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Category: Just for Writers

Check reader demographics with Yasiv using reverse also-boughts

Posted in Just for Writers

yasiv-booksI've just encountered a tool (new to me) for checking the Amazon “also bought” lists that point back at your books: Yasiv.


I typed in the name of the first book in my first series under Search Category = Books, and was fascinated to see how my readership broke down.

The series, The Hounds of Annwn, is a contemporary fantasy involving a Virginia foxhunter who ends up in the fae otherworld leading the Wild Hunt.  Now, as it happens, I spent several years as a semi-pro photographer following the Virginia hunting scene, so when I published To Carry the Horn, the first book in the series, I had a ready-made audience of foxhunting enthusiasts who already knew me from my photography.

Many of these people have never read fantasy (beyond, say Harry Potter) and bought the series out of horse-related interest.  The people who were already followers of Rita Mae Brown's foxhunting mysteries, with their fantasy elements of talking animals, were especially susceptible.  There weren't any other fantasy readers who bought print editions where I showed up in their “also-boughts.”

I'm a writer of Fantasy and Science Fiction, not a horse or hunting mystery writer, but I chose this first topic as a bit of a crossover to appeal to my built-in audience so that I wouldn't have to start from scratch to build a fantasy audience, figuring my next series would be a more conventional fantasy (which it is).


I already knew that many of the first series readers didn't do ebooks and would be responsible for most of my print sales.  What I didn't fully realize until now was how little connection there was between my print and my ebook audience.

Using Scrivener to Track Loose Ends

Posted in Just for Writers

tangled cat
Loose ends in my first draft novels

I converted to using Scrivener (from Word) more than two years ago and have never regretted it.  It's a wonderful dedicated platform for writing.

Today I want to talk a little about how I use it to track loose ends that I'll want to fix later.  I'll start by talking about Scrivener scenes.

A typical structure for a Scrivener novel project is to organize it by chapters and scenes, with scenes being the smallest unit.  For my purposes, I have created a scene template which I use for each scene that has a Notes structure already in place to help me remember what's important in each scene.Scrivener scene notes template

Once the scene is done, I copy the material above the dashed line into the Synopsis box as a description of the important parts of each scene.  That's what's visible in higher-level views when you're rearranging scene order.

Let's go over each of these items in detail.

  • POV – Identifies the point of view character.  I also have a special Label (above) for scenes by POV character.
  • SUMMARY – A couple of lines about the scene.
  • SPECIAL MENTIONS – anything crucial to the plot, like clues or back stories
  • GOAL OF POV – What the POV is trying to achieve in the scene.
  • CONFLICT OBSTRUCTING – What is standing in the POV's way.
  • STAKES (WHAT-IF FAIL) – What will happen if he fails.
  • FORESHADOW – Explicit foreshadowing of some future event.
  • LOOSE ENDS – Something that needs to be cleaned up.

Of course, not every scene uses all of these notes, but they're a helpful reminder as I plot the scene out — if I don't know what's going on, how can I expect my reader to follow along?

So, what's a loose end?

Focus on what’s important in a story

Posted in Characters, and Just for Writers


You often hear people refer to the fabric of a story or to weaving a plot, but these textile metaphors are maladroit. Stories aren’t flat 2-dimensional objects.

In a piece of cloth, all threads are functional, all must be anchored at each end, and all are necessary for a whole cloth. Stories, on the other hand, are about a person (one or more, human or alien or any sort of thinking/feeling being) who does something. Everything else in the story is background context to help tell the main story.

The story implicit in the (photoshopped) illustration is the fox’s story. Certainly, each hound might have a story to tell, but if you tried to tell them all at once, there’d be no story at all. So every hound’s story must be subordinate to the fox’s to make a proper tale.

A better metaphor is in the domain of optics, in the form of lens focus.

Finding and working with a cover artist

Posted in Just for Writers

(A shortened version of this post was published earlier here.)

