My post “In Defense of the Original English-Language Light Novel” has been getting a lot of attention, and as a result I’ve had a bunch of aspiring OELN authors coming out of the woodwork to ask me questions. This is fantastic–obviously–but often I just don’t have the time to sit down with them like I want to. So instead of trying to cram a bunch of information into a private message, I had some time this weekend and decided to make a guide to writing and publishing an Original English-Language Light Novel that I can point them at.
What I’ve discovered during these exchanges is that I’m often not the first OELN author they’ve contacted, but I’m sadly one of the few that have responded. I know from my own experience starting out that there are a few authors out there who can come off as aloof, but others just seem to want to keep the pool of OELN small, even actively discouraging interested writers. What I’ve learned from experience [and practice] is that the larger the pool gets, the more interest it garners—and interest is good! Established authors should mentor fledglings, give them tips, and help guide them toward success. Excluding people gets us nowhere as a community. I have made some amazing OELN author friends in the past year and found wonderful stories in the process. There is no downside to this unless you let ego get in the way.
So this is my contribution to expanding the number of original English-language light novels out there. You can find the guide under the new [aptly-labeled] “Guides” section of the site menu. If you’ve ever considered writing something of your own, [OELN or otherwise] take a look! It can seem a little daunting at first but with good information, hard work, and a lot of passion–you too can write and publish your own OELN!
As a writer of light novels I not only read them, but I also lurk around on forums dedicated to discussing them. Inevitably, some unassuming, aspiring writer wanders in wanting to either learn how to write an English-language light novel, or for someone to read what they’ve already written and tell them if they are on the right track. That’s when a specific type of light novel aficionado swoops in: “You can’t write a light novel,” they cry. “You’re not Japanese!” Sometimes others will come to encourage them, but usually once one of the naysayers has posted the others flock like vultures to repeat the message of: “You can’t do that; how dare you!”
I see it quite often. I’ve been seeing it since anime and manga started getting popular in the USA, way back when I was in junior high school twenty years ago drawing in what my peers back then called “Japanimation Style”. [Note: Yes, I’m old. Also, the term Japanimation is like nails on a chalkboard to me and it kills me to even write it. I am extremely glad it never caught on.] It irked me then and it irks me now, because it’s such a haughty, purist statement. By that reasoning you can’t write a fairy tale if you’re not European, and don’t you dare put pen to paper on that country song if you’re not from the Midwestern United States! If you press them for a legitimate reason, the only argument they have is, “You’re not Japanese, and if it isn’t in Japanese then it’s not a light novel!”
All translated light novels suddenly cease to be light novels by that logic. So what if you’re not Japanese? So what if you don’t live in Japan? The author of the popular light novel “No Game No Life” was born in Brazil. Despite that he’s published in Japan under the pseudonym Yuu Kamiya. Of course, he’s a rare exception in the Japanese publishing industry–but it proves a point. You don’t have to be Japanese, live in Japan, or write in Japanese to create a light novel.
The base of the matter is this–the light novel is a format. It runs from novella word count range to full novel length. [Averaging roughly 50,000 words] It has a manga-style cover and monochrome illustrations at key points throughout. They are usually long, expansive series with multiple volumes–though one-shots are not unheard of. The target audience is late middle-school to early adulthood. The best equivalent we have for tone and length in the USA are the “Young Adult” or the “New Adult” categories. [The latter being a bridge between Young Adult and Adult literature.] But that doesn’t mean they’re childish–not by a long shot. They can be just as gory, profound, or racy as any other work of fiction!
I was around for the rise of anime into mainstream culture in the USA. I remember questionable-quality VHS fansubs that you ordered from some Geocities or Angelfire webpage–and if you were fortunate enough to have had a group of friends invested in the same series, you pooled your money to buy multiple tapes, and made everyone copies of them.
I remember buying manga in Japanese, then reading a [poorly] translated English script of it side-by-side that I printed out from the internet. I remember when Dark Horse and Mixx [Later re-branded as TokyoPop.] were the only legitimate publishers translating manga into English and bringing it over, even though they took liberties with the dialogue and flipped it to read left-to-right which made the art look weird. Now there are streaming services dedicated to anime, and manga magazines like Shonen Jump have been brought over. Right now light novels are on the cusp of pop culture awareness in the USA, and they are going to explode in popularity soon if history repeats itself. There are two publishers that I know of bringing them over currently, Seven Seas Entertainment and Yen Press. [Viz might be a third, but I can’t find evidence that they have started yet.] Neither of them are accepting manuscripts for English-language light novels.
