billy: messenger of powers

Musty Writing

When considering self-publishing on Kindle, there are four things you must do (“Must”y writing – get it? Ha!). They are like the mustard on my hot dog: a non-negotiable element. Without it, you may as well not even try. ‘Cause I won’t bite.

Now, before I dive into what those elements are, I should probably tell you how I know about them. So y’all know I’ve got street cred. And mad skillz (part of having street cred is always spelling “skillz” with a z).

I’ve been writing for most of my life. I sold my first paying work when I was fifteen. Going to college, I won a bunch of creative writing scholarships and awards. Then I became a lawyer, where my job involved mostly (wait for it!) writing.

Oh, yeah, and somewhere along the way I became a produced screenwriter, member of the Writers Guild of America (which is statistically harder to do than it is to become a professional baseball player), and a published novelist. Throughout all this, I had a book that I really liked, called RUN. And though I had done all the above, no book publisher would touch RUN with a ten foot cattle prod. Largely, I suspect, because it was very hard
to figure out how to market it: it was a sci-fi/suspense/horror/thriller/apocalyptic novel with romantic elements. There is no shelf for that at Barnes & Noble.

But I believed in the book, dangit! So I researched around, and discovered self-publishing through Amazon’s Kindle service. I decided I didn’t have much to lose, since RUN was just sitting on a shelf anyway, so decided to try my hand at self-publishing an e-book on Kindle.

Within a few months, RUN became a bestseller, topping Amazon’s sci-fi chart, and eventually becoming the #61 item available for Kindle, out of over ten million books, games, puzzles, and blogs. I also published a young adult fantasy called Billy: Messenger of Powers which has hovered on various genre bestseller lists on Amazon for the better part of a year now. And followed those up with another e-book, and another, and another. Some of the others became bestsellers, some didn’t. But all have made money, and all have increased my fan base.

Now I don’t say this to brag, but I want you to understand I know a bit whereof I speak. Through the process, I have learned the ins and outs of Kindle publishing (and e-publishing in general), learning as much from what didn’t work as from what did. And that’s how I’ve come up with these four important things to do:

1) Make a kickin’ cover

This is one place where approximately 99% of self-published authors get it wrong. Look at most self-published books, and they look less professional. And like it or not, a lot of people go strictly off the cover. You have about ten seconds to wow them with your cool cover before they click the button and move on to another book. For the Kindle edition of Billy: Messenger of Powers, I spent days upon days designing the cover. Everything from the cover image, to the typeface, to the composition of the elements. It was critical. And it paid off. Same for RUN, and another of my books, Rising Fears,
all of which have been praised for the fact that the covers are interesting enough to “hook” readers. Some of my other covers aren’t as effective, or as professional looking, unfortunately. And guess what? They also don’t sell as well.

2) Market yourself

Here’s a fact of life in general: people generally don’t give you things for free. You have to earn them. And that includes getting people to read your work. When I wrote Billy, I spent over a month designing a website that was interesting, conveyed a message about the book, and had a look and feel that I felt would intrigue people and make them want to find out more. Same with the website for RUN. And my own website, michaelbrentcollings.com, took even longer. But that was only the start. I also had a Facebook “fan” page, a Twitter feed, and did the rounds of book and genre conventions. Not to mention doing interviews, podcasts, guest blogs, and generally talking to anyone and everyone who would listen. You have to do more than write a book. You have to create an event.

3) Have a grabby description

“What do you do when everyone you know – family, friends, everyone – is trying to kill you? You RUN.”

That is the description on amazon.com for my book RUN. Two sentences that I spent an extremely long time writing. Like the cover of your book, the production description is something that has to grab people, reel them in, and not let them go. Some self-published authors think the best way to get someone to read their work is to describe every jot and tittle. But in reality, the secret isn’t information, it’s captivation. You have to intrigue your (prospective) readers. You have to leave them with serious questions that they want answered. Describing what your book is about is less important than creating a specific feeling in the mind and heart of your audience: the feeling that they will be better off reading your book than not.

