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Author: Karen Myers

Karen Myers is a fantasy and science fiction author, best known for her heroic fantasy novels. Her stories feature heroes in real and imagined worlds filled with magic, space travel, and adventure.

Bears, orchards, taigans — part 2

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Image of sitting black bear

Yesterday afternoon, the mama bear put in an appearance and our taigan leaped into “defend and insult” mode again.

Alas, this is not my own picture — I never seem to have a camera handy when wrangling dogs and bears — but it's close. Instead of woods, picture the edge of the mowed ground around the buildings. She was so full of stolen apples and pears that she didn't want to move and was calmly sitting below the first row of the overgrown orchard, admiring the view down to our cabin.

And ignoring the dog, restrained (miraculously) by the underground dog fence not 25 yards away. And the human, who added her own “Get out of here, bear!” to the ruckus.

Finally, slowly, she shoved herself up and walked upslope to the tall grass, and out of sight. I've had overindulgent dinners like that myself.

I don't mind their depredations in the orchard — we're not using those apples and the critters might as well eat their fill — but I'd be happier if her family kept a bit more distance as they ravaged the apples. What happens in the tall grass stays in the tall grass.

Maybe I should give her something to read inbetween meals.

A quick look at the news — writing and publishing

Posted in Artwork, and Publishing

Cartoon of a busy writerI haven't been able to produce much in the way of blogging for the last couple of months because I've been buried in writing and publishing work (and that's the way it should be).

Writing

On the writing front, I'm just about done with the Fragments of Lightning, the second book of The Affinities of Magic. The webpages will be updated when the final scene is written and I have time to do the book description, images, and so forth. I plan on writing the third book, and starting the fourth before I begin releasing them in quick succession, starting circa December/January.

Publishing

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm also beginning to publish the works of some colleagues of mine and tooling up as a small publisher. This means, in several cases, the creation of new imprints, since the works aren't necessarily appropriate for Perkunas Press, not being fantasy or science fiction. Last fall saw the first release for Bent Twig Books, a memoir My Bipolar Life.

Right now, I'm working simultaneously on publishing two works. One is a bit of Christian visionary fiction for Sound the Trumpet Press, called Comes a Redeemer, by Tolkien scholar Jared Lobdell. And the other is a work by the great naturalist writer, Steve Bodio for Behind the Ranges Press — his first novel, Tiger Country.

In each case, these three works are the first for their imprints, so there's very little information for the imprints and, in the latter two cases, the book pages are under construction pending release. But you can take a look at the draft covers (mockups), and there will be more to tell you as each book is published, in August and September.
Image of 2 draft book covers

Bears, orchards, taigans

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Painting of a black bear under an apple treeWe have bears, and we have old orchards. Naturally, we also have bears in orchards. And among the distractions for writing and publishing, we have fierce Central Asian sighthounds seeking employment.

Normally the nocturnal set and the diurnal set don't meet, though the dogs are very interested in the scent trails they can reach, within the several acres around the cabin enclosed by the underground dog fence. The main dog field out front is also the main traffic area for all the critters, as one of the highways to the stream that waters the farm where they have a good view for predators. Most of them are smart enough to check to see if the dogs are out first before dropping by. And on those occasions where we let the dogs out without checking first ourselves, they're all quite capable of running, flying, or going to ground, according to their kind.

We get a regular daytime show of deer, turkey, and groundhog. At night — who knows what they all get up to? Certainly we have raccoons, possums, and porcupines (just to cite the larger mammals), along with the occasional coyote passing through. And we have black bears out back, like most of the wooded and mountainous areas in Pennsylvania.

This year, we've been seeing a sow and two cubs. They're regulars — our bird feeders are trashed annually, and the garbage cans are a challenge. Seeing them by daylight, though, isn't so common.

But it's August… and all the trees in the old orchard that still bear fruit (apples and a few pears) are heavily laden.

The great Amazon reviews drought

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Image of 5 product ratingsIt has seemed to me lately that I'm getting far fewer reviews on Amazon than I used to, considering the number of units I sell. The thought has been nagging at me for some time, and I'm not alone — others seem to be observing the same thing and speculating about causes.

So — you know me. Time to actually crunch a few numbers and try to see if it's true and, if so, why I think it might be happening.

