I'm still working on all that marketing/branding stuff, in between trying to come up with a title for the book and doing edits/revisions.
I've had a few comments about how much humor might play into my author brand, but that's almost as big a minefield as the "clean" label. There will probably be some dose of humor, whimsy, or quirkiness in everything I write because I can't help myself. It may be a totally serious book with a slightly oddball premise (again, I can't help myself) or with characters who have a sense of humor. But that might not really be considered "humor." If you label something as funny and people don't laugh, then they consider the book a failure. Every time Harlequin tried to launch a romantic comedy line of books, it tanked, mostly because there are a lot of different kinds of humor, and so many of those books weren't funny at all to some people. If you don't say that something is funny and a reader laughs once, they might consider it a good book. If you say it's funny and the reader laughs once, it can lead to a much more negative reaction. So I think the "humor" aspect might fall under the "fun, feel-good" label. There will probably be something in my books to make you smile, but not everything is going to be comedy. That can be conveyed through lighter colors, the typeface, and in the way I present myself. There's usually at least some dry humor in my blog posts. I'm generally funny on convention panels. My tweets and Facebook posts present some humor.
I was reading an article on business planning for authors yesterday that suggested finding an author whose career you'd like to have and looking at what you'd need to do to have that career. I won't name the person I came up with, but in general it's someone who's pretty well respected in the genre but not necessarily famous outside the genre. Her books tend to make at least category bestseller lists and she gets award nominations. That's about where I'd like to be. I don't want to be real-world famous, but it would be nice to be famous within the genre -- to have lines at my autographings at conventions and the room packed for my panels. But because of being at the same publisher at the time this author was being launched, I know how she got to where she is, and a lot of it comes down to publisher support. She had a well-written book with a high-concept premise, and I think she already had a lot of online visibility from other activities, and the publisher had a strong launch strategy for her series. They did a lot of marketing at events like ComicCon and supported the books at the bookseller level. It's hard to build a business plan around "and then the publisher will promote the books."
So what it comes back around to is a well-written book with a high-concept hook that publishers will get excited about enough to push it. Coming from where I am, I'd probably have to boost what I'm doing now to use that as my pre-established visibility so that my existing sales don't count against me. I really want to avoid having to take a pen name to start over. I don't deal well with alter egos. I think I have a big enough following that my existing readership should be an asset rather than a liability, but when you're dealing with bookstore buyers, there's a risk that they'd look at the raw numbers and refuse to buy in a new book in greater quantities than have sold with previous books.
I should probably look more at authors who eventually broke through after a long slog rather than at those who had a big hit right out of the gate. That might give me more lessons to work with.
One of the panels I went to at WorldCon was about author branding -- the marketing kind, not the kind involving hot iron. I'm from Texas, so this needs to be clarified. That's something I've been wrestling with lately, and something I need to clarify before I can do some other stuff, like get a new web site done.
The "brand" is really everything involved in communicating with the public -- the tone of the communication, the messages that are conveyed, the look and feel of things, etc. It's not just a tag line, but the tag line is part of it. Something mentioned in the panel was looking at what your work has in common. This goes deeper than genre. Even someone who writes in multiple genres can have a single brand identity.
I might say that magic is still at the core of my brand because I can't imagine writing something without it. Every single story idea I have involves magic of some sort. However, it might not be a great idea to hinge my author brand on that in case I do come up with an idea that doesn't have it. I already had to scrap my "fairy tales for modern times" tag line when I started writing steampunk, and I have ideas for more traditional fantasy. I suspect I'm fairly safe with magic, though, since that can be defined broadly.
