Even more attractive than print-on-demand technology is digital – there are no upfront costs, your royalties are generally higher, your book will never go out of print, and it’s cheap enough that readers will be more willing to “take a risk” and buy it. But with all these digital players out there, which site is best for you?
Well, the advantage with digital books is that you don’t have to decide on just one site, you can join them all if you have the time or the inclination! But is it really worth it? Here, with a bit of help from my writer friends, I’m going to look at a few of the major ebook distributors so you can decide whether to keep it exclusive, or spread it around.
KDP are probably the biggest distributor of ebooks on the interwebs. I have three titles listed via Kindle and my sales have been slow, but I have made some (although not enough to reach the payment threshold).
What they offer:
- Free to join.
- Straightforward set-up.
- Pay royalties direct into your bank account (EFT).
- Popular marketplace.
- You can run promotions on your book: free days or countdowns (if enrolled in their KDP select).
- Entering your NZ tax number reduces the 30% taxation. Do not require US ITIN/EIN.
- Their ebook format is unique to their site (use a mobi converter or Scrivener).
- They do not keep a running total of earnings– you have to maintain your own records.
- Cannot set title to be permanently free (but there are ways around that, see below).
- You need to give Amazon exclusive rights if you want to take advantage of their special promotions (ie: not sell the ebook anywhere else).
What Smashwords offer:
- Free to join.
- A range of digital formats: epub, mobi, pdf and more.
- Their infamous “meat grinder” which turns your original file into the aforementioned formats automatically.
- You can price your book as “free” (if you set your book to free here, Amazon will price match).
- Will pay out via Paypal ($10 threshold).
- You can offer pre-orders.
- The meat grinder translator has issues with some format files (and instruction manual is written for Microsoft Word, not OpenOffice).
- Does not seem to be very popular with buyers.
- Seem to require a US tax number to avoid a 30% taxation on earnings (reduces to 10%).
- Smashword’s layout looks cheap and non-professional (petty, I know, but I do judge books – and websites – by their “covers”.)
When I first joined Kobo, it was really hard getting your book up on their website. You had to format everything, create a metadata file and upload it via FTP. Then they introduced Writers Life and things became so much simpler. I have had the epub (with colour illustrations) version of Fellowship listed on Kobo for years, but I just re-trialed the site by uploading Aroha’s Grand Adventure as well. The process was so quick and painless it was wonderful. Of course, in several years I’ve sold exactly 2 copies of Fellowship, but ah well, might as well make it available, right?
What Kobo offers:
- Free to join.
- Extremely easy and straightforward platform, allowing you to upload your epub formatted files, or translating alternative formats. It’s even easier than Amazon!
- Allows you to set your price in NZ$.
- Pay via EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) into your bank account after you reach the US$50 threshold (well, 45 days after).
- Royalties are 45/75% depending on sale price.
- Canadian company means no tax withheld and no ITIN required.
- Does not provide ISBN, but you don’t actually need them for ebooks. And you can get one here for free.
- Not as popular a marketplace as Amazon.
Wheelers: If your book is released in traditional form, it will automatically be listed on Wheelers book site, but ebooks need to be uploaded separately. Wheelers ebooks are available to schools and libraries. I signed up with Aroha’s Grand Adventure and get a lovely email once a month telling me I have no sales. The process is not too difficult as long as you have an ISBN, an epub file, metadata and a cover image, but is more time consuming (for little reward). Joining is done via email and involves filling in other forms as well.
iBooks: I have not looked too heavily into iBooks, as they seem to require you to have a Mac computer.From the website, their process looks fairly straightforward and very visually appealing, but appears more aimed at text books and pictorials.
Google Books: Are not accepting new authors at this time. Obviously more targeted at publishers rather than independent authors.
Note: ISBN numbers are linked to formats, so if you have your book available in paperback, hardback, and epub they should all have different ISBN numbers. However, most ebook sites don’t require them and will give you their own number instead.
With the increasing development of print-on-demand technology, there are quite a collection of online companies offering independent publishing, including small independent publishing houses and more major players, like CreateSpace, Ingram-Spark, Lulu, Blurb.
(Note: this post is about physical format books, publishing ebooks will be dealt with at a later date).
So who to choose, and where to go?
If you are short on time and not-so technologically savvy, then there is the temptation to go to one of the small publishing houses. These are numerous and offer you various things for, sometimes quite substantial, amounts of money. Personally, I’m a bit wary of these, considering them a little too close to the vanity publishers of the past, and have not dealt with any directly myself. If I were to, I would do substantial research and I recommend that you do the same. Some offer you little more advantage than going it alone would, and at considerable cost. What they may offer, however, is a strong network of support and potential reviewers. Look into them, google the name to see if others have dealt with them and whether they have fared positively or not; choose some titles at random, read the blurbs and author bios, and see how they’re faring on sites such as GoodReads. It would also pay to look up the titles on Amazon and Book Depository, to see if they are offered for sale there. As an indie-published author, much of your sales will come through the internet marketplaces, so make sure they will be listed on the major sites! Ultimately, indie-publishing is fairly easy and the more DIY sites as CreateSpace are remarkably straightforward, so I would be most interested in the marketing opportunities that the various indie-houses offer. If they expect you do do the majority of it themselves, do they really deserve your money?
It would also be useful to see if they offer their titles on Netgalley. Netgalley is a site where booksellers, book bloggers, and librarians, can request advance ebook reading copies (eARC). Having your book listed there as an indie author is extremely expensive, but if you are part of a publishing house, they may list it there for you. Being listed on Netgalley will get you reviews (not necessarily favourable ones) and get you greater exposure. This may have an impact on future sales… or it may not.
For the more technologically savvy, you might like to take on a more-DIY approach. Now, these ones tend to be cheaper money-wise (although most offer added bells and whistles for a fee) but are considerably more time-expensive.
CreateSpace operate through Amazon’s marketplace. As Amazon is one of the biggest online book retailer at this present point in time, I highly recommend them. My three novels have been printed through them, and I have found the process to be straightforward and the outcome relatively professional.
