Why #CockyGate Is Actually Important, Despite Its Ridiculous Name

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Anyone in the small and indie book-publishing community knows how hard it can be as a new or small author to get your name and your series off the ground. No matter how good your book is, one of the most important skills you need to learn as an author isn’t “how to write better,” although that one tops the list, most definitely.

No, it’s actually “how to create a brand and market yourself.”

And since authors are a notoriously introverted bunch who don’t do so well with being forced to tell other people how great they should think we are and to please buy our books, this can be problematic, to say the least.

For those who visit cons, attend writers’ groups and conferences, you typically learn that the writing community is full of wonderful, supportive people who love their fellow authors and encourage aspiring writers. Really.

In general, the indie market is filled with these awesome authors. So it came as a surprise to everyone when authors started complaining about getting letters threatening legal action against them because their books had the word “cocky” in the title.

No, I’m not kidding, even though I wish I was.

Author Faleena Hopkins, a woman who will now go down in infamy, recently started sending cease & desist letters to any other romance author with the word “cocky” in their book’s title, demanding that they change the title immediately because she had copyrighted the word. Yes. She actually went and got a copyright on the word “cocky,” all in an attempt to have the word solely associated with her “Cocker Brothers” series of romance novels. And the first thing she did was go and threaten other authors—even those whose books were published before her trademark—with legal action if they didn’t remove any instances of the word from their titles.

In a way, it seems like a brilliant move. But there’s a reason that people don’t get to copyright common words or phrases and charge money every time someone says it.

It’s a simple case of Faleena misunderstanding what her copyright is actually for. And now that she’s unanimously become the face of evil that indie authors everywhere are uniting against, it’s important to know why Hopkins will lose every court case, no questions asked.

Copyrighting is one of those things that many people don’t think about. Intellectual property (IP) rules can sometimes be confusing, but when it comes to ownership, possession is, as they say nine-tenths of the law. When it’s a totally new idea or concept, that is. So just how was Faleena Hopkins able to copyright a word that’s been around for hundreds of years?

She wasn’t.

Hopkins did go and get two copyrights regarding the word cocky, it’s true. However, her first copyright was strictly in the use of “a series of downloadable e-books in the field of romance”—not for any and all usage of the word. And that was only in a “particular stylized form of the word,” which she also had the copyright for. However, therein also lies the problem.

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When you copyright a word, like “Apple” did for computers, you have to show that your usage of the word is specific, unique, and unlike the common word. This is the reason that Apple got the copyright for computers and software, but you don’t have to pay $19.99 for every apple you buy from the Apple store.

In Faleena’s case, her first copyright was for the word “cocky” in a romance e-book series, in a stylized form. It only covers that single, particular use. Which means that other authors are not infringing on her use of it unless they copy it exactly, in stylized form, in romance novels. Someone could literally write a book of any genre, name it “Cocky,” and have a block-letter form of the word and they still wouldn’t be infringing on her copyright in the slightest.

The second issue is the stylized form of the word itself, which Faleena Hopkins did actually get a copyright on… Even though she doesn’t own the rights to the font that she copyrighted, which will immediately null any copyright she filed.

Someone took the time to track down the font that she used and find out where it came from. The artist’s website says specifically that no one may copyright a word with their font, since the font is already trademarked to the artist, and is only licensed to the user.

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So Faleena’s entire argument for trying to steal royalties from other authors is moot. She didn’t have permission to copyright to begin with. And now, not only does she have thousands of indie authors up in arms against her, but the Romance Writers of America (RWA) is even speaking to the ones that Hopkins threatened in order to bring an IP suit against her.

So yes, #Cockygate may sound really stupid, but there’s an important lesson to learn from it:

There’s nothing wrong with trying to protect a brand that you’ve created, but trying to screw other authors out of doing the same and threatening to steal their money isn’t the way to do it.

And also, before you send out cease and desist letters, you should probably make sure that you understand copyrights and have permission to use them to begin with.

Follow #CockyGate and #ByeFaleena (my new favorite tag) on Twitter for more amazing responses to this ridiculous scandal.

 

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Why You Should Be Reading Your Writing Out Loud

Editor's Suggestions

Last weekend I was at JordanCon here in Atlanta, meeting with and talking to some exceptionally skilled people in the writing and publishing world. It was an amazing treat, since I got to experience being a Con author, but also because I got to pick up little things here and there from other people more experienced than I am.

One of the things that came up in conversation with many of the aspiring writers I spoke to was the fact that none of them had ever read their work out loud or had anyone read it for them.

To elaborate, I’d like to state that I (frequently) annoy my husband into letting me read something I’ve written to him. I’ll do this even if I know he won’t really be listening because it’s while he’s reading the news or playing a video game or even falling asleep.