And I say that having seen western animation houses successfully pull off domestic anime [Avatar: The Last Airbender, or RWBY, anyone?] and more and more artists producing popular graphic novels and webcomics in a manga style. Light novels are next, and there are already English-language authors waiting in the wings, slowly building their audiences through web serials and self-publishing.
So, if you’re starting out on your light novel writing journey and have run into one of these people, take heart. If you’re a light novel reader that has run out of things to read, then take a look at the self-publishing sector–there is quite a bit of talent out there if you know where to find it! [Plus, more often than not they participate in Kindle Unlimited, making them free to read if you are a subscriber.]
Those purists are going to get quite a surprise when one day they look at who wrote the light novel they just enjoyed, and find a non-Japanese name on the cover! But until then, all you aspiring authors can do is just keep on keeping on. Keep writing, keep creating–don’t let anyone tell you to do otherwise!
When I was in high school, I took a semester of Theater as an elective. I forget why I did it originally–I suspect I may have been strong-armed into it by an acquaintance–but I’ve never regretted it.
All my English classes taught the bare minimum: spelling, basic mechanics, and the rules of the language. Only one teacher ever went into anything beyond that, and they went the way of personal interpretation. All of them ignored structure–which would have been helpful, since I remember more than a handful of occasions where we were required to write an original short story as an assignment. Instead, I learned about it in Theater, of all places.
We learned the Three-Act Structure, which consists of the following set up:
Introduction — The Main Character is introduced to the audience.
Exposition — We learn more about the MC and their relationships.
Catalyst — This is the event that motivates the MC and moves the story forward. The resolution of this event becomes the Goal.
Rising Action — The MC is taking actions that intend to move him/her closer to the Goal.
Turning Point — The MC finds a way to reach the Goal. This may be preceded by a backslide.
Climax — The outcome of this event determines if the MC reaches their Goal.
Falling Action — The Goal has [or has not] been met, and the MC is dealing with the aftermath.
Close — A last look at the MC and how the events of the story affected and/or changed them.
This is the classic structure of storytelling, and is the backbone of many tales. This was later replaced by the Five-Act Structure, which is illustrated here as Freytag’s Pyramid:
It’s much easier to understand when it is shown to you like this.
Exposition — Introduction to Main Character, setting, and backstory.
Rising Action — Events that propel the MC toward the climax.
Climax — The major event of the story that reverses the MC’s fortune. [Bad -> Good or Good -> Bad]
Falling Action — The conflict arising from the events of the climax is confronted and dealt with.
Denouement — The end. All previous conflicts have been resolved, and the MC has undergone a metamorphosis.
The elements of those five parts will also have their own shape. They will vary from writer to writer, but there are common ones that tend to crop up. Let’s go over a few of them!
For the most part, you don’t want this. They are boring, tedious areas where nothing happens to develop characters or advance the plot. Think about a book you’ve read where you find yourself skimming the page, hoping to get to the next scene break. That’s Flat. New writers tend to go flat in the beginning of the story, thinking they have to detail everything about the setting and main character all at once, which overwhelms the reader. If a story is flat for too long, readers will give up on it before you have a chance to get to the plot.
But… Flat doesn’t have to be negative. You can use it to your advantage–especially to heighten suspense, or the impact of an unexpected turn in the story. The key is to keep it brief, but just long enough to make the reader start to wonder where you are going. That’s when you can lead into a Sudden Spike, and turn tedium into a form of tension.
When you have tension followed by a major event, followed by downtime, that is the Sudden Spike. Think of a scene where two people who clearly don’t like each other are exchanging dialog. This is the build up of tension. One character will say the wrong [or right] thing, and a fight erupts! This is the spike. After the encounter is over, there is a period of downtime which can be anything from one character having been thoroughly defeated and fleeing the situation, to the two characters realizing that fighting is pointless and deciding to resolve their differences in another way. The event doesn’t have to be physical; it can be anything that causes stress to the Main Character.
These occur where the story takes a turn for the worse for the Main Character. You have a rise where things seem to be going well, or maybe the scene begins on a high note. This becomes something the reader expects to continue, which is the flat part at the top of the rise. Then suddenly, something catastrophic happens and the MC plummets from where they had been–losing a dream job, failing to prevent something precious from being taken from them, or being defeated by the villain–all events that become the straight drop of the mesa. At the bottom, you have a flat part where the MC has to come to terms with what has happened before they move forward.
