Stative verbs — the Palmetto Bugs of the Literary Landscape

by Josh Langston

Palmetto bugs. You’ve seen the nasty things: creepy relics of an era predating the dinosaurs and allegedly immune to the effects of radiation. No wonder they seem to flourish everywhere, including our writing! I use the term “palmetto bug” for two reasons: 1) nobody wants to read about roaches, and 2) because these disgusting crawlies have so much in common with what should be a writer’s arch nemesis: stative verbs.

Image from http://tx.english-ch.com/teacher/shelle/others/action-and-stative-verbs-/

For my purposes, any form of the verb “to be” is a stative verb. What’s wrong with ’em? Plenty. Laziness tops the list, because writers use them in lieu of real verbs, i.e., verbs that actually do something. Remember the old adage, “Show, don’t tell?” Well, stative verbs tell; real verbs show. It takes time and effort to eradicate them, but if we don’t, they’ll creep into our work just like palmetto bugs: behind the woodwork, up in the cupboards and into the drawer with the silverware. Bleah!

Recast almost any sentence containing a stative verb, and you’ll likely end up with a more interesting one. Do it often enough, and it becomes automatic. A couple examples should make the point:

1- Mary is a beautiful girl who lives in the house next door. –An okay sentence, technically speaking, but decidedly ho-hum.

2- Mary, a beautiful girl, lives in the house next door. –Marginally better, and we nuked the stative verb, but the sentence remains bland and doesn’t do much to advance the story.

3- Sometimes I catch sight of Mary, the beautiful girl next door. –Still better, and we get a hint about the observer. A little more work might actually shift this line into the “keeper” pile.

4- I saw my beautiful neighbor, Mary, seventeen times today. –Now we’re not even thinking about the stupid little stative verb any more. We’ve stumbled onto the start of an actual story!

But I digress. Let’s try another set of examples:

A- The murder weapon was a .38 special, a cop’s gun–the same as Joe’s. He had been carrying it for years. –Notice the dual statives (“was” and “had been”), and while neither would cause a reader hives, neither is especially useful either.

B- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Like Joe’s. His hand fit it like a glove. –Better, but the glove cliche’ gets in the way.

C- The murder weapon? A .38 special. Joe instinctively wrapped his hand around his own. –This calls for the tale to be told in Joe’s point of view, which may or may not be appropriate, but the improved strength of the passage is undeniable. Your use of the adverb “instinctively” is optional. (We’ll address adverbs in a future column.)

See how easy that was? From “Okay” to “Oh, cool” in nothin’ flat.

See for yourself. Go find the last thing you wrote and copy the first 500 words into a separate document. It doesn’t matter if you write fiction or non-fiction, love stories or letters; statives can–and do–crawl into anything. Take that document and eliminate every last stative verb you can find. All of ’em! Some revisions won’t require anything more drastic than the changes between examples 1 and 2 above. A number of other changes, however, will require more effort. And you know what? That’s a good thing. Don’t be surprised if one of those changes sets your story in a whole new direction.

When you finish, try to honestly evaluate which version does the better job of showing over telling. Which makes for more interesting reading? Many writers will apply this technique to the balance of their piece instead of throwing away what they just revised. The lazy writers won’t take the time to finish the exercise in the first place, but you’ll know their work when you see it crawl by.

So, the next time you get geared up to write something, do it with a can of bug spray handy.

Cheers!

How to Keep Readers Engaged With Email Autoresponders

howto-emails

How many marketing tools does it take to grab a reader for keeps? For some authors, the answer is one: an autoresponder sequence.

It can be overwhelming to keep up with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Instagram when you know you need to spend your time writing. Autoresponders, which are the automated messages sent out after a reader subscribes to your email list, allow you to connect with readers without daily upkeep. By creating a sequence of these messages to go out a certain number of days after subscription, readers learn about who you are and what you have to offer in the correct order.

You can use Autoresponders as a feature on AWeber or the premium edition of Mailchimp. Using a well planned out series of messages can defray those costs, if not double your investment by gathering more engaged readers.

