The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: How to Write a Scene List
7) Steal This E-zine!
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (240 of you signed up in June and 213 in July), welcome to my e-zine! There was no July issue because I took a research trip to Israel and worked on an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. It was hot, dusty, exhausting, and fun!
If you missed a back issue, remember that all previous issues are archived on my web site at: www.AdvancedFictionWriting.
2) Organization: This is How We Do Things Here
Writing is a business. That means there are some things you have to do, whether you like doing them or not.
You can think of any number of boring administrative tasks that have to get done. Here are a few that leap immediately into my mind:
- Packing for a trip
- Writing a web article using good search-engine optimization practices
- Doing the monthly accounting
- Running a weekly or monthly critique group
- Changing a widget on a web site
- Creating an indie book for publication
- Choosing a book category
There are plenty more where those came from. I’m sure you’ve got plenty more you can add.
The first time you do any of these things, it can be daunting. There’s a lot to figure out.
Which means a lot to remember.
My rule whenever I figure out something new is that I write down what I learned so I don’t have to figure it out ever again.
Your Procedures Manual
Some people call this “making a procedures manual.” Other call it “documenting the process” or “making a punch-list” or “this is how we do things here.”
It doesn’t matter what you call it. The point is that if you figure something out once, you write down the steps so you don’t have to rely on your fallible memory next time.
The trick is to write it down in a place you’ll remember to look. You can write it on paper and then save it in a notebook. Or you can write an electronic document and save it in your trusted system.
It doesn’t matter where you keep it, as long as you can find it again next time.
There are several benefits to doing this:
- You save time next time you have to do the task.
- You make sure you don’t leave out any essential parts.
- You reduce stress, because you don’t have to rely on your memory.
- You can hire somebody to do the task and hand them your document that explains how it’s done.
- You can add notes to the document that explain why you’re doing a particular step.
Some Tips and Tricks
I keep my documents electronically in Evernote. The most common ones are in a notebook named “Recurring Tasks.” The less common ones are in a notebook named “Procedures Manual.” I have Evernote on my laptop, my iMac, my iPad, and my phone, so no matter where I am, I can get at these documents.
It takes a couple of mouse clicks to make a copy of any of these documents and put it in my daily To Do List. Most of these documents are organized as a set of subtasks with a checkbox for each. As I work through the subtasks, I check them off. If I need to change the procedure, I revise the copy I’m working on and then revise the original.
Sometimes, one of the subtasks may be to call somebody to make an appointment. (For example, my accountant.) In this case, I put the person’s phone number right in the document so I don’t have to look it up.
Sometimes, one of the subtasks might be to do some operation on a web site. In this case, I paste a link to the web site right in the document so when it’s time to do the task, I can just click on the link.
These are small tricks, but they add up when you use them a lot. Life is about making many small things add up to something big.
Real businesses have a procedures manual. If you’re a writer, you’re in business. Act like it. Create a manual. Use it to make your life easier. Keep it up to date.
You’ll spend more time writing and less time doing the stuff you hate.
3) Craft: How to Write a Scene List
In April, I explained in this column how to write a synopsis, which is a requirement if you ever want to sell a novel to a traditional publishing company.
However, a synopsis isn’t particularly useful to you if you’re planning on using it to write your novel. The reason is because the typical synopsis is only a couple of pages long and it doesn’t have quite the level of detail you need.
Why not? We’re going to have to talk numbers for a minute.
Assume a typical novel is 400 pages. Assume a typical scene is four pages (though some will be much shorter and some much longer). Then we’re talking about roughly 100 scenes in your novel. (Depending on how long or short you write, you might have as few as 50 scenes or you might run up as high as 200 scenes.)
A typical synopsis runs about two pages, containing maybe fifteen paragraphs. You can see the problem here. Fifteen paragraphs can’t really cover 100 scenes.
If you reread my April column on how to write a synopsis, you’ll see that I recommend that each paragraph should cover one “sequence of scenes.” A “sequence of scenes” is typically two to seven scenes that are related to each other.
So now we can see what the problem is.
The basic unit of a novel is a scene. The basic unit of a synopsis is a sequence of scenes.
When you sit down to write, you don’t usually write a whole sequence of scenes in one session. You write one scene. Then you write the next one, maybe. Or maybe you wait a day or a few days or a week.
Writing typically happens one scene at a time. And editing also happens one scene at a time.
If you want guidance on how to write each scene, then you need to know what that scene is about before you write it.