The benefit I get isn’t just for him to listen to the story and give me feedback, though that does help. The benefit is learning where the flaws are in my own writing by hearing them as I read. This one trick has changed many a story I’ve written.

So it struck me as odd that many people don’t read their work aloud. The benefits to your writing are so tremendous it’s ridiculous.

I’m an incredibly fast reader by nature. If I’m pleasure reading, I often have to force myself to slow down so I’m not missing key elements or glossing over words. Reading out loud forces me to slow down, see what I’m actually reading, and also notice errors (like forgotten words) as I go.

If you’re not reading your writing aloud, then you should be. And here are 3 reasons you need to start doing it right now:

1. Awkward lines become super obvious.

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Sometimes when you’re just reading your own writing, it sounds really eloquent in your head. You know what I’m talking about—you’re sure it’s the greatest set up ever. But reading out loud will strip that idea from you almost immediately. And trust me, that’s a good thing!

When you read out loud, you’re going to see if there are any words that you hesitate on, stumble over, or that otherwise sound weird to you. These are areas that might make other readers (who don’t know your inflection) go “Huh?” and reread it to figure out what you meant or to correct themselves. And since that takes away from their immersion in your world, that’s a BIG no-no.

2. You’ll develop a “reading voice.”

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Reading in front of people is weirdly intimidating. It’s like you’re baring a piece of your soul when you read aloud. This can make it easy to screw up, whether it’s because of a dry mouth, nervous tick, or you’re speed reading and stumbling over your words.

If you practice reading out loud, when you have to do this in the future to a crowd (either big or small!), you’re going to know the pace, be familiar with the tone, and understand how it should sound, which will help lessen screw ups.

3. It will better your writing.

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Yes, reading your work (or hearing someone else read it) is supremely beneficial. In your head, things might sound fine, but out loud, you’ll start to realize that certain words may need to have less complicated choices, or that dialogue sounds too formal, or you’re trying to create a scene and left out a hugely important part.

It will also force you to picture scenes and situations in a different way than just writing will do. You’ll start to notice immediately when things don’t “look” right in your head, and you’ll realize where you’re lacking to your readers, too.

So if you’re not convinced, just try reading your latest piece out loud to yourself, and I’m sure you’ll notice some problems right away. If you have someone you’re comfortable sharing your work with in the early stages, have them read segments to you, too, so you can see where you’ve still got work to do.

This is an incredibly important part of the storytelling process, so don’t neglect it!

 

 

 

Photo: WeHeartIt

It’s Almost Time For JordanCon!

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And now for a fun announcement!

For those of you who are diehard Robert Jordan fans (or even those who read him a while back and just fondly remember the books), there’s nothing more fun than hanging out with like-minded people and having a good time… And  clearly someone thought this sounded like a good idea, and set out to create the awesome adventure that is the annual celebration of JordanCon, a fantasy and literature convention created in honor of the late author himself.

JordanCon is a celebratory convention held in Atlanta, GA, and this will be my first time attending, so I’m definitely excited. This year, I’ll be joining several guest authors to do panels and share information on the writing and publishing industry (along with whatever helpful advice I might have!) all weekend long from April 20-22!

There are going to be some truly excellent panels available, merchandise booths, and chances to win epic prizes and even support charitable events that donate the proceeds to Mayo Clinic. So if you’ll be in the Metro Atlanta area that weekend, definitely make sure you have your ticket and come by and see me for a chance to win a free signed copy of my book and have a great time.

 

 

Mercury in Retrograde got a 5-Star Reader’s Favorite Review!

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So I’m awful at updating my site and various social media accounts, and I figured it was high time I started to jump on that bandwagon a little bit more.

I’ll have a couple pieces of exciting news coming up soon, and in the meantime, I’ll leave this here! I got the confirmation a couple of weeks back that the reviewer from Reader’s Favorite loved Mercury in Retrograde and wanted to give it a rave review, which is awesome.

Interesting and frustrating fact: Amazon doesn’t allow professional reviewing companies to leave reviews on either your Amazon or Goodreads pages… but this bad boy is on my Barnes & Noble page and a couple others I can’t recall right now. Books-A-Million? Maybe. I don’t know.

You can read the review here, or make your way over to Amazon to give the book a flip through.

On Cliches, Gimmicks, and Cheap Writing Tricks

Editor's Suggestions

I don’t normally write about television shows or movies, mostly because I see everything years later after its initially premiered since we only use pay-to-play services like Netflix and Hulu. But this is only a review in part, mostly because a show got me thinking about common issues in writing.

