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Best Way to Sell Books? Write Better— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Yes, we all say it, but a perusal of blogs, articles, and conference schedules show a focus on eBooks, social media, marketing, promotion, formatting, cover design and much less on learning the craft of writing. Everyone is asking “How, in this flood of content, can I sell books?” And the answer is indeed: Write Better Books.

The key to being discovered is to have readers searching for you. Gather a fan following. That doesn’t happen by having a ton of followers on Twitter or Facebook. It happens by having a ton of readers, eagerly anticipating your next title to come out. Ultimately that is going to be what separates out those who succeed as writers and the vast majority who won’t over the long haul.

In light of that, I’m introducing Craft Tuesday. I will blog about various aspects of writing and also discuss examples from media, both print and screen. I will present a classic form of the novel, but also talk about how I view story telling to be changing. I’ve really seen a change in this in the last decade, especially in terms of narrative structure, timeline, and point of view. I’ve always believed in rule breaking, but I have three rules of rule breaking:

  1. Know the rule. Breaking a rule we don’t know is just being dumb.
  2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule. When I run Write On The River workshops here, I never say “You did it wrong.” There is no wrong. What I ask is “Why did you do it that way?” Often I get a blank stare back. It means the person just did it, without a good reason. Have a good reason for breaking a rule.
  3. Take responsibility for breaking the rule. If it works, you’re a genius. If it doesn’t, you’re a mere mortal. Failure is the start point for future success.

Great writing is an art that comes out of craft. Which can be learned.

Toolkit_TNSome of the material presented comes out of The Novels Writers Toolkit. I started writing that over 20 years ago and have been updating it ever since. In this blog, I will be updating the excerpts for the next edition of the Toolkit.

Something I’ve picked up in the last several years is that a writer must study, refine and perfect their own process. This is the creative and practical way in which we write. It’s rooted in our psychology. I often tell writers that since we sit in a dark room by ourselves and write, we need therapy. It’s a given. But it’s true. We must understand our own thought process; and how we funnel that into our creative process.

I know a #1 bestselling writer who has the imagination of a rock. That’s not to say she’s dumb. She’s actually very, very smart. Just not imaginative. So part of her process is to compensate for that lack. She spends a lot of time studying her setting, but beyond her setting, she spends a lot of her time interviewing people and listening to their stories. And her story comes out of their stories. I don’t judge the right or wrong of that; it’s her process. It’s worked well enough to propel her to #1 on the NY Times list.

I tell people I can plot anything. What I mean is I can take a bunch of pieces and pull them together into a coherent plot. So I don’t overly worry about knowing exactly what will happen down the line. The longer I’ve written, the more I trust my subconscious. It means putting things in that manuscript that I really don’t know why they’re there. But I leave them. I’ve learned in my process to not edit those things out. Because later, down the line, it’s probably a piece I will need to build my story and make it tighter. So that’s a part of process I’ve taken something out of my subconscious and work with consciously. The more our process becomes conscious, the better we will work.

Process also includes point of view, which we will discuss. Another key to process is knowing what part of writing is our weakness, and then working to make it much stronger; I believe our book is only as good as the weakest part.

So let’s start there. What is your process as a writer? The following questions will help define it:

  1. When I start a story, what is the moment of conception? I call this the original or kernel idea. Is it a person? A place? A theme? A story?
  2. Do I understand my theme/intent for what I’m writing?
  3. Why am I writing about this theme/intent? Why is it important to me?
  4. Why is it important for me to write a story others will read?
  5. What point of view do I write in? Is it the POV that supports my best writing? What POV scares me to write in? Might that be the best for me?
  6. How do I research a story? What does that say about my imagination and my process?
  7. What’s the weakest part of my writing? How can I make it better? Compensate for it?
  8. What’s the strongest part of my writing? What is it compensating for and hiding from me? Remember, our greatest strengths are built around our greatest weaknesses.
  9. How much outlining do I do? Do I outline plot? Character? Both? Neither?
  10. How much rewriting do I do? What is the focus of my rewriting?

backgroundDon’t worry if you can’t answer all of these. I’ll be blogging about all of it as the Tuesday’s go by. And if you’re in a rush, buy the Toolkit and Write It Forward, and they’ll give you insights into the answers to these questions. Feel free to answer some in the comments and I’ll do my best to also comment.

The Write on the River workshop coming up this weekend was sold out a while ago.  The next one is 27-28 June; or if you can gather three friends we can schedule a special weekend.  Check out Write on the River.

