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Why I'm Being an Absolute Sloth!
Lessons We Learn Too Late
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

July 2012

Yankees Are Perpetrators of Outrage; Rebels Are Daring and Heroic

In recognition of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, "Civil War-Era Memories" features excerpts from The Memphis Daily Appeal of 150 years ago.

July 25, 1862

From the Appeal in Grenada, Miss. / Memphis Intelligence – Quite a number of Memphians who have been driven from their homes by the tyrannical order of Gen. Hovey, which gave them no option except banishment or taking an oath of allegiance to the hated government, arrived this last evening. The order referred to is being rigidly enforced, and hundreds, including many of the most prominent citizens, are preparing to leave.

Forrest still at work -- The telegraph brings us more good news from Gen. Forrest in Middle Tennessee. To his conquest of Murfreesboro he has added that of Lebanon, some twenty-five miles east of Nashville. . . The country will not only admire but applaud the daring adventure and heroic deeds of Gen. Forrest, who, although a novice in war, has by his intrepidity and gallantry won for himself a place in the front rank of our military commanders.

Federal Outrages at Germantown, Tenn. -- The Memphis Bulletin gives the following account of the recent outrages committed by Lincoln's troops upon the defenseless citizens of Germantown, Tenn. The perpetrators of these acts are supposed to have been stragglers from Gen. Sherman's command, which was encamped at that time a few miles from the place. . . These men came in squads . . . and proceeded to break into stores and private dwellings, and carry off or destroy whatever they could find – including furniture, wearing apparel, books, personal ornaments, silver spoons, or anything else that suited their fancy, in spite of the prayers and remonstrances of their owners. No houses were burned, as was before reported, but only one dwelling in the neighborhood escaped being completely pillaged.

July 28, 1862 Vicksburg has proved a stumbling block to the invaders, who have learned that the Mississippi is not yet open; and its successful defense should cause a blush of shame to mantle the cheeks of those who so ingloriously caused positions equally as strong above to be abandoned without a struggle.

In Hindsight: What I Learned from Three Free Days on Kindle Select

My new little book, Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel, appeared as a free offer on Kindle for three days last week.  I put it there deliberately to test some of the theories that are currently floating around the internet.  Here's what I found out:

Q: Is it true that publishing a "book-a-year" is no longer enough? Are our readers demanding extra books, even if they are nothing more than long short stories?

A: The importance of this practice may have been exaggerated.  From what I could tell, the people who downloaded my free book of short stories were those who had already read Beyond All Price.  For them, perhaps the small offering between the publication of major books was welcome. But I do not see that it attracted many new readers.  Readers who did not already know me and my work yawned and went elsewhere. Would I do it again? Probably not, unless, as this time, I already had a body of work that needed a chance at publication. I would not write something new just to fill up a couple of months between publications.

Q: Does offering free copies of e-books for a few days really spark sales and boost the book's rankings?

A: No and Yes.  Unlike the viral fever that hit Beyond All Price a year ago and kept copies selling for a month after the free offer expired, this offer ended and so did sales. And while the rankings went up during the course of the free offer, they too plummeted when the freebies ended.

Suspiciously so.  During the second day, downloads drove the book up the rankings until it reach #16 in Historical Fiction.  When the sale ended, it was no longer even on the chart. As for the overall ranking number, it was something like 1,187 during the sale and around 265,000 within three hours of the end of the sale. That would suggest that during the wee hours of the night, 265,000 other books sold more than the several hundred downloads that Left by the Side of the Road had accumulated. That's pretty unlikely.

So what was going on? I see this as strong confirmation of a rumor that has been circulating--Amazon used to count free downloads the same as sales.  Now they do so only during the sale period.  Then they discount downloads at a high ratio.  I've heard 1 to 10 and 1 to 100.

If the sale had any effect at all, it was not on the ranking of the new book, but rather on increased sales of my older books.  Those numbers doubled and tripled for a few days.