A little less than two years ago I started writing my first fantasy novel. It has since grown into a series (The Hounds of Annwn) with four novels, five short stories, and a story collection, and I’m not done with it yet. I found a prolific Russian surrealist artist on the stockphoto sites whose work I admired, and I’ve used her images for all the covers (I have a minor level of competence in Photoshop, enough to design layout, fonts, and framing.) You can see those covers here.

I’m starting a new fantasy series now (The Affinities of Magic) and I know I’m not going to find a similar artist for the covers off the stockphoto sites, so this time I decided to commission cover art. It’s been a fun learning experience, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

Starting up the learning curve

Like everyone, I started by asking for recommendations, and I sure got a lot of them. Unfortunately, almost none of them were in my genre (Fantasy), and there’s little that an excellent artist who specializes in photorealistic Romance shots can do to help me.

GENRE is the first and most important consideration. The purpose of a good cover is to (1) help the reader understand at a glance what genre the book is in, and (2) make the reader want to find out more (that’s where “quality” comes into play).
You need to know what the rules of covers for your genre are, so that you can signal appropriately to your potential readers. First step? Look at what other books in your genre look like. (See the above picture of a bunch of Fantasy books from Amazon – I added one of my older books as a comparison for legibility of Authorname. Click on this image or any other to see a bigger version.)

Fantasy as a genre tends toward illustrated covers instead of photo montage, though the ubiquity of stock photos is causing more photo-based covers to be created. One way to scream “Fantasy” is to use an illustration.

Pre-made covers and stock photo sites are therefore not good places to look for this genre, though suitable for others. I wanted an illustrator, and I was going to have to go it alone, learning as I went along. And I had a budget to consider…

A habit of old words

Posted in Just for Writers

A great many writers (perhaps most) have known they wanted to be writers all their lives, scribbling away in childhood, until finally some breakthrough brought writing to the forefront and they began completing and publishing their work.

Many musicians work in mathematics or
          computer-related fields

But not all of us…

I have an intellectual background in mathematics, which (indirectly) led to a career first as a programmer and then as an IT executive in a number of startup software and computer consulting firms for almost 40 years. But, like many math-types, I also had a competing fascination with music, languages, and the visual arts. Everything, in fact, except writing.

As I've said elsewhere, it's all Tolkien's fault. I was a high-volume, indiscriminant, and rapacious reader as a child (still am), never going to grade school with fewer than half a dozen paperbacks to get me through classes, with a strong focus on science fiction and such fantasy as was available in the early 60s. My encounter with Tolkien when his first American editions and then the “authorized” editions came out in paperback, in early high school, gave me a sudden and immediate focus. In brief, I'm the sort of person who reread the Appendices obsessively, trying to understand why his hints at deep history worked so well, how he had built a world with so much consistent detail and background that resonated so effectively with his readers.

Siefried kills Fafnir (Nibelungenlied)
Siegfried kills Fafnir (Nibelungenlied)

As a musician, I was already very familiar with the British traditional ballads (the Folk Revival was underway and I discovered Francis James Child at about this time). Tolkien and books about him spurred my reading toward the older traditional literature of all kinds, both the sort that were the subjects of his scholarship (Beowulf and the Old & Middle English corpus) and its relatives like the Nibelungenlied, the northern sagas and the eddas, the Matter of Britain (King Arthur, the Grail), the Matter of France (Roland)) as well as the classics (Homer, et alia) and even, eventually, some of the Indian ancient poetry, the Rigveda, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata (has anyone ever read the whole thing?).

I spent much of high school devouring everything I could find in this area, assisted by new releases in paperback of many of these works, as well as the scholarship that illuminated them, most especially on the topic of oral-formulaic poetry, where subject matter, linguistic form, performance requirements, and emotional power intersected so wonderfully. The traditional ballads (most of them) are the last hurrah of oral-formulaic poetry in northern Europe, and as a singer I could easily recognize the utility of the oral-formulaic process in performance, substituting equivalent phrases for ones imperfectly remembered in the heat of performance, or seeing fragmentary epithet phrases fossilized in absurd contexts (e.g., in the ballad/broadsheet of “Creeping Jane”, the racehorse lifts up her “lily-white hoof”, as any heroine would lift a “lily-white hand” — a convenient metrical phrase).