What CreateSpace offer:
- A straightforward set-up dashboard (including templates)
- No upfront cost – you only pay for what you order (which could be 1 book or 100).
- Your book will be available through Amazon’s various marketplaces.
- You can use their ISBNs, or supply your own.
- Large variety of book sizes (all given in inches, so have a ruler and converter handy!)
- Professional looking books: bright white paper, good clarity of text and good colour reproduction on covers (but see note below re: cover curl).
- Free expanded distribution (which includes The Book Depository and Fishpond).
- Book services (for additional fees) for those not quite comfortable “going it alone”.
- Unless you pay the additional fees, you’re basically DIYing it. Requires some computer skills and time.
- Despite the expanded distribution offer, your book is unlikely to be stocked in physical bookstores.
- Marketing and promotions are entirely in your own hands, unless you pay for additional services.
- Books experience a fair amount of “cover curl”, which means they show wear and tear fairly quickly. This was particularly noticeable in earlier copies, but may be remedied now. (Visible in photo above).
- CreateSpace books printed from two locations: New York and South Carolina. I have generally found the South Carolina ones to have better colour clarity.
- Only pay by cheque, and only when you reach $100.
- Do not offer hardbacks, nor colour plates (your book is either full colour or full black and white).
- Shipping is slow, but never as slow as they estimate! Generally allow 3-4 weeks.
A 200-page paperback novel printed B&W via CreateSpace has a cost price of around US$3.25 (~NZ$4.80).
Lulu were one of the earliest players in the print-on-demand game, but have fallen somewhat peripheral to CreateSpace. They offer their own marketplace, and also claim to distribute via ibooks, Nook and Amazon, and their titles appear to be on The Book Depository and Fishpond as well (mine isn’t, however, which indicates that there is an option I failed to select). I have published a hardback version of one of my novels via them, and found it to be a bit disappointing: newsprint style pages, the text perhaps a little too dark and random weird marks at the end of some chapters (which I’m pretty sure are not due to poor formatting on my part, but I could be wrong).
What Lulu offer:
- Hardbacks, paperbacks, photo books and calendars in a range of sizes and binding types.
- No set-up fees, you only pay for what you order.
- Downloadable templates that you can cut and paste your story into.
- Free ISBNs (or you can use your own).
- Fairly straightforward set-up.
- Additional services available for additional fees (including marketing).
- Regular discounts on your purchases.
- Your book is available on various online marketplaces, including The Book Depository, Fishpond and Amazon (this depends on your book size/format).
- Will pay revenue into Paypal.
- The books do not appear to look quite as professional as CreateSpace’s, ink is slightly too thick/dark. Cream paper is cheapest – and looks it.
- Unless you pay the additional fees, you’re basically DIYing it. Requires some computer skills and time.
- Marketing and promotions are (almost) entirely in your own hands, unless you pay for additional services.
- Lulu is a less-frequented marketplace than Amazon.
- Slightly more expensive.
- Do not offer colour plates (your book is either full colour or full black and white).
A 200-page paperback novel printed B&W via Lulu has a cost price of around Au$5.25 for cream, Au$7.40 for white (~NZ$5.82/$8.20).
Blurb have been around a long time — I published my first art books through them (they’re still available, if anyone is interested) and now they offer regular print-on-demand as well. Colour reproduction in their photo books was very good.
What Blurb offer:
- Hardbacks, paperbacks, photo books, magazines, ebooks, in a range of sizes.
- Built in program, Bookwright, to create your pictorial book (or magazine). (Note: is BAD for mostly text stories!)
- The books look really nice.
- Offer “Economy colour printing” for reasonable rates (have yet to check quality).
- Free distribution via IngramSpark (“the world’s largest distributor of books”), depending on format and creation method.
- Colour and black and white formats available.
- Free ISBNs.
- No set-up fees, you pay for what you order.
- Will pay revenue into Paypal.
- Ship from Australia, so faster and (potentially) cheaper.
- Regularly send promo codes that allow for discounts.
- Only three sizes of trade paperback to choose from.
- Once your book is on the Global Distribution, you cannot make changes without jumping through hoops.
- BookWright works best for pictorial books, takes a lot of fiddling with text books (better to use a PDF).
- Somewhat more expensive.
- Marketing and promotions is (almost) entirely in your own hands, unless you pay for additional services.
- Do not offer colour plates (your book is either full colour or full black and white).
A 200-page paperback novel printed B&W via Blurb has a cost price of around US$4.25 for cream, US$10.39 for white (~NZ$6.27/$15.33).
I have neither published nor purchased an IngramSpark title, so my knowledge of them is limited to what I can read on their website. They appear to be a bit more upmarket and discerning than, say, CreateSpace. Due to the upfront, per title cost, I am unlikely to try IngramSpark (especially since Blurb allegedly distribute via them anyway, and they don’t charge a fee). If you want more information, I suggest you google “IngramSpark VS CreateSpace”.
What IngramSpark offer:
- A wide range of options, including books, graphic novels, picture books, in a range of trim sizes.
- They promise distribution through a range of sources, including actual bookstores.
- Will convert PDF files into ebooks.
- Offer promotional services (inclusion in newsletter etc)— not sure if at additional cost or not.
- Offer free editorial review via Pressque (worth US$75), this is apparently done with a 48 hour turnaround. I am a little dubious.
- Templates for cover and interior. At additional cost.
- You are required to provide your own ISBNs. You can buy them via the site, but DON’T, because in New Zealand you can acquire your unique ISBNs for free.
- Require you to upload your own PDFs and cover designs (DIY approach).
- $49 set-up fee per title. I believe there is also an annual fee, but that doesn’t appear to be on their FAQ.
- You pay for things, like templates, that other sites offer for free.
A 200-page paperback novel printed B&W via IngramSpark has a cost price of around US$3.86 for cream. (~NZ$5.70).
