Tips for Indie Writers: How to Create Your Own Book Trailer with Power Point

Okay, just made another book trailer and thought I’d reblog this. I’ve also updated the original links since the original videos were updated and thus removed. My latest and greatest is here: https://youtu.be/G3xRKqmz7qw . [NOTE:–My friends at Fresh Ink Group helped touch it up, but the bulk was done on Power Point. You can find the original on my YouTube Channel here https://youtu.be/jPryRDll9ZQ.]

One thing I learned making this video that wasn’t necessary for the others was the need for transitions from slide to slide. If you use the same background for the entire video, it’s not necessary. But if you change the pictures, you need a transition. It’s a whole lot of fun to do and exercises another part of your creative side. These are very basic, but tremendous fun. Give it a try!

Marcha's Two-Cents Worth

booksinboxBook trailers have become a popular means to draw attention to your book. The main advantage they have over other types of promotional material is their ability to include sound, specifically music. As I’m sure you’re aware, music can set a mood quicker than anything else and reaching a person at the emotional level helps prepare them to receive and accept your message. You can hire a professional to create a trailer for you or you can put one together yourself. If you have Microsoft Office then you should have Power Point which is the only software you need to create a simple but effective video trailer. Besides that you only need three things:

  1. Background picture
  2. Music
  3. Catchy phrase, quote or other hook

Yes, it really is that simple to get started. Don’t worry, I’m going to take you through the process, step by step.

Background Picture

This should be…

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Describing a Sci-Fi story as “Unbelievable” is NOT a Good Thing

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** Review of “Return of the Sagan” by Neil Patrick O’Donnell

I don’t enjoy giving a book a bad review. As an author myself, I know it hurts, unless someone has such an iron-clad ego that they don’t believe it and thus fail to heed what it’s saying. Thus, when I do so, I try to stick to the facts of what a book’s deficiencies are so the author knows what to fix. Of course any review will always have a high level of subjectivity, but I try to judge a book as fairly as possible, based on its merits.

This story got off to a good start and has tremendous potential to become an epic saga of a starship gone for 300 years and now returning to Earth, only to find the human population extinct. That’s a big story. The main character, anthropologist, Francis Burns (no relation to Frank Burns of M*A*S*H fame), is believable and endearing with his OCD and quirky obsession with Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was a nice affirmation for gender equality that men and women shared high military rank in the story. The names of the vessels were well-chosen and credible. Authors are always advised to “write what you know” and O’Donnell did a great job with OCD and the geography of the Niagara region as well as military jargon and protocol. Generally, I believe that the world of “fandom” would particularly enjoy this story and would make a good target audience.

However, there are numerous things that need to be fixed before this story can be taken seriously by true science fiction fans. It’s important to note that “fandom” comprises individuals who are very well-versed on details and to earn their loyalty and respect you’d better get the particulars right. Unfortunately, I would give an “F-“ to some elements in this story, which I’ll explain farther down.

I must say that I truly hope the author can take my comments as constructive criticism as opposed to bashing, which is not my intent. I believe this story deserves serious editing at the line, copy and content levels so it can become the great saga for which it holds promise. If I were its editor, here are some of the things I would suggest to bring it to its potential glory.

1. It’s best to open a story with the main character, not someone who will largely disappear or be absorbed. Furthermore, there were too many characters, especially in the beginning. They weren’t all faceless, but most didn’t have a distinct personality. Due to the scope of the story, several characters are justified, but they need to be humanized and developed to hold the reader’s interest.

2. The author’s writing style is reasonably good, almost to the point of what I would call “strong.” However, there are few relatively easy to fix stylistic issues that would result in considerable improvement. Probably the most noticeable would be to eliminate the repeated use of the POV character’s name. Interestingly enough, this didn’t occur until later in the story. It’s distracting for a name to be repeated a half-dozen times or more in a single paragraph, especially in places where the person in question is the only one involved. That’s why we have pronouns. If there are two people of the same gender involved in a scene, a reminder of who’s talking or doing what from time to time is useful, but effective pronoun use is essential to readability. You don’t want the reader thinking, “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s him already!” or, conversely, having to stop and reread a section to figure out who’s speaking or prevailing in a fight scene.

3. Typos are almost inevitable in any novel, my personal favorite in this tome being “zero-gravy” which would probably slip past a spell-checker, but some were grating such as the consistent use of the wrong homonym. One or two I can handle, but this was excessive. I’ve never seen so many. I suspect a good grammar checker would catch these since in most cases they represent an entirely different part of speech. For example:

solar flares, not flairs

waver in the limited light, not waiver

reigned in magnificence, not reined

soul was allowed to leave his care, not sole

waved Francis to take his seat, not waived

pour out of the satchel, not poor

higher branches, not hire branches

fell from the satchel right past Francis, not passed

4. The military jargon and procedures were convincing and came across with an air of authenticity. Good job there. However, the technical aspects were so far beyond feasible that it detracted from the rest of the story. One minor example is the use of paper onboard a starcruiser, which is beyond doubtful.

