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.

 

Writing Your First Book – Where Do You Start?

Every time I attend an author event, there is always the attempt to separate authors into the two camps of those who meticulously outline and those that write completely by the seat-of-the-pants, affectionately known as ‘pantsers’.

I sat and listened to the virtues of these two camps and decided that I am firmly planted in a third camp. I don’t outline every chapter, but I do like a road map. I consider my method more visual and less rigid than outlining, but, to continue the road map analogy, I don’t like to just get in the car and go in whatever direction the road takes me.

I do let my characters and their personalities drive within the conscripts of my loose road map, but I don’t confine them to one road. If they want to take the scenic route, I’m open to that.

So, how does this process work, I’ll try to lay it out for you the best that I can. I’m gearing this toward the writing of fiction. Non-fiction, in my opinion, works a bit differently.

Step 1 – Come Up With an Idea

Sounds easy, right. It’s not really. A good story has to have a great beginning. In this world of instant gratification and short attention spans, you’ve got to grab your reader from the beginning. I think we’d all agree that you need a good ending. Nothing is more of a letdown than investing your time in a book only to have an ending that disappoints. (Have you read The Firm).

The thing that writers struggle with the most is the middle (often called ‘the muddle’). If your book meanders off into dark corners and doesn’t recover well, you’ll lose your readers.

Make sure your idea is strong and has a strong second act.

Step 2 – The Mind Map

The mind map is a technique I’ve used in my consulting career to storyboard presentations, but it translates well to writing. It is a visual representation of your book that starts with the book title in a cloud in the middle of the picture and connected rectangles surrounding it. Each rectangle represents an idea which could be a chapter. I use one or two sentences in each rectangle to represent the main idea of the chapter. Here is a mind map that I used for my second book, Let Me Be Frank.

Mind Map - Frank 2

When I created this mind map, I left the chapter numbers off so that I would have the latitude to re-order them if needed. This mind map allows me to move into the next phase of building the novel seamlessly.

Step 3 – Set Up Your Tool of Choice

My tool of choice for writing is Scrivener. It’s an industry-standard tool and has some built in utilities that are very useful. The thing I like about it is that it emulates the old corkboard and index card method of writing about as closely as an electronic word processing tool can.

When I open up a new project in Scivener, I go right to the corkboard view and lay out my chapters just as they are in my mind map. Here is what it looks like from the same book.

cork

You’ll notice that none of my chapters have numbers. Scrivener will automatically number them based on the order that I put them in on the cork board. In this view, you can drag and drop to your hear’s content.

I usually set up my entire book before I write. Then I can drill down into the next step.

Step 4 – Set Up Scenes Within Uour Chapters

Just like the chapter view, Scrivener gives me a scene view. As I write each chapter, I set up scenes within it. The scenes usually correspond with a change in the setting. They can be long or short. A chapter can contain a single scene or many. In my view, each chapter is a self contained story, or episode, within the book. A corkboard view for a single chapter is shown below.

cork2

I don’t want this post to be a commercial for Scrivener, but it’s the tool I use and if you’re wanting something that organizes your writing better than just a straight word processor, it’s worth checking out. Like the full book view, you can rearrange the cards on the corkboard to change the order of scenes.

Step 5 – Other Visualization Methods

As I complete each chapter in the book, I like to use other tools to see if I’m on track. One tool that I have talked about in the past that is a popular social media trending tool is generating a word cloud. Word clouds count how many times a word is used in a certain context and generates a graphic with the most used words in a larger size, more prominent color, or both. I did this with one of my detective books and was pleased with the result shown below:

Frank 2 - Chapter 2

In another example, I wrote a short story about a boy named Desmond that sells his soul to an evil character named Lou to become a great jazz pianist. The result is below:

Des Cloud

There are several free Internet tools that will do this.

As for the steps that are left, they include things like:

  • Finish writing your book
  • Enlist the help of an editor
  • Fix the things the editor finds
  • Design a cover
  • Market it
  • Sell it
  • Spend your riches

Of course, I will expand on many of these in future posts. Also, I have a book with many of these tips spelled out in more detail that is available on Amazon that you can get by clicking the cover below.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00054]

I look forward to hearing from fellow authors on the steps you use. Please comment as you see fit.

