A good reason to tune out “successful people”

willywonka - No, copying my candy factory idea will NOT  make you the next "Shark Tank" success story.

For those of you who write, or for those of you who are readers who want to know what an authors thinks about before writing, you need to understand that most authors are merely “wannabes” who aspire to become bestsellers. What I mean is, they want to be the next JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Stephen King, or even the next Hugh Howey, Joe Konrath, or Amanda Hocking, all multi-millionaire authors.

Knowing this, there is a huge market of people trying to peddle “information” or “services” to help make those writer’s “dreams come true.” While some services and information are legitemate and honest, this tends to fall into one of 4 camps:

  1. The entity offering the “information” or “service” sees a lucrative financial opportunity to make money off unsuspecting and desperate writers, so they make promises they can’t keep and stick you with a high bill. Vanity presses work like this, such as this one.
  2. The “bestselling” author sees an opportunity to make money and sell seminars based on “here’s how successful I am. Just do what I do, and you can be successful like me too!” They then give you “advice” which sometimes is practical, and sometimes is not. Here’s one example. The end goal is not primarily to help newbies achieve success: it’s to establish the bestseller as a credible authority because s/he achieved success and financial fortune, and to make money either from ad revenue on hits to their web page, or on seminars or books dedicated to “helping” you. Whether or not their advice helps you is none of their concern.
  3. The wanna-be author, who lacks an understanding of branding and market principles, follows the herd, not understanding just how many other people are doing the exact same thing. Which companies tend to be most successful long-term: the innovators, or the “sheep”? Our wanna-be, however, does not know this. So s/he copies advice from
    “self-help” books written by successful people who of course want to help them personally, and then claim it does work because their sales went from 50 a month to 100. They then write it in blog comments or on their own website.
  4. The entity which studies information and claims there is a specific formula to doing something. For example, the perma-free strategy. I have come around on it to some extend, conceding that it does work for some people and to some extent. But not for everyone; if it did, everyone would be rich. So giving away lots of freebies isn’t going to work just because you did it. You really do need a solid strategy in order to lure people to other offerings, using your free book as a “loss leader” of sorts.

You can substitute books and authors for any other topic, such as “how to grow a successful small business” or “how to reduce stress from your life”, etc. I just use books as an example. Again, some people do offer quality advice, but not always, and even then, you need to pay attention.

What the “successful” people fail to tell you, however, is how many factors, both in your control and out of it, play into achieving success. Yes, there is an element of luck and timing and various other factors, including socio-economic background, college education, access to capital, work ethic, ambition, being a producer first, not a consumer first, etc. Yes, there are some universal truths. But like religion, I really believe it is impossible to say there is one “true” way to live life to achieve the goals you want to achieve. Each of us is an independent human being with success as being defined by us, in the way which works best for us. A person who makes $30 million a year as an actor has different success than a kid living in a single-parent home in a federally-classified “war zone” who graduates college and earns $90,000 a year as a lawyer. Both are successful, in different ways. Very unlikely the actor and the lawyer could switch places and have the exact same success.

With that comes a post from the Huffington Post, which I believe is being unfairly maligned, but hits home some uncomfortable truths (bold emphasis mine):

“No matter what experts tell you, no matter what trends, conventional wisdom, social media chatter or your friends in the Facebook writers group insist upon, do NOT write four books a year. I mean it. Don’t.

Unless they’re four gorgeously written, painstakingly molded, amazingly rendered and undeniably memorable books. If you can pull off four of those a year, more power to you. But most can’t. I’d go so far as to say no one can, the qualifier being good books.

Beyond the fact that the marketplace is glutted with an overwhelming number of books already (many of dubious quality), writing good books simply takes time, lots of it. There’s no getting around that time. It involves learned skills, unhurried imagination, fastidious drafting, diligent editing, even the time to step away, then step back, to go over it all again. And, unless you’re a hack (and we know there are plenty of those out there), isn’t the whole point of this exercise to write good books?

So, her (blogger Penny C. Sansevierifirst piece of advice to self-publishing authors wasn’t to put more focus on fine-tuning one’s craft, it wasn’t about taking time to mull and ponder what stories, what narratives, most inspire you to put “pen to paper”; it wasn’t even a suggestion to be relentless about working with professional content/copy editors and cover designers to create the best possible version of your work. No, it was the insanely insane advice to pump out at least four books a year.

