I’m hearing a lot of hoopla about AI being here. I’m also reading some interesting social media posts about it from fellow authors. Let’s just say we’re not impressed. None of us plan on using it.
I’m also perfectly capable of writing my own blog posts, thank you very much. I’ve been writing them for years, and I certainly don’t need a robot to write them for me. And, like all writers I have own unique writing voice. So why would I allow a piece of software to take my voice away from me?
For novel writers, writing is very much a form of art. We tap into our wonderful human imaginations and create stories. We create imaginary people and bring them to life. Over the years readers have told me how believable my characters are. I take it as a complement. Interestingly enough, I don’t consciously create them. I’ll start out with a few basic ideas, such as their age and physical characteristics. The magic happens when I put them on paper. They come to life, and they tell me who they are. I also put a lot of love into my stories. No machine can do that. Machines aren’t living beings. Therefore, they cannot experience emotions.
Lord willing, I plan on writing romance novels for many years to come. Writing novels is my life’s calling. It’s what gives my life its meaning and purpose. I will also continue using human editors and proofreaders. Of course this means my books might contain a few errors. No human being is perfect. Making mistakes is one of the things that makes us human.
I’m currently working on my next Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, and I will be adding the following to my disclaimer.
This book was written and edited by real human beings. We do not include content generated by AI (Artificial Intelligence) software of any kind.
I’ve worked hard to create a following. I want my readers to feel confident in knowing that the novels they are reading were written by me, and not by a machine.
I saw a Twitter post the other day from another author asking which was best. A blog or a newsletter? I responded by saying I use both. I also have websites. The Internet is an interesting place. You never know how or where someone will find you. Therefore, I’m of the opinion that you can never have too much online presence.
The Difference Between a Blog and a Traditional Website
Years ago I attended a meeting with the now defunct Arizona Book Publishers Association. The speaker, whose name I unfortunately can no longer recall, was an expert on online book marketing. He talked about how you need both a website an a blog. He described a website as the place where “you wore your business suit.” It should be straightforward and formal. As an author, I use my website to showcase my books.
The speaker then described a blog as less formal and more personal than a website. It was where you wore your sweats. In other words, a blog was where you could talk one to one with your readers. I use my Marina Martindale blog to share excerpts from my books, talk about my inspiration, and discuss my characters in depth.
Using a Blog as a Website
Nowadays many websites include a blog feed. At one time I included them on my website as well. Then one day it mysteriously vanished. I called tech support. They had no idea what was going on, but they couldn’t restore the feed either. I’ll just say I’m glad my blogs and websites use different hosts.
Some people use their blog as their website. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In fact, I recommend Blogger to those authors with limited budgets who can’t afford website hosting. Blogger is free and easy to use. You can customize your template to give it a unique look. The only out of pocket expense would be buying your own domain name. It’s optional, but I highly recommend it.
I use a WordPress blog for my historic cookbook website. Cookbooks are unique as they’re not actually read. They’re used for finding recipes. Therefore, my blog/website is for posting recipes and cooking tips, with a link to buy the cookbook at the end of each post.
One final word about author websites. Some authors like to include a bookstore. I once had one on my website as well. However, I soon discovered that readers don’t feel comfortable buying directly from the author or publisher. They prefer to buy from reputable online booksellers, such as Amazon. I’ve since taken my bookstore down and replaced it with links to where they can buy the books.
My newsletter is where I pitch my books. Each newsletter includes at least one “free sample” article with a link to a book except on my blog. I also have a monthly contest where my subscribers can win a free, author signed paperback edition of one of my novels. All they have do to enter is answer a multiple choice question correctly. The question is always something from the book I’m giving away, and I include a “hint.” The hint is a link to another blog post with with an except revealing the correct answer. It’s a great way to get people to read a sample. It’s an even better way to get a book into a reader’s hands. Back when I used to distribute through Ingram I always opted to have them ship returns to me. I’d much rather use them as contest prizes than have them end up in a landfill. It’s a win win for everyone.