I am a huge sucker for all things fantasy, sci-fi, or supernatural, so when I watched Hap and Leonard last year and loved it with a blazing passion, you could definitely color me surprised. The writing was clean, the characters were amazing, the story was part D.B. Cooper-style mystery, part tragic love story, part buddy movie, part clusterf*ck. The villains were insane (quite literally), and the entire thing was so compelling that I was instantly hooked. I think I ended up watching the whole first season in two days.

Needless to say, when Hap and Leonard season two came out, I was excited. I’d been waiting to see it for a little while, but it was… Not that good. Very different from the heart-pounding finale that I’d just re-watched a few days before in preparation.

I wanted to like this season… but unfortunately, it suffers from some really messy writing.

Most of it was one big, lagging blegh that had me begging for a twist that would reinvigorate my interest and throw me for a loop so I could stop predicting everything that was going to happen.

Every. Thing. That. Happened.

This got me thinking: the gimmicks and clichés they used in this season are common pitfalls that I’ve seen plenty of writers do. Was I surprised to find that I disliked the second season of this show almost as much as I liked the first? YES. And after watching it all, I narrowed it down to just a couple of reasons I think the new season didn’t hold water… or my attention, largely.

So, here are 5 writing mistakes (based on what I saw in Hap and Leonard season two!) that you should avoid:

1. Clichéd villains

On the topic of villains, season one of H&L had some amazing ones. These people were dynamic, they were interesting, they were flawed, and their motivations were unique (if not WTF). But season two threw these interesting characters away and replaced them instead with some cartoonish villains straight out of your Saturday morning line-up.

I expected more from these bad guys, but what the writers delivered was some Scooby-Doo-esque caricatures of down south good ol’ boys. The villains in this season had little real motivation or drive. Overall, the bad guys were weak, unmotivated, and boring. And there are few things worse to do to your story than to give someone a boring villain.

Your villain is a tremendously important part of your story. They should be able to drive the plot and force your characters to react. They have to put your good guys in a no-win situation where all bets are off and your characters have to make a decision. Good bad guys cannot be oafish, buffoonish caricatures of people, because you’re never going to take them seriously.

Think of a villain that really got your blood pumping. Why did they make you feel that way? Think about what their motivation was. Think about them as people first, and bad guys second. Give them desires of their own.
Don’t have them crunch beer cans in their hand to threaten the good guy.

Seriously. Don’t.

2. Making side characters one-dimensional

Ah, stereotypes, how we love you—said no one ever. For H&L being set in 1980s Texas, I knew there were bound to be some. In the first episode of season one, for example, our two heroes are kicked out of the rose fields because some cheaper migrant Mexican farmers took thur jerbs.

This stereotype, however minor, ends up becoming a major catalyst to propel the story, so it’s one that probably gets overlooked immediately. Hap and Leonard are clearly down on their luck, struggling to pay their bills, and doing hard manual labor out in the fields. Losing their meager means of employment makes them susceptible to an offer that they would not otherwise take, so it had a decent purpose.

Season two, however, went off the deep end. Given that this season is based around the disappearances of young black children, they attempted to address the racial environment at the time. The writers wanted to focus the tension between cops and the black neighborhood where this takes place, and they have the double task of showing a black detective trying to earn the respect of his white comrades. But for a show that wanted to address many topics of racial inequality, I was confused as to why they filled it with so many racial stereotypes.

Season one gave us deep emotional connections between the main characters. It told the sad story of what happened between Trudy and Hap, and Hap and Leonard’s tragic bond. One of the white characters even stands up against another white man calling Leonard a racial slur, getting more upset at it than Leonard himself. The characters were well-rounded, had their morals, beliefs, and lines in the sand. Season two… not so much. Perhaps it was the addition of so many new characters, but these people often ended up being pointless stereotypes that seem stretched into handy MacGuffins more than anything else.

And basically everyone is a racist. Everyone. Except Hap.

Several black female characters were often mouthy, gossipy, and prone to aggression. Many of the side character black men who got any screen time were drug-dealers, gang members, and on one occasion, murderers.

The beautiful leading lady, Florida, is introduced as an intelligent, well-to-do powerhouse attorney… who ends up a female love interest/MacGuffin. She never really helps her clients out and only actually goes to court one time, where despite her expertise, intelligence, and experience, she’s unable to get the judge to rule fairly… Yet Hap is able to easily strong-arm him to get the outcome she couldn’t.

Leonard himself, a gay man, ends up being put in a situation where he’s sexually assaulted by another gay man. Given the situation and the deep emotional moments of the first season, this could have been a real scene about Leonard’s own struggles with his sexuality/masculinity, or about consent, or vulnerability, as it had been in season one between him and his boyfriend. Instead, they took the easy route, portraying the other gay man as being overly sexed and aggressive while playing twangy country music over Leonard’s jittery escape to suggest that we should be laughing.

