Livia Blackburne's Blog, page 8

February 13, 2014

"I’ve noticed a pattern in the blog posts of debut authors. Before the book comes out, there’s a flurry of activity about prelaunch preparations. Then there’s a celebration on launch day and a big promotional push. And finally, after things have quieted down there’s a philosophical post about bad reviews. This is mine."

 I'm at The Creative Penn today talking about bad reviews. 

Also, I got the rights back for From Words to Brain, and it's on sale for .99 cents until February 17th, 2014.  If you like the tour of reading in my guest post, check out the essay.

Buy the essay from: Amazon |Nook | Kobo | iBooks | Google Play

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Published on February 13, 2014 21:19 • 56 views

December 22, 2013

This isn't a book review blog, but every December I like to share my favorites of the books that I've read this year.  I read a lot of great books from all different genres, but I guess I'm still a YA fantasy  nut at heart.  All five of these are speculative fiction, and four of the five are YA. 

And without any further ado...

1.  The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

I find that I often get really invested into a series at the second book.  It happened with Catching Fire and The Queen of Attolia (see below), and also with Rae Carson's debut trilogy.  I enjoyed The Girl of Fire and Thorns (the first book in the series) when I read it last year, but I loooved The Crown of Embers.  Rae Carson does strong female characters incredibly well.  Too often, "strong female character" is taken simply to mean "good at beating people up" or  "stubborn."  But Carson's Elisa learns strength in the ways that matter -- in compassion, self confidence, independence, confidence, and integrity.  Elisa in The Crown of Embers is a stronger, surer one than in TGoFaT, but we still see her grow as a woman and a queen.  And Hector (swoon)!   Who knew he'd be so dreamy without the mustache? The Bitter Kingdom is on my bookshelf, and I'm very much looking forward to it.

2. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

A slower, more thoughtful fantasy. There are dragons and intrigue and mayhem, but that's not the core of the book, which centers instead on the unique life of Seraphina, a musical prodigy with a dangerous secret. While I usually go for more action-y books, I really liked this one. Hartman's writing is witty and intelligent (when was the last time I saw the word 'avuncular" in a YA book?). The worldbuilding is superb (the socialy inept dragons are HILARIOUS), and the characters are incredibly well built and charming. I also loved the romance arc, how the love interest is really smart and the main thrust of their attraction is driven by their philosophical discussions and shared life experiences.

3. Cinder by Marissa Meyer

I really didn't expect to love this book, since there are so many fairy tale retellings out there. But Cinder so creative. The worldbuilding of New Beijing, Cinder's experience and day to day life as a cyborg...

The characters were wonderful. I mean, how awesome is a kickass girl cyborg mechanic? I also loved the side characters - especially Cinder's android sidekick Iko. And Prince Kai...  I'm partial to romances that dance for a long time in initial stages of flirtation, when there's a clear attraction but nothing's been said and everything is uncertain, and I drank in every moment of Cinder and Kai's courtship.

If I had any complaints, it's that I wish the big reveal had been hidden a bit more. But even though I knew what was coming pretty early on, I still enjoyed the journey immensely.

One last thing, I listened to this on audiobook, narrated by Rebecca Soler, and I highly recommend her. She's probably my favorite audiobook narrator to date.

4.  The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner

Amazing. I enjoyed The Thief, but The Queen of Attolia blew me away. It's told in a shallow 3rd person omniscient POV, rare for modern YA, and it works so well. We spend the book observing these fascinating characters... occasionally let into their thoughts, but always knowing there's more underneath. The book reads like a puzzle, in a good way, as you try to figure out what everybody's really thinking, what really is happening. I especially admired how Turner uses silent powerful moments -- descriptions of characters sitting alone, lost in their thoughts -- to capture emotion. And I'm still scratching my head over how she managed to pull off the romance. I'll avoid spoilers, but let's just say that logically speaking the romance made no sense whatsoever. Yet somehow I found it completely believable because her narrative was just that convincing.  I haven't read book 3 yet, but I'm very much looking foward to it.

And my number one favorite read this year?

5.  The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

I first discovered Scott Lynch through his short story "In The Stacks", published in a fantasy anthology.  It was brilliant and hilarious. I loved it so much that I tracked down Lynch's debut novel, and I'm glad I did.  The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the best books I've read in a really long time. Fascinating worldbuilding, really clever, fun, dialogue, and brilliant plotting. It's good for people who like "guy" adventure stories... lots of irreverent wise cracking, bromances that bring a tear to your eye, etc. It's fantasy but not too heavy on the sword and sorcery stuff.

What about you, dear reader? Have you read any of these five? And what are your top reads this year?

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Published on December 22, 2013 14:54 • 106 views

December 12, 2013

Note: Poison Dance is still on sale for .99 cents until December 15th. Also, from December 11 through December 14, Poison Dance is part of the Fantasy Romance promotion. Check out eleven fantasy romance books on sale for $.99 and enter our giveaway to win a $100 Amazon or Barnes & Noble gift card.

Last week, I mentioned using 99 Designs for Poison Dance’s cover. I love the book cover I ended up with, but I'm hesitant to use the service again. A few people asked me to elaborate.