5. And speaking of a starcruiser, no matter how much of a conspiracy buff you might be with regard to UFOs, it would be more credible for the ET’s from Zeta-Reticuli to provide Earth with a ship with interstellar capability with the volume of three aircraft carriers than for us to suddenly acquire one, much less populate it with F-15E Strike Eagles. I would think that most people, particularly sci-fi fans, would know that these aircraft could not possibly fly in space. Just out of curiosity and as a detail-oriented person myself, I asked a friend who’s a former pilot about that. Here is what he said:

“The F-15 could not be controlled outside the atmosphere as the airplane’s control surfaces depend on air flow to cause changes in roll, pitch, and yaw.  Thrusters are required to maneuver in space.  If it had thrusters, I suspect that the structure would overheat and breakup during reentry.  Initial reentry mach is far higher and would generate far more heat than the F-15 materials could withstand.  The engines are air breathers and can’t burn the kerosene without oxygen.  Then there’s the little issue of gravity.  The fuel tanks, lubricating oil tanks, and hydraulic reservoirs depend on gravity to operate.  The pickup points are in the bottom of the tanks.  The fuel tanks have baffles to keep a small amount of fuel available for negative-G use.  The engines are okay with the oil on them for a short time and there is pressurized hydraulic fluid in the system. 

“The fighters and trainers that I flew were limited to 30 seconds negative-G or inverted flight.  Zero-G is not negative-G, I’m not sure if there would be any difference.  The F-15 cabin is pressurized to 5 psi above ambient at altitude.  (It is unpressurized to 8,000 feet, maintains 8,000 feet until it requires 5 psi, then maintains 5 psid.)  There should not be any issues with DCS if the pressurization were functioning but it won’t be because it uses bleed air off the jets and the jets won’t work in a vacuum.  Therefore, the crew is exposed to vacuum with probable deleterious results. Another issue: the generators are driven by the engines and if the engines aren’t turning you are down to battery power which will only power essential systems for a short duration.  The longer I think about this the more reasons I come with as to why the F-15 isn’t a spacecraft.”

 

Yes, there are readers who are acutely aware of such facts and inaccuracies of this magnitude detract from the story as a whole. It would be more credible to make up an entirely new craft (think X-wing or Tie fighters) than use one inappropriately. Even a mention of the aircraft being retrofitted would have helped, even though that would be extremely unlikely due to what it would entail.

6. Some plot angles, such as the potential for a conspiracy on the part of political figures, were dropped. If this will be developed in a sequel then that should be implied more clearly.

If I were to deduct one star for each of the above points, the book book have a negative rating. Of course all the work the author put into it is worth something and it did have some redeeming value, even though reading much of this book was downright painful. Nonetheless, I persisted to see how it would end, which was handled reasonably well and provided fertile ground for a sequel.

As noted earlier, the premise is interesting and has tremendous potential, but the execution left far too many shortcomings if you’re picky about the science being accurate and expect proper grammar and style that doesn’t keep tossing you out of the story, shaking your head. These issues require attention to pass muster with the ranks of true science fiction fans. Besides some good editing, a cadre of good beta readers are a valuable asset that I highly recommend.

If you’re so inclined, you can pick up a copy on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Return-Sagan-Neil-Patrick-ODonnell-ebook/dp/B00SP4BOZS/

5* Review of Kristina Stanley’s “The Author’s Guide to Selling Books to Non-Bookstores”

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If you’re an author who wants to get more print copy book sales but don’t know where to start, Kristina Stanley’s guide is the book for you. While everyone has undoubtedly noticed books for sale in establishments other than bookstores, how to go about getting your book in such a position is often an enigma, if you’ve never been involved in sales.

My favorite part about this book was that it felt as if you were sitting around a kitchen table having a friendly conversation with Kristina. I loved the way she admitted to being nervous about such an endeavor and how her hand was shaking the first time someone asked her to autograph one of her books. I could so relate! So many of us authors are uncomfortable with self-promotion and it’s encouraging to know that this can be overcome so it no longer stands in the way of what we really want, which is to sell books.

Since Kristina was originally nervous about selling her books face to face, if you’re in that category, she makes you feel comfortable and not self-recriminating. It’s just where you are, but don’t have to stay there. She was able to get over it and be successful, so her example builds your confidence that you can do it, too. She explains how to approach store owners and managers and even includes important information such as the different types of contracts, e.g., direct and consignment sales. She talks about what percentages to offer and how to calculate what your actual book cost is, plus she even provides suggested layouts for spreadsheets to track your sales.  There are check-lists for sales calls, book signing events and more, as well as tips for marketing materials.

Most importantly, she helps you see things through the store owner’s eyes and determine the correct “what’s in it for them” approach, key to successful sales of any kind. By sharing her experience and lessons learned, Kristina helps you not to feel clueless and thus nervous about attempting to hawk your print books in such a way to gain community support for your work. Ideally, you’ll create a reciprocal relationship where they sell your books and you, in turn, point potential readers to their establishments to buy them through your marketing plan.

This book is a jewel that every author should read, whether published independently or traditionally. Taking that first step away from your writing sanctuary out into the public to promote your work can be a daunting task if you’re an introvert at heart like myself. This great guide provides a warm and friendly tutorial that includes the know-how, confidence and courage to take that important step. I give it 5 stars, but it deserves at least 10.

