Last year, I attended about five or six science-fiction, fantasy, horror, or pop culture conventions as an exhibitor. This year, I’ll probably double that number. Some of these are remarkably fun, some not so much. A lot of authors go to these shows, particularly if you write science-fiction or fantasy novels. But, how you prepare yourself and your booth makes a huge difference in sales.

At one show I was at, there was an author in the table next to me selling his fantasy book. On one Saturday (typically, the most popular day), I sold over ten times the books he did. He had a decent story too. There are many factors that lead to this dramatic difference in sales. First, his booth was empty. He stacked his books in a pile on the table and wrote $10 on a blank sheet of white paper. I told him that he needs what I call, “curb appeal.” The same basic concept as in real estate. People walking by want to stop by your booth because it’s interesting.

But I’m an author; all I have is my books. How can I make that interesting?

First, you need to think of yourself as more than an author, you’re in business. Conferences and conventions are typically not free and can cost up to $800 to attend (depending on distance and conference fees). If you’re spending that kind of money, you don’t want to go bankrupt supporting your art. You need to invest a bit more time, thought, and a bit of money into it (but not much).

Second, hire an artist/illustrator to do some drawings of your characters and get them printed on a pull up banner. This should cost no more than $200 and will attract attention to your table. Third, don’t just use the standard white cloth blanket that comes with the booth (or sometimes, shows don’t even provide any cloth). Get a few pieces of cloth of different colors. Get flyers printed to distribute, preferably ones with color and nice art that attracts attention. Do not make it boring. Lastly, do not just stack your books on your table. Prop them up and bring enough of them so that your table looks busy. I also vary the heights of the books by putting an old shoebox under the blanket to raise some and lower others. Anything you can do to make it more interesting and compete with more visual tables, you should be doing.

Finally, you have to actually talk to people. I know that’s a crazy concept because us authors just want to be left alone to write. But when you’re new, you’re a nobody and it’s rare that people will come to you. So uncross your arms, act like you want to be there, stand up and introduce yourself. 

I was at Author 101 University in Las Vegas this weekend and had the privilege of catching Scott Hoffman, an agent at Folio Literary Management, speak. Out of all the things that he said, one thing struck me as particularly interesting: how to get a six figure advance from a traditional publisher.

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Two interesting things happened to me in the past two days to inspire this post. First, I was invited to speak on a panel at Denver Comic-Con this coming weekend. The panel is entitled: What’s with all the remakes anyways? (Hollywood, Comics, and T.V. have been digging into the past for a lot of recent releases. What does this mean to the modern writer? How does it impact the modern creative professional and how do we break the trend?). Second, I was recently asked in a blog interview (to be posted): In my experience, some of the best fiction is based on facts and history. How do you build your research into your fictional works?

At first glance, these two subjects don’t appear to be closely related. However, as my series, Legends of Amun Ra, is inspired by Egyptian mythology and history, I can see a relationship here. That relationship is best illustrated by the way I answer this common question: “What are you currently reading?” Most people would be surprised to learn that I read almost twice as many nonfiction books as I do fiction books. Don’t get me wrong, reading fiction books as a writer is helpful for the craft of writing, but it won’t inspire you or give you that million dollar idea for your own series. For that, you need to explore nonfiction. A few examples of authors who have successfully leveraged ideas inspired by nonfiction are below:

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Backstory is fundamental. Backstory is cumbersome. Backstory is intriguing. Backstory is useless.

I’ve heard all of these adjectives applied to the plot element commonly referred to as backstory. If you don’t know what backstory is, it is a tangential sub-story that describes a character’s past actions. It is often used to help sculpt a character’s personality or create sympathy and a relationship between the reader and the character. It can help explain what motivates a particular character to take certain actions. It can also provide more depth to the relationship between two characters, such as a romance, a friendship, a familial relationship, or, conversely, a rivalry or revenge scenario.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King argues that backstory should be the last tool you implement to explain your character. Since the reader just started the book, they don’t have a enough of a sympathetic or empathetic relationship with your characters to care about their backstories yet. It is imperative to wait until you’ve established a relationship between reader and character before you start boring your audience with backstory. That is why, in The Emerald Tablet, I try very hard to wait until the second half of the book to start giving the backstory of my characters. This has led many readers to say: “I hated XYZ character until the last third of the book.”

