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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Writers’ Toolkit #4: How to Sell Your EBook: Ads, Promo, Marketing—Paid and FREE

The old ways of publicizing books aren't working so well in the E-Age.

In 2011, editor Alan Rinzler famously said, "That $50K space ad in the New York Times? Forget it. It’s only for the author’s mother. The twenty-city bookstore tour with first class airplanes, limousines, and hotel suites? A waste of money. Not even an appearance on the Today Show can guarantee more than a brief spike in sales....The old ways don’t work."

So what does work? Facebook ads? Goodreads giveaways? Getting hundreds of fans to Tweet your book every five minutes?  

Right now, most successful authors will tell you that none of the above methods are working very well either. (Not that we wouldn't welcome a few Tweets.) 

But what really generates buzz for your book these days is e-book bargain newsletters and websites.

This week Ruth Harris gives us a rundown of the best-known sites and newsletters. The biggies are pretty pricey, but some are very reasonably priced, or even FREE....Anne

Writers' Toolkit #4:
How to Move the Merch.
by Ruth Harris

After the book is written, edited, polished and published—that's when ads, promo and marketing matter.

A lot.

There are many sites—with new ones popping up constantly—that will promote your book. Some of them paid, others are FREE.

Each site has different rules and regs—not all of them accept erotica—and it’s important to read the fine print as you make your promotional plans and decide on a budget. As you will see later, some authors have found success with FREE promo, others with paid. There is, as has been pointed out many times, no such thing as one-size-fits-all.

In alphabetic order:

AwesomeGang offers FREE ebook listings in addition to a $10 paid option for more traction. As an extra service to authors, AwesomeGang provides a list of other sites offering FREE promotion.

Bargain Booksy will list your bargain or reduced-price book on their own site and in their daily email to over 50,000 subscribers at a cost of $50. If you are offering a free book, their companion site, free booksy, is the place to go.

BookBlast lists free and sale books discounted 50% from the usual price to over 40,000 readers. Authors can choose genres ranging from YA to thrillers to romance and just about everything in between.

BookBub, is picky and pricey but generally considered highly effective although, as with everything, YMMV and there can be variations between genres. As with most sites, BookBub works on an opt-in system and currently does not accept short stories and novellas or books costing more than $2.99.

Before deciding whether or not to try your luck at BookBub, you will want to do your due diligence. You will find the latest, hot-off-the-press info on BookBub promo results at this Writers’ Cafe thread.

BookDaily “invites [authors] to set up a FREE author account on BookDaily to promote your book to our readers. BookDaily introduces authors to new readers by providing a sample chapter from the author's books.” Recently, BookDaily emailed 43,753 sample chapters to readers.

E-Book Bargains UK (EBUK) is the UK’s version of BookBub and gets your book in front of readers in the UK (duh!) and 13 other English-speaking markets all over the world that are otherwise tricky for American authors to reach. This is the only newsletter that has a truly global audience. They're planning more countries for the next year, plus an all-erotica newsletter. The site is run by the efficient and very-nice-to-work-with Mick.

Note from Anne: I have used the EBUK guys for several books, and they jump-started stalled UK sales and got me on bestseller lists in Germany and France. Definitely worthwhile for me. I've heard from other authors who climbed the Kobo charts after advertising with EBUK. If you want to know more about them and their vision for the global marketplace, check out the guest post they wrote for us, The E-Book Market No Author Should Ignore.

E-Readers News Today aka ENT is a long-running book promo site with an excellent track record. ENT features include listings for a regularly-priced Book Of The Day, Bargain Books for books reduced to $.99 as well as free books. What sets ENT apart is that you pay after your promo runs and ENT bills you for 25% of your sales. Greg and Rachelle are the savvy guiding lights at ENT.

Donna Fasano, bestselling romance author, believes “the combined forces of BookBub and ENT are what propelled Reclaim My Heart onto the USA Today Best Seller List. My book appearing on the list captured the attention of an editor at Montlake who bought the pub rights. The BookBub ad cost $480 and the ENT ad cost approx $50. After the ads ran, Reclaim My Heart hit #9 on the Kindle Top 100, #4 on the Nook List, #20 on the Kobo List, and #9 on the iBooks Romance List.”

Fussy Librarian FREE (at least for now) is a new kid on the block and sends out daily ebook recs. You can choose from 32 genres, and select content preferences such as amount of sex and violence so that readers who want cozy mysteries won’t receive recs for steamy romance. Here’s a WC thread introducing Fussy Librarian.

You will also find an informative interview with Jeffrey Bruner who runs Fussy Librarian at Lindsay Buroker’s blog here.

Kindle Books and Tips is another paid promo site that offers readers a daily list of FREE and discounted books. 600,000+ visit the blog daily and 125,000+ people view the blog, FB page and subscribe to their email list.

Kindle Nation Daily is one of the first book promotional sites and, as the title indicates, specializes in featuring your book to Kindle owners and readers. KND offers a choice of genres including erotic which some sites don’t allow and also hosts a daily email blast called BookGorilla.

Pixel of Ink, another well-established and attractive book promo site, lists FREE and bargain books as well as Hot Deals browsable by category.

PeopleReads, a FREE ebook listing site, launched in July of 2013. Presided over by Van, PeopleReads features ebooks priced from $.00 to $3.99 and aims to offer top quality books to its growing list of subscribers.

Elaine Raco Chase ran a Veterans Day weekend sale for her contemporary romance title, Rules Of The Game, at 99 cents down from $2.99. Elaine comments: “On Friday: Pixelscroll + Awesome Gang free ads equalled 20 total sales. Saturday: the People Read ad appeared at 10 a.m (Van does a lot of tweets on his own). The Read Cheaply ad appeared at 11:45 a.m + tweets from other authors. On Sunday morning ROTG totaled 55 books sold over nite (just 1 at Nook).

