Tag Archives: Mars: A Traveler’s Guide

From Earth to Mars and Beyond #free through tomorrow!

Until recently, this collection of eight of my previously published sf short stories, including the Nebula nominated “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide”, was available wide through most stores where eBooks are sold.

And it sold about 2 copies.

So I pulled it from other venues and put it into KDP Select, which means I can also give it away to my loyal readers. Through tomorrow, Sept. 23, you can download the collection free from Amazon.

From Earth to Mars and Beyond

Here the description:

“From Earth to Mars and Beyond” is a collection of eight previously published science fiction stories by award-winning author Ruth Nestvold. But reader be warned: these stories of galactic empires, space exploration and first contact tend to be on the dark side and do not depict an ideal future world. Here a selection:

“The Far Side of the Moon” – Women from all over the world have been “recruited” into service on the habitat Volva, where they unwillingly cater to men’s pleasure. But the Volva is outside all global jurisdiction — and none of the women will ever retire …

“Troy and the Aliens” – When the first aliens make contact with Earth, they do not land in the U.S.; they land in Stuttgart, Germany. The President sends his aide Troy Jackson to figure out why. What ensues involves beer tents and driving fast on the Autobahn, but it doesn’t exactly end as the President ordered.

“Rainmakers” – Rekaya is sent as ambassador to Chepanaek, in order to try and negotiate peace between the planet’s native population and the colonists of the Allied Interstellar Community. The task seems impossible, and Rekaya doubts she is the right person for the job. But soon she begins to feel an affinity for the planet that she cannot explain.

Enjoy the interstellar darkness!

Do please download and pass the word along!

Starting out as an Indie Author: Writing blurbs for your books

The importance of your book description for making a sale

I had already started writing this installment of my series for indie authors, when I saw these results from the Fussy Librarian reader poll:

Question: When you’re looking for a new ebook, which is most likely to persuade you to buy? Please rank in order of priority.

Description: 3.51
Reading the first few pages: 2.23
Cover art: 2.13
Number of reviews and average rating: 2.13

1200 readers replied to this poll, so it is not something to sneeze at. And the description won hands down. (My own personal first would have been the first few pages, but I didn’t respond to the poll.)

As I mentioned in my post about what to do if your books aren’t selling, I regard the blurb as one of the most important things you need to consider changing if you want to increase sales. Once you have managed to get eyes on your book, and the reader has clicked on the image of your cover, the blurb is your first big chance to persuade her to click “buy.” And as the poll results above show, it’s worth spending some time on.

The “problem” of writing blurbs

I don’t claim to be the greatest writer of blurbs out there, but before publishing Yseult back in 2012, I studied a lot of book descriptions and read a lot of how-to articles and posts. I analyzed blurbs in my genre that I thought were effective and tried to figure out the best way to do it. One thing I admit I still have not figured out is how to write book descriptions for short story collections. My normal strategy is to describe the kinds of stories in the book and then provide short descriptions for two or three. It does not seem to be particularly effective. One of my collections, From Earth to Mars and Beyond, has probably sold less than a dozen copies total since I published it, which does not say a lot for my blurb-writing talents.

On the other hand, one of the short stories from the collection — which I meant to make free but still has not been price-matched on Amazon — is Mars: A Traveler’s Guide. I finally published it on Amazon at the beginning of January, and it has already sold more copies than From Earth to Mars and Beyond, the book I was hoping it would be a loss leader for. Now I’m reluctant to make it free on Amazon after all. *g* (For those freebie lovers out there, never fear: it is still free on most other sales sites.) Anyway, here’s the blurb:

Red Planet Adventures provides customized tours on Mars. Naturally, they have been optimized for safety. Soon, satellite coverage on the planet will even reach 100%! But what happens in the meantime … ?

Mars: A Traveler's Guide

This description might give you an idea of the problem a collection or anthology faces that a single work — be it short story, novella, or novel — does not have: it is the book itself that must somehow be described, and not the main dilemma of the plot.

Because it is precisely that which I am able to imply in the blurb of “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” — the dilemma. The story doesn’t have a character, but it definitely has a major dilemma. That short blurb preps the reader for catastrophe (or at least I hope it does. *g*)

And that is the single most important thing the book description must revolve around: the dilemma or problem. The catastrophe that is just around the corner.

“Fine,” you say, “but that’s a short story. It’s easy to summarize when there are no subplots, no huge cast of characters.”