Note: I have made no mention of royalties, these obviously vary between the sites, but are mainly determined by the price you set as your sale price. In regards to sales, I’ve made 56% of my minimum payment threshold via CreateSpace, and nothing via Lulu or Blurb (my books on Blurb are sold at cost price, and my Lulu hardback is really expensive and not listed outside their website).
In summary, CreateSpace seems the most popular and cheapest option, whilst also providing the most straightforward distribution and access to a large online marketplace. Blurb produces very fine looking books, and is probably the easiest for the non-technologically savvy (plus the BookWright program is fun to play with). It also offers to distribute via IngramSpark, which might be handy for getting into physical bookstores. I fully intend to try them again in the future, possibly with a colour book of some description. So, stay tuned!
More tutorials to come on publishing via CreateSpace.
In these days of print-on-demand and ebook technology, self (or independent) publishing has never been easier. No longer need we writers employ agents, or write query letters – now it is possible to write the story, edit it and put it up for the world to read.
But should we do that?
I made the decision in 2011, following my “win” in 2010’s NaNoWriMo, to independently publish my novel: Aroha’s Grand Adventure. This was, in part, because one of my prizes was a free proof copy via Amazon’s CreateSpace program. I wrote the novel over the month of November, creating the illustrations as I went, and received my first proof early in 2011. The book was available on Amazon by July 1st, 2011.
Over the next two years, I went on to release my second book, Midsummer Knight’s Quest (which had actually been written prior to Aroha’s) and the first in my Lemur Saga, Fellowship of the Ringtails. So, aside from the lure of the free book, what were the other reasons that inspired me to avoid the traditional publishing route altogether?
1. Rejection letters: OK, so I confess, I didn’t really try too hard to take the trad route. I DID submit my manuscript for Midsummer Knight’s Quest to my favourite children’s publishers, Chicken House, but with little hope and no success – although I do have a lovely rejection letter.
2. I felt my stories were a bit unconventional and unlikely to appeal to the publishing houses’ criteria. Midsummer Knight’s Quest was extremely long and broke some narrator conventions. I knew from the start that I was doing this, and was not entirely comfortable with it, but could see no way to adjust it within the plot. After several suggestions to split it into two books, I’ve currently withdrawn it from sale. As for Fellowship of the Ringtails, it seemed unlikely, even with the success of the Madagascar movies, that any of the “big 5” publishers would take a book about lemurs seriously and even if they did, they’d likely try to force it into the children’s section, meaning I would have to tone down the prose.
3. I wanted to keep control of my stories: if a publishing house purchases your story, it becomes their property. They chose the cover, the illustrators, and may make adjustments. In smaller publishing houses, you may be asked for your opinion, but generally speaking, your book is now out of your hands and your control.
Another advantage of independent publishing, especially via Print-on-Demand technology, is that your book never goes out of print – it’s available for people to purchase for as long as Amazon (or whomever you choose to print through) exist. The “shelf life” in a physical store, unless your book is particularly successful or you’re a popular author, is about 6 months. That’s it. After which it will likely be returned, and pulped, or cycled into the clearance bins. Bookstores cannot afford to keep stock on the shelf that isn’t selling. Most publishing houses will do smallish print runs for unknown/debut authors and, if they don’t sell well, they won’t print more. Of course, with ebooks this is a moot point: ebooks will never go out of print, they don’t take up shelf space or gather dust, and they don’t get shop soiled with time.
That’s not to say indie publishing is without its faults though, for there are many. There are no gatekeepers to indie publishing, so it becomes harder to know what is good and what is not, and some people may choose to self-edit instead of hiring a professional (by way of keeping costs down), which may lead a story to be prone to plot holes and typos or grammatical errors. I do not recommend self-editing. If you can afford it, hire a professional; if you cannot afford it, give proof copies to your grammar-nut friends and encourage them to read it with pencil in hand (they won’t be able to resist correcting the ones they find). But seriously, the editing of your story could make or break your success. Reviewers can, and will, point out the poor editing, and that makes it look very unprofessional to any potential readers.
Also, self-publishing is a lot of work, with very little financial reward. Not only do you have to write the book, but also edit it/have it edited, have a cover designed, format the manuscript so that it looks professional, figure out how to get it up for sale, work through your proof copies to find the typos that were missed and then, once it is finally finished and available for sale, figure out a way to actually sell it.
Because that’s the biggest problem with independent publishing, getting your book noticed. If anyone can do it, and everyone does, then there are millions of books available for sale. How do you make yours stand out among the crowd?
Well, step one is: make your book as professional and interesting and as well-written and edited as possible. Your book must stand by its own merits.
Step two is marketing, and you can learn more about that by attending our May workshop.
Ultimately: if you have a strong, well-written and highly commercial novel, there is no benefit to you rushing the process and self-publishing. If you believe your novel can sit next to James Patterson or Brandon Sanderson or another well-renowned genre-novelist, then there’s no harm in polishing your manuscript, penning a query letter and submitting to whichever of the publishing houses can best fill your needs. If you end up collecting rejection letters, then so be it, you can always fall back on self-publishing! If your novel is, however, a bit avant-garde, non-mainstream, unconventional, or you feel will only appeal to a limited market, then by all means, prepare for the complex and sometimes frustrating journey that is self-publishing.
Do I regret self-publishing? No. I don’t write for the money (which is good, because Amazon won’t pay out until you’ve earned more than $100 in any one Amazon store, and guess what – I’m only halfway there). I write for the characters and I write for my fans. And, most of all, I write for myself.
I do, however, regret rush-publishing Aroha’s Grand Adventure, because I believe, of all my novels, that it had the most commercial promise. And because I was still ironing out typos for months after the initial release. Don’t rush the process!
We will speak more about the self-publishing process in following blog posts, but you might like to check out this previous one on creating a mobi ebook.
If you wish to sell your ebook via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), you first need to create a mobi file.
If you are using Scrivener, you don’t need to worry about this tutorial at all! Scrivener has its own abilities to output directly as a mobi file.
I, however, currently use OpenOffice. Which does not.
There are various programs you can use to do this conversion, but the one I use is known as Mobipocket Creator. It is available from this site: Mobipocket eBook Creator
You will need to download both the Creator and the Reader.
