The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
7) What Randy is Reading
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
2) Organization: Purgery
That’s what’s happened to me recently, and I’m currently going through a painful process my kids call “purgery”—because it requires purging stuff I don’t need. I hate throwing things away.
I’ve put this off for way too long, so it’s going to be horrible, but the plan is pretty simple. I need to throw out all the papers in my filing cabinets that I don’t need. I need to unload the books on my shelves that I don’t need. And I need to recycle the electronics on my desk that I don’t need.
Purgery is right up there next to flossing the cat on my list of most-hated tasks. But I’m way past due, and my goal is to spend the month of December purging, so I can start the year fresh.
I’m starting with the two filing cabinets in my office. Each of them has five drawers, and you’d think that’s way more than enough. But they’re both full, or very close to it. I tend to keep a lot of paper, because you never know when you’ll need those old records.
But there’s a limit to how long you need to keep old records. A lot of mine have way out-lived their useful life.
One problem with purging files is that you can’t just throw away paper that has sensitive information on it. You definitely don’t want to throw away old credit card bills, for example, because they have your credit card number on them.
To purge private documents, you need a shredder—a good crosscut shredder that chews up paper into small pieces, not just into long strips.
It was way too daunting to try to purge all ten drawers in my filing cabinets all at once, so I started with the drawer I use the most, the one labeled “Bills.”
Here’s the procedure I used:
- Set the timer for 30 minutes, because I can only do purgery for about that long before my head explodes.
- Grab the first file and flip through it, sorting the documents into three groups:
- Stuff to keep—anything less than a year old I might need for doing taxes (this goes back in the file).
- Stuff to shred—anything with account numbers on it (this goes on the floor)
- Stuff to throw away (this goes in the trash without shredding)
- When I’ve finished the file, I put it back into the filing cabinet and then shred everything on the floor.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 on the next file, until my timer goes off.
Yes, this is the most boring kind of work I can imagine. No, it can’t be put off any longer.
When I’ve got a spare half hour, I pick up where I left off. I started the weekend before last and I finished the Bills drawer this last weekend, working a few files at a time.
The next step is to clear out the file drawer in my desk. And then the filing cabinet drawer labeled “Business.”
Then, I’ll sweep through all the bookshelves and look for books I can throw away. For me, throwing away books is like murdering friends. So this is going to be extremely hard, but it needs to be done. I don’t buy paper books anymore, because there isn’t any space left on any bookshelf in the house. And we have an embarrassing number of bookcases.
How are you doing with the space you have? Have you run out of room to put more stuff? Are things stacking up on your floor? Do you have boxes of junk cluttering up your workspace?
Is it time for some purgery? How much can you get done before the new year comes in? Would it make a difference in your life if you cleared out even ten percent of the stuff you don’t need? Wouldn’t that feel great?
If so, then you’ve got plenty of company. You’ve got me and a lot of others in the same boat. Let’s get it done.
I dare you to commit some purgery before the year is over.
3) Craft: Can You Spot a Liar?
Every person on the planet tells lies. Which means your characters all tell lies. Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly what lying looks like so you could show it to your readers?
Yeah, that would be cool.
I’ve been watching the TV series LIE TO ME on Netflix lately.
The series is based on a real-life psychology professor, Dr. Paul Ekman, who specializes in reading facial expressions to detect emotions and lying.
Of course, we’d all love to be able to infallibly detect lying, but that’s incredibly tricky. Much to my disappointment, there just isn’t any single thing you can watch for that would prove you’re being lied to. But there are many indicators of lying.
If you want to detect deception, you have to put it together from a large number of clues. The visible emotions on the face. The body language. The response of the autonomic nervous system. And you have to compare all of those to what you see when the person is telling the truth.
Then you have to think about whether the person is a psychopath who doesn’t feel guilty for lying. Or maybe they’re not a psychopath, but they feel good about this particular lie because it achieves a greater good.
