Editor Interview – Val Mathews

By Debbie Burke
@burke_writer

After lunch on the second day of a writing conference, typically attendees’ brains are already brimming. Fatigue sets in. With full tummies, the temptation to nod off is strong.

Editor Val Mathews

However, no one dozed during Val Mathews’s presentation at the Flathead River Writers Conference in Montana this past October.

Val is a former acquisitions editor at The Wild Rose Press and teaches at several universities. She’s a certified flight instructor and used to fly Lear jets. Additionally, she’s a gifted speaker who knows how to grab and keep an audience’s attention.

At the beginning of her talk, Val got about 100 attendees up on our feet and walking between long rows of tables and down the aisles of the auditorium. Initially, she asked us to imagine we were taking a leisurely hike in Glacier Park. What did we see, smell, and hear?

Then she switched the scenario to a crowded city street. We were late to an important meeting, had forgotten our notes, and needed to return to the office to retrieve them. The energy in the room increased. The sea of people hurried around, now moving in opposite directions, passing each other and trying to avoid collisions.

Next, Val reduced the pace and had us walk with different postures—chests out, heads lowered, hunched over, hips forward, speeding up, slowing down—while paying attention to how each variation made our bodies feel.

Then she told us to become our main character and emulate their posture, movements, stride, and attitude. She asked, “How does your character feel? What are the physical sensations? What are they thinking about? How does that affect their movement?”

After ten minutes, Val had succeeded in chasing away all drowsiness and captured our full attention.

The exercise impressed me, so I invited Val to visit The Kill Zone. Welcome, Val!

Debbie Burke: Please share a little of your background and how you ended up in the publishing business.

Val Mathews: Thanks for having me, Debbie. I’m so glad you enjoyed my workshops! They are always so much fun to do, and everyone comes away renewed with ideas and inspired to write!

By the way, that opening exercise was borrowed from acting classes I took recently. Acting is all about stepping into your character’s body and soul and deeply connecting to your character’s inner world. Writers must do the same thing! And we can get to this deeper level of connection with our characters through our senses. Good writers have a knack for stepping into their characters, and it shows on the page. The characters come alive, feel real! And real-feeling characters hook readers.

So, to answer your question, I recently left The Wild Rose Press. Currently, I’m an editorial consultant for CRAFT Literary, a well-established online literary magazine, and I teach other editors at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Editorial Freelancers Association in New York City. Also I work one-on-one with writers to take their manuscripts to the next level—or the next few levels. All done remotely from my home in Athens, Georgia.

The funny thing is that I feel like I ended up in publishing by accident, even though my mom encouraged me to pursue that direction all my life. I got into publishing later in my life. In my 40s, after I already had a couple of careers and raised a family, I was accepted into graduate school and earned my Master of Arts in Professional Writing.

While in graduate school, I taught First-Year Composition, tutored writers, and volunteered as a poetry editor for a little literary magazine. On the side, I was coding and designing websites. Then I volunteered for SurfCoaches, a surfing company in Costa Rica, and created a digital magazine and website for them.

Those experiences gave me the confidence to approach the Georgia Writers Association and propose a digital literary magazine. They were thrilled since they only had a little newsletter at the time. I got a team together—mostly volunteer editors and readers—and we poured through submissions. We published poetry, short stories, and articles on the craft of writing. We did a couple of flash fiction contests too. A lot of fun!

Initially, I was just going to handle the poetry side, but surprisingly to me, I ended up being really good at fixing red-hot messes and fine-tuning short stories.

One of the accepted short-story authors asked me to edit her full manuscript. Then another asked and another. They referred me to their writer friends, and before I knew it, I was working with a writer every month while still in grad school. It spread by word of mouth. Soon writers asked me to come and talk at their writer groups, and I got even more clients. Then I started presenting at writer conferences, and my career took off from the exposure and experience. I’m booked two months or more in advance now.

A few years ago, I sent letters of introduction to a few university presses and small traditional publishers. I was hired on with The Wild Rose Press and got on the developmental editor list with the University of Georgia. During the first few years, I asked myself, “Is this real? Can I do it again next month?” And I always did. My mom would say, “I told you so.”

I’m still amazed at how I get to do what I love and I can do it from home, the coffee shop, the mountains—maybe the moon in five years. (Just kidding about the moon; I’ll settle for an island as long as I have a good internet connection.)

In college, I wanted to major in Biology. My mother bucked. She said, “But you can’t; you’re a girl!” Hard to imagine nowadays! She convinced me to major in English at Loyola University in New Orleans. Eventually, I rebelled, and I secretly enrolled in college for aeronautical science to become a commercial pilot like my father. I didn’t tell my mom until after my first solo! I flew turboprops and Lear Jets for a little while, and then life took unexpected twists and turns that led me to my current publishing career.

I’m still a FAA Certified Flight Instructor and have been for almost three decades now. Being a jet pilot is a bonus in the editing world. Aspiring authors often mention that my flying past was one of the deciding factors that made them pick up the phone and ask about my editorial services. And they always sign on.

Needless to say my mom was right. She knew I had a knack for writing and editing. Don’t you hate it when your mother is always right?

DB: What attracted you to editing?

VM: Although I edit at all levels—from developmental to proofreading—I’m most attracted to developmental editing. Developmental editors are all about the big picture. We assess how scenes hang together as a whole, how a story moves and unfurls, how characters drive the story forward. We’re kind of like detectives. We look for clues—or story seeds, as I call them.

These story seeds are often hidden or not fully fleshed out by the writer. But developmental editors look deep into the heart of a story and pull them out. Often writers don’t even know these seeds are there! Their creative subconscious scattered those seeds, but their consciousness was barely aware of them. When I point them out, their faces light up. It’s incredible to watch authors in this moment of inspired realization.

What I love the most about developmental editing is these light-bulb moments.

It’s deeply fulfilling to help writers fulfill their dreams. If a manuscript lacks focus, I’ll help the writer find it. If an author lacks confidence, I’ll work to inspire, challenge, and cheer them on. A developing editor’s job is not just about the manuscript—a large chunk of what we do involves inspiring the author’s voice and developing their full potential. In fact, the best developmental editors become the author’s collaborating partners—we hone the writer’s unique voice and make the author’s vision our vision.

When copyeditors move to developmental editing, it’s a significant perspective shift for sure. And how to make that move is a big part of my focus when teaching other editors to do what I do.

DB: When reading manuscripts, what qualities catch your attention?

VM: Well, on that first page, I’m crossing my fingers and hoping to be hooked. I love a story that starts with a strong voice—either a strong narrator voice or a strong character voice. Voice is a bit of an allusive term. What a good voice is for one editor may not be for another. It’s often very subjective.

In Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing, James Scott Bell says that a “great voice is symbiotic,” meaning interdependent, and he encourages authors to identify with their characters so intimately that the authors begin to feel and think how the characters feel and think. Again, this is what actors do when preparing for a new part, and what I try to do in my workshops.

Furthermore, I love a story that captures my senses. At The Wild Rose Press, we have a good rule of thumb: include three sensory details per page and one of those should be something other than visual. Sensory details make the characters and their world come alive and really pop off the page.

DB: What qualities turn you off?

VM: Simply boring writing. Boring is also an elusive term too. What boring is for one editor may not be boring to another editor. Again, it’s often very subjective. But there are a few things that all editors will agree on.

For instance, dialogue that doesn’t add anything to the mood or increase the tension or drive the conflict. Boring dialogue and “talking heads” turn me off the most. Talking heads is when characters are talking but disconnected from the story world—there are no action beats, no sensory details, no glimpse into the point-of-view character’s inner world and motivations. The characters don’t feel real!

But the good news is it’s an easy fix. Writers can just look for long stretches of dialogue, and weave in actions and details to ground the reader in the story’s physical world. Then show the character’s conflicting desires, values, and emotions so the character becomes real.

Another turn-off is when the characters’ roles are generic, stereotyped, or old-fashioned because they don’t represent real people in all their colors, patterns, and quirks. Again boring.

DB: Could you describe your acquisition process at The Wild Rose Press?

VM: Every editor at The Wild Rose Press may have a different process. Typically, a senior editor or our editor-in-chief will send us a potential new author’s submission package consisting of the query letter and the first five pages. Each editor makes their own decision to request more pages or send a friendly (but often helpful) rejection letter. That’s why an author’s opening pages have to pop. Writers have a small window to hook a publisher and make the acquiring editor want to read on.

