Monday, April 27, 2015

It’s All About the Plot – II

Last week I said I’d explain how I go about plotting a story. Let me remind you that this is MY approach, and it may or may not fit your writing style.

My plots usually start with a “what if” idea. For example, the big idea for Blood and Bone came from a news story I was working on about a bone marrow donation program. I thought, “what if” someone needed a transplant and the only possible donor was missing?  My detective Hannibal would have to find the missing person.

So I have an idea of where the plot starts.  Hannibal needs to find a missing person. And I know where it ends.  Hannibal will find the missing person in time and save the day.

Now you may not have noticed, but I just gave you the outline of a story. 

Hannibal is asked to find a missing person =è Hannibal finds him and saves the day.

If I was writing something simpler, say, a fairy tale, the outline might be:

Hansel and Gretel get lost=è Hansel and Gretel get home.

This is the basic outline and from here I just add more and more detail until I’m ready to write. Notice that the story starts when the normal state of things is disturbed, and ends when the normal state is restored.   

The next step is to fill in a slightly more complex diagram:

                          Now what?                                             What now?                       
Problem presented==è much bigger problem appears --à  high speed finish=è hero saves the day.

The “problem presented” section is about a quarter of the book.  It only looks like our hero has a big problem until the second bit.  This is what I call the “now what?” point, at which our protagonist is temporarily at a loss for what to do next. (Goldfinger’s not just smuggling – he plans to rob Fort Knox.) That second bit is around half the book. At the end of that point it what I call the “what now?” point, or better yet, the “we’re doomed!” point, when all appears lost. (The Death Star is moving in and powering up!) Then the hero figures out the solution and it’s a race to the finish.  If you watch Hollywood movies with a stopwatch you’ll see they almost always use this three-act framework. For our familiar example it would look like this:
Hansel & Gretel are lost=è  h & g are captured by a witch ===è  h & g escape & kill witch =è 
h & g get home.

Once I get this far I start looking for the secondary plot. Why? Well, that’s the topic for next week.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

It's All About the Plot

Last week I discussed some of the elements of writing fiction, and today I'll start sharing what I've learned about one of them.

For some writers the most fun part of writing is creating the plot, the actual series of events that take place in the story. The basics seem so simple. A good plot starts with conflict and ends with resolution.  So the first thing you need to know is, what is the central conflict?  What is it that my protagonist wants? And what are the obstacles to him or her getting that thing. For example, in the film Rocky, the title character wants to be a successful boxer. The current champion wants to stop him. That’s where the plot begins.

The plot starts with someone who wants something important, and follows them as they strive to get it. They need to do that striving themselves, and they need to learn something from the effort.  What matters in plot, unlike football, is not whether you win or lose but how your hero plays the game.

In a really good plot, each of the lead character’s successes leads to another failure, and each of the character’s failures is somehow caused by his own flaws. You can see these points in every bible story, every fairy tale, and most classic long poems like, say, the odyssey.

The protagonist is the lead character whose plot we’re following.  The antagonist is the person or force trying to stop our protagonist from getting what he so dearly wants.  it could be Goliath or Goldfinger or Mt Everest if your hero feels the need to climb it. The antagonist – the bad guy – has to offer serious competition, maybe appear from the beginning to be too much for our hero.  And the barriers our hero faces have to be logical and believable.

How does a writer make sure his novel captures all those elements? For me, the only way is to outline the plot before I being writing.

But my outlines are not like the ones they taught me to make in junior high school. I’ll walk you through my style of outlining next week.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

What's It All About?

I’ve been contemplating some of the questions I am often asked at writers’ conferences and clubs. It seems to me, contrary to obvious assumptions, that the simplest questions draw the most complex answers.

For example, there’s “What should I write?” If the person asking is seeing me as a fellow writer, they might really want to know what books are selling right now. If they see me as a publisher, they may really be trying to find out what my company is looking for. Either way I tend to take the questions literally. Therefore I answer the question with a question: “What do you read?” When I get a quick, strong response the rest is easy. If you’re an avid reader of romance or legal thrillers or horror tales, that’s what you should write. Write that book you really want to read. Occasionally someone is honest enough to admit they don’t read much. In which case my answer is: “Don’t write.”

