Marketing for Self-Publishers: My Successes and Failures of 2015

I think this is how investment works. I could be wrong.

I think this is how money works. I could be wrong.

It’s very tempting to believe that the exploding popularity of self-publishing has revolutionized literature in all the right ways.  After all, anyone with a computer and a word processor can instantly access millions of eager readers worldwide, with no filters, no pesky gatekeepers, and no steep cuts into the royalty checks.

In an ideal world, self-publishers would live along their traditional peers on the best sellers’ lists, as the cream of the crop rises to enthrall the same coveted, discerning audiences.  Indie books would proudly decorate the shelves at big-box book retailers, and Hollywood options would follow soon enough.  Anyone could write the next commercial smash hit – and as soon as they do, all the stigma around independent publishing will instantly vanish.

But the reality, of course, has been quite different.  The majority of self-publishers struggle to lure any readers at all to their wares.  They coast along with minimal sales, and still get plenty of flak from the traditional world for even daring to do so.

That massive pool of readers is still out there, but the right book buyers and the right book sellers have a devil of a time finding each other.  There is no established mechanism for separating the wheat from the chaff, and excellent self-publishing authors still linger in the shadows, unable to break free from the mobs of competitors offering less-than-satisfactory products to disillusioned customers.

The commonly accepted solution to these problems is marketing.  Create ads, they say.  Be seen on social media.  Rope in readers with goodies and contests.  Badger everyone you know to write reviews.  Enter contests.  Hire a professional PR agency if you really want to pull out the big guns.  Do as much as you possibly can to create that elusive buzz everyone craves.

All of these things can have a major impact on sales – but they require something that many self-publishers just don’t have.  Money.

Luckily for the destitute among us, there are some effective but low-cost ways of promoting your newest book.  Even more luckily, there are some foolish bloggers like me who will invest in these strategies for you, and let you know where you should really put your money.  You’re welcome.

Between October of 2014 and the end of 2015, I published Dark the Night Descending and Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, and I tried a lot of different marketing strategies to try to build interest in my first proper fantasy series.  Some of them worked relatively well…and some of them didn’t.

So here’s the rundown of some of the major things I paid money for over the past few years.  Your results may vary, but I hope this anecdotal roundup will help you decide where to invest your hard-earned marketing dollars in the New Year.

Facebook and Goodreads ads

What: Basic sidebar ads on Goodreads and tailored newsfeed ads on Facebook

How much I spent:  Approximately $30.00

The verdict: Failure

Why: You can read all about this experiment in my blog post here, but basically, Goodreads and Facebook ads were a bust.  Low click-through rates, even lower customer engagement, and no actual sales means that 30 bucks is gone for good.

Neither website provides enough detailed targeting for a good enough price for this to be worthwhile for the small-time budget.  You won’t be able to reach a large enough cohort of people to maybe, possibly snag a highly qualified reader, and if you don’t have previous experience with online marketing, developing a meaningful and cost-effective ad campaign can be very difficult.

Goodreads giveaways

What: Three separate chances to win a total of twelve paperbacks of Dark the Night Descending

How much I spent: Approximately $200.00

The verdict: Success…ish?

Why: Goodreads giveaways look great at first glance.  Thousands of interested readers vying to win free books with the unspoken expectation that they will leave you a nice review appears to be a tempting offer for authors.

Goodreads-Logo-1024x576-7abf5bd8d98b9d10And indeed, you don’t have to do anything other than list your contest to garner hundreds of entries with no effort.

Most of the people entering the giveaway will also add your book to their “to-read” lists, which gives you a nice little pad of potential readers for your novel’s homepage.

Unfortunately, it’s not as wonderful as it seems.  First of all, you have to purchase hard copies of your novels (10 bucks a pop for Dark the Night), plus you have to pay for the shipping costs.  During my first contest, I made the mistake of allowing international entries.  Even a lightweight paperback is pretty expensive to ship to the UK.

And guess what?  Only three of the 845 people who added my book to their lists due to the giveaway have left a rating.  Only one of those twelve winners ever wrote me a review.  It was a great review, and I’m thankful for it.  But I’m not sure the return on the total investment is really worthwhile.

You can read more about my giveaway experience here.

Writer’s Digest contests

What: Two writing competitions sponsored by Writer’s Digest.  One short story contest in September of 2014 (“The Terracotta Girl”), and one self-published novel contest in 2013 (The Last Death of Tev Chrisini)

How much I spent: $20.00 for the short story contest; $100.00 for the novel

The verdict: Failure

Why: Well, I didn’t win.

IPR License

What: A marketplace for the display and sale of international trade rights and permissions.

How much I spent: $150.00 (USD) for a one-year membership

The verdict: Failure (with extra warning bells)

Why: This UK-based rights licensing marketplace looked really intriguing when it was first pitched to me by a very nice sales rep.  In exchange for the membership fee, I was offered a prime listing in their international book fair catalogue and the chance to be discovered by foreign agents looking for English-language best sellers for their home countries.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Danger, Will Robinson!

