On Giving (and asking for) Writing Advice

I thought I had posted this blog last week.  I could have sworn I had, but when I went in to write this week’s Sunday blog I discovered I hadn’t.  Nor was there any mention of it on my Twitter or Facebook feeds.  Oops.  So, slightly revised to accound for the week’s difference, here is the blog that was supposed to be out last Sunday.

Earlier this (or rather, last) week, in a writer’s group on Facebook, a fellow poster posed the following question:

“How do I best handle a character’s accent?”

I can’t find the post in question any more (either it was deleted, Facebook’s notorious “algorythm” is hiding it from me, or it just aged too far back for me to find it), but it had me thinking.

I might have been able to help that person. I like helping my fellow writers, where I can. I’ve done a lot of study just for that reason, and have learned tips and techniques that I’ll probably never use professionally just so that I can give advice when it’s asked for.  But that means, when someone asks a question like “How do I best handle a characters accent?” I come up not with one, but dozens of possible answers… yet I also know that such a question doesn’t provide nearly enough information to give a quality answer, and depending on the details I may not know the right way to answer it:

What genre is the story written in?  What language do your characters regularly speak in?  When is it set?  How important is the character speaking it?  Why is portraying the accent important?  How thick is it?  Does the accent come from regional variations or a foriegn language?

All of those questions matter to my answer.

If your characters don’t speak English (or whatever language you’re writing your novel in), that adds a complicating factor — a French speaker, for example, will have different pronunciation oddities when they’re speaking Japanese versus when they’re speaking English.

If your book is set in the past or the future, colloquialisms will be different, possibly too different for modern readers to recognize (as I said in a previous post, you can’t use the phrase “making lemons out of lemonade” in a setting where they haven’t discovered the lemon, yet.  Similarly, without appropriate context to set it up, it’d be very hard for most modern readers to know what you’re talking about if you refer to brothels as “stews” or candied plums as “suckets.”  And it’s very hard to establish a character’s accent and provide the appropriate context at the same time).

If the character speaking this accent has a small role or only appears in the story for one scene, at most, you have less time to show that accent, and subtler accents will be harder to demonstrate to your audience (despite that rather oversimplified and cliché bit of writing advice, you may have to do more “tell,” less “show,” if you want your readers to know this character has an accent).  If this character has a major role and will appear repeatedly throughout the book, you can take your time to let the reader see it properly.

Why is it important that this character speak with an accent?  Is it a subtle clue (or a read herring) that this character is a spy?  Is it being used to ostracize the character?  Is it just to add color to the story and background to the character?  All of these questions will affect how the accent is best portrayed, whether it should be subtle, whether it is something the reader can\should notice early on, etc., etc.

How thick is this accent supposed to be?  Any accent thick enough will be “noticed” by your other characters, though they may not necessarily be able to place it.  The thicker it is, the more the other characters can react to it.  The subtler it is, you’ll have to give other clues to your readers to show it off.

Does the accent belong to a foriegn language (i.e., Russian) or is it regional (i.e., Southern)?  It makes a difference in how easy it can be to portray an accent — you can show a milder Russian accent just by slipping in the occasional “da” or “nyet,” but if you want it to be a REALLY thick Russian accent you may have to learn a few basics of Russian Grammar to portray the sorts of mistakes your Russian character will make in his speech.  A Southern accent can be portrayed with a few “Y’all”‘s, but you might be better off adding in some uniquely Southern sayings like “Bless their heart,” instead.

This is why I’ll probably never write a book on writing advice. For all too many of the questions that writers actually need advice on, there are too many variables for a “one size fits all” answer.  When you try, you end up with trite, over-generalized catch-phrases like “Show, don’t tell!” and suggestions that might be beneficial in moderation, but taken to the extremes often recommended will have you performing surgery with a chainsaw on your manuscript, like “get rid of all your adverbs!”

Let’s face it — while I like to think I’m a first-rate storyteller, I’m not perfect (few of us are).  From a technical perspective, I’m not the best writer around.  I’m aware of what my flaws are, and do my best to improve on those flaws and to fix them where possible (I don’t obsess over them, however — I’m a strong believer in “the perfect is the enemy of the good enough.”).

Even so, while I will read (or listen) and consider anything any other author has to say on the subject of writing, I generally disregard any “writer advice” that doesn’t fit my personal tastes.  I feel blindly taking such advice, even of people who I acknowledge are better technical writers than I am, might make my writing worse, not better.