Advance Reader Copies – Are They Worth it?

In January I released my 6th book. As I look back over the activities that I’ve used to promote my books it is like going from the Stone Age to the Industrial Revolution. I’m not quite to the point where I can just write. Actually, I’m pretty far from that. As I’ve built up a modest reader base, however, I’ve been able to employ some more advanced promotional techniques.

Issuing advance read copies is one of those techniques that I employed with my last two books. For the book, Frank IncensedI only issued a few. It was partly to get reaction from readers and secondarily to get reviews on launch day. I tried to give the readers enough time so that they could read the book and review it on Amazon, Goodreads, and any other outlet on the day the book was released.

I definitely saw some bump in sales and ranking due to this. For my latest book, Blood Orange, I was much more aggressive in seeking out advance readers. I issued 30 copies to the members of my street team (more on that in a subsequent post) and approximately another 80 copies to people that I sought out through my mailing list. That’s about a 15% hit rate. That resulted in about 15 reviews on Amazon the day that the book was released. Could this have been better? Of course. I was hoping for about 25-30 reviews. This book, however, had extenuating circumstances, but more on that later.

First, what is an advance reader and how does this group differ from beta readers?

Advance readers get the book when it is finished and ready to be published. It is the final edited copy. No changes will be made based on their feedback unless some big, ugly, hairy error is found.

Using advance readers is a coordinated effort. It takes a bit of organization, but you can use technology to help you. Free technology. The first thing I did was compile a list of those that volunteered to be advance readers. The best took I have found to do this is MailChimp. You can import a spreadsheet with your contact list. You can also, for a minimal monthly cost, add automation to the mix. This allowed me to send a reminder to my advance readers a week before the book was released, the day before, and the day after reminding them to review the book. All of this happened while I was happily Internet and eMail free on a cruise ship. The whole MailChimp process is a series of blog posts on its own. Look for that in the future.

There downsides to using advance readers. Of course. That’s why I’ve compiled another handy dandy pros and cons list so you can decide for yourself.

Pros

  • Releasing your book with reviews in place on day one helps your ranking on Amazon
  • You build further rapport with your readers and they enjoy being part of the process
  • Your book appears mature upon release. A lack of reviews makes readers nervous about spending money on your work
  • You get honest feedback from your readers that help you improve quality

Cons

  • Like with beta readers, you are forfeit sales to those that are advanced readers (or do you). I’ve had a number of advance readers purchase the book anyway
  • As with beta readers, you are putting your work at risk. This is true, but it’s at risk even after it’s released as an eBook on Amazon. Most readers tend to be honest.
  • You risk receiving bad reviews. Ouch. If that happens, It probably would have happened anyway, but by giving your book away, you probably increase the odds. You can combat this, of course, by picking your potential audience carefully. The worst review I ever received was my one and only two star review on Amazon. It was one simple word, boring. I was devastated, but when I dug a bit further, I found that the only other reviews this reader had done was for gardening books. And they were just as enlightening. My point is, if you write erotic romance, don’t send your advance reader copies to people who like Christian oriented books.

Advance readers can be useful. Even though the results were not what I hoped for on Blood OrangeI will be using this technique for my next book. The reason it wasn’t as successful for Blood Orangewas the timing. The book was set to release on November 13, 2015. I timed it to be ready for huge Black Friday promotions and planned a marketing blitz throughout the holiday season. If you remember what happened that night, Paris was attacked by ruthless terrorists. Part of the attack was near a sporting venue. My book centers on just that kind of attack. I immediately pulled back on promoting the book and didn’t bother my advance readers, or anyone else for that matter. I didn’t start actively promoting it until after the first of the year. It was a tough decision, but I still feel good about it and I still think the advance reader process is a good one.

Please, those of you who have different experiences with this or questions for me, please reach out through the comments.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

This post is the second in a series that I’ve been writing about the individuals that I view as the masters in my genre of choice, crime/detective fiction. I am a firm believer that you become better in whatever field you pursue by following those that excelled and paved the way before you.

