Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Serial Novel: Is it Right for You?

By Andrew Peterson

Just after Thomas & Mercer acquired the Nathan McBride series, my new in-house editor, Alan Turkus, asked if I’d be willing to participate in Amazon Publishing’s new Kindle Serial program. I was a little confused. “Serial novels,” I asked, “you mean like the cliffhangers of yore? Like that?” Alan said that’s exactly what he meant.

I knew the folks at Amazon Publishing were forward thinking, but this sounded incredible. It also sounded intriguing but I had some reservations. I knew I couldn’t say yes or no until I had a lot more information. Only 100 pages of my third book had been written but Alan thought it was perfect for the Kindle Serial program and he wanted OPTION TO KILL to be one of eight books for the debut.

This wasn’t a decision I felt comfortable making alone. I needed help. Jake Elwell is not only a terrific literary agent he’s also a good friend. We needed to weigh the pros and cons before committing. After we got the scoop from Amazon, we talked it over and concluded I should give it a try. There were a lot of unknowns but we felt confident the folks at Amazon had a plan to make the program a success.

The challenge:
One thing was certain from the beginning, writing a serial novel was going to take a chunk out of me. Although I had a head start, I’d need to submit around twelve thousand words every two weeks over the next few months.

In the purest definition, OPTION TO KILL was a true serial novel. Its episodes were being released as they were written which created a unique challenge I hadn’t considered. Because the serial format wouldn’t allow me to go back and do any revising, all the episodes had to be edited and polished before I submitted them to Thomas & Mercer. I needed to make sure that each free standing episode worked in conjunction with previous and future episodes. I wasn’t breaking a completed book into pieces; OPTION was a work in progress. 

The delivery:
We knew there would be some resistance to serials because the electronic generation places a lot of emphasis on speed.

Faster internet. Faster cell service. And of course, faster delivery of eBooks.

Within seconds, you can download an entire novel from the cloud. So here was Amazon—a company built around the concept of ease and speed, offering readers an alternative. People now had the choice to slow down and enjoy a novel over several months, rather than days. I’ll tell you why I’m using the word “choice” a little later. I’d heard the expression, “the pioneers take the arrows,” but I was about to find out first hand what that meant.

The launch:
I scrambled to stay ahead of the submission schedule and turned in the first episode of OPTION in early August of 2012. A month later, episode one was copy edited and ready for launch. The first twelve thousand words of a planned 90,000 word novel were about to debut on Amazon’s Kindle Serial page. I was excited, but uneasy. Were people going to embrace serials, or reject them? I’d have my answer soon enough.

The initial response:
Feedback started appearing on the day of the launch because it only took an hour or so to read the first episode. I’ll be honest, when unfavorable reviews on the serial format started appearing, they really bothered me.

Alan Turkus was a gem and pointed out that although people loved the story, they were just expressing their displeasure about the delivery format, not the content. Yes, that was true, but all those one-star reviews affected the overall rating of the book. I found myself taking arrows—by the dozens. 

"Getting" the serial:
It’s unfortunate some people were critical of the serial format, even after knowing exactly what they were buying. Granted, there was some understandable confusion over the term "series" versus "serial." Many people just thought they were buying the next book in the series, not the first episode in a serial. I can only imagine the dismay and resentment readers must’ve felt if they hadn’t realized they were buying a serial and found the story ending with a cliffhanger.

In fairness to Amazon Publishing, it’s important to note that no deception was going on. The price of the entire serial was just $1.99. It didn’t cost any more to receive the rest of the episodes. Also, in the Kindle listing, Amazon mentioned the serial format in three different locations, even in green font.

I'm certain there were more than a few Kindle customers who simply weren’t expecting a serial novel in the Nathan McBride series, so they didn’t think twice about buying it. They just saw a new Andrew Peterson book and ordered it.

Reader's choice:
Here’s where the “choice” I mentioned earlier came into play. Okay, a customer bought OPTION TO KILL and discovered it was a serial novel. All they had to do was wait for all the episodes to download before reading any more of the story. Right? I mean, if you didn’t want to read it in serial format, you didn’t have to.

In concept, it was like a pre-order, with the option to read the novel in episodic format—or not. After making the purchase, the process became automatic. The customer didn’t have to do anything. Kindle devices and apps were updated as knew episodes were released every two weeks.

Opportunity and collaboration:
We all need to remember that Amazon isn’t some nebulous thing, it’s made of people and those people have been outstanding through my journey with them. The folks on the Thomas & Mercer team have been terrific and very supportive.

Quite literally, Amazon Publishing treats its authors like valued customers which leads me to another point. Writing a novel is a solitary endeavor, but after it’s complete, it changes to a collaboration. There are many people who were involved in the process of production, marketing, and distribution of the Kindle Serials and I can’t say enough about them. I never felt like I was alone.

The serial process also presented an opportunity for an interactive conversation between readers and the author during the writing of the book. Conceivably, although it didn’t happen in my case, readers could’ve influenced the story through feedback given along the way. So the serialization, coupled with real-time communication, takes an old concept and adds a dynamic new twist.

Changing reader's expectations:
About halfway through the serial release, the feedback changed to positive. It was like a light switch was flipped. People began to anticipate the episodes with ever greater interest and eagerness. The jury was split down the middle. Some people said they’d never buy another serial, while others really enjoyed the prolonged delivery. Do you watch Homeland in episodes as they’re released, or wait to buy the entire season on DVD? There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a personal choice.  

I think the role of an author is evolving with the times. Back in the day when serials first emerged, authors didn’t have the level of interaction with readers like they do today. It’s not a profession for introverts anymore. The electronic age has lifted the veil. Is it a good change? I think it is.

