Revealing Character Emotions

I still remember the moment with clarity. We were doing a Q&A during lunch at the annual writers conference. Someone made the usual comment about how writers should “show, not tell”—and my longtime friend Kathleen Park called us on it. “People always say that,” she countered from the audience. “But let’s face it—sometimes you just have to tell. Otherwise, the story never goes anywhere.”

And you know what? She’s right.

After a long moment of thought, I grasped the discrepancy between what we were saying and what she was saying. When writers talk about “showing,” we’re usually referring not to plot details, but to character emotions (although the same is true of descriptions. Remember what Chekhov said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”) When you simply tell the reader about a character’s emotions, it has little impact. “Sally was sad.” So what? Barely even registers. If you want reader impact, you create a vivid mental image readers can absorb. “Sally raced up the stairs, slammed her bedroom door, threw herself on the bed and pounded the pillows, tears streaming from her eyes.” Ok, over the top, but you get the idea. Create a vivid image.

Here’s a question for you. Is that image better with or without the tears? To me, the tears are so obvious it’s better without them. Adding tears comes perilously close to telling.

The task of revealing emotional states is even more challenging when you’re dealing with a character with suppressed or repressed emotions, like my longtime series character Ben Kincaid. Because he tended to keep his feelings bottled up inside, I devised all sorts of indirect indicators to communicate his feelings to the reader. I think these were key to the widespread character empathy that spawned nineteen novels in the series. As you know from reading Creating Character, reader connection to your protagonist is key to immersion in the story. That’s why I encourage you to think about backstory, to complete character job applications, and such. Similarly, in Perfecting Plot, I urged you to think about character arc, hero’s journeys, and the long-form story you’re telling.

How do you reveal the emotions that lie beneath the surface? As it turns out, it’s much the same in fiction as in real life. You can draw from your own experiences to create three-dimensional characters who are still portrayed with art and subtlety.

The first and most obvious approach is body language. We all know the body indicates emotions (far better than words). That’s why we have our characters smile, shrug, breathe deeply, whisper, etc. The problem here is that a little goes a long way, it soon becomes repetitive, and some body-language indicators are so obvious that, once again, it comes perilously close to telling.

Another approach is to deliberately portray the character having an over- or under-reaction. When someone suddenly flies off the handle for no apparent reason, it usually indicates something is simmering inside. My new series character, Daniel Pike, usually appears confident and genial, so if he suddenly erupts, or has any extreme emotion—you know something is bothering him. The same is true for an unnatural under-reaction. Either way, it cues the reader that something unstated is troubling the character, and encourages them to figure out what it is. Another mystery to solve, which always keeps readers turning pages..

You don’t have to be a poker player to know that tics and tells often reveal what someone is thinking. Everyone has a tell, they say, and so should your protagonist. The reader may not recognize the tell at first—but they will in time, and that will be a wonderful epiphanic moment that will not only let them feel smart but will also inspire them to think that you are a skilled and artful writer. Ben Kincaid stuttered when he was worried, or having some other suppressed emotion. Sometimes he tugged at his collar. What’s happening with your character? My advice: try to avoid the obvious—like averting eyes or clearing throats. Come up with something less on-the-nose, something readers may not immediately grasp, but will love when they get it and will relish when it reoccurs—because they now know what it means, without bring told.

You’ve read about the fight-or-flight response. Which will your protagonist choose? Most heroes will fight-eventually. (This is why I never took to the Scooby Doo crew. What kind of heroes run when they see the monster?) But perhaps fighting is not your protagonist’s first response. Maybe it’s something they have to work up to. Will your character freeze? Choke? This might give you an opening for a great character arc. The character eventually finds strength they didn’t realize they possessed.

Finally, consider whether a passive-aggressive response might reveal what is swirling beneath the surface. (This might be better for a sidekick character than the main hero.) Entire books have been written about passive-aggression, but the general idea is that someone superficially acquiesces, but does so in a way that suggests hostility. If you ask your partner if they want to go to the movies and they answer, “We could do that”—well, that isn’t a “Yes!”, is it? Similarly “Sure, if you want to” is passive-aggressive. “You do whatever you want. You always do” is edging closer to plain aggression, but it definitely reveals suppressed emotions. This is another reason to write “off-the-nose” dialogue, which as I explained in Dynamic Dialogue, is often the most interesting dialogue to read.

You can use some or all of these techniques if you find them useful. What is paramount is that your give the reader an opportunity to connect to your main character. When readers identify with a character, even though the character is completely unlike them—that’s when the magic happens. That’s when the reader feels they’re on the page, experiencing this story as it happens, learning the lessons the character learns, without undergoing the misery you put the character through. That is the hallmark of a great book. And you can do it. So start writing.

Creating Character

Perfecting Plot

Dynamic Dialogue

The Last Chance Lawyer (Daniel Pike Book #1)

Writer Con

Writing Retreats

Going Viral: A User's Guide

My guest blogger this week is David Gaughran, author of Amazon Decoded, Bookbub Ads Expert, and all-around expert on author marketing. This piece originally appeared in his newsletter, normally exclusive to those on his mailing list, but he graciously allowed me to reprint it here. David will be a presenter this year at WriterCon. If you’d like to register for his newsletter, click the link at the end of the essay.

Going Viral: A User’s Guide

Nobody knows what truly causes something to go viral.
 
Sure, afterwards, we can all point to something — with the benefit of hindsight — and list off elements which contributed to the explosion in sharing: it had a cute dog bouncing on a trampoline, it had just the right amount of indignation, it was funny, there was a well chosen emoji, it was topical, it tapped into some lingering but unspoken resentment about a hot button issue… that list could go on forever.
 
Trying to assemble a Franken-thing that ticks all those boxes will quickly show you that this retrospective diagnosis is missing something — the X-factor that makes one thing go viral and another thing, which was very like it (or even superior in many ways), do the opposite.
 
This is not going to tell you what that X-factor is. I’m not even sure anyone can answer that with total confidence. If you had to push me, I’d say it’s probably luck, as long as we allow timing to share luck’s umbrella.
 
If you think that’s a dodge, wait for this: it doesn’t matter.
 
Going viral has less value than you think. Unless you are actually interested in celebrity rather than building something more meaningful, then it often has very little lasting value at all. For me at least, I’m a million times more interested in money than fame. If it was an actual choice, I wouldn’t have to think about it at all — give me the bag of gold and I’ll be a happy hermit.
 
This might surprise anyone who hasn’t gone viral. Let me share some experiences.
 
A close friend of mine went viral last week after posting something to Facebook. Her personal page too, not her business or author page. It wasn’t a new release announcement or ad. It wasn’t anything that was going to put money in her pocket or promote or books or company in any way. It was a funny post, but with an underlying serious message that obviously resonated with a lot of people because it got something like 10,000 Facebook shares. That’s a lot of eyeballs on a post that might otherwise have been seen by a couple of dozen or a couple of hundred people.
 
The first thing you should realize about something like this is that you can’t choose what goes viral. You might prefer it to be something which would provide more tangible benefit — like maybe something that had a link to one of your books — but you can’t choose what goes viral.
 
(I should note that these things genuinely can have real value which transcends grubby monetary concerns, and I know that my friend both enjoyed the experience in itself, and was also deeply touched by how that post made so many people feel, but we’re strictly talking about business and marketing stuff here, not the emotions of puny hoo-mans.)
 
And if you start pumping out stuff that is designed to go viral, you just end up turning into a clickbait publisher, telling people 7 Reasons For This and How To Do That and pretty soon you are just regurgitating the historically common elements in viral posts in an empty and robotic way, and your site descends into slideshows of desperation.
 
You can’t choose what goes viral. You can’t make something go viral. And you shouldn’t care either. More personal experience:
 
I’ve gone “viral” a few times. Not like meme-ing my way to an appearance on Ellen, or being shared by George Takei, but my old Wordpress site was officially certified as “Stephen Fry-proof” which was a jokey designation if you were able to handle a sudden, unexpected, and massive spike of traffic, as if you had just been tweeted by Stephen Fry.
 
(In case you don’t know, he’s an English comedian/actor/writer with over 12m Twitter followers who is known for covering a remarkably broad range of issues on his feed, and high engagement too.)
 
In my case, I was actually tweeted by Stephen Fry, so it was literal. I think I had 40,000 visitors in an hour or something insane like that. Luckily, I wasn’t self-hosted at that point or I could have fried my servers (and my pricing plan!). But the good people at Wordpress.com had systems in place to handle viral outbreaks like this and cycle in beefier servers, so the site was able to stay online with barely a burp.
 
Honestly, the first time it happens it’s a huge rush. You are refreshing the numbers every ten seconds, watching them climb and climb and CLIMB. And, of course, because the brain often needs to be treated as a hostile witness, you start thinking, “Maybe I’ve finally made it!” or some such nonsense.
 
I should note that, unlike my friend’s example above, this actually was a blog post that was totally nailed on for my audience, so it was natural to think that the traffic surge would be comprised of people I could potentially sell books to, or at least maybe get blog sign-ups or Twitter followers, or email subscriptions.
 
But none of that really happens, not in meaningful numbers.
 
The first time, I blamed myself. I reorganized my website. I changed up my book links. I made my blog subscription more prominent. Tried to clean up my act and sharpen my hooks, and just make everything look more pro. Next time it happened… well, to be honest, I blamed myself again! And tweaked all that stuff again.
 