A few words of caution regarding newsletters. People have to opt in. Never sign anyone up without their permission. You also need to limit how often you send them. I limit mine to one newsletter a month. The only exception is when I’m launching a new book. I will send them a short, to the point announcement with a link to where they can buy the book. I save the rest for the next newsletter. The number one reason why people unsubscribe to a newsletter is because they’re receiving too many of them. So when it comes to newsletters, less is more.
Once upon a time, there were two book distributing services in the United States. Ingram, and Baker & Taylor. Baker & Taylor distributes to schools and libraries. Ingram distributes to book sellers.
Then the book publishing industry began changing in the early 21st century. Personal computers were becoming more sophisticated and more affordable. At the same time, new software was allowing people to publish from home. It even had a name. Desktop publishing.
So along came Lightning Source
Ingram created subsidiary called Lightning Source. I’m not exactly sure when this came about. However, I first heard of Lightning Source in 2003, after I wrote my first Luke and Jenny novel. My original publisher used Lightning Source for their distribution.
I began working with Lightning Source directly in 2011, when I created my own publishing company, Good Oak Press, LLC. At the time, they were a fantastic company to work with. They were there to help you succeed. If you had any question or concerns, or if you just needed a little help uploading a file, they were only a phone call away.
Then came Ingram Spark
A new subsidiary, Ingram Spark, came along a few years later. It worked with independent, or self-published authors, so I migrated to the new site. Same company, same great customer service. I had a long and happy business relationship with both subsidiaries for over a decade
Unfortunately, times have changed, and I’m afraid it hasn’t been for the better. It all started when I was having some serious log in issues with my account. No matter what I did, nothing would fix it. It’s a rather long, complicated story, so I’ll sum it up by saying that after much frustration and many emails back and forth, I was told the problem was fixed. Only it wasn’t fixed. The issue still persisted.
Why I Left Ingram Spark
All I can tell you is Ingram Spark is longer the helpful company I signed on with back in 2011. They have discontinued telephone support. Tech support is only available by email only. Unfortunately, the more complicated the issue, the more difficult it is to resolve it by email alone.
The initial response to the emails I sent always asked me for information I had already included in the original email, along with a screenshot. Each response came from a different sender, who had obviously never bothered to read the prior responses. So each time I’m having to describe the issue all over again, and sending them yet another screenshot. Needless to say, this only made matters worse. As a result, the issue was never resolved. Sometimes you need to communicate in person, but I no longer have that option. There came a point when it finally became a deal breaker, and I gave up on Ingram. Thankfully, there are now some alternatives.
I recently learned that one of my author friends has never used Ingram Spark. This came as a big surprise. He’s been writing books longer than I have, and he has built himself a good following. He distributes his books through Amazon’s KDP Publishing, Draft2Digital, and SmashWords. So, I’m now changing course. I will no longer be distributing my books through Ingram Spark.
Kindle Direct Publishing
As we all know, the Amazon Kindle has been a game changer. I started publishing my ebook editions directly with Amazon shortly after the Kindle came on the market. The platform easy to use, and I could upload my files for free. However, I had never published a print edition with KDP Direct. That all changed with my latest Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, Aquamarine. When I uploaded the print edition to KDP Direct I found it was almost as easy as uploading an eBook.
I admit I was a little concerned about the printing quality, but after receiving my first author’s copies, I can find no difference between KDP and Ingram. Both companies produce good quality print books. The only difference is that Amazon does not charge you a fee to upload your files. You upload them for free. So why spend money when you don’t have to?
Amazon also has outstanding customer service. You can contact them by phone, email or chat. I’ve found their phone support to be friendly and helpful. No long waits on hold either. You enter your phone number, and they will call you back. They will also work with you until the problem is fixed.
Other Book Distributors
I’ve started distributing my eBook editions through Draft2Digital. They offer virtually the same eBook distribution as Ingram Spark. My eBook editions are now available for the Barnes& Noble Nook, Sony and Kobo eReaders, Apple Books, and others. There is no fee to upload your files, and their customer support is available by phone or email. Draft2Digital is also merging with SmashWords, and I will soon be distributing my print editions with them as well.