Q: What about the relatively new Kindle Select program? Will people really "borrow" books that they could buy for a couple of bucks?

A: Not that I can see.  This is my second test of that theory, both times using small book titles that I regarded as extras.  None of them got a single borrow.  And why should they?  Amazon Prime customers can borrow only one book a month for free.  If I were in their position I'd save that borrowing privilege for the most expensive books on their list, not one I could buy for a few dollars. And if I ever decided to offer another book as a Kindle Select, I'd make sure that it's original price was high enough to make borrowing financially beneficial.

Q: And finally,  what are the consequences of giving Amazon exclusive sales rights over a new book?

A: Coincidentally,  just yesterday, I received my quarterly royalty payment from Smashwords. It includes purchases made on all the other platforms -- Apple, Nook, Kobo, Sony, etc.  I was shocked to see how many e-books had sold over on Barnes and Nobles Nook -- many more than I sold in the same period on Amazon.

If you list a book on Kindle Select, you can not sell it anywhere else for 90 days, and in my case, ninety days of sales on Nook could amount to several hundred dollars lost.  Is it worth it? Not that I can see.  I'm committed, I'm afraid, to leave Left by the Side of the Road on Kindle Select for another two months, but after than, I will not be using it again.

These are not definitive statements, and my testing method was pretty unscientific. However it confirmed something I've been suspicious of for some time.  It may no longer be possible to "game" Amazon into making your book an instant best-seller.  Nothing succeeds better than good old-fashioned time and effort. 

5 More Lessons from the Olympic Athletes

Continuing yesterday's post:

(6) There will always be camaraderie
I don’t think I could ever have written my first novel without the support of my writing friends on Twitter and the NaNoWriMo community. The camaraderie of other people in the same field is indispensable to being a writer or an athlete. For who else understands what we go through? Our partners, friends and family may smile and be supportive but they cannot really know why the hell we do this. Pro athletes need team-mates and so do writers. If you don’t have this yet, get on with some networking!

(7) There will always be people trying to cheat and game the system, but authenticity wins through
Inevitably at the Olympics there are rumors of drug abuse and cheating. Some people will get away with it and no one will ever know, but many are caught out in the process. Everyone feels this is against the spirit of the Olympics, and fair play in general. This is not what we want as professionals.

Authenticity is far more important than trying to win by these other means. So don’t bother following the latest ways to game the Amazon algorithms or get fake reviews. Ignore the hyped so-called bestseller campaigns and the promises of power-friending on the social networks. This is a long journey and a little every day will get you there eventually with your reputation intact. Understanding yourself and being authentic is the only way to make it over the long haul.

(8) There are different sports for different people
Some people want to perpetuate the myth that we are all the same, but in truth, we should celebrate our differences and how much we can all achieve at different things. At the Olympics, beautiful black men will inevitably win the running, both short and long distances (and isn’t it a joy to watch Usain Bolt run?!) In the gymnastics, it will be petite girls, most likely from China or Eastern Europe. There are body types for different sports, and there are also preferences based on long term passion for the chosen arena.

It’s the same for writers. Much as I’d love to write in the top-selling genre of romance/erotica, it’s just not me. Perhaps you feel the same way about sci-fi or fantasy, horror or thrillers. Thankfully writing isn’t based on body type, but it is about excelling within our chosen arena. Yes, some writers span multiple genres but would they win Olympic gold in all of them?

(9) Fans are the true gold
Individual effort is definitely worthwhile, but the support of fans help an athlete, or a writer, excel further. I love to get emails from people who enjoyed my books, and I love to get great reviews on the book sites. It is said that an artist can make a living with 1000 true fans, who evangelize their work and ultimately buy whatever they do. We could not pay the bills without our fans, so let’s celebrate them and be grateful for them. In our turn, as fans of other writers, let’s buy their books and leave reviews of books we love.

