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
8) Randy’s Deal of the Day
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
2) Organization: Living By the 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule is pervasive. It’s only approximately true, but it seems to be everywhere.
Here are a few examples.
- The largest 20% of the cities in England have 80% of the people.
- The best-performing 20% of a sales team make 80% of the sales.
- The most popular 25% of people in a speed-dating event get 75% of the date requests.
- The biggest-spending 10% of gamblers bet 90% of the money.
- 1% of entrepreneurs end up with 80% of the total revenue from startups.
- Less than 20% of the land produces more than 80% of the food.
You’ll find many more examples of this in Richard Koch’s book, Living the 80/20 Way, which I’ve been reading lately and enjoying very much.
The main point of the book is that humanity makes progress when we find new ways to use the 80/20 rule.
For example, when agriculture was mechanized a couple of centuries ago, it freed up most of the population from working on farms. Today, we produce more food than we did 200 years ago, using less than 3% of the workforce.
What does this mean for us? Why should writers care about this?
Our biggest problem as writers is that success is heavily backloaded. Writers often work for ten or twenty years before they make much money from their writing. If they ever make any money at all.
That’s bad news, and there’s no way to make it good. There just isn’t.
This means that if we want to be successful in writing, we need the other parts of our lives to carry the load for a long time, while we wait for our writing to finally pay off.
There are a billion ways to do this. You can do it by working harder. Or you can do it by working smarter. (I can’t believe I’m pulling in buzzwords from the 90s, but sometimes the buzzwords are actually useful.)
Richard Koch’s book is all about using the 80/20 rule to find ways to do more with less. To earn more money with less effort. To find more joy in life with less hassle. To achieve more of what we want in less time.
Koch doesn’t say it’s easy to do this. Of course it’s hard.
But his point is that it’s possible. Any progress during the last ten thousand years of human history has come from when some clever person found a way to do more with less.
There is no formula for making this happen, but there is a mindset for making it happen. If you are constantly looking for ways to do more with less, then you’re more likely to find them.
Koch reduces it all to three basic steps:
- Decide on your 80/20 destination.
- Create an 80/20 strategy.
- Take 80/20 action.
A large part of his book is taken up with applying these three steps to different areas of life—work, money, relationships, hobbies. He gives examples of how 80/20 thinking works out in practice.
My best bet is that there’s no magic in merely understanding the 80/20 rule.
If there’s any magic here, it comes in having an 80/20 mindset.
If you’re constantly looking for ways to do more with less, you’ll find them.
If you aren’t, you won’t.
You can find Richard Koch’s book at all the usual suspects.
Find it on Amazon.
Find it on Barnes & Noble.
3) Craft: Proactive and Reactive Scenes
It sounds horribly old-fashioned to say this, but once a month, I go to a critique group with real, live writers.
These days, it seems that most writers communicate electronically. That’s all fine, but it’s just more fun to get together in person, so we do it.
One of the most common questions I ask after somebody reads a scene is, “What happened in this scene?”
Something needs to happen in every scene. Otherwise, there’s no reason for it to exist. Something needs to change. The lead character for the scene needs to be better off or worse off at the end of the scene than at the beginning.
There are two common patterns that scenes fall into—Proactive Scenes and Reactive Scenes. Of these, Proactive Scenes are more common, but all novelists need to know how to write both.
Proactive scenes are goal-oriented. The lead character for the scene is called the point-of-view character (POV character) and she wants to achieve some goal by the end of the scene.
But fiction feeds on conflict, so there is some reason your POV character can’t get what she wants. Maybe another character gets in the way. Maybe it’s something inanimate. Maybe this character is her own worst enemy, and she’s keeping herself from reaching her goal.
The bulk of the scene is going to be conflict. The POV character tries again and again to reach her goal. Again and again, she fails.
By the end of the scene, something happens. She either gets what she wants or she fails. But something must change.
If possible, you want your POV character worse off by the end of the scene. Why? Because that keeps your reader turning the pages. Happy characters are boring characters. Unhappy characters are interesting.
So we can summarize the structure of the Proactive Scene this way:
Sometimes, of course, you have to let your POV character get what she wanted. But there’s almost always a way to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” If you must give your POV character a win, find a way to turn it to ashes.
There’s a short scene at the end of the first chapter of The Hunger Games that illustrates this nicely.
Our POV character, Katniss Everdeen, is at the annual “reaping.” The names of one boy and one girl from her district will be drawn from a large glass bowl. Whoever is chosen has to go fight to the death in the arena with twenty-three other kids.
