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indexStories tend to blur together after a while. Reading the Bookbub descriptions each day of those books on special, they get numbing. I once submitted a bunch of ideas to an agent; he came back with: “I see fifty of these a day. Give me an interesting character. Re-read Day of the Jackal. Give me a character dossier like that.” After all, we know from page 1 of that book that the Jackal will fail. DeGaulle wasn’t assassinated. So why read it? Because the assassin is so interesting and his plan so unique.

It makes sense. Think of your favorite book. Do you remember plot or character? Yet so often we focus on plot as writers. When I gave the keynote at Thrillerfest a few years ago (and will be there this year), I talked about pitching. I told people that when they saw me afterward, walking around looking dazed as I am wont to do, feel free to pitch me and I’d give honest feedback. Since these were thrillers– well, I got numbed out by the words: Al Qaeda, nuclear weapons, CIA, SEALs, Special Ops, FBI, biological weapons, etc. etc.  They all sounded roughly the same. I told them give me an intriguing character. A Jack Reacher. So how to do this?

Your basic story dynamic is 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, concrete 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.  Consider giving your protagonist an anomaly.  What this means is they have something in their character that doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ who they appear to be.  Russell Crowe in LA Confidential is, in essence, a thug cop used as muscle.  No one thinks he’s very smart.  But from the very beginning of the movie, he goes out of his way to protect women in peril, even when he has no vested interested.  Why?  That ‘why’ is a hook that keeps you following his character.  This anomaly gets explained eventually.

How do we get a character anomaly out quickly?  To give us some commonality, let me use some popular tv shows:

A private investigator with OCD– his name is Monk.

A brilliant diagnostic doctor, addicted to vicodin, who hates people but saves their lives.  His name is House.

A southern belle in LA, always wears dresses, had affair in previous job with new boss, who heads a major crimes unit in LA and is a superb CLOSER.  (Fish out of water story)

A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who decides to start cooking meth. His name is Walter White.

Some had really good ideas, but the character just didn’t cut it:

LIFE:  What if a LA cop is wrongly convicted of murder, sent to prison, but then is exonerated by DNA and as part of his settlement gets 50 million dollars AND his gold detective badge so he can try to find the real murderer.

Good idea.  The writing was decent.  But the character just didn’t pop.  Lasted one season.  The anomaly they tried to give the character didn’t work:  he buys a huge mansion with his money, but he doesn’t put any furniture in it.  Besides not being very interesting, it doesn’t make sense.

STANDOFF:  A male-female hostage negotiation team who are secretly having an affair, have it revealed during a hostage situation.

The writing on that show was actually very good.  Some excellent episodes.  But if your hero and heroine are involved from the pilot, you don’t have that Moonlighting or X-Files sexual tension.

Remember also to consider extremes when writing about characters in order to involve your reader more intensely.  You can have a good character and a bad character.  But would the reader prefer to see an evil character and a noble character?  Think of personalities as a pendulum and understand that the further you swing that pendulum, the more involved the reader usually will be.  Therefore, take any very positive trait you can think of and try to find its opposite.  Do the reverse.  Then use those traits to develop your characters.

Your protagonist must be in trouble, usually not random.

Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred.  Usually, we must meet the protagonist by the end of the second scene.  Right away you’re signaling something to the reader if you introduce the problem before the protagonist and vice versa.

Your protagonist must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal.   Note I say external and specific goal—something tangible.  Don’t confuse goal with motivation.

We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist.  Don Maass in How To Write The Breakout Novel says that redemption is the most powerful character arc.  The problem is having empathy initially with a character who needs to be redeemed.  So we must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly.  In the first scene where we meet them, we must see them do something, often a very minor thing, sometimes even just one sentence worth, that resonates in the reader’s subconscious that the character has the potential for redemption.

The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene.  This is something you should check after your first draft is done.  Take the protagonist from the opening, throw her into the climactic scene, and the bad guy should win.  Her arc is the change that allows her to triumph where she wouldn’t have before.

The protagonist drives the main storyline story.  You have one for one main story line. You will always have one protagonist and one antagonist.  In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who is the protagonist?

Butch.

NovelWriterWhy?  Because he always comes up with the plans.  “You keep thinking Butch; that’s what you’re good at.”