This is one of my personal favorites, because when it is done right it packs a hefty emotional punch. It could also be called “Exchange” because during these one thing is lost in order to gain another. You start during an action scene, and as it comes to its climax the bottom drops out and something bad happens. In order to qualify as a true Rise-Fall-Rise, something good has to come from the bad thing. This could be anything from a precious memento being destroyed in order to save the world, to defeating the villain but having a character die in the process. These moments typically occur at the peak of rising action, or at the end of the climax. It does not count if the reader only thinks the Main Character will lose something, but in the end they don’t lose anything and still gain the benefit. That is a Threatened Rise-Fall-Rise, and while some writers feel it is easier on the reader it comes off as cheap–unless written extremely well.
A great example of a well-executed Threatened Rise-Fall-Rise is the “I Open at the Close” scene in the Harry Potter books; while a classic example of a true Rise-Fall-Rise is during the climax of the first season of the TV series Stranger Things, in the scene with Eleven and the Demogorgon.
While you traditionally see this during denouement–with the Main Character resolving conflict and tying up loose ends–it can also turn up during Rising Action. This may seem counter-intuitive, but there are stories where this is necessary. If you have a tale of redemption, you need a decline of events to show the Main Character hitting their low point before the catalyst makes them change their ways. If a character needs to lose everything before they heed the call-to-action–then you use a Decline–chaining bad events together until the character has nowhere to go but up.
A good way to see how your story moves is to map out the flow of each scene, then string them together to see the pulse of your story. Overall, you should see something similar to the Five-Act Structure, but you will also see all the little things in between. If your story has multiple storylines running at once, then map out each one individually. You will gain fascinating insights, such as discovering that even if two characters share a scene it may be charted differently between them. [Which you will see below.]
I refer to it as a pulse because it should look like the readout on an EKG–with peaks and valleys–proof that your story is alive. As an example, I mapped out two intersecting story pulses from volume #2 of my Atlantis: TVC series:
The whole book takes place over the span of a day, so the peaks and valleys are more exaggerated than what you’ll see in a story that plays out over a longer period of time. The two characters shown here–Achine [Main Character] and Gialasa–are together for the entire book, except when they are separated at the end. As you can see, each girl’s arc is different, despite them going through the same events at the same time.
Achine’s pulse has several Mesas, and the one right at the climax also doubles as a Rise-Fall-Rise. In sharp contrast, Gialasa’s begins from a higher point [part of carry over from volume #1] and continues as a Decline, marked by two small Sudden Spikes that only continue the downward trend. As you can see, this character is having a difficult time. The bottom of Achine’s Rise-Fall-Rise is Gia’s lowest point, and the two arcs begin to rise together just after the climax. During denouement, she ends up in a better position than Achine, and it shows in the ending height of their respective pulses.
What’s interesting to note is that as I stated earlier, the girls are both in the same bad situation throughout the book, but their pulses are vastly different. Achine’s determined personality makes her proactive, which creates sharper rises and steeper falls in her pulse as she tries to improve their situation. Gialasa has a anxious, meek nature, and this causes the steady decline of her arc’s pulse as fear renders her unable to function for the majority of the story. It only rises towards the end, when she is finally forced to act.
If you find your story is receiving negative feedback about pacing, or if you feel it is missing something that you can’t put your finger on, try taking its pulse. Seeing your story in a different way may highlight parts where you can improve.
For me, seeing my own characters’ pulses side-by-side shows the difference an active character and a passive character can have on the same story. If Gia were the main character she wouldn’t be able to advance the narrative in a meaningful way on her own, and it would make for a frustrating read! But because she is a supporting character–and she has precedence for behaving the way she does–she becomes an important foil for Achine during the course of the story. Gialasa’s weakness is part of what motivates her to act.
However, you can’t tell subtle things like that from pulse comparisons. So while they are great for seeing the rhythm of a story or arc, you can’t gauge whether it is good based on its pulse alone. But when used together with feedback from a trusted source [editors, beta readers, etc.], it becomes a valuable tool for fine-tuning your story.
Nope. I’m not going to trot out the same tired advice to trim word count by slashing plot and/or removing characters. I’m going to talk about literarily killing your characters. [Ha! Puns.]