At sexual assault. Because he’s gay.

Even Detective Hanson was basically a stereotypical “Uncle Tom” figure, working for the white man and turning his back on his brothers. For his part, his struggle to maintain his racial identity as a police officer in a deeply racist town never really gets addressed, which was a shame and made his character very one-dimensional.

There are situations where stereotypes can come into play (RARELY), but your supporting characters should not be just empty, predictable, baseless stereotypes. Your secondary characters should have as much design behind them as your main character. If you give in to stereotypes, you’re not doing anyone any favors, least of all your writing. Make your characters—all of your characters—robust, dynamic, and unique.

3. Mistaking mystery for suspense

While season one of H&L had me on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to happen next, season two stripped down the tension and replaced it with dumb-luck happenstance that guaranteed no matter how far off the reservation our characters went, they were going to end up going in the right direction. (Because ghosts?) Once that became apparent, the mystery they were trying to solve lost its oomph and the tension became forced.

Mystery and suspense seem to go hand in hand, but those who aren’t familiar with them can sometimes get confused or think that just because there’s mystery, there’s also going to be suspense.

Finding out that your favorite celebrity is pregnant and won’t say who the baby daddy is can be a mystery.

Finding out that she’s going to do a FB Live reveal in a week and it could be someone really, really inappropriate is suspense.

Just because there is mystery in your story, it doesn’t automatically mean there’s suspense; the two are not synonymous.

When you’re writing a mystery, remember to give your reader tense moments that genuinely threaten the characters’ cause. No one likes a boring, predictable plot.

4. Misdirected misdirection

Misdirects can be an intense and wonderful addition to your story. There’s nothing better than getting to that point in a book and gasping or having to pause for a moment or reread the last line in a brilliant plot twist that you didn’t see coming.

Misdirects have to, however, be: a) tantamount to the plot, and b) actually plausible.

There were a ton of misdirects in season two of H&L, but none of them were anything I could believe. These attempted misdirects weakened the plot and made the characters seem dumb on more than one occasion. If me, the TV-at-home viewer can figure out what’s happening and the characters can’t, it makes it feel like the writers expect the audience to not have many points in their Intelligence skill.

It’s also important to keep your misdirection to a minimum. Remember in Mission Impossible 2 how Tom Cruise’s character keeps taking off masks to reveal the truth behind various disguises? First time, gasp! Second time… okay…? And then after that it loses its effect because magic tricks aren’t as impressive if you see them over and over again.

5. Throwin’ continuity to the wind

There is nothing more infuriating than when you catch your characters or plot in a continuity error. I don’t even know how many forums and fan pages there are on the internet devoted to finding and revealing continuity errors in shows, movies, and books, but… it’s a lot.

This is so important in writing. Your reader/viewer/mom wants to feel like they’re really in the world you’ve created. Like they know and understand your characters and everything that drives them. If you break that for them, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Lots of shows end up doing this, but it happens in books a lot, too, which is why you should always know your characters and story.

In season two of Stranger Things, we’re introduced to Dustin’s pet turtle Yurtle when he finds a demodog. He takes Yurtle out of the aquarium, puts him down, and poof! Gone forever. This one issue stuck out so much to some viewers that we started #WheresYurtle on Twitter.

We’re still waiting for answers, people.

Likewise, in Hap and Leonard, Leonard keeps dogs on his property. The dogs play a significant role in the latter portion of the first season, and then in season two, the dogs… just disappear, never to be heard from again. There’s also the issue of a box filled with money that has literally never been mentioned in the entire second season, despite being imperative to the first. And season one was deep, gritty, and had black humor moments that were sparse and well-placed. Season two was filled with several poor attempts at humor that most often fell flat, ignoring the serious, dark tone of the first season entirely.

Nothing in your writing will distract and break your reader’s suspension of disbelief faster than having something out of place in a story. This could be your character’s actions, certain aspects of their appearance, or if elements of your story suddenly disappear or change drastically.

The best way to avoid this pitfall is to keep track of your characters, their appearances, their wants, etc. You should also have a chart that lays out your story and plot points so you don’t forget and just wipe out something important in your world.

Just remember, your story is going to need details, believable people and plots, and continuity that would make any hardcore fan weep with delight. Because the last thing you want to do is leave your audience confused, angry, and waiting to find out where the f*ck that turtle went for the rest of their lives.

 

 

 

Photo: Getty

 

 

Science Fiction Tropes to Drop in a Black Hole

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Books Rock My World

Science Fiction is the genre of limitless possibilities. Literally, without limits on time, space, character or plot. If the author can dream it, they can do it. Why, then, are some clichés so hard to kill in SciFi? Because they are as seductive as the Tenth Doctor when he stutters. It’s easier to blaze from a well-marked trail, and readers expect to see something at least vaguely familiar in the story.