After a few times the penny started to drop. (While I am a slow learner, I’m not a total lost cause.)
 
Here’s the deal: this kind of drive-by traffic is… drive-by traffic by definition. The very fact that you have gone viral is usually a sign you have gone beyond your target audience.
 
This kind of traffic isn’t sticky. These people don’t hang around. Well, maybe a handful will, but if you expect a meaningful chunk of the 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 people who clicked on your post — because the planets happened to align that day — to turn into fans or readers or customers or prospects, you are going to be very disappointed. It’s not junk traffic, but you haven’t struck gold either.
 
It’s kind of like press attention, in a way. Something that can be nice to happen, as long as you don’t treat it with too much seriousness, and don’t expect it to change your life or throw your book to #1 or land you a big deal.
 
Again, that’s not to say there is no value in going viral. In my case, I was able to influence a public conversation that I felt strongly about. That has huge personal value to me — I genuinely cared deeply about the issue. But in pure mercenary terms, it did little or nothing for me. Which makes it a terrible thing to shoot for if you are trying to sell books, or boost sign-ups, or make money.
 
What does lead to success on those fronts is the slow, hard slog of producing things that people want and getting it into their hands. Building something over time that people need, something real, something substantial. Targeting those people with laser-like precision. Drilling down into the subset that digs your stuff, whatever that may be, and working that niche crowd. Not the bigger one surrounding it.
 
And if you do go viral, what will make those few stick around is that slow, hard slog you have already put in, not the dog picture, however cute he might be.

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Beta Readers: Three Reasons You Need Some (and One Reason You Don’t)

In recent years, you’ve probably heard a lot of people talking about their beta readers, that is, people they send their manuscripts to for feedback before they send them to their agents, editors, or publishers. The term is new, but the idea is not. We all benefit from a little feedback—just so you don’t get trapped into believing everything you hear (or rejecting everything you hear). I always wondered why the term is “beta reader”—who’s the alpha reader? The writer is not a reader, and about the furthest thing from an objective reader there could be. I think of my readers as alpha dogs, the people who more than once have prevented me from making embarrassing errors. But to avoid confusion, I’ll use the “beta” term everyone knows.

 When should you bring in beta writers?After you’ve finished an outline? First draft? Third draft? Polished product? Some people like to send out amazingly early drafts, so they can get input on character and plot before everything is chiseled into stone. I can see the logic there, if you know someone who will read something that rough, but I have to admit I don’t send anything out until I think it’s 98% finished. This probably has more to do with ego that strategy—I can’t stand to have others point out problems I should have spotted myself.

 Who should you choose for beta readers?Some writers prefer frequent readers, someone who might actually buy a book like yours. Some writers prefer other writers, because they might notice problems a lay reader wouldn’t. Speaking for myself, I like a mix of both. It’s not so much that writers notice things others don’t as that they know what to call it. The reader might say, “The story didn’t grab me” and you don’t know what’s wrong. But the pro writer will say, “You’ve got a viewpoint problem,’ and then you know exactly what’s wrong. Still, I also like getting the opinion of someone who reads solely for pleasure because ultimately, a book should be an entertaining read, and those readers are best equipped to tell you if you’ve attained that.

 How many beta readers should you have?I don’t know--how many people do you know who would be willing to read your manuscript? At least five, I think, so you get a variety of opinions. At our conference one year, Phillip Margolin said that he sent each manuscript out to ten beta readers. If only one or two of them had a problem, he assumed they were outliers. If he heard the same comment from several—he knew he had a problem he needed to fix.

 Here are the reasons you should start assembling your beta team:

 1) Everyone Makes Mistakes

 I know, it’s hard to accept. I like to think of myself as perfect…but I’m not. I also do a great deal of research for every book…but still some details slip through the cracks. In an early draft of The Last Chance Lawyer, I made a humiliating error, attributing an ABBA song to Queen. Inexcusable. My Baby Boomer card should be revoked. Fortunately, my sharp-eyed writer pal Rick Ludwig caught my error.

 The content-based mistakes are the most embarrassing, but we are all plagued by typos, the pernicious weeds of the writing world. Rarely has any book—including those from major publishers—gone out without some error somewhere. (This is how collectors often authenticate that a book is a first edition—by spotting the typo.) Even after a score of proofreaders have been through the manuscript, an error or two often remain, and sadly, the independent publishing phenomenon has increased this problem. Some books are being published with inadequate proofing, and that only results in the author looking unprofessional (even if it’s not really the author’s fault). There was a typo on the very first page of my very first book, Primary Justice, a typo I marked in the galleys but had not been corrected. I was mortified. (But then again, the book sold half a million copies and I’ve never once heard anyone mention the typo.)

 I strongly advocate that authors, particularly those who plan to self-publish, pay for a final draft line-edit. In fact, that’s the top item when I give people a “publishing budget” at my retreats. It’s simply a matter of maintaining professional credibility, and maximizing the reading experience. If a few hundred bucks can prevent me from being embarrassed—here’s my check.

 2) Not Everyone Sees Characters the Same Way

 I try to create characters who are complex, interesting, and three-dimensional, especially the primary and secondary characters. And of course, as you know from reading Creating Character, your protagonist needs to be likeable (which does not mean perfect). But sometimes, likeability is not universal. In Last Chance Lawyer, the lead is Daniel Pike, a crusading but complex lawyer, and he is soon joined by the other members of his new firm, Maria, Jimmy, Garrett, and Mr. K, all of whom have their quirks but who I hope you will find somewhat likeable.

 I wanted to give Dan an edge, to make him a bit of a show-boater, but imagine my surprise when one of my beta readers said she found him sexist! I would never have deliberately done that to any protagonist, but this reader was put off by some of his comments, particularly by the badinage between Dan and Maria about her close-fitting jeans. I thought both characters were joking and he wasn’t offensive, but the wildly different take of this beta reader did inspire me to tone down his comments. Best of all, I used that to develop a character arc for Dan in the second book in the series (Court of Killers, out in July 2019). In that book, Dan looks into the mirror and asks himself if he hasn’t been somewhat sexist in some of his dealings with women. Many thanks to Cassy Pickard for input that proved useful even beyond the book in question.

 3) Credibility is Not an Objective Standard

 Poe talked about the importance of “verisimilitude,” which of course is not the same as “lifelike,” but at least suggests that something like this could happen. This is always challenging in thrillers, which increasingly seem to demand larger-than-life plots to hold reader attention, plots that far exceed anything that could really happen—or anything you would want to ever happen. Although I try to keep my books real on courtroom procedure, the truth is that if I ever presented trials as trials actually transpire, readers would be bored to tears. I don’t care what the charges are—most trials are mostly boring most of the time. Judicious editing is the first step, but sometimes the boundaries of reality have to be stretched a bit, too.

 Good writers develop tactics for presenting the less-than-realistic events in a manner that allows them to be more readily digested by readers, like early planting, foreshadowing, and nuanced character reaction. But I like to run scenes by beta readers to see if they object. If the feedback indicates that an event shattered the suspension of disbelief—it may be time for rewrites. Different people have different standards. Personally, I found many of the scenes in Avengers: Endgame ludicrous, even by the loose standards of a superhero drama. But given that the movie is now the highest grossing movie of all time, others may have felt differently.

But by all means pay attention to your beta readers if a consensus arises. 

 And the One Reason You Don’t Need a Beta Reader—Validation. 

 You do not need beta readers who simply tell you how great you are and how brilliant your prose is. While this sort of feedback might make you feel better about yourself, it will not improve your work in the slightest. Your validation should come from the fact that you finished a book, a good book. That’s your source of pride, not feedback, reviews, or publishers. We are writers. We write. And then we put it out there, because we believe it has value. That’s the only validation that matters.

 The Last Chance Lawyer

 Creating Character: Bringing Your Story to Life

The Myth of the Natural Writer

You've heard these stories, haven't you? About writers who are/were so talented words flowed effortlessly from their pens. And you thought--why is it whenever I try to write, it's hard work, and every word seems to come slowly and painfully. This must mean I'm not really a writer, right?

Wrong. Completely wrong. In reality, most writers never receive magical inspiration that suddenly makes writing easy, nor do they have an epiphanic movie moment that overcomes their self-doubts. They just learn to ignore all that and plow ahead with the work. But I've rarely heard anyone discuss this as eloquently as my guest blogger Erika Krouse does here:

"After I decided to write my first-ever novel, I fell prey to what I call the Myth of the Natural Writer. Let's blame Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1797, Coleridge composed his signature poem, "Kubla Khan," after he woke from an opium-induced dream. He claimed he wrote it in one manic stretch—unedited, unplanned, and perfect except for the fact that it was unfinished, due to an untimely interruption by someone who was likely his drug dealer.

That's how inspiration works, I thought, so I got to work (sans opium), writing continuously without a plan for the first hundred pages of my novel. Inspiration was mine! Ideas were gushing! I was a novelist, whee!

Then I continued on to write the same-but-different novel for seven more years, in seven completely different directions, with seven different middles-to-endings, all ludicrous. It felt like I was shooting one very slow bullet a year, hoping that if I closed my eyes and aimed at random, I'd hit the distant target I had only vaguely envisioned. How was I going to complete this idiot book? What if I brought in a completely new character 10 pages from the end? What if I used three points of view, four, five, six, fourteen? The answer was in the subplots, the answer was in the adjectives, the answer was in opium, the answer was nowhere and the earth was going to crash into the sun and we would all die, but not soon enough to erase my shame at wasting my life.