Katniss’s goal for this scene is simple. She doesn’t want her name drawn. But she knows that there are twenty slips with her name on them in that giant bowl. She’s at high risk.
The conflict in the scene is mostly internal. Nothing Katniss can do will change her fate. So the scene is done with a few fragments of action and several big chunks of backstory.
The tension builds to the end, when a name is drawn.
And it’s a win for Katniss. Her name is not drawn.
Instead, it’s her little sister, Primrose, who’s chosen.
That’s massively worse than if Katniss had been chosen herself. That’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Reactive scenes are decision-oriented.
Typically, something bad has just happened. The lead character spends a little time reeling from this setback.
Then she buckles down to decide what to do next.
And there just aren’t any good options.
The lead character is boxed in to a dilemma, and she has to choose the least-bad option.
That dilemma may take a long time or a short time to resolve, but the scene isn’t over until the lead character decides what to do next.
That decision will become the goal for the next Proactive Scene. It doesn’t have to be a smart decision. It might be a bad decision.
What’s important is that it’s plausibly the decision that the lead character would make. It fits in with her values, her skills, her intelligence level, and everything else the reader knows about her.
So the pattern of the Reactive Scene is simple:
At the beginning of Chapter 2 of The Hunger Games, Katniss feels like she did the day she fell out of a tree flat onto her back. She can’t breathe, can’t speak, can’t think.
That lasts for a very short time. Then her mind is off and running. This is impossible! Her sister had only one slip of paper in the bowl. How could her name have been drawn?
And yet it’s happened. It’s reality, and in the next minute, her sister is going to be taken up on stage and then hauled off to die in the Hunger Games.
That’s one option.
But there’s another, and Katniss takes it without hesitation.
She volunteers to go in her sister’s place. Katniss will die in the Hunger Games to save her sister.
Of course, this is exactly what she doesn’t want to do. She spent the entire first chapter desperately wanting to not go to the Hunger Games.
But in the first chapter, she also spent time with her sister, and we saw that her sister is the only person in the world whom Katniss loves.
Volunteering is crazy. Her odds of survival are tiny.
It’s a bad, horrible, stupid decision.
Yet it’s completely plausible, because it’s better than letting her sister die.
Volunteering is the most natural thing in the world. Katniss can’t help herself from doing it, and the reader can’t help cheering when Katniss makes it.
There is more to be said about MRUs. Three suggestions for further reading:
Dwight Swain’s classic book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, chapter 4. Currently about $21 on Amazon.
My best-selling book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, chapter 9. Currently about $14 on Amazon.
My novel, The Fifth Man, which includes three appendices on the craft of fiction. Appendix C contains an analysis of the first few dozen scenes of the novel, explaining exactly how each one works. On special this week on Amazon for 99 cents.
4) Marketing: Should You Accept That Advance?
Lately I’ve seen several of my indie author friends approached by publishers making offers on their next book.
The advances on the deals have been typical—not unduly large, not laughably small.
And my friends have been turning these offers down.
I have to say that this was unheard of years ago, when I was breaking in to publishing. If you got an offer, you took it. You griped about the size of the advance, maybe, but you took the deal because you had no choice.
Indie publishing now gives authors a choice.
The question is how to rationally make the decision. How big should the advance be to convince you to accept it?
Of course, money is not the only issue. There are a number of other reasons authors might dislike a contract offer, and I hope to discuss some of those in the coming months.
But the first point on the table is usually the money, so we’ll focus on that in this article.
The money used to be a no-brainer. Say the publisher offered you a $10k advance. In exchange for that $10k, they bought the exclusive rights to publish your work. You got the $10k. You got free editing, free proofreading, free cover design, free typesetting, free printing, free distribution, free sales, and free marketing.
What’s not to like? Why is this no longer a no-brainer?
Let’s look at the perceived value of all those free goodies.
Free editing: Most indie authors these days don’t spend very much on their editing. The range is probably $0 to $5000, with most indies spending less than $500. (I’m not saying this is the wisest approach. I spend more on editing for my own books. But what I see is that indie authors aren’t usually spending much on this.)
Free proofreading: Again, most indies don’t spend much on this. It’s hard to get data on this, but I doubt very many indies spend anything at all on proofreading. I’d bet that even among the top-selling indie authors, they aren’t spending much more than $200.
