The truth told slant: 5 tips for building a fantasy world your readers will love

by Paula Berinstein

Great fantasy is like a chimera, the mythological beast that’s part lion, part goat, and part snake: it’s based on familiar components, but something is just a little off.

Fantasy isn’t about making it all up. It’s about taking the known and tweaking it a bit. That’s because the best stories are the ones in which we can see ourselves–stories in which the protagonist and his world serve as a proxy for us. When that happens, we care. The more unfamiliar the world, the characters, or their problems, the harder it is for us to follow the story and empathize with the hero. In other words, our engagement depends on our ability to find the familiar in the story, whether it’s the setting, the problems facing the society, the characters’ dilemmas, or even the names.

The great fantasy authors–J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Joss Whedon—base their worlds on places and people that are familiar to us:

  • They set their stories in English towns and villages, boarding schools, high schools. We can see ourselves at Hogwarts (Harry Potter) or Sunnydale High (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
  • They present realistic characters with problems we can relate to: Frodo struggles with temptation (The Lord of the Rings); Alice is pedantic (Through the Looking Glass); Lyra Belacqua desperately wants her parents to love her (the His Dark Materials series). Ron Weasley and Buffy Summers aren’t exotic; they’re normal kids in every respect but one.
  • Their narrators and characters speak in ways we hear all the time. In Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a witch says she can “do” next Tuesday like some Beverly Hills agent. Ron doesn’t talk in thees and thous; things he finds incomprehensible are “mental.”

As you can see, basing your story on the familiar doesn’t doom you to creating boring, mundane worlds populated by the usual suspects. There’s a whole universe out there to use. Here are some guidelines that will help you succeed.

The Techniques

1. Do your homework. If you think writing fantasy is easy because you get to make everything up, think again. Your setting, props, and characters have to ring just as true in fantasy as in other kinds of stories, so learn as much as you can about the environment, life forms, objects, and background on which your world will be based. These things may be real or imaginary, but in either case, there is much to know about them. Find out all you can about vampires, and I don’t mean read Stephanie Meyer. Get as close as possible to the original source material. Find out everything you can about the original vampire myths. If you’re writing about dragons, learn about the Komodo dragon and other real-life analogs. If you can, observe in the real world. Do dragons do pushups like those lizards we see in our backyards? Know more than you’ll ever be able to use. The more you understand the roots of your world, the more believable you’ll be able to make your story.

2. Pick a referent. Author Jane Yolen advises selecting a specific place or thing in the real world as an analogy. If you use a specific English village or Welsh castle or Himalayan mountain as a jumping off point, you’ll be able to create a credible setting. Riffing off of real places isn’t cheating; it’s essential.

3. Create a rich, internally consistent world. Create internally consistent, knowable laws for your universe. Otherwise you risk alienating your reader. Paint the world with specificity and detail to make it stunningly real, but beware: don’t try to use even half of this information in your story. See tip number 5.

4. Create believable characters. Your characters shouldn’t be types, but complex individuals. Give them flaws and contradictions, but in the case of your protagonist, make sure we see something likeable and/or vulnerable about him ASAP so we’ll stick with him. (Not for nothing is Harry Potter an oppressed orphan) And give them names we can relate to. Yes, fantasy worlds are supposed to be exotic, but if we stumble over the characters’ names, we’ll be taken out of the story. Cute names are fine. Unpronounceable and weird-looking names put barriers in our way.

5. Reveal your world slowly. Open with something familiar (London, a living room) and reveal the world to us as your protagonist discovers it. Don’t plop us down in the middle of a place we can’t possibly understand. Dole out small doses of salient details to give us the idea while you focus on the characters and the action.

Conclusion

As the great poet Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The truth is the familiar reality underlying your story. The slant is your view of that world—the thing that makes the story your own.

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Paula Berinstein (Paula B) is the author of seven geeky nonfiction books, including Making Space Happen and Business Statistics on the Web, and numerous magazine articles. She is also host of The Writing Show, a podcast series is designed to help you practice capturing readers’ attention. Inspired by literary agent Kristin Nelson’s two-page pitch sessions, Paula plays agent and comments on anonymous submissions on the show.

Meet Kobo Writing Life author Scott Steinberg

scott steinbergScott Steinberg wears a few hats. He’s the CEO of TechSavvy Global, a management consulting and market research firm, and serves as a strategic advisor to Fortune 500 corporations, non-profits, universities and start-ups. Plus, he’s a bestselling author of books including The Business Expert’s Guidebook,  The Crowdfunding Bible, and The Modern Parents’ Guide, a series on how technology affects kids and families.

