Livia Blackburne's Blog, page 6

November 15, 2011

I'm not the most qualified person to give tips on writing book pitches. I'm not a professional slush reader, nor am I a veteran indie author who's A/B tested dozens of cover blurbs.

But I do love writing query letters! And agent Jim did use my unmodified query to pitch Midnight Thief in the DGLM newsletter. (Jim also asked to use it as an example in his classes on query writing, which did amazing things for my ego, until Secretly-Supportive-But-Very-Mischievous-Husband asked if the class was called "How Not to Write A Query." Ah, what are our loved ones for, if not to keep us humble.)

So take my experiences and the lessons I draw from them with a grain of salt, but hopefully you will find something helpful for your own queries, book blogger pitches, etc...

1. Showcase the sexy

You'd think that a writer would know what's sexy about her novel, but that wasn't true in my case. My first query draft began:

"In a city besieged by vicious barbarians, Kyra struggles to clothe and shelter her two adopted sisters. Then she meets James, the deadly yet intriguing assassin with his eye on Kyra's extraordinary grace and agility. If Kyra will infiltrate the palace for him, he'll pay her more than enough to meet her needs. "

Okay, fine, but could you tell that my heroine could scale six-story buildings without a rope and sprint along narrow ledges in total darkness? Not really. Thankfully, my critique partners pointed out that I had summarized the sexy right out of my story. For later drafts, I emphasized Kyra's abilities. The final version started like this:

"To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge's most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin's Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It's the perfect job for someone of her talents."

2. Decide how much you want to reveal

Pitches are a tease, showing just enough to entice. When I was drafting my query, I obsessed over how much was the "right amount" to reveal. Agent X said 50 pages, but Editor Y said to tell everything up to the very end. In hindsight, I was being silly. The correct answer, of course, is that it depends on your story and what you want your pitch to accomplish.

The first few drafts of my query letter only covered the first third of the story. And if I were to self publish my novel, I would probably limit the cover copy to the first third as well -- it's enough to attract the right type of reader, but it doesn't give away any of my plot twists. My novel actually ends up in a very different place from that initial setup, but my instinct is that a casual reader would rather discover the twists as she's reading.

But as it was, I wasn't writing my pitch for a casual reader. I was writing for an agent with a huge slush pile, and I wanted her to know that my book was more than a simple thief story. Therefore, I made a trade-off – revealing a few plot twists in order to show a more complete picture of what happens. Did my approach work? I don't know, since I didn't test different query letter versions. But that was I was aiming for, at least.

3. Sexy is good. False advertising, not so much.

Among the numerous drafts of my query letter is "the draft that shall never be spoken of again." This was the one where I made a big deal about the sexy mysterious assassin, and Kyra's dangerous yet growing fascination with said ZOMG sexy assassin. Totally hawt. I'd read that book!

Unfortunately, this version of the query made my book sound more like a category romance than a young adult adventure. So while the pitch might have enticed some readers to pick it up, it probably would have enticed the wrong type of reader. And that reader would have been sorely disappointed at the lack of, um, "action" in my action adventure. Thanks again to my critique buddies for saving me from myself.

4. Be a Pessimist, and Don't be a Slave to the Summary

A typical narrative can be thought of as a series of successively larger obstacles. You run into obstacle one, and then it resolves. And then obstacle two comes, and then that resolves. Lather, rinse, repeat.

To make up an example: "Stacy loses her favorite puppy, but thankfully tracks it down after several days. Then she realizes that a dog-napping ring was behind it all. She works out an arrangement with the neighborhood dogwalkers, and together they disrupt the ring."

When writing a pitch, it can be tempting to summarize both the conflicts and the resolutions equally. But instead, try emphasizing the problems more than the resolutions.

"Stacy loses her favorite puppy, and her investigations lead her to a horrible dognapping ring. Now, her only hope is to work with the annoying and unfriendly neighborhood dogwalkers, and if she doesn't succeed, all the dogs in her city will die."

So those were the main lessons I learned while writing my novel pitch. How do you go about writing yours?

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She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on November 15, 2011 20:25 • 37 views

October 31, 2011

Today we have a guest post from Bryan Thomas Schmidt.  Bryan runs #SFFWRTCHT (Sci-Fi writer chat), a weekly twitter chat that interviews science fiction and fantasy authors. He blogs about the event's origins here, and today, he shares some tips about how to run social media events.

In late October 2010 at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio, I found inspiration for utilizing social media and my past experience in entertainment and journalism to bring authors together to discuss and learn about the craft and business of writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Knowing I wouldn't likely attend many conventions the following year, for budget reasons, I decided to bring the panel to us and created SFFWRTCHT, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Chat. My little idea grew within months to a major platform and has cemented my reputation and network in the industry, leading to opportunities I had only dreamed of. So Livia asked me to blog a bit about how to do a social media event, and I offer the following tips.

