Thursday, December 26, 2013

Amateur or Professional: Attitudes and Behaviors

Yesterday we talked about a basic misconception about amateur vs. professional writers. That misconception was that amateurs produce lower quality work than professionals. This is certainly true sometimes or even often, but it is also true that many amateurs produce higher quality work than many professionals. So, if the difference isn't quality what are the differences.

Well, the simple answer is that professionals write for money and amateurs need money to keep writing. It's a bit over simplistic. But they key distinguishing factor between the professional and amateur in any endeavor comes down to money. Not whether or not one makes money writing. I suspect that some talented industrious amateurs may make more money writing than some less talented, less industrious professionals struggling to make a living with words.

No, it's not the amount of money, but more of the function the money plays. For the professional, money is the paycheck for work done. Projects are chosen, at least in part, based on how much money can be realized from that project. This is not a matter of being untrue to oneself or writing romance novels when you hate even reading romance novels. It is, however, a matter of given two projects, both of which are of interest and choosing the one more likely to be published (or for the indie writer, to sell more copies.) An amateur, freed from the need to show a profit, is more likely to pursue projects out of personal interest as the dominant deciding factor.

Amateurs in general are more willing to take risks than professionals. Since I am in the process of transitioning from professional to amateur for awhile, I am particularly attracted to this idea. When you are depending on part or all of your income coming from writing, you tend to play it safe. If you know a certain type of writing pays the bills, then you do more of that. If something is too far out there, your first instinct is to shy away from it. Amateurs, freed of the need to show a profit, can afford to experiment with something interesting, but uncertain of success.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the professional and the amateur is the priority writing assumes in their lives. Again, I warn you to not place any value judgement on what comes next. Just because writing is not your top priority doesn't make you a bad writer any more than making it number one makes you a good one. However, it is a distinction between pro and am.

The professional writer has writing as close to his or her top priority. Think about it as your job. This is even easier to do if you think about it as your job as the sole wage earner in the household and you work for a fair but demanding boss. I spent 30 years as a college instructor. I couldn't give the excuses I often hear from "professional" writers for not having time to write. Since this is close to Christmas, I've heard a lot of writers say they haven't been able to write because of getting ready for Christmas celebrations.

I could just imagine if I went in to my dean and said, "Hey, Dean, I'm going to be missing a lot of classes because I have to shop for gifts, write some Christmas cards and go to a few parties." I would probably have been able to go to a lot of parties without the encumberance of classes if I did that.

The professional sets his or her craft above just about everything else. At times this can even include family. Now, I'm not saying the professional writer will miss his or her daughter's high school play in order to outline a novel. However, I am saying, s/he has to be willing to set limits. Again going back to my days as a teacher. I was primary caregiver for my mother the last few years of her life. But she knew that she could call the school (which she had on speed dial) in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, she could call me when I wasn't in class. Did that mean that she was less important to me than my job? No. It meant that when I was in that classroom, only an emergency (usually meaning something that would involve people in uniforms and vehicles with sirens) was enough to get me out of the classroom. Mother understood this and never called for minor things while I was in school. After all, guess where I learned my work ethic.

Just because a professional works at home, doesn't mean s/he should be any less diligent about the job. The professional sets times to work and, barring emergencies, works during those times. Entertainment, minor family matters, conversations with friends or any other distraction is eliminated during that time.

The amateur by contrast, can be less tied to a routine. S/he can lay down the pen or shut the laptop and say, "That's enough for today. I'm taking the kids out for Ice Cream." The amateur doesn't have to meet any self-imposed deadlines. They can work at their own pace, and, if they get behind their planned schedule, they can tear up the schedule and make a new one.

The amateur can take a day off just to kick back and relax. If her daughter wants to go out shopping for a prom dress and she is in the middle of a chapter, she can finish that sentence, close the laptop and head to the store.

Again, this does not make the amateur a poor writer. It does impact productivity. The amateur who makes writing a lower priority than other activities will produce less copy than the writer who does not. There are trade offs. I'm at the point where I find I've been trading off too much of my rest and relaxation that I should have as a "retired" person for my writing. That's one reason I'm moving from professional to amateur. I put out 23 titles last year. I'm not going to do that this year. It will likely be less than half that number. But I'll be doing some other things which, for the time being, will be a higher priority. Teaching, mentoring, helping other young (not referring to age, but experience) writers get published. And maybe taking an occasional day to stock up on snacks and soda and watch a marathon of old movies or read an entire novel in one setting. But I'm under no illusion that my writing output will suffer. But it's a worthwhile trade off for me now. In a few months, when I go back into pro mode, then I'll trade off that freedom for productivity.

Professionals also write whether they feel like it or not. Going back to my college teaching. You might not realize it, but teachers are creative artists. We have to create original ways to teach a subject. Sometimes those take as much planning and inspiration as plotting a novel. Then we have to stand in front of a group of 30 people and do our song and dance at the highest energy level we can muster to get the point across. I have left class sessions completely exhausted and soaking wet with persperation. And we do that, at the college level, 2-3 times a day or more.

Did I always feel like doing that? Did I always have an "inspired" lesson plan for the day? Did I always "wow" the students with my performance? I think you know the answer. 186 class sessions a  year, some days I was not exactly inspired to teach. However, I couldn't call in and say, "Well, Dean, it's like this the teaching muse just isn't with me today. So, I'm not teaching. I'm just going to wait until I feel like teaching."

The professional writer is going to have days like that too. S/he can't take off the day. Now there are tricks many of us use to keep going. I have more than one project going at any one time. So, if I don't feel very inspired by my primary project, I can switch to a secondary one. Or if you don't feel like composing, then you might switch gears and do some editing or marketing. What you don't do is take the day off. You keep working.

The Amateur writer, however, can step away from the writing for awhile. If the writing is like pulling teeth, you can stop, take some time to recharge and come back to it later. Read a book, take a trip out of town, wash dishes, play a game, whatever and get back to the writing in a day or two. Of course, this, too, will affect productivity. But the smart amateur understands that productivity, while important for a professional to create a steady income stream, is not always going to be the amateur's top priority.

The most important thing for amateurs to take away from this discussion (which we will continue tomorrow with a deeper discussion of the benefits of each approach) is that first, there is nothing wrong with being an amateur and your writing can be as good or better than much that is done by professional writers. The second takeaway, though, is that the advantages of the amateur approach (ability to experiment, time to perfect the details, working inconsistently and not being tied to the computer) come with a price. That price is lower productivity.