You can pick up your copy on Amazon here.

 

Review of “His Revenge” by John W. Howell

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This fast-moving, well-written and nicely edited thriller keeps you turning the pages as you wonder how hero, John Cannon, is going to get out of his current dilemma. In the first book in this trilogy (My GRL), Cannon foiled a sophisticated group of terrorist’s insidious plan. Needless to say, they’re out for revenge and manage to capture him after which they force him to be part of another devious plot aimed at destroying the economic viability of the west. The suspense is well-sustained, dialog gripping, and characters convincing. The action level was breathtaking. Having not read “My GRL” it was nonetheless relatively easy to follow what had transpired previously. Descriptions of Cannon’s recovery from injuries sustained in the previous book were extremely well done.

However, there were various gaps typical of a serial where the author doesn’t remind a previous reader (or enlighten a new one) with regard to details such as what the characters look like. For example, while it was implied in this volume that the terrorists were of the Middle Eastern variety, their names were not indicative of that heritage. Rather, they had names that suggested European or even American origin. There was also no physical description with regard to their appearance, so they were a faceless enigma. This left me scratching my head throughout the story, wondering “Who exactly are these people?”

I can definitely understand this tendency myself since I’ve written a serial. In the author’s mind it’s one, continuous story and easy to forget to include details that seem redundant, yet they’re essential. I’ve covered some of the things I’ve learned in previous blogs for serial writers such as this one and its follow-up. I’m sure my readers can find similar oversights in my books, so I mention this in all humility.

The motivation for their heinous acts was touched on, but not demonstrated in their personal behavior. While I would expect lethal passion resulting from intense anger, hatred, and a visceral need for revenge, the antagonists behaved more like corporate executives out to annihilate a competitor to keep their stockholders satisfied. They were definitely cold-hearted, but the expected fury at Cannon’s previous actions didn’t come through.

Maybe this was covered in the first book, but evoking the emotional drive behind their acts could have added considerable intensity and additional suspense. If the bad guys were true terrorists, you’d expect that pissing them off further would result in chopping Cannon’s (or a loved one’s) head off on YouTube, but that type of potential didn’t come through. Emotional connection is what really grabs a reader. They need to love the hero and hate the antagonist, or at least fear him/her. This is what makes a story real and comprises a gripping tale.

I hate to get on the soapbox again, but I find it helpful to to assess a book during the content editing process using the acronym IDEAS where I stands for Imagery; D stands for Dialog; E stands for Emotion; A stands for Action and S stands for Suspense. Depending on the genre, a certain balance is required of these elements. Action and dialog often come easily for thriller writers, so going back to include the others is often required. Of course you don’t want to slow the story down, so it needs to be done with finesse, not long, drawn-out descriptions that cause the reader’s eyes to glaze over.

While in this story the terrorists used the fate of loved ones to drive their captives’ cooperation, it seemed that the good guys may have gotten around it a bit too easily, if these terrorists were as smart or well-connected as implied. Especially if the antagonists had as much clout and the ability to infiltrate so many organizations to effect Cannon’s capture, which was not explained, either. Including such things increases a story’s credibility.

Perhaps this was covered in the first book, which would make it required reading to fully appreciate this one. The author has an excellent writing style with a talent for developing a fast moving story with convincing dialog and viable characters. By filling in some of these gaps, kicking up the emotional drive a notch, and a bit more imagery, Howell could easily approach the level of Tom Clancy or John Grisham. I see tremendous potential in his writing that could go from great to outstanding with a bit more attention to detail, though many readers may not care and simply enjoy the fast action. I, personally, like to know the how and wherefore, which is what can drive a great story up a notch to the best seller list.

The Devil’s in the Details

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Berncastel, Germany

Embellishing your story with the right details can make the difference between being vivid and memorable versus slipping away like a boring stretch of highway in the rearview mirror. Finding the correct balance is not always easy, however, since there’s no perfect level; it’s not only genre-dependent, but subjective. Some readers expect more while other’s complain about their eyes glazing over. I tried to read a novel a while back that was so loaded with specifics that I felt as if I were there and could map out the entire area.  However, the plot moved so slowly, if at all, I was never able to finish it. Other readers felt differently, however, as it enjoyed several favorable reviews. Nothing is ever simple about writing. Like they say, you can’t please all the people, all the time.

A skilled writer, however, knows when to get down to the nitty gritty details, such as what color blouse the heroine is wearing or what’s on the menu for that romantic dinner at The 21 Club. There’s no greater way to build mood and imagery, but bogging down an action scene, whether physical or emotional, is a definite no-no. Get your reader familiar with the territory beforehand, then fire away.

A sense of place is another important element that can greatly enhance your story. Street names, specific restaurants (whether real or not), historical landmarks and even the weather can take your reader on an excursion to somewhere they’ve never been, adding depth and character to your story. Cities have personalities, too, which can add to the mood if exploited properly.