Here's a basic rundown of how it works. It's a contest site, where customers hold contests for artists to compete in.  The winner gets the prize money -- everybody else gets valuable life experience. There are three award levels you can choose. The greater though award, the more designers you will have entering. I chose the least expensive package: the bronze package for $299. Here's my design brief listing my specifications.

After initiating the contest, you go into the first round, where designers submit different cover concepts and you offer feedback in the form of comments and star ratings. As the contest progresses, you start narrowing down the field, until at the end of the first round (about 4 days I think?), you name up to six finalists. Then, you begin a second round as the finalists continuing to refine and rate designs. At the end (3 days?), you choose a winner. If you want to see my top six designs, you can take a look at the poll I created here for people to help me rate the options. Then you choose the winner, make any last tweaks that you need to, and receive your design.

Here are pros of using 99 designs:

1.  Fast

Nowadays, popular cover designers can be booked for months. With 99 designs, you can finalize the design in a little more than a week. (Although you can still get delays at the very end, while your winning artist makes any last changes you request.)

2. Crowdsourcing Design Ideas

With a lot of different people brainstorming for you, you can get lots of very unique concepts. One thing I would do differently, if I were to do this again, is that I would be less specific in my design brief. Instead of giving actual layout ideas, I would give basic themes, characters, and feel, and let the designers come up with their own concepts. I think this would give even a wider range of designs.  I felt like many of my entries were pretty similar because I gave fairly specific instructions.

One additional note -- it's worth it to spend the time to make your design brief intriguing. Designers are artists after all, and while they are looking for ways to make money, they are also looking for projects to inspire them. So if your contest looks interesting, it is more likely to get more entries.

3. Satisfaction Guaranteed - If you go through the first round and don't see any covers that you like, you're free to cancel the contest and get your money back. Once you enter the second round, you're committed to giving your prize money.

4.You Get All Files and Copyright - While some freelance cover designers do not hand over photoshop files, making it difficult for the author to make small changes, on 99 designs you can specify the types of files that you would like handed over at the end of the process. The copyright of the cover image also gets assigned to you, which makes things more convenient for you. (Note that this is a pro for the writer. Not necessarily for the cover designer.)

So these are all the pros of 99 designs. What are the cons?

1. Time-consuming For All Involved

99 Designs encourages all contest holders to provide copious feedback on designs. For my first contest, I provided comments on basically every design, which ended up being suboptimal in hindsight. I  provided feedback on a lot of designs that didn't really have a chance of making it to the finals, which resulted in those artists taking the time to tweak those designs to make them better, but ultimately not what I was looking for. I felt a lot of guilt for making these artists work so hard when only one of them was going to get paid in the end. Ultimately, this whole process seemed like a lot of extra work on the part of both me and the artists. I think my time would've been more efficiently spent working closely with one cover designer that I trusted.

2. You Never Know Who You'll Get

99 designs has a worldwide artist community with a whole range of artists ranging from seasoned professionals to hobbyists trying to break into the trade (and because this contest format involves a lot of spec work, I think it's safe to say that people who participate tend to be less experienced and less established). To some extent, this is okay because who cares who the artist is as long as the design is good, right? But there are still industry conventions for book covers -- what templates to use for paperback covers, what resolution stock art to use, how the vendors differ in their requirements for cover art -- that you as a writer might not be familiar with. An experienced cover artist would be able to hold your hand through the process.

Furthermore, because of the unpredictability of 99 designs contests, it is impossible artists to predict when they will win a contest, and thus impossible for them to schedule around them. Sometimes artists have to drop out of the second round because something comes up, or have to delay giving your final product for the. Again, these problems are much more rare if you are slotted into a professional copy artist's schedule.

3. 99 Designs Takes a Huge Cut

I signed up for the bronze package, which cost me $299. I assumed that 99 designs would take something like 10-15% in fees. Only later did someone tell me that in my contest, 99 designs took $99 of my contest fee, and my designer would only get $200. According to this thread, they take an even larger percentage for more expensive prize packages, which seems really counterintuitive..

At first I thought I was just careless for not realizing how much 99 Designs took, but then I investigated further, and things got even weirder. I went to their help pages to find out exactly how much 99 designs took for every contest. This information was listed nowhere in the entire help documentation. That's right. There was no way to look up, as a contest holder, how much of a fee went to the designer, and how much of it went to the company. I believe they obfuscate this on purpose. If your account is set up as a “contest holder,” you can see how much the contest will cost you, but not how much of it will go to the designer. I contacted 99 designs about this, and got really evasive responses from customer service.

Me: Hi! I'm having a good experience with 99 designs so far, but I was disturbed to find out that 99designs is taking $99 of the $299 prize. I don't have a problem with the company taking a cut -- after all, you should make money! But I do feel like there should have been more transparency about the amount. It was a designer who told me this, and even after knowing this, I searched the Help pages for a very long time and couldn't find anything to tell me how much of a cut 99 designs was taking. I can't help but wonder if you're purposefully making that information hard to find.

Customer Service Agent Monica: Hi Livia! Thanks for the email! We have no problem releasing the information - the prize amounts varies from contest to contest. Let us know if you have any other questions.

