book and the ones that would follow. It was a blow to my ego at first, but in hindsight, she was absolutely right.

After this eureka moment, I started looking at the way other writers used back story in their work. Some of them, like John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard use back story very sparingly and only reveal details when they are relevant to the current story. Others like Dean Koontz and, in some instances, Stephen King, use back story to develop their characters into living and breathing people full of complexity. I wanted to land somewhere in the middle and I think, with my first book, and to a greater degree, my second book, I have succeeded somewhat.

Have I mastered the use of back story? Absolutely not. I don’t think, as writers, we ever truly perfect any aspect of our writing. I thought, however, that I would post some tips that I use and that might help you as you look for balance in sharing character background information in your work.

flashback

1) Use the flash back technique sparingly: Unless you are writing a book about time travel, you can really confuse your reader by jumping back and forth in your book. If your reader starts to wonder where and when the story is taking place, you might lose them. If you must use flash back, consider doing it in short doses, such as in a character’s dream. If you have to devote a chapter to it, be certain that the details are relevant to the story.

conversation

2) Consider giving past information as part of a conversation: This technique might involve a character telling their story to another character as part of a conversation. You want to avoid long monologues by your main character. You should try to make the reveal of the back story more of an interactive scene between the characters.

background

3) Incorporate portions of background details as a summary: Many authors use this technique to indicate what has happened in the past. They will reveal details in the character’s background with single sentences.  Here is an example:

“As an attorney, John vigorously went after cigarette manufacturers. He wanted nothing more than to be victorious in cases against them while securing high punitive damages for his clients. This passion was fueled by the deaths of both of his parents from lung cancer.”

believe4) Make the back story believable and realistic: As an author, you should think out the main points of your main characters’  back story. Don’t invent events just to suit your story. The back story should be grounded in some type of reality. You can’t have your character defeat their enemy with a complex form of martial arts if studying the techniques do not make sense in the characters background. Maybe he or she was in special forces or spent time in Asia.

need-to-know-gif

5) Create a situation where the information needs to be known: In my first book, Frankly Speaking, the main character is single and is being pursued by a beautiful, successful woman. Despite her obvious hints, he resists her. When things finally come to a head, he reveals the details of his wife’s murder to her and explains his reluctance to get into a new relationship. This is a case where the reader was aware of some of the details, but other characters were not.

I hope that these tips about back story were helpful to you. I learn more about the different methods to reveal character background details as I read more and apply the techniques that I’ve learned to my own writing. Those things that motivate your characters might be the things that keep your readers interested, especially if you have multiple works that feature the same cast of characters.

 

Indie Authors – What is your toughest challenge? Part I of an ongoing series

As an author, there are significant challenges. Finding original ideas and turning them into something interesting is a significant challenge. If you are a traditionally published author, you have to not only find an idea that interests you, but it has to interest your publisher as something marketable and viable so that they can make money. You also have to please your agent so that they will push your work on a publisher.

As an independent author, coming up with ideas, in my opinion, is the smallest hurdle to be faced. Because we are independent, we are free to publish whatever interests us and then take that work directly to the readers. One thing that indie authors discover quickly through social media, there are niche reader markets for just about every genre you can think of. If you like to right paranormal zombie western romance erotica, there will be a group that will read it.

My own genre, private investigator mysteries, seems to appeal to readers of a certain ‘seasoned’ age. That’s fine with me. I will join that demographic in the next ten years or so and these retiring baby boomers have time to read and money to buy books.

I deviated from this genre for my terrorism thriller, Blood Orange, and found that, indeed, the demographics of the readers that favored this book changed. This is something that, as an independent author, I believe you can get away with by searching out the appropriate niche for your writing.

After landing on what genre you want to write in, there are many other challenges that the independent author faces. Becoming known is a significant challenge. When I first started out, I put my first book on Amazon and hoped for the best. My friends and family bought some and posted some reviews.

At this early stage, I got some help from a self-proclaimed expert promoter of independent authors. I did get some traction from some of the things that this person helped me with. Interviews and reviews appeared on various blogs. I was interviewed on a podcast, and slowly but surely, my exposure grew a bit.

I soon found that the techniques that this person was using to help me gain exposure were easily achievable on my own. I gradually started to take these things on and found that my reader base continued to grow steadily.

Getting good, constructive reviews on Amazon and other platforms is a great start. It can be a slow process, however, building up a collection of reviews. One technique that helps is offering your book for free over a weekend. During my first giveaway, I had over 1,000 copies of my first book downloaded and I saw the reviews begin to grow. With the reviews came additional readers.

I want to make this blog post the first in a series that deals with the challenges that we face as indie authors. What I need are your ideas and feedback regarding the challenges that you’ve faced. One thing I learned early on is that I am not competing with my fellow indie authors. We are all in this together and can learn from each other.

So, let’s help each other. Let’s share challenges and ideas so we can grow as a community.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

 

Am I a Real Author?

When I jumped into the indie author scene, it was a calculated risk. Like I do with a lot of decisions, I looked at the pros and cons.

