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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.

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?

Beared again

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Bear'd last night, and bear'd the night before,
Gonna get bear'd tonight like we never got bear'd before,
When we're bear'd, we're trashed as trashed can be;
Our bears are members of the black bear family. *

Just two days ago I took this picture of our tidy array of bird feeders, in a photo essay about our 10-month-old puppy.
Image of lined-up birdfeeders

Here's what they looked like this morning.

Image of destroyed bird feeders

Now, usually the black bears wake up hungry in early-mid spring and raid bird feeders (and garbage cans) before settling in to more natural food sources, and we had a visit from one a few weeks ago, right on schedule. We thought it was a young one, since it wasn't very competent. The red feeder (on the right) which came with the cabin suffered some damage but we repaired it and set everything to rights again.

This bear was rather more serious, and awfully late in the season, but then we had a very long winter, and heavy rains for weeks may have suppressed some of the usual food choices. Yesterday was the first day of uninterrupted sunshine in quite a while. Our neighbors have reported a sighting of a sow with four cubs in the area (one for each feeder?).

The dogs are always interested in the scent after a bear visit.

Image of garter snakeI picked up a camera to document the damage, and on the way back in the puppy did a cautious stalk on the slope behind the cabin. I thought he was disconcerted by the bees which were buzzing about in solitary fashion, but a closer look revealed a nice harmless Eastern garter snake slithering along — about 18 inches long and very slender.

Every now and then, one makes its way into the cabin and is evicted, with prejudice. The puppy who is usually scentless smelled musky a couple of days ago, and I'll bet he met a similar snake then and got sprayed, making him cautious now. When last seen, he was out back, working the back trail of the snake (hey, he's young and dumb) and not ready to give up yet.

More pics.

Book Catalogues

Posted in Just for Writers

Image of a book catalogueIn this day and age, we generally refer interested buyers to our online catalogues, either on our publisher sites or our reader sites. Some potential buyers, however, still want paper catalogues, and we need to learn to accommodate them. They also make nice additions to your table at a book fair, or to have stashed away in case you spawn a commercial opportunity with a distributor or other professional.

Now, if you're trying to contact dozens or hundreds of such outlets — perhaps you're trying to reach every music shop in America — it can make sense to use a commercial service, where for quantities of a few hundred, you can pay a dollar or two for each catalogue (depending on page counts, etc).

For example, the high-quality printers I use for business cards offer catalogues, designed for all kinds of retail needs, not just books. Play around with the pricing options here to get some ideas about the costs for an 5.5×8.5 inch catalogue, on the sort of paper stock that you typically receive from quality clothing retailers.

I don't find this helpful for my needs, myself. For one thing, I haven't got a mass distribution list that I can use for my fiction titles (unless I want to do a mailing directly to indie bookstores). More importantly, my catalogue:

  • Adds new titles frequently, multiple times/year
  • Never closes backlist titles
  • May need to address foreign languages

This means that I can't benefit from the economies of scale inherent in a professional mass print job.

Writing with a puppy in the house

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Image of taigan puppy in snow
The bold Hussar (6 months)

We have no children, but I have immense respect for the authors I know who manage to write while babies and toddlers are under their care. I don't know how they do it.

All of my pets are older than my writing career, but last September we got a puppy to keep our other dog company, after the death of an older dog. My writing has come to an almost complete stop since.

We have friends with exotic Asian sighthounds, and when litters happen, they think of us. Our older dog, Uhlan, is a tazi, one of many names for the country-of-origin dogs that run from North Africa to western China from whom the Saluki is derived. His parents are from Kazakhstan. So when an opportunity arose for us to take in a taigan, a country-of-origin version of the Afghan hound from Kyrgyzstan, from the first litter bred in America, we signed right up and called him Hussar (as in “the bold Hussar” of the song — boy, we got that right).

We read up on how he could be expected to be about the size of the tazi, who is 70 pounds, and envisioned the two of them racing across the fields, one slender, and one more robust.

Image of two dogs
Hussar (3 months) and Uhlan

Heh. He kept growing. And growing. And GROWING.