Why you should buy ISBNs for your books

Posted in Just for Writers

An earlier version of this article was published September 6, 2013.BowkerISBN

Avoiding costs

Independent publishers and author/publishers aren’t supporting corporate boardrooms, expense accounts, or Manhattan addresses (by and large), and frugality is a common theme. Avoiding the purchase and use of an ISBN number for their published work (if they are US-based) seems to many to be another opportunity to cut cost.

But let’s step back a minute. I write for many reasons but one of them is to communicate with someone else. I’m sure that resonates with many writers. Right behind that is the sense that I am joining that long river of communication that is the world of books, a stream that has flowed for hundreds of years, and I want my little drops to join in and make that stream just a little larger. Maybe I will communicate with someone who finds my work decades after my own death.

If you want your work to survive and be part of that river, you have to treat what you’re making as an honest-to-god book that could live forever, not just a document that gets thrown up in digital form somewhere and makes you a little money.

Using ISBNs to Future-proof Your Books

My name is my brand. My books belong to me, and my stamp upon them is an ISBN number, a unique and universal identifier that will bring them out of darkness to anyone’s search, years from now and in databases I cannot envision. It doesn’t matter whether the book is printed or in digital form – that’s just a detail. I would no more omit my ISBN from a book I’ve written than I would take away my name.

I’ve heard people comment, well, you don’t need an ISBN to publish an ebook at this site or that, and that’s a true statement. But when you’re caught up in the here and now of the latest development in the explosion that is new indie publishing, it’s easy to lose perspective.

Consider the following situation:

Giving your subconscious something to build upon

Posted in Just for Writers

timber-frameOf all the architectural elements in the fiction writing process, plot is the primary scaffold. Without it, there is no story. There are some writers who begin with characters and evolve a plot from them, but it all has to come down to plot.

I'm fairly new to the writing process myself, but I'm an old analyst, steeped in software tech, and lately I've been contemplating what it is about plot, the way it's used by writers, that makes it special. Why do people struggle so much with it?

I'm not sure what “writer's block” really means as it's commonly described. When I'm not writing when I should be, it's almost always because of external factors (stress, depression, etc.) Only rarely have I been able to pin it down to the work itself — when I've produced a scene in first draft, and something about it feels false to me, I can't continue until I resolve the problem.

My analytical brain has been chewing on what's going on when that happens.

Stage 2 of self-publishing

Posted in Distribution, Formatting, Just for Writers, Production, and Publishing

person-reading-ebookOver the summer I've been unusually busy with the business and technical side of publishing. I've reformatted all my books behind the scenes and I've moved up a level from starter self-publishing and am just beginning to move beyond the basic retailers (Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Apple, Kobo) to a broader worldwide market. This has required my learning a great deal more about worldwide aggregators and distributors, as well as professionalizing (further) my use of metadata in the trade channels.

For those of you who aren't doing self-publishing, let me give you a quick overview. It's quite straightforward today to take your book, apply professional assistance in areas such as editing and cover design, and produce a product that is indistinguishable from the work of traditional publishing. Yes, the devil's in the details — you have to write reasonably well, too — but that's a given. There are no artificial barriers in the way of doing this.

The big difference is in the area of distribution. The US market is the furthest along, and ebooks are perhaps 20-30% of the US market. (Independent publishing is not well captured by book trade statistics, so there's a lot of speculation about the actual numbers). That number is still growing though the speed has slowed down and, of course, print isn't going away. Still, in fiction particularly, it's clear that ebooks will likely eventually approach 50%. The rest of the world is just getting started, but ebook adoption rates there might surprise you — remember, many third world countries went straight to cell phones without bothering with landlines much, so technology adoption rates do vary.