1. Manage Social Media Events Like A Professional – Whether your intent is a casual setting or a formal one, run your event as professionally as possible. This means start early with planning and get organized. Promote it well and enlist the help of others in doing so. When it's occurring, be professional in keeping things flowing as much as possible. Keep people on topic, avoid trolling, and generally steer things by using your comments to redirect discussions and set the right tone. For #sffwrtcht, I write out all my 140 character questions in advance. It saves stress and time during the fast moving chat, allows me to send them to guests if requested, and enables me to adlib follow up questions and interactions with guest and attendees during the live event without having to stress about questions.

2. Do Your Research – Others are doing Social Media events. Study up. Lurking is an acceptable SM past time, so use it to watch what others are doing and how they do it. Especially look for events similar to your own in theme and/or approach. Make notes if necessary. It's always good to learn from what works and what doesn't by observing it in action before you take it on yourself. Also, don't be afraid to find out what people enjoy and want by asking those you know or even those you don't. The SM community is usually more than happy to engage about such things and good research helps you hone your event for greater success. Additionally, research the guest, their work, etc. The more knowledgeable you are, the better your event will be.

3. Community Is Key – Being organized and professional should not prevent you from sticking to the core draw of Social Media: community. It's called "social" for a reason. Don't be too stuck on your plans or too rigid in your expectations. Be prepared to take charge and guide things when needed but be flexible to accept if they unfold differently. I started the chat like a TV interview with me asking most of the questions. I found that people were more interested if they could participate, so I made the change. I still ask most of the questions but others get involved and interest has really grown. It's also a lot more fun for everyone, including the guests.

4. Promote Early And Widely – Don't just promote your Facebook event on Facebook, make use of every outlet you can find from other Social Media outlets like Twitter to blogs and more. The more interest you generate, the more fun the event tends to be for everyone. And it's never too soon to get the word out. Just be sure you don't overdo it. Obnoxious publicity is worse than none at all. Here's a few tips I offer on Promoting With Social Media. Still, to be successful, people do need to know about your event so start early and promote as many places as you can.

5. Prepare Guests – Part of being organized and professional is making sure your event guests are also prepared. The more relaxed they are, the better your event will be. They will also enjoy it more. If you're doing an interview, offer to send questions in advance. Make sure they understand the format. Accommodate special requests when possible. Be warm and inviting and help them feel at ease. All of this will make your event shine and go smoothly.

6. Rest Up – Try and plan your event at a time when you can be relaxed and ready. Build some time prior to the event into your schedule to review notes, research, and even just relax quietly so that when the event starts, and things get crazy quick, you're at your best. Especially with live events, things move rapidly and it can be hard to keep up. It's even worse when you're already tired or stressed. So don't set yourself up. Rest Up and prepare.

7. Network, Network, Network – Social Media are the best networking tools invented and part of your success depends on your network. You need others to help spread the word, to attend your event and to help point you to potential topics, guests and research. Start early with this and when the time comes, you'll have built in resources. Promote other people and they'll promote you. Spread the word about their events, and they'll spread the word about yours, often without you needing to ask. Some of the best PR I get for chat and my book has been from people who took it upon themselves to help me just because I helped them in the past. Being a good Social Media citizen is key to your success in every aspect of your Social Media activities.

Well, there's a few tips to get you started if you're considering a Social Media event. There's plenty more. Perhaps you can suggest some in comments. Livia and I would love to hear from you. If you're interested in learning from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Chat, we have a blog here or you can search the #sffwrtcht hashtag on Twitter. Thanks for reading. And best of luck with your events!

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He's also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer's Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. 1 5-star & 5 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle

or Nook $14.99 tpb

She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on October 31, 2011 06:00 • 15 views

October 29, 2011

Me: I added something to my novel that I love.

Secretly-Supportive-But-Very-Mischievous-Husband: [Tears eyes from computer screen.] What?

Me: In the second scene when Flick and Kyra eat dinner, he takes the turnips out of his bowl and  absentmindedly pushes them to Kyra, and then she EATS THE TURNIPS.

SSBVMH: I see.

Me: That adds like sooooooo much. Do you know like HOW MUCH that adds?

SSBVMH: That . . . Flick doesn't like turnips?

Me: Well, yes but what else?

SSBVMH: [shrugs]

Me: What????

SSBVMH: I got nothin'

Me: Well you OBVIOUSLY aren't cut out to be an author then. I'll explain it to you.

SSBVMH: Wait, no! Anything but that! I take it all back!

Me: Then what does it tell you?

SSBVMH: . . . . That Flick reeeaally doesn't like turnips?

Me: [stare]

SSBVMH: That Kyra does like turnips?

Me: OMG. It means like they have such a long history of eating together and know each other so well that they've worked out this seamless routine based on their food preferences.

SSBVMH: Oh. [Pause] Well it's not that good if you have to explain it.

Which is all a long way to say that blog posts have been scarce because I've been in a revision cave. But more soon, and a guest post on Monday from Bryan Thomas Schmidt.

What kind of conversations do you have with your family members about writing?