1)      What was the first eBook that you published on Kobo?

The Business Expert’s Guidebook – a complete guide to successfully starting, launching and operating any business using everyday, off-the-shelf technology solutions including popular apps, gadgets and online services. It’s been hailed by top editors, industry leaders and bestselling authors as “the one book every entrepreneur should keep handy.”

But it’s only the first by roughly 10 minutes: Thanks to the beauty of self-publishing, and user-friendliness of Kobo’s platform, it was quickly joined by other volumes such as The Crowdfunding Bible (a complete guide to raising money for businesses and startups online) and The Modern Parent’s Guide (world’s first high-tech parenting series) right after. Literally, in less time than it takes to answer these interview questions, anyone can take a manuscript and publish it to the platform – and, essentially, start their own publishing label and be bringing in income overnight.

2)      What is the most interesting thing about eBook publishing?

How fast, painless and utterly sensible it is – you can go from idea to final product in a matter of weeks or sooner, depending on how rapidly you work. This means that suddenly barriers to entry are nonexistent, and the field is completely democratized: Anyone, anywhere can publish what they want, when they want, and in record time. Consider the case of The Crowdfunding Bible: Built on the back of an emerging business trend that started to snowball just weeks before, from start to finish, it took less than a month to create.

Now, you don’t need to wait to be picked by a publishing house, waste months pitching concepts or receive anyone’s permission or validation to produce a work – and it can be any shape, size or format. This means that suddenly anyone with a great idea, or who sees rising interest in a topic emerging, can take their case straight to the general public. Instead of editors, publishers and agents getting to decide what sees the light of day and when, you do – and get to retain ultimate control over your vision. Likewise, you also gain the pleasure of enjoying a one-to-one relationship with readers: Who, through direct outreach, social media and other channels, may even influence the shape of the work or future volumes to come.

You, too can become a digital publishing pioneer. Don’t let traditional industry operators fool you: Our works have been featured in dozens of outlets from CNN to Inc. and Good Morning America, and recommended by bestselling authors and the stars of top-rated TV shows Shark Tank. You’d be amazed what independent authors can achieve today.

3)      What inspires you?

Two words: First or best. With a tip of the hat to GE, the motto is simple here: “We bring good things to life.” You could say we look for books that need creating – but more often than not, they seem to look for us.

Consider The Modern Parent’s Guide series: As a high-tech business consultant by day and full-time parent, it’s painfully obvious how powerfully technology has transformed modern kids’ and families’ lives – and yet precious few parenting books acknowledge this, let alone speak to the topic. And so the world’s first high-tech parenting series covering all aspects of connected life, and offering practical real-world strategies for managing its impact on the home, was born. Why? Because yours truly – an average, everyday working male – was staggered to discover than five years after the volumes should have been written, and in a form more digestible than the usual 500-page manual, they still didn’t exist.

If you look at our catalogue, you’ll notice a common theme throughout – the books teach, inform, and fill in knowledge gaps, or aim to address to subjects of rising interest that have previously been ignored. We usually wind up doing something simply because it needs to be done.

4)      What was the best piece of advice you ever received as a writer?

Just write! It’s all about training and self-discipline. Create a routine, set aside regular writing time each day, and stick with the habit. Practice makes perfect. As Lorne Lanning, creator of The Oddworld video game series once put it to me, the rules are simple: If you don’t train your [rear end] off, you’ll never win a gold medal. Don’t worry about being the next Stephen King or penning a great American novel™ – start small, build your talents, and succeed over time. A series of base hits can be just as effective at winning the game as the occasional home run.

Works don’t have to be War and Peace either: Today, even a manuscript as small as 36-48 pages can qualify as a book in some circles, especially given the digital age’s shortened attention spans. Sit down, say what needs to be said, edit and refine, and don’t be afraid to tie a bow on your book when it’s done – no work is ever perfect, and few go from zero to bestseller in a single effort. That’s the pleasure of self-publishing: You define success, and get to say when the volume is done. Always do your best, and give readers their money’s worth, but remember – a single battle doesn’t define the war.

5)      What advice would you offer to up-and-coming writers?