The takeaway for professionals is that there is a price for pursuing writing as a career. You will have less time to spend with family and friends. You will need to keep a schedule, set and meet deadlines, write everyday (or close to it), have to say "no" to some social events and even some minor family activities, just like you would if you had a job outside the home. On the other hand, you have the joy of seeing your work in print and you have a career which let's you work with words and build worlds and characters.

Either approach requires trade offs. Neither is better or worse, but you need not expect either approach to come without a price.

Amateur or Professional Writer: Some Observations -Part 1

I'm currently moving from the professional camp to the amateur for awhile. Having lived on both sides of that dividing line, I have some observations about both. Over the next few days I'm going to be discussing this. As we face the new year, many of us who write have to decide in the months ahead whether to be an amateur or a professional.

However, before I get into a discussion of the differences and benefits of each, I want to dispel a
couple of red herrings.

First, being an amateur does not mean low quality work or a lack of discipline. This is a big misconception. Sometimes I've mentioned to a writer who said they wanted to create a certain type of writing without concern for sales, marketing or profit that they were amateurs, I've almost gotten my head knocked off metaphorically speaking.

The distinction between Amateur and Professional has nothing to do with quality.
In a few weeks the Winter Olympics will open. These are amateur athletes. No one would claim that their devotion to their discipline is less rigorous than that of athletes on the pro circuit. The difference is that they received no prize money, and, theoretically, they do not receive renumeration for their competing. Okay, that may not be the best example, because we do know that many of them receive endorsements which, for all intents and purposes, are a type of prize money.

A better example possibly is a musician and a community band or an actor in a community Playhouse. They get little or no money from the music or the acting, and they have day jobs unrelated to those fields. Nevertheless, they are usually very good performers.

An amateur writer is simply one for whom the act of writing is of less importance than getting paid for that writing. In other words, they do not think about writing as a means of making money. It is always nice when they get money. However, the real joy of the writing comes from the writing itself and seeing that writing in publication.

A professional writer, on the other hand, uses or her writing is primarily a job. Is there a means of making an income. That income may be a full-time income or maybe a part-time income, but many of their decisions are made based on the business of writing rather than the joy of writing. This does not mean that they don't take joy in the writing. However, they continue to write even when the joy is there. They may even write things that they aren't exactly thrilled about writing, but it brings in part of that income.

They are interested in productivity and profit. Now, this does not make them a hack anymore than a mechanic who owns his own shop is a poor mechanic simply because he watches the bottom line in his business. It seems, that the arts are the only business where, if you act like businesspeople, you're accused of betraying your craft.

However, many professionals may produce lower quality work than many amateurs. Indeed, a highly skilled amateur will probably produce individual works of higher quality than most professionals. This is because they do not have to meet deadlines, build up a brand, produce a line of books, and manage their time to a place where they cannot spend months or even years perfecting a single piece of writing.

Indeed, in traditional fiction, the majority of the titles published by major publishers are not published by professional fiction writers. They are published by people who have other jobs. With the exception of a few best-selling authors, traditionally published fiction doesn't usually provide enough income for someone to devote themselves full-time to that field. There are exceptions. Some people have supplemental income like a pension or working spouse. However, most have "day jobs, and they fit their writing into their life."

Perhaps that is the single distinguishing characteristic of a professional writer in contrast to an amateur writer. An amateur writer fits writing into their life. The professional writer adjusts her life to their writing.

However, this does not mean the quality of the writing or the commitment of the writer to his or her art is inferior in the amateur.

So, as we go through the following days looking at these two paths good writers can take, do not lay a value judgment on either path. Each is a perfectly legitimate path which can lead to publication. However, at some time most of us have to make the decision whether we wish to remain an amateur or pursue a professional career. And, for some like myself, we have to decide whether or not we want to remain pursuing a professional career with all its limitations and stresses or return to the less stressful amateur approach.

So, over these next few days, I would like you to begin to think about which path you want to pursue in 2014.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Going Out of Business - Sort of, temporarily.

For the past year and a half, writing has been my business, my profession. Since I retired, I've used my writing income to supplement my pension. It has helped a great deal.

However, recently, I've been noticing a great deal of stress. The sort that makes it hard to sleep, saps the joy out of life and makes you sick. Since I retired, I have no health insurance, so not getting sick is a big deal with me. Especially, since I retired early because of health issues. (Can you spell I-R-O-N-Y).

Anyway, I've been praying and I have decided to quit my job as a writer, at least temporarily. I have other writing related things going on like doing ebook formatting for a small publisher and I have several things I've written that just need editing and uploading to Kindle. And I intend to keep working on some writing projects I have. However, I am no longer going to treat it like a job or my profession.

I'm going to play the dilettante for  awhile. Write when I feel like it. Wait for inspiration. Not set a schedule. Take days off. Let it become a lower priority than say time with family and friends. In other words - a hobby.

Now, if you are dependent on writing for your income, or if you are trying to make an income (part-time or full-time) or you want to be a serious writer, DON'T DO THIS!!!

I'm kind of in a creative depression right now. I think it is because I have been putting out more creative content than I've been taking in. I've been exhausting myself working or worrying when I'm not working. Trying to produce too much in too little time. I need to full up the old bucket of creativity again. And I can afford to do so. The books I have out already provide some nice residual income as do a few other sources.

Most significantly, i feel I need to devote more time to mentoring other writers, teaching my classes (where I've fallen behind), and basically helping others get into print.

This is not a "resignation", but more like a leave of absence or sabbatical. How long it will last, I do not know. Check in and maybe I'll give you some updates. Maybe I won't. Right now, I'm getting out of the front seat and letting someone else do the driving for awhile.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Keeping the Main Thing THE MAIN THING

Right before I retired from teaching, i kept a time log and discovered, to my dismay, that I spent more time in committee meetings, working on accreditation, and dealing with other aspects of administrivia than I did either in the classroom or developing educational plans for my students. 

Sometimes as writers, we can get into the same routine. We can spend time blogging, posting to our author pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc. We take part in email discussion groups or go to writer's club meetings and conferences. And none of these things are bad in and of themselves, but I've been tracking my time again and I don't like what I see. I seem to be doing it again. I'm spending more time on the peripheral aspects of writing than I am on actual writing.