“Have NOT paid a single penny and am pretty pleased plus sales on 4 other books at full price.”

Pixelscroll presents daily postings of eBooks, as well as Apps, Movies and Television Seasons, MP3s and CDs, Audio Books, and all sorts of electronics. PixelScroll offers both FREE and paid ebook listings and sponsorships.

ReadCheaply is another FREE book promo service offering targeted lists of free and deeply discounted ebooks. A few hoops to jump but an attractive option.

The Kindle Book Review is a multi-purpose site that offers author services like formatting and cover creation along with—as the name indicates—reviews. KBR also offers advertising services at prices ranging from $25 to $45.
  • In addition to these independent sites, the major ebook vendors offer their own promotional opportunities.
  • At iBooks, you can set your book to $.00 and get coupons to give to readers, reviewers and anyone else you wish.
  • KOBO will also let you set your book’s price to $.00 and has a new feature that allows you to specify a sale price for a specified amount of time. You will find this option when you scroll down to the bottom of the pricing screen.
  • Kindle has added a new opportunity, Countdown Deals, allows authors to run limited-time discount promotions while maintaining their usual royalty. Countdown also offers a dedicated website and real-time sales and royalty information.
  • NOOK also allows authors to set a book’s price to $.00 but, as of now, only via Smashwords

Hope this rundown is helpful and, if you know of other promo sites and especially if you have experience with them, please let us know! How about you, scriveners? Have you used any of these? What was your experience?

Opportunity Alerts

The Ladies Home Journal essay contest. Theme: The Best Decision You Ever Made. First Prize is $3,000 and the chance to have your essay published in the Journal. You're free to interpret the topic in whatever way you like. Essays will be judged on their emotional power, originality, and the quality of their prose. They should be no more than 2,000 words. More info and submission form on the website.

Narrative Fall Story Contest Enter your short story, short short, essay, or an excerpt from a longer work of prose up to 15,000 words. Entry fee is a little pricey at $22, but the prize is $2,500 for first prize, $1,000 second-place. The editors will judge. Online submission system. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines. Deadline November 30th.

DRIFTLESS REVIEW ANNUAL FLASH FICTION CONTEST $15 ENTRY FEE for up to three stories. Each short-short story limited to 500 words. $500 prize. Deadline December 31

Dark Continents Publishing's Guns and Romances anthology. They're looking for previously unpublished short fiction from 3500-9000 words. Any genre as long as there's a tough protagonist, weapons, and... at least one reference to music. Sounds interesting. Payment rate is a one-off of $20 per story plus a percentage of the ebook royalties. Publication estimated in late-2014. More info on the website. Closing date for submissions is February 28, 2014.

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Are Your Family and Friends Sabotaging your Writing Dreams?

Writers participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) may discover that friends and family aren't entirely enthused by your decision to disappear into your computer for a month. (I have a secret suspicion that Chris Baty invented NaNo in order to escape those painful family Thanksgiving dinners.)

But at any time of year, some people in your life will find it difficult to relate to your passion to write. A few will even sabotage your progress, often subconsciously, but sometimes with the deliberate intent of steering you onto another path "for your own good."

Kristen Lamb wrote on her blog this week about a minister of her church who told her she "had a better chance of being hit with lightning than becoming a published author." And that she "needed to be an adult and pursue a 'real' career."


What's a new writer to do?

One thing that can help a lot is networking with other writers. That's where blogging and social media can be helpful. Kristen's "WANA tribe" (We Are Not Alone) is a community where writers can find mutual support. Another is Alex J. Cavanaugh's Insecure Writers Group, which he wrote about on this blog a couple of months ago.

Online or in-person, writers' groups can be a godsend. I'm lucky enough to live in a town with a fantastic writing community called the SLO Nightwriters. It has members at all writing levels, from fledgling first-timers to New York Times bestsellers. National organizations with local chapters like RWA, SCBWI, and Sisters in Crime can also provide welcome support.

A good writing group will also save you from the mistake so many new writers make: asking friends or family members to read a work in progress.

The urge to share your work with loved ones is natural. I did it myself early in my career. If you're lucky, you may get some helpful suggestions, but you're more likely to get evasive looks and polite platitudes—or worse. Much worse.

Here's my cautionary tale: my WIP was having problems with flow, so I gave it to a friend who had praised my published work. I thought he might be able to pinpoint what wasn't working. But as a non-writer, he had no idea what “rough draft” meant. After he finished the typo-strewn ms., he phoned immediately, telling me to toss the book because it was a “mess that nobody would ever want to read.”

I tried to get him to tell me exactly what he didn’t like, but he kept ranting, giving no specifics. After he screamed "show, don't tell" about ten times, I have to admit I hung up on him. (Years later I realized I'd asked him at a very bad time in his life. He'd just lost a beloved job and my career was on the rise. His own dreams were in shatters, which made him into a Dream-smasher.)

I shelved the book. I figured whatever was wrong, it must be pretty terrible.

Years later, when I opened the manuscript again, I realized it wasn't that bad. I'd let one uninformed person's opinion kill a project I'd spent years of my life creating. I did a quick polish and sent it to my publisher. The editor suggested a new opening chapter and a handful of tweaks. It's now part of my boxed set that's been a humor bestseller on Amazon for 20 weeks.

But the friendship died. And since then, I've never let a non-writer see a draft of anything.

Critiquing and editing require experience and expertise. Anybody can say "I hate it," but it takes an expert to say. "This doesn't work because of ___ and____."

Recently freelance editor Holli Moncrieff wrote about the problem of friends critiquing friends on Michelle D. Argyle's blog. Holli and Michelle think even friends who are writers may not be the best people to critique your work. As Holli says, "there are enough people in the world who will tell you that you suck without having to hear it from a friend."

