Category Archives: indie publishing

Easy Way to Write Your Story’s Elevator Pitch

I recently reread James Scott Bell’s helpful little book, Write Your Novel from the Middle (Compendium Press, 2014). In it, he relates an easy process to write a three-sentence elevator pitch for your story or book. (It also helps in writing sales copy for your fiction.)

Elevator PitchHere’s how to do it. I’ll use an example from my novel Death Perception.

1. Your main character’s name, vocation, and initial situation.

Kennet Singleton runs the local crematory and can discern the cause of death of those he cremates.

2. “When” plus the main plot problem.

When what he discerns differs from what’s listed on the death certificate, he finds himself in the midst of murderers.

3. “Now” plus the death stakes.

Now, to save the residents of his mother’s personal care home and avenge the dead, can Kennet stay alive to bring the killers to justice?

That’s all there is to it—a story in three sentences. For more about writing sales copy, see Getting Your Readers to Click “Buy Now”.

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To Have or Have Not

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Over the past few years I’ve noticed the many uses of the verb have. It’s a useful word, but often overused in prose. During editing mode, I’ve been substituting verbs that are more accurate or lend variety. For instance, “have” is often used to mean “need”:

He had to go.

could be more precisely stated:

He needed to go.

Using “needed” points up internal necessity and rules out the possible meaning of the character externally being forced to go against his will.

The following table suggests a number of alternatives to “have” or “had” that could make your writing clearer and livelier. An execption to these substitutions is dialogue. For example, “have” can mean to associate oneself with, to participate in. Someone who would say:

“I won’t have no part in that scam.”

might not say:

“I won’t participate in that scam.”

So trade only as narrative voice permits.

Alternative Words for “Have”

Here are some meanings of “have” with examples and possible substitutes. (I’ve provided relatively few; when I printed the definition of “have” from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary [software, 2003], the printer spit out five pages.)

I’m sure you can come up with more creative rewrites, but these instances will help make you aware of the many uses of “have” that native English speakers often process without noticing—and why you might want to use a more descriptive or active verb.

Meaning Example Alternative to “Have”
Own: to possess as property She has a car. She owned a Honda Civic coupe.
Contain, include: to consist of The pond had some large bluegills. The pond contained some large bluegills.
Carry, bear, support The windows had awnings. Canvas awnings hooded the windows.
To feel compelled, obligated, or required She had an email to write. She needed to write that email.
Must Drake had to do it now. Drake must do it now.
Obtain: to acquire, to get possession of Mother Hubbard found there was nothing to be had in her cupboards. The cupboards all empty, Mother Hubbard found nothing to give to her dog.
Gain He had a lot from the trip. He gained much from the trip.
Receive She asked the clerk if he had any information. She asked the clerk if he’d received any information.
Achieve They believe a settlement can be had between the two factions. They believe the two factions can achieve a settlement.
Exhibit, show, manifest Gertie had the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water. Gertie showed the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water.
To experience by sumitting to, undergoing, being affected by, enjoying, or suffering She had a painful mammogram. She suffered a mammogram.
Cherish: to entertain in the mind or feelings She had much affection for the kittens. She expressed much affection for the kittens.
To permit or suffer Mikey would not have his brother treat the dog so cruelly. Mikey would not let his brother treat the dog so cruelly.
Know, understand: to be marked by an intellectual grasp of Having no German, he could not communicate with the Bavarians. Knowing no German, he could not communicate with them.
To be able to handle adequately The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he had it. The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he mastered it.
Outwit, outplay, outmaneuver Evgeniy had his chess opponent in three moves. Evgeniy beat his chess opponents in three moves.
Trick, cheat, fool, bamboozle His new “friends” had him and abandoned him, penniless. His new “friends” cheated him, leaving him penniless.
To be in control of, be responsible for Amartha has overall command of the starfleet. Amartha holds overall command of the starfleet.
Eat, drink: to partake of I have coffee every morning. I drink… I enjoy coffee every morning.
Smoke He had a cigarette. He smoked a cigarette.
To associate oneself with, participate in Wellington refused to have any part of the chicanery. Wellington refused to take any part in the chicanery.
Control, dominate: to cause to do one’s bidding Naturally, any man with a gun would have him. Naturally, any man with a gun could control him.
Buy, bribe They could be had for a price. They could be bought for a price.
To engage and hold The carnival huckster had the interest of the onlookers. The carnival huckster held their interest. Better: The carnival huckster enthralled them.

To have or have not? You don’t always need to substitute, but when you notice that your narrative contains too many forms of this verb meaning a number of different things, feel free to swap a few for something stronger.

