Livia Blackburne's Blog, page 6

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 • 9 views

September 13, 2011

Note:  **If you see any pop up ads upon entering my site, I apologize and please email me at liviablackburne at gmail dot com.  There aren't supposed to be any.***

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 • 14 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 • 18 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 • 93 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 • 72 views

August 20, 2011

From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?) 

Hello all.  I'm running late on a blog post (hopefully will have it up by tomorrow), but I just heard from my publisher that From Words to Brain is 99 cents this weekend at the Kindle store, so it's a great time to check it out if you've been meaning to.  Take care!Code: Pyn

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 20, 2011 19:03 • 70 views

August 13, 2011

Every once in a while I present some tools in the writer's arsenal for taking over the world. We've talked about writers as brain manipulators, and storytelling as Vulcan mind meld. Today, I will show you how Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling are actually Borg queens, assimilating all unsuspecting readers in their path.

Reading assimilation is a common experience. Perhaps you're walking to work after reading Harry Potter and find yourself wishing for a broomstick. Or you step into the sun after reading Twilight and half-expect your skin to sparkle. Psychologists Shira Gabriel and Ariana Young have coined the term narrative-collective assimilation for the idea that reading a story will cause the reader to assimilate into the "collective", or people-groups, described in the narrative. And now they have experimental evidence.

The study they ran was a fun one for bookworms. Gabriel had 140 undergraduates read a passage from either Twilight (Chapter 13, Confessions), or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Chapter 7, The Sorting Hat, and Chapter 8, The Potions Master). They predicted that people who read Harry Potter would identify more with wizards after reading, and that people who read Twilight would identify more with vampires. After the participants read the passage, they took several tests to measure how much they had assimilated.

The first test was called the Implicit Association Test. It's a bit confusing, but I'll do my best to explain it. The task was to categorize words at a computer. For example, they see a display like this:

WIZARDS                                         VAMPIRES


The top line is just a reminder to press the left button for words having to do with wizards, and press the right button for words having to do with vampires. Then, words like "wand" appear underneath, and in this case, the correct answer would be to press the left button to categorize it as a wizard word.

Okay so far?  Then, the participants do the same task with different categories. For example, a display like this:

ME                                                  NOT ME



This time, they press the left button for words having to do with "me" (myself, mine, etc.), and the right button for "not me" words (they, there's, etc.).

Now comes the important part. They do both categorization tasks at once. For example:

WIZARDS                                     VAMPIRES

ME                                                 NOT ME


They get  vampire, wizard, "me," or "not me" words on the screen, and they have to categorize it to the correct side. They key is this: if the participant self-identifies as a vampire, they will be faster if the vampire words and  the "me" words are on the same side.  On the other hand, participants who self-identify with wizards will be faster if the "me" words are on the same side as the wizard words.

So by swapping whether the "me" words are on the same side as the vampires or the wizards, psychologists can get a measure of whether a participant identifies more with vampires or wizards. As predicted, Harry Potter readers identified more with wizards, and Twilight readers identified more with vampires.

The implicit association task is a strange one though, because it's very artificial. It's hard to take some data about reaction time differences for categorizing words and drawing any strong conclusions about what it actually means. So it's nice that the experimenters also rounded out their study with an explicit measure. They gave participants a questionnaire called  The Twilight/Harry Potter Narrative Collective Assimilation Scale (Ah, I love psychology). Mixed in amongst filler questions were some key questions like "How sharp are your teeth?"(vampire), "How British do you feel?" (Harry Potter), and "Do you think, if you tried really hard, you might be able to make an object moved just using the power of your mind?" (Accio horcrux!). Again, Twilight readers rated more highly for the vampire questions and Harry Potter readers rated more highly for the Wizard questions.

Not all participants were equally likely to be assimilated into the "collective". Participants were also tested on a scale that measured their tendency to fulfill their social needs by fitting into groups, with questions like "When I join a group, I usually develop a strong sense of identification with that group." It turns out that the people who were more likely to assimilate into groups in real life were also more likely to assimilate into the books they read.

So writers, go forth and assimilate your readers into your respective narrative worlds. Resistance is futile.  

In the meantime, tell me. Have you ever read a book that made you want to jump in and become one of the characters?

