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Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Old Proverb

No, it’s not a Mark Twain quote – or at least not one that’s been backed up by reliable resources.

If you Google this proverb, you’ll come up with plenty of sites that attribute it to Mark Twain (Goodreads, for one); however, I haven’t been able to find any reliable proof that he actually said it. And while I’d like to be able to say that it’s his quote (there’s something emotionally satisfying about quoting Mark Twain), I like to at least try to use accurate quotes and attributions.

What I did find is articles about how often Mark Twain is misquoted. There’s a whole website called Unquotable: Mark Twain, dedicated humorously to making up quotes that people will believe are his (not very helpful but interesting). The best actual research I found was compiled in a Huffington Post article called “That’s What He Said: Quoting Mark Twain.” The article lists various resources for checking whether the line you’re using was actually written by or said by Mark Twain. Some even let you search his letters and written works.

Well, I searched through those for this quote, and it was not in there. I looked through their lists of quotes by topic, and it still wasn’t there. I even did a Google Book search (a good way to verify quotes by writers, by the way), and none of the books that came up were his (or even that old). One of them, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, happens to be on my bookshelf (I guess I should’ve started there), and although it traces the line back to several variations and sources, none of those sources are Mark Twain.

Of course, at this point, the idea that Mark Twain said this is so firmly entrenched in the internet that there’s no changing it, true or false. Which is also kind of funny in context with the quote, isn’t it?

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Traditional Publishing vs. Indie Publishing: How Should I Sell My Book?

Traditional publishing vs. indie publishing is another “why are you asking me?” question. It’s also a question you’re going to have to answer for yourself; however, I can give you some information that may help inform your decision.

Answering this question generally comes down to a combination of 4 factors: prestige, control, money, and time/energy (they’re the same factor in this case – we’ll get to that).

Prestige

It used to be that self-publishing was a career-breaker for writers. Not only was it really hard to make a profit (most self-publishing companies were too expensive for that), but also once  you did it, you’d effectively have marked yourself with a scarlet letter so that regular publishers wouldn’t want you anymore (not without major incentives).

Well, ebook sales have completely changed that. Writers can now sell their books with little-to-no upfront costs, and any residual negative connotations with self-publishing are rapidly disappearing.

The prestige of going through a publisher, on the other hand, is not fading quite as quickly. In many circles, there is still thrill and acclaim associated with being picked up by a publisher. It’s like a stamp of approval saying that your book made the cut. Indie publishing has about the same prestige as having your own blog (Yeah, it’s nice, but anyone can do it.).

If your main goal in publishing is to get that recognition, you don’t need to read further. You want traditional publishing (although I will say # of sales and making the charts on Amazon is starting to be its own stamp of approval, so this may change over time).

Control

Ceding any control over your book can be hard. Scratch that. It can be insanely, drastically impossible (or it can seem that way). Changing your book simply because some editor (and what do they know?) said to? Excuse me?

I understand the emotion; however, I have mixed feelings about choosing self-publishing to get full control over your book. If you’re an experienced writer, and the book is still going through a thorough editing process, then I’m all for it. Sounds great. If you’re a first-time writer, you may or may not be doing yourself (and your book) a disservice.

Assuming that the editor is completely off base and that your book is perfect as it is… well, that’s problematic. While it’s possible, more often than not, the editor is right – if not about how to fix the problems, then at least about the fact that there are problems and what the problems are (alas, no book is perfect).

So getting full control is fine as long as that doesn’t become an excuse for ignoring major problems. Remember: making the book better means it will probably sell better (which means more money for you).

Money

As much as writers are artists, we are also adults who (generally) need to make money to pay for important things (like food, rent, books – you know, the essentials). I’m not enough of an expert to tell you exact price points. What I want to talk about is perspective and strategy.

Are you more concerned with long-term payoff or a fast, guaranteed return?

If you need money to spend now, you’re going to get more upfront from traditional publishing than from indie publishing. With an advance against royalties contract, you get a big fat check upfront followed by royalties after you sell enough (which can take a while). Most of the figures I’ve seen for advances are quoted in the thousands (for more information, here’s “11 Frequently Asked Questions About Book Royalties, Advances and Money” by Chuck Sambuchino), so it can take a while for ebook sales to match that.

For example, to match a $3,000 advance, you’d have to sell between 700 and 8,600 copies of your ebook, depending on how you decide to price it. And that was one of the lower advances I saw.

Can you make more than that? Absolutely. If your book is good (or simply popularly appealing), and you get it out where people can see it, you can definitely sell a lot more than that. And the plus of getting to set your price is that you determine how high your royalties are – and when you compare royalties, ebooks almost always win out. With higher royalties, you definitely have the opportunity to make that much and more in the long-term.