Used well, used sparingly, or even turned inside out, these tropes can make for some awesome literature. Overuse them, and your plot deserves a squash in the trash compactor.

Here are some well-known science fiction plots, accompanied by a recommendation that either subverts the trope or does it well.

1. It Was All The Twilight Zone

Surprise! They were all living in a marble the entire time. Or on the fungus between a giant’s toes, or in the fur…

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Writing a Novel: Choosing Your Audience

Editor's Suggestions

So you’ve got the vision for your next (or first!) great story, and you’re aiming for getting it published. Go, you!

You know the over-arching plot, you think you have the perfect ending, and you just want to get it out there and have the world salivate all over it. But when you describe the story to people, they just nod all non-committal like and say, “Oh… sounds pretty cool.” And maybe they’re quick to change the subject after your verbal pitch.

So… now what?

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Believe it or not, when you first start describing your book to people, their reactions are actually really important. Why? Because they’re letting you know what they think of your book—or at least what they think of the idea of your book. And, based on their age, gender, and even economic or political status, they’re showing you whether or not they are part of your target audience.

“But people will buy my book because it’s awesome!” you might shout.

And firstly, don’t shout, ‘cause I’m right here and already battling some tinnitus from my clubbing days. And secondly, some people will buy your book just “because,” or even to give it a chance to demonstrate its own merit when you’re having a .99c sale… but those people are usually the ones who come in all back of the bus ‘n shit, well after your book has had its chance to make it (or break it) out there in the world. And if you’re not reaching your target audience, then your book sales are going to flail around like a fish on the shore.

And those “buy it just because it’s cheap” people aren’t the people you are marketing to. So just exactly who are you trying to reach?

If you answer, “Well, my book is for everyone,” then… (LOUD BUZZER NOISE):

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There is literally no way in hell you can pitch, market, and reach everyone. There just isn’t. It isn’t possible.

So, you need to decide early on several things about your book:

  • Which genre you’re writing in
  • Who this book might appeal to
  • How you can reach that audience

Quick!
Describe your book in one to two concise sentences.

Most people flounder here (including people who have already written, published and promoted the book), so don’t worry if it starts out somewhat like:

“It’s an awesome YA/urban fantasy/sci-fi/middle-grade/new adult/romance/rom-com/supernatural thriller with werewolves that turn into humans on the full moon that hunt down and attack other people. My main character is 14 years old and single-handedly ends up saving the world from this destruction.”

Like I said, this is a problem that many writers have, because when we have an idea, it burns within us. We focus so much on the writing of the idea that we have that we forget sometimes that we’re not just writing a book—we’re creating a sellable product. And that sellable product needs a well-defined audience. We need to know who we’re writing to, which means we need to develop something called the “proto-persona”—that is, the exact “type” of person we want to reach.

So first things first, we’re going to need to pare down that over-share spiel.

Since we’re talking mythological creatures in what sounds like an urban environment, I’m going to assume right off the bat that we’re not aiming for say, someone your grandpa’s age.

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Something of interest to note when figuring out your audience: Women not only read more novels than men, but they also are more likely to read fiction than men are.

So immediately, we already know that if your book is fiction, then not only are men less likely to read it, they’ll also be less likely to enjoy it if they do. So we’re probably going to gear more toward the female side of our audience. But your character is 14… do you really think that someone 40 or older is going to want to read about a middle-schooler’s problems?

The age of your characters are IMPORTANT. Typically, people like reading about characters who are also in their same state of life. Whether that’s age, situation with a job, single- or married-dom, or anything else, it makes us feel good to read about people from a walk of life that we can relate to and understand. One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on the age of your characters and have them in situations that are relatable to your audience. So if your character is 14, you’re probably appealing more to younger kids, but if you don’t want to write that young, then don’t! Let’s say your novel is looking more YA than middle-grade at this point because you want to include adult themes like sexin’ and swearin’.

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So, let’s move the characters’ ages from 14 to around 18. Typically speaking, you will need to aim your character’s age right around the same age of the people you hope to reach. That means if you want to write about a 18-year-old girl, you will probably appeal most to people right around that age group (give or take about 10 years).

This will of course vary, but essentially, you’ve just defined your market as appealing to 15-25 year-old ladies who enjoy supernatural or urban fantasy tales.

This means your themes, ideas, and the drama within the pages needs to be relatable to this type of person. If your character is still in school, then younger readers will relate more, but older readers can still appreciate it. If your character is struggling with their lycanthropy while working a shitty job with low pay and inconsistent hours, then your older audience will relate more, but younger audience members might still enjoy it.