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She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on October 29, 2011 21:28 • 12 views

October 9, 2011

A while back, I was reading a romance. In the story, the girl meets a charming, handsome guy, and things are proceeding as usual. But then, out of the blue, a boy she'd hated for years suddenly kisses her and runs away. ZOMG! I was mildly interested in guy number one, but when guy number two showed up, I really took notice.

Jump cut to another story, where a girl meets an old flame. He's distant, but sometimes shows flashes of interest. As the shared moments continue, I'm avidly turning the pages. Soon, he's actively courting her -- bringing her lunch and supporting her through emotional trauma, and . . . I lose interest.

In both cases, the guy who might have been attracted to the girl was more interesting to me than the guy who  definitely was attracted to the girl. Which got me to thinking. What is it about uncertainty and attraction?

Well funny I should ask! In fact, there was a recent study . . .

This study was done on female college students. They signed up in advance and gave researchers permission to show their Facebook profiles to others. When the women arrived, researchers told them that they were testing Facebook as an online dating site and that male students from other universities had reviewed their Facebook profiles and rated how much they thought they would like each woman. Then, the women were given Facebook profiles of four men to rate.

And here's the important part. One group was told that these four men had given them the highest ratings (the liked-best condition). One group was told that these four men had given them average ratings (the average-like condition). And yet a third group was told that the four men gave them either high or average ratings (the uncertain condition). In truth, the four men were fictitious.

So which group was most attracted to the men? Participants in the liked-best condition were more attracted to the men than participants in the average-like condition. Women were more attracted to guys who like them.

But here's the kicker: Participants in the uncertain condition were more attracted to the men than women in either of the other groups. They also reported thinking about the men more often.

So looks like there is something to uncertainty. Perhaps the sheer excitement of wondering is enough to make that hot guy  that much more desirable. So if you're looking to inject some romantic tension into your story, consider making things more uncertain.

Have you read any romances lately that did this?

Whitchurch ER, Wilson TD, & Gilbert DT (2011). "He loves me, he loves me not . . . ": uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological science, 22 (2), 172-5 PMID: 21169522

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She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on October 09, 2011 16:05 • 20 views

September 29, 2011

I'm currently revising my manuscript in response to editorial suggestions -- mostly from my agent Jim, but also from feedback I received during my agent search and from my second round of beta readers.

The focus is on increasing emotional and character depth, and I thought I'd share some themes and tips from my revision notes.

1. Relationships should include both tension and harmony

Relationships will be more compelling if they include a balance of conflict and cooperation. For example, my villain is a pretty ruthless guy, but his evil deeds would have more impact if my protagonist (and my readers) believed that he was also capable of good. Therefore, I'm reworking some passages to show his nicer side. Likewise, there's an "older brother" figure who acts as a emotional anchor. That's all well and good, but making him less unconditionally supportive and more human adds depth to his relationship with my protagonist, and the conflict actually strengthens their emotional bond.

2. Present backstory early to increase character depth

Several readers mentioned having trouble connecting to one of my point-of view characters. I've been doing several thing to address this. First, I'm going through and fleshing out his emotional reactions. Also, Jim suggested moving his backstory earlier in the narrative so readers can get a better sense of who he is. My opinions of backstory have changed quite a bit over the past year. I used to avoid it because people so often warned against backstory overload, but I'm coming to realize how important it is for character bonding. Also, an analysis of some favorite books showed that backstory was actually more prevalent than I thought.

3. Everything should be connected

When a big emotional event happens, it should echo through the later scenes, in the character's thoughts, and affect her later actions. Also, characters that have a strong emotional bond with the protagonist should appear in her thoughts at appropriate times.

When I revise, I  give myself writing exercises to see the manuscript with fresh eyes. This is what I've been doing from scene to scene.

1. Write out each character's motivation going in.

2. Ask whether any of these developments in the scene make the character think of previous events, future events, or other characters.

3. Jot down the POV character's emotional state from paragraph to paragraph. 

This has been both entertaining and enlightening. I started off eloquently, with notes like "confused", "worried", "uneasy." Halfway through the book, notes have disintegrated into "Gahhh!", "ZOMG", "Run!!!!."

But I've found this exercise useful for pinpointing places where the emotion didn't quite make it onto the page. It also maps out dramatic tension. My most exciting scenes have emotions that change every paragraph. Sometimes however, I will only mark one emotion for an entire page -- and surprise, surprise, those are usually the scenes that test readers have told me were emotionally flat.

Thus far, I'm really excited about how revisions are going. I feel like this round is really stretching me as a writer and forcing me to work on my blind spots.

Now readers, it's your turn. What are your tricks for increasing emotional and character depth?

She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on September 29, 2011 20:53 • 15 views

September 15, 2011

Livia: Barry, good to have you here with an excerpt from The Detachment on the day it goes on sale.

Barry: My pleasure, Livia, and thanks for having me.