That includes “get rid of all your adverbs” and “show, don’t tell.”  There are SOME occasions where both principles will help (I nearly ruined “The Kitsune Stratagem” because I was using adverbs to handle point-of-view problems; thankfully, my editor pointed out the issue and I was able to fix it.  Fortunately, he was a good one, and didn’t tell me to get rid of ALL my adverbs, as some do; he just pointed out the problem and let me cut out the adverbs that needed to be cut and leave in the ones that made sense to leave in).  That said, there are plenty of times where using an adverb makes more sense than not using one, and many times where yes, you do need to TELL people what’s going on rather than show it.

Too much of the writing advice out there has become so generalized it actually harms writers more than it helps them (like Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Writing” AS IT IS POPULARLY REPORTED.  His actual rules include tons of caveats that are almost never included, and those caveats are IMPORTANT, as he details examples for why\how\when they might be broken.  And even with the caveats, I think he’s a bit too strict on several issues).  As Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, follow these rules too strictly and your individual “voice” is gone; it all becomes “Serious Writer Voice.”

I always try to help my fellow writers where I can.  I’m more than willing to answer questions.  But if you have a specific question for me, know that (1) I may need a LOT more information before I can answer it, and (2) I may not have an answer… and if I do, make sure my advice actually works  for YOU.  Don’t let anyone’s “rules for writing” kill your voice.

Note:  Comments closed due to spammers.

In Forgery Divided Now in Print… (finally!)

It may have taken two months, three proof copies, an emergency consult with my cover artist, and some frantic e-mails to Createspace to resolve the cover issue, but as readers of my Facebook page, twitter account, and\or mailing list have already heard, In Forgery Divided has FINALLY been released in Print. I’ll include a list of a few places you can get it from, below. (This post is currently in draft form; if it is accidentally posted prematurely, please note that I’m waiting for those links to be generated before adding them)

This marks the completion of any substantial work on this book, with the possible exception of some minor marketing I might do as opportunities arise. This clears the way for me to start my next writing project.

At the moment, the plan is for that project to be In Division Imperiled, the third book in that series. Past experience says such plans are worth less than the paper they are printed on (wait, they’re on my computer, not printed on paper. Though I’m not sure that makes any difference), but at any rate I’ll finally be writing again! For a writer, I don’t seem to be doing that often enough.

At any rate, here are the links to the print edition:

From Createspace

From Amazon

From (space reserved for updates as I find links)

I sometimes see people ask “which vendor would be the best to buy from for the author?”  Well, buying from Createspace gives the author the most money, Amazon gives the author mid-tier money and improves Amazon Bestseller rankings (which might help sell the book to others), and other places improve Nielson rankings (which might encourage future purchases by brick-and-mortar stores).  So… buy wherever you want for whatever reason you want.  All of it can help.

In Forgery Divided, Two Months In

It’s been (very roughly) two months since In Forgery Divided‘s release, and I thought I would do a little comparison and contrast for the sales between it and it’s predecessor, In Treachery Forged.

First, a few differences in how the releases went:  When I released In Treachery Forged, it only took me one month to get the print book out.  Two months in and there still is no print edition for In Forgery Divided, and the biggest delay has been the cover.  (I just couldn’t bring myself to approve that cover.  I went back to my cover artist to see if he could help, and he’s sent me a “watered down” version that might not become quite so blacked out in print.  A new proof just arrived, and it actually looks like it’s supposed to.  I’ll have to make a quick check to make sure nothing odd has creeped into it since my last proof, but I should be approving it this week regardless).

The world has changed some; namely, taxes on eBooks in Europe have gone up significantly (they used to be a negligible sales tax; now they’re a 20% VAT tax)

Also, I attempted a few more new-release promotions, trying to get advertisements on Awesome Gang and another company (which I’m not linking to here; from what I can tell, they never showed my ad after agreeing to do so, negotiating a fee, and scheduling a date to show it.  They also never charged me, however, so I suppose it’s no harm, no foul).  I should also note I have twice as many Facebook followers, twenty more mailing list members, infinitely more twitter followers (I opened my twitter account for the first time a few months after In Treachery Forged’s release, so one person would be infinitely more), and… oh, yeah — this blog.

Some things remain the same.  The prices for both are identical at US$5.99, and I haven’t (for either book) run any price promotions; I will note that some portion of oversees books (mostly in Europe) will cost readers more because of the aforementioned changes in tax laws.  Both times, I submitted the cover to the Monthly Indie eBook Cover Design Awards (one difference:  For In Treachery Forged, I was able to submit the cover such that, by a fluke, it was shown by these awards during its first month of release.  For In Forgery Divided, however, it only showed up on the awards well into the second month after publication).  Both books have been given wide releases; I have never availed myself of Amazon’s KDP Select marketing program because of the exclusivity demands.

