Monday, April 30, 2012

Making Lists: A Way to Find Land When You Feel out to Sea with Your Manuscript

Many writers in my online book-writing classes get to the point where living with their manuscript is like living with a chaotic child.  

There are pages and pages, all over the place.  A storyboard keeps the overview, to some extent, but as the editing and revision get on, the book gets overwhelming.  It's hard to keep track of where you are, because the landmarks are all changing so fast.

This happened to me lately too.  I'm in revision with my next novel, and my wonderful writing group gave me some big suggestions this week.  Core changes for one of the main characters.  A lightening up of the downslide--"give them some good times too."  Maybe even a setting changed or gotten rid of.  Whew!  I really agreed with them--good suggestions like these help you see how to take your book to the next step.  But over the following days, I found myself avoiding anything to do with writing.  It all just seemed too much.

How to Get Out of the Overwhelm
At the same time, a writer from Texas wrote me about this very dilemma:

"I've been struggling for the last couple of months to get traction," she said, "because so much of my book is changing and I'm becoming overwhelmed quickly. It's hard to know where to start, and then when I do start and hit a bump, hard to keep going. It feels like a maze.
"One thing that is not helping is that I have notes and bits and pieces everywhere, and inspirations that I've written down are being lost. So I know I need to do something about that. When I start to pull them together, I tend to go wandering again... I know it's a personal thing but just wondered if you had any tips on systems. Actually, I know this is in your book (Your Book Starts Here), Mary. I'll go back to it this morning. :)
"I was also thinking about not knowing when paths are blind alleys or dead ends. Once you've done enough writing on your project to know that they exist, and you have all those little darlings hanging out to dry and cure, the Inner Critic has something solid to hook his claws into, that this next path you're on could be another dead end.

"Do you have any thoughts and tips on organizing things with where you are with your story?What approaches are you using? A to-do list?"

Yes.  That's exactly where I am headed.  Lists are lifesavers at the overwhelm stage of revision.

Three Kinds of Lists
I make three kinds of lists during this stage.  Some have been ongoing since the earlier drafts and some are new.  Each acts as a mini-map out of the maze of pages.  Each helps me orient and find that precious overview again.

They are:
1.  Questions List
2.  Location List
3.  Character List  (River of Life)

Questions List
First and most important is the Questions List.  This revision-stage list is basically a to-do list but made up of questions.  I find that tasks are well and good, but I can get equally overwhelmed by another list of tasks.  So I trick myself into a sense of exploring and creativity by turning the to-do's into questions.

I get a pad of paper and all the feedback and ideas I've accumulated thus far (printing them out is very helpful).  I don't refer to the manuscript during this exercise--it'll just bring back the overwhelm.  On the top of the pad, I write "Questions List."  I begin with anything I've been mulling about, based on feedback or my own ideas.  I list these as questions.

For instance, rather than "give Mel a fun scene in Act 2" I would rework this as "What could Mel do in Act 2 that would be fun for him?"  Questions get the creative brain juiced up and working.  To-do's make us feel burdened with tasks--and tasks are driven by discipline, which is part of the overwhelm (we're tired!!).

Once I have my Questions List started, I stop writing, get up, and do something completely unrelated to my book or my writing for an hour or so--fill the creative well.  The goal is to distract the linear self and allow the right brain to engage and the creative self to get cooking.  Tasks that help might include paging through a magazine and tearing out photos for collage, meditation or yoga, gardening, making food, reading a book in your book's genre, listening to music, taking a walk.  Gradually, as you disengage from the pressure, the ideas will start flowing.  I find that sometimes I'll get a new map, a sudden idea, a solution to a problem. 

If there's a desire to keep writing, then do it via a mind-map or cluster technique--where the question is put in the center of a blank sheet of paper in a circle and spokes come off of it with related ideas.

Location List
The second list that helps me during this stage is the Location List.  This exercise requires the manuscript.  I write down EVERY location in the book.  Every single one.  Usually this exercise takes only an hour or so--skimming the manuscript is pretty fast--and I come up with an astonishing list of all the places where I expect my readers to follow the story.  Here the kicker:  I try to reduce this to seven locations.  Even fewer is better.  Locations that are meaningful are like characters or people in a book--we can only get to know a certain number.

So I circle the ones that are most important to me/the story.  What can I eliminate?  What might deliver the same meaning as another location and be less redundant?  Getting rid of excess locations is like closet cleaning--it makes the story simpler and less overwhelming.  It brings air and light into the stuffy places. I've found this exercise very effective in helping me move ahead.

Character List (River of Life)
The final list is the Character List.  It's also called the River of Life.  You can use this for any key players in your book--no matter the genre.

Take a pad of paper and write the name of each main player in your book, allowing one sheet of paper per character.  Include yourself, if you are writing a memoir.  Begin listing the main events for that person, which are in your book or will be.  Write as quickly as you can.  Try to get 25 events for each person--this is an indicator that they are developed in your mind and preferably on the page.

When you run out of ideas, go to the next page and the next player.