Livia: It's impossible to consider The Detachment without also considering the story behind it. You announced back in March that you had walked away from a half-million-dollar offer from St. Martin's Press to self-publish the book. Then, at BEA in May, you announced that the book would be published instead by Amazon's Thomas & Mercer imprint. Can you tell us a bit more about the unusual path to publication for this book?

Barry: Well, it's a long story, told more fully in Be The Monkey, my online conversation with Joe Konrath available for free download from my website. But the gist of it is, I was looking for a digital split (legacy publishers offer authors only 17.5% of the retail price of digital books), a level of control over packaging and pricing, and time-to-market that's impossible with a legacy publisher. Those three items are of course entirely possible with -- indeed, they're the essence of -- self-publishing, so I decided to self-publish The Detachment.

But when Amazon heard about my decision, they approached me and essentially offered me the best of both worlds: the kind of split, control, and time-to-market I wanted from self-publishing, combined with Amazon's marketing muscle. Also, no ridiculous non-compete clauses, and I'm still self-publishing short stories, the odd book on publishing, and political essays, and have complete freedom to do what I like with all future works. In short, Amazon offered a better way of achieving my objectives, so I went with Amazon. This disappointed a few self-publishing ideologues -- that is, people for whom self-publishing is the end, rather than a means -- and I get that, but publishing is a business for me, not an ideology, and I'll use whatever means seems best-suited for achieving my objectives.

Anyway, so far, it's been a terrific experience. All the Amazon people I've worked with are smart, creative, and a lot of fun. I knew I was in for a different kind of publishing experience from the beginning, because the draft contract they presented me was the best publishing agreement I've ever seen -- and they were open to my suggestions for how to make it even better. They seem determined to build a publishing arm that's predicated on what's best for readers and authors, and I think they're off to a great start.

Livia:  Here's Chapter 2 of Barry's new thriller, The Detachment, available today exclusively from the Amazon Kindle Store (and in paper in bookstores everywhere on October 18). You can read other chapters, and Q&A with Barry on other topics, at the following blogs:

Chapter 1Truthout: The Politics of The Detachment

Chapter 3Buzz, Balls & Hype: The book's image system

Chapter 4Jungle Red Writers: Combining the series worlds of Rain and Treven

Chapter 5A Newbie's Guide to Writing: Publishing a book with Amazon

* * * * *

Chapter 2

Ben Treven and Daniel Larison sat on stools at the window counter of a Douter Coffee shop fifty yards south of the Kodokan on Hakusan-dori, sipping black coffee and waiting for the two contractors to return. Treven had wanted to join them, to get a firsthand look at the man whom up until the week before he'd thought to be a myth, but Larison had insisted there was no upside to sending in more than two of them, and Treven knew he was right. It bothered him how easily and naturally Larison had established himself as the alpha of the team, but he also had to admit that Larison, in his mid-forties, ten years Treven's senior, had seen more of the shit even than Treven had, and had survived heavier opposition. He told himself if he kept his mouth shut he might learn something, and he supposed it was true. But after ten years in the Intelligence Support Activity, the deliberately blandly named covert arm of the military's Joint Special Operations Command, he wasn't used to running into people who acted like his tactical superiors, and even fewer he thought might be right about it.

Treven was facing the window in the direction of the Kodokan, and saw the contractors, whom he knew only as Beckley and Krichman, approaching before Larison did. He nodded his head slightly. "Here they come."

Larison had instructed all of them to use their mobile phones as little as possible and to keep them shut off, with the batteries removed, except at previously agreed-upon intervals. The units were all rented, of course, and all under false identities, but good security involved multiple layers. The CIA's careless use of cell phones in the Abu Omar rendition from Milan had led to the issuance of arrest warrants from an Italian judge for a bunch of CIA officials, including the Milan station chief, and Treven figured Larison was applying the lessons of that op to this one. Still, the current precautions struck him as excessive—they weren't here to kill or kidnap Rain, after all, only to contact him. On the other hand, just as with sending only the two contractors into the Kodokan for the initial recon, he supposed there was no real downside to the extra care.

The contractors came in and stood so they were facing Treven and Larison and had a view of the street. Treven had seen plenty of foreigners in this section of the city, but even so he knew they were all conspicuous. Treven's blond hair and green eyes had always been somewhat of a surveillance liability, of course, but he figured that to the average Japanese, such features wouldn't much distinguish him from Larison, with his dark hair and olive skin, or from any other Caucasian foreigner, for that matter. What the natives would notice, and remember, was the collective size of the four of them. Treven, a heavyweight wrestler in high school and linebacker for Stanford before dropping out, was actually the smallest of the group. Larison was obviously into weights, and, if Hort could be believed, maybe steroids, too. And the contractors could almost have been pro wrestlers. Treven wondered if Hort had selected them in the hope their size might intimidate Rain when they made contact. He doubted it would make a difference. Size only mattered in a fair fight, and from what he'd heard of Rain, the man was too smart to ever allow a fight to be fair.

"He's there," the man called Beckley said. "Training, just like last night."

Larison nodded. "Maybe we should switch off now," he said in his low, raspy voice. "Two nights in a row, he's probably spotted you. Treven and I can take the point."