Something that came up when I raised this topic on Facebook was the fact that my books are "clean" or "sweet" -- no gory violence, not a lot of bad language, no graphic sex. This is a pretty good differentiator for me, something that sets me apart, and I don't imagine I'm likely to veer from it because I just don't like writing that kind of thing. It's tricky to incorporate into a brand, though. There's been some backlash against authors who promote themselves as "clean and wholesome" because on the one hand there are people who are offended that some things aren't considered "clean and wholesome" and on the other hand, there are people who have a different definition or different standards and who take offense at things they don't consider to be "clean" that are included in books labeled that way. I'm not sure I'd make this an explicit message that's directly stated in a tagline or in any marketing materials. That's something best communicated indirectly by being consistent in keeping my communication and marketing within a range similar to what I write. So I'm not going to be posting pictures of nearly naked hunks on my Facebook page, I don't use a lot of cursing in my posts, I talk openly about being a Christian and my involvement in my church. You can read between the lines and imagine I'm not writing grimdark fantasy with lots of erotic content.
The other thing that came up a lot in the Facebook discussion was that my books are fun reads. They're escapism. There's going to be a reasonably happy ending, or at least hopeful (if it's in the middle of a series). You're probably going to like the main characters, who are decent people. I don't dwell a lot on villains. I get a lot of reader mail that talks about reading my books while undergoing chemo, on bed rest during difficult pregnancies, while sitting with a loved one in the ICU. My books are feel-good reads. I think this is something to focus on and work with in my branding. "Feel-Good Fantasy"?
Most of my reader mail/comments/feedback focuses on the romantic elements, even though I wouldn't classify most of what I write as "romance." I think that's pretty common across the board, though. If you look at Internet discussion about just about anything, the 'shipping tends to predominate, even if there's not really any romance there. Romance or even the possibility of romance seems to be what makes the emotional connection with a lot of the audience. So I don't know if this is actually something I do well that I should incorporate into my brand or if it's just a general thing that the romance is going to get the response. If I market as romance, people who are really looking for romance are going to be disappointed. I think what I do best is more the hope, the yearning, the possibility. I love the slow build.
A lot of this stuff is more indirect. I'm not sure how to convey "feel-good" graphically. Probably not a lot of dark colors. Maybe a touch of whimsy. When I get done with this round of revisions, there are some books I want to check out of the library to read more about branding and see if I can get better ideas.
Any thoughts on how you see my books and what you think is the key common element?
I'm home from WorldCon and getting back into the swing of things. I had grand good intentions of blogging while I was there, but it just didn't happen. By the end of the day, I could barely string words together. There were about 4,000 people there in a large convention center. I was averaging about 3 panels or other events per day that I was on. Just about everything seemed to be standing room only except for a couple of events in very large, very remote rooms at the beginning or end of the day. So it was all-day crowds at a very high energy level. I made myself do at least some networking, so for dinner I went to the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America suite, where I could get a meal and chat with people in a quieter environment. That seemed like a good compromise when my instinct was to get takeout and hide in my room. But that meant I was getting back to my room and getting in pajamas at around eight or nine at night, barely catching up on e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, etc., and then collapsing.
But the reason it was so draining was that it was good. I went to a lot of panels, even ones I wasn't on, so there was no real "down" time during the day, and I have a notebook full of notes. One particularly interesting one was the director of the Vatican Observatory talking about living in an absolute monarchy. He's mostly at the convention to talk about science stuff, but he did this presentation for fantasy authors, since the Vatican is one of the remaining absolute monarchies that functions a lot like the realms in fantasy worlds. There was a great panel on "Nifty Narrative Tricks" that got the wheels turning in my head, as did the panel on playwriting techniques for novelists. I attended some sessions on business planning and author branding, though I'll have to look again at my notes to see if there's anything I can use there.
For the panels I was on, I got to sit next to David Gerrold on a Star Trek panel. There was a great discussion on steampunk at another panel, and a fun panel on adults reading young adult books. I'd been worried about the YA Beyond Borders panel, but it turned into a fascinating discussion that continued in the hallway. I moderated a panel on beta readers that I hope was useful for the attendees.