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New York City

If your story takes place somewhere you’ve never been, there are various online resources that can provide the information you need. If you can’t afford to hop in your car or on an airplane to see for yourself, you can still obtain vital details. Wikipedia provides historical and demographic information for most cities and localities around the globe. Whether your hero or heroine has lived there his or her entire life or is visiting for the first time, a sprinkling of details will bring it alive for your readers, giving them the bonus of vicariously visiting someplace they may never get to in person. If, perchance, they have been there, you want them to recognize it, which will give you increased credibility.

Writing a chase scene? Google Earth is a fantastic way to roam the streets yourself! If you’re a visual type like I am, you’ll thrive on this blast of input. Research doesn’t have to be dry, boring or expensive. It can be fun as well as informative while providing inspiration and plot twists along the way. Give it a try and see if it takes your scenes to an entirely new level.

(Pictures by the author)

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

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Forgive me for borrowing the title from Dickens. As you may have guessed, the context, however, is entirely different. I’m talking about publishing.

Truly it’s the best of times for those of us who burned out trying to find a commercial publisher. I remember how excited I was when I found out you could publish your book on Kindle and even more excited when Create Space came along so you could actually hold your book in your hands. Long ago I discovered that, like so many other parts of life, finding an agent, much less a publisher, was quite political. I’m sure you’ve encountered books that were commercially published that sucked worse than a day-old calf. Just the memory of a few I remember is enough to make me shudder. So bringing the DIY world to self-publishing without the thousands of dollars required for a vanity press was like a gift from Heaven.

However, there was definitely a downside. First of all, there’s the competition. In the days when books were only available in, well, bookstores, there was limited shelf space. Thus, most books had a shelf life of about six weeks with a print run of a few thousand copies. Then they were remaindered, i.e. sent back to the publisher, sold to the highest bidder or perhaps the covers ripped off and tossed. Bookstores could only hold so many books and your chance at fame were thus limited.

Now, thanks to e-books as well as print on demand (POD) publishing, books are available ad infinitum, both in time and number. This is a good thing because it gives you all the time in the world to hawk your book. It’s a bad thing, because now there are literally millions of books competing with yours.

Of course when a market is saturated, that also drives down the price. It’s never been easy to make a living as an author and it’s even more difficult now. Readers have come to expect their books to be free, maybe 99c for an author they love. Even if they pay more, especially if it’s someone who prefers print books, selling a print book via Create Space’s “expanded distribution” usually earns you something in the neighborhood of $0.18.

Yeah.

And if the book is used, the author won’t even get that. Bear that in mind the next time you buy one.

As if that’s not bad enough, it costs money to be an author. Having a computer and word processor software is assumed in today’s world. But unless you can do everything yourself, there’s a matter of line editors, content editors, copy editors, book interior designers, and cover designers, perhaps even voice actors. Then there’s the expense of maintaining a website and a presence on social media, which seem to be spawning new platforms like mushrooms after a spring rain. There are book promoters, book fairs, and marketing classes, plus, to maintain your sanity, you may need to hire a personal assistant to keep up with it all. The bad news is that everyone makes money but you. The good news is that it’s a good tax deduction. Just don’t ever make the mistake by referring to it as a hobby with the IRS.

blackboard_writer2So why on Earth do we write? Because we have to. It’s something inside us that needs to come out. It’s that creative spark of self-expression that makes us feel alive. If we can share it with others, all the better. But the fact is, it’s something we’re born with and can’t deny.

Yes, it’s the best of times and the worst of times.There’s a whole lot to bitch about. But when all is said and done, being able to hold your book in your hand is priceless. The only thing better is finding a five-star review.

The Importance of Formatting

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Typos, grammar and such are an amazingly common complaint in reviews, something which many indy authors encounter at some point. However, there’s another issue that can get you a bad rapp (or rep, as the case may be) that you may not even be aware of–formatting.

The guidelines for a printed book with an interior that looks professionally done are substantially different than those for an ebook. Considering how there’s a good chance most of your readers are going to opt for the electronic version, it’s in your best interest to make sure that it looks professional as well, not like an afterthought.

I suspect that numerous indy authors, after getting their book set up on Create Space, simply hit that button on the last screen to publish their book in Kindle format. This is all well and good, but don’t trust that automated process to produce an electronic version that looks anything like the printed one. At the very least, check it yourself, especially if your printed version has dropped caps at the beginning of each chapter.

The first thing you need to do is save a second copy of your book to use for the electronic version prior to formatting it for print. Then you can add headers, footers, chapter headings, dropped caps and so forth to the printed version without introducing potential corruption into the electronic version. If you’ve already done the formatting, then obviously when you save that second copy it will be to remove such things. typewriterEither way, it’s a lot easier than the old days, when authors wrote on a device like the one shown to the right. Those of you who haven’t had that experience don’t even want to know what it was like handling simple revisions that changed the pagination. Gives me a panic attack just thinking about it.

If you want to produce a professionally formatted ebook, the best guide for doing so is the Smashwords Style Guide, which you can download for free from their website here.

Even if you don’t use Smashwords’ service (perhaps because you’ve opted into Kindle Unlimited, which requires giving Amazon exclusive rights to sell your work), the instructions will enable you to format a clean version that won’t aggravate readers enough to blast you with a bad review. It takes a little extra work, but it’s worth it.