It took me a little too long to realize I could get help.

Finally, in a fit of desperation, I bought every book on story structure I could find. Shouldn't I already know this stuff? My boyfriend (now my husband) (despite this event) drove me to The Sands Motel at the edge of Cheyenne, Wyoming—the only hotel I could afford, with a weekly rate of $161. He dropped me off with my heavy desktop computer, a cardboard box full of canned food, and a bike for emergencies. Then he drove back to Boulder, with my instructions not to return or call me for seven days.

Hell, I've learned, is a motel room in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The walls were covered in brown burlap wallpaper circa 1970, with graphics of giant, demonic ducks strewn across it, beaks open in murderous shrieks. The room stank from cigarette sweat and maybe bedbug poison. Sunlight shied away from those filthy windows, pocked by decades of pebbles. The March Wyoming wind leaned on the walls, pushing them inward. Even the motel maid abandoned me, and my voice weakened from disuse.

During those seven days, I did nothing but outline my novel and learn everything I could about story structure. I read books by anyone who had anything to say on the subject, from Joseph Campbell to Robert McKee. The information hit me in a "duh" way. Wait—did I even have an antagonist? A climax that originated from the rising action? Turning points? A resolution that, um, resolved anything? The ducks rolled their walleyes at me. I had read books all my life, but had never really thought about the mechanics of story—each component's particularities, characteristics, functions, and personalities. Exposition, inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, falling action, resolution—all were ingredients I could learn about, and then actually use.

After the week was up, I flipped off my judgmental wallpaper ducks and left Cheyenne with a new outline that I shaped into my novel, Contenders, over the next three years. From there, I developed a curriculum for a two-weekend structure clinic I teach every year, which turned into a two-year curriculum for the Lighthouse Book Project. By learning story structure from the subfloor up, I had developed a specialty that now helps me write better stories, and teach other writers to avoid my mistakes.

By the way, after that burst of fevered writing, Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" poem lay dormant for nineteen years while he waited for the Muse to revisit him. He finally gave up and published the poem in its unfinished state, to the derision of his colleagues. Coleridge eventually died of complications from opium use, forever chasing that initial moment of divine inspiration from within.

I wish he had my ducks."

Erika Krouse is the author of two books of fiction: Contenders (novel) and Come Up and See Me Sometime (stories). Two new books are forthcoming with Flatiron Books/Macmillan: Tell Me Everything: Memoir of a Private Eye, and Save Me: Stories. Erika's work has previously been published in Glimmer TrainThe New YorkerThe Atlantic, Esquire.com, PloughsharesOne Story, Granta.com, The Kenyon ReviewThe Iowa Review, and The New York Times. This essay first appeared in the Glimmer Train blog.

Other Links:
Story Structure: The Key to Successful Fiction
Creating Character: Brining Your Story to Life

Should You Write in First Person?

Every writer starting a new project must make fundamental decisions about viewpoint. First person or third person? (Let’s leave second person to academics unconcerned about sales.) Single viewpoint or multiple viewpoint? And your answers to these questions should be based upon your understanding that:

1) they are not the same question, and

2) you should do what’s best for the story you’re telling.

First person, of course, means that one of the characters, who may be the protagonist, uses first-person pronouns and speaks directly to the reader: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The first-person narrator is typically the central character but doesn’t have to be. Nick Carraway narrates The Great Gatsby, but I think the titular Gatz is the big cheese. This is not the same as deciding whether to have multiple viewpoints. Many first-person novels, like Gatsby, are told entirely from a single viewpoint. Others, like my Dark Eye, are told primarily in first person by the protagonist, but switch periodically to a third-person antagonist. Many other recent thrillers have used the same approach.

In my Ben Kincaid series, I wrote the first eighteen books in third person, but for the nineteenth, Justice Returns, I used first-person Ben as narrator (though I occasionally jumped to other viewpoints presented as interview transcripts incorporated into Ben’s record). This helped me energize the story and make it seem fresh rather than yet another iteration of the same thing. I’m not sure any of my readers even noticed. I have yet to see this change mentioned in a single review. Which may lead us to another conclusion: If you write it well, these technical details that writers obsess over may be largely invisible to the reader.

So you have many mix-and-match options. Which should you employ? In my writing retreats I have noticed a tendency for many first-time writers to choose first-person narration. I can see why this might seem appealing. On the surface, it might look simpler, more obtainable. (Indeed, the earliest examples of English novels—Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, and Joseph Andrews—are all first person, possibly emulating the fake first-person confessions sold at pubic hangings in that era). If you’re striving for reader-character intimacy, that is, to get readers inside your character’s head, it seems like a natural approach. But there are three factors you need to understand before you write in first person, especially for a project as large as a novel:

1) First person is not easier—it’s harder.

2) First person has serious narrative limitations.

3) Some readers strongly dislike first-person narration.

Let’s take those in order. First person is not easier. It may seem so, especially if you imagine that the character’s voice is your voice, perhaps the flashy, wisecracking, insightful superstar you see in your mind’s eye, always one step ahead of the others and leaving the room with the perfect esprit d’escalier (the snappy comeback you only think of an hour later while angrily reliving the scene in your head). But the truth is, no fictional character’s voice is exactly the same as your voice, and even if it were, maintaining that voice consistently for 80,000 words would be a challenge. You must tell the entire story in a specific voice, and if it slips even for a moment, the reader will feel that something has gone wrong. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying it’s not something to attempt in your first book because you think it will be easier. I first attempted first person for Dark Eye—after I’d been publishing for more than a decade.

First person has serious limitations. Anytime you write in viewpoint, you’re restricted to what that character knows. But when you write an entire book from a single viewpoint, your narration is limited to what they can see and hear. The novel The Hunger Games is told entirely from Katniss’s viewpoint, but the film version broke from her viewpoint occasionally so the reader could see the riots breaking out while she was trapped in the game, or President Snow forming his evil plans while pruning his roses.

As I mentioned, you could write a hybrid first-person/third-person narrative that occasionally jumps into other viewpoints. This creates page-turning suspense, because the reader learns something the protagonist does not know. Even then, however, the form has limitations. What if your narrator is not reliable? What if your protagonist is in denial about her problems (like Susan Pulaski in Dark Eye)? How will the reader figure it out? It’s not impossible—you could reveal clues in a conversation with a trusted comrade, a dream sequence, a flashback (ick), or some kind of external record, like a videotape or interview transcript (Justice Returns). But it’s challenging.

Finally, you must realize that some readers just can’t tolerate first-person narration. I’m not sure why this is. It doesn’t bother me, but I’ve heard others say a book loses all credibility once a character starts talking directly to them. Some moviegoers can’t stand voiceover narration (mentioned in The Opposite of Sex) and I suspect it is much the same thing. Engaging readers in the fictional construct we call the novel requires a major suspension of disbelief. You have to lull their conscious minds into forgetting that these are just words on a page and lure them into a shared imaginary world created by your sentences. For some readers, when a character speaks directly to them, the illusion is shattered. It is much the same as when a movie character “breaks the fourth wall,” that is, speaks directly to the camera (as in Deadpool, over and over again). Once the illusion is shattered, you’ll probably never get it back.

First person is best used when you have a specific purpose for choosing that form. Gatsby uses it so we witness Nick’s eventual disillusionment with the man he initially worships, which gives us insight into his dubious ideals, and implicitly, the dubious American Dream. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time uses first person to help us understand how an autistic youth thinks. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Agatha Christie uses first person to deceive the reader and pull off one of the all-time great feats of misdirection. Room is narrated by a five-year old boy, a classic unreliable narrator who doesn’t understand the horror of his situation. Huckleberry Finn uses an uneducated first-person narrator so the reader can witness his growing awareness of the deceit and inequity in the world.

I considered first-person narration for my newest novel, The Last Chance Lawyer. I was creating a new protagonist, Daniel Pike, and I wanted to get readers into his head fast, liking him and empathizing with him. I wanted readers to understand what drives this lawyer who loves extreme water sports, lives on a boat, and forgoes briefcases and dress shoes for backpacks and Air Jordans. But having him explain all this to the reader, or even remarking consciously upon it, seemed a bit of a cheat. I was convinced I could get the reader on board without alienating those who hate first person, or relinquishing the option of jumping to other viewpoints to generate mystery and suspense. Although the book is in Dan’s viewpoint 90% of the time, I used occasional diversions to show the conspiracy growing and the threats to him personally, a tightening web he learns about long after the reader does. I made a conscious choice, after due deliberation, based upon the book itself and what I wanted to achieve.

None of this is intended to discourage you from writing whatever book you want to write. If you’ve got a first-person character voice desperate to get out, go for it. My goal, as always, is to have you make decisions based upon solid information, not misapprehensions. And there are some signs that first person may be gaining wider acceptance. It has become much more popular in young adult fiction. In the wake of The Fault in Our Stars, many YA books now feature first-person female teenage protagonists. I’ve seen it catching steam in the romance and SF fields as well. My bottom line advice is, first, that this may not be the best choice for early writers who will have many other problems to work through, and most importantly—don’t attempt it unless you have a good reason.

