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The Story Grid: A Writer’s Tool

Every book is an adventure in writing, but there is one tool I have consistently used from my very first book and with every single one of the next 60 some odd that followed: The Story Grid.

After a couple of decades together, my wife has learned my few and far between foibles. One of them is a lack of attention to detail. I’m a big picture guy. If my wife wants to hide something from me in the fridge all she has to do is put it behind something. If she needs me to get something for her, she knows to give me very detailed instructions down to exactly what drawer, where in the drawer it is, and exactly what it is. Or I’m like Cool Gus: I’ll come back with the first ball I find.

I have the same problem writing. I can “see” the big picture of the book in my brain. But once I start writing, I tend to forget what I’ve written. So I use a physical, external device, to help me: the Story Grid.

It goes to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed) for every book as I’m writing. I fill it in as I’m writing. I use a red ink pen. Then I update the Excel sheet and print it out every day.

Every row is a scene in the book.

The columns depend on the type of story (do I need a countdown? Greenwich Mean Time?) but generally go thusly:

Chapter #; start page; end page; time/date; location; a brief summary of the action.

Here is an example from a work in progress, Nightstalkers: The Time Patrol which will be published on 25 Nov this year. In this case, instead of time/date, I use a 48 hour countdown because a clock is started leading to the end of the world as we know it in 48 hours.  Most of it makes no sense to you, but since I’ve written the scenes, it reminds me immediately of what’s been done.  It’s also a good way to see the flow of the book.

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Note that what has been written ends at the beginning of Chapter 8. Everything below that is notes and future scenes that I put there as they occur to me. At the bottom are some notes from previous books in the series with terms I need, but can’t remember. Some of the terms near the bottom in bold are story loops I need to close out for various characters.  I also can add in a word count each day, to keep me on task.

Being able to put everything on one page makes it much easier for me to keep track. So if you’re not a good detail person, consider something like this. If you are a good detail person, but not a good big picture person, consider something like Jennifer Crusie’s collages, where she puts together a diorama that physically represents the entire story and can have it in her office where she can see it all the time.

On entirely different matter, we’d like feedback on these covers. We’re putting together a library sampler of all my books, consisting of one downloadable book that has every cover, author note on every book, brief description and opening chapter. We think this is a way readers can ‘browse’ my books for free. We’ll announce the launch of the sampler with links for download in a week or so here at Write It Forward. If you sign up for my newsletter (only sent out a couple times a year) you’ll have access to exclusive content from works in project I’ll be posting on-line soon, looking for reader feedback. Parts of the book from the story grid above will be the first to be posted. Sign up is to the left.

Just number them 1 thru 5, left to write, for your comments.

SAMPLER_5aSAMPLER_10aSAMPLERSAMPLER_4a SAMPLER_3a

The relevance of customer reviews and discoverability

By Jen Talty

ebook_in_ipadThe way in which we buy books is changing. We have fewer bookstores and the major retailers are cutting back on their space of books and racking only the top names. I was at an airport recently where the only books I saw were Divergent and a bunch of books by Tom Clancy. At another airport, just the top 20 from the NY Times and a display case of Tom Clancy books. The sad part for me was that I because of this I got no new ideas for new authors or new books to load onto my Kindle. The last recommendation I got for a book (that wasn’t from Bob or his wife) came from a stranger on an airplane who was reading on his Kindle and asked me what I was reading on mine and proceeded to talk books for about an hour.

Back in the day, before the internet, when we actually had to leave our house to shop for things, books were found in end caps, coop space, recommendations by our local bookstore and perhaps some paid advertising. Browsing was done by walking through the shelves and feeling and touching. Now we browse the digital shelves and it is harder and harder to find books. Actually, that’s not true. It’s easy to find books, but are we finding the books we want? Right now, at a conference is going on across the pond Jon Fine of Amazon was quoted as saying, “ We’ve created this tsunami of content. It’s a high class problem to have too many stories. We, as tech companies, publishers, authors, service providers, have to find ways to help stories find the right audience. This discoverability problem is the next big challenge.” We always love listening to Jon Fine. Smart man and very pragmatic.