Studying the Masters of Crime/Detective Fiction

Part 2 – John D. MacDonald

Just the name of his fabled character, Travis McGee, starts your imagination working overtime to picture this man. McGee was the opposite of Sherlock Holmes as described in my earlier post on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was more of a playboy who lived on a houseboat, bedded beautiful women, and took half of the profit from stolen goods that he recovered.

MacDonald himself was a well-educated man a degree from Syracuse University, my hometown, and an Ivy League MBA. He then entered World War II as a first lieutenant in the army.

MacDonald’s literary career started by happenstance. While away in the war, he mailed a short story to his wife who submitted it to Esquire Magazine and it was rejected. She then submitted it to Story Magazine and they accepted it for $25. When MacDonald found out about it upon his return, he spent the next four months cranking out 800,000 words of short stories and losing 20 pounds.

His eventual sale of a story to Dime Magazine was the first of nearly 500 stories to various magazines, some of which would fill an entire issue with only his stories under various names.

MacDonald’s career flourished during the period from 1953 to 1964 during which he almost single-handedly crafted the hard-boiled detective genre.  His signature character, Travis McGee, made his debut in 1964 in the novel The Deep Blue Goodbye. This swaggering Florida figure who lived on a houseboat named the Busted Flush was the prototype for many private eyes that came after him like Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum, and others.

MacDonald wrote 21 McGee stories over the next 21 years with every title containing a color within it.  Like Sherlock Holmes, McGee had an educated sidekick on some of his books named Meyer who was an economist and Ph.D. Most of the McGee stories took place in Florida.

MacDonald’s most famous film adaptation was from the Novel, The Executioners, which became the movie, Cape Fear which premiered in 1962 and was remade in 1991.

As I look at my own work, I see some unintended similarities. I have written private eye novels that take place in Florida. My detective lives in a trailer instead of a houseboat. He also has an educated attorney as a sidekick. I say that these similarities are unintended as I read my first John D. MacDonald book after I wrote my first novel. I must have had this blueprint internalized before I began my writing from adaptations of MacDonald’s model.

I have read many of Mr. MacDonald’s books since the first. You can see his prowess as a writer grow continuously throughout his works. I can now claim him as a role model due to the quality and prolific nature of his work.

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.

 

Top 10 Tips For Formatting Your Book – Saving Trees/Bytes vs. Making it Look Good

This blog is a continuation of my crusade to help my fellow independently published authors improve the quality of their work, but most of the tips here apply to the formatting of any book. I’m speaking of the formatting of books for the consumption of readers, not formatting your manuscript to send off to an agent or publisher.  There are a whole other set of rules for that exercise.

I’ve put together a list of ten tips that you should consider when putting your book together. They are not in any priority order, but together, they can make your work stand out from the millions of others that are available through your favorite sales channel.

1. Put Some Thought Into Your Cover

I have to admit, this was something I didn’t waste a lot of time on when I published my first book, Frankly Speaking. I just went ahead and used the Kindle cover creator and cranked out a generic cover. I’m not proud, but I’ll share with you what the original cover looked like:

FS Book Cover

Not too exciting is it? More importantly, what does it tell you about the story? Not much. If it wasn’t for the tag line, I don’t think anyone would even know it was a detective novel. It looks like it may be a book of poetry or something about the ocean.

Luckily, I came to my senses. In order to grab the reader’s attention as they peruse the Amazon Kindle store or the Barnes and Noble site, you need to have a compelling book cover. It should tell a bit of the story. Now, Frankly Speaking is about a crime involving a kidnapped girl and the search for her location. There is also the overarching evil from the main character’s past due to his run-in with the mob. Here is the cover as it exists today:

Newcover - Small

This cover tells a story. The young girl is represented by, well, the young girl in the photo. The evil presence in the main characters life is represented by the shadow of the ominous figure on the left side. The color scheme pushers toward a blue tint.

Because this book is a series, I wanted the subsequent covers to have some continuity and also tell a story. My covers for Let Me Be Frank and Frank Incensed achieve (I hope) that goal. In addition, I tried to establish a color scheme for each so they are unified but stand alone. Here are those covers:

LMBF FI Covers

These covers tell the story but also establish their own cover scheme. The shadowed figure and the font are carried through each cover.