Links:

Justice Returns

Dark Eye

The Last Chance Lawyer

Flipping the Script

This week I'm presenting a guest blog from my friend, fellow writer, and WriterCon colleague Rene Gutteridge. She's one of the most successful novel, screenplay, and comedy writers in the business and she knows what she's talking about. You should always have twists and surprises in your story, but "flipping the script" is literally turning reader expectations on their head—to enhance the story and increase reader pleasure. This is a great topic to think about when you're writing that first draft.

By the way, if you'd like another (completely self-serving) example of flipping the script, check out chapters 30 and 49 of my new novel, The Last Chance Lawyer.

FLIPPING THE SCRIPT

On January 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia airport.  In the climb out after takeoff, the plane was struck in both turbofan engines by a flock of Canadian geese. The engines caught fire and lost power immediately.  Captain Chesley Sullenberger was forced to ditch the plane moments later in the Hudson River.  It was called the most “successful ditching in aviation history” and instantly became known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

One small perk of being a full-time writer is that I’m able to watch amazing and historical events as they happen when they’re covered by the media.  On this particular day, I remember getting a breaking news alert. I turned on the TV and there, to my astonishment, was a passenger jet floating in the middle of the Hudson River.

I was glued to the TV for hours. Afterward I read every article and watched every video that came out on it.  I’m a little bit of an aviation geek.  Before 9/11 there was a little patch of concrete out by the runway at Will Rogers World Airport here in Oklahoma City.  You could park your car there and the planes would take off right over your head.  When my husband and I were dating, we used to go to the observation deck at the airport and watch the activity of all the planes taxiing and taking off.  I even wrote a book about planes and made a movie about it, called Skid.

So when the movie Sully was made about the Miracle on the Hudson, I was first in line to see it.

It didn’t disappoint. I then saw it two more times in the theaters.  But probably not for the reason you’d expect.

I went back for one single scene.

In the movie, there is the crucial moment when the birds hit the engines with a loud boom and everyone quickly realizes they’re in trouble.  The engines are on fire and smoking. Peril at its finest.

But how the filmmakers chose to show this dramatic scene left me astonished.

As a storyteller, I would think the natural instinct would be the show the chaos of the moment. When we show chaos, we naturally show screaming and crying. The loss of control is an automatic visual cue for something going terribly wrong.

But in this moment, they decided to flip the script and in doing so, created such an eerie, scary, sacred, astounding moment that I went back two more times just to watch it again.

Instead of showing the dire circumstances through human emotion, they showed it through utter silence.  The plane, suddenly, wasn’t making a single sound.  The engines were gone.  Nothing mechanical was working, including the typical buzzing sound of the electricity inside the plane. This 172,000 pound plane was literally gliding and they chose to show it through eerie quietness.  The silence allowed us to hear the groaning and creaking of the metal that we would never ordinarily hear on a noisy flight.  It was an extraordinary storytelling choice that reminds me how vital it is to take a sharp right turn into the unexpected.

As you probably know, flipping the script simply means this: doing something unexpected when the reader or audience member is anticipating the expected.  This can mean in a single scene or for an entire story. This can mean in the plot or the character or even the setting.

Flipping the script is probably an overused term, but I find it is often underutilized.  As a writer, I have to constantly remind myself to find the right moments.  If you flip the script all the way through, it loses its effectiveness, of course. But when I find the perfect moment, I know it.

A good decade ago, I was writing a scene where a character (whom I needed to have a haunted past) realizes that his sister may be attempting suicide and rushes back to the house to try to save her.  When he gets there, he has found she has hung herself.

I remember sitting at my computer, watching that little cursor blink. The devastating thing would be that he didn’t make it in time.  But what, I asked, would be even more devastating than that?

It is later revealed in the story that he ended up making it in time to save her life.  But not in time to save her from brain damage and a drawn out life in a vegetative state.  He had, inadvertently, trapped her between life and death.  For that story, that is the place I found to flip the script.

As you work through your story, remind yourself to find a moment or two in your story where you might be able to deliver an astonishing turn of events for your reader—something they won’t see coming.  It’s likely because you didn’t see it coming either.  That’s the fun part about being a writer…you can even surprise yourself.  And when you’re surprised, your reader most likely will be too.

Whether your millionaire is driving a pinto, or your zombie is the protagonist, there’s always an advantage to going against the expected.

Along with seeing Sully three times at the theater, I’ve watched it twice since then.  During Oscar season that year, I was anticipating that it would sweep.  It didn’t even come close.  In fact, It was nominated for only one Oscar:

Best achievement in sound editing.

Dealing with Platform Anxiety

This week my guest blogger is James Scott Bell, a great guy, a great writer, and a keynote speaker this year at WriterCon 2019 (Labor Day weekend in Oklahoma City). I’ve heard many writers at my retreats worry about platforms—what’s a platform, do I need a platform, how do I get a platform when I don’t have a book yet, etc. Thanks to Jim for addressing this timely topic:

A recent post by agent Janet Kobobel Grant offers some welcome relief on the dicey subject of “platform.” I’ve been slapping that particular bongo for years. How are new fiction writers supposed to create a following before they have any books out? I even pulled up a comment I made on TZK ten years ago (before I was a contributor!), to wit:

By far and away the best “platform” for us is OTHER people yakking it up about our books. Word of mouth has always been the most powerful marketing tool. You don’t get that by blogging, tweeting or shouting. You get it ONLY by writing books people talk about. That has to be job one.

The flip side is the best promoter in the world cannot overcome a book that fizzles with the reading public. It can get you a strong introduction, but from there the book takes over. If it does fizzle, the answer is not more promotion; the answer is a stronger book.

Yet many a publisher has pushed platform building, even for unpublished writers, leading to increased levels of scribal stress and sales of Pepto-Bismol.

A platform, as the book industry sees it, is whatever you do to engage and interact with a significant portion of the public. That includes social media, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and even good old public speaking.

All of those things take effort and cut into a writer’s creativity and productivity time. So does it make sense to spend that capital trying to create a platform at the expense of writing good books?

There is no shortcut to platform success, either. Sure, you can farm 50,000 Twitter followers, but how many of them are truly interested in you? Or you in them (shown by actual engagement)? That’s the key to social media. Thus, I was glad to read Janet’s comments:

The second group of editors I met with started off our conversation by saying they have come to realize it’s unrealistic to expect a newer novelist to have a large platform. Upon what foundation can a fiction writer build that platform? Especially as a debut novelist, you can only engage potential book-buyers so much in your writing and research endeavors before your attempted connections take on a bland sameness.

However, Janet continues, these fiction editors do want to see that a writer is “willing” to engage in platform building. Which means at least one social media footprint. The big takeaway is something I’ve advised for years:

These editors believe that choosing to focus on one aspect of social media is the best route to go. Rather than dabbling in several mediums but not really figuring out what works for you, dig into one medium and gather all your friends or followers in that one spot.

So which social media outpost is best for you? Read and reflect on Sue Coletta’s excellent post on the topic. Be sure to follow the links and also read the comments. You’ll make wiser social media choices if you do.

Janet Grant concludes:

I hope you’re taking a deep breath as you consider that some of the pressure to collect names and online connections has let up just a bit. None of these editors would say platform isn’t important. But each of them would say she—and the whole publishing team—is taking a more nuanced look at the planks of each writer’s platform.

By the way, if you want to plow right through the nuance, write a book that blows them all away. Then you can talk about platform all you want.

As I was prepping this post, an article entitled “How to Reduce Marketing Anxiety and Confusion by industry expert Jane Friedman appeared on the PW site. Jane writes, in part:

In a great scene from Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character says, “The more you know who you are and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” If I could customize that for today’s authors, I’d say, “The more you know who you are as an author and what readership you seek, the less confused you’ll be about marketing.” And the less you’ll be influenced by the crowd.

It’s easy to feel anxious about your progress when you see your peers engaging in new forms of publishing or marketing and you feel pressured to join. But the more you’re focused on your own long-term outcomes and how to wisely use your time and resources, the better prepared you’ll be to consider or experiment with new tactics, adopting or discarding them as you see fit.

So how is your platform anxiety these days? Does it ever detract from your writing? What are you doing about it?

Creating a Series Character

As I hope you’ve heard by now, I’m launching a new series with a new series character—rebel lawyer Daniel Pike. This project has been in the works for some time—I’ve already finished the first two books in the series and I’m editing the third. But the whole endeavor has caused me to think long and hard about what makes a durable series character who readers like enough to revisit again and again.

The first time around, I didn’t do this. Ben Kincaid was originally intended to be the protagonist of one novel: The Fixed Moment. (The publisher retitled it Primary Justice. I still don’t know what that means.) Of course, series characters were less prevalent then, and it might have been presumptuous of me to imagine I was launching a series since I’d never published anything, despite years of trying and hundreds of rejection letters. My beloved editor, Joe Blades, said he thought this guy could lead a series—and that’s what happened, for nineteen books (so far). Even when I later created Susan Pulaski, I was only thinking of a single book (Dark Eye), one with more psychological depth and heartache.

But now I’m older and I pretend to be wiser, so I’ve taken a somewhat more systematic approach. I looked at all the great series characters out there, like Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone and Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant. I even looked at series books from previous eras, like Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books (which I recently completed reading and feel quite virtuous for having done so). What makes a series work? I asked myself. What brings readers back, book after book? I was enthusiastic about my lead character, Daniel Pike—but how could I inspire readers to feel the same?

This inquiry led me to this post, some suggestions for creating successful series characters. I assume you will instill your project with all the essential elements of good storytelling (and if you’re not sure what those are, reread those Red Sneaker writing books). But what does the main character need to succeed?