Either way, you’re creating your market as you write your book, which is incredibly helpful when you’re trying to figure out who will buy it, read it, and tell all of their friends about it.

While creating your proto-persona really isn’t too hard, it can seem utterly daunting. Knowing your audience is important when you’re figuring out who to market to, but really, your book can speak for itself, so just let it guide you!

Photo: WeHeartIt

KU Page-Reads May Be Reporting Inaccurately

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For authors using KU (Kindle Unlimited), and noticing that your page reads are off, you could be losing money!

The Active Voice

Here’s the thing about electrons: no one can see them. That means those of us who produce digital wares are wholly dependent on retailers to report our sales, borrows, or page-reads accurately.

There are some worrisome indications that this may not be happening at Amazon.

Specifically, romance author Becca Fanning says in a Kboards thread that a number of writers have noticed weird changes in their Kindle Unlimited page-read* rates:

For the past few weeks dozens of authors have been reporting that their page read counts on new releases have been … off. Not off by ten percent, but by 50-95%. These are for consistent releases with expected patterns of performance (as expected as you can be in this industry). I don’t want this discussion to get bogged down in conjecture about bad books, bad promos, etc. Sales numbers and sales ranks are as expected, but page reads are drastically lower.

The problem seems to…

View original post 469 more words

Capitalization: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong

Editor's Suggestions

One of the most common misconceptions that I run across in writing is when to capitalize things, and when they should stay lowercase. This is honestly a big issue, and can take your manuscript from potentially looking professional to seemingly amateurish in a heartbeat. It can be the difference between an agent or publishing house thinking that you know what you’re doing, or thinking that you started writing a week ago.

I’m not kidding.

Proper capitalization in your writing is important for several reasons.

  • There are already pretty firm rules in place about this subject, so expressing ignorance of it means that you might also lack ignorance of other conventional writing rules.
  • If you Capitalize random words, It can make your Reader’s Voice messed up. Try reading This without doing a Weird version of Internal Puberty voice Changing in your Head. Can’t Do it, Can ya?
  • Capitalization is often used for emphasis or importance, but this is really, really, not the best use for it. Capitalization should be kept to proper nouns (people’s names, place names, etc.), the first word in a sentence, and of course, proper titles.

One of the biggest no-no’s I’ve seen is confusing capitalization of honorifics. For some people, this can be a very difficult subject to broach, as there are many rules regarding the use of honorifics, and some of them are confusing.

What are honorifics? Honorifics are essentially “titles” that you give to people. Think sir, ma’am, mister, doctor, etc. For those of you writing medieval fiction, there are also the titles of royalty and lords. This can all get a bit confusing when you’re trying to figure out what needs to be capitalized, and what needs to be lowercase. So let’s start with some clarification!

When a title should or should not be capitalized:

First things first, NEVER capitalize “the” unless it’s the first word of your sentence or it’s the first word of your book/movie/art title.

“I saw The Secret Life of Pets the other day.” vs. “This is The Book of Shadows.” The second one is wrong. DEAD WRONG. It will make your editor/agent/reader/publisher cringe. Don’t do it!

Sir & ma’am: Are only capitalized when they are the first word in a sentence.*

Correct:

Sir, I’ve got some bad news…”/ “But what were you hoping to hear, ma’am?”

Incorrect:

“I’ve got some bad news, Sir.” / “But what were you hoping to hear, Ma’am?”

* The only time this would be different is if you are introducing someone who’s been knighted, like Sir Elton John, or Sir Patrick Stewart. These are now titles that include the proper noun that makes them capitalized.

“Oh my goodness, it’s Sir Patrick Stewart! May we have your autograph, sir?”

“Eh, what do you know, mister?” vs. “That’s Mister Ford.”

“Can I ask you a question, miss?” vs. “I’m telling Miss Davis!”

Familial use

“But Mom said I could go.” vs. “That’s my mom.”

“Didn’t you ask your father?” vs. “Yes! And Father said I could go.”

“I’m going to see my uncle.” vs. “I’m going to see Uncle Robert.”

US political titles

“President” is a title frequently used in writing as a means of addressing the president. It also holds the first spot for one of the single most incorrectly capitalized terms I’ve ever seen. (And that’s not hyperbole, either.) You’ll notice in this paragraph that “president” is only capitalized at the beginning of a sentence.

(The following samples in this section are ALL correct.)

That’s because it’s not a proper noun on its own and therefore should not be capitalized unless before a name or if that’s someone’s actual name.

“But sir, the president is on her way now.” / “Tomorrow, President Adams will be speaking in the courtyard.”

The same goes for other political titles, like senator, congressman/woman, ambassador, vice president or chairperson, etc.*

“This is Robert Davies, the senator from Montana.” / “Excuse me, Senator Davies?”

