Tag Archives: tough decisions

Some bad news about my brand

What is the digital equivalent of schizophrenia?

Whatever it is, my website has it. More specifically, my brand suffers from it. That’s right, I have a brand. Every author does. Except I ended up with two brands because I bandied about the phrase “One Million Words” for years and then finally formed One Million Words LLC in 2016.

On paper it seems so easy: David Michael Williams is an author, and One Million Words is a publisher. But at this point, OMW publishes only the works of DMW, so the two identifiers are irrevocably interwoven.

Should one-million-words.com redirect to david-michael-williams.com or the other way around? One could argue they should be two separate websites, but it would be ridiculous to maintain two websites with near-identical content.

The professional marketer in me bemoans the fact that OMW has taken a backseat to DMW. After all, a legitimate company should have its own logo, website, LinkedIn profile, and so forth. But if I’m being honest, One Million Words LLC is nothing more than a string of words created expressly for the spine of my self-published novels.

Until the company produces works by other authors, it really doesn’t need to be more than that.

Don’t worry. Even if the One Million Words brand disappears someday, I’d never make my name into a logotype.

I have a bigger problem on my hands, however: David Michael Williams, as a brand, is broken.

Nota bene: Marketing is my day job. I’ve worked with countless companies and organizations on branding exercises, so I’m no stranger to concepts like positioning statements, brand platforms, target audiences, as well as the formal guidelines that govern all marketing communications. And while a solitary novelist differs from corporation in many key aspects, the same fundamentals apply to any entity that sells a product.

The root of my dilemma—my identity crisis, as it were—is that David Michael Williams, the human being, is inconsistent.

If I penned only sword-and-sorcery fantasy books, it’d be much easier to market myself, my novels, and my company. But I also write sci-fi and other subgenres of speculative fiction. You might be thinking, “No matter. Many authors publish fantasy and science fiction. They’re close cousins.”

OK, but I co-wrote a children’s chapter book too. There was also a certain stillborn pun-a-day calendar. And I can’t promise I won’t attempt an interactive storytelling experiment at some point in the future. (Anyone wanna play a grammar video game?)

Some may argue that an author should use a different pen name for each genre he tackles. There’s wisdom in that, but at the same time, I can’t get enthusiastic about juggling additional aliases. I’m one guy with a lot of different ideas who doesn’t want to limit his possibilities; is that a crime?

No, but it can be confusing to consumers, which negatively impact profits.

Or perhaps I’m oversimplifying things. There are plenty of professionals who straddle genres and/or media. Some of my favorites include Robert Kirkman of The Walking Dead fame (though I like Invincible much more and am excited about the recently announced movie); the Decemberists, whose talented fingers touch projects ranging from music and visual art to children’s novels and board games; and the insanely brilliant Neil Gaiman, whose entire career I’d love to clone.

Given those folks’ success, it would seem that a diversity of creativity can be something of a brand in itself. That does give me hope, though in the short term, it won’t make building a fan base any easier. Because as much as it would streamline things, I can’t focus on just one aspect of storytelling.

I won’t.

Which means regardless of whether my website banner says “David Michael Williams” or “One Million Words,” visitors are going to get a messy, mixed bag of imagination.

Related posts:

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Reblog: Pantsers vs. Plotters

Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.

Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.

After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.

I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.

I wrote this blog post for nyareads.com. Read the entire post here.

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‘So…what’s your book about?’

Synopses are the bane of a writer’s existence.

Elevator pitch, logline, plot summary—whatever you call it, boiling down hundreds of pages to a handful of sentences is tantamount to torture for most novelists. In fact, the only thing more difficult is choosing a title for your book.

It’s not that we don’t know what our books are about. The agony arises from having to reduce countless characters, storylines, and themes into something incredibly streamlined and simplistic. Whittling all of that down slices apart the very soul of story.

And yet every serious writer will have to engage in this masochistic activity at some point, if only to attract prospective agents, publishers, and readers. In fact, I recently endured the excruciating exercise of writing synopses for three books while conjuring up the back-cover text for The Renegade Chronicles.