One book recommendation I will make to anyone who does business with Amazon or is in internet marketing, internet sales, or the book business is to read The Everything Store. It’s fascinating and really gives the reader a good look into the world of Amazon. One thing the book does talk about is customers and their role. Amazon is very customer-centric.

For authors, our customers are our readers. Readers play a very important role in authors’ lives; besides paying the bills, they have the power to spread the word. They do that in a variety of ways. Telling a stranger on an airplane, gifting or lending a book (ebook or physical book), discussing it in a book club, talking about it on-line at places like Goodreads and of course, writing reviews.

The idea Jon touches on, this discoverability challenge, is one both the author and the reader face. The author needs to be able to get their books in the right “algorithm” so to speak, and the customer needs to know how to search for exactly what they are looking for (especially when they are looking for something new, not necessarily the named author). Sometimes I think I’m the only one who notices small tweaks on the Amazon site or on my Kindle, that are helping me find books I didn’t know exist based on my own unique shopping history on the site (which probably makes those algorithms go, ‘her again? Please not here, she’s not normal’).” Actually, I’ve seen how this works in a tighter, smaller environment with my new Amazon Fire TV. I’m already getting very unique suggestions just based on what I’ve been watching on Prime and frankly, they are right on. I just watched a show this weekend called Orphan Black that I had never heard of and probably wouldn’t have found if Amazon hadn’t given me that recommendation. But, that has nothing to do with Reviews. Back to Reviews.

The first thing to note about reviews is you can’t look at reviews, or anything as author, based on what YOU do. You are not the normal average customer. You are skewed because you have inside information about the business. What is important is that there are different types of customers who look at various things differently, so the moment you think or say, ‘but this is how I find things, or I do things’, let it go. Doesn’t count. There are people who will buy anything that is free or under a dollar or on sale. There are people who will only pay full price. There are people that only buy from the top 10 on any given list. There are a wide variety of customers who make their decision based on something we might have not even thought about.

Reviews are important because they now represent a recommendation during the browsing process, especially when a potential customer stumbles onto your book page while looking for a certain topic. Not necessarily each review is a recommendation, but the overall average star rating along with how many reviews and whether or not you have both good and bad reviews. Yes, they both count in both positive and negative ways. I’m not going to get into the Amazon Algorithms and how reviews may or may not affect them. There are so many things that go into the Algorithms, and yes, reviews are one of them, but only one of many considerations.

Another thing to consider is that not every reader is going to leave a review. Some only do so if they hate it. Or if they love it. And some leave them for everything they buy. Here is something to consider. You don’t exist unless you have pagans (haters). This comes from the book Primal Branding, which I also recommend authors read since “branding” is such a buzz word, but it will help you build your author identity, which essentially is your brand.

The more we shop on-line, the more important reviews become. So how do we get them? That’s an excellent question. Discoverability is the key. Finding the right audience. Bob said something to me early on in our partnership and that was as we go broader on the internet, we need to narrow it down to niche.

From Bob: Sometimes I feel like kryptonite. While we have almost 100,000 subscribers to this blog, we get very few comments. And while I’ve had #1 bestsellers in various categories (science fiction, men’s adventure, thriller) on Kindle, considering the volume of books I sell, I get relatively few reviews. I’m not sure why that is. But I have definitely picked up from my contacts at 47North and Amazon that reviews are very, very important. In fact, the reality is that some decision making on marketing has been taken out of human hands and relies solely on algorithms, which rely heavily on both number and quality of reviews. And I do read them in order to get feedback from my readers. So I invite you—if you’ve read some of my books, stop by on Amazon and leave a few sentences or more. In a very important way, readers are shaping the future of publishing and authors’ careers more than ever before. I think that’s a good thing. We’ve removed a lot of the gatekeepers in between, and it’s ultimately the author-reader relationship that rules!

Nothing but good times ahead.