“I’d like to introduce you to Congressman/woman Jones.” / “The congressman/woman isn’t available right now.”

*If your character is being addressed by a honorary title that includes the words “madame” or “mister,” etc. before it, then it is capitalized.

“Would Madame Ambassador follow me this way, please?” and “Mr./Mister Secretary, a word, if you can.” / “Please, Vice President Craig, listen to reason!” and “The vice president cannot take part in the meeting at this time.”

Titles of profession

Doctor, professor, officer, detective… these are all commonly capitalized when they should actually be lowercase. The only time these titles should be capitalized is when a proper noun follows them.

“I’ve got a bad cold, doctor.” vs. “I’ve got a bad cold, Doctor Strauss.”

“I’ll have the paper to you tomorrow, professor.” vs. “I’ll have the paper to you tomorrow, Professor Adams.”

“That’s an order, captain!” vs. “That’s an order, Captain Walsh.”

“Over here, officer!” vs. “Over here, Officer Waterson!”

“Let’s get started, detective.” vs. “Let’s get started, Detective Peters.”

Pet names

Nope. No capitalizing pet names. Nicknames, yes. Pet names? No.

“How are you doing, honey?” vs. “How are you doing, Nicky?”

Religious terms

There are too many to address, so I will leave a helpful link here.

Medieval titles/Royal titles

One of the biggest problems I run across in fantasy is the improper use of titles. Basically they follow the same rules as the titles of profession, with a few exceptions, which will be addressed below. For the most part, when using a title like king, queen, prince, princess, duke, duchess, etc., do NOT capitalize unless it’s a direct address that includes their name.

“Introducing Queen Tabatha Shaw.” vs. “Introducing the queen, Tabatha Shaw.”

“That horse is the king’s!” vs. “That horse belongs to King Michael!”

“Protect the king!” vs. “Protect King Michael!”

“This is the duchess, Sarah Milford.” vs. “This is Duchess Sarah Milford.”

“Ah, Princess Anne, you’re looking lovely today.” vs. “Ah, princess, you’re looking lovely today.”

“No, my prince, the hunt has been canceled.” vs. “No, Prince Eric, the hunt has been canceled.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Edward.” vs. “It is a pleasure to meet you, my lord.”

(“My lord” and “my lady” are only ever capitalized at the beginning of a sentence, like sir or ma’am.)

Medieval title exceptions

“What will you have me do, sire?” (Like sir, this word is not capitalized unless it’s the first of a sentence.)

“Today we’re going to the Lord Mayor’s joust!” (Lord Mayor is a capitalized term. However, if you were to say, “We’re going to the mayor’s joust,” it would be lowercase. “We’re going to Mayor Johnson’s joust.”)

His Grace Duke Edward Gibbs.” vs. “How do you do, your grace?”

“But Your Majesty, we must adjourn.” vs. “But majesty, I must protest…”

“Oh, Your Excellency, of course!” vs. “Oh, of course, excellency.

“Yes, Your Highness, we will have it done right away.” vs. “No, highness, we didn’t.”

These cover a few common (and easy to confuse) terms that should either be capitalized or lowercase given their use in the sentence. If you think I missed any, let me know!

And remember, when in doubt, find out if there is a name after the title or honorific, and choose accordingly.

Photo: weheartit

Talk that Talk (the Way Your Reader Likes it!)

Editor's Suggestions

Today, Inklings, we’re talking about talking.

Naturalizing your dialogue, to be specific.

Every writer has their own unique voice when they’re writing, because every person has their own dialect, inflections, voice patterns, and even vocabulary or colloquialisms. This is part of what makes language so diverse and gratifying to play with. You can use a variety of letters and sounds, and even make up your own!

But despite this, many writers struggle when it comes to making their characters speak, and if you have this problem, trust me, you are not alone. Dialogue between imaginary characters is hard, dude.

There are books upon books and blogs and lessons and classes and conferences about creating awesome dialogue, but there is a much, much simpler method of amping your character’s convos up to enjoyable levels.

1. Listen to conversations around you.

Go to your local coffee shop, grocery store, park. Sit for a while and hear how people speak. Pay attention to how they phrase things, or what inflection they use. Are they guilty of “up talk” or “vocal fry?” Do they over use the word “like” or “uhm” or “you know” because they are struggling to piece their words together? Do they have a tic, like beginning every sentence with “Okay, so…”, or just jump in and talksofastyoucan’tevencatchup? Believe it or not, these are all things you can incorporate (within reason) in your own writing. To make dialogue in writing believable, you have to know speaking in real life. You have to understand speech patterns—but this isn’t as hard as it sounds.