Andrew Peterson began writing fiction in 1990. He sold a short story, Mr. Haggarty’s Stop, to San Diego Writers Monthly in October, 1992. He continued to write, exploring both the novel form and screenplays. After attending his first writer’s conference in 2005, he became serious about writing the Nathan McBride stories. FIRST TO KILL is Andrew’s debut thriller which features Nathan McBride, the “brutally effective” trained Marine Corps scout sniper and CIA operations officer. He's since released FORCED TO KILL and OPTION TO KILL. New York Times bestselling author Steve Berry says, "Part Jack Reacher, part Jason Bourne, Nathan McBride is a compelling, conflicted hero. Option to Kill is a masterful thrill ride. Definitely one for your keeper shelf. I couldn’t put it down.”

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Priming Your Brainstorm

By Katherine Ramsland

You know the feeling: You’re at an impasse with a character or plot point and you can’t seem to dissolve it. You’re frustrated, perhaps desperate. It’s going nowhere, but you’re on a deadline. You’ve run out of ways to spur your muse.

Consider this: Don’t work so hard. The less you push, the better your chances of getting what you need. Your brain actually requires some space to do its best work.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov realized this. Whenever he experienced writer’s block, he knew it was useless to force the issue. So, he’d go to a movie. He let his subconscious process the material in its own way. Once he returned, he invariably had new ideas. (I’ve tried this, and it works.) 

Many writers, inventors, scientists, and artists have discovered the same thing. The solution arrives – aha! – seemingly from nowhere. But these moments seem so random, as of those people just got lucky.

The truth is that you – any of you can harness your resources to produce them. According to recent neuroscience research, with a little work you can prime your brain for “aha! moments.” You can also provoke them on a regular basis. They’re a direct result of balancing work and play. 

I call them “snaps,” because the flash of genius that really counts is more than just a shift of consciousness or new perspective. Snaps contain the trigger for momentum—they break through the impasse and snap us into action to switch strategy. So, first, you left brain work: do your research. Be diverse. Gather lots of different types of data, including items unrelated to your project. This “idea stew” forms your knowledge base.

Then, read through the material on which you’re blocked, pull away, and go do something fun. Relaxing your left brain releases your eager right brain to reshape the data you’ve stored into unique new patterns. When you least expect it, an idea will pop. 

Consider these examples: 

*Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in a dark basement in Pittsburgh. He failed time and again, so he went to Italy to wander through a monastery. There, he experienced a rush of ideas, including the one for the polio vaccine.

*Friedrich Nietzsche was out for a walk in the mountains when his famous Zarathustra tale tumbled forth.

*Martin Cooper was watching Star Trek when he first envisioned the cell phone.

*J. K. Rowling was on a stalled train when she snapped on a child wizard. “I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed) hours,” she said, “and all the details bubbled up in my brain.” 

So, walk, juggle, take a nap, or take a shower: do something that eases the left brain’s cognitive load. Give it the break it needs to stir up your idea stew and find a delightful aha! insight.

Bio for Katherine Ramsland 
I have been writing for over two decades, in several formats and genres. I started with an academic book about a philosopher, but then I wrote commercial biographies of Anne Rice and Dean Koontz. Shortly thereafter, I got involved in immersion journalism and penned a book about my exploration of the vampire subculture, followed by one on ghost hunters and another about people in the death business. At this time I was teaching philosophy at Rutgers University, but I left to get another grad degree in forensic psychology, which changed the focus of my writing entirely. I now teach psychology at DeSales University and have extensive experience in researching and writing about criminal psychology and forensic science.  
I have published more than 1,000 articles and 47 books, including Psychopath, The Ivy League Killer, The Vampire Trap, The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers and Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators. Additionally, I have published two vampire thrillers, The Heat Seekers and The Blood Hunters. My latest books are Blood and Ghosts and Snap! Seizing Your Aha! Moments. 
I train homicide officers, attorneys, and coroners, and speak internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, serial murder, and narrative nonfiction. I have appeared on numerous documentaries, as well as on such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood Story. I was also the recurring expert on the ID network for Born to Kill and the American Occult series, and I’ve consulted for CSI and Bones. I have a blog on the Psychology Today site called Shadow Boxing, and my forthcoming e-book this summer is The Sex Beast.
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Book description: 

Sudden flashes of inspiration have triggered many discoveries and inventions throughout history. Are such Aha! moments merely random or is there a way to train the brain to harness these seemingly unpredictable creative insights? In this fascinating overview of the latest neuroscience findings on spontaneous thought processes or “snaps,” Dr. Katherine Ramsland describes how everyone can learn to improve the chances of achieving their own Eureka! moments by adopting certain attitudes and habits. Snaps are much more than new ideas. Snaps are insights plus momentum—they instantly snap us toward action. They often occur after ordinary problem solving hits an impasse. We may feel stuck, but while we’re in a quandary, the brain is rebooting. Then, when we least expect it, the solution pops into our heads.

Ramsland describes the results of numerous scientific experiments studying this phenomenon. She also recounts intriguing stories of people of all ages and from diverse disciplines who have had a snap experience. Both the research and the stories illustrate that it’s possible to enhance our facility for snap moments by training ourselves to scan, sift, and solve. SNAP teaches us how to cultivate our own inner epiphanies to gain an edge in business, career paths, and even our personal lives. 

“This is a fascinating exploration of the mind when it's in hyperdrive, as illuminating as it is fun to read.” – Dean Koontz 

“In this entertaining and thought-provoking study, Ramsland explores the phenomenon of sudden insight—‘a dramatic brilliance that floods the mind and clicks into place’--which she calls the ‘snap.’” – PW

“You may reach the end…and think, ‘Aha! I feel smarter than I did before I read this book.’”– Deborah Blum