The unintended consequences of chapter titles

I’ve mentioned this before, but my first novel, Audrey of Farmerton, ended up with chapter titles that were single words, such as “Impossible” or “Determination”. Those titles were originally for the sole purpose of helping me to navigate such a long book, but the beta readers liked them so much that I left them in. That had both positive and negative consequences, as I will now relate.

Coming up with a single word to describe a chapter turned out to be tricky. Sometimes a chapter is just a group of chronological scenes that don’t really relate to one another. In some cases, I ended up moving scenes to different chapters or modifying them to make everything fit. It became an annoyance, and some of the titles still seem somewhat contrived. Furthermore, I was handicapped by not being able to reuse a title, because that would be confusing to readers.

When I started to write the second book of my series, The Witch’s City, I realized that I had no choice but to continue with the single word titles. I also decided that I would not duplicate any of the titles used in the first book, further constraining myself. Fortunately, the English language has synonyms for just about everything, and a huge number of words.

I now think that my odd choice has actually helped me to improve as a writer. Chapters are supposed to be somewhat separate entities, to have a theme of some sort. Selecting a chapter title helps to drive my writing process, giving me ideas. And coming up with an appropriate title for a group of scenes is an interesting challenge. I’m now writing the third book of the series, and it follows the same pattern. It’s a bit darker; the first chapter is entitled “Death”.

How Not to Write a Book Description

Book descriptions are important, whether short ones in ad copy, or long ones on product pages. They need to hook the reader quickly, or they’ll just move on. Let’s start with a test. Which of the following is the best choice to start a book description?

  1. The new book from the Goldfish Today bestselling author of Koi Polloi.
  2. With nearly seventy-four 6-star reviews on GreatReads …
  3. “The best paranormal cooking book I’ve read this week.” — Ima Foodcritic
  4. Buy this book or I will slay you and all of your kin.

The first two come across as bragging. That will repulse some readers (including me). The third is citing a positive review of the book, but how does the reader know it’s legitimate? Or relevant? The fourth is a joke, but it probably would cause a reader to read more of the description. Here’s the bottom line: A book description should first and foremost describe the book. If it starts with anything else, then it is failing its purpose and probably hurting sales.

Am I an expert at writing book descriptions? No. I just rewrote the description of my first book and have no idea if it’s really an improvement.

Writing book descriptions is something that every writer struggles with and frets about. There are endless people offering advice or even offering to write them for you. And endless philosophies on how best to write them. There is no one right answer.

You didn’t ask, but here is my advice:

  • Describe what the book is about without spoiling the plot.
  • Keep it simple. No excessively-long sentences or obscure words.
  • Keep it friendly. Address the reader if that seems appropriate.
  • Use humor only if it’s appropriate.
  • Provide useful information, such as if the book is on Kindle Unlimited.
  • If you must brag or cite reviews, do it at the very end.

And there you have it. Now buy my books or I will slay you and all of your kin. 🙂

Is Traditional Publishing Dying?

Please excuse the clickbait title, but this is a serious issue. Entire industries have been created, transformed, or destroyed by changes in technology. Media companies in particular have been severely affected as physical forms of media give way to digital forms. Resistance to change is natural, but ultimately counter-productive. It is the companies that adapt and evolve that will continue to prosper.

“Traditional book publishers refuse to acknowledge that they no longer control what people read.”

This statement paraphrases one that I heard during an indie author podcast, and it rings true. We are no longer limited to books produced by traditional publishers. Or to what a bookstore or library decides is worth stocking. Bestseller lists have become all but meaningless. Most book shopping is now online, and digital books have become dominant.

In the past, self-publishing a book was both difficult and expensive. Few people attempted it, and most ended up with cartons full of unsold books. Now, self-publishing is both simple and inexpensive. It’s so easy that many people can do it with little or no outside assistance. These days, anyone can publish nearly anything. Indie authors now churn out huge numbers of new books each year—far more than are produced by traditional publishers.

I know what you’re thinking. Most of what indie authors produce is badly-written crap. I agree. But some of it is of excellent quality. Furthermore, traditionals aren’t immune to this problem. They continue to sign authors whose books go nowhere. Established authors often produce lousy books, especially if they are being pressured by their publisher to meet deadlines. As further evidence, consider that even today 70% of physical books end up being trashed—remaindered, in bookstore parlance. From what I can tell, publishers are no better at identifying talent today than they were in the past. The smart ones, in fact, now look for successful indie authors to sign.

