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Getting Good Story Ideas

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Try these tricks to start collecting ideas for your novel.

 

Don't you just love it when non-writers assume that all a writer needs to do is sit around and wait to be struck by inspiration, then pound out a best-seller and become fabulously wealthy overnight? Yeah, me too!
 
If sitting around doesn't work for you, either, there are plenty of other ways to accumulate story ideas. And once you have good ideas, it doesn't take a lot of effort to turn them into good stories. The process may not be quite as effortless as waiting for inspiration to strike, but if you follow these easy steps that have worked well for countless other writers, you will soon find yourself on the creative path to success!
 
The first thing you must do is be prepared to gather information that will stimulate the development of good story ideas. To accomplish this, you need to carry a pen and notepad or a voice recorder of some kind. If you don't log information about people and events right away, you might forget important details about them by the time you are able to get to your keyboard.
 
The poet William Wordsworth once said that successful writing comes from emotion recollected in tranquility, which obviously worked well for him. Did he take notes? Who knows? But Wordsworth did not have a full-time job, nor did he keep up the yard, shop for groceries or put up with the 1,001 other distractions most of us deal with on a daily basis. So be prepared to record snippets of conversations and descriptions of interesting sights and sounds, as well as all of the ideas and emotions they arouse in you.
 

Where do you start?

That's easy. Study the people around you, in stores, at meetings, on planes. Who are they? What kind of lives do they lead? What caught your attention about certain ones? Politely eavesdrop on other diners in restaurants or on people waiting in lines with you. You will overhear the most amazing, not to mention extremely useful, story ideas!
 
Jog your memory by reading your old diaries or journals. If you don't have any, then read other people's published diaries and journals. Let your mind turn the words into videos that kindle ideas and emotions leading to perfect story-starters. Listen to music that moves you. From classical concertos to golden oldies, music is the background of our lives, so mine it for old memories or new ideas. Lie in the grass and stare at the clouds. Where have they been? Where are they going? Where would you like to go, and why?
 
Study both human interest and hard news stories in periodicals and on the Internet. Let an odd twist or turn you read or hear about kick-start your imagination. Or borrow fascinating fragments from other people's lives and mix and match them for your own use. Browse through your high school yearbooks. What do you think happened to some of the people pictured in them? (Even better, ask yourself what you hope happened!)
 
After you have gathered some good story ideas, choose several that appear ripe for development. Next, analyze them to decide about the fiction genres into which they fit. Mystery? Romance? Comedy? When you have made your decisions, write several paragraphs roughing out a plot for each one. 

 

Derry Sampey is the senior editor for CertaPublishing.com

Dressing a Book for Success

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One truism of graphic design is that you can’t not communicate. What you wear, how you speak (or your silence), the way you move . . . every action or inaction tells people something about you. And what they learn affects how they regard everything you say. Although a book’s visual persona may not be as complex as a person’s, the way it looks will reflect, reinforce, or run counter to its subject and writing style.

There is no one simple set of rules for a book to "dress for success." Simple advice for graphic design is like simple advice for writing–often simply wrong. The problem with one-size-fits-all guidance–"Always write in short, punchy sentences" or "Your thesis statement should be your first sentence, and the main and subordinate clauses should each list three items"–is that when it doesn’t fit, there’s no other size to try on.

It should be obvious by now that I’m not about to offer you a neat formula for designing a book or even for what you should ask of a designer who is working on your book. In this article, I will try to offer a framework for thinking about the details of book design.

 

Lessons from the Competition

 

So if I’m not going to give you simple advice, how do you figure out what a book should look like? Maybe the best tip in those "dress for success" books was to dress like the person whose job you want. Unloading trucks in a three-piece suit because you'd like to be the shipping department manager doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, however. It’s worth checking out the competition, but it’s often more important to look as if you don’t think your competition is even in your league. The logic isn’t to be pretentious; it’s to make sure that there’s no dissonance between your aspirations and your image.