IPR would handle all the legal stuff, including vetting the respectability of foreign agents before passing on their offers to me, and would take the standard 15% cut of any royalties I might accrue.

My sales rep was very cagy when I asked what my chances of success would be, and how many deals they had made for self-published authors so far.  She kept bringing up a single example of a woman who parlayed international success into a US-based traditional publishing contract, but she couldn’t give me any hard numbers or other details, ostensibly because their offerings were so new.

That should really have been the clue that this is not really a sound investment.  First of all, a listing in a database means very little unless you can do something special to draw attention to yourself.  I could have paid even more for additional listings in some of their catalogues, which are distributed at the Big Five international book fairs, but the prices were a little too high when added on to my original membership.  So I’m left with nothing other than a name card and a hope that some of my keywords will help a reputable agent seek me out.  Not gonna happen, right?

I don’t think this is a scam, per se, but I don’t think it’s the best use of your money.  Unless you’re very familiar with the international rights scene, I think you should avoid this company and any offers similar to it.

NetGalley

What: A two-month listing for downloadable review copies of Dark the Night Descending

How much I spent: $50.00 through my Broad Universe membership (which costs $30.00 per year on its own, but comes with unrelated perks)

The verdict: Success!

Why: Reviews!  Seven of them!  Most of them very good!  NetGalley is really the place you want to be for gathering book reviews, because its sole purpose is to connect rabid readers and established reviewers with authors of all statures.

Half of the people who were approved for a free digital copy (no shipping costs!) of my book left a review on NetGalley, and several of those people also cross-posted to their own blogs, Amazon, and Goodreads.  Compared to the $200 review I got from the giveaways, that’s a pretty sound investment.

Listing prices are a little higher if you don’t get a special deal like I did, but they are not exorbitant, and I think it’s well worth it.  It’s also one of the few places where highbrow traditionally published books and self-published books seem to mingle with little discrimination.  I will probably put one or more of my books up for offer again at some point in the future.

WordPress blogging

What: This blog, dude.  Sheesh.

How much I spent: $26.00 per year for my domain name; $30.00 per year for additional custom blog design features

The verdict: Success!

Why: You’re here, aren’t you?  I mean, chances are that you’ll never buy a book from me, but that’s okay.  This is free content for you to enjoy, to share, and maybe even to learn from.  If you happen to remember my name when it comes time for filling a hole in your reading list, that would be fantastic, but that’s not really what an author’s blog should be about.  It should be a resource and a destination all on its own, and I hope I have provided that for you – and that I continue to do so.

Gold_Star.svgBlogging has helped me become a better writer, connected me with a few dedicated readers (to whom I am eternally grateful), and allowed me to share my meager knowledge with the rest of the world.  I’ve been so tickled and honored to be a featured member of the WordPress community, and to share bits of my life with strangers who reflect my own experiences back to me.

My blog has definitely been my best investment over the past few years, even though it costs a lot more in time than it does in money.

You can create lots of different types of blogs for free, of course, and I absolutely recommend that all self-publishers offer their readers a landing page of some sort.  At the bare minimum, it should contain an author’s bio, contact information, and a link to the place where they can buy your books.  For such a small fee each year, I think it’s worth buying a custom domain name, just to make you easy to find.

As we close out 2015 and look ahead towards a brand new year, I’d like to thank both my new followers and my long-term readers for being a part of this crazy self-publishing journey.  In 2016, I’m planning to publish the last two books of the Paderborn Chronicles, and then we’ll see what happens after that.  I hope you’ll all stay tuned!

There Are Many Paths to Tread

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As most of you know by now, my family has spent many, many months – many years, really – trying to get our house in shape to sell.

In September, we were almost there.  We had an eager buyer on our hands.  We (and I use the term “we” very loosely, here) had started the long and arduous process of cleaning out 30 years of accumulated stuff.  We had signed a contract, slogged through much of the legal process, and had a closing date in sight.

That date was supposed to be right before Thanksgiving.  Everything had been cleaned out, dusted down, and shined up.  My mom had found a lovely little apartment not too far away from her job and her church, and had moved out of the house with (gasp) a little time to spare.  My dad signed a lease in Massachusetts, and planned to move in by the beginning of December.

We weren’t that surprised when the closing date was delayed a little – this was a short sale, and the whole black-box process was mysterious and unclear.  The buyers needed to provide some extra paperwork, so the hand-off was pushed back until December 10th.

But then the buyer’s lawyer said he wasn’t ready on the 10th, either.  Some of the documents hadn’t come through.  My dad had already scheduled his moving truck, so he signed over power of attorney to our representative and said goodbye to New York.

A week later, the closing was cancelled.

That’s right.  It turns out that the buyers, a nice couple with three young kids, have decided to get a divorce.  They’ve called off the contract, and left us back at square one.

Our real estate agent has put the “for sale” sign back up, and has been showing the house non-stop over the past couple of days.  We have no idea when or if we will find a new buyer.  I hope I’m not jinxing it, but I think the chances look pretty good.  There are a lot of people interested, and at least we understand the process a little better after having gone through most of it already.

