29 December 2010

Should you Self-Publish your Novel?

Over at A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, Joe Konrath talks about the sea-change in publishing the Kindle has enabled:
Well, the data is in. And I'm reversing one of my long-held beliefs about writing... Yep, I was pretty confident that traditional publishing was the only game in town.

Then, in 2009, I became aware of the Kindle...

So now it's December 2010, and I'm selling 1000 ebooks a day, and I'm ready to change my mind on the matter...
He breaks down all the numbers, well worth a read.

So, clearly aware that this change is sweeping the publishing industry, authors will increasingly have to make a judgment call between running the gauntlet with a traditional publisher or roll with an ebook.

Personally, I plan to pursue a traditional publisher initially. If, for whatever reason, no one picks it up, then I would have no qualms about going the ebook route. Far better than trunking a finished novel.

It's a hedging strategy, designed to take advantage of existing business structures and the resources and promotion-power they can put into a (successful) author's name.

But it's clear that the future may continue moving in this direction, to the point that publishing an ebook may become an author's first choice.

Never been a better time to write.

26 December 2010

What's the Best Way to Improve Grammar and Punctuation Skills?

To learn to see, that is the aim of all learning.

That which is outside your understanding is essentially invisible to you. If you do not understand grammar and punctuation, you cannot fix it in your own writing.

To improve your writing, you must learn to spot errors on a multitude of levels. The lowest of these is the level of the sentence, of base grammar and punctuation.

When you've mastered the mechanics of grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, and its variations, you can start worrying about higher-level, more abstract problems in a story--things like narrative structure, rhetorical strategy, image painting, and a whole host of other concerns.

Here's how I sharpened my skills:

I had my first professional writing job at age 18, when I worked for the Port of Los Angeles as an assistant to the Port's Public Relations Director. I beat out the other candidates by pitching my writing skill. The interview actually included writing an on-the-spot press release, given only a few bullet-point facts about a fictional shipping incident.

I wrote every press release that came out of there during my employment with the Port, though under my boss's byline. I enjoyed it a great deal, even when I was working 20 files at once with myriad deadlines.

I still remember, to my shame, my boss chiding me for accidentally writing "it's" where "its" was called for. I never made that mistake again thereafter, and I hungered for much deeper mastery of written language.

A professional writer cannot afford to make such mistakes and often has no one to catch mistakes. Especially for short stories and novels where editors and agents are looking for reasons to discard your submission; a grammar or punctuation mistake can be an instant ticket to the garbage bin.

I recently critiqued a short-story on Critters.org which was rife with incorrectly used colons, semi-colons, and commas. Worse, they were all over the place, used far too often. I'm talking like one per paragraph instead of maybe one or two per story. These punctuations are to be used like spice--too much spoils the soup. Seek balance and err on the side of not using them.

It doesn't matter how good your story is if you cannot properly punctuate it. That would be like, say, trying to rebuild an engine without knowing the proper type of grease to use in the bearings, or using it in the wrong places.

My first strategy for improving myself to a professional level was to take a full-on course in traditional syntax. And that meant I'd be doing a lot of something that I was actually looking forward to: sentence diagramming.

For a long time I savored the thought of performing sentence diagramming. Hard to believe, I know. Diagramming a sentence is equivalent to popping the hood of a car and learning what the individual parts do. Most people don't know and don't want to know what's going on in there. That's fine, but I must know.

The kind of familiarity with the flesh and bones of a sentence that sentence diagramming gives you is what I was after, minute attention to detail and mechanics, and this class delivered.

Doing Grammar: Fourth EditionThe text was this one: Doing Grammar: Fourth Edition by Max Morenberg.

It was a fantastic learning experience. I never had the opportunity to do sentence diagramming as a child because the practice had already  been banished from elementary schools by the time I got there.

This book uses a diagramming method that is slightly different than the traditional under-line method, and I think it's better. It has you drawing logical-connecting lines above a sentence and labeled, with the benefit being that you don't need to reposition the words at all, yet the connections are seen and understood easily.

Today, there's a resurgence of teaching diagramming, and I think it's a valuable tool that I wish I had learned from while young.

Apart from that book, there's a website that I've used lately to brush up on a few nagging habitual errors and to deepen my attention to the subtleties and vagaries of punctuation. It's among the best sites on grammar and punctuation I've found so far because not only is it completely free, it's also interactive.

It's called ChompChomp.com, titled "Grammar Bytes", written by Robin L. Simmons.

Its pages are spare, making it easy to find exactly what you're looking for. The interactive tests are separated into categories of what you want to brush-up on, and are well designed, though perhaps overly encouraging to a humorous degree when you do get one question right. You'll see.