The biggest problem authors face when using autoresponders is figuring out what to send out, and how often. Need some inspiration? Here are seven autoresponder messages you can use that have been adapted from the mailing list of successful thriller author Mark Dawson:

1. Welcome Your Readers

Most email list building companies prompt you to set up an initial confirmation email. Some authors attempt to pack this message full of information. They might put links for buying all their books, ways to join them on social media, and entry forms for giveaways galore.

Take a look at this message as a reader. If someone sent you an email for the first time with 10 different links, how would you engage with it? Perhaps you’d click the first or second link, but it’s rare that you’d get all the way to number 10.

Keep things simple with all of your autoresponder messages. The first one should do little more than welcome the reader to your list and thank them for joining. You can also post a download link to some free material like a prequel novella or the first 10 chapters of your series-starting book.

Write your messages in the style of your books. If you pen whimsical middle grade fantasy novels, you shouldn’t use a cut and dry sales letter approach. The readers who found you might have a vague idea of the style you use. Stick to it in your email messages.

Lastly, end your emails with a question if you’d like to see more engagement from your list. The readers who respond are major candidates for potential true fans.

Here’s an example of message you could use as your first autoresponder:

You’re here! You’re here! Let me be the first and only person to welcome you to my email list. Over the next couple of weeks, you’ll receive a few messages about who I am, what I do, and why I spend most of my time locked in a room writing.

For all your troubles, I’d love to give you a peek at the first 10 chapters of my novel, Ferrick the Dancing Viking. Click here to pick it up and start reading Ferrick’s fantastical adventures.

It means a lot to me that you opted into this list. Thank you for signing up and joining this wild and crazy ride.

Are there any types of emails you’d like to see me send going forward? Shoot me a quick message to let me know.

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email right after readers sign up to your list.

Sample subject line: Welcome from Ferrick the Dancing Viking

Remember that this message will go to everyone who signs up for your list. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and guess at what kind of tone you’d like to set for the rest of your emails.

2. Check-in About the Download

Your readers receive hundreds of emails a week. Even if they read your first autoresponder, there’s a chance they might have neglected to download your free gift. Additionally, some readers with low technical knowhow may have had an issue getting the book onto their devices.

This second message is a second chance for getting that gift into their hands. It’s a simple message, but you can use your own style to spice it up.

Here’s an example of a second autoresponder:

I know, it feels like I just emailed you. Ferrick Flogenhoffel, my main character, feels the same way when his parents bug him about his chores when all he wants to do is dance!

I’m back in your inbox today because I wanted to make sure you were able to download Ferrick’s adventures. Here’s that link again to the free first part of Ferrick the Dancing Viking.

If you need any help figuring out how to get that book onto your Kindle, Nook or computer, here’s a great resource to check out. Trust me, I needed to go through this video three or four times before I got it right.

Have you downloaded your free book? Let me know with a quick message.

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email three days after readers sign up to your list.

Sample subject line: Did you like the free chapters?

Messages like this convert well, because sometimes readers just need that little reminder to start reading your book. It’s a busy, multi-tasking world out there, and this is your second chance to parse out your true fans.

3. Tell Them Who You Are

If a reader has taken the time to download your free work, they may be more interested in learning your story. This message is like one-way speed dating. You need to describe the most interesting and applicable parts of yourself in a short amount of time.

You’ll want to explain how you got into writing and why you write the kind of stories you publish. Pepper the message with details about your life, such as where you’re from, what college you attended, and any interesting facts that make you stand out.

In this email, you should also include ways for readers to get in touch with you. If you have an active social media account, this is your chance to link people to it.

Here’s a sample email you can use for your third autoresponder:

I’m back with another story, but this one isn’t about Ferrick at all. It’s about me!

I started writing in the margins of my math and science textbooks back in middle school. A couple of years into my time at Central Tech State, I had the idea of a boy who couldn’t stop dancing no matter what. After taking a Norse mythology course my junior year, I started doodling pictures of a kid I called Ferrick the Viking.