And people wonder why there are stigmas attached to self-publishing.

First of all, in looking at her point of reference, I suppose it depends on what you define as a “successful author.” I have a distinct feeling this may be where the disparities lie. Perhaps my own definition is a different one.

When I self-published my first book, After The Sucker Punch, in April of 2014, I had, by then, put years into it, doing all those many things I itemized above. Because I not only wanted to publish a novel, I wanted that novel to be a work of art, a book of depth and merit, one that would not only tell a compelling story but would meet standards of publishing that authors of the highest regard are held to. I wanted it to be a book that would favorably compare with anything put out by a traditional publisher. My choice to self-publish was a result of not having engaged a publisher by the time my book was done and I was ready to market it. It was not based on the notion of joining the “second tier club” where one is unbound from the stricter, more demanding standards of traditional publishing.

“Second tier club”? Yes. As insulting as that sounds, particularly in relation to self-publishing, there is no question that there are two tiers operating in the culture of the book industry. Take a moment to think about it: based on what advice is given to self-published writers, some of which I shared above; based on the”free/bargain” pricing paradigms of most book sellers hawking those writers; based on the corner (quality)-cutting measures required to pump out endless product to meet the purportedly endless demand of those sites and their bargain-hunting readers, “second tier club” is no misnomer.”

The author of that post was attacked by well-known authors like Larry Correia, who admitted he “averaged 2 a year until I quit my day job.” Now that he earns a solid living writing full-time, he can write more books and do so more efficiently. Good for Larry, but few authors earn a full-time living writing. so someone like me, with a full-time job (and seasonal/free-lance too!) who has no name recognition is not going to be able to churn out solid books every quarter to keep up with Larry, who is writing full-time because he was both lucky and good to make a lot of money. Of course, I may very well be so successful that I can do it, but even then my success wouldn’t necessarily translate to success for you because you did what I did. “First to market” principle is in place here.

Lorraine’s (HuffPo article author) attackers don’t get that she’s not saying you shouldn’t do it under any circumstances. She means you should do what works for you, not what others are telling you to do just because it worked for them or someone they know. Just because a few authors in this world got mega-rich, or even 6-figure rich, doing something doesn’t mean you will too, even if you do what they did, even if you’re a talented writer. Luck and timing are as important to the free marketplace as they are to casinos. My only advice is, consider advice from different sources and make your own decisions for your life. And quit propping up the “self-help” industry, because more and more I am convinced that most of those people are less interested in truly helping YOU than in helping themselves to some more money by dangling that success stick in your face and telling you how you can join the elite club for just $19.95.

The truth she’s exposing is that there is no “magic bullet” to success. Maybe an author who sells 10,000 copies can call it a day. Others could sell 100,000 and feel like a failure. But the people and businesses who earn money with seminars and books telling you how to do it don’t want you thinking independently, or else you won’t need them anymore. So they try to get you hooked so you can

If you don’t believe me, try writing a poorly-written erotic novel that sells over 100 million copies. Yea, thought so.

Do you agree or disagree? And it doesn’t just have to be books- how do you feel about people who offer advice or services, free or paid? Do you find most of them to be sincerely helpful, or are they tooting their own horn?

Self-Pub or Trad-pub? You’re asking the wrong question, Lil’ Fella

The never-ending discussion of whether it’s better to go indie or go traditional when it comes to your book’s publication just keeps on going, kind of as a way I think for those who are not big-time to get some consolation as to why you can’t get a book deal. Believe me, I’ve been there.

Now I personally do believe that indies have a lot of advantages in terms of control, flexibility, and freedom to write what they want without being cencorsed by corporate interests. However, let’s not kid ourselves: With the exception of 50 shades of grey, which was a once-in-a-lifetime strike of lightning, the A-list trad-pubbed authors outearn and are better-known than the A-list self-published superstars. It’s the trad-pubbed authors whose bestsellers are more likely to be turned into movies, maintain just about every blockbuster franchise, and sell the most merchandise and products (if that’s your thing) over indies, who don’t have the distribution, marketing, or credibility that comes with an established, big-time publisher. Yes, I know there are indie success stories. Bella Andre, whose twitter feed says she’s sold over 4 million books, mostly as a self-published author, just followed me on Twitter and she has the requisite 135k needed to land a major publishing deal, which she did.

