Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Guest Blogger Judy Croome: Writers, What Are You Really Saying?

What are you really saying?

When a writer trawls through her pages, carefully removing a word here, or changing another word there, how does she know which word to delete and which new word to use? What makes one word more suited to this sentence, but not to that sentence?

Some writers, looking authorial and serious, may say that it takes years of practice and some innate magical writer’s gift to know how to choose the right word. The simple answer, though, lies in understanding the difference between the denotation and connotation of the words you use.

Look at these two sentences:

  1. The man was imprisoned for two years.
  2. The man was detained for two years.

They say the same thing, don’t they? They provide the reader with the exact same data about a certain man. Yet one gains the subtle impression that there is, after all, a difference.

That difference lies in the use of the words “imprisoned” versus “detained”.

Let’s look up the dictionary meaning of both words.

Imprison: to confine; shut up; restrain.

Detain: to keep in confinement or under restraint.

That means the same thing, doesn’t it? Well, yes. The literal meaning, or denotation, of both words does mean essentially the same thing.

But what about the connotations, or associated ideas, that have attached themselves to each word?

In most reader’s minds, the word “imprisoned” conjures up the image of a person who is guilty of a criminal act, such as robbery or murder. There is a negative association with this word.

The word “detained”, on the other hand, carries with it the suggestion of political oppression, giving the reader a more sympathetic, or positive, association with the man’s activities.

Why would one writer use “imprisoned” and another writer use “detained”? Because they have different agendas. A right-wing journalist writing a political editorial may use the word “imprisoned” to refer to a political activist. This imprints in the reader’s mind that the man is a guilty criminal and a possible danger to society. A liberal journalist would use the word “detained” with its implications of wrongful incarceration for political reasons.

The truth, though, is that no word is completely free of either its denotative or its connotative message.

Take a snake, for example.

To all readers the denotative meaning is “any reptile of the suborder Ophidia (or Serpentes), typically having a scaly cylindrical limbless body, fused eyelids, and a jaw modified for swallowing large prey: includes venomous forms such as cobras and rattlesnakes, large non-venomous constrictors (boas and pythons), and small harmless types such as the grass snake”.i

To many people, however, the connotative meaning of a snake is that it signifies danger, temptation or evil.

A writer who wants to perfect her craft will also be aware that there is another sub-layer to the connotative meanings of words. This is the mythical connotation of words and images that varies according to the historical culture of a reader. The framework of the reader’s world view will add his own interpretation of what he reads. Each reader will have a different veil of perception colouring his personal understanding of any words or images. This veil is woven from the threads of all the cultural, social, family and personality aspects that make up that specific reader’s inner world.

Back to our snake example. A snake may imply evil to a Christian reader; the kundalini, or natural energy of the Self, to a Hindu reader; and to a reader with a medical background, the snake – as the ancient symbol of Asclepius the saviour-healer of Ancient Greece – could represent healing and wisdom.

A word of warning, though, about the importance of denotation versus connotation. In the quest to avoid repetition of a particular word in your writing, avoid unfamiliar words. Be sure you fully understand the different layers of meaning before using your thesaurus to look up ten different ways to say the same thing.

If you are talking about a “homeless person”, you will have several alternatives: vagrant, hobo, bum, free spirit, derelict, wino, king of the road, bag lady, displaced person, refugee, street urchin…the list goes on. But, while all of these denote the same object (a homeless person), each word gives a very different image to your reader because their connotations vary.

Experienced writers thus choose words both for what they actually mean (their denotation) and for what they suggest (their connotation). The careful writer thinks of how she can influence a reader’s emotional response to a character or a scene with the precise choice of word.

So, the next time you find yourself worrying about which word to use, ask yourself: what does this word mean and what does it imply?

Only then can you decide which word is the correct one to use for what you really want to say to your readers.

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i HarperCollins Publishers, Collins English Dictionary - 21st Century Edition, (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers) 2000.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Kindness of Strangers

Why it is so hard to self-publish and earn money on a book?  I've heard so many numbers, I'm not sure what to think.