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True Lies 11: Lying for a Living & The Unforgiving Minute

I often joke that I make my living telling lies when I do keynotes and presentations.  It gets a nice chuckle from the audience.  But it’s true.  Thus this blog every Tuesday is called True Lies.  Balance that with my Survival Friday blog and you have great insight into my psyche.  Scary isn’t it?

Fiction does a curious dance with fact.  Not just in terms of the story, but also in terms of the author.  Are romance writers romantic in their personal life?  Are thriller writers coming from a thrilling background?  Did military technothiller writers serve in the military?  Do erotica author live the ‘lifestyle’?  Have science fiction writers traveled in time and/or space?  Horror writers battled vampires?

The answer is predominantly: no.  Some for practical reasons:  ie their genre is out of the realm of reality (I hope, although I can tell you exactly what the interior of the Mothership looks like from personal experience).  But I submit even for those who could live what they write about, there’s another factor at play:  reality messes with fiction.

WDW_WEBFew writers who base their fiction in the military world served (actually less than 1% of our population has, which says something.  Not good for a variety of reasons).  And most heroes are Special Ops:  SEALs, Green Berets, Ranger (which brings us down to a tiny, tiny percentage of our population).  Expanding slightly, then you’ve got all the heroes/heroines who are former CIA, ATF, Secret Service, SMERSH, and from secret organizations that the author invents, etc.

Romance writers love the Alpha hero.  Navy SEALs, Highlanders, Vikings, Big Foot.  That seems at odds with the reality of extraordinarily high divorce rates in the Special Operations community.  By the way, the terms Special Ops and Special Forces are not interchangeable.  I was in Special Forces, which is part of Special Ops.  So are SEALs.  So are Psyops and Civil Affairs.

One of the hardest things for me to do when writing fiction is to set aside reality.  Yet, at the same time, I hope the fact that I have some unique reality in my books based on my experiences, makes it a bit different than that of other authors.  When I read a book by someone who walked the walk, there are always small touches that strike my that probably go unnoticed by the vast majority of readers.  I loved the film Red and I don’t know who added the touches, but overall, despite being over the top and a comedy, it was a surprisingly accurate portrayal into the world of covert ops.  The last line of my Commander’s Policy letter for my A-Team was:  “Keep your sense of humor; you’re going to need it.”  When Bruce Willis comments on the Swedish K submachinegun on the wall in Malkovich’s lair; that was an inside comment.

Sumter_ShilohI was discussing this with my wife this morning and I said that the reason writers succeed in writing what they haven’t experienced is that they are writing the fantasy version.  Fiction, particularly genre fiction, is escapism.  War is hell and do you really want hell?  Stephen King does, but then it’s called horror.  Hell on earth in the form of war sent William Tecumseh Sherman, who saw what was coming, home on mental disability early in the Civil War.  Later on he made the South howl with the hell he unleashed.

There’s a whole slew of romance out there where the term billionaire is in the title.  Yep, why not?  Why fall in love with the guy who works at the chicken processing plant when there’s a billionaire out there?  It’s entertainment.

Reality is mostly boring.  Veterans will tell you that 99% of their time wasn’t particularly exciting.  “Prepare to prepare!” was one of our rallying cries on my A-Team.  What’s hard to get across is the odd, angry shot.  Or the “unforgiving minute” as Kipling called it.

HelicoptersAlso, true insight can bring disillusionment.  My first published novel, The Green Berets: Eyes of the Hammer, came out around the same time as Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger.  Both are about Special Ops going to Colombia to destroy drug labs.  The differences?  First, he had a kickass title and I had a lame one.  Mine was because the A-Team involved was the ‘eyes’ for the gunships (Specter and Apaches) they called in to the do the job.  You knew that right?  Not.  But it was in tone that we differed.  At the end of his book the world was a better place, the good guys won and the bad guys lost.  In mine, the good guys kind of won, the bad guys kind of lost, but really, are we going to win the so-called ‘war on drugs?’  Not.

Realism is not a good thing to soak into escapism.

