The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: The First Layer of Plot
7) Steal This E-zine!
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (314 of you signed up in January), welcome to my e-zine!
If you missed a back issue, remember that all previous issues are archived on my web site at: www.AdvancedFictionWriting.
2) Organization: My Secret Organizing Weapon
Managing your tasks and projects isn’t something you’re born knowing how to do. It’s something you learn.
You can learn it using the sink-or-swim method, by trying things and seeing what works.
Or you can learn how somebody else does it, and test if it works for you.
One of the best-known and most popular methods of managing your tasks is explained in the massively best-selling book Getting Things Done, by David Allen.
Allen’s method is fairly simple to explain, in theory:
- You need a “trusted system” where you track all the zillions of tasks and projects that you must do, want to do, imagine yourself doing, or think you might possibly want to do someday. Everything that comes onto your plate goes into your “trusted system.”
- Every day, you sort through all the new stuff and make decisions on what it is and what you’re going to do about it. Should you throw it away? Put it in your files for reference? Do something about it? If you’re going to do something about it, what is the next action that must be taken? Who will take that action—you or somebody else? Most importantly, when will you do it and what will remind you to do it when you need to take the next action?
- Every week, you take stock of your “trusted system” and scan it for tasks or projects that need to be upgraded or downgraded. Are there actions you need to take in the week? Are there tasks that you really need to downgrade to “never”?
I read Getting Things Done years ago and thought it was a great idea. I tried it the way David Allen recommends—putting my “trusted system” on paper—and I just couldn’t make it work. Paper was too slow, too inflexible, too much out of sight. I’m a digital kind of person. Most of my life happens on my computer, and trying to track it on paper was a non-starter for me.
But in late December, I found a “trusted system” that lives online, and a set of exact instructions that made sense to me. And it’s changed my life.
There are two essential parts to this:
- The online “trusted system.”
- The instructions on how to use it to get things done.
Let’s talk about each of these.
The Trusted System
The “trusted system” is Evernote, a very popular software tool that works on Macs, Windows, iPads, iPhones, and Android devices. There’s also a web-based version. Evernote stores your data on its own servers and keeps all your devices in sync with that data. The purpose of Evernote is to store all your important data in one place that you can get from anywhere. If you’re a research puppy, you can put PDFs there, Word documents, web clippings, text notes, images, emails, or whatever, and you can tag each item with keywords. This makes it easy to search for everything related to your “Bazinga Project,” whatever that might be.
The important thing here is that Evernote makes it easy to track any number of tasks and projects. It’s extremely easy to make a To Do List. And that list is then in “the cloud”.
So if you create a To Do List on your Mac at home and then go shopping, you’ve got that list on your phone. You can check things off the list. When you get to work and log in on your Windows work computer, your To Do List is right there, up to date. If you make changes at work, you’ll see those changes when you get back to your home machine. It just works.
If your computer and phone and tablet are all stolen or destroyed in a fire, your “trusted system” is still on the Evernote servers, and you can get to it from any machine with a web browser. Your data is transferred to the Evernote servers on a secure link, so it’s there for you, but not for anyone else. But if you choose to share some of your data, you can share it with any Evernote user.
It all sounds very cool, and I quickly realized that Evernote had the potential to be my “trusted system,” but there was one problem remaining. It wasn’t obvious how to set Evernote up “the right way” in order to make the Getting Things Done system work. I hate setting things up the wrong way and then having to fix it later. A new tool always feels awkward and clunky for a few weeks, and I didn’t know if I’d have the time and patience to become an Evernote ninja.
Learning How To Use My Trusted System
That’s when I discovered The Secret Weapon, which is a set of free videos on the web site TheSecretWeapon.org.
There are ten videos on this site. You can watch all ten of them in less than an hour. They explain the following:
- What problem we are trying to solve.
- What mindset we need to solve it.
- A summary of the answer to the problem.
- How to install Evernote on your computer.
- How to set up Evernote to do “Getting Things Done” right.
- How to make sure your email is set up right.
- How to get your email in-box empty every day of the year, easily.
- What to do every day to work the system.
- What to do once per week to work the system.
- Why this is so important.