Yes and no. My Mars story presented something of a challenge in the opposite direction since, as I already mentioned, it doesn’t have a character. The standard recipe for blurbs is a character in a place with a problem. But another necessary element which sometimes gets short shrift is the tone or voice. It’s a bit like the first couple of pages of your book. In those pages, you are making a pact with the reader, communicating to her the kind of story she is about to read. Your blurb has to do the same thing. So for my Mars blurb, I chose the voice of the story, “Red Planet Adventures” — with the exception of the last sentence, which is the implied catastrophe.

By contrast, my novel Yseult is a true mob novel, (metaphorically speaking) with tons of characters and subplots and historical goings on. Here is the description:

For the price of a truce, Yseult is sent to a world where magic is dying – to marry the father of the man she loves.

Marcus’s son Drystan would have saved her from a loveless marriage, but with her relatives being held hostage, Yseult cannot endanger them and must go through with the wedding. The tragic love story of Yseult and Drystan plays out against the backdrop of a violent world threatening to descend into the Dark Ages – only Arthur’s battles to push back the Saxon hordes can save what is left of civilization. With her background, Yseult could act as a bridge between the old age and the new – but will the price be too high?

Yseult is almost 200,000 words long. The German translation is a door-stopper of over 700 pages. (I used some formatting tricks with the CreateSpace version of the English to get the page count — and the price — down, but it was a lot of work.) Nonetheless, I managed to get the description down to a handful of sentences, only a few more than I needed for a 10 page story.

The big challenge in blurb writing is just that: distilling your story down to the bare essentials. Forget about getting all those cool characters and plot twists in. It’s all about condensing the main elements of your novel into a couple of short, snappy sentences. Skip the details, and cut to the chase!

And make it compelling.

What do the blurbs from successful books look like?

For some examples of truly successful books, here are the book descriptions of a couple of indie bestsellers in Epic Fantasy (one of my genres) at the time of this writing, that are right there next to GRRM and Joe Abercrombie and the like.

– Amazon #1: Lindsay Buroker, The Dragon Blood Collection, Books 1-3 (An indie author from whom I have learned much. I highly recommend subscribing to her blog. She is WAY WAY WAY more successful than I am. *g*). Here’s the description:

A thousand years have passed since a dragon has been seen in the world. Science and technology have replaced magic, which has dwindled until it has become little more than an element of myth and legend.

There are those who still have dragon blood flowing through their veins, distant descendants of the mighty creatures of old. These rare humans have the power to cast magic, the power to heal, and the power to craft alchemical weapons capable of starting wars… or ending them. But they are feared for those powers, and in recent centuries, they have been hunted nearly to extinction.

The few remaining survivors must find a way to change how humanity perceives them or be lost to the world forever.

– Amazon #6: Edward W. Robertson, The Cycle of Arawn: The Complete Epic Fantasy Trilogy:

Dante Galand is young. Penniless. Alone. But devoted to learning the dark magic of his world.

His quest will take him from the city gutters to a foreign land of sorcerers. To a war for independence. And finally, to another war–this time, for his people’s very survival.

Neither of these book descriptions provide the standard book blurb formula of a character in a place with a problem. Of course, “place” is not as important in fantasy, since the worlds are largely imagined. And both of these bestsellers are collections of novels. (As is #2, GRRM’s Kindle edition of Game of Thrones.) But it is interesting to note that Lindsay’s blurb does not name a single character, while Edward’s only names one.

This is not the case for romance, however, in which both the female and male leads need to be named in the book description. Or a number of sub-genres of crime and thriller, which often give substantial weight to the personal problems of the main characters (especially in series novels), above and beyond the crimes to be solved.

In order to get around all of the Fifty Shades of Gray knockoffs, I went to the romance sub-category of Regency Romance for my sample romance description. Here is the blurb for the #1 bestseller, the winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award in Romance for 2014, The Bluestocking and the Rake by Norma Darcy:

The Earl of Marcham has decided to put the excesses of his colorful youth firmly behind him so that he may find a wife and beget himself an heir. But a straitlaced spinster may stand in his way after she releases a morality pamphlet exposing some of his most private misdemeanors. Determined to have his revenge and teach her a much-needed lesson, the earl decides that his best course of action is to seduce her…

Miss Georgiana Blakelow has long given up the hope of marriage. Instead, she’s resigned to serving as governess to her siblings and saving the family estate from ruin. She might succeed, if only the wretch of an earl who won the estate at the gaming table would be reasonable.

As the sparks fly, and as Lord Marcham finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Miss Blakelow, she becomes even more determined to keep him at a safe distance. The closer he gets, the more likely he is to discover that his bluestocking isn’t all that she seems.

