Myth #7: The Key to Success is a Good Story Idea

Those of you who have attended my small-group writing retreats know that we spend precious little time brainstorming premises. Since I ask everyone to send me their work-in-progress before the retreat begins, I assume everyone already has an idea and wants some input on how to make it better. But doesn’t that mean I’m overlooking something important? Doesn’t that mean I’ve skipped Square One?

No. Here’s the truth. Ideas are everywhere, and most of them are variations on themes that have been around much longer than we have. One of the great benefits of maintaining a regular writing schedule is that, once your subconscious knows you’re going to be writing every day, it keeps an eye out for stuff to write about. You can’t browse through bookstore, or see a film, or read a newspaper, or even walk down the street without being bombarded with ideas. Most professional writers have far more ideas than they could ever write. When it comes time to start a new book, they have to sift the wheat from the chaff and pick the one (or combine several) to write.

Here’s another truth: If you look at the breakout hits, or the books on the bestseller lists, you’ll mostly see books of excellent quality. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the core idea is breathtakingly original. You’ll find mysteries, thrillers, romances, historical melodramas–variations on established themes. I hope the characters seem fresh and the situations aren’t hackneyed…but there will always be a core of familiarity. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because part of the reason people read fiction, and particularly genre fiction, is because it’s comfortable. Readers hope you bring energy and excitement to it, but they don’t necessarily expect, or even want, you to reinvent the wheel.

If that’s true, you may be wondering, how do I make my book stand out? How do I make it catch the eye of an agent or editor? This is what I map out in my book Promising Premise. You take your core idea and build it into something wonderful. Here’s that book’s must-have list:

High stakes

Emotional appeal

Inherent conflict

Believability

Fresh Spin

And if you don’t know what I mean by all those…what can I say? Go get the book.

And if you’ve done all that and you’re still not selling…it’s not the idea, it’s the writing. May I direct you to Sizzling Style?

Promising Premise: https://smile.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B00Z4RN5QU/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1479070966&sr=1-1

Sizzling Style: https://smile.amazon.com/Sizzling-Style-Matters-Sneaker-Writers-ebook/dp/B00JRESCOQ/ref=pd_sim_351_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=6QTAP02R1XGAH7CWD0X1

What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust

Create Your Own Audiobooks

Last week, I blogged about the dramatic rise in audiobook sales. This week, I’m going to tell you how to make one yourself.

The simplest, least expensive, most cost-effective approach (though not the only approach) is to use ACX, which is a subsidiary of Amazon. ACX is basically a platform for pairing authors with narrators (what ACX calls “producers”), uploading the work, and listing it for sale on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

You’ll sign up as an author, then search for your book. (If it’s on sale at Amazon, it will be there). Claim it as your own. Then you can choose to read it yourself (complicated) or find a professional audiobook narrator to read it (less complicated, but you will share your profits). You post a script of about ten minutes of your book, and invite interested narrators to record the sample and send it to you. If you like what you hear, you can hire them. If not, you don’t.

Or you can be more proactive about it. The narrators all have pages with samples of their work. Listen around, and if you hear someone who sounds perfect for your book, send an email inviting them to audition. If they’re interested, you may save yourself a lot of time and get someone you really like.

Once you have your narrator, you have two choices. You can pay them an agreed-upon sum up front, or you can split the royalties 50-50. Most people choose the later. Partner up with your narrator. Make it a joint enterprise.

Some of you may be tempted to record your books yourself (as I have done with the Red Sneaker books). I will warn you–this will not work unless you have a studio and professional recording equipment. You might be able to reserve time in a recording studio, but this is expensive. When you consider recording, editing, and post-production work, you will likely have an hourly bill three to four times the actual length of the book.

You can set up your own studio at home, but again, you need professional equipment which is not cheap. I had it easy–my wife is professional audiobook narrator and already had a studio I could borrow–but if you’re setting one up from scratch, you will have to invest both money to buy the equipment and time to learn how to use it. Even then, unless you are a professional sound engineer or experienced narrator, you will have to send your work out for post-production work.

ACX does have specific and high recording standards. They will not accept anything that is not of first-rate quality. So if you’re thinking you can do this on the microphone built into your computer, forget it. Not gonna happen. Believe me, unless you have a pro in the house, the simpler approach is to seek out a narrator. Let the pros do it and split the profits.

And then the work you did on that book starts earning money in an entirely different realm, one that is growing by leaps and bounds. You’ve done the hardest work. Make the most of it.

ACX: http://www.acx.com

Is Social Media the Key to Publishing Success?

If you would much rather spend time writing your book than posting on social media–you’re not alone. But there’s no denying that social media has become an indispensible tool for spurring book sales.

In the early days (my first novel was published by Random House in 1991), publicity was primarily print ads (ineffectual), book tours (largely ineffectual), and book signings (boring and largely ineffectual). At least social media can work–and doesn’t cost anything, except of course the precious hours of your life.

Here’s a startling statistic: According to Statista, 78% of all Americans have a social media profile. You would think that just eliminating the elderly and children under ten would make 78% impossible–but it doesn’t. And 2.72 billion people worldwide will be social media users by 2019. Internet users have an average of five social media accounts.