Look at what your direct competition is doing, but also look around. If there are examples of a "step up"–more expensive, more advanced, etc.–look at them. If there are books in your field that represent something you want to avoid–cheaper, trivialized, overblown, self-important, etc.–look at them, too. Don't figure: "This is my competition. My book should look just like it." Let yourself ask how those other books feel compared to the way your book should feel. Are they too formal? Too casual? Do they feel credible, or do they feel unprofessional? Do they feel welcoming or off-putting? Your visceral reactions–and the reactions of people likely to be readers–are what’s important.

As with dress, blandness is often appropriate with books, but it will be understood as blandness–not just some default "way that books look." A few years ago, it was hard to convince graphic design clients that there were choices of typefaces or that the choices mattered. With the proliferation of personal computers, people who have nothing to do with design or typography now have favorite fonts. Today when I get a letter that uses Microsoft Word’s "default" settings, it no longer seems like just a letter. It seems like a letter that uses Microsoft Word’s default settings. You can’t not communicate.

 

Casting a Book

 

What should a book look like? It’s often better to start by asking how it should sound. What is the voice that that you’d cast for the books-on-tape version? What direction would you give the actor? In other words, what’s the personality you want the book to project?

The image of show biz execs saying, "Get me a young Mel Gibson, but with Robert De Niro’s intensity" may be the stuff of satire however that might be the best approach for casting your book. Look for other books that could play the role of your book’s personality. Although there is plenty of room for innovation in book design, every book is, to some extent, related to hundreds of other books. So starting with a book or books that feel a lot like you might want yours to feel makes sense.

In the same way that an actor might be perfect for one role and just plain weird for another, the design of a favorite book and the right design for your book might not match. We’re not looking for the book you love the most, we’re looking for the book that could play the part of your book. (Warning: Merely sticking the illustration style of a second book into a copy of the design of a first can also be a mistake. It’s easy to make a bad stew from good ingredients.)

 

Avoiding the Merely OK

 

Now put together a list of adjectives that you think describe the way your book should be, and note how the books you’re considering to play the role of your book deviate from your ideal. Example: "I want my book to be informal and funny like this, but this other one is just too goofy," or "I want my book to feel like a medieval fantasy like this one, but it should be more magical." Verbal goals may never replace the visceral "This is it" reaction when the design is right, but they will help you figure out how things are going in the design process and keep you from saying "This is it" when what you have is merely OK.

Sometimes the realities of budgets get in the way of our hopes for a particular feeling. I had a museum director show me a very expensive five-color-plus-two-varnishes Japanese book as she said, "I want the show catalog to look like this." Meanwhile she didn’t have enough budget for the two-color book I had proposed. The abstraction of describing goals can keep you from hanging on too tightly to unrealistic solutions. Translating your visual aspirations into words–"I want it to feel elegant but spare and dignified like this"–can lead you to alternative routes that make sense instead of to the "Sorry; we can’t afford that" dead end.

 

Painting the Cracks

 

When I was a child, my great uncle Freeman was a housepainter. He gave me some of the best advice you can get for thinking about or doing graphic design: "Paint the cracks. The boards will take care of themselves." The stuff that seems secondary is where the real action is, and it’s unlikely that you’ll forget the obvious stuff anyway. So let’s start with the cracks–the places where there is no ink on the page.

Look at how margins can say, "This book is an island of tranquility" or "This book is overflowing with information." In a world of tight budgets and limited resources, it’s tempting to try to cram as much on a page as possible. Although you can make a crowded page feel exciting, no nonsense, or festive, that’s harder than it seems. More often, small margins make a page feel cheap, claustrophobic, and awkward.

From the standpoint of developing the right feel or subtext, you’re usually better off trying for margins that seem too big and shrinking them until they feel right. (There will always be pressure for higher word counts.) White space is not a waste of money and trees, just like having a bedroom bigger than your bed is not a waste of flooring. It’s the "space around" that make us feel at home. Books are all about creating particular space in the reader’s head; the space begins on the page.