However, I doubt Bella is reading my blog right now, and I doubt Hugh Howey or J.A. Konrath are either (howdy y’all, during National Teacher Appreciation Week 2015 in case you read this in the future- and please don’t unfollow me! It hurts my feelings). So let’s talk about why if you’re deciding to self-pub or find an agent to traditionally publish with, just stop.

First off, the odds are astronomically impossible that you will get an agent to request your full manuscript, let alone agree to an exclusive contract with you, let alone actually find a publisher who wants to buy your work, unless you have a major “platform”, meaning either online or terrestrial. So if you can count big-name talk show hosts or celebrities as BFF’s who will promote your book, then congrats. Here’s your contract.

  • If you have a column in a national newspaper, or you’re a reporter for a big magazine or newspaper, or some other well-trafficked outlet, that’s a solid platform and if your book is at least solid, if not spectacular, then here’s your contract.
  • If you can count millions, or apparently billions, of Wattpad reads for your stories, or you have publicity on another high-trafficked site, stop. Here’s your contract.
  • If you can pull out a list of at least fifteen thousand e-mail subscribers to your blog or website, who are clamoring for your next book, and it’s good if not great, here’s your contract.
  • If you’ve won major (and I mean MAJOR) literary awards, like a Hugo or Corretta Scott King Book Award, and you have at least some type of web presence, you can probably snag yourself a book deal.
  • If you have already self-published and can show at least fifty thousand sales, preferably in the $2.99 or above range, hold on there little fella, you just might land yourself a book deal from a publishing house.
  • On some occasions, if you are lucky enough to get noticed by a small, independent publisher willing to take a chance on you, you can get your book published by an actual company, with or without representation. Just don’t expect your book to end up in bookstores nationwide, because many small presses don’t have much better print on demand (POD) access or distribution than you could get on your own.

If you are still reading this and didn’t get your contract yet, then you don’t have a massive platform, don’t have enough A- or B- list celebrities who can endorse your work, don’t have tens or hundreds of thousands of e-mail subscribers asking for your next book, don’t have a major literary award, and you can’t show indie sales in the mid-5 figures or above, then exactly why are you spending your time trying to query agents? Unless you have a masochistic fetish, you will be hurt when those rejection letters come in. And the worst part is, you will never know if your book was rejected because a) it’s been done ten thousand times before, b) it just flat out sucks, c) your attitude was unprofessional, d) your platform wasn’t considered big enough to sell enough copies to justify the agent spending her time trying to place it, or e) the agent was just overwhelmed with reading too many queries when they have to promote their current list of authors, or go to YouTube conventions/reality TV show sets to find their next writer. You will get a friendly letter of “thank you for your book, but I’m going to pass” with no explanation why.

So what is likely to happen is, you will automatically end up self-publishing as an indie. You can either just go it totally alone, or get published with a very small, truly independent press, which I will count as self-pubbed since you will do a LOT of your own promotion, and you will still have to be on top of your publisher to make sure the book was edited and produced to high standards. You simply won’t be able to do that with a major publisher.

IF you are good/lucky/persistent, you might be able to sell enough copies that some agents will call or e-mail YOU and talk to you about whether you’d like to sign a contract with one (agent) so s/he can help you with traditional print publishing rights, overseas rights, movie rights, etc. You may yet get that traditional publishing deal, which does have advantages over going alone. Namely, the ability to sell and collect money in foreign countries, get your book translated (well or poorly, I have no comment since I don’t know) into multiple languages as opposed to finding translators or learning a lot of languages really quickly, the ease of having your book sold in bookstores and having distribution handled, the increased likelihood of seeing your book turned into a movie (unless you have great connections), the increased odds of winning the very book awards which keep you contracted, and the ease of having other productions like audiobooks handled, which leaves you free to write, do social media, and maybe sell some merchandise on the side if you don’t have a licensing deal in place with a company.