To make a long story short (pun intended), here’s what I came up with:

 

Vol. 1: Rebels and Fools

ANY PORT IN A STORM

The greatest peace treaty in Altaerran history is unraveling.

As civil war threatens the Continent United, two fallen Knights of Superius are forced to join the rebels they once condemned. Hounded by assassins and assailed by doubt, they flee to Capricon in search of answers—only to discover the island harbors dark secrets of its own.

Alongside a mostly reformed thief, a dethroned pirate king, a mysterious woman with a magical sword, and other would-be heroes, the fugitives encounter a sinister power that has taken root within the Alliance.

If the Renegades and Knighthood can’t rise above their bitter rivalry, both factions—and the realm itself—are doomed.

 

Vol. 2: Heroes and Liars

A TANGLED WEB

When civil war escalates into a full-scale invasion of Capricon, every citizen’s loyalty is tested.

Even as the Renegades and Knights at Fort Faith band together to oppose the foreign army, an unremarkable merchant from the capital gets caught up in a cryptic mission of great importance. Why his companions are so eager to reach a castle in the middle of nowhere is just one of many mysteries.

An old man with a twisted sense of honor, a strange girl with mismatched eyes, a highwayman who is less than he seems, and a Knight with incredible abilities—trusting the wrong person could be as fatal as a goblin’s spear.

But will the truth prove more dangerous than the deception?

 

Vol. 3: Martyrs and Monsters

A FATE WORSE THAN DEATH

The devastating conclusion of the war between Capricon’s defenders and the goblin invaders draws near.

Within besieged Fort Faith, the motley army of Knights, Renegades, and refugees prepare for the final battle and almost certain defeat. But even as the crusaders make peace with their gods, champions on both sides of the battlefield will decide whether victory is worth the steep price of damnation.

A ruthless general who craves revenge, a warrior cleric plagued by doubt, a shaman in search of an unholy relic, and former rebels fighting for redemption—no matter who triumphs, sacrifices must be made.

And whatever the outcome, the survivors—and the island itself—will never be the same.

Book covers of The Renegade Chronicles

The Renegade Chronicles will be available in paperback and digital editions on March 31, 2016.

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Putting the pretty on it

There’s nothing too glamorous about text on a page.

The beauty of words is that they paint pictures in the mind, but when you consider the typically black-and-white composition of lines, dots, and curves on an otherwise blank backdrop, well, words themselves are nothing to write home about.

Having worked in marketing for the past nine years, I’ve discovered there are few things as exciting as unveiling the visuals for a project. Forget the spreadsheets and other planning documents, the copywriting, and the technological components that may follow; the day a client sees her new logo or his new homepage for the first time is by far the most impactful point in the project.

I’ve been known to use the phrase “putting the pretty on it” when describing the evolution from mere words to engaging imagery. The moment there is color and shape and form, that’s when a project starts to feel real.

I’m no exception to the phenomenon, which is why I was so eager earlier this week to meet with the artist working on the covers for The Renegade Chronicles—and to preview three possible concepts.

I am delighted to share the fruits of his labor with you not only because the cover concepts make this whole enterprise feel “more real” to me (and, hopefully, to my future readers as well), but also because very soon, I will have to tell him which concept to finalize for Rebels and Fools and adapt for Heroes and Liars and Martyrs and Monsters (the other two books in the series). I need to choose the winner, but before I do, I’d love to solicit your insights.

In other words, please judge my book by its (prospective) cover!

How can you help?

Take a look at the potential packages for my forthcoming fantasy novels and answer these questions in the comments section below:

  1. Which of the three concepts would most likely prompt you to purchase the book?
  1. What tweaks, if any, would you make to your favorite cover concept?
  1. For each of the three concepts, what type of story would you expect to find behind the cover?

As always, I appreciate any and all feedback immensely!