First off, you must have a completed manuscript and a cover. To prepare your manuscript for ebook conversion, remove all page numbers, disable footers and/or headers and format the layout as simplisitically as you can. The conversion process will leave in some quirks – including double-spacing between paragraphs – so you may need to translate several variations first.
If your file contains images, these should be on separate pages. Ebooks do not generally display pictures on the same page as text and you will find that the addition of images may involve large blank sections in the book. I have found it most appropriate to position images at the end of a chapter or scene, thus they do not disrupt the flow of text.
This is the home page of Mobipocket Creator:
Whilst various options for importing exist, I have found that the HTML document format gives the best finished result. Once you have removed all the footers and other peripherals from your document, you should save it as an HTML file.
Now click on import from existing file -> HTML document
You can then Browse for your HTML file and Import it.
This will bring you to this screen:
You should then work through each of the options on the left hand side.
Cover Image: Select the cover image from your computer. This should be of reasonable size, but not too big (because mobipocket creator has issues with extremely large images). Click Update to upload it. It will be resized automatically to an appropriate size by the files.
Table of Contents: I confess, I have never managed to successfully instal the Table of Contents. What it does is offer you a list at the beginning of all the chapters, with internal links in the ebook format to those chapters. It also allows the ereading device to show you how long you have on each chapter. As such, it is a very useful tool, and one I shall continue to play with until I figure it out. I suspect it may require the use of an HTML editing program.
Book Settings: You can set book type to “ebook”. Rest is probably irrelevant if your book is written in English and not a dictionary.
Metadata: Now this one is very useful. This is the data that is connected to your book and will aid in its distribution and hopefully encourage people to buy it. Fill in all applicable options. Note: ISBNs are unique to each version of each story, so if you have an ISBN number for a physical book it will NOT be the same as the digital version. Amazon assign their own number to ebooks and ISBNs are not necessary for this stage. I will do a later post re: ISBN numbers, how to obtain them and when you need them.
Main subject: Choose from the list, selecting the most appropriate option for your title.
Guide: I have so far ignored “Guide” but I suspect it is for the more technically inclined.
Once this is done, you can select Build from the top menu. Then Build from the screen that opens up.
Your ebook will now be created. Note that a Warning button may pop up, especially if either a, your cover illustration is too small or you’ve forgotten to upload it, or b, you have internal illustrations. See what the warning pertains to.
“Image file not found” comes up because the ebook is being built in a different folder from the one that your file has been saved into. There are two ways around this:
On the original screen, where you first uploaded your HTML manuscript, change the destination folder to the same folder that the original HTML file came from.
Or, as I generally do – transfer the image file from the original file into the destination folder, go back to Publications and Build the ebook once more.
Now, if there are no warnings then you can preview your book using the Mobipocket Reader you will have already installed. Click through it from beginning to end. You may notice a few funky things with formating (indented paragraphs, double spaces between paragraph breaks) and sometimes the font will seem to change size. If that happens, just double-check it by clicking back through it – it seems to be an issue with the Reader, not the actual mobi file. If you need to make any adjustments, go back to your original manuscript and repeat the process from the beginning until it is to your satisfaction.
Then it is time to move onto the next step:
Publishing your book through Kindle Direct Publishing.
(Tutorial to come)
Like any creative endeavour, we have a strong personal attachment to what we’ve written, and having someone comment on it can be a significantly pleasurable or painful experience. Here are some things that I have found helpful when dealing with criticism of my written work:
Firstly, before you read any feedback on your work take a deep breath and accept two things:
- Not everyone will like your work. Even professional best-selling authors get negative criticism.
- Feedback is as much about the person who gave it, as it is about your work (or you) i.e. it comes from where they are at. Everyone speaks from their own life bubble which is made up of their experiences, what they’ve been taught, their personality and even where they are at emotionally at that particular time.
Once you’ve prepared yourself with those two understandings then you will be more emotionally ready to consider feedback on your work and respond to it constructively. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of any criticism you receive:
Take some time: Avoid responding to feedback immediately. You are likely to be quite emotional when you first read feedback and may either miss-read what was written or write an emotionally driven reply that you will later regret. Sometimes going for a walk or watching a movie and having a good cathartic cry can help you see things from a more balanced perspective.
Take Action (or not): Once you have settled with a negative feedback comment, take a considered look at it. Decide whether it has any validity to it and whether there is anything you need to respond to, or take action on. Is the feedback just opinion, or does it contain specific, substantiated points? Recognise that feedback that is opinion based is just one person’s point of view and probably best not responded to in any way by you. Also consider whether the person making the comments is connected to your target audience. Sometimes someone doesn’t ‘get’ your work because it is not for them.
Alternatively, does the criticism contain information you can use to improve your writing? Hard as it is to have someone point out your weaknesses, see it as a flag for things you need to work on if you believe the criticism is justified. Sometimes after considering a negative comment we don’t think that it is valid, and not all comments will be. It is wise to consider all feedback, but that doesn’t mean that you have to accept it all as true. If the person giving the feedback has been inaccurate in some way then a calm, correcting response TO THE CONTENT, not the person, may be needed. Sometimes, we just need to let negative feedback lie and do our best to let it go.
Take Away the Positive: While any positive feedback makes you feel good, think about how much weight to assign to it. For instance, a comment from your mum gushing “This is awesome honey, I’m so proud of you. You’re an amazing writer!”, while nice to receive should not be given as much weight as an experienced book reviewer noting “A solid first novel with some interesting plot twists and well-developed characters.” Take note of specific aspects of your work that are applauded such as “this writer is skilled in the art of suspense” or “she writes with a lyrical beauty that suits the fairy-tale nature of her stories”.
View feedback as a tool to help you become a better writer. Take the valid points and use them to identify your skills, and strengthen your weaknesses. Receiving feedback can be scary, but it can also be extremely helpful so put on your big boy pants and dive in!