Me: Thanks. I already know the fee for this particular contest. My suggestion is that you make the information accessible in a help page. I shouldn't have to email customer service to have the information released to me, and if you really have no problem letting people know, then there is no reason not to.

Customer Service Agent Cassie: Thanks for your email. The reason why we don't have the 99designs fees listed is because it varies from contest to contest, depending what is involved: how many deliverables there are, what package tier the customer has selected, whether it is a custom contest, whether it is a fast-tracked contest, etcetera. But as Monica has mentioned, we are always more than happy to provide a break down on a customer-specific basis.

Me: Here's a page listing all your package prices. Just add a parentheses next to each number to say how much the designer wins for each package. Assume default options: no fast tracking, no customization, default number of deliverables for each category.

Customer Service Agent Jamie: Thanks for the email. When the designers are looking at any given project, they are only able to see the prize amount for the winner. This way there is no misleading information on their end when they opt into a contest; they know upfront exactly what they will be receiving. I will pass along your suggestion to my supervisor and thanks again for your feedback.

So yeah, the whole thing just felt sketchy to me. If I’m going to spend $299 on a cover, I’d rather all $299 of it go to the cover artist. And you can get very good covers these days for that price. I’ve heard that other contest sites like Crowdspring are more upfront about the cut they take (15%).

So that’s the rundown on 99 Designs. What are your thoughts?

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Published on December 12, 2013 15:41 • 42 views

December 6, 2013

Note: Poison Dance is still on sale for $.99 until December 15 (Regular price $1.99). Check it out at: 
Ebook: Kindle (US) | Nook | Kobo | iBooks
Paperback: Amazon

I’m in the interesting position of being a first time author in both traditional and self publishing in the same year. My novel Midnight Thief comes out with Disney-Hyperion in July 2014, and I’ve recently self published Poison Dance, a prequel novella. (Is it a prequel if it was written after the novel but published before?)

Since there's so much discussion of traditional vs. indie these days, I thought it be interesting to do a step-by-step comparison of the process for both books. Obviously, there are differences – Midnight Thief is a 370 page novel and Poison Dance is a 54 page novella for one thing. Also, Poison Dance was published partly to help market Midnight Thief. But still, it’s an interesting case study.

So I broke it down by each step. I also noted the cost of each self publishing step when relevant.


Midnight Thief: I drafted Midnight Thief over several years with the help of my critique group, who read the book in chunks every other week. After I finished, I went through two rounds of beta readers who read the entire manuscript, probably six or seven betas each round.

Poison dance: I drafted Poison Dance over last year's NanoWriMo (Since I stopped at 14k words, I didn't win :-P). It also went through my critique group and three beta readers after that. Cost: Free

Thoughts: The drafting process was very similar for both books.

Developmental editing:

Midnight Thief: Editing for Midnight Thief was perhaps my period of greatest growth as a writer, and I’ve blogged extensively about what I learned. Midnight Thief went through one round of content edits with agent Jim, one round of content edits with Editor Abby, one round of content edits with editor Rotem, and one round of line edits with Editor Rotem. (The switch in editors was because Abby took a position at HarperCollins after my first revision. Usually, the manuscript would stay with the same editor the entire time.)

Poison Dance: Developmental editing was the one area where I was absolutely unwilling to skimp, and it ended up being my biggest expenditure. I did one content edit with Shannon Barefield at The Editorial Department, who was fantastic, followed by a second content/line edit. This ended up being two fewer rounds than Midnight Thief, but Poison Dance needed less editing because it was a simpler work. Cost: $633

Thoughts: For the most part, editing is editing, and the back-and-forth with editorial letters felt pretty similar for both books. Though there is a slight difference. In traditional publishing, your editor is your customer, while in self-publishing, you are the editor's customer. With my Disney book, I did feel more accountable to the rest of my team and tried to come up with solutions that worked for everyone.

With Poison Dance, everything was ultimately up to me, which had its pros and cons. On the one hand, it made things simpler. On the other hand, there's a temptation to take the easy way out with editorial notes. Once I noticed this, I ended up overcompensating. At one point, I proposed rewriting half the book in response to one of editor Shannon’s notes, and she assured me that all I really needed were a few tweaks.

Copy editing/Proofreading:

Midnight Thief: I was surprised at how many eyes went over Midnight Thief during the copyediting/proofreading phase. The manuscript itself went through one heavy copyedit and one light copyedit with a different editor. After the book was formatted into bound galleys, it went through a cold read with a proofreader, and it will go through one last copyedit before the finished hardcover is printed. Rotem and I reviewed the copy editors' changes after each round.

Poison dance: I didn't have the budget for multiple copy editors, so I hired a copy editor for one round, and then recruited a bunch of friends to proofread the story for me in exchange for a free copy of the finished e-book. Cost: $60

Thoughts: It’s really amazing how many mistakes slip through, even with multiple copyeditors and proofreads. As far as comparing the two processes, I definitely prefer having multiple professional copyeditors, but as a lower budget strategy the Poison Dance method worked as well. Thankfully, I haven’t had any complaints about mistakes yet.

