Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Indentured Servitude by Design

Often when I read one of Brad Whttington’s posts, I get the feeling of “being behind the power curve.” That’s an aviation term for an undesirable condition in which full engine power is offset by very high aerodynamic drag, resulting in minimum airspeed. That same power setting with the airplane ahead of the power curve would result in maximum airspeed. You can think of it as using the most fuel to travel the least distance. In your automobile, it would be like pushing the accelerator pedal to the floor and spinning the tires trying to get out of the mud.

Two characteristics of Brad’s posts put me there: 1) I always learn something in retrospect that I should have known, and 2) he has a tendency to throw down the gauntlet with a statement like, “Now maybe we can convince Tosh to do a post on paying people royalties to do day-rate work.”

This subject relates to an essential consideration for any author when comparing the pros and cons of indie versus legacy publishing, especially now that literary agents are scrambling to offer publishing services to authors. Let’s ignore the fact that this is in violation of the Association of Authors’ Representatives canon of ethics and deal with the practical result of agents acting as publishers.

At the core of the current turmoil in the industry lies the prime motivator for agents and publishers alike, to carve out a piece of landscape in the new world out there. They no longer have a monopoly on printing and distribution, and it’s easier than ever for authors to create their own books and put them up for sale with the potential for reaching a market limited only by how aggressively the products are promoted. We have an alternative to legacy publishing that is more viable than ever before.

Authors and prolific bloggers Dean Wesley Smith and Kris Rusch have written an extensive series of informative articles on how to think like a publisher. Two of their specific topics relate directly to the issue at hand, and they serve as the cornerstones of the title of this post.

Today’s publishing contracts typically contain addendums to the standard boilerplate of the past. One such alteration is to what’s called “the sunset clause” and refers to the criteria in the contract for determining when a book is declared out of print and all rights revert to the author. When sales drop below a defined number of units for a specified number of successive months, the author has the right to request and receive control of the book’s future, whatever that may be.

This is a very important point, because over 40% of all print books published end up as remainders, sold at deep discount or tossed into the maw of a pulping machine to become recycled paper. If a publisher has thousands of copies of a stagnant book lying around in a warehouse, they have every incentive to declare it out of print.

But with ebooks, unlimited virtual online shelf space costs them nothing. Why not hold on to the book rights and benefit from whatever profit potential exists in the future? The result is that publishers don’t want authors to utilize this escape clause, so they alter it to effectively retain rights to the book in perpetuity.

Let’s combine that with how publishers, and now their mutinous agent-cum-publisher sidekicks, establish the structure of royalty payments. They deduct expenses from the list price and pay the author a fixed percentage of the net. To toss a gauntlet back to Brad, we’ll let him provide the figures on how much he earned per copy in his traditionally published Fred trilogy. (Hint: Comparing list price to his cut of the profit pie was a jaw-dropper for me.)

The egregious result of this business model is most apparent when considering how the old guard is positioning itself to snatch control of the ebook from authors, most of whom don’t want to bother with production details. Understandably, they want to spend their time writing and leave the business side of publishing to others. And therein lies the trap.

“Let us handle all that,” they say, which supposedly will cover content/developmental editing, copy/line editing, proofreading, manuscript conversion to ebook digital format, cover design, and promotion/marketing.

“Oh, boy,” says the author. “That sounds like a great deal. No money upfront, and they just take a percentage of each book sold. What’s not to like?”

A lot, actually.

It’s as if you have just made a deal with your lawn maintenance company to pay them a percentage of the value of your home for a task worthy of no more than hourly-rate compensation. Your legacy-inspired and -trained compatriots in this business endeavor have just tricked you into paying in perpetuity for something that cost them a few flat-rate hours. The number of ebooks sold divided into their total venture capital expense quickly turns the concept of net into a dinosaur. After they get their money back, you are giving them the lion’s share of the list price forever. (Please pardon the mixed metaphor . . .)

Authors thereby become indentured servants to the new, improved legacy business model, and it’s totally unnecessary. Hire someone to accomplish each of the production tasks under the simple concept of this service for that compensation and be done with it. Don’t fall for the temptation of making it easy.

In the long run, it’s just not worth setting up your lawn guy to inherit your house.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Spring 2013), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Thursday, December 6, 2012

In legacy publishing your book is a high-risk stock

When you ask a legacy publisher why you should look for a contract with the Big Six, now the Big Five, soon to be the Big Four, you will get a predictable list of questionable responses. Most of them involve day-rate services that they provide (copy editing, cover, formatting for pbook and ebook) for which they want to take a percentage in perpetuity. The one legitimate point they can offer is the advance, the publisher serving as an investment banker, fronting $50K to $100K or so (their inflated costs as a dinosaur) to make it all happen and get your book on the shelf for 30-60 days.

One of the more amusing, and debatable, justifications is that they will finance marketing your book to generate exposure.


I got a legacy publishing contract in 2001, long before the era of the Kindle, and was happy to do so. When Welcome to Fred was released, and also the subsequent books in the trilogy, I was dissatisfied with the publisher's marketing efforts. I'm afraid I became a pain and was ungracious in expressing my displeasure.

The fact was that I was unlearned in the ways of the industry. Now I see things differently. The publisher did everything they said they would do to make my book successful and in retrospect I appreciate what they did. But whatever they did, it was not enough to push my novels past the tipping point into financial success. And in my mind I (wrongfully) blamed the publisher.

At the time my day job involved marketing for an international telecommunications testing manufacturer. My company spent millions of dollars to develop a product and then marketed the beans out of it to generate the required revenue to turn a profit and pay the bills. I couldn't understand why my publisher wasn't doing the same thing with my novels. It seemed that the A-list, king-of-the-mountain authors got all the marketing dollars when they didn't really need it and up-and-coming authors such as myself were virtually ignored. It made no sense to me and I wasn't reticent on the subject.

Then one day I stumbled upon an analogy that explained how legacy publishing allocates their marketing dollars between competing books in their catalog. At a mixer at a recent Writer's League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference, I posited this theory to a veteran agent in the industry and he said, "I just learned something about the publishing industry." I was a little surprised. After all, this was his day job and had been for a few decades. He should have been teaching me.

The paradigm comes down to managing risk.


A legacy publisher's catalog is very similar to a stock portfolio for a risk-averse investor. Put most of your money behind blue-chip stocks, proven earners, but dedicate a limited amount of your portfolio to unproven, high-risk stocks in the hopes that one of them will take off and become the next Apple or Google or Facebook.

In book terms, that means that Stephen King and James Patterson, et. al., will get the lion's share of the marketing dollars, even if it seems they don't need it. Does anyone think that the next Patterson novel will fail due to lack of advertising? Don't you think fans will buy it when it comes out, even if they don't see an ad?

But for the first-time author very little marketing is done, and it continues to decrease as budgets tighten. Most of the budget for the book was spent in production and getting it on the shelf. The publisher won't be placing ads or financing book tours or slots on the morning news shows. They may get review copies out to their usual media outlets, perhaps finance a blog tour, do things that costs hundreds of dollars rather than tens of thousands. And then they will wait for one of their high-risk speculations to take off. If one does, they will follow it with money to see if they can ride the wave. But the publisher will never create the wave for a first time author.