It’s just a major and unexpected letdown to be so close to watching the ink dry before having victory snatched away from us.

The weird thing is that we have all been at least partway through the process of emotionally detaching ourselves from the property.  Everyone (including all family felines) has settled into their new homes, and there’s nothing tying us to that house anymore.  My parents don’t even have to be there in person to sign the papers anymore.

And yet the house is still there, still in our possession, and still anchoring us to a past that seems less and less tangible as the days roll on.  The pain of leaving home behind has dulled a little, helped along by the process of getting everyone situated, and I feel more confident about where we are headed as a family that still has so much in common and cares so much for one another – even if we’re terrible at showing it.

I feel like I’ve crossed a threshold, or come through a thick and murky bank of fog, and now I can see that the future can be as bright and sunny as I want to make it.  It’s a good feeling.  I think it will be a better feeling when we finally find a new family to fill the house with life and laughter and their own complicated stories once again.

I don’t know when we’ll find the right people for the job.  I don’t know how long it will take to get approval again from the financial powers-that-be.  I don’t know when the new closing date will be, or how many times it’ll be postponed, or if we’ll suffer more disappointments along the way.

All I know is that both my parents have worked incredibly hard to get to this point, and I sincerely hope that it will pay off sooner rather than later.  I know we’ll get there eventually, but it would be nice to have an idea about when that might be.

In the meantime, we’ll all keep working on building our new lives in new places.  I’m sure we’ll strike the right balance as time goes on, and hopefully we’ll find that we’re on the right paths towards the best possible future.

Short Story: The Sin-Eaters of Wickshire

Frederic Edwin Church, 1877

The knock on the door preceded the last breath by only a moment.  It was the last sound a dead man would hear, but whether it was fright or relief which hastened the soul’s departure, no one was willing to say.

The timing may have seemed uncanny, if tradition did not state that a window should be left open to allow the spirit to flee to the heavens – and perhaps to allow a small, sallow figure to peek over the sill and get his entrance just right.

John would have told anyone who asked that he could smell death coming, but no one had questions for a sin-eater, unless it was to ask why he had not gotten gone yet.  No one had kind words for him except once in their lives, and often it was too late to speak them.  He preferred it that way.  Death was a steady business, and a reasonably profitable one, but he didn’t like looking at their eyes.

He wasn’t supposed to, really.  He was just supposed to eat the bread and drink the bitter, frothy ale balanced on an unmoving chest, taking upon himself the misdeeds and mistakes and bad manners of old, shriveled men and wizened women clasping strings of prayer beads in knotted, numbing fingers as he recited the ancient words of pardon.

“To rest I bid the soul of thee; thine sins transfer from thou to me.  Haunt not the lands where once you’d dwell, but fly towards heaven and leave me for hell.”

No sooner would he finish than he would be tossed a farthing for his services and sent quickly on his way, providing solace but given no succor in the darkened houses of the marginally mournful.  Sometimes, when he looked over his shoulder, they were already scouring drawers and desks and dressing gowns for items of portable value.  Most of the time, the servants had already gotten to them first.

Only the old folks asked for him anymore.  No one else believed in him.  Wickshire was growing modern, he thought disgustedly as he forced himself to swallow the day-old crust, stuck in his throat and tasting vaguely tangy with the spit-up blood that spattered the nightshirt underneath.  Only the old folks knew.

John was hardly in the spring of his youth, either.  His breath came too short; his eyes were dimmer, and his knees creaked now as he scuttled back from the kicking boot of the home’s new owner, the grown son of a man who would hardly have protested at the actions of his progeny.

“Peace, good sir,” he muttered as he ducked out of the way.  “I ain’t done you no harm but what you asked for.”

John would have no sons of his own, for which he was grateful at such times, nor any daughters, nor a wife to recall him fondly when the winters piled over him one time too many.  His bones would crumble into the earth unburied, returning sustenance to the soil, turning bread and ale into food for wheat and rye, turned again to food for the righteous and the sinful.

They said a sin-eater came from nowhere and left nothing behind him, but John knew better than that.  He knew what would happen when the gluey rattling in his chest became too much to bear.  He was an expert on death, and he needed no open windows to smell it stalking him.

In the old days of Wickshire, he would have been provided for.  The villages would each send a brave man, or perhaps their most foolish one, with bundles of split wood and bags of hard-baked oatcakes and summer roses dried and crisped to scented brown, to last him through the cold, dark nights and send him on his final way with honors.

They would have realized that they needed him more than he needed them.  There were more villages than sin-eaters, these days, and still a smattering of people who harkened to the old ways.  There were enough that he could find a better situations somewhere else, if he was not enticed to stay.

In the old days, the villagers would have remembered why it mattered.  They would have known that their sins did not die with the eater: that tainted loaves and watered beer were not the end of their deceit.  The gods demanded more of their disciples, and the demons craved sweeter meat.

As dying bones leeched their nutriment into the soil, so too would the sins of the village be taken up in bread and butter and frothy milk, to be returned to their children again and again – unless John did more than take a proffered farthing and run as fast as his stiffened legs could carry him.