In Lonesome Dove who is the protagonist?  Even though we might love Gus the most, the protagonist is Call, because he keeps the plot moving via the cattle drive.  Also he is the one still standing at the very end, right back where he started from.

Remember that your protagonist is only as good as the antagonist is bad.  There would be no Clarice Sterling without a Hannibal Lecter.

What is your protagonist’s anomaly?

PS: Next Write on the River Writers Workshop is sold out. So we’ve scheduled another 16-17 April. Already one slot is gone to someone on the waiting list. 3 left. If you have any questions, drop me a line.

 

 

It’s a great life. I’m my own boss. I wear shorts and t-shirts in the summer and sweats in the winter to work, which is in my house. I sit at my desk with a great view of the TN River with a blank stare, drool running down the side of my mouth, and I’m working. Well, not really. Because no one’s paying me for my great thoughts. They’re paying for my writing.

I’ve been doing it for over a quarter of a century and here are some harsh truths I’ve learned about making a living as a writer.

1. No one owes you a reading. You have to earn it.

2.  The minute you think you have it made, your career is over.

3.  You have to be ahead of innovation, not following it. I get rather bored lately reading blog posts and tweets and comments from all the gurus making predictions, comments, yada, yada, because I’ve had the bisque. That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn. I do read them. Now I focus more on the subtext. But other than that, a lot of it is the same old, same old. But I also have to accept for many writers, it’s new. Still, I also remember what some of these same ‘gurus’ were saying 3 or 4 years ago. Uh-huh. Nevertheless, it’s incumbent on a writer to pay attention to the business side.

4. Listen to those who have skin in the game. I make my living selling stories to readers. If you want to make a living selling stories to readers focus on those people. Those who make their money in ancillary ways off of the book business? Listen to them but also understand their motives are different than yours. Many of them want to make their money off you. Caveat emptor.

5. Trust no one. From the classic I, ClaudiusHerod [to Claudius]: Trust no one, my friend, no one. Not your most grateful freedman. Not your most intimate friend. Not your dearest child. Not the wife of your bosom. Trust no one.  Okay, that’s extreme but essentially, no writer should count on anyone else professionally. Your agent, your editor, your publisher: they are not your friends inside the business. They are not your business manager. They are people who you work with as a self-employed part of the publishing machine. They might love you, but when the numbers don’t add up—later, gator.

6. Publicity doesn’t equal sales. You can be on the front page of the NY Times and unless the story is specifically about your book, it doesn’t lead to sales. I’ve actually BEEN quoted in an article on the front page of the NY Times, one of my books was mentioned, and I got a whopping bump of about four sales because the article wasn’t about the book. I interviewed for a NY Times article that came out this past weekend and didn’t make the final editorial cut. Whatever.

7.  You can be as ‘right’ as you want to be but still fail. I only have to be right for my business. Not anyone else’s. What works for me will not work for anyone else. Stop trying to prove you’re right to others. They don’t care.

8. People lie. Writers are professional liars. I’ve listened to keynotes from writers and known they weren’t telling the truth. I’ve seen ‘deals’ posted in Publishers Marketplace and known the agent was grossly exaggerating the sale. No one blogs about “my career has gone down the crapper”. Nope. People talk about good things. So don’t let it discourage you when everyone seems to be doing better than you. Often they’re hanging on by their fingernails.

9.  No matter how good your writing is, someone will not like it. In fact, the better it is, the bigger the pushback. The more successful you become, the more people will try to take you down. Don’t let them. Also remember, you need haters to succeed. Like a relationship– we’d rather have hate than apathy.

10.  Math wins. Always. The Content eBook Blob is eating up a lot of midlist self-pubbers. Remember the movie The Blob? 1958? Steve McQueen? Every book that is digitized is on the shelf forever. No one is walking the aisles with computer printouts removing those that are beginning to ooze. And every day more and more titles are added.

11.  Nobody knows everything. When we go to industry events, I constantly remind my business partner, Jen, that no one there knows everything. Of course, she sometimes reminds me I don’t know everything. Despite having my wife call me a contrarian, I’m afraid I have to disagree with both of them. Anyway, most people in the business know only a niche. In fact, the larger the organization they are part of, the less they know. People pretend to know a lot, but that’s because they’re . . .