However, my submission process normally starts at a writers’ conference. Most of the submissions I read were sent to me from authors I met at a conference or workshop. I also get contacted by literary agents who pitch their client’s novels.

When I receive a submission, the first thing I do is read the first five pages. Often, I can tell on page one if it’s going to be a rejection—cold hard truth. If the opening doesn’t pop off the page, most readers aren’t going to wait until page three hundred to see if anything happens. One time, a writer told me, “But it gets good on page one hundred.” True story! Readers read for the joy and thrill of it. We want that joy and thrill on page one, page two, page three, and every page after that.

To get your foot in the door with an acquisition editor, rock the house down on the first page. It doesn’t have to be exploding bombs, car chases, shooting matches, and murder mayhem on page one, but it does need to hook us immediately and keep hooking us on every page.

The hook can be a promise of future conflict or subtle micro-tension or a strong character voice. One of those three things (preferably all three) will prompt me to immediately email the author and ask for a partial or full manuscript.

After reading the first five pages, I look at the pitch part of the author’s query. I’ll also read the synopsis and then request more pages or send a rejection. Some editors always read the query first and only ask for more pages based on the pitch. However, more than once, I’ve been thrilled by a fantastic pitch and strong synopsis, only to be disappointed when reading the manuscript. I think sometimes authors hire a professional query and synopsis writer.

I suggest writing it yourself. You have to know your story cold. When writers struggle to put the gist of their stories into a strong pitch paragraph or break the story down into a tight synopsis, then I bet there is a good chance their manuscripts have plot holes or too many storylines or too many characters—just my two feathers. I’m sure there are exceptions.

If I’m on the fence about a story or just want another opinion, I sometimes run it by our reading panel for their input. Depending on their positive reviews, I will continue with the acquisition process. Sometimes the readers give me insights I haven’t thought about or clue me into some aspects of the novel that might rub readers the wrong way.

Once I find a manuscript that I love and want to make an offer to the author, I send a Request for a Contract to my senior editor. If she approves, she sends it through, and an offer is made. Then the fun begins!

DB: What do you believe are the most significant changes in the publishing industry in the past five years?

VM: Well, the pandemic certainly changed things and pushed readers more strongly toward audio and digital books. Both have been steadily rising, but they really jumped up in readership during the pandemic. Audiobooks are a hot marketplace ticket! We are talking about a billion-dollar market here!

Authors may want to consider keeping their derivative rights. Derivative rights are the starting point for audiobooks. Before signing a publishing contract, ask, “Do I control my derivative rights, specifically my audio rights?” Read that contract and consider renegotiating to hang on to those rights. Because as I said, audio rights are hot right now and are expected to get hotter.

Spotify is buying Findaway and is really moving into the audiobook market. They expect audiobook sales to grow from $3.3 billion to $15 billion by 2027. That’s huge!

If you control that right, you get 100% of the profit. However, more publishers are keeping those rights. But it’s still economically not attractive for many publishers to produce audiobooks, so they may decide not to do it. In either case, you may want to ask for those rights to be reverted back to you so that you reap all the profit.

DB: What trends have you noticed lately?

VM: TikTok is the fastest-growing social media platform and is probably today’s essential tool for branding and marketing your novels. I used to rave about Twitter, but TikTok is stealing the show these days.

Although audiobooks and digital books are hot, print books are in demand, and apparently there is a shortage. Despite the surge in new technologies, all generations still prefer reading physical books. So, the good news is that print publishing is not dying as many had predicted.

Serial fiction is super-hot! As the old sales adage goes: It’s easier to keep an old client than to get a new one. The same goes for readers. This is particularly important for self-published authors. Sites like Kindle Vella, Wattpad, Inkitt, Tapas, Radish, and other online reading apps will continue to do well.

During the pandemic, book sales increased, especially among Gen Zers. Not surprising with more free time and people working from home or off work and going to school from home. And contrary to popular belief, Millennials are voracious readers.

The book industry is still alive and well. Older readers tend to gravitate to thrillers, mystery, and suspense, whereas younger readers tend to favor fantasy, science fiction, and general literature. Young adult novels had the most significant jump in sales in 2021. Also, 66% of poetry book buyers are under thirty-four. These young people are huge readers!

One interesting statistic I found is the rise in romance readership among young people, specifically young adult men. However, with that being said, most fiction readers are still women. About 80%!

Writers may want to think about creating a tough, wicked-smart female protagonist who solves her own problems and doesn’t wait for the knight in shining armor. I think the days of the damsel in distress are gone—again, just my two feathers.

It’s good to understand the differences between the generations and how they hear about novels. Gen Z looks to social media and friends for book recommendations, whereas most of the older generations depend on bookseller lists. So, if you’re not on social media, such as BookTok, I encourage you to get hopping. It’s never too late or too soon to start.

DB: Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

VM: Yes! On behalf of all editors everywhere, I want to thank you and all the writers out there. Thank you for letting us into your creative worlds. I know how hard it is to let your “baby” go and entrust it to the care of an editor. I want to acknowledge the guts it takes to be a writer and put yourself out there. I’m so happy that you are in the world! Keep learning. Keep pushing your boundaries. Keep moving forward one page at a time.

You can find me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/editorvmathews and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/val_mathews/.

~~~

Val, thanks for the deep dive into the mind of an editor. We appreciate you sharing your insights with TKZ! 

~~~

This is my last post before TKZ goes on our annual holiday break. See you in 2023. Aargh! How did 2022 whiz by so fast?

As always, thank you for your interest and participation in TKZ’s community! 

May your holiday season be filled with cheer, love, and peace!

Negotiation Secrets for Writers

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

“Make him an offer he cannot refuse.”
Vector image CC BY 4.0

Whether you’re buying a car, arguing with a boss, or making a deal with your kids to do their homework, most interactions in life are negotiations. Each of us wants to get our own way.

Humans live in a constant state of imbalance, jockeying back and forth to gain the upper hand.

That usually translates into attaining power over someone else. That power can be immense or tiny.

Learning to exploit power imbalances is an effective technique for writers to ramp up the tension in fiction.

In most stories, one character has certain goals while another character has different, conflicting goals. That leads to negotiations between characters that can be physical, verbal, social, or psychological.

The goal can be large scale (world domination) or small scale (spouses arguing whether the toilet seat should be up or down).

One character usually starts out dominant; the other is in an inferior position and wants to rise to the superior position. Their struggle creates tension and suspense as the reader wonders who will prevail.

Each scene in a novel is a micro power struggle between characters. Those struggles can be shown in different ways:

  1. A character has superior knowledge, ability, or position that the other character attempts to gain.
  2. One character wants to control another.
  3. A character takes action that appears to mean one thing but actually means something different.
  4. A character’s dialogue is different from what they’re actually thinking.

Seller says: “I’m offering you a fabulous deal on this 911 Porsche.” Seller thinks: The price is ten grand higher than market but he’s salivating. He won’t leave without the car.

Buyer says: “Forget it. I won’t pay a dime over $$.” But Buyer thinks: I’ve always wanted a 911. If he comes down a grand, I’m snapping it up.

Boss says: “Management told me to cut expenses ten percent across the board including your salary.” Boss thinks: With three kids, she doesn’t dare quit. A ten percent cut means a bigger bonus for me.

Worker says: “That’s unacceptable. Besides, I have a better offer with a twenty percent increase and three weeks paid vacation.” Worker thinks: Can she tell I’m bluffing? What if she fires me?

Anyone who’s ever been a parent can fill in their own examples of negotiations with their kids!

In thrillers, mystery, suspense, sci-fi, and fantasy, typically the antagonist is stronger, richer, smarter, more ruthless, or more determined than the protagonist. The protagonist spends much of the story trying to keep from being squashed and defeated.

Character A may start out in control at the beginning of a scene but Character B has leverage because of superior knowledge or ability that reverses the power by the end of the scene. Then in subsequent scenes, A must scramble and come up with new strategies to regain control while B fends off efforts to topple him/her.