This is one of the reader questions submitted for this month.  It seems like a simple question, because it seems to some it is hard making money self-publishing a book.  It's not as easy to earn money if you aren't willing to put in the time to make it worth a readers initial interest. Although this goes back a bit farther in time, (2012) the Guardian has made some interesting points about what works, and what doesn't work for writers who intend to self-publish.  I agree with most of these numbers, but the one they don't list is the non-fiction.  I would say that these would be much the same as the fiction book numbers.  

Some other articles have pointed to getting it done professionally, but not with any of the "in house" options offered by some self-publishing companies.  There are a lot of editors, interior graphic designers or cover artists out there who can do a good job, and who report directly to you.  It's your choice.

Almost all of the articles I've read quote that you can expect to sell about 100-150 books of your newly published book.  They include the numbers "sold" to family and friends, and take care to point out that many authors will count free copies as a sold book in their minds.  I've had to work hard to promote my title to people, and usually I can expect about 10-15 books sold over a three hour timeframe.  With this in mind, I can say I have sold outside of my main network, about 100 copies, which for a niche market book is very good.  
It's because I have expanded my platform, and my comfort zone.  I've also learned to rely on one person- me.  I've handed out business cards and done the talking of my book to people I'm slowly beginning to see as my next level of networking.  They are the "kindness of strangers."

It took nearly two years before there was steady author signings at any bookstore, and it took me a lot of time to get there.  I've had to learn a lot about marketing, and how to do this for free.  I believe that is the difference between sales or lack thereof.  It's all fine that I have a Facebook page, or a Twitter account or just about anything, but I'm only writing to people I "know" many of my followers simply follow because they know me or they haven't deleted me because they aren't active anymore.  This makes it all the harder to 'get' people to come and read.

I've had a lot of success, and a lot of challenges, but some other authors have had a lot more success.  The numbers are there, and one of the most important is how this particular author has other books which were self-published.  They decided to go with KDP select and sold a lot more book- but, it was through the lending library, which for many authors doesn't help their sales if it's a brand new book. I found that using both Kindle and Kobo- this has given me a better chance for book sales, which I would not otherwise have received.  I've also spent a lot of time working with my local bookstores to get a placement of my books in the store.  Should you be in Canada, or more specifically the Waterloo area, you can find my book at the local Chapters.  This did take me nearly three years of hard work for this to happen, and I expect much the same for my next self-published book.

The numbers are really an average, and there are people who will sell more books as opposed to others who self-publish because they network, and have a platform and have a lot of luck getting it in their local bookstores.  The averages are based on millions of self-published books, and many of these authors no longer promote a particular book or had no intention of selling their books beyond a small network of family and friends.

To have real book sales, an author has to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

15 Reader Questions Answered

This month, we opened our doors for reader questions about publishing, self-publishing, numbers, writing and just generally what it is like to be a writer.  Most of these questions have to do with "numbers" and by this our readers want the cold hard numbers.

You asked, we listened.  Here are, in no particular order a round up of 15 questions our readers asked.

1) Why it is so hard to self-publish and earn money on a book?  I've heard so many numbers, I'm not sure what to think.

2) Why should a person write fan fiction for free now that Amazon has something you can earn money with?

3) What is better to write fiction or non fiction?

4) Should you ever have a co-author? Would you loose money if you did?

5) What is the hardest part about self-publishing?

6) How do you market a self-published book and not loose your money?

7) Can the stigma of self-publishing ever be completely eliminated?

8) Should you blog if you self-publish your own book?  Is a blog needed- how much time should be devoted to blogging?

9) How much money should you spend using social media?

10) Is there a limit to self-published book sales?  If this is true, is that why people keep self-publishing?

11) Who makes more money a self-published author or a traditionally published author?

12) How can you decide who is a "reputable" self-publisher?

13) How much money can each book earn if you self-publish?

14) How helpful are Twitter and Facebook in increasing sales of your book?

15) Are there money making secrets to Amazon and Kindle?

There you have it, you've spoken to us, and we will answer you this month.  To our loving Living a Life of Writing readers, our thanks.

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