Since my long-running series is fantasy-based, this will all be from the perspective of a fantasy setting. However, that shouldn’t stop you from applying what you learn here to a realistic world. [Provided it’s not a simple case of the magic-user used magic and the victim totally died, because that’s difficult to pull off when magic doesn’t exist in your world. You’re smart–you’ll know how to glean what you need from this.]
We could go on for hours about swords, instant-death spells, and arson; but those are pretty straightforward ways to kill or incapacitate someone. We’re going to go into the realm of cloak, dagger, and intrigue. That’s right–poison.
Poison is the perfect medium! Need a long, drawn out death? Poison. Need something that kills near-instantly? Also poison. Need something difficult to detect, or that mimics natural causes? Poison can do that. Need a reason to send your characters on a quest where they set aside their differences and come together in order to find an antidote? Poison’s got your number.
And as an added bonus, not only can it do all those things, but it’s discreetly administered. Aside from becoming liquid insurance for an assassin’s blade, it can take the form of an ingredient in a sumptuous meal or delicious tea. It could even be released into the air via deadly but wonderfully-perfumed incense. Poison can be everywhere. Not only that, but most poison is derived from natural sources.
That’s right! There is so much out there that can kill someone without you needing to make anything up. If you want to lean hard into the fantasy setting, you could devise any number of fantastic plants or venom that could be made into a plot point. But if you’re like me and want a touch of realism in your stories, you just need to look at things that are common in our world.
My favorite example is rhododendron ponticum. It’s a beautiful, ornamental shrub common to many parts of the globe. In fact, it’s called Common Rhododendron. Look at this thing. So innocuous.
It’s beautiful for something that will cause nausea, vomiting, breathing difficulty, and heart failure if you consume any part of it. But the best thing about it is that honey made from its pollen is so toxic, even the bees that make and consume it are poisoned. In fact, jars of this honey strategically placed in a village took down almost an entire army of Roman soldiers in 401 BC. Though, to be fair, they were left in 67 BC to take down a different invading army. As a plot device, readers and writers alike would call that deus ex machinaBS. [But it’s history!]
The lovely thing is that honey is so innocent. In fantasy it’s often used as a sweetener in place of sugar, and even in our world it is common to drizzle it on pancakes, over oatmeal, in yogurt, or spread it on toast. No one would suspect a thing.
And that’s only one of the things that you can use. There are agents out there that come straight from the ground itself that can kill. Want to venture into the land of slightly-absurd-but-still effective poisons? Look no further than diamond dust.
Yes, seriously. Though it’s not a poison on its own, when ingested the shards will embed themselves in the organs of the victim, causing infection–which leads to sepsis–and death. It’s a slow process, taking several months to work. It is an older method of assassination used most frequently during the Renaissance. It wouldn’t work in a modern setting due to the advanced medical technology we have nowadays.
The poison a character chooses can say a lot about them. What is more fantastic and decadent than a monarch using diamonds to take out the ruler of a kingdom they are at war with?
Another benefit of poisons: they don’t have to kill. In fact, sometimes there is more to be gained in incapacitating someone. Have a scheming advisor that wants power? Killing the king would make the throne go to the next in line. But what if the king becomes too ill to rule? The advisor might become regent until the king recovers… [Spoiler alert: Unless a protagonist steps in, the king will remain “ill” indefinitely.]
You can use poison to enhance tension as well. Finding an antidote can take time your heroes don’t have, and making or procuring it can be difficult on top of that. This is a good way to divide a large group, bring characters together, or send them off to another part of your world. Want a cure to be even harder to obtain? Combine your poisons. Not good enough? Mix real world toxins with ones you invent. The only limit is your imagination and how dead or incapacitated you want your characters to be.
Armed with this knowledge you can now go out there and not just poison your darlings, but do it catastrophically!
I was tempted to call this post “Tropey Tropey Trope Tropes”, because this is the state of mind I am in right now.
In one of the writing forums I frequent, tropes in fantasy novels came up for discussion. The main post asked what we writers [as readers] thought the genre was lacking, and what we would like to see in the future. Most writers used the opportunity to list what tropes they felt were tired and worn out, but some of them listed things they would like to see. The interesting part for me was that before this post, I didn’t realize how many tropes my Atlantis: TVC series subverts or deconstructs. Of course, there are many that it plays true to; after all, tropes are tropes because they’re common, and they’re common because they work. [See, this is why I aimed for that title, because the word “trope” is going to come up. A lot. It’s going to look strange on the screen after a while, and by the end of this article it will become a mass of letters that not only will seem spelled wrong, but lack meaning. Also, that’s known as semantic satiation. Or you can be fancy and call it jamais vu.]