Almost as often I’ll be asked something like, “What’s the most important part of a story?” Among fiction writers, this is sometimes a confusing issue. The person I’m talking with may want my take on whether fiction writing is an art or a craft (of course, it is both, and they are equally important.) Or they may be focused on the so-called elements of fiction. Perhaps they’ve written a character driven novel and are being told that a story is all about the plot. Or they have something to say, a strong theme but their first readers say it’s the dialog that pulls the reader into the story. Or they’ve created a wonderfully complex universe in their speculative fiction story, and a good friend has tried to help them by explaining that world-building isn’t what people want. They need to have a unique voice.

I get it. We all want to assemble the parts and build a sturdy novel or short story, and we want to know what part to focus most on. Sadly, the true answer is to the “most important part” question is: “All of them.” A great story with weak characters is as big a fail as wonderfully developed characters who spout weak dialog. Every one of those elements is vital to a great story. And the worst part is, you can’t even develop them separately. Those elements grow organically, like crystals, and rely on each other to grow strong. The setting helps shape the characters whose actions drive the plot that expresses the theme revealed in the dialog IF the story is being told from the right point of view.

That said, the elements of fiction can be discussed separately, and I’ll try to do some of that in the next few blogs.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Anthology Takes Shape

We at Intrigue Publishing are pulling together our first anthology. It is a collection of Young Adult stories aimed at a holiday release. For a title we settled on YOUNG ADVENTURERS: HEROES, EXPLORERS & SWASHBUCKLERS. The subtitle is, “Tales of teens saving the day in the past, the present, the future & on other worlds.”

When we put out the call for submissions I didn’t know what to expect. Similar calls for novels in the genres we publish have raised a lukewarm response. So my first surprise was the 55 submissions we received. Reading our way thru the stack gave us our second surprise, or two. I was frankly stunned at how dismal some of the stories were. Besides the bad writing, some authors totally ignored the submission guidelines. How could you read that title, and subtitle, and send a story with an all adult cast? Or a story in which the teen is endangered but saved by adults? Some writers also ignored the stipulated minimum and maximum lengths, that the stories needed to be in Word, and our chosen fonts.

BUT… I was also blown away with how good some of the stories were. Amazing prose, fabulous character development, strong plots with nice hooks, lots of suspense and satisfying conclusions. We had some tough choices to make and for the sake of length we had to say no thank you to some really good stuff.

Another big surprise was subject matter. I expected westerns and pirate stories. However, we got nothing set farther in the past than the Cold War era. As it turned out, that was fine.

Building an anthology is very different from writing a novel. An anthology has to be shaped. You can’t just throw the stories together randomly. They need to have a flow, a rhythm of sorts. Some stories are faster pace, some more deliberate. Some have male protagonists, some female and some both. Where should that humorous story pop up? Or the one that’s a little scary?

As it happens, the stories shook out nicely. We settled on 18 stories: six set in our familiar world, six science fiction tales, and six set in fantasy worlds. It was easy to group them that way. Our heroes and heroines face thugs, spies, monsters, zombies and a variety of aliens. Protagonists vary from stone serious to sweetly smart-ass. There’s a story that may move readers to tears and one that will make them laugh out loud. But in every case a brave and resourceful teenager saves the day.

There’s lots more work to do, but now that it has taken shape, I can’t wait to introduce this YA anthology to the world.   

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Bundle of Joy

While major publishers may push a book at release and expect the bulk of sales in the first couple months, small presses and self-publishers count on the long tail for sales. That means they keep promoting their books for months, even years, with hopes of maintaining steady sales. However, that tail isn’t endless, and at some point small presses and authors start wondering how they can keep those older books alive. Recently I’ve been reading about book bundling as a solution to that problem, and it’s one idea we at Intrigue Publishing are going to want to try, at least with our ebooks.

The most obvious bundling idea is to repackage a series. My first thought is to release the first three Hannibal Jones novels as one ebook. We can make it a great deal for readers to get all 3 at once. It should make it easier for new readers to dive into the series.

I’ve also noticed that this idea sometimes works in reverse. In other words, a writer can break up an older book into several parts. Shorter works seem very popular these days, and this is a way to offer a long story in easy little bits.

For new books I’m also looking at having an older book piggyback on a new release. The older book can be sort of a free bonus for trying the new one. Anything that sounds like a bargain sounds like it’s worth trying to me. Intrigue will release sequels from two of it's authors in the next couple of months. They might be good choices for this idea.