Pros:

  • There are a number of platforms that are easy to publish your work on for little or no cost (Amazon, Nook, Smashwords, etc.).
  • The royalties for sales are pretty decent. If you price a book on Amazon over $2.99, for instance, you will get 70% of what you sell.
  • You can write at your own pace in whatever style you want.
  • You can directly interact with your readers through many vehicles (blogs, mailing, lists, social media, author signing events).
  • There is a fairly organized community of independent authors and you can learn from others and help others that are just getting started.
  • My writing would be judged directly by the readers and not some low-on-the-totem-pole publishing house employee looking for the flavor of the month.
  • Trend-setters like Hugh Howey and Mark Dawson are putting independent authors on the map ranking higher than some traditional best-selling authors.
  • You have creative control over everything! You can select your own cover, hire an editor (or not), title your book, and write in whatever genre you want to.

Cons:

  • Just like with the indie music world, there is a lot of variety out there. There is also good and bad. The key component that differentiates here is quality. Poor spelling, grammar, and formatting occurs at a much higher frequency in the work of indie authors.
  • Getting recognized is hard work. There is no publishing house promoting your book, issuing press releases, and setting up interviews. You are your own social media and blogger.
  • You have creative control over everything! There is no one to point out if the emperor is not wearing clothes. There are no focus groups to select your cover for you or advise you on a title or a genre to write in. You are it.

Obviously, the pros outweighed the cons for me. The main factor was my age. Becoming a novelist after age 50 is daunting enough without the rejection letters and constant queries to publishing houses that don’t want unproven ‘seasoned’ authors. I wanted to get my writing out there and let the readers tell me if it stunk or not. Of course, my first reader was my wife of 30 years. I knew that she would not ‘blow smoke’ if she didn’t like my writing. She liked the first book and that gave me the confidence to move to the next step.

I hired a very intelligent, long-time friend of mine to be my editor. When I say ‘hired’, that’s a bit of a stretch. She edited the book for free with the promise of whatever I could pay her as the book made profits. I knew that, as a friend, this wouldn’t just be a job for her, she would also tell me if the book had weak points, which it did, and be honest about it’s viability, which she was.

In the end, it all worked out. I am now four novels in, along with two non-fiction books, and I still have the same passion I did in the beginning. Am I ready to quit my day job? Not yet. Although, my earnings from writing have doubled each year since I started. Each book I release seems to outperform the previous one. I must be doing some things right.

The one piece that still is elusive is getting that recognition. I’m doing what I can, but it’s still a challenge. This year, I created a street team. I honestly didn’t think that anyone would be interested in promoting my books. I solicited interest from my mailing list and immediately got responses. Instead of the two or three I expected, I got 30 volunteers in the first several hours and cut off the street team membership at that number. They have been a loyal group trudging out to bookstores and libraries loyally with the promise of signed copies of my latest book. I owe them tremendously.

So, I may write more about this in the future. This has been somewhat cathartic. I would love to have this blog start off a discussion. What journey did you go through as an independent author? What has worked and what hasn’t? Let’s help each other.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

About Don Massenzio:

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian-American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series was released on April 24th, 2015 and is available on Amazon.com in both Kindle and Paperback formats.

Independent Publishing Statistically Speaking – Measuring up Against Traditional Publishing

Last week’s blog regarding the “snobbishness” of those in traditional publishing toward independently-published authors generated a great deal of discussion and healthy debate. I believe there are valid points on both side and that the best solution is some type of merger of the the two camps in the future. I’m not sure what that will look like, but it will be interesting.

I don’t think that independent publishing is going anywhere anytime soon. With advocates like Hugh Howey and even traditional authors dabbling in the platform, it is here to stay. This blog will show how the numbers support this assertion. As I researched this article, certain encouraging, and some surprising, trends emerged.

For instance, from a July, 2014 article in Publishers Weekly, I discovered that the “Big Five” traditional publishers now account for only 16% of the e-books on Amazon’s bestseller lists and independently-published books represent 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store. This is an encouraging statistic. The article also reveals that independently-published authors are “dominating traditionally published authors” in sci-fi/fantasy, mystery/thriller, and romance genres but and are also taking “significant market share in all genres.” Since my work is mostly in the mystery/thriller genre, I was encouraged to see this as well.

The article also had some interesting information around pricing. It said that $2.99 and $3.99 are currently the pricing sweet spots for most e-book bestsellers. Authors who price their books at these prices earn more than those whose average price is higher. Conversely, pricing books at 99 cents is not as popular as it used to be and does not result in higher sales as it once did.

Here are some other interesting items regarding pricing strategies. The article states that free books still work as a marketing tool, especially when an author offers the first book in a series for free. But, because so many of us are using this strategy, it has lost some effectiveness.

A strategy that Amazon has opened up for independently published authors is allowing pre-orders. PW states that this  gives authors a sales advantage. In fact, one contributor to the article states that pre-orders should be used in the same way that offering books for free was used in the past.

One thing that surprised me in the article is that Non-fiction books earn more at higher prices. In fact, it went on to say that non-fiction authors are likely under-pricing their work and should experiment with higher prices. This could be a result of the old adage, “you get what you pay for”.