There were no blossoms to cheer his heart as he began his slow, shuffling journey to the last house he would enter, but not the last one he would leave.  The children called it a fairy house, and sported in its shadow with their bare feet and ribboned braids, rolling willow hoops down to the river and delighting in the dappled shade.

Perhaps ignorance was not so wrong for them, but children these days grew no wiser as they aged, and for that he pitied them.  No one would pity him, though, his breath whistling through his teeth as he tried to squeeze himself inside the low dome of plaited branches, cool and close and coffin-like.

He didn’t know who renewed the tightly woven fronds of birch and hawthorn, but he did know that the thick layer of rich, ashy soil was not natural to the river’s edge.

John settled down, cross-legged, ignoring the twinge and the ache and the pointless complaining of his twisted spine.  The night that fell upon him was not natural either – or perhaps it was the most natural thing he had ever known.  He was not the only sin-eater with impeccable timing, and he smiled as he murmured the words that would send the sins of the last half a century away from Wickshire and back to where they came.

“To you I bid the sins of all; thy food to stuff thine greedy maw.  Haunt not the lands where black hearts dwell, but send me to heaven and stay you to hell.”

It was hard to finish the phrase as the demon crunched his way up from his cooling toes, supping on bitter blood and avoiding John’s gaze as it stiffened and his last breath sighed away.

In the old days, the villagers would have believed in him, he thought.  In the old days, the sin-eaters would have been remembered.  But Wickshire was growing modern, and soon there would be no one left to realize how much they needed him as the children played in the rich river soil.

Doctor Who and the Sin of Sloppy Storytelling

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Warning to Whovians: This post contains spoilers for the most recent season, including this week’s episode.

Warning to everyone else: You’re probably not going to care much about the particulars of this post, so feel free to wander on by.

Storytelling.  No matter what medium you choose – movies, TV, novels, flash fiction, or comic books – there’s nothing more important.  Storytelling is the overarching competency with which you build your world, develop your characters, and follow the actual series of events that constitute your plot.  There’s nothing more important because there’s nothing else you’re trying to achieve, really.

Storytelling is everything – and Doctor Who is really bad at it.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a die-hard fan, by the most stringent definition.  I’ve only picked through a couple of the classic episodes just to get my bearings, and I started watching the new series a mere three years ago, so I’m late to the game.

But I really enjoy it, and I think it’s done some excellent things over its (gasp) nearly ten-year-long run.  I think Peter Capaldi is a fantastic actor, and I love the passion and wryness that he’s bringing to the role.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to see him fall victim to really terrible plotting and some cringe-worthy, elementary storytelling mistakes.  This season has been especially dismal, as the showrunners try to jazz things up and make everything cool and dark and edgy.  It’s been nothing but failure after failure, and there are lessons for storytellers of all kinds in those rudimentary errors.

Here are four of the biggest pitfalls that the Doctor has failed to avoid in recent weeks.

Detail doesn’t always equal world building

Little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashioning a realistic society.  A mention of a past cataclysmic event, the unique wording of a minced oath or a prayer, and the way a woman dresses or a man greets his friends can add life and color to an otherwise flat environment.

But knowing where to put in details – and where to leave them out – is what distinguishes a rich world from a cobbled-together mess of cultural clichés.  Let’s take the Indo-Japanese set-up in Sleep No More, for example.  You may remember that each of the soldiers talking over their communication device would say something like, “Come in, Ando.  May the gods look favorably upon you.  Are you dead yet?”

Now, I’m sure the writers intended that phrase to bring a bit of Neo Asian spice to the rather haphazard and poorly-presented 38th century cultural landscape, but here’s the rub.

Number one, I guarantee half of you misremembered the phrase as the one from The Hunger Games, so that was poorly planned.  Number two, there was nothing about gods in the rest of the plot, so who cares if they’re looking favorably at anyone?  Everyone dies anyway, so clearly it doesn’t work as a benediction.

Number three, extraneous words like that have no place in military communications, where they could be garbled and confused, and they certainly waste time and effort when speaking on a two-way radio.

So what did that detail bring to the party, other than confusion?  Did it make you feel more connected to a world you never even really got to see?

Suspension of disbelief?  Rubbish.

In the same episode, the Doctor commits the cardinal sin of storytelling: he gets roped into telling, not showing.

“Well, of course the vicious sand men are the sleep from the corner of your eye,” he says based on no evidence whatsoever.  “You’re just going to accept that dead skin and mucous can become sentient and kill people, aren’t you?  I’ve never encountered this before, and I’m not even going to bother making up some silly technical jargon to explain how they came to life, but let’s just take this as a given because we have to get to the pointless ‘twist’ at the end pretty soon.”

He did the same thing with the quantum shade in Face the Raven this week.  What is it?  Why does Me have it?  Why can she only control it to the exact degree required to manipulate the rest of the plot into shape?  Why should we just accept that Clara is destined to die, when the Doctor is so good at getting out of all these other “inevitable” situations?

Now, the episode will be continued next week, so I guess we can’t discount the possibility of an explanation.  But with the way things are going, I wouldn’t bet my hat on it.