Ingram Spark is by far the winner when it comes to convenience. Those who don’t want the hassle of having to upload their files to multiple accounts may think the forty dollar upload fee worth it. To each their own. Unfortunately, because of all the grief they have caused me, I’ve decided they simply aren’t worth headache, and I’d rather keep the forty dollars in my own pocket. I can only hope, for their sake, that they will take whatever steps are necessary to improve their customer service. They lost a loyal, long-term customer when they lost me, and somehow I doubt I’m the only one. All I can say is I won’t be coming back.
UPDATE: Smashwords and Draft2Digital have merged. If you are using D2D they will now publish your books on Smashwords.
One of the things I love the most about writing fiction is the dialog. It’s what brings the characters to life. However, like any other kind of writing, there is a technique for writing effective dialog. In fact, there are entire books about how to write dialog. If you’re new to writing fiction I highly recommend reading them. In the meantime, I’m going to cover some of the basics, and the way I go about writing dialog.
What is the purpose of dialog?
As most of you already know, fiction writing is all about the conflict. The conflict is what drives the storyline, and the dialog helps build the tension. For example, the more a character talks about their big plans, and how they made everything foolproof, the more we know something is about to go terribly wrong.
Dialog also defines the character’s personality. A character who has a PhD will undoubtably have a different speech pattern than a character who’s a high school dropout. Here in the United States, different regions of the country have their own dialects. A character from Boston will speak differently than a character from New Orleans. Therefore, it’s a good idea to set your story in a location where you are familiar with the local lingo.
Dialog and Grammar
People don’t use perfect grammar when they are speaking. We tend to shorten words. We’ll say, “gonna,” instead of, “going to.” We speak in incomplete sentences as well as comma spliced sentences. Therefore, none of my characters speak perfect, grammatically correct English. Fortunately, my editor gets this. She’s a fiction writer herself. However, it’s been an issue with some of the proofreaders I’ve worked with.
Gloria, who proofread many of my earlier Marina Martindale romance novels, passed away a few years ago. She was a dear friend who I will always miss, and she also loved my books. While not a writer herself, she had once been a proofreader for a newspaper. Trust me, nothing got past her watchful eye. She also understood the difference between narrative and dialog.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky with the proofreaders for my next two novels. One was a retired English teacher who not only corrected all the grammar in my dialog, she also argued with me when I pointed out, more than once, that real people do not speak perfect, grammatically correct English. My most recent proofreader was someone who had learned English as a second language. To her credit, she was very fluent in English, and she had also written a few nonfiction books. However, when it came to the dialog, she didn’t always understand slang words and common idioms, which caused some confusion.
The Use of Grammar in First and Third Person Narratives
I write in the third person narrative. When my characters aren’t speaking I use proper grammar and punctuation in my narrative as I describe the events from an anonymous and detached point of view. However, the rules may vary when using the first person narrative. Since your character is telling the entire story from start to finish, you need to let the character speak in his or her own voice. The same is true when writing dialog in the third person narrative. Let your characters have their own distinctive voice.
“I have this really great idea for a book that I think you should write.”
This has to be the most infuriating thing anyone could ever say to an author. While the person saying it may have thought they meant well, they’ve just told you how to do your job. Then there’s the other implication. Somehow you’re not capable of coming up with your own ideas for your books. Good grief! I never thought that I would actually hear this, but sure enough, someone said this to me. It was a real jaw dropping moment.
My response was firm, but polite. I told him I write contemporary romance novels, and that I ONLY write contemporary romance novels. Period. In other words, I set my boundaries before the conversation went any further. Had he said, “Yes, I know. I just wanted to tell you about my crazy ex girlfriend,” I would have listened. When he finished his story, I would have thanked him for his time time. I would have also let him know that I couldn’t guarantee I would ever use his story for a future book.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with people sharing their stories. Other people’s stories can be great inspiration for a novel, and oftentimes they are. However, adding the words, “I really think you should write this,” changes the dynamics of the conversation rather quickly, and not in a good way. I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job. Any decision to use anyone’s story, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is mine and mine alone, and it’s subject to my own interpretation.