Read your lists and highlight or underline the five most important events for each person.  Next to the event, write down how it changed the person.  What did they do or think or feel or believe differently because of that event?  Again, this is a way to check the relevance of your events--if the character didn't experience growth, then there's a good chance the event is not outwardly dramatic enough to feature in your book.

See if you have at least five events that are pivots for each character.  If you don't have enough, it points to why you may be overwhelmed--there are not enough "turning points" in this character's River of Life to build a book out of.  If you have a lot more than five, it also points to overwhelm--there's too much happening and not enough time in the book to process the changes.

Finally, if you wish, draw a river on a piece of paper (I have these as charts in my writing room--I use them for the entire book journey).  Place each player's key events on the river.  Note where they are in relation to each other.  This can help you with weaving multiple timelines and people's stories.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Pick one of the three lists and try it.

2.  Post your questions and results here--or share them with your writing friends.

3.  If you're interested in working with these kinds of organization techniques with me, online, my next class for book structuring begins the week of May 14.  Check it out here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stepping-Stones to Publishing: The Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing

My long career as a writer has taken me through the three different types of publishing:  agented manuscripts published by large houses, unagented manuscripts published by small presses, and self-publishing.  I've learned a lot from each venue.  I enjoyed working with my agents, I liked the book tours and promotional backing that used to be automatic with publishing with a major publisher.  I enjoyed the editorial help from small presses and the feeling that you were more than a byline.  And I loved the autonomy and product control that comes with self-publishing.

Each avenue has its pros and cons.  These days, I find that self-publishing is often the best option for writers working on their first book.

The media is coming out with many success stories about self-publishing.  One of the biggest stars is Amanda Hocking (read about her here) who sold so many of her self-published e-book, she was picked up by a major house and got herself a six-figure advance.  But Amanda had already made her millions under her own steam.  She knew how to write something good, and market it.  That seems to be the formula no matter which avenue you choose.

It used to be that writers only had to be good writers.  Write a good book and the publisher would do the rest.  Now, publishers want to know how you are going to market your own work--whether you have a platform, if you're prepared to broadcast your book on social media like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr.  Which is one of the reasons I'm so sold on self-publishing--I do all the work of selling my book anyway, so why not keep control of the product and make the most money for my creative efforts?

USA Today ran an interesting article on self-publishing e-books recently.  It's no longer the province of authors who can't get a contract.  The stigma that's always surrounded self-publishing (formerly known as vanity press) is dissolving.

What Do You Need to Know about Self-Publishing?
Lisa, a reader who is working on a book project, sent me an email with some good questions about the self-publishing options she'd explored.  She wants to make a good decision and there are many options out there now.  Lisa writes: 

Until I was twenty-two years old I never consciously considered that I had been without a mother, even though my birth mother died shortly before my third birthday. My dad had remarried before I was five and I only remember my stepmother as my mother. However, I believe I was always searching for something, whether I knew it or not. As I became acutely aware of the fact that what I was missing and searching for was her, I began gathering as many stories, pictures, and information I possibly could. People have been very generous. 

My original goal was to create a biography so that not only myself, but also my children could come to know who she was. It has been a magnificent journey, but it did not turn out as I had envisioned. The whole experience has been more of an odyssey worthy of Greek mythology as I set out on a quest for knowledge but was subsequently sent on many unexpected detours, presenting challenges through which I learned more about myself as well as valuable life lessons. 

As a result, my project has become a memoir of my journey through the experience, with the addition of many photos and a collection of my favorite stories shared by her family and friends.

My main goal is to have enough copies printed for my children and my mother’s family, but so many people have encouraged me to share my story on a larger scale than I originally intended. I believe that self-publishing is the way to go. I have researched online, and have also spoken to about 5 self-publishing companies. They all have stated that they believe that they can handle the amount photos that I wish to incorporate and that “we would be a good match.” 

I am wary of being taken advantage of and want to make an educated decision. Each has their positives and negatives in the categories of cost, features such as editing, layout, cover design, and the royalty offers.

Lisa lists these questions:

1.  How can you tell if an offer is a good deal and actually fits your publishing needs? 

2.  What are the top three qualities to keep in mind when choosing a publisher? 

3.  What are the biggest pitfalls a novice should avoid? 

4.  Is one royalty structure better than another, i.e., more money up front, but better royalty structure, or less up front and then less in royalties later? 

5.  How important is help with layout and book cover design?

Specific Questions for Your Publisher
When you're looking at possible online publishers for your manuscript, you need to consider several aspects:  quality of product, cost, and ease of working with the publisher.  You need to research how they pay you when copies are sold (the royalty agreement), how the rights are handled, and whether the publisher automatically places your book in the two large wholesalers--Ingram (for bookstores) and Baker & Taylor (for libraries).  