Janine Lattimore has been an avid reader and writer since she was very young. She primarily writes poetry and children’s literature but has also written two books with a natural health focus and has had several articles published in the Tots to Teens magazine. Janine currently blogs as The Happy Homemaker.
We have already discussed First and Second (more briefly) person point of view (POV), so now we move on to the very popular Third Person.
What is Third Person POV?
Third Person POV uses pronouns such as: he, she and they, and also names. It shows you what that particular person is feeling, doing, seeing etc at that particular point in time. It creates more distance between the reader and the character, but can still be used to encourage a certain level of intimacy.
Third Person is popular across all the ranges of fiction, and even into non-fiction (especially historic). It is an especially useful tool in genres such as epic fantasy, or any prose where many characters are involved, often separated by distance and sometimes even time.
There are three specific types of Third Person narrative:
Third Person Objective
This is when the tale is written from the perspective of a neutral or impersonal narrator. They do not know precisely what any of the characters are thinking or feeling, only what they can observe them doing.
This can present a challenge to the writer; because you cannot see into the characters’ heads, then you must show what they are feeling by physical cues: such as expressions, stance and other behaviour. It is a good practise for writing in show, not tell.
However, it does not create intimacy between the reader and the characters.
Third Person Omniscient
The tale here is told from the perspective of a narrator capable of “seeing” into the heads of all the characters – basically, “Omniscient” means “All-knowing”.
I am not a fan of this perspective, as it is very hard to write it well, and it often leads into what I refer to as “head hopping”. This is when you jump from one character’s thoughts to another and it can be tremendously jarring. It is also harder to keep secrets from the reader when you know that one character is secretly planning on betraying the protagonist. This fact can, of course, also be used to ramp up the drama.
Third Person Limited
This is probably my favourite, and also the closest to First-Person you can get in a Third-Person narrative. Basically, for a passage of time – generally a chapter, sometimes only a paragraph, or even an entire story – the reader is made aware of one character’s emotions/thoughts etc, they are essentially viewing the world through that character’s eyes. Like with First-Person, although the pronouns still remain he/she/they.
It has an advantage over First-Person in that you can break away to another character or event more easily; you are able to describe the character without having to fall into “looking at themselves in the mirror” techniques; and it is easier when dealing with multiple story-lines.
The only issues with writing in Third-Person Limited is it can be quite easy to accidentally slip into someone else’s POV for a couple of sentences. This jars the reader, knocking them out of the spell the story has weaved into and can also be confusing. A good edit should be able to pick up on these instances.
Due to the nature of my stories: non-human protagonists, multiple POV characters, I favour Third-Person Limited in my writing. It is somewhat like having the best of both worlds: sharing the intimacy of one character’s thoughts and emotions, whilst also being able to break-away into a sub-plot.
(written by Judy L Mohr)
So, you have signed up for NaNoWriMo.
Wait… I hear you ask, “what exactly is NaNoWriMo?” Well, this is the international event where writers decide to throw caution to the wind and attempt to write that first draft of a novel within the span of a month, and not just any month. NaNoWriMo is in November every year. It’s free to participate. All you have to do is sign up at nanowrimo.org and commit yourself to your writing. To win amazing prizes and discounts to brilliant writers’ sites, you need to write 50000 words. Simple enough… Or is it?
All writers fall into one of two main categories: plotters and pantsers. The plotters will aim to plot the details of their manuscript before they write, determining the full structure of the story from start to finish. Pantsers will have a rough idea and will just let their fingers decide what finds the paper as they just go for it. Both methods have their merits, and they both have their flaws. Neither is wrong, just as neither is right. It all comes down to how your brain works.
For myself, I’m definitely a pantser. My mind is often flying off in a million directions at once. When writing, my brain will hone in on a particular story thread and follow it through to a natural conclusion, even if that’s not the conclusion of the story. My fingers fly across the keyboard, taking me along a journey of discovery as I delve into the minds of my characters. I just go with it.
So what does this mean for my first drafts? Well, they’re all over the show. More often than not, I’ll be following a character, then he (or she) will have a conversation with another character referring to some event in the past that hasn’t been written yet. That mysterious event is a vital turning point for one or more of the characters. Oh boy, now I have to go back over here in this part of the story and actually write that event.
The plotters out there would cringe about this, but it works for me, and I’m sticking with it. But how does this method of writing help me plough my way through events such as NaNoWriMo?
Well… Imagine that you’re on a roll with your writing, the words are pouring out of you. You’re following the journey of your characters, then you hit a snag. The characters enter into a cave and refuse to come out. Inspiration has failed and the characters have fallen asleep; they won’t wake up to do anything worth writing about. Some writers would just stare at the computer screen (or page), unable to write another word. Their characters would spend eternity in that cave waiting for inspiration to strike.
The plotters out there would say that you deviated from your plot somewhere and you need to go back and rewrite it until you get them out of the cave. But this is where my erratic, out-of-order writing style becomes a godsend.
The characters went into the cave for a reason. They were supposed to find something of importance. Exactly what it was, you can’t see. Exactly how they found it, you have no clue. But you do know that the price in getting it was extremely high: Joe died in the process. The details of the scene elude you, but you can clearly see the outcome.
At this point, I make bullet-point notes about the details that I can see (i.e. Joe died and Sally is hysterical, meaning that Daisy is forced to take command and get the rest of them out of the cave safely). Then I jump to the scene that I can see and carry on writing. In a future scene, Sally and Daisy will explain the details to the officials and… Wow… I can now go back and write the details of the scene I was missing, and if I’m lucky, I’ll discover that Joe didn’t die as Sally and Daisy first thought, but was taken captive by the cave monster and now needs rescuing.
I will agree with the plotters in that the new sub-plots that develop out of this methodology are not always strong ones and need to be edited out at a later date, but I would like to remind the plotters of Ernest Hemingway’s famous quote: The first draft of anything is shit.
NaNoWriMo is not about writing that masterpiece from word go. It’s about actually getting the story down on paper so you can edit and re-write it in the months that follow. I don’t care how good a writer you are, if you have nothing on paper, then you don’t have anything to work with and you don’t have a novel.