But that doesn’t mean they use all five equally. As I’ve written before, Facebook seems to me to be the most effective for promoting books, book events, and authors. But you have to find the platform that works best for you, the one that allows you to engage readers most effectively. I like Facebook, but my pal Mel Odom swears by Google Groups, and Instagram has created the most popular poets writing today. So don’t try to do everything. Do what works best for you. That means you must:

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Know where they hang out, and
  3. Build your outpost there–and work it regularly.

One final thought you may not have considered. According to Technorati’s Digital Influence Report, blogs are the third-most-influential digital  information source for consumers making purchases, following only retail sites (like Amazon) and name-brand sites (like a publisher’s webpage). Are you blogging? Are you guest-blogging? A simple Google search would turn up fifty potential blogs that might be a good fit for your book, and most of the blog hosts would welcome a guest columnist with something interesting to say. Send them a short query and you may find yourself selling books in an unexpected way.

To Outline or Not to Outline

I just learned that the first book in my Red Sneaker Writers series, Story Structure, is highly recommended in another writing book (Structuring Your Novel, by KM Weiland). Praise from your peers is always pleasing…and causes me to think about structure. One of the biggest debates on the writing-conference circuit these days is whether to be a planner or a “pantser,” that is, someone who outlines or someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

Those who have read my books, especially Structure and the new one, Excellent Editing, know that I advocate planning, specifically pre-writing and outlining, if your goal is to produce something of publishable quality. (If you’re just writing for fun or therapy, I suppose you can do whatever you want). I think the reality is, many people are not outlining, not because they believe this will produce better work but because outlining is a lot of work and they’d rather start writing on this brilliant idea they’ve had. The problem is that the idea peters out in a hundred pages or so, and then they have no idea what to write next.

Outlining does take time, but it isn’t really that hard. Here’s a streamlined version of how to do it (the more detailed version is in Story Structure):

Purchase 60 index cards.  Break them up into (3) acts, approximately: Act 1 – 15 cards, Act 2 – 30 cards, Act 3 – 15 cards. Each card should contain one scene.  Each scene should contain 5-6 beats.

Notes about Act 1:  The inciting incident takes place early in Act 1.  The protagonist must be introduced.  The antagonist should probably be introduced.  All viewpoint characters typically will be introduced.  Perhaps a subplot or two will be introduced.  Supporting characters may be introduced.  The Act will end with the first major Turning Point, which sets the protagonist decisively on his or her journey.

Notes about Act 2:  A character turning point (a glimmer of an indication that the character might change) should appear mid-Act 2.  Plot twists are recommended to keep the story from losing energy and sagging in the middle.  The main plot and subplots should be advanced.  Viewpoint characters should be carried forward, as well as any other important supporting characters.  The protagonist should be faced with progressively more difficult obstacles or challenges.  Act 2 ends with the second major Turning Point, the ‘dark moment” or “crisis,” when the conflict has escalated to its highest point–often by becoming more personal to the protagonist.

Notes about Act 3:  The protagonist undertakes difficult steps to overcome the obstacles or challenges.  The climax is a large sequence, the largest and most dramatic in the book, and appears toward the end of Act 3.  Denouement follows to wrap up any loose ends or character business and give the book emotional resonance.

Finally: Once you have all the scenes mapped out and in the correct order, type up your outline from the cards, or pin them to a bulletin board.  Save it in a safe place. You will undoubtedly add to or subtract from it as you actually write the book.

Pretty simple, right? Give it a try next time you start a writing project. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Story Structure: http://www.amazon.com/Story-Structure-Successful-Fiction-Sneaker/dp/1484024893/

Excellent Editing: http://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker/dp/0692703225/


Excellent Editing: The Writing Process

You will probably not be shocked to hear that today’s blog is an excerpt from my new Red Sneaker book, just released, titled Excellent Editing: The Writing Process. The book discusses how to edit, revise, and proofread your books to perfection (or as close to perfection as we humans can ever aspire). But the book also emphasizes that editing is a part of the entire writing process, so it covers the steps for taking a book from the initial idea to the final product. Too often people have terrific ideas but can’t convert them into a polished book, or they start books but run out of steam and never finish. This book is designed to prevent that from happening, to help you create a book that is successful and published, a book you’re proud to see bearing your name.

I do not, however, recommend that people try to edit themselves while trying to get a first draft down on paper. Here’s an excerpt from the book on that subject:

It’s important that you don’t try to revise while writing the first draft. The time for revision will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. Don’t lose your momentum. I’ve heard one writer compare premature revision to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep the pages flowing! George Miller wrote, “Polishing at an early stage is usually a complete waste of time.”

 

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are or how much research you’ve done, you never really know what you have till you’ve completed and read your first draft. After that, you can read the whole thing and understand what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what are the strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled across your theme as you wrote and realized that it required a scene to be added or subtracted, a character to be added or given a gender change, a motivation to be altered. Only after you’ve finished the first draft can you see the big picture.

To put it more succinctly, I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say that writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if you’ve composed a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely, it calls attention to itself. And if it calls attention to itself, you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in the story, not thinking about how ingenious the writer is. Similarly, if you get to the end of the first draft and realize the tone or direction or focus of the book has altered, you’ll have to do some cutting and revision, perhaps more than you anticipated. That’s fine—do the work that needs to be done. But I don’t want you to waste a lot of time during the first draft beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor. Save the revising for later.

Here’s a link to my new book, Excellent Editing: https://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B01FHYK3N2