What I have done is focus on theme.  I can go over the top on action and story (and it’s fun, especially in my Nightstalker books).  But I always want to really have a solid theme that I hope resonates with readers.  I was going to list some examples here, but one is supposed to show, not tell.  Especially with theme.  So I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves.

My writing is who I am.  I’ve had to evaluate my writing and platform numerous times.  I know that if I changed some things I would be more “successful”. But I also wouldn’t be who I am.

Maybe that’s the point of True Lies.  I can lie in my fiction, but I have to be true to myself in my lies.

Blog Contest for this Week: Sign up for my Newsletter and get your name put in for a drawing to win signed copies of AREA 51: Nosferatu AND Legend AND a Cool Gus MUG! I send out a newsletter no more than 4-6 times per year. Besides interesting information about Cool Gus, Sassy Becca and Big Orange (my new Jeep), I also gives newsletter subscribers exclusive content. You can sign up here.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Nightstalkers by Bob Mayer

Nightstalkers

by Bob Mayer

Giveaway ends March 23, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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True Lies 10: Reality Sucks

Back in 2004 my wife and I owned a house on Hilton Head Island.  Real estate was booming and it seemed everyone was a mortgage broker offering great terms.  A guy who did some painting on our house also offered to broker a mortgage for us.  Back in those days, being self-employed, I could get a no-income-verified loan.  I know—shocking in the current environment, eh?  I had to sign over my liver and kidneys and heart to get my current mortgage.  And pay well above the going rate.

My wife reads the NY Times every day.  The paper version.  All of it.  I mean everything in it.  And she remembers what she reads.  I keep track of numbers.  And we both started to notice some disturbing things in 2003 into 2004:

  1. Mortgages were way too easy to get.
  2. The Fed was at 0%.  It couldn’t go lower.  It could only go up.
  3. Variable rates were as low as they were going to go.  They could only go up.
  4. Like tulip mania (look that one up—Jen did), house prices just couldn’t keep going up.  Yet everyone acted like they would.

???????????????????????????????????????So we talked about it, and even though we liked our house, we put it on the market.  Even the realtor told us we were crazy (along with a lot of other people).  We showed it 72 times.  We sold it.  We then moved to the other side of the island and rented on the intracoastal (a great place to live and where I set my latest Green Beret book, Chasing the Lost).  We rented for eight years after that, because we felt things hadn’t yet bottomed out.  (BTW the way, the puppy shot is just for fun)

Not long after selling our home, the housing bubble burst.

We watched a special on HBO about a neighborhood where everyone’s prices nose-dived and they interviewed the owners.  And the one thing we heard again and again:  “We never though it could happen to us.”

My wife and I were quite shocked because we always think anything can happen to us.  Mine comes from my paranoid Special Ops background and my wife’s, well, let’s keep that to ourselves.

The ability of people to fool themselves into inventing their own fantasy world is phenomenal.  Because reality sucks.

But it is reality.

I prefer to live in reality, even though it is difficult at times.  At Cool Gus, we run our business on a reality base, not a wishful thinking base.  What brings this to mind is something I’ve been watching that, for me, is a harbinger of where the publishing world is headed.  Since 2009, Harlequin’s sales have steadily declined.

2009:  $493 million

2010:  $468 million

2011:  $459 million

2012:  $426.5 million

2013:  $362 million.

Doing math, which is part of reality, we see an accelerating decrease.  Those years coincide with the rise of indie/hybrid/Martian authors.  As a member of the Romance Writers of America and a lot of other writers’ groups, I can tell you that RWA, by far, is the most advanced and savvy group of authors around.  Surprisingly, SFWA (Science fiction, fantasy writers) is one of the least tech-savvy, business savvy groups.  Romance writers have been leading the way in embracing indie publishing.  Thus authors who might once have fought for a HQ contract are now doing it themselves.  And some very successful romance writers have jumped ship and gone indie.  Their defection has not been offset by successful indies going trad.