And you have to consider the possibility that the person actually believes what they’re saying. Maybe they’ve fooled themselves or have been lied to by somebody else. Maybe they’re just stupid and jumped to a dumb conclusion.
So detecting lying is hard. Most people can’t do it very well—their guesses are not much better than random chance. The good news is that a trained person can detect lying most of the time. The bad news is that nobody can infallibly detect lies, and neither can any machine.
Some people are natural liars (they make good lawyers and salesmen and poker players). It can be hard for even a trained person to detect when a natural liar is lying.
I was disappointed to learn that I wasn’t going to find an infallible way to spot a liar. But this little journey into the study of lying wasn’t wasted. In fact, it turned out to be quite valuable. Here’s why …
It’s easier to learn to detect emotions, and this is important to fiction writers, because emotion is the currency of fiction.
I’ve been reading one of Paul Ekman’s books (co-authored with Wallace V. Friesen), UNMASKING THE FACE, which is a terrific handbook on learning to read emotions from the face.
There are six basic emotions that show up well on human faces:
Each of these has at least one typical expression, which usually show up most clearly in the eyebrows, the forehead, the eyes, the nose, the mouth.
Some emotions have more than one typical expression (there are two distinct ways that fear can show up in a person’s mouth, for example).
Any of these emotions can show us on a range from very mild to very intense.
And you often see mixes of two or even three emotions on the same face at the same time.
If you learn these typical expressions, you can work them in naturally into your description of your character’s face. This is a clue for your reader, a clue you don’t have to interpret for her. You can show your reader those emotions, rather than telling her. And there’s more.
Dr. Ekman pioneered the technique of reading “micro-expressions”—which typically last for a small fraction of a second and reveal hidden emotions. These can be incredibly important to a fiction writer.
If a husband is telling the cops about how horrified he was when he discovered his murdered wife, and he shows a micro-expression for rage, then your detective might want to check whether he was really out drinking with the boys until late.
If a wife is telling her hubby about how she spent the afternoon shopping for his birthday present, and she shows a micro-expression for disgust, he might start to wonder whether she was out “shopping” with her personal trainer at the local motel.
If your heroine is crushing on that cute guy with the unreadable poker face and she wonders if he even knows she exist, and every time he looks at her, he shows a happiness micro-expression, well then he likes her. So she can start flaunting whatever it is she flaunts best.
The nice thing about these facial expressions, including the micro-expressions, is that you can show them to your reader and it’s one less thing you have to tell her.
Not every reader will read these clues correctly, but that’s OK. In real life, we don’t always read people correctly. Clues are just clues, and even if you read them, you can’t ever know if you’re being tricked. So it’s fine to leave things a little ambiguous in your fiction.
Knowing how to read facial expressions is just one more weapon in your arsenal as a fiction writer. Use it well.
4) Marketing: The Currency of Marketing
The most important lesson I ever learned about marketing was taught to me by a hard-eyed electrical engineer, whom I’ll call Rick.
It was a few years after I had escaped from academia, and I was working for a mid-sized company in San Diego that did contract physics research for the government. We built machines that could deliver more than a terawatt of power—a million megawatts—in one giant burst.
I’m a theoretical physicist, and my job was to write custom software to analyze the physics of the machines.
That year the company went through a reorg, and my boss and I got moved over to work in the building with the experimental group. And one of my first tasks was to help out on a rush proposal.
My boss held a meeting with some of our new co-workers. The proposal needed some calculations. They were too complicated to do by hand. We needed custom software to do the calculations. And we needed answers right away.
My boss turned to me. “Can you get it done by tomorrow?”
The truth was that I didn’t know. In a week, sure, I could do it. It was a matter of integrating some code somebody else had written into my own software and writing whatever glue I needed to make it all work. But every programmer knows that working with other people’s software is always dicey.
I said I’d give it my best shot.