"He didn't spot us," Krichman said. "We were in the stands, he barely even glanced our way."

Beckley grunted in agreement. "Look, if the guy were that surveillance conscious, he wouldn't be showing up at the same location at the same time every night in the first place. He didn't see us."

Larison took a sip of coffee. "He any good? The judo, I mean."

Krichman shrugged. "I don't know. Seemed like he had his hands full with the kid he was training with."

Larison took another sip of coffee and paused as though thinking. "You know, it probably doesn't really matter that much whether he saw you or not. We know he's here, we can just brace him on his way out."

"Yeah, we could," Krichman said, his tone indicating the man found the idea hopelessly unambitious. "But what kind of leverage do we have then? We found him at the Kodokan. Tomorrow he could just go and train somewhere else. Or give up training, period. We want him to feel pressured, isn't that what Hort said? So let's show him we know where he lives. Brace him there, make him feel we're into his life in a big way. That's how you get people to play ball—by getting them by the balls."

Treven couldn't disagree with the man's assessment overall. He was surprised Larison didn't see it that way, too. But Larison must have realized his oversight, because he said, "That makes sense. But come on, he must have seen you. Treven and I should take the point."

"Look," Beckley said, his tone indicating the tail end of patience, "he didn't see us. Krichman and I will take the point." He gestured to one of the buttons on his damp navy shirt. "You'll see everything we see, through this. If he spots us, and I doubt he will, we'll switch off like we planned. Okay?"

The button was actually the lens of a high definition pocket video camera that shot color in daylight and infrared-enhanced black-and-white at night. Each of them was similarly outfitted, and each unit transmitted wirelessly to the others on the network. A separate unit, about the size of a pack of playing cards, could be held in the hand to display what the other units were transmitting. It was nothing fancy, just a stripped-down and slightly modified version of the Eagle Eyes monitoring system that was increasingly popular with various government agencies, but it enabled a small surveillance team to spread out beyond what traditional line-of-sight would allow, and also enabled each team member to know the position of all the others without excessive reliance on cell phones or other verbal communication.

Larison raised his hands in a you win gesture. "All right. You two cover the entrance of the Kodokan. Treven and I will wait here and fall in behind you when you start following him."

Beckley smiled—a little snidely, Treven thought. And it did seem like Larison, maybe in a weak attempt to save face, was pretending to issue orders that had in fact just been issued to him.

Beckley and Krichman went out. Larison turned and watched through the window as they walked away.

Treven said, "You think he's going to come out again at the same time? Hort said he was so surveillance conscious."

Larison took a sip of coffee. "Why do you think Hort sent those assholes along with us?"

It was a little annoying that Larison hadn't just answered the question. Treven paused, then said, "He doesn't trust us, obviously."

"That's right. They're working for him, not with us. Remember that."

Colonel Scott "Hort" Horton was Treven's commander in the ISA, and had once been Larison's, too, before Larison had gone rogue, faked his own death, and tried to blackmail Uncle Sam for a hundred million dollars worth of uncut diamonds in exchange for videos of American operatives torturing Muslim prisoners. He'd almost gotten away with it, too, but Hort had played him and kept the diamonds for himself. Treven wasn't entirely sure why. On the one hand, Hort's patriotism and integrity were unquestionable. A black man who might have been denied advancement in other areas but who was not only promoted, but held in awe by the army meritocracy, he loved the military and he loved the men who served under him. Yet none of that had prevented him from fucking Larison when he'd needed to, as he'd once tried to fuck Treven. He'd told Treven why: America was being run by a kind of oligarchy, which didn't seem to trouble Hort much except that the oligarchy had become greedy and incompetent—grievous sins, apparently, in Hort's strange moral universe. The country needed better management, he'd said. He was starting something big, and the diamonds were a part of it. So, he hoped, would be Treven and Larison, and this guy Rain they'd been sent to find, too, if he could be persuaded.

So of course Hort didn't trust them. They weren't under duress, exactly, but it wasn't all a positive inducement, win-win dynamic, either. Larison had to be looking for payback, as well as a chance to recover the diamonds. And Treven had wised up enough to recognize the strings Hort had been using to manipulate him, and to know he needed to find a way to cut them, too. There was the little matter of some unfortunate security videos, for example, that could implicate Treven in the murder of a prominent former administration official. It didn't matter that it had been a CIA op and that Treven had nothing to do with the man's death. What mattered was that Hort and the CIA had the tapes, and might use them if Treven got out of line. So for the moment, the whole arrangement felt like an unstable alliance of convenience, all shifting allegiances and conflicting motives. Hort would never have sent them off without a means of monitoring them, and under the circumstances, Larison's injunction that he remember who Beckley and Krichman were really working for felt gratuitous, even a little insulting. Maybe the man was just chafing at the fact that the contractors didn't seem to give a shit about what Larison assumed was his own authority. Treven decided to let it go.