I should note that Evernote has a free Basic version and a couple of paid upgrades. The Plus upgrade costs $25 per year. The Premium upgrade costs $50 per year. If you want Evernote for a business team, then it costs $120 per year per person.
To me, that’s a fantastic deal, since I was already using a bare-bones To Do List tool that was costing me $120 per year. I cancelled that, switched to Evernote, and set up everything exactly the way the Secret Weapon people say to do it.
How It’s Working For Me
On Day One, I got my email in-box empty for the first time ever. (I’ve been using e-mail for nearly thirty years, and have never been able to get my in-box empty, the way the experts say you should.) But I did it, and I’ve kept it clear ever since.
Within a week, I had entered into my trusted system every task list and project list that I’d been saving in various places on my computer, on paper, and in my head. It’s all now in one place. There were 214 tasks and projects on my plate. Yes, really, 214! Is it any wonder I was stressed?
As of this morning when I sat down to plan the day, my trusted system had 173 tasks and projects. That means that I’ve cleared away about 19% of the spinning plates in my life. Actually, I’ve cleared away more spinning plates than that, but things keep coming at me, and I keep adding them to my trusted system.
The people at The Secret Weapon are very clever, and I quickly mastered their system, but then I found ways to tweak it to work better for me. So I’ve been evolving it to fit my needs.
I won’t tell you my set of tweaks, because they wouldn’t make sense to you unless you already were using The Secret Weapon. And if you start using it, you’ll probably find your own tweaks, which will fit your life better than mine will.
Evernote has a referral system to reward people who recommend them. They’ve given me a link that earns me “points” if you click it. Please note that I would recommend Evernote whether they had a referral system or not. Evernote has changed my life and I hope it changes yours. So I have no qualms about earning points for telling you about it.
I should note that the good people at The Secret Weapon have posted those excellent videos on their site for free. They have a link to the Evernote site, and I assume that this link earns them points. You can watch their videos for free, whether you click their link to Evernote or not.
So you have three options:
- If you want to check out Evernote and earn me some points, click this link to go to the Evernote site. Thank you!
- If you want to give The Secret Weapon people some points instead of me, go to their web site here and click their link that says “Install Evernote”. I hope some of you will do this to reward them, because their info is fantastic.
- If you want to check out Evernote but you don’t want anyone to earn any points, then click this link to go to the Evernote site. And of course check out the free videos by the Secret Weapon people.
A Book Recommendation
You might also be interested in reading the book that all this is based on, Getting Things Done. This book is a classic, and I gather that millions of people have read it. There’s a lot of good material in it, and you’ll find it well worth your time, especially after you’ve been using Evernote with The Secret Weapon for a while.
Here are some links to the book Getting Things Done:
3) Craft: The First Layer of Plot
Plot is a complex beast. A novel has at least six layers of plot. This month, we’ll look at the outermost layer—the one-sentence summary.
Why You Need a One-Sentence Summary
Why write a one-sentence summary? Because your one-sentence summary is a powerful sales tool.
If you’re traditionally published, you need to sell your story seven times:
- You have to sell it to your agent.
- Your agent has to sell it to an editor.
- The editor has to sell it to the publishing board.
- The editor also has to sell it to the sales team for the publisher.
- The sales team has to sell it to the buyers for the bookstores.
- The bookstore has to sell it to the early-adopter readers.
- Those early-adopter readers have to sell it to everybody else.
If you’re indie published, you only need to sell your story twice:
- The online retailer has to sell it to the early-adopter readers.
- Those early-adopter readers have to sell it to everybody else.
The one-sentence summary is a selling tool that helps make each of these sales happen.
But there’s one sale you need to make before you sell it to any of those people. You need to sell the story to yourself. You need to convince yourself that it’s a great story worth writing. You need to know what the story is that you’re writing. If you’re a planner, you can’t even write the story until you know what it is. If you’re a seat-of-the-pants writer, you can’t edit it into final form until you know what it is.
What is a One-Sentence Summary?
What is the one-sentence summary? It’s one sentence of 10 to 25 words that captures the spirit of the story.
The one-sentence summary is not the place for details. It’s the place for coolness. It’s the place where your target audience says, “Ooooh!”
Let’s be clear that it’s also the place where people not in your target audience say, “Uh-uh.”
