So, here’s the question for the hour: Do I really need to publish 10 books to be successful? Yes! No! Maybe! Confused? Most authors are, or shouldn’t be surprised.
“Renegade” Wins 2nd Place in National Literary Competition Middle Grade Novel Explores Bullying, Urban Gangs and Self Defense Tallahassee, Florida, November 26, 2012—The Tallahassee Writer’s Association (TWA) has announced that Renegade, a middle grade novel about urban violence, bullying, and self-defense by SR Staley, won second place in the Children’s Chapter Book division of the 2012 Seven Hills Literary Contest (www.twaonline.org). The first and third place winners in the chapter book division included authors from Maryland and California. All winners from all divisions are featured in Volume 18 of the Seven Hills Review, now available on amazon.com. Renegade tells the story of Maria, a seventh grader in an urban middle school, whose world is turned upside down when she is targeted by her school’s most powerful gang. Faced with escalating threats and violence, she has to choose between new ways to defend herself or sticking with familiar streetwise skills. Eighth graders one Minnesota middle school to their teacher, Charlene Irvin-Brown, “that all teachers and staff…should be required to read Renegade” because they felt that “Renegade explains a lot about why kids behave the way they do.” Donna Meredith, a former high-school English teacher and author of The Color of Lies, writes: “The pacing of Renegade makes it an entertaining novel for all young people and an especially fine choice to engage reluctant readers. The action is relentless.” “I believe that this book should be in every 6th grade program across the country,” writes anotherreader at amazon.com. “It reminded me so much of when I was a young and misunderstood teenage girl. The choices she makes when faced with her day to day problems are heartwarming. It also made me take a second look at how I react with my own children.” Renegade is the second book in the Path of the Warrior series by SR Staley (www.srstaley.com) and his third young adult novel. The series examines contemporary violence, bullying and self- using a modern martial arts perspective. The first book in the series, A Warrior’s Soul, follows the story of Luke and Lucy as they face down bullies in their suburban middle school. SR Staley’s first young-adult novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, tells the tale of Isabella, an escaped slave who finds herself captaining a pirate ship in the violent and tempestuous 18th century Caribbean Sea. DISCLOSURE: SR Staley is a professional member of the TWA, but all entries in the Seven Hills Literary Contest are blind reviewed anonymously by experts in their respective genres.
“Renegade” Wins 2nd Place in National Literary Competition
Middle Grade Novel Explores Bullying, Urban Gangs and Self Defense
Tallahassee, Florida, November 26, 2012—The Tallahassee Writer’s Association (TWA) has announced that Renegade, a middle grade novel about urban violence, bullying, and self-defense by SR Staley, won second place in the Children’s Chapter Book division of the 2012 Seven Hills Literary Contest (www.twaonline.org). The first and third place winners in the chapter book division included authors from Maryland and California. All winners from all divisions are featured in Volume 18 of the Seven Hills Review, now available on amazon.com.
Renegade tells the story of Maria, a seventh grader in an urban middle school, whose world is turned upside down when she is targeted by her school’s most powerful gang. Faced with escalating threats and violence, she has to choose between new ways to defend herself or sticking with familiar streetwise skills.
Eighth graders one Minnesota middle school to their teacher, Charlene Irvin-Brown, “that all teachers and staff…should be required to read Renegade” because they felt that “Renegade explains a lot about why kids behave the way they do.” Donna Meredith, a former high-school English teacher and author of The Color of Lies, writes: “The pacing of Renegade makes it an entertaining novel for all young people and an especially fine choice to engage reluctant readers. The action is relentless.”
“I believe that this book should be in every 6th grade program across the country,” writes anotherreader at amazon.com. “It reminded me so much of when I was a young and misunderstood teenage girl. The choices she makes when faced with her day to day problems are heartwarming. It also made me take a second look at how I react with my own children.”
Renegade is the second book in the Path of the Warrior series by SR Staley (www.srstaley.com) and his third young adult novel. The series examines contemporary violence, bullying and self- using a modern martial arts perspective. The first book in the series, A Warrior’s Soul, follows the story of Luke and Lucy as they face down bullies in their suburban middle school. SR Staley’s first young-adult novel, The Pirate of Panther Bay, tells the tale of Isabella, an escaped slave who finds herself captaining a pirate ship in the violent and tempestuous 18th century Caribbean Sea.
DISCLOSURE: SR Staley is a professional member of the TWA, but all entries in the Seven Hills Literary Contest are blind reviewed anonymously by experts in their respective genres.
In preparation for a talk on writing at Tallahass Community College last spring, I gave a lot of thought to writing and how writing improves over time. I’ve been a “professional” writer–I’ve been paid to write–for more than two decades now, and my writing abilities have improved dramatically.