Here’s what I came up with. Call it the series character checklist:

1) Give the character something that makes him/her special.

This doesn’t have to be a flat-out superpower, but something distinctive, so the character isn’t just another lawyer, doctor, PI, cop, wizard, etc. The paradigm, of course, is Sherlock Holmes, whose inductive reasoning abilities allowed him to solve complex puzzles. I gave Daniel Pike something similarly cognitive, but more related to the work of a lawyer. He has the ability to make careful observations of the people he encounters—which often allows him to discern hidden truths. Sometimes he gets it simply by watching people, uncovering liars. Sometimes it’s by combining observations in meaningful and unexpected ways. Sometimes it’s pure instinct. But it’s a power most lawyers don’t have (trust me) and I thought it would not only make him a miracle worker in the courtroom—but a delight to watch in action.

2) Give the character something that makes him/her fun.

First and foremost, I gave Daniel a sense of humor. At times, it’s a bit acerbic, but he’s never boring. I thought that if he made readers laugh, they were bound to like him more. His success as a lawyer has led to a first-class lifestyle (a complete contrast to Ben Kincaid), a fondness for gourmet cooking, extreme sports, and fast cars. All fun stuff to read about, right? Some of Daniel’s recipes should make your mouth water—and they are all dishes I’ve made myself. Maybe I should include recipes…

3) Give the character something that makes him/her quirky.

Daniel’s a rebel. Though with a big law firm when the book starts, he’s not part of the corporate culture. He lives on a boat—because why not?—he wears Air Jordans in court, and he carries a backpack rather than a briefcase. I mean, honestly, doesn’t that make more sense? Much easier on the back. Making your series character eccentric or unusual will enhance their memorability. You want to give the reader something to hold onto, so when the next book in the series rolls around, they will think, Oh yeah, he’s the guy in the sneakers…

4) Give the character something he/she’s passionate about.

Daniel is passionate about justice, and not as an abstract concept but as a reality he fights for in the courtroom. He likes making money, sure, but his primary drive is preventing people from being railroaded by the government. He has a personal reason why he feels so strongly about this. He believes that in reality, most people are presumed guilty and prosecutors have a devastating ability to put people away regardless of their guilt. He refuses to let the government destroy people’s lives. This is the driving force behind his career, behind every case he accepts. To him, it’s not about whether his clients are good or bad people. He will fight to see that justice is done.

If you can give your character those four critical qualities, you’ll have someone capable of carrying a series. And this is a good time to do it. Series books have never been more popular. Publishers see series books as the safest bet they can make. Readers enjoy revisiting characters they love. It’s a win-win, if you can bring it off. But it all starts with creating the right character.

Btw, you can pre-order the first Daniel Pike novel, The Last Chance Lawyer, at a reduced pre-order price until March 19. So why wait?

Here's Why You Can't Give Up

(This guest blog comes from my dear friend Rene Gutteridge, one of the Write Well Sell Well founders who partner with me for WriterCon. She’s the author of 24 novels plus screenplays, scripts, and much more.)

Recently I walked into my usual coffee house and was looking for a place to sit and work when a woman recognized me and said hello.  We chatted for a bit and she said, “Do you do your writing here?”

“Almost every day,” I said.

“Wow.” She looked truly astonished.  “I assumed you worked in a cushy, luxurious office.”

I laughed and we chatted a bit more, then I found a place to sit.

But I marveled at that comment for a little while.  A cushy office?  Hardly.  I hated to break it to her, but for almost 20 years, my office has been a small corner desk in my bedroom, facing a wall–not a window–and cramped beyond reason.

This year, as my oldest child turned 19 and my youngest started her junior year, I made the decision to move my office to what used to be the “play room” and then became the “entertainment room” and then became virtually abandoned as the kids began to drive and meet their friends elsewhere.  I boldly declared, “This is my new office!”

It’s taken more than a few weeks to migrate over to the new space, and more than a few years to have a real office.  In the middle of it, I’ve been cleaning out drawers and getting rid of things I no longer need. While doing so, I came across a tiny 3 x 5 notecard with some writing on it.  I almost tossed it, but decided to go ahead and see what it was.

A list of my impossible dreams?  I didn’t even remember writing such a thing. I typically don’t even make New Year’s resolutions.

What prompted me to do it is still a mystery.  But as I read over it, I was astonished to see that out of five impossible dreams on that list, three had come true.  I stood there staring at this scribbly mess of dreams, reading and re-reading.  Right there, in front of me, was proof that dreams come true—even if it’s 10 years down the road.

And the crazy thing?  I’d hardly noticed it had happened.

Here was proof I had impossible dreams one time in my life.  And here was proof that they became possible.

Chills ran up and down my body.

But something else caught my eye.  There was one dream, in particular, that wasn’t on the list.  My whole life, since the age of 15, I’d dreamed of writing a feature film that would play in a movie theater.

Why had I not written it on the list?

Did I think it was doable, so it didn’t qualify as impossible?

Or did I convince myself that it was beyond my reach—beyond even an impossible dream?

I didn’t have any answers for that one.

But I was broadly enlightened in that moment, as I held that little card in my hand.

Dreams had come true.

And I had almost missed acknowledging it.

I was now a working screenwriter.  I had a movie made from one my books.  I grew into a place where I could help other writers on their journey.

Three out of five.  Not just dreams.  But impossible dreams.

I wondered why I put “impossible” at the top.  Was it at a time in my life when everything seemed like it had a roadblock up?  Everything was a dead end?  Dreams were dying by the handfuls?

I don’t know.  In 2009, I had a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old.  Life was chaotic with small kids, I remember that much.  It was all I could do to get through a day without losing my mind.

Yet here was proof.  I’d somehow made it.

I used to have this quote hanging on my computer from the director J.J. Abrams.  “If you’re having screenwriting problems, you’re living the dream.”

I always loved that quote, because it was an acknowledgment that these creative endeavors are hard, filled with lots of conflict and frustration, and hardly feel like dreams in the moment.

But in the same breath, he was saying, “Remember—this is your dream.  You’re living it right here and now.”

What is your impossible dream right now?  I dare you to write it down.  Stick it in the back of a drawer like I did.  See what happens when you work your tail off for it.

A decade has passed between the time I wrote those words and the time I opened my eyes enough to see them.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been working so hard on them.

Whatever the case, it proved one thing: dreams do come true.

And when you’re a writer, that’s the star you’re shooting for.  So keep going.  Don’t give up.  You’ve got this.

I thought about my old, cramped office space, unglamorously shoe-horned into a corner of the bedroom meant for a small vanity.  Those were like my dreams at one point.  Hidden away on a 3 x 5 card in a dark, forgotten space in a drawer.

But then time passes.  Life changes.  The next thing you know, a new place to work!  A dream, hardly noticed, has come to pass.  You’re tired.  It’s like climbing a mountain.  You’ve been working so hard to get up it that you have to rest awhile before you can appreciate the view.

Nevertheless, you made it to the top, out of breath and everything.

I don’t know what your mountain is, but don’t give up.

Keep climbing.

And look behind you.  You may be living a dream you forgot you had!

The Blasted Book Description

Ever tried to describe your own book? Chances are you have, and chances are you found it a difficult and unpleasant experience. If you’re taking the traditional publishing route, you must write a query letter or prepare an elevator pitch. If you’re self-publishing, you must write your book blurb or back cover copy. And either way—it’s hard. You’d think it would be simple to describe something you’ve been working on for months—but it isn’t.

This is why there’s now a growing industry of pros who will write your book description for you. Just as you can hire out the editing or the cover design, you can get someone to write book blurbs. And if you can afford it, this is not a bad idea. We tend to get too close to our own work. Sometimes, ego gets in the way. It can be useful to have an objective third party who didn’t write the book, doesn’t have any darlings, and is simply making an objective attempt to get readers interested in reading and buying the book.

Here are a few guidelines if you decide to write your own description. Employ strategic formatting. Remember that the visual appearance of words is an important part of readability. Remember that most people don’t actually read webpages (like the ones on Amazon)—they scan them. Long paragraphs, big blocks of text, get ignored. Short paragraphs look friendlier. Visual tricks—boldface, italics, bullet points—if not used excessively—can make your text more visually appealing and can make key words stand out.

Most of all, remember that you are not writing this for yourself. The point is not to gratify your literary inclinations. The point is to sell books. You should always be answering the reader’s question: What’s in this for me? In nonfiction, the answer will be topics of interest or potential benefit. In fiction, it will be tapping plots, tropes, and character archetypes, that appeal to the reader. What’s on your reader’s Id List? (If you’re not sure what I mean by this, listen to Red Sneaker Writers podcast 008 with psychologist Jennifer Lynn Barnes.) What will trigger readers’ interest and inspire them to give your book a chance?

Formatting is flexible, but here’s a useful structure that might help you get started and prevent you from leaving out anything important:

  • Headline-Open with a hook, something short and intriguing that immediately captures the reader’s interest.

  • Hero-Identify the sympathetic or empathetic lead character you want the reader to cheer for.

  • Opponent-Identify who or what prevents your hero from obtaining their goal.

  • McGuffin-What is it your hero (and possibly others) want? What is the goal or desire that motivates the key players in the story?

  • Stakes-What happens if the hero does not succeed, or the opponent gets their way? As you may know from reading Powerful Premise, stories are more compelling when the stakes are high.