This blurb provides much more detail than the descriptions of the fantasy books given above, and names both the hero and the heroine. Several books I clicked on in this category use the same format: a paragraph for each of the love interests, detailing the conflict they will have to overcome to achieve the HEA.

As a final example of blurbs from successful books, here is the description from the #1 seller in techno-thrillers, Departure by A.G. Riddle, also indie:

Flight 305 took off in 2014…
But it crashed in a world very different from our own…

With time running out, five strangers must unravel why they were taken…
And how to get home.

Once again, no names, but in “from the back cover” the five international main characters are described in more detail, all introduced with significant goals to increase potential conflict.

What does that tell you about how to write your blurb?

These blurbs from successful books are all very different, and with the exception of romance, none of them is very good at the “character in a place with a problem” formula. The one thing they have in common is that they all emphasize some kind of dilemma — and do their best to arouse the reader’s curiosity.

So if you were hoping this post would give you a perfect recipe for writing your blurb, I’m afraid I will have to disappoint you. As you can see from the examples I provided above, book descriptions vary wildly from genre to genre. In my opinion, the best way to write a blurb is to go to the sub-genre you intend to conquer, copy a number of blurbs that you found particularly effective into a file, take them apart, and then try to describe your own book in the same way. It involves a certain amount of work, but given how high the book description scores in the poll I mentioned at the beginning of this article, it’s probably time well-invested.

New cover for “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide”

One of the things I’ve had on my to-do list for at least a year is to upload my short story “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” to Amazon and make it free. The story is also in my collection From Earth to Mars and Beyond, and I’ve been thinking that I should redo the Mars ebook with an excerpt from one of the stories in the collection in the back matter to entice a few readers to buy more. “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” is hands down my biggest “seller” on Smashwords, but just sitting there as a free short story without any incentives anywhere in the text to buy anything else from me doesn’t seem to be inspiring those who download it to go looking for opportunities to purchase my fiction.

Since I’ve had fairly good experience with the free story “Gawain and Ragnell” to keep my sales of The Pendragon Chronicles alive, I was hoping I could do the same thing with “Mars” for my SF collections. But when I went searching for the PSD of the original cover to edit it for recent standards and add the Nebula nom to the cover, I couldn’t find the file, nor could my daughter. She suggested that maybe it was time for us to make a new cover for the story anyway, since it was one of the first we did together, and reflects that. So that’s what we did. Here’s the new cover we came up with:

Mars cover

And here’s the old cover we did back in 2011, for the sake of comparison:

Mars: A Traveler's Guide

I’d love feedback on the new cover! And if you’ve already read the the story, so much the better. 🙂

Slowly increasing my word count, the natural way

I wrote a couple of days ago about how I intend to experiment with myself, see if I can increase my writing speed a bit. I started this week, and while I only had two days to test some new techniques, the first couple of things I’ve tried seem to be showing results. (Tuesday was taken up with grandmother duties, as well as the Big Project redux, some files that had to be redone.)

I’ve taken several fast writing courses over the years, have participated in several Nanowrimos, and while they might have increased my output temporarily, none of them ever resulted in a lasting change in my daily word count. What all of those courses and venues have in common is that they all insist that you can’t look back, you have to keep writing forward, or else you will end up in editing mode, which will kill your creativity.

Recently, there were a couple of threads on the Kindle Boards started by writers with amazing daily word counts, one of them being the lovely and talented Elle Casey, an expat like me. And to my amazement, this woman who regularly writes between 5,000 and 10,000 words a day, goes back and fixes her chapters before she moves on:

I edit as I go, re-editing previous chapters on average of 3 times before moving on to the next. My first draft is therefore very close to final draft quality.

I found that single point amazingly liberating. One of the things that tends to kill any fast writing project I start is the idea that I can’t go back and fix things. I tend to write pretty research intensive books and short stories, and I feel like, if I don’t get the research right, I just might be taking the book down a dead end and I won’t notice until I get there. Most fast-writing techniques won’t allow me to stop and research — I’m not supposed to do that until the end of the book.

But here is a writer who puts out a book a month, saying she edits as she goes. So what isn’t to stop me from editing — and researching — as I go?