So, now you’re probably thinking these covers were expensive and out of your budget as an indie author. That is where sites like fiverr.com come in. There are freelance sites where graphic designers from all over the world will make high-quality covers for your. Because I wanted my covers for both paperback and kindle use, which adds a back cover I paid about $20 each for these covers. I believe that they have more than paid for themselves.

2. Establish your Brand

I know that this one sounds very “marketing-like” and you may hate that. You need, however, to establish your brand. Now what does this mean? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean. This does not mean locking yourself into one genre. Plenty of authors, even traditionally published ones, jump to different genres in the attempt to find new readers. What this does mean establishing your author persona as an entity. You can choose to crank out books and put them on Amazon or Smashwords and hope for the best, or you can build a brand by creating a newsletter/mailing list, a blog, a web site, and be active in writing and reader groups on social media. I have done this and have seen some success, even in my reviews. I have gained readers who have said they received my newsletter because they signed up for one of my non-book giveaways and they liked the cover of my book and decided to give one a try. Some of these readers have become the most loyal because I didn’t establish the relationship by beating them over the head with my book when I first made contact. These other things may not be fun and you may be a purist and not want to bother with them, but take a look at your book sales and see how that strategy is working for you.

3. Font – Don’t Make Me Get My Reading Glasses

As I get older, my eyesight is starting to deteriorate to the point where I got my first bi-focal  lenses about two years ago. That’s one of the reasons that I like my Kindle. I can blow up the font to ridiculous sizes and put the glasses aside. I don’t, however, recommend making your font ridiculously large, but you should consider an 11 or 12 point font in either Arial or Times Roman when you format your book. If you make your font any smaller, you may save paper for your print book, but you may also lose readers like me with old man eyesight.

4. Spacing – Make it Readable

This topic has a lot of varied opinions, but I will give you some key rules that I follow. My books follow the rule of inserting a blank line between each paragraph and between a paragraph of narrative and a block of dialog. Additionally, I like to use proportional spacing. What this does is line the right side of your writing up along an imaginary straight line by spacing the words on each line proportionally. This eliminates the jagged edges within a paragraph. The last thing is to consider 1.5 spaces between each line instead of single-line spacing. I have two examples below, kind of a before and after, of each technique:

Option 1: Spacing rules not applied

ex1

Option 2: Spacing rules applied

ex2

You may not agree with the formatting differences, but it’s all a matter of preference. I find option two more aesthetically pleasing and easier to read.

5. Chapter Length

Some very famous traditionally-published authors use a common-sense technique that I like to use as well, keeping chapters short. Harlan Coben and James Patterson are both known for this. As someone who reads when I go to bed, I get annoyed by long and ponderous chapters that keep me from going to sleep. I hate stopping in the middle of a chapter, but sometimes I have to. If it’s a good book with short chapters, I will try to squeeze in one or two more. The short chapter length keeps me turning the pages.  I usually try to keep the chapters at 1-2,000 words.

6. eBook vs. Print – They Are Not The Same!

Although Amazon and other platforms make it very easy to set up eBook and Print Book formats, these two media types are not the same and your formatting should differ. This starts with the table of contents (to be talked about later). An eBook does not need page numbers in the TOC. It does, however, need hyperlinks. When I’m flying to some destination for my day job and we hit rough air and I touch some forbidden spot on my Kindle screen, I have booted myself out of books or have jumped to locations unknown. If I haven’t synced my book in a while, it can sometimes be difficult to remember where I left off. With hyperlinks, I can at least jump to the right chapter and not get too frustrated. For print books, page numbers are necessary in the TOC and in the book itself. I will talk about these elements in another tip, but you should at least recognize what is necessary in a print book that is not essential in an eBook.

