The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: Concept and High Concept
7) Steal This E-zine!
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (288 of you signed up in October), 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.com/ezine/
2) Organization: Why Vellum Rocks
One question I hear over and over again from writers who want to become indie authors is: “How do I format an e-book?”
A quick definition: An “indie author” is a writer who acts as his or her own publisher. The indie author is responsible for production and marketing of the book and gets all the revenue from the book. In recent years, a large number of authors have gone indie because they hope to earn more money than they could get by selling their book rights to a traditional publishing house. Some do and some don’t, but everyone agrees that indie authoring works vastly better than paying a vanity publisher to produce a book.
But an indie author is responsible for EVERYTHING. And that means the indie author has to find a way to turn her manuscript from a word-processing document into an e-book file.
This is huge with some writers. Most writers aren’t techie and some of them are paralyzed by fear when they learn that a book needs to be converted into something called “mobi format” for Amazon’s Kindle store, and into something else called “ePub” format for Apple’s iBooks store, Kobo’s store, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook store.
You have several options:
- Don’t format the e-book at all. Instead, just upload it as a Word document to those online retailers that will convert it automatically (everybody except Apple).
- Hire somebody to format it.
- Do it yourself using one of the numerous software tools, such as:
Some authors just upload their Word document direct to Amazon, B&N, and Kobo, and let these retailers convert it to an e-book automatically. That works, but if the automated conversion produces something ugly, then you have to try to figure out what’s wrong and fix it in the original Word document and try again. And the internals of a Word document can be pretty grubby.
You can get really professional e-books by hiring somebody to do your formatting. You can also get really unprofessional e-books, so you have to be a little wary here. The bigger problem is that you WILL eventually need to make changes to your e-book. Maybe you’ll decide to add some new marketing copy. Or you’ll need to fix an embarrassing typo. Or your list of “Books by the Author” will need to be updated. You don’t want to keep going back to your formatter guy to ask for little changes. Every change will take time and cost you money.
So I strongly encourage all indie authors to learn to format their own e-books, using one of the software tools that are out there. Until recently, my own tool of choice was Scrivener.
Scrivener is an absolutely brilliant word-processing program. I write everything in Scrivener, including this e-zine. Scrivener is also pretty good at formatting e-books in the standard formats. But there’s a steep learning curve for formatting an e-book in Scrivener. It’s not something you can just pick up right away. Scrivener has some gotchas, and it has what I consider a design flaw that makes it harder than it should be to format an e-book. (I love Scrivener. It’s brilliant. But I design scientific software for a living, and I know a design flaw when I see one.)
Recently, a friend of mine mentioned Vellum to me. I’d heard of it before and even downloaded the free trial version, but I’d never done much with it. But my friend gave a glowing report, so I tried it.
And I love it.
I. Love. Vellum.
Bottom line: Vellum makes it incredibly easy to make beautiful, elegant, gorgeous e-books with all the marketing goodies that an e-book needs. You should be able to format a typical novel in Vellum in 10 or 15 minutes, when you know what you’re doing. And you can fix a typo and build the updated e-books in under a minute. Yes, under a minute.
- Vellum runs only on a Mac.
- The list price for Vellum is $199.99.
- Vellum does not let you do bullets or numbered lists.
Those caveats are not that big of a deal for me.
I already use a Mac. If I didn’t, Vellum would be a high incentive to buy a Mac. Vellum is that good.
The list price is about what you’d pay a good formatter to format ONE e-book. And if you’re price-sensitive, Vellum has a plan that licenses you to format just one e-book and pay only $29.99, or format ten e-books for $9.99 each. So that’s a way to test the waters and make sure Vellum is right for you at a much lower buy-in price.
OK, so why do I love Vellum so much?
Because it’s amazing, that’s why. But let’s get specific.
Here’s how you format an e-book in Vellum. You’ll need to already have your manuscript written in Microsoft Word .docx format (it can’t be a .doc format).
- In Vellum, click the File menu and then the Open menu item and select your Word document.
- Vellum will read in the document and organize it into Chapters and display what it sees. It may also detect that the Chapters are organized into Parts. It will detect the title page and figure out the title and author, if possible. It will detect the Acknowledgments page, About the Author page, Copyright page, etc. And it’ll show you this organization in a little sidebar so you can see what amounts to a table of contents of your book. It does that in just a few seconds. The main window shows the content of the book.
- Click on the Title Page and check the title and author information. If Vellum guessed wrong, you can correct its guesses. Then click the button to import your high-resolution cover art. (Import the highest-resolution image you have. Vellum will automatically size this down if necessary to fit the requirements for each retailer.)
- Click on each Chapter in the sidebar and inspect how Vellum has arranged things. If Vellum got it right, then go on to the next Chapter. If Vellum guessed wrong, then fix it to be right. If the Chapters aren’t divided up correctly, then merge them together as needed or break them apart as needed. You can do this with a couple of mouse clicks. It’s much easier to do it than to explain in words how to do it.