So I decided to start with myself, try to figure what my best writing days have in common. My single best writing day was a 5,000 word day when I wrote the climactic scenes of Yseult. Another really good day was when I wrote my short story “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide” (which then went on to be nominated for the Nebula Award) in one day. Those two memorable writing sessions had one thing in common: I knew what I was going to write that day. For “Mars” I had a pile of research notes, I’d figured out all the things that had to happen to create my Catch 22 situation, all I had to do was put them in fictional form. For Yseult, my ideas for those last scenes were more vague, but I knew where I was, I knew the characters inside and out, and I had death and revenge to carry me forward.

Another great resource helped me to figure out the first couple of steps of my self-experiment, Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. She mentions that an integral part of increasing her writing speed was “Know What You’re Writing Before You Write It” — given my own experience, obviously a method that is much closer to my own creative nature than the just-keep-moving-forward school.

So what and how am I doing?

I’m only starting with a couple of changes to my writing routine at a time, testing what works, as it were. Here are the changes I made in the last couple of days:

– No Internet when writing the first draft of a scene.

– Before writing the scene, I note in longhand in a spiral notebook what I want the scene to accomplish and the most important things that are going to happen. Then I don’t waste a lot of time sitting there, wondering what the h@ll I could possibly do with my characters now.

– When the first draft of a scene is finished, get out research books and turn Internet back on and flesh out the things I skipped. (Along with basic editing.)

These relatively simple changes to my writing routine have resulted in 2800 new words on A Wasted Land (Book III in The Pendragon Chronicles) in two two-hour writing sessions. I know I’m not setting any records with that output, but here’s the really important part:

– My average output for years has been between 500 and 1000 words a day (when I’m lucky).

– These changes were completely painless.

– They felt natural.

– I got a huge kick out of writing this way.

– I’m happy with what I wrote, and I wasn’t just writing to reach some arbitrary word count goal. I had a block of time to write, and I stopped when that block of time was over.

There are a few more things on my list of strategies to try. I’m particularly curious to see what I can achieve with this method (and any others I may still implement) if I have a few more hours to write at my disposal.

It’s too early to draw many conclusions, but I think it’s safe to say that with a little experimentation, you just might achieve more than you think. Especially if you go with what feels natural to you as a writer.

Revising the Aphra Behn time travel

After completing the first draft of Island of Glass, I started on revisions of Chameleon in a Mirror, my popular literature homage to Aphra Behn. Commercially, this one will probably be a washout, since it’s balancing on so many chairs, and none of them comfortably. The subject matter is literary history, but the approach is conventional, accessible, with nothing much innovative to challenge the reader. I certainly don’t have anything against innovation — I’ve written hyperfiction, after all, and the single Nebula nomination I’ve garnered was for a short story told in a series of computer database entries.

But the thing is, even though she was revolutionary, the first professional woman writer in the English language, Aphra Behn was nothing if not accessible. Her plays drew large crowds. Certainly, she messed with the conventions of her male contemporaries, she did wonderful things with the trope of the innocent heroine, and she made the bad-girl whore so sympathetic, it makes it hard to root whole-heartedly for the spunky heroine. But while she wrote the first epistolary novel in the English language, she wasn’t experimenting for experiment’s sake, she was venturing in to a new medium, the long prose narrative, and trying to find an effective way to tell a story.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I regard Aphra Behn as the Steven Spielberg of her era. So while some might think a “literary figure” like Aphra would deserve a “literary” treatment, I think she deserves a gripping plot with lots of twists and turns and surprises, just as she once delivered to the Restoration audience of the Duke’s Company. I doubt if my time travel will do her justice, and it will probably suffer just as much from too much Literature as it will from not enough Literariness. As if that weren’t enough, it’s undeniably a stand-alone novel — there is no way I can turn it into a series. Which is the form which seems to be most likely to lead to success in this brave new publshing world.

But it’s important for me to finally finish this project of my heart, and I’m glad to be working on it again.

I did lose a day with a stupid mistake — the version I started editing at first was an older version that apparently I had open to consult while I wrote the new version last year. It took a couple of hours of frustration with myself at the writing being so much less polished than I’d expected before I checked the directory again and found the REAL new version. Sigh. I must find a better method of naming my files, obviously. But at least now I’m a little more inclined to believe that I really am still capable of learning as a writer and haven’t hit some kind of wall where I can’t see my own mistakes. 🙂

Despite the false start, I’ve managed to revise 70 pages of 350 this week (a manuscript of 110,000 words total). I’m good with that. I’ve also been working on the next group promo, which I will officially announce tomorrow. Watch this space!

I also spent most of a day creating a new page on my blog for my books. If you have time, please check it out and tell me what you think!

Wishing everyone a very productive and successful week. 🙂