  • Social proof-Provide sales figures, quotes from other authors, reviews, list rankings, or similar successful titles.

  • Call to Action-Tell the reader what to do. The best one is “Click here.” If the reader is already on your Amazon page, this may not be necessary. They probably know what to do there.

And hey—was this list easier to read (or scan) because I added bullet points? And boldface? Of course it was.

Also note that if you’re posting on Amazon, you may need to use “coding enhancers” to make the description turn out right. You can find these at Amazon Author Central. For instance, to indicate boldface text, you insert: <b>

Ok, let’s test the system. This is the book description for my novel The Game Master, and if you’re wondering, I chose that one because it sold more eBooks in the first three months than anything I’ve ever written. Here’s the description:

It’s not whether you live or die, it’s how you play the game.

While in Vegas for the American Poker Grand Slam, BB Thomas—the Game Master—is suddenly arrested by the FBI and taken to a top-secret laboratory. A scientist has been murdered in a bizarre manner, and BB’s daughter has been kidnapped. Reluctantly joining forces with his ex-wife, Linden, BB plunges into a labyrinthine mystery incorporating the world’s oldest and best-known games and taking them to Paris, Dubai, Pyongyang, and Alexandria. Pursued by a relentless FBI agent and an unknown assailant who wants him stopped at any cost, BB races to uncover an insidious plot involving secret societies, ancient cover-ups, and savage vengeance. Someone is playing a deadly game, and the object is the destruction of every government on the face of the earth—no matter how many people die in the process.

William Bernhardt is the bestselling author of…

Now I’ll annotate the sections:

(Headline) It’s not whether you live or die, it’s how you play the game.

While in Vegas for the American Poker Grand Slam, (Hero) BB Thomas—the Game Master—is suddenly arrested by the FBI and taken to a top-secret laboratory. A scientist has been murdered in a bizarre manner, and (McGuffin) BB’s daughter has been kidnapped. Reluctantly joining forces with his ex-wife, Linden, BB plunges into a labyrinthine mystery incorporating the world’s oldest and best-known games and taking them to Paris, Dubai, Pyongyang, and Alexandria. Pursued by (Opponents) a relentless FBI agent and an unknown assailant who wants him stopped at any cost, BB races to uncover an insidious plot involving secret societies, ancient cover-ups, and savage vengeance. Someone is playing a deadly game, and (Stakes) the object is the destruction of every government on the face of the earth—no matter how many people die in the process.

(Social Proof) William Bernhardt is the bestselling author of…

The Call to Action, of course, was implicitly urging readers to click the adjoining Buy button.

See how easy it is? You can do this—in about twenty drafts. And after you think you’ve got it, take a few days then come back to revisit it. You’ll probably find ways to improve it. But you can do this. Done well, this can drastically improve your book sales.

Powerful Premise: https://smile.amazon.com/Powerful-Premise-Writing-Irresistible-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B00Z4RN5QU/

Red Sneaker Writers podcast: https://www.spreaker.com/show/3142962

A Writers Guide to 2019

If you've been listening to the Red Sneaker podcast, you know that the modern publishing world is a fast-changing place. I've been saying that since the "digital revolution" of 2009, and the growth has not abated. This is both a blessing and a challenge. The blessing is that there are so many opportunities for writers today, whether you connect with traditional publishing or you don't. The challenge is that, like all professions, writing demands that you keep up with what's going on out there. The Red Sneaker books, the podcast, this newsletter, the retreats, WriterCon--are all designed to help you do just that. 

I had a lot of choose from, but here's my synthesis of what I believe will be the biggest trends and growth areas in 2019:

1) Indie Authors Will Start Early and Go Wide

An increasing number of indie authors are finding success through pre-sales of their books--and by offering them at all possible outlets (not just Amazon). It's not an exaggeration to say that many authors start marketing before they've written the book, and as a result, when the book is finally ready, they have an audience waiting for it. "Promote then Publish" is becoming a catchphrase in the pub community.  So before you launch your book, think about how you can build anticipation and awareness. Offer pre-sales for at least a month before the on-sale date. This will not only give you a great launch--which could put you at the top of sales lists (at least briefly)--but also will have a snowball effect throughout the life of the book, perhaps the series. Anything that generates buzz is a good idea.

We've been debating all year whether it's best to go exclusive with Amazon, the retailer that will generate the most sales, or to "go wide" and sell your book everywhere possible, but at this point, it's clear to me that going wide is the smart choice. The advantages Amazon offers exclusive authors aren't that impressive, and going wide prevents you from being too dependent on a particular retailer. This is the time to maximize your sales and take advantage of emerging opportunities like Chinese stores and the millions who use Google Play Books to find reading material on their Android phones. If you're looking for long-term success as a writer--keep all the doors open.

2) Amazon Will Become "Pay-to-Play"

I discussed at some length in the podcast (ep. #002) Amazon's elimination of the "Also Bought" promotions on book pages, replaced in most cases with paid advertising. Fortunately, AMS ads are affordable and can be completely controlled by the author, testing various keywords and making changes as you observe what sells books and what doesn't. At this point, it's difficult for me to imagine any indie author having much success on Amazon without paying to promote their books. You want your books to be as visible as possible--and that probably won't happen unless you make it happen.

Of course, this means you're not really making 70% from your books any more, which is exactly why Amazon is doing it. They are effectively reducing what they pay authors without appearing to do so. This fee is much like the co-op fees publishers used to pay to get premium placement in bookstores for their lead titles. You want people to see you book? Pay for the privilege.

3) Audiobooks Never Stop Growing

I've written about the surge in audiobooks so many times that you might think it's time for the surge to taper--but it hasn't. Granted, audio is still a relatively small percentage of the book market, but it's also the fastest growing segment, as the ease of downloading books to phones and iPods, coupled with lower prices, make them more attractive. In the past, the indie author needed ACX to get a book published, but now there are a growing number of alternative approaches, such as Findaway Voices (which offers better royalty rates) and Kobo Writing Life. Findaway grants access to StoryTel, which taps overseas markets. Producing your own audiobook takes time and money, but it's a long-term investment that could continue to pay for years to come.

4) More Authors Find Financial Success

Don't be discouraged by recent articles about the decline in writer income (discussed in RSW podcast #010). There are many amateurs out there and they will bring down the averages. And there are many people writing for traditional publishers, sacrificing income for prestige. But there are also many independent and hybrid authors making real money off their work. According to Jeff Bezos, more than 1000 Amazon indie authors made over $100,000 in 2017. Indie author Mark Dawson recently posted a screenshot showing that he had made over $100,000 in one month! There are opportunities for those willing to work hard, write regularly, and market intelligently. As self-publishing paper books and audiobooks, marketing overseas, and going wide, becomes more viable, independent authors will see increased growth and success. More so than ever before, it is possible to make a living solely by writing. But you have to go "all in."

5) Quality is What Matters Most

Ok, this isn't actually new--but it is worth mentioning. Sure, you write lots and you buy ads and you market on social media--but many others will, too. What will set your book apart?

Quality, of course. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, the ones who rise to the top will be those who spend the most time on their books--outlining, writing, rewriting, making it the best it can possibly be (as discussed in the Red Sneaker books). Typos and grammatical errors are fatal to a professional writer--so get an editor already. Every writer needs a good editor. But ultimately it's art and craft that make the biggest difference. Yes, get a great cover, write a brilliant book description, choose the right title--but the package won't matter if the interior disappoints. Your Number One priority, now and always, must be the content. You must write the best book you possibly can, polishing each sentence till it sparkles like a diamond. That's the best thing you can do to ensure a great writing career.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) -- and Why It Matters for Writers

Note from Bill: This guest blog is from Gena Maselli, a terrific author, one of my WriterCon colleagues—and one of the few people I know who could make this all-important topic easy to understand. She also likes board games, so she’s obviously a good person. Enjoy.

Search Engine Optimization. The words just roll of the tongue, don’t they? SEO is the kind of term that has writers running for their laptops like children running to stockings filled with candy on Christmas morning. Wait—what? That’s not how you feel? You don’t want to do backflips at the thought of learning about SEO? Well, neither did I. But then a remarkable thing happened. My clients got excited about it.

As more of our world is online, the need for writers to learn SEO has increased. For the online writer, learning SEO is nearly as important as learning how to type, use Word or construct a sentence that doesn’t make our college English professor cringe. It is yet one of the most powerful tools in the writer’s toolbox.

In this blog, I want to share what SEO is, why SEO is important for writers and simple tips for incorporating SEO into your writing.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

SEO is a process of making a website more attractive to search engines so you can increase the number of visits to a website. It includes strategies for the design, function and usefulness of a website. It relies on the ability of search engines like Google, Bing, YouTube, About.com, Yahoo and others to match a website to a search. Our goal, as writers, is to write our copy with the greatest likelihood of connecting our pieces to the people who would most benefit from them.

So, for instance, if someone in Billings, Montana, searches for “how do I paint my dog’s nails?” and we write for a company in Long Beach, California, that produces pet-friendly nail polish with how-to instructions, the two can find one another.

Since that search yields more than 3 million results, including webpages, videos and shopping pages, getting our page to rank high in the results takes effort.

It takes SEO.

How Does SEO Relate to Me as a Writer?