Cover Art:

Midnight Thief: I love the cover for Midnight Thief, which is fortunate because publishers usually have artistic control over the cover design process. I wasn't involved in the design process, although I'm in the process of interviewing my cover designer, and I'm really curious to learn the behind-the-scenes details. I do know that my designer hired a sculptor to create the mountain lion head door knocker though, which I thought was pretty cool.

Poison dance: Indie covers tends to be lower budget -- usually stock photo manipulation or 3D computer art instead of custom photography or anything else. I originally booked a cover designer, but had to cancel and ended up using 99 Designs instead. I’m really happy with the Poison Dance cover, but I’m not sure if I'll use 99 Designs again. If anyone wants to more details, let me know in the comments and I'll expand on this in another blog entry. Cost: $357 for design and stock photos.

Thoughts: I have the design sensibilities of a blind chihuahua, so for cover design I depend on others, whether those people are chosen by my publisher or by myself. I found that genre mattered a lot when searching for cover artists to work with.   It's possible to get a professional looking romance cover for $150 or less, but high fantasy was more challenging because of the period clothing, fantasy art, etc.


Midnight Thief: Disney took care of this.

Poison Dance: It was relatively process to register Poison Dance’s copyright online. I also bought a block of ISBN’s from Bowker. Their pricing scheme is pretty ridiculous -- block of 10 costs $250, and a block of 100 costs $525. I ended up buying a block of 100 because I expect many writing years ahead of me, though now that I’ve forked over the money, the pessimist in me expects ISBNs to go obsolete in a few years. Cost: $35 for copyright registration, $525 for ISBN block.

Thoughts: *shakes fist at Bowker* *considers moving to Canada for free ISBNs*

E-book Formatting

Midnight Thief: This hasn't happened yet, as far as I know, but Disney will handle it when the time comes.

Poison Dance: I write in Scrivener, and it’s quite good at ebook conversion. It took me an afternoon or two to learn how to do it, and I get very clean epub and mobi files. For those who don't own Scrivener, I’ve heard that Jutoh is really good for ebook formatting as well. Cost: Free (because I had the software).

Thoughts: Ebook formatting was fun and super easy with the right tools.

Hard Copy Layout

Midnight Thief: A book designer laid out the hardcover interior of Midnight Thief. It has lots of nice details like creative fontwork, custom chapter ornaments to represent different narrators, and spot gloss on the book jacket.

Poison Dance: Laying out a hard copy was a little trickier than ebook formatting. For one thing, you can't get Print on Demand hardcovers, so Poison Dance is available only in paperback. A professional interior layout is usually done with Adobe Indesign, but I didn't want to pay for the software, especially since I didn't expect many people to buy Poison Dance in paperback. Since I'm philosophically opposed to using Word for layout tasks, I ended up using Scrivener again. Scrivener can export directly to camera-ready pdf, but that function doesn't control for orphans or widows. To get around that, I exported first from Scrivener to Open Office, and then exported from Open Office to pdf.

The resulting layout worked out pretty well, though it doesn’t have the flourishes of the Midnight Thief design. There were a couple things that I would have liked to fix but couldn't figure out. The bottom line on facing pages don't always line up. Also, I figured out how to get the first few words of each chapter to appear in small caps, but couldn't figure out how to do the same for new sections within each chapter. I don't think it's that type of thing that a general reader would notice, but someone who's more detail oriented might. After laying it out, I ordered two proofs from Createspace for a final pass (two because the first one had errors). You can take a look at the interior of Poison Dance with the Look Inside feature at Amazon. Cost: $11.86 for printing and shipping proofs.

Thoughts: In this, as with most other aspects when self publishing, it was a balance of budget versus bells and whistles, and what I thought would be important to the reader.


Midnight Thief: It’s still eight months until the book comes out, so we haven't really started marketing Midnight Thief. I haven't even met my publicist yet. Midnight thief went up for pre-order at about the same time Poison Dance launched though, and it's been really interesting to watch the buzz develop.

Publishers get a bad rap these days about their ability to market books, but even in these early months, I can see Midnight Thief getting a clear visibility boost simply due to the fact that it's being published by Disney. I've become acquainted the (awesome!) book blogger community, who keeps up with future releases and talks them up. Midnight Thief is being featured already on book blogs as an anticipated release and added to goodreads shelves, and bloggers are requesting interviews, even though I've made no effort to publicize it. On Amazon, Midnight Thief is appearing on the “also-viewed” lists of other books. I know that all of this is due to Disney’s platform instead of mine, because Poison Dance is getting added to Goodreads and appearing in “also-boughts” at a much slower rate, even though my marketing efforts right now are primarily focused on Poison Dance.

As we get closer to the release date, Disney will also be making review copies available to influencer networks. The Midnight Thief ARC debuted at the National Council of Teachers of English conference and will also be handed out at library conferences and mailed to booksellers. It will also be available on net galley and edelweiss and reviewed in the trade review publications.

Poison Dance: While the Midnight Thief marketing efforts relies on established connections with influencers, my Poison Dance marketing efforts could be described as more grass roots. Instead of posting my ARCs on Edelweiss for book bloggers to request, I'm querying book bloggers individually and reaching out to readers.