One of my favorite stories is O. Henry’s “Ransom of Red Chief,” first published in the Saturday Evening Post. [Note: some language from 1907 is no longer acceptable today]. It is a detailed blueprint of negotiation among characters who jockey back and forth for power. Demands are made. Counteroffers follow. Demands change, resulting in counter-counteroffers and counter-counter-counteroffers.

Here’s the story premise: Two ruthless criminals, Sam and Bill, decide to kidnap the only son of wealthy Ebenezer Dorset and hold him for a ransom of $2000. Surely Mr. Dorset will immediately cave into their demands and pay. Sam and Bill believe their scheme can’t lose.

When the redheaded ten-year-old victim beans Bill in the head with a brick, that physical act is the first hint of a potential power shift. Nevertheless, Sam and Bill are still in control as they subdue him and spirit him off to a cave hideaway.

However, in the cave, the kidnappers discover their hostage is a handful and they must maneuver to maintain physical and verbal control over him. Bill plays a game of make-believe with the boy, who’s dubbed himself “Red Chief.” In the game, Red Chief captures Bill and ties him up. Soon the kid “…seemed to be having the time of his life. The fun of camping out in a cave had made him forget that he was a captive himself.”

“Red Chief,” says I to the kid, “would you like to go home?”

“Aw, what for?” says he. “I don’t have any fun at home. I hate to go to school. I like to camp out. You won’t take me back home again, will you?”

We weren’t afraid he’d run away.

Although Red Chief remains their prisoner and no longer resists, he has verbally prevailed over Sam and Bill.

Red Chief’s physical harassment of them escalates. The kidnappers’ confidence begins to crack.

During the first night, Sam has a dream that illustrates Red Chief’s growing psychological power: “I had been kidnapped and chained to a tree by a ferocious pirate with red hair.”

Later, terrified screaming wakes Sam.

“Red Chief was sitting on Bill’s chest, with one hand twined in Bill’s hair. In the other he had the sharp case-knife we used for slicing bacon; and he was industriously and realistically trying to take Bill’s scalp.”

Red Chief’s attack demoralizes Bill who asks Sam, “Do you think anybody will pay out money to get a little imp like that back home?”

Their prisoner has taken psychological control of the situation.

Sam leaves the hideout and returns to town, expecting to find villagers in an uproar and frantically searching for the missing boy. He had anticipated the kidnapping would give the criminals social control over the community. Instead, all is calm. Their original premise, that Mr. Dorset will be desperate to get his son back, isn’t happening as planned.

Uh-oh.

Back at the cave, Sam finds Red Chief has further injured poor Bill. Sam tries to regain physical and verbal control.

I went out and caught that boy and shook him until his freckles rattled. “If you don’t behave,” says I, “I’ll take you straight home. Now, are you going to be good, or not?”

Red Chief appears contrite and apologizes. Sam believes he and Bill are back in the driver’s seat.

But the kidnappers’ determination falters when Bill, who can’t take any more abuse, begins to negotiate with Sam to reduce the ransom terms.

“…it ain’t human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat. I’m willing to take a chance at fifteen hundred dollars. You can charge the difference up to me.”

They agree to lower the ransom. Their foolproof, get-rich scheme is losing ground.

Next, Sam delivers the threatening note:

If you attempt any treachery or fail to comply with our demand as stated, you will never see your boy again. If you pay the money as demanded, he will be returned to you safe and well within three hours. These terms are final, and if you do not accede to them no further communication will be attempted. Two Desperate Men.

Although battered, the disheartened criminals are still holding onto their victim and believe Red Chief’s father will agree.

Instead, Mr. Dorset responds with a counteroffer:

I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbours believe he is lost, and I couldn’t be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back. Very respectfully, Ebenezer Dorset.

With a classic O. Henry twist at the end of the story, Bill and Sam are out-negotiated. The kidnappers become the victims and must pay Mr. Dorset to take back Red Chief.

To incorporate negotiation in your own stories, ask these questions:

  1. What are each character’s goals?
  2. Which character is in a stronger position and which is weaker?
  3. How do they negotiate with each other to shift power to achieve their goals?
  4. Do they ask, plead, implore, barter, demand, or threaten?
  5. Do they slyly seduce their opponent? Or beat the snot out of them?
  6. Do they feign defeat to fool their opponent into dropping their guard?
  7. Do they bluff and posture, claiming strength or power they don’t actually have?

The more your characters negotiate with each other, the more the power shifts between them, raising tension and suspense. Readers turn pages to find out who wins. When you keep readers interested, they become fans who buy your next book.

Make your readers an offer they cannot refuse. 

~~~

TKZers: Please share negotiations and power struggles between fictional characters that made an impression on you. Use examples from published stories, films, or your own WIP.

~~~

Debbie Burke is making an offer you can’t refuse:

For only $.99, try out the award-winning Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Special price for Thanksgiving week only. 

Amazon sales link

Emphasized Words in Fiction

Many new writers struggle with how to emphasize words in fiction. It’s tempting to stick a word in ALL CAPS.

Please resist that urge. Yes, all-caps draws the reader’s attention, but not in a good way. All-caps become annoying after a while.

In fact, a 1955 study found that all-caps slowed reading speed by 9.5% over a five-minute period.

For example:

“I AM NOT HYSTERICAL!”

Notice how all the letters blend together in all-caps? It’s difficult to read. Imagine an entire novel littered with all-caps? In dialogue, it’s even more exhausting and amateurish.

If your character is shouting, use one exclamation point—not three!!!—or show us with a body cue.

“I am not hysterical!”

Or…

She slammed her fist on the table. “I am not hysterical!”

The combination of body cue, italicizing not, and the exclamation mark show the reader she is hysterical.

To the best of my recollection, I only used all-caps once in nineteen books. In my latest psychological thriller that releases at the end of this month (Yay!), the MC finds an engraved invitation, and I used italicized all-caps to show the heading across the front. Because all-caps is so offensive and jarring, I took special care to break up the text with an em dash, spacing above and below it, and double-tabbed to set it apart from the narrative. Offensive and jarring was exactly what I was going for, so all-caps worked in this case.

If you can think of another exception, please share in the comments.

What about changing the font to indicate emphasis?

I know it’s easy to change fonts these days, but the end result doesn’t enhance the reading experience. If anything, it pulls the reader out of the story. Please, stop. Let the writing speak for itself. If it can’t, then the problem is the writing, not the font.

What about bold to emphasize a word?

The short answer is no. The reading experience isn’t enhanced by bold, either. Both bold and all-caps look like the author’s screaming for attention.

What are we left with?

Italics. Yes, but don’t overdo it. Italics work best for emphasis when used sparingly. Like all-caps and bold, if used too much the eye passes right over the words we want emphasized.

We do have one other trick.

Em dashes. I love the little suckers. Maybe too much. 😉 At least I’m in good company. Jim professed his love for the em dash on Valentine’s Day last year.

“It is a crisp, efficient dash used to set off a word or clause for emphasis or additional information.”

Couldn’t say it any better. It’s a beloved, versatile punctuation mark.

Hope he doesn’t mind if I steal his example from Romeo’s Hammer:

So what about the lack of clothing? A love scene gone bad? Someone who had been with her while she was drinking—or drugging—herself? Her condition when I found her was such that she had to have come from one of the beach houses. Access to the sand is cut off all along PCH. She didn’t wander down from the street.

See how drugging stands right out? The em dashes draw the eye right to it. They tell us to pay attention. They pique interest. They emphasize.

With italics and em dashes, we have all the tools we need to emphasize words. Now, go forth and finish that novel.

For fun, share a sentence from your WIP, published work, or a book you’re reading that shows how a word–or words–are emphasized. Don’t forget to include the title!

Pumpkin Spice and Writing

Ever wonder why pumpkin spice is so popular? The fascinating part is not only does it taste amazing, but many are obsessed with how it makes them feel on an emotional level.

Dr. John McGann, a sensory neuroscientist at Rutgers Department of Psychology, explains how it all reverts back to the olfactory system — our sense of smell — which is complex to say the least.

“Most of what we refer to colloquially as taste is actually smell,” McGann says. “About 70 percent of our [perception] of taste is retronasal smell and then maybe 25 percent of it is true taste: salty, bitter, sweet. But there also additional components: the feeling of creaminess, which really contributes to a perception of flavor [and] your sense of touch. Then there’s an additional sense of pungency, [as in] the burning feeling of pepper from hot wings. That’s your trigeminal system. So, your brain is putting all of these things together.”

