Should You Attend a Writers Conference?

Every year, many aspiring writers search for the assistance they need to break out–the agent, the editor, the publisher, whatever it is. And every year, many writers conferences offer to provide that assistance. The problems, of course, are that they are not free and they are not all in your hometown. How do you decide whether a conference is worth the investment? How do you decide which of the many you should attend?

I have some insight on these questions. As you may already know, I’ve organized a writers conference for many years now. It’s a lot of work and not terribly profitable, but every time I think about ending it, I come back to the same question: How would my life have changed if something like this had been available when I was trying to break into the business? I was a Oklahoma punk who’d never even met a writer, much less been in a hotel filled with them. Information was tough to find. I survived, but it wasn’t easy and that certainly might have helped.

And that’s why I put on the conference.

I think hard every year about how to make this year’s conference as useful as possible. Social opportunities are great, but I want the conference to provide more than networking. Information is the most valuable professional asset, so I try to provide the info people need to succeed. This has become even more important in recent years, as the publishing industry has undergone so many changes in so little time. I make sure people can find agents and editors, too. While I can’t guarantee publishing contracts, I can guarantee opportunities, information, and valuable feedback. The rest is up to the writer.

Here are the factors you should consider when deciding whether to attend a conference:

  1. If you’re hoping for an agent (or editor), examine the credentials of the people attending in advance. Sadly, some conferences will invite (or permit) agents who do not have strong track records, to fill slots cheaply or because they lack the contacts necessary to get to the top players. I’ve seen conferences with agents I wouldn’t even allow my students to pitch. If you’re going to commit to an agent, there should be a good reason. Make sure the person you’re pitching has sold books. Their website should list their clients as well as past sales. Make sure they represent the kind of book you’re writing. Make sure they’re with a reputable agency. If you can’t tell from their webpage (or they don’t have one), that should set off warning bells.
  2. Some conferences are so large they take the cattle-call approach to private consultations. Everyone is released at the same time in a large room and you can talk to as many as possible in a set period of time. You’ll like spend most of your time waiting, not talking. Some conferences make you pay an extra fee, per pitch. I recommend smaller or midsize conferences with reputable agents, so you know you’ll get to talk to the ideal people–and have enough time to have a real conversation. Plan to spend maybe 10% or your allotted time actually pitching. Spend the rest of the time listening. Go in with smart questions, things you need to know. Even if they don’t take you on, what would they recommend you do next? Instead of expecting an instant contract, view it as a learning experience, a rare opportunity for a professional consultation. Pick the brains of industry leaders. Most will be happy to talk.
  3. Give the rest of the speakers the same scrutiny. You should pick your sessions based not only on topic but also credentials. Even if the topic doesn’t address your primary need, a knowledgable speaker can impart information you may well find useful. Look for people who know what they’re talking about. If an opportunity for a chance conversation comes along, be prepared with questions. Don’t ask the obvious, stuff you could Google. Dig deeper. Take notes. Buy recordings. Then put the information into practice immediately, before you’ve had time to forget it.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that when I plan my conference, I only bring in agents I would be happy to have as my own, and I only choose speakers who are knowledgeable and know how to impart that knowledge. And I am always available to make sure people make contact with the people they want to see (or get anything else they need). I mother-hen the whole shebang, doing my best to make sure everyone is happy and everyone gets the tools they need to succeed. If you have any questions about the conference (OKC, Sept 22-24), feel free to email me: willbern@gmail.com.

You can register here: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Modern Publishing 102: Indie Publishing

Just to be clear, what we now call indie or independent publishing is what we used to call self-publishing. What we used to call independent publishing was every publisher other than the New York mega-houses. Today, indie publishing accounts for more than two-thirds of all books published in the US.

Self-publishing does not have the stigma it once did, but I’d be fibbing if I suggested it has none at all. If you’re talking to someone who knows anything about the current publishing environment, you’re unlikely to see much judging. The fact that some people have made self-publishing successful speaks for itself. If you’re talking to someone who wants to be perceived as “literary,” a critic, a gossip, a professor, or one of the lucky few still making money from traditional publishing–the reaction may be different.

Some people start out trying for traditional publishing and if that doesn’t work opt for indie. Some people start with indie, work hard, acquire some strong sales figures, then use that to attract a traditional publisher. And some people–the hybrids–do both at the same time. All of these approaches are viable, and I for one am glad to see that writers have options. We are, after all, the ones who create the stories people love. We should not always be at the mercy of giant corporations peering relentlessly at their bottom lines.

To make indie publishing work, you must:

  1. Hire an editor
  2. Learn about formatting, distribution, and design
  3. Master marketing
  4. Create a brand, or
  5. Hire someone to do all of the above for you.