Leading (the space between lines of type), tracking (the space between letters), and word spacing all affect how a page feels. It’s too easy to choose a typeface based on the shape of the letters; what’s even more important is the shape the letters leave around themselves. The play between ink and paper gives an overall impression that typographers call the "color." If the color of a page is too black, it can feel resistant to being entered; if it’s too gray, it can feel bland and wimpy.

Another aspect of space is how continuous the book should feel. Some subjects and writing should be collections of distinct parts, allowing for easy starts and stops. Others should feel like one object and encourage the reader to stay in the book’s world.

If you can’t not communicate, what do you want to say?

Gunnar Swanson is a graphic designer, media designer, writer, and educator who has taught at several universities, headed graphic design and multimedia programs, and has been honored with more than 50 awards and publications. He is the editor and designer of Graphic Design & Reading from Allworth Press.

Reprinted from Independent Book Publishers Association

Author Blogs

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What are blogs? Should I have a blog?

 

A few weeks ago I was involved in a very strange conversation with some pretty bright people. One publishes a widely circulated industry magazine, another was an industry consultant, and the last was the CEO of a major corporation in the same industry. I’m not sure how the conversation evolved, but towards the end the consultant mentioned that another journal had done an excellent job syndicating their content through blogs and RSS feeds. The comment was quite unremarkable in and of itself. What happened next was not.

“What is an RSS feed?” asked the publisher; “I keep hearing the term ‘blogs’ and ‘blogging’ but have not paid much attention to them, what is a blog?” asked the CEO. A deep moment of silence ensued, it was broken by the consultant’s almost sardonic voice “Jeez man, an RSS feed means Really Simple Syndication you should know all about it, it is core to your business.” The CEO got off a bit easier.

You know what? They are not alone in their ignorance. Most people don’t have a clue what blogs or RSS feeds are. Most don’t need to, but a lot of people who use blogs on a daily basis don’t even think twice about them, how they work or how powerful they are.
So, before we go any further; here’s a definition of what a blog is:

A publication of content and Web links, sorted in chronological order, with the most recent at the top. The content reflects personal or corporate interests, and is almost always written by an individual. Blogs were originally called web logs or weblogs. However, as “web log” can also mean a server’s log files, the term was confusing. To avoid this confusion, the abbreviation “blog” was coined, and became the common term.

Blog content varies dramatically. While often it reflects what is happening in a person’s life, there are many blogs used by companies to distribute content. Some affiliate/reseller programs use them as a way to control what is published about their company and its offerings on partner sites.

There are literally tens of thousands of blogs on the internet today.

The natural question for most is, who started the first blogs, and when? While I have been unable to discover who the first blogger actually was, it does appear that they first appeared in the mid 1990’s. However, they only really began to emerge from the ‘underground’ in 1998. Even at that, they only started to become broadly used in 2001/2002.

Originally, blogs were simply standalone web sites dominated by links and peppered with personal commentaries and observations. They were little more than a person maintaining a personal web site; much like someone would keep a diary, with links pointing to items around the World Wide Web that had caught their interest along the way.

Today, blogs are much more dynamic. Mostly, blogs are hosted on independent web sites. When using one of these, the diary keeper, or blogger, logs in and starts posting his or her thoughts in real time to the Internet. Witnesses to events can comment on breaking stories faster than the mainstream media, which usually are at least one hour from being ‘live on the scene’. Thus, bloggers can publish reports and commentaries live on the Internet, and provide information to the world faster than traditional media, all without a publisher or editor to review or approve their work.

Think about it, Monks used to have to handwrite lengthy text to record events. Then Gutenberg came along, and revolutionized the publishing industry by making it possible to mass produce their work. Systems got faster and faster for a few centuries, and then along came the Internet. It became possible for anyone with a computer and a web site somewhere to publish their work and have it visible anywhere around the world in seconds. Now, anyone can spread their message, instantly. Aspiring and established writers alike can bypass the traditional publishing industry, and disseminate their work directly to the public.

Of course, this lack of editorial supervision means that writers, good and bad, no longer have to fear rejection. No one has control over how or what they write and there’s no one looking out for them to keep them out of trouble.

