Sunday, December 9, 2018

Marketing as you Write

When I sit down to write a novel my mind is on plot structure, character development, pacing and dialog. Still, it would be smart to consider marketing even as we create our stories. It can help a lot after we finish a manuscript. 

For example, most stories can have a seasonal setting. For example, suppose your story is set in the Christmas season. Die Hard isn’t a holiday movie by any means, but because of the seasonal setting it gets a viewing boost every year about this time. The same could happen to your novel’s sales. That one might be obvious, but the same applies to a story set on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Valentine’s or even if the action is specifically set in mid-summer. 

What if your significant character is handicapped in some way? Or maybe he or she is dealing with a significant illness like epilepsy or autism? Real life reader dealing with those situations are one specific audience you can target and, if you got it right, they will probably be happy to help you promote your book. Or maybe your heroine is dealing with spousal abuse. You probably had to do a lot of research to get those situations right. It’s reasonable to push your book in April (Sexual Abuse Awareness Month.)  What if you’re writing about a military family. You can tie in to Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day and depending on your characters, perhaps Military Spouse Appreciation Day (its May 10th.)

And there are any number of minor holidays that you’ve never heard of. Google what you need and you’ll probably find something that relates to your characters. My own private eye protagonist, Hannibal Jones, is a fanatical coffee aficionado. Next year I’m planning a big push connected to International Coffee Day (September 29).  

While you’re at it, think of other ways you could bring your characters to life. There are ideas that aren’t tied to a particular time or date. Is there a wedding in your book? Maybe wedding boards on Pinterest will get some attention. Is there a birth? You could have fun with a gender reveal. Maybe you’d enjoy interviewing some of your characters. Again, Hannibal Jones maintained a blog for a year, and I think that posts written  by him got people involved with the character.  

So stretch your imagination while you’re writing. In the back of your mind, consider what you can set up in the novel that will make promotion easier when the book comes out.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Little Big Press

Aside from being an author, I’m the editorial director of Intrigue Publishing, a small press in Maryland. Unlike bars, restaurants and car dealerships, people in our business make a clear distinction between “large” and “small” presses. It’s an uncomfortable but unavoidable label.

But what do we mean by small press anyway? To some people in the industry, it’s everyone except the “Big Six” publishers.  Actually, they’re the big five now since Penguin Books merged with Random House. Their peers are Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster.

But is that a fair place to draw the line? Kensington Publishing is a family run company, but they put out more than 500 titles a year and have a healthy handful of NY Times bestsellers in their stable. They have 85 employees and are the last remaining independent U.S. publisher of hardcover, trade AND mass market paperback books. Are they a small press?  

By contrast, Intrigue Publishing is a four-person team that subcontracts some of the work of publishing. We have 21 talented authors working with us and are happy to release 6 titles each year. We are proud of the awards our authors have won, but we haven’t published a NY Times Bestseller yet. We aspire to do what the big guys do in order to be a legitimate publishing company, yet we strive to maintain a personal relationship with our writers and be an author friendly house like a small business.

So, running a small press is a one-way path to an identity crisis.

For example, when one of our authors gets ambitious and schedules a few events on their own without telling me, I’m happy for his or her success but I’m also thinking, “Wish I had known so I could set up a social media push. And don’t they know I need to coordinate with my distributor to make sure there are enough books in the right places in time?” In other words, I wish they treated us like partners.

On the other hand, when one of our authors asks for data on where his books have been sent, who has them in stock, and which stores have returned them, I think, “Would he be asking his editors this stuff if he was published by Random House?” In other words, I with they would treat me like a big publisher.

So, yes, an identity crisis, because we really want to be both things: a publisher that acts, and gets treated like, the big boys, while embracing our authors and treating them like individual who can talk to us anytime about anything. And in my heart, I hope I never stop reaching for both ends of that spectrum. Random House/Penguin is not who I want to be.

Although it wouldn’t bother me to be Kensington someday.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Plotter AND Pantser?