So, since this is the time for New Year's planning. (Resolutions are worthless without a plan to actualize them) I've decided in 2014 to increase my writing and decrease some of my ancillary activities.

I may have to reduce some of my social media presence. I may need to control myself when I want to spend an hour responding to something in an online writing group. Most important, I need to set and keep specific times for writing.

What are you planning to do in 2014 to keep the main thing THE MAIN THING in your writing?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

El Nino: A Christmas Mystery

El Nino:
A Christmas Mystery

Michael pulled open the dark oak door. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the subdued lighting inside the church. Michael pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his face.

“December 23 and the place is like an oven out there,” he grumbled.

“I’m afraid our weather control is not as sophisticated in Aldrin as it is in Armstrong, but we are assured that we will have snow for Christmas,” The small man in clerical garb pumped our hands bowing slightly as he did. “I am Father Vishnu Singh. I know, Vishnu is an odd name for a Catholic priest, but my parents were Hindu. And you are the famous Carolyn Masters and Michael Cheravik. Would you like some tea? I have an excellent Ceylon.”

I was not sure I liked the idea of being famous. So, we solved a couple of crimes, but if I had known it would make us “celebrities,” I might have let the crooks go. However, I do like a good cup of tea. Mike? Not so much.

“You called and said something was stolen. What is it?” Michael considered himself direct. Others called him blunt. I say he is an acquired taste.

“Oh, certainly. You are busy people. Very busy. If it weren’t Christmas… But it is… And the children you see….”
As he spoke not quite finishing any thought, he led us to the front of the church. He quickly genuflected and then pointed to a nativity scene. The baby Jesus was missing.

“This is terrible. Why would anyone steal… Why now?” The priest kept wringing his hands. 

“Father, perhaps the figure was valuable.” I tried to be gentle. I had the feeling this priest didn’t think much about the material aspects of life.

“I – I never thought of that. But it’s not. Not really. We are a poor parish. Most of the people are transient workers. They come to the moon to work the mines and the big agricultural domes. Three years ago the people sacrificed to buy these. They were not expensive by the standards of Armstrong or Collins, but the people are proud to have done what they could.”

I understood Aldrin. It was a company town. Cheap housing, company-owned businesses, half the pay chips tuned for use exclusively at the company stores. I grew up in its twin on Earth.

“These people. They work hard. What little they make they send home to their families on Earth. The few families we do have live on the edge of poverty. Not like Earth, of course, but still it is a hard life. I do what I can to help. But they are a proud people. The Marquez family, for instance, has a son, Colin who suffers from a degenerative spinal disease. He needs stim braces or even a wheel chair so he can get around. I offered to ask the Diocese in Armstrong, but Adrian, the father, declined my offer, even though his wife and Colin’s brother Gabriel begged him to relent.”
“Sometimes people too proud to accept a gift are not too proud to steal.” Mike grumbled.

I wanted to slap Mike for saying it, but it is true.

“No, No. I cannot believe that of the Marquez family. Besides, Adrian is working the silicon mine this week. It’s so far out of town the miners sleep on site.”

“Well, I think we’ve seen all we need to see here.” Mike turned to leave.

“Uh- sir – ma’am. Don’t you want to take fingerprints and all that?”

Before Mike could put his foot in it again, I said, “Father, your door is open all the time. I am sure many people in reverence have touched these figures. Dusting for prints would just make a mess in your sanctuary and not help us find your stolen property.”

The tea in the tiny rundown coffee shop at the tube station was adequate, but the grimace on Mike’s face told me his “cup o’ Joe” was not.

“I don’t see what we can do. That place is open to everyone. You know Aldrin. The second highest petty crime rate on the moon. Can’t you work some FBI profiler magic?”

My FBI years were way behind me. I much prefer parsing out historical trends in pop culture to investigating crimes. However, Mike didn’t seem to recognize that as my past.

“One thing bothers me. If this theft was about money, why take the baby Jesus and leave the rest. You don’t fence one figure from a Nativity Scene. And why leave the silver candlesticks?”

“Yeah, I thought of that. For some reason, someone wanted THAT figurine. Think something’s hidden in it.”
“Maybe, but what? It’s not a great hiding place. Maybe we should consider victimology.”

“The baby Jesus as victim?”

“Sort of, in a homicide we always ask ‘why this person at this time.’ Let’s do that now. Why the baby Jesus at Christmas.”

“I see where you are going.”

“I think we can clear this up before the next tube leaves for Armstrong.”


The homemade wind chimes fashioned from old tubing clanged as I lifted the knocker on the pressed wood door covered by a type of plastic wood look veneer. We could hear a baby crying. The crying approached the door.
A woman about thirty, whose eyes looked much older, with a baby pressed against her shoulder, opened the door. “Hello, what do you want?”

“I am sorry to disturb you, but could we speak with Gabriel. Father Singh asked us to check on something, and we think Gabriel could help us.”

“Father Singh, eh. He’s a big guy. He should be able to take care of his own business.”

“Mrs. Marquez, Singh is a short guy that a strong breeze would blow away. Now, if you are satisfied we actually talked to him, we need to talk to Gabriel.” Sometimes Mike’s bluntness was just right for the situation.

Mrs. Marquez pulled back the door. “Gabriel, aqui, ahora!”

A boy, about ten, came running from around a corner, and then caught a throw rug and slid to a halt in front of us.

Mi hijo. One of these days you will fall and break your neck doing that.”

Gabriel didn’t seem worried.

“These people want to talk to you. Father Singh sent them.”

The smile on Gabriel’s face faded and he looked down.

“I didn’t mean no harm. Really. I would have taken him back.”

Mi hijo, what did you do, now?”

“Mrs. Marquez, let’s sit down and discuss this. I think we can clear everything up.”

“All I have is some horcha in the refrigerator. Would you like some?”

“Yes, thank you,” Even though I knew this was probably the last of the coconut milk, and the family would be drinking water for a week, I also knew that to refuse would be an affront to the dignity of a woman who had little left but dignity.

We sat around a plastic table in the kitchen. Gabriel fingered his glass of horchata.

Mi hijo, tell these people the truth. We may not have much, but we have our honor. But there is no honor in lying.”

Gabriel looked at his mother and then at us then he looked back toward a bedroom.

“I had to do it. Colin wouldn’t get to see him otherwise.”

“See who?” The mother was doing a better job of interrogation than we could.


“I don’t understand.”