7. Front Matter – Yes it Matters

Front matter is that stuff at the beginning of the book like a title page, dedication, acknowledgements, copyright notice, disclaimer, and a table of contents. To make your book look like a real big-boy or big-girl book, you should be including these things. Some of them are also essential to protect yourself and your book. Let’s start with the title page and what should be on it. I’m including an example for you to refer to:

Title Page Example

ex3

This title page contains the title (duh) the copyright notice, and the disclaimer. These last two elements are essential to protect your book from piracy and to protect you from being sued. You’ll also notice that the front matter is numbered with lower case Roman numerals in the print version of a book.

The dedication, acknowledgments, and table of contents also appear in this front-matter section and should have the same page numbering scheme. You shouldn’t start normal numbering until the first page of the actual book.

Something that I also do in my front- matter that you’ll see in a lot of books is the addition of reviews of either the current book or other books by the author. You can do this if you have enough reviews to fill a page or two.

8. Table of Contents, Page Numbers, Page Header

The table of contents should go in the front-matter. If you are using Word, the automatically generated TOC will work for both eBooks and print. You just have to suppress including the page numbers for the eBook TOC. For page numbers, they should be placed in the center at the bottom of each page in the footnote area. For a page header, I like to put it in the heading area, right-justified, and in the format Author’s Last Name/Title. An example of these elements is shown below:

ex4

9. Preview Chapters

Another technique that I borrow from traditionally published authors is the use of preview chapters. This is especially effective in a series of books. You can keep the reader’s interest up by putting the first chapter of your next book at the end of the current book. You may be thinking, “I haven’t written the next book yet, dummy.” And this may be true. As the release of your next book gets close, however, you can certainly change your existing book to have this preview chapter at the end. Your existing readers can usually re-download the eBook for free and your new readers will find it there and snap up your new book. I usually announce that I’m doing this and have gotten good traction, even from those that have already read the current book.

10. Write a Good Synopsis

A good 2-3 paragraph synopsis is something you can use over an over again. Most importantly, you can put it on the back over of your print book. If someone picks up a copy of your book, the natural tendency (after they marvel at your great cover) is to turn the book over and read the synopsis. You can also use it as the description of your book on your favorite eBook platform and as your “elevator speech” when someone asks you about your book in the hallway or…elevator. The synopsis should tell the reader enough of the story to entice them, but not give away key details or the ending. Think of movie trailers and television show teasers when you build your synopsis.

I hope these tips have helped you. This is a beefier blog than I usually put out each week, but it’s an important topic. As always, your comments and feedback 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. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series, Frank Incensed, is available for pre-order and will be released on April 24, 2015

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

Visualizing Your Writing – A Different Way to Analyze What You’ve Written

This week’s blog is a little bit different. I have been posting blogs that focus on mechanical aspects of writing and on other aspects of the independent publishing industry. This week, I wanted to let you in on one of the more abstract aspects of the tools that I use for my writing.

I have always been more of a visual person than someone who learns from the written word. Strange for a writer, but it makes sense to me. When I write, I see the worlds of my characters in my mind. I also see and hear my characters as I write dialog for them. Now, before you think I’m crazy, it’s a technique that works for me and there are times when paragraphs and even chapters appear that I have written on some kind of autopilot. Of course, there are other times when the words are more forced because I want to get a certain amount done. Those sections are never as good and are frequently reworked.

In past blogs, I have introduced you to the mind map and the character map. These are tools that I rely upon heavily.

Here is a quick review just in case you missed those blogs.

Mind Map

A mind map is a technique where you have a central idea (such as a book) and have several ideas connected to it (chapters). Once you have these connected ideas in place, you can start to refine them and move them around to establish their order. Here is a mind map that I did for my book, Let Me Be Frank – Frank Rozzani Detective Series Book 2:

Mind Map - Frank 2

As you can see, when I established the book, I didn’t have a title yet, but the chapters ended up staying fairly true to the final book. Of course, like with any of these techniques, you can deviate at any time if it makes sense to do so based on where your characters are headed or how they develop.

Character Map

I also introduced the concept of the character map. This graphical representation of the relationship among the main characters helps to establish who is related to whom and how they interact. It is very similar to a family tree.  An example, also from Let Me Be Frank, is shown below:

character map

This image shows the relationships within the Indigeaux family. The character with a red “X” is a murder victim. It also shows the Doucet and Monreaux families and how some of the key characters are related. This is useful when I sometimes forget names or relationships when the dialog or narrative is flying into the story.