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Guest Post by Joy Hoeffler, Beware “The Butthole Phrase”

Every reader experiences this moment: You are reading along, completely wrapped up in a scene and enjoying every sentence until—BAM—the writer throws in a strange description or an oddly worded sentence that takes you right out of the action and leaves you going…WTF?

As an editor, it’s my job to find these stumbling blocks before the reader trips, and the thread of a brilliant story gets tangled in a bit of terrible writing. When I’m writing a book, I fall victim to them on a regular basis. Case in point—a bit of my writing that led to the title of this blog:

Her gaze was burning into him now, and he felt his face getting hot. He had an idea where this was going, and he wanted her to stop.

“Peter, I need to tell you something before you go.” Her voice was low, and her blue eyes held a mixture of fear and hope and the unspoken words he knew were about to spill out of her small pink mouth.

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When you’re writing a book, I’ve told you once before the two best pieces of advice I received were: read a lot and write a lot. I also expressed how utterly useless that advice is without explaining the how to accomplish those two things.

For the most part, the life of a writer is not glamorous and is solitary. We spend the majority of our time writing or reading (either reading ours or someone else’s work). The rest of the time is spent on research, marketing, travelling to and from events, or working with our publishers, editors, and/or artists to finalize our manuscripts for publication.

Reading for writing requires an active mental presence of mind. It requires focus and critical thinking. You can’t read for fun if you’re trying to learn. You can’t turn your brain off and just put it into neutral (as so many people have told me at conferences). Not to bash reading for fun, I do it all the time. But if you want to be a writer you have to put that aside for a while. Reading doesn’t, in and of itself, make you a writer.

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I had the pleasure of listening to Blog Talk Radio’s “Author Spot Light” the other day featuring JaVonna from Review-Worm.com. If you’re writing a book and have an hour, do yourself a favor and listen to it.

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/reviewworm/2013/02/08/author-spot-light

During the podcast, host Nanci Arvizu and JaVonna Smith spoke about how to create a great author website

and how to effectively use social media. Given that I’ve put in countless hours reading articles about how to blog, use Facebook, and tweet about my book, I thought I was somewhat of an expert on these subjects. Alas, I was incorrect. Doh!

I’m not going to focus on the website portion because I think authors should hire professionals to design their websites.

In regards to social media (and particularly Twitter), the most common advice I see is the idea that our posts need to bring value to our followers. Yet, it is often broken. After all, we’re getting opposite advice from supposed gurus like Guy Kawasaki (blogger, venture capitalist, exec at Apple, Inc. back in the day) who propose using services like TwitterHawk (an automated bot which targets key words and sends automated replies to them) which Kawasaki called, “the ultimate spamming tool.”

So who do we authors believe? Kawasaki and those like him, or those like JaVonna or John Locke (not the philosopher but the self-published author who sold over 1 million e-books by himself then wrote a book on how he did it), who counsel for value added content and less promotional content.

I personally hated the advice of many who advise “follow anyone who follows you unless they’re a bot.” Kawasaki gives this advice – so does Locke. I did that for a long time (okay, about three months), and ended up having about 1,000 followers and following 1,000 people. But I never had a chance to read any of my followers’ tweets because they were gone too fast – lost to the feed. My feed was so back-logged with people spamming me their books, I started pulling my hair out. I cut those 1,000 followers down to 60. And you know what? I still have around 500 followers. I would rather have 500 people who want to hear what I have to say than 1,000 who don’t.

This leads me to the central theme of the podcast – the content of the tweet/post. Everyone advises the same thing, post “value-added” content – which means don’t just spam your book. I don’t want to be spammed so why should my readers? Besides, if they follow me, they probably already like my work. This is the most common rule I see broken and I do it too. The problem is what is “value-added” content?

I wish the podcast went into more detail about this, but most people define “value” as what your customer is looking for and what you provide.

That’s great except I’m an author. People want my book for entertainment purposes (and hopefully they learn a little something about Greek mythology and Egyptian spirituality along the way). So my “value” by conventional standards is my book. But that puts me in a Catch-22. How do you give a “valuable” tweet that is not about your book but is about your book at the same time?