As powerful as this may seem, the real power lies in syndication, which gives any writer the ability to broadly distribute their writings by plugging the content into an RSS feed: Really Simple Syndication.

Imagine the possibilities. You can now have your content spread through the entire network in the twinkling of an eye, to build an audience overnight. You’ve just tapped into the ultimate in viral marketing and branding.

This ability has brought forth a whole new type of guerrilla marketing. While at first blogging was simply seen as something neat to do, when the concept hit the mainstream, people realized that they could be used to credibility that would attract customers.

If you are thinking about using a blog, the key to remember in making a blog work for you is to focus on a topic that relates to your work and or expertise.

 

Like any other communication medium, blogs’ effectiveness depends upon quality of content and execution. If you plan on starting one, below are some easy steps to follow:

 

  1. Keep it up to date, a blog which people will consider relevant should be updated every few days. Concentrate on providing the most current information on where you are in the writing or publishing process, how you came up with your characters, where you are doing book tours, how people can buy your book, etc. Also remember to post any breaking news you come across as soon as you find it.
  2. Ask for feedback: Successful blogs encourage reader participation.
  3. Link to numerous outside resources and to other weblogs with like content. It shows your readers that you are keeping up to date on what is going on elsewhere too.
  4. Keep it simple, use very few graphics, and simple color schemes. Focus on the text; that’s why people come and read your content anyhow. If you discuss many topics, use categorical sections, and keep archives of older material.
  5. Remember, you too were clueless about blogs, possibly not all too long ago. Many of your readers are probably clueless regarding blogs, XML, RSS. In fact, many may not know when they are even reading a blog.
  6. Be patient, expect a small readership initially, and allow your audience to grow organically. The better the content you provide, the quicker your audience will grow.

Whether blogging turns out to be a passing fad, or if it proves itself to be a whole new way to communicate, you owe it to yourself to examine what the potential is for you.

Content is a necessity, because it gives visitors a reason to come back.

There are many ways to build a successful blog. What it really comes down to is offering readers relevant, interesting information, and providing links to resources and news.

To succeed, it is essential that your blog provides readers more than just facts and links. You need to insert observations and commentaries. Your readers can probably get all the information you are presenting elsewhere. What they can’t get is your commentary or analysis. If it’s good, or humorous, people will remember it, and soon come to consider you an expert in your field.

Richard Zwicky is a founder and the CEO of Metamend Software, a Victoria, B.C. based firm whose cutting edge Search Engine Optimization software has been recognized around the world as a leader in its field.

Article adapted from http://www.searchenginejournal.com

Call your publishing expert today to see how we can help you set up your blog so that you can quickly create some buzz about your book! Already have a blog (or if you would like to have a blog)? Let us know and we’ll add a link to your blog to our newsletter and some blogs might even make it on our webpage! Reply back to this email today and let us know!

Common Grammatical Errors

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No matter how well educated or well read we are, most writers make grammatical errors from time to time. Usually such errors are the result of rushing to meet deadlines, as opposed to ignorance. But, whatever the reason, we look bad and are embarrassed when our mistakes show up in print!

One common error involves subject-verb disagreement, which can occur when prepositional phrases come between the subject and the verb in the sentence. Example: “The letter written by several of the victim’s relatives explain the motive for the crime.” (news syndicate writer) Obviously, the subject of the sentence is the word “letter” and not the word “relatives,” which is the object of the proposition.

Tip: Disregard the propositional phrases when proofreading for subject-verb agreement.

 

Misplaced modifiers also rank high on the list of common grammatical errors. These occur when phrases or clauses appear too far from the words they are supposed to modify. Example: “A wreck occurred this morning on Orange Avenue between a Rural Metro ambulance and a county fire truck.” (network affiliate news reader)

Tip: Always place modifying phrases and clauses as near as possible to the words they modify.

 

The verbs “lie” and “lay” confound both speakers and writers. “Lie” means to recline (lie, lying, lay, have lain) and does not take an object. Example: “She lay out beside the pool yesterday.” The word “lay” means to put or place (lay, laying, laid, have laid) and does take an object. Example: “He laid the hammer down somewhere.”