You might object that you write by the seat of your pants and you don’t want to know in advance what the scene is about. You want to find out while you write it. That’s fine. But when you go to revise the novel, it’ll still be helpful to edit scene by scene.
Either way, a powerful tool for you is the scene list, which is just what it sounds like—a list of one-sentence summaries of each scene.
Many writers maintain their scene list on a stack of 3×5 cards. That works. Others use a spreadsheet, with one line per scene. That works too. Others use my Snowflake Prosoftware. Others use Scrivener. Use whatever tool works for you, but make your scene list.
If you’re a planner, make your scene list BEFORE you write your novel.
If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, make your scene list AFTER you write your novel, but BEFORE you edit it.
The scene list shows your story at a glance. Here are a few ways you can use your scene list:
- You can change your story by moving scenes around.
- You can mark which scenes are strong and which are weak, and then make decisions on which ones need improvement.
- You can see where there are gaps in the story, and insert new scenes to fill those gaps.
- You can make decisions on which scenes need to be deleted.
- You can color-code your scenes, using one color for each viewpoint character. That can show you which characters are getting too much or too little air time.
- You can track how many words each scene has (or how many you plan for it to have) and get an estimate of the word count for the full novel. If your contract calls for an 80,000 word novel and your scene list forecasts 120,000, you know there’s a problem and you can fix it.
Visibility is knowledge. A scene list gives your scenes visibility.
The scene list is for your benefit. Nobody else wants to see it, and there’s no reason to ever show it to anyone. It can be as messy as you like, and nobody will know.
A scene list is not hard to make, because it doesn’t have to be beautiful. One sentence that tells what happens in each scene. That’s all.
It’s a simple idea, and yet incredibly powerful.
Does your current work-in-progress have a scene list?
If so, are you using it effectively?
If you don’t have a scene list, can you make one right now?
4) Marketing: Amazon Cracks Down
Recently Amazon seems to have begun a crackdown on authors in an attempt to root out illegitimate reviews.
I had been hearing isolated reports about this for months, but lately I’ve seen an uptick in complaints from authors that Amazon is sending out scary letters.
The Scary Email
Typically, an author gets a form email out of the blue from Amazon that begins like this: “We understand that you may have manipulated product reviews.”
The letter goes on to explain that Amazon does not allow authors to manipulate product reviews.
The letter includes a link to a frequently-asked-questions page on Amazon about reviews.
It also includes a link to Amazon’s anti-manipulation policy.
The letter closes with a threat that Amazon may close the author’s publishing account “if the problem continues.”
Note how vague this is. What’s missing is any explanation of what the author might have done that’s wrong.
Obviously, an author who gets an email like this is going to have a stressful day. Most authors are honest and can’t imagine how they might have been manipulating reviews. And when they ask Amazon what they’ve done wrong, they get the unhelpful response that they’ve violated the terms of service.
It’s very hard to know why this is happening. The information I’m seeing is confusing and incomplete.
My read on the situation is the following (and this is a guess, because it’s impossible to know): Amazon knows that some authors are buying fake reviews. This has been an ongoing problem, and it’s serious. Fake reviews damage the credibility of all reviews. Amazon is a big corporation with a lot to lose when their review system loses credibility. So they set up a system to look for red flags and send warning emails to authors that might be cheating. It’s not clear if this system is fully automated, or whether there are humans involved. It appears that the system is wired a bit too tight right now—it’s sending out warnings to honest authors.
Red Flags For Reviews
I’ve read through Amazon’s guidelines for reviewers and for authors. Here are some of the most common issues to be wary of, because they’re red flags for Amazon. Some of these are obviously dishonest. Others merely violate Amazon’s Terms of Service.
- Don’t write a review of your own book. Not under your own name. Not under a fake name.
- Don’t pay other people to write a review for you.
- Don’t ask family members to write a review for you.
- Don’t post a review of your book on behalf of somebody else. If they write the review, they should post it themselves. If you find review material about your book on another web site, you can put this in the Editorial Reviews section of your book page (using your Author Central account). But don’t post it as a customer review.
- Don’t ask authors who are your close friends to write a review for you. It is OK for authors to review books, but Amazon specifically excludes those who have a “personal relationship” with you.
- Don’t ask people who had a hand in creating your book (such as editors, illustrators, marketing people, etc.) to write a review for you.