Publish now. Publish often. Stop making excuses. If you see an opportunity, go for it. Don’t buy into expensive coaches, consultants or marketing programs, and don’t expect to get rich overnight. Be yourself. Be original. Be arresting. Understand your goals and victory conditions before creating a single word. Believe in yourself – accept constructive insight and criticism, but understand that you’ve got to be your most ardent evangelist. Expect hardships and setbacks: It’s the ability to push through and persevere that defines true successes. Know when to say enough is enough and ship the volume. Know when you don’t know the answers – and whom to turn to for advice. Aim high, and don’t be afraid to try, ask or do: You’ll never know unless you make the attempt, and falling short of greatness can still mean landing well ahead of the pack. Recognize there are countless ways to win even if you lose (establishing subject matter expertise, creating network opportunities, building visibility, growing your skills, etc.), understand that there is no such thing is failure – only the price of education. Don’t lose your sense of humor… as they say, no good plan survives first contact with the enemy. Also: If you can, marry an understanding spouse – it definitely helps. :)

6)      Tell us about what you are reading now.

The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene (blame a personal obsession with strategy, war and negotiations) and Money Talks by Alan Weiss (a blueprint for building a professional speaking career). I’ve also been enjoying Delta Green: Through a Glass, Darkly, because I’ve read virtually every other book dealing with H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Too much existential horror is never enough, and you know what they say about all work and no play. Sadly though, with a growing sprout here who is obsessed with reading, I’ve probably spent more time with Dr. Seuss than any other author in the past year. As soon as we find a decent babysitter, maybe I can catch up on my Suzanne Collins or John Grisham.

 

Check out Scott’s books on Kobo!

 

Getting it done — how to write your first novel

by Patricia McLinn

Hands down, the top issue beginning novelists encounter is they don’t begin.

This problem comes in two flavors:

  • Not starting your writing session
  • Not starting your novel.

Take those in reverse order.

Not starting your writing project.

How should a writer start writing? With an outline/plan/synopsis? Or diving in with words?

Countless would-be writers have spun writerly wheels deep into inescapable ditches while contemplating these questions. Don’t let wondering where is best to start keep you from starting at all.

Some folks see this as Story vs. Craft or Characters vs. Structure. Pfft. Good writing needs both. I view it as writing from the Inside Out (from connecting with characters at a gut level out to story structure) or the Outside In (from structure into character.) Either way, you need both inside and outside. The difference is how you get there.

I’m an Inside Outer. Outlines stop me dead. How do I know? Because I’ve tried. I have writer friends who are Outside Inners, who become lost in the wilderness if they start with characters. How do they know? Because they’ve tried.

Only you can figure out which approach works for you. You figure out by doing. So get in there and start something (outline or scene), then try something else (the other one.) Which feels better? Which makes you want to keep going? Go with it. But also know that at some point, you will need both. Where you start is just that – a start.

Beware I: How-to books, charts, writing exercises. These elements are helpful if they aid your writing, not if they replace writing.

Beware II: Over-researching. Research is fun. It looks like you’re doing something productive. It can also be a grand excuse to not write. I do broad-brush research before starting. Only after I’m into a story, do I know what details it requires – I research those. Remember, research serves the story. Not vice versa.

Beware III: Thinking you need to be a better writer before you can start writing. Nope. You have to write to be a better writer. What you write doesn’t have to be perfect or even good at the start. It just has to be that way at the end.

Not Starting Your Writing Session

Paraphrasing John Gardner, the hardest 15 minutes in writing are the 15 minutes before you start writing.

There’s a good reason for that, as shown in two quotes about writing. Legendary sports writer Red Smith said all you had to do was “sit in front of a typewriter and open a vein.” Variously ascribed to Gene Fowler or Doug Adams, the other quote advises “staring at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

We’ve left typewriters and paper behind (mostly), but blood’s still part of the program.

You dig into the guts and souls of characters who live in your head with the hope of connecting them to unknown readers. How can it not be hard? How can it not be wonderful? How can it not be terrifying to sit down in front of the computer and prepare to do this?

So don’t. Instead, put the big, terrifying, wonderful important stuff out of your mind and concentrate on other matters. In other words, play mind games with yourself.

Find a routine. Keep your writing place and time sacred and only for that. Play the same music over and over until you’re as conditioned to write when it plays as Pavlov’s dogs were to salivate.