Gabriel hung his head. “You see, Papa is the only one strong enough to carry Gabriel to church. He won’t be here this Christmas. So…”

I decided to help the boy out, “So, you decided if Colin could not go to Jesus, you could bring Jesus to Colin.”
Gabriel nodded without looking up.

“Gabriel, where is it? What did you do with it?”

“I was going to bring him here for just a few minutes and then take it back. I washed my hands real good, even put holy water on them. But when I went back, town security was there.”

“Well, Gabriel Jose Antonio Marquez, you know what you have to do?”

“Yes, Mama.” Gabriel left his glass of horacha on the table untouched. His mother poured it back into the bottle. He returned with the figure, wrapped in a blanket carrying it like a baby. 

We walked back to the church together.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tell the Story


As writers we tend to micromanage our writing. It is easy to get caught up in where to place a comma, how long a chapter should be, whether to use dialog tags (he said, she said) or action tags in dialog, the proper CMOS for chapter headings, passive tense vs. active, less or fewer, and the list goes on. 

Don't get me wrong, these are all important aspects of polishing, but you can polish a lump of coal for hours and it
Photo by Pratham Books
will never become a diamond. To make a jewel you have to start with the gem, uncut, dull, lusterless, but the gem has to be there. 

For fiction writers, the gem is the story. I notice that when many writers critique other writer's work or post reviews on Amazon, they often point to the minutia of the writing, and, often, gloss over the story itself.

However, a non-writing reader is primarily interested in the story. When talking about your book to others, few will mention a particular turn of phrase, how often you used adverbs or if there were "floating body parts" or "head hopping scenes." What they will focus on is "And then they...."

The reader will forgive the occassional missed comma, awkward sentence or passive voice. What they will not forgive is a boring plot with characters they cannot relate to. Someone said the unforgivable sin of writing is boring your reader.

Always start with characters your reader can love, hate or move between the two who are sympathetic, but unique and interesting, who are real, but not quite ordinary. Then put them in a challenging situation, give them plenty of problems to solve, get them into trouble and show them overcoming the problems or succumbing to them, but tell a story that makes your reader keep turning the pages.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Write What You Love and Publication will Follow

Back in the 80s a book was published called "Do what you Love and the Money Will follow." I never got around to reading that book, but I always was intrigued by the title. Sometimes I thought it was genius. Other times ... well I don't use that type of language. But the older I got, I began to see the true meaning of that comment.

We too often get our careers backwards. We start with what has the highest salaries instead of what
will provide the most personal satisfaction. The problem with that approach is that we are generally unenthusiastic about those jobs chosen for the income potential alone, which means we don't do well on the job interviews and, if we get the job, we won't perform well.

The same holds true of writing. I've had writing students come into class with the first question being, "So, what is selling now?" It is as if they are saying, "I am not a unique person with a unique vision to share. I am simply a merchant looking for the right product to sell."

Certainly, one needs to be aware of publishing trends. Selling cozy mysteries, like I write is a bit harder than selling the more hard boiled PI or police procedural. That means I have to find my audience and be creative in reaching them. It also means, I'll have better luck with indie publishing or small publishers than with the Big Six who tend to play it safe with the trends.

What it does NOT mean is that I should not write cozy mysteries. There is a market for them. I just have to find them. But more important than that, I am likely to be more enthusiastic in my writing of a cozy, than a police procedural. That means I will do a better job, which in turn means, more people will recommend my books to their friends which will lead to more sales.

I know, some of you are saying, that's all well and good if you are an indie and control what does and does not get published yourself. But what about traditional authors? Well, this is where the indie publishing revolution can help traditional authors. Go ahead and write your passion. If your publisher or agent doesn't like it and you do, tell them you will just go indie with it. You might frame it as "test marketing." But you are no longer held hostage to a survey showing a decrease in sales of cozies nation wide. You can prove an interest in solid sales.

However, even if you do not go that route, your writing will be better if you write what you love. That means you will get a better reading from an editor or agent than if you just turned out something to fit into a trend.

Yes, if you write what you love, publication will follow, but more importantly you will also love what you write.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Quick Tips: Misdirection, Magic and Clues in Mystery Novels

One of the keys to keeping the clues from being too obvious is a bit a misdirection. I used to do magic during my younger days. My boss' fiance would hang out at the radio station where I worked at the time. I was supposed to amuse her I guess while he was dawdling over something. I would show her tricks, and she was so easy to fool. As long as I held her eyes I could march a line of elephants through the room and she wouldn't have noticed. So, I would do something big, but unimportant with one hand and then move something into place with the other, often in plain view if she had been looking that way.

You can do the same with clues in a story. Hide your clue like a leaf in a forest. Keep people looking at the trees and not the leaves. For instance, a cookie plays a role in one of my stories. However, it's just introduced by someone sitting around a table having coffee. They are offered a cookie and take it right in the middle of a discussion about the major suspects in the case. The cookie looks just like stage setting. Something not very important, just a sweet with coffee while discussing the important stuff.

Always make a big deal out of the unimportant stuff and be dismissive of the important clues.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Writing is a lonely profession - NOT!!

When I was in college journalism classes, you learned to write by being herded into a typing (yes, I'm that old, and they were manual typewriters) room, given some facts for a news story, given a 30 minute deadline and set to work. Later
photo by Amy Guth
working on newspapers and in radio stations, and eventually in academia, the collegiality of those social writing environments were both stimulating intellectually and comforting emotionally.

You could bounce ideas off each other, ask for help, or take a break and catch up on the office gossip, which sometimes was oddly refreshing. Just the knowledge of these other writers working around you made you feel not so much alone in this great endeavor to share words and ideas with the world.

I sometimes wonder why it is that I can produce 50,000+ words of fiction during National Novel Writing Month and barely get half that done any other time. But I know why. It's the knowledge that any time I sit down at the keyboard and begin that wrestling match with my characters and plot that there are thousands of other people doing the same. And they aren't just nameless, faceless people. I get burnt out or tired or need some inspiration or a question answered, I can click over to the discussion board and take part in a "word war" or give a suggestion or two about names in the future or philosophize about whether dystopic fiction is depressing or hopeful, or just share the frustration of the writing life.

One would think with all those digressions, that productivity would wane. Yet, the opposite is true. Just as that short gossip break in the middle of covering a big story or working on that course outline in a face-to-face setting can be the refreshing break you need to push through, seeing that "wordwarrior1978" didn't quite hit your high score for the day, or simply answering the question, "What is your character doing right now?" can help me get that second wind to push through to my daily writing goal in a way working alone cannot.

