The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: The Second 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 (264 of you signed up in February), 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: Breaking Good
Last month, I wrote about a powerful task-management system that has been a massive help in getting control of my life.
Everybody has far too many things on their plate. That’s the nature of modern life, and it’s not going to get easier, it’s only going to get worse.
A good task-management system won’t magically make everything on your plate get done. That’s not how it works. But it will make you more productive and it will help you feel better about your life.
An easy trap to fall into is the belief that life is mostly about getting things done. It isn’t. Life is partly about getting things done. But it’s also partly about enjoying yourself while you do it.
We’ve all been told a thousand times to stop and smell the roses. The problem is that you can’t stop and smell the roses when your life is so out of control that you’re afraid to stop.
But once you do get your life under control, it’s critical to schedule some breaks. These need to happen at all levels:
- Every hour or so, get up and move around. Maybe stretch a little. Maybe do a little light exercise. Maybe drink some water.
- Every day, schedule time to do things you like to do. Things that are fun. Things that restore your mind.
- Every week, schedule a day to do things differently. To regroup. To think about how your week went. To take time for you.
- Every quarter, take a breather and think about how your year is going. In January, you had a lot of great plans for the year. How are those going? Do you need to rethink the plan?
- Every year, take a vacation. Or a retreat. Or both.
This isn’t complicated, so I’m purposely keeping the word count low here. You’ll get more done and you’ll have more fun if you schedule breaks for yourself at regular intervals.
That’s it. Really.
Take five minutes and think about your life.
- Can you schedule a break every hour for your everyday tasks?
- Can you schedule something fun every day?
- Can you schedule one day a week where you take a significant break from life?
- Can you set aside one day each quarter to rethink your year?
- Can you schedule a few days each year for an annual retreat?
3) Craft: The Second Layer of Plot
Last month we talked about the first layer of plot for your novel—your one-sentence summary.
The purpose of a one-sentence summary is to break the ice. To separate people who are in your target audience from people who aren’t. To give your target audience an opportunity to say, “Tell me more!”
So let’s say you’re at a writing conference and you’re getting off the elevator with an agent after giving your one-sentence summary. He hands you his card and says, “Make an appointment with me.”
Now what do you do?
First, make that appointment. Every conference has its own way to handle appointments, so figure out how it’s done and do it.
Let’s begin with the end in mind.
What do you want to achieve at the end of the appointment with the agent?
That’s easy. You want the agent to ask you to send him a proposal or the full manuscript or both. (Different agents want different things.)
How do you get the agent to ask you to send him stuff?
That’s easy. He’ll only ask to see stuff if he reads a sample chapter and likes it. The bottom line for all agents is that they need to like your writing. They need to know that they can sell your writing. They need to know that they want you in their stable of authors. So in your appointment, you need to have a polished first chapter of your novel and you need the agent to ask to read it.
How do you get him to ask to read it?
That’s easy. He needs to know that you have a correctly structured story. Western civilization has a long history of story-telling in which there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.
You may think that’s obvious. Good for you that it’s obvious to you. But it isn’t obvious to everyone. Plenty of beginning novelists write tens of thousands of words that wander around without any clear beginning, middle, or end.
But professional novelists write novels that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. So your agent wants to know that your novel does. That raises a problem.
Your sample chapter of your novel can’t possibly tell the beginning, the middle, and the end. It just can’t.
That means you’ll need to communicate your story structure to the agent verbally. The good news is that you can do it in one long paragraph of five sentences.
That paragraph is called your one-paragraph summary, and it’s essential for selling a novel. It contains the bones of your story.
The one-paragraph summary assumes one thing—that you’ve already communicated your one-sentence summary.
From the one-sentence summary, the agent knows what genre you’re writing and what problem your lead character has to solve.
You may need to review that when you sit down with the agent. Then he’ll say, “Right. You’re writing a romantic suspense World War II novel about the woman in Nazi-occupied France who falls in love with the injured commando who’s parachuted in to Normandy to blow up the ammo dump right before D-Day. I love that kind of story. Now tell me more. I need some details.”
The agent doesn’t need a lot of details. What the agent needs are five sentences that will demonstrate that you can take your reader on an emotionally satisfying journey. That’s all. Just five sentences. Each does a specific job. Here they are:
1) The first sentence tells a bit about the setting and one or two lead characters in your novel. This should include the location, time period, and the names of the characters. Most importantly, it should highlight their personal paradox—something that makes them interesting or that creates conflict.