Given that the barrier between indie and traditional is blurred, and that you can still get that book contract if you want it, why even consider otherwise? Even if you don’t want a traditional book deal, for many reasons like loss of control, no compete clauses, mediocre or poor advance, lack of trust in the publisher or agent to properly handle matters, or any other reason, circumstances can always change your mind.

So go indie. It isn’t like you have a real choice now anyway.

How to tell a story, part 2: Emotions and Voice Command

 At long last Part 2 of “How to tell a story” is here . I promised this about three weeks ago but recent (negative) situations in my life have made blogging tertiary for the moment.  Unfortunately I am not (yet) a successful, multi-millionaire author/publisher/entrepreneur  so until that time I need to keep working my day job and moving along with life.

I will update this section with a link to the vlog I am creating on this section, but in part 2 out of 3 I want to focus on two more aspects of Nick Morgan’s excellent book “Power Cues” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2014). In chapters 2-4 Nick talks about many things but two concepts are most critical to you, the aspiring writer: Mirror neurons and your “secret sound”.

Mirror Neurons are, by definition (from Wikipedia):

“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.”

In other words, we react to an emotion with a reflecting emotion because it is in our DNA. It’s the reason why we (there are some sadists who are exceptions, but they really are) see someone cry and we feel a sense of pity. We see someone laugh and we want to laugh with them, or at least smile. Mirror neurons in short are what create emotion and allow us to feel empathy. From the book:

“At its heart, decisions making involves emotions, because emotions give us the ability to weight the relative import of all the factors involves…the decisions we make in real life involve weighing different amounts of attachment and importance.” (Morgan 64)

“If communication becomes possible thanks to mirror neurons, then leadership becomes possible too, because what is leadership without the ability to communicate with your followers?” (Morgan 65)

The purpose of controlling one’s emotions is not just to get parts in a movie (Morgan write that a big reason why we as society make actors into celebrities is because they are able to master their emotions to manipulation in ways the rest of us can’t) but to convey a sense of feeling which words cannot describe. Morgan’s book focuses on the nonverbal cues and how they can help in speech, but for this exercise I will talk about how they impact one’s ability to write.

It is not always easy, nor should it be, to convey emotions by literally writing “she looked into her eyes and saw a reflection of herself: a sad and lonely child with few friends but many enemies.” This sentence is blatantly obvious about there being a scene where two characters are sad. Sometimes it can be expressed through speech:

JOHN: Hey man, you look like you’re bothered by something. What’s up?

JACOB: Not much, man…well, nothing I really want to talk about.

JOHN: You sure?

JACOB: Nah, well…John, have you ever been fired from a job?

JOHN: Yea, I have.

JACOB: Well, that’s the gist of what happened.

JOHN: Listen man, I’m here for you. You can talk to me.

In this made-up example I as the author do not need to narrate John’s emotional understanding that Jacob is upset by something, in this case the fact that he was fired from his job. The dialogue alone tells you how the two characters interact and how John can “share” Jacob’s pain in just dialogue. If you are trying to improve your writing then you should try to think about how YOU would behave in a certain situation (unless you are an emotionless zombie, in which case think of how your screaming victims might behave) and try to picture that scene in your head.

If you would listen to a friend when she’s been dumped by her boyfriend or your cousin who got a pay raise at work and react appropriately, then there is no reason your writing should change. For some reason a lot of authors have a fetish for a type of literary style I like to call “literary prose” which differs from the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition in that it is too style-focused and not action-focused. You’ll recognize books like that where the author will spend countless words describing some rather irrelevant backstory or how someone feels about something or explaining every minute plot point as though you’re in second grade (unless you are, in which case I apologize). Having seen enough novel excerpts I get the impression that this is what must be taught in workshops and creative writing courses, like everyone must one-up Charles Dickens.

Instead try to write as though people are behaving rationally and let the characters carry the action. Leave as much of the narration behind as you can get away with. Some authors, especially very novice authors, will narrate too heavily and spend page after page reflecting on someone’s feelings. One good example was a book I recently read, Wool by Hugh Howey. While the plot itself is very creative Howey spends too many pages, especially in the middle, describing a backstory unrelated to the plot and telling, rather than showing, how a character feels about something. I am picking on him because he comes to mind right now so sorry Hugh, it’s not personal.