So, where is all this leading? Modern internet technology, what has been called Web 2.0, has created tools for us to move away from the isolation many of us can feel as writers. We are in a position to encourage one another, hold each other accountable, motivate, inspire, stimulate, assist and even provide those "water cooler" moments of diversion that refresh.

While social networking like Twitter, Facebook, Shoutlife, Linked in and MySpace, not to mention more traditional networking like discussion boards and email discussion lists can become a time sink if restraint is not exercised, they also can provide the writer, especially the writer who works at home, with a social support network.

For instance, say you are on Twitter with a lot of other writers in your own area of expertise. You need some piece of information. You post your question. It may just sit there. Or someone might "tweet" back with an answer. Or while you are writing, a tweet comes through telling you a friend just sold the article they have been working on, and you have been following their progress. That is an encouragement for you to keep writing.

So, here is a proposal. Begin to build your own writing support network. Start with your Facebook account. You probably have writing friends, create a list of just those friends. Then periodically when things are going well (or not so well) post status updates that only other writers can understand.

You can also use hashtags on Twitter such as #amwriting, #amediting and #nanowrimo during November.

You can also declare a "word war" on one of your social media sites. Set a time and encourage everyone to compete to see how many words you can write in say 30 minutes. Compare results and even share favorite paragraphs on your main newsfeed or possibly in a private group you can form such as a video hangout on Google plus or a Facebook Group.

You don't have to be all alone in your writing. Support can help

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Motivation? Inspiration? The Muse? Forget them all.

Another short tip. Don't sit around and wait to become motivated or inspired to work. If you want to be a pro, you don't wait until you feel like working. Back when I was teaching, I couldn't call in and say to my dean, "I'm not coming in today. I just don't feel inspired." He would have suggested that if I didn't get inspired quickly, I would have many more days that I didn't have to show up to work.

Discipline is more important than inspiration. Many times I find that my "inspiration" or "motivation" doesn't appear until after I've been writing for some time and not before.

Set a schedule for writing. It doesn't have to be a long time. It can be ten-minutes a day if that's all the time you have. It can be at different types during the day if you work a variable shift, but put it down in your calendar just like an appointment and treat it with as much respect as you have for a business meeting or a family outing.

Be realistic. If you can't do an hour a day, don't set that as your goal. It is better to do 10 minutes a day every day than an hour once every ten days.

There was a sign up at an insurance agency where I worked breifly many years ago. It read, "Plan your Work, then Work your Plan." Set up a plan to write on a regular basis and even if you just type random words, do so. The muse will visit more often, when you create a nice work environment for her daily.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Short Tips: How to Find just about Anything Online

I'm going to start posting short tips. These won't be like the longer articles I post and will likely be not as well edited, but I'm hoping to build up some readership and they say posting more often helps. By the way, if you follow this blog and enjoy these posts, I would appreciate it if you click the little buttons in the margins to post them to Facebook and Twitter.

Anyway, this tip has to do with using search engines effectively. Frequently, people will ask me a question about something like grammar, writing or technology. It takes me ten minutes or so to come up with an answer. Usually, all I have to do is type in one search into the search engines. So, how do we use them more effectively.

First, go for the "long tail" search. That means type in an entire sentence or phrase instead of just one or two words. Search engines are much smarter now than in the past. You can search most in normal language. For instance, today I needed some information about sales tax in California. I just typed into Google: "What are the sales tax requirements in the state of California for home businesses on the internet?"

The top result was a listing of pages from the State Board of Equalization (the sales tax people). One click on one page and there was a publication about selling over the internet.

Second, go to the source. Okay, I've got a blog. But don't take everything I say as gospel without checking it out for yourself. Anyone can create a blog or a webpage. So, when you look something up online, see who is putting it out. If you want to know about sales tax, your best bet is to go to the state agency that governs sales tax and not a blog by someone who may or may not know what they are talking about.

Finally, compare results. When the question is something for which there may be a variety of possible answers, compare them and look for both similarities and variabilities. For instance, I'm constantly looking up stuff about punctuation and grammar. Some "old school" sites may give the traditional answer, but they may not recognize that even language changes over time. So, by comparing a number of sites you can see what is the most common use which may or may not be the traditional favorite.

I hope these tips help.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Blogger, Facebook, Twitter, Marketing and Time Management for the Writer

I find myself reading with interest all the "must haves" the "experts" say every author should have. They "must" write a blog at least three times a week. (Yeah, it's been three weeks or more since I posted here. Failed there.) They "must" have a Facebook page and post to it at least five times a day. They must do the same on Twitter. They "must" have a website and update it frequently. They "must".... They "must".... They "must"....

And many of us gleefully go along with all this because, well, it means I can feel
Photo by Moyan Brenn
like I'm doing something for my writing career when I'm not actually writing. This type of writing is simple. It's easy. It doesn't involve editing, tweaking the language or really putting yourself out for rejection or bad reviews.

However, there is, as I have said before, only one absolute rule for writers. They must write.

But, you say, what about the "experts" and what they say. Shouldn't we be doing those things?

Maybe, and I will discuss some time management approaches to that a bit later, but remember, those "experts" are usually full time in the publishing industry. They don't have a day job which they juggle with home responsibilities, church, social obligations and the like. They have a full 8 to 10 to 12 hours a day to work on their writing careers. And, if they ever were, juggling the day job and the writing career, that has been a long time ago.

Currently, I'm fortunate to be retired with a decent income, so I can write "full-time." However, health issues mean that I have only about five really healthy productive hours a day in which to take care of business, do marketing, teach my online classes, answer email and, yes, write.  So, I understand a bit about having a  limited amount of time to work.

So, how do we handle the demands of marketing and those of writing? The same way we handle any other time management issue - prioritizing.

Is your first priority writing your blog entry or working on your novel? Okay, some days, it will be the blog or the website. Today, I'm revamping my author's website that I've been putting off (ironically, because I've been doing websites for others). So, that will take precedence today. But the question applies to your overall time usage. I have to admit that recently, I've probably spent more time promoting than writing. Like a pastor of mine once said, "God always preaches the sermon to me before I preach it to you." I'm getting this message now and will be revising my priorities over the next several weeks so that writing and my classes will always be number one.