That’s right, your one-sentence summary is not only a sales tool, it’s a sales-preventer.
Why would you want to prevent sales?
Because most people are not in your target audience. If they buy your book, they’ll hate it and won’t finish it. It isn’t ethical to sell a book to people who’ll hate it. So your one-sentence summary should give them the information they’ll need to know they’re going to hate your book.
Some people are in your target audience. If they buy your book, they’ll love it and will become your lifelong fans. You’re doing them a favor by helping them find you. And your one-sentence summary is the easiest way for them to realize that you might be their favorite author in the universe.
So the purpose of your one-sentence summary is to separate the sheep from the goats. Separate the people who will love your book from the people who will hate it.
That may sound like an impossible task. How can one sentence of 25 words or less possibly close the sale on your book?
The fact is that it can’t. Closing the sale is not the purpose of the one-sentence summary. Breaking the ice is its purpose.
The one-sentence summary is usually the first piece of information a prospective customer will get about your book. It gives that customer enough information to know whether she wants to know more. After hearing the one-sentence summary, your target audience should be saying, “Tell me more!”
The classic example is this: Suppose you’re at a writing conference and you get in the elevator with an agent who’s going up one flight. The agent looks at you and politely asks, “What do you write?” You tell him your one-sentence summary in the few seconds between floors. When the door opens, the agent walks out. If he likes your one-sentence summary, he hands you his card and says, “Make an appointment with me.” If he doesn’t like it, he says, “Have a nice day.”
This is the great virtue of the one-sentence summary. It’s very efficient at connecting you with the right sort of people and steering you away from the wrong sort of people.
Imagine instead that the only way to get an agent’s ear was to make an appointment with him and spend fifteen minutes of his time and yours. Then he’d be swamped with appointment requests, and you’d be so busy talking to the ten agents not interested in your book that you might never meet the one agent who is.
You might think that you don’t need a one-sentence summary because you already have an agent or because you’re an indie author so you don’t need an agent.
But that’s wrong. A reader browsing in a store or on Amazon or skimming the daily pitches on BookBub is going to look at the cover and title and then skim a sentence or two of the back-cover copy. Based on that sentence or two, she’ll either move on or stop to read more.
You can put too much pressure on yourself when writing a one-sentence summary. It’s scary to think that this is your one chance to hook that editor or agent or reader. It’s easy to cobble together a 100-word sentence that gets in every single scrap of cool stuff you’ve got.
Don’t do that. Don’t force-feed. Take the one coolest thing in your book. Say it in 25 words or less. Then stop. Give the editor or the agent or reader a chance to digest it. Now the ball’s in their court. If they say, “Tell me more,” now you have permission to give them a paragraph or two. Maybe a hundred words. Then again give them a chance to respond. They’ll feel respected, because you’ll be respectful.
Here are some one-sentence summaries for books that have come out over the last few years:
- A 17-year-old girl falls in love with the cute guy in her biology class, and then discovers that he’s a vampire.
- When his wife goes missing, Nick Dunne cooperates with the police—until he realizes he’s the main suspect.
- When her sister is chosen in the lottery, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place with twenty-four teens in a battle to the death.
#1 is the one-sentence summary for Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer. The storyline seems simple enough, until the last word, which flips it from ordinary YA into paranormal.
#2 is the one-sentence summary for Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. There’s more to the story than this one sentence—much more. You really can’t pack this story into a single sentence, and it would be a bad idea to try. The novel is a psychological thriller, and the sentence makes that clear.
#3 is the one-sentence summary for The Hunger Games. It’s clear that this is a YA dystopic action novel. The summary doesn’t even hint that there’ll be a strong romantic thread in the story. That would only confuse things at this point.
In each case, there is more selling to be done. The one-sentence summary gets people in your target audience interested enough to ask for more info. That’s its job. That’s its whole job. So you’ll need more selling info, and you’ll need excellent writing to back up your sales copy. The one-sentence summary is just the start, but it’s an essential piece that you need for every novel.
What’s the one-sentence summary for your novel?
Give yourself one hour to come up with a single sentence that tells what your story’s about. It should make clear what the category of the novel is. It should focus on the central conflict for one or two of the main characters.