- Don’t use a tit for tat arrangement where you write a review for another author in exchange for them writing a review for you. If another author emails you asking you to do this, let them know that it’s a violation of Amazon’s Terms of Service.
- Don’t give any sort of compensation to your readers in exchange for a review. This includes drawings for your reviewers, gift cards, or any other gift.
- You are allowed to provide a free copy of your book upfront to reviewers. However, you must make it clear to them that all you are asking for is an honest review, which means they are free to write a bad review if they dislike your book. Furthermore, their review must say clearly that they received a free copy of your book in exchange for an honest review.
- You are allowed to ask for a review at the end of your book. What you should not do is to offer anything to people who post reviews. Don’t offer a gift card. Don’t offer a free copy of some other book. Don’t offer bonus content. Don’t offer anything. And be aware that some of your readers will write a scathing review. Scathing reviews are just part of life—they won’t kill you.
What About Street Teams?
A lot of authors use “street teams” when they launch a book.
Typically, a street team is composed of your most loyal readers, the ones who buy every book you write as soon as you publish it. Instead of making them buy the book, you invite them to join your street team so they get a free copy before it’s published. (The free copy is usually called an Advance Review Copy—an ARC.)
Your street team benefits by getting free books sooner than anyone else.
You benefit because your street team writes reviews of your book on or before the official release day.
Other readers benefit because they can see some reviews of the book that help them decide whether to buy or not. (A good review will encourage people in the book’s Target Audience to buy it, while discouraging people in the Target Audience from making a mistake on a book they won’t like.)
Amazon benefits because it sells more copies of your book to people in your book’s Target Audience.
You’re free to run a street team with as many people as you like. Having a street team is legitimate. But don’t throw up any red flags in the process. Don’t give any sort of compensation to your street team other than the free book itself. Do remind your street team that you expect nothing in return from them except an honest review. Do remind your street team that their review MUST say that they received a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
It may be tempting at the end of a good year to do something nice for your street team. Holding a drawing for an iPad. Giving out gift cards. My opinion is that these are bad ideas. Even if you don’t explicitly draw a connection between the reviews they write for you and the goodies you give out, it’s going to look like a tit for tat arrangement. And that could get you in trouble.
There is some question about how friendly you should get with your street team. It’s not clear if Amazon considers your Facebook friends to be in a “personal relationship” with you that would invalidate their reviews. It’s not clear whether Amazon can or would track your Facebook friends. But Amazon knows more about you than you might imagine. Being a data guy, I can think of a lot of ways to mine all the information Amazon tracks. I’m sure they’ve thought of a lot more.
It’s clear that a number of authors are getting caught by surprise here, receiving threatening letters when they had no idea they were doing anything that might be questionable. Remember that the letter is only a warning—intended to get you to take action. You should act on the warning, but there’s no need for panic. Try to figure out what caused the warning, and then fix the problem.
The word on the street is that Amazon is not being terribly helpful. The warning letters they send out don’t explain specifically what the author did wrong. They don’t tell the author how to find out what they did wrong. When the author calls Amazon, the customer support people don’t give clear information that the author can act on.
My take on this is that Amazon is a big corporation, and the left hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing.
There are groups of authors who believe that Amazon is the enemy. I don’t believe that for a minute. Amazon is not your enemy.
But Amazon is not your friend either.
Amazon is your business partner.
In any partnership, there are misunderstandings that can happen. When those pop up, both sides need to try to resolve things.
Authors can do their part by reading the rules. Here are three pages you should read:
- Amazon’s Anti-Manipulation Policy
- Amazon’s FAQ for Authors (Information authors should know)
- Amazon’s Customer Review Policy (Information your reviewers should know)
Amazon can do its part by improving their system. Here are a couple of things I’d like to see them do:
- Customize the warning email that they send out so it tells the author what they’ve done wrong.
- Provide a phone number and email address that the author can use to contact Amazon to get answers and try to resolve any problems. (Amazon does have contact info on their web site, but authors who use this info wind up talking to people who can’t or won’t provide any specific information.)
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
I’m hard at work on a series of novels about one of the most influential humans ever to walk the planet—Jesus of Nazareth. I spent parts of June and July in Israel doing research for this series, and now I’m back home working hard on Book 2. (The plan at the moment is to write all four books before I release any of them.)
I am currently on sabbatical from teaching. I’ve taught at many, many conferences over the last fifteen years, but the time has come to focus on my writing. So I’m no longer accepting requests to teach at conferences. When that changes, I’ll make a note of it here.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
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