But we do have to consider marketing or we won't get our books in front of readers. What do we do? Again, prioritize. In order to do this well, you will need to do a bit of analysis. First, determine the numbers.

How many followers do you have on your blog? What are the average number of views of each blog post. Right now, I have about 20 followers, and I get about three times that seeing each blog post.

How many Facebook friends do you have on your friend feed? How many likes do you have on your Author page? How many followers do you have on Twitter? How many followers on Pinterest, Google Plus, Linked In, Goodreads, etc.

Start by placing them in order of number of followers. If you are like most of us, Facebook will have the highest number followed by either Twitter or Google Plus and the blog will be at the bottom of the list. Your results, though, may be different.

There are some changes to Facebook, you should also take into account. Unlike Twitter, which has always allowed searching of all public tweets, Facebook search was limited to the names of people, pages and groups. Now, all posts marked as public can be searched. (Not posts set to friends only, but those designated public) That means that you can actually optimize your posts like you can a webpage making it searchable by the 1.15 Billion monthly Facebook users.

So, between Twitter and Facebook, you have a potential pool of people searching for your topics of close to one and a half billion people. Let's say you have a topic that is only of interest to say one percent of the population, that's still 10 million potential readers. Even if only one percent of those actively searched for that topic that's 100,000 potential searchers.

What does all this number crunching do for us? It's part of the process of determining priorities. I have a blog with maybe 100 monthly readers and a Facebook page with 1000 friends (and the search potential of 1000 times that). On the basis of the numbers alone, I have a longer reach on Facebook than I do on my blog.

Of course, numbers aren't the only criteria for prioritizing. We also need to think about the quality of those numbers. I have fewer readers of this blog than I do my Facebook friend page, but they are nearly all writers. So, I am building up relationships with other writers here that can help me in networking as well as promoting online writing classes and books on writing.

So, leading up to the release of a book on writing or a new course launch, spending more time blogging makes sense. However, leading up to the release of a fiction book, time spent on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads may be more worthwhile.

Know both the numbers and the type of people in each of your venues so you can "work smarter and not harder."

Don't try to do everything. Find out what works best for you an focus on that. Don't let the pronouncements of "experts" override what you see that works for you, and what does not work for you. Many very successful authors do not have facebook pages, blogs or twitter accounts. Others do. Some lose visibility by not having them others do not. You have to figure things out for yourself. But don't try to do it all. Identify 2-3 venues you consider your best choices.

Next, budget your time according to the priorities. This blog post will take me about an hour to write, edit, post and promote. It will reach maybe 100 people at the most. In that same time, I could post an interesting link to an article about space exploration (I write science fiction), a comment about working on my new website, post a Facebook update about a new class and a link to one of my Bible studies available on Kindle and reach a primary audience of 1000 people with at least a few of them sharing my links with others expanding that to about 5000 people.

So, I'm writing this for reasons other than promotion. I'm writing it because first, I enjoy writing things like this. Secondly, it's my way of giving back. I have my own little class of writing students who follow these posts and maybe they learn something. That makes me feel good. But I don't add blogging into my marketing mix or time.

Now, someone else might have 1000 blog followers but only a few hundred Facebook friends. Their priorities would be different. Go where the people are.

Finally, set a limit on your marketing effort. If you get to the end of the day and have done three hours of marketing and now find you don't have any time left for writing, you are doing it wrong. Aim for at least 50-50 but preferable 3-1 with the three being writing and the one being marketing.

No, I'm not there yet. But I'm getting there. As another pastor of mine once said: Always keep the Main Thing The Main Thing. And for the writer, the Main Thing, is writing.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Mining an Old Claim

Several years ago, I was researching a story on modern day gold prospectors. One thing I discovered was that many of them that panned for gold or used sluice boxes would investigate old claims that expired years ago that nobody renewed because they thought the claim was played out.

According to my expert, it can take years for the gold to work its way out of the mountains and down
Photo By Marcin Chady
the river, but it will usually settle in the same places. So, it made sense to work an old claim.

As a writer, sometimes it helps to work an old claim. I'm thinking about this now because I ran across a manuscript I was working on several years ago. At the time my day job got in the way of me completing it. I looked it over and it's pretty good. So, I've put it in the queue of things to edit and publish. But it started me thinking. How many articles have I written over the years that could be updated and slanted for different publications. How many blog posts do I have of value? I'm considering collecting many of them into a book of essays on writing. I wrote a daily devotion for close to 10 years. Maybe a collection of devotions would be in order.

Then I have plot outlines, story ideas, pages of research for articles, novels and stories I never got around to writing. Some of them didn't take off because they simply weren't very good ideas. Some, however, I simply got sidetracked from and didn't get back to.

What's sitting unfinished in your files? What things have you written that could be repurposed in some way. Have a backlisted book that your publisher no longer carries? Why not get the ebook rights back and upload the file to Kindle yourself. Are there blog posts that could be collected into a book?

What old claim can you reactivate? There just might be publishing gold in them thar files.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Observations on Bicycle Book Publisher and a Career Consultant

Back in the 1980s. Maybe even in the late 70s a book came out calledWhat Color is your Parachute? I think it is now in it's 30th edition or something. I ran across my old copy of the book, and was reminded of the story about its publication. 

The interesting thing about this book is not that it was rejected many times before
Photo by Jay Phagan
being picked up for publication. We all know those stories. Wouldn't you have loved to be the editor that rejected Fodor's travel guides saying something like "Travel guides never sell." 

No, the interesting thing about this story is who finally published the book - a little company called Ten Speed Press. It was based in San Francisco and it published books about bicycles. That was it's whole catalog. That was its "brand." 

Of course, they took on the project for some reason I can't remember now, and the rest is history to use a tired yet accurate cliche. It became the best selling book of all time on Job search and made both them and the author many, many boatloads of money. 

But if you think about it, both the company and the author did everything "wrong." The company was well known as a bicycle book publisher. Their books typically sold in catalogs or to bike shops. They didn't have a distribution system for traditional bookstores. Besides, as a small publisher, they should have stayed in their "niche" and not defocus the brand.

Likewise, Bolles should have "known" that a company publishing books about "bicycles" couldn't do his book justice. 

Today, Bolles is a well known consultant on job search and his book is still in print 30+ years later. And 10-Speed press was acquired by Crown Publishing a division of Random house and publishes books about everything from cooking to sports and yes has some books about bicycles. 