But what he wouldn't let go was that Larison had ignored his question. "Same place, same time, same way out, two nights in a row?" he said. "That sound like our guy?"

Larison glanced at him, and Treven could have sworn the man was almost smiling.

"Depends," Larison said.

"What do you mean?"

"Rain spotted them last night for sure, when they were there for longer. Very likely, he spotted them again tonight, too."

"How do you know?"

"Because I would have spotted them. Because if this guy is who Hort says he is, he would have spotted them. Because if he's not good enough to have spotted them, Hort wouldn't even be bothering with him."

Treven considered. "So what does that mean, if he spotted them but comes out the same way at the same time anyway?"

This time, Larison did smile. "It means I'm glad it's not us walking point."

She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on September 15, 2011 06:00 • 10 views

September 13, 2011

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My parents own an import business, and we often talked about their work around the dinner table. I remember a conversation about "Brian," one of the sales reps. When Brian first moved into sales from accounting, he had a hard time because he felt like he was forever pushing merchandise onto people. But eventually he began to see his role differently, as a service provider who guided people toward products that matched their needs.

At the time, being my cynical high-school self, my reaction was "Uh huh, whatever makes you feel better, greedy capitalist." But I've been thinking about that conversation recently, after reading Nathan Bransford's recent article on self promotion. The gist of his post is that self-promotion is uncomfortable and somewhat unpleasant, but as a modern author, you have to do it anyways.

Now Nathan has more social media and marketing ninja skills in his left pinky than I could ever hope to obtain, and I can definitely see where he's coming from. It's hard to step out of your comfort zone and tell people about your book. But whereas many authors see self-promotion as a necessary evil, I actually enjoy it. Perhaps because I'm the daughter of entrepreneurs, perhaps because I'm an only child and attention-monger, or perhaps because my stunted MIT social skills prevent me from realizing when people are annoyed at me.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to present a more sanguine view of self promotion.

Catchphrases like marketing, target audience and branding, have a negative connotation among artists. There's the stereotype of the money grabbing capitalist, out to get money while true artists just focus on their art and let people (the deserving ones at least) come to them. But the thing is, in a good business transaction, everybody ends up happy. The seller feels adequately compensated. The customer feels like she has obtained something of value. And that's the first point that shy authors tend to forget. You're not asking for donations. You're offering something of value for a fair price.

So if selling is not inherently evil, then you're home free right? Forget your qualms, grit your teeth, and start tweeting.

Well, not quite. Instead if you're feeling guilty about self-promotion, try stepping back and ask yourself these three questions.

1. Are you offering a quality product?

If you're truly convinced that people will gain value from your book, you'll be less shy to tell people about it. Are you up to industry standards for copyediting, layout, and cover design? Have you had test readers? (See my beta reader series here) You don't have to have a book that everybody loves, but you should have a book that resonates with a certain segment of the population, which leads to the next point…

2. Are you marketing to the right people?

Go door-to-door selling pinup magazines at a frat house, and you'll likely get high-fives and an invitation to beer pong. Do the same thing at a convent, and you'll end up with restraining order. These are extreme examples, but they show how the same methods of self-promotion can be welcomed by one group and loathed by another.

And again we have idea of target audience, which we recently discussed. You want to reach people who, upon hearing about your book, will think "Hey, that's right up my alley." We often discuss target audience with a focus on the sale, but more important is what customers do after they read your book. If you have a strong platform to a non-target audience or have loyal friends with money to spare, those folks might buy your book just to support you. But if you only concentrate on those people, you lose out on one of the most important aspects of book growth: word-of-mouth. It's not enough just to sell that first book. You want to sell it to someone who will read it, love it, and pass it on.

One last thought about target audience: It doesn't have to be a yes or no thing. It can be a gradient, and you can adapt your marketing efforts accordingly. When From Words to Brain first came out in December, I  blogged about it but didn't tell my friends and family. Most of them aren't into neuroscience or writing, and I didn't want to pressure them into buying an essay that wasn't really their thing.

But when my essay went on sale for $.99 last February, I did do the e-mail blast to friends and family. Most of them liked me enough, and were curious enough about my "writing thing", to want to spend a dollar and check it out. And in the following weeks I got lots of grinning friends coming up to me and saying "Hey Livia, I read your book!" Some of them read the whole thing, enjoyed it, and told other people about it (Thanks, K, C, G!). Some read a few pages and moved on, but for a dollar it was a worthwhile risk for them.

3. Is your method of self-promotion adding value?

It's been said 1 million times, but only because it's so true. The most important question in marketing is "What's in it for me?" You can get on a mountaintop and shout "Plz check out my new book available now on Amazon" all day, but you'll be roundly ignored unless there is something in it for the person on the other end. It's no coincidence that the marketing campaigns that go viral are the ones that offer something -- either entertainment, inspiration, or advice. See Old Spice Guy, The Noticer Project,  John Locke's blog entries, for examples.