I started running Amazon AMS ads about 15 months ago, and my units sold have shot up gratifyingly. But not my reviews. My ratings are stable and the reviews I get are much the same as they've always been, but there are just fewer of them than I would expect.

First steps — collect the data

I've been meaning to copy my reviews off the retailer sites, especially Amazon, lest they vanish in one of the periodic Amazon purges. So far I've been lucky and haven't lost any, but that can change. It's useful to have them available, not just for ratings on the retail sites, but also as sources of blurb and other publicity text from real readers.

I checked my retailers and confirmed that, yep, I have almost no reviews except on Amazon, and almost all of those on Amazon USA, of course. That made it easy.

I set up a spreadsheet like the one I use for tracking unit sales to track reviews: month/year, source, rating, product, retailer, headline, review text, etc. Then it was off to the races with pivot tables.

Do I have enough data?

I don't make any big push for reviews, just a modest suggestion in the backmatter of the books. I don't have a ton of reviews, but they do keep coming in (slowly), so I'm going to assume there are enough for some valid conclusions. In any case, I don't have any special marketing that might confuse results.

Next — connect the review data to the units sold data

I put a worksheet up with one pivot table for the reviews-by-month, and another with the units-sold-by-month. Then I ran out the data for a comparison from the date my first book came out, in October, 2012.

A model to compare data

The question I wanted to answer was:

Has the percentage of reviews per units sold been declining lately?

Plotters vs Pantsers

Posted in Just for Writers, and Plot

As always, I find it useful to write a post to clarify my own thinking — this time, about the creative process of writing a work of fiction.

Cartoon of outliningI'm 60% of the way through my current work-in-progress (Fragments of Lightning), and I was just rearranging my hints for the remainder of the book, since my subconscious last night was busy working overtime changing my conclusions about what was important about the events in the second half.

I was so delighted with the results that I wanted to take time out to write this post about how I understand the differences between the processes of outlining a book in some detail in order to write it (“plotters”) and not doing so, flying by the seat of your pants (“pantsers”). Your understanding may be different.

This is my 10th novel, so I'm beginning to get some insight into my own psychology and the creative process. That insight has changed over time, naturally. I spent a reasonable amount of my career writing software, which has to be planned from start to finish, and building companies, which requires understanding how systems are put together, so unsurprisingly I started as a plotter and outlined my first book in some detail. Even then, however, I was flexible about how the plot developed, and things I had outlined had a way of… shifting.

For books 2 and 3, the planned outlines got discarded or altered beyond recognition earlier and earlier in the process, until I was barely using an outline at all for book 4. By the time I started my 2nd series, I was a confirmed pantser. Not only did I not know when I started how the book would end, I didn't know how the series would end, even though it had a compelling quest running through the entire thing which would have to be solved in the end (over 4 books).

One thing about writing into the dark (pantsing) — you learn not to be frightened by uncertainty.

Different structural goals

Plotters are focused on control and a desired ending. There may be a structure that is appropriate for the genre (Happily Ever After (HEA) endings for Romance, as an example, or some of the conventions of Thrillers and Mysteries). There may be a need to keep the number of new characters under control in a long-running series. There may be particular goals for certain books in a series, to help keep the series from strangling on dead ends, or a need for a particular ending to entice the reader to the next book in a series. The author may have a theme he's developed that he wants to be illuminated by the choices his characters make.

The plot is a means of getting to the desired end.

Pantsers are focused on highlights, typically emotional ones. They have characters in an initial situation, and there are things they want to happen to those characters (“he's going to meet someone and fall in love”, “her best friend will betray her”, “he'll be left for dead on the battlefield”), but there may or may not be a particular ending in view at the start. In genres like ScienceFiction, the highlights might even be worldbuilding, rather than emotional — demonstrating the ramifications of an exotic setting, for example.

The plot is a means of holding the highlights together in a satisfying way.

Use natural languages for fiction, not artificial ones

Posted in Just for Writers, and Language

Image of 2 babies talking
They don't need the Chicago Manual of Style to communicate

We have to distinguish between the dialect of English called the “formal writing style” which is what the style guides act as prescriptions for, and the actual (various) living versions of the English language.