Once I firmly set my boundaries the gentleman didn’t elaborate any further. I had a funny feeling that romance novels weren’t his thing. He never got around to telling me what his great idea was, and I didn’t ask.
One of the perks of being a novel writer is learning new skills, and one of the new skills I learned was video production. Book videos are a must-have tool for building your brand and marketing your book(s). They’re like a TV commercial or a movie trailer and they’re used on websites, blogs, and social media. There are several different ways to go about producing a book video. The most common are slideshows, author readings, and book trailers
Back in the mid 2000s, when I wrote my Luke and Jenny series of historical novels for young readers, Internet videos were a new technology. Video editing software was expensive and difficult to use. So, back then, many authors produced video slideshows, which were easy to create in Powerpoint. My first two book videos were simple PowerPoint presentations that I produced myself for very little money.
Even today, you can still create a nice video slideshow without having to spend a lot of money. Powerpoint has come a long way, and nowadays you can animate slides, record voice overs, and add music tracks to your presentation. Or you can take it to the next level and produce your slideshow in iMovie or one of its Windows counterparts. Whatever approach you take is entirely up to you.
Thanks for smartphones, we all have a camcorder in our pocket. Those authors who wish to make a more personal connection with their readers may opt to read a portion of their book to their readers. Such videos are inexpensive and easy to produce. All you need is a smartphone, a tripod, and some basic video editing software, such as iMovie.
Lighting, however, may be a challenge, so you should definitely take some test shots of your set before you begin shooting. If you have the means, consider hiring someone to shoot the video for you. A professional will know how to light the scene and can determine which camera angles are the most flattering. Either way, be sure to read a sample that’s interesting and action packed, but don’t give too much of your story away.
Book trailers are like movie trailers. You shoot a few scenes from your book, but like the author reading, you don’t want to give too much of your story away. The idea is to entice a potential reader.
Unlike slideshows and author readings, book trailers are more expensive to create, and in most cases you’ll need to hire a professional to produce the video for you. Be sure to read their contract carefully before you sign. You may also need to hire actors. If so, they will need to sign a release form, granting you their permission to use their image. There are many release form templates available for download on the Internet, and oftentimes they are free.
Whether you are creating your video yourself or hiring a pro, there are a few things you need to be aware of when it comes to producing a video.
Royalty Free Doesn’t Mean Copyright Free
Some people think royalty free means copyright free. However, this isn’t the case at all. Royalty free is a term for a particular type of licensing agreement. Simply put, it means you don’t have to pay the right holder each time their image or music is used. You still have to pay a one time licensing fee up front to use the footage or music. There may also be limits on how the footage or music can be used. For example, it may be limited to editorial or non-commercial use only, so be sure to read the fine print carefully.
Pond5 is my go-to company for video production. You name it, they probably have it. Stock footage, music, photos, and whatever else you may need. Shutterstock and Can Stock Photo are also good sources. All of these companies will charge a fee, so you may want to shop around. Be sure to read the licensing agreement before you buy, and be wary of any website giving you “free” stuff. The quality may not be that great, and you may be buying pirated materials.
Whether you’re doing a simple slideshow video, or hiring a professional and doing a full board production, it’s important to remember that content is king. You want viewers to take an interest in your books, but you don’t want to give them too much information either.
I’ve posted one of my book trailers below. It’s for my Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Deception. I’ve come a long way since I created my first book video. Instead of a simple Powerpoint slideshow, I’m now producing book trailers.
I’ve recently moved to a new state, and while I was unpacking, I found a copy of my very first book. It was a historic cookbook titled Anna’s Kitchen. I’ve learned a lot writing and publishing since then, and I’ve done my best to share what I’ve learned with the rest of you.
I published Anna’s Kitchen in 2005. I was such a smart-alec at the time that I thought I knew everything, but it turned out to be a very humbing experience. I did have one advantage though. I’d been freelance graphic designer for years. Therefore, I already knew how to typeset and how to design an interesting book cover. Unfortunately, I didn’t know squat about editing, distribution, or marketing. So, here are the lessons I learned from self-publishing.