Writing a book entails a lot of hard work, but that’s just the beginning. If you want it to be well-received by readers, it also needs to provide a comfortable reading experience. It’s not difficult to do and will be worth it. If it’s not something you care to tackle, then check into some of the services that will do so for a reasonable price, such as Fiverr.com.

Showing respect and appreciation to your audience starts with clean copy. Getting yanked out of a story by errors of any type, whether they’re typos, incorrect spelling, punctuation problems or formatting in nature, is not only distracting, but annoying. Some readers are more forgiving than others in overlooking such things, but sure as death and taxes, sooner or later, a reviewer will say so.

After all the time, sweat and blood you’ve put into your story, don’t let its message be diluted or even lost due to careless formatting. Take care of your readers and they’ll take care of you.

Some Benefits of Backstories

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As an author you’re probably already familiar with backstories.  These may reside nowhere but inside your head, but in order to develop authentic characters and plots, they need to exist.  Even if a character has amnesia, such as Jane Doe in the popular TV program Blindspot, he or she needs to have a past.  Life experiences, even for fictitious characters, are what make people interesting, provide motivation and bring out their personality.  As an author, if you don’t know this about your character, it’s going to make it more difficult to tell his story.  Dialog and action may be stilted or artificial without knowing what makes him tick.

If you’re having difficulty getting into a character, talk to him or her to find out more about their background.  You might be surprised what you’ll discover.  Character interviews are common these days in blogs, which further demonstrate this principle.  Talking about a character with other writers or your beta readers can bring out all sorts of great ideas as well.  If you get stuck, try this out.  I can have as much fun brainstorming with other writers about their current WIP as I can with my own, whether it involves character motivation or plot development.  Backstories are also great practice for new authors not only to develop their cast but their writing style as well.

It’s worth noting, however, that you shouldn’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant characters a name.  If you do, they’ll wonder later what happened to so and so.  The general rule is that any character who doesn’t contribute to the plot doesn’t need to be there, anyway, except in the case of certain group situations, like extras in a movie.  If they’re important enough to deserve a name, then they should have a backstory, no matter how simple.

For main characters, these backstories tend to come out in the course of the story to a greater or lesser degree, but not always so much for minor characters.  However, if you find a detailed backstory developing for a minor character, chances are he/she/it has something interesting to say.  You’ve undoubtedly noticed how various sit-coms have had spinoffs over the years, typically when a minor character becomes interesting enough to have his or her own program.  One that comes to mind is Frasier, which evolved from Cheers.  Another example would be the ewok stories that evolved from Star Wars.

It used to be that backstories were useful to the writer, but often sat in a file that never saw the light of day.  Now that ebooks are so popular and relatively easy to produce, they can serve a useful purpose for keeping readers and fans engaged, either as your full-length novel develops, between books in a series or even to add additional depth to a story that’s already out there.  Who knows?  It could evolve into another full-length story as you dive into what makes a character tick.  This is often how series and trilogies are born, when there’s a lot more to tell.  Fans who become attached to a character love to hear more about them.  And these are not always limited to the main ones.  How many movies have you seen where one of the supporting actors grabs your attention?  You never know who another person will connect with or for what reason.

Since this background information is often already written up, or could be relatively easily if it’s parked in your brain, it’s worth it to do some editing and get it into ebook form.  Print form works, too, since these books are usually short and make great giveaways or ultra-inexpensive samples.  As expected, the cover is the most expensive element of a book, so they might not be as cheap as you’d expect, but usually your cost will be around $2.  For example, my Star Trails Compendium, which is 135 pages long, costs me $2.48 while The Sapphiran Agenda is only 29 pages but $2.15.

Backstories work well for giveaways and teasers, both before and after a book is released.  My Star Trails Tetralogy series has two, which are free on Smashwords and its outlets and 99c on Amazon.  The Star Trails Compendium comprises all the terms, definitions and cultural background information for the series while The Sapphiran Agenda is a true backstory for a minor character, Thyron, who’s a flora peda telepathis, i.e. telepathic walking plant.  Many readers noted he was their favorite, though at least one found him annoying, demonstrating how you never know how they’ll be accepted.  Thyron has at least one more story to tell which I hope to have out soon.

Put backstories to work for you to gain new fans, retain old ones, and provide short samples of your writing style.  Short reads are popular these days as well, even having their own category on Amazon, which further increases their appeal and potential for finding new readers.  Whether you’re in the middle of a lengthy novel, between books or perhaps stuck with a case of writer’s block, these gems can be fun and easy to write and provide a means to maintain contact with your existing fan base.  If you need ideas or examples, feel free (literally and figuratively) to check mine out at the links below.

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The Star Trails Compendium

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The Sapphiran Agenda

Top image copyright 123RF

 

6 More Tips for Serial Writers

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Most of the tips in my previous post for serial writers were picked up from reading and beta reading the works of others. Afterwards, I realized that I’d learned quite a few things that were also worth passing along from writing my own tetralogy. These comprise either things I did that helped the process or I wish I’d known as opposed to figuring out the hard way. So, without further ado, here are a few more tips for those of you working on a story that refuses to end.