Indeed, I remember my first English paper in Freshman composition at Colby College “earned” a D+ and the not so helpful comments that my writing was “unorganized and incoherent.” Fortunately, that just spurred me on to work on my writing, always opting for written assignments. Now, I have successfully published hundreds of articles, five nonfiction books, and three novels. At least the editors at these newspapers and publishers think my writing has improved!
But what is good writing? When aspiring authors ask published writers for advice, our answer is inevitably: Write! And write some more!
This advice is spot on, and it’s worth delving a little bit more into why learning to write well depends critically on writing a lot.
Let’s start with Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and a post I wrote earlier about when to approach literary agents (Nov 10, 2011). Gladwell talks about investing 10,000 hours in an activity (about 5 years working full time) before you can become expert in the field, and literary agent Ann Rittenberg translated that into writing. In short, don’t go to her with your first novel, unless you’ve already been writing for years before hand.
The point is that practice at a new skill or activity is essential to master it. Rarely does one become a great writer right outside the womb. I’ve lost count of the number of published novelists who have one, two, three or more unpublished manuscripts sitting in a dresser drawer because they weren’t good enough to publish. (I have one complete one, and two incomplete manuscripts.) Even in nonfiction, successful authors usually have a background as a writer–either writing lots of professional articles or, more commonly, working as newspaper reporters or editors.
This activity is essential to build up basic skills, or competence in writing. And it can’t be learned through osmosis or reading, both of which are passive activities. Good writing comes from active engagement in the activity of writing–testing out stories, logic, characters, plots, etc. Failures are much more common than successes.
Once basic skills are learned–remember learning basic lab skills in high school science before conducting real experiments?–then the writer can build on this basic skills to weave more complex stories, insight, or layers to characters. This is where the author becomes a craftsman; the writer can take a basic story, theme, or character, and add nuance and complexity to create something unique and different beyond the basic structure learned in the classroom (or on their own).
Once a writer develops their craft, they might be able to elevate their storytelling to an art form. This is where something truly unique and different emerges. Defining art is difficult, but you can usually detect art when your reaction is something along the lines of: “Wow, that was great, and I coudn’t have done that.” An artist creates something that can’t be duplicated because their style, perspective, and approach is so different that no one else shares enough of their personal DNA to reproduce it.
Authors who have raised their writing to an art form don’t rely on a formula even though formulas can create commercial succcess. Most successful authors are amazing craftsman, but they aren’t necessarily raising their craft to the level of art. And, to be fair, many authors aren’t interested in art.
Nevertheless, this framework for thinking about writing–going from competence to craftsmanship to art–may be useful for those embarking on a new found writing career.
This framework also helps explain why the admonition write, write, write is so important, and why successful writers are the ones that persevere.
Earlier in May I had the opportunity and great pleasure of talking to the Great Books English class at The Miami Valley School in Dayton, Ohio. The students were reading The Pirate of Panther Bay, my debut YA novel, and the teacher asked me to come in and discuss the book and the writing process more generally.
One of the more interesting opportunities this presented was trying to gauge how perceptions of my novel changeed as readers made progress through the story. I spoke to the class after they were about half way through (Chapter 19), so they hadn’t reached several climactic scenes. I started out by asking them to rate the book on the amazon-style scale of 1 (for poor) to 5 (for excellent) to get a baseline for the group. I thought I would follow up after they completed the book to compare their perceptions to the mid-point.
Currently, reviewers on amazon.com give Panther Bay an average of 4.5. (This actually isn’t that bad given that The Hunger Games is averaging a 4.6, Mockngjay averages a 3.6, and Twighlight averages 4.0. Within the genre Piratica averages 3.8 and Pirates! averages 4.3.)
This class, however, would be a little tougher than my current reviewers on amazon. When readers buy your book either in a store or on-line, they represent a self-selected group–they wouldn’t buy a pirate book if they really liked vampires, for example. So, naturally, I would expect the ratings to be lower simply because all the students at MVS were required to read the book regardless of their genre preference.
For the 18 students in the class, the overall score was 3.3 on a five star scale at mid-point. So, as expected, this was a fairly critical group. The boys scored Panther Bay at 3.0 at the halfway point–one 4, four 3s, and one 2. The girls scored it at 3.5–six 4s, four 3s, and one 2. (The favorable edge registered by the girls isn’t that surprising given that the book has a strong, take-charge female as the heroine.)
After the students read the entire book, scores were reported back to me via the teacher. Interestingly, the overall average for the entire class stayed the same at 3.3. But the composition of the ratings changed. The boys average increased to 3.3 while the girls’ score fell to 3.4. (At least one girl apparently downgraded her score to a three.)