A spell checker is not a substitute for an editor, or a proofreader.
You need to work with Ingram if you want your books distributed properly.
Five-hundred books takes up a lot of space in your garage or storeroom.
With Anna’s Kitchen I learned, firsthand, how much work goes into publishing a book. Good Oak Press later published a new edition of Anna’s Kitchen titledRosie’s Riveting Recipes, along with new, updated editions of the Luke and Jenny series. I’m also writing, and publishing, contemporary romance novels as Marina Martindale. Looking back, I can honestly say I’ve learned a lot, and I have no regrets.
UPDATE: Since writing this post I have ended my business relationship with Ingram. I’m now using a new distributor I wasn’t aware of at the time I wrote the original article. Draft2Digital distributes ebooks and print books, and unlike Ingram, they don’t charge a hefty fee to upload your files.
You have about ten seconds to capture a reader’s interest. Ten seconds. So my advice is to make them count. People have short attention spans, and social media is making them even shorter. This means you, the novel writer, had better grab their attention fast. If you don’t hook them within those first few seconds, they are far more likely to toss your book aside.
I think of my opening sentences as, “Lights, camera, action!” I always start with an action narrative. Nothing overly dramatic, such as explosions going off, but with something interesting enough to intrigue the reader so he or she will want to learn more. So, how do I do this? I write an opening sentence that creates tension, and I’ll use the first sentences from some of my Marina Martindale novels as examples.
Strong opening sentences
Rosemary McGee had the next traffic light perfectly timed until a car from the other lane suddenly cut in front of her minivan.
Well, I’m sure that got your attention. What happened next? Did she have a accident? You’ll have to read more to find out.
My openings aren’t always this dramatic, but even if the opening subject matter is more mundane, I can still create tension in my first line.
Emily St. Claire reached for another tissue to dab the sweat off her forehead and grab her water bottle, but the once-cold liquid had turned lukewarm.
Well, that certainly feels uncomfortable. So where is Emily? And why is it so hot? Again, you have to keep reading to find out more.
Opening lines and your characters
No doubt you’ve noticed I’ve included a character’s name in these opening lines, and you certainly want to start introducing your characters as soon as possible. However, you don’t necessarily have to include them in the opening sentences, nor does the opening line have to be about a lead character. Rosemary was actually a supporting character. My lead character is introduced a few sentences later when Rosemary asks her if she’s okay. Emily, on the other hand, is the lead character. My stories are all different, so my openings are different as well.
A descriptive opening line
Some authors like to begin their stories with a descriptive narrative of where the story takes place. However, you still need to create some tension. An opening paragraph that’s nothing more than a flowery, detailed description of the scenery without any action or tension is less likely to capture the reader’s attention. So unless something really interesting happens within the next paragraph or two there’s a good chance the reader will set the book aside. My advice is to end that fluffy narrative with something to suggest things aren’t quite as peachy as they appear. Here is a descriptive opening from another Marina Martindale novel.
The moonlight reflected off the snow-covered mountains, creating a dreamy, picturesque landscape, which could easily hide a deadly hazard.
Yikes! So what kind of hazard could be hiding there? Again, you have to read more.
Remember, when writing fiction, the conflict drives the plot, so you want to create as much tension as you can. The sooner you start creating the tension, the quicker you’ll draw your reader in.
Creating appropriate names for your characters is essential when writing fiction. However, it isn’t always easy. I put a lot of thought into each character’s name. Their age, background, occupation, and their roll in the story all play a part in determining the character’s name.
Choosing with the right surname
I don’t use the surnames Smith, Jones or Johnson for any of my lead characters. Those names are so common they’re almost a cliche. I prefer using other surnames, such as Palmer, Campbell, Bennett, and Walsh. All are common names, but not overly common.
Sometimes I get stuck, so I keep an old white pages phone book by my desk. When all else fails, I’ll open it to a random page and skim through the listings until something pops out at me. Other times I’ll think back to kids I went to school with, or I’ll hear an interesting sounding name on the news. That’s another way to come up with a surname. We live in a diverse society, so some of my characters will have ethnic names. If it’s a common surname, such as Sanchez, I’ll use it. If I’m not sure, I’ll do an online search. The possibilities are endless.