Until my next snit fit, write on, my friends, write on…

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Undangling Your Participles

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.


Many fledgling writers have trouble with dangling participles. But before you can undangle them, you must recognize them in your writing.

What’s a Participle?

A participle is an action verb that acts like an adjective and usually ends in “-ing.” For instance, “write” is the infinitive form of the verb, and “writing” is the participle. Dangle/dangling. Snicker/snickering.

Like adjectives, participles modify nouns:

Participle   Noun
Writing desk
Dangling participle
Snickering sophomores

For example:

I hung my head and passed the snickering sophomores.

The participle is underlined; the participial phrase is italicized.

Participial Phrases

“Snickering sophomores” is the participial phrase in the previous sentence. It uses a participle that is not dangling, meaning it’s in its proper place and used correctly. Here are a few examples with the noun (subject) in bold.

Reading the story, I winced at the dangling participles.

“Reading the story” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “I.”

Driving the stake through Krako’s heart, the vampire hunter realized how much she loved her night job.

“Driving the stake through Krako’s heart” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “the vampire hunter.”

These examples show participial phrases—we’ll call them “PPs” for short—close to the subjects they modify. But PPs can pop up elsewhere in sentences and modify direct objects and objects of prepositions:

Krako whistled for the bats, hanging in the dark cave.

This PP modifies “bats,” which is the object of the prepositional phrase “for the bats.” Notice the noun and the modifying PP are close together. The following says something different:

Hanging in the dark cave, Krako whistled for the bats.

It’s not necessarily incorrect if, in fact, Krako survived the vampire hunter and is the one hanging from the cave ceiling. The participial phrase modifies the noun it is closest to.

When Participles Dangle

What about this sentence?

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, Mother brought up some shriveled apples.

Unless Norman Bates is narrating and Mother has reanimated, we’ve got a dangling PP here. Beware dangling PPs! They’re more insidious than zombies or vampires. (But not half as badass as giants.)

The subject of the sentence is “Mother.” The PP, “after rotting in the cellar for weeks,” is misplaced. It actually modifies “some shriveled apples.” (I’ve found, the best way to modify shriveled apples is to make apple butter…)

Mending Your Danglers

How to fix this? If Mother is actually a zombie, aim for the head. If she’s alive and merely wants to make apple butter—or rid the house of those pesky fruit flies—you could recast the sentence this way:

Mother brought up some shriveled apples that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.

This correction puts the phrase next to the noun it modifies (“apples”).

Sometimes, though, there’s no subject in sight, as in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk:

Grinding bones to make his bread, the dog danced wildly.

Fee, fi, fo, fum… Snickering sophomorically, I smell a dangling PP!

There are a couple things going on here. The participial phrase is meant to modify a subject that is not mentioned in the sentence—the giant that Jack came to kill. And while the big gourmand is grinding bonemeal for bread to spread with Mother’s apple butter, his little dog is dancing wildly, probably hoping for some of Jack’s scraps. Rephrased:

The giant ground Jack’s bones to make his bread as the dog danced wildly.

You can often use “as” to fix these problems.

After dinner the giant pulled the bread plate closer and said, “I ate his liver with some magic beans and a nice Chianti. Now pass the apple butter, Mom.”

“Please,” she insisted.

Please,” he said, patting the dog.

Summary

Dangling participles modify the wrong nouns. You fix them by ensuring that there’s a proper subject in the sentence, and placing the participial phrase right next to it.

Giants rule and zombies drool, bitches. Now, go write right!

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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Getting Your Readers to Click “Buy Now”

Don’t let a humdrum book description keep readers from clicking Buy Now. Here’s how to make your book sales copy work for you.

You work hard to write a good story, make an eye-catching cover, and format your material professionally. Then you upload it to your favorite sales portal, creating a page where potential readers can find it and, hopefully, buy it. But then there’s that empty field staring your in the face: Book Description.

Just rattle off a few general lines and click Save, right?

Not if you want readers to buy your work.

Why Your Book Description is Important

It’s easy for readers to click a link to find your book online. But there’s a process they go through to decide whether they’ll buy it.

First, they look at the cover and the title in search results. If these intrigue them, they’ll open your book page.

If the price is right, they’ll keep reading.

How many people like the book? More than a few thumbs up. Cool.

Are there any reviews? If not, that means either the book has been posted recently or—gasp!—it’s no good. (We’ll cover the importance of customer reviews at a later date.)

Let’s read the book description… Here’s a significant gate potential buyers pass through en route to a buy.