TRC-cover-concept-1

 

 

 

TRC-cover-concept-2

 

 

 

TRC-cover-concept-3

And the winner is…

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Pondering my next writing project

My favorite questions tend to start with “what if.” Lately, however, this writer has been asking himself, “What now?”

intersection with many signs and directions

Source: Ernie & Katy Newton Lawley, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawley/59402926/ via Wikimedia Commons

Ever since I started plotting out If Souls Can Sleep nearly nine years ago, I’ve had a clear path in front of me when it came to my fiction. The road wasn’t always a straight line by any stretch—for instance, my wife and I wrote a children’s book in between the first and second draft of If Sin Dwells Deep—but I always had more tasks than time to complete them.

Until last week.

With the first two installments of The Soul Sleep Cycle in my agent’s hands, I find myself at an unexpected crossroads, where past, present, and future compete for my attention. And for the life of me, I can’t decide which path is the most prudent.

Option 1: The Past

Once upon a time, I wrote a sword-and-sorcery fantasy series called The Renegade Chronicles. I couldn’t get agents or publishers interested. Rather than invest more time in fixing it, I decided to try something completely different. The result was If Souls Can Sleep.

For many years, I’ve had the notion to go back and self-publish the TRC. After all, just about every article I’ve ever read about becoming a profitable author espouses the virtues of having a large number of titles for sale. Some of those same sources heavily imply that quantity trumps quality…

Then again, just as many advice columns say that an author’s No. 1 marketing tool is a well-crafted manuscript—in other words, the best story you can write.

(And what to do when writing tips contradict?)

Last week, I reread the first third of Book 1 of the TRC to see just how much dust had collected over the past 14 years. While it wasn’t as cringe-inducing as a feared it would be, one thing was clear: that book, along with the other two, would need copious edits.

The best-case scenario would be a performing a series of substantive edits on all three books, cutting out superfluous text, fixing awkward words and phrases, and eradicating all types of typos. In addition to removing excess, I detected a dearth in setting and sensory details throughout. The prologue was rubbish, too.

Pros for revisiting the past

  • Repairing something that’s already written is bound to be easier than starting anew.
  • This is the fastest way for me to publish several books in one fell swoop—and, hopefully, start generating revenue.
  • I invested seven-plus years in TRC, so dedicating another six to twelve months seems like a small price to pay in order to potentially profit from all that work.
  • If TRC finds an audience, I have a slew of storylines saved up for that particular universe.

Cons for revisiting the past

  • After so much time away, I’m not particularly passionate about this project.
  • Even with substantive edits, the final product will not reflect my current skill level.
  • Therefore, it will take an awful lot of willpower to refrain from completely rewriting the series, which would be quite time consuming.
  • More editing? It’s been more than three years since I wrote a new book—or, more precisely, co-wrote The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers—and I’m itching for the chance to jump back into the more creative aspects of creative writing.

Option 2: The Present

With at least one book left to write in The Soul Sleep Cycle (and hopefully a few more), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to wrap up the major story arc that I started back in 2006. However, I’m reluctant to invest the time in Book 3 before I see whether the first two garner any interest—and sales—either via traditional publishing or indie publishing.

To forge ahead or take a break from the series—that is the question.

Pros for living in the present

  • I already have a pretty good idea of what this book will be about and what needs to happen before the end.
  • Having just finished major edits to If Sin Dwells Deep and minor edits to If Souls Can Sleep, the complexities of the story are still fresh in my mind.
  • I’m still very excited about this series, and, honestly, I can’t imagine not writing this book at some point—if only for closure.
  • If traditional publishers don’t buy the trilogy, I’ll have three books ready to self-publish simultaneously. (Hey, it works for Netflix.)
  • I’m confident that the project would push me creatively and that I’d be proud of the final product.
  • While not as easy as editing TRC, writing Book 3 of The Soul Sleep Cycle would still be simpler than coming up with a completely new idea for a novel.