The odds of it happening overnight are not so good.

If you’re confident that you can market to sell, and you don’t need the extra influx of cash, indie publishing could be a bigger payoff in the long-term. If you need some money now, you have a better chance of getting more with traditional publishing.

Time/Energy

The last factor to consider is your time and energy. And I might add knowledge of marketing. Ideally, you’ll be doing some promoting either way; however, the amount is going to change based on whether you have help from a publisher or not.

Do you have the time, energy, and knowledge to do all your own marketing? More importantly, do you have the time, energy, and knowledge to do it well?

People can’t buy your book if they don’t know it’s there. That goes for printed books as well as ebooks. And that’s the point of marketing. The job of marketing is to make people know that the book is there and (we hope) make it sound worth buying. There’s a lot that goes into it – remember that businesses have a person or even a whole team of people whose full-time jobs are doing the marketing for that business.

If you go with indie publishing, you are responsible for your own marketing. Period. End of story. Unless your best friend is a marketing expert who’s willing to put in some hours as a gift, you are on your own. That means that all the time and energy spent researching, making marketing materials, and setting up ads or accounts are all coming from you (and the money that goes into  it does, too).

If you don’t think you can do that, indie publishing might not be the option for you.

With traditional publishing, at least some marketing is included. So while you should do some promotions yourself, you will not be completely on your own. The cover at least will be done for you, and most likely, there will be some deal to get the books printed and in stores. With copies of your books in bookstores, you also have the option of the impulse buy from browsing that is generally harder online.

Traditional Publishing vs. Indie Publishing

Prestige, control, money, time/energy – each of these factors can be huge, and they can vary dramatically from person to person. Or even from moment to moment and book to book. You can use traditional publishing for 1 book and indie publishing for another. People starting their careers might need a very different strategy from someone who’s well established.

So what’s your strategy? How will you sell your book?

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Double Meaning & Truth(s): How to Lie without Lying

If you need to hide a truth in a truth, double-meaning is your best friend. I know that doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but I promise it actually does.

A double meaning (also known as a double entendre) has a pretty accurate name – it’s when a statement or action has multiple meanings (or truths). The only part of the name that’s misleading is “double”: you don’t have to stop at 2. And you probably won’t want to – but we’ll get to that.

Now, let’s say you have a scene in a book where a character has to tell the truth, but you need that truth to serve multiple tasks. First, it needs to have an interpretation that the reader (and possibly the characters) can believe in. The sort of truth that gives them an understanding of what’s going on and what’s going to happen. Let’s call that Truth A. Truth A could easily be a plot option that you might’ve considered and decided not to go with (They’re often more predictable or obvious, but they don’t have to be.).

Then, you need that same statement or action to tell a truth that can lead to a whole different interpretation of the plot. Truth B. That truth (or possibly even Truth G) is what is really happening. By giving the reader a more obvious truth to focus on, you can keep their attention off what’s really going on – lead them astray without actually lying. Most of the time, you don’t want to straight-out lie to the readers: you simply want them to interpret the facts differently than you intend to at the end.

Think about how theologians can argue about interpretation – if this word actually means that, it changes the entire meaning! That’s the sort of opportunity you want to set up. But it’s not enough to set it up. You also have to set it up in a way that emphasizes certain truths over others.

Like a stage magician, it’s all about misdirection. In film and television, for example, they do a lot of misdirection with camera shots. The audience puts emphasis on different characters and actions by the amount of camera time they get (and the angle, focus, etc.). A great example of that is the pilot episode of Firefly. By emphasizing certain characters over others, they make you think  you know who leaked the information simply because that’s how most series would have slipped you clues beforehand (Important characters get more camera time. Duh.). By breaking those rules, Joss Whedon misled the audience and surprised a lot of people who aren’t used to being surprised by tv anymore (admit it).

In writing, you can swing the interpretation the direction you want with the same basic technique of shifting the focus. Some authors even have their characters dismiss Truth A to reveal Truth B beneath – and to disguise the fact that Truth C is concealed under that. It can get very complicated, and it takes a very sneaky brain to trick someone with a truth. Luckily, we have a very sneaky language (rife with double meaning) to help us out.

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6 Methods to Hook Readers

I found this quote today. You have no idea how happy that makes me.

I found this quote today. You have no idea how happy that makes me.

Anyone else learn about hooks in high school? You know, those one-line bits of magic that supposedly made your college application essay more interesting and enthralling to the poor brain-numbed grader?