No matter how much you want to share your WIP with your real-life friends, it's not a good idea. Do try to enlist emotional support—although even that is not always forthcoming—but realize that finding a friend who's also a fan of your writing is a stroke of good luck, not something to expect.

And the truth is, a lot of people in your life may find your new interest threatening. If you’re not emotionally prepared, they can derail your project, stifle your creativity, and undermine your self esteem.

They may not be as heavy handed as Kristen Lamb's minister or my Dream-smasher friend, but they’ll work to sabotage your confidence in dozens of subtle—or not-so-subtle—ways.

They can do it for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that your new passion can feel like a rival. Writing robs your loved ones of time you used to spend together.

Or your friends may be secret wannabes who have stifled their own creativity out of fear of failure. People like this may try to make you feel like a failure in order to justify their own fears.

Or they can just be at a bad time in their lives like my friend. In any case, it's best to be prepared.

Here are some non-supportive types to watch out for, and tips on how to deal with them:


These are the know-it-alls who specialize in discouragement.

  • Like Kristen's minister, they’re full of statistics showing the odds against being successfully published. 
  • They’ll send links to articles with dire warnings about carpal tunnel syndrome and back injuries due to long sessions at the keyboard.
  • They have an unending supply of stories about suicide and depression in writers.
They may appear to be supportive at first, and may even express an eagerness to read your WIP—only to give entirely negative feedback.

  • They always “know” some rule that you’ve broken—probably mis-remembered from their 5th grade grammar class. (Like my "show don't tell" friend.)
  • They’ll criticize your premise in a way that’s also a personal attack: “nobody wants to read about women over 50/washed-up athletes/teenagers with disabilities.”
  • They often try to hijack your story. They'll criticize anything in your work that doesn’t promote their own world view, and suggest the story would be much better if the hero were more like them.
These people have given up on their own dreams and want you to do the same. Encourage them to write their own books, take an art class or start a new creative hobby.


Creativity guru Julia Cameron described these people as “storm centers…long on problems but short on solutions.”

They are the drama queens, emotional vampires, and control freaks who crave your full-time attention and can’t stand for you to focus on anything but their own dramas.

Writers are magnets for these people because we tend to be good listeners.

  • You tell your Crazymaker friend your writing schedule, but she’ll always “forget,” and show up at exactly the time your story is on a roll. She’ll draw you into a weepy tale of woe, saying you’re the “only one who understands.”
  • Have a deadline for a difficult article? That’s the moment Crazymaker will stomp into your office and confess the affair he had four years ago when you were on a relationship break. 
  • Got an editor waiting for a rewrite? That’s the week Crazymaker calls to beg you to babysit her sick child because she can’t take off work. After all, she has a REAL job
Crazymakers need to be center stage, 24/7. Nothing you do can be of any importance: your job description is “minion.”

Politely resign from the minion department. If they're capable of real friendship, they'll get the message. If they don't, you're probably better off.

Groucho Marxists

The Groucho Marxist manifesto is, to paraphrase the great Julius Henry Marx: “I do not care to read a book by a person who would accept me as a friend.”

Groucho Marxists are your family members and buddies who assume your work is terrible because it was written by somebody they know.

These are the folks who feel compelled to ridicule and belittle your work, whether they’ve read it or not. No amount of success will convince them you’re any good. Their entire world view is based on the premise that success is impossible, so why bother? By aspiring to something more, you're violating their belief system, and no matter what you do, they will feel compelled to treat you like a failure
  • You get a story published. Groucho can’t be bothered to read it. But he’s always bringing you stories by other writers in your genre, “so you can see how a REAL writer does it.” 
  • You get your big call from that agent. Groucho will try to convince you she’s a scammer. Why would a real agent represent a nobody like you? 
  • You sign with a publisher. Groucho thinks he's heard a rumor the company is about to go under: look how desperate they must be if they’d publish your book.
  • You self publish a book. Groucho will give you a heated lecture on how self-publishing is destroying the culture with a "tsunami of crap." 
  • You get a good review. Groucho doesn’t have time to read it. But he has lots of time to research other pieces by that reviewer to show the reviewer has terrible taste. 
  • You win a Pulitzer. What? No Nobel?
 These people are highly competitive and feel your success will make you “better than them.”

Remind them of their own skills and accomplishments and reassure them that any writing success you achieve won’t change your relationship.

It’s hard enough to live with the constant rejection we have to deal with from agents, editors, and reviewers, so when you’re attacked in your personal life, it’s tough to hang on.

We need to erect strong boundaries and be fierce in defending them.

But if you’re serious about your work, the people who really care about you will learn to treat your time and work with respect.

The others will evaporate. Chances are you won’t miss them.

The best way to get good feedback on your work is from other writers, through critique groups and beta readers. Even if you're not lucky enough to live in an area with good in-person writing groups, the Internet age provides wonderful opportunities to find good critiquers online. Two great resources are CritiqueCircle.com and SheWrites. And GalleyCat has a great new sign-up system for finding the right critique group.

What about you, scriveners? Have you run into any of these negative types in your writing journey? How did you deal with them? 

Previews of Coming Attractions!

Ruth and Anne have a boxed set coming out this week!
Chanel and Gatsby: A Comedy Two-fer

Available RIGHT NOW for  NOOK and KINDLE
Kobo and iTunes to come shortly

Smart chick lit for chicks who weren't born yesterday.
Ruth Harris and Anne R. Allen: together again for the first time!
Need something to keep you entertained while traveling home for the holidays? Ruth and I have put together two of our most popular comic novels for the price of one!

Due in December

The Lady of the Lakewood Diner
a comedy

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be...

Who shot Morgan le Fay? The Lady of the Lakewood Diner is the story of a six-decade friendship between an aging rock star and her childhood best friend--the owner of a seedy diner in Central Maine. She just might be the only person who can figure out who's been trying to kill the rock diva. Think Beaches meets Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

How to be a Writer in the E-Age: a Self-Help Guide

Advice for writers from Anne R. Allen and Amazon #1 Bestselling author Catherine Ryan Hyde
Updated edition with all new-material.