Back in 2001 I met my editor for the first time in Atlanta. He drove down from Nashville. I was at the premier telecom industry trade show, exhausted from a day on the show floor and a month of travelling North America and Europe marketing test gear. I wanted two things desperately: to go home to Honolulu to collapse for a week, and for my not-yet-written novel to break out and rescue me from this rat race.

I spent a break from the grueling trade show floor wondering what would make thousands of total strangers buy my novel and grant me financial independence. I put the question to the editor after dinner. He described the things the publishing house would do for my novel. I told him that, with all due respect, that sounded like a lone guy pissing into the ocean. He said I had just described self-publishing, that an established publisher taking on a book granted it a significant level of credibility. I conceded the point and modified it to say it sounded like a fire department directing a fire hose into the ocean. Perhaps the stream was hundreds times the strength of the lone guy, but it was still the ocean.

He answered with the truth as I now understand it. A daunting truth.

"You have to write a novel so good that when someone finishes it, they immediately call their friends and say, 'You have to read this book!'"

I said, "Then we're screwed. I can't write that book."

He smiled and said he thought I could do it or he wouldn't have signed me.

Obviously his faith was misplaced. As good as I thought Welcome to Fred was, despite the fact that it won awards and garnered favorable reviews from Publisher's Weekly and many fans, it didn't cause thousands of people to demand that their friends and family read it immediately.

It comes down to my post on How to sell lots of books. Write a good book.

So, if you go looking for a legacy publisher, remember one detail. That marketing thing, they're going to treat your book like a high-risk stock, whereas if you believe in it and publish it yourself, you'll probably treat it more like a blue-chip stock.

Now maybe we can convince Tosh to do a post on paying people royalties to do day-rate work.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Can Ebooks and Print Coexist?

Unless you've been living off the planet for the past five years, you are more than likely aware of the ongoing turmoil in the publishing industry which began when Amazon introduced the Kindle on November 19, 2007. Pundits on both sides of the chasm between traditional  (legacy) and independent (indie) publishing make frequent predictions as to what the future holds in store . . . as in bookstore, and of course, libraries, neither of which you need to read an eBook.

I've never quite understood the oft-expressed addiction to the aroma of paper and ink as justification for the fear that the eBook revolution will mean the end of the printed book and the physical structures that house them. It's a doom-and-gloom attitude that in my opinion needs to shake hands with reality. Let me address a few facts for your consideration.

Legacy publishing operates on a business model of scarcity built around the new release hardcover book. Publishers pay for access to limited shelf space in a brick-and-mortar bookstore and lose that primo status as soon as sales no longer support the book's right to remain in a high visibility location. Then it's back into the stacks to make room for the next hot release.

The phenomenon in relation to the buyer is no different than when shopping online with a keyword search. Most of us never get beyond the first page of links. Unless you walk into a bookstore to find a particular book, your attention is hijacked by the carousels and tables within a few feet of the entrance. Books placed front-cover out under a sign that says something like NEW ARRIVALS are hard to ignore.

A book no longer worthy of top billing quickly ends up on the bargain tables at Barnes & Noble and the big-box discount stores, selling for less than a new-release paperback. Over 40% of all books published end up as these "remainders," and a large percentage of them meet their demise in the jaws of a pulping machine to be reborn as recycled paper.

Add to that this sobering statistic: only one in five books published earns out the author's advance. How legacy publishing can be proud of their inability to discern what the public really wants to read never ceases to amaze me.

Whether you own an e-reading device, or are thinking about it, or are determined never to even touch one, it's hard to avoid the reality that eBooks exist in an environment of infinite abundance. There's no limit to virtual shelf space, no requirement to print thousands of physical books and ship them and deal with the remainders because there aren't any.

So, these fact should be the harbinger of death to print books, right? Well . . . probably not. I prefer author Barry Eisler's analogy prediction. Candle makers used to sell light. Now, they sell candlelight. The industry didn't collapse into the basement of history with the proliferation of electricity. It morphed into a niche role.

Print books will continue to lose market share because no economic forces exist to reverse the trend. The decrease, however, will slow and eventually reach a sustainable balance with eBooks. The resulting industry will serve the needs of those who never read a digital book, those who never read anything but, and those whose reading preference is situational.

It's one thing to express an opinion based on less-than-scientific research, which I'm doing here and have previously in a post on my personal site titled, "Fiction After 50 and Ebooks," and another thing entirely to provide specific statistical data. Surprisingly enough, someone actually read that post and sent me an email suggesting that I take a look at research that supports a prediction of coexistence.

Initially, I was a little dubious. I tend to be cautious about how ingenious the hackers can be, but the email didn't appear to be spam or contain anything insidiously destructive to my website. All I had to do to check it out was reply to the email and receive a link to an info-graphic. I did that and found what appears to be well-documented research on habits of the reading public.

So, I decided to offer the info-graphic here, attributed to

 E-books Infographic

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Writers -- Your IP Address Can and Will Be Used Against You

When the Amazon customer review scandals first broke a couple months ago, some of the big bloggers speculated on what would happen. Would Amazon ignore the problem? Would they overreact?

Some felt a few authors paying for five-star reviews didn't really have that much impact. Others predicted armageddon.

What actually happened wasn't clear for a while. Authors noticed reviews disappearing. Some were new. Some were years old. There didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to them at first. The reviews did not violate any terms of service--they didn't include links or use bad language, nor were they by people who had a financial stake in the book.

A few irate authors went public with their losses. But gradually, something became clear: Amazon was not checking these reviews. They were being automatically removed by some criteria. As more and more came down, the light popped on. Amazon was looking at the IP addresses of authors when they logged into their publishing accounts and comparing it to reviews.

While this was an effective way to find duplicate accounts where authors might be writing reviews of their own or competitive works, it also had huge casualties. One author had a two-year-old review taken down--the only one of her novel--and it turned out the reviewer had once lived in the same apartment complex that offered wireless access. So they shared an IP address years ago, and still, Amazon assumed a sock puppet was at work.

Another author could not figure out why this random person who'd befriended him after reading and reviewing his book got the review taken down. After quizzing him for a while, we figured out that the author had offered to help his new fan create a Kindle account and logged in as him. Bingo. Two accounts with an IP address match.

An employee at a publishing company realized he'd lost a ton of reviews one day. Turns out several of his coworkers were also selling on Amazon and would log into their accounts from work. Once those IP addresses matched, entire swaths of reviews of each other's works came down. They called Amazon to straighten it out and their accounts were threatened.

So authors, don't think that having two Amazon accounts hides you or that your spouse can safely write a review of your work under his or her own name. Even if you have a publisher account for your books and a personal account to buy with, Amazon will match you up and tie those accounts together in their records. Take great care particularly in how you engage on Amazon with other writers. If you are reviewing or commenting on reviews of other books, this can be considered a financial stake--you trying to push down a competitor's work. Also note that it isn't hard even for regular users to follow a review trail. Clicking on that name you think is anonymous leads us to all the other reviews you've written. One day on the Kindle Boards, we figured out 10 huge authors who were using the same paid reviewers as John Locke. It took five minutes and was perfectly clear--the paid reviews were using the same language and reviewing the same circle of titles.