Did you notice that I put the editor first? Good. There’s a reason. Yes, I know–you have excellent writing skills and got As in English all through high school. But no one catches everything, and for that matter, you might need input that goes beyond merely catching typos. Maybe you need fact-checking, or credibility checking, or input on character likability, or pacing or viewpoint or…

Bottom line, no one catches everything, not even writers with 43 published books. We can all benefit from outside eyes, a reliable but honest beta reader. Or ten.

Formatting eBooks isn’t hard and you can learn it in a few hours. Formatting print books, even for print on demand, is hard and will take much longer. If you have no graphic design or layout experience, or you hate computers, you may want to consider hiring someone to do this, at least the first time around. Cover design is also critical, but there are many good cover designers online and you shouldn’t pay more than $2-300 for it.

I know you would rather write than market, and social media may drive you batty, but it’s necessary. If you think readers will find your books on their own because they are so splendid…you may be in for an unpleasant awakening. For that matter, even if you are published by a NY big shot you will have to market online and might well be contractually required to do so. Branding is simply establishing a reputation for creating a certain kind of work, a genre, subject area, series, or series character. Ideally, you want people to see your name and know exactly what kind of work they should expect.

If you hire someone to do this stuff for you, please beware of expensive services that use high-pressure sales tactics or prey upon your inexperience. Good assisted services include Girl Friday Publications, Book in a Box, DogEar, and Matador. At Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing allows you to self-publish and see your eBook immediately for sale on Amazon, where most books are sold today. Smashwords, or Draft2Digital, will put your eBook everywhere else. Amazon also has CreateSpace, which allows you to create print-on-demand books and have them immediately for sale on Amazon. Others may prefer IngramSpark or Lightning Source, which will guarantee your book can be ordered by bookstores through Ingram (assuming a bookstore is interested in ordering your book–it won’t happen automatically).

If you’re waiting for me to tell you which way to go–it will be a long wait. You’ll have to answer this one yourself, but your decision should be based upon:

  1. What kind of books you’re writing, and
  2. What will make you happy.

Most indie successes have been with adult genre fiction, so if that’s what you’re writing, this course may be more viable. If only a print book, or a contract with a big company, will make you feel validated as a writer–then that’s what you should pursue.

So now we’ve covered traditional publishing and self-publishing. Next time I’ll discuss all the other options.

 

Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Viewpoint–The Writer’s Greatest Challenge

Maybe this is an exaggeration, but I’ve been editing quite a few manuscripts lately (see below for info on editing and critique services) and I’ve found that I’m commenting on viewpoint problems more frequently than anything else. I discussed viewpoint in a chapter in Creating Character, but I nonetheless continue to receive requests that I devote an entire book to the subject. This reinforces my feeling that this is something that’s causing headaches for some aspiring writers.

It’s really not that complicated. Look, you just need to pick a viewpoint and stick with it throughout a scene. If you change viewpoint characters, don’t do it in the middle of the scene. No “head-hopping,” that is, drifting from one character to another’s thoughts and observations. That leaves the reader feeling dislocated. They don’t want to hear from an omniscient narrator who knows everything about everyone (meaning you, the author). They want to forget about the author and be immersed in the story. Readers will care more about your characters and what happens to them if you can get them inside the characters’ heads.

This does restrict what you can write about, or at least how you go about it. You cannot reveal information your viewpoint character does not or could not know. You may say something like, “She thought his smirk suggested he didn’t believe her,” but you cannot say, “He didn’t believe her” when you’re in her viewpoint, because she doesn’t know. Internal monologue is a good tool for keeping your reader inside a character’s viewpoint. When characters are thinking to themselves, the reader feels securely within that viewpoint. That doesn’t mean you should do it to excess, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should use internal monologue to tell rather than show (see the discussion below). And fyi, you don’t have to use italics every time your characters think to themselves.

Ideally, each new scene should identify the viewpoint character in the first sentence. “Mary walked into the room” or something like that. Then unless there is a scene break, you cannot portray any other viewpoint. You can’t take us inside another character’s head, or tell us what he or she thinks or experiences, unless and until you break the scene. Ideally, after identifying the viewpoint character by name in the first sentence, you refer to them by “he” or “she” for the rest of the scene. This tight psychic distance keeps the reader firmly inside that viewpoint. Using their name again tends to take readers outside their head, to distance them. Of course, this also means none of the other characters in the scene can be “he” or “she.” Refer to them by name or a nickname.

Head-hopping, or stream-of-consciousness writing, is not as immersive, and omniscient narration has fallen out of common use–for a good reason. Readers don’t like it as much. What they like is to experience a story through the eyes and ears of one of the characters involved. Even when there are multiple viewpoints, readers should have a sense of who the main character is and should spend most of the time inside that head, experiencing the story as the protagonist does.