2cfa3f55dc70babbda2b8dad9e18b36212.  Afraid. Fear rules many things in life. Fear is insidious. Repeat the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear from Frank Herbert’s brilliant Dune:

13.  It always comes back to content. Bundles, Bookbub, sacrificing goats; they all have their place. But it always comes back to content. Write good stories. Then more good stories. And you will succeed.

Want more good stuff? Sign up for my newsletter. Click here! If you sign up, you get a free book. And, like those late night commercials, get the book and we throw in a wonder-roller to remove dog hair. Okay, that was one step too far. NOTHING removes dog hair, as Cool Gus consistently proves– I just had depot repair on my Macbook Air and they found dog hair inside it.

You get a free book for signing up. That’s pretty cool. And Ides of March is up for pre-order.

And remember. It actually is the best time ever to be a writer. Because the only one who can stop you. Is you.

Ramp jumpThe best solution for conquering fear is to do the same thing a patrol must do if it is ambushed:  attack right into the fear.

Your patrol is suddenly fired upon from the right. Your fear wants you to jump in the convenient ditch to the left—to avoid the ambush.

However, if the ambush is set up correctly—that ditch is laced with mines and you’ll die if you do that. In life, avoiding problems by running from them doesn’t solve the problem.

Your next fear-driven instinct is to just hit the ground. Stay where you’re at and do nothing. Except you’re in the kill zone and if you stay there, well, you’ll get killed.  We all want to ignore problems.  Because that’s the inherent nature of a problem.  But ignoring your greatest problem will keep you in the kill zone and the result is inevitable.

The third thing you want to do is run forward or back on the trail to get out of the kill zone– escape without dealing with those who ambushed you. Except, if the ambush is done right, the heaviest weapons are firing on either end of the kill zone. And you’ll die.  We want to avoid problems by going back to the past or imaging it will get better in the future even if we don’t change anything.

The correct solution is the hardest choice because it requires courage: you must conquer your fear, turn right and assault into the ambushing force. It is the best way to not only survive, but win.  To tackle problems, you must face them.

You’ve heard write what you know? Maybe write what you are afraid to know. I see many writers who avoid writing what they should be writing because it would mean confronting their fears. Be curious about your fear—it’s a cave, but instead of a monster inside treasure could be inside.

Remember fear is an emotion. Action can occur even when your emotions are fighting it. Taking action is the key to conquering fear.

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How do you expand your comfort zone by venturing into your courage zone? Every day try to do something that you dislike doing, but need to do. If you’re introverted, talk to a stranger every day. If you’re a practical person, do something intuitive every day.

Do the opposite of your Myers-Briggs character.

Attack the ambush!  Write it Forward and Who Dares Wins!

 

Overwhelmed by all the well-meaning advice given by experts, industry professionals and even other authors? Tired of hearing the exact opposite things spouted by different experts as to what we should do as authors?

Closely monitoring the publishing business I see many different paths and approaches suggested to aspiring authors regarding everything from writing the book to publishing the book to promoting and building platform and brand.

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There’s a lot of advice out there, much of it contradicting other advice.  My Write It Forward program focuses on the author.  As part of that, I’m going to sort this out for you with a template you can use to develop and continue your own career path.

There’s a simple reason for all the conflicting advice:  no two authors are exactly the same.  We all approach our careers with different goals. How we define those goals plays a key role in the questions we need to ask ourselves up front. Do I want traditional publishing? Is self-publishing a viable option for me? What other options are there? Or should I pack up and go home?  Making an educated decision on our publishing path leads the author into this mass confusion of varying opinions on the subject. In an effort to bring some clarity to the issue, I offer up three variables and examine how they affect the way a writer should view getting published and, more importantly, their writing career.

The variables are:

Platform

Product

Promotion

Quick definitions:

Platform:  Name recognition is what people think of, but there’s more to platform than that.  Are you an expert in your field?  Do you have a special background that makes you unique?  Everyone has some sort of platform, even if it’s just your emotions, exemplified Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, mining his anger into art.  I use the film clip of his audition at the beginning of my Write It Forward workshop, book and presentation, and show how quickly he changed, mined his ‘platform’, and was on his way to becoming a star.  All within three minutes.

So don’t get close-minded on platform.  However, for traditional publishers, they immediately are looking at name recognition (brand) and ability to reach a market (which ties into promoting).