Now that I’ve recapped these two techniques, I want to introduce a new one that I’ve just started using. It is the “Word Cloud” technique. Word clouds are becoming very popular as a way to show survey and poll results. You’ve probably seen them on TV or on the Internet.

The example shown below is a word cloud generated by the website http://www.tagul.com. This site has a very easy to use word cloud generator that is highly configurable. The example shown comes from a poll where people in California were asked to supply the first word they thought of when describing their state:

California-State

In a word cloud, the largest word in terms of font size is the one that was mentioned most frequently. Tagul actually gives you a count of how many times each word was mentioned. Not surprisingly, the number one word in this word cloud was California. You can see by quick review what the most popular words were in the survey. This particular word cloud has a couple of nice features. First, it is shaped like the state of California. Tagul and other services let you pick the shape of your cloud. Also, the color of the words helps some of the words stand out and can be tied to a legend.

So, you might be wondering, what does this tool, mostly used for surveys, have to do with writing. I asked myself the same question and then I thought I would try some experimentation. I started with a short story.

One of my short stories, Play it again Des, is about a man named Desmond Brown who runs away to New Orleans as a young piano player looking to make the big time. He has some talent, but is not content to pay his dues and put in the time to build up his talent. He meets a strange man, and talented trumpet player, named Lou who offers him what he wants instantly, but with a price.

I took the entire story and used the cut and paste option in Tagul to see what the results would be. I customized the colors a bit and removed words like “the”, “a”, “and”, etc. The results are shown below:

Des CloudAs you can see, the word cloud almost tells the story in the synopsis. The words in red are the ones that were repeated over 50 times. Desmond and Hobo are two of the main characters in the story. They both “play” the piano. Words in dark blue were mentioned between 30 and 49 times. Piano jumps out. Lou, the man who gives Desmond his instant dream, emerges. It’s interesting that the word “Want” pops out as well. This story is all about “Wants”, but the word “Need” is there also. What was interesting to me is that I saw my story emerge from this graphic.

Another useful purpose of this took is to identify words that you over-use during your writing. If words like “literally” or “exactly” pop up more than a few times in each chapter, you might have a problem with repetitiveness.

I decided to see if this technique works on chapters of longer works. You remember my Mind Map that I mentioned earlier? I wanted to see how the mind map boxes matched up with the chapters. Here is an example from Let Me Be Frank.

Frank 2 - Chapter 2This word cloud is from Chapter 2 where Frank Rozzani, the main character, finds out about the case from a police detective, Anita, and enlists the help of his friend Jonesy. You can see that the words “Frank”, “Case”, “Anita” and “Jonesy” are pretty prominent. Also, a popular character from the book, Frank’s dog Lucy, is strongly represented. Again, for a visual person like myself, this word cloud tells me a story and also tells me that my chapter is emphasizing the words that I want to convey in this section of the book.

I encourage you to try this with your work. The help will be twofold. It will help you eliminate words that might be redundant in your writing. It will also help you to see of your story is conveying the right message in a visual sense.

As always, I welcome your opinions and comments.

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, Frank Incensed, will be coming out on April 24, 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

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

Independent Publishers – Outsource Your Marketing to Save Yourself Time

One of the recurring themes in my blog is the time-consuming nature of marketing your book if you are an independently-published author. You’ve heard me talk about my day job, time management, and producing more ‘product’. You might ask, where does marketing and PR come in when trying to increase exposure for your book.

This is the one aspect of independent publishing where I turned to a professional for help.  As an independent author, I had no difficulty navigating Amazon, Create Space, and Barnes and Noble to publish print and e-book versions of my book. I had an editor, beta readers, and a cover designer. What I didn’t have is market research to tell me things that I needed to know and to help me build my network. The collective knowledge of a marketing professional that handles many authors can be a huge help. Here are some of the areas where outsourcing my marketing gives me an advantage:

Key Word Research – Amazon and other publishing platforms allow you to select key words. These are terms that make your book appear in certain searches that readers might run looking for books to read. All of the marketing experts recommend changing these words frequently to keep your work popping up on the latest searches. My marketing professional is able to regularly give me keywords. Updating them on a regular basis is easy and effective if you know what words to use. Because of exposure to multiple authors and search trends, the keywords that I’m given have more credibility than just guessing at what words to use.