Use guilt. For many of us it’s a renewable resource, so don’t stint. You have an ability to write and you’re not using it? How dare you waste that. You have a dream to write and you’re not pursuing it? What kind of example are you to your children. You have characters in your head and you’re not letting them out? How cruel of you to condemn them to everlasting solitude.

Most of all, remind yourself of this writing essential: BICHOK.That’s Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. I do an entire workshop on BICHOKing. But here’s one trick:

In each writing session, leave something unfinished. Don’t polish the end of a chapter, then close your file and be done for the day. That leaves a wall of inertia to climb the next time you sit down. Instead, go on to the next chapter, next scene, next whatever and start writing. Doesn’t have to be a lot. Then – and this is vital — write whatever else you’re thinking about or know about that chapter/scene/whatever. Think notes, scraps, fragments. This is for you alone, so the next time you open your file, you have reminders of what was percolating in your brain. I particularly like fragments of dialogue strung together with ellipses. Filling in those ellipses, along with supporting notes and comments left like breadcrumbs from the previous session return my thoughts to where they were at the end of the previous session. That makes the next writing session much easier to start.

So get started!

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pa-mclinnPatricia McLinn, or PA McLinn as her readers know her, is a writing instructor and the author of several romances including the Bardville, Wyoming series.
See her finished work here.

Milestone or millstone? How the first book gets written, part 2

Few would-be authors ever manage to complete that first book. Odd, though, once they have, few stop at just one. Clearly finishing your first book is a major milestone. But how do you get there?

We asked several of our authors what wisdom they gained from the process of completing their first novel. Published many times over, authors Michelle Leighton Barbara Freethy Hugh Howey Alison BrennanPhyllis Smallman, and Olivia Cunning are as different as erotica and mystery. But they all share one important feature: there was a time when they hadn’t completed a single book.

Here’s what the process taught them — lessons they still use today.

Don’t fret, it’s just a draft.

Hugh Howey: Keep in mind that you’re writing a rough draft, not a finished product. Most writers come from a long history of being readers. We tend to compare the tripe we’re laying down with what we’ve sampled off bookstore shelves. But these completed works are the result of a dozen revisions and edits. They had other readers and critical eyes involved. What I learned most of all was to trust the revision process, to write for the scrap heap, and to power through to the end so that I could discover my story.

A rough draft is like throwing clay onto the potter’s wheel. Expecting that clay to land in the shape of an exquisite vase is lunacy. And yet, I still find myself falling into this trap. I have to remind myself that yes, this is ugly and out of order, but I’ll clean it up on the next pass. Or the third pass. Or the sixth one.

Hugh writes fantasy. Read his work here.  

Sometimes knowing where you’re going helps you get there. Plot your plot.

Barbara Freethy: I learned that writing a book is a challenging process. Everyone attacks writing from a different perspective. Some authors will do a lot of pre-writing in terms of character interviews and plot charts with sticky notes. Others just jump in and start writing. I tend to start out with a few key plot points and then begin the writing as I enjoy the process of learning about my characters as they come to life. But it’s important for every writer to understand that whatever works for them is fine. There’s no one way to write a book.

Barbara is a romance writer. Here are the finished products.

There’s no substitute for hard work.

Alison Brennan: Focus and commitment. I write every day because if I don’t, it’s too easy to procrastinate. 

Alison writes crime fiction, mysteries, romantic suspense and more. Here is some of her finished work.

Know you’ll learn from mistakes, so go ahead and make them.

Phyllis Smallman: Everything you learn from the day you outline a story until you write, “the end,” will be of use in your next writing project. You learn the most from your mistakes and your determination not to make the same ones a second time will make the next book better.

Phyllis is a mystery writer. Here is her finished work.

Give them a reason to turn the page.

Olivia Cunning: I learn something from every book I write. And I have never written two books in exactly the same way. I learned a bit about writing hooks at the end of chapters in that first book. Try to end chapters on a hook instead of giving closure. You don’t really want the reader to put the book down at the end of every chapter. You want them to keep turning pages until they get to the end. So when I reach a natural stopping point, that’s where I add a little twist to lead into the next chapter, then and only then, do I end the chapter. I still use that technique. I didn’t realize what it was called when I wrote my first novel. I just noticed my favorite author at that time, Sidney Sheldon, did it and I could never put his books down until I reached the end.

Olivia writes erotic romance. Here are some of her finished books.