Not another guide to self-publishing. This is a fun, friendly book about how to plan your writing career and make the publishing choices that are right for you, as well as take care of yourself along the way.

Opportunity Alerts

Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers Entry Fee: $15. A prize of $1,500 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories is given quarterly for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not been published in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. The editors will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a story of up to 12,000 words with a $15 entry fee during the month of November. Visit the website for complete guidelines. Deadline: November 30, 2013

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

DRIFTLESS REVIEW ANNUAL FLASH FICTION CONTEST $15 ENTRY FEE for up to three stories. Each short-short story limited to 500 words. $500 prize. Deadline December 31

The Lascaux Prize for Short Fiction: Stories may be previously published or unpublished. Length up to 10,000 words. Entry fee is $5, and authors may enter more than once.The editors will select a winner and nineteen additional finalists. The winner will receive $500 and publication in The Lascaux Review. Both winner and finalists will earn the privilege of displaying a virtual medallion on blogs and websites. Deadline December 31, 2013.

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

How to Write Funny Novels...And Why You Shouldn't

We've got a V.I.P. guest on the blog this week. She's Melodie Campbell, bestselling author and the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

She's also hilarious.

She contacted me last month because she liked one of my blogposts. (See, blogging is an effective networking tool!) She saw we share a love of funny books.

A lot of North America's best comedy comes from Canada. From much of the original cast of Saturday Night Live to up-and-coming comics like The Daily Show's Samantha Bee, to superstars like Seth Rogan, Leslie Nielsen, Jim Carrey and Mike Meyers, Canadians have always known how to make us laugh. (You can supply your own joke about the mayor of Toronto here.)

Maybe it has something to do with wearing plaid shirts and those hats with the earflaps. The key to good comedy is not taking yourself too seriously.

My family say I got my quirky sense of humor from my dad, who was born in Canada, so that may be why I share Melodie's compulsion to write funny books.

Also, we both started our careers in the theater doing stand-up and improv comedy. The biggest compliment I ever got in my acting career was from an old Borscht Belt comic who came backstage after seeing me in Auntie Mame and said, "I didn't see you act funny once in that whole performance." Then he broke into a grin and added. "You don't act funny. You THINK funny. That's the secret to great comedy."

I think funny. Like Melodie, I can't help it.

Melodie is right in warning you away from this dangerous habit. An amazing number of people hate comedy in books. Most of the best comic novels have an average of three stars on their reviews.

People might laugh their heads off at Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids and adore the antics of the guys in the Hangover movies, but when it comes to books, they want things to be politically correct and above all, "serious".

They want kick-ass heroines who can leap tall buildings at a single bound and never break a nail (or a smile), and heroes with six-pack abs and Cristal incomes who want to settle down and raise organic kale.

Melodie gets one-star reviews that say, "The heroine mentions being celibate for a while then has sex with at least 5 men in a month. Her boobs fall out of her dress at every opportunity. Most of the time, she doesn't even notice; other people have to point it out to her."

Like that's a bad thing.

My one-stars say stuff like, "This girl doesn't make the decisions I think she should", and "This book sets women back 100 years." (That one gets my feminist hackles up. As Helen Fielding says, "If women haven't reached the point where we can laugh at ourselves, we haven't come very far, have we?")

And then there's my favorite: "Why can't Camilla get a real job and stop looking for Mr. Right?"

Well, here's the thing: if our characters always made good decisions, there would be no story (you can read Kristen Lamb on the subject here), and if they got a clue, wore sensible shoes, and stopped looking for love in all the wrong places, they'd stop being funny.

Can you imagine reviewing films and TV this way?

"Leslie Nielson is on a plane about to crash and all he can say is 'don't call me Shirley'? So unrealistic. Anyway, the pilot didn't say 'Shirley'; he said 'surely'."

"Lucy Arnaz should stop hanging around with Ethel and stop trying to impress Ricky all the time. Why doesn't she get a real job? And where's the character development? She never learns."

When did people decide that fictional characters are supposed to be role models? The protagonists of our culture's earliest novels were mostly naive or deluded bumblers, from Cervantes' Don Quixote to Fielding's Tom Jones and Voltaire's Candide.

You don't read Cervantes or Fielding or Voltaire to escape into a fantasy about your idealized self. But people have been entertained by their stories for a lot of centuries now. Maybe that's because, as a recent study proved, laughter really is the best medicine...Anne

Writing Funny Novels 
Why You Shouldn’t – But You’re Going to Anyway – So Here’s a Primer 
by Melodie Campbell 

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

I hope you smiled at that line. I think it’s one of my best. My name is Melodie Campbell, and I write comedies. (This is a self-help group, right?) Sure I’d like to kick the habit and write a ‘real’ book with literary merit.

Okay, so that’s a lie. Leave The Goddaughter’s Revenge behind? Not write a sequel? I’m starting to hyperventilate. Actually, I love writing comedies. It’s in my blood.

Some people are born beautiful. But most of us aren’t, and we look for ways to survive the slings and arrows of life. Sometimes we choose to hide behind a mask. That Greek Comedy mask was the one I picked way back.


People smarter than me have concluded that tragedy is the root of all comedy. Making fun of our foibles is indeed one way to cope.

As a means of self-preservation in the cruel world of teenagers, I looked for the ‘funny.’ More often than not, I made fun of myself. This was easy to do. I knew the target well and there was a wealth of material. And it didn’t hurt anyone else, so people liked it.

When I left school and had a ‘real’ job, I started writing stand-up on the side. I rarely delivered it – usually I wrote for others. That led to a regular newspaper humour column, and more.

So when it came to writing novels, I fell back into ‘safe mode.’ Write it funny.