With that out of the way…

Two months in, with In Forgery Divided, I had sold a total of 1,505 eBooks (and a lone print book, but we can ignore that for now).  Or, rather, I sold 1548 eBooks and had 43 returns for a net of 1,505.  Most of them (1,406 of these net sales) were purchased on Amazon.com’s US store.  I also had 8 net sales on Amazon.uk (curiously, I had 4 returns, so 1/3 of my gross UK sales were returned at that point — by far the largest percentage at the time.  This trend did NOT continue, but at the time I was wondering if something odd was was going on), 20 net on Amazon.de (Germany), 2 from Amazon.fr (France), 4 net from Amazon.in (India), 1 from Amazon.bs (Brasil), 26 net from Amazon.ca (Canada), 27 net from Amazon.au (Australia), 7 from Nook (two of these sales are not technically part of the 1,505 figure even though they did occur in the first two months; the explanation for why is too long and involved for here), and 6 from Smashwords.  (I may have sold as many as 3 additional copies through Apple iBooks via Smashwords during this period; those weren’t credited to my account for another month, however, so I couldn’t count them here. I now go to Apple directly, thanks to my brother owning an Apple computer).

Most of those sales didn’t start until the book was in its second week of sales, but when it started selling it went right up the charts.  I do not have screencaps, but in 2014, I had a few weeks in the top-50 (topping, for one day, in the top-20) on several genre list bestsellers.  At the peak on those lists, I was getting 50-100 sales a day.

I will note that those 1,505 sales were roughly half of my sales of In Treachery Forged prior to publishing In Forgery Divided (which sparked a resurgence of sales in the former).  Another thousand (roughly) were sold over the next four months, and since then the sales dropped to a mere trickle, selling a mere 500 copies over the next year and a half.  So, what my experience with In Treachery Forged suggests is that the “New Release” burst of sales, even when successful, only lasts about six months (to a degree, I saw the same pattern with The Kitsune Stratagem, but that book never had the sales of In Treachery Forged).  Ideally, I’d have another book out before then… but it took over two years for Book 2 to come out.  (I’ll try to be faster with Book 3)

Unsurprisingly (given that not everyone who buys the first book of a series will buy its sequels… especially after a two year wait), sales for In Forgery Divided have not been as strong (on their own, anyway; as I said, it inspired a resurgence in sales of In Treachery Forged, which is making up much of the difference).  They’ve been pretty good, however, considering how long it took me to get book 2 out.

In Forgery Divided’s sales started strong, with its heaviest day of sales occuring just a week and a half after it was published.  The totals for the (roughly) first two months of sales are as follows:

Total Gross Sales:  702 (note: Amazon gives you three different ways of checking your sales; your ranking on the sale page, a graph on your sales dashboard, and a full accounting of your “month-to-date sales.”  These all report at different rates; I’m using the month-to-date sales for these records, because it’s the only one of these that also lets me know about returns… but it’s also the slowest one to report.  I think I have somewhere between 3-5 more gross sales that haven’t been accounted for in this record, yet)

Total Net Sales:  694 (only 8 returns, total?  That’s a real improvement over In Treachery Forged’s initial release)

Net Amazon.com (US) Sales:  603

Net Amazon.co.uk (UK) Sales:  31

Net Amazon.de (Germany) Sales:  18

Net Amazon.fr (France) Sales:  1

Net Amazon.ca (Canada) Sales:  8

Net Amazon.au (Australia) Sales:  27

Net Smashwords sales:  2

Net Nook Sales:  3

Net Apple iBooks Sales:  1

Far fewer returns, even accounting for the fewer sales.  I guess people who read book I are less likely to return book II.

UK sales are much stronger (the UK did, eventually, become the #2 purchaser of “In Treachery Forged,” but for some reason most of those sales didn’t start coming in until four months after its release), and there are even small improvements to sales in Australia and Germany.

It’s only in the US (both on Amazon and with the other vendors) where my initial sales are significantly weaker.  And much of that gap is being compensated for by sales boosts for my other books — over the past two months, the boost in sales to In Treachery Forged can account for approximately five hunded eBooks sold, and even my unrelated novel, The Kitsune Stratagem, has had another twenty or thirty sales generated by the new book release.

I’m not really sure what to make of these numbers, just yet, but as time goes on and I get more data ponts to go on, these numbers might start to mean something.

In the meantime, I’d better keep writing — I want to know what effect Book III will have on sales.