Gabriel S, & Young AF (2011). Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis. Psychological science PMID: 21750250

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Code: Pyn

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 13, 2011 11:18 • 19 views

August 6, 2011

Late in the graduate school admissions process, there's a sudden flip. You've spent a year polishing up your cv, revising your personal statement, and doing your best not to bungle up interviews. Then suddenly, you're admitted, and everything changes. Suddenly, all these distinguished professors are courting you -- calling you up and doing their best to sell you on their department. And somehow, you have to decide where to spend the next 5+ years of your life.

When I finally got "the call" at the end of my querying process, I couldn't help but notice similarities between signing an agent and choosing a graduate advisor. There is the same disorienting role flip, the scrambled attempt to figure out working styles and personality. With just a few e-mails and phone calls, you're supposed to choose the person who will have more influence over your career than anyone else (except for you). And unlike for graduate school, this decision happens on the time course of weeks, rather than months.

So how do you do make the right decision? Beats me. I'm a brain scientist/writer, not a sage. But I will share what I did, and hopefully you'll find some useful tidbits.

Part One: Questions for the Agent

Probably the first thing that will happen when you receive an offer is a conversation with the agent. This is a lot of fun, and a great chance to ask questions.  I got most of these questions from Rachelle Gardner and Greenhouse Literary, and added a few of my own.

What are the agent's thoughts about the book? Any ideas for revision?

After you sign on, what happens next? What's the expected process?

How many clients does the agent have and how many is she planning on having eventually?

What are the terms of the representation being offered? Is there a time limit? Is it for one book, or is it open-ended?

What happens if either the agent or client wants to end the relationship?

If the relationship is terminated, what is the policy for unsold works the agent has represented? What about unsold subsidiary rights in works that the agent has sold?

How does the agent handle subsidiary and foreign rights?

Does the author receive payments directly from the publisher, or do payments go through the agent first?

How long after the agent receives advances and royalties will they send them to you? (Note: The AAR Canon of Ethics stipulates that agents should forward payments to clients no more than 10 days after receipt, but I've seen agreements from AAR agencies with longer payment periods, so I'm not quite sure how this works.)

Does the agency keep client funds in a separate bank account from the agency's other funds? (Note: This is also stipulated in the AAR code of ethics.)

Does the agent charge for mailing? Copies? Faxes? Phone calls? Any other fees?

What publishers does the agent think would be appropriate for your book?

What submission strategy does the agent have in mind? (How many editors at a time? Does she usually pitch by phone, email, or both? Does she follow up after a certain amount of time?)

When negotiating a contract, are there any specific points that the agent feels is important to negotiate for? 

(You can also ask about specific contract points also. I asked about ebook royalties, out of print clauses, and non-compete clauses because they were important to me.)

What, if anything, would make the agent council an author to walk away from a deal?

What are the agent's thoughts on self publishing? Does the agency offer, or plan to offer, self-publishing services? (Note: Even in the two months since I put these questions together, the landscape has changed greatly. Many agencies are now moving into self-publishing, with a wide range of models. There are a lot of very intelligent people with very different opinions on this, so read up and make your own decision. Here is an overview of different models from David Gaughran. And here's some articles about agent facilitating self-publishing, arranged roughly from supportive to against: Joe Konrath, Mark Coker, Barry Eisler, Mike Shatzkin, David Gaughran, Courtney Milan, Bob Mayer, Kristine Rusch, Victoria Strauss, Laura Resnick, Scott Nicholson)

How does the agent see agents' roles changing in the near future?

What is the agent's preferred communication style: what medium, and how often?

If a client doesn't hear back from the agent on an email, what would be an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?

How much does the agent prefer to communicate during the submissions process? Does the agent forward rejection letters to the client?

Part Two: Speaking with the Agent's Other Clients.

When I was choosing a graduate advisor, I spoke with students and postdocs from his lab. It's also helpful to do the same thing with an agent. It's perfectly fine to (politely) ask for references. All the agents I spoke to were happy to provide names of current clients to contact, and I would consider it a huge red flag if an agent refuses or otherwise makes you feel uncomfortable for asking. You can speak to ctheir lients over e-mail or phone, although you will probably get a more honest and spontaneous opinion over the phone. Here are some possible questions.