Free cover design: You can get pre-made covers in some categories for $30. You can get a pretty good cover for $200. You can get a great cover for $400. You can get an amazing cover for $1000. Of course, some indies do their own covers at no cost. I’d guess the average spent is around $100, and few spend more than $300.
Free typesetting: Most indie authors stick to e-books, which don’t require typesetting. E-books only need formatting, which is simpler. You can do this yourself with Scrivener. You can upload your Word document for free to Amazon and B&N. You can pay somebody a couple of hundred dollars. Most indie authors take the free route, and hardly anybody pays more than $200.
Free distribution and sales: If you post your e-books on the online retailers yourself, you get distribution and sales for free. You can pay somebody to do this, but most indies don’t.
Free marketing: Let’s be real here. The amount of marketing that traditional publishers do these days for most authors is minimal. Yes, if your books are selling well, your publisher will step in and do something. A-list authors will get A-list marketing and see A-list sales. But most traditionally-published books get almost all of their marketing from their authors. Likewise for most indie-published books.
The bottom line here is that most indie authors spend less than $1000 to produce a book, and very few spend more than $3k. So the perceived value of a $10k offer from a traditional publisher is not more than $13k.
Let’s be clear here. The actual value may be more than that. But the perceived value isn’t.
When I’ve discussed this with people at traditional publishers, they often don’t understand this critical point—that indie authors assign a low perceived value to the things that trad-publishers do.
This is true of indie authors at all levels—those earning a few dollars per year, all the way up to those earning a few million per year.
Let’s remember that most traditionally-published books will never earn out their advances. So on a $10k advance, it’s a reasonable guess that the total perceived value of the contract to the author is between $10k and $13k.
Now the question is what does an author give up for that $10k to $13k in value?
The answer is very simple. The author gives up the freedom to price the book competitively. And the author gives up a large chunk of the revenue from the book. (The “standard” royalty rate for e-books is 25% of revenue received by the publisher. Some publishers pay less than this. Some publishers pay more.)
What happens in practice is that most books published by traditional publishers have an initial spike in sales, and then sales slow to a trickle, and that’s the end of the story. Very soon, revenue goes to zero.
What happens for indie books is that the book sales show a spike whenever the author cuts her price and promotes her book. After she bumps the price back to normal, the sales drop to a plateau.
Over the course of a year, the indie author sees a certain average amount of monthly revenue for each book. Since she can cut the price and promote the book every few months, she can continue earning money on the book for years and years.
This means that an indie author might eventually earn much more than a typical advance. (And this is not just theory—this is what many indie authors see in practice.)
The problem here is that $13k earned today is worth more than $13k spread out over many years. Inflation erodes the value of future money. And money you earn right now can be invested and it will grow.
As an example, if inflation is 2% and if you can earn 2% on your money, then $100 today would be worth $104 in next year’s money.
This means that $104 earned next year is worth $100 today.
This is what the finance people call the “net present value” of future earnings.
Courtney Milan did an excellent blog post on net present value about a year ago.
Jeff Posey did an article with some sample calculations on the net present value of an indie novel.
Both Courtney and Jeff include simple spreadsheets that you can use to estimate the net present value of your books.
Of course, you have to estimate some numbers. You need to have a guess of how much your book will cost to produce, how much revenue it will earn each month, how fast you write, and how much each new book will promote your previous books.
Jeff makes some reasonable estimates for three different scenarios and comes up with three different estimates for the net present value of a book.
You may be shocked by the results. Jeff’s high-end estimate shows that if the book earns $150 per month and you spend $5k producing it and you write three books per year, with each new book boosting sales of previous books by 3%, then the net present value of your book after 20 years is over $145k.
Are these numbers realistic? That’s for you to decide, but I know of some authors who’ve done much better than this and many who’ve done much worse.
But if you compare that $145k to the $13k net present value of the traditional contract, then you can see that there’s a huge mismatch.
This is why it’s no longer a no-brainer to take the advance.
When indie authors turn down offers from traditional publishers, this is the reason. It’s not because they’re stupid or petulant. It’s because they think they’ll earn more on their own.
(Few indie authors know how to do net present value calculations, but they all know how to measure their cash flow. When their annual revenue gets to be more than the size of the advance, they stop being interested in offers from traditional publishers.)
I’m not saying that all authors should rush out and become indie authors. I’m just saying that there’s a calculation you can do to make a rational decision.
In coming years, it will be a lot clearer what are the most reasonable assumptions to make for those net present value calculations.
Once people know those numbers, the answer to the question “Should you accept that advance” will be much clearer to everybody—both authors and publishers.