At first, Uhlan kept him in line, as befit an 8-year old dog with a proper sense of his own worth and prerogatives. Lots of snarling and fangs, and desperate puppy dodges when the play bows proved to be insufficient excuse for outrageous behavior.

At this point, they more or less get along, except that Hussar is still a puppy, at 9 1/2 months, and terribly eager to get his older brother to play with him on any and every excuse. They pursue chipmunks in the log pile with equal zeal.

And he weighs 90 pounds, with no end in sight. That's about double the size you see him at in most of these pictures.

Report from the Altoona Bookfest

Posted in Events

Image of author tableSome day I will learn to take a decent photo with a cellphone. You'd never know I've been a semi-pro photographer (with real equipment).

The anticipated outdoor festival with music and dancers was prudently relocated to 3 internal floors of the Altoona, PA library, and when the skies opened in mid-afternoon, we were all very glad. On the one hand, the venue was rather less pleasant; on the other hand, no one's books were soaked. Considering this was the first occasion for this particular festival, I thought the organizers rose well to the challenge.

The 8-foot tables were expansive (many authors were geared up for 6′) but, alas, I forgot my props to make the display more interesting.

There were 51 local authors (regional to central Pennsylvania), which covered a surprising number of genres, and both traditionally as well as independently published writers, at various stages of their careers.

Quite a few people attended, and there was traffic all day long. Though I wasn't surprised to see a couple of people I had encountered from other activities (speaking at a local writers' group), I was stunned to meet 3 local readers who actually recognized my name or the names/covers of some of my books. There was even one who spoke to me at length about an audiobook (and I have some idea just how unlikely that was, considering its obscurity.)

You meet people at book festivals that are a different cross-section of potential readers than you deal with the rest of the time. A great many did not do ebooks. Except for kids with indulgent parents, not many carried around armfuls of purchases. Budgets were in evidence everywhere (lots of proposals to do book swaps). In fact, I had a purchase after my books were boxed up and on the dolly at the exit door from someone who had wanted to buy the book earlier, but only just had a sale herself so she could now afford to do so. (Bless her — hope she enjoys it!)

Even when these affairs are barely profitable, they are useful for other reasons, particularly networking. I spoke with several people about indie publishing, got a good lead for where I can consign excess inventory when I change the covers on the Chained Adept series, and (best of all) found out about a distributor who would be a good fit for me at unusual outlets like gift shops, truck stops, etc. (once I figure out how to make a physical book catalogue of the right quality without paying a fortune).

Evaluating your business

Posted in Business, and Just for Writers

Image of financial tools and resultsAs authors and publishers, we hear a lot about new tools intended to improve the performance of our business in areas like marketing, formatting, distribution, outsourcing, and so forth.

What I'd like to see more of is articles about how to evaluate our businesses, to look upon our activity as authors and publishers just as if we were a small factory.

What that means is being able to ask questions like these:

  • Is our business model sound?
  • Is it improving over time?
  • Is it covering all of our costs, including those not specific to individual titles?
  • Are we actually making a profit, and how long should we expect that to take, after starting the business?

It's not just a matter of counting our sales at the end of the year.

What's the point of financial analysis?

An Income Statement isn't just a tedious document that old-style businesses put together — when done right, it's vital and important information to help you direct your spending and efforts.

I've been a Chief Operating Officer and a Chief Financial Officer for several small-medium businesses, both public and private — all of them young (1-10 years old). I'll use accounting terminology from the USA business world, but all countries do similar things though the terms may vary.

I'll focus on three ways to look at our businesses, and the data we need to support that.

1. Gross income — your business model

When we start as indie authors, we generally focus on the creation of work to publish (I'll call that “books” or “titles”, whatever you may be writing), and the delivery of that work to distribution and retail publishing channels.

Over time, many of us develop additional ways to earn income. As an example, I have the following channels today, in various stages of maturity:

  • Creation and sale of 24 titles (my own books)
  • Publication of titles for others (publishing work, several imprints)
  • Consulting work for colleagues
  • Speaking engagements

Each of these is a “line of business”, with its own costs and income. Some are relatively predictable while others are not, but all can be grown by marketing, if that seems like a worthwhile investment.