Participation in Blog Tours – Because a book marketing professional presumably handles many authors, they have a group that can be called upon for blog tours. Every independently published author should have a blog to increase exposure. When we utilize each others blogs, it opens up an entirely new list of followers that will exponentially increase that exposure. Book marketing professionals can help you increase your network and help other authors in the process by sharing your own blog followers.

Interviews – In addition to blog tours, my book marketing guy helps me by frequently circulating interviews about me and my writing on different venues. These venues can be independent author web sites and blogs, online magazines, and other similar vehicles that I might not have access to on my own. He is able to spin interviews from a pool of questions that I have responded to and time the interviews with upcoming events such as book launches, cover reveals, etc.

Third Party Validation – It’s one thing to post links to your book on hundreds of groups on Facebook or to your twitter followers, but having someone else do it for you increases your credibility. If a respected third party is telling their multitude of followers that your book is worth a look it goes a long way. In addition, most marketing professionals have many more groups and platforms for this information to gain traction.

Cafeteria Style Services – The marketing person that I use has everything from full-service book PR packages down to single reviews and interviews that are very reasonably priced. You can pick and choose the services you want. If you need a third party review, a podcast interview, posting on Facebook, or something similar, you can pick just these services and pay a one time or monthly price accordingly. I like this arrangement because it allows me to ramp up or down and then measure the results. This is an important aspect of using outside marketing, make sure you can measure the results and adjust your marketing choices accordingly.

Now that I’ve talked about outside marketing/PR services, I want to stress that you use caution in selecting them. Here are some guidelines to help you select the one that’s right for you.

Beware of Full-Service Only – I mentioned the cafeteria-style arrangement that I have. For independently-published authors that don’t have unlimited funds, this is probably the way to go. If you lock yourself into full-service, you may be throwing money away and the results of what worked and what didn’t may be murky. Make sure you are focusing your marketing dollars.

Talk to Other Authors – Before outsourcing my marketing, I talked to other authors that were further down the path that had marketing campaigns that I admired. I found that they were usually very forthcoming about what and who they had good experiences with and what and who to stay away from. I try to share this information as well. If anyone is interested in my experiences with my outsourced marketing, you can email me at don@donmassenzio.com.

Don’t be Afraid to Try Something Different – One thing I’ve learned through outsourcing my marketing is that it isn’t just the books that are being marketed when you are independently published. It is the author, the author’s thoughts, and the author’s image that get marketed as well. Be prepared to do podcast interviews, written interviews, giveaways, and other things that might take you out of your comfort zone.

Be Opinionated – If you are not happy with a particular aspect of your marketing or you feel that something is damaging your image, say so. You are paying for a service so you have a right to express your own ideas and input. Don’t be forced into a cookie-cutter marketing approach that is contrary to your vision.

I hope that these tips have been helpful to you. I have found much more success and have freed up time by outsourcing certain aspects of my book marketing. That being said, I try to keep my spending limits within the boundaries of the profit that I’m making on my writing. Someday, like all of us, I hope that my profit greatly exceeds what I’m spending, but until then, I want to keep these expenses in line. My marketing person understands and respects this. It has been a mutually beneficial arrangement thus far and I am hoping to gradually outsource more of my marketing chores so I can spend more time writing. I’m sure that is a goal for most of us.

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. His third book in the Frank Rozzani series will be coming out in April, 2015.

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

Independently-Published Authors – Your Best Marketing Tool – Reasons to Quickly Write Your Next Book

Fellow authors,

My post this week is all about the activity that most of us probably enjoy the least, marketing our work. You’ve probably seen my posts all over Facebook and my tweets. This is the part of independent publishing that I dread and that is the most cumbersome.