There are also more conventional ways, like building a platform with an entertaining or useful blog (see The Internet is a Playground, Unclutterer, The Simple Dollar). And there are plenty of blogs in the writing blogosphere that do this as well. J A Konrath, Joanna Penn, Kristine Rusch, Bob Mayer and many others write valuable blog posts teaching people about the process of publishing while also getting the their own books out there. Moses Siregar cohosts a podcast on science fiction, and also recently launched his novel. (Note: Though, again, think target audience here. Both Joanna and Joe have mentioned that they don't think their writing platforms overlap heavily with their fiction audience.)

And don't forget free samples! Many authors find their audience through podcasts, online comics, etc. Zoe Winters offers her first book for free download  for joining her mailing list.  I recently bought Girl of Fire and Thorns after reading 85 pages on the HarperCollins website. Come to think of it, there are few products as conducive to free sampling as novels. I mean, if someone reads half the book and still doesn't want to continue, then they're probably not a good fit.

So in conclusion, yes, self promotion can be uncomfortable. But you can do more than just grit your teeth and forge ahead. Just as there are concrete steps you can take to fix a sagging plot or flat characters, there are concrete changes in approach that you can take to make the process less awkward.

What do you think? Is it possible to self promote without selling your soul?

Hope you enjoyed this post!  To get regular updates from this blog, please use the subscription options on the left toolbar.

She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on September 13, 2011 20:26 • 16 views

September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day! If you haven't looked at the comments in my critique styles post, take a look. People have left quite a few amusing comments. Also, I forgot to mention  that the five profiles I posted are actually caricatures of the five members of my critique group. Can you guess which one is me?

I've been reading some articles on the psychology of attraction and thought it'd be interesting to write about ways to attract the opposite sex. As writers, our interest in this is of course strictly academic -- we want to write more realistic romances (right? :-P).

Imagine that you're a young man crossing a rickety suspension bridge. It's not exactly sturdy. It sways and twists in the wind, and there's only a low wire handrail to protect you from the rocks 230 feet below. As you cross, you're approached by an attractive young psychology student. She asks you to fill out a survey and write a short story. After you finish, she tells you that she'd be happy to talk further about the experiment, and then she hands you her phone number.

Got that?
Now a slightly different scenario.

You're still young man, but now you're crossing a different bridge. It's built of solid wood and stands 10 feet above a small creek. Again, a pretty young psychology student asked you to fill out a survey. Again, she has you write a story and slips you her phone number.

 It turns out that the young men crossing the two different bridges behaved differently in two crucial ways. First, men crossing the rickety suspension bridge were more likely to call up the female interviewer afterwards. Second, the scary bridge group also included more sexual imagery in their stories. It appears that men who crossed the scary bridge were more attracted to the female interviewer.*

Why might this be? Well, what happens when you cross a scary bridge? Your heartbeat goes up. Your palms get sweaty. You start breathing quicker.

And what happens when you really attracted to someone? Hmm, your heartbeat goes up. Your palms get sweaty…

So you're crossing the bridge, your brain is getting all these fear messages from your body, and in the meantime, your brain also notices that you're talking to a sexy psychologist (I love that phrase). And your brain thinks, "Wow, my heart is speeding up, my palms are sweaty, I must really be attracted to this girl!"**

The takeaway message: fear will sometimes lead to an illusion of romantic attraction. And we actually see this a lot in books and movies. Think about pretty much every action movie that transitions from scary chase/fight/brush with death scene to a love scene.

So, dear readers, can you think of any examples of this in recent books you've read? Or in your own writing? 

* On a side note, the psychologists also did the same experiment with the male interviewer. In that variation, there was no difference in how each group behaved.

** Another interesting aside. It seems like the presence of a hot young thing will actually trick your brain into thinking that you're less scared than you actually are. In a similar experiment using the threat of electric shock instead of a scary bridge, men reported being less scared when the pretty girl was around, presumably because their brains misinterpreted their bodies fear reactions as attraction for the girl.

Hope you enjoyed the post! To receive updates from this blog, please use the subscription options on the left sidebar.

Dutton, D., & Aron, A. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30 (4), 510-517 DOI: 10.1037/h0037031

She makes the point that reading a story literally affects us physically. We are naturally empathic creatures who truly do share the emotional lives of characters . Hubert O'Hearn's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on September 05, 2011 15:04 • 19 views

August 25, 2011

Five members of a critique group look over a familiar fairy tale...

The Language Connoisseur: "Little Red Riding Hood." That's a great name! Such great imagery, with just a hint of alliteration.

The Character Empath: I loved the twist when the grandma turned out to be the wolf. Holy Cow! But maybe we'd appreciate the surprise more in Red's point of view instead of the Wolf's?

The Pace Setter: You could stretch out the tension after Red gets swallowed. The woodman shows up too quickly. Milk the drama!

The Plot Critic: Eh, I didn't buy that whole development with the wolf dressing up as the grandma. I mean, is Red really that unobservant? Come on!

The Potty Brain: I dunno about all those references to the woodman's "axe." I mean, this is supposed to be MG! Let's not go there.