4) Write something worth reading

This may seem obvious, but the fact of the matter is you have to have something pretty darn special. I’m not saying this to depress anyone: I firmly believe that most people have great stories in them, and have the potential to learn how to tell them. But make no mistake, it is something that takes practice, dedication, and perspiration. Writing is a skill. It is a discipline. Anyone can knock out a sentence or two. But getting those sentences to grab a complete stranger to the point that he or she is willing to fork over hard-earned cash to read them is another matter. Let alone getting them to like the sentences enough that they want to tell their friends to spend their hard-earned cash on them. Again, I really do believe that most people have it in them to do this. But I also believe just as stridently that to get to that point takes practice, practice, and more practice. I have spent thousands of hours learning how to write… and I continue to learn. Any author who wants to charm people into buying his or her work has to be willing to put in the effort to make it happen. Because without the skill to back up your work, no matter how good your basic ideas are, they probably won’t sell. There are exceptions, but for the most part a book has to be extraordinarily well-written in order to get people to buy it.

That’s not to say that everyone will like your book. Some people don’t like RUN, or Billy: Messenger of Powers. Or Harry Potter or anything by Stephen King or even the bestselling book of all time (the Bible). But if you don’t care enough to develop your writing skills in service of your storytelling, you can bet that few (if any) will like it at all.

And so…

… there you have it, folks. Again, I think most people have interesting stories to tell. But without doing the four things above, the great story will probably sit quietly in a dark corner of your closet. And that, my friends, is no fun at all.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Finding God Among the Damned

I am often asked how I come up with my ideas. The answers range. For my book RUN, I visited a working silver mine and decided that I had to write a book that had a chase scene set in a mine.

For my young adult novel Billy: Messenger of Powers, I got the idea when my wife told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t write something that did NOT involve people running away from serial killers, ghosts, or other malcontents (i.e., she wanted something she could read without having to put the police on speed-dial and turning on all the lights in the house first), she was going to divorce me. I took those words to heart, and wrote Billy. So apparently ideas can come from a variety of places, and be fruitful and effective.

There is another question I am occasionally asked, however, that fascinates me even more than “How do you get your ideas?” That question is: “How do you write about such (at times) horrific things… and still claim that you are a religious person?”

The answer: Very easily.

I am a deeply religious person. I go to church every single week, I have held numerous ecclesiastical positions, and I even served as an unpaid, full-time missionary for my church. So it is no surprise (to me at least) that my faith colors everything I do… even when I’m writing about a serial killer.

Often, in fact, both the villains AND the heroes of my works are people “of faith.” Again, using the book RUN as an example, one of the heroes is a man named Adam (yes, the biblical name is on purpose) whose sole purpose is nothing less than securing the safety of humanity as a species. In so doing, he is constantly faced by choices that he must answer within his moral framework.

On the flip side of the coin, the antagonist of the book is a man named Malachi (again, not a coincidence), who views it as a mission from God to destroy all life on the planet. Together, these men serve as a kind of spectrum of theological thought, and allow me to treat religious questions from within the framework of (hopefully) an exciting novel.

Not that RUN is preachy. At least, I hope it isn’t. But I have found that as a writer, it is not only a fruitless quest to “divorce” myself from my spirituality, it actually makes for a much more interesting, layered book when questions of faith and belief are discussed. Most people, in the U.S. at least, still count themselves as people with some religious or spiritual belief, and so adding that dimension to my characters not only makes them more accessible, but more interesting and real.

Not only that, but using faith as a foundation for my writing allows me to draw on deep spiritual archetypes that would otherwise be unavailable to me. In Billy: Messenger of Powers, the main character is a young boy who discovers that he is the key player in a war between two sets of magical camps: the Dawnwalkers, who fight to perserve humanity’s freedom of choice; and the Darksiders, whose goal is to enslave all “normal” people. This consciously mirrors a key tenet of my own belief system: that God exists to give people freedom and allow them to discover their potential as His children, while the devil’s key aims are and always have been to bind human beings in chains of sin and misery. This belief is mirrored by many people globally, and having it in my story allows me to tap into subconscious beliefs that my reader’s have. This not only props up the plot of Billy: Messenger of Powers, but make it a better, deeper, and ultimately more thought-provoking and enjoyable read.