I’m looking forward to this journey with you over the next months! Nothing but good times ahead.

 

#Nanowrimo Yes, Writers, You Need A Mind

Yeah, you do sort of need one to be a writer contrary to what many who know me think of me.  I’d like to say a little bit more about the mind for two reasons: one is that it is the primary tool you use when writing.  Second, to write good characters, you need to understand the mind because it is the driving force behind your characters’ actions.

As a “machine” the brain is very inefficient.  Physiological psychologists estimate that we use less than ten percent of our brain’s capabilities.  (Rent the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life and see how he uses this in his story.)  In many ways, that is what makes writing fiction so hard and draining: you are trying to expand the portion of your mind that you normally use and tap into your subconscious.  A little bit of understanding of that other 90 or so percent is useful.  It is commonly called the subconscious or the unconscious and plays a very large role in determining our character (key buzz word).  Whether you agree with people such as Freud and Jung, it is useful to know a little bit about their theories.  A fully rounded character has a complete brain and while they may only consciously be using ten percent, that other ninety percent affects their actions.

As a writer you will start having dreams about your story and your characters.  That is your mind working even when you consciously aren’t.  You will also run into “writer’s block” which I believe, when real, is your subconscious telling you to hold until you realize in your conscious mind something important with regard to the story.  This is where the “write what you feel” school of creative writing comes in.  I believe what they are focusing on is this very thing:  the power of the subconscious (90% vs. 10%).  It is more than feeling though; it is a large part of your brain and the better you can get in touch with it and use it, the better your writing will be.

There are many experiences a writer should have in order to understand both their own mind and the minds of other people.  You have to remember that you are not the template for the rest of humanity.  Hard as it may be for some to believe, there are differences between people.

I’ve sometimes said the best thing about a writers’ group is not necessarily the critiquing or networking, but rather watching the different ‘characters’ in the group and trying to figure out what is motivating them to act the way they do.

If you don’t understand yourself both mentally and emotionally, you might have a hard time understanding others.  Therapy can be a very useful tool for a writer to dig into their own mind to figure out where they are coming from.  Yes, if you’re a writer, you need help as I recommend in Write It Forward.

After listening to many authors speak of their creative processes I realize they are talking on two levels.  There’s what they are saying and there is what they are meaning.  The saying part often varies, but they almost always mean the same thing.  For example, there is the issue of outlining.  I know writers who swear by outlining and others who say they don’t outline at all, they just write.  However, I’ve also found those who don’t outline tend to do a lot of rewriting, thus the first draft of their manuscript might be considered a very detailed outline.  Those writers who do a lot of outlining tend to not want to do much rewriting.  But in the final analysis, although the two methods seem very different, they are actually the same in creative essence.

Also remember that there are two sides to the brain.  The right side is your creative part while the left is more analytical and logical– this is where the editor part of you resides.  Sometimes you have to silence that editor while creating or else nothing will get done.

Are you left brain dominant or right brain dominant, or just plain nuts?

#Nanowrimo Writing as the only art form that isn’t sensual

I’m still continuing posts for Nanowrimo, focused on craft, since it’s not over yet, is it?

Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual.  I’m not saying you can write sensual material, but rather the way the art impacts your senses.  You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music.  The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different.  But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper.  You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs.  Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way.  It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A book comes alive in the reader’s mind.  You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s.  It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing.  Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head.  Isn’t that a fantastic concept?

Writers learn by writing.  And before that, by being voracious readers.

In essence, writing is no different from any other profession.  It’s a simple rule, but one that every one wants to ignore:  the more you write, the better you will become.  Practically every author I’ve ever talked to, or listened to, or read about in an interview, says the same thing.  I saw Stephen King on C-Span and he said the most important thing to do to become an author is to write a lot.  That is one of the reasons so many people are participating in this month’s Nanowrimo. One writing professor said you needed to write a million words before expecting to get published.  I’m currently around word five million and still learning so much.

Let’s look at the positive side:  The odds are strongly against getting published.  But simply by taking the time and the effort to learn from these words and participating in Nanowrimo, you are increasing your odds.  By continuing to write beyond your first manuscript, you vastly increase your odds.  Many writers gush over the amount of money John Grisham made for The Firm but they forget that A Time To Kill was published previously to lackluster sales and failed.  What is important to note about that was that Grisham realized he hadn’t done something right and worked hard to change.  Note that Grisham did not sit still and bemoan what his agent/editor/publisher etc. didn’t do to help the novel.  He didn’t complain that the reading public didn’t understand his brilliance.  He worked on the one person he knew he could change:  himself (a tenet of Write It Forward).