This article, as well as others in my research, talked favorably about the earning potential for independently published authors. Publishers Weekly states that indie authors are earning nearly 40% of the e-book dollars going directly to authors. This is supported by an August, 2013 report in the Huffington Post which reveals that independently-published authors earn between 60-100% of the net profit (depending on who they choose to publish and sell through), compared to the 12-15% royalties they would earn through the traditional publishing business model. We know this to be true for publishing with Amazon which remits 70% of the selling price to authors whose books are priced at $2.99 or more (and 30% for those priced less than $2.99).

The growth in independently published books has been steady as well. An article published by Digital Book World in October, 2014 states that the number of  International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN) assigned to independently published authors increased by 17% from 2012 to 2013.

An article by Bowker in October, 2013 states that the number of self-published titles in 2012 jumped to more than 391,000, up 59 percent over 2011 and 422 percent over 2007. It went on to say that Ebooks continue to gain on print, comprising 40 percent of the ISBNs that were self-published in 2012, up from just 11 percent in 2007.

Perhaps the most telling statistics regarding come from The 7K Report written by Hugh Howey himself, arguably one of the most successful independently-published authors of all time. I’ve included some tables to illustrate some of the most important statistics. The first chart shows the percentage by source for books that are on the Amazon Bestseller List for the Mystery/Thriller, Science-Fiction/Fantasy, and Romance genres.

Graph 1

As you can see from this graph, 55% of the best sellers came from independently-published authors. The most telling fact is that only 28% came from the “Big Five” publishing houses.

The second graph shows a different picture. In this category, gross revenue among bestsellers, “Big Five” books actually dominate. This is likely due to the much higher average price for these books.

Graph 2

This graph shows that 52% of the revenue in these genres goes to the “Big Five” publishers with only 24% going to independently-published authors. It can also be said, however, that there is almost an even split between revenue to the “Big Five” and to everyone else.

This next graph, however, shows where the authors are earning the most money in terms of the percentage of revenue authors earn in each category.

Graph 3

This graph shows that only 32% of the revenue brought in by best sellers in these genres goes to authors with 47% of the overall revenue going to Indie authors. Again, this is an encouraging statistic.

So, what do all of these statistics mean for independently-published authors today, and what do they mean for the future? In all of the articles that I read as research for this blog, the trends for independently-published authors have pointed to an increase in market-share, readership, and revenue in the past six to seven years. Recognition for indie authors is increasing. Platforms such as Amazon, Smashwords, CreatSpace and others are making it easier to produce quality independently-published work.

Does this mean that everything is rainbows and unicorns for all of us? Not at all. As the spotlight swings toward independent publishing, like everything else that is recognized as successful, there will be those that seek to find the flaws. In my various blogs, I have talked about some of the flaws around the quality of independently-published work. I have made it my mission to work with other independently-published authors to help them raise the bar. There are plenty of readers out there for us, so let’s not compete. Let’s collaborate and succeed together.

I will continue to publish blogs on topics that I believe are helpful to indie authors. I learn something new every day as I try to become as successful as possible in this discipline that I love. Every sale of a book or comment that I receive on my blog is like a personal victory. It’s a great feeling and one that I want to share with fellow authors.

Your comments and criticism are welcome as always.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series will be coming out in April, 2015 and is available for pre-order.

He has also published a well-received short story collection that is available on Amazon.com.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

The Importance of an Editor and Beta Readers for Independent Authors

My blog this week focuses on the importance of using an editor and enlisting beta readers if you are an independent author.

Let’s start by comparing/contrasting independent and traditional publishing. In traditional publishing, an author receives an advance (if he or she is lucky). This advance is usually a fairly small amount. The author may then receive royalties for books sold after a certain number. The royalties can vary from pennies per book to dollars if you are a bestselling author. In exchange for allowing the traditional publisher to publish your work, you receive editing, formatting, publicity, and marketing services. The quality and effectiveness of these services can vary depending on how much the publishing company believes it can make from your book. In the end, very few published authors make a living wage from traditionally published books.

Independent authors know that their world is a different one. All of the services mentioned for traditional publishers are either do-it-yourself or individually purchased from the many service providers out there. Future blogs will talk about which of these services make sense for independent authors, but I want to focus on the two that I believe are the most important and what you should look for in each.

The first, and perhaps most important, service that an independent author should look for is editing. What is editing with respect to a book? There is no simple answer to this. I suppose that editing, in its purest form, is checking your work for punctuation, spelling, usage, and grammar errors. These things are important. You may think, as an author, that you are an expert on these things. You may very well be very proficient in these areas, but over the course of a 70,000 word manuscript consisting of your own work, you are going to miss something. Having a fresh set of eyes with some expertise can help save you embarrassing typos and spelling mistakes.

I am very fortunate. My editor is a dear friend, but not the type of friend that will tell me something is good when it is not. I mentioned before that, in my opinion, editing services can vary. The qualities that set my editor apart is that she is an avid reader and has writing ability of her own. She spots weak story elements and plot inconsistencies and is excellent at documenting them.

If you are using a friend, or anyone, as an editor, you must be able to take criticism and be willing to implement the suggested changes. It is rare that I disregard or disagree with the changes my editor suggests. Your mindset should be that your editor is the first reader of a particular work. If they have issues with elements of your work, this will be multiplied exponentially once you publish your work if you do not change them. You need to trust your editor and develop a working chemistry with him or her to be effective in producing quality work.