Add in a second factor:  the decline of print sales.  Spare me the numbers touted by publishing.  Take out your top 5% of authors whose books get brought in to COSTCO on pallets, and print sales are dropping fast.  Especially for mass market paperbacks, which is HQ’s bread and butter, much like garbage was the Sopranos bread and butter.  We still make a lot of garbage but there is less and less shelf space for print books and more and more readers are going digital.

Jeremy Greenfield of Digital Book World had a recent article in Forbes where he interviewed the CEO of HQ.  I found it a bit weird.  Which harkens back to reality.  At the end of 2013, people in trad publishing were breathing a huge sigh of relief, feeling they’d weathered the digital storm.  An exec at one trad house even said, “Anyone who is going to buy an eReader has already bought one” just before Xmas.  I get a sense of “things are going to be okay” from trad publishing.

That isn’t reality.

WEB_Section8The CEO of HQ first blamed the revenue on pricing.  He complained about eBook pricing.  Which is odd since HQ gives the lowest royalty rates around to its authors, so they keep most of that income for very little overhead.  I do agree that the .99 eBook is kind of low. But we use it for the first Atlantis book as a leader into the series and it works.  We also use free on Section 8 Shadow Warriors as a loss leader into my thrillers.  It’s been ranked #1 in Men’s Adventure and War on Kindle Free since we did that.

But, the point is HQ and trads can’t control how indies, who are their competition (which they don’t seem to take too seriously, yet complain about) price their books.

I thought years ago that HQ would be on the cutting edge of digital.  After all, they have their niches locked down.  Readers love their series, and are not particularly attached to specific authors. HQ did start Carina, but that looked like a step in the wrong direction.  It was as if they were relegating digital to red-headed stepson status.  I watched Carina bounce around, without much focus or direction.  Pretty much working under the “let’s publish a lot of stuff and make a little bit of money off it” instead of using the HQ brand to branch off established lines into digital.

Here’s what really strikes me about the article.  First, the CEO says that quality will allow them to demand a higher price.  Which insinuates that someone like indie author Bella Andre isn’t putting out quality, except her quality is good enough for HQ to give her a print only deal.  Hmm.

The closer was the most interesting part:  HQ is optimistic in its earnings report, predicting a stabilization in 2014.

Why?  What’s changed?  The wishful thinking that things are going to get stable kept people in houses that went further and further under water as the housing bubble imploded.

“We’re just in transition.”

How? The numbers say income is decreasing at an accelerating rate.  How will that change?  Of course, transition doesn’t always mean transitioning to something good.  We can also transition to something bad.

The reality we see at Cool Gus is things are going to get much harder.  The market is saturated and will get even more saturated.  While there are great benefits to digital, a downside is that every book is out there forever.  There’s no rotating on the shelves, so to speak.  Actually not the shelves, but the store.

We believe it’s going to get harder for all authors: trad, indie, hybrid and Martian.  The solutions are varied and somewhat different depending on each author’s platform and product (thus our focus on a handful of authors and tailoring our partnership to fit their needs).  But I do believe trad authors really need to take a long hard look at their digital royalty rates and question how much their publisher contributes in that arena to take most of the income.  I firmly believe an author must earn at least 50% of the price of the eBook.  And get paid at least every three months, if not every month.

Also, once an author is no longer frontlist at their publisher, but it still controls their rights, the lack of marketing and low digital royalty rates will destroy careers and livelihoods.  I can personally attest to how trad publishers deep six their backlist.

Yes.  Reality sucks but it can be dealt with.  The first step is to get past the denial.

*****Admin Note From Jen*****

Blog Contest for this Week: Sign up for Bob’s Newsletter and get your name put in for a drawing to win an AUDIO edition of The Kennedy Endeavor. Bob sends out a newsletter no more than 4-6 times per year. Besides interesting information about Cool Gus, Sassy Becca and Big Orange (Bob’s new Jeep), Bob also gives his newsletter subscribers exclusive content. You can sign up here.

Also, Bob is doing a Goodreads Giveaway. Here are the details.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Cut Out by Bob Mayer

Cut Out

by Bob Mayer

Giveaway ends March 16, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

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