In the age of web sites like Stop the Goodreads Bullies and Authors Behaving Badly, it simply doesn't pay to do anything that looks inappropriate when you're dealing with the Ten Ton Gorilla that is the 'Zon. If you're an author, it's time to stop writing reviews. And anyone who lives with you, they are probably going to have to stop too. Last week, several of my husband's reviews were taken down--random reviews of books I didn't know anything about and had nothing to do with me or my author account. Collateral damage, and boy was he mad. But that is where the scandals have led us.

Note: This is part one of a two-part series on why reviews are taken down. The next post will focus on the problem of Amazon gift cards and how this can tie an author to a reviewer and make it appear as though a review was paid for.


Deanna Roy is the author of books for women and children.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Standing Room Only

On Saturday, November 17, 2012, a panel of five AIW members attended the second meeting of the Lake Travis Fiction Writers (LTFW) to present "How to Publish Your Own Novel." "Kathy Clark" Wernly, a member of LTFW and a legacy-published author who recently joined the ranks of the indies, added a segment to the agenda on how to take traditionally published novels online.

After dealing with the challenge of finding the Old Bee Cave Schoolhouse, protected from the ravages of fire and the criminal element by being tucked between the Bee Cave fire and police stations, we set up tables with our posters, handouts, and books, and then watched in amazement as the room filled to capacity plus some. I thought that we would have enough chairs. Foolish me.

The audience represented a full range of writers, from those with no more than the seed of an idea for a novel to those with completed manuscripts in various stages of revision, including another member of AIW and a few Novel-In-Progress (NIP) critique group members who have not yet published their books.

It's safe to say that I was astonished at the level of interest indicated by the turnout. Even considering the reality that some in the audience will undoubtedly drop out, LTFW appears to have the potential for being a sustainable group with a promising future.

LTFW organizer Pat Evans has done a fantastic job from concept to execution of her idea to form a group ". . . to encourage anyone who is writing a novel or wants to write a novel or who is a published novelist and wants the support and camaraderie of other Lake Travis-area fiction writers." My only comment reference her mission statement is to point out that the utility of her brainchild may well ignore the "Lake Travis-area" modifier.

As moderator of NIP, I am convinced that the new world of indie publishing should be able to nurture not only individual groups, but also the interaction of those groups. At the end of this post, I've included the current LTFW schedule for the next six months. It may well change, and the LTFW site here should be consulted as the final authority, but my point is to illustrate the local availability of resource material for writers. You don't have to toil away in isolation if you don't want to. And as I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am a rabid fan of writing group association.

You will note that LTFW is not a dedicated critique group like NIP. That said, as we enter the fifth year AK (After Kindle) tomorrow, November 19, 2012, NIP may need to adjust its mission statement by including more than roundtable critique sessions.

The founders of Violet Crown Publishers, AIW members Cynthia J. Stone and Laura Resnick-Chavez, announced yesterday that they will be conducting a class on creating the fictive dream. At this writing I have no other details, and I mention it only to illustrate the availability of opportunities for writers to help writers pursue their individual goals.

Here is the LTFW schedule as now published:

Tuesday, December 18, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. "What's Your Genre? The Evolving Target" -- Old Bee Cave School House

Tuesday, January 22, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. "Writing a Synopsis for Agents and Editors" -- Lakeway Activity Center, Room D

Saturday, February 16, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. "POV -- The Essential Voice of the Narrator" --  Bee Cave Public Library

Tuesday, March 19, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. "Bring a 250-word-or-less synopsis of your novel for roundtable review and critique." PROJECTOR CLASS -- Old Bee Cave School House

Tuesday, April 16, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. "The Fine Art of Editing -- a freelance editor's guide" -- Old Bee Cave School House

Tuesday, May 21, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. "Submit and Critique: one volunteer submits 25 pages of their novel for the group to review." (General audience-rated, please.) -- Old Bee Cave School House
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Spring 2013), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Monday, November 12, 2012

Or You Can Go Home and Kiss the Mirror

            Every writer should belong to a critique group or have a writing partner – preferably one who knows about editing – to take a look at each chapter and give feedback. You can’t give yourself a better path to clarity, because at some point you won’t be able to see what you’ve just written.

            You can also hire a professional editor. Or two.

            I’ve used several types of editors. One helped me with organization and content accuracy, such as being sure the Giants I wrote about were in the right city playing the correct kind of ball. She also made a wonderful suggestion to separate my novel in two parts and develop each one into books, related, of course, but divided.

            Another one helped me with setting and character. She used the word “focus” a lot, as in bringing certain sections into sharper focus. She pointed out things that needed more details, like I’d left out important fine brush strokes. Her feedback helped me add a necessary richness to my words.

            Still others read for goofs, skips, and hiccups. If the dog is green on page four and blue by page 27, you have some explaining to do. Not just the dog’s color, but why it changed.

            Most writers see things in their heads they think are on the page, too. Sometimes the words just don’t get there, but an alert reader will see what’s missing.

            The most important quality in an editor, especially if you meet with them in person, is good manners. No seriously, how are you going to hear honest, sensible critique if it’s presented in a way you find offensive? Your critiquer should have your best interests at heart, and not be waiting for a chance to show you how many mistakes s/he caught.

            That said, a good reader should also be ruthless. If you’ve written crap, chances are, you suspect it, but sometimes you also need to hear from an outside source. “This isn’t up to your usual standard” is a reasonable euphemism for “Holy cow! What were you thinking?” Read between the lines and put on your big boy/girl undies to deal with it.

            One writer once told me she wrote “print ready,” not “first draft” for all her books. She didn’t want to hear critiques and wouldn’t have believed them anyway.

            If that’s you, good luck. You might as well stay home and kiss the mirror.

Cynthia J. Stone
Author of Mason’s Daughter, now available on Amazon

Monday, October 29, 2012

Texas Book Festival - Second Half

With another day at the festival under my belt, for a total of 13 hours in the booth, I can report that except for what John Candy in the movie "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" called "barking dogs" in referring to his sore feet, the experience was positive and enjoyable. One unexpected benefit turned out to be multiple opportunities for practicing my spiel when someone asks me what the story is about.

Writers are advised to have ready at a moment's notice what is called a "30-second elevator pitch," a term derived from the following scenario at a writers' conference, and which assumes that the writer's goal is to get an offer of representation from a literary agent:

You didn't get a one-on-one consultation with your dream agent, so you've studied a photograph well enough to recognize him or her no matter how out of date the glamour shot happens to be. Throughout the conference, you've been on the stalk, watching, waiting for an opportunity that never seems to come.

You've seen the agent from afar a few times, surrounded by concentric circles of pushy writers all clamoring for the agent's attention. The conference ends in a few hours, and you've all but given up. One last panel discussion you'd like to attend meets on the fourth floor in five minutes, and you're rushing to get there.

The elevator door opens, you step inside without making eye contact with the only other occupant, stab the button labeled "4" and glance at the person beside you to offer a casual greeting and holy Toledo! It's your dream agent come true.

Panic seizes your tongue, sweat instantly covers your brow, and all you can do is stare at the elevator door even though you know that this is it, the one and only time you'll probably have to pitch your novel to the agent you are convinced will love it. And without that pitch ready, forget about it.

Standing in the booth at the festival, however, visitors are coming to you and you have an opportunity to give it your best shot at generating in a complete stranger sufficient interest in your book to result in a sale. By the end of the festival, I had it down pretty well and felt comfortable with how it was being received.