Finding the right first name
First names are a lot of fun. I think we all have favorite first names. I personally like the names Cynthia, Victoria, Christopher and Jeremy. My first Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, included two supporting characters named Cynthia and Jeremy. However, I’m still waiting for the right story ideas for Victoria and Christopher. My contemporary romance novels are much like the soap operas I watched years ago, so I sometimes give my characters the same first name as a favorite soap opera character.
I also invested in a baby name book. It contains hundreds, if not thousands of names, including many different ethnic names. It’s a handy tool which I often use.
Naming fictional businesses and places
Naming a fictitious business or location is just as important as naming your characters. Again, you want reasonably common names. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so I’ll often create mom and pop businesses in my stories. Oftentimes I’ll include a common surname, such as O’Malley’s Grill, only this time I’ll also do an online search to make sure there is no business with the same name in the city or town where my story is set. If there is, I’ll have to come up with a different name. The same rule applies for naming fictitious businesses such as newspapers or ad agencies.
And finally, a disclaimer
With over three hundred million people living in the United States, and billions more on the planet, it really doesn’t matter how you create your character’s names. There will be real people out there with the same names. This is why you need to include a disclaimer in the front matter of your book. Make sure you clearly state that your story is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Readers can give us great feedback. Nearly all of the reader reviews for my Marina Martindale contemporary romance novel, The Reunion, commented on how well the flashback scenes were done.
If used properly, flashbacks can greatly enhance the story. They’re a terrific tool for telling the backstory. Poorly done, however, and they can become a distraction or even a hindrance. They block your story flow and annoy the reader.
How and when to use flashbacks
Use flashbacks sparingly. The Reunion has fifty chapters, but only four include flashbacks. The story is set in the present time. Therefore, I didn’t want to spend too much time with the flashbacks.
Your flashbacks should be relevant.The Reunion is a story of two lovers having a second chance many years later. The flashbacks were a tool to allow the reader to see the characters meet for the first time and get a general feel for their earlier relationship. However, I didn’t include their original break up as a flashback. It’s told in the dialogue. Dialogue is another great tool for telling the backstory.
Watch where you place a flashback. Never drop a flashback in the middle of a scene, especially if it’s cliffhanger. This will greatly upset your reader. I set up to the flashback at the ending of a present day chapter. This prepares the reader for the flashback in the next chapter.
How to place a flashback
This flashback from The Reunion includes the ending paragraphs from Chapter One, with the last paragraph setting up the scene. The flashback begins with Chapter Two.
* * *
Gillian looked a good ten years younger than her actual age. Despite all the time which had passed, she still looked much the same. About the only noticeable difference between then and now was her long blonde hair was now a shoulder-length pageboy. As she reminisced about the past her mind suddenly filled with a whirlwind of images of all they had shared, the good times as well as the bad. It was like watching a movie, but the scenes were spliced together out of sequence.
“Calm down, Gillian,” she said to her reflection. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” As she took a few more deep breaths the events of one particular day began playing back in her mind with crystal clarity. It was the day she first laid eyes on Ian Palmer.
Gillian jammed her paintbrush into her palette and glanced at the clock. It was almost four twenty-five. Class would be over at four-thirty.
“Damn it,” she said under her breath as she tried to work more white paint into the canvas. This particular painting simply wasn’t coming together, and the more she worked with it the worse it became. It happened to every artist from time to time, but it was never good when it happened in a university art class the day before the project was due, and the painting in question would count toward the final grade.
As you can see, I’ve set the reader up for the flashback by referencing about how the events of one particular day played back in the character’s mind. The reader is well prepared, and expects, the next chapter to be a flashback.
And finally, I only used flashbacks in The Reunion. I’ve not included them in any of my later Marina Martindale contemporary romances. They were only used in The Reunion because of the long interval between two characters’ interactions.
Use flashbacks sparingly, and then only use them when they are absolutely necessary to enhance the plot line.