This is especially frustrating because you can look back at an episode like Mummy on the Orient Express, where the Doctor spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the monster is.  Because we already know the Doctor hasn’t come across every single type of lifeform in the universe.  And when you see something new, you have to figure out what it is before you can kill it.

He actually solved a mystery, instead of stating that a) there is no mystery because the Doctor knows things he really has no way of knowing, or b) the mystery is simply unsolvable or irrelevant, so you’ve just got to accept it because they said so.

You can’t just say things that are outrageous or unfamiliar to an audience and expect them to go with it.  You have to at least throw them a little bit of a bone.  Even if you’re just going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, you must have some sort of justification for why things happen the way they do.  “Trust me, I’m the Doctor” only works in some situations, not all of them.

The Doctor has (nearly) infinite time, but we don’t

Cut to the chase.  Really.  I mean, can we talk about Odin in The Girl Who Died?  What was the point of that?  Unless it was some kind of subtle homage to Monty Python, I haven’t seen anything so ridiculous since the low-budget days of the 1970s.

Tell me I'm not the only one who saw this.

Tell me I’m not the only one who saw this.

Also, think about it.  If a big alien guy is going to come to a Viking village, eat all its warriors, and then immediately leave, why does it have to cloak itself in a form familiar to the culture?  Any big scary monster is going to make the warriors come out to fight.  It doesn’t have to insinuate itself into the mindset of its enemies.  It wasn’t planning to stay until Aschildr antagonized him.  Why waste our valuable time pretending that it matters?

The whole episode was a bit of a stretch, with the montage of preparing for the battle with the Mire and whatnot.  It definitely felt like they had enough material for one-and-a-half episodes with Maisie Williams, but they had to stretch it out into two.

The thing is, they really didn’t.  Doesn’t the Doctor have enough to say about immortality (or something like it)?  Couldn’t they have done some better foreshadowing if they knew Me was going to come back and kill Clara a few episodes later?  After all, they’ve made such a big deal about Clara’s drawn-out leaving saga that they could have spent more than five minutes on the fact that she was actually, finally going to die.

TV episodes have 42 minutes to make us care.  Doctor Who tries to make a brand new big, complex world fit into that tiny block of time each and every week.  There isn’t room for meandering and filler.  There isn’t room for loose writing and pointless detail.  Tighten up on the reins and give us the punch in the gut we know you can.

Tugging on the wrong heartstrings

Speaking of which.  Am I the only one who had absolutely no recollection of Rigsy?  I was not given any indication that I had to remember him when his primary episode ended, so I spent the whole time trying to recall where he was from.

And that meant that I didn’t particularly care that he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  Yes, the wife and baby at home gave it a gloss of tragedy, but let’s imagine something else for a minute.

Imagine if the episode started with Clara in her bathroom.  Wait – first imagine that you’re not totally sick and tired of Clara.  Then imagine her in the bathroom looking at the back of her neck.  She picks up the phone, her hand shaking slightly.  “Doctor, I seem to have a tattoo…and it’s counting down.”

You’re immediately invested, because you know Clara and you care about her.  You’re intrigued if she blanks out for a whole day, because you know she’s smart enough and experienced enough to be aware of alien things that might happen to her.  So why can’t she remember?  Bam, instant tension and mystery.

Bam, the Doctor has an immediate and pressing motive to figure out what happened.  He has to fret about losing Clara for the whole episode, not just the last two minutes.  They both have to face the inevitability of mortality, and they get to do it together.  Clara can do more than throw away a single line about courting death this whole time.  She can explore who the Doctor has turned her into, and she can either forgive him or blame him for it as she stares down her final moments.

The Doctor has to face the fact that he can’t save everyone – not because Clara made a stupid and clumsy mistake just to further a plot point, but because sometimes there are evil forces in the world greater than he is.  The Doctor doesn’t always win – and we could have had 42 minutes to explore his pain at that notion.

But we didn’t.  We had five minutes, and it felt like a total waste of time.  Because the writers missed this golden opportunity for some serious drama.  They misjudged the audience, and they misjudged their own capabilities to craft an absorbing farewell for a long-running character.

The problem is that they’re trying too hard and they don’t have enough of a critical eye to make it work.  Everyone needs to be a little brutal with the red pen before anything gets finalized, and I don’t think they have an editor that can ask the tough questions and make the right calls.

It’s very disappointing that this season has struck such a sour tone.  It isn’t all bad – I liked the underwater ghost episodes, and I enjoyed Peter Capaldi yelling at the Zygons about peace in our time.  But there are so many amateur mistakes in the construction of these episodes that there’s so little incentive for me to keep watching as faithfully as I have.

So please, showrunners.  Get it together.  Trim the nonsense, find a way to get under our skin, and skip the silly meandering around what really matters.  You’ve done it before.  I’m sure you can do it again.  And if you want me to fly over there and set you all straight, I’ll start booking my tickets.