Finding an editor can be a challenge. There are, however, various services out there such as eLance and Fiverr. I have provided services on eLance and they do have a decent screening process where you can vet potential editors. I have used services on Fiverr, most notably for my cover art and trailers. Services on Fiverr are inexpensive, but you have to carefully vet your service provider or you might get what you pay for. Of course, I am always willing to share my editor. She is very good at what she does and has bandwidth to take on other clients.

The second focus of this blog is the use of beta readers. Beta readers are early previewers of your book that read through it after the editing process is complete. They look for story element inconsistencies and other elements of your book from the perspective as a fan and a reader. It’s a good idea to pick a couple of readers that are big fans of your writing, but are not afraid to give suggestions.  This process is like having a focus group or preview audience for your product that gives their opinion to you on a small scale before you release it to the relentless general public. Beta readers will spot things in your book that you and your editor missed such as inconsistencies in character traits, likability of your characters, and other intangibles. This is especially importance if your characters span more than one book in a series. You don’t want to publish a book in a series that has continuity issues with previous books.

One famous example of this, and he actually points this out in the forward of his second book of the series, is from David Morrell’s Rambo series. In the first Rambo book, John Rambo dies. When the book was made into the Sylvester Stallone movie, the studio had the dollar signs associated with sequels in their eyes. Since zombies weren’t in fashion back then, Rambo’s fate had to be changed in the movie. The interesting thing is that Morrell had the novelization rights for the sequel and had to right the second book in the series despite having killed off his main character in the first book. In his forward, he tells this story and basically says that he ignored Rambo’s death in the first book and just wrote the sequel. Of course, Stallone went on to make other sequels and Rambo eventually turned into a parody of the original character.

You might ask why, as an independent author, I am focusing on editors and beta readers. To answer that question, download some works from your fellow authors and look at the quality. There are some books of excellent quality in the world of independent publishing. And then there are some that are…not so much. Independent authors have a stigma, mostly perpetuated by traditional publishing, that the quality is lacking in their work. Those authors, such as Hugh Howey, that have survived and thrived in independent publishing have debunked this perception. In my work, I am trying to publish work of high-quality as well. I personally don’t believe this is possible without strong editing and beta readers.

I want to see independent publishing evolve into a force that overtakes traditional publishing. I don’t think that a group of corporate publishing wonks in an ivory tower in New York should decide what books should and should not be published. The recording industry has gone in the independent direction, and movies and television are following. Let’s work together as authors to make our quality stand up against the traditionally published work. Editing and the use of beta readers are a big step in that direction. If you use them wisely, you will recoup and exceed every dollar that you invest in your writing.

If you have questions about these topics or you want to be put in touch with my editor, please let me know at don@donmassenzio.com

Thanks again for making this blog a success. The viewership increases each week and I am happy to keep helping my fellow authors by publishing it.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

Keeping Track of Your Characters – Who is Who and What Have They Done?

This week’s blog is another opportunity for me to share a technique that works very well for me during my writing process.  Throughout my personal and professional life, I have been horrible remembering names. I can remember phone numbers, addresses, and useless facts that make me desirable on any trivia team. The writing process has revealed my one memory flaw to be a challenge for me as well when it comes to remembering character names, physical descriptions, life events, and ages.

When I hand wrote my first novel in a series of notebooks, I found myself having to write character names and characteristics in the back of one of the notebooks so that I could flip back and forth whenever I needed to figure out who did what and where they came from.

When I switched to using Scrivener along with my laptop, desktop, and tablet (depending on where I was doing my writing), I tried to come up with a better way to organize my characters and their back story. Let me first say that I don’t like to plot out every detail of my characters’ back stories. I would rather have details revealed to me as they occur or are needed during the story. That being said, failing to keep key details about your characters could come back to bite you. You’ll want to keep track of their marriages, children, illnesses, education, and other things that might end up feed plot elements down the road.

So, how do I do this? I actually have two techniques that have helped me keep things straight. The first is a picture. I create charts, or what I call ‘character maps‘ that are like mini organizational charts for my characters showing who they are and how they relate to each other.

I’ve included one of these charts that I used for my second book as the cover image for this blog. The chart shows groups within some of the key families within the book and how the members relate to each other. In the view of the chart that I included, there are members of three families shown. One of the characters happens to be the murder victim within the book and her designated box is x’ed out to show that she is dead.

I keep the charts related to my current project along with the mind map (see last week’s blog) on a bulletin board near my desk at home. I also have an electronic version of each that I can bring up as needed when I’m writing on my computer while traveling.

Another tool that I use if I need more information on my characters is a matrix showing deeper details about the characters.  I use a row for each character and the columns are used for such details as the character name, what books they’ve appeared in, their physical appearance, etc.

Shown below is an example of the matrix for some of my characters in my Frank Rozzani detective series books:

Character Table

This matrix gives me a quick view of who the characters are, when they first appeared in my work, what their personality traits are, and what significant events shaped who they are. It has been extremely helpful to me and helps me to overcome my memory gaps. It also helps to cut down on inaccuracies that can plague authors when they are writing a series of books featuring the same characters . It may seem like a lot of work, but it can be helpful and actually save time in the long run.