One thing I love about promoting Poison Dance is the flexibility and agility I have. Because I control the pricing and rights, I can run promotions whenever I want to however I want to, and I’m can act quickly to take advantage of opportunities that pop up. If I meet a friendly blogger, I can give her a copy right awaya. If some of my author friends are running a special promotion, I can jump in and have my price changed within a few hours. I can also track my sales and real-time and see which efforts are actually helpful.

Thoughts: I've described two different approaches to book marketing here -- one that's based on a more established platform, and one that's less established but more agile. I've found the combination of the two to be really powerful. Having both Poison Dance and Midnight Thief out essentially allows me to use both traditional strategies (ARC mailings, trade reviews, catalogues, etc) and indie strategies (price promotions, etc) to promote the same series.

So this is the point where I’m at right now with both books. Readers, what have your experiences in publishing been like?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on December 06, 2013 07:00 • 54 views

November 15, 2013

If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you've likely heard already.  But today, I'm thrilled to finally announce it on my blog.  Poison Dance has officially launched.  From now until December 15th, it's available for the promotional price of 99 cents for ebook and $4.55 for print.  To celebrate, I'm also giving away a signed copy of The Ghost Bride by Yangtze Choo, so stay tuned for more details....

Here's a short blurb about Poison Dance:

James is skilled, efficient, and deadly, a hired blade navigating the shifting alliances of a deteriorating Assassin’s Guild. Then he meets Thalia, an alluring but troubled dancing girl who offers him a way out—if he’ll help her kill a powerful nobleman. With the Guild falling apart, it just might be worth the risk. But when you live, breathe, and love in a world that’s forever flirting with death, the slightest misstep can be poison. Poison Dance is approximately 14,000 words long, or 54 printed pages.

And here is the opening scene:

Chapter 1

It was the way she looked at James that caught his attention. The young woman didn’t avoid his eyes like the serving lasses who hurried away after handing him his ale. Nor did she gaze at him coyly through her lashes like a dancer hoping for extra tips. This girl met his eyes straight on, and there was a quiet confidence in the way she held herself. She must have been watching James as he ate, because she came to him as soon as he stepped away from his table. She brushed her fingertips across his elbow.

“I would speak with you,” she said, holding his gaze. The girl was tall, with auburn hair pulled back from a delicately featured face. She wore no makeup, and a loosely woven homespun dress hid her slight form from view. The skin of her hands and wrists was pale, almost translucent where they escaped her sleeves. She turned and walked away.

Despite her plain attire, the girl was attractive, and her request intriguing. James followed, though he did look back to make sure all was well at his table. Rand and Bacchus were engaged in a loud debate over which tavern had the best lamb stew. They hadn’t yet noticed the girl.

She weaved gracefully between drunken revelers to a corridor that opened off the tavern’s cask-lined back wall. The Scorned Maiden had filled up by now with after-supper patrons, and heat from the crowd made the air damp and heavy. James followed her halfway down the corridor’s length—far enough for them to be hidden in shadow but still within earshot of his companions. Then he stopped.

“We speak here,” he said. Years in the Guild had taught him to take precautions.

She hesitated, glancing down the corridor in both directions. Then she slowly nodded. As she moved closer, he loosened the tie that bound one of his daggers to his arm. The knife dropped into his hand. The girl caught the glint of metal and flinched.

“Just being careful,” he said, making no effort to sound reassuring.

She pulled her gaze away from his weapon and did a respectable job of wiping any fear from her face. When she spoke, her voice was cautious but steady. “I’m not foolish enough to lead you into a trap.” Her speech lacked the rolling cadences common to Forge’s peasants, but James couldn’t place her accent.

Now that they were standing closer, he recognized her—the way she tilted her head and the graceful flow of her movements. Occasionally, her eyes caught the light from the dining room, and James saw that they were dark green. “You’re one of the dancing girls.” He hadn’t recognized her without the costume and eye paint.

“And you’re an assassin,” she said.

He took his time answering. It was no secret that he was a member of the Guild, but it wasn’t something usually announced on first meeting. “I may be.”

“I would retain your services.” Her tone was serious. She believed herself earnest, at least.

He gave a low chuckle. “Many think they would. But few have the coin, and even fewer truly have the stomach for it.”

“I have enough coin.”

“And how does a dancing lass come across so much money?” He dropped his eyes to her shapeless dress. “Unless your trade is not purely dancing.”

She flushed now, her nervousness replaced with anger. “My business is my own. Will you take my coin or not?”

It raised his opinion of her, that she didn’t meekly accept his insult. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help her. “It doesn’t work that way. I take orders from my guildleader.”

“But do you have to? I could pay you well.”

“I don’t need the trouble.”

The sounds of conversation in the dining room had died down, and James heard a talesinger’s theatrical voice projecting over the crowd. He turned to leave, and she took his arm. “You have a job tomorrow, don’t you?”

That stopped him. To know that he was in the Assassins Guild was one thing, but to know what he was doing the next day . . . “What of it?”

“If there’s anything in your quarters you’d rather keep hidden, move it somewhere else before you leave. And you may want to return early.”

He studied her face for any signs of deception. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“And one more thing,” she said before he could turn away again.


“The rumors are right. Your guildleader is dead.”