SEO is part of our world, but it goes beyond some fictitious client. Here are kinds of writers who can benefit from learning SEO:

  • Freelance writers who write online articles and/or blog posts

  • Bloggers who want to bring people to their site

  • Authors needing to promote their books

  • Pastors, ministers and speakers looking to introduce new people to their messages

  • New writers looking to build writing credentials.

It’s not enough to publish a blog or a website and hope that someone stumbles across it. To see how difficult it is to get noticed, take this challenge:

Conduct a search for something related to your writing—your book’s title, your area of expertise, your church’s name, your favorite genre, anything. Notice how many results return. With more than 1.3 billion websites and 152 million blogs in existence, we must do all we can to deliver ours to the right people. It’s our job, as writers, to draw people to our sites, or to the sites of our clients, and make it clear that what we have to offer is valuable to them. Search Engine Optimization is how to make that happen.

Locate Powerful Keywords

Keywords are at the heart of SEO. These are words and phrases that online users search for in their browser. Search engines want to find the best results for their users, so they scan online content. In the last few years, search engines have become much more intuitive. We no longer have to conduct complicated searches on keyword generators to find specific keywords and decipher those searches to come up with a winning keyword. The fact that this has become a simpler process is a good thing—a very good thing. In the immortal words of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

With a single search, you can now zero in on the keywords that relate to you blog, article or page. For example, if you’re writing an article on “buying gifts for your husband,” you could begin typing that phrase into Google and see what related searches come up.


The list of related searches could help you outline your article because now you know what people are searching for. Or you could decide to write a series of articles, one on each of those related searches. That one search may have helped fill your blog schedule for the next month.

Another place to find related searches is at the bottom of your search results. After hitting enter on the above search, scroll to the bottom of the page and find this list of nuggets suggested to you by Google.

Once again, you’re presented with ideas for the direction of this article as well as future ones. Even if you have already written a piece, you can use this to edit it in a more targeted, relevant direction.

Write a Clear Title

Make your title as clear as possible and when you post it on your website, be sure to list it as H1 (Heading 1). In WordPress, the “Title” of your article is automatically H1. Your natural inclination may be to pique your readers’ interest with a mysterious title, but search engines need things spelled out. If I were titling my article on buying gifts for husbands, I’d want to steer away from something like “The Joy of the Season” or “Buying for the Impossible.” Instead, I’d want to stick to titles like “Buying a Gift Your Husband Will Love” or “Top 10 Gifts for Husbands at Christmas.” Those titles may not be as charming, but search engines—and readers—will know exactly what to expect.

Include Subheads in Your Posts

If you’re a magazine writer, you probably consider subheads old news, but for book writers who are used to working with chapters, this may be new. The bottom line is that long prose isn’t Web-friendly. So instead, break up long prose with subheads and format them as H2 (Heading 2). Think of them as mini-titles throughout your piece. Like titles, they aren’t vague, throw-away lines only meant to visually break up copy. Search engines use them to better understand what your blog, article or webpage is about.

Using the above gift-buying example, I might decide to write a section on buying hubby gifts for anniversaries. It would be better to state plainly what the section is—”Anniversary Gifts for Your Husband”—and avoid unclear titles like “Make Him Swoon.”

Keep Your Sections and Paragraphs Short

I’ve already touched on trying to avoid long sections of copy. This goes for sections and paragraphs too. Optimal section length is 300 words. If you have a section that goes over 300 words, you may want to break it up into two sections. Paragraphs need to be on the shorter side too. You may break these guidelines occasionally, but if it is a common occurrence, it’s time to rethink it.

Vary Your Sentences

Search engines use programs to judge whether your blog, article or website is written well. There’s no one behind a desk making those decisions, so the artificial intelligence scans for content that meets certain criteria. It looks for sentences that vary in length and structure. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever use long sentences or three sentences in a row that begin with the same words (Vive la répétition!), but you want this to be the exception instead of the rule.

Include Images and Videos in Your Post

If you are writing a post for your own blog or page for your website, include images and videos as well as alternate text (alt text) for each throughout your piece. This alternate text will appear when the image or video is unable to load. Include a featured image at the top of your page too. This not only makes an appealing graphic in social shares, but it also increases your appeal to search engines.

Include Inbound and Outbound links

The more benefits you provide in your blog post, article or webpage the better. Inbound and outbound links help with that.

Inbound links are links that take people to other pages on your site. If you reference a blog that you wrote before, you could create an inbound link to that blog. Or maybe you link to your About section or your sales page, if you’re selling your book.

Outbound links direct people to pages outside of yours. Now, you may be wondering why you would direct someone away from your site. First, links are all about adding value to your readers, and to the Internet at large. By providing outbound links, you are providing more information and, therefore, more value. Second, when you create a link, you have the option of telling the link to open in a new, separate window, so readers won’t automatically leave your site. This allows you to add value and protect the time people spend on your page.

What kind of outbound links could you include? Let’s go back to our above example about buying gifts for husbands. If I quoted a study that found married couples who exchange gifts are happier, I could link to the study or the organization. Or if I recommend a particular gift item, I could link to that item on Amazon, maybe even with an affiliate link. And if I recommend an outdoor adventure, I could link to a company that provides that adventure.

SEO Baby Steps

If you are reading this list and thinking, There’s so much to remember!—take heart! The first few times you implement SEO, you’ll experience all the frustrations and fumbles of learning something new, but with practice, it’ll become second nature.

SEO is not a perfect science, but with these tips, you’ll make good strides. And for those with WordPress sites, the free Yoast SEO plugin looks at your post and suggests these and other tips for making each post stronger. It even rates your post for readability and SEO.

So give Search Engine Optimization a try. Pull up an old blog post, article or webpage and evaluate it. Look for ways you can strengthen its SEO appeal, and remember that every change, every improvement you make is a step in the right direction!

Writing Traumatic Events for Your Characters

(This guest blog was written by Rene Gutteridge, one of the hosts of WriterCon (Aug 30-Sept 2, 2019). Rene is the author of 24 novels. Her novel My Life as a Doormat was adapted into a movie called Love’s Complicated.)

If you were to ask me to describe the Oklahoma City bombing to you, I’d be able to give you a very accurate picture of what happened that day.  The building had a gaping hole.  Cars and trees were on fire.  Ash-covered people wondered aimlessly like zombies.  Police, fire and ambulances came rushing to the scene.  You wouldn’t have to watch the news accounts of it because I would have painted a very factually based account of the ordeal.

But what I really gave you was a news report.  Because how I describe most of the Oklahoma City bombing to those who ask comes from the news accounts I watched about it years later.  However, if I rewind the tape and analyze what I really remember and how I remember it, you would have quite a different story on your hands.

One of the most vivid things I recall is the crunch, crunch, crunch sound of glass as I ran to the south side of the building to get around the fires. I didn’t take a step that didn’t put glass under my feet, but at the time I couldn’t figure out what it was that I was running on.

I ran into a police officer and he grabbed my shirt, and I have no recollection of what we said to each other, but I remember his eyes—wide, terrified, unheroic in the moment, it seemed—and he let me go.

I remember all that paper floating down from the sky and the urge to gather it up because that’s what you do when people lose their important papers—you gather it up for them.

Hours after the bomb went off, sirens still took up all the silence, not a single moment to listen to quiet skies—just wailing, high-pitched sirens. I remember being irritated by it, feeling like the whole world must be on fire.

Did I see death?  Blood and gore?  The most desperate moments of my fellow human beings?  I did. I had to have. There was no way for me to miss it.  Yet I have one or two small, vivid images of that sort of thing. Mostly what I remember from that day would never draw a complete picture of the events that unfolded.  It wouldn’t even be an incomplete picture.  It simply, if all strung together, wouldn’t make any sense at all.

When writers try to capture a traumatic event in a character’s story, it’s easy to try to use that moment to describe the entire event itself.  Whether it’s a car crash or a life-and-death attack, we want our reader to see it as we see it in our head—unfolding moment by moment.

But to help our reader connect to our character, we must resist the temptation to have it play out as a scene in a movie. Rather, we should allow our reader to experience it as the character experiences it—through broken, unhinged moments that don’t make up the whole story.

Chances are, you’ve also experienced your own traumatic moment.  Stop and think for a little bit.  What do you remember about that incident?  What do you reallyremember?  Sure, your mind has filled in the blanks, but what are your very first memories…the ones that don’t make sense on their own?

Take some time to sit and write them out.  I bet you’d be amazed at some of the things you remember that seem so outside of the true event.

I was 19 years old, whizzing down Interstate 44 when a bread truck in front of me started to swerve violently from one side of the highway to the other until, going at least sixty miles an hour, it slammed head-on into the concrete beam that held up the overpass.

I pulled to the side of the road and looked around. There wasn’t another car in sight.  And I remember thinking I was the only person who could help him.  This was before cellphones, so I got out of my car, with full intentions of rushing to the truck to offer help.  As I got out of the car, I could see the entire front of the truck. The cab, where the driver would’ve been, was virtually a pancake.

Like it was yesterday, I can still feel this sensation: my feet had become lead.  I tried to move, but my feet felt like they weighed five hundred pounds each.  A man ran past me—I hadn’t even seen him stop his car—and I remember thinking, “How is he running?” It was like gravity had glued me to the road.

These obscure details that we remember from trauma are similar to what your character will remember too.  Trauma is just that—it jolts the brain.  The mind tries to make sense of  madness. Is it any wonder that we can’t process it right?