The truth is that many of the services that publishers offer authors are now readily available for purchase. You can hire someone to proofread or to edit. You can find artists that specialize in book covers. You can find people to do marketing and promotion. It’s obviously not as good as getting an advance for writing a book and then having other people deal with all those things, but it’s also not exactly easy to find a publisher willing to sign you. Or who won’t abandon you if your first book bombs.

Another sign of impending doom are the insane ebook prices that many traditional publishers set. These prices are frequently higher than the paper version. It’s an attempt to prop up their dying print business, and a very foolish one. What they are actually doing is helping the indie authors. Someone upset with the ebook price of the latest Dan Brown thriller may simply start looking for authors who write similar books. And in all likelihood they will find at least one indie author whose books are sufficiently interesting, as well as being much less expensive.

As a final proof, I offer another statistic: Roughly 80% of the authors who have risen to prominence in the last five years have been indie authors. In other words, indie authors are taking over the market. Readers are finding far more indie works they like than traditionally-published ones.

A deal with a traditional publisher remains the ultimate goal for many authors, and there is nothing wrong with that. There will always be some traditional publishers, as well as other options such as crowd-funded publishing. And new forms will likely emerge. It’s a new publishing world now, and an exciting one.

Listening for Typos

For my final proofreading of The Witch’s City, I made use of my computer’s text-to-speech feature. I mentioned this technique in a tweet, but I thought that I would go into more detail about how to do it and why it works.

These days, virtually every computer, tablet, or smart phone, offers some type of text-to-speech capability. This is partly for convenience—such as having a text message read to you—but is also included to aid those with visual disabilities. As a result, the set-up for this feature is usually found under “Accessibility” or something similar. In this area, you should find options to select both the voice and the speaking rate. Apple devices come with only a small number of voices pre-installed, but many others are available for free using the “Customize” option of the voice menu. I downloaded every English language voice that sounded decent and then experimented.

As far as using this technique, I found that I could customize Scrivener’s toolbar to include a speech button. (It’s also possible to define a function key to invoke this using the speech set-up under Accessibility.) If I push this button, one of two things happens: The computer reads the highlighted text and then stops, or the computer starts reading from the text cursor location and continues until the button is pressed again or the end of the document is encountered.

For proofreading, I typically place the text cursor, invoke text-to-speech, and then read along while listening. This combination works quite well. For example, I had written “scrapping” when I actually meant “scraping”. Visually these two word look very similar, but listening I immediately heard the difference and was able to correct my mistake. Another example would be distinguishing between “though” and “through”.

There are some annoyances to using text-to-speech. Names, particularly unusual ones, may be pronounced wrong. Some voices tend to pause too long for some types of punctuation. Some voices don’t pause after paragraphs, especially if the next paragraph is dialog. But these are minor issues. The important thing is being able to hear the words as you read them.

In conclusion, I highly recommend that all writers who do their own proofreading at least give this technique a try. You will never get all the typos out, but every little bit helps.

The 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop

I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop. It was held on July 22, 2017 in Franklin, TN (just south of Nashville). This was my first time attending something like this. The event featured a number of established authors sharing their wisdom. Also present were a number of publishing agents, eager to hear pitches from aspiring authors and give advice.

First, let me compliment the people who planned and ran the event. From what I could tell, everything went very smoothly. People were always on hand to answer questions or provide guidance. The only complaints I heard involved the scheduling. Some people found themselves with two simultaneous sessions that they really wanted to attend, but parallel sessions are the norm. There was also grumbling about having to skip out of sessions for pitches or critiques, but I’m not sure if there’s a way around that particular problem.

Being older and semi-retired, I was worried that the workshop might be filled with younger people that I didn’t fit in with. In fact, there were people ranging from teenage to older than myself. And age really didn’t matter. The important thing is that we were all writers seeking to improve our craft.

I did end up standing out to some extent because of my complete lack of interest in traditional publishing. Most people were there at least partly so that they could pitch their work to agents. I definitely admire and respect those seeking recognition by a publisher, but it’s just not for me. One of the sessions I attended included an excellent discussion of the pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing.