The last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about the writer’s choice of being a plotter (working from an outline) or a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants.) I should point out that neither of these approaches is an absolute. Right now I’m working on a novel using a kind of a hybrid approach. Yes there’s an outline but it is very rudimentary compared to what I usually do. It’s only nine pages long, and I’m making up scenes as I go to hit the broad strokes, the high points laid out in that bare bones outline.

Full disclosure: that nine pages of outline includes a character list. Even if I don’t know everything that’s going to happen in my story I need to know the players. I would hate to have to stop writing when a character is introduced to figure out who this guy is and how he’s going to behave. I need to know a lot about my characters, way more than I ever tell the reader. The character’s name had to come from someplace, and it says a lot about his background. I suppose if you’re a true pantser you can have people just appear and learn about them as you go, accepting that they may be a bit unpredictable.  

But as I’ve shown you, there are real plusses and minuses to both approaches. And at the end of the day, you have to accomplish certain things no matter what, if your story is to be a success. Which approach suits your style really all depends on what order you do these things in.

Just remember that no matter how you write, it’s not a story without conflict. Regardless of the genre you like to write in, even if you write literary or mainstream fiction, conflict is what makes it worth reading. Conflict drives your story forward. That doesn’t have to mean a fight. Conflict is not violence. But it is the motivation for the protagonist and antagonist and whether you plan out how they’ll oppose each other in advance, it’s the pivotal point that is needed no matter how you approach writing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Plotter or Pantser - Which is Better

Last week I showed you how the plotter approach and the pantser approach to writing can take an author to the same story. It really all depends on the writer’s process and their comfort zones. The pantser is open to new events the whole time he’s writing. He trusts the characters to lead him down an interesting and exciting path. If they don’t he can throw an obstacle in the hero’s way to make it exciting or just “drop a body” he’s writing a mystery.

But what if the storyline doesn’t lend itself to such an event? What happens when there’s a lull in the proceedings and the author has written himself into a situation where he really doesn’t know what happens next? The characters aren’t pushing in one direction or another and 40 thousand words into a novel he finds that there doesn’t seem to be anything exciting or fun around the corner?

We call this condition writer’s block and it is one of the potential dangers of writing as a pantser. Maybe three chapters back your story took a hard left and now you can see that a right would have led you to a much more satisfying place, plot-wise. You could be permanently stuck. Or you may decide that the only rational course of action is to (gulp) delete the last three chapters and start over writing from there.

As a plotter, I am virtually immune to writers block. My outline is a clearly stated series of scenes, one leading smoothly into the next. When I finish writing one scene I just look at my outline and begin the next one. I know where I’m going and I have a reliable road map to get there.

But characters develop in the writing. The more you say about them the more you know about them. They develop depth and dimension. And you wrote this outline months ago, before you realized that the cop’s wife would be this kind of courageous troublemaker. Back when the secondary villain was pretty much a blank with no real motivations of his own.

So now, 40 thousand words into your novel, a new idea occurs to you. A truly great idea. But an idea that won’t work in the outline as it exists now. And you’re faced with a painful choice. You either carry on with the story you have in mind, knowing it’s not as good as the alternate universe you just thought up, or…. You delete the last three chapters, make that right turn instead of the left, and then build an outline out from there, forward to the big finish you already conceived. The ending won’t change, but the path to get there is quite different.

The point is, there’s no real advantage to one style over the other aside from the writer’s comfort zone. Next week we’ll consider an alternative to being a plotter OR a pantser.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Write Hard - Plotter vs Pantser examples

Last week I introduced two different approaches to writing fiction: plotters (who like an outline) as opposed to pantsers (who write “by the seat of their pants.”)  I thought it might be useful to give an example of how a plotter like me might approach writing a story.

Perhaps we decide that a terrorist has a plan that begins with kidnapping a group of innocent people at a Christmas party. That’s really just a distraction because his real plan is to steal $640 million in bearer bonds from a vault in that building. We decide that a hero will get involved unintentionally. Then we plan each barrier the hero will face in stopping the villain, each bigger than the last, until the hero finally wins. [Yes, I’m writing Die Hard – from a plotter’s approach.] As I build that plotline, I’m deciding what kind of person would conceive of such an audacious plot. And I’m deciding what kind of hero would be both willing and able to thwart him. To an extent the plot tells me who the characters are.