I have seen other suggestions around organizing characters. There are those that espouse writing complete and detailed biographies for your characters. This may work for some authors. I have always been a person that prefers to work smarter and not harder. The information in the character map and the character matrix that I have shared have been enough for me to provide continuity to my work without locking me in to biographical details that might change the characters’ evolution.

I hope that this has been helpful to you as authors.  I believe that as an independent author, with some measure of success, sharing tips with you is the right thing to do. There are plenty of readers out there and if these tips help you to create a better product so that you can entice readers to your work, then I welcome you to use them.

I also wanted to thank those of you that have been reading my blog. Last week, I doubled my best  ‘viewership’ of this blog. As I continue to drum up ideas for a weekly blog, your suggestions are welcome. If there are questions that you have about writing or suggestions for some aspect of writing for which you’d like to see a blog, please let me know and I’ll be happy to entertain them.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

To Outline or Not to Outline – Or is There a Third Choice?

This week’s blog focuses on the topic of whether or not it is better to outline your book or short story before you dive in and write. When I wrote my first book, it was in the days before airplanes allowed tablet devices to be used during that down time before the flight took off. I fly through Atlanta from Jacksonville, FL every week and usually the time waiting to take off exceeds the actual flight time. During those dark ages when ALL electronic devices had to be off and stowed, I wrote my first novel completely in longhand in notebooks. It was an interesting exercise that was very time consuming. I not only had to type everything I wrote later on, but, being a left-handed refugee from Catholic school, my handwriting is pretty horrible and I often had to guess at what I had written.

Needless to say, I did not outline this first book. While it flowed fairly well, it did take a longer period of time to figure out what my characters would do next. I didn’t have an ending in mind and the middle of the book was a struggle.

When I sat down to write my second book, Let Me Be Frank, I had just read a book on how to outline novels. The book extolled the virtues of meticulously outlining the book and writing full character biographies. As I began to perform these tasks, I found that it felt to much like work. I wanted to write, not outline. It was slow going and eventually I abandoned the process and started to go back to my stream-of-consciousness ways.

One Saturday morning, however, a light bulb went on (it was the light in my office). After it was light enough to see my computer, I started pondering different ways to create a road map for my novel without the tedious and limiting exercise of outlining. Then it dawned on me. I had used a technique to lay out complex documents and presentations. I also used this technique to lay out my doctoral dissertation. It is called mind-mapping. Mind-mapping is a visual technique for laying out the things you want to include in your work and then sequence them.

Usually, when I lay out a work-related document or presentation, I know all of the components that need to be included, but I don’t always know the order. Mind-mapping works well for this. The issue in translating this technique to a novel is that you may not know all of the components at the beginning. What I found was that this technique allowed me to think through the story and set up those components at a high level. This helped me avoid the dreaded “muddle in the middle” syndrome where you have the beginning and end of the story set, but the journey to get from one to the other is not clear.

So, what is mind-mapping and how does it work?

It all starts with a white board or a piece of paper. The format is a hub and wheel type configuration. The hub is the title of the book, or if you don’t have one, some working title. You can put it in a circle or other shape right in the middle of whatever you’re drawing on. Then, if you know how your book is going to start, draw some shapes for those early chapters and put a one sentence description in each chapter. For instance, you might have someone getting kidnapped in your book. The first shape might say, “Chapter 1: Susie Gets Kidnapped.” The next shape might read, “Chapter 2: Susie’s Boyfriend Discovers Her Missing.” This continues as far as you can go. If you get stuck in the middle, go to shapes at the end of your map. Maybe the last shape will read “Chapter X: Susie is Found.” You don’t have to number these later chapters until you know how many you’re going to end up with.

Once you have set up the starting and ending chapters, think about how you are going to get from one to the other. It really pays off to take the time to think this through. Remember, you can always change your mind map easily if your characters take you off in a new direction.

This truly is a road map. I would compare your mind map to mapping out a route in an app like Google Maps. You know where you’re starting, you know where your destination is. You are presented with options for your route. You can pick the route that you think will work best, but, if you run into traffic or an accident along the way, you can change your route to get around it. Also, if you want to get off of your route to do some site seeing, you can do so easily and then rely on your app to get you back on your route. The process of mind mapping is just like this. You can change it along the way to suit your needs.

Mind mapping also translates easily into whatever tool you might be using to write your novel or short story. I use Scrivener, which is a very popular writing application. Scrivener actually has a cork board within the app where you can set up “index cards” with short descriptions of your chapters and scenes within those chapters. You can take the descriptions from the shapes in your mind map and put them directly into these index cards and you have a pseudo outline for your work that can easily be changed or rearranged.

Once you have your mind map created, keep it with you as you write so that you can move from chapter to chapter easily. Don’t be afraid, however, to make changes. Your writing should not be fenced in if new and exciting detours emerge during your creative process.

To see what a mind map looks like, I’ve set the image for this blog to be the mind map that I set up for my book, Let Me Be Frank. If you want more information on mind mapping, please be sure to post your questions or you can contact me through my web site and I’ll be glad to share what I have learned about them.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

Instead of Worrying About First Person vs. Third Person, How About the “Right” Person?