And then publishers won’t be so astonished when an author rejects them.
Note added: These days, some indie authors are creating their own advance by “crowd-funding” their book on KickStarter or IndieGoGo. This can work if you know what you’re doing, but it takes time to learn how to run a successful campaign.
My friends Thomas Umstattd and Mary DeMuth have both run successful crowd-funding campaigns in the past. They’re working on a course to teach authors exactly how to run a good campaign: “The Ultimate Crowdfunding Course for Authors.”
To raise money to complete the course, Thomas and Mary are crowd-funding the course.
I am absolutely certain this will be a valuable course on crowd-funding, and I’ll be supporting them. If you’re interested in crowd-funding, check out their campaign on IndieGoGo.
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
April has been a fairly productive month for me, although I took some time off for travel. I got final cover designs for two of the three books in my City of God series of time-travel historical novels, and the third is in process.
I took a week off to go to a writing conference and then hang out for a couple of days with my co-conspirator, John Olson.
I finished the first draft of a new book on fiction writing and began editing it. The topic is my wildly popular Snowflake method of writing a novel.
I normally teach at four to six writing conferences per year. In 2014, it looks like I’ll be attending five conferences, and I think that’ll be my limit for the year.
Why don’t I teach at more conferences? Because teaching is an incredibly demanding blood sport and it sucks a huge amount of energy out of my tiny brain. I prefer to put my absolute best into a few locations than to muddle through at many.
Here’s what my calendar shows me for the remainder of 2014:
- In August, I’ll be teaching a six-hour course, “Passive Marketing 101,” at the Oregon Christian Writer’s conference in Portland. Details are here.
- In September, I’ll be teaching a three-hour-plus session, “How To Be An Insanely Great Indie Author,” at the American Christian Fiction Writers conference in St. Louis. Details are here.
- In October, I’ll be attending the Novelists, Inc. Conference in St. Pete, Florida. This conference is shaping up to be the best Ninc conference ever, and it’s going to be in an amazing location, just feet from the beach.
If you’d like me to teach at your conference in 2015 or beyond, email me to find out how outrageously expensive I am.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
7) What Randy is Reading
You might be interested in some of the books I’ve been reading recently. I’m omitting books I started and didn’t finish. I’m also omitting books that were horrible but I read anyway. (There are certain aspects of the craft of writing that you can only learn by reading really wretched fiction and asking yourself what makes it so bad.)
Here are the ones worth reporting from April:
Living the 80/20 Way, by Richard Koch. How to use the 80/20 principle to make your life better.
That’s all? Dang! April was a pretty slow month for me in the reading department. There were three other books I read that are not of general interest. But the main problem is that I spent eight days on the road. I spent the week before scrambling to get ready and the week after scrambling to catch up. Sigh. This is why I have to limit my travel. One conference makes a hole about three weeks wide in my life.
8) Randy’s Deal of the Day
In case my Loyal E-zine Readers are interested in any of my own novels, I thought I’d try offering a special deal on one of my e-books.
Today’s “Deal of the Day” is good for at least five days, May 6-11, 2014. Here it is:
It’s the spring of 2015, and Valkerie Jansen discovers evidence of past life on Mars. Valkerie instantly becomes the science darling back on earth.
But trouble is brewing between Valkerie’s two male crewmates on Mars. Both of them have a thing for Valkerie, and their testosterone-driven competition is ruining Valkerie’s life.
Then Valkerie falls ill with a dangerous infection—and it isn’t any known bacteria from planet earth. NASA debates whether it’s safe to bring the four-person crew of the Ares 10 back to earth.
But Valkerie thinks Mars isn’t safe either. Somebody—or something—seems to be trying to kill her, but she’s the only one who can see the evidence.
Is there a mysterious “fifth man” on Mars? Or is Valkerie’s mind playing tricks on her? Is she fit to return to earth—even if they’ll have her?
The Fifth Man is fast-paced science fiction suspense by a biochemist and a physicist. It includes three bonus appendices (16,000 words) especially for novelists on the craft of fiction.
99 cents at Amazon.
99 cents at Barnes & Noble.
99 cents at Smashwords.
99 cents at the Apple iTunes store.
If you’re outside the US, remember that Amazon and the Apple store often price e-books differently inside and outside the US. I’ve done my best to keep prices all around the world as close to 99 cents as possible.
9) Steal This E-zine!
10) Reprint Rights
The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine is Published by: