Friday, February 21, 2014

Researching Your Novel for Fun and Profit

Writing is about more than creating. Yes, creation is an overwhelming part of it, but even if you write fiction (and this includes speculative fiction), eventually you're going to have to do a bit of research.

But why? I hear you cry. If I'm making up an entire world, then what I say goes, right?

Well... almost.

Even if you're starting with bare-bones worldbuilding, you need to start with some point of reference, and this goes triple for if you're writing a story set in "The Real World" or "Like Earth Except". Most fictional societies are, at their base, analogues of real-world societies, because that's what our brains understand. And, really, if you don't put some familiar structures in your setting, sooner or later the reader will hit a point where they throw the book against a wall because nothing makes any damn sense.

Don't worry, fellow writers... research doesn't have to be brain-crampingly hard. This isn't going to be like that term paper at school that you absolutely hated, mainly because you're picking the topic and approach. (It will use the same skills, though. Sorry.) In fact, since you're using your novel's outline as a framework to hang your research on, things will actually be a lot easier.

For example, my novella Sheep's Clothing is set in 1864, in what isn't yet Colorado. Already I have a whole pile of research topics to explore: How heavily-populated is it? What sorts of plants and animals can be found there? What are frontier-dwellers like? What are the social norms? What weapons are commonly available?

Next, I have my narrator, a doctor who was born and educated in New York City. What is his skillset? What is the extent of medical knowledge at that time? Would he know herbal medicine? Would he need to specifically learn how to use a gun? Can he fight at all?

Third, I have my supernatural critters: three vampires and a werewolf. I found this to be the most fascinating part of my research because I got to explore what the local myths were about these creatures, and what the average person was likely to know about them if they came from different backgrounds. I learned that vampires weren't exactly a pop culture monster yet, because Dracula hadn't been written yet, and there wouldn't be an iconic media werewolf until 1931. However, Native American lore had passable examples of both, giving me another avenue for research that I happily explored. Also, I discovered that the average frontier-dweller wouldn't have even heard of vampires, offering another angle for fun.

From there I Googled and wikiwalked and dug around for the little factoids I needed, and even hit up one of my co-workers for setting-related details to keep readers who are familiar with the Western genre from screaming "WRONG!!!" and throwing my book across the room. Even nailing down the details can be fun, as I discovered that Lakota (Wolf Cowrie's native language) was kind of light on swear words. Apparently Native Americans never learned to swear until the white men came. No, seriously. But I was able to supply dialogue for his moment of frustration by finding a Lakota phrase roughly translating to "idiot". (In case you're wondering, it was "takuni slolye sni". Literally "crazy white man", which fit the context better than anything else I could find.)

Now, my example is a fairly lightweight one, since the setting was "Like Earth Except", but you can use this as a jumping-off point for more worldbuilding-intensive stories. Writing medieval fantasy? Research tech levels and costuming. Writing military sci-fi? See what you can dig up on military protocols and physics. Writing horror? Get down to the roots of a monster and take it in a new direction, or dig up some obscure urban legends and turn them into something fresh.

It is said that baseball is a nerd's pastime, but in my opinion, writing can be the equivalent for geeks. Just imagine how much you can dig up on any topic thanks to the internet, or books, or local experts. Then imagine how much of that you can incorporate into your world, and you might just discover that your story is half-written for you.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Adventures in Self-Publishing Part Three: The Fine Art of Marketing

Writing your manuscript is, I've found, the hardest part of self-publishing. It's time-consuming, it takes up lots of blood, sweat, and tears, and the agony of having to take a chainsaw to a beloved scene, character, or entire plotline can feel like amputating your own leg with a chainsaw. With self-publishing, however, you skip over a lot of the drama that would go along with getting your story into the light of day, but unfortunately it's replaced with the second-hardest part of self-publishing.

Marketing your work. (Dun-dun-DUNNNNNNN!)

With traditional publishing, the publishing house typically takes care of all the marketing for you. It's in their best interest that your book sell, so they can recoup the royalties or whatever they've paid you for it. They'll advertise the hell out of your book, and if it's good enough for them to pick up (or marketable enough, at least), you can just sit back and let them do all the work.

Self-published authors, of course, have to do that all by themselves, and I tell you, it's hard. Many writers I know are introverts as well, with makes going up to people and howling variations of "HEY! Buy my book!" really, really sucks for an introvert.

Fortunately, I have a few resources that I'm bringing to bear with this venture, and your marketing army can be every bit as important as your Fellowship of Self-Publishing (see relevant post) with getting your book out there and in the hands of readers.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Word of Mouth
Tell people about your book. Tell your friends and family and co-workers. This might not be easy (see above point about introverts), but in many cases if you get the right balance of passionate vs. annoying (that is, way over on the passionate end), then some of these people might be interested in buying your book when it's available in whatever format. (Having it both in paperback and ebook formats helps.) If you're part of a guild or other writing group, they might let you bring copies of your book to sell at gatherings and workshops, and talk about your book.

Not a lot of brick-and-mortar stores left in my area, to be honest, but there are a few. If you can find a place that will accept your work on consignment (that is, they have to sell it before they will pay you), try it out. I have a local bookstore that specializes in St. Louis authors that I'm going to try with Sheep's Clothing; they're a small place, and will only take five copies at a time, but if you're not a big-name author this is a good way to get your foot in the door.

Talk to Local Media
Talk to your local paper about your book. It helps to get together a press release ahead of time so you're prepared if they want more info or an interview.

I even talked to a woman at work who was in charge of the library's internal newsletter (doesn't get much more local than that!) and she agreed to include an article on Sheep's Clothing in a future issue.

Many libraries will want to purchase books that are actually going to circulate, so you might want to build up a bit of a demand through things like positive book reviews before heading here, especially if you aren't well-known just yet.

Swag is any free giveaway dingbat that doubles as a handy-dandy form of advertisement for your book (or even you as an author). This can be anything from business cards to bookmarks to flyers--and bookmarks would be perfect as a free item for people you know are readers to start with. Sites like VistaPrint offer all sorts of promotional swag at a variety of prices to let you get your name out there.

Go Online
Online coverage will offer you the widest net to cast to get potential readers and fans, but this will be a multipart venture in itself.

Author platform
Get yourself an author's website, the more professional-looking the better. You can set it up so people can buy copies of your book right from your site, and find out about what projects you have coming down the pipe at the same time. You can even offer samples of things you are offering for sale, or teasers of things you're working on.

Social Networking
Any sort of social networking site will offer you a good chance of finding someone who is interested in reading your book. Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ are the ones I use, and I already have a few nibbles.

Get yourself a Goodreads account if you don't have one. Not only is this a good site for bookworms to meet similarly-inclined bookworms, but the Author program offers you ways to promote the crap out of your book, from making your own ads to offering promotional giveaways. You can also make sure your book has an entry in Goodreads so the curious can find out what the silly thing's about.

There a whole pile of writer-centric magazines, ranging from Writer's Digest to Publisher's Weekly. Contact them with a copy of your book and a press release and see if they'll run with it.

Public Readings
This may run up against the comfort zones of the introverts, but if you find the right venue and you like entertaining potential fans, you can bring along a couple dozen copies of your book to sell on the spot, though if the venue you choose won't let you sell your stuff on site, you can offer bookmarks or business cards to attendees. (See swag, above.)

I won't pretend that this is anywhere near a comprehensive list of all the things you could possibly do to get your book sold, but these are the ones I've seen recommended by a lot of fellow writers. I'm still wading my way though all this myself, but then my book's only been out two days at time of writing. My only remaining advice is to get creative.

We're writers. Creative is what we do.

Friday, February 7, 2014

How the Hell Do I Categorize This?: The Woes of a Cross-Genre Writer

Many authors have it easy. They write in a distinct style and genre, which makes publishing houses happy. Stephen King's stuff gets stuck in with the horror (usually), James Patterson's stuff gets stuck with mystery (usually), and so forth. Even genre indie authors who are self-publishing frequently don't have to ask how to define their books and stories because, hey, it's a romance/science fiction/horror/urban fantasy/whatever book, so we put it in those sections.

When there's cross-genre writers like me.

By its very nature, cross-genre fiction straddles or blends two or more genres and makes something new out of it--a twist on a conventional genre, or an outright subversion of the tropes that come with it due to the nature of the extra-genre twist. They're often hard as hell to fit in any on particular box, and usually that's how I like it.

Until recently.

I learned about this problem when I was getting the Amazon information entered for Sheep's Clothing, my Weird Western featuring vampire hunting in the Territories in 1874. Weird Western is an actual thing (as in, an industry-recognized genre combining Western elements with speculative fiction), so I didn't think I would have any problems.

When I got to the BISAC subject heading. See, there's a list of possible book subjects compiled by the Book Industry Study Group to standardize the sharing of book subject information. The choices it offered me were Fiction/Horror or Fiction/Westerns. There was no Fiction/Weird Western category. On one level I understand, because Weird Western isn't exactly mainstream, but if the publishing industry recognizes it, why not the BISG?

I can only expect this will continue to plague my work as I get more into the self-pub stuff because, just to take a cross-section of my works-in-progress and unpublished stuff, there is no category for Fiction/Science Fiction/Romance, nor is there a category for Fiction/Fantasy/Mystery or Fiction/Mystery & Detective/Fantasy, or Fiction/Fantasy/Spy Thriller. And I don't think I'm going to see Fiction/Chick Lit/Paranormal anytime soon.

So what is a cross-genre author to do with such limitations? For the time being, I suppose we can work within the limitations of BISAC for the sake of making the entry form happy, because it wasn't going to let me NOT categorize my novel, not was there a "none of the above" option. (Fiction/General totally doesn't count.) And of course, once my novel is out there in the reading world, I can market it however I like and zero in on the Weird Western crowd that way.

(I wound up categorizing Sheep's Clothing as Fiction/Westerns, by the way.)