The formal written language that you are taught in school is not a real living language. If you were well-educated, it may seem to be identical with the language you use every day, but it isn't. It's a status marker for “educated” and appropriate for non-fiction which is intended to be formal, but it's not a proper guide to writing fiction which should capture living languages, not artificial ones. It's not a matter of vocabulary choices (though that plays into formal/informal distinctions) — it's a matter of the actual language itself and its grammatical structures.

The formal written language is, um, written down and its rules change slowly and rarely. The natural language continues to evolve constantly and, as writers, it's the natural language we should be concerned with. (Or none of us would end sentences with prepositions or split an infinitive on the once-fashionable theory that Germanic English is somehow Latin.)

Chart of archaic personal pronounsFor example, just as in circa-Elizabethan times we saw the loss of 2nd person singular personal pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) to the expansion of 2nd person plural (you, yours), we are currently living through a similar evolution in the language with regard to gendered 3rd person singular personal pronouns, where (he, she, him, her, his, hers) are being replaced by the ungendered 3rd person plural pronouns (they, them, their, theirs) in gender-neutral situations, as the clumsiness of using the male 3rd person singular as a stand-in for unknown-gender is being eaten away by a disregard of number to solve the problem.

It now sounds perfectly normal even for the well-educated to say something like, “If anyone comes in early, give them a drink.” That wasn't true a few decades ago.

We are drowned in new vocabulary, slang, and idiom constantly, but it's unusual to be able to actually see a grammatical change this large in a human lifetime. We know this isn't proper for the written language, but we're no longer willing to say “him or her” or just “him” in our natural language use in that situation, even though that's what the formal written language still requires.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying use a style guide for guidance in punctuation (it's the written language, after all) and to convey conventional high-status artificial language for formal writing (or your readers won't respect you), but use the living language for fiction and especially for dialogue.

Marketing systems for books

Posted in Just for Writers, and Marketing

Image of marketing chartI often write a blog post to clarify my own thinking, and that's the case for this one. It's meant to be a spur to my own thinking about what works for me in marketing. A recent marketing workshop excerpt from Larissa Reynolds was the catalyst that finally did it for me (see here to subscribe to her newsletter).

Now, when I say “what works”, I don't mean what marketing ideas, out of the vast array available, work for people, or produce the best results. What I mean is what works for me, as in something I can do comfortably and that I can reasonably have a hope of sticking to, that has measurable and useful results.

It's taken years for me to clarify my understanding of how various marketing ideas work, and which ones I, personally, should concentrate on. I've been groping towards this for a long time.

Premises

I have my own goals and standards that define how I want to run my business, and I have personal limitations and enthusiasms to accommodate. Your situation will be different

  1. I want to sell my books at a reasonable full price (with very occasional discounts), because that's the audience I want to cultivate.
  2. I want to sell my books on the basis of quality — good reading experience, indistinguishable in quality from traditional publishers.
  3. I want my books to be available with the widest possible reach (countries, retailers, formats), with no DRM. If people look for my books, they should be able to find them anywhere, for any device, and my career should not be held hostage to any one retailer or country. This includes direct ecommerce.
  4. I'm not really a people person. I like to help and I can tell funny stories, but I'm lousy at jumping into a social situation as an extrovert. I'm more of a high-functioning introvert.
  5. I want to execute semi-automatic systems as much as possible. I'm an old IT career person, and I'm very comfortable with systems. I don't have the discipline to keep doing ad hoc experiments, but I have no problem going through the detailed (obsessive) concentration necessary to set something automated up.

Image of marketing componentsAnalysis

So, what does this mean for me?

For one thing, it rules out a broad variety of interesting marketing ideas that clutter up my thinking:

  • Wanting to price permafree — wrong audience for me to cultivate.
  • Wanting to focus on Amazon KU — wrong reach (not wide), captive retailer.
  • Discounted sales third-party newsletter marketing — wrong audience for me to cultivate, and a huge distraction.
  • Participating in bundles and similar multi-author promotions for free — wrong audience for me to cultivate, and I mostly write long-form, not stories.
  • Marketing/review swaps with other authors. I'd rather cultivate my own audience and not spam them.
  • Widespread social media platforms, pushing my books — not extroverted enough to make that palatable (banging on about my books).

What do I want to do instead?