My blog this week stems from my recent reading. As you know, besides writing books and short stories and recording my audio book, I am an avid reader consuming 3-4 books per month. My reading genre is mostly fiction with some non-fiction mixed in. Lately, I have been reading the work of some noted authors that have jumped on the young adult fiction bandwagon and some that have written for characters that are opposite their gender. The results, in my humble opinion, are mixed.

Let’s start with those that have been able to write effectively from a perspective that is quite opposite their own. Most notable is J.K. Rowling. Her Harry Potter series and, to some extent, The Casual Vacancy, were very effectively written from the point of view of 10 year old children through young adults. She represented their emotions, actions, and reactions quite accurately and demonstrated how, over the course of time, they learned from their experiences. Because of her abilities, she was able to cross over to adult readers in a big way making her an international sensation who at one point had more accumulated wealth than the Queen of England.

Moving on to American authors, a trio of women rise to the top in terms of success. Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games Trilogy, and Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, have all logged huge best-sellers with their angst-ridden cast of teen protagonists. Of these series, I enjoyed The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins was able to write a compelling saga. The first book was a sizzling page turner. The second book, however, reminded me of the movie, Back to the Future II. It was just a vehicle to compel the reader to read the third book. The third book was very significant in terms of character development. These books, in particular, depicted the main character, Katniss Everdeen, as a flawed individual that doesn’t always do things perfectly and make the right decisions. This makes Katniss compelling as a main character.

I gave a try at reading the Twilight series. I found the characters too depressing and angst-ridden for my taste. They were downright depressing. I was surprised at my reaction due to the success of the series and the movies. I sate with my teenage daughter to watch the first Twilight movie and experienced the same reaction. I am, however, far removed from being a teenager myself. My reaction was a burning desire to kick these teens in the seat of their pants and tell them to comb their hair and get a job. I must be getting old.

As for Divergent, I have gone to see the movie with my daughter. My first impression was that it was as if Harry Potter and The Hunger Games had a baby. The story was a good one. I have the first book on my “to read” list. The characters definitely had some depth in the movie.

Now on to male authors that write as characters that differ from themselves and do it well. The first is Stephen King. In the Shining and, to a much greater extent, in It, King writes very believably as a child. At no point did I find his writing not believable as he took on the point of view of children. They make fun of each other and form a bond that only childhood friends can do. In The Shining, this bond comes between Danny Torrance and Dick Halloran is due to their psychic ability, in part, but there is also a mentor/mentee relationship. In It, King is able to write as several different adolescents and give each a distinct and memorable personality.

The second author that has written effectively from a young female perspective is Hugh Howey. Howey is the hero of independent writers who has turned his dystopian Wool series into a huge bestseller without the benefit of a major publisher. Wool and his earlier Molly Fyde series are written from the perspective of young women. Howey does this effectively and is able to realistically depict their actions and emotions.

Now for those writers who have not done this effectively. The first author, who has been running hot and cold with his work recently, is Harlan Coben. I recently read Missing You which Coben wrote from the perspective of a female New York City detective. I was disappointed in this work. His female character was both unrealistic and not likable. He was inconsistent with the way she reacted to situations. Coben has also created a young adult series based on Mickey Bolitar, nephew to his frequent protagonist Myron Bolitar. The stories within the Mickey Bolitar books make them worth reading. The main character, however, is not a realistic teen. His points of reference are not contemporary, but are those of a 40-something year old man in terms of music and other cultural aspects. He makes a lot of wrong decisions in terms of hiding things from adults. I’m not sure that most teens would push things to the limits that he does without seeking help.

John Grisham has also jumped into the YA market with his Theodore Boone series. Theodore Boone is a 13 year old only child of small city attorneys. He is enamored with the law and aspires to be an attorney. He is a straight “A” student and always seems to make the right decisions. He listens to his parents and is the favorite of judges, teachers, and the school principal. All of these adults defend him to the fullest even when it appears that he has done something wrong. While the stories are interesting, Grisham makes Boone too perfect. This 13 year old has the reasoning ability and intellect of an adult. He says all of the right things. This is not to say that a child like Theodore Boone is unrealistic. What is unrealistic is his popularity with other kids. In my recollection, kids like Theodore Boone would have been labeled as nerds or brainiacs in school (I was one) and would also be subject to regular ridicule and pranks. Theodore Boone is not.

Dean Koontz has also written a series of eight books based on his character, Odd Thomas. Odd is a twenty-something short order cook with psychic abilities. In his early Odd Thomas books, Koontz portrayed him as a simple and likable character. Odd was believable and spoke in simple dialog. I just finished the last in the series, Saint Odd, and found Koontz to be portraying his main character in a much more verbose fashion that is similar to his other books. He spends many paragraphs describing the plant life and the architecture. This is contrary to how this character viewed his surroundings in past works. Koontz even tries to justify this by referencing a novelist mentor that Odd has been getting pointers from. This new point of view from this character made the later Odd Thomas books a bit plodding and less genuine.