There are many ways of pushing your way through a first draft of a story, propelling yourself toward your NaNoWriMo goals. This is just one way, and it works for me.
Kiwi Judy L Mohr writes fantasy and science fiction filled with adventure, dark monsters, humour and romance. She is also a freelance editor, working on projects from writers around the world. Judy is currently the president of the Christchurch Writers’ Guild, but is also a member of SpecFic New Zealand and the Scribophile on-line writing community. Recently, she was appointed one of the NaNoWriMo Municipal Leaders for our region. You can visit her at http://judylmohr.com, or follow her on twitter (@JudyLMohr).
There are various types of Point of View (POV) used in conventional writing. Over a series of blog posts we will be discussing the most frequently used mechanisms, their pros and their cons. We shall begin this series with First Person.
What is First Person POV?
First Person is when the story is told from the perspective of one character, the world as viewed through their eyes. It is characterised by use of the pronoun “I”. It puts the reader directly into the head of the protagonist; you can read their thoughts and see, hear, smell and feel via their senses. Thus it is a very intimate form of writing, creating a bond through the character and the reader.
It is currently very popular in Young Adult fiction: Vampire Academy, Twilight, Virals, and present, although less frequently, in Middle Grade:Bartimaeus series,Percy Jackson. It is often portrayed as though the reader were accounting their story to the reader, although sometimes it is written as a diary, letters or other correspondence. There seems to be some dichotomy amongst readers about whether or not they like it – I remember one customer avidly declared she would NEVER read anything written in First Person. I personally enjoy it, especially in stories with a strong, easily identifiable protagonist. The success of stories like Twilight can be, at least in part, attributed to the creation of a relatively flat, under-described character in which it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves.
Writing in First Person allows the writer to play with the reader. Ultimately, the tale will be biased in favour of the narrator, and as it is seen through their eyes, told through their voice, then the truth will be filtered through their own beliefs and thought-patterns. In, for example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the narrator is a teenage boy with Autism. He sees the world in black and white, and thus it takes him longer to figure out the shades-of-grey puzzles that the reader has already picked out. The narrator can also lie to the reader, allowing for unexpected twists. However, this should be done carefully, and the foreshadowing should offer some hints to what is really going on. One of my favourites along these lines is Joanne Harris’s Gentleman and Players. Everything should tie in neatly and the narrator should not be so much telling straight-out fibs but skipping around the truth and omitting relevant details.
One issue that I have with First Person narrative, is that I generally need to LIKE the character. If they have strong antisocial views – misogynistic, racist, sociopathic, etc – then it can make me very uncomfortable and I may wind up putting the book down. This is, I imagine, the intent of the author, such as in books like Perfume andLolita, which makes them a powerful read. However, I could not finish Catcher in the Rye because being in Holden’s head was making me emotionally irritated. Likewise, with Paulina Simon’s Tully, I really could not identify with the character and gave up on the book halfway through.
First Person does have some limitations, of course. It does not easily allow for split-narratives with multiple character leads. Some authors have remedied this by switching between two first person narrators – this can be very successful (one of my favourites is Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones) but must be done with care. Jumping between two first-person narrators can be very disorientating for the readers, especially those that practice a stop-start method of reading (snatching a page or two here and there) as it can be confusing to remember whose head you are in. This can be counteracted in several ways: changing font for each narrator, applying headers to the page, or – and this is the best – by having two very distinct characters with distinct voices. Whichever method chosen, the writer should select one narrator per chapter, and stick with them from beginning to end.
Another technique is to mix a first-person narrator with a fixed-third POV (more on these later). This allows more flexibility with events, but the main narrator should always be the one written in first-person.
Another limitation with First Person is that if the protagonist is not able to see, hear or otherwise experience an event, then it is almost as though it did not happen. A series I enjoy, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows, is written entirely through the POV of one character – Rachel Mariana Morgan (she is such a memorable character, that I can remember who entire name, something of a rarity) – however, in one of the books, one of the major supporting characters dies. But Rachel is not there to witness it and thus it all happens off-screen, and thus loses something of its impact (and keeps the reader wondering if it were true).
Some tips for writing in First Person:
- Keep the writing style true to the character. Ie: if your main character is an impulsive teenager with ADHD, keep the plot fast, and the action plentiful.
- Brainstorm your character first. Give them a name and traits – are they impulsive? Empathic? Quick to jump to the wrong conclusion? Once you have established this, make sure their behaviour is consistent throughout the narrative.
- Your character must be the centre of all the action.
- Don’t get too lost in their thoughts. Introspection can be boring. If it’s important to the plot, show it through their actions.
- There are more senses than just vision and hearing.
- Generally speaking, your First Person narrator will be most convincing if they are human.
- Describing your character can be difficult. Do this carefully. Mirror scenes should be avoided at all costs, and characters mentally bemoaning their hair-colour/style are likewise something of a cliché. For the most part, the reader doesn’t really need to know exactly what the character looks like – a few hints here and there will help, but most readers will create their own mental image.
First Person is a powerful POV, allowing the reader to immerse themselves completely in the body and mind of a character. It is best suited to stories with a strong central character.
Second Person POV is rarely used in fiction. It generally only shows up in the occasional literary short story, such as when an author is being experimental or trying to be clever, in poetry, or in children’s literature in the format of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It is characterised by the use of the pronoun “you”.
In tales when you make choices – such as the case with the children’s books mentioned, it is very suitable, because you, the reader, are driving the tale. However, it can make readers feel uncomfortable: “But I wouldn’t do that!” “I don’t think that way!” I have only ever read one novel in which it was used – Iain Banks Song of Stone.
It is, perhaps, a little ironic that it is not a popular mechanic to use, yet the goal of most wish-fulfilment fiction (such as Twilight) is to make the reader feel like they ARE Bella.
Second Person is not an easy POV to write from. It would probably be best in the inspirational-type literature – stuff like Jonathan Livingstone-Seagull and The Alchemist. Although it should be noted, neither of these are in Second Person.