Practice means little, however, when dealing with some folks. Here are some comments:
  • "So, this is a novel?"
  • "Have you read ----- by -----? It has a lot about airplane accident investigation in it."
  • "A friend of mine runs a salvage company specializing in aircraft wreckage. He knows all about aviation accident investigation. I'm sure he'd be glad to help you out, and I'll give you his contact information if you'd like to talk with him."
  • "I read this book that said there are always five pilot mistakes leading up to any accident."
  • "Well, you know, once a pilot gets over about 350 hours of flight time, he usually has enough experience to avoid making mistakes."
Spare me, please. But I didn't say that, of course. I smiled, nodded, played like the little dog in the rear window of a car with my head bobbing in agreement.

Cynthia J. Stone and Lara Reznik of Violet Crown Publishers, Beth Fowler and I talked a lot about the booth layout and came up with a number of ideas for the future. With limited space and four authors hovering about, what the visitors can see to attract their attention and how they approach the booth, enter if they need to, and exit, all have to be carefully considered.

And although we're convinced we can do better, we received evaluations from others noting that the poster display on the free-standing grids at the rear of the booth was extremely effective, and we appeared to have more visitors hanging around and talking than many of the other booths. I have no idea if that's true or not, because as reported in my Texas Book Festival halftime report, I never left the booth to see what other writers/publishers had done. My objective was to promote my books, and I couldn't do that while absent from the scene.

All in all, the festival experience was well worth the time and effort, and we're talking about not waiting for October, 2013 to attend our next one.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (coming soon), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Texas Book Festival - Halftime Report

It's Sunday morning, October 28, 2012, and sitting at my computer with my first cup of coffee, I couldn't resist the temptation to document a few personal observations from my experience in the Violet Crown Publishers booth at the halfway point of the Texas Book Festival weekend.

This being my first time attending in any capacity, I had little advance notion of what to expect. Cynthia Stone, her good friend and fellow author Beth Fowler, and yours truly had spent the previous afternoon and last-minute preparation time that morning hauling all the books, poster display grids, posters, chairs, two tables, and small giveaway promotional materials from my truck into the exhibition tent and trying to make everything fit in a limited space. Lara Reznik, jetlagged and coughing, skillfully avoided the set-up chaos by just having returned from a vacation in Europe with her husband Rudy. I'm joking, of course, and luckily she recovered sufficiently after a night's rest at home to join us before the festival began.

I'm no good at the visualization of how the booth should look, so my role became that of a helper. Which is a good thing, because my compulsion to straighten everything up would have been completely incompatible with the carefully designed look of clutter on the big eight-foot table supplied by the festival. Books, books, and more books. Not like Penguin, USA in the booth close by, of course. They filled about three booths on our side of the tent and one or two across the aisle. But for an itty-bitty indie operation, especially with the poster display designed by Cynthia, we had no reason to hang our heads.

Truth be told, I expected to spend seven hours in the booth twiddling my thumbs while shoppers bought all the other books on the table. My three would be sitting in lonely stacks, forlorn and pitifully indicative of no one's interest. I didn't know where to stand. The booths are small, with narrow spaces on both sides of the display table, and no matter where I decided to park, I didn't want shoppers to feel as if they stepped inside, I'd be on them like a used-car salesman who doesn't understand "Just looking" and becomes a shadow.

At one point early in the first hour, a shopper stops and picks up Lara's The Girl From Long Guyland. Beth makes eye contact with Lara and mouths something like (and I paraphrase with embellishment), Pounce on him and sell your book! Lara and I talked a little about this tactic and agreed that we weren't comfortable doing that.

A little while later someone stops and picks up Pilot Error. My heart climbs into my throat as I get ready for the first of what I expect to be many rejections during the day. But this time, Beth uses a different tactic. Rather than wasting her efforts on me, she steps up to the guy and says, "If you'd like to meet the author, he's standing right here."

That's my cue! I shake hands, we talk a bit, and in a drop-my-jaw move, he asks me how much.

"I have a special for you today, sir. You can purchase the novel and receive my two small non-fiction books on flying and writing in a bundle for only ten bucks. Now that's a deal, don't you think?"

Lo and behold, wonder of wonders, he agrees.

Enter the tag-team approach to greeting visitors to the booth. Here's how it worked:

Someone stops and picks up one of the four novels at the head of the table from a stack of a few lying flat with a copy front cover out on an easel, bookmarks casually lying between each book.

Secret eye-signals pass between the authors. An author who didn't write the book engages the visitor in casual conversation, always with the message that the author who did is close by.

Nine times out of ten, the visitor made eye contact, accepted a handshake, and engaged with us.

I've got one day of the book festival behind me and have no business making any observations of import, but a little knowledge has never stopped me before.

I'm an unknown author with unheard of books, and although visitors can be attracted to a cover, flip the book over and read the back-cover description, open the book and read a little of the first chapter, they still have to get past the natural reticence of never having heard of Tosh McIntosh.

Seven hours of standing in that booth has convinced me that personal contact, beginning with a question or two directed at the visitor rather than an immediate sales spiel, opens the door. I often asked the visitor if he or she might be a pilot and/or a writer, and in every case, the conversation shifted easily to what the book was about. And in retrospect, I believe that the author's passion for the book is the key to generating enough interest for the visitor to take a chance with their money.

My bundling tactic has to be considered as well. I sold three books together for an amount that barely covers my cost to pay for the copies and the shipping. But it's not about the money, and never will be for the vast majority of indie or legacy authors.

A book festival is about promotion. Most if not all of my writer friends might read this and think (or more likely say), "Are you just now figuring this out, Tosh?"

Well, yeah. I'm a slow learner, I guess. But in the final analysis, whether or not any of the buyers recommend my books to their friends and assist with promoting it, this has been (and will be today) an amazing experience.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Friday, October 26, 2012

Helping Others Do It Themselves

On Saturday, November 17, 2012, four AIW members will attend the second meeting of the brand new Lake Travis Fiction Writers and present an overview of four distinct paths to becoming an indie author. The segments are:
  • The role of the small press in the digital age--Deanna Roy of Casey Shay Press 
  • Paths to getting published--Cindy Stone and Laura Resnick-Chavez of Violet Crown Publishers
  • Happiness is a legacy publisher in the rearview mirror--Brad Whittington of Wunderfool Press
  • Total independence and doing it all yourself--Tosh McIntosh of No Press At All
Without knowing the order of our presentations or how my colleagues will organize their remarks, I’ve decided to address the factors in the current publishing industry that nudged me to choose the indie option, explain why I elected to tackle each of the production steps myself, and describe the workflow required to publish a novel in print and eBook editions.

One of the issues all the presenters will face is that LTFW is so new, and its members appear to include only a few individuals who have either completed a novel or are currently writing one. I don’t think we want to let that diminish the message, however, nor do we want to liken publishing a novel to climbing Mt. Everest.
Here’s a list of my talking points:

Arrival of the eReader and advancements in print-on-demand technology have driven the publishing industry into a state of flux that shows no signs of abating.

From the author’s perspective, that’s good news because legacy publishers and their gatekeeper literary agents no longer have a monopoly on printing and distribution, and authors now have a viable alternative to legacy.

That said, the road to publication has to begin with a completed novel that represents a writer’s very best effort, worthy of a reader’s hard-earned money and commitment of time to read it.