- Click on the Styles tab to define the overall styles for all the elements in the book. You can choose from several predefined styles for each of these kinds of elements:
- The Heading of each Chapter.
- The styling for the first paragraph of each Chapter. (Do you want drop caps? Easy. Do you want the first few words to be capitalized? Easy.)
- The styling for a block quotation.
- The “ornamental break” between each scene. With one mouse click you can change this everywhere in the book.
- The styling of the first paragraph after a scene break.
- The styling for images in your book.
- The styling for the body of your text. (Do you want all paragraphs indented or do you want a bit of extra space between paragraphs? Do you want hyphenation or not? Do you want your text right-justified or not? You can change these everywhere in the manuscript with one click.)
- Insert links to your other books. This is normally a huge hassle. The Amazon version of a book should have links ONLY to Amazon. The B&N version of the book should have links ONLY to B&N. Likewise for iBooks, Kobo, etc. Vellum makes it super easy to do this. You just tell Vellum the Amazon ID of the book, the B&N ID, the iBooks ID, the Kobo ID, and the Google Play ID. Then Vellum will automatically make a different e-book file for each store, containing ONLY links to books in that store. This is insanely great. If you have a lot of books and you want to link to all of them, Vellum makes sure that each book has exactly the right links. And Vellum makes it super easy to test the link to make sure it goes to the right page. (You should always test links, because one typo will break a link.)
Once your book is ready, you probably want to preview it on a bunch of different devices—the Kindle Paperwhite and Fire, the iPad, the iPhone, the Kobo Glo, the Nook, the Android. Vellum can simulate any of these devices and show you what your e-book will look like on any of them. If there’s a problem, you’ll see it and you can fix it. Fast.
When it’s formatted perfectly, you’ll want to create the e-book files. You do that by clicking on the Generate button. Vellum will ask you which stores you want to create e-books for. You can choose any or all of Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Google Play, and Generic EPUB. Click the Continue button and select a folder and Vellum will create your e-book files for you in a few seconds. It’s extremely fast. It will also create the correctly sized e-book cover files for each retailer (different retailers have different size requirements for the cover art).
If you have several e-books formatted in Vellum, there is a very cool feature you’ll love. When you have a series of novels, you want each book to have a sample chapter of the next book in the series. You can do this by just dragging a chapter from the sidebar of one Vellum file to the sidebar of another. Done! Incredibly easy.
Is there a manual for Vellum?
Yes, online. You can read through it in about an hour, although you really don’t need to. It’s organized by task, so you just find the task you want to do and click the link and read the page that shows you how to do it. There’s also a tutorial that walks you through formatting a sample book.
Is there a trial version of Vellum?
Yes, at Vellum.pub. It does everything the payware version does except generate the e-book files, which means you can test Vellum thoroughly before you buy it. I imported one of my books, formatted it, tested everything, looked at the preview on all devices, and convinced myself that this was the greatest thing since pineapple on pizza. Then I bought it. Cheerfully.
Tragically, Vellum has no affiliate program. If they did, I’d sign up and earn a bit of a commission for referring you to their site. But the Vellum people don’t pay me a penny to tell you how great their product is.
Well, drat. But Vellum is great. Vellum is amazing. I am transitioning all my e-books into Vellum format (and doing some other revisions at the same time to improve my marketing).
A Screenshot of Vellum
Here’s a screenshot of the Vellum file for my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. You can see the sidebar on the left that displays the organization of the book. The main part of the window shows the working draft of Chapter 1.
Here’s a screenshot showing the same chapter in the Vellum Previewer for the iPad. See that chapter header? See that drop cap in a script font? Vellum did those for meautomatically, as a result of the style choices I made with a couple of mouse clicks. It could change them to some other styling with a couple more clicks. This is the kind of thing that has all my indie author friends going gaga over Vellum.
Vellum is awesome. It costs an arm and a leg. It runs only on Macs. It has certain limitations on styling. But if you can live with those (I can live with them), then Vellum is awesome.
Get a free trial version here: Vellum.pub.
3) Craft: Concept and High Concept
I’m reading Larry Brooks’s latest book STORY FIX. Larry is a friend of mine, a well-known fiction teacher and blogger, and he sent me a free copy recently. I’m about a third of the way in right now.
Larry’s books always make me think. I should say that Larry and I don’t have our minds wired the same way, so it usually takes me some work to figure out what he’s saying.
Both Larry and I believe very strongly that story structure is incredibly important. That’s actually how I met Larry. He was teaching a workshop at the Willamette Writers Conference a few years ago. I wandered in two minutes late and sat in the back row. His talk was about the large-scale structure of a story, and it was BRILLIANT. I loved what he had to say. So I went up and introduced myself after his talk and we’ve been friends ever since.
I can’t review the whole book, because I haven’t read it all yet, but I’ve just finished the two chapters on Concept and Premise, which are related. In this article, I’ll tell you what I learned in the Concept chapter. But be aware that this isn’t quite how Larry said it. This is my interpretation of what he said, after thinking a bit.