Out for the Count

First of all, hello to all my new followers!  Thank you so much for joining my little circle of readers.  Normally, I write a lot about fantasy novels, creativity, and self-publishing matters, but today I’m just taking a little detour to make an unfortunate announcement.  Aren’t you glad you signed up just in time?

Anyway.  So, do you guys remember that time all the way back in August when I fell down the stairs?  I hurt my wrist quite badly, though the doctor I saw at the time seemed to think it was all in my head.  It’s been bothering me since then, to varying degrees, but I’ve been doing my best to ignore it.  After all, doctors know what they’re talking about, right?

Fast forward almost exactly three months later, and guess what?  I was right.  There’s something really wrong with my wrist!  Yay!  No, wait…

This is one of those occasions where I’d like to be wrong, but a second opinion from a second orthopedist has confirmed what I diagnosed myself with several weeks ago.  I’ve got trauma-induced De Quervain’s tenosynovitis, which is basically a very painful inflammation of some of the tendons and things that run along your thumb.

I won’t get into all my medical details, partly because you don’t really care, and partly because it’s unpleasant to type with the big, clunky, cast-like brace they gave me.  I’m supposed to wear it all the time for the next three weeks, and then see how I feel.  If it’s still very painful, there are a few more options I can pursue.  But I’m hoping I won’t have to.

Sadly, the next three weeks include the second half of NaNoWriMo.  While I hate the idea of quitting one of my favorite events of the year, I think it’s best if I take care of myself as best I can.  I’m going to bow out of the rest of the month, and conserve my limited typing power for the nine-to-five stuff I actually get paid to do.

Just like with my attempts to keep Oliver off this chair, I give up.

Just like with my attempts to keep Oliver off this chair, I give up.

Even though I have been struggling mightily this month with the novel I started, and I’m not sure it really has the wherewithal to become something worthwhile, it’s upsetting to have to put things on hold for such an annoying and frustrating reason.  I hate feeling crippled, and I hate being unable to pursue the things I want to do just because of happenstance and accidents.

This also means absolutely no archery for the foreseeable future, which might be even worse.  Once again, circumstances stop me in my tracks, taking away so many of my few pleasures as time just drains helplessly away.

But if I don’t commit to resting the stupid limb now, I may be setting myself up for an even longer time-out in the future, should surgery become my only remaining option.  So this is what has to be done, and I’m going to try to do it cheerfully.  Or at least not miserably.  Or at least not so miserably that I’m tweeting about it all the time.

So I’m sorry in advance if I’m a little grouchy over the next couple of weeks.  We are turning over our house at the end of the month, both my mom and my dad are going to be moving to new places, and it’s getting cold and nasty up here already, which makes everything that much harder.

For those of you continuing on with your November adventures, I salute you.  Write some great words for me, will ya?  Let me know how it goes!

Ready? Set? Wait for it…

nano

If you’re reading this two and a half days from now, feel free to yell “GO” whenever the clock strikes twelve in your particular time zone.

Yes, we’re only a few short hours from the annual literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo, and I have to tell you, I wasn’t even sure I’d be running this year.

I had some grand ideas earlier in the month, which promptly crumbled in front of me when I sat down to sketch out my opening scenes.

Normally my novels start out a bit on the slow side, with background and introduction instead of bang-boom-crazy action.  I’m generally okay with this (after all, I’m the one who’s writing it like that), but every time I send a manuscript off to an agent, they tell me the story didn’t grab them the way they wanted it to.

So this time, I tried making something explode in the first sentence.  That’ll do it, right?  Well…it turns out it’s hard to establish the right tone for your sensible, intelligent, domestically-focused character when you blow up her house without giving her a chance to say anything about it.

The subsequent confusion, blood, and urgency may be flashy, but it left Abigale Calloway with nothing to do but scream and be shocked and get rescued in her very first scene, since she didn’t know what the hell was going on and would not have the training or experience to do anything except panic in such a situation.

I have enough trouble writing female main characters (a subject for another post, maybe) without turning them into damsels in distress on page one, so I scrapped those thousand words.  Then I wrote another scene, where someone else’s house exploded instead, but that didn’t work either.  The logistics were all wrong, and Abigale would have had to run into a village under attack to do some things that would be entirely out of character for her anyway.

So I scrapped that one, too.  Twice.  I changed Abigale’s history; I changed the setup of her world; I changed the potential outcome of the story in an effort to get myself excited about writing it, but it all seemed dreary, dull, lame, and lackluster.  And this is all a fortnight before NaNoWriMo was even going to begin.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have seen my angsty post about potentially throwing the whole notion out the window (where it would promptly explode in a dissatisfactory manner, no doubt), but as soon as I published something about my conundrum, I realized what I was doing wrong.

Wishful thinking?

Wishful thinking?

You know, sometimes in archery, I will start off the hour doing very well, and then something will shift without my notice, and I’ll end up with six or seven rounds of off-target garbage.  I’ll get mad at myself for sucking, and try to fix one thing or another, and nothing will work.