________________________

The second part of the book relates to your “secret voice”. Every person, when he or she talks, emits low-frequency sounds called a “hertz” which sound like a hum. Listen to someone talk, preferably in person, and see if you can detect the monotonous low drone sound which comes from their voice. You probably didn’t know, but a lot of who we as people determine who our leaders are by wwhoeverhas the “lowest” low-frequency sounds because we somehow perceive them to be the “strongest people.”

Most of the chapter in Morgan’s book on this topic discusses public speaking, a topic which I will blog about in the future. Sticking to the book or script writing, you cannot (literally) write in a character’s vocal chord hum. But you can, through dialogue, determine the “voice” your characters will have. You can have characters speak a certain way to determine who’s in charge in a given group. If you picture how this person might talk in real life you will better understand what it is inside our brains which makes us hardwired to follow the person with the best vocal chord pitch. So in our next example:

SAMANTHA: This assignment is soooo stupid. How are we going to memorize Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet in two days?

SABRINA: There is a way to get it done but it just takes practice.

LEANNE: How would we do that Sabrina?

SABRINA: It’s easy. There are four characters. Horatio and Marcellus have longer lines so one of us takes Horatio, One takes Marcellus, and the third person takes the other two characters. Just memorize your character’s lines and the three words preceding it to give your verbal cue.

SAMANTHA and LEANNE: Sounds like a plan.

Can’t figure out how it worked in this example, can you? In your own mind, how do you think Sabrina sounds? Does she sound maybe like a well-spoken female leader you know, a famous person like Condoleeza Rice or perhaps your alma mater’s president? A successful businesswoman or lawyer? My guess is the literal sound Sabrina created in your mind was cobbled together from your life experiences and expectations. Therefore it would be logical, based on your own mind, to create a voice which would allow Sabrina, with that dialogue, to command respect.

Now try this exercise: Picture Sabrina speaking like Fran Drescher from “The Nanny” or some other nasally sounding voice. She will have the same dialogue, but would she command the same respect? Most people, even with the same dialogue, are listening to HOW someone talks and not just the words they say. It’s a bias we all have.

My tip: If you are trying to project a characteristic on a person, particularly if your character is supposed to be a leader, think of either a) someone you know (in person or informally) or b) a combination of people based on your experiences; and then think of how they might exhibit leadership through dialogue (again narrate only as absolutely necessary). Write that down and “listen” in your own mind. Once you can create a dialogue in your mind which sounds like how you want it to go. You may find your plot might even pivot or change completely based on how a character you create acts based on the dialogue you’ve constructed for them.

Give it a try and leave comments on this page if you want to add to the discussion.

Coming up Next: The  third and final installment of “Power Cues”: How to use stories to get on the right wavelength.

Coming up soon: the pre-Halloween special. This will be a trick-or-treat set of “top Ten” items, but whether it’s a trick or treat is up to me (cackle, cackle)

emoji: zazzle.com

Novels for men: Do guys still read books?

                                                         

                            (photo credit: allposters.com)                                            (photo credit: blogs.uvu.edu)    

As I have mentioned before, I am a guy who likes to read and write books. Only it seems that outside of the sci-fi.fantasy realm the majority of books published are books women prefer, such as paranormal romance and YA thrillers with female heroines and female-centric plots.

First, let me state that I’m not objecting to the so-called “chick-lit”. There is absolutely nothing wrong with paranormal romance or dystopian societies if you are into those things. Just because one person doesn’t like a book doesn’t mean others won’t, a practice which seems to be forgotten in the publishing industry,

From last year’s National Endowment for the Arts survey:

The NEA has partnered with the United States Census Bureau six times since 1982 to conduct the SPPA. The 2012 survey asked a nationally representative sample of adults ages 18 and older if they had participated in five broad categories of arts activity in the past year: attending, reading, learning, making/sharing art, and consuming art via electronic media.