Lesson 1 (the first of 8): The rule of ‘WORST THING’

(aka: Never go easy on your protagonist.)

Comedy writers take a situation, and ask themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that could happen now?’

And then, ‘what’s the funniest?’

What’s the worst thing that could happen to The Goddaughter when she is reluctantly recruited to carry hot gemstones over the border in the heel of her shoe? Predictable would be: she gets caught at customs. But I don’t want predictable. I want funny.

Instead, the shoes get stolen. By a complete amateur! It’s embarrassing, that’s what it is. How is she going to keep this from her new boyfriend Pete, who thinks she’s gone clean? And what the heck is she going to tell her uncle, the crime boss?

Nothing, of course. She’s going to steal them back. Or die trying.

And hopefully the audience will die laughing.

Yes, some people will turn up their noses and say this type of plot is silly. Reviewers may discount the book for not dealing with the ‘important’ issues of today. So…do you really want to join me in this reckless trade? Read below.

The Trouble with Writing Comedy

When people ask what I write, I say ‘comedies.’ Then I give the genres (crime capers and time travel fantasy.) My books are comedies first and foremost. I look for plots that will lend themselves to laughs.

This is different from authors who say they write humorous mysteries, for instance. In this case, they would peg their books mysteries first. The humour is secondary.

It’s tough writing comedy. Here’s why:

1. Everyone expects your next book to be just as funny or funnier than your last.

Example: Janet Evanovich. Readers are complaining that her 19th Stephanie Plum book isn’t as funny as her earlier books. They are giving it 2 and 3 stars. 19 books, people! Think about that. I’m on my third book in two different comedy series, and I’m finding it tough to sustain the humour in book three. Believe me, this woman is a master.

2. When you write something that isn’t meant to be funny (or is mildly humorous but not comedy) people are disappointed.

In fact, one award juror told me (way after the fact) that she didn’t consider my Agatha Christie-style whodunit for an award short list because it wasn’t laugh out loud funny like my other books. (It wasn’t supposed to be.) She admitted she never gave the book a chance because I was ‘all about comedy’ in her eyes.

My rep ruined my chances.

3. You will never be taken seriously for most awards.

Again, comedy is rarely taken seriously for awards. This drives some crime writers nuts. It seems to be endemic that books on the short lists are usually ones written with gravitas, on subjects that are ‘important’ or grim. To quote a colleague, “It seems to me, the more grim a book, the more merit is ascribed to it.” Blame the Scandinavians.

4. It’s hard to get published.

This is lamentable. It’s hard to get a publisher for comedic novels. Many seem to be afraid of funny books. Again, it may be the part about not being a ‘serious’ book, and thus not seen as an ‘important’ book.

Film suffers from a similar stigma. How often these days do comedies win Oscars?

5. The expectations are HUGE.

Not only will you be expected to produce a book with great plot, characterization, viewpoint, motivation and dialogue like all the other writers, but along with that you also have to make people laugh consistently throughout it. It’s like there is a sixth requirement for you, an additional test that others don’t need to pass. And you don’t get any more money for it.

Sucks, right? So why do it?
  • Because good comedy is magic to some readers. They love you for making them smile. 
  • Because not everyone can do it. There is talent as well as craft. 
  • Because making people laugh is what you do. You’ve done it since you were in high school. Most of us who write comedy were the class clowns. 
  • Because you’re mad, like I am. Well at least, madcap.

(Okay, you’re going to do it anyway, so here goes...)

Lessons 2 through 8

Let’s go beyond lesson 1 now. Of course, you don’t have to write comedies to get humour into your books. All stories can benefit from a dose of bathos to make the pathos seem more piquant. Here is my primer on how to put laughter in your books:

2. Make the basic plot funny.

This is the hardest thing to do. This is what makes ‘comedies,’ rather than books with humour.

a. For this, I fall back on the best of the best, my favorite book to quote.

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Earth is about to be demolished to make way for an interstellar bypass. The very premise of the plot is funny. The construction plans have been filed for decades, but as no one on earth is aware of life beyond our own, of course the plans have gone unprotested. “Apathetic bloody planet…I’ve no sympathy at all,” says the Vogon construction leader before he blows Earth to smithereens.

That’s a comedic premise.

b. How I work it: In The Goddaughter’s Revenge, Gina must mastermind a bunch of burglaries to get back fake gems before anyone finds out they’re fake, otherwise her rep is toast. That’s right – she’s stealing fake gems and replacing them with real. And of course, all the burglaries go wrong. Once again, the basic plot is nutty.

3. Make funny things happen in your plot.

Back to Hitchhiker’s Guide. What if…humans weren’t the only ones experimenting with animals in the pursuit of science? What if…white mice were experimenting with humans?

What if…the answer to the Meaning of Life is the number 42?

4. Make a theme in your novel funny.

Rowena Through the Wall is a comic time travel/sword and sorcery novel. It is also a spoof of bodice rippers, but few people have picked up on that. (This baffles me, because it’s right over the top: she rips her bodice in almost every scene.) In the second book in the series, Rowena and the Dark Lord, she rips her skirt in almost every scene. Readers love it, even if they don’t get that it’s a spoof. They look for it. It is a theme that runs through the series.

5. Make a character in your plot funny.

This is the most common humour device in novels. Shakespeare was a master at this. We have lots of examples here.

a. Again, let me return to the master, Douglas Adams. In my opinion, Marvin the depressed robot is one of the greatest inventions in comic fiction.

“Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they ask me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job satisfaction? ‘Cos I don’t.”

“Pardon me for breathing, which I never do anyway so I don’t know why I bother to say it, oh God, I’m so depressed. Here’s another of those self-satisfied doors. Life! Don’t talk to me about life.”

b. Can’t forget another unforgettable character: Grandma Mazar from Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series.
  • Hobby: Funeral homes. 
  • Sexual orientation: Bring it on! (time’s a runnin’ out)
  • Crass, embarrassing, and delightfully unique.