The human brain also assembles memories and emotions. In this way, smell is unique from all other senses, which first passes through the thalamus — a relay station of the brain — and goes straight to the olfactory bulb.

“From there it goes to the amygdala, which controls emotion, and to the hippocampal formation, the entorhinal cortex,” McGann explains. “Smell anatomically has a more direct connection to classical memory regions in the brain.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? A scene becomes more impactful and memorable when we include smell.

  • If your character is in the forest, include the fresh scent of pine.
  • If your character is in the bowling alley, include the stench of bare feet.
  • If your character is in a boat, include the salty ocean air.
  • If your character is at an Italian restaurant, include the signature tomato sauce.
  • If your character is at the gym, include body odor or sweat.
  • If your character is in a sauna, include cedar.
  • If your character is at a pool, include chlorine.
  • If your character is home, include a scented candle, tart warmer, or air freshener.
  • If one character is cradling a toddler, include baby shampoo or talcum powder.

McGann recalls a famous scene in Proust’s masterpiece, “Remembrance Of Things Past”, where the narrator eats a madeleine cookie and feels as if he’s transported back in time. The same thing happens to us when we drink or eat something flavored with pumpkin spice.

What makes the flavor so widely relatable is the inclusion of spices like cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg that are more prevalent during the holidays. The aroma of pumpkin is associated with Thanksgiving and autumnal harvest — historically, a prosperous time of year.

Food chemists hit an olfactory jackpot. Hence why pumpkin spice became more than just a fad. It’s a seasonal staple.

“The pumpkin spice blend… It’s about making people happy and connecting them to moments: the changing of the season, of being warm under the covers, but also the memory of spending enjoyable time with family and friends.” Thierry Muret, executive chef chocolatier at Godiva

Think about how the aroma of hot buttery popcorn triggers memories of movie theaters or how lobster tails remind New Englanders of the beach.

Where does your main character live? Does the area have a signature dish? Tickle the reader’s sense of smell to transport them there.

“Pumpkin spice is a novelty smell because you don’t smell it very often and it’s usually a pleasant smell,” explains Dr. Gabriel Keith Harris, director of Undergraduate Programs in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences at North Carolina State University. “Combine that with the fact that the part of the brain that processes smell is closely tied to the part of your brain responsible for memories and you have part of the secret to the success of pumpkin spice.”

Makes sense, right?

“Your brain fills in the gaps between the scent of the spices and the memories associated with the smell,” Harris adds. “It takes in everything we’re seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting, and it combines those sensory inputs with what we already know and believe about our environment.”

This helps to explain why scent is such a powerful driver of emotion.

The irony is that pumpkin spice doesn’t smell like pumpkins. Pumpkins are members of the squash family, and don’t smell like spices. On their own their taste ranges from bland to bitter. What we’re actually smelling and/or tasting is a combination of cinnamon, clove, ground ginger, and nutmeg.

The true genius of the pumpkin spice craze is all about timing. Same holds true for writing. Don’t include a scent merely to check off an item on the to-do list. Include smell for a reason.

Examples:

  • To enhance the setting—the MC is hiking up a mountain trail.
  • To transport the reader back in time and/or place—flashing back to a memory.
  • To pack a more emotional punch—a mother loses her son, but she can still smell him on his favorite football jersey or bed pillow.
  • To set the scene—the MC meets a blind date at a restaurant.

“Pumpkin spice plays on what’s known in psychology as reactance theory, which refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it,” according to Harris. “The seasonality of it is really intentional. If pumpkin spice were available year-round, it wouldn’t trigger such powerful memories and people wouldn’t want it as much.”

Also, when the pumpkin spice craze starts, people don’t want to miss out. They crave being part of a community.

“If you add it all up, the powerful ability of smell to summon up old experiences becomes a mental transportation device, shifting you from summer to fall and it becomes an event people want to be part of.”

Let’s pretend you are the main character. What scents should I expect to smell while reading your life story?

Happy Halloween!

What Writers Can Learn from Bad TV Adaptations

Even in this image you can see different personality types.

There’s a popular TV adaptation of a thriller series that drives me crazy, but it’s a perfect example of what not to do.

The first problem is characterization. Every single female on the show is the same—strong, badass, snarky, and walks all over the meek male characters, who all seem to cower in their presence.

Lesson: Each character must have unique traits. All women are not strong. All men are not meek. Just as all characters are not beautiful or handsome. They’re individuals with their own quirks, strengths, flaws, etc.

The main character and her best friend are particularly annoying. I won’t get too deep into their backstory. Briefly, they both loved the same man (MC’s husband) who dies by the hand of a serial killer.

Now, either the writer knows nothing about women, or he lives in a dream world, because these two badass women move past the fact that they were sleeping with the same guy and open a PI business together.

Seriously? I don’t about you, but if another woman slept with my husband right before he died, we certainly wouldn’t become best friends and business partners. I’d hunt her for the rest of my life.

Ahem.

Lesson: If you know nothing about cheating or loss, ask someone who does.

Early on there was some mention that the MC was on the force at one point. Husband dies. She gains a new best friend, and the two women open a PI business to chase the serial killer who killed Mr. Wonderful. But because she’s so tough she walks all over the Sheriff and his deputies. And soon, he hands her a badge. On her first day, she’s basically running the whole department.

Now, I’m all for a strong female lead, but come on!

Keep in mind, she still owns half the PI business. Conflict of interest? Nah. In fact, she interviews more criminals with her best friend (who is not law enforcement) than she does with her meek male partner. And get this — she and her PI partner both have the power to make deals with criminals, like no jail time if you give up so-and-so. What??? There’s no DA is this story world? Apparently not.

Warrants also don’t exist, unless the writer needs to buy time. Otherwise, if she wants to kick in a door, she does. She even fights much larger male characters and wins every single time. Oh, and she puts out APBs instead of BOLOs.

Lesson #1: An APB and BOLO are two different things. An All Points Bulletin (APB) might be released when there’s a prison break and they want “all points” to get the message. A Be On the Look Out (BOLO) is more traditional these days for when a specific person and/or vehicle is wanted in connection with a crime.

Same goes for 187 to indicate a homicide. It’s a gang term not used by law enforcement with the exception of California. California operates differently than the rest of the country, so check with local law enforcement.

Lesson #2: Do your homework, writers! If you’re unsure if they use APB or BOLO, call and ask. Most departments will happily answer questions from writers.

Lesson #3: Characters must fail, or they become ridiculous and unrealistic. There’s also no character arc without failure. These characters have not changed one iota from the first episode to the last.

Lesson #4: There are laws in this country, and the vast majority of law enforcement work within the law. Can a cop character cut corners once in a while? Within reason, I suppose, but they cannot blatantly disregard the law entirely.

Let’s talk about the serial killer character for a moment. He could not be more stereotyped with Mommy issues, etc. Another eye roll character with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. And—surprise, surprise—a dirty cop is protecting him. At the end of season one, the cop dies. But fear not! He’s back in season two. Can anyone guess how?

Anyone? Anyone?

He’s a twin, of course. A twin, I might add, that no one knew about…until the writer needed an easy way to continue the series.

Lesson: Whatever solution first pops into your mind is a cop-out. Dig deeper and work for a solution that isn’t eye-roll-worthy.

It gets worse. The twin brother gets shot—in the head!—and is still able to flee before capture. Gotta continue the series, right? Wrong. If you kill a character, that’s it. You don’t get to magically move the bullet to his shoulder because it’s convenient.

Lesson: You cannot perform medical miracles to suit your story. Unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy.

Now, I will say, I haven’t read the novels, nor will I after sitting through the series while pounding out notes on my phone. It’s possible the film industry destroyed the novels. I doubt it because the author consults on set, but maybe the books aren’t as ridiculous.

I keep watching for two reasons:

  1. My husband I have a blast making fun of it. 🙂
  2. We can learn just as much from bad series as we can from good ones. Maybe more.

If you’ve figured out the series, please don’t mention the title.

If you enjoy strong and snarky female leads (not cardboard cutouts who never fail), check out WINGS OF MAYHEM, Book 1 of the Mayhem Series.