I was recently talking to a friend from class who also wants to write professionally. She told me that she was constantly getting dinged on her class essays for grammar and punctuation mistakes. Professors tend to use mechanical mistakes as an "objective" test of writing skill, in the grading rubric. At least when it comes to knocking off points.

I can't remember the last time I was dinged for any major basic errors like that. I mean, I once accidentally indented the right margin of the entire paper after a block quote, heh. Didn't lose points for that though.

It's almost like cheating, because my essays get a boost compared to other students by simply being mechanically excellent. Not that I'm complaining.

Next semester I'm taking an upper-division creative writing course. I've got several short stories just waiting to be written, with nearly complete plots. They've been stewing for many months now. I can hardly wait.

So, if you need work on grammar and punctuation, put in the time and effort to really learn the craft of writing. You need discipline, ideas, and talent, sure, but you must pay your dues and put in work on the basics. Even if you're better than average compared to your peers, that still probably does not meet the professional standard.

Master the basics before moving up to the strategy of fiction and narrative structure, create a solid foundation for your writing to rest on and you have a chance at success. Continue to struggle with grammar and punctuation and success will elude you forever.

05 December 2010

Relationships are Important

Years ago, I worked at Home Depot while going to school. And while there I had the opportunity to read the story of how Home Depot rose from obscurity to Fortune 500 fame: Built from Scratch: How a Couple of Regular Guys Grew The Home Depot from Nothing to $30 Billion.

Written by the founders of Home Depot, Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, the book was actually being sold at Home Depot at that time, complete with a garish bright-orange hardcover. Being a poor college student, I took to reading a copy during my lunch-break and never actually bought a copy.

I learned a very important lesson from that book. There are many times in Home Depot's history where the relationships the two founders forged resulted in success where failure seemed inevitable.

First, there's their relationship with each other. It's difficult enough to maintain a friendship when you go into business together, these guys did it. And they trusted each other enough to tie their fates together in a very real way.

Then there's Ross Perot. He was all set to bank-roll Home Depot as the initial investor with a $2m capital infusion and would've owned nearly half the company. But he made a bone-head power play. He demanded that Bernie and Arthur drive Chryslers because he was a "Chrysler-guy" and all his "guys drove Chryslers". Well, this did not sit well with them, and did not bode well for the future of their business relationship either if Perot is being so demanding about even what car they drove. So, with no guarantee of money from any other source, they pulled out of the deal.

Because Perot tried to coerce these two into conforming with his transportation choices, he missed out on Home Depot's massive growth over the proceeding years. To give you perspective on this, Perot would've ended up being worth nearly $100 billion only 20 years later. He would've been the richest man on the planet by a long shot, more than doubling Bill Gates's total.

Later, the founders secured funding only because they had a great relationship with a venture capitalist. But the man's boss wouldn't let him invest in Home Depot. For over a year he tried to get his boss to change his mind because he believed in these two guys, and ultimately threatened to quit his job and take his $25 million worth of clients with him if his boss did not agree to fund Home Depot! Only then did his boss relent and Home Depot secured their startup funding and the rest is history!

He put his job on the line for them, his future. That's what a strong relationship can result in.

 Anyway. I write this because yesterday I was offered a position on the Board of Directors of a friend's company. Years ago we started a company together and forged a close bond of trust and friendship and have kept in touch all these years.

Now, all these years later, he's put together a C-corporation with initial financing from a group of friends and peers. I'll be helping them build a business plan and strengthen their marketing material.

The business is purchasing distressed and REO properties from banks in bulk, remodeling and rehabbing them as needed, then finding renters for them and ultimately selling them off to investors with a rental history.

It's a similar concept to the company we'd started together years ago, shortly before the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

There were two books back then that I greatly enjoyed and learned from which hit a similar theme of relationships and leadership in general. I find leadership a fascinating topic and there's few better speakers and writers on it than John Maxwell. The books I read back then are: The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and Developing the Leader Within You. I notice Maxwell has a book out now focused on just relationships, called Relationships 101. Definitely on my wanted list now.

I don't know where this opportunity may lead; I'll take things a step at a time. But I do know that I've been introduced to a group of ambitious, smart people who want to make things happen and believe I can help them do that. Even though I've refocused my ambitions on writing, I still love the business world, this sense that one can change the world and make an idea into a reality. That's the highest expression of creativity!

And, I do need some work to pay the bills while I finish writing that best-seller, heh.

I also consider my business experience to be a boon to my writing. In studying business and economics, I learned things that will and have already informed my writing. I learned a great deal about people and what motivates them, as well as how money works and how incentives create societal activity. More on that later.