From talking with other published writers, I have found it is common that somewhere between manuscript numbers three and six, comes the breakthrough to publication.  How many people are willing to do that much work?  Not many, which is why not many succeed and how you can vastly increases your chances of beating the odds.  Publishers do not want to make a one-time investment in a writer.  When a publisher puts out a book, they are backing that writer’s name and normally want to have more than one book in the pipeline.  Multiple book contracts are very common; with their inherent advantages and disadvantages.  As soon as you type THE END on your first manuscript (and I mean THE END after numerous rewrites), the absolute first thing you must do is begin writing your second.  With self-publishing, I recommend having at least three books before putting much time and effort into marketing.

Publishing has changed drastically and there are new opportunities for writers to get their novels into the hands of their readers. Traditional publishing isn’t the only viable option for the 21st century author. Self-publishing is quickly becoming the new medium for mid-list authors, and new authors. Amanda Hocking self-published her way into a two-million dollar contract with St. Martins Press. Myself, Connie Brockway, Barry Eisler, LJ Sellers and JA Konrath have all either written ourselves out of NY contracts or turned down a NY contract and ventured out on our own and have been successful.

As someone who wants to be in the entertainment business, you have to study those who have succeeded and failed in that business.  Read interviews with people in the arts and entertainment industries and you will find a common theme:  a lot of years of sweat equity put in before the big “break” came.  I’ve read of and heard actors and comedians talk about spending decades working in the trenches before they became famous.  Musicians who sang back-up for years before becoming lead.  Painters who toiled in squalor (and often died) before their work was recognized.

Study the lives of writers.  Read interviews with authors and see what they say.  Go to conferences and talk to them.  Listen to them talk about several things:  how they became authors, how they live, how they feel about writing, how they write.  Many worked very strange jobs before getting published.  Almost all struggled and spent many years of suffering before they succeeded.  I say suffering in terms of financial or career terms, not in terms of the writing itself.  Most writers enjoy writing.

People seem to think that writers are different and, while in some highly publicized cases they are, most published writers have spent many years slugging away before even their first novel was published.

Simple perseverance counts for a lot.  I think many people with talent lack the drive and fall out of the picture and people with maybe not as much talent but more drive take their place.  It’s the difference between having a growth mindset and a fixed mindset.  People with talent often believe they know all they ever need to know, so therefore their mind is fixed.  Those who believe there is always something more to learn, have a growth mindset.

Let’s get back to where I talked about people in other professions doing a work practicum.  Besides writing novels and reading, the other advice I would give would be to attend conferences and workshops.  It is a worthwhile investment of your time and money to go to workshops and conferences.  Not just to learn, but also to network.  Because of that, the first Write It Forward ‘short’ my publishing company released is How To Get The Most Out Of Your Time And Money At A Writer’s Conference.

A college student once interviewed me and she asked me what she could do to become a better writer.  I replied with my usual “Write a lot,” then thought for a second, looking at this nineteen year old woman.  Then I said:  “Live a lot.  Experience life, because that is what you are eventually going to be writing about.”

What things do you suggest writers do in order to help themselves become better writers?

#Nanowrimo Conflict: The Fuel Of Your Story

Conflict is the fuel that keeps your story going. Conflict revels your character and draws the reader closer. It gives the reader a reason to keep turning the page. Without conflict, your idea cannot be translated into story.

Conflict keeps a story going and reveals much about your characters. Conflict is the gap between expectation and the actual result. There are 3 levels of conflict for your characters:

  • inner (inside the character) In many cases inner conflict occurs when a person has a disagreement between values he or she holds to be important. By adjusting a character’s circumstances, you can develop internal conflict.
  • personal (between characters)
  • universal/societal (characters versus fate/God/the system)

You have to consider what your main character faces on each of these levels.

There are five major sources of conflict for people (although you can probably come up with more):

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Family
  • Religion
  • Politics

Nanowrimo coverKeep these sources of conflict in mind when developing your characters.

(Three books in one:  The Nanowrimo Survival Kit)

Remember all characters have to have an agenda/goals they want to achieve. That gives them a driving force, even if it is a passive or negative one. Characters can pursue their goals aggressively or subtly. Or they could not pursue their goals, which also says something about them.

What is Conflict?