The lesson is that it is okay to step outside your niche. Your niche is not your brand. The quality of your writing or publishing is your brand. Indeed, in order to grow, I dare say you must do something different. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What Kind of Writer Are You: Planner, Pioneer or Pathfinder

If there is one common link between most writing teachers, it is the absolute belief in the one and only, absolute best way to write. Unfortunately, the other common link is that none of them agree on what that is.

Just look at plotting. Snowflakes, wagon wheels, heroes journeys, mountains to be climbed, formulas
to be followed. Act one, Act two, Act three, or is it five acts? I forget, and I've taught many of these myself. Most of them are useful. They are taught because they work. Just not all the time, and not for all people.

No, I'm not going to talk about plot. What I'm going talk about is something bigger than a single facet for writing. I'm going to talk about personality styles.

First, I'm oversimplifying. That cannot be helped. Do not think these are completely distinct. Within each category there will be overlaps. Some of us represent one style at one time and another at other times. I tend to be a planner for nonfiction writing and a pioneer or pathfinder for fiction. However, a bit of understanding of your own style may help you play to your strengths.


Maybe to understand these three styles. Let's think about what happens when you go on a long road trip. How do you approach that trip? Well, the planner, gets out all the maps and guidebooks, gets brochures from the Chamber of Commerce in each town they might pass through, checks on hotels in each city, reads the reviews of restaurants and attractions, figures out how much time it will take to drive from one town to the next, makes a daily itinerary, even makes the hotel reservations a month in advance. 

This person will approach writing the same way. They will do their research trying to anticipate every factual detail they will need to address in the book, article, or story. They will make detailed outlines of what happens in each scene or chapter. They will make up complete character dossiers, sketch floor plans for the buildings, maybe even take pictures out of magazines of people who look like their characters or scenes that look like settings from their books. 

This person will not start writing the first draft until they have nailed down every detail. Indeed, by that point the writing is almost an anticlimax. 

The strength of this approach is that they rarely suffer writer's block. They know what they need to write next. They also need less content editing. They have anticipated the plot holes and dead end subplots. They don't need to do a lot a fact checking later because they did it up front. 

However, planners can find themselves caught up in the planning stage so much that they don't get around to the actual writing. They may think there is just one more fact they need to find or they need to adjust the outline of a certain scene once again. 

Also, they are less likely to deviate from their outline even if the writing itself is feeling forced and the characters are acting out of character. Once written, the outline can take over the actual writing. 


Sometimes called the Pantser or "Seat of the Pants" writer. This person approaches each writing project as a journey of discovery. It's not that they don't do planning. It's just that their first draft is their planning document. They are not the sort to fly over a region and take pictures of the area first. They want to be on the ground. Having a character surprise them or discover a plot twist while writing is what they live for. 

This person often takes several dead end roads while writing, but that's part of the fun figuring out what does and does not work. Since, they have no specific plan in front of them, they are more likely to have difficulty recovering from writer's block. The planner can look at the plot outline and plug on even if they don't feel they are writing very well. The pioneer just has to stop or explore a different road if they can't figure out what the character is going to do next.

Pioneers need to be prepared for this and be willing to brainstorm many different approaches in order to move on. They also can benefit from jumping around in a story. Since pioneers go more on intuition than linear reasoning, it may be you are blocked on one scene because  your subconscious wants to write another.


Pathfinders fall in the middle between pioneers and planners. They don't have detailed outlines, but they do have a general plan. They know where the story starts and ends. They know that there are certain intermediate destinations they need to reach on their journey. They may or may not write these down, but they have thought them out before they start writing. They like being surprised by the characters and minor changes in plot and are perfectly willing to depart from the plan if that looks like it will work better. However, they don't like being totally unprepared for the journey. They know where they are going and the general path they will take to get there, but they work out the details on the road.

This person's strength is that they combine spontaneity with forethought. Thus, they have the benefits of each. However, likewise, they share the pitfalls of both. They can become so locked into reaching a certain "destination" point that they don't listen to their characters to change course. However, without a detailed plan, they have less to help them when they get stuck in a certain scene.

Admittedly, this paradigm is oversimplified. Some people might be planners when it comes to creating characters but pioneers with plot. They may do more planning with nonfiction and less with fiction or the other way around. Sometimes people have a very detailed plot "outline," but it is not written down, they simply see it in their minds eye. So, they may look like a pioneer, but they carefully planned the story in advance, they just didn't make a written outline.

However, this might help you understand a bit of your own writing style. If you don't do it the way the latest book says it should be done, don't worry. Your style may be different, but that doesn't make it worse.

I'll be exploring these styles in depth in my Writing YOUR Novel YOUR  Way course launching Monday. August 26. The course is just $10 for 15 self-paced lessons. For more information click here. 

Friday, August 2, 2013

The One and Only Absolute Rule for Writers

I end up mentoring a lot of new and beginning writers. Frequently, they approach me about some "rule" for writing - no passive voice, no head hopping, floating body parts, and the list goes on. I can nearly always find exceptions to each of these "rules." That makes them suggestions or guidelines and not rules. Even the "rules" of spelling, punctuation and grammar can be artfully ignored. Consider the work of James Joyce and e.e. cummings.
Photo by Eduardo

However, there is one absolute rule for writers. Ready to jot this down? It's very profound, very subtle, very esoteric. It is not something you might think of yourself. Ready?

Writers Must Write

I told you it was profound. I remember being at a writer's conference several years ago where the keynote speaker began by looking out over the audience and saying, "Why aren't you all home writing?" 

It was a good question. Writer's today have a lot of non-writing things to do. Marketing, personal appearances, book signings, social media, and the list goes on. Today, the writers I mentor are as likely to be asking about how to build a Facebook page or what to put in their blogs as how to build a story. 

At some point, though, we have to get back to basics. What is taking up most of our time? Is it blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, speaking, pinning or is it writing? 

I can hear the objections now. "But you have to be doing all these things to sell books." To a certain extent that is true, but you have to be realistic about some things. Take blogging, for example. Average conversion rate for any type of social media per book release is about 1 percent. So, even if you have 1000 people following your blog (which is pretty high for most bloggers), that means you are going to sell maybe 10 copies of each book from your blog followers. 

Let's say your average blog post is 500 words and you do three a week. That's 75,000 words a year or a short novel. With virtually no promotion, if you self-published a novel of 75,000 words and kept the price reasonable, you could expect to sell 5 copies a month. Or 60 copies a year.
In other words, you would have to release six novels a year and announce them on your blog to match that in terms of sales. 

