Thursday, August 27, 2015

Top Craft Reasons That Get a Book Bad Reviews or Not Even a Look

This continues the series on 5 Secrets Every Indie Author Should Know.  The first secret was Craft Does Matter.

#1 Book blurb is boring, too long or doesn’t meet genre expectations

In today’s technological world, readers make a decision very quickly about whether to try a new author or a new genre.  Internet research tells us that the average purchaser spends all of 3-6 seconds on a product page before making a decision whether to click on a larger description or take a chance. Assuming at least two of those second is deciding if the cover is intriguing, that leaves only four seconds to read your blurb. If you don’t catch the reader at the very beginning, they won’t take the other ten second to finish reading and then make a decision .

You’ve probably seen the blurbs that follow all the “rule of four parts.” Describe the situation. Describe the problem. Provide hope. Summarize the mood/theme.  Um…I don’t agree. All of this is tell, tell, tell and you see millions of blurbs that follow this direction. And too many are long—three or four paragraphs. Today’s online shopper will never get through that. You need to stand out. Grab the reader by the throat and say “Look at me. You’ll rue the day you passed me by.”

Your book’s first line needs to say “I’m intriguing. I’ll give you more than you can imagine. Do you dare to try me?” 

How do you do that? Some people do it with what is known as a “logline” or “tagline.” That’s a single sentence that encapsulates your story.  Here are some of my loglines.

Forgiving yourself is the first step, but helping others forgive may be just too hard.” – This is a character problem line that summarizes the entire arc of the protagonist. This tells the reader this is a character-driven book.

“Children with no birth records and a soldier with PTSD together must define the value of human life.” – This is a plot logline. It summarizes the entire plot and the thematic question. It tells the reader that this is going to be plot driven but also have characters who will strive to answer the thematic question.

You don’t always have to use a logline as your first sentence. But trying to come up with one is a great exercise.  If not a logline then start with the most intriguing part of your story. It may be the character. It may be the setting. It may be something that immediately tells the reader the genre.

Here is an example from my first book in a YA Fantasy series.

Camryn Painter is a 16-year-old freak of nature. Or possibly the savior of a civilization that isn’t supposed to exist. She’s a human chameleon… one who transforms into the image of whoever she sees.”

In these three short sentences an intriguing character is established. The over-arching problem she faces is established. And the reader immediately knows it is in the fantasy or paranormal genre.

There are many more parts of writing a blurb. I would challenge you to try getting the most important part of your blurbs down to 100 words total. Make every line count. Make it so that the reader must pick up that book.

Need more help with constructing your blurb?

Check out Mary Buckham’s section of this Open House. She’s talking about Writing Active Hooks, which is key to getting that important first line in your blurb.

There is also an entire course on this. Beth Fred’s course, Blurb Writing Made Easy is being offered in December.

#2 Nothing Happens in the First 20-30 pages

You know that “Look Inside” feature that several distributors use? Or the “sample pages” in the case of Apple? If a reader gets past your blurb, the next thing she’ll do is click on that sample. That sample is 20% or less of your book.  That means with every page turn the reader is evaluating if it’s interesting enough to continue. If you use those first pages to set up the book, tell the backstory, give a walking tour of the location, it is highly likely the reader won’t even get through the entire sample.

You’ve probably heard, “start with action.” That doesn’t mean start with a bomb blast or someone dying (though you can). What it means is start with the point at which everything changes for your protagonist. There’s a phrase called “walking to the story” that some editors use. It means you are doing a lot of writing before you actually get to where the story starts.

Even though all that information is important to your process, or to trying to let the reader know how your protagonist found herself in this mess, it is not doing you any favors in getting someone to pick up your book.

AllWriter Workshops has several courses on craft to help you with this.

A series called Your First Book with professional editor Jodi Henley. Right now she is offering Part 2 and Part 3.

Next spring multi-published author and award-winning author, Laurie Schnebly, is offering a class on Overcoming That Fatal Flaw. This is for experienced authors who write good manuscripts but can’t determine where they are going wrong.

There are also a number of good craft books to help with your story development. My favorites are:

Break Into Fiction by Mary Buckham and Dianna Love
Practical Emotional Structure by Jodi Henley
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Brown and Dave King. 

I admit the last one is the one I go back to at the end of every first draft manuscript I write. I use it as a checklist for both developmental editing and good writing techniques. After I do that next edit (and sometimes a third edit), then I finally send my manuscript to a professional editor.

#3 No Story

I know that every writer believes she has written a great story—one that does everything she wanted it to do.  And it is probably true. The problem comes when someone, other than the author, reads the story and doesn’t see the same thing the author sees. This happens more often than I can count.

I’ve read entire 300+ page manuscripts that on a sentence-by-sentence level were beautifully written, had no typos or grammar problems, described and set up scenes and had decent dialog.  But, after slogging through 300 pages, nothing really happened. The plot may have moved from point A to point B, but there was never real conflict or no one was really in jeopardy. The hero and heroine may have ended up in-love or married, but I never saw the relationship build and it all came too easily. The detective figured out the mystery by page 329, but it was all obvious to me by page thirty.

This is why no author should ever edit her own work as a final edit. By the time I finish a book, I am the last person who knows whether I really got everything across. In my mind I did. In my mind the stakes were high, the conflict was real, and the emotions were undeniable.

After more than 30 short stories, 15 novels, and 5 non-fiction books you’d think I had this down. Um…No…Not really. Yes, most of the book is okay. However, EVERY time I send it to the editor there is more than one place where things are not so obvious to her as a reader. EVERY time I send a book out to Beta readers, there are several places where things are not so amazing as it is in my mind.

Books that fail to find an audience often have story craft problems. Some of those are addressed in the classes and resources I mentioned in item #2. All of them can be addressed by a good Developmental Editor. A developmental editor can identify problems with things like story and character arcs, themes, emotion, plot, pacing, scene and sequel, dialog, genre cookies, and many others. Do remember that not all editors are created equal. Also that, particularly in fiction, it is critical that your editor knows your genre inside and out. Reader expectations for romance books are very different from reader expectations for mysteries and those are different than science fiction.

In my opinion, if you have to choose only one editor, a good Developmental Editor is your best choice.

If you cannot afford a developmental editor then try to barter with someone. At least be sure to send your book at to critique partners AND Beta Readers. Beta readers are people who read regularly in your genre. They are people you do not know personally and therefore will give you there honest answers.

There are also two advanced writing books I would highly recommend

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein – the most comprehensive book on actual techniques from plot to character to pacing and everything else that I’ve ever read.

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks – this goes beyond the basics of plot and structure into the parts that make it hang together or not

#4 Typos and Obvious Grammar Problems

If you succeed in getting to that purchase stage, and then deliver a book riddled with typos and grammatical errors you will be called out on it. Believe me, there are many readers who go looking for that and immediately post a review about it.

There are several ways to deal with proofreading. One way is to pay or barter with a professional proofreader. This is different from a developmental editor or a copy editor. A proofreader is someone who looks at every word, every punctuation mark, every verb-tense agreement and finds the problems. She doesn’t look at character arcs or plot development or make comments on whether there is enough emotion on the page.

I do understand that many writers on a budget, have to choose between the type of editor they can afford to pay (usually only one). If you spent your money on a developmental editor then I would suggest a couple of options for proofing. 1) Find a friend who loves you and is the one who always catches typos in other books; 2) Use a service like Autocrit or Pro Writing Aid. This isn’t as good as a human, but it does a decent job, and it is definitely better than doing nothing at all or relying on yourself. The key to using these tools is understanding how to fix the things it finds or when to ignore the advice.

#5 Reader Cookies

All readers come to a book with a set of expectations, and if those expectations are not met they are disappointed and either leave middling to bad reviews or simply don’t come back for other books. Fulfilling these expectations are white I call “reader cookies.”  Those expectations are formed by three things: 1) Your promise in the blurb; 2) The categories/genres you select when you load the book; and 3) Tropes of the genre.

Your promise in the blurb. When you read the loglines I presented for three different books, it is likely that you formed an idea in your mind around what that book might contain. These ideas are based on your previous reading experiences with similar themes or ideas.

Though you cannot please every person who picks up your book, you also have to be very aware of what expectations you are setting up with your blurb. And then you MUST deliver on those expectations in the story. If you are setting up an emotional, character-driven story in your blurb then you better deliver that story. This means you have to have a strong sense of your protagonist and that character drives everything, from plot to black moment to resolution.  If you are setting up a world, as I did in my fantasy blurb, then you better deliver something that is an entire world with a set of rules and societies, economics and power distribution, that is consistent throughout your book or series.

The Categories/Genres You Select. When you load your book to distributors you have to choose the categories that best fit your book. This is often hard for writers because many writers have a hard time deciding where it really fits.

Readers search based on those genre categories. If a reader is looking for a romance and your book is categorized that way, then you better deliver some romance tropes and have a happily-ever-after (HEA) at the end. If you fail to have the romantic relationship at the center of the story or you don’t deliver an HEA, your reviews will reflect that problem and it will get around this really isn’t a romance.

Every genre has “rules” about what belongs in that genre. Even non-fiction has these breakdowns. Expectations in a self-help book are different than expectations in a memoir.

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