Am I disappointed PPB didn’t get a 5-star rating? Sure, but that expectation was probably not realistic. For this class–avid readers with high academic skills and expectations–a five star rating would have meant they were blown away by the story and characters. Reading through the four star ratings and reviews showed that my first novel had done much of what I had hoped–created complex, layered characters in a dynamic story that transported readers someplace new.
The difference between a 5-star and a 4-star rating really came down to the pace of the story in the opening chapters–they wanted the story to start out with a really big bang. This was true for the girls as well as the boys. (Ironically, my original opening chapter started out in the middle of a high-seas battle, but I decided for creative reason to start out with a more character-driven beginning.) Some of the students also didn’t like the angst I put my lead character through, preferring a more heroic, even if less complex, personality. For the students rating the book a 2–one simply doesn’t like the genre and the other (so I was told) really didn’t like any of the books they were reading in the class.
The students giving the 3 and 4 star ratings, on the other hand, were quite insightful and helpful.
So, what do I need to do to get that 5 star rating on my next book based on this sample of readers?
Start out with a bang, preferably a fight or pitched battle;
Keep the layered characters;
Keep the dynamic and circuitous story lines;
Give my lead character (Isabella) more consistency and focus;
Keep the pace moving.
Overall, while the candid feedback was tough to process at times, the experience has really helped me sharpen my story for the second book. And feedback from discerning readings is the best.
Chip MacGregor’s (MacGregor Literary) concluding advice from his article “The Financial Side of Writing” in The Florida Writer (Vol. 6, No. 1, 2012, p. 21):
“Author, invest the time to build your platform. Take on the marketing of your books. Approach this as a business, educate yourself, and do the hard work to become known.”
My publisher, Wheatmark, recently has a series of on-line discussions as part of their Author’s Academy discussing blogs and their importance for selling books. Blogs and bloggers have become an essential marketing tool for authors. I’ve been blogging for more than ten years. But, it’s important to distinguish between marketing and book sales. Marketing is about raising awareness about yourself, your ideas, and your book. This should translate into sales, but only if your marketing efforts are tied to the explicit goal of selling books.
Alas, my blogging has had little impact on sales of my fiction books, largely because I haven’t engaged the blogging community very effectively on the substance of my young-adult novels. My blogging for my non-fiction books has been more successful because the commentary and posts have been better targeted.
A friend recently asked me about the effectiveness of blogs, so I thought I would repeat my advice in a blog post here. Feel free to comment or react, because everyone will have different experiences.
If these elements are in place, I think blogs are effective marketing tools and can really help sell books; it’s also just good ol’ marketing adapted to the Internet.
I have a new article over at Blogging Authors discussing the differences between writing for boys and girls in a post titled “The Art of Writing for Boys.” Boys are tougher. They aren’t as patient as girls, and they crave action. As a novelist, the trick is to tie the action into the substance of the story and characters. (I discuss the tensin between story, action, and character in more depth in an earlier post on this blog site, too.)
I discuss the art of writing for boys in more depth in the Blogging Authors article, but the idea came to me when I gave a presentation on writing novels to an eighth grade class in Tallahassee. I talk about this experience in a recent video log (VL 7) on youtube (SamRStaley) as well.
A very interesting discussion is taking place over at bloggingauthors.com where Irene Watson (22 Jan 2012) posed the question: Is asking bloggers not to post negative reviews ethical? It’s an interesting question, and I didn’t realize until reading the post and subsequent discussion that many established book review services, including Kirkus, which advertises itself as the “world’s toughest book critics,” give authors and publishers the option to squash negative reviews. I’m of two minds, but the bottom line is that while it may not be unethical to ask a blogger or reviewer to withhold a negative review it’s not very smart.
If we look at book reviews from a pure marketing angle, it’s tempting to say that only positive reviews have value. Indeed, one of my goals as an author is to write such a good book that I maximize the number of good reviews. And certainly a negative review in the New York Times, Kirkus, Library Journal, etc. won’t help sales of your book (or your ego). But a negative review (or two) in many other places, particularly amazon.com and barnes & noble, is not necessarily bad. In fact, it might help (as long as they are balanced with positive reviews) by adding legitimacy to the power and emotional content of your book.
On the other hand, it’s a rare book where a book review, let alone a negative one, determines its fate in the market place. Bad books rarely do well regardless of how they are reviewed by the literary intelligentsia in the major media or the more grounded new voices in the blogosphere or on amazon.com. They do poorly because they are bad books. Good books usually fail because of a poorly developed or executed marketing plan (including distribution). In a few cases, a book may be “before its time,” but I think that’s less the case now in the today’s publishing environment. (I’m not saying that all books can become best sellers, just that they can do well by reasonable and modest metrics: See my post here and here for more on this subject.)