Will this really work?  Well, I haven’t tried it yet,  but I know the new/old books will need the same kind of promotion and marketing as a brand new release. When we’ve got it together we’ll get it rolling and I’ll report the results right here on my blog so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, if you have already tried some sort of bundling, please let us know how it worked for you, and if you’d try it again.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Even Bigger Marketing Mistakes

Last week I talked about some of the biggest marketing mistakes writers can make, and asked you what I missed. I think many of my readers have learned from the same experiences I have.

The top of our big mistake hit parade was not watching the market. Even if you are on top of marketing tends and plans today, that doesn’t mean you will be tomorrow. The publishing industry is changing all the time. For instance, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing may have been the best bet for your ebooks not long ago, but that program requires exclusive rights. We’ve determined that today it is better to have your e-book on all available platforms and market to the different reader segments (IPad users, Nook owners, etc.) Also, in the last few years the preferred length for books, popular covers, and the popularity of short stories have all shifted. Stay aware of trends in the industry to make sure you’re giving your readers what they most want and expect.

Another big mistake a lot of writers make is not engaging with readers properly. If a reader takes the time to write to you, or Tweet to you or even comment on your Facebook page, you have got to respond. Let’s face it, fewer and fewer newspapers are reviewing books, bloggers get lots more books than they could ever review and other writers often don’t have time to read and comment on your books. Your best word-of-mouth friend is the reader who already likes your stuff. So for goodness sake respond to their tweets, comments and emails. Thank them for their interest. Engage with them.

Also high on my list of errors is waiting until your book is finished to get your web site up. It takes months to get a decent amount of traffic to your site. Plus, people who want more info about your book before release need a place to go. I think your website needs to be up and running at least four months before your book release. That’s when the most important reviewers should be receiving your Advance Reader Copies. Give them a reason to believe you’re a serious author, and a source for additional background if they decide they want it.

Here’s a mistake I’m often guilty of: forgetting to ask for help. I love doing live events and afterward always talk about all the people I got to talk to, and the books I signed. That’s when my marketing director, Sandra Bowman, will ask, “Did you ask for their email addresses so you can add them to your mailing list?” Yikes! Or, “When you signed their book did you ask them to post a review on Amazon after they read it?” Geez. So don’t be like me. Remember to ask for readers’ help.

The last two big mistakes I’ll mention are related. One is looking for the quick cash. It is NOT to your advantage to just throw books up on Amazon hoping one will score you readers. If you think you can spend all your time writing and none of it marketing, well… you’re wrong. It may work for one person out of a thousand, but those are mighty long odds.

Likewise, being in too big a hurry can be the biggest marketing error. I’ve known writers in such a rush to get that ebook posted that they couldn’t wait long enough to get it edited. Or proofread. Or formatted properly. Is this the best way to promote yourself? Feedback I get from readers is exactly the opposite. They say reading one poorly resented story is enough to keep them from ever reading anything from that author. So from my point of view, having your name on a book you can’t be proud of is the worst mistake any author can make.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Marketing Don’ts

It seems everybody wants to tell writers what to do to market and promote their books. I think it might be even more important to know what NOT to do. So I thought I’d share my idea of the worst things you could do.

First, you should avoid the two action extremes. At one end of the spectrum, you can’t just sit and wait to see what happens. Don’t lose the crucial first few release days waiting to see what kind of sales you’ll get without marketing.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t feel like you have to do everything either. There are so many social media sites, and some people do blog every day. But you can’t do all that AND read every writing blog AND attend every book event within driving distance. Is Goodreads a good thing? Yes. So is Library Thing. Pick one. Same with the other similar sites. Choose a couple you can really establish a solid presence on. You’ll find that pays off a lot better than trying to be on all of them a little bit or once in a while.
You shouldn’t think your book is all the writing you need to do. You should be producing lots of content for those on-line places where you want to be seen. Blog regularly, and if Facebook or Twitter are part of your plan post frequently. Consider YouTube as social media too and consider posting videos. Keep those posts appearing on Pinterest. Creating lots of content can become time consuming, but I’ve read several articles on the internet sharing easy ways to come up with engaging, and helpful, content. Google some up.
Speaking of big mistakes, don’t ever think your book is so timely, so hot, and so topical that you don’t need to market it. The rules apply to everyone! Hillary Clinton, Rush Limbaugh and Oprah Winfrey all make sure their books get lots of good marketing. Empire is the hottest thing on TV right now, but Taraji Henson is not too big to engage with people on Twitter. Her character on the show, Cookie, is a hustler, and to promote the show Henson is too!
OK, what do YOU think are the worst mistakes writers make in marketing? Share them with the class, and I’ll try to present them here next week.