Before you choose the legacy or the indie path to publication, consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of each option.

Although submitting to agents in the hope of being offered a legacy contract deserves serious consideration by any first-time author, I had enough experience with the process to conclude that driving this road to publication has to be accomplished under a caution flag.

I believe it’s more difficult than ever before, and that the contract provisions currently being offered are much too biased toward the publisher.

Simply put, I saw no benefit in waiting any longer for the remote possibility of an offer, especially when combined with the high probability that I wouldn’t be able to accept it.

My decision to go indie included a commitment to minimize the upfront investment of venture capital, which imposed the requirement to teach myself how to accomplish all the production tasks necessary to publish a book.  

Following a brief description of my nine-step workflow, I’ll emphasize that while I did it all myself, I wasn’t alone because my fellow writers provided invaluable “think tank” advice and offered their expertise to augment areas in which I found myself lacking.

And then I’ll close by suggesting that the Lake Travis Fiction Writers have what it takes to create an atmosphere of writers helping writers in a mutual, collaborative exploration of their craft, dedicated to improving their skills, and assisting each other to think like a publisher.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On crossing 5000 sales

I want to laugh when people ask how I sold my books, because I'm always asking my friends who sell 5000 or more books a MONTH, how do YOU do it? All our paths will be different, but the biggest thing is studying books that are like yours and determining what paths they took to get where they are. It isn't difficult to start Googling a title and see where it was featured and how it got buzz. You may not be able to replicate its success, but you can learn where the big pushes came from.

For me, joining the Kindle Boards was a critical element. There I learned which ads were useless and which ones actually helped. I figured out that blog tours were about reviews, not sales, and that Tweeting to the same 500 followers just made them ignore you.

I found that there is power in numbers, and that group promotions were wonderful, as long as the group was small enough to keep each book visible but large enough to control the costs. (Ideal size is five to ten books.)

I also discovered it was critical to stay ahead of the mob. Once eReader News Today was discovered to have magic in their Book of the Day, they got booked a year in advance. Other sites, realizing they could raise prices due to overwhelming demand, priced themselves right out of author benefit, or put up so many ad opportunities that the exposure quit working.

You figure out that blogs and web sites have little pull, but big Facebook followings and enormous email subscriber lists are definitely effective.

But most of all, you learn how to balance writing and marketing, as you can't get so wrapped up in one that you forget the other.

While I'm pleased and grateful for my 5000 sales this year, I look forward to an escalation of visibility. I have a marketing plan that goes out nine months now, and I never let any book fall into obscurity if I can help it. I'm in this for the long haul.


Deanna Roy is the author of Baby Dust and Stella & Dane, interrelated novels on the difficulties on finding love and family.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Inner and Outer Journey

In most modern novels, the main character undergoes some sort of transformation or enlightenment, which we call the character arc. Huckleberry renounces slavery, for example. There are exceptions. In farcical novels (P.G. Wodehouse, Carl Hiaasen, Christopher Buckley) and series novels (adventure, mystery, thriller) the character is often essentially the same at the end of the book as when it started.

But the majority of novels do employ a character arc, sometimes called the inner journey, as opposed to the outer journey, which the action of the story. Huckleberry escapes down the river with Jim, for example. The outer journey gives narrative momentum to the story to keep people turning pages. The inner journey is what makes it matter, the thing that lifts it above an action story. You can have the outer only and end up with pulp fiction, or the inner only and end up with some kind of literary miasma. Or you can make the inner and outer journeys dependent on each other, thereby reinforcing the significance of both.

Here's an example from Muffin Man to clarify. I dreamed about a sheriff who hears voices from a muffin. Although warned against it by dozens of people, I was certain this brilliant idea was my next novel. But I needed a reason why an otherwise normal guy would begin hearing voices. Over the space of several months I created a history for the sheriff, a bipolar father who abandoned the family and then suddenly makes an unwelcome return 24 years later. As it developed, in my mind this became the main story line--the father/son relationship going both ways from the sheriff, up to his father, down to his son, and his fears that he is actually bipolar as well.

 This is all meaty, visceral stuff, but it's all inner journey. I knew that this part alone wasn't enough to carry a novel for 300 pages. So I created the whole disappearing arsonist case as an outer journey, the story engine, the thing that pulls the reader to the next page to see what happens. How did those guys disappear out of a locked room? Why were they in there? Why did they set it on fire?

And there is the question of what is going on with the muffin (Is it really talking or is it all in John's head?) does pull the reader forward, but I don't think anyone would care enough about that question to stay with me for 300 pages.

So I found ways to bring these three elements together, to create multiple links between the father/son conflict and the arson case and have the muffin sitting in the middle of the whole mess. Without both the outer and inner journey, and the connections between them, the novel would not be as compelling.

In your current work in progress, pay attention to both story lines, the inner and the outer, and find ways to interlace them to strengthen the spine of your story. It could bring a new depth to your work.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Writers' Groups and the New Era

I've been an active participant in one or more writers' groups for over ten years because I think the benefit on both "sides" of the roundtable is worth the time and effort involved with submitting my work for review and reviewing the work of other writers.
During that decade, the publishing industry has entered a period of upheaval in which the gatekeepers of the legacy monopoly have lost their stranglehold on printing and distribution. The eBook and advances in print-on-demand technology have altered the landscape forever as indie publishing sheds the unsavory implication of vanity and proves that quality is not the exclusive purview of legacy.
Although I was late to the party, I have an excuse. Eighteen months ago, Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler had not yet made the publishing news headlines. But once they did, and in the same week, the rate of change in the industry accelerated out of control. It seems as if something noteworthy is occurring every day. Keeping up with it could be a full-time job, and most writers already have one of those that unfortunately doesn't involve writing.
 In April, 2011, one active member of the Novel-In-Progress (NIP) Group of Austin had begun the trek into the unknown wilds of indie publishing. As of today, six more have joined her with about 20 titles among the group, and it's obvious that the previous emphasis on submitting material to legacy publishers through literary-agent gatekeepers no longer reflects the new reality of indie publishing.
This last week I assumed NIP moderator duties, and to use an imperfect anology, the transition feels a bit like that of a new CEO facing a period of declining revenues. Attendance and roundtable submissions are both down at a time when it seems that the relevance of writers' groups should be on the rise. Indie publishing offers a realistic option to the current tumultuous environment of legacy, and for those writers who have not yet considered it, the collective experience of fellow group members is a valuable resource.
Looking ahead to the future of NIP, I fully realize that my role as moderator endows me with no more power than that of an arbitrator or mediator. The group belongs to the members and should reflect their common objectives.
How can the group best serve those who are actively submitting as well as those who are not, or those who have embraced indie and those who still seek a legacy publisher? These are questions I feel need to be addressed as the year comes to a close with the last three roundtable meetings prior to the holidays.
A bit of math illustrates the core issue, that of the time available to engage with other writers exploring the craft, and in the new era, how to think like a publisher.
NIP meets twice a month with the exception of Easter weekend and the holiday season in December. That's no more than 21 two-hour meetings, each of which at best provides 1:30 of rountable and what we call free-for-all discussion. The rest is devoted to our "icebreaker" question, announcements, passing out the submission for the next meeting and any shorter "probes." This equates to less than 32 hours per year to engage with other writers. Compared with the hours any active writer spends in the solitary world of the creative fictive dream, that's not a lot.
Time will tell whether the group is satisfied with the status quo or wants to explore ways to enhance our vitality, relevance, and possibly even our ultimate longevity.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Lake Travis Fiction Writers

Please note that the new contact person for the Lake Travis Fiction Writers is: 

I enjoy participating in writers' groups because any opportunity to explore the craft and share with other writers the details of an individual writer's journey is worth whatever time it takes. I joined my first group over ten years ago and now belong to Novel-In-Progress (NIP) and two NIP spinoffs called Little Group (El Gee), and, of course, Austin Indie Writers.