However, with the explosion of eBooks, there are other paths to take, I’ve really changed my views on how to approach getting published. While some disagree, I think traditional publishing is probably the best option to pursue for a new author, rather than self-publishing, unless the writer has a unique set of skills at marketing, or has designed a unique approach that will make their product stand out from the other roughly half a million self-published books flooding the market every year. Remember that most of the successes in the indie world came out of the traditional publishing world and had backlist they could use to establish themselves with.

Product:  The book.  Or at least a proposal for a book for nonfiction.  This is your content.  Most authors become totally fixated on content, while ignoring platform and promotion.  Do so at your peril. But also understand that the best possible marketing is a good book. Then more good books.

Promotion:  The ability to do it.  The access to promotional outlets.  Unique hook or angle that gets attention.

If you consider three variables, with a sliding scale from ‘none’ to ‘the best’, you end up with an infinite variety of authors.  To simplify matters, let’s go with ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ although it is a sliding scale.  This gets us down to eight possible types of writers.

  • Strong Platform            Strong Product            Strong Promotion
  • Strong Platform            Strong Product            Weak Promotion
  • Strong Platform            Weak Product              Strong Promotion
  • Strong Platform            Weak Product              Weak Promotion
  • Weak Platform              Strong Product            Strong Promotion
  • Weak Platform              Strong Product            Weak Promotion
  • Weak Platform             Weak Product              Strong Promotion
  • Weak Platform             Weak Product              Weak Promotion

If you’re in the bottom line, fughhedaboutit as we used to say in the Bronx.

But for  the other combination of the three P’s, we can  see a different type of author.  Where do you fall? Where do you want to fall? Yes, we all want to be the top line, but that’s rare, especially for someone new to both writing and publishing.

Plus, these are not discrete entities.  They all rely on each other.  You have to consider that promotion is based on platform and product.

Product is often based on the platform.  If you have a platform you will most likely write a book mining that platform (if you don’t, well, that’s okay too, but it is a limitation).

There’s a degree of luck involved in promotion.  Going viral.  But luck goes to the person who climbs the mountain to wave the lightning rod about.  It’s called hard work.  One key lesson we’ve learned at the Cool Gus Author-Author-Centric Team is that consistency and repetition of message are key.  Slack off for a week, and fughhedaboutit. When I say repetition, though, don’t think it’s spamming; it’s says the same core message, but varying the method by which you spread it.

Product is the one you can improve the most by working on your craft.  However, you can improve both platform and promotion, which many authors ignore.  Become known as THE writer of that type of book.  That’s platform.

Promotion is often hard as the Myers-Brigg INFJ is labeled ‘author’ while the exact opposite, ESTP, is labeled ‘promoter’.  We HAVE to get out of our comfort zones as authors.  In Write It Forward I emphasize practicing and working on the opposite of our Myers-Brigs personality types, because it is our greatest weakness. For example, I’ve just begun a policy of having copies of my books with me at all times; in my Jeep, in my bag when traveling, etc. and making sure I give away a copy every chance I get. If someone asks me what I do, they get a copy. Even if they don’t. My goal is to give away several books per day. It’s a seed of viral marketing. Personally handing a book to someone makes them share in your process. Is it hard for me to talk to complete strangers and give them a book? Certainly. But if I don’t do it, who will? I know an author, Andrew Peterson, who has been doing this for years and it has yielded great results for him; on top of writing damn good thrillers.

The advent of social media is a boon to writers.  We can actually do promoting from the safety of our offices, although I do truly accept it is not as strong as the personal touch, face to face. Too many authors leap blindly into social media and I watch 95% of them wasting their time and energy flailing about inefficiently.  Also we tend to market to other authors, instead of readers.

imagesThe bottom line is, as a writer, we have to evaluate ourselves on the three P variables and figure out what type we are.  Then approach the business accordingly, while at the same time, working hard to improve in those areas where you are weak. This morning I was at a business and ended up talking to the guy who does their financing. I had a copy of one of my books in hand and gave it to him. We ended up talking a while and he mentioned Area 51, and I said, wow, one of my bestselling series is titled Area 51. And we moved forward from there.

Just like in What About Bobbaby steps. Enough baby steps and we end up getting where we want to be.

 

Time Patrol: Ides of March

15 March 2016

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