It has become almost a cliché – the old mantra “Show, not tell” and often you will hear it when receiving a critique. But what, you may ask, does it actually mean? Is the critiquer offering valid advice, or are they just trying to appear sophisticated and smug? And is it in fact a valid point – do you really need to show, not tell? What does it do for the story.
Is it important?
Well, to be honest – no, whether you show instead of telling, will not determine whether you become a popular author or not. MANY best-selling authors do not show, they just tell. Lesley Pearse, Danielle Steele, and my mother’s favourite, MC Beaton all engage in a manner of story telling that is just that, TELLing. Action fiction like Matthew Reilly is also heavy on the Tell. It has a place – and that place is generally quick and easy reads that are fast paced and mostly forgettable. When you consider how many books each of these authors has produced, you realise that they are literally, churning the stories out.
So why do it?
By showing, you turn your book from a forgettable, if enjoyable, read into an experience. One that the reader feels along with the characters, one that may well linger in their mind and stick with them for a considerable time. It brings the characters more fully too life – establishing them as real people instead of just characters.
And it also really does increase your word count.
Okay, but you still haven’t told us what it actually is!
This is something that is easier to demonstrate than do. To show a story instead of telling it, you have to do just that – you have to describe the happenings, the characters, the story in such a manner that the reader actually feels like they are experiencing it.
Take for example:
It was a cold, wet and miserable day. Jennifer felt glum. She hated the rain, she had wanted to go out and ride her new bicycle.
Compare that with:
Jennifer slumped by the window, staring out at the rain. It sleeted down, streaking the glass and dripping down to puddle in the garden and flooding the driveway. “Why did it have to rain today?” She moaned. “It’s saturday, and I wanted to take my new bike down to the park.”
In the second example, we’re not actually saying at any point what emotions Jennifer is feeling – we’re describing how she feels and encouraging the reader to make their own assumptions based on that description. Nor are we saying that it is raining – we are describing the rain. And that is the basics of showing.
You will also notice that it immediately creates a mood, and engages the reader further in the story, by using evocative words, we are creating mental images in the reader’s mind.
Telling is passive, like having the story read to you at bedtime. The reader is clearly divided from the main characters, almost as though they were watching them from afar or on television.
Showing is active, as though the story is actually happening around the reader. It is more immediate, more involving.
How can you tell if something is written in TELL?
1. Lots of adverbs.
The words in particular that end in -ly are examples of TELL. They slow down the story, making the actions of the characters less dramatic.
“Get out of my room,” Jennifer said angrily.
“Get out of my room,” Jennifer roared.
Which of these two sounds more dramatic?
Jennifer walked slowly down the garden path.
Jennifer ambled along the garden path.
Essentially, if you feel tempted to modify an action with an adverb, look instead for one word that will say the same thing.
OR, one thing I do is to read over the sentence, omit the -ly word and see if the sentence still seems to carry the same meaning.
“I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert said sadly.
“I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert said.
Does it really need to be said that he is sad? Does it add anything to the narrative?
Alternatively, you could just say “I’m sorry I broke your bike,” Robert apologised.
2. Avoid the so called “to be” words:
am, is, are, was, was being, will have been, could have been, to (verb)
Jennifer was staring at her bike. It was a mess. The kea had destroyed it.
Jennifer stared at her bike, aghast; The back tyre buckled, spokes sticking out at weird angles. All of the rubber torn and lying in a tangled heap on the ground. The banana shaped seat ripped open, its innards spilling out onto the pavement. From the fence, the guilty party watched her, his olive green head cocked to one side as though saying to her, “well, you should have put it inside.”
3. Do not start sentences with As or When words.
… Or verbs that end in “-ing”
“Leaping down the stairs, Jennifer rushed to fetch her bike in before dark.”
Jennifer hurtled down the stairs, taking two steps at a time, almost stumbling in her haste to reach the bottom. Outside, daylight had given way to the ever-deepening twilight and with it the creatures of the night – the possums and thieves that lurked out there, waiting to steal her brand new bicycle.
4. Don’t just Look and Feel
Whilst these words do have their purpose, they are not very powerful nor involving. Instead of saying “Robert looked ashamed at his foolish behaviour” you might like to write, “Robert stared at the ground, shuffling from one foot to the other. He refused to look up and meet her gaze.”
“Jennifer felt sad at the state of her bike. If only she had taken better care of it.”
“A great tear leaked from Jennifer’s eye, and she wiped it away, leaving a smear of oil on her cheek. Regret and anger – at herself, warred within her, churning her stomach into an uneasy mess. One action, just one action, and her bike could have been saved from extermination by kea.”
“Realised” is another bad one.
Study movies. In movies, they can’t TELL you anything. Everything is visual, thus, shown. How do you know someone is upset, angry, happy, sad, frustrated, etc.? Watch movies and write down facial expressions, movements, actions, gestures, etc. Use these to describe your own characters when you’re writing. This is the best way to learn how to SHOW emotion instead of telling it.
Take this sentence and rewrite it without using the words “felt” or “angry.”
Jennifer was angry at her brother for leaving her bike outside.
Jennifer stomped up the stairs and stormed into her brother’s room, ripping the computer console from his hand. He looked up at her, eyes wide.
“You little rat,” she bellowed. “You borrowed my bike again!”
How to Show, not Tell:
1. Abstract VS Concrete:
Use specific details instead of abstract ones. Instead of saying that it is a car, describe the make of it. Keep this relevant to the POV character’s personality – if they are interested in cars – they will know the make and model; if they are not then they will likely just note the colour and type (hatchback, CRV, etc). The more detailed you are, the better the reader’s mental image will be. But don’t go too over the top – we don’t need too many sentences describing every single item. Restrict it to the important ones, ie: recurring ones in the plot, ones that are relevant to the plot or to the character you are trying to create.
Jennifer stopped to admire the bike in the store window. It was wonderful and would be an excellent replacement for her own, battered wreck. She could imagine sitting on it, riding it to school. If only she could afford it.