2) The second sentence tells what happens in the first quarter of the story. It should end with a disaster that forces your lead character to make a decision that commits him to the story for the rest of the book. Up until now, your lead character had a choice to back away. After this point, your lead character will be fully engulfed in the story. He can’t get out.
3) The third sentence tells what happens in the second quarter of the story. Your character tries to solve his problem, but he gets in deeper. By the midpoint of the book, something awful happens—another disaster. And this forces your lead character to rethink how he’s operating. Up till now, he’s been trying to win in the wrong way. But from now on, he’ll be trying to win in the right way.
4) The fourth sentence tells what happens in the third quarter of the story. Your character is now working smarter, but the opposition has wised up too, and the stakes are rising. This sentence ends with another disaster—the worst one yet. This disaster forces the lead character to commit to a winner-take-all final confrontation. If your story has a villain, then the villain also commits to that same confrontation. After this point, it is clear that there can be at most one winner, or there can be two losers. But they won’t both walk away winners. (Note that romances have no villains, so they typically have two winners and no losers. But a romance novel still has some sort of final confrontation where either the obstacle to the romance will be destroyed, or else the relationship will fail.)
5) The fifth sentence tells how the story resolves. There is a final confrontation. Either the lead character or the villain emerges apparently victorious. But not quite—there’s generally a twist or two in which it looks like victory will turn to ashes, or vice versa. Then there’s a climactic ending. You need to somehow summarize all this into one sentence.
A few important points to keep in mind:
- Each sentence needs to focus on one major thing, so think carefully about what your story is REALLY about.
- These sentences can be fairly long, but don’t get silly. You’re looking for sentences of 15 to 30 words. Don’t cheat and make a run-on sentence of 500 words. A summary is a SUMMARY.
- Yes, this is really hard work. It’s a rare writer who can make this stuff up in the heat of the moment, sweating in a chair across the table from a real live agent. You need to do this in advance.
- Set a timer and give yourself one hour to do this. An hour is plenty. If you can’t do it in an hour, then you can’t do it at all with the story you’ve got, and you’ll need to rethink things. Five minutes is too little. If you dash it out in five minutes, you probably aren’t done yet.
An example is in order here. We’ll look at a classic story, Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen. The one sentence summary goes like this:
Pride & Prejudice is a historical romance about a young English woman who meets an arrogant, obnoxious, rich young man who is secretly in love with her.
In a romance, there typically isn’t a “hero” and a “villain.” The two lead characters are often protagonists and antagonists simultaneously, although sometimes there’s an external force keeping them apart. In P&P, Mr. Darcy is driving the romance because he’s the one in love with Lizzie Bennet. Lizzie is resisting. This means that the three major disasters are going to be seen by him as disasters, even if not all of them seem like disasters to her.
So here’s my one-paragraph summary for Pride & Prejudice.
Lizzie Bennet is a young woman with four unmarried sisters and a crazy mother who is determined to find wealthy husbands for all of them. When Lizzie meets the fabulously wealthy Mr. Darcy, she hates him instantly, and she hates him even more when she learns that he once cheated the charming Mr. Wickham out of his living. When Lizzie goes to visit her married friend Charlotte, Mr. Darcy keeps turning up and they have a series of awkward conversations that end with her rejecting his terrible proposal of marriage. Lizzie soon learns that all her reasons for hating Mr. Darcy are wrong, and she is just starting to mend relations with him when her youngest sister Lydia runs off to live in sin with Mr. Wickham, ruining the family. Mr. Darcy tracks down Wickham, pays him to marry Lydia, restores the family’s good name, and proposes once again to Lizzie.
That’s it. 151 words, which is not bad. Shorter would be better, but there are some social complexities that simply have to be explained in this paragraph. Let’s analyze the five sentences:
1) Sentence 1 is 25 words and puts Lizzie in her social context and tells us her basic problem—she needs a man, but she’s got a weirdo mother who’s going to make it harder than it should be.
2) Sentence 2 is 33 words and brings in both Lizzie’s love interest and the scandalous Mr. Wickham, putting them both in the wrong light. Wickham looks better than he is, and Darcy looks worse.
3) Sentence 3 is 32 words and takes us to the mid-point disaster in which Lizzie rejects Darcy in the most final form possible. She says he’s the last man she would ever marry, and she means it. If Darcy is going to get Lizzie, he’s going to have to change his whole way of thinking and acting.
4) Sentence 4 is 40 words, which is longer than I’d like, but there are four essential characters to manage here, plus the fact that in this era, one black sheep in the family ruins the marriage prospects for everyone.