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let me start by saying this–and reinforcing an earlier point–tropes are not inherently bad. Tropes are tools. [See what I did there?] Like I said, I was surprised by how many tropes I unconsciously subverted. I didn’t intend to do this; the story just happened to take me in this direction. I wrote a post a while back and in it I stated how after I began taking my writing seriously, I became disenchanted with all media because I spent so much time dissecting it, trying to predict where the story would go. It became so bad that I stopped enjoying it. I had to take a giant step back and learn to turn my inner writer off.
[Note: At this point in the article, I went to look something up and wasted three hours on TV Tropes without realizing it. Let that be an additional warning for you, in case you were not taking my previous one seriously.]
I ended up having to take a long break from everything to do with writing–writing forums, writing guides, TV Tropes, actual television… and yes, writing. I was taking a trip to visit my parents for a few weeks, so I deliberately left my laptop at home. The only thing I’d have access to would be the tactics, and rhythm games I had on my 3DS, and the games I had on my phone. [Mostly puzzle games, like Sailor Moon Drops.] And of course, Reality TV, because that’s what my parents enjoy. I can easily tune that out though, so that last one wasn’t a big deal.
It worked. I came back fully reset and not only able to enjoy the things I used to love, but having a better idea of how not to fall into that cynical mindset again. Surprisingly, it helped me to see my own book in a new light, and I ended up tearing down a lot of the future events I had planned and reconstructing them from the ground up. I am really pleased with the direction I’m moving in now, and I feel my writing is stronger for it.
Oddly enough, this is what is allowing me to self-analyze my own work and see what I have done. Here are some of the tropes I have identified in Atlantis: TVC:
Note: I tried to not spoil anything crucial to the plot.
Mythopoeia – True to trope. Atlantian gods, goddesses, and mythos are all figments of my own imagination and not based on anything in reality. [Excepting Atlantis itself, which was a myth in its own right, but nothing about my version and the common version match.]
Urban Fantasy – Slightly subverted, and partially deconstructed. Though in the story Atlantis exists in its own bubble in our times, Davidian’s explorations into “modern” society have inspired advancements in Atlantian science and technology–the most notable of those being the mana potion, which was already mentioned as being something he drove development of in volume #2. [Later in the series his exact inspiration will be revealed, but you can probably guess what it was if you think about it.]
There were more I wanted to mention, but I would be spoiling major plot points from the current and future volumes.
When I originally created the Atlantis: TVC series eighteen years ago, I had no idea what a trope was. When I was re-tooling it two years ago [By the way, today marks the two-year anniversary of when I started writing volume #1! Time sure flies, huh?] I knew of tropes, but didn’t really know what they were in detail. I can’t imagine what it would have been like trying to write with a negative view of tropes stuck in my head! If I listened to everything I read, I may have never gotten past my notes…
At some point you’re going to have someone criticize your work. You’re going to read somewhere that writers who don’t go out of their way to subvert tropes shouldn’t be writing at all because everything has been done already. When you do come across this, put it out of your mind. Just because a formula is the same doesn’t mean it’s going to be written the exact same way. Every story is different, despite sharing tropes. That’s why people have favorite types of stories–because usually they share tropes! So when you encounter that, remember: only you can write your story.
Have you ever hit a block–one that isn’t exactly a writer’s block, but more of a confidence block? That’s where I’m sitting right now. I’ve been binging on media lately, which means I’m watching a lot of TV.
One of my favorite shows [with the worst airing schedule in the universe–pun status is: “unintended, but not unwelcome”] is premiering a new episode daily until mid-August, and it is consuming my brain currently. I just came out of season 3 of Sailor Moon Crystal, binged all of Gravity Falls, and ReLIFE; but this show destroying what is left of me. There are so few well-written shows nowadays, and the ones that are done right are just… explosively right. And despite the fact that a novel is a completely different medium from a TV show, I still sit here and think, “I will never be that good. I will never write anything remotely that good. Dammit.”
After that, moving my cursor across the blank page becomes the most arduous task in the world. Even if I want to write–even if I’ve been excited to work on a scene–it’s beyond me. I don’t know if all authors have this issue, or if they just push through it until it’s gone. If I try to work through it, all that comes out is drivel. Letting Future Me “clean it up in editing” results in Future Me having to rewrite all of Past Me’s crap.