I vividly recall standing in front of the gaping hole of the Murrah building after the bombing and looking at a computer that was swinging from a desk four or five stories up, held only by a cord, and I couldn’t figure out what it was.  What is that box hanging there?  What is that black cord?  My mind could not immediately register that it was a computer hanging from a desk, in an office that had half its side blown out.

By narrowing your descriptions, and letting your character process trauma as we do in real life, your scenes will not only read more accurately, but also more intimately. Sure, the fireball of the explosion makes for good drama, but this is a book, not a movie, and it’s the microcosm of the event, the tiny details we remember in extraordinary moments, that make us human.

Here are some practical tips to capture your character’s most harrowing and traumatic moments:

  • Go small, not big. When something traumatic happens, it’s very hard for the human brain to comprehend the entire event….and for the reader to feel like they’re immersed in the moment.  It’s like offering a tasty hamburger but instead of offering a bite, you make them shove the whole thing in at once.  Sure, all the flavors are there, but they’re working on trying to get the thing down without choking.  The finer details will give the reader a bite-sized amount to handle, and will therefore make her feel as though she’s in the event as well.

  • Connect a moment in the traumatic event to a memory in the character’s mind from long ago. Let’s say the character is trapped in a burning car.  Flames are licking at his shins.  Sure, you can use strong words like “searing pain” but what if it reminded him of the time, when he was five, that he reached out and touched the tea kettle while it was still over its flame?  The mind has a crazy way of interpreting moments in life, and you can add to the chaos of the event by showing the brain doing something unexpected, like connecting pain back to a childhood memory.

  • Use all the senses, but not all at once. I do not remember a single smell from the day of the bombing.  Surely the air was thick with suffocating smoke, but I don’t remember it.  Using all five senses is always a good idea, but in a traumatic moment, when the person is trying to interpret what is happening, one sense typically takes over.  Maybe all the sound is swallowed by the raging fear the person experiences.  Play with how you can use senses intentionally to add to the chaos of the moment.

  • Less is more. If you need to describe a fiery crash on the freeway, from the POV of your character, give short bursts of what someone might see.  The very top of a fireball.  Light bouncing off the side of a semi.  The ground shaking underneath the floorboard of the car.  Find some small moments and let the reader fill in the blanks as they want to.

Gravity eventually let go and I ran to help the man driving the bread truck.  I hopped in the truck and helped throw bread out the back so they could get him out that way.  I remember watching him on the gurney, being loaded into the back of the ambulance, awake and talking. I couldn’t believe he had survived.  When the officer asked me for my statement about what I saw, I mentioned that I thought he was probably drunk.  The officer said, “He went into a diabetic coma.”  That was what I took away from that day—never judge a situation.  You never know what is really happening.

And I also learned that I’m probably not going to be the hero in the moment.  Maybe my feet have more courage these days but I hope I don’t have to find out any time soon!

Should I Do NaNoWriMo?

I'm sure you're all familiar with NaNoWriMo, which has become the best-known writing event in the nation. People all across the country commit to writing a novel during the month of November, and many claim they have succeeded. 

I have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. I'll admit it. I like anything that encourages writers to sit down and write. If you've read my Red Sneaker books, you know I advocate a no-frills, no-fuss attitude. In other words, stop whining and write already. NaNoWriMo has largely the same message. Of course, I don't think you should do this for just a month. I think it's a critical part of the writing life. Write every day. Get the work done. Finish and start the next one. But if NaNoWriMo gets your rear in the chair--good. If it helps you get past the urge to edit as you go, to monkey with each page before you've even finished a chapter--grrrrrreat!

On the other hand, the idea that you can write a good book in a month is absurd, and potentially even dangerous. At best, you  might get a decent first draft done in a month, and that's no small thing. (I've never done a draft in anything close to a month, but some people may be smarter. Or at least faster.) For me, the first draft is the hardest, the most painful, and the easiest to make excuses to avoid. What could be tougher than creating something out of nothing? Revising is no piece of cake--I revise and revise, typically working my way through a book ten or fifteen times before I even think about showing it to anyone else. But revision is pleasurable. I like seeing all the parts start to come together. Once I have a first draft down, I know I'll finish the book. It's simply a matter of time.

Should you try NaNoWriMo? First of all, let's define terms. If you attempt this, acknowledge that what you're doing is creating a first draft in thirty days--not a finished novel. (And by the way, 50,000 w0rds is not a publishable length for a novel in most markets.) Even then, whether you should attempt this, in my mind, depends upon whether you have trouble getting motivated. If you need a little push and this artificial calendar event helps, then by all means, try it.

What I will caution you against is trying to rush a book, that is, sacrificing quality for speed. There's too much of that going on in the world today. When people talk about junk books, too often they pick on the growing legion of self-published novels, but the truth is, it's going on in the traditional publishing world as well. The Big Five publishers are actively encouraging their big-name legacy writers to crank out more books, particularly series books, sometimes two or three a year.

The results are inevitable. First, authors lose their personal lives. Second, the books have not gestated as long as a good book requires, so they won't be as good as they might've otherwise been. They may be perfectly competent, mind you, adequate bubble-gum, time-passing material, but much of the richness, texture, and quality will be lost. The fact that this is encouraged nonetheless shows how schizophrenic the current tradional publishing world truly is. On the one hand, they trumpet so-called upscale fiction, meaning genre fiction that is supposedly better written, that has the art and craft of a literary novel. But they're paying their bills by enouraging their best-known writers to produce more and more quickly.

This is a relatively new development. Back in the day, when I was writing a Ben Kincaid novel a year for Random House, I occasionally suggested that I could do more--mostly because I wanted to write something different. Repeatedly I was told to chill. To have more than one book released a year would "glut the market."  Critics and fans would rebel. No one can produce good books that quickly. (And in truth, a year is often not long enough.) But today economic needs, driven by profit shortfalls stemming from the increasingly less profitable print arena, are causing publishers to change their tunes.

I don't want to live in a world where novels are cranked out on a rigid conveyor belt. I've already heard tales of people dictating novels into their phones while they drive, and we know many of those Big Five legacy authors are using co-writers and ghosts who may or may not be acknowledged on the cover. Yes, I've always advocated an unpretentious approach to writing. But I still believe quality is paramount. The whole point of my eight Red Sneaker books (the ninth coming soon) and the conferences and the seminars is to help you produce the best book possible. If NaNoWriMo helps you get there, fine. But don't ever do anything that compromises the quality of your work. Amazon is already flooded with mediocre books. That's not how you break out. That's not how you get the writing career you want.

Make your book the best it can possibly be. That's your ticket to success. Quality.

Should You attend a writers conference?

conference.jpg

I hope you will forgive me if, just this once, I digress from the usual hot-off-the-presses publishing news and writing advice and instead tell a more personal story, one that has been much on my mind these past few days–in part, because people keep asking why I spend so much time putting together this annual writing conference. It takes time away from my writing, it’s not particularly profitable, and I spend most of the year worrying that no one will come–so why? I’ll explain this the same way I do everything.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was young, my dream was to write a book and see it published. That was it. That was all I wanted. I dreamed about visiting the library and seeing my name on the spine of a novel and thinking, yeah, I did that. Problem was, I had no idea how to make this happen. I sent my stuff out, hundreds of times, but it was always rejected (because it was awful). I took some classes in college, but they didn’t lead anywhere. I became a full-time trial lawyer, but I wrote every available spare minute–and still couldn’t even get an agent.

I joined a local writing group, and someone there recommended that I attend the Golden Triangle Conference in Beaumont, Texas. Not in Dallas, or Houston, or anyplace you might expect. Beaumont. Great conference, she said. So I went.

I participated in everything possible. I went to every class I could. Despite my poor social skills, I forced myself to talk to people, even agents. I even went to the banquets. No luck. But somewhere in the midst of it all, someone mentioned an agent named Esther Perkins. How did she know Esther? Esther had attended this conference several times in the past.

So after I got home, I sent Esther my manuscript (this was Primary Justice, in case you’re wondering). She liked it. Better yet, Esther knew an editor in the Ballantine division of Random House, Joe Blades. How did she know Joe? She met him a few years before at the same conference. As it turned out, Joe also liked my book. He offered me a three-book contract. The book was a hit and that led to a career of more than forty books and several New York Timesbestsellers. All because of a conference.

You may be thinking this is just my way of persuading you to attend the conference. Wrong. This is my explanation of why I’ve hosted conferences all these years.

Because now my dream is to see what happened for me, happen for you.

Can I guarantee you’ll get an agent at this conference? No–though many have. Can I guarantee this will lead to a publishing contract? No, though for many it has. But I can guarantee you’ll meet some terrific people, and one of them might just drop your Esther Perkins, that is, the tiny bit of information that makes all the difference.

You will have one asset I didn’t have all those years ago–me. I will be there chatting and shepherding and making sure everyone gets what they need. No one will miss a session that could have changed their life. No one will miss a chance to speak to the people they came to see. Everyone will leave feeling they have the inside scoop on the current publishing world–because they do.

Writing is like any of the arts–it’s hard to know when success will strike. But the one thing I know for certain is that you have to get yourself out there, get in line, give yourself a chance. Your break will come when you have the right book in the right place at the right time–and you know how to take advantage of it. There is no reason why it couldn’t happen for you. Do you think that skinny geeky kid from Oklahoma thirty years ago had something you don’t? I did not. But I had a lot of desire. And I went to a conference.