They’re baaack…

Joking aside, hooks are in everything – or at least the concept of hooks is. A hook isn’t necessarily a one-liner. It can be an idea, a character, a world, a word, a situation, etc. By definition, your hook is whatever grabs your audience and pulls them into the story (hence the name).

I think of them as those big old stage hooks from Vaudeville days. Instead of pulling bad acts off the stage, however, they’re pulling recalcitrant audience members back to their seats (“And you’re gonna stay there until I’m done.”).

Hooks aren’t limited to the start of the story, but that’s what I’m going to focus on today – that and using hooks with the art of the unexpected (and this goes back to the Ken Hill quote I kind of ignored at the beginning).

How do you make a good hook?

Ok. Hard question. There are lots of different points of view on that and lots of different variables that come into play. Think about it: you probably wouldn’t want the same hook for a romantic comedy as you would a murder mystery or a science fiction story.

That said, here are some basic types of hooks that I see commonly and have named as I saw fit (dun dun dunnnn).

1. The Puzzle

A puzzle is the basic idea behind most hooks: give the readers a few hints about what is happening but not enough to actually know what’s going on. If you can successfully pique their curiosity, they’ll keep reading to find out the entire situation.

“Call me Ishmael.” – Moby Dick

First Witch: When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
Macbeth by William Shakespeare

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

None of these really tell you anything about what’s happening in the story. They do make you want to know (and that’s the secret to the hook).

2. The Setting

“Maycomb was a tired, old town, even in 1932 when I first knew it.”
To Kill a Mockingbird (the movie)

The first line of this movie introduces the town in a way that gives it character and makes us curious about why the author would talk about it that way. In books, starting with the setting is most common with stories where the setting is vital to the plot (like To Kill a Mockingbird) or that have a lot of worldbuilding (like science fiction and fantasy, for example).

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Authors have gotten away from this type of hook more recently because it isn’t very active. Readers today have shorter attention spans, so it can be harder to get their attention with a description of a place. It’s possible, but be wary of making it too long (or long-winded).

3. The Character

The characters are the heart of any story. Most likely, if the reader isn’t interested in the main character, he/she isn’t going to keep reading the book. Getting the reader attached to the main character early is a great tactic for keeping him/her reading the rest of the way through.

“Hello. My name’s Forrest. Forrest Gump. You want a chocolate? I could eat a million and a half of these. My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Forrest Gump

You heard his voice in your head when you read that, didn’t you? As a movie line, the voice and delivery add even more character information beyond the intriguing clues of the words.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

As a book intro, this line doesn’t have the voice and delivery to help it, but it doesn’t need them. It gives us a really strong impression of what Eustace is like without describing him in detail at all beyond his name.

4. The Conflict

Hooks don’t have to be oblique and subtle. If the plot conflict of your story is part of the selling point, why not start by telling the reader what it is?

“Many moons ago in a far-off place
Lived a handsome prince with a gloomy face
For he did not have a bride.”
Once Upon a Mattress

What do you think the musical is about? It’s pretty self-explanatory, right? The next example isn’t a line of music, but it certainly got the audience’s attention.

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.”
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

5. The Spoiler

The best part about this type of hook is that it gives away the ending of the story, but the audience doesn’t know that. We think that it’s a puzzle/character/conflict hook and don’t find out until the end that it was more. As a writer, pulling that off would make me cackle with glee.

“When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” — To Kill a Mockingbird (the book) by Harper Lee

“This is the story of how I died.” — Disney’s Tangled

6. The Tease

Nothing grabs a person’s attention like conflict and high stakes, and there is no moment in the story with more of that than the climax. With this hook, the audience knows that this is part of the ending – only they don’t know how.

“People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.”
Fight Club (movie)

“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.” — Fight Club: a Novel by Chuck Palahniuk

This book and/or movie starts maybe a third of the way into the climactic scene (rough estimate). Immediately, we know that there’s a life or death situation and that there’s a convoluted character relationship. We don’t know any of the details, but we want to: we want to know what happens! Does the main character survive? Why is his best friend doing this?

Then, right as we’re starting to move forward in the scene, the book jumps back to the exposition. We have to wait all the way through the exposition and rising action to find out how we got to this point, and even then, we don’t know how the scene will be resolved. This is a great way to give the book a fast-paced, active start to get the audience’s attention.

The Best Part About Hooks

The best part about hooks (IMHO) is that you can combine these types in whatever way that you like. Adjust the hook to fit your book and make it as strong and compelling as you can.

Go on! Grab those readers!