What has your experience been like with your agent?

Can you take me through the process of selling a book with your agent, from beginning to end?

How often do you communicate with your agent?

How long does it take for your agent to reply to an email?

How long does it take for your agent to get back to you on a manuscript?

What was it like being on submission? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?

What has your experience been like with foreign and subsidiary rights?

What were contract negotiations like once you sold your book? How much did you communicate, and what did you communicate about?

What role does your agent play in books that you're currently writing?

What role does your agent play, if any, in marketing your book?

For a new writer who's just signed on, do you have any advice about how to work well with your agent?

What kind of writer would not be compatible with your agent's working style?

Have you had any experiences in which something came up w/ your publisher (or anyone else) and your agent  had to go to bat for you?

Note: In the course of my conversations, I found it really helpful to speak to authors whose first books didn't sell. This lets you know whether the agent continues to work with authors if they can't sell the first book, and you can also learn about how long they keep books on submission.

Part three: The Agency Agreement

Agency agreements vary greatly in both style and content. Some are written in everyday language while others are written in contract language. Possible variations include whether the agent represents one book or all your work, commission rate on foreign and subsidiary rights, terms of termination, etc.

Here are some resources for understanding agency contracts.

Books: The Writer's Legal Companion and Negotiating a Book Contract are two great resources, and both have sections about agency agreements. The two books differ slightly in their advice, which is nice for getting a well-rounded view.

Websites: There are some resources on the web, although not as systematic as the books.  Kristin Nelson covers agency agreements on her blog. Writer beware has an article on perpetual agency clauses and what they mean. Passive Guy is also writes about both agency and publishing contract clauses. Not all these resources agree, which is a good thing, I think.

Ending Notes

So that's about all I can think of. In addition to this, you'll also want to take a look at the agent's sales record in your genre. If the agent posts sales to Publishers Marketplace, that is one place to look. You can also ask the agent about books that she's sold.

One word of caution. Please, please, PLEASE keep a level head. Remember that agenting is an unregulated industry. As is true with any industry, regulated or unregulated, there are many  agents who are professional, smart, and awesome, and many who are… not. It may be cliché to say that no agent is better than a bad agent, but I've had enough writer friends get burned to know just how true it is. So when you get an offer of representation, by all means, celebrate, but don't ignore red flags, and don't ignore your gut.

Even if you only have one offer, remember that you have other options. You can keep querying, you can submit directly to editors, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with self-publishing. For more on this topic, take a look at Anne R. Allen's post on literary agents in the new publishing world, and this post by author Caroline Tung Richmond. Don't be paranoid, but remember that you will be entrusting both your money and your career to this person, so choose wisely.

So now readers, your turn.  Did I miss anything in this article?  Share your wisdom please!

P.S. And for those who haven't heard from my twitter stream, I'm thrilled to share that I've signed with Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich for my young adult fantasy Midnight Thief . Jim has been awesome so far and I'm really looking forward to working with him further. I also want to give a shout out to agent sisters Carrie Ryan and Jessica Spotswood, who were kind enough to answer all my questions about their experiences.  Yay! :-)

Code: Pyn

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 06, 2011 16:09 • 8 views

July 27, 2011

Regular readers will know that I write in what I jokingly call the "kickass girl genre" -- action adventure with female protagonists that could beat you up. I often look to The Hunger Games and Graceling, two popular books with similar heroines, for inspiration and guidance. After spending some time with the books, you start noticing things.

For example, has anyone ever noticed that the main characters both have names starting with the syllable "Kat"? (Katniss and Katsa). Could be a coincidence, but I also wonder if there's something about the explosive sound of the letters "K" and "T" that conjure up an impression of forcefulness. Funny enough, my main character (conceived before I read either book) also has a "K" name -- Kyra.

Sound to meaning mapping in language has its supporters and detractors, but there have been some thought provoking results. Check out this interesting article from New Scientist for some more examples.Code: Pyn

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 July 27, 2011 08:00 • 17 views

July 21, 2011

Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments on author blogging and whether or not it's a good use of time. If you haven't already, you might want to drop by.