Meanwhile, my chronic illness is getting worse and some days I can’t even think well enough to handle staring at a wall much less write. So when I have a good day, and I want to write but can’t, I just make it worse by berating myself for not being able to take the opportunity. Thus, I watch TV, and… it’s a horrible cycle that just keeps going.
What stops it? A perfect storm–a good day health-wise where something within a show, book, or game stands out and sets off a spark of creativity inside of me; something that whispers that maybe everything I write isn’t trash, and that I can do this because I am the only one who can tell my story the way it needs to be told.
I have three main social media pages I try to keep updated: Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter–mostly in that order. I have found considerable positive traction on Instagram [of all places!] and I am gaining a little ground on Twitter now, which I honestly didn’t expect. It goes to show that if you throw yourself at something long enough, eventually something will stick. Though now all I have in my head after typing that is a mental image of me beating the hell out of Twitter like it’s an old console TV on its last legs.
I’ve considered a YouTube channel for a few months now, but that also involves the artistic side of my light novels so it gets backburnered easily. [And we all know what the comments section is like over there…]
Social media has been my bugbear for a while now, but you already know this. I’m a private person by nature, and it’s been difficult for me to come out of my shell while lacking that magic confidence anonymity lends people. As Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. Despite this being stated a century before the internet would even become a thing, it seems to be more true now than when it was originally coined. Human nature doesn’t change much, and with the exception of a few outliers, we all want to be liked and accepted. It gives people a sense of value to feel like others appreciate them and their ideas.
Creators put the intimate workings of their mind on display for people to pick apart and dissect–whether it be music, writing, or artwork. Social media makes two things easy: putting your ideas in front of millions of people the world over all at once, and allowing them to judge it–and you–from behind the safety of their own mask.
I don’t like taking off my mask. It’s not that I am secretly a cruel or unpleasant person, [Though I feel that I am much more amicable online than off…] but that I feel my discomfort and worry bleed through my words. I’m scared. I hesitate. I re-word, erase, and refine: “Will they like this? What if someone thinks it’s awful–what if it goes viral for being terrible?” [Like that last one? I always jump to worst case scenarios.]
But to be a writer–nay, an author–you have to have a thick skin! That means you can’t be afraid to take off your mask. You can’t be afraid to put yourself and your work out there! You need to handle criticism and praise with equal parts grace and aplomb. If you even hint at uncertainty, your peers will repeat this as if it is a magic incantation that will remove your doubt. I even find me telling myself this sometimes, which is awkward.
So what is a writer to do when they need to be honest and real on social media in order to connect with others in an authentic way, but find themselves full of anxiety and fear? They either stop writing, or do the exact opposite of what they are instructed to do: they create a new mask.
But… the goal was to not have a mask, right? Well, we see what happens when famous people use social media without their masks on–it doesn’t work. They alienate people, and quickly; a few of them even lose fans, and access to their own accounts for it. So you end up creating this half-mask, like the Phantom of the Opera, where you are both open and honest, but also guarded. Telling people how they should feel is stealing their agency–if something someone says about you or your work bothers you, you have every right to be upset about it! But the way you wear your own mask when others are watching says more about you than any thinly-veiled rant or tear-stained tweet ever could.
Ultimately, the magic author incantation is a lie. You cannot follow it as written. There is no way you can completely turn off your ability to care what others think about you, even if you try to convince yourself otherwise. We’re only human, and fall easily back into old habits… we trade one mask for another. It’s not a bad thing; this way we can fulfill the spirit of the incantation while being honest to both ourselves and our followers.
I believed in it for too long. I tried to bend my own feelings to fit it, trusting that it was right despite it feeling all wrong. I should know by now to listen to my gut, even when it contradicts what seems like solid advice. I took an impromptu trip to visit family recently, and had a lot of time to think about my online presence while not having much of an outlet through which to curate it. I didn’t pack my laptop, so I had what I could reach with my phone. [It was mostly Instagram, and it was largely pictures of the forest around my parent’s place in Missouri. It was… quaint… and you didn’t miss too much. Just some lousy photography of trees, flowers and my poor, misplaced-but-well-taken-care-of cats.]
I worried about leaving it quiet for so long, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Now that I’m back and updating, having had this revelation about masks, I am seeing a better response to my posts and tweets. It’s kind of magical in its own sense, but I know that it’s because I learned from my past experience, and was willing to go against what I was initially told to do.