One or two paragraphs of sales copy determine whether the reader continues the evaluation process or moves on to some other writer’s book. If you’re an indie author, this is the first sample of writing that potential buyers see. If it’s not up to par, they won’t even read a sample of the work.

Unless it’s your mom clicking Buy Now, what you put in that book description is crucial to sales success.

How to Write Good Book Sales Copy

Here’s the formula I use to write my book descriptions. I learned it from Debra Dixon’s excellent GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict.

A CHARACTER wants a GOAL because he is MOTIVATED, but faces CONFLICT.

A good book description includes these elements:

  • CHARACTER = Who
  • GOAL = What
  • MOTIVATION = Why
  • CONFLICT = Why not

Here’s how I used this template in my description for MAMA SAID:

On his thirteenth birthday, Buddy gets shipped up north by his religious mother, who can’t cope with his sister’s teenage pregnancy. Just as he resigns himself to spending the entire summer at Gram’s farm caring for kittens and cows, his bitter sister Brinda arrives, ending his peace and solitude. When her boyfriend Jackie shows up and turns his attentions to Buddy from his bride-to-be, Buddy must do what Mama said–or take matters into his own hands. Download the short story “Mama Said” now for the chilling conclusion.

  • CHARACTER = Buddy
  • GOAL = Experience peace and solitude
  • MOTIVATION = Escape from a stressful home and family situation
  • CONFLICT = Jackie shows up to torment him

And I hint at the crisis: Buddy must choose to do what his dysfunctional religious mother says, or take matters into his own hands.

The final line prompts the reader to take action: buy now.

You can play with these elements, mix the order. But you need them all for an effective synopsis of your work. Intrigue readers with the promise of some valuable entertainment in store for them, and they’ll be more likely to click Buy Now.

Let me know if you’d like an evaluation. Until then, prosperous clicks to you!

Supernatural thriller, DEATH PERCEPTION, on sale now!
Cremation… with marshmallows!

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Treat Your Digital Fiction Like Software

How You Can Constantly Improve Your Indie-Published Work

When traditional publishing ruled, once a book was printed, it was set in stone. That’s why they employed editors and copy editors to improve the story and ferret out all the mistakes: once the book was typeset and thousands of copies printed, it couldn’t be corrected. But we’re in the digital age now.

If you’re an indie author, you’re responsible for everything: the writing, the formatting, the editing, the publishing, and the marketing. It’s hard to guarantee perfection at every step. The good thing is, nothing’s set in stone. In today’s publishing world your books are tantamount to software. If you didn’t get it right the first time, there’s always version 2.0.

At one point I debated whether this was ethical. After my initial release of a book, should I change it? I was still recovering from the bircks-and-mortar bookstore/paper tome/traditional publishing paradigm. Now I think, If you know it needs to be corrected or can be improved, can you ethically not give your readers the best product you’re capable of providing?

If you discover you need to make corrections to a work already published, you can do so and simply upload a new version to your favorite sales portal. Along with the power of having your own digital Gutenberg comes great responsibility.
Digital book 2.0
As a technical writer 25+ years in the software industry, I adhered to this principle in the millions of pages of documentation I wrote and published: If it needs fixed, whatever the reason, fix it and republish ASAP.

Going the extra mile is in your favor. If you get a less than spectacular review and the reader complains about something you can change, do so as quickly as possible to prevent others from jumping on the bandwagon. For instance, if a number of reviewers (precious few nowadays) bitch about how much they hated the ending, REWRITE IT.

Like the in-house Quality Assurance department, your beta readers don’t always catch everything before you publish. Once your work is in the hands of the public, you become Helpdesk and Support Services, fielding complaints and logging issues for product improvement. Your product.

I’m not advocating changing your fiction at the whims of your readership. If you made a decision that you know is right for your story, stick with it. Yet if it concerns some other issue you can rectify, do so. Reminder: it pays to take your time and ensure you’re putting your best out there the first time.

Sure, some readers will always own 1.0. These are the breaks. But some of your readers getting an improved pub is better than all of them getting version 1.0 with all its bugs. It’s simply not necessary with digital texts.

Amazon lets you notify readers that a new version is available. I did this once for a classic I had republished because an OCR scanning error turned into a factual error that I didn’t catch. I don’t recommend you do this unless absolutely necessary. Especially with fiction, once it’s read, it’s read.

But if you get a chance to improve your published work—whether it’s to correct typos, smooth out a scene, fill in a plot hole, or post a new cover—by all means, do it. Constant improvement is the professional stepstool to greater sales.

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