I don't know how many writers' groups there are in the Austin area, and one reason is that they tend to lead a quiet existence. Kind of like many writers, strangely enough, wrapped in creative cocoons, toiling away in the isolation of the fictive dream.

It is therefore my pleasure to help announce the impending birth of a new group in town. Well . . . not in town, exactly, unless you live in Bee Cave, but close enough.

Here is the official announcement that appeared in the Lake Travis View, Impact News, Bee Cave Messenger, Steiner Ranch, River Place, and Lakeway Voice, City of Lakeway, two area e-blasts, and on the Facebook page for the Writers' League of Texas.


If you are writing a novel, want to write a novel, or if you are a published novelist and want the support and camaraderie of other Lake Travis-area fiction writers, come to an organizational meeting of the Lake Travis Fiction Writers, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Old Bee Cave School House in Bee Cave.

Pat Evans of Lakeway is organizing the group, which is sponsored by the Bee Cave Public Library.

"There are a number of writers' groups in Austin and many are outgrowths of the huge Writers League of Texas. But I wanted a group in my neighborhood to help fiction writers share ideas, gain support and receive input from other writers. I was thrilled when Bee Cave Public Library Director Barbara Hathaway enthusiastically offered to sponsor this group," Evans said.

Plans are for the group to meet monthly on the third Tuesday, but there is an option to meet at the library Saturday afternoons.

"The Lake Travis Fiction Writers sounded like a wonderful group for our library's interests. I initially offered our beautiful Bee Cave Library as a venue, but we have limited evening hours. Should the group decide to meet Saturday afternoons, perhaps alternating with Tuesday evenings, the library will provide a venue as a courtesy," Hathaway said.

Hathaway will be the group's first speaker and will review the library's varied services, including computers and research technology.

"We'll also do a roundtable discussion with attendees and find out about their experiences and novels. My role is to organize, publicize and lead the sessions, but this group will be about fiction writers, whether 'wannabes' like myself or published novelists," Evans said.

At some meetings, members will submit works in advance for critique or bring works for short 'read and critique' sessions. At other meetings authors or service providers such as freelance editors or micro-publishers will speak. For the November meeting a panel of independent authors will present, 'How to Publish Your Own Novel.'"

Self-publishing is a hot topic, Evans says. She just returned from a writers conference in California where many workshops focused on self-publishing.

"The message from this conference, as well as the Writers League of Texas conference this past summer, is that fiction writers need editors, both developmental and line editors. Otherwise, their self-published fiction will not stand a chance in the highly competitive market. There is a lot of junk being put online, and buyers are becoming wary. If writers puts novels 'out there' that are not well-crafted and edited, they run the risk of ruining their brands at launch."

The Old Bee Cave School House is an updated facility with lighted parking, located in the southeast corner of the Shops at the Galleria (near Specs), between the Bee Cave police and fire stations at 13333 Texas 71.

Contact Pat Evans at if you plan to attend this meeting.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tools for the process

Some writers love deadlines, some hate them. Many find that they are more productive when writing under a deadline.

A traditionally published writer has a deadline imposed by someone else. Going indie means taking on all the phases of a project, from inception to release, and that includes deadlines. When you go indie, there is a temptation to throw out deadlines and take things as they come. In my humble, but accurate, opinion, that is a mistake.

I've read a lot of books on the craft of writing, but I've never seen anything on the mechanics of tracking projects and hitting targets. Back in the day when I had contracts and publisher-imposed deadlines, I developed a few tools to help me hit word-count targets and analyze a project for weak points. Now that I'm an indie author, I still use these tools.


When I'm in first draft, I keep a log of hours and word count. It looks like this.

The first column shows the number of words in that session, then the date, start and end times, total hours, words per hour, then word count and hour count per day and per week.

You can see that in this period my words-per-hour ranged from 182 (on what evidently was a particularly bad day) to over 500, which is where I like to keep it. Most serious novelists have a word count target for the finished work and a daily word-count target. The word-count journal allows you to track your progress and kick into gear if the weekly target is in danger.

I recently read a biography of P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote 90+ novels in his 90+ years. He was always very aware of word count and productivity. He did a daily 2,500 words or more during the bulk of his career, and when he was in his 80s and 90s, he still averaged 1,000 words a day. And I bet he didn't even have a spreadsheet!


In a large project like a novel it's easy to miss issues that can affect the reader experience, such as keeping multiple plot lines or points-of-view alive.

For example, in Living with Fred I had story lines for:
A. Mark's encounters with WWII veteran Vernon.
B. Mark's escalating battle with Deacon Fry.
C. Mark's ill-fated romance with Jolene.
D. The Parker-Sonia-Mac love triangle.
E. Mark's attempt to answer the question "What would Jesus do?" This theme is interwoven into the other four story lines and has other scenes of its own.

Like a juggler spinning plates, I had to touch on each one often enough to keep them all present in the mind of the reader. That means I couldn't allow one particular story line to dominate long stretches of the narrative. Otherwise, after a hundred pages or so I'd bring up Vernon and the reader would say, "Wait, what was that about? Who is this guy?"

My solution: for each scene, track what happens and the word count, color-coded to show which story line it covers.

The same technique is helpful for tracking POV. Here's the chart for the first 16 chapters of Endless Vacation, a project in progress with multiple points of view.

You can see in the sample above that the first ten chapters are told from ten different points of view. That's probably a bad idea, but I'm always willing to try something daring. I'm sure my critique partners will bludgeon some sense into me before it's published.

With this tool, it's easy to see when long sections are dominated by one or two characters. In the sample below, you can see that the rainbow we had going earlier in the book has become less variegated. For nine scenes in a 3-chapter stretch, from 29-31, we only get two points of view. That's 5,000+ words, 20 pages. If I didn't have this chart, I would have to read through the entire book to get a sense of where I might need variety. With a chart like this, I can see potential problem areas in a glance.

This may seem like a lot of work, but when I'm working on a project approaching 100,000 words, I'll take all the help I can get. The goal is to get a book completed and delivered to the reader in a timely manner and to make the reading experience as seamless as possible. Tools like these help me keep on deadline and catch and fix problems that would be hard to see otherwise.

What tools have you developed to manage your writing or publishing?

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and the soon-to-be released Muffin Man.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grenade in the Room

Within a loosely structured set of guidelines, AIW authors have the opportunity to blog about all things indie, including: the decision to go indie (well, duh), marketing, media, promotion, blog and book tours, industry, and, of course, the craft.

For myself, this isn't about trying to convince anyone of anything. I stand behind no podium, virtual or otherwise, with the intention of showering the benefits of special wisdom upon a rapt audience. It's about sharing personal experience with others, nothing more.