One thing that I was really looking forward to was a critique of my own work. C.J. Redwine, an established author of science fiction and fantasy, reviewed the first ten pages of my soon-to-be-published book, The Witch’s City. During our ten minute discussion, she was both complimentary and critical, just as I had hoped. The good news is that she very much liked my opening scene and writing style. I am already at work addressing the issues that she pointed out.

The sessions I attended were all interesting, and they have certainly given me a great deal to think about. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the advice that was given, but that’s fine. There is no one correct way to write as far as style.

Will I attend the 2018 version of this event? Almost certainly. But if the sessions are largely the same, I may simply participate as a volunteer. Either way I will be able to engage with other writers, and that is what counts.

Quantity vs. Quality

Is it better to produce a large number of mediocre books or a small number of well-written ones? The answer, surprisingly, depends primarily on the author’s goal. If the goal is money, then quantity is the way to go. Book series can entice people to continue to purchase an author’s works. It also helps to write in multiple genres and to target underserved genres. If, on the other hand, the goal is to be considered a great author, it’s probably better to prioritize quality and hope you get recognized.

One thing that had puzzled me was how some indie authors are able to be so prolific. I recently heard one brag that he had written an entire trilogy in twelve weeks. Was he lying? No, but he was being somewhat deceptive. It’s common practice for some authors to write a normal length book and then break it into several parts. They are either published simultaneously or in rapid succession, and each is touted as a separate book. The first “book” is generally either free or 99 cents, while the others are priced higher. This is a clever technique to generate more revenue. It also helps to explain the insane number of self-published books. The only real downside is the necessity of creating more covers.

After realizing this, I wondered if I should do something similar. I could pull Audrey of Farmerton, break it into three chunks, commission more covers, and then proudly publish it as a trilogy. And just like that, I’ve written three books instead of one! And I’ve nearly got three more done! Hurray! Before long I’ll be able to produce a single poorly-written “book” in less than a month!

Joking aside, I am not going to go down the quantity path. My goal isn’t to become rich off of writing. I want my books to be the best I can make them, and I want them to actually be books. That means a low production rate, but I’m fine with that.

My thoughts on Grammarly

For those who don’t want to read a long review, here’s the brief summary: The free version of Grammarly is a useful utility for writers, but only if they already have a good knowledge of English grammar.

Grammarly is an English language grammar checker. It is available as a browser extension, an MS Word add-on, or as a standalone application. It is seemingly free but promptly starts urging you to upgrade to the premium (subscription) version. They offer a 7-day money-back guarantee on subscriptions, but I found so many people complaining about it not being honored (and poor customer service in general) that I opted to only test the free version.

I installed the macOS version. To test it, I employed the text from my 160,000+ word first novel. I pasted each scene individually into Grammarly, and it then proceeded to analyze the text and flag issues. The issues are divided into critical and advanced categories, with the advanced requiring the premium version. Critical issues are flagged to the right of the line of text where they were found. There are options to accept (and apply) the recommended change, to view more information, or to simply ignore it. An example issue is to flag “afterwards” and suggest a change to “afterward”.

So how did Grammarly do? It did an excellent job of spotting repeated words and mistakes such as writing “though” when you meant “through”. These kinds of errors are the ones that our brains often skip right over without us even noticing. It also did a good job of recognizing when commas were either omitted or unnecessary. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the complete list of things Grammarly does well.

Grammarly will often recommend changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa. It is occasionally correct, but often wrong. It will also make suggestions when it thinks you have typed the wrong word by mistake, but most of these are wildly wrong. For example, it repeatedly suggested replacing “robe” with “role”. This is the kind of mistake no human proofreader would ever make.

I also experienced problems employing the Grammarly application. Sometimes when I pasted in new text it would fail to scan it, forcing me to start a new document. Sometimes the scan would get stuck and never complete. To me, this feels more like beta software than a finished application.

Would the premium version of Grammarly have performed better on the so-called critical issues? I have no idea, but I rather doubt it. Automated checking of English grammar is incredibly difficult. In my opinion, it’s going to take a large company employing advanced AI to really crack the problem.