FREE on Amazon.

How To Craft a Compelling Character

Last week, Sisters in Crime approached me to do a SINC-UP! video tip for their YouTube channel. Volunteers from the national education committee post video writing tips several times a month to provide inspiration for new writers and promote the value of Sisters in Crime membership. All the videos are only 2-5 minutes long and easily digestible.

I chose characterization. After we taped the video, the volunteer told me she finally understood why beta readers couldn’t connect with her main character. She’s not alone. Many new writers struggle with how to deepen their characters. After all, we can have the best concept, premise, and plot, but if readers can’t connect with our characters then the story won’t work.

How do we craft a compelling character?

It starts with three dimensions. We’re all layered. Who we portray to the world falls under the first dimension of character. That’s not to say we aren’t acting genuine, but when we are in a public setting we act appropriately—or we don’t, but that’s what you’ll have to figure out for your character.

  • Who is your character in public?
  • Do they put their best foot forward?
  • Or are they so uncomfortable in a public setting, they make a total fool of themselves?

Jotting down how your character might react in public places will help you nail down the first dimension.

The second dimension of character is the person we show to family and close friends. At home we let our guard down. We’re more relaxed, more ourselves. We don’t need to try to portray a certain image or level of professionalism because we’re surrounded by close friends and family.

  • How does your character react around close friends and family?
  • Are they goofballs?
  • The practical jokester?
  • More loving, more reserved?

The perfect real-life example of the first two dimensions of character is Richard Simmons. To the world he was a gregarious, loud, sensitive, and passionate workout guru who pranced around in flashy outfits, the more outrageous the better. Everyone loved him. He was so open, so seemingly transparent, even casual viewers of his workout videos felt they knew the real Richard Simmons. He was a shining light of inspiration to many over the years. When he disappeared from public view, the public feared the worst.

  • Did he die?
  • Is someone holding him hostage?
  • Is he being abused?

No one knew. One day he was performing for the camera, and the next day—gone. No explanation, no paparazzi photos, nothing. He vanished.

What very few knew in the decades that followed was that the Richard Simmons he portrayed to the world was who he longed to become. An alter ego, if you will. At home Richard was an extreme introvert, a recluse with only one or two close friends, a quiet, emotionally scarred, deep thinker who preferred the solace of silence—the polar opposite of who he was in public.

Richard Simmons is an extreme example of the first two dimensions of character but keep him in mind while crafting a new character.

The third dimension is our true character. And by that, I mean, if your character is sitting in a crowded theater when a fire breaks out, do they help others find the exit? Or do they trample the crowd to save themselves? One’s true character is tested when they’re put into perilous situations.

  • Who is your character then?
  • Are they the savior or the selfish?
  • Do they think they’re the savior but when trouble ensues, they run in the opposite direction?

Ask your significant other or best friend to describe who you are in public, who you are in private, and how that might differ. Unless you’ve been in a dangerous situation you may not even know your third dimension…until it’s tested. Then you’ll find out quick. 😉

Once you’ve mastered these three dimensions and have gotten to know your characters on a deeper level, then ask them questions like,

  • What’s your greatest passion?
  • What’s your favorite genre of music?
  • Do you travel?
  • What places have you gone?
  • How did each trip affect you?
  • What was your childhood like?
  • Are you an animal lover? (I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like animals)
  • Did you have a favorite childhood pet?
  • How did you feel when they died?
  • What type of things are on your bucket list?

The more questions you ask, the better you’ll get to know them.

Apply the same three dimensions to all your characters, even your villain. You need to know the villain as well as your main character. After all, the two characters should be equally matched. Thus, even if everything they stand for rubs against who you are as a person, you’ve gotta fight for them, win their arguments, understand why they do the things they do. Most villains don’t know they’re the bad guy. They’re on a mission to fulfill their goals, and you, as the writer, need to champion their efforts, especially if you plan to write from their point-of-view.

Do you concentrate on the three dimensions of character while crafting characters?

For those who struggle with characterization, did this help connect a few dots?

5 Similarities Between Your Hero and Villain 

In story terms, a villain is a person, entity, or force who is cruel, evil, or malicious enough to wish the protagonist harm. Rather than simply blocking a goal or interfering with the hero’s plan, a villain causes suffering, making it vital for them to be conquered by the protagonist. Clarice must find and defeat Buffalo Bill if she wants to rise above her past and become a great FBI agent (The Silence of the Lambs); Chief Brody must kill the man-eating shark to preserve his town (Jaws).  

Regardless of the form your villain takes, there are certain qualities that will make them formidable and credible—qualities and connections they share with the protagonist. Let’s explore these qualifications through a case study of Dr. Lawrence Myrick, played by Gene Hackman in the movie Extreme Measures 

VILLAINS, LIKE HEROES, LIVE BY A MORAL CODE  

It’s been said that the best villains don’t know they’re villains; they think they’re the hero of the story. And this is true because a well-crafted baddie has his own moral code. Compared to the protagonist’s, it’s twisted and corrupt, but it still provides guardrails that guide him through the story.  

Dr. Myrick is a renowned and brilliant neurosurgeon who has dedicated his life’s work to curing paralysis. It’s a noble cause that he believes in more than anything—not so much for himself but for all the paralyzed people in the world. This cause is so important that when he develops a treatment, he can’t wait decades for it to crawl through the testing process and eventually be approved. So he bypasses the animal testing phase and goes right to human trials. It’s kind of hard to find healthy subjects who are willing to take such a risk, so he kidnaps homeless people and confines them to his secret medical facility, then severs their spinal cords so he can test his treatment on them.  

To the rest of the world, this is unconscionable. But to Myrick, the end justifies the means. He’s perfectly okay stealing people, taking away their freedom and mobility, and subjecting them to countless medical cruelties. And if they reach a point of no longer being useful, he’s fine doing away with them because they’re people no one will miss. He actually views them as heroes, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. His morals are deranged, but they’re absolute, guiding his choices and actions. And when you know his code, while you don’t agree with it, you at least understand what’s driving him, and his actions make sense.  

When you’re planning your villain, explore their beliefs about right and wrong. Figure out their worldview and ideals. Specifically, see how the villain’s beliefs differ from the protagonist’s. This will show you the framework the villain is willing to work within, steer the conflict they generate, and provide a stark contrast to the hero.  

THEY HAVE A STORY GOAL, TOO  

Like the hero, the villain has an overall objective, and they’re willing to do anything within their moral code to achieve it. When their goal is diametrically opposed to the hero’s, the two become enemies in a situation where only one can succeed.  

We know Myrick’s goal: to cure paralysis. And things are progressing nicely until an ER doctor in his hospital discovers homeless patients disappearing from the facility. Dr. Lathan starts nosing around, and when he realizes someone is up to no good, it becomes his mission to stop them. So the two are pitted against each other. If one succeeds, the other must fail. To quote Highlander: there can only be one.  

As the author who has spirited the villain out of your own (dare we say twisted?) imagination, you need to know their goal. It should be as clear-cut and obvious as the hero’s objective. Does it put them in opposition to the protagonist? Ideally, both characters’ goals should block each other from getting what they want and need.  

VILLAINS ARE WELL-ROUNDED  

Because villains are typically evil, it’s easy to fill them up with flaws and forget the positive traits. But good guys aren’t all good and bad guys aren’t all bad, and characters written this way have as much substance as the flimsy cardboard they’re made of. Myrick is cruel, unfeeling, and devious. But he’s also intelligent, generous, and absolutely dedicated to curing a devastating malady that afflicts the lives of many.  

Positive traits add authenticity for the villain while making them intimidating and harder to defeat. An added bonus is when their strength counters the hero’s.  

The villain of Watership Down is General Woundwort, a nasty rabbit whose positive attributes are brute strength and sheer force of will, making him more man than animal. In contrast, hero Hazel embodies what it means to be a rabbit. He’s swift and clever. He knows who he is and embraces what makes him him. In the end, Hazel and his rabbits overcome a seemingly undefeatable enemy by being true to their nature.  

When your villain is conceived and begins to grow in the amniotic fluid of your imagination, be sure to give him some positive traits along with the negative ones. Not only will you make him an enemy worthy of your hero, he’ll also be one readers will remember.  