One of the engineers in the meeting was this guy Rick. He was in his late fifties and he had shaggy gray hair and a craggy, wind-burned face and a smoker’s voice.
Rick happened to be one of the best engineers in the world at building high-energy pulsed-power machines. He was a no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of a guy. Rick was also one of those people who don’t bother trying to hide what they think.
I read on Rick’s face right away that he didn’t think I could do it. I was an unknown quantity. As far as he was concerned, I had zero credibility.
But my boss thought I could do the job, and there was nobody else to do it, so I had to either sink or swim.
I knew it was important to the company, so I decided I’d give it my maximum effort.
I went into high gear right after the meeting and I pounded on the problem right through lunch. I worked without a break all afternoon. Around 5 PM, I called my wife and said I was going to be home late, really late.
She brought me some supper and I ate it at my desk while I sweated out all the glitches you get when you try to glue together software that wasn’t designed to work together.
I don’t remember the timing exactly, but I’m guessing that sometime around 11 PM, I got it working. I ran some test cases for reasonable scenarios and printed out the results and left them on my boss’s desk. Then I went home and collapsed.
The next morning, I got in late and was checking e-mail at my desk when Rick came by with a solemn expression on his face.
I looked at him, wondering what I’d done wrong.
His craggy face cracked into a smile. “That was good.”
“What was good?” I asked.
“What you did. You were here way late last night. You got it done. That was good.”
And I could read on Rick’s face that I’d earned something crucial.
After that, Rick knew he could count on me to get it done. To do it right. To do what it took.
And that’s the big lesson I learned. A lesson that carries over into every area of life. Most especially into marketing.
Credibility is not something you can buy. The only way to get it is by earning it.
The only way to keep it is to keep on earning it.
Credibility is the foundation of all marketing. When marketers talk about “branding,” they are really talking about earning credibility with your target audience. They’re talking about proving that you can provide the thing people want to buy.
You build credibility by delivering the goods. Every time.
You lose credibility when you don’t deliver the goods. Even once.
If you’re a Starbucks fan, it’s because Starbucks earned your credibility, one cup at a time, every time.
If you’re a Stephen King fan, it’s because Steve earned your credibility, one book at a time, every time.
Every novelist wants to make it big, to write a breakout book that makes them a rock star.
Rock star writers don’t usually come out of nowhere. Most of them earn the right to be rock stars, by delivering the goods, by getting better book after book, building their fan base, developing their skills, growing as a writer.
A lot of rock star writers break out after five or ten or twenty books, building credibility all along the way.
Oh sure, there are a few who break out with their first or second book. Clancy and Grisham and King and Rowling come to mind. But they remain rock stars by maintaining their credibility.
A rock star who doesn’t keep delivering loses credibility, bit by bit, until it’s gone. And then he’s not a rock star anymore.
Here are a few rules for you as you build your own credibility in your writing career:
You earn credibility by delivering the goods.
You earn credibility by doing the right thing.
You earn the most credibility by doing the right thing when you think nobody’s watching. (But somebody always is.)
You earn credibility by doing your best, every time. Bear in mind that “doing your best” is a relative thing. It means doing your best on each particular day. It does not mean that every day you have to do better than the day before. That’s impossible. You’ll have good days and bad days, but even on your bad days, you need to be doing the best you can on that day.
Credibility only matters for your target audience. There will always be people outside your target audience who hate you and who won’t ever give you a chance to earn credibility. Don’t waste a second worrying about them.
Athletes talk about the dangers of “mailing in the win.” The surest way to lose big is to try to coast through on a second-rate effort against a second-rate opponent.
The surest way to lose credibility is to start producing work that isn’t up to your standard.
Credibility is the currency of marketing.
If you have credibility, then marketing your work is easy.
If you don’t have credibility, then marketing your work is hard.
Now take a look at what you’re doing today.
Will it boost your credibility, or at least keep it even?
Or will it cut your credibility?