Cons for living in the present

  • If ISCS and ISDD don’t prove profitable—regardless of whether I or a traditional publisher sell them—then spending time writing the next book in the series would be rather pointless. (See also: The Renegade Chronicles.)
  • Even with my new writing schedule, it could take me a couple of years to plot out this story, write it, and then edit it.

Option 3: The Future

I don’t know about other writers, but I always have a slew of story ideas rattling around my gray matter. I jot down some of these story starters in a Word file. In most cases, a few paragraphs are enough to placate that which is threatening to distract me from my current project. Such was the case with a young adult time-traveling tale, a twist-filled take on a traditional fairy tale, and a book about zealots bent on triggering Armageddon.

But then there are stories that can’t be so easily exorcized. For more than a year, I’ve found my mind wandering to a new novel—or series—codenamed “Changelings.” Last week, I finally relented and wrote a few pages about a potential plot and the people to populate it.

Could this be my next novel?

Pros for embracing the future

  • Jumping into a brand-new book would be undeniably energizing, not to mention fun. (I haven’t written a first draft a story since “Ghost Mode” in 2013!)
  • I already have a viable avenue to explore: Changelings.

Cons for embracing the future

  • I have no idea whether any of my ideas, including Changelings, will bear fruit.
  • Even if I were to write a complete manuscript for Changelings, there’s no guarantee it would be publishable.
  • Planning aside, starting afresh will surely be the most time-consuming approach. If my goal is to publish something pronto, this option is out of the question.

Of course, there are other possibilities. I could focus on non-fiction, repurposing some of my old Generation Why? columns or mining this blog for writing-related topics in order to make my self-publishing debut. Or I could give into one of my friend’s urgings and try my hand at a biography of some fascinating historical figure.

But the fact is my passion for writing has always focused on fiction.

“What next?” has almost never been a problem for this writer. Perhaps I should spend a little time exploring past, present, and future—each in turn—and see which project captures my soul. Then again, I suspect I already know where my heart lies.

Perhaps that’s another advantage of “living the dream.”

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The pros get paid, plain and simple

Grocery shopping as a kid was a decidedly dull affair.

Wandering up and down the food-laden aisles took a big bite out of play time. And since most desserts and sugary cereals were considered contraband in my house, there wasn’t much to look forward to. The grocery store was Boredom Central.

Except on Saturday.

That was the day most of the local grocery stores enhanced the shopping experience with free samples. What a big difference those surprise snack stations made. Yes, I’ll try some smoked sausage. A new kind of potato chip? Don’t mind if I do!

And if you happened on by the frozen foods at just the right moment, there’d be a small square of pizza waiting for your eager little fingers.

While I can’t promise those free samples impacted my family’s purchases, offering free samples must still a viable marketing tactic. Why else would HBO and the rest of the premium channels promote free weekends if not to get you hooked with bite-sized portions of their TV shows and a limited-time smorgasbord of blockbuster movies?

Now imagine if a new network popped up and decided to give away its programming indefinitely but with a vague notion that at some point in the future, once it had enough regular viewers, it would put a price tag on what it provides. By that point, people would be so in love with its series and films, they would happily fork over money to get more.

Right?

I doubt it.

There’s a big difference between handing out a few free nibbles and serving up meal after meal at no charge. Just ask the many newspapers that tried to incorporate payment gates on their websites after making every article free-to-read for years. Most of them now limit the number of free clicks per month, but the damage had already been done. Very few folks believe they should be charged a fee to read about what’s going on in the world.

A $10,000 bill

No sane writer expects to get rich from his or fiction, but it’s equally ridiculous for professionals to expect to make profit by giving away their product for free.

Once you establish the worth of a product—whether it’s a frozen pizza or national news—it’s awfully difficult to convince people they should have been paying along.

The strange dynamics of creative pursuits and their corresponding value have been on my mind for many months, probably ever since I made my first foray into self-publishing. With regard to writing and the democratization of distribution (i.e., self-publishing), the power is placed in the hands of the writer to decide how much he or she wants to charge for a book.