Nevertheless, book reviews are crucial for crafting marketing plans and, when they are both good and from reputable sources, legitimizing your work. So, we can’t (and shouldn’t) be too dismissive.
But back the real question. As a matter of principle, and now a matter of practice, I never ask reviewers to withhold their opinions, no matter how stinging they might be (and I’ve had my books trashed by many who disagree with them over the years). I do this mainly because I believe it is essential to preserve the integrity of the review process; in other words, I want readers to know that the reviewer was honest in their opinion about the book. In fact, one book review service once published a very positive review of an earlier book, but I subsequently found out the reviewer wasn’t all that excited about it. I no longer use that service because I don’t trust them.
Honest book reviews, including (or particularly) negative reviews, serve other purposes for authors as well, including:
So, in sum, a good book should generate plenty of good reviews, but a few negative reviews may actually end up helping you as an author, and even sales of your book, in the long run.
Thank you readers! I’m quite pleased with the reception my blog has received during its first seven months and logged nearly 4,000 visitors. We’ve seen traffic steadily increase since we launched in May, 2011 as well, as we are looking forward to a very productive 2012 as we continue to comment on the changing nature of book publishing with a focus on new authors and writers.
I thought I would share the most popular posts for the 2011:
- Your Book Costs How *#&! Much, Part 1? (May 30, 2011)
- Secret (Literary) Agent Math (June 15, 2011)
- The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success (April 8, 2011)
- Your Book Costs How *#&! Much? Part 3 (June 3, 2011)
- What New Authors Need to Do: Market (September 23, 2011)
NOTE: We will be opening our blog posts to comments in 2012 now that we have SPAM messages under control, so feel free to comment and discuss the content. Let us know what you think and suggest ideas for future posts!
As part of my marketing efforts for A Warrior’s Soul, I started a series of video commentaries, called video logs, on Youtube (Channel: SamRStaley). I just ptosted my fifth video log and I thought it might be useful to report on a few “lessons” from my first seven months of experience using videos to promote my fiction.
First, a little context. I am starting with hardly any platform for my fiction writing. So, these Youtube efforts are the first building blocks for a video marketing effort. Second, Youtube is emerging as one of my principle marketing mechanisms for reaching a broad audience beyond “friends and family” (most notably facebook). Thus, the lessons learned here are crucial for building and fleshing out my long-term marketing plan (or Phase II in my Guerilla Marketing program).
I essentially have three video products. Interviews and Q&A with the author to provide background on my books; trailers for the books; and Video Logs (VLs). The VLs are intended to be short commentaries on current issues related to the content of my novels. So far, they’ve mainly covered the topics of bullies, bullying, and martial arts. My first one (VL-1) focused on bullies, teasing, and gangs and released on 28 May 2011. It runs 5:35 and has recived 85 views to date. Interestingly, this video is two minutes longer than my introductory interview for the book released on 21 May, which now has 182 views.
At first blush, the higher number of views might seem to reflect its shorter length. I’ve been tracking all the videos weekly, however, and I’m finding that content and production values appear to drive viewership more than run time. Also, linking from other sites by independent followers is critical to driving viewership numbers. The high number of views for the interview, for example, is a direct result of the profile given to it when a popular follower of the book posted a link on facebook just two weeks before the release of A Warrior’s Soul.
Here’s the current status of the videos, including run-time, length of time up on Youtube, and number of views:
- Introductory Interview 3:26 7 months 183 views
- VL-1, Bullies, teasing & gangs 5:35 6 months 86 views
- VL-2, On Martial arts strategy 3:49 6 months 40 views
- VL-3, Female characters in fiction 4:50 5 months 22 views
- VL-4, Bullying & martial arts 4:05 5 months 36 views
- Trailer 1 1:04 3 months 52 views
- Trailer 2 1:02 1 month 89 views
- VL-5, Bruce Lee & peaceful warrior 1:27 1 day 20 views
The progress of the fifth VL, however, may be most telling. Even though it’s been up on Youtube for less than 24 hours, views have come close to eclipsing VL-3 (the least popular to date). It will proabably also eclipse VL-4 and VL-2 quickly based on its current trajectory.
What gives? VL-5 has three distinguishing features:
- a shorter experience;
- higher production values, including credits and a signature introductory music;
- broadly targeted content, using the famous martial artist Bruce Lee as a hook;
I’ll keep tracking the video progress and report back on the success and what it means for book marketing (and hopefully sales).