Read More, Read BETTER

This is going to be part author tip, part lecture (not the boring, preachy kind, I hope) and part recommendation list. It will likely be on the long side, but bear with me, there is a point to it, I promise.

THE LECTURE

We’ve all heard the saying that in order to be a great writer, you have to be an avid reader. Want to improve your writing? Read more.

That saying in and of itself is an example of the problem with the saying. Yes, if you want to be a great writer, you definitely need to read a lot. But there is nuance to that, which you kind of have to intuit. The act of reading in and of itself isn’t enough. The trick is in how you read.

You’ve heard about active listening, right? It’s the concept of listening to understand, not to form a response. See, when you listen with the intent of forming a response, you’re not really listening to what someone is telling you. You have an agenda and you automatically fit what is being said into what you want to hear so you can respond. By doing that, you miss the message. Active listening means paying attention to what is being said and how it’s being said. You then repeat it back to the speaker to confirm that you understood what they’re trying to say, and only then do you respond.

The same applies to reading. In order to hone your own writing style, you need to practice active reading (and I totally made that term up, but it’s the most fitting term for what I mean). You need to not just read the book, but also absorb the technical details about it. Analyze the voice, appreciate the diction, trace the story arc, dig deep into the characters’ psyche. Think about why the author wrote what they did, how it fits into the overall whole of the book.

It’s a lot less fun than reading for pleasure, I’ll tell you that. And it will absolutely ruin you as a reader because, once you see behind the curtain, you won’t be able to close it back again. You will start to critique every new book you read, even the ones you absolutely love. That’s the sacrifice you make to become a good writer. Because you need to be able to identify things you like and dislike in the books you read in order to be able to identify them in the books you write.

THE AUTHOR TIP

That concludes the lecture part of this post. Now on to the tip and reading list.

I propose that every author brings something unique to their books. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it, but when you see it, you recognize that, “Yep, that’s definitely a John Smith book.” That’s what you want to find–in other people’s books, as well as in yourself as an author. What makes them special? What is your own something special?

A while back, I put together a list of books I thought every writer should read, for various reasons. I want to share that here with you now. If you’ve already read these books, try reading them again, while keeping these notes in mind. You might notice some things you missed before.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VOICE AND STYLE

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Ms. Austen had an earworm of a writing style. I’m not even kidding. Why do you think it’s been emulated so much? Read one of her books and then try to write one chapter in that same style. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to do, and how hard it is to stop.

When I got this assignment in high school, I ended up writing a 40-page novella, rather than just a chapter, and it’s influenced my writing ever since. Austen’s writing style is so sophisticated and lyrical, but not pretentious at all. It flows through your mind and makes you feel like you’re wearing a period costume and reclining on a drawing room settee. It’s beautiful. Plain and simple.

The Dust Lands Series by Moira Young

In contrast to that, I present to you the Dust Lands series by Moira Young. Compared to Austen, the voice of this series feels like a train wreck in the beginning but, like Austen, it gets under your skin. The style of this series is very deliberate. It speaks to the theme of the books, and is basically written as if someone from that book was telling you the story. It shoves you face first into this dystopian world and at first you hate it, then you want more, then you can’t get back out.


The voice and style of your book is extremely important–it sets the stage and paints the world you’re describing. But it doesn’t have to be grammatically flawless and poetic to make an impact. Sometimes, going against the grain is the best thing you can do.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ATMOSPHERICS

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This book changed the way I thought about books, and it required a brilliant English teacher to point it out to me, because I would have missed it otherwise. That’s how brilliant this actually is–you don’t realize the brilliance of it because you’re so engrossed in the scene you’re not thinking about the writing anymore.

Conrad is very good at telling the story from a specific character’s perspective. You see, hear, and feel what the character feels. That means, when he’s eavesdropping on someone’s conversation and those people move away, their dialogue fades out and you strain to try to hear more. You catch pieces here and there, holding your breath so you don’t get noticed. You’re no longer reading the book, you’re inside the story.

Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas

I’m including this book because it’s one of my all time favorites. There are plenty of things I love about it, but one of them is the way Ms. Kleypas describes her settings. Like Conrad, she puts you into the scene. When Sara is chasing off Derek’s attackers, you can feel the cold damp of the London night. When she’s hiding with Derek behind the curtain of the music room, you feel the heady heat of the scene, and your heart beats faster hoping no one pulls that curtain back.