Over 60 percent of books are purchased online, so you'll also need to be sure your book will appear in the large online bookstores, such as and, and the indie distributors such as Powells Books (  

When I began researching publishers, I first asked friends who have self-published.  The best recommendations were for three companies:  LightningSource (which is owned by the wholesale distributor, Ingram); CreateSpace (which is owned by; and iUniverse.  I also talked with writers who had published with and loved their customer service but not the quality as much (one person said the cover peeled off her printed book after a few months).

Then I went on the websites for each of these three and looked at the terms.  I liked CreateSpace because of the ease of getting paid each month.  It's also important to read the contract terms for specifics like who will hold the copyright for your book.  This is very important in the long run.

After I'd chosen a potential publisher, the next step was to put my book manuscript through the tasks that a regular publisher would normally take care of:  professional editing, typesetting and interior design, and cover design.  I needed to prepare my manuscript. 

Preparing Your Manuscript
Many self-publishing companies offer a package deal for the manuscript preparation, but I wanted to work with people I knew and trusted.  I'd been an editor myself for over thirty years and I had very high standards.

So I approached a former student who'd worked for a major publisher for many years; I liked her thoughtful understanding of how books were built and the importance of editing carefully.

She agreed to take on my manuscript.  Was I ever glad!  She saw things I'd missed and suggested rearrangement of some of the chapters.  We worked by email and postal mail, me sending her chapters in batches, she returning them to me with her red pencil marks.  It took many months to implement all her suggestions and produce a final revision that I was very satisfied with, time I hadn't really budgeted, but I revised my timeline and it was worth it, 100 percent.

Next was the interior design.  Because I've worked in publishing for years, I know that, despite good skills with desktop publishing, I could never churn out a book design on my own computer that I would still love in ten years.  I remembered a wonderful typesetter I'd worked with years before at one of the publishing companies where I was an editor.  I knew she'd gone freelance, so I approached her and asked her to typeset a sample chapter for me.

We worked for a few weeks by email to make the chapter closer to what I envisioned.  Eventually, I was so satisfied with the results, I negotiated a contract for her to typeset the entire book interior.  She made the book look professional, and I was able to add in wider margins and pull quotes, exercise boxes, and other extras I wanted.  Again, very worthwhile.

I traded services with two proofreaders to make one more run through the manuscript after typesetting.  They found a total of 32 errors which I hadn't seen--even thought I'd read it through carefully SO many times myself and I've been trained in proofreading.  This step was also very valuable to me.

Finally, the book cover.  I knew how important this was, so I found a designer and hired them to send me some ideas.  Again, money forked over up front but oh-so-worthwhile.

You can certainly choose not to do any of these steps.  They may not be essential if you are only planning on using your book to share family memories with family members.  But each of these will make your book more professional, more apt to be read by others, and more satisfying ten years later when you pick it up again to read yourself.

Royalty Structures and Self-Publishing
Traditional publishers used to (and some still do) offer an "advance" on royalties.  This was paid to the author before the book was published, then paid back as sales came in and royalties accumulated.  Royalties are the quarterly or semi-annual payments that publishers make to the author based on a percentage of sales, and standard royalties are 7.5% of sales. Sometimes this is net, sometimes it's gross sales.  The publisher also holds back an amount of royalties for bookstore returns and discounts to the wholesalers, so it's very hard to actually calculate how much you'll be getting.  For more information, click on this helpful website.

In self-publishing, things are simpler.  You pay a flat fee to have your book "set up" for printing; this is part of your upfront costs so the printer can format your pdf into a digital file to print your book.  Most charge under $300 for this set up.  That's it.  (Remember that some self-publishing companies offer a package that includes the editing, typesetting, etc., above, but the set-up fee is not part of that.) 

Next, you get a proof--a sample, usually in pdf format, that shows you how the book will look.  Once you approve that, a couple of weeks go by and then people can start buying your book as an e-book or as a printed book.

When do you get paid?  Each time a sale is made, your royalty account gets a deposit.  Most self-publishing companies pay out royalties each month--a process I found very helpful, like getting a paycheck--but this can vary so check their websites carefully.  You can choose to receive your royalty directly into your bank account or by check.

How much do you make for self-publishing royalties, compared to traditional publishing?  I've found it's about 5-6 times as much per book.  The online publisher takes a percentage, but it's a lot less than a regular publisher takes.  For instance, I make about $1.13 per copy of my novel (published by a small press) and about $5.49 per copy of one of my nonfiction books (self-published by CreateSpace).  In both cases, I have had to market the book myself.  Do the math. 

Even with the upfront costs of getting my manuscript prepared, I've made more with my most recent self-published book than with my last traditionally published book.  Plus, I got to keep control of the product.

All the avenues of publishing are worth pursuing, and which is the best one for you depends on what you want from the experience.  As Amanda Hocking has shown us all, fame and fortune do not just come from traditional publishing anymore. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  If you're curious about self-publishing, give yourself an hour to do some research online.  Visit the main sites for CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and iUniverse, to start.  Maybe check out Lulu.

2.  Also visit some of the hybrid publishers, which select certain books to self-publish each year and guide writers through the process.  Two I like are Beaver Pond Press and Epigraph.