The usual reason for introducing additional viewpoints is to increase suspense. The narrative flips to an antagonist’s viewpoint and the reader learns something the protagonist doesn’t know yet. This creates suspense, because the reader knows something bad is in the works but the lead character doesn’t.

One last thought: many beginning readers try to avoid these viewpoint problems by writing in first-person narration. I do not receommend this. If you think first person is easier than third person–you’re wrong. It is far more challenging to do well, because it means staying in the voice of a character–who should not be a sassier, braver verison of the author–for an entire book. While it can be done, I think it’s best reserved for writers with experience and a clear view of their character’s unique identity.

Click here to learn more about the Red Sneaker Editing & Critique Service (I do the editing myself).

The State of Publishing–2017

THE STATE OF PUBLISHING–2017

Publishing has probably never been more confusing, in part because people hold onto long-standing prejudices and stereotypes rather than looking at the facts. Well, that’s not the Red Sneaker way. I want you to have the most satisfying and successful writing career possible, and that means keeping one eye on your work and the other eye on the world. Some long-held beliefs are simply no longer true. When you prepare to make critical career decisions, what to write, where to send it, you need facts. Accurate information can help answer a lot of your questions. For instance:

Should I seek a big New York publisher, or a small press, or self-publish?

First let me say, as I have said before, that you must do what will make you happy, what will make you feel successful. That said, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent Author Earnings report, the Big Five New York publishers’ market share is declining and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. By contrast, independent presses, self-publishers, and Amazon imprints (more on those later) comprise over 50% of all book sales. Old stereotypes such as “the best books get picked up by New York” or “bookstore books are superior” are simply no longer true. Given the small market share they have, bookstore sales have become the tail wagging the dog. Most people buying online don’t care who published a book and don’t care whether it’s in bookstores. They just want a good read.

Here’s what Jane Friedman wrote in her blog: “I think it will be a lackluster and perhaps soul-searching year for traditional publishers. The “print is back” fanfare will diminish, with Barnes & Noble continuing to remain flat or decline, and Amazon further gaining market share across formats….Without smarter ebook pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see flat or declining sales in that format.”

There are advantages to having the backing of a New York publisher–and disadvantages too, particularly in the royalty department. What is clear is that it is not the only way to go. Figure out what will be best for you and your work.

Do I need an eBook edition? Do I need a print edition?

I like print books too, particularly hardcovers. I’m old-fashioned and I just get more out of that reading experience. But since our goal is to be successful, not just to please ourselves, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent DBW White Paper, in 2016, over 70% of all adult fiction sold in the eBook format. That is expected to grow, not diminish, in the years to come. eBook reader sales also continue to grow, and more readers means more digital sales. So no, if you’re writing adult fiction and you’re hoping to reach readers, you can’t skip the ebook. You might be okay without a print edition (though it’s not hard to set that up at CreateSpace, whether you think it will be massively profitable or not).

If you’re writing for children or writing nonfiction, your situation may be somewhat different–but I still wouldn’t skip the eBook.

Is Amazon a major publisher?

A strong argument could be made that Amazon is THE major publisher in the US. It now has thirteen different imprints, covering virtually every imaginable genre, and the Kindle Scout program opens the door to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. In 2016, 7 out of every 10 books on the Kindle bestseller list were published by Amazon. Overall, Amazon’s market share grew last year by 4%. No other publisher even comes close.

This just makes common sense. Like every other publisher in America, Amazon favors the product in which it has a vested interest, both in its promotions and its positioning. If you can make Kindle Scout “crowdsourcing” work for you, do it. If not, tie your book to a similar successful Amazon-imprint title in your marketing, so in time it will appear on that book’s page as a “People Who Bought This Also Bought” title.

With all the books out there today, how do I draw readers to mine?

Two answers here, both obvious:
1) Write it well, and
2) Market.

This may seem simplistic, but those are in fact the correct answers. As the Amazon store is increasingly filled with eBooks, the books that attract the most attention will be the ones that please readers (because they are written well) and the ones that have authors willing to spend time and occasionally money on marketing.

Once upon a time, every successful writer wanted a personal assistant. Today, the smart ones hire a book marketer. Using email, search engine optimization, and social media is more effective than any previous book marketing ever was–but it does require time and knowhow. Most writers would rather be writing. But I suspect that in the long run, this is what will separate those who sell well from those who don’t. So I’m going to devote the next several entries in my blog to marketing. Get the app and check it out. And follow what my wife Lara is doing with her new novel, The Wantland Files. She’s mapped out a six-month marketing plan that’s a virtual textbook on modern-day marketing, starting with the online launch party on January 21. Click here to see how it’s done.

(A longer version of this post appears in the most recent edition of the Red Sneaker Newsletter email. If you’re not on the distribution list, sign up here.)