6. Add Wordplay.

Examples: surprise, unexpected, sarcasm, exaggeration, words with double meaning

This is different from making your character’s ‘character’ funny to the reader. In this example, a member of the cast says funny or clever things.

a. Surprise or unexpected:

“I had the flu once. It was terrible. I couldn’t eat a thing for three hours.”

This works because we expect to hear something else at the end: “I couldn’t eat a thing for three days.” Instead, we hear “three hours.” This is an example of the surprise or unexpected, plus exaggeration, giving us a chuckle. But wait a minute: this is also self-deprecating. Three in one.

b. Example 2: Remember how this post started?

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”

This is an example of wordplay that requires the reader to have some prior knowledge or education. We know the original Mae West line, where the gun substitutes for something else. This exaggerates the gun into something bigger. The reader feels clever for getting the joke.

7. Riff off the reader’s own experience:

Also in Hitchhiker’s Guide: The Vogon monsters have developed a unique form of torture. They read their hand-written poetry to victims. It’s excruciating.

I’ve been to live readings just like that. You bet I laughed when reading this. And Douglas Adams wrote it for people like me who have been to poetry readings and – most likely- shared his reaction.

(Not all people will appreciate this humour. That’s okay. Not everyone will appreciate every funny line you write, either.)

Why was Adams such a master? He doesn’t explain it. No laugh track here. He shows you the scene and lets you make your own conclusion.

8. Emulate the Comedy Masters who do stand-up:

Don’t over-explain. Never point to a joke. Just lay the line. You don’t even need to have the other characters in your book laugh.

How to accomplish this? End the scene at the line.

“Is that a broadsword on your belt, or are you just glad to see me?”


The Earl appeared at the door. “What are you doing?!”

I poked my head out from under the table and wiped a shrimp from my hair. “We couldn’t wait for dinner, so we started ahead.”

The Caveats

1. Humour needs context.

So much of what makes us laugh depends on our previous experience, education, age and gender. That’s why some people find Monty Python funny, and others don’t. (I am, by the way, a huge fan. Ditto for Gilbert and Sullivan. Outrageous satire of the establishment gets me every time.)

Don’t be alarmed if not everyone gets every funny line in your fiction. They won’t.

2. Can you take the heat?

Not everyone will see the humour, particularly in satire. (Witness my bodice ripper spoof.) In fact, some may be annoyed by it, if they perceive you are making fun of something they value.

Going too far: there is a fine line that all of us work against. The line will wobble a bit and sometimes we step over it. (Stand-up artists do this frequently by picking on people in the audience.)

If you are going to write humour, you have to be able to take the heat from going too far.

Final Words (will she ever shut up)

Here’s the key, as I’ve discovered it:

The trick to combining humour and suspense is to play each against the other. Taut suspense is broken up by bathos, making the suspenseful parts seen more dramatic. And – as I have learned from writing the Land’s End series – one can make humour seem more funny by juxtaposing it against gripping danger. In fact, a steady diet of unrelenting wacky humour can make one grow blasé, just as a steady diet of porn might dull one to sensuality.

But why do it? Why does an otherwise sane individual write wacky and some might say silly fiction, and risk the inevitable hit from some critics who say your book is without great literary merit?

We do it for readers. Hopefully, we’ve lightened their day with laughter, and in some cases given them a story they can escape into, over and over again.


Melodie Campbell experienced a personal best this year when Library Digest compared her to Janet Evanovich.

Melodie got her start writing comedy. In 1999, she opened the Canadian Humour Conference. She has over 200 publications, including 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 5 novels. Melodie has won six awards for fiction and was a finalist for the 2012 Derringer and both the 2012 and 2013 Arthur Ellis Awards.

Her first book, Rowena Through the Wall, hit the Amazon Top 100 Bestseller list. The Goddaughter’s Revenge, a comic mob caper, is her fifth book.  Melodie is the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. Her column "Bad Girl" runs in the satirical magazine, The Sage: Canada’s Best Source for Misleading News and Opinion. Lots more at www.melodiecampbell.com

What about you, Scriveners? Why do you think comedy gets no respect? Do you have a compulsion to write funny? Have you ever wondered why books full of gore and torture are considered "good" fiction while upbeat stories that makes you laugh are considered trivial time-wasters? What's your favorite comic novel?

Anne is off visiting other blogs this week. You can read her guest post at BoomerLit Fridays on why the ebook revolution is great for Boomers, and she'll be interviewed by Carmen Amato on Carmen's blog on Thursday, November 14th.

Bargain Book of the Week

The best way to get started with Melodie's comedies is with her first "Canadian Mobster" book, The Goddaughter. $2.99 on Amazon US, Amazon CA, and Kobo, 

"Campbell's comic caper is just right for Janet Evanovich fans. Wacky family connections and snappy dialog make it impossible not to laugh." (Library Journal 2012-09-01)

"Campbell tells a hilarious story of the goddaughter of a mafia leader drafted into a jewel-smuggling operation." (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 2012-10-11)

"Perfect as an airplane read, or for waiting in the doctor's office, or standing in line at the DMV, or even for snuggling under the covers with a bout of flu...Throw in some drop-dead, laugh out loud funny hotel room and restaurant scenes...Bottom line: you['ll] find yourself quickly finishing one of the fun-est and funniest books I've enjoyed in years!" (Tutu's Two Cents blog 2013-02-06)


Looking for a market for your humor writing? The Family Farce may be what you're looking for. They're looking for humor that's dark, snarky and irreverant. Fiction, columns, essays and interviews are all welcome. They're also looking for cartoons, videos and song parodies.