THEY HAVE A BACKSTORY (AND YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS)  

Authors know how important it is to dig into their protagonist’s backstory and have a strong grasp of how it has impacted that character. Yet one of the biggest mistakes we make with villains is not giving them their own origin story. A character who is evil with no real reason behind their actions or motivations isn’t realistic, making them stereotypical and a bit…meh.  

To avoid this trap, know your villain’s beginnings. Why are they the way they are? What trauma, genetics, or negative influencers have molded them into their current state? Why are they pursuing their goal—what basic human need is lacking that achieving the goal will satisfy? The planning and research for this kind of character is significant, but it will pay off in the form of a memorable and one-of-a-kind villain who will give your hero a run for his money and intrigue readers.  

THEY SHARE A CONNECTION WITH THE PROTAGONIST  

In real life, we have many adversaries. Some of them are distant—the offensive driver on the highway or that self-serving, flip-flopping politician you foolishly voted for. Those adversaries can create problems for us, but the ones that do the most damage—the ones we find hardest to confront—are those we share a connection with. Parents, siblings, exes, neighbors we see every day, competitors we both admire and envy, people we don’t like who are similar to us in some way…conflicts with these people are complicated because of the emotions they stir up.  

The same is true for our protagonists. The most meaningful clashes will be with the people they know. Use this to your advantage. Bring the villain in close and make things personal by engineering a connection between the two characters. Here are a few options for you to work with.  

  • Give Them a Shared History. The more history the two have, the more emotion will be involved. Guilt, rage, grief, fear, jealousy, regret, desire—strong feelings like these will add sparks to their interactions. They’ll cloud the protagonist’s judgment and increase the chances their villain will gain an edge.  
  • Make Them Reflections of Each Other. What happens when the protagonist sees him or herself in the villain? A seed of empathy forms. The hero feels a connection with the person they have to destroy, which complicates things immensely. Personality traits, flaws, vulnerabilities, wounding events, needs and desires—all of these (and more) can be used to forge a bond that will add complexity and depth to this important relationship.  
  • Give Them a Shared Goal. When your hero and your villain are pursuing the same objective, it accomplishes a number of good things. First, it ensures that only one of them can be the victor, pitting them against each other. But they’re also more likely to understand one another. They’ll have different reasons and methods of chasing the dream, but the shared goal can create an emotional connection.  

As you can see, a lot goes into creating an enemy that is realistic, complete, and worthy of holding the title of villain in your story. When you’re drawing this character, give them the same thought and effort you’d put into your hero, and you’ll end up with a villain that will enhance your story, intrigue readers, and give the hero a run for their money.  

Want to take your conflict further? The Conflict Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Obstacles, Adversaries, and Inner Struggles (Volume 1 & Volume 2) explores a whopping 225 conflict scenarios that force your character to navigate relationship issues, power struggles, lost advantages, dangers and threats, moral dilemmas, failures and mistakes, and much more! 

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and other resources for writers. Her books have sold over 900,000 copies and are available in multiple languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online resource for authors that’s home to the Character Builder and Storyteller’s Roadmap tools.

 

To Pay or Not To Pay – Book Reviews For Sale

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

“Fly-by-Night Book Reviews says, for $100, they’ll give me twenty guaranteed reviews. Should I try that?”

“I paid $500 to Pie-in-the-Sky Reviews. My book didn’t receive a single review.”

“You don’t dare pay for reviews—that violates Amazon’s terms and conditions. You’ll be banished.”

“Kirkus Reviews are the gold standard.”

“Ever since Kirkus started selling reviews, they lost all credibility.”

~~~

That’s a sample of the spirited responses and contradictory opinions on a recent Authors Guild discussion thread about whether or not to pay for book reviews.

I wound up thoroughly confused, pondering the following questions:

How much do reviews really matter?

Are there still “legitimate” book reviews? What defines “legitimate”?

Have reviews merely become another profit opportunity for vendors peddling them?

Do customers really believe Amazon reviews?

Do reviews increase sales?

Author Maggie Lynch

Multi-genre author Maggie Lynch participates frequently in AG discussions. Over years of reading her contributions, I’ve come to trust her knowledge, judgment, and analysis. Her data is carefully researched. She looks at publishing history from the long view and puts so-called new trends in perspective.

During this ongoing, weeks-long debate about book reviews, one day Maggie wrote: “Warning, I’m going on a bit of a rant.”

What followed was her essay that offered a fresh perspective and updated information about reviews that all authors can benefit from.

I asked if I could share her “rant” at TKZ and she kindly agreed.

Here’s what Maggie has to say:

Paid reviews have always been around, long before the advent of the Internet. Who do you think paid for placement in magazines, journals, and newspapers?

When a publisher buys an end cap display in a bookstore and provides potential review quotes for the store to post, isn’t that paid? If your book is featured on the front page of a major genre magazine, it gets attention. The magazine is going to do a review because you paid $2-$5K to be there.

All advertising is, in effect, paid reviews.

The only difference now is that there are more books, more online venues, and more authors willing to pay for ads, reviews, and all kinds of placement.

Once Amazon entered the online market, it became the focus of most authors. Not because it is the only distributor, but because it is the only distributor using sophisticated algorithms that are somewhat transparent. A number of analysts and programmers focus on Amazon algorithms and then share that information via their own book publications.

Whether you love or hate Amazon, it’s a great search engine. They understand data. They understand how to present the most likely options for getting a sale from a customer. IMO there is no other bookseller with programming that sophisticated.

If other major booksellers–Apple, Kobo, Google, the Big 5—had that same search and analysis capability, they would get more customers as well.

For myself, I have many reasons not to like Amazon. Yet, I give them props when they do well. If I want to find a book or learn more about an author, I’ll look it up on Amazon first because I know it will be quick with lots of information–including other books in the same genre, series, similar authors, etc.

I will likely end up buying the book somewhere else to support a local bookstore or another vendor, but I go to Amazon first.

Many people stay on Amazon because of that ease of use. Authors often believe (mistakenly in my opinion) that they only need to be on Amazon.

But…book sales are NOT Amazon’s primary business.

Only 10% of Amazon’s overall revenue is book sales.

Unfortunately, far too many people think they can game the system. I know hundreds of authors who spend more time trying to figure out how to get higher ranking on Amazon than they do writing books. It’s crazy.

Review factories have always been a part of the online book environment. When I first entered indie publishing in 2011, there were entire “review factories” in Asia where one could buy 100 reviews from “sock puppet” accounts. They were pretty obvious back then, poorly written, using similar phrases.

A couple of times, Amazon has cracked down on these practices–usually when it becomes obvious and egregious. But they usually do it through programming changes.

In the process, some books with legitimate reviews get caught in the net. When crackdowns happened in 2014 and 2018, many authors lost hundreds of reviews and waited months to have them reinstated.

[Note from Debbie: I know authors who simply gave up fighting and started from scratch all over again. Sad.]

Whenever Amazon makes a programming change to search out and punish fake reviews, those who make money on reviewing simply find a more sophisticated way not to get caught.

Algorithm watchers believe that instead of looking for and stopping these reviewers, Amazon is proactively changing the algorithm to counteract the sway of review farms.

Now reviews are weighted significantly less in the algorithm than they have been in the past.

Of course, no one knows how much less or what the criteria are, but it is something to consider. Because of that, authors who are focused on reviews simply pay more.

Authors consistently worry/believe that a high number of reviews (particularly on Amazon) means a high number of sales. That is not necessarily the case.

It is more likely that a high number of sales means a high number of reviews, UNLESS reviews have been supplied primarily by non-purchasers.

To evaluate this, look at the Top 100 bestsellers in Amazon. Many have ZERO reviews. Why? Because the book hasn’t been released and is selling on pre-order. What is creating those sales? Many factors that have nothing to do with reviews such as:

  • Advanced audience definition;
  • Pre-press ads, word of mouth, news, reaching out to fans;
  • Building anticipation for the book followed by a launch blitz that delivers on the promise;
  • ARCs to media and other reviewers (NetGalley, Edelweiss).

It may also be that Amazon never shows a lot of reviews for a particular book because the primary sales are on other sites, NOT Amazon. Many print books sell in bookstores, libraries, or direct from the publisher.

Reviews are not the answer to low sales. Do they help? Good ones do, those that provide information and key ideas to appeal to the audience you want. But the number of reviews does not necessarily correlate to sales.

The last good analysis I read about Amazon indicated there were more than 300 data points that are weighted in the sales and ranking algorithms.

THREE HUNDRED!

Where do reviews stand in that weighting? Not at the top. Probably not even the top 10.

The reality is the #1 weight is actual sales.

You have direct control of many other factors that guarantee more sales such as:

  • Create a fan base;
  • Write more books;
  • Identify your audience;
  • Deliver to their expectations with a consistent brand.

Of course, these take work and time. They can’t happen overnight.

But many authors want a fix right now, an easy button to push.

People always want an easy answer as to why their book isn’t selling better. They don’t want to accept the more likely reasons it’s not selling better.

The reality is the majority of the book reading public has fairly narrow interests.

 My fantasy fans rarely cross into SF. My SF fans almost never cross into romance. My Women’s Fiction fans don’t like anything else in fiction. My nonfiction readers rarely read fiction.

That’s just from my list of fans–a small number of 12K people. But the sample size is enough to extrapolate statistically.

Identifying the audience and creating a package that appeals to them on many levels is key. That package includes:

  • Excellent blurb that makes the reader want to learn more;
  • Great cover;
  • Appropriate pricing for the genre;
  • Look Inside/Preview pages that draw the reader in;
  • Advance praise from ARC readers that tells the reader what to expect and why they loved it.

Indie authors particularly get uptight about reviews—they can see the numbers go up and believe they can control that. Then they start paying for reviews because they believe more reviews equals more sales. But that is a false sense of control.

Where do you stop paying? Is 50 enough? How about 100?

I now see books with over 100K ratings. Are you kidding me?

 The get-more-reviews game is one you can’t win because:

  • You likely don’t have the budget for big PR or marketing campaigns;
  • You can’t compete against contacts that big publishing houses have.

Amazon’s own imprints publish roughly 1,000 books a year, making it as large as the Big 5 publishers.

Amazon controls all the data and knows the sales information. They can certainly tweak the metadata as needed to drive sales within their algorithm. Other publishers can do this too, if they know how and employ people to do it. Most don’t, not even the Big 5.

What can the average author do to compete?

First, do not accept Amazon as the arbiter of books or literature.

They are not. Don’t become one of those authors–and some small publishers– who have bought into the Amazon way of book sales–low pricing, multiple promotions, exclusivity.

Small publishers and indie authors have given Amazon all this power yet selling books is less than 10% of Amazon’s revenue. 

Second, you can shout and bring bad practices to the fore.

Point it out and most of all DO NOT PARTICIPATE in the bad practices yourself.

We can’t let our avarice, our immediate desire for an easy-button solution, give us permission to game the system, pay for reviews, tell lies, or buy hundreds of print books to try to make the bestseller list.

If few authors engage then it will become evident that no one can make good money off of these deals. 

Third, expend your energy in engaging with actual readers.

Build your mailing list, blog or use some other social media that you like to keep your readers informed.

Outside of your next book, the biggest asset is YOUR readers—people who have already voted with their dollars and their time to buy and read your book. Once they already read and like your book, they want more—more about you, more about upcoming books.

  • They will tell their friends
  • They will write reviews;
  • They will volunteer to read ARCs in the future;
  • They will post to social media;
  • They will talk to libraries about carrying your book.

Your readers are your biggest asset.