Using Social Media to Generate Interest In Your Books

I know many of you find social media bewildering. Why do so many Americans devote so much time to it? Do they not have real friends? Wouldn’t they rather be reading a good book than reading someone’s post about lunch? And yet, social media consumes the hours and days of many, and it’s not just young people. Authors use it to promote their work.

Let me give you a dramatic example. Two poets, 2014. Louise Gluck won the National Book Award. Afterward, her new poetry book sold 20,000 copies, considered a huge success for poetry. Tyler Knott Gregson has won no big awards. But he has built a following by posting his poems on Instagram and Tumblr. Result? That same year, his new poetry book had a first printing of 100,000 copies.

Thank you, social media, for keeping poetry alive. (Lang Leav, another online poet, has sold over 300,000 copies of her self-published poetry books. Her break? Khloe Kardashian posted one of her poems on Instagram.)

WARNING: Don’t let social media consume more than 20% of your working day. Writing comes first. Following the pattern of celebrities, some writers have hired assistants to handle their social media posts. (Did you really think that was Britney Spears tweeting all day long?) Others use programs like Hootsuite to write their posts in advance at a convenient time.

You should pick and choose the social media outlets that are worth your time. The “wine chart” above, created by Chris Syme, explains how the leading media are used so you can make intelligent decisions.

Facebook: I like wine. 71% of all online adults post here to talk about their likes and dislikes. You can post information about your work, but you will put people off if you constantly post commercials to your “friends.” Vary the content. You can link directly to Amazon.

Twitter: I am drinking #wine now. Only 23% of the adult online population tweets, mostly the young. And there’s no way to sell anything here. Some authors have generated interest in their work by serializing fiction in successive tweets.

YouTube: Here’s my video on choosing wine. The second-most-used search engine on the Net. People go to learn or to be entertained, not to chat. Book “trailers” were trendy for a while, but ultimately did not spur sales. If you have a “how-to” video that relates to your book, that might work.

Instagram: Pictures of me drinking wine. Twitter with pics. Smaller percentages and even younger users. Kids think it’s a hipper alternative to Facebook, but it is in fact quietly owned by Facebook. A book cover might do you some good, but the Comments do not yet allow you to post URLs, so you can’t link to Amazon.

LinkedIn: Hire me, the wine expert. Great for nonfiction writers selling their expertise. Less so for fiction writers. Older demographic. Hosts a publishing platform that can link to your webpage.

Pinterest: Here’s my collection of wine stuff. 31% of online adults, primarily women, post here. Basically, you create an online visual catalog of your work. Poetry circulates easily because a poem can fit in a single pic, but fiction could work too.

To learn more about Hootsuite: https://hootsuite.com

How Do You Define “Book?”

If you’ve followed publishing news this week, you know there are a host of new fiction forms in cyberspace. As a writer, you can decry change or embrace it, but I see little downside in new opportunities for writers, especially opportunities that involve innovation and equal access. The Big Five largely control the books that go into bookstores, but they do not control the digital universe.

Here are a few of the new forms “books” are taking:

  1. Apps. Several new phone apps that are basically novels in disguise are getting media attention. The most successful is The Pickle Index, a SF dystopian novel that also pushes pickle recipes to your phone (to get you to return to the app). Other similar apps are The New World and The Silent History (the best of them in my opinion, discounted to 99 cents as I post this). And apps aren’t just for novels. A writer named Prerna Gupta has created an app called Hooked that provides short fiction for young adult readers. According to Gupta, 80% of all YA novels are read digitally.
  2. Phone Fiction. If you’re thinking no one would ever read a book on their phone, think again. Phone fiction is huge. The most successful platform is Wattpad, which has over 35 million users and publishes 100,000 new stories per day, primarily romance, SF, and YA. Despite the glut of material, some works have broken out, such as MJ Gary’s Flawed, a SF YA thriller compared favorably to Divergent, and Brittany Geragotelis’ Life’s a Witch, whose Wattpad success led her to a three-book deal with Simon & Schurter.
  3. Twitter Fiction. Same idea, different format. Yes, Dickens serialized many of his novels–but not in installments of 140 characters. Of course, you can post more than once a day to maintain interest. Phillip Pullman and Margaret Atwood have both done it. David Mitchell has built a strong following for his work on Twitter. Poets have done it successfully too.
  4. Serialized Fiction. Serial Box offers readers original fiction in digitalized installments (eBook or audiobook format) delivered directly each week. An online HBO for book readers.
  5. Red Sneakers App. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we have a Red Sneakers iPhone app. It’s free. Put it on your phone and you’ll be notified every time I post to this blog, add a new writing seminar or retreat, post updates on the fall writers conference, etc.

Here’s a link for the Red Sneakers app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/red-sneaker-writers/id1078933125?mt=8

Serial Box: https://www.serialbox.com

Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com

 

 

Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.