I did feel a little bit invisible at the convention. For someone who's been publishing in the field for eleven years, with 12 published fantasy books (that's not counting the years and books in romance), and with six Worldcons under my belt, I'm still kind of a nonentity, which can be frustrating when you see newer people with fewer books (and not necessarily bestsellers) more or less eclipsing you. None of my books were available in the dealers' room, not even the new Rebel Mechanics paperback. My autograph session would have been pretty much a bust if not for some of my friends and for some people from my Japanese publisher stopping by. And getting to sit next to William F. Nolan and chatting with him about Logan's Run. On the other hand, I did have an almost full table for my kaffeeklatsch and a decent crowd for my reading (and I didn't even know all of them).
I'm not really sure how to become more visible in that world. The hanging out in the SFWA suite may help. I'm trying to do more follow-up with people I met. I'm terrible at networking because I assume people won't remember me, so I hesitate to contact people, but it's easy enough to follow people on Twitter, and that's a start. I'm going to make more of an effort to participate in the SFWA message boards. I know there's been a lot of controversy lately about the Hugo awards, with a lot of resentment about ideology, and such, but I have to say that even apart from ideology, it does look like there's a "cool kids" club that feels entitled to the nominations, and even if some outsider group that was as perfectly inclusive and diverse as the cool kids club prides themselves on being showed up and managed to get a toehold in the process, there would still be a lot of resentment and outcry from the clique. There's a lot of talk about being inclusive and accepting, but there's a definite insider vs. outsider sense of cliquishness there that can't be fixed while it's not acknowledged. It really is the jocks and cheerleaders vs. the rest of the school, except I don't think even talent can break you in. The back handsprings won't get you on this cheerleading squad. Most of the time, I can ignore all this and just get on with my work. It's only at the big conventions that my invisibility field kicks in with people who should be my peers, but I get the feeling if I tried to join their group, they'd close ranks or get up and move.
I saw almost nothing of the city, but the downtown area was nice, and the famous library whose parking garage looks like a giant bookcase was a few blocks away. My travel went pretty well, aside from the bus breaking down on the trip to the airport (I was glad I planned for taking one bus earlier than I needed) and the thunderstorm that hit when I stepped off the train from the airport on the way home (at least the plane landed before the storm hit). I got to hang out with friends I see maybe once a year and reconnect with some fans who've been with me from the very beginning. I had some interesting conversations, and I'm motivated to get back to work. The one thing I can absolutely control is what I produce, and the only way to really increase visibility is to keep writing more and better books. I have to get Enchanted, Inc. book 8 (which needs a title) to the copyeditor in mid-September, so I have work to do.
It's countdown to travel day. I have my to-do list down to blocks of time. I'll admit that I'm a little obsessive about planning travel, but I like to reduce stress as much as possible. I'm so not about the drama. The more planning and preparation I do, the less stress there is. My aim is to be able to get up the morning of a trip, eat breakfast, get dressed, throw the last items I needed for getting dressed in my bag, make the bed, take out the trash, and leave. My ideal is to have everything done before the night before the trip so that I can spend the evening before relaxing -- have a glass of wine, watch a movie or read a book, and go to bed early. I haven't quite made it all the way there yet, but it's a goal. I also like to have the house fairly clean, something in the freezer that can be microwaved for dinner when I return, and something on stand-by for breakfast the next day.
This involves a lot of lists and schedules. Two weeks out, I make a master list of everything that needs to be done before the trip, whether or not it's related to the trip. I assign target dates to each of the tasks. One week out, I take another look to see what's done, what I still need to do, and what's not on the list. I break down tasks to do by day. I try to take care of errands (bank, shopping) several days ahead unless it involves something perishable. Ideally, I don't have to leave the house the day before the trip. When I'm down to the last day or so, I make another schedule, reverse engineering from the time I need to be ready to leave to make sure I have time to do everything.
So far today, I've managed a bit of business stuff, cleaned the bathroom, and washed sheets (another must-do -- clean sheets go on the bed right before I leave). I've put some stuff in the freezer and washed dishes. Now I mostly have another bit of business to do, packing (which has started but isn't entirely complete), and some overall tidying up. I may make my evening goal.