5) Sentence 5 is 21 words and tells how Darcy saves the day and gets the girl in the end.
Notice how much is left out of this one-paragraph summary. There is nothing about Lizzie’s sister Mary and the puppy-like Mr. Bingley. There is nothing about Lizzie’s hideous cousin, Mr. Collins. There is nothing about Bingley’s scheming sister Caroline or Darcy’s frightful aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. A huge amount of the story has been stripped right out.
But that’s okay. There’s a time and a place to talk about those other characters and their storylines. The one-paragraph summary is not the time or the place.
The structure of a story with a happy ending is simple: Want. Loss. Bigger loss. Biggest loss. Victory. Those are the five sentences of the one-paragraph summary.
The structure of a story with a sad ending is similar, but Victory is changed to Defeat.
The structure of a story with a bittersweet ending is similar, but Victory is changed to Victory/Defeat.
Most stories are one of these three kinds of story.
Do you have a solid one-paragraph summary for the novel you’re working on right now?
If not, give yourself one hour and write one. (You’ll need to have a one-sentence summary written first. If you don’t, take an hour and write it.) Start with five very short sentences of just a few words. Just jam them out. Then edit each one, growing them all as needed to make the whole thing intelligible.
When the hour is up, stop. You may need to work on it again later, but this kind of work is fairly intense, and you need to give yourself a break after an hour.
If you’re not done now, come back in a week and work on it. The elves in your mental basement will be working on it while you sleep, and they’ll have a nice surprise for you in about a week.
The one-paragraph summary is the second step in my Snowflake Method for designing a novel. The Snowflake Method doesn’t make you more creative. You already are creative. The Snowflake Method just tells you what to be creative on next. For many writers, it’s magic. (Some writers hate the Snowflake, but that’s OK because there are other creative processes that work for them. The Snowflake just happens to be the one that works for me.)
If you aren’t familiar with the Snowflake Method, take a quarter of an hour to read through the article on my web site that explains it. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it resonates with you.
4) Marketing: Getting Accepted by BookBub
One of the most powerful marketing channels is e-mail.
Every author should be building their e-mail list. But it also makes good sense to do paid advertising on the various e-mail lists that cater to readers.
Of these, BookBub is the undisputed king.
If you’ve never heard of BookBub or don’t subscribe to their e-mail list, go there now and sign up as a reader: BookBub.com
In the signup process, you’ll get to tell BookBub what kinds of books you like. After you sign up, you’ll get an e-mail every day with a list of good deals on e-books in the categories you like.
The deals will be discounted at least 50% from their normal price. It will be the best price available in the last 90 days. The books will be good quality books that the BookBub staff have vetted to make sure they’re cleanly formatted and error free and a decent length. The books will typically be available at least on Amazon and often on all the major retailers.
BookBub is a great, great deal for readers. I buy a lot of books that I saw first on BookBub. Often, it takes less than a minute for me to see a book, make a decision, buy the book, and have it on my iPad. Usually, I buy books I never heard of before. Occasionally, I buy books that I’ve been meaning to buy but never got around to yet.
If you want to use BookBub as a marketing tool for your books, you need to be subscribed to BookBub so you know how it works. BookBub can’t help you unless you help BookBub. And the way you help BookBub is by helping their subscribers find great deals. It really is that simple.
BookBub doesn’t take all the books submitted to it by publishers and authors. Currently, they accept only 10 to 15 percent of the books submitted.
They get a lot of submissions because they’re effective. I’ve run several BookBub ads and always had a very good return on investment. It’s possible to lose money on a BookBub ad, but I don’t think that happens very often at all.
It’s easy to submit a book to BookBub. Go to their site, scroll to the bottom of the page, click on the link that says “Submit New Deal,” and then fill out the form.
But what if you don’t get accepted?
If you don’t, then you’ve lost nothing.
Now let’s be clear that if you’re traditionally published, your publisher should be paying for a BookBub ad, or at least splitting the cost with you. And your publisher would be the one to fill out the form and pay the fee.
If you’re an indie author, then you have to pay.
Either way, you should know what factors are important for getting accepted. There’s a nice infographic on this page that explains the BookBub curation process. Let me walk you through the high points here and expand on some of them:
The first step is a set of minimum requirements. If you don’t meet these standards, then your book is immediately disqualified:
- Must be discounted at least 50%. (Unless your book is permanently free. BookBub welcomes permafree books.)
- You must be planning to offer the book at the best price it’s had in the last 90 days. (Note that you aren’t expected to lower the price until just before the BookBub ad runs. So if your book is currently at $4.99, it’s OK to tell BookBub you’ll be running the deal at 99 cents. Just make sure you change the price in plenty of time before the day of the deal.)