I did look for other reviews of Grammarly and found them mixed. Disturbingly, many of the positive ones end with buy links for Grammarly, suggesting that they may be biased or even paid for. The best reviews were those that looked at several different grammar-checkers and compared their performance to a human’s.

In summary, the free version of Grammarly can be a useful aid for finding some types of simple grammar issues. It caught typos that have been in my book for ages without anyone noticing. On the other hand, blindly following its suggestions would have wrecked my book, filling it with bizarre and ungrammatical sentences. So don’t even think of using Grammarly unless you already have a good knowledge of proper English grammar.

And never start a sentence with a conjunction!

A good friend of mine was actually taught in school that a sentence should never begin with a conjunction. In other words, a sentence shouldn’t be started with “And”, “Or”, “But”, etc. And she’s not the only one. Many people have been taught this, even though it is complete nonsense. Even today, you will find idiots on the internet claiming that this is the proper way.

The reality is that the use of conjunctions to begin a sentence has been part of the English language for centuries. In general, about ten percent of sentences start that way. Never starting with a conjunction can also lead to confusing run-on sentences that may annoy or confuse readers. Sometimes it’s simply better to break a compound sentence into two separate ones, even if the second one starts with a conjunction.

So do begin sentences with conjunctions when there is a need, but not all the time.

Amazon’s Braindead Review Policy

In October of 2016, Amazon reacted to accusations of posting biased reviews by making a significant change to their review policy. The goal was to eliminate reviews that were incentivized in some manner, particularly those provided in exchange for receiving a free or discounted item. And this included book reviews. The way that Amazon implemented this change was to summarily remove any review that contained a disclaimer indicating possible bias, and then to ban the reviewer. If this approach seems reasonable to you, then think again. Allow me to illustrate that the new policy not only doesn’t work, but has actually made things worse.

Consider two buyers—Alpha and Beta. Both receive a free item (which might simply be an ebook) in exchange for agreeing to post a review. Note that they have not promised to write a favorable review. Alpha is honest, and includes a disclaimer with the posted review. Beta simply posts a review without revealing the possible bias. In the past, Amazon would have left both reviews up. Now, they key on disclaimers, so Alpha’s review would be removed, while Beta’s less honest review remains. In other words, Amazon’s reviews are now, on average, less trustworthy, because dishonesty is rewarded while honesty results in punishment. The incentivized reviews are still there, but they are now impossible to recognize.

I ended up being caught out by this. I had just self-published my first book and had asked friends and family to post reviews. Because I am an honest person, I suggested that they might include a disclaimer that they knew the author. The ones that did had their reviews summarily deleted by Amazon.

So learn from my mistake. Tell your reviewers to be dishonest, because that allows Amazon to feel better about itself. 🙂

How important is a book’s title?

The topic of this post is something that concerned me as I began to write my first novel. “Audrey of Farmerton” doesn’t exactly sound exciting, or make it clear that it’s a fantasy. (Adding a series title, “Book One of Andoran’s Realm” in this case, does help some in my opinion.) I tried to think of a better title, but failed miserably. People I asked about it kept telling me they liked the title. Eventually, I just gave up and went with it. After all, the main character is named Audrey, and she’s from a small village called Farmerton, so the title is, at least, not misleading. The second book will be called “The Witch’s City”, and that sounds more like a fantasy novel.

(“Farmerton” turned out to be fairly unique despite its obvious origin of “Farmer Town”. The only real place by that name that I could find is in Scotland. Unique is, of course, good when it comes to people searching for a book by its title.)

Some people are adamant that a book’s title be clear as to the subject matter. For example, Murder on the Orient Express makes it clear that it’s a murder mystery set on a train. But many fiction titles aren’t so clear. I doubt that when Moby Dick was published, if any of its initial readers knew what is was about. Rebecca is a classic work of literature, but the title doesn’t really tell you anything. And, despite the title, To Kill a Mockingbird is not a guide to how to hunt mockingbirds.

The point I am trying to make is that the title doesn’t always have to be transparent. On the other hand, given the shear number of books now being self-published, it can certainly be argued that the title should be informative, because prospective readers may not even take the time to do more than read the title and glance at the cover (which may only be a small thumbnail image). This is especially important for beginning authors as they struggle to get noticed and build a following.