So why be a pantser? Well I think the pantser likes to be surprised by where his narrative takes him. This is a writer who, instead of finding confidence in seeing the entire sequence before he starts writing, perhaps gets bored if he knows all that’s going to happen. He most likely starts with the characters and a situation.

So, imagine I want to write a story about a cop who’s a real cowboy, a wild card on the job who can’t keep his family life together. I want to show how this guy deals with a serious crisis and proves that he is, in fact, a hero at heart. Suppose I have him go to a Christmas party with his estranged wife. But then a bunch of terrorists takes over the building, endangering the still beloved wife. What will he do, how will he deal with this situation. And how will the villain, a worthy opponent, keep him on the edge of failure?

If a pantser wrote this story, he might not have any idea of the villain’s reason for crashing the Christmas party when he starts writing. But the characters tell him there’s more to it than simple hostage taking because this is a very smart bad guy.

So you can see how these two approached to storytelling could have created the same story. But what if the pantser story line doesn't work? Ahhh, that is a story for next week. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Plotter or Pantser - Two Ways to Tell Your Story


Last weekend I was chatting with a room full of writers about our process. Every writer is different and one way is that some are "plotters" while others are "pantsers." I am a plotter. 

That doesn’t mean i have anything against the pantser community it’s just not the way I usually work. Here in my blog I will compare and contrast those two approaches to writing, not trying to decide if one path is better than the other, but rather to see which might be better for you, and to see the plusses and minuses of each. 

To start we should define our terms. All writers use plots. But when I say “plotter” I mean a person who creates an outline before they begin creating prose. The outline is the sequence of events, the plot of the story they are writing. The outline is in effect the skeleton of the story. Once that is in place and solid, the writer puts the flesh on those bones in the form of written prose and dialog.

What I call a pantser is a writer who figuratively flies by the seat of his pants. This person begins to lay down his prose without knowing all the details of what will happen later on, or maybe not knowing any of what will happen. He is like a driver on a dark road at night. He can only see as far as the headlight beams go, but he trusts that there is more road out there ahead.

So why would you want to be a plotter? Well, are you a builder? I think for those of us who are more comfortable working from an outline the story starts with the events. We like to construct a neat puzzle or a tramatic sequence, one building block sitting neatly on the one before. We begin with a theoretical straight line from here to there, from the beginning to the end of the tale.

Next week we'll look at some examples of how a plotter works as opposed the the way a pantser works out a story. And please feel free to add your comments and questions! 

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Starting Anew

My next Hannibal Jones mystery is finished, and our content editor is working it over right now. But I am always writing. So as soon as I sent my Hannibal novel off to the editor I launched into the next project.

I’ve been asked about the next Stark & O’Brien thriller, and there is interest in a sequel to Beyond Blue. Those were obvious choices. But a writer has to follow his muse, and sometimes a character will call to you.

Three years ago, I wrote a short story called “One of Us” for the anthology Insidious Assassins. The protagonist of that story was a Black female professional killer named Skye. In those 5,000 words we didn’t need to learn a great deal about Skye, not even a last name. But while I wrote two other novels this character was calling to me, wanting to explain herself better. Who was she? How had she become a stone-cold assassin? And how could she justify her actions so as not to see herself as a villain?

So, this week, I begin a new novel telling Skye’s story. I have an outline, but it is not nearly as detailed as mine usually are. Writing is moving very slowly because I am learning about Skye as I write. The character is deep, as they all are, but I have not seen the depth yet. What has surfaced is a brother who died of a drug overdose and a mentor who showed her the killing ropes.

Apparently murder-for-hire is a team sport. Just 4,000 words into the story a driver, an accountant and a computer expert have surfaced.  Oh, and Skye turns out to be in therapy. I can see that’s going to be a complex situation, but the assassin has some unresolved issues she needs to address.

So, this book is building more slowly than everything I’ve done in the past, because while I know the general plot, how things will happen and how Skye will react to the events I foresee are still in flux. It’s going to be an interesting ride, which I look forward to sharing with you.