When it comes to historical settings, authors sometimes have the tendency to go overboard with description in the interest of historical accuracy. Not so with Kleypas. She focuses on the story itself and the setting, while accurate (as far as I know), is only a part of it.


The beauty of descriptives is that they don’t have to drone on. In fact, their impact is far greater when they’re succinct and to the point. Both of these books are an excellent example of this.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Dickens needs no introduction. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I highly recommend that you do. This was the first book I’ve read by him, and I loved it from the very beginning. The story follows a young boy called Pip as his life takes several unexpected twists and turns and what I loved about it is the unvarnished way in which it is related.

Pip isn’t perfect. He is a young child when all this begins and, as such, you get to see him grow up, make mistakes, form attachments and prejudices, etc. At times, I wanted to slap him. At others, I felt horrible for what he was being put through. By the end, though he was still a very young man, he’s already lived a life fuller than most people will ever have. His flaws are what make Pip such an amazing character. Because perfection is boring. As readers, what we relate to are a character’s flaws and shortcomings. What we want is to see them triumph despite them.

By the way, Pip isn’t the only character in this story written in such a brilliant fashion. The entire cast of characters is presented in a way that will leave a lasting impression on the reader, which is a rare thing in literature.

The Rule of Four by Dustin Thomason and Ian Caldwell 

These two gentlemen wrote a book that became wholly and unfairly overshadowed by the phenomenon of The DaVinci Code. It’s called The Rule of Four and I recommend it here for one reason: the main character. Not the narrator, mind you, but the main character driving the plot. Similar to The Heart of Darkness, this story is told by an outside observer (and, really, it overlaps my recommendation category to Atmospherics as well because of it). You follow along from an intellectual distance, so you never get the full feel of the tension, frustration, and passion of this quest, you just get to bear witness to it. It’s that distance which makes this book so brilliant. Because you feel the narrator’s dismissal and simultaneous intrigue. You want to know more but are denied almost to the very end.

This book is not an action-packed adventure, but when the action does happen, it grips you unexpectedly hard because of it and you realize how attached you’ve grown to this one character. And therein lies its brilliance: You care almost despite yourself, and for reasons that seem so flimsy on the surface, but run as deep as if it was your actual best friend in that scene.


In any given book, it’s either the characters who drive the plot, or the plot that changes the characters. You can choose one, or the other, or sometimes both, but whichever it is, it’s not the action that makes readers connect with and relate to the characters, it’s the emotional context. Subtlety is the name of the game. At least it is in my own writing.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PLOT AND DIALOGUE

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Have you read this one? Whether you say yes or no, you probably already know the story from somewhere. That’s how amazing it is. This book is not only well-written, it tells a story that sticks with you forever. It’s just so… big. It takes you to lots of different places, introduces lots of different characters, all of whom are in some way connected, but at the same time, it all centers around one man and his life. Edmond Dantes becomes the fulcrum on which all those lives turn. And they don’t even know it…

Seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, do. Take notes on how to tell a brilliant tale of love, pain, anguish, and revenge. Admire the genius of what Edmond has achieved and how. The behind-the-scenes machinations, the benevolence of his favor and the malice of his wrath. Absolutely nothing this man does is ever without an underlying reason. Whether it’s taking out a loan, or casually mentioning a medicinal tonic that can just as easily become a deadly poison.

This is a really long book, but it reads so quickly you don’t notice the page count. That’s brilliant story telling right there.

Dark Desires After Dusk by Kresley Cole

If you ask me who my favorite author is, right now, and for the last few years, it’s been Kresley Cole. She is a paranormal romance author and her books have never ever disappointed me. She has a singular gift for sarcasm and wit, and she brings that into her dialogue. A lot of times, writers adopt a very formal style with their dialogue which can come across stiff and unnatural. Ms. Cole writes the way people actually talk. And that can be a huge deal for a story, especially one set in present day(ish). You can see their conversations happening in real life, which makes the characters extremely relatable. Not only that, they’re also hilarious.