Live Chat with KWL Authors via National Post

Following the National Post’s recent in-depth look at self-publishing via a reporter who has experienced it directly, Melissa Leong (AKA Wynne Channing), you can join a free live chat featuring three KWL authors.

Melissa Leong (a.k.a. Wynne Channing, author of What Kills Me), joins Mark Lefebvre, director of self-publishing and author relations at Kobo Inc., plus fellow self-published authors Steve Vernon and Tina Folsom, to answer everything you’ve always wanted to know about self-publishing, but had no idea who to ask. Join the chat here on Monday, Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m. EST!

Click here to join the live chat!

Judging Book Covers

We all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but cover art is the first thing that a reader sees of a book, and is fundamental for marketing and attracting the right readers. So perhaps we can’t judge a book by its cover, but we should certainly judge the book covers themselves on their own merits and whether or not they do the job they’re meant to do.

Jeroen Ten Berge is a talented New Zealand graphic designer who works in book covers, illustrations, and brand design.  We asked him for a few of his top picks for great book cover design, and here are the results:

the twelve

The Twelve: Appropriately dark and brooding. Simple, but very effective.

medal of honor

Medal Of Honor: This mean mother f*****, and a medal of honor? Gotta read it. Dirty, gritty and bold.

the retribution

The Retribution: Colorful and ominous. Typography could have been stronger, bolder. The blurb is even hard to read when seen at a larger size.

200px-StephenKingPetSematary

Pet Sematary: One of a series in this style, this one appeals most. Again, simple, but very effective.

girl with dragon tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Intriguing image, distinct use of color.

the_road.large

The Road: One of a series, this one the best. Nice incorporation of a blurb. If the blurb had been a little bit darker the author and title would have stood out more. Still, Chip Kidd’s cover is better. Favourite book of mine.

Dark_Places_cover

Dark Places: Bold, great use of the image and color. Supported by solid typography nicely integrated with the image. Fantastic book.

Telegraph-Avenue

Telegraph Avenue: Very smart way to immediately tell the reader what this book is about – great cover.

whats-left-of-me

What’s Left of Me: Love the restraint and starkness, the use of color. The typography is a bit scattered for my taste, but overall an excellent cover.

twilight

Twilight: Love it, and hate it. The image is fantastic and has become iconic, the typography I fancy less, could be bolder without competing with the image. The author’s name is hardly readable.

divided states

The Divided States of America: Bold in color, lay out and typography – the design reflecting the divide between the two ruling parties in the US.

pygmy

PYGMY: Bold colors, matched by bold typography. Love the repetition.

micro

Micro: The clever illustration sucks you in. That, combined with the limited color palette and bold typography make this a great cover.

Visit Jeroen Ten Berge’s website: jeroentenberge.com/

Find these book covers and more of Joroen’s picks on Kobo!

My Writing Life – Steve Vernon

SteveVernon_Ghost_Story_GalaSteve Vernon is often described as Halifax’s hardest working horror writer. It might be because he seems to put out about a half dozen books each year.  His work is celebrated throughout the horror genre and Edward Lee (author of City Infernal) has said this about him: “It’s a rare thrill these days when the genre unleashes an utterly exclusive voice. Steve Vernon is indeed such a voice, a writer who knows how to manipulate the building blocks of the horror genre with the confidence of a veteran, while unveiling a style, a craft, and a creative perception that is excitingly original.

Steve, who has recently begun writing various different young adult works, answered a few questions about his writing, injecting his trademark wry humour into his answers.

When did you first discover a love of writing? Is there a particular book that made you want to become a writer?

Wow. That’s a tough question.

My love for writing began early on. I particularly remember a class visit by W.O. Mitchell. He visited our school and at the time I remember thinking that I wanted to grow up to be just like this dude. He seemed so comfortable within his own skin – a fellow who truly knew the role that he played in life. I remember that he swore sometimes – right out loud – right in front of the class. I thought that was cool, as well.

Hey – remember I was prepubescent at the time.

It was about that year that I submitted my very first story to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I remember how excited I was to actually receive a hand-written rejection slip. The way I see it – somebody in the editorial office must have had kids and took one long at my scrawled up and poorly-typed submission and decided to be kind to this poor misguided child. In hindsight, the story stunk so bad they probably needed a gas mask a smear of Vicks Vapo-rub under their nostrils before they even attempted to read it. Most likely some industrial tongs to yank the offending manuscript from out of its smudged up envelope.

I never did manage to place a story in Alfred Hitchcock, though.