Tin House Shirley Jackson Story Contest. This is a fun one. The prestigious litmag Tin House has acquired an unfinished Shirley Jackson story. They invite readers to finish it. Submissions should be 2,500 words or fewer (not including Jackson’s prose). Winners will be published on the Tin House website and be awarded some Tin House swag and the collected works of Ms. Jackson. Deadline November 17th.

Glimmer Train Press Short Story Award for New Writers Entry Fee: $15. A prize of $1,500 and publication in Glimmer Train Stories is given quarterly for a short story by a writer whose fiction has not been published in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. The editors will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a story of up to 12,000 words with a $15 entry fee during the month of November. Visit the website for complete guidelines. Deadline: November 30, 2013

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Sex Sells, Right? Maybe Not. Why you Might Want to Rethink those Steamy Scenes in Your Novel

When my publisher asked me to remove the explicit sex scenes from my upcoming novel, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner I thought he was nuts. Sex sells, doesn't it?

Maybe not so much anymore.

That screeching sound you hear is the abrupt U-turn the publishing industry is taking away from erotic material.

A number of factors have contributed to the change:

1) Erotica Fatigue

After the breakout success of Fifty Shades of Grey, there was a surge in copycats, and the industry seems to be suffering from overload.

Agent Ginger Clark tweeted from the Frankfurt Book Fair that she was seeing a lot of "erotica fatigue" in traditional publishing.

2) The Global Marketplace

As we reported here last month, the marketplace for ebooks is now global, and as Smashwords' Mark Coker says, "Major retailers set their sights on a global market where the cultural, religious or political norms in some countries will find certain categories of erotica too objectionable."

3) Apple has No Erotica Category

More and more people read books on their iPads and iPhones, but Apple steers clear of anything that could be called porn. Perhaps with the global market in mind, the Apple store banned hard-core erotica over a year ago. The heavy-handed purge removed entire publisher accounts from the site because of a few offending titles. 

4) Amazon's "Erotica Ghetto"

Beginning last spring, Amazon, too, has sought to rein in the hard core stuff. It has created an "adult filter" that has been separating erotica from other books for suggestions and also-boughts. Authors find when they're put in this "erotica ghetto" it greatly reduces their sales.

5) No Sex, Please, We're British

In July of this year, the UK's Conservative government announced a "war on porn" that among other things, requires "family friendly" filters on computers and has made it illegal to possess material depicting rape.

6) The UK Tabloids' "Epidemic of Filth" Brouhaha

Worries about "An Epidemic of Filth" in the book industry escalated a couple of weeks ago, when UK tabloids brought up the problem of unvetted self-published porn, which can veer into illegal territory. The Daily Mail used it as an excuse for an anti-Amazon diatribe and the online magazine, The Kernel attacked even venerable UK retailers like W. H. Smith, Foyles and Waterstones. 

Retailers blame indies: 

Of course there's a lot of traditionally published erotica that gets into the wrong searches, too. But the tabloids chose some particularly vile examples of illegal porn that was self-published or put together by low-rent marketing companies, and people were disgusted.

Amazon simply removed the offending books immediately.

W. H. Smith, however, "solved" the problem by shutting down their entire website and not going back online until they had removed ALL self-published and small press books. Permanently.

Kobo, the mega-retailer that supplies W. H. Smith and many other bookstores worldwide, followed suit and removed all indie books from their UK site.  Kobo has since returned most of the books. They seem to have worked out an algorithm like the ones at Amazon and Smashwords to filter offending books. If your book hasn't been returned, you can contact them at writinglife@kobo.com

What this means for authors: 

Although the handful of books presented in the complaints were obviously offensive and illegal, the nuclear response sent a chill through the industry. You can read indie author Michelle Fox's take on the whole mess at the Indie Reader.

As Ms. Fox points out, aside from the question of censorship, the big problem is that algorithms are never 100% accurate. In fact, she reports some of the "offending books" mentioned in the Daily Mail article  weren't offensive at all.

She says Amazon's erotica filter sometimes labels a book cover as porn just because it has a face on it. It seems the algo measures pixels of skin tones, so a baby's face will show as large a percentage of skin as hard core porn and can be labeled as such. And I've also heard that Amazon's algo originally put Fifty Shades of Grey into "Christian fiction" because the protagonist's name is "Christian". That may be an urban legend, but anybody who's received Amazon's title suggestions knows they often get things comically wrong.

Amazon's algos are constantly being revised and updated. They may get more restrictive following the recent bad press. 

Smashwords' Mark Coker thinks they will.

Mr. Coker said this on his blog on October 15th: "Smashwords erotica authors can now assume that erotic fiction where the predominant theme, focus, title, cover image or book description is targeted at readers who seek erotic stories of incest, pseudo-incest or rape will find that their content is not welcome at the Kobo store. I've heard multiple reports that Amazon is cracking down on the same." 

Smashwords was one of the first retailers to deal with the erotica filtering problem, when PayPal refused to deal with them unless they censored hard-core erotica. Erotica was banned for several weeks in 2012 until Mark Coker installed a new filter and made a deal with PayPal, so they're now ahead of the game.

Now it seems the Smashwords filter developed for PayPal isn't restrictive enough for Kobo and Apple, so Coker is working on a "two tier" system for erotica.

He says: "Smashwords is considering adding new metadata fields for erotica authors so they can voluntarily tag their books as NSFAK (not safe for Apple/Kobo), but because these titles meet the Smashwords Terms of Service they are allowed at Smashwords and other Smashwords retailers. This will allow us to omit certain books from certain distribution channels while maintaining the flow to the Smashwords store and others."

There's no question that some filtering was needed. Parents were understandably freaked when their kids got suggestions to read wildly inappropriate books. And not every adult is into kink. The "romance" category is a huge umbrella these days, and cover images can be pretty shocking to people who aren't used to looking at contemporary erotica.

But because the filtering is done by robots, a lot of mistakes happen. And the algos are secret, so nobody knows what words and images will tag your book as porn.