It took years for me to get up the confidence to write the first short story of Ferrick’s life. I received two-dozen rejections from publishers, but after self-publishing the story, I got the confidence I needed to write a full-length novel. The rest is Viking history.

I’ve been posting my old Ferrick the Dancing Viking doodles on Facebook. If you’d like to connect there, here’s a link to my profile.

Have you ever tried to turn one of your daydreams into a work of art? I’d love to hear about it in a reply.

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email five days after readers sign up for your list.

Sample subject line: My story

4. Get Reviewers For Life

One of the master tricks some authors use is to create an advance reader list. This collection of emails is a way for authors to get early reviews on their latest works. Since reviews are so important for marketing your books, it’s worth losing a few sales here and there to get the reviews up the first week you launch a new book.

Create a second email list for your advance readers. Use the fourth email in your sequence to talk about reviews and send interested readers to a new signup page. You can send those who sign up a free copy of your newest books.

Here’s an example of this review-gathering fourth email:

Thanks for following along with me so far. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading Ferrick the Dancing Viking. If you have, one of the best ways to help me write more books is to leave a review of the first one on Amazon.

Let me explain. New readers who stumble upon the book’s listing page are much more likely to consider a purchase if the book has 20 reviews vs. 10 reviews. I’m currently at 10, and I’m only able to keep up writing if I sell enough books. I’m sure you understand.

Please leave a review of Ferrick the Dancing Viking here on Amazon.

I know that it’s a pain to carve out any time in our busy lives. Heck, Ferrick barely had any time to learn salsa in the midst of his farming chores, so I understand completely. In return for you reviewing my books here and in the future, I’ll send you the next book in the series for free!

Check out this page to sign up to my advance reader list. You’ll get free books to review, as well as some cool giveaways of Ferrick merchandise. Sign up today!

Thanks again for your reviews. They literally keep the lights on for Ferrick and company.

Would you be willing the post the review? Let me know in your reply.

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email a week after readers sign up for your list.

Sample subject line: Asking a favor, got a second for a review?

It can feel like a lot to run multiple mailing lists at a time, but separating these lists out now may help you to realize your truest fans going forward. The advance readers may also help you to promote the book as part of a street team.

5. Promote Your Second Book

If readers are still checking out your emails by the fifth one, you’ve probably got them hooked. That’s why it’s time to make sure they’ve got their hands on the rest of the series.

Since this is a promotional email, it’s best to add some extra personality so readers don’t feel like they’re being sold to. Provide as much value in entertainment as possible and you won’t get nearly as many unsubscribe requests.

Here’s an example of the fifth autoresponder:

You may have thought that Ferrick the Dancing Viking’s adventures were over. You were as wrong as Flogdor the Dragon wearing a tutu. Ferrick is the main character in a series of books that continues with Ferrick The Dancing Viking Two: Foxtrot Fever.

You can get the book on Amazon here.

I had so much fun writing Ferrick’s second adventure, but it was a lot of work too. I actually took three weeks worth of dance classes to make sure I got all his moves correct. It was a good time, but my calves were pretty sore. And here I was, thinking that my writing career would give me more time to sit.

I hope you enjoy Ferrick’s continuing story. Have you ever taken dance lessons? Has Ferrick inspired you to try? Let me know.

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email two weeks after readers sign up for your list.

Sample subject line: Ferrick’s adventure continues…

If you have several books available, you can leave links for those as well, though it might be best to keep them in the postscript. After all, you’re unlikely to sell many copies of book three to readers who have yet to read book two.

6. Promote Other Series

If you’re a writer just starting out without many books, you can use this autoresponder slot as a sort of wild card. If you have a second series with completely different characters from your first or that serves as a spinoff, this is where you’ll promote that series.

By now, readers are either in or out. If they love you enough to have bought books one and two, then they could be fans for life. In that case, it helps to let them know that you have other work available.