So, what is the message in all of this? As authors, I think it is important for us to truly understand the perspective of our characters. Don’t write a book as a teenage girl based on the way you see them in sitcoms or reality television shows. Write from this perspective based on real experiences and insight. Your readers will not find sincerity in your work if they find that you are misrepresenting how a character would think, react, and learn in a situation. If your target audience is young adults, you have to appeal to their world.

As a struggling author, I have found that readers resonate most with works where I have written based on what I know. I give my characters attributes that I know a lot about and this comes across as sincere. The private eye/mystery genre that I write in is not the “hot” style right now. Authors of Romance and Young Adult fiction are finding a much higher rate of success. I have avoided writing in these genres, however, because I’m not sure I could write believable stories or create compelling characters.

With all of this being said, do you agree or disagree? Have you had success with writing from the perspective of characters different from yourself? What tips do you have?

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

Writer’s Block – Is it really a thing or is it just another form of procrastination?

During the holiday season, I took two weeks off from my day job. It was a great period of time to stay home and become reacquainted with my family. I normally travel four days per week for about 46 weeks out of the year, so it’s nice to become part of the household for a while. Usually, I think my wife is secretly ready to send me back out on the road after an extended time at home.

One of the things that I was going to do during that period was set aside time every day to write. I looked forward to this break for months so that I could make great strides on my next book and other writing ventures that I have in the works.

Do you know how much writing I did during this time period? Very little. If I cranked out a new chapter on the 3rd installment of the Frank Rozzani series, that would be generous. Now, as a new year has started and I’m back on the road, I am on fire with writing, recording an audio book, and thinking of all of the things I want to accomplish this year.

So what happened when I had all of this free time and produced virtually nothing?

I refuse to call it writer’s block. It was more like writer’s blob. I was a blob during the holiday season, an eating, drinking, binge-watching, late-sleeping blob. I didn’t have a routine. I didn’t have to organize my day so that I could find time to write. I had time, lots of it, and most of it, in terms of writing, was wasted.

I have never really had writer’s block in the classic sense. I have yet to run out of ideas. I have quite the opposite problem where I have many ideas that all want me to act on them simultaneously. I wrote the 20 page short story, “Lucy’s Christmas Miracle” on a two and a half hour flight from Boston to Atlanta.

When I’m busy and traveling, I can’t wait to write. It is all I think about and, as soon as I meet my work obligations, it is the first thing I do. When I’m home, however, I have my family, friends, and activities that take front and center.

This makes me nervous on my quest to be a full-time writer. If I don’t have the travel and the work to help organize my time, am I going to waste time like I did during the holidays? I don’t think that I will for two reasons; 1) I would be bored very quickly and 2) I would need to earn some money which is a highly motivating factor.

With my personal quirks covered, I think there are times when writer’s block or creative block has hit me in my professional life. With this in mind, I’d like to share some of the tips that I’ve used to overcome that creative procrastination and paralysis.

1) Eliminate distractions – It’s really easy to get distracted if you don’t have the right writing mindset. This doesn’t mean that you have to lock yourself away in a soundproof room with a coffeemaker and sit down and force yourself to write until you finish a certain number of pages. I’ve written in crowded airports and on noisy flights. I think that having children gives me the ability to block out noise. What I do mean is that you need to make sure that you don’t set yourself up to fail. Don’t try to multitask. There is no such thing (more on this perhaps in a future post). Don’t say that you can watch Netflix while you write. Don’t eat your breakfast while you write. You need to fully commit to the world you are writing in and become immersed in it. When you do this, the words will flow and nothing around you will matter.

2) Pick a consistent time to write each day – When I travel, I’m generally in my client’s office until 6 PM. I then arrive at the hotel around 6:30. Next, I change and hit the workout room for about 30 minutes. I then shower, make some dinner and eat. This means that it is generally about 8 PM before I can sit down and write. Lately I’ve been spending an hour recording a chapter of my audio book and then spend two hours writing. On days that I travel, I use my current two and a half hour flight to write on the plane.  With this schedule, in a given week, I can write about one or two chapters (about 3,000 – 5,000 words) per week.  I’m not sure how that stacks up to full-time writers, but I do know that I wrote two novels and four short stories in the past eight months, which I think is a pretty good pace. Does my schedule get compromised occasionally? Of course it does. I have a demanding job with looming deadlines and pressures. I occasionally have to go out to dinner while I’m out of town. If I use the schedule that I described, however, as a guideline, then I have something to shoot for.

3) When you’re not writing, think about your writing – I would love to say that every moment that I am at work, I am 100% focused on work for ten hours per day. This would not be the truth. It also would not be healthy. There is plenty of time available for me to think about writing and where I am with my latest project. The shower is a great think tank. So are meetings when the particular part of the meeting doesn’t apply to the work you are doing. There is lunch, the commute time, and that time just before you go to sleep. If you think about your writing, it will be easier to focus on what needs to be written when the time comes.