As human beings, we are actually significantly gifted at picking up body language and tone in speech, and now, it’s your great difficulty to translate that innate knowledge into your book.

2. USE. CONTRACTIONS.

As I’ve stated many times before, one of the easiest ways to make your language flow is an extraordinarily simple one. When you’re talking to a family member, do you say everything so prim and proper that you could be an extra in Pride and Prejudice? Chances are, no, no you don’t. Everyone has their “professional” voice and their “relaxed” voice. Professional you might be more precise, but chances are you won’t be able to cut those syllables with a chisel, right? Relaxed voice is how you normally speak, when you’re alone or with comfortable acquaintances. Putting a sense of “relaxed” voice in dialogue is a fantastic way of making your reader “say” it in their own version of relaxed voice, which makes it flow smooth like butta, baby. And the best way to do this? Use contractions.

“Do not take that bag out of the closet! If I have to look for it, I will end up late to practice!”

“Jer, we are going to the store. Is there anything you will need me to pick up?”

“I cannot forget to put all of the laundry in the dryer when I get home.”

“But Barbara, there is nothing you can do. He told you he does not want any help.”

Or

“Don’t take my gym bag out of the closet! If I’m late to practice because it’s missing, I’ll be pissed!”

“Jer, we’re going shopping. You need anythin’?”

“Aww, crap! I gotta remember to switch the laundry over when I get back.”

“Barb, you can’t do anything. He said he doesn’t want help.”

Write how people speak, not how a narrator would dictate a sentence.

3. Read EVERYTHING aloud. ALL OF IT.

Go and read a portion of a book out loud. Doesn’t have to be dialogue or even your own work; just pick something and go. Did you find yourself sliding over the pronunciation of certain letters in favor of your relaxed voice? Like saying ‘don’ instead of don’t? Do you perhaps soften your “r” to the point where ya sound Bostonian? Did you read it fast, or slow? Did it jive with your internal voice, or did you find yourself pausing and rereading portions so you could reassess the tone? Reading written words aloud will strengthen your understanding of dialogue and language in general. Pay attention to your own accent. Are you from the south? Did you know that southern accents have different dialects depending on where you live? Midwestern tones can seem southern, but have subtle differences, and west coast people sound completely different from northerners and southerners altogether? A Bostonian accent is drastically different than one in New York, and both are distinguishable from New Jersey or New England.

Hearing words out loud from different regions can really help you develop a style of writing conversations that will give everyone an individual voice. If you want your characters to pop, give them different “vocal” affectations. Learn to recognize and incorporate different accents, dialects, and parts of speech in your dialogue to give your character, well… character.

4. Use slang and colorful (not necessarily vulgar) language.

My siblings and I grew up in northern Florida surrounded by country folk and surfer dudes, but my mother is from New York, so we picked up a lot of slang from her that wasn’t common in that area. I ended up pronouncing forest as “fah-rest” or orange as “ah-renge”, and we abbreviated “shut up” so that it became a single word (“shaddup!”) and we called unidentified bits of paper or fluff on the floor “schnibbles.” At the same time, I was developing a touch of a lazy drawl, and getting a bit too relaxed around g’s, if you know what I’m sayin’. I was comfortable with “surfer talk”—which is its own thing entirely. I found out that I would specify tacos at Taco Bell the southern way of “the 89 cent” ones—yes, children, tacos did used to be that cheap. We don’t lie when we say the 90s were a wonderful time—or when telling someone to leave “something” alone, I would often jam the words together to pronounce it as “Lea’ that alone.” I fought against using “ain’t,” although I will admit that it has slipped in conversation at least twice. Language is fun! Use various methods to make yours enticing.

5. If it doesn’t need it, DON’T MAKE THEM TALK.

Sometimes, the best things are left unsaid, right? Well, occasionally. In dialogue, “a picture is worth 1000 words” takes on extra meaning. If you can show us what’s going on without your characters talking us through it, then do it. When you’re writing a screenplay, dialogue is a precious commodity. You seriously have to consider what words are going on that page because you are so limited with page space. Some of my favorite parts of a movie are where the characters say absolutely nothing because the action speaks so well for them. If your character is talking when they really should be quiet, remove it. See how well silence can direct a scene for you.

Pixar actually does a fantastic job nixing dialogue in favor of showing action—think of the beginning of the movie Up, or actually don’t, because I do not need to cry right now. How about a film like Wall-E, instead? The action carried so well that they were able to forego dialogue in HUGE portions of the film, and one of the sweetest moments ever is when Wall-E first meets Eve:

Now imagine if he had been giving her verbose, expository dialogue about how he’d been fulfilling his mission to box all the trash on Earth.

When in doubt, go without!

 

photo: SFStation