You probably don’t need a hard sell here. All you have to do is tell them why the things they loved in the first series will make them adore the second one.

Here’s an example of your sixth email autoresponder:

Did you know that Ferrick has friends? Thousands of miles away from Scandinavia, Samba Sam has his own dance-related troubles to deal with in Brazil.

Check out the first part of the Samba Sam series here.

I created Samba Sam when I realized it’d be fun to have a whole new crew of dancing fools in other parts of the world. I hope you enjoy Sam and her friends as much as you did Ferrick and his.

Where else in the world should I put my characters? Let me know with a speedy reply.

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email three weeks after readers sign up for your list.

Sample subject line: I’ve got other stories you may like…

You can also give your readers a free sample of your new series. If you’d like to go to the trouble of creating a third email list for your second series, then you can do that as well.

7. Bring Them Back

One tip from Author Marketing Institute founder Jim Kukral is to use an autoresponder to get in touch with your readers one year after they subscribe. It’s easy to fall out of touch with friends and relatives. It may be even easier to do so with the authors who readers love.

This message gives you the chance to bring readers back into active participation. Also, if they’ve been following you for an entire year, it’s a good idea to give them something for their efforts. One way to go about this is to see if they’re interested in having a Google+ Hangout or a phone conversation.

This may seem like a little much, but there’s nothing like going the extra mile to give a reader the experience of a lifetime. That reader could become a fan for life.

Here’s an example of the one-year message:

365 days ago, you subscribed to my Ferrick the Dancing Viking email list. I’m sure a lot has changed for both of us in that time, but I’m really happy that you’re still a part of the list.

As a thank you, I’d love to schedule a Google+ Hangout with you sometime in the next week. We could talk about Ferrick and his adventures, what it’s like being an author, or anything that strikes your fancy feet.

Let me know if you’re interested in that sort of thing. Thanks again for being such a wonderful reader! Here’s to another year of dancing fun!

Sincerely,
Hans Franz

Send this email one year after readers sign up for your list.

Sample subject line: A year has passed for Ferrick and you

If a personalized hangout is too much, then you can always offer a free story instead.

The Way Into a Reader’s Heart

Autoresponders work well as a way to initially reach out to readers. They save you time because you don’t have to send individual emails to all of your fans. Then again, it’s still important to keep your mailing list active with monthly or twice monthly emails that are timelier.

Autoresponders will get you part of the way there, but readers crave personal attention. If you take the time to mix occasional updates with your autoresponse sequence, your author tool belt will be light and manageable with an uncanny ability to keep your readers’ focus.

Do you know of any authors that are using email autoresponders very well? Share that with us in the comments, or share your own ideas.

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3 Small Changes That Will Transform Your Writing Overnight

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There are only so many tricks to help you sell more books. You can have a blurb that’s to die for, a cover that wins the monthly Book Designer award, and a website with a ridiculous email signup rate, but when you’ve reached the pinnacle of marketing prowess, the only way to improve your book sales is to write better books.

When you write fiction, improving your craft as you go is the equivalent of continuing education as a teacher or doctor. Writing more words over time will help you to improve, but finding specific ways to hone your craft will get you there faster.

When a voracious reader finds your well-written book, particularly as the first chapter in a multi-part series, that reader will latch onto your books for the rest of time. It’s up to you to make sure that your first book has engaging prose that keeps the pages turning.

Here are three writing changes you can apply immediately that will help your fiction to flourish:

1. Write Sentences With Suspense

Image from http://www.terrifyingtales.com/how-to-build-suspense/

Most of us learned how to write a proper sentence back in middle school or high school. You probably studied your subjects, predicates, and punctuation marks until you were blue in the face. These well-meaning English teachers taught us how to make a sentence grammatically correct, but they didn’t show us how to make it interesting.

K.M. Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors said that most storytellers have been writing sentences wrong all their lives. When you take a sentence for granted, you miss out on the opportunity to hook, guide, and fulfill readers.