The lesson in this is: Don’t be afraid to be yourself online, but don’t forget to protect yourself either. Remember that we’re all wearing masks out here–even when at first glance it may appear that some of us aren’t wearing one at all.
One of the major stumbling blocks I see new writers trip over is research. On writing forums you’ll see variations of these three questions being asked:
How should I organize the information I already have?
How do I perform research?
How do I know when I need to do it?
The answers are as diverse as literature genres, the first point especially so. Since we all think and organize differently, even if you start out mimicking someone’s method, you will eventually tweak it to fit your own habits. Some writers keep large files, while others just keep a running sheet of notes. I personally keep a large file [My file for Atlantis: TVC is so large I indexed it. Fourteen pages of characters, world building, and magic.], and a ton of super-organized bookmarks in my browser. But that’s just me. As I said, how you arrange it is best done in a way that accommodates you. If having individual files for each topic/chapter/character/place is how you roll, then who am I to say it’s wrong?
That’s not the part everyone seems to get hung up on, though. How to do it seems to be the most difficult aspect of research for new writers. It may come as a surprise, but that is the easiest part!
The information of the world is available at instantaneous speeds due to the internet–information just sitting on a server somewhere waiting to be accessed, or even a lone stranger on a backwater forum waiting for you to ask the question that will prompt them to shower you with the data you need–all of it is just a click away. When they ask how to do it, either they are admitting that they don’t know how to use a search engine, or that they really don’t know what they need.
That’s the difficult part. You’re told that you need to research, research, research! But what do you look up? It feels like you’ve purchased a new dresser, opened the box, spread out the pieces, then realized that it didn’t come with directions. It’s overwhelming, but I have good news: the answer is to stop.
That’s right. Stop looking. Instead, write. Whether it’s notes, an outline, or your actual manuscript, getting things out of your head and on to paper will lead you in the right direction.
I can’t tell you how often I will stop writing to find more information on something–the proper name of a weapon, a picture of a poisonous plant, how horses act when they are scared, etc. Depending on the answers you find, you can end up in a several hours-long sinkhole of data that changes the direction of the plot. [Personal experience.] You’ll just be typing away and stumble over something that you need to know more about. Then you search for it. That’s all there is to it. There is no magic formula, or list of topics anyone can point you at, because everyone writes different things. [Unless it’s a technical question, like grammar, or formatting; if you need help with that, I have a wonderful Resource List you should take a peek at!]
If you ask about promotion or marketing as a new self-publisher, people usually say something vague like: “As a self-pubbed author, you need to wear many hats!” as they direct you toward social media, or paid book promotion services, and… well, that’s it. “Here’s a link to Twitter, and another one to Goodreads. Now go forth–and don’t forget to wear your marketing hat! Even traditionally published authors have to do this now.” Others will recommend that you have a nice cover and tell you to try to utilize word of mouth. Barring that, you’ll get told to pay someone else to do it. No one is wrong, but no one is telling the full story, either. To market successfully, you need to use everything available to your advantage. Things like:
A Finished Book
Eye-catching cover that instantly conveys your book’s genre
An edited, polished manuscript beneath that cover
Intriguing back cover blurb that introduces the main character and asks more questions than it answers
The actual book is half the battle, but it’s the most important thing you can work on. This is the end product. Everything you do after you write it will be designed to lead readers to it, and when they leave, they should feel at best satisfied–and at worst, neutral. They should not feel tricked or offended by taking time from other tasks to look at your work.
These are the readers you had in mind when you wrote your book, and the ones you will need to keep in mind as you build your campaign. Who do you think would like your story? Ask yourself questions like:
What type of stories do they normally read?
What element of your story would pique their interest?
What other authors would they read?
The more questions you ask, the closer you will come to seeing your ideal reader. Once you have your ideal reader pinned down they are who you want to aim for as you plan your ad campaign. Any marketing you do should target them, and anyone else you may catch will ripple out from that center.
A Social Media Presence
A blog branded with your name or pen name*
A Facebook Page
A Twitter Page
*= If possible you should start this before you finish your book
This is the bare minimum for social networking. I highly recommend buying your author name as a domain and having it direct to your blog if you do not open a website. I also advise you to join a third social media of your choice, this one visual. Pinterest or Instagram are great choices, though I have personally found great success with Instagram–especially since it cross-links so easily with Facebook.
That’s another thing–if you are more comfortable on one type of social media than another, there are resources that allow you to make a single post on your preferred platform and send it to others, maximizing your exposure. [This is a great article detailing the most popular options available to you.]