But the subject of how much one’s time and talent is really worth stretches beyond articles and blogs about writing specifically. We live in a DIY world, and while some might rejoice at breaking down the barriers that kept the everyman’s creative endeavors from reaching the public, there are some unfortunate side effects from the Rise of the Amateur.

Take this article in the New York Times, for example, which reports that the need for imagery in newspapers and magazines is quickly being satisfied by stock photography and amateur contributions. The role of professional photojournalist is fading.

In the article, a photojournalist says, “People that don’t have to make a living from photography and do it as a hobby don’t feel the need to charge a reasonable rate.”

What exactly is a “reasonable rate”? Should people who invest in an education and work hard to improve expect a fair wage for what they do—or even a full-time job, for that matter? Why should a do-it-yourselfer be vilified for believing that sharing a photo with the world is reward enough? These questions and many more are worthy of consideration.

In his blog, author Scott Roche explores whether a writer should give away his or her fiction for free. There seems to be a theory out there that if aspiring authors give away their stories and novels for free, they will build a fan base, and with that boost in popularity, they will eventually be able to start charging those same readers later on for new fiction. Or, better yet, a traditional publisher will see how popular the author is and offer to purchase the existing series and/or future works.

I don’t buy it.

For one thing, there’s a lot of free content out there. Folks who prefer free fiction have plenty of other options; rather than change their habits and take out their credit card to buy your fiction, they are far more likely to seek out the next struggling up-and-comer or hobby writer willing to give it away.

Even if your “free readers” really, really like your characters or your style or your personality, you’ve already set a no-fee precedent. People don’t like surprises when it comes to payment. In fact, the only industry I can think of where that free-now-pay-later approach works is illegal drugs. Customers get the first taste for free, and they love the experience so much that they will pay just about anything for more. But even in this scenario, it’s more akin to the grocery-store samples than what some writers are attempting today.

And sorry to be the voice of reason, but no matter how good you are at your craft, the odds are that no reader will ever become chemically addicted to the words you put to page.

While Mr. Roche does put his content out there for free, the big difference between the free-now-pay-later paradigm and the author’s personal approach is this: he just wants readers and isn’t holding his breath while waiting for a major publisher to pounce.

Ultimately, every writer—every artist, for that matter—must decide what he or she wants out of the craft.

  • If you create for the sheer joy of creation, then feel free to crank out as much content as you want, whenever you wish. Keep it to yourself or share it as you see fit.
  • If you are satisfied with simply sharing your creations with the world, and you don’t want anything other than the knowledge that other people are potentially enjoying your work, then go ahead and give it away.
  • If, however, you believe your writing (or photography or whatever) is as good as or better than the stuff produced by people who do get paid—and certainly if you have costs you need to recuperate—you had better start charging for it from Day 1.

It’s not necessarily an easy decision to make.

As for me, I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to make a living off my fiction alone. (So few writers do!) But my time is valuable, and I’ve made an investment in the craft by way of a college degree and thousands of hours devoted to honing my skills. For every hour I spend in front of my computer, I’m losing an hour I could have spent with my wife and kids or volunteering for a worthy cause or catching up on sleep or enjoying a hobby just for the fun of it.

For me, writing is a job. I make a weekly commitment to it with the hope that someday I’ll be compensated for my hard work. If I just give away my books, I’m telling the world that, to me, they have no value beyond my enjoyment in the process, that they are worth less than other books, that it was all just for fun.

I decided long ago that the life of a dabbler wasn’t for me. Yes, I want readers, but not at any—and not at no—cost.

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The problem with invincible protagonists

I must have killed hundreds of people over the years.

Since I’m a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, death come with the territory. That’s probably true for any genre that requires the choreography of combat. And when it comes to world building and mapping out a timeline that covers centuries, the beginning and end of a lifespan can occur in a single sentence.