Five minutes before I get so frustrated that I’m about to give up, I’ll realize that it all comes back to the one fundamental thing I lose sight of sometimes: my grip on the bow.  I’m so busy worrying about the dynamics of pulling the string back and aiming each time that I forget how important it is to have a solid start.  When I reposition my fingers and relax my arm, suddenly everything comes back into alignment and hitting the gold is easy again.

It’s the same thing with writing.  When I grip the story wrong, nothing else works.  I had planned to write The Night Heron’s War as a stand-alone novel and market it traditionally while I continue to self-publish the rest of The Paderborn Chronicles, just to see what would happen.

Agents tell me my openings are boring, so I was trying to wrestle my novel into a mold that would sell to them.  I wasn’t writing for myself.  I was gripping way too hard, approaching it from the wrong angle, and wrenching my storytelling out of alignment.

I’m all for listening to feedback and incorporating it appropriately, but this particular piece of advice just doesn’t work for me.  If I don’t block out the world sometimes, I succumb to my inferiority complex and end up floundering around in a sea of self-pity.  Some writers like to be pushed to write a best-seller, because the pressure inspires them.  For me, it just makes me want to cry.

Maybe my stories do start off a little more slowly than commercial publishers like to see, but I feel like I do better work when I can do a bit of world building that puts the action into context first.  Maybe this isn’t what will grab the attention of someone who skims through a hundred queries a day, but it’s what makes a good story, as far as I’m concerned.

So I pushed the explosion back a bit, and let Abigale say some intelligent, character-defining things first before I ruined her life forever.  My excitement about the story is back, and I’m looking forward to writing it in a meaningful way.  The rest comes later.

During November, it’s the journey that matters, and I’m ready to get as far as I can in the next thirty days.  Are you?

The Diversity in Fantasy Survey: Your Responses

At the beginning of the week, I asked you, my cherished readers, to give me your opinions on a sensitive but important subject: the diversity of characters in fantasy novels.

It’s not the easiest topic to talk about, especially because the arguments on every side can quickly devolve into name calling and finger pointing, privilege shaming and plain old ugly racism.  This is especially common on the internet, where anonymity brings out the worst in us all.

I am happy to report, however, that all of my participants took a thoughtful and respectful approach to these questions, and I feel no need to filter or censor any of the responses I’ve collected.  Thank you all for contributing positively to this experiment.

So let’s get down to the data.  I didn’t receive a ton of responses, but I think I’ve got enough to draw some broad strokes.

Background demographics

Respondents were evenly split between the 18 to 29 age group and the 30 to 50 age group.  The majority of respondents were comfortable self-identifying as “male” or “female” (63 percent male), while a couple of people considered themselves to be elsewhere on the gender spectrum.

Y’all are really white.  Only two respondents said that they were not of white/Caucasian/Euro-American descent.  There was a little more variation with sexual orientation: a few not-quite straight participants, a few bisexuals, and a few who said they were gay.

How do you define a “diverse” character?

The answers to this question sort of surprised me.  While I intended the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/male/culturally stereotypical,” not all of you interpreted it that way.

A third of you said that a “diverse character” is simply a character with emotional depth and personal agency, and didn’t even mention race/gender/cultural/sexuality…which kind of makes me wonder what kind of books you’re reading where those characters are uncommon enough to be notable.

Most of you included something similar to this one respondent:

“[A diverse character is one whose] (sub)culture is not the biggest part of their character – unless one of the themes of the work is about that (sub)culture. I prefer more than ‘he’s a black cop’ or ‘she’s an Asian lawyer’ or ‘they’re the genderqueer miner’ to the character. The ‘diverse’ is interesting but the ‘character’ matters more.”

Another interesting comment:

“What is diverse? Nothing can be diverse in a vacuum. Token white and black characters in Asian fiction represent diversity there as much as the reverse is true here. I don’t want diversity, I want interesting. These days, a lumberjack who played all-state college football that fights against evil alien overlord seems a lot more ‘diverse’ than it was in 1947. So, uh, being blue-collar and from Mars are both +s in the diversity field, but I do feel that Venusians and Neptunians are underrepresented in fiction.”

Do you seek out or gravitate towards fantasy novels that promote the presence of “diverse” characters?

This isn’t really a big deal to most of you, which could be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing.

gravitate

Since most of the respondents are white, this could be interpreted as “white people don’t care about diversity, and won’t go out of their way for it because they’re happy to read about white people in books written by other white people.”

But it can also be interpreted as “readers only care about good stories,” which I think is what most of you intended to communicate, based on the next few responses.

When reading a fantasy novel that does not specifically point out the ethnic or racial appearance of characters, do you assume that means they are “white”?

white assumptions

Here’s where the mostly-white participants get kind of telling, and depending on your perspective, the answers might seem a little…meh.

First of all, my non-white respondents all said “no” to this question, and didn’t seem too bothered by the issue.  Several participants of all backgrounds said that the character him/her/itself is significantly more important than their skin color, and added that they would simply change their mental image of the character if the author revealed a new detail about their appearance or history.

A white male respondent said: “I personally tend to imagine what would seem normal for the given setting. That being said, stories set in Europe, I’ll imagine as white. That does not necessarily bother me. If later on, I’m proven wrong, I’ll not like the character any less.”