The Emerald Tablet is based in Greek mythology and Egyptian mythology, particularly, the Hermetic law of alchemy. It is also a science-fiction story that encompasses portals, space travel, and futuristic technology. So there is an ancient and futuristic component.

To me, value added content is posting stuff about scientific advancements (space/astronomy), Greek mythology, Egyptian history, or anything related to the book that is informative to my readers/followers but not me saying, “Buy my book! Buy my book!”

Other than continuing what I’m doing and building relationships on Twitter by re-tweeting, conversing, and commenting on other people’s tweets, I haven’t found a magic solution to help market my book. As JaVonna said, social media is about time, commitment, consistency, and effort. Like writing a book, to get value, you must share something of value.

When you’re writing a book, you have to determine how the protagonist’s and antagonists will interact with each other. The Emerald Tablet has two antagonists. One starts out antagonistic, the other transforms into an antagonist. The first is driven by justice. The second is driven by ego and a feeling of self-worth. During the study of alchemy and hermetic law, the Egyptian mythology teaches us that there is no good and evil. Everything is just action and reaction. Everything is one and the same with varying degrees. This principle can be difficult to grasp when it comes to good and evil but I want you to take it to heart because when you create your antagonist, you’ll need to remember it. David Prowse said, “Nobody forgets the villain.”

So how do you create a memorable, believable, and relatable antagonist that people will love to hate?

1. This one is the most important rule. Your book doesn’t have a villain. Get the whole notion of hero/villain out of your mind. There are only protagonists and antagonists. Going back to what we said about the study of alchemy, everything is one and the same. Everything is action and reaction. Your so called “villain” doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. He believes he’s perfectly rationale, logical, and justified in his actions. He’s the hero of his own story – so in a way, you’re not writing about a good guy and a bad guy, you’re writing about two good guys with opposite points of view and opposite wants. Example: In the Emerald Tablet, Ankar doesn’t believe the murdering of thousands of people is evil because he believes they wronged him and is seeking justice. He sees himself as fighting for equality and justice. He uses his rationalizations of justice and equality to substantiate his murders. But he thinks he’s the good guy.

2. Know your antagonist’s why. Every character in your book has to have a why. If they don’t, get them out of your book. But the antagonist can’t have a vague “I want to conquer the world” why. Start with something small and relatable and then build it up. Example: From Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, Javert, a police officer, hunts down Jean Valjean, who is an escaped convict. In the Emerald Tablet, Ankar’s why is that he was exiled from his home-land and seeks justice for those crimes.

3. You must know as much about your antagonist as your protagonist. And you must feel as passionately about him/her as you do your protagonist or else it will show in your writing. This means you have to create as much of a backstory about your antagonist as you do your protagonist. Even if your story is not written from the antagonist’s point of view, as an exercise, write at least 5 chapters from the antagonist’s point of view. It will get you into their head like nothing else.

4. No person is completely evil or good. We are all a combination of both. Antagonists can do very sincere and thoughtful things and protagonists can act totally irrational and make mistakes. Example: Roy Batty in the movie Blade Runner. He is a bad guy – murders people, tortures, but is also incredibly intelligent and self-reflective – even philosophical. We feel sympathy for Batty in the end. “All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain. Time… to die.” Roy Batty. In the Emerald Tablet, both antagonists are capable of great passion and love, even fighting to save another character’s life. That’s not an action of an all-bad person.

5. You don’t have to create a big hulky, muscle-bound, or scarred man/woman as the antagonist. Sometimes the best villains don’t look mean or ugly or scary. My personal favorite example of this is Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. She is a small pudgy woman who wears excessive make-up, smiles all the time, speaks in an upbeat chipper voice, and wears an egregious amount of pink. And despite all of this she is a minion for the Dark Lord, Voldemort. She’s great because she’s relatable. You don’t have to look scary to be scary.

6. Bad guys generally start out with good intentions. Think about the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings. They were kings who wanted to use the power of the rings for good. But as they say, power corrupts.

7. Never create an antagonist who wants power just for the sake of power. That is not a redeeming quality and will garner no sympathy from your readership.