What other critique types are there, and what do they say?

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on August 25, 2011 18:03 • 96 views

August 21, 2011

Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for Plain Kate in this entry.

I recently fell in love with Plain Kate by Erin Bow. Every sentence is beautiful, and the story is impossible to forget.

Plain Kate is also a very, very sad book. A major character dies at the end, and Bow pulls no punches. I cried when I read it. And being a sucker for punishment, I reread the ending the next day and cried again. Then I started thinking.  People die in my books as well. Why don't my beta readers cry? So, being the cold, analytical psychologist that I am, I went through Plain Kate's death scene line by line to tease out the elements that tugged at my heartstrings.

For those who haven't read it, here's a condensed version of the scene. Plain Kate, the main character, has a talking cat named Taggle. In the climactic scene, it becomes clear that the only way to stop a great evil is for Taggle to die.

"You can survive it," said Taggle. "And that is all I want. You do not need me. You can find your own place, with your strength alone. . . Katerina, Star of my Heart. Be brave. Lift your knife."

. . . . And Taggle, who was beautiful, who'd never misjudged a jump in his life, leapt toward her with his forelegs outflung. He landed clean on the blade. There was a sound like someone biting into an apple. . . .

"Taggle,"whispered Kate. His heartbeat slowed under her hand.

"More . . ." His voice was only a breath.

"More than a cat."

"And I do not regret it." His eyes clouded. "Could you . . . This itchy bit. . . "

She scratched his favorite place, where the fur swirled above the hard nub of his jawbone. The heat from the fire lifted tears from one side of her face.

[Taggle dies, and Kate escapes the city with her friends. They run into a man named Behjet.]

Behjet tottered to his feet. [His shaving knife] fell and sank its point in the wet earth with a sound that made Kate wince. . . .

"Linay is dead," Katie said. "And those people in front of the gate, and the ones in the square. And Stivo, and Ciri, and my father, and--" she could not speak Taggle's name. "My – my heart is dead. . . ."

[Kate pushes past him and takes Taggle's body inside.]

[Taggle's] beautiful for was matted with blood. He would hate that. She got out one of the horse brushes. She brushed until the bristles were thick as if with rust, and his fur was perfect. . .

She sat beside him, numb, forever.

She had never been the sort for ghosts, though she had seen too much of them. But she would have cut off her carving hand to glimpse one now. It wasn't there. There should at least be a ghost. But there was no ghost. Only Behjet . . . . 

"Plain Kate," [Behjet] said. . . . 

"Just Kate."


"Kate." She was as plain as she had ever been. And over that she was burn scarred and half bald. But Taggle had thought she was beautiful. "My name is Katerina Svetlana. Kate."

I'm not sure how much of the emotion comes through in the snippit, but believe me, the scene really packs a punch.  And without further ado, here's my list of death scene elements that make your reader cry.

1. Emphasize the good qualities of the dying character.

Taggle tells Kate. "You can survive it . . . And that is all I want. You do not need me." The narrative then continues. "And Taggle, who was beautiful, who'd never misjudged a jump in his life. . " For the reader, it's gut wrenching to be reminded of just how selfless and special Taggle is as he leaps to his death.

2. Draw a connection to a previous tragedy.

When Plain Kate's father died in the beginning of the book, his last words were "Katerina, Star of my Heart." And this is what Taggle calls Kate in this scene as well.

3. Remind the reader about the character's journey -- how he's grown. 

Taggle starts the book as a regular cat, but a spell gave him the ability to talk. Over the course of the book, he becomes less catlike (self-centered and proud), and learns about love and self-sacrifice. At a few points in the book, Kate tells Taggle that he has become "More than a cat." And this sentence is echoed as Taggle lays dying.

4. Emphasize close relationships.

Remember my post on how to convey closeness between two characters? One technique was to have them complete each other's sentences. And that's what Kate and Taggle do with the "More than a cat" line.

5. Remind the reader of good times.

Some of the book's comic relief involved Taggle's insistence on being scratched. And here, as he dies, he  requests this one last time.

6. Show how the survivors are traumatized by the loss. 

 When Behjet's shaving knife hits the ground, Kate winces at the sound because it reminds her of Taggle landing on her knife. She also has trouble saying Taggle's name.

7. Rituals of putting the dead to rest. 

Kate brushes Taggle's fur and prepares him for burial.

8. Show how much the other characters miss the deceased.

Kate is an extraordinarily talented woodcarver who depends on her knife for her livelihood. So it's no small thing when she says that she would cut off her carving hand to glimpse a ghost of Taggle.

9. Have the dying character leave a legacy.

Plain Kate was called by that nickname her entire life. But because of Taggle's sacrifice, she realizes that she deserves a better name.

So readers, tell me. What book made you cry, and why?

You can tell Livia is fascinated by people, the way we think and react, use language, read and write. That passion, backed up with solid scientific research, makes this highly recommended reading! KCW's review of From Words to Brain [image error]

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Published on August 21, 2011 19:41 • 79 views