Angel tombstone

If your character’s death didn’t significantly impact your plot or elicit an emotion from the reader, you might have done it wrong. | Image source: morgueFile.com

Some of these folks—from kings to commoners—died of natural causes. But many of my murders were quite violent, depicted in gory detail on the battlefield or in the shadows. One can hardly write about a war without tallying up the corresponding casualties. While some of that body count can be attributed to unnamed warriors, a fair number of major and minor characters have met their demise by my hand.

One of the first main characters I killed off occurs midway through my first novel (The Road to Faith). In truth, that knight’s unceremonious decapitation brought tears to my eyes as his comrades—and I—reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t personal, you see. The story simply demanded it.

If the best characters take on a life of their own, then their deaths must be dished out judiciously.

That notion occurred to me recently while reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, which boasts a relatively high death toll. Major and minor characters alike fall in the three installments, but it wasn’t until the loss of a key player in the final book that my mind wandered through the pros and cons of killing off a main character—not to mention the courage it takes to pull the trigger.

It’s a topic I’ve pondered since before becoming a writer, back when I played the role of reader only and was at the mercy of other authors’ decisions when it came to the survival of the people populating their stories. Whether a character lives or dies is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. (It takes the adage “Kill your darlings” to a whole new level.)

Death tends to make a statement.

A certain self-indulgent character’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. Heck, many classic children’s stories are none too subtle with the theme of life and loss. I’m looking at you, Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Yes, death is a powerful tool in an author’s arsenal. And it can be abused. A friend of mine once remarked that when George R. R. Martin wants to inject tension into his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off a character. I suspect that that’s an oversimplification, but none can argue that the fantasist is far from timid when it comes to the mortality of major characters, including chief protagonists.

In my opinion, those deaths don’t come off as wanton. True, not every one of them accomplishes a vital plot point (many do, however). And even if one of the first significant deaths in A Game of Thrones is steeped in shock value, it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. In fact, the deaths in Martin’s series seem not only realistic and warranted, but also necessary, which brings me to my next point:

The absence of death also makes a statement.

Nothing saps the tension from a story quicker than the realization that the main characters are invincible. No matter what sticky situation a protagonist finds herself, you just know she will escape unscathed. Granted, “life-or-death” aren’t the only stakes in the game, but I, for one, can’t abide a battle where the victor is guaranteed.

Perhaps the “unkillable” protagonist is a symptom of today’s writers’ (and readers’) appetite for sagas that go on forever. These never-ending series seemingly can’t commit to the loss of key characters or any ending whatsoever.

See also: Dissecting the difficulties to writing a sequel.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to fantasy and science fiction; Alex Cross and Stephanie Plum aren’t going anywhere soon. For that matter, Robert Langdon might be the most resilient mortal ever to solve a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to weasel his way out of a never-ending series by killing off Sherlock Holmes. Outrage from his fans (and undoubtedly his editor) forced Doyle to rescind the expiration of that most-famous detective. This example seems to suggest most readers don’t want to see a main character die, least of all in an unsatisfying way.

Which means that when an author decides to slay a character that readers have come to appreciate, admire, or even abhor—and, above all, come to think of as an actual person—he has the responsibility to make it meaningful.

Plot twists have their place, but key deaths should make a big splash, not cause a momentary ripple. Story arc aside, a character’s death can be a profound milestone in her development—a final, important act that epitomizes how far she has come from the start. Or how far she has fallen.

If the best characters stand up and cast a shadow, then snuffing out their light must serve a greater purpose.

Naturally, there’s no formula to determine how long a character should live or whether his final moments should be detailed in the pages of a book at all. As with every aspect of this craft, a writer must stay true to the story, whatever that story happens to be.

Slashing copious throats for the sake of bloodshed alone only serves to dilute the effect. Likewise, pulling punches out of cowardice could sterilize an otherwise honest account of the human condition.

But certainly, anyone who is brave enough to write about life must also embrace the subject of death.

Readers and writers: Do you disagree? Should main characters be invincible? Please comment below!

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