  • A serious disagreement or argument
  • A prolonged armed struggle
  • An incompatibility between two opinions, principles or interests
  • (v) be incompatible or at variance, clash

Basic Story Dynamic

  • The Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .
  • The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse)…
  • Because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .
  • Goals (the external things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing)

The Protagonist

  • Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with:  smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different.
  • Must seem real; flawed, layered, blind spot.
  • Must have a unique voice.
  • Must be in trouble, undeserved if possible, but usually not random.
  • Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred.
  • Must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal.
  • We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist.
  • We must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly.
  • The protagonist’s blind spot can be fatal flaw, but at least brings about the moment of crisis.
  • The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene.

CONFLICT EXERCISE

What does your protagonist want most?

The Protagonist

  • Drives the story.
  • You have one for one main story line.
  • Does not have to be the hero/heroine or even good.
  • If she fails, what is the result? (Stakes)
  • Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, defeating the . . .

The Antagonist

  • Must be someone the reader respects (fears):  smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different.
  • Must seem real; flawed, layered, blind spot.
  • Must have a unique voice.
  • Must be in trouble.
  • Must be introduced as soon as possible, even if by proxy.
  • Must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal.

CONFLICT EXERCISE

What does your antagonist want most?

The Antagonist

  • You have one.
  • Drives the plot initially.
  • You must do the antagonist’s plan and it should be very good.
  • If removed, the plot collapses.
  • Should be a single person so the conflict is personal.
  • Is the person on stage in the climactic scene, fighting the protagonist because . . .

Their Goals Conflict

  • The reader must believe both will lose everything if they don’t defeat the other.
  • Their goals are difficult to achieve because of external barriers, primarily each other.
  • Their goals are layered, usually in three ways . . .

Goal Layers

  • External:  The concrete object or event the character needs.
  • Internal:  The identity/value the character is trying to achieve via pursuing the external goal.
  • Relationship/communal:  The connections the character wants to gain or destroy while in pursuit of the external goal.
  • People want to achieve their goals because of their . . .

Motivation

  • The reason your character needs his or her goal.
  • Everyone has an agenda.
  • Every character has a primary motivator; Frankl’s ‘One Thing’.
  • Some motivations stem from key events in a character’s life.

More on Motivation

  • The reader must believe that your characters believe all will be lost if they don’t achieve their goal.
  • Motivations, like goals, come in layers that are peeled away as the story escalates in conflict and the character is under more and more pressure.
  • The motivational layers are all present in the beginning of the story, but the character is often not conscious of the layers.
  • Thus the motivation and goals shift as the story goes on and we peel away layers…

CONFLICT EXERCISE

What is stopping your protagonist from getting what he/she wants most?

What is stopping your antagonist from getting what he/she wants most?

The Central Story Question

  • Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal?
  • When the reader asks that question, the story begins.
  • When the reader gets the answer, the story is over.

Central Story Question Examples

  • DON’T LOOK DOWN:  Will Lucy defeat Nash and save herself and her family?
  • AGNES AND THE HITMAN:  Will Agnes defeat Brenda and keep Two Rivers?
  • This question leads us to the . . .

The Conflict Box

The Conflict Box is a tool that is used to diagram visually your protagonist’s and antagonist goals and conflict.

You can either have conflict because

  • Protagonist and antagonist want the same thing.
  • Protagonist and antagonist want different things, but achieving one goal causes conflict with the other’s goal.

The Conflict Box

The core conflict based on goals that brings the protagonist and antagonist into direct opposition in a struggle that neither can walk away from.

Conflict Box:  Same Goal

  • Agnes wants to keep her house, which she bought from Brenda.
  • Brenda wants to steal back the house she just sold to Agnes.

To see if your conflict is inescapable:  Draw a line from Agnes’ goal to Brenda’s Conflict.  If Agnes is causing Brenda’s conflict, you’re halfway there.

Then draw a line from Brenda’s goal to Agnes’ conflict.  If Brenda is causing Agnes’ conflict, you have a conflict lock.

The key to the conflict box is one character must cause the other character’s conflict. You have that, you have conflict lock.

Conflict Box: Different Goals:

From Lost Girls.  Gant wants to find out who is kidnapping and killing young girls.

The Sniper wants to continue killing the daughters of those he feels betrayed him.

CONFLICT EXERCISE

Go to the below box and fill it out for your book.

Slideshare of the Conflict Box:

Video of Bob explaining the Conflict Box

WRITE IT FORWARD!

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