Dark Desires After Dusk might be my favorite of this entire series and it’s because of the hero, Cadeon Woede and his shameless sense of humor. This book is definitely worth reading, even if maybe you’re not really into paranormal romance. Just pay attention to the dialogue. I promise, you’ll appreciate the hell out of it. 😉 [just a bit of demon humor there]


I lumped the plot and dialogue in the same category because a great first chapter will hook a reader, but these two are what will keep them reading. If you don’t have your story plotted out properly, you will lose your readers in a heartbeat. They will spot plot holes from a mile away, and they may not be very forgiving. And dialogue is often times the hardest thing to get right. It requires a keen ear and a gift for listening. You need to be able to emulate natural speech from all walks of life in your chosen time period, but still make it relatable for readers in the here and now. But if you can do that, you’re halfway there. 


NOTICE ANYTHING WEIRD?

So now you’ve read the whole list. Notice anything special about it? Every single category has one classic and one contemporary title. There is a reason for that. The classics are, of course, classic for a reason, but if you’ve ever actually read them, you’ll know that not all of them are all that well-written or enjoyable (coughFrankensteincough). I think it’s because the stories and the message they convey transcend time, but the books themselves do not. Not everything written 100+ years ago will appeal to modern audiences. We can appreciate them in the context of their own time period, but sometimes they become more of an intellectual exercise, rather than something to savor for its own sake.

There are scores of modern books that are well worth reading and learning from, both for their ability to connect with their own audience, and for their unique, timeless qualities. Will these modern books be taught in schools a hundred years from now? I have no idea. But, as a writer, I can say I’ve developed a deep appreciation for them and what they’ve done for my own writing.

That’s all I have for you today. 🙂 Until next time!

GOT A LIST OF YOUR OWN? SHARE IN THE COMMENTS!

Lessons From A Book Signing

So, you may not know this, but I actually write books. 😉 I know, shocking… I’ve been a writer for a long time, published for the last 9 years, but this year marks the first time I have ever stepped out into the world of author events as an attending author. I just came back from my very first group signing in Indianapolis, IN, and wanted to share with you how it went and some lessons I learned from the experience.

The nerve wracking “before”

It all began two weeks ago when I got a notification on my phone that a major runway at my take-off airport was closing down for repairs. The airline told me there would be significant delays and/or cancellations and advised me to fly a day earlier or later if my plans were flexible. The story was picked up by the local news which reported on Monday that there had been “dozens” of cancellations already that day.

Cue bone-deep panic. My plans were not at all flexible. There was only one direct flight out per day, and I couldn’t get the extra day off work, or the extra night at the hotel. If my flight got cancelled, I’d be screwed. Hell, if my luggage got lost, I’d be screwed, since I was bringing all my books for the signing with me. I spent a week stressing over it so much that by Thursday (the day before I was scheduled to fly) I existed in a state of constant anxiety over it. I checked and re-check everything. I packed as many books as I could fit into my carry-on, just in case my luggage got lost. I set multiple alarms and scheduled my ride to the airport so I’d get there super early.

Then I got the official seating chart for the event and discovered that I would be sitting with my back to the main entrance, and I didn’t have a two-sided banner. This might have been a small issue for some, but it was a big deal to me, so I ended up ordering a rush printed second banner at a local printer so I could double up and be visible from both sides.

Happily, my flight was on time, and the only hiccup I had was that I’d left my lip balm at home. I arrived in Indianapolis a half-hour early, with all my luggage accounted for, and checked in at the hotel. Did not sleep a wink that night, but I was on-site, so all was good.

Also happily, it turned out I misread the seating chart and was actually facing the entrance. But I still used both banners, just because I could. I regret nothing, except that I could have gotten that second banner much cheaper if I had bought it along with my first, rather than doing it last minute. But that’s done now. Moving on!

The Setup 

I will say the wait was the absolute worst. I made it a point to wake up early and have a huge breakfast because I knew I would not be leaving my table once I got there. Our set up time started at 9am and the doors officially opened at noon and closed at 5pm.

I had my table layout all planned out, but ended up changing it because of some silly technical difficulties. The plastic stands I got for my bookmarks were too unstable, so I nixed them and just laid out the bookmarks flat. My business cards are unique in that they are half matte and half raised gloss finish. Turns out, that gloss tends to stick to itself so my stack of business cards became a solid, inseparable brick. I had to separate them by hand and lay them out in a long row so they could be grabbed easily.

A last-minute addition to my table was a tablet that played my book trailer videos on loop (or so I thought). I checked it throughout the event to see if it was working, and laughed because each time I checked I caught it at a specific moment in the video. Yeah, turned out that was because for some crazy reason, the loop function got stuck on only the last 40 seconds of the 7.5 minute video.