At the end of the hour, stop, even if your one-sentence summary isn’t perfect. It may take several hours of work spread out over many months for you to get it perfect. Take your best cut at it now and write it down. Then come back to it every month or so and see if you can improve it.
You don’t need it to be perfect until your novel is done and you’re trying to sell it.
In the meantime, you can use your one-sentence summary NOW to help you guide your story. Are there parts of your story that don’t fit into your one-sentence summary? If so, are those extra parts adding to the story or detracting from it?
If they add to it, that’s all good. More cool stuff is good.
But if they’re defocusing the story, that’s a problem. You may need to cut some things or rethink your story.
Every day before you write, reread your one-sentence summary. It’ll guide your fingers as you write. It’ll guide your subconscious while you’re not writing.
You may find that your one-sentence summary changes over time as you understand your story better and better. Generally, it evolves for a while until it becomes as good as you can make it.
When it locks into place, you’ll know it. Once that happens, stop messing with it.
The one-sentence summary is the first of several steps in designing your novel. I’ll be discussing more of those steps in the coming months. If you want a preview of where we’re going, see the article on my Snowflake Method on my web site. It’s the most popular page on my site, with over 5 million page views.
4) Marketing: Doubling Your Odds of Success
Anyone will tell you marketing is hard. Your odds of writing a best-seller are tiny. In any given year, more than a million books get published. A handful of those, sometimes as many as ten, will sell more than a million copies. Most books sell far fewer copies.
It’s very hard to predict all the books that’ll be the big winners, because every year, a few blockbuster books come out of nowhere. But some of the winners are very easy to predict. Certain authors write best-sellers time after time. Any book by Stephen King or Nora Roberts is going to do very well.
What this means is that the real trick is not to predict which BOOKS will be big winners. It’s to predict which AUTHORS will be big winners.
There are hundreds of thousands of authors. Only a few hundred of them are very successful. So the odds of being very successful, even if you get published, are about one in a thousand.
Only a few thousand writers earn their living as a writer. So the odds of earning a living as a writer, once you get published, are about one in a hundred.
And let’s remember that not all writers get published, although indie publishing makes it a lot easer than it used to be. To get indie-published, you have to at least finish your book, and not all writers do that. To get traditionally published, you also have to run a long gauntlet of rejection by agents and editors, and very few writers do that.
How can you improve your odds? I came across an idea recently that I think has some merit. I was reading Scott Adams’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
Adams is the creator of the blockbuster comic strip Dilbert. He’s made a huge success as a cartoonist and he’s also made a success as an author and public speaker. But he’s failed at a lot of other things, which he details in his book.
Why did he succeed with Dilbert? You can read his book if you want his opinion on that. Luck is involved, but luck is not the only factor. Many people will tell you that you make your own luck. What surprised me is that Adams offers a plausible explanation of how to increase your luck.
In chapter 20 of his book, one of the section headings is titled “The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success.”
That caught my attention. Could that possibly be true? If so, then why? Is that automatically true about any skill, or are certain skills better than others?
Let’s start with the brute fact that your odds of success are very low. Why should that be? It isn’t just that there are a lot of authors out there. There are also a lot of plumbers out there, and a lot of dentists, and a lot of accountants. I’d be willing to bet that more than one in a hundred plumbers earn a living as a plumber. Ditto for dentists and accountants.
If you’re an author, there are a number of things you need to do, and their effects MULTIPLY each other.
That’s the key thing—the multiplication.
In January of last year, I wrote an article in this e-zine on my “Success Equation.” It goes like this:
Success = (Target Audience Size) x Quality x Discoverability x Production
So if you doubled your target audience size, doubled your quality, doubled your discoverability, and doubled your production, you’d earn 16 times as much money.
And discoverability is itself the product of several factors.
So the reason your odds against success are long is because you need to be good in each of these success factors. If any of them is zero, then your results are zero.
Assuming my Success Equation is true, then by changing any one factor, you could double your odds of success.
So what Scott Adams claims could conceivably be true: By adding a new skill, you double your odds of success. And the reason it could be true is that your success is the result of multiplying a number of factors.