1. Read any previous volume(s) to assure consistency. Some details such as the color of a minor character’s hair or eyes can easily be missed, yet picked up by an astute reader. Trying to explain that Edith’s eyes are blue in certain light and green in others is somewhat lame, so it’s best to avoid it by being accurate. If you keep a file on your characters that includes such details it will simplify things later. Quite frankly, I don’t, but believe me, I will next time because it can be time-consuming and a real pain to hunt down later. Of course, while you’re reading, you can note these things, too, which is part of the point.

The best part of rereading the stories that precede you current work is you can usually find some seemingly small details that you can tie in. This is especially true when you’re wrapping everything up at the end. Fans in particular love this sort of thing and it may even drive them to go back and reread the earlier stories as well. Some of them may actually function like an inside joke. If you know anything about fandom you know how dedicated fans thrive on such things.

Assuming you have print copies of your book(s), using sticky notes or page markers works best. If you want to get fancy, you can even color-code them for different types of information. I was amazed and delighted at how some of the seemingly simple details in previous episodes related to the grand finale.

Also note how your style may have changed as your story unfolded, especially if the first one was your debut novel. (See the section in my first “Tips for Serial Writers” blog entitled “First the Worst, Second the Same…” for more on that.)

2. Use flashbacks, albeit brief, to tie in past events from previous books. Important events that ripple over into subsequent volumes should be recapped to refresh the memory of those who read previous works but did so long enough in the past to need reminders. It also puts things in context for new readers who may be reading the episodes out of sequence. These don’t have to be long and drawn out, which will bore your fans, but enough to get them back on track. Prologues can sometimes be used in this way as well.

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Flashbacks add depth as well as context.

In some cases, if your serial is complete, readers may start with volume one and blow straight through, especially if it’s a box set, but there’s a good chance that other books may have intervened or perhaps time, dimming their memory. If it’s not yet complete, it’s even more important. If a reader feels lost, it pulls them out of the story and they’re likely to be frustrated, which is one of the last things you want to do. If they wind up scratching their head or digging through previous books to find the event in question, unless they’re madly in love with your story they may toss it aside and pick up something else. Once they stop reading there’s always the chance they won’t be back. Confuse ’em, you lose ’em. Not good.

3. Timing is Everything. Serials are usually sufficiently complex to involve numerous characters who grab the spotlight from time to time and thus the point of view (POV). Keeping the timing correct can be a challenge, especially if coincident scenes are not written in sequence and have to be integrated later. I tend to write a scene when the idea arrives so I have all sorts of things to pull together as I attempt to wrap up a single volume, much less the entire serial. If you maintain a detailed outline, it helps, since you can insert POV excursions accordingly.

Mapping out key events visually is helpful, using project management software the ideal, but often unfamiliar or unavailable. The last thing any author needs is a stiff learning curve on a software package when they’re writing a novel. Using Excel is the next best option, the timeline broken down to suitable increments, whether hours, days, months or years. These go across the top with each column representing a unit of time. Events are listed in the rows below with the proper time element highlighted. You can do this by hand if you prefer; graph paper makes it a little easier.

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My first two novels were written on a typewriter that looked a lot like this one.

This can be done out of sequence if that’s how you write, either by inserting a row if everything is in order or organized later based on event timing, which is shown where time marks overlap. Including a column that contains the chapter number right after the first one with the scene description can be used to sort them as well, which also reveals any that need to be adjusted.

I remember seeing a comment from an author one time regarding how difficult it was to keep track of plot action occurring in different time zones. I laughed. My tetralogy involved coordinating events on different planets, spacecraft affected by Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity, and even time travel itself as my story shifted amongst the various characters. Keeping everything in the proper sequence to maintain story continuity was definitely a challenge. Again, Confuse ’em, you lose ’em. Remember that. Not all readers have the patience to read on with literally millions of other books begging to join their TBR list.

4. Insights regarding how your characters have evolved. How a character changes in a story is important, a key element, in fact, to good fiction. In a serial this may be a gradual process, perhaps so much so that the reader doesn’t notice. It doesn’t hurt to remind them using internal dialog on the part of the character(s), as an observation by another character in thought or dialog, or even in the narrative. For example, something as simple as “Before arriving in New York, Patsy was afraid of crowds, but now she navigated 5th Avenue with confidence” does the job.

5. Include the fate of all characters, not just your protagonist. You never know who’ll be a reader’s favorite character. I was surprised how many of my readers favored Thryon, my telepathic walking plant. Thus, you need to make sure everyone’s exit, whenever or however it occurs, provides closure. Don’t simply leave them behind. Characters who ride off into the sunset can also provide fodder for spinoffs.

6. Expect to miss your characters, who by now have become old friends. You may want to consider leaving things open enough at the conclusion to allow for spin-offs. Fully developed characters are just begging for another appearance. You know them as well, maybe even better than your own children or best friend, so if they’ve earned fans along the way, consider using them again. On the other hand, if you’re bored with them, readers may be, too, so this is not something that’s required or should be forced. Back stories are often at least partially written and can be put together for a quick short story that you can use as a giveaway enticement in your marketing efforts. Back stories are also great for holding readers’ interest until the next episode is released if it’s taking you a while to get the next one together.