Jennifer stood before through the store window, face pressed close to the finger-smeared glass. Shading her eyes with her hands, she peered into the gloomy interior. Her eyes caressed the smooth red lines of the bike’s body; the low racing bars, the padded “comfort saddle”. She closed her eyes, imaging for a moment sitting astride it, peddling it down the hill to school, the other students watching in admiration. It would be like flying. Pulling out her empty wallet, she sighed. “One day, it will be mine. Oh yes, it will be mine.”
2. Use all FIVE senses.
Sight is the easiest one, but the more you use, the more evocative your descriptions will be.
Don’t use “could see” or “The sound of”.
You are walking onto the beach, use all five senses to write a short scene.
The sand is hot and crumbling beneath my feet, making my footing unstable and slowing me from a jog into a more sedate walk. Fragmented, ephemeral clouds trail across the azure sky. Gulls wheel and cry, their voices like forlorn sirens above the gentle sussuration of waves tasting the shore, tickling my toes. A gentle breeze brings with it the strong, somewhat nauseating, scent of deep fried fish; a scent so thick and cloying that I can taste it on my tongue.
3. Avoid cliches like the plague
Metaphors are very useful – but using a cliche is just laziness, and portrays you as being unimaginative. If you wish to use a metaphor or simile, try to avoid one that has been overused before. Make up your own! One thing I like to do, is take into consideration who my narrator is – my narrators are usually not human and would not think in human terms.
For example – take this cliché:
“Her skin was as wrinkled as a prune…”
Now, consider your narrator – have they ever seen a prune? Do they even know what a prune is?
In my case, my narrator was a bird – an omnivorous bird, and she may have eaten a prune at some point in the past, for sure, but would she know what it was? Not necessarily.
So, it became: “Her skin was as wrinkled as sundried roadkill.”
Here are some cliches for you to rewrite:
Her eyes were as blue as the sky.
He looked as old as the hills.
Her hands were as rough as sandpaper.
Note: Metaphors count as Show, but similies are Tell.
4. Vary Sentence Structure
Shorter sharper sentences build tension, and are great for action scenes.
Longer, more complicated sentences will slow the prose and can be great for drawing out the suspense.
Try not to start all sentences with the same word, this is a sure sign of Telling:
The new bike was a thing of beauty. It was painted electric blue, with silver highlights. Its handle bars were low, perfect for picking up speeds on the long smooth roads. Its seat was curved and ergonomically designed for comfort. Its wheels narrow, built for speed. It was, in its entirety, an impressive machine.
Write a short action scene – something that swells to a climax, then has a slower aftermath.
Use sentence structure to help this.
Be aware you may be reading this aloud, so it is probably best to keep it PG rated.
As an added challenge – try to write it without actually saying what your narrator is doing, but concentrating instead on how they are feeling.
5. Use specific actions to make a point:
Don’t just say “Jennifer loved to cycle hard and fast on her new bike” – describe her cycling hard and fast- racing down a hill, the wind tugging at her hair, making her feel like she is flying…
You get my point.
Dialogue is a great way to introduce immediacy and include the reader. Large percentages of books should be written in dialogue and you can do a lot of things in them – you can establish characters’ personalities, share information, and advance the plot.
For example – you have a character who has a rather rough past – they’ve done things they’e regretted. Instead of explaining all this to the reader, why not have them discuss it with someone in a conversation – a psychologist, perhaps, or some friend they are now confiding in.
[Be careful how you do this – as you do not want to do it like an info dump – it needs to appear as though it is a natural consequence of the conversation.]
One thing you should do when writing dialogue, is keep the characters a part of it – we don’t just want to hear the talking heads – we want to see what we’re doing as well. This can go a long way in developing the character’s personalities.
“You little brat,” Jennifer snarled, stamping her foot and glaring at her brother; eyes narrowed and sharp as razors. “The one thing, the only thing, I asked you to do was to never, ever, ever borrow my bike. But you did, and you left it outside.” She gestured, flinging her arm with such abandon that she almost struck Robert in the nose. He ducked, glancing at the mangled, battered mess that had once been her pride and joy.
“I’m sorry,” he whimpered; one foot drawing circles in the carpet, unable to meet her gaze. “I didn’t think… I’ll pay you back. For the damage, I mean.”
“Pay me back?” Jennifer laughed, but it was a dark, nasty laugh, not the funny kind. “Do you realise how much that bike cost me? How many newspapers I had to deliver just to afford it? Pay me back indeed.” She turned her pale, fierce eyes upon him. “You’ll be paying me back until you turn forty.”
Choose two people from this list and write a (short) conversation between them:
(you can make them family, friends, strangers, whatever – and determine their personalities yourself – for this exercise, cliches are fine).
Remember to incorporate actions within the dialogue!
– An elderly man
– A young mother with a preschooler in tow
– A teenage boy
– A 10 year old girl
– A sales clerk
– A four-year old child
– A business man/woman
– A retired woman
– Someone who really, really loves dogs
– A homemaker (male or female)
7. Do not overdo the padding
Don’t get so bogged down in writing detailed descriptions that you lose track of the plot. This should be especially noted in tense scenes – the protagonist not going to be admiring the sand while they’re racing across the beach, being pursued by angry dobermans, nor will they be paying much attention to the salt scent in the air, although they might be able to taste it as they gasp for air.
8. Sometimes it’s okay to Tell
Which brings us to our next point:
When to Tell NOT Show
If it is not really important to the plot (although that also brings the question – does it need to be there at all?).
For the slow, boring bits. You do not need to describe, in great detail, how your character makes coffee, prefers her breakfast and pads around the house for two hours in slippers and a dressing gown before going out to save the world.
If you need to get a lot of information across, and fast, so it doesn’t detract from the main plot.
Most telling not showing will happen at the beginning or end of a scene, this lets the reader know what time has shifted or what has changed.
The idea is BALANCE – Showing evokes emotions and experience, whereas Telling just informs the reader what is going on. Both have their time and place – it is up to you to decide how that might best be done.