(10) The human interest story will always capture people’s hearts
Who remembers the names of most of the athletes who competed, or won gold, at the Sydney Olympics? I was there and I remember only a handful. Perhaps you can name a few. But pretty much everyone who was there remembers Eric the Eel, the swimmer from Equatorial Guinea. He had never even seen an Olympic sized pool before arriving and only started swimming 8 months before the Olympics. He got in on a wildcard draw and won his heat as the others were disqualified for false starts.

The story of the underdog always captures the media attention and indeed our hearts. An easy win isn’t as satisfying as an emotional loss. As writers, we need to keep this in mind for our manuscripts. No one wants to know about the nameless masses, the fistfuls of gold. They want to know about the stories behind the hype.

5 Lessons for Writers Found in the Olympics

I'm already hooked on the Olympics -- even planning a special Olympic picnic to get us through the Opening Ceremonies. So while I'm cooking and staying glued to the TV for a couple of days, I'm borrowing parts of a related column from my friend Joanna Penn. (Needless to say I'm jealous that she's actually in London!) Half of this column will come today and the other half tomorrow:

The Olympics have started and London is in party mode!
The city has been spruced up and now the hordes have arrived. I never enjoyed mass sporting events until I attended the Sydney Olympics when the penny finally dropped. It was a glorious, patriotic time and now I’m a fan of these brilliant events. So I’ll be soaking up the Olympic vibe as the city goes nuts.
But even if you’re not into sport, there’s still a lot writers can learn from the Olympics.

(1) Open with a hook
The opening ceremony has become a must-watch event showcasing the national pride of the host nation, as well as the march of the competitors around the main arena and the lighting of the Olympic flame.  London’s event is managed by Danny Boyle, famous for directing Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, among other movies. It promises to be a grand spectacular. Our books need to open in the same way. Not necessarily with a massive event, but with something that the reader wants to be part of, that drives them to buy the book and stay with us through the opening chapters. If a reader stays with us through the length of an ebook sample, they are likely to buy the book.

(2) It takes years of practice behind the scenes to make it this far
Athletes don’t just wake up one day and compete in the Olympics. Many of them will have been training for this since they were children. This is not a hobby, this is a lifelong passion. It’s years of practice in the cold, frosty mornings or the muggy heat of the afternoons, when your friends are still in bed or in the bar. It’s practice over and over again until the body knows the moves and then you push it just a little further.
I was at Thrillerfest a few weeks ago, and I was struck by how many years the big name authors have been working to achieve the success they now have. Many of them wrote for years before they ‘made it’, and before that, they worked for years to get noticed. Practice over many years will take us all that far.

(3) It also takes discipline, hard work and professional habits
I recently read an article about the professional habits of Michael Phelps, the US swimmer who takes gold repeatedly, and no doubt will continue to do so. His habits and discipline 7 days a week give him an edge over other competitors.
I also wrote recently of how Steven Pressfield’s book ‘Turning Pro’ challenged me with my own writing habits. Being an author is about mastery of the craft but it’s also about writing the words and getting them out there – that means we have to put in the time and the hard work. How professional are your writing habits at the moment? How committed are you?

(4) Success is based on both individual effort and teamwork
Professional athletes don’t work on their own, even if the sport is based on individual performance. There are coaches, team-mates, fans, support crew. Without this team, the athlete cannot compete.
In the same way, writing is (generally) an individual pursuit but we also need a team behind us to succeed. As independent authors, we need pro editors and cover designers, potentially help with formatting and we certainly need our distributors and the marketing platforms we use to spread the word. Traditionally published authors have an agent, editors and the whole team at the publisher. We all need the support of other writers, friends and family. I love to read the dedication and acknowledgements in books, because it honors the support of the team behind the writer.

(5) There will always be rivalry
Not everyone can win gold, even on the same team and so there will always be rivalry. It’s hard not to look at other people’s success and want it for yourself. Some people will even attack the winners and savage their success. Writers see this happen on Amazon with some awful reviews that often turn out to be from other writers.
We need to accept that there will always be some comparison, some measuring. But then we need to celebrate each others success and use it to spur our own efforts towards excellence.