This post is tagged craft, and although the title may seem off-point, I think you might ultimately agree with the symbolic connection to the topic. To find out, I invite you to read on.

You're sitting in a room with a bunch of writers, and so far there have been no fistfights. Unusual, I know, but it happens on occasion.

After awhile you notice something a bit surprising. In the midst of all this intellectual prowess and word savvy, miscommunication sometimes occurs. It's kind of like people talking around something and never quite getting there because a satisfactory end to the conversation sits behind yellow DO NOT CROSS tape.

So you decide to test the atmosphere, see how many of your writer friends are really listening to themselves and others around them. During the next relatively quiet moment you say, very clearly and with sufficient volume so everyone can hear, "Let's talk about point-of-view."

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a grenade in any room populated by writers. To follow up with the virtual equivalent of that grenade:

I believe understanding viewpoint and how to control it is important. That's not to say every writer should take the same approach, and I'm sure there are many examples of superb storytelling from authors who have never for one second thought about viewpoint. But for those of us engaged in communal exploration of the craft, one of the main reasons discussions on this topic can end inconclusively is the effect of vocabulary.

All disciplines use specific words to mean distinct things. If a chemist uses a term describing the reaction when substance A comes in contact with substance B, any other chemist understands without having to stop and talk about it. The result is predictable and repeatable.

The vocabulary writers use is much less well defined. That's a good thing because we aren't engaged in a science. But it's worth keeping in mind the definition of effective communication. Science might say we need a transmitter, a receiver, and a transmitting medium. I'll offer two additional items: common language and vocabulary.

During the years of my continuing struggle to become a better writer, I've listed for my own edification about 26 structural elements of fiction that in combination support the foundation of stories that work for me. Understanding the contribution of each element to the whole and how to utilize each to the most effective benefit has always been one of my goals. At the top of the list reside character and viewpoint.

I also believe it's instructive to consider the choice of person, viewpoint, and tense separately to evaluate the effect of these choices on characterization, in addition to how these elements interrelate as crucial factors in the writer's ability to create in readers the desired viewpoint experience within the fictive dream. I therefore define the total subject of viewpoint as the sum of a writer's decisions with regard to person, tense, and viewpoint.

Overlying these elements is the question of voice. Who is telling the story, whose voice will the reader hear? The author's, of course, but not exactly. The two most common choices are that of a non-participating narrator or viewpoint character.

Note: The material presented here borrows liberally from various source documents. One of my favorites is Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and hopefully he won't mind. That said, I've personalized it from my own experience at my writing desk and in group discussions with other writers. To begin, let's address first things first ala Mr. Card.

The vast majority of modern fiction is written in third person. Readers are familiar with it, which makes the writer's choice invisible. That's not a bad reason to use it.

First person probably isn't all that noticeable, and few readers have ever rejected a book on that reason alone. The differences in the reader's experience with the story are far more subtle and we'll deal with that in a moment.

Second person is so rare as to be really weird. It's been done, but readers need a good reason to get by it and spend enough time with the story to move the writer's choice into the background. That's a steep hill to climb, and the writer better have a prize waiting for the reader at the top.

I find it most useful to follow Mr. Card's lead and consider three viewpoint choices (omniscient, limited-single, and limited-multiple), two choices of tense (present and past), and two choices of person (first and third).

First person is an eyewitness account. I can tell you only what I saw, did, what happened to me. I am limited to that one perspective. I can't include anything happening when I'm not there, no other thoughts, no other attitudes. This is not a grammatical choice, but a strategy for telling the story. I can choose someone else's voice, that of a character. But if so, I have to choose a new voice for every story (unless I'm writing a series or sequels) and they must not all sound like me.

In creating this narrator's voice, I must also create attitudes, with an implied past, using speech reflecting education and regional accent, best shown only through syntax and word choice rather than odd spelling and pronunciation or use of contractions to show different speech patterns. So, who should it be? The main limitation is that the character has to be present in all the scenes, so the main character is the most common choice.

Choice of first person requires a careful balance. The emotional experience must still allow coherent narration or it appears too melodramatic. Err in the opposite direction and the character appears too cool, heartless. This creates a situation in which the use of first person is both an asset and a liability. If I am a bore, the story will be. If I am relating great deeds, I will seem vain if I do not take care to show myself as brave without realizing it. And if I do something bad, why is it not a crime and why shouldn't the reader despise me for it?

One problem is that a first-person narrator is physically taking part in the story, must have a good reason for telling it, and know who the audience is. Also, as a participant in the events, the narrator has to tell the story while looking backward into the past so that the telling is distant in time from the story itself. One solution is for the narrator to use present tense in what is sometimes called the stream-of-consciousness approach, but there has been little success historically using this technique.

First person also creates a technical problem. The narrator knows the ending. Why not just tell the reader in the first few sentences and be done with it? When you don't, it is a constant reminder of the artifice, deliberately leaving the reader in suspense.

A common method for dealing with this problem is to always tell the reader everything known at the time and don't hold anything back (which does nothing for creating suspense and only puts unwanted distance between narrator and reader). We are cautioned not to state that some unspecified event occurred and keep the significance secret until the end of the story. It's okay if the reader and the character learn of the event at the same time and both discover the importance later, but to refuse to tell the reader about something the narrator did or knows isn't playing fair.

First-person narration also prevents using an element of risk in telling the story, in that the threat of death can never be used because the narrator is obviously still around to tell about it. Why should a reader be worried when it's obvious the character survived? Unless the narrator is speaking from the dead, of course, which has been done effectively, or so I'm told.

Although first person seems natural and a simple way to tell the story, it is easy to lapse and add things that are not first person. No other character can see, feel, hear, taste, smell, inwardly emote, or think.

The first-person narrator must avoid relating only the what and never the why, must do more than watch him/herself, and must remember things from inside the person. The whole point is for the reader to experience everything through perceptions, colored by attitudes, and driven by motives of the viewpoint character. The narrator must reveal the character of the person, be the kind of person who would tell the story, and clearly present these internal forces at work. First person is by definition a limited-single viewpoint unless the story is told from the perspective of multiple first-person narrators.

The choice of third came naturally to me because I wanted to tell my stories from multiple viewpoints, and using multiple first-person narrators seemed more experimental than I was ready for. Someday I'd like to try it.

As one who launched into writing fiction without benefit of formal training, my journey has had to rely on a combination of how-to books, participation in writer's groups, and what seems like a never-ending gauntlet of trial and error. And of all the structural elements of fiction, none have evolved more for me over the years than viewpoint and its relationship to person and tense.

My initial understanding of third person can be summarized as follows: the narrator 1) is not present as a character, but tells what happened to other people, 2) is distant in space, never there, always invisible, 3) can be omniscient or limited, and 4) can be limited-single or limited-multiple.

I'd been writing off and on in isolation for about ten years before I joined the Novel-in-Progress Group of Austin and discovered how terminology can degrade communicating with other writers. The words I used to describe my understanding of viewpoint were different than those of others around the table, and it became obvious that periodically getting hung up on semantics was part of the process. In retrospect, however, I realize that using different words also prevented me from seeing deeper into the viewpoint pond for what lay under the surface.