 ~~~

Thank you, Maggie, for sharing your perspective and wisdom with TKZ!

Maggie reaffirmed my belief that time is best spent writing more books.

However, that doesn’t lessen my gratitude to readers who make the extra effort to write reviews!

~~~

Learn more about Maggie Lynch and her 26 books at her author website.

Check out her free video course about Why Books Don’t Sell. It covers the basics of putting together a good package for your book and buy pages with vendors.

On that same POV Author Services site she has many blogs just for writers about both business and technology, as well as mental health and philosophical writing concerns.

~~~

TKZers: What is your experience with reviews? Have you ever paid for reviews? Do you think they helped your sales?

Telepathy and Writing

Deep down each of us have a strong but underused connection to the world around us.

Consider the time when you sensed someone watching you, even if you couldn’t see them. Or the gut feeling, telling you something significant was about to happen. Or the intuitive, instinctive feeling that gave you the name of the person on the other end of the line before checking the caller ID.

If we learn how to tap into this sixth sense, we begin to notice when someone—dead or alive—is thinking about us, even when we’re physically apart.

Telepathic communication explains why, when you randomly thought of a friend and she texted you the next day. Or that time when you spontaneously called your third cousin, and he said, “Oh em gee, I was just thinking about you!”

Writers are especially attuned to the “little voice” inside us.

Some are more intuitive than others, but we all have an underutilized sixth sense. Once we learn its power and how to use it, new doorways open up, doorways that enhance our writing.

The more we open up to the possibility of telepathy, the more we’ll start to notice the messages from our spirit guides and ancestors, and the synchronicities or coincidences that have always been present in our lives.

The Natural World thrives on telepathic communication.

An animal’s survival depends on it. If you’ve ever wondered how one species warns another about potential threats, telepathy answers this question. And humans — as members of the Natural World — can tap into that same energy.

The notion of telepathic communication first intrigued me as a way to chat with animals, wild and domestic. Because when we watch and listen to animals, they help us reach our full potential. Animals enrich the mind, body, and soul. They’re sentient, intuitive beings who communicate with us in many ways. Body language, vocals, and telepathy, whether we’re cognizant of it or not.

Think about this: Most animals know more about their environment than you or I ever will.

An intuitive exchange with any animal — cats, dogs, guinea pigs, crows — begins the same way. First, with physical body cues. Then with the silent language of love.

So, how can we telepathically communicate with animals?

Step 1: Rest your hands over your heart and practice deep breathing exercises.

Step 2: Once you’re relaxed, pay attention to your heart, to your soul, and feel the gravity of your love for the animal.

Step 3: Express your love for that animal by visualizing a soft beam of light, a tether connecting the two of you.

Step 4: Silently or vocally ask the animal for permission to telepathically communicate with them.

Step 5: If you don’t sense any reluctance, express how you’re open to receiving messages in return. Keep it light in the beginning and progress deeper once you build trust, confidence, and strengthen your bond.

Keep in mind, animals live in the moment. They’re not distracted by the phone, the to-do list, or regret. And so, you must also be in the present moment to connect with them.

The only obstacle is you.

Trust the flow, the energetic pulse of life. Align with, not against, this flow. By blocking out all distractions, the energy exchanges between you and animals will occur effortlessly. You are in the present, anchored by love and grace, and coming from a place of neutrality. You are part of the Natural World, connected across space and time.

The same principals apply to human-to-human telepathic communication. Both parties must be willing participants. Don’t use this life skill for evil (unless you’re targeting fictional characters).

Remember These Three Simple Truths

  1. We are all part of divine consciousness.
  2. Love creates alignment with all creation.
  3. We all have the ability to listen with our heart.

When we refocus on lowering the frequency of emotions — fear, self-doubt, anxiety — we raise our cognition, enhance the vibration of our energy, we align with nature. Animals are drawn to bright inner lights, and therefore will be enthusiastic about communicating with you.

That’s all well and good, Sue, but how does that help our writing?

Glad you asked. 😉

In On Writing, Stephen King provides the perfect example of telepathy and writing.

“Telepathy, of course. It’s amusing when you stop to think about it—for years people have argued about whether or not such a thing exists—and all the time it’s been right there, lying out in the open like Mr. Poe’s The Purloined Letter. All the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but I believe that writing offers the purest distillation.”

What does the quote mean?

The best way to think about writing is the process of transferring a mental image from your mind to the mind of a reader. As writers, we envision scenes, settings, characters, etc. Our job is to transfer that mental image to the page for the reader to experience later.

Sounds a lot like telepathy, doesn’t it? Because it is!

Hence why writing coaches tell us to envision our ideal reader, carrying that image with us while writing. The trick is learning what images to include and what to leave out. Hint: Less is more.

Want to hear something bizarre?

While writing this post in Word, the document kept disappearing. One second it’d be on my screen, gone the next. And I had three other documents open at the time. The other two stayed on the screen. Coincidence? You tell me.