There now.  If, like me, you're taking a couple of days off to enjoy the London party, you at least have an excuse.  You're taking lessons from the athletes!

10 Questions for Those Who Think They Understand Commas

Since lots of people are talking about Oxford commas and other crazy comma rules, here's a borrowed test of your ability to "hear" the commas.  Be sure to read each example out loud before you answer.

A Comma Quiz, by Mark Nichol

Do the following sentences require an additional comma (or perhaps two), the omission of an existing one (or two), or both? Answers and explanations follow.

1. The word breakfast literally means to break the fasting period of your night’s sleep, so you can refuel for the day.

2. The first scene takes place in a dimly lit, tactical command center on an aircraft carrier.

3. The finishing stage is a series of asphalt “ski jumps,” only the “skiers” are skiing the wrong way.

4. One of their biggest challenges was coming up with a story that would resonate on a deep, emotional level.

5. Another English writer named Richard Browne used scientific reasoning to confirm the theory.

6. Among slaves, other popular instruments included drums made from hollowed logs covered with animal hides or kitchen pots and pans.

7. They continued to run the establishment, and took great pride in the accomplishments of their sons who kept in regular contact.

8. The storm inspired the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

9. As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes and dance forms such as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.

10. “Newspapers and polling organizations predicted that Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, would be America’s next president.”

Answers and Explanations:

1. Delete. Inclusion of the comma in this sentence incorrectly implies that thanks to the meaning of the word breakfast, you can refuel for the day.

2. Delete. The reference is not to a command center that is dimly lit and tactical; it’s to a tactical command center that is dimly lit. (Don’t let technical jargon deter you from making sense of a compound noun.)

3. Both. Only here is not a qualifier that suggests “the ‘skiers’ and nobody else”; it’s a synonym for however, so punctuate as you would were that word used instead. Also, the first comma should be not just deleted but also replaced by an em dash that sets off the unusual circumstance described in the final phrase. (References to skiing are enclosed in scare quotes because the participants are not actually skiers but are engaging in an analogous activity.)

4. Delete. As with sentence #2, the appositive structure is confused. The reference is to an emotional level that is deep, not a level that is deep and emotional, so deep and emotional are noncoordinate adjectives and therefore require no intervening comma.

5. Add. Unless a previous sentence referenced a different English writer by that name, the phrase “named Richard Browne” should be set off by two commas to demonstrate that it’s an appositive to “another English writer” and is therefore parenthetical. (In other words, it’s nonessential; the sentence would make sense without it.)

6. Add. The drums were not made from logs covered with hides or with kitchenware; they could be hide-covered logs, or they could be pots and pans. That fact needs to be clarified with a comma following hides, plus a second from, inserted before kitchen to complete the parallel structure.

7. Both. The comma is neither necessary nor incorrect, but if it’s retained, a second they, after and, would smooth the sentence somewhat. But the definite error is this: Unless there are two groups of progeny — sons who kept in regular contact, and sons who didn’t, an appositive comma must be added after sons.

8. Delete. A quick online search will inform you that Hurston wrote more than one novel, so the nonrestrictive comma, which incorrectly implies that she published just one novel, should be jettisoned.

9. Add. The lack of a comma after tribes suggests that the slaves encountered other tribes and other dance forms, but then another verb crops up after that and creates a cognitive logjam. What the sentence means is that slaves’ encounters with slaves from other tribes led to increased exposure to new dance forms. The inserted comma will clarify that a new clause begins with and.

10. Delete. This error of apposition is one of the most annoying, relentlessly viral mistakes in English today. (Think of it this way: A comma implies a pause. Does the reader pause at all, much less twice, during this sentence?) Evidently, the misunderstanding stems from a confusion with the appositive structure of the phrase form exemplified in “Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate.”
The sentence would be correct if the were inserted before the epithet “Republican candidate,” but it is alternatively rendered proper by the omission of the two commas. The appropriate correction depends on the context (that is, whether a previous reference to a Republican candidate has been made).