A white female said: “I guess it does [bother me that I assume characters are white unless told otherwise]. I like to believe that I’m tolerant, but I refuse to feel guilty on the same hand, just because I’m white. I hadn’t really thought about it, but since I am white myself it seems normal to just assume my own experience. I feel like if I were a race/orientation other than what I am, I would assume that experience instead – but, of course, I have no way of proving that.”

Do you believe that “white” authors can authentically create characters with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds?

No one had too much of a problem with this.  Three-quarters of you said “yes, this is almost always fine,” and the rest said “sometimes, but it’s difficult to get right.”

No one said that they don’t think white authors should attempt to write characters of different backgrounds, or that most of the time white authors get characters of other backgrounds painfully wrong.

Do you believe stories that do not include a high proportion of “diverse” characters are inherently less valuable for modern readers than stories that do?

The vast majority of you said that you don’t make value judgments about stories based on the diversity of characters…but the vast majority of you also don’t have to look too hard to find characters you can relate to when reading fantasy novels.

This is where I was hoping to get some more responses from people of non-white backgrounds, because the question was aiming at how traditionally underrepresented groups feel about the current state of the genre.  So I’m not sure this piece of data accurately reflects much of anything.

Note: I have purposely not addressed the whole issue of young adult literature in this survey, because I think it’s a much more complicated question for a different audience.  While it’s important for readers of all ages to be able to identify with and relate to characters in the books they read, I feel like it’s even more important for teenagers still rapidly developing their sense of self to have access to books with characters that make them feel accepted, normal, and part of the world they live in.

As an adult, I don’t feel desperate to find clues to my place in the world from my fantasy books.  As a teenager, I absolutely did.  If I was a teen who didn’t more or less fit the straight white female demographic, I may have been very disappointed in the available selection.  I am glad to see this is changing in the YA world, even if I’m not too keen on the rest of what YA literature tries to achieve.

Do you think some stories include a higher proportion of diverse characters just because it’s expected rather than because they are truly integral to the story?

A few of you thought this was problematic, but more of you chose to view token characters in a positive light.  More than a third of you chose to say “yes, but I believe recognizing the need for diverse characters is a good first step, even if it isn’t perfect.”

authors

I would like to agree with you here, but then I think back to my frustration and rage at half-hearted, one-dimensional attempts at inclusion like Tauriel in The Hobbit, and I have to stand by what I said at the time: I would rather not have a token character than one that is done so badly.

One of you disagreed: “I think it’s dangerous to assume our imaginations and interpretations must be censored. I think evenly poorly done characters open important conversations as long as the author is willing to have them.”

Fair point, but I still hate Tauriel.

What are your other thoughts on diversity in fantasy?

I’m going to share these without comment, because I agree with some of them and disagree with others.  I would be happy to see you all discuss the issues raised here in the (moderated) comments, but since each of these responses could spark an entire series of blog posts on their own, I don’t want to take too much time dissecting everything.

Each response is from a different participant.

“I personally like to see a somewhat demographically accurate picture of the time and place a story is set in or based on. But nothing should be forced on the story, just to attain that. The story should be most important, not the diversity. Diversity, however, can be a driving factor in a story, and a meaningful element. But it needs to be done well. Discussions over who can or cannot include a certain character, should end at whether or not they can write well, and listen and research, as any author should.”

“Because of the quest for ‘check box diversity’ a lot of truly great writers and works that actually were diverse get written off because of a cultural myth being woven that everything was white men until just the last couple of years.”

“If there seems to be a lack of ‘authentic’ non-white experiences in the literary world, I think it should largely be the burden of the non-white authors to contribute to the medium and impart these experiences onto the audience. If cultural appropriation or misappropriation is to be frowned upon, the best way for people to learn and experience cultures other than their own is to be shown and taught by someone who is a member of said culture. There will always be the issue of a majority and a minority, but if there is a lack of diversity in the literary world, it isn’t necessarily the majority’s fault.”

“One of the great things about reading stories is that it helps us develop the important human quality of empathy. We can live the experience of others, even those who are very different from us. As a writer, I also develop my sense of empathy by creating characters who are different from me. Is it my responsibility to do my homework and make those characters as real as possible? Absolutely. But no one has the right to tell me what stories I can create. And readers certainly have the right not to read them.”

“I do think it’s important to realize that we all come from somewhere, and while it’s good to explore other cultures and bring diversity into a story, it in no way invalidates the stories we write that are based on what we know and understand. Depending on the context and culture of the story, having diversity might not make sense. Whether or not we understand or fully relate to another person’s culture does not determine the value of the work.”

Conclusions

Overall, I think this survey was an interesting and positive experiment.  I’m going to leave it open for more responses, in case anyone missed their chance to participate but wants to speak their piece.  If I get a lot more, maybe I’ll do another roundup in the near future.

For now, please do share your thoughts in the comments.  Were you surprised at some of the answers?  Taken aback?  Pleased?  What jumped out at you?  Be vocal!  Let me know!