One solution to the problem is writing periodic sentences. A periodic sentence, which author Robert McKee called the “suspense sentence,” places emphasis right at the end. The first half of sentences should entice readers to keep reading, while the second half should serve as the payoff.

Take a look at these examples:

His book sales increased to 100 copies daily after four months of spending three hours a day on his craft.

In the last four months, after spending three hours a day on his craft, his book sales increased to 100 copies per day.

In the first example, the emphasis is on the time this writer spent working on his craft. In the second, we get the payoff of what happened as a result of his hard work. If you want readers to zip through your books and ask for more, then you should make the fundamental building blocks of your writing much more suspenseful.

2. Show Character Emotion

Countless books and articles on craft will tell you that you need to “show, not tell.” The phrase has been repeated so often that it no longer seems to have any meaning. Trying to apply vague advice won’t get you very far with your writing.

A simple way to add more “show” to your prose is to demonstrate character emotions through nonverbal cues. In their book The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi said that readers aren’t interested in being told how characters feel; they want to experience the emotion themselves. Ackerman and Puglisi found that in addition to using dialogue, authors could use physical signals, mental responses, and internal sensations to convey emotion on the page.

Use your powers of observation as a writer, both internally and externally, to determine how your characters nonverbally express their emotions. Here are two examples:

Image from http://www.fuelyourphotography.com/the-art-of-emotion/

There was a loud clang in the other room. Patricia was as scared as she’d ever been.

“Honey, is that you?” Her voice was sad and afraid.

There was a loud clang in the other room. Patricia held her breath. She attempted to speak, but her throat started to close up. She swallowed hard.

“Honey, is that you?” Her voice was a shrill whisper through the hallway.

Example one tells the reader how to feel. Example two gives the reader a chance to experience the emotions on his or her own. Trust your readers to understand these nonverbal cues, and they’ll find themselves riveted until the book’s final page.

3. Make Setting Tell The Story

For many authors, setting is nothing but a string of adjectives they add in to flesh out a second draft. They’ve been told that setting is important, but nobody ever told them that setting could be the lynchpin for developing their characters.

USA Today Bestselling Author Mary Buckham said in her book Writing Active Setting that setting can show characterization, create the world of your story, affect pacing, show conflict, change tension, explore emotion, and much more. While setting can orient readers to the time, place, and social context of a story, it can also demonstrate a rich point of view for your characters.

When you have multiple characters in your story, it’s important to remember that each one will experience the world you’ve created in a different way. Buckham gives the example of how a typical 30-something housewife would observe the view from a city rooftop much differently than a discharged military sniper. While the former sees playing children and SUVs, the latter sees escape routes and potential threats.

Image from http://www.desura.com/members/tetsuo3/images/alley-way

Here are two examples:

Eric walked down the dark alleyway. When he got to the other side, he opened the front door to the diner.

Eric’s shoulders relaxed as he entered the space between the two buildings. He didn’t mind the rotten pumpkin beside the half-open dumpster or the droplets from above of water mixed with god knows what. For a moment or two, he could hide from this city, and that was worth the stench. He took a deep breath as he reentered civilization and sunlight, yanking open the door to the diner before slamming it shut behind him.

We know a great deal more about Eric in the second example. While the first one gets us from point A to point B, the second one uses setting as part of the story. Readers tend to put a book down when it gets boring. Tying setting in with characterization keeps your readers going.

Better Books Are More Marketable

Marketing on its own won’t necessarily make your book a bestseller. Neither will writing the most compelling book in the world. When you combine effective marketing with strong writing, however, you significantly increase your chances of selling more books. These three tips will change your writing overnight, but you’ll need to put in hours of work to implement them effectively.

It’s time to stop looking for the quick fix that will make you enough money to become a full-time author. The most effective “trick” remains building up a dedicated group of fans. When you employ suspenseful sentences, nonverbal emotional cues, and setting that tells a story, you’ll be much more likely to hook new readers for good.

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