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It was fun writing this back story to my tetralogy which kept fans engaged and also served as a hook for new ones.

I’ve found that my short stories evolve into novels and my novels apparently evolve into a serial. Go figure. I simply get bombarded by ideas too good to leave out, especially once my characters come to life and take over the story. Other writers can crank out a single novel or novella in a few weeks or less whereas mine, for various life-related reasons, took years.

Fortunately, readers have a variety of preferences as well, whether it’s a quick “beach read” or something they can get their teeth into. Note that back stories can provide fans with both! My next one will be a spin-off from one of my Star Trails characters, which will hopefully prevent it from likewise expanding. But only time will tell.

6 Tips for Serial Writers

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Or maybe, for clarity’s sake, I should say “Writers of Serials”. A “serial writer” could simply be someone who can’t stop writing, regardless of what it is, which fits more authors than I could begin to name. The folks I’m addressing are those of us who love our characters so much and get so enmeshed in our plot that it goes on and on, far beyond the binding of a single book. I admit to this freely, since my supposed single novel quickly evolved into at least a trilogy and ultimately a four volume tetralogy. An argument could be made that this is sheer laziness or ego, but for me there was just so much more story that needed to be told.

Just for the record, there’s a difference between a serial and a series. A serial is one where the basic plot line and story continues, often preceded by a cliffhanger in the previous book. Trilogies are often a serial, as is my Star Trails Tetralogy. Think of them as an epic story told in installments.

A series, on the other hand, may include the same characters, but not necessarily. Each will depict an independent plot or story line, such as the Nancy Drew series. Some series may even be thematic in nature, revolving around similar plots such as romance, romantic suspense, mystery or just about any other imaginable genre, but featuring an entirely different cast.

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Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about writing a serial.

If your novel refuses to end because more plot twists, back stories and characters bombard you relentlessly, then you may as well recognize that you’re destined to be a serial writer. Be warned, however, that once you indulge yourself in that manner, you’ll probably never be able to produce a stand-alone story again. This is certainly not a bad thing, but there are a few things that are useful to know coming right out of the gate with that first book. So here are some tips I’ve developed from my own writing as well as numerous others I’ve read.

1. Don’t assume your readers are already familiar with your plot and characters. As an author it’s easy to just plunge forward with your story line, but there’s no guarantee that all readers will be familiar with what has transpired so far. Even if they read the previous book or books, time and numerous other stories may have separated them from yours, so a few quick reminders are always in order. This includes key plot elements leading up to the current problem as well as details such as what your characters look like. You may have them permanently ingrained in your head, but more than likely your readers won’t. In fact, it never hurts to have an occasional reminder throughout any book regarding their appearance. It’s always helpful to give them a certain habit you can throw in here and there that triggers an image as well as makes them more real.

Past events don’t require a long, boring summary. They can usually be worked in easily through character dialog such as a “Remember when?” conversation or short reference to something that occurred in a previous volume. These references can be humorous as well. Readers who remember that particular scene will enjoy the “inside joke” and new readers will feel as if they missed something good and be enticed to go back and read it. It adds depth and life to the characters and their relationships. How often do you reminisce with friends or relatives about important events? Allow your characters the same experience.

If you have an extremely complex plot it can be more difficult to bring new readers up to speed. I have jumped into a serial midstream before and had no problem figuring out what was happening while in others I was entirely lost and never made it through the book. In rare cases, if I was truly hooked, I’d go back and read the initial volumes, but I usually just quit reading and moved on to something else. Others, I read out of order but know I would have enjoyed it more in sequence.

This problem is particularly applicable to fantasy and science fiction stories where a new world or culture is involved. The more complicated the story’s context, the more important it is to fill in the reader and continue to remind them. Again, recaps don’t have to be long and distracting, only sufficient to make what’s going on make sense. Balance is required, of course. Too many reminders or redundancy are frustrating, too. This is where it’s great to have input from beta readers, including some who have not read the initial volumes.

2. “First the worst, second the same, last the best of any game.” I remember my kids chanting that little ditty as rebuttal when they would come in last in a competition, but ironically it can apply to serial writers. All skills improve with practice, which certainly includes everything we put into words, whether it’s another book, a blog, an article, website content or even something as dry as technical writing. The craft of assembling words together continually evolves. Thus, there’s a good chance that subsequent books will demonstrate your improved skills.

This is all well and good, but doesn’t mean that your first one shouldn’t be the best possible product. If it’s not, readers are less likely to continue on with the story. If you’re a new writer, this requires extra effort to make sure that first tome is in the best possible shape. This is likely to involve some investment on your part in a good editor as well as a professional book interior and cover designer. In some cases, you may even want to go back to that first one at some point and refine it, using your improved skills. I will be doing that for the first book in my tetralogy which has garnered a couple bad reviews due to missing commas. I felt a whole lot better about this when a friend and fellow author admitted she was also re-editing volume one of her series.