I’m sure most of us would just like to write and ignore the marketing. Unfortunately, if you want to gain exposure, this is an unavoidable aspect of what we do.

For the mundane marketing tasks, such as posting to Facebook and other social media outlets, I have found time-saving ways to raise the awareness of my product. I’ve also enlisted the help of a PR person to help me gain exposure through third parties like podcasts and blog interview tours.

I will make sure that future blog posts focus on some of these aspects of marketing. I have some great tips to share around posting on social media and using giveaways to build your mailing list, another very important aspect of marketing.

In this post, however, I want to talk about the best aspect of marketing for an independently published author, writing. That’s right, the more you write, the more exposure you’ll gain and the more product you’ll have to offer to the very deep pool of readers. Here are some reasons to write as much as possible:

1) More Product = More Potential Readers: There are a lot of consumers of books out there. The more offerings you have, the more exposure you will get with those readers if they like your work. If you only release one book every 1-2 years, you might fade from the memory of readers that read 2-3 novels per month.

2) More Product = More Potential Reviews: I’ve blogged about feedback and its importance in the past. It’s advantageous to get feedback on multiple works so that you can assess how readers are reacting to your work and make adjustments. It also gives you the chance to get reviews from multiple (non-family) independent reviewers which will help your profile on platforms such as Amazon.

3) More Product = Greater Traction: In traditional publishing, it takes an author an average of three books to gain traction. On a publisher’s schedule, this is a minimum of three years if you’re lucky enough to find a publisher that will wait for success through three books. Did you know that John Grisham had boxes of the book A Time To Kill in his garage until The Firm became a huge hit. It was his first book and probably one of his best in terms of substance. The good news is that we can accelerate that period of time and get to that three book milestone more quickly.

4) Less Product = Selling Your Book to Death: If you only have one book and you’re posting weekly to your favorite social media outlet, you’re going to hit the same targeted readers multiple times with your single offering. This can turn readers off to you’re single work because they are overexposed to it.

5) The more books you write, the more books you’ll sell: There is something called the Long-Tail Effect. This is the tendency of readers to go back and purchase older books by an author if they read a newer one that they enjoy. This is how I’ve discovered many authors. Harlan Coben is a case in point for me. I read one of his later books and liked his writing style and this caused me to go back and read his earlier work chronologically. If you are on your 4th or 5th book and it hits with readers, it is almost guaranteed that your earlier books will sell more.

Now, after my pep talk extolling the virtues of writing multiple books, that doesn’t mean you should do so without some important do’s and don’ts.

1) Make sure that what you are publishing is of good quality: Publishing 12 books that are not of good quality will not gain readers for you. A reader will take a chance on 1 or maybe 2 books, but continued quality issues will ensure that your books will not be read or attract loyal readers. Negative word of mouth spreads as fast, if not faster, than positive.

2) Consider writing short stories: If your an author of fiction, short stories can be useful for multiple reasons. First, they are a great way to practice your craft. Second, they can be published individually to give readers a small, inexpensive taste of your writing, or they can be collected into an anthology giving you another book to offer. Also, short stories can be a way to further gain exposure by offering them for publication in niche online or print magazines and collections. Hugh Howey’s Epic series, Wool, started as a short story.

3) Don’t rush to publish something before it’s ready: I’ve extolled the virtues of editors and beta readers. Don’t cut corners. Make sure that you have done all of your quality checks before launching. One slip in quality and your readers may abandon you.

4) Don’t be afraid to relaunch a book: Once you’ve published a book, that doesn’t mean that it will reach a peak early on and then fade away. Remember my John Grisham story. A Time To Kill is believed by many to be his best work and is arguably the best adaptation of one of his novels into a movie.

5) Play with pricing and giveaways: When you have a new book coming out, consider lowering the prices of your earlier books or using the free or progressive pricing options on Amazon to entice readers to impulse buy them.

The information in this blog evolves for me on a daily basis. If you take nothing else away from this, strive to learn from the tasks that you carry out to gain a positive reputation as an author. Remember, authors write books. Don’t pay attention to the artificial time constraints imposed on traditionally published authors. Break out of the box and keep on writing.

As always, your questions and comments 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