Buy Poison Dance at:

Kindle (US) | Nook | Kobo | iBooks

Paperback: Amazon

Aaaaaand, as I mentioned, I'm also giving away a signed hardcover copy of The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo.  I was lucky enough to go to one of Yangsze's signings a few months ago, and both she and her book were awesome! Here's a little bit about it.

"One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride..."

Part 19th century novel, part magical journey to the Chinese world of the dead, Yangsze Choo's debut novel The Ghost Bride is a startlingly original historical fantasy infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, and unexpected supernatural twists. Reminiscent of Lisa See's Peony in Love and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, The Ghost Bride is a wondrous coming-of-age story from a remarkable new voice in fiction.

To enter the giveaway, simply use the Rafflecoptor widget below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on November 15, 2013 09:00 • 71 views

November 14, 2013

Note: MIDNIGHT THIEF now has a cover!  Check out the cover reveal at Iceybooks, and enter to win an Advance Review Copy while you’re there.

I've been thinking about names lately. I've blogged before about how the sound of your name affects how people view

A few examples from my own writing:

1.    Clutter. 

In one of my short stories, the heroine has a brief conversation with a girl in the opening scene named Tiyo.  Tiyo never appears again, and some readers thought Tiyo’s presence felt unnecessary.  I ended up removing Tiyo’s name and simply referring to her as “the girl standing next to her,” which streamlined the reading experience.

2.    Specificity and Expectations. 

This example is from POISON DANCE, so I'll try not to give too many spoilers. At one point, James’s guildmaster suggests that James partner with another assassin “Sylvan” on his jobs.  James doesn't like the idea because Sylvan is highly loyal to the guildmaster and likely to report on James’s movements, and this instigates tension between James and his guildmaster.  I don’t pursue the Sylvan thread beyond that mention though, and test readers expecting a Sylvan subplot were disappointed. In the end, I replaced the mention of “Sylvan” with “some of the other men.” There was still some implication that the “other men” would inform on James, but this lack of specificity diffused the expectation on the reader's part for an elaborate Sylvan subplot.

3.    Memory Load. 

An early version of MIDNIGHT THIEF’s cover copy proved hard to follow for some test readers. One way I remedied this was to replace the mention of “James, the leader of the Assassins Guild” with simply “the leader of the Assassins Guild.” This conveys the same information while giving the reader one less name to juggle. This decision was made easier by the fact that James is a fairly common name.  If he'd had a more unique name, then leaving it out of the cover copy might have taken away some intrigue. (By the way, if you're curious about the MIDNIGHT THIEF cover copy, you can read at my cover reveal!)

So readers, what do you think?  What difference does a name make?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on November 14, 2013 15:27 • 45 views

October 15, 2013

We make plenty of choices about the way we structure a story. Do we tell the story in linear order? How much do we give away? How does that affect the reading experience? A recent study had some interesting things to say about this.

Before we get into the actual experiment, let's talk about Structural Affect Theory. It's the idea that emotional reactions to a story are influenced by the story’s structure.

For example, most stories include an initiating event (a butler poisons the Lord’s wine) and an outcome (the Lord dies).

Varying the placement of these pieces in the narrative results in different emotional responses. For example, you could increase suspense by adding intervening scenes between the initiating event and the outcome.  For example, adding a scene where an innocent bystander almost drinks the poisoned wine would introduce the possibility of collateral damage and increase the suspense.

Or, if you want to surprise the reader, you could do away with the initiating event entirely-- the Lord drinks the wine and drops dead out of the blue.

Got it?  Now on to the specific experiment.

Researchers Anneke de Graaf and Lettica Hustinx wanted to know whether a suspenseful story would be better at drawing the reader into the story.  Also, they wanted to know whether a suspenseful story would convince readers to hold more beliefs consistent with the story.

In the experiment, the researchers used a story called Dance of the Spirits by Ton van der Lee about a European man who immigrated to Mali. The story consisted of four parts (listed here in chronological order).

1. Tony sits on the roof of his house in Mali and contemplates the difficulties he had in Africa.

2. Tony contracts malaria

3. Tony goes to a Western hospital, where he is not cured.

4. Tony goes to an African healer, who finally cures his malaria.

The researchers created two versions of the story. The suspense version had the order described above. The non-suspense version had parts in the following order.

2. Tony contracts malaria

4. Tony goes to an African healer, who cures his malaria.

1. Tony sits on the roof of his house in Mali and contemplates the difficulties he had in Africa.

3. Tony goes to a Western doctor., where he is not cured.

In this version, readers find out what cures Tony right away, and the story is therefore less suspenseful. After that, parts one and three are told as flashbacks. The wording of the stories was the same except for a few transitional phrases and tense changes in the flashbacks.

Participants read one of the versions and then answered questions about how compelling the story was. They also answered questions about beliefs related to the story.

The researchers found that participants in the suspense condition were more emotionally engaged They were more likely to agree with statements such as "During reading, I felt tension about how the story would end." They also reported being less distracted by other things while reading the story.

And what about suspense’s effect on beliefs? Turns out that participants who read the suspense structure were more likely to report beliefs consistent with the story. For example those participants were less likely to believe that western hospitals are successful in curing malaria.