There are those who argue that the arts should be more secular – one only has to take a look at the average television network lineup to see how much religion has been stripped out of our daily lives when it comes to entertainment. But I think that art serves its best purposes when it reflects the purposes and values of the ultimate Creator. That is not to say that I believe everything has to be shiny and happy, or that every story can only have “good” people in it (I’m pretty sure that even the Bible has a bad guy or two in it).

But I DO think that it is our responsibility as artists and our privilege as children of God to create things that empower, edify, and enlighten. And the best way to do that is not to deny faith, but to embrace it and make it a living, breathing part of all that we do.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice

Defining Greatness

Some people ask me, “What do you think makes a great book great?”

Some people also ask me if I think polar bears should be allowed to marry penguins. Which tells you what kind of people I hang with.

But back to the other question. The first one. About the writing thing. I guess it’s not too surprising that people ask me things about books. I mean, I AM a writer. My books RUN and Billy: Messenger of Powers have both been bestsellers on amazon.com, I’ve written two movies that are coming out next year, and I’ve been told my birthday cards are to die for. So I do get my opinion asked for fairly often. And, to be frank, even when people AREN’T asking for my opinion… I still give it.

So what DOES make a great book great?

There are a lot of things. But first and foremost, I think, is simply this: a great book is one that people want to spend time with. And I’m not just talking about the time they put in reading it. A great book is one that we think about even when the covers are closed, one whose characters we wish we could meet well after the last chapter has been finished. It’s one that lives within us, and becomes not merely a part of what we have done, but a facet of who we have become.

So how to accomplish that?

Well, according to many high school English teachers, people should read books that they have shoved down their throats with pointy sticks. Sad but true. Sometimes I think that a great many “academics” believe that a book isn’t great unless it’s something that you can only “enjoy” after you’ve spent several years researching the author’s life. Incomprehensibility doubles as ability.

I don’t buy into that.

A great book IS one that lives on, year after year, generation after generation. Fine and dandy. But I also think that a TRULY great book is one that has, not only deep life lessons that transcend time, but also a pure enjoyment factor (and obviously, I’m talking about fiction here). I mean, if you look at Hamlet, it’s not only a classic examination of character, it’s a darn fine STORY, with ghosts, intrigue, thrilling fights, and other attributes that make it, not just “valuable,” but FUN.

Granted, if you’re looking at a “classic” book that’s been around for hundreds of years, there’s some work to be done. But that’s not because the stories are boring, it’s simply because language changes over time, so you have to be schooled in the way people of that era spoke in order to enjoy what they’re doing and saying. Just like some people don’t enjoy British humor, not because the English aren’t funny (because they are), but because they don’t understand that culture enough to GET the jokes. So there are legitimate examples of “great” literature that you have to prep for. But at their root, truly great books are an entertaining read.

I can remember, when writing RUN (a suspense/horror/thriller novel), I devoured a lot of Dean Koontz and Stephen King books. Similarly, when I was working on Billy: Messenger of Powers (a young adult fantasy), I read J.K. Rowling, Brandon Mull, and James Dashner. Some people actually asked me why I would “waste my time” on such “popular” fare. And the way they said “popular” it was clear they really meant to say “worthless.”

But I disagree. I think that “popular” is a valuable indicator of greatness in art. After all, what is Great Expectations but a book that has remained “popular” for centuries? What is The Three Musketeers but a book that has a story so fun that it has found an audience year after year after year?

Now, that’s not to say that I think everything that is popular is great. There are some books that are incredibly popular that are shallow, trite drivel. But those kinds of things don’t tend to STAY popular. They’re flashes in the pan. A moment where lighting is caught (perhaps accidentally), but cannot be contained.

The “greats” on the other hand, truly captivate us. They reach across time and space to do something that we as humans have sought after since man first began to communicate: to tell a story.

And the better the story, the “greater” the book.

Posted by mbc@writteninsomnia.com in Writing Advice