I don't know how often I'll be posting during the week. I'm more likely to be posting through Twitter (https://twitter.com/ShannaSwendson
) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/shanna.swendson
). Any pictures will be posted in one of those places because I'm not yet sure how to get pictures from my phone to my tablet and I'm not taking the computer.
Any blog posts will be at the blogger site because I have an app for that on my tablet: http://shannaswendson.blogspot.com/
Now, off to do all the things!
I survived the week of music and art camp. Actually, it wasn't that bad. The kids I had were pretty sweet. I had a couple of girls on Monday who looked like they might be problems -- they brought their own toys and refused to participate in any of the activities -- but one of them threw a hysterical hissy fit when her mom dropped her and her friend off the next day, and her mom gave up and took them home and they didn't come back. That made life much easier. I only had a few boys, and they were really into the stuff we were doing, so they were no trouble at all. It was just a tiring week because I had to get up early and then was on my feet and active all morning, including about half an hour outside on the playground when it was really hot. That was draining.
Now I need to finish the story revisions on the book (should get that done today) and then do all the stuff I need to do to get ready for my WorldCon trip next week. I've done the shopping and errands and I have most of my promo stuff ready (that's work I do while watching Olympics). I just need to figure out and practice what to do for a reading and then do all the laundry, packing, cleaning, and prep work.
If you're going to be at WorldCon in Kansas City, here's where I'll be
. Yes, I'll be very busy.
Which means I'd better get to work and wrap up this book so I can do everything else.
I'm gearing up for a birthday weekend that will mostly be spent working. I'm nearly halfway through this round of revisions, but I've hit the serious rewriting point, so it will slow down, and then next week I'll be out Monday through Thursday mornings, so my schedule will likely be off, and we start choir again next week.
I'm also going to take a brief blogging hiatus. Next week, I likely won't be posting Monday through Thursday. I'll pop back in on Friday for a pre-WorldCon post, and then I'm not sure what I'll do while I'm out of town for WorldCon. It's hard to keep up a regular schedule. I'll be doing more posts to Twitter and Facebook, I imagine. I think I'll take a longer break on writing posts, resuming those in September. I haven't taken that many blogging breaks in more than a decade, so it may be good to regroup and refresh myself, especially as I ponder the value of my various communication and marketing activities.
Meanwhile, it's Olympics time, and I'm not too excited. I feel like we just did this in London. How could that have been four years ago? I may watch part of the gymnastics. I don't know about even the opening ceremonies, since there's something else I want to watch opposite it. I just don't have the brain space to absorb all that stuff right now. I have too many fictional worlds competing for space in my head.
And watch me get caught up in all the hype as soon as it starts ...
I made it through the first quarter of the book in revisions yesterday. At this stage, I'm just fixing the story. I'll worry about the words later. So far, I've cut an entire chapter's worth of material. I cut a huge chunk of chapter two and a huge chunk of chapter three, and now what's left of both chapters is the new chapter two. I imagine I'll be adding at least a chapter's worth of new material in the middle to make up for it. There are a couple of characters I introduced, then forgot about, and then they became important at the end, so I need to incorporate them more throughout so they don't just reappear out of nowhere at the end.
Today starts the hard part. I don't think I'll make it through that many pages because a lot of it will be new writing, and that will require a lot of figuring things out. Still, if I can average about a couple of chapters a day, I'll get this round of rewrites done before WorldCon.
I've already made my Epic List of Stuff That Must Be Done Before WorldCon, with targeted dates. The list doesn't look as bad as I feared it would, but then there are a couple of items on there (like finishing revisions) that require several hours a day from now until then. And I keep adding items to the list as they occur to me (the reason I keep a list). The idea of making the list so soon is that I can start dealing with little things or make sure I'm on top of big things so that departure is as stress-free as possible. That's going to be tough when I'm working on a book at the same time. Someday, I'll get the hang of mixing life with writing books, but for now it seems like I'm all or nothing -- when I'm working on a book, nothing else happens.