There's one caveat to be aware of here, and it's that the experiment only used one story. The effect definitely needs to be tested with other stories as well. But I thought this framework was a interesting way to think about story structure and suspense.

Readers, what do you think? How important is suspense for keeping you hooked?

P.S.  Thanks to Raymond Mar from On Fiction for sending me this article.

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

Also, two of my author friends recently released debut novels.  Katie Cotugno just launched How to Love, and Christa Desir released Fault Line.  Check them out below.

Before: Reena Montero has loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she can remember. But he's never noticed that Reena even exists . . . until one day, impossibly, he does. Reena and Sawyer fall in messy, complicated love. But then Sawyer disappears without a word, leaving a devastated—and pregnant—Reena behind.

After: Almost three years have passed, and there's a new love in Reena's life: her daughter. Reena's gotten used to life without Sawyer, but just as suddenly as he disappeared, he turns up again. Reena wants nothing to do with him, though she'd be lying if she said his being back wasn't stirring something in her.

After everything that's happened, can Reena really let herself love Sawyer LeGrande again?

Ben could date anyone he wants, but he
only has eyes for the new girl—sarcastic, free-spirited Ani. Luckily for
Ben, Ani wants him, too. She’s everything Ben could ever imagine.
Everything he could ever want.

But that all changes after the party. The one Ben misses. The one Ani goes to alone.

Ani isn’t the girl she used to be, and Ben can’t sort out the truth
from the lies. What really happened, and who is to blame?

wants to help Ani, but the more she pushes him away, the more he wonders
if there’s anything he can do to save the girl he loves in this
powerful, gut-wrenching debut novel.

A. de Graaf, & L. Hustinx (2011). The effect of story structure on emotion, transportation, and persuasion Information Design Journal DOI: 10.1075/idj.19.2.05gra It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on October 15, 2013 09:29 • 58 views

September 3, 2013

I recently read Wired for Story by writing instructor and former literary agent Lisa Cron. Cron makes the good point that our brains are wired to be attracted to stories and offers insights about how to make stories more naturally appealing.

Here are some of my favorite tips from the book:

1. Internal vs. External

The interplay between external action and a character’s internal reactions are very important for driving the plot forward. In most scenes, something will happen to the character (external), but it is the character’s emotional reaction and interpretation of the event (internal) that provides the necessary firepower to keep the story moving.

On a larger scale, characters will have both an external concrete goal as well as an internal goal that drives it. For example, Laura might have an external goal of creating a successful startup. Her internal goal, on the other hand, might be that she has always felt a need to win the approval of those around her. Note that the internal goal and external goal aren’t always compatible – perhaps Laura’s struggle to make her company successful ends up alienating those around her. A conflict between external and internal goals can make for great tension.

2. “Show don’t’ tell” doesn’t mean to visually show a character’s emotions. It means to show the reasons for the character’s emotions. 

 “Show don’t tell,” is a pet peeve of mine – not because it’s bad advice, but because it is so easily misinterpreted by beginning writers. (I was one of those – for the longest time, I avoided internal narration for fear of “telling” too much. I’ve also seen writers mistakenly interpret “show don’t tell” as “never summarize anything” or “use florid prose.”).

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron clarifies another misinterpretation of “show don’t tell.” Showing that John is sad doesn’t mean describing his sobs and tears in intricate visual detail. It means showing the forces that made him sad. For example, dramatizing the board meeting where he loses his job.  When the reader hears the spiteful words of John's coworkers, sees John's own reactions, and takes in the cold unforgiving conference room, she will gain much insight into the story

3. The Mirror Subplot

Consider having a subplot with a similar situation to the main plot, but that resolves in a different way. For example, a novel about a couple’s failing marriage could have a subplot about their unhappily married neighbors. Perhaps in the subplot, the neighbors breaks up, whereas in the main plot, the couple ultimately sticks together. Additionally, perhaps seeing the neighbors’ messy breakup contributes toward the main couple’s ultimate decision to stick together.


4. Good questions to ask beta readers after every scene. In my blog series on beta reading, I provided some sample questions to ask beta readers at the end of a novel. Cron gives some useful questions to ask at the end of each scene. These include “What do you think is going to happen next?”, “What do you think the characters want?”, “What, if anything, leaps out as a setup?”, and “What were you dying to know?”.

So what do you think?  Any of this advice resonate with you?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on September 03, 2013 17:11 • 91 views

August 26, 2013

(Note 1:   I used grammerly to grammar check this post because I welcome our robot overlords.  FTC Disclaimer – Grammarly offered me a $200 gift card to try out their service and post about it. The website found 1 punctuation error, 12 grammar issues, and gave the post an overall score of 69 (weak, needs revision), but I couldn’t actually see the mistakes they flagged because you need to give your credit card number to see the rest.)

(Note 2: Thank you to everybody who voted for the POISON DANCE cover. You can see the winning design here. And also, POISON DANCE is now on Goodreads. In my review, I confess my secret crush on the main character.)