8. Never create an antagonist that poses no credible threat to your protagonist. Which means your protagonist can’t be so super awesome that he/she has no vulnerabilities. Expand your mind on this one. It doesn’t always have to be muscle vs. muscle. Lex Luther may not be able to fly, or have super strength and speed, but he’s smart as a whip and has enormous amounts of money, which gives him unlimited resources. In this way, he is every bit the equal to Superman which makes their cat and mouse worth it.

9. In total opposition to tip 8, don’t make the antagonist so powerful he can’t be stopped. Notice that I’m not saying the good guy has to win. I’m just saying that the good guy has to have a believable chance at winning.

10. The antagonist is the mover and shaker of your story. Without the antagonist messing things up, the protagonist would be home with the lady-friend (or guy-friend) and having a “movie night.” As Mr. Incredible said in the movie, The Incredibles: “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for… for ten minutes!” See? Give your protagonist something to do.

11. Your antagonist must have his/her own story arc. All characters start in one place and end up in another. They grow, they learn, and they adapt. Your antagonist has to do the same thing. He/she cannot be stagnating. That’s boring. Nobody likes boring. Make him/her evolve.

12. Want to blow your reader’s mind? The antagonist doesn’t have to be a “bad” guy. Think about that. Remember Javert from Les Miserables? He is a police officer just doing his job, catching the criminal, yet he is the antagonist of the story. Nothing he does is inherently mean or evil – it’s just that we feel far more sympathy to Jean Valjean, the criminal protagonist, than the police officer. Role reversal at its finest. That’s great writing.

13. But don’t forget the prodigious “kick the cat” moment. You’ve spent all this time building a relatable sympathetic antagonist but every once in a while you have to remind readers that he is the antagonist. This has been coined by Blake Snyder as the “kick the cat” moment (just as the protagonist has a “save the cat” moment). Have him do something naughty.

14. In that spirit – let the antagonist win. It’s no fun if the antagonist keeps losing – where’s the challenge? In Star Wars, Darth Vader destroys Alderaan. Hannibal Lecter escapes. The Joker murders Robin (Jason Todd) in the Batman comics. Give him a few victories.

15. And finally, if you’re going with whole “redemption” route. Keep in mind that once your antagonist redeems himself/herself and thus becomes “good” again, your story is over. So save it as the last scene or the next to last scene. Three scenes before the end of Star Wars Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader turns and kills the Emperor to save his son, Luke Skywalker. Redemption always comes at the very end. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of story left if you get there.

So these are just a few tips I have learned along the way while I was writing a book. Hopefully you learned something.

After reading other people’s reviews, comments, and criticisms of the movie Zero Dark Thirty, I decided to see it for myself. What I found was a brutal and realistic depiction of what the CIA analysts had to go through to complete the Bin Laden mission. Although I thought the movie stayed pretty clear of politics (like the decision to cross into Pakistan territory without letting the Pakistani government know beforehand that we were going to conduct a raid into their country or the moral and ethical issues surrounding Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques”), it was still political in many other ways (i.e. it does imply that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” lead to information that eventually helped complete the UBL mission). The movie opened with a scene depicting water-boarding of a prisoner. How’s that for brutal and realistic?

But seeing the movie made me think about the Emerald Tablet and writing a book. Although the Emerald Tablet and the mythology of alchemy and Thoth are spiritual in nature, it doesn’t mean my book series can be no less realistic. After all, I am a human writing about an alien world. And that’s what readers want. We want human stories in fantastic worlds that expand our imagination.

I often get asked the question, is my book YA (Young Adult)? Well, yes and no. YA, according to Wikipedia (therefore it must be right) YA is defined as ages 12 to 18. Let’s be honest. There is a huge difference in the appropriateness of what an 18 year old would read compared to a 12 year old. An 18 year old in our society can join the military, get a gun, and be ordered to kill people. 12 year olds can’t. So to lump those two ages into one gigantic “YA” category is absurd. That’s why I say the Emerald Tablet (and the rest of the series) is for people who are about 15 years old or older. Ideally, I wrote it for adults. I meant it to be a realistic exposition on good vs. evil. Not just the spiritual war of the alchemy in the series, but an ethical and moral one too. I wanted to say let’s be honest about war but set it in a science-fiction/fantasy world that is based on faith and spirituality. So yes, there’s violence in the book because violence is a very real part of our world. There’s sex in the book because it is a very real part of our existence. And there’s brutality in the series because our world can be brutal.