- The book needs to have no typos. The BookBub staff will look at it to check.
- The deal you are offering needs to be for a limited time. (If you are planning to lower the price permanently from $5.99 to $2.99, that’s not a limited-time offer. The one exception here is permafree books, which are accepted even though they’re not a limited-time offer.)
- The book cannot be “too short.” The meaning of this depends on the category. For novels and novellas, “too short” means less than 150 pages.
- The book must be available on at least one major retailer. BookBub likes to see books available on as many retailers as possible. Not all of their subscribers use Amazon.
- An author can’t have an ad more often than once every 30 days.
- A book can’t be featured in an ad more often than once every 6 months.
In the second step, the BookBub people look at the quality of your book. There are various ways to measure this, and they’re not terribly precise. Some things that go into this analysis are:
- How many reader reviews does your book have on Amazon and Goodreads? More is better. Often a BB ad will say, “More than 500 5-star reviews on Amazon!” Reviews matter.
- What is the average review ranking? Most books featured on BB have an average review ranking of more than 4 stars. I would guess that the number of 5 star reviews is also important, since 5-star reviewers are the people who are very happy they bought the book. That’s a hint at how well it will sell. But don’t panic if you have a lot of 1-star reviews. That might be okay if you also have many 5-star reviews. A book that has all 1-stars and 5-stars is a controversial book, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not ideal, but I suspect it’s far better than a book that has equal shares of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 stars. That’s a book that isn’t generating much enthusiasm.
- Does the book have blurbs or reviews from major authors or publications? Are they glowing?
- Has the book ever hit an important best-seller list? If the book has been on the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, or USA Today lists, make a note of that when you submit the book.
- Has the book won any major awards? In fact, I suspect any national award you’ve won in your category is worth mentioning, even if you won it for a different book than the one you’re submitting.
- How good is the cover art? This is subjective, but covers move copies. This is one reason I recommend paying for the best cover you can afford. A great cover could move 10 or 100 times as many copies as a good cover. (Nobody really knows how much the cover matters, but everybody agrees that covers matter.)
- How well is the e-book formatted? Good formatting matters. Readers use the Look Inside feature on Amazon. A good format will pull them in.
The BookBub people look at all the information you provide and then they make their decision. They have a limited number of slots each day. They want to fill those slots with the books that will sell the most copies. They decide based on that. Again, the final call is subjective.
If they decide to run your book, they’ll notify you by e-mail. Then you need to make your payment as soon as possible to lock in your submission. You pay in advance of the ad.
BookBub may offer to run your book in a category different than the one you requested. If you don’t like that category, you can push back, but if you do, you need to make a strong case why your preferred category is better. The BookBub people are pretty smart, and they may very well know better than you.
BookBub ads currently run in the US, UK, Canada, and India. You can choose to offer your deal only in certain of these countries. BookBub may push back and offer you an ad in a different set. Or they may agree to all the countries you selected. The price for each country is based on the number of subscribers in your category in that country.
Don’t Be Discouraged by Rejection
Rejections happen. BookBub can’t accept all the submissions. It’s nothing personal, it’s business.
Remember that what matters to BookBub is the same thing that matters to you—how many copies will you sell (or give away) on the day of the promotion?
BookBub’s interests are aligned with yours. They want to move a lot of copies. The more copies they move, the higher the fee they can charge authors/publishers. And the more copies they move, the more referral fees they earn from the retailers.
BookBub’s interests are also aligned with their subscribers’ interests. They want to feature books at good deals that their subscribers like. If the deals aren’t good or the books aren’t interesting, then the subscribers won’t buy and BookBub won’t earn as much money.
If you get rejected by BookBub, try again later (but don’t submit the same book more than once in 30 days).
If you get accepted, make sure that you pay your fee promptly and then fulfill all your obligations on the pricing of your book and the duration of the deal.
And then enjoy the ride, because you’re very likely to move a LOT of books.
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
I’m hard at work on my next novel, the first in a series about one of the most influential humans ever to walk the planet—Jesus of Nazareth. Is there anything new to say about this man? I’ve been reading the works of various scholars, and most of them have some deep insight I never thought of before. So I have no shortage of interesting ideas to steal. The hard part is deciding which ones are the coolest.
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. Late-breaking news: I was diagnosed with shingles on March 13. Because of that, I’m not going to the conference after all. I’m extremely sad about that, because I love this conference, but it’s just not in the cards this year.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
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