Also on my table was a stack of two-sided book lists with all the covers on one side and an actual list on the other. The list included all my titles and ISBNs for all the formats they’re available in, as well as genres and tropes for each series. I handed these out to everyone who had me sign something for them, if they didn’t grab one on their own.

Lastly, I had a clipboard with a newsletter sign up sheet. I offered a free audiobook to everyone who signed up for my newsletter at the event. I ended up with 27 sign ups, which I think was a little over 10% capture rate. Not bad!

The Event

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I was super nervous, but I took it as a learning experience so, no matter what happened (or didn’t happen) I was going to be happy with the outcome, learn from it, and move on to the next.

If I remember correctly, there were about 250 attendees and 70 or so authors at the event. I shared the table with another author who, it turns out, was also a book signing virgin like me! We had a fairly steady stream of people come by. Many had seating charts, tote bags, and other things for us to sign, so we weren’t just sitting there twiddling our thumbs. I had 7 people pre-order books from me and all except one of them came to pick them up. Aside from that, I had a few people buy books on the spot (I forget how many, it’s becoming one big blur) and one of them was the author at the next table over who couldn’t resist picking up a copy of Wolfen. I think that might have been my favorite moment of the whole day.

On the whole, I did not sell out. But I definitely made an impression and I left the event with only half of what I’d brought in, and it would have been much less, if I hadn’t made a couple of mistakes.

Speaking of…

Lessons Learned

If you don’t plan on selling it or giving it out, don’t drag it along. 

I had brought a full set of my paperbacks as a display piece. They were an unnecessary weight I could have spared myself. My half table was such a small space I could only stand them up with their spines showing, which was useless. Besides, I already had all the book covers on my book lists.

If you bring it, sell it or give it out.

Very early on, I had someone stop by asking about a series of books I didn’t have in stock. Except I did, because I’d brought a backup copy for all my early pre-orders in case my luggage got lost. I totally forgot about it in the moment and let the reader walk away. I am still kicking myself for that. I ended up hauling that extra set back home.

Plan your inventory prudently.

One piece of advice I heard was to wait for pre-orders to come in and then double what those are as your inventory. That’s tough when you have a long backlist and not a lot of table space. Or when you get no pre-orders at all. Another piece of advice I heard was to bring 8-10 copies of each book. That seemed like a bit much to me. Some people say shorter novellas sell better, others that readers prefer full-length books. Several said to bring more of book 1 in the series.

What I can tell you is that when I put out a last minute notice about extra sets of a series of novellas, I got as many pre-orders in that one day as I got the previous 2 months. No idea why. But since the lost sale at the event was for this series, I think I should have stocked those. I sold 3 copies of book 1 of a series, and only 1 of book 2, so the part about bringing more copies of the first book actually checks out. As for novellas vs. full length book, I brought 4 copies of my longest book (almost 600 pages) and 3 of them sold at the event when no one had pre-ordered it. The companion novella that went with it only sold 1 copy. The 3 series starters were also full-length novels, but most of the pre-orders were for novellas, so the length of the book didn’t appear to make much of a difference.

Check your setup.

The damn trailer video is still pissing me off two days later. I spent 3 weeks working on it and was so excited to have something unique to draw attention to my station, and then I went and got it stuck on a tiny fraction which made it a moot point. I had 2 hours prior to the start of the event in which I had nothing to do. I could have taken 15 minutes to watch it loop and make sure it was working correctly.

Go big or don’t bother.

I still think the book trailers were a good idea. But the problem (besides the loop glitch) was that the tablet screen was too small to make an impression. I was thinking, if I do it again, I should bring my laptop and have it playing on that. The 14″ screen should show much better. But it does mean more weight to carry to and from the event. And if it gets damaged or stolen, I might cry.

Bring an assistant.

Luckily, I had one. My dad was a last minute addition to my plans, partly because he was so excited for my first ever author signing, and partly because he’d done something similar to this himself and knew I would need help. He wasn’t wrong. Even with only half a table, I still had a lot of stuff to carry, set out, and break down again. Having him with me meant I could bring my books along, rather than ship them ahead and pay a storage fee to the hotel. He gave me feedback on how everything looked, what I was missing, what I should be doing and wasn’t. Also, having a friendly face next to me helped relieve at least a little anxiety.

Be ready for various payment methods.