Tip: Memorize the darn things!

 

If your grammar is shaky in some areas, find a good reference book such as the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style to keep on your desk.

Derry Sampey is the senior editor for CertaPublishing.com

Advertising Your Books For Free

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What if there were a way to make your title known to every potential buyer--for free?

There is, and it's called word-of-mouth advertising--people talking to people--the most inexpensive and productive way to spread the word about your new titles. Fortunately, there are ways you can stimulate word-of-mouth communication that will build your sales, reduce your costs, and increase your profits.

 

People singing your praises removes the aura of commercialism and instills a sense of objectivity about their recommendations. However you lose control over what they are saying because, through exaggeration or misunderstanding, people may distort your intended message. Since word-of-mouth conversations can be either positive or negative, you must make sure people are talking about your titles constructively. You can do this by stimulating word-of-mouth advertising through the copy on your book's cover, your publicity, and communications on the Internet.

Stimulate word-of-mouth advertising with your cover copy. Use your cover copy to establish kinship with your readers. Jay Saffarzadeh did this when he changed the subtitle on his book Introduction to E-mail and the Internet from "For those of you who are inexperienced" to "For those of us...." By changing "you" to "us," he affiliated himself with the reader.

Testimonials on your rear cover can also work in your favor, and there are several groups of people who can start people talking better than others. One such group is commercial authorities, people (i.e., an author) who have demonstrated greater knowledge on a topic than the average consumer. In addition, celebrities have proven to stimulate positive feedback because their influence is attributed to prominence in another field. Connoisseurs have excellent credibility because of their authentic but nonprofessional opinion of the title or topic. These influential people serve particularly well with topics involving individual taste, such as cooking or art.

Similarly, a sharer of interest brings similar, credible significance to the topic. An expectant mother singing the praises of your book about pregnancy or the criminal investigator endorsing your murder mystery fit in this category. They are not experts, but are everyday people who have read the book and deem it interesting and informative.

Stimulate word-of-mouth discussions through your press releases. Publicity is an inexpensive and productive way to spread the word about your titles. And you have some control over how your story is told because in many cases the media use the copy in your releases verbatim for their articles.

One way to stimulate positive communication in your press releases is to give proof through your words and actions that you have your customers' best interests in mind. For example, avoid the sense of urgency in your publicity. Shun terms such as "buy now or lose this offer forever." In addition, make your message exciting, helpful, and informative. In fact, understating your sales points may enhance the communication and instill a sense of kinship with the reader.

In addition, use the shock-of-difference approach, describing your title from a different, more compelling angle. Utilize this technique by offering a challenge ("Can You Pass This Memory Test?"). Or make your story take an unexpected turn of events. For example, many press releases urge some form of positive, immediate action. Your headline advising the reader not to buy something ("Don't Buy Car Insurance Until You Have Read All These Facts") is an effective way to motivate personal communication. Finally, involve the reader by using verbal play. Use a sequence of words or sounds that provoke repetition through its rhythm or alliteration.

Stimulate word-of-mouse advertising on the Internet. Perhaps the fastest way to stimulate word-of-mouth communication is over the Internet. First, actively participate on a listserve, but remember that most moderated groups frown upon tactless commercialism. Instead, simply steer the discussion to your topic, reply to every question related to your expertise, and include a descriptive signature with your reply.

Secondly, motivate word-of-mouse advertising through the design of your Web site. Create a site that is educational, simply designed, fast-to-load, and easy-to-use. Provide better service, more timely information and advice so visitors can find answers to their questions or improve their circumstances in some way. Give visitors inside information-something new and unique-and tell them to pass it on to others. Also, suggest that people bookmark your site so they form the habit of returning to it.

Word-of-mouth communication can help you sell more books by urging people to tell others about them. And it is free! Stimulate people to spread the word positively and frequently by using your cover copy, press releases, and Internet activity strategically.

Brian Jud is an author and host of the book-marketing seminar.

Reprinted from Independent Book Publishers Association

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