Where do you get your story ideas?      

Under rocks. Usually big ones. My ideas generally have long wiggly legs and smell a little like recycled tea bags.

The best ones speak in tongues.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received as a writer?        

Writing is a game of patience. Don’t be in a hurry. Read, write and revise. Your first word is not always your best word. Don’t get discouraged.

This stuff takes time.

What made you decide to self-publish?

After all of that molasses about patience that I spread out in that last question – I’d have to say that the biggest reason I wanted to self-publish was impatience. I’ve got a lot of stories to tell – and I sometimes get tired of waiting to find the proper publisher.

SteveVernon_HauntedHarboursThen too there is a distinct lack of good publishers out there for my sort of work. I have hooked up with way too many small press publishers who turned out to be either well-meaning amateurs who wound up making a royal mess of the whole enterprise – or else they turned out to be less-than-well-meaning con artists.

That isn’t to say that ALL publishers are rotten. No, no – this is not the ranting of one of those indie writers who swear that all publishers should be shot, burned, resuscitated and shot again. That’s not my outlook.

You see – what I should make clear right off of the bat is that I am what is known as a “hybrid” writer – in that I write both for a traditional regional publisher – Nimbus Publishing here in Nova Scotia – as well as independently publishing my own work. Besides that, I also have published quite a few e-books through an e-publishing company known as Crossroad Press.

I’m fisherman with more than one rod.

The traditional publishing is the foundation that I build my tower of yarns upon. The self-publishing is my wave to the future.

I stand on bedrock and reach for the stars.

Where do you usually write?    

In my office – at a desk that is so heaped and cluttered that the first words out of any casual spectator’s mouth is “This week on Hoarders…”

Do you believe in Writer’s Block?

There are blocks and obstacles in every profession. A good craftsperson will usually figure out a way around such obstacles.

I try and remind myself constantly that whenever I sit down to write a story or a novel or a poem or a dirty joke – that I am not doing anything more elaborate than nailing boards together to build a house. I try and think of myself as a craftsman and a tradesperson. If my client wants me to build him a box I am NOT going to sit there and tell him that I am box-blocked. I am NOT going to sit there and tell him that I must wait upon inspiration.

My muse is a three-toothed, unshaven, slouch-shouldered, slab-armed thug of a foreman named Bubba. He leans on the time-clock, breathing in great bearish beer-stained gusto, reminding me constantly that I’m getting paid for sitting here and looking pretty.

“Get to work you lolly-gagging chowderhead,” is what he lovingly tells me every morning when I sit down at my keyboard.

You see – a block is nothing more than a challenge thrown down in front of a writer. We must learn to fly over, run around, limbo under or smash straight through any obstacle or so-called Writers Block in our bath.

That’s why God invented airplanes, end runs, submarines and bulldozers.

If a reader came upon your eBooks for the first time, which of your titles would you recommend?

FSteveVernon_FlashVirus_EpisodeOneor young adult – and grown-ups who can’t spell the word dignified – I would definitely have to recommend SINKING DEEPER OR MY QUESTIONABLE (POSSIBLY HEROIC) DECISION TO INVENT A SEA MONSTER. I mean where else are you going to find a book that opens with a jailbreak, segues into a clothesline pole hijack and an impromptu Main Street caber toss – resulting in an accidentally drive-by dory sinking – and then commences to heat on up?

For folks with more sense of decorum I’d likewise have to recommend my hockey and vampire novella SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME.

And finally – I want to definitely jump up and down and wave a big bright lollipop colored flag over my continuing series FLASH VIRUS – which first episode is available on Kobo for absolutely free.

I mean – how can you resist a novel that starts out with the sentence – “So as near as I could tell the end of the world began roughly about the time that Billy Carver’s butt rang – about halfway through the War of 1812.”

Dig on that awhile, would you?

Check out some of Steve Vernons’s titles at Kobo.

SteveVernon_MidnightHatTrickSteveVernon_ShotgunChristmasSteveVernon_SinkingDeeper

Steve Vernon’s Blog:  Yours in Storytelling

 

Power Pricing: How should I price my eBooks?

Nathan Maharaj, Kobo’s own Director of Merchandising (otherwise known as Head Bookseller) put together some thoughts to answer the question he most often gets from publishers and authors: “How should I price my eBooks?”

