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Sunday, August 26, 2012

An Indie Writer's Journey

This blog post appeared last year as a guest post I wrote for R.E. McDermott's blog. I've updated it slightly.

My success as an indie writer has not been in the realm of the John Locke, J. Carson Black, or Amanda Hocking. Nevertheless, I've sold over 100,000 ebooks since January, and my series of polygamist thrillers, The Righteous, was picked up by Amazon's new thriller line, Thomas & Mercer, where I have had additional success. I've had enough success as an indie and enjoy the total control of going it solo that I intend to keep publishing some of my own work, no matter what happens with on the traditional publishing side.

Here are four pieces of advice I'd give to the aspiring indie writer.

* Work on your opening.

* Don't be sloppy with editing.

* Pay attention to your cover.

* Polish your blurb.

Readers are no more forgiving than editors or agents. They'll sample your book and if it doesn't grab them in a hurry, they'll drop it and move on to the next story without a twinge of guilt. The biggest cost for a reader is not the price, it's the hours spent when the reader could be reading something else. Just like you can step up to a display case of pastries and make a decision in a minute or less, so a reader can glance at your cover, blurb, reviews, and sample and decide if this looks worthy of time and money in a moment. You'll notice that editing, cover, blurb, and opening have something in common. They speak to your desire to be professional.

I made some mistakes with releasing imperfectly edited versions in the early days. Don't do this. Readers will mention this oversight in reviews, especially if you are an indie. Those reviews will stick there forever, long after you've fixed the formatting or the editing mistakes. Look at a couple of the poor early reviews of my books, if you don't believe me. All the glowing reviews by other readers won't erase those comments, and that was a totally self-inflicted wound, very unlike the kind of bad review that simply comes from not connecting with a reader.

Your cover and your blurb also give an important impression to the potential buyer. The cover can intrigue in the best of circumstances, but if amateurish or off in some way, tells the reader you're unlikely to care about the internal packaging of your book, either. Similarly, learn how to write a great hook for your product description. I know that this is a different skill than being able to write a compelling book--if you could tell the story in two paragraphs, why would you have bothered writing the book?--but you're a writer. Figure out how to make your blurb sound as enticing as possible.

Now, your opening. Don't give away too much, too soon. Remember, it's mystery that drives reader interest, not explanation. I think of the opening as a three legged stool: character, situation, and problem. If any one of these is out of balance, the stool will collapse. This is why an opening showing your character clinging to the edge of the cliff doesn't work any better than having a character wake up in her bed. The situation and problem are either too big or too small for our interest in the character at such an early stage. I like to start with a compelling character in an intriguing situation, trying to resolve some problem that is relatively small in scope. I don't immediately explain what this problem is, but if the reader sees intent on part of the main character, this is enough. When the time comes to explain this first little mystery, you should also have a bigger mystery waiting in the wings to ramp up reader interest.

Once you've got all the ingredients there, what should you try? A little bit of everything that is ethical, inexpensive, and doesn't take away from your goal of continuing to produce new work. Try giveaways, well-targeted ads like Pixel of Ink or eReader Review. Do guest blogs, visit boards and participate in such a way that doesn't come across as always talking about your book. Don't waste your money on advertising that is not carefully targeted.

The good news is that you don't need to panic if things don't take off right away. Unlike the limited shelf life of traditional books, your virtual library of offerings will always be there. Any time you've got men on base, the next batter has the opportunity to advance all your runners, not just the guy at the plate.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Feeding the Muse

I'm writing this from a beach house in Hawaii. It's peaceful and relaxing. There is good food, good weather, the sound of the surf, the smell of brine and plumaveria. Better yet, a very generous relative is paying for most of the trip.

There is only one problem. It does not feed the muse.

One day on one of my more challenging trips--Morocco, say, or Thailand--would be worth more to my writing brain than any number of weeks in Hawaii. Imagine shopping for spices an ancient souk or riding an elephant into a tiger preserve and the story material you'll find there. Even the challenging parts--a strange gastrointestinal ailment in Peru, spiders the size of small kittens in the Amazon, an aggressive tout in Tangier--spin off a dozen story ideas.

Sipping a drink with a little umbrella in it? Not so much.

I hope to take a more challenging, exotic trip some time soon, but meanwhile I'm always on the lookout for unusual experiences that don't punish the bank account as much as travel. I signed up for a Dengue fever vaccine study recently after a medical facility tracked me down because of an old yellow fever vaccination. Not only can I help fight a nasty disease that hits 100,000,000 people every year, but I can pick up details that lend authenticity to any medical-related fiction I write, as well as learn more about tropical diseases.

I might go back on stage this fall with a local company that is doing a production of Cabaret. You know how I love the historical settings.

In the past, I have studied foreign languages, taken up skiing and diving, and a host of other things to broaden my experience base. The risk for a writer is to sit in his or her writing room and live entirely inside one's own head. Do that and you may as well double up on the umbrella drinks, because you've sent your mind on a permanent Hawaiian vacation.