As a quick recap, my beef with author blogging is that writers rarely keep target audience in mind. They're writing fiction for kids, thriller lovers, or [insert some other reader profile], but they turn around and blog exclusively for writers.

Why do writers do this? My guess is because it's hard to define a target audience in fiction, and even harder to figure out how to reach that audience with blog entries. And what works for one author might not work for another author's audience.

Which was why I was intrigued to hear about a generalizable, "target audience" focused approach to blogging for fiction writers. And because the person presenting this plan was John Locke, self-publishing hero and first indie author to reach one million sales on Kindle, I listened.

Locke shares several strategies for launching e-books via social media in his ebook How I Sold 1 Million Kindle Books in Five Months, but what got me was his focus on target audience. Locke defines his target audience more precisely than most novelists. I think of my target audience as teenage girls, or more specifically, teenage girls who like Tamora Pierce and Kristin Cashore. Locke takes it a step further, working up a detailed psychological profile -- who they are and what they like about his stories. In his book, he writes a profile of the readers in his popular Donovan Creed series.

I'll attempt similar workup of my own target audience here:

My target audience consists of young women, from high school through early 20s. They read to be transported to other worlds, and they actively seek sword and sorcery with female protagonists. They like to read about – for lack of a better term -- girls kicking butt. My readers are attracted to strong, larger than life heroines, and they like reading about my main character Kyra because of the cool things she can do. They'd love to be Kyra for a day or two. My readers shy away from situations that are too cut and dry. They're drawn to moral complexity, hard decisions, and inner conflict. They like a heroine with a dark side (no Pollyanna heroines please), but they still expect good to triumph in the end. My readers want fast-paced action and adventure, with high stakes and lots of plot twists. They don't want to be bogged down with things like setting details and overly flowery prose.

How do I know this about my target audience? It's a combination of knowing the kind of story I want to write and listening to the feedback  I've gotten from my beta readers. In every group of beta readers, there will be readers who love your book, and readers who hate it. Look for the beta readers who really loved the story, and listen to what they have to say. For more ideas about what to ask your beta readers, see my beta reading series.

Once you have your psychological profile, you can come up with themes that resonate with your target audience. In my case, it might be girls kicking butt, larger-than-life heroes, and tough moral decisions. And you'd would write a blog post that encapsulated these themes. The idea is that you write blog posts that resonate with your target audience, making them curious to read your book.

Locke has written several of these blog posts, aimed at target audiences for his two series. Here's one example post titled Why I Love Joe Paterno and My Mom.  It's aimed at the target audience for his Donovan Creed series, which touches on many themes, including everyday heroes, humor, and a strong woman.

Locke credits the majority of his sales to thesese blog posts, many of which went viral. Readers identified with them and shared them with their friends, and many ended up buying his books. I find his idea of viral marketing intriguing, and I'm curious as to how to generalizable it is. My own experience with blogging has been that it's very hard to predict what will go viral. I can probably guess with above-chance accuracy whether a blog will do well, but there's a huge amount of uncertainty. Sometimes I'll slave away at a blog post for days, just to have it fall flat, while other times I'll dash off a throwaway post that gets an enthusiastic response. In fact, I only have one blog post that truly went viral, and I actually thought was very mundane when I was writing it.  That'd be an interesting study -- see how good bloggers are at predicting a post's success, and see how much that prediction accuracy increases with experience.

Locke does give the blog posts a push with what he calls Loyalty Transfer. He looks for people on Twitter who are interested in the topic he blogs about, and reaches out to them, eventually sharing his blog post with them after he's built a connection. For the blog post mentioned earlier, he'd look for people tweeting about Joe Paterno.  Again, target audience.  Looking for people who will resonate with your posts. My hunch here is that  you need to be genuinely invested in the conversations you strike up for this to work. If not, I can see links falling flat, or even getting in trouble with Twitter terms of service for spamming.

All in all, Locke presents an interesting approach to blogging as a way to sell fiction, and it's definitely worth taking a look for an in-depth case study of one author's (very) successful marketing strategy.

Now you tell me. What is your target audience like, and how might you reach them?

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Code: Pyn

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 July 21, 2011 08:00 • 11 views