Speaking of exposure, there are several different ways to achieve this. Simply putting yourself on the web will not sell books! You would be surprised at how many authors stop here and wonder why they couldn’t sell to people other than friends and family. The web is a vast, busy place. You have to make yourself visible. You have to make yourself and your book stand out. There are several ways to do this:
People are visual creatures. First impressions are important–some readers won’t even read your back cover copy [or your back blurb, as it is sometimes called] if they hate your cover! With split-second decisions like that being made, you’ll need to have cover art that can work double time for you in advertisements. If you are going to market your book, you’ll need a few visual aids:
A high-resolution copy of your cover art
A high-resolution copy of your final book cover
A photo of yourself that is not a selfie [Author’s Headshot]
These should all be at least 2000 px in height, and 600 dpi; preferably saved in a lossless format, like PNG or TIFF. The cover art is what you are going to use whenever an ad requires a picture, and the image of the cover whenever you want to display an image of your book. [Such as in banner ads] Your author picture will be used when you create an official profile for yourself. You should have one on any website you sign up for, and display it on any “About” pages you have the chance to fill out.
If you wish to get creative and make banner ads, or advertisements with text on the images, I highly recommend paying someone with more experience to do it. It works out well to do it by yourself when you’ve spent the last twelve years freelancing as a graphic designer [like I did], but if you are planning on using any kind of template tool or paint program to create your images, you’re probably going to have a bad time. This is the one point in the self-publishing process where I would err on the side of caution and hire someone. If you can’t afford it, do text only ads. It is so difficult to overwrite a bad first impression. It can be done, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Advertising Yourself and Your Work
Social Media Hashtags
Word of Mouth
Getting cataloged by webcrawlers
Don’t underestimate the power of hashtags. Put them on all your social media statuses! Make them relevant to what your book or series is about, but don’t forget about vaguely-associated ones, like the platform you sell from [Smashwords, Amazon, etc.] or the cost of your book–especially if it’s free or on sale! Word of Mouth is another powerful, free tool–especially if friends and family are buzzing about your book! And if all else fails, a webcrawler will eventually catalog your blog or shop page. It could take several weeks or months for that to happen, though.
Social media can work for you despite having a small initial reach or audience.
Promoted Status Updates
Promoted Website Links
These are done through Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can set your own budget per day, and set the number of days the promotion will run. These are most effective when used with a sale or giveaway.
These are low cost options that reach many people, and are great for an author who has just launched their first book, or a seasoned author with a slim advertising budget.
I ran an ad campaign simultaneously with Google and Facebook. You can read about my experience here.
This is for authors trying to break into the big leagues! You are set up with a consultant who will tailor an ad campaign just for you. Unfortunately, these services come with strict qualifications and/or a hefty price tag–some starting at a couple hundred dollars. These services target readers specifically, and if you have a large amount of positive reviews that can drive sales, then using a service like these can catapult your book into a bestseller slot.
Most of these require your book have at least 10 reviews and a 3.5+ rating prior to submission.
Giving away your book free for a limited time is a great motivator to pick it up, especially if it’s new and doesn’t have many reviews. If you are writing a series, your first book is a good candidate to offer for cheap [or even free] whenever you can–this drives people who like it to pick up the remaining books in the series, and is known in marketing terms as a Loss Leader. [But it only works if you have two or more books released for the series.]
The chance to win something is a great motivator! People love free stuff, even if it’s a copy of your book. You can offer a simple lottery-style giveaway, or you can require certain terms for entry. On Facebook a popular strategy is to offer a single chance to win for a “like”, and a double chance if they share the contest status. This spreads your message organically, encouraging others to enter while promoting your book or page. How much that prize costs is up to you–a free e-book doesn’t even cost you shipping! [Note: Make sure you read the rules of the sites you plan on running your contest on so you can make sure it doesn’t accidentally violate one of them!]
These two options are great if you are willing to do some legwork, and are often free! Don’t be too discouraged if people don’t get back to you right away–they often have large backlogs of requests to go though, so a reply time of several weeks isn’t unheard of.
As I said earlier, using all of these will drive sales; but for some self-pubs things like concierge advertising are a pipe dream. That’s okay–there are plenty of free and low-cost options here that will help you out! Mix and match the ones you feel will work best with what you have, and you will still bring readers to your book!
I know–this was a long, serious article. Have a cute kitty for your patience!