The answer:

  • Price deliberately: Have a plan, and measure your results.
  • Price responsively: Be prepared to react to the market.
  • Price often: You don’t have to re-set the prices on every title every day, but be aware of opportunities and remember how quick and easy it is to change your prices in Kobo Writing Life. A few clicks, and your changes are made and will go live as quickly as possible.

It helps to remember that “price” should be treated as a verb – it’s an action that we take, rather than a noun we define.

Although we’re talking about price, setting prices isn’t the goal here: it’s maximizing revenue. Because when you don’t have a print run to capitalize and returns to hedge for, the only thing that matters is the amount of revenue you’re generating.

Rather than selling a lot of books, success is a matter of optimizing revenues by making decisions closer to the customer than ever, without the distractions of print runs, warehousing, returns, and all the other things that are neatly side-stepped with epublishing and more importantly, distract us from empathizing as closely as possible with the customer who has a need that might be satisfied by a book. Maybe your book.

Here are three quick tips garnered over three years at the helm of Kobo’s merchandising team:

Tip #1: Stop giving away money.

Nobody does this deliberately, yet it still happens all the time. This isn’t about pricing a book low: low prices are fine and you should feel free to play there, especially with the aim of boosting interest. However, while we often see a lot of tidy, attractive prices set in one currency, say $2.99 USD, they turn into something quite different when converted: $2.89 CAD, for example.  And if your Canadian fans are willing to pay $2.89 for your book, market research suggests strongly that they’d be just as willing to pay $2.99.  People like tidy, familiar prices. By leaving the CAD price as $2.89, you could be leaving money on the table. Ten cents a book may not seem like much, but when you get into greater and greater volume, it can add up quickly.

If you know for a fact through rigorous experimentation that this is the right price for the market, then by all means, keep it there. But if you suspect you might be taking less from each customer than they were willing to pay on a substantial portion of your sales, then it’s worth thinking about setting prices in multiple markets. Not every book and not every market. But if there’s a secondary market that’s important to you, chances are Kobo supports the currency directly and can accommodate your market-specific price.

 Tip #2: Price for today.

Be aware of opportunities that might get you more publicity and more traffic to your eBooks.  When you release a new book in a series, for example, it might be a good time to reduce the price of the other books in the series to encourage backlist purchases, and to help encourage new readers to pick up your other works.

This book, for example: it was doing respectably well, nice and steady, but something happened in late September that gave its revenues a small but noticeable boost:

price chart 1

Was the price of this title raised?  In fact, no.  The price of the title was lowered by 25%, and yet revenue still went up.  So what did happen?  The author released a new title, well-supported by publicity:

price chart 2

At the same time, the price of the backlist title was lowered to take advantage of the new fanbase created by the high sales of the new title. The price went down, but revenues went up! Having done this, we don’t know if the publisher will continue reducing prices to see if they can maintain their new revenue level with volume, or if they’ll test price sensitivity by pushing upwards.

But in this case, there was a clear opportunity to lower prices and gain revenue.

Tip #3: Use price to solve price problems.

There’s a lot you can do with pricing, but it doesn’t solve every problem. For some books, the only price they’ll sell at won’t work with others. It’s critical to understand, or at least have a good guess, as to whether you’re looking at a price-related problem before jumping on price as the solution.

For example, let’s look at someone who put their entire catalogue on sale for a brief period of time. Looking at the overall revenues, it looks like a big success:

price chart a

They sold a huge volume during the sale, and then went back to business as usual afterwards. No harm, no foul.

But let’s dig in a bit.

This shows the sales for their biggest seller, title #1:

price chart b

As you can see, dropping the price a long way didn’t lift sales volume by much. And after the promo period, title #1’s sales slowed considerably, taking over a month to begin crawling back up to its original levels. In fact, it never fully recovered. This was a failure, leaving money on the table and cutting short a winner in mid-stride.

Other titles fared less badly, but the only title for which this promotion was a clear hit was the title #5:

price chart c

You can clearly see where the promotional sale started, but not where it ended. This sale gave this title new life, and boosted its revenues long-term. In this case, the 5th, 6th and 7th books should have been the only titles put on sale, as these titles were the weakest sellers of the catalogue and stood to gain the most.  Titles 1-4 were already bestsellers and didn’t need the boost; in fact the sale hurt them in the end. Bestselling titles are bestsellers, and while they need their prices optimized as any other, you really shouldn’t paint all your books with the same brush.