  • More than two-thirds of American adults (71 percent or 167 million) accessed art via electronic media, including TV, radio, hand-held or mobile devices, the Internet, and DVDs, CDs, tapes, or records.
  • Music viewing and/or listening is the most popular form of media arts participation—whether on TV, radio, or the Internet. Fifty percent of adults used TV or radio to watch or listen to music, and 29 percent used the Internet to watch, listen to, or download music.

 Reading Books and Literature

  • More than half of American adults read a work of literature or a book (fiction or nonfiction) not required for work or school. However, adults’ rates of literary reading (novels or short stories, poetry, and plays) dropped back to 2002 levels (from 50 percent in 2008 to 47 percent in 2012).
  • Older Americans (65 and older) now have higher rates of literary reading than any other adult age group. 

 

And then there’s this little nugget of info:

Women tend to simply read more than men — one study by the Associated Press found that among avid readers, women read nine books a year while men read five. The men outpaced the women in reading biographies and historical books, though, and booksellers say that women make up the clear majority of fiction readers.

According to one theory, women read more fiction than men because they possess greater quantities of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are activated when we do something, as well as when we watch somebody else do the same thing. In other words, mirror neurons help us put ourselves in another person’s shoes, and they are tied closely to empathy. It’s possible that women are better able to empathize with fictional characters because of their mirror neurons, which makes them more likely to invest in characters’ journeys.

Both the Associated Press poll and a 2007 poll from the National Endowment for the Arts have tracked declines in reading for pleasure among Americans. The NEA poll showed that literary reading has declined for both genders, across all education levels and in nearly every age group. It also said that only 47 percent of adults had read a novel, short story, play or poem in the past year . The report showed that the gap between reading scores for male and female 12th-grade students had widened from 1992 to 2005. Girls outperformed boys on literary reading, reading for information and reading to perform a task. Women also outscored men on adult literacy tests.

(source: “Why do women read more fiction than men?” Curiosity.discover.com)

I can’t give the scientific answer about empathy and mirror neurons, but it is well-known that women are generally more emotion than men. It’s why your girlfriend/wife/mother/sister/ BFF can cry to a romantic movie but you the guy are probably bored or indifferent. You may also have noticed just how many romance novels there are.

The sad truth is that reading for pleasure overall is down, as the NEA study noted. Though older people like my grandma still read for pleasure for most people it’s just easier to play Angry Birds or Candy Crush (or whatever the newest game is) than it is to pick up a book and spend even one hour reading it.

Also, children who are not read to by their parents or guardians are generally less likely to pick up good reading habits than children whose parents or guardians read to them on a reasonably regular basis. There is a study by the Annie E Casey Foundation that children who enter the fourth grade unable to read are almost 90% of those students who end up dropping out of high school and/or ending up incarcerated.

However, let’s not totally blame the people. Perhaps some people aren’t interested in what gets put out. Most men I know are not interested in reading romance, including paranormal romance. Some men will buy dystopian thrillers but it becomes harder and harder to stand out in the crowded dystopian market (Hugh Howey’s Wool actually did on its own-but it’s the exception to the rule). Given how much is being published it becomes harder and harder to find a niche, but they do exist. Too few people ever think outside the box.

How does this fit into men and boys reading less? One organization says Boys read 10 minutes per day less than girls  (we aren’t counting texts and social media postings, but real reading). Another says boys generally have lower levels of literacy comprehension. If these boys do not become avid reader they will most likely become men who are not avid reads, particularly of fiction.

I think the solution is, without degrading the literacy levels of girls and women, is simple: get kids, boys especially, excited about reading. Find new ways to introduce reading, whether through traditional publishing, e-books, or short stories. Make the material somewhat engaging, perhaps removing the “classics” (this is another blogpost!) with books kids might be interested in. Encourage parents with elementary school or pre-school kids to read at least four nights a week to the kids. 

What do you think? Why do men and boys generally read less? Am I being too short-sighted and not seeing the overall lower reading levels? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

COMING UP NEXT: I will post a Vlog (or link to) my review of one vlog by John Green, Author of “The Fault in Our Stars”. I wanted to comment on a particular video of his on Israel and Gaza. 

Coming up soon: The art of storytelling. How many of your readers know how to tell persuasive stories? I will begin a series here where I will explain the art of storytelling and how to keep an audience hooked.