A few months ago, I wrote about editing tips I learned from my editors Abby Ranger and Rotem Moscovich at Disney-Hyperion. Today, I thought I'd talk specifically about actual changes that I made to MIDNIGHT THIEF in the editorial process.  When possible, I've tried to abstract my changes to larger principles that might help you with your writing as well.

1.    Juicing up the world building.  Midnight Thief is an alternate world fantasy novel, and much of my first revision focused on making the world more real and vivid. This included:

Inserting small details that illustrate how this new world is different from ours. This included setting details such as paintings, to personal interactions, to myths and folklore.
Language.  My editors encouraged me to come up with terms specific to the world.  For example, Palace guards are now referred to as Red Shields. I also came up with different speech patterns for the nobility vs. the poor.
World building as foreshadowing - without going into spoilers, there is a big reveal in MIDNIGHT THIEF.  Some initial test readers found the plot twist unbelievable, and I’ve since shaped the worldbuilding to make it more natural.

2.    Further development of themes.  In my original manuscript, I played a bit with ideas of class and power and how the wealthy take advantage of the poor. In revisions, my editors encouraged me to explore this further, including:

Adding new events and characters to illustrate aspects of the theme. I added more concrete examples of clashes between classes. I also introduced one character that was the embodiment of everything Kyra hated about the nobility.
Making sure everyone behaved “in character.” Even though the classes theoretically did not get along, this principle did not always carry through to my characters' actions. When people of different classes came together in the original manuscript, interactions went too smoothly.  I went back in and added more of the misunderstandings and conflict that would naturally result from such situations.

3.    Rounding out characters. Much of my first edit letter was Editor Abby systematically going through every character and challenging me to add more nuance and dimention. This included:

Developing the main character's journey. What did Kyra learn throughout the novel? How did she change? I tweaked the story to highlight these changes.
Using a supporting character as a foil for the main character. Kyra's friend Flick is gregarious and friendly while Kyra is somewhat standoffish. In my revision, I came up with more ways to illustrate Flick’s character traits and use Flick as a way to highlight Kyra’s weaknesses.
Ensuring that all characters had both good and bad characteristics. Pretty self-explanatory.
Making sure that close relationships between characters are earned. In
Midnight Thief, Kyra has several close friends -- almost an adopted
family. But it it’s not enough for a writer simply to say that they’re close.
Emotional bonds have to be earned. So I added back story, close
emotional moments, and (in one case) an actual blood relation to make these relationships more believable.
Rounding out the secondary narrator. While Kyra is undoubtedly the main character of my novel, I had a secondary point of view character (Tristam), whose scenes did not command the same interest as Kyra did.  I focused on several ways to bring him to life, including:

Exploring internal conflict. What did Tristam struggle with?
Developing a more detailed back story to give readers a better sense of where he came from and why he saw things the way he did.
Giving him more friends. Tristam was mainly solitary in his early scenes, and I revised them to include a friend. You can tell a lot from how someone interacts with others.
Developing the interaction between Tristam and Kyra. When they finally meet, I brainstormed ways to play the two characters off each other -- to have conflicts and misunderstandings, and moments of agreement that would highlight their personalities.

4.    Plot.  Some random thoughts here.

Sometimes, a ticking clock will add to the tension and pacing -- some kind of impending disaster or deadline.
People like to see the main characters interact! In my revisions, I moved the initial meeting of Kyra and Tristam 40 pages earlier, and that made the beginning of the novel more engaging.

These were a run down of the major themes for my edits.  The book is much better for them (IMHO).
So now, to you, dear readers.  Any particularly good revision suggestions that have improved your stories?

It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on August 26, 2013 17:05 • 59 views

August 18, 2013

Hi everyone! For those of you who follow my blog and twitter feed, you know that I've long been interested in both traditional and self-publishing models. So I'm happy to announce that I will soon be releasing my first self published work: a novelette titled POISON DANCE.

Here's the blurb:

James is skilled, efficient, and deadly, a hired blade
navigating the shifting alliances of a deteriorating Assassin’s Guild.  Then he meets Thalia, an alluring but
troubled dancing girl who offers him a way out–if he’ll help her kill a
powerful nobleman.  With the Guild
falling apart, it just might be worth the risk. But when you live, breathe, and
love in a world that’s forever flirting with death, the slightest misstep can
be poison.

POISON DANCE takes place about six years before the events of MIDNIGHT THIEF (my novel coming out next year with Disney-Hyperion) and the two works share several characters. Because of its subject matter, POISON DANCE is darker and grittier than MIDNIGHT THIEF, and I personally would classify it as adult fantasy, though some people might still slot it into YA.

I'm hoping to release it in a month or two, and after that, I’ll have lots of observations about my self-publishing experience that I'm looking forward to share. If you have any specific questions, let me know, and I'll do my best to address them.

In the meantime, I would love to have your help choosing a cover. I ran a cover design contest on 99 designs and have narrowed down the entries to six finalists. You can weigh in on your favorite designs using this poll. Also, if you are able to sign your name or some other identifying marker on your survey responses, I find that more helpful than an anonymous response. I am the only one who can see comments submitted with the results, though the average rating for each picture is viewable to everyone.

Anyways, thanks everyone, and I'll be back soon with an actual blog entry!

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on August 18, 2013 14:12 • 77 views