3. Avoid over-populating your story with extraneous characters. If they don’t move the plot along, then they don’t belong and usually shouldn’t be named. Too many people milling around in a book can be as confusing as going to a party where you don’t know anyone and are trying to learn plus remember everyone’s name much less what they do for a living. Red herrings may require a few people who pass quietly into oblivion, which is an entirely different situation. If you’re going to have a cast of thousands, then at least introduce them gradually and give the reader a chance to connect with each one individually before bringing in too many others. Once they’re all established, then it’s okay to have a massive group scene or discussion.

Which reminds me of another thing to avoid, names that sound or appear too similar, such as starting with the same letter of the alphabet and/or having the same number of letters. You want names that are distinctly different as well as fit the character, which is a subject in and of itself. Being visually distinct applies particularly to making life easier for speed readers. For example, don’t have one person named Horace and another named Hector. Names that are unique also make your character more memorable.

pageheart4. Don’t forsake minor characters from the previous work. Many times the hero or heroine is not the one a reader favors most. Thus, they may be disappointed or downright angry when a subsequent volume excludes him, her or even it. The character may have less emphasis that in the previous episode, but at least allow him/her/it a cameo appearance from time to time or explain their absence. For example, consider R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars. They were part of the team and you expected them to hang around. In some cases, minor characters can provide a bridge to new major characters as well.

5. Cliffhangers: Pros and Cons. The ideal cliffhanger will make your reader want desperately to know what happens next and thus immediately buy the next book. On the other hand, they might be annoyed, feel cheated, and move on to more self-contained novels. Readers’ tastes vary tremendously, not only with regard to genre, but length. Some may be too ADHD to make it through a full length novel much less trilogy while others thrive on something they can get their teeth into. If you’re writing a serial, then you can always hope for fans like those who loved Harry Potter so much they’d stand in long lines at book stores awaiting the release of the next episode.

A cliffhanger that leaves one or more characters in dire straits with no obvious way out can be particularly annoying, especially if the sequel isn’t written yet! If the reader has to wait for months or longer for the sequel, you run a huge risk of losing them along the way. No matter how much they loved your story, once that time has passed there’s a good chance they will have all but forgotten it. Of course this is why you want to engage your readers, get them on your mailing list, tease them with excerpts on your Facebook page and so forth. If you have a great following, this may not be that much of a problem, but if you’re a new author it could be.

angry_girl_reading_bookHowever, for reader satisfaction, it’s often a good idea to at least provide some semblance of closure for the book at hand while leaving enough unanswered questions to entice them to continue on. Don’t drop them like a bad habit in the middle of an adrenaline rush. Put yourself in the reader’s place for a moment and consider how you react to such an ending. I think doing so may be fun for the author but painful for the reader. Maybe evoking an emotional reaction will make your book more memorable, but if it’s anger they may not come back. I always rank a book that can make me laugh or cry higher than those that don’t elicit a reaction. Emotional reactions stay in your heart (literally) as opposed to your head and thus will make your story more memorable, but it’s better to do this via lovable characters than irritating endings. I can still remember books I read decades ago that made me cry or laugh.

I’ve read the first volume of numerous stories, yet never made it to the sequel for several. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of time. As an author I do a lot of reading, editing and beta-reading for my peers which means I often don’t have the time to read something just because I want to know what happens. I have time for very little of what I would call “recreational reading.” How much I care about the characters is a big driver on whether I make it back for a sequel, but I have to admit if the plot is intriguing enough, I’ll want to know what happens even if I’m not thoroughly attached to the people involved. Another factor is length. If the episodes are more in the novella range as opposed to making “Gone With the Wind” look like a beach read, I’m more likely to make the time to read on.

6. When your serial is complete, consider making it a box set. Once my tetralogy was complete, I made it into a box set for both the print and electronic versions. This can have grand appeal to those who favor lengthy stories and of course minimizes the cliffhanger dilemma. It also gives you another opportunity for a big release party! I’ve been more than pleased with how well Star Trails has done as a set compared to the individual books.

In conclusion, I must say there’s tremendous satisfaction in writing a serial. Your characters continue to flesh out and assume a life of their own, often to the point where they virtually write the story for you. Mine got themselves into a variety of fixes, many of which I had no idea how they could possibly be resolved, until my characters themselves came up with the answers on their own. I must say that wrapping it all up was bitter-sweet, yet satisfying.

blackboard_writer2If you’re headed in the serial direction, or even just starting your first story, I highly recommend being a beta reader for other authors, which has taught me so much. We’re often blind to our own weaknesses until they glare at us from another’s work. I can’t begin to count how many times something has jumped out at me in someone else’s story, only to realize that I was guilty of the same faux pas.

Authors tend to be voracious readers, which is highly advised since it provides a wealth of information, if you but tune into it. This may take some of the enjoyment out of reading, but the writing lessons are worth it. One of my favorite sayings, No life is never wasted, you can always serve as a bad example, also applies to numerous works of fiction we’ve all encountered, especially in the Indie world where competent editing may be lacking. Needless to say, you don’t want your baby to be in that category.  Ironically, there’s more to be learned from bad writing than that which is so well-written you’re entirely immersed in the story.  Nonetheless, when you find yourself enjoying a book to that level, study it afterwards to determine why it worked so well.

I hope these tips garnered from my experience writing as well as reading the works of others will make your journey as a serial writer a little smoother.