But don’t take this the wrong way, I don’t mean to say that every book in the world needs to have violence, sex, and brutality in order to feel “real”. Far from it. But having those things in the book might cause the readers to be more introspective as to what they’re willing to do in a life or death situation. As one of my reviewers on Amazon recently said, His [Leoros] life there collides and intersects with the lives of all he meets, some destined for greatness, some for infamy and treachery. Sometimes the lines are blurred between perceived good and evil. One things for sure, the story Never Let’s Up!”

That’s the point isn’t it? That’s what life is all about. No one person is all good or all evil. There are shades of grey (but there aren’t 50 Shades). We all do things we regret. We all do morally questionable activities at some point in our lives. The point is to have that discussion within yourself and find your moral center. I’d like to think the Emerald Tablet does that – especially with kids who are 15+. They are young, impressionable, and just discovering themselves in a world that’s full of opposites. They will be exposed to images of war that are horrific and brutal and will also see it at a younger age than every other generation before them because of technology. Yet they also find that our world can be extremely compassionate and loving, filled with people sacrificing their lives and freedoms so others may have theirs.

The Emerald Tablet is not just a spiritual journey through alchemy. It will always be about the moral and ethical decisions that shape who we are as we grow up. But this is what you should focus on when writing a book, the journeys of the characters.

I really want to talk about fear when you’re writing a book. It is such a monumental subject that it clouds almost everything we do in our lives. I know you’ve heard me discuss the stigma of paid reviews and the fallacy of back-scratching before through my guest blog posts on Review-Worm.com (http://review-worm.com/blog/), but I was trying desperately to come up with a reason why these biases are ingrained in our psyche as authors and writers. I’d like to think I’ve discovered it. We’re afraid.

The indie author community is mad and angry. We were rejected by a (or all) Big 6 Publishing house but we say, “To hell with them.”

We’ve got something to say and the world needs to read about it. So we self-publish and/or vanity publish our work. We know we don’t have the financing and capital of an author with the Big 6 so indie authors are competing among themselves. We are rivals, though we smile and join our “indie author communities” and try to support each other. At the end of the day, statistically, we won’t sell near as much as James Patterson. We fight for every e-book sale we get.

This is why indie authors hate paid review services. Because they think that another indie author will pay for a lot of positive reviews and get more sales than they do. It’s not really about ethics or morals. It’s about ego and money.

This brings me to the root of it. Fear. Authors are artists just like musicians or actors. We put our heart and soul into the performance of our work. We put it out into the public for their praise and criticism, for their love and their hate. And it’s soul crushing to get negative reviews.

Our whole world is seen through the eyes of fear and weakness. From our earliest ages, we are told not to touch the hot stove, we are told you can’t fly, we are told you can’t go to college or graduate school, we are told you can’t write a book or be an actor, we are told you can’t follow your passions and your dreams. This is all fear and it makes you weak if you believe it. You are not wrong to want to write, play, sing, dance, or whatever your passion is. You are not wrong to want to live your dreams. For every person who has told you no, tell yourself yes.

Life is truly very simple. Someone asked me how I wrote a book. I told her the steps.

Step 1: Turn on your computer.

Step 2: Open up your word processing software.

Step 3: Type and do not stop.

So then she said, “Yes, obviously but how do I keep doing that?”

I looked at her and said: “Step 4: Repeat steps 1 through 3 every day.”

Then she launched into a diatribe of excuses: busy schedule, work, laundry, kids, soccer practice, husband, family obligations, blah blah blah. It’s all an excuse. It’s all fear. If she wanted to write should write. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” End of story.

I told her the steps to do so but she has come from such a background of people saying “no” to her that she can’t see that most things in life are far simpler than we’re lead to believe.

Fear puts us in a position of weakness. It takes away our power. It says we are in the wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth. Do not let fear stop you from writing a book. You are not wrong to want to live your dream and explore your passion. In fact, it could be the first thing you’ve done “right” your whole life.