Most of the purchases I processed were with a credit card, and all of those were chip cards. Which makes me glad I ordered a chip reader in addition to my swipey credit card reader before the event. I don’t even know if the new chip cards have a magnetic strip anymore. But the reader I got worked brilliantly, and it made each transaction a breeze. I also had a supply of small bills for cash purchases. I didn’t need as much as I had, but I was glad to have it, just in case.

Beta test pricing.

Okay, so this wasn’t so much a mistake as it was a trial run which didn’t pan out as I’d hoped. I had really cool stainless steel dog tags made for these signings. They are book-specific, with a neat design, and a bit of heft to them. I’d done them before as giveaways and they were such a big hit I thought I would sell them this time around. Turned out, I set the price much too high. I only sold one. But I will say that one was very determined to buy. Had cash ready and waited for me to finish talking with someone else so she could get it.

The other thing I was hoping to sell were foldable tote bags. In retrospect, those would have worked much better as giveaways, and I did give one to everyone who bought anything from me, but I could have just handed them out at random. I brought way too many of them back home.

Extrovert like you’re being paid to do it.

I will admit this is not my strong suit. I’m not used to being the one to initiate conversation, and you kind of have to when you’re at an event like this. Since I have no basis for comparison, I can’t say I screwed up, but I definitely could have done better to engage the people who browsed by my table. I just don’t know yet how to strike the proper balance between making conversation and making a sales pitch.

It’s not a profit center, it’s a marketing event.

The most helpful thing my assistant (or, as I like to call him, Dad) said to me is that it’s not so important how many books you sell, but how many people leave your table knowing your name. If you’re doing an event like this, especially one you have to travel to, you can pretty much count on taking a financial hit. No matter how thrifty you are with your travel and setup, it’s still a big cost just to attend. Odds are, you will not sell out. Hell, odds are, you will not sell much at all. Go into it with that assumption and then ask yourself, “What should my main goal be?”

The main goal is to get your name out there. So, more than huge stacks of books, you need things people will want to take. Things that will remind them of you and your books. Things they won’t just throw away the moment they leave. If you’re handing out printed things like bookmarks or business cards, don’t cheap out. Make them count. Make them so beautiful and unique people will want to take them. Definitely have a printed book list. Mine were a big hit and the readers who took them were really appreciative and impressed.

And don’t forget newsletter sign ups! Offer an incentive like a free ebook or audiobook, and get those email addresses. That’s your golden ticket right there.

Give yourself time to throttle down.

This also wasn’t a mistake on my part but more of an “it is what it is” sort of deal. I had originally planned to fly back home the day after the event in the late afternoon. I’d planned for this by adding a late check-out to my hotel reservation. Unfortunately, my flight was cancelled and rescheduled for 6am that morning instead. I had no other choice but to take it, so I rushed through packing everything right after the event and going to bed early so I could wake up at 3am and go to the airport heading home. I was already exhausted from stressing over the event and the lack of sleep and crazy travel times didn’t help matters. I crashed hard when I got home and was still tired the next day at work. Next time, I think I’ll stay a bit longer, maybe take in the sights while I’m there, so it’s not such a big shock to my system.

What’s Next

My second book signing will be the Sweet as a Peach event in Cumming, GA on October 5, which is less than 3 weeks from now! If you’re in the area, come by and say hello, you can check for yourself what my setup looks like and whether I’ve improved on the last time. 😉 Also, if you are coming and planning to buy books from me… you know what I’m gonna say, right?…. Please use this handy dandy pre-order form to reserve your copy by September 17. I will not be stocking all of my backlist and the books I will have in stock will be limited quantities.

Hope to see ya there!

How to Record an Author Reading

In the interest of constantly exploring new avenues of “getting out there”, I have ventured into the realm of two things with which I have very little experience: audio recording/editing and book reading (as in, out loud). There are potentially significant benefits to this endeavor:

  1. It exposes my books to a new audience in a new way
  2. It helps me hone my audio editing skills
  3. It forces me to confront my own speaking voice and all that I hate about it
  4. It provides practical training for a day when I might choose to do this live

It’s also surprisingly easy to do with the help of modern technology and costs nothing, except my time and effort. So, since I have now recorded my own voice a couple of times already and plan on doing it some more, I thought it was time to share my how-to with fellow writers who might find it useful.


DisclaimerThis method is reserved strictly for casual recording. Any professional-level work (like narrating your own audiobook) involves a much more sophisticated studio setup to meet distribution requirements.


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