For instance, my harp practice has really fallen by the wayside. I only seem to touch the harp when I have to go upstairs and reset the modem and wireless router for my daily Internet outage (funny, those AT&T Internet commercials about how terrible it is when the Internet is down are a fairly accurate representation of my experience with AT&T Internet. Either I have a bad modem or their service crashes at least once a day and requires rebooting everything). I play the harp while I'm waiting for everything to reset.
Now to start thinking of how to fix the rest of this book …
I read through the first half or so of the new book yesterday, and my instincts about what I'd likely need to cut were pretty much on target. I'll be cutting a lot of scenes out of the beginning and then beefing up the middle. In "hero's journey" terms, the Crossing the First Threshold part comes way too late in the book. I extended the "refusal of the call" for too long. It needs to be somewhat substantial because it's a big threshold to cross, but probably not five chapters worth. And I need to change the opening scene because it's kicked off by something that I thought would be important in the book but that I didn't end up using all that much.
After that much reading and thinking, my brain shut down. I guess I was still in convention recovery mode. So I took a shower, put on my pajamas and watched a brainless movie -- Jupiter Ascending. I'd recorded it off HBO a month or so ago, but there was a glitch in the recording that seemed to cut off the ending, and I knew it wasn't just the movie having an odd ending because it cut straight to the technical part of the credits, skipping the stuff about director, writer, and cast. Since I'd zoned out midway through the movie, I found another showing and had the DVR grab it.
And it still didn't make much sense. It was kind of like they found script pages from various other movies and stuck them together. The visuals were pretty spectacular, and the cast was full of "what are these people doing in this movie?" kind of actors, but the script was basically a stereotypical bad YA novel that borrows heavily from other films. It starts out as The Terminator, only our heroine is a maid instead of a waitress and she's being stalked by alien assassins instead of a killer robot from the future. And she faints and has to be carried away by the hot soldier sent to save her instead of running away with him. Actually, she gets carried around a lot. I guess it makes for a romantic visual with her in the arms of the beefy guy who has magic space rollerblades, but it really adds to the sense of the damsel in distress. There are some bits that make me think of Signs. Then we have the brief Princess Diaries interlude, followed by the segment right out of the movie Brazil (including a cameo by the director of that movie -- perhaps an attempt to avoid a lawsuit?), and then we have some Phantom Menace costuming, and then the part I never seem to manage to watch because at that point in the film I feel compelled to read Facebook, and then there's a dash of Revenge of the Sith mixed with The Empire Strikes Back, and then I don't even know. Maybe some Xanadu? It's a good thing I didn't see this in the theater because I was compelled to blurt out the obvious lines from the scenes that were being borrowed.
I can't really recommend this movie, but at the same time, you really kind of have to see it. Turn off the sound and play some good classical music and use it to facilitate daydreaming. It could be like a kind of meditation because it's certainly good for emptying your mind.
Unfortunately, I was too tired to use it for good brainstorming background, and I still need to come up with a new opening scene. Hmm, what other brainlessness does HBO have to offer?
A lot has happened since my last post. I finished the book (yay!!!!!). Today I start on revisions, which I hope to finish before WorldCon. I went to ArmadilloCon, which was a fun trip. I think this convention has become more of a writing-oriented convention rather than a fan-oriented one, which requires some adjusting of expectations. It isn't necessarily where you go to promote yourself to fans, but it is a good place to go to network with other writers and pick up new info about the industry. That networking can lead to promotional opportunities, but it's definitely not a "buy my book!" and meet with your fans kind of event.
I have two weeks before WorldCon, and next week is Music and Art Camp at church, so it will be a busy two weeks. I may take it somewhat easy today and focus on re-reading and making revision plans. I had to go out this morning to pick up my new glasses, so I went ahead and also got groceries. Now I can hibernate and rest for the remainder of the week, since this trip was rather exhausting.