Scott lists 13 skills that he considers critical for success. My thinking is that those are all fine skills to have, but not all of them matter for success as an author. (They might be very important in some other career.) Here are his 13 skills, as listed in chapter 21 of his book:
- Public speaking
- Business writing
- Overcoming shyness
- Second language
- Proper grammar
- Proper voice technique
He makes a case for each of these. My opinion is that some of these are highly useful to the novelist and some are irrelevant. I can’t see that golf matters at all to the novelist, for example. Or having a second language. Those are invaluable for certain career paths, but novelists get a pass on those.
After thinking a bit, I’ve come up with my own list of essential novelist skills, based on Scott’s list, with some additions and some deletions:
- Fiction writing craft
- Accounting/business thinking
If your marketing strategy depends on public speaking, then you can add that to your list. But you can do very well as a novelist without ever giving a speech or going on radio or TV or doing a book-signing at a bookstore, so I don’t consider it essential.There are 8 items on my list above, and let’s pretend that you tackled each skill in turn and improved just enough to double your odds of success. After doing that for all 8 skills, your overall odds would increase by a factor of 256.
If your skills were “typical” before, then that would boost you up into the ranks of authors earning a living as a writer. You’d need more of a boost if you wanted to reach the super-achieving authors.
Yes, in theory all this sounds great, but is it really practical? Could you really get twice as effective by learning technology better, or persuasion, or life-management?
A writer on a modern computer can type a lot faster than a writer on an old manual typewriter. But I’ve noticed that most writers don’t use their tools nearly as effectively as they could. Many writers don’t use Microsoft Word effectively. There are any number of software tools that could make a writer more effective. Very few writers come anywhere close to their potential in using technology.
As for persuasion, I’ve also noticed that writing ad copy is an area where most writers are weak. One good course on copywriting could boost your effectiveness by a factor of ten.
And as for life-management, my observation is that most writers are overwhelmed by life. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with. Modern life is massively more complicated than it was even twenty years ago, much less a thousand years ago. We aren’t evolved to handle modern life. If we don’t study how it’s done, we’re almost certain to be overwhelmed.
Here’s the thing. You don’t have to become world-class in order to double your effectiveness at most of these skills. For most of them, one good course or book would be enough. If you’re “typical” in a given skill, then you’re at the 50th percentile, which means half of all people are better at the skill and half are worse. One good course would get you ahead of most of those people. If you got to the 90th percentile, then you’d be ahead of 9 out of every 10 people.
Let’s suppose you work hard at each of the critical skills and you reach the 90thpercentile in each one. You won’t be amazing at any one thing, but you’ll be amazing as an overall writer. Because success is the multiplication of all those skills.
Remember that you have natural talents and abilities, and you also have natural weaknesses. Everybody does. There are some skills you may never be able to do even as well as the average person. There are some skills you might have the talent to become world champion at. The key thing to remember is that you can almost always improve in any skill, so the question is which skills will give you the most bang for the buck.
How good would you rate yourself at the 8 critical skills I listed above? And how good would you rate your favorite famous author at those skills?
Which skill are you weakest in? (This is probably due to some natural weakness in you, which means you could never be world-class in this skill. But it’s entirely possibly you could get better if you worked at it.) Is your weakness in that skill causing you serious problems in your life? Is there a book you could read or a course you could take that would boost your skills in that? Is there somebody you could hire to help make up your deficit? What value would you get from hiring out that skill? How does that compare to the cost?
Which skill are you strongest in? (This is probably due to some natural talent you have, which means you might possibly be able to reach world-class status in that one skill.) If you made that skill a key part of your strategy and worked hard, could you become amazing in that one area? How hard would you have to work? Would you love working hard on that skill? Would it make a difference in your life?
Balance is critical here. You only have so much time, energy, and money, so you can’t do everything at once. The key questions to ask about any skill are:
- How much is it worth to improve in that skill?
- What would it cost you in time, energy, and money?
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
This month I’m continuing to write steadily. I’m enjoying it.
I recently decided to take a 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. I have one more teaching commitment on my calendar, and that’s it.
Here’s what my calendar shows me for 2016:
- March 18-22, 2016: Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, near Santa Cruz, California. I’ll be teaching a major track on “How to Be An Insanely Great Indie Author.” Details here.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
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