4) Read, read, read – One of my earlier blogs pondered the issue of whether writers read and what should they read. I am one of those people that has to read in order to go to sleep. It’s usually fiction, but occasionally, I read non-fiction related to writing or some aspect of business for my day job. Reading is like studying for writing. You learn from other authors. You learn both good and bad habits from them. If you follow me on Goodreads or subscribe to my newsletter, you know that I generally critique 2-3 books every two weeks. This means I’m reading 4-6 books per month. When do I find time to do this? At the gate in the airport, on the bus to the rental car, before I go to sleep for about 30-45 minutes, and on my short connection from Atlanta to Jacksonville every week. Also, waiting for my doctor’s appointment or for a haircut is a great time to read a couple of chapters. I love to read and I have read voraciously since I was a 2nd grader. You learn things, escape into other worlds, and learn about the craft of writing. If you want to learn to paint, you study the techniques of the masters. If you want to be a musician, you do the same. Writing is no different. If you don’t learn from those that have mastered the craft and have become successful, you are cheating yourself from a great deal of knowledge.

I hope this blog has opened your eyes. I personally don’t believe in writer’s block as an affliction. I think it’s more of a time management or procrastination issue. Maybe I’m lucky. As always, I’m sure your comments will let me know if you agree or disagree.  I look forward to interacting with you and sharing ideas.

Thanks.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com

Reacting to Feedback as a Self Published Author

As you dive into the world of self-publishing, one of the biggest fears that you must overcome is the unknown reactions that you will get from those that read your work. For me, I had written a short story and kept it to myself for months before I finally shared it with my wife. I knew I could count on her for honest feedback. I knew she was aware of my writing ability from many of the business and personal documents I had either written or helped her with at home. Also, when I was an independent consultant, she often looked at the documents I produced.

This was different, however. I had invented my own story with characters, settings, and emotions. If she hated it, I would have probably quit going down this path. Luckily, she liked it and I continued on and gradually expanded the circle of people that I let read and comment on my work.

I became very lucky with this path. I have a dear friend who is an avid reader and is very detail-oriented. She agreed to become my editor. In this capacity, she not only caught all of my careless punctuation and grammatical mistakes, she also looked at my story objectively and told me what parts worked and didn’t work. My first two short stories were published by an online literary magazine. My first book, Frankly Speaking, went the independent publishing route through Amazon.

Once the book was published, the iterative process of receiving feedback began. It started with family members that bought the book and posted five star reviews on Amazon. After a couple of those, the initial excitement wore off because they were, after all, family members. The excitement really began when I started to receive reviews from people I didn’t know. Those five star reviews really validated what I had done.

One day, after the first book was out a couple of months, I received a two star review, the first that was less than five stars after about 12 reviews. I quickly looked to see what valuable feedback I had received from this reviewer and there was only a single word in the review, “Boring”. I felt a few different emotions, one of which was anger. I looked to see what other brilliant reviews this person had posted and only found two other book reviews that were just a stellar for gardening books.  My initial reaction to this review was to reply to the reviewer on Amazon. I wanted to ask why they found the book boring and what I could have done to make it better. I also wanted to chastise the person. I had written 70,000 or so words and this only merited a one-word review. I actually went as far as writing a response and then I came to my senses and deleted it. I had seen other independent authors respond to negative reviews and I promised myself I wasn’t going to be “that guy”. After this one word review, several additional four and five star reviews came in and this one bad review became an anomaly.

I also publish a newsletter and I correspond with readers via email. One of my readers, a former English teacher, wrote me to let me know that she thoroughly enjoyed my book but she had found some additional typos, grammatical issues, etc. in the book and would I be insulted if she sent them to me. Part of the flexibility in independent publishing is being able to go back and improve upon your product once it’s published. I could have left it alone, but I felt that future readers deserved the best product possible. I corrected the book and I then proceeded to enlist this person as a beta reader on my future books. This is definitely a suggestion that I would make to my fellow authors. Find those detail-oriented, voracious readers out there and let them preview your books. They will find things that you and your editors missed and it will make your book a better product.

So, what is the bottom line of reacting to feedback. Take it all in. Qualify it. Use what is useful and discard what is not. In the end, you will have a better product and if you publish a better product, that improves the playing field for all self-published authors. There is a stigma in some circles regarding self-publishing. The quality of the product is viewed as less than that of published works. In some cases, this is true. There are self-published authors that self-edit or don’t bother to edit at all and their product is lacking. Don’t be one of those. Treat your self-published work as something you wish to be proud of. Don’t be afraid of feedback. Qualify both the positive and the negative feedback so that you can find the useful stuff and discard what is not going to help you.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome.

About Don Massenzio

Don Massenzio was born in Syracuse, New York, to first generation Italian American parents. He is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors include Harlan Coben, David Morrell, Stephen King, and Hugh Howey. His favorite book of all time is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.

Don began writing as a way to combat the long hours of travel and numerous hotel stays that are part of the ‘glamorous’ world of corporate travel. He uses writing as a therapeutic outlet. He recently took the jump to sharing his work with others.

His first published long work is the novel, Frankly Speaking. It is the first of what will be a series of books focused on the character, Frank Rozzani, a Florida private detective. The book is a throwback to the days of pulp detective novels with a tip of the hat to Jim Rockford from 70’s television and The Rockford Files.

The second Frank Rozzani detective novel, Let Me Be Frank is now available.

Prior to finishing his books, his published work was comprised of short stories that will be merged into a collection in the near future.

Find out more about Don at his web site:

www.donmassenzio.com