The time while I was there was quite pleasant, though. I'm not sure quite how it happened that way, but I ended up with a corner room that had a balcony. I ate my breakfast out there in the mornings and spent a lot of time sitting out there in the afternoons and evenings. I'm now having to adjust to being back home and not being brought orange juice in the morning and ice and water in the evening. But it's not just me missing the hotel. They sent me an e-mail this morning saying they missed me. Aww, it's mutual.
But now it's back to my usual routine and work and getting ready for my next trip.
I have about an hour's worth of work to go on this draft, and that means I'll have finished a full-length draft of an approximately 90,000 word novel in about a month. And I didn't even work every day. I had a few slack-off days in the middle. Because I love analysis, I figure it's worth thinking about what worked so I can replicate it. If I can do this kind of production, I can keep up a good, steady publication schedule. So, what did I do differently this time?
Oddly, I didn't outline. I had a few high points planned and I'd done research relating to some topics I used, but otherwise, this was pure pantsing like I've never really done before, making it up as I went and sometimes being surprised by where my imagination took me. It helps there that I'm working with very familiar characters in a world I've already developed, and I'm picking up bits and pieces of things I've already set up. I don't think I could do this sort of thing with a new series. But it's been a lot of fun just seeing where the story took me. I'll probably have to do a lot of revision to go back and set up the things that occurred to me later in the story, but I end up having to do a lot of revision no matter how much I outline, so I'm not sure that the obsessive plotting is a big timesaver for me.
Another odd thing was that I did this while having wi-fi at home. I resisted for years because I was afraid it would kill my productivity, and apparently it hasn't. I think in a sense it's helped because I can multitask my goofing off. If I can play around online while watching TV, then that's more time I have during working hours, and I'm less tempted then.
But I think another related thing that helped was that I've been forcing myself to be aware of my own bad habits. I have a tendency to put off starting to write or going back to writing when I've taken a break by doing what I think of as "doom looping." That's when I get caught in a cycle of checking e-mail, checking social media, then going back around to the things I just checked to see if there's anything new. But since there isn't much new in the two minutes since I last checked, I'm more inclined to read things I otherwise wouldn't and get lost in rabbit trails. The first time through, I skim through things friends have posted and only follow links that are business-related or of extremely high interest. The second time through, I'll read things that might be of interest but that aren't urgent, like "23 ways to organize your house." By the third or fourth loop, I'm so desperate for new content that I'll click on "You won't believe what happens when this baby sees this puppy." So, the moment I'm about to click on something that's not highly relevant to my work or major interests, I tell myself that I'm doom looping and get to work.
Something that's helped with that is starting my work session for the day with a sprint. I generally do my marketing and business stuff in the morning and write in the afternoon and evening, but my start time in the afternoon often gets delayed because I go online to check my e-mail, start doom looping, and then an hour or so later I still haven't done anything. So I've started setting a firm start time right after lunch, with no checking anything (unless maybe there's something I've been expecting and will need to deal with), and then working for about an hour/writing ten pages without a break. That means I get about half my daily minimum done (I aim for at least 20 pages a day) before I usually would have started work, and then I have some momentum going for getting the rest done. After that, I tend to work in half-hour bursts with breaks to get up and move in between. As a result, I've surpassed my usual daily minimums without feeling like I'm spending that much more actual time working. I am putting in more time writing, but it's in the same amount of time "in the office," so to speak.
Something that may or may not play a role in all this is that I've been watching what I eat during this time, mostly because there were summer clothes I got out this year that didn't quite fit right. So this summer I've been trying to avoid sweets and snacks and eating a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and drinking a lot of water. I have a lot more energy and haven't needed a lot of caffeine, and that seems to have translated into me getting more done in the afternoon without the usual midday slump.
Now we'll see how revisions go, but I'd like to try this again and boost my output. More books published more frequently means not only more stuff available to sell, but more sustained visibility, and since I'm publishing most of this stuff myself, I can put out as many books a year as I can write.