There is still so much more to explore when it comes to pricing, but hopefully this will give you some ideas and tools to bring to bear in your own endeavors.

Remember that pricing in Kobo Writing Life can be as flexible and responsive as you are. Play around, experiment with pricing, and see what pricing your books deliberately, responsively, and often can do for you.

Enter the “Ask the Experts” Contest!

Image.ashxFeeling a little lost in the sea of digital self-publishing?

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The Mighty Pen – The Benefits of Writing Longhand

The Mighty Pen

By Julianne MacLean

juliannemacleanIf you’re a writer, you’ll probably agree that one of the biggest challenges facing authors these days is how to find the right balance between the business side of being published and the creative side—which involves the all-important task of plotting, writing, and finishing a book.  It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to shut out all the noise from emails and the internet, not to mention the pressure to self-promote and network tirelessly through social media.  This new world of technology is a valuable aid to our industry, but the downside is the distraction it presents.

If you’re having trouble keeping your head in the game of storytelling, you may want to try a new approach.  Why not pick up a pencil and notepad (the paper kind) and write longhand like they used to do in the olden days?  It works wonderfully for me, and I’ve heard that Tess Gerritsen and James Patterson also write longhand, so there must be something to this archaic method of composing a novel.

If you’ve always written on a computer, you may not think it will work for you, but do give it a try.  You might be surprised by what you can accomplish.

The Benefits of Writing Longhand

Writing longhand forces you to kick your internal editor out the door and pour the story onto the page without backspacing, deleting, or re-crafting sentences to make them pretty.  You can relax and simply let go, knowing you’ll sculpt your work of art later when you are transcribing your pages.

Tip: When you can’t think of the perfect word at any given moment, use whatever is at the forefront of your mind, even if it’s a lazy, inarticulate word.  Who cares? It’s only written in pencil anyway.  Underline it with a squiggly line so you’ll remember to check the thesaurus later when you are typing.  The goal is to relax and let your story flow.

Writing longhand also gets you out of your computer chair, where most of us spend far too much time as it is.  This can decrease the risk of repetitive strain injuries on your neck, back, and especially your wrists.  I write in a few different places—the bed, a big comfy chair in the living room, a table in a coffee shop—and I change positions often. Sometimes I stretch out.  Sometimes I curl up.

Perhaps most importantly, writing longhand puts a physical and mental barrier between you and the distraction of technology (i.e. YouTube, emails, blogs, Twitter, etc.), which can sweep you away for hours if you let it.

IMG_1803

Julianne MacLean relaxing at Kobo’s head office in Toronto

Tip: Put your Blackberry or IPhone in another room and turn off the sound on your computer so that you don’t hear the little alarm bell that whispers seductively: “You’ve Got Mail.”

Tip: Go one step further.  Invest in a pair of sound-reduction headphones—the sort of thing you would use if you were operating a jack hammer—and wear them to shut out other types of noise around you.  Even if I am home alone and the house is quiet, I find they help me focus.  Maybe it’s a Pavlovian response in me now.  When the headphones cover my ears, I am conditioned to ignore the noisy world around me, and just write.

But what about the typing?  Isn’t that a horrendous chore?

Personally, I love the fact that writing longhand provides me with an opportunity to polish and revise regularly when I transcribe my pages.  Just make sure you don’t fall behind on the typing, or you’ll get into trouble.  I transcribe almost every day.  The previous day’s work (for me, that’s about 5-10 pages) doesn’t take too long in the mornings, and that’s when I polish my prose.  I never start a Monday without being completely caught up on the previous week’s pages.

And here’s one final word about it: according to a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin, students in elementary school not only wrote faster by hand than by keyboard, but generated more ideas when composing essays in longhand.  The same researcher also showed that writing by hand was more stimulating to brain regions involved with thought, language, and short term memory.

Tip: Try writing on a yellow notepad, because the color yellow is believed to stimulate creativity as well.

Writing longhand may not work for every writer, because we all have different processes, but if you find yourself growing bored with the same chair, same keyboard, same four walls, and you can’t resist the lure of Facebook or Twitter, you might discover that a change is just what you need to breathe new life into your writing day.  Give it a try, and let me know if it works for you!

 

Check out some of Julianne’s titles at Kobo.

Married By Midnight: A Pembroke Palace Novel

Taken by the Cowboy: A Time Travel Romance

The Color of Heaven (writing as E. V. Mitchell)

 

Julianne MacLean’s website

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