I'm using the most visible example and most easily quantified. However, consider how much time is spent on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others. Yes, we need that presence. (I'm not so sure blogs are that important to marketing for my reasons you can see a previous post. Is Blogging Necessary. ) However, you need to keep your priorities straight. You can have a great wonderful platform, but if you don't turn out the copy, you won't have anything to sell.

And, as a writer, you cannot get obsessed with one book. You need to have volume. I don't mean becoming a hack, but it is important to have out a number of titles. I made this mistake with my first novel. I spent hundreds of hours promoting it, going on blog tours, guesting on websites and podcasts, plugging it on social media. So much so, I didn't have time to write the second book in the series which came out almost three years later. I had lost much of the momentum and still didn't sell as many books as I did just putting the book up on Amazon and optimizing for the Kindle search.

One author suggested you not publish your first book until you have two more to publish. I don't know that I would go so far as that, but you can't think only in terms of the book you have just released. You have to thing about the next three books. If someone likes that book, what are they going to buy next? There is a relatively finite audience for that first book immediately after publication. It continues but at a lower pace after that, but to build up an income base, you need several books producing lower sales over an extended period of time as well as new releases coming out on a regular schedule. If you are spending all your time promoting one book, you won't be writing the next one. 

So, what are we to do? We do have to be out there promoting our books. Certainly, indie writers more than traditional ones. Although, having been traditionally published, I know that if you are not a "name" writer, the promotional backing of the publishing company is minimal at best. 

I'm not saying forget promotion. However, we need to be work smarter. Watch your analytics on websites, browsers and facebook. How many people are you actually reaching through those venues. How does that compare to the time you spend on each? If you have 500 people following you on facebook, 700 on Twitter and 100 on your blog, then maybe you need to split up your time accordingly. Instead of three blog post a week, one every two weeks might suffice. Maybe you need to do more on Facebook and Twitter. 

Secondly, set a limit. How much time are you going to spend on marketing activities during a week? Start with how many hours you have to work on writing related stuff. Maybe it's 10 hours a week. Then I would say spend no more than two and a half hours or about 25%. If you look at your schedule and you find you are doing more, then you might have to cut down. I find setting a timer works for me. 

Third, just say "no." You will receive all sorts of "promotional opportunities." People will want you to guest on their blogs. Visit their blogs. See how many followers they actually have. If it is less than a few hundred, then you might want to turn them down. Sure you might sell one or two books, but if that takes away from you writing your next book, is that really a good economy. Any chess player knows you sacrifice the pawns to protect your queen. 

So, back to the beginning. The one rule for writers - Write!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Art and Business

We've been engaged in a discussion about book covers on one writer's email discussion list. The consensus is that the cover is super-duper important because people won't click on your link or read your book if it isn't wonderful.

Being the iconoclast (and realist) that I am I suggest that maybe it takes more than a good cover to sell a book, and that there is a point of diminishing returns. By that I mean that a poor quality cover
certainly is going to not attract readers and may well discourage them from reading your book. However, on the other hand, the assumption that you need to spend lots of money on a "high quality" (read: expensive) cover to be successful, probably isn't the truth either. There is a point between good and great cover design where the sales do not justify the expense. In other words, good covers do sell more books than bad ones, but great covers do not sell a significantly higher number of books than good ones. 

Of course, this raises the obvious question: How are we defining good? While many give lip service to marketing features like title and representation of content, in practical terms, most are defining it as artistically attractive. Of course, most book cover designers plying their trade on the internet today are not marketing specialists, they are artists. They think like artists and think in terms first and foremost of symmetry, balance, color wheels, composition and design. Nothing wrong with that. However, a well designed graphic on it's own sells nothing. From a marketing perspective, the cover must not only be attractive, but must communicate enough of the content of the book to cause the reader to click through to the sales page. A less pretty book cover that communicates the content of the book is going to generate more click throughs than one that is beautiful, but does not. 

Good art does not necessarily translate into good business. Unfortunately, when you say something like that, the critics of indie publishing and even many in the field think you are talking about poor quality covers that are just thrown together. That's not the point at all. The point is that a very create, very beautiful, very expensive cover design is not necessarily a good sales tool if it's only value is beauty. 

The Kindle (or Nook or Sony or Smashwords) search engine is not an art gallery. People are not browsing in order to simply see pretty pictures. They are browsing to find something to read. And if it is an ebook, after they purchase it, they will rarely see the cover any larger than about an inch square on their reader. So, what is the value of the cover? 

The value is in it's message. A cover that has fewer artistically skilled design components, but which clearly communicates to the reader a reason to buy the book or at least read the sample is going to be more effective than a pretty cover that does none of these. 

So, from a marketing perspective what should be on the cover. 

1. A simple, but bold graphic. This graphic should not be complicated. Avoid collages. Avoid pictures with too much ghosting. By that I mean a semi-transparent figure in the background. That is a common, romance novel technique that comes from the days of selling print novels in brick and mortar stores. But as a thumbnail, those subtleties are lost.

2. A graphic that communicates the substance of the book. You know what I hate? It's book covers that have two young people on the cover, but when you get into the book, you find the main characters are middle aged. Sometimes a cover can be beautiful, but misleading. Find a graphic that communicates the substance of the book. 

3. A clear, descriptive or evocative title. For nonfiction this is easier. You have a topic and you want your title to reflect that. For instance, my next Bible study will be called "Troubled on Every Side: On Being God's People in Difficult Times." The main title will be in large letters. Someone is searching for a Bible study they will see that in big letters. In smaller, but still readable letters will be the explanatory subtitle. Nevertheless, Just "Troubled on Every Side" gives a good solid idea of the general topic to be covered. 

For fiction, it is harder. But it can suggest the theme. For instance, Stephen King's epic, The Stand, doesn't tell us everything about the book, but it gives the central idea. These people are going to take a stand. Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who mysteries. Always include a clue to the basic plot of the book. The Cat Who Sniffed Glue let's us know that glue will have something to do with the story. 

4. Clear Readable Fonts. Some people want to play games with fonts. They are looking for something clever and then the reader ends up trying to decode the title. Remember someone is likely to spend a second or less looking at your book cover, that title needs to stand out. 

Yes, you want an attractive design, but if it doesn't sell what's inside, it is pretty useless.