My first novel had been completed and revised more than once when I joined the group. At that time, the relatively small number of members actively submitting material and the fact that I had a complete manuscript allowed me to receive feedback on about 150 pages in the first year. A persistent critique comment had to do with characterization. The main character was too distant, too much of an automaton, too wimpy, and too inconsistent with regard to his attitude toward family and career.

As a writer's-group newbie, I hadn't yet learned how to process critique comments well enough to avoid the inevitable "pendulum-itis" effect: trying to satisfy every member of the group with wild swings in my treatment of characterization. Once I learned to better evaluate comments, they settled into three categories: 1) the absolutely right on, 2) the totally bogus, and 3) the largest group, worthy of consideration in whole or part.

And throughout this learning experience, a number of readers mentioned on multiple occasions that they didn't feel close enough to the main character. While not a unanimous verdict, the frequency and persistence of the assessment convinced me to do something about it.

All I got for my trouble was increased frustration as successive submissions failed to eliminate the comments. I've since concluded that this stagnation resulted from a combination of my not understanding how to do what readers wanted, and readers not being able to come up with just the right words to help me break through the roadblock. It's no one's fault, just the reality of learning, that sometimes it takes a synergism of input and reception to turn on the light bulb.

For me, a brighter moment occurred after I joined another writer's group we call Little Group, or El Gee. I'd begun submitting from my second novel in a planned series, and the same comments dogged my efforts. But as often happens in smaller groups, with less structure than is required to keep a larger group on track, we began a more wide-ranging discussion on viewpoint and person. For the first time I heard the term "distant third" and another especially intriguing one, "first and a half."

The discussion soon evolved into whether a third-person narrator can ever achieve the same closeness to readers as a first-person participant. Relative to what I'd read about third-person narration when I first began writing (as detailed earlier in this post), I realized that over the course of my effort, I'd drifted away from the concept that choosing third person necessarily dictated distance, invisibility, and non-participation in the story. I believed I could draw readers into a third-person participant's world if I could only learn how.

Then one of the members explained the concept of psychic distance as explored by John Gardner in The Art of Fiction. Although to characterize that moment as an epiphany might be judged as hyperbole, that's the way it felt.

For my subsequent submissions to El Gee, I tried to incorporate the concept of psychic distance. To paraphrase the famous line, readers responded with, "By jove I think he's got it!" Since that time, I've honed my understanding and practical application of what I term "the zoom lens." And although I can't claim any particular expertise, I have managed to eliminate the previous comments from readers about feeling as if they were being held at arm's length by the main character.

With the exception of shorter pieces, I've never used present tense, and I seldom encounter it in the fiction I read for pleasure. A few years after I began writing, I opened a novel by an author I'd never read and immediately felt as if I'd been stiff-armed by the first page. First person and present tense just didn't read right. In an unusual (for me) fit of literary devil-may-care bravery, I forged ahead. Imagine my surprise when I became aware of the fact that I'd completely forgotten about person and tense and the story had me. Someday I'd like to try first person and present tense. Scary.

But for now I've settled into a comfort zone with past tense because it's the most common and therefore more comfortable for readers, who tend not to notice it. It helps channel information between writer and reader rather than create a barrier. Readers are conditioned to it by convention and interpret a past-tense verb as happening right now. For any "rewinds" into backstory, the technique I use is to indicate transition from current story time into the past with one past-perfect verb,  switch back to simple past for the duration of the rewind, then use one more past-perfect verb to clearly signal the shift back to current story time. Readers are conditioned to this as well.

As for the question of viewpoint, the following is paraphrased from Card's Characters and Viewpoint and describes my approach by comparing the characteristics of omniscient with those of limited:

Omniscient is Godlike. It shows every character's thoughts, dreams, memories, desires, using any moment in the past or the future. What omniscient does best is switch back and forth between characters and allows readers to see in each person's mind at the time of the event. Another major quality is that no character knows as much as the reader knows, and the only accurate view is the reader's.

Omniscient can cover lots of event time in brief passages. It can tell the story in less time and reveal more characters, but this prevents readers from fully engaging with any one character. Readers are constantly reminded that the narrator is telling story. Readers can't become fully involved and identify with characters, feel what they do, share emotions. The view is more distant, watching rather than experiencing. Omniscient is like looking at the world through the wrong end of binoculars. Readers see it all, but it's far away.

In limited-single viewpoint, readers are led through story by only one character. They see only what that character thinks, wants, remembers, and they can only guess at inner thoughts of another character.

In limited-multiple, the author can change viewpoint characters but only with clear division, like a chapter break or scene break and never in mid-scene. Transitional scene breaks are marked  with a line space, and sometimes with three asterisks or other symbol, which appear in the finished manuscript only at page break. (This is a formatting issue that in my experience has divided the world of legacy publishing into armed camps. One tiny advantage of going indie is that I don't have to deal with any particular agent's proclivity for nitpicking attention to some pet peeve or another.)

At chapter/scene breaks, readers are conditioned by standard convention to anticipate the possibility of a major change in location, time, or viewpoint, and the writer must establish immediately after a break what change has occurred, if any. This has become especially important due to today's trend of inserting chapter breaks every couple of pages.

Card: A major advantage of limited/third person that makes it the overwhelmingly dominant choice for today's fiction is that it trades time for distance, obtains more intense involvement, and prevents the feeling of readers being outside looking in. Limited can't see as many things in the same period of time as omniscient, but what it sees is up close and personal. It combines the best features of narrative style by allowing a closer look at the world through the viewpoint character's eyes without the constant reminder that the narrator himself is showing the reader by looking back at events from some point in story's future. 

Once again borrowing heavily from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint, I have found it helpful to consider the following when deciding between omniscient or limited viewpoint and first or third person.

Do I want a presentational or representational style to telling my stories? These terms refer to the method of relating to the audience. Card recommends thinking of it in terms of a stage play.

Representational adds a "fourth wall" to the set. This one-way invisible barrier allows the audience to see through into the play, but the actors never interact directly with the audience. In presentational style, this fourth wall is torn down, allowing the actors to contact the audience.

In fiction, these terms relate to the storyteller's relationship with the reader. Representational never addresses the reader. The narrator never expresses personal opinion, all focus is on events, and everything is presented through the viewpoint character.

First person is more presentational than third, omniscient viewpoint more presentational than limited. Readers will notice the narrator more. Because I want readers emotionally involved with characters with minimal distraction, I choose the representational approach of limited viewpoint and third person. The combination is clean, unobtrusive, and the writing can be more ignored by the reader. Omniscient viewpoint or first person, on the other hand, invite the writer to play with the language even as they can distract readers from the story.

Leaving the discussion of literary versus genre fiction for another time, suffice it to say that at this point in my writing effort, I'm most interested in telling a good story that entertains because I believe the majority of readers in my targeted audience want that. And for me, limited viewpoint and third person serve my purposes because the combination is the most common. As Card points out, It provides the flexibility of omniscient with the intensity of first person, doesn't require the same mastery of language, seems more familiar and feels more natural to both writer and reader, and it is also the best reason for avoiding present tense. Past tense reads as happening in the present and appears invisible.

Another driving factor for choosing this strategy is my desire to tell stories from multiple viewpoints. I get to play more than one role with this approach. Weaving the scenes together presents an interesting challenge and offers readers the benefit of experiencing the tale up close and personal from more than one perspective.

So for now, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit. Visit him online at