If you write erotica and want to know what might trigger the algos, there's a breakdown here at Smutwriters.

But what if you don't write erotica? It's bad enough for an erotic book to be shifted off to an "adult" section, but if your novel only has a few sex scenes, erotica buyers will think it's totally lame, but nobody else will see it.

This means that being flagged for adult content could kill your book dead.

That's why publishers like mine figure it's better to be safe than sorry. If you can tell your story without explicit language and descriptions of body parts, you might consider leaving them out, since those are most likely to trigger the algos.

I've deleted "f" bombs as well as explicit scenes from my new novel. It was too long anyway, and I don't think the story loses anything.

But does this herald a return to the Puritanism that banned books like Lady Chatterley's Lover and Lolita? Are we going to return to something like the Hays Code and let algorithms become the new Catholic Legion of Decency?

I don't think so.  

Michael Tamblyn at Kobo wrote in the Writing Life on October 25, "Many of our readers have no problem with an erotic title in their library next to their romance, literary fiction, investing or high-energy physics books. And we are here for the readers, so erotica stays, a small but interesting part of a multi-million-title catalogue, in all of its grey-shaded glory."

But, he cautions, "…if your dream is to publish "barely legal" erotica or exploitative rape fantasies, distribution is probably going to be a struggle for you. We aren’t saying you can’t write them. But we don’t feel compelled to sell them."

If you need another reason to avoid explicit sex scenes, consider this quote from Julian Barnes, "Writing about sex contains an additional anxiety on top of all the usual ones: that the writer might be giving him or herself away, that readers may conclude, when you describe a sexual act, that it must already have happened to you in pretty much the manner described."

For more quotes from famous writers on the subject, check out the great post from Roland Yeomans called "Sex, Must We?" at Writing in the Crosshairs.

And good sex scenes are awfully tough to write well. If you don't get it right, you could be shamed by the "annual bad sex award" from the UK's Literary Review. Here's a link to this year's nominees. They're pretty bad.

With so much explicit "mommy porn" available to peruse discretely on our e-readers, maybe the time has come when we no longer need to sprinkle our mainstream books with those titillating scenes that became de rigueur in the heyday of "steamy" novels by authors like Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. (As Spock called them in Star Trek IV..."the giants.")

At the moment, I think writers need to treat sex scenes like adverbs. We should always ask ourselves, "is this necessary to the story?"

What about you, scriveners? Have you been affected by the recent erotica purge? Do you think sex scenes are necessary in mainstream novels, or would you prefer that authors leave things to the imagination? And do you remember that scene in Star Trek IV? 

Coming up: Next week we'll  have a great guest post by Melodie Campbell, Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. She teaches writing as well as being a bestselling author of comic fiction. She's going to give us a hilarious lesson in humor writing.

A note to my Canadian readers: My boxed set of Camilla comic mysteries has been selling briskly in Canada (and had reached #2 in women's fiction) until I got a sock puppet one-star review on the Amazon CA buy page this week. This now registers it as a one-star book, in spite of 50 good reviews in the US, so Canadian sales have screeched to a halt. If any Canadian reader who enjoys comedy would like to give it a fair review, contact me for a free review copy at annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com.


Okay, Halloween is over, but it's a nice spooky cover for this time of year
only $2.99 at Amazon US, Amazon CA, Amazon UKNOOKKobo, and iTunes

Set at a Writers' Conference in Central California, Ghost Writers in the Sky is #2 in the Camilla Randall series of comedy-mysteries, but it can be read as a stand-alone. 

"Ghost Writers is set in a writers' conference in Santa Ynez Valley, where I've lived for twenty years....This book is hysterically funny AND accurately depicts the Valley. Anne Allen gets it right, down to the dollar bills stuck on the ceiling of the Maverick Saloon. It was so fun to read as she called out one Valley landmark after another. Allen got the local denizens right, too, the crazy characters that roam our streets...I love Camilla Randall, her ditzy, former debutante heroine, and all the rest. The action gets pretty frenetic when dead bodies start showing up. I heartily recommend this book. I can hardly wait to read the rest of the series"...Sandy Nathan


Tin House Shirley Jackson Story Contest. This is a fun one. The prestigious litmag Tin House has acquired an unfinished Shirley Jackson story. They invite readers to finish it. Submissions should be 2,500 words or fewer (not including Jackson’s prose). Entries should be sent, with the text of the story in the body of the e-mail to shirleyjacksoncontest@tinhouse.com. Winners will be published on the Tin House website and be awarded some Tin House swag and the collected works of Ms. Jackson. Deadline November 17th.

J.F. POWER PRIZE FOR SHORT FICTION NO ENTRY FEE. The winner will receive $500. The winning story will be announced in February, 2014 and published in Dappled Things, along with nine honorable mentions. The word limit is 8,000 words. Deadline is November 29, 2013.

The Lascaux Prize for Short Fiction: Stories may be previously published or unpublished. Length up to 10,000 words. Entry fee is $5, and authors may enter more than once.The editors will select a winner and nineteen additional finalists. The winner will receive $500 and publication in The Lascaux Review. Both winner and finalists will earn the privilege of displaying a virtual medallion on blogs and websites. Deadline December 31, 2013.

Boomers: The Huffington Post's Huffpo50 is publishing short fiction! The rules: You must be 50 or older to enter. Writers can submit only one story per year, and all pieces must be 5,000 words or less. Send your original submissions, as well as your contact details, to 50fiction@huffingtonpost.com

CRAZYHORSE PRIZES IN FICTION, NONFICTION, POETRY $20 fee (includes subscription). This is a biggie, well worth the fee. This venerable literary magazine has published the likes of John Updike, Raymond Carver and Billy Collins. Winners in each category receive $2,000 and publication. Submit up to 25 pages of prose or three poems. All entries considered for publication. Submissions accepted in the month of January 2014 only.

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