Releases tomorrow! Preorder on Amazon for $1.49 before my publisher raises the price.

She may be paranoid, but is she right?

A string of gruesome murders rocks the small town of Alexandria, New Hampshire, with all the victims staged to resemble dead angels, and strange red and pink balloons appearing out of nowhere.

All the clues point to the Romeo Killer’s return. Except one: he died eight years ago.

Paranoid and on edge, Sage’s theory makes no sense. Dead serial killers don’t rise from the grave. Yet she swears he’s here, hungering for the only angel to slip through his grasp—Sage.

With only hours left to live, how can Sage convince her Sheriff husband before the sand in her hourglass runs out?

 

 

 

First Page Critique – Samaritan Sins

Photo credit: wikimedia CC-BY-SA-3.0

By Debbie Burke 

@burke_writer

 

Let’s welcome another Brave Author who submitted a first page for review. Enjoy reading it then we’ll discuss.

~~~

 “Waller, they found a body on the Midwest Bike Trail about two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks,” stated Police Sergeant David Dodson, our special-operations supervisor. His voice was full of tension. Even when he smiled, his dark brown eyes never quite lost their keenness or their watchfulness.

I sat up straighter at my desk. “Isn’t that the Forest Preserve Police?” I asked into my cell.

“They’ve asked us to handle it because it looks like a homicide. I want you and Garcia on it. I’ll notify the coroner next.”

“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.” I looked at my partner, Detective Carlos Garcia, seated at his desk.  He’s not bad looking. The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin. A raised glazed donut perched in his right hand and a paper cup of Dunkin coffee before him on his desk. His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. I looked down at my solidly built arm, thinking, how can he eat donuts and still look like that? I became aware I had to hook my belt on the last notch when I dressed that Monday morning. I told him, “They’ve got a body for us.”

Garcia’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth. He made the necessary adjustments that would transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent. Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned, he rose his six-foot frame and said, “Let’s go.”

My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of  the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy. We strode out of the station house in a hurry to begin our job. I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.

Once in our unmarked Ford Explorer, I turned towards him and asked, “What do you know about the bike path?”

Garcia grew up in this town, probably walked that path hundreds of times as a teenager.

~~~

Okay, let’s dig in.

Photo credit: Public domain

The title Samaritan Sins intrigued me. Samaritan conjures the image of kindness and compassion. Sins brings to mind misdeeds, perhaps even evil. The ironic juxtaposition hints at the story’s conflict. Does a good person commit a terrible act? I want to learn more. Well done!

Unfortunately, this first page doesn’t live up to its promising title.

Brave Author, recently Terry Odell and Jim Bell wrote excellent posts on beginnings. I highly recommend you read them at links here and here.

Jim coined a new term—Wood—and quoted an old saying:

Your story begins when you strike the match, not when you lay out the wood.

The first page of Samaritan Sins is wood laying. It needs work before a match lights it on fire.

Brave Author is getting acquainted with the characters, their backgrounds, and the setting, before starting the story. Yes, preparation is important homework. But the information belongs in an outline, story notebook, character sketch, etc., not on the first page.  

Police procedurals—which this appears to be—generally start with a dead body, in this case on a bike path in West Chicago. However, neither the point-of-view character, Detective Alicia Waller, nor the reader sees the body firsthand.

Instead the story begins with a report by a supervisor, Sergeant Dodson. That distances the reader from the crime. A report by phone, rather than in person, adds even more distance.

Further, it’s confusing. Alicia describes Dodson’s watchful dark brown eyes as if he is standing in front of her. Yet, in the next paragraph, she is talking to him on her cell.

The farther away from the crime, the less a reader cares about it. A crime needs to provoke an emotional response from the reader. A third-hand phone report dilutes the impact.

Details like “two hundred feet east of the Northwestern tracks” also dilute it. Specific details are important to paint a vivid picture. But choose details the reader cares about, not bland measurements.

There is a lot of repetition.

“…they found a body…”

“A body? Yeah, we’re on it.”

“They’ve got a body for us.”

Alicia mostly tells about Carlos Garcia, rather than showing. The description is also repetitive.

He’s not bad looking.

The Fu Manchu mustache looked good with his brown skin.

…transform his appearance from simply splendid to magnificent.

She appears to have a crush on him. Fine, but is that important enough to include on the first page? Not unless it’s significant to the story.

I strongly recommend getting rid of the donut cliché. Look for fresher ways to show Carlos’s looks. But again, consider if these details are significant enough to use up valuable first page real estate. If not, cut them.

Only after each hair had been lovingly combed into position and his silk tie straightened, the second button of his jacket buttoned…

Would this vain-sounding guy fuss with his appearance without first washing donut glaze off his hands?

I mention this because his sticky hands took my mind far away from the dead body. When the reader can be distracted that easily, there’s a major problem.

My career as a detective with the violent Crimes division of  the West Chicago Police Department exposed me to a lifetime of crime and tragedy.

This statement is pure telling without offering insight into Alicia’s personality or how the career has affected her. Is she jaded? Wounded? Fed up? Does she still hold out hope she can help people? “A lifetime of crime and tragedy” is vague and meaningless without specifics.

I pride myself on being a no-nonsense individual. I’m thirty-five-year-old Detective Alicia Waller. My black shoes making long, mean strides.

Again, more telling rather than showing. How important is it for the reader to know this on the first page?

Photo credit: Public domain

A Jack Webb/Dragnet-style introduction could condense the background info and establish a distinctive voice while also moving the story ahead. Here’s one way it might be written:

I’m Detective Alicia Waller, West Chicago Police Department, fifteen years on the job, the last four in Special Operations. I’m thirty-five, wear sensible shoes, battle my weight, and have a secret crush on my partner, Carlos Garcia, a stylishly-dressed six-foot hunk with a Fu Manchu mustache. He’s vain but I forgive that flaw because he’s easy on the eyes.

Together we’ve worked violent crimes ranging from gang murders to a sexual assault on a ten-month-old baby that sent us both to the department shrink.

Today, we stood over a deceased teen-aged male lying face-up on the Midwest Bike Trail. Forest Preserve Police had called us because they suspected homicide.

The above is about 100 words, conveys relevant facts, introduces characters, and plops the reader into the crime scene.

Wordsmithing:

Overall, the writing is competent but verb usage needs work.

Stated is an awkward verb that draws attention to itself. Why not use said?

Perched is another odd verb. A parakeet might perch on his hand but not a donut.

…a paper cup of Dunkin coffee [sat] before him on his desk. Missing verb.

His white shirt and blue suit hung lean and long off his well-tapered build. Hung doesn’t work. Is the suit hanging lean and long? Or do you mean his build is lean and long?

…he rose his six-foot frame. A person generally doesn’t raise his frame unless the frame is for his barn.

My black shoes making long, mean strides. This sentence lacks a verb. It’s also inaccurate and awkward. The shoes aren’t striding; Alicia is. What are “mean strides”? Emphatic, loud, decisive?

In trying to be creative with verbs, BA instead inserts speed bumps and confusion.

~~~

Brave Author, I hope you don’t feel beat up by these comments. As writers, we’ve all been here. It’s part of the learning process as you hone your craft.

I suggest you save this first page in a “story notes” file. Refer to it as you develop the plot and characters. The information is useful background—it just doesn’t belong on page 1. 

For now, move ahead with your story. After drafting a few chapters, you’ll likely find a more compelling place to start. Once you complete the ms., circle back and rewrite the opening.

Just because it says “Page 1” doesn’t mean it has to be written first. Write it last. 

One way to interest readers is to make them curious. Ask questions they want answers to. Here are a few ideas:

What makes one or both members of this detective team unique?

Why should the reader care about a faceless victim in a city where murders occur frequently? (Hint: give the victim a distinctive characteristic. Is she missing an arm? Is he a local celebrity?)

Are there special circumstances or unusual clues that set this crime apart from run-of-the-mill calls?

Thank you for submitting, Brave Author. It takes courage to expose your work to strangers. Please take suggestions in the spirit they’re offered—to help make your story the best it can be.

~~~

TKZers, your turn to offer ideas to the Brave Author.

~~~

Flight to Forever was a finalist for the 2022 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Try a sample at these links:

Amazon

Major online booksellers

Or ask your favorite independent bookstore to order the paperback.