Larry tends to think and talk a bit more abstractly than I do. Like I said, our brains are wired differently. That’s good, because it makes me work when I read his stuff. It’s also bad, because I have to work when I read his stuff.
The interesting thing is that as I was working through Larry’s chapter on Concept, I had an insight: I’m a very concept-driven novelist.
I never realized that. All my books are built on concepts. And that’s happened naturally, without me thinking about it. Like most novelists, my concepts could be better if I worked on them harder. But that requires me to know that I should, and when you’re a conceptish kind of person, you might not think about that fact, any more than a fish thinks about the fact that it’s immersed in water.
So what does Larry mean by Concept? I thought I was going to go crazy trying to figure this out, because Larry doesn’t define it right away. He talked about Concept for quite awhile and I kept trying to guess what the heck it actually is. But he finally defined it on page 48, and I’ll quote him exactly:
The best definition of concept, because it is a multifaceted proposition, resides in melding of the following perspectives, resulting in one conceptual identity:
- Concept is the central idea from which a story emerges.
- Concept is an arena, a landscape, a stage upon which a story will unfold.
- Concept can be a proposition, a notion, a situation, or a condition.
- Concept can create an alternate universe or setting with its own physics, dangers, and challenges.
- Concept can be a time or a place, a culture or a speculative imagining.
- What makes an idea a concept is the presence of something conceptual.
By my count, that’s around 100 words. Let me try to boil it down to my kindergarten-level understanding:
“Concept is the idea that makes your novel freaking cool.”
Ten words, and the most important of those ten is “freaking.”
Ideas are cheap. There are tons of ideas. Just having an idea for a novel is not enough. Not nearly enough.
Cool ideas are not cheap. They’re hard to come by. Having a cool idea is much better than merely having an idea. You can get published with a cool idea, and you can sell some copies.
But there’s a big payoff in going for the freaking cool idea. And I don’t have to define what a freaking cool idea is, because you know it when you see it.
Please note one important point here. Concept is the main freaking cool idea for the story, before you add characters and a plot.
A side note: When people talk about “High Concept,” what they mean is a Concept so freaking cool that it sells your book without you ever having to say anything about the characters and plot. Books like that sell a lot of copies.
What If Your Idea Isn’t Freaking Cool?
Larry’s got a lot of advice on what to do if your novel isn’t freaking cool yet, and I recommend you grab a copy of his book to read that advice. I’ll boil it down to my level. It’s a two step process. First I’ll tell you the process, and then I’ll show you some examples that I’ve adapted from ones Larry mentions in his book.
- If your idea is not yet cool, then intentionally add stuff to make it cool.
- If your idea is cool, but not yet freaking cool, then intentionally add stuff to make it freaking cool.
This may sound obvious, but I would bet most writers never do this. I’m pretty sure I never have. Success in life often comes from doing the “obvious” stuff.
When I say “add stuff,” of course I mean to add the kind of things in Larry’s long 100-word definition above. An arena, a situation, a setting, a culture, a time, or whatever.
The key word in the process is “intentionally.” It’s very easy to put cool ideas into your novel willy-nilly, just snagging them as they sail into your brain at odd moments. But those thoughts come at random, so it’s natural to believe that you can’t drum up cool ideas on command. It’s natural to just take what comes by, without ever thinking that MAYBE I COULD ADD MORE COOL STUFF INTENTIONALLY.
Being “intentional” means that you make it part of your writing process to stop and think about adding more cool stuff.
Is that part of your writing process?
It hasn’t been part of mine. But it will be from now on.
Some Examples of Adding Cool Stuff
The Harry Potter series is about a boy wizard. That’s the basic idea, and it’s already a cool idea. But J.K. Rowling made it freaking cool by setting it in a British boarding school. In a world dominated by an evil wizard. Who killed our boy wizard’s parents. This world is much like our world—in fact it could be our world, for all we know—because the witches and wizards do all in their power to keep Muggles ignorant that they exist. All of these are great additions that make the Harry Potter series freaking cool. But J.K. Rowling piled on yet one more bit of coolness. Harry Potter’s world is deeply torn by racism. Many of the witches and wizards believe that Muggles are inherently inferior and can be killed at will. They’re racists, trying to take control of the magical world. But many other witches and wizards believe that Muggles have rights and should be defended. And there are witches and wizards born of Muggle families—these are known as mud-bloods. This scenario makes every single reader of Harry Potter a target of a vicious racist society. Which, for many readers, is a new experience.
The Hunger Games series is about a young woman who’s forced to participate in a battle-to-the-death with 23 other teens. That’s already very cool. But Suzanne Collins made it cooler by adding more stuff. There are two teens from each district, a boy and a girl. Our heroine Katniss knows the boy who’s going into the arena with her—and he once saved her life. So how’s she going to kill him in the arena, if they come face to face? That’s cooler. But there’s more. The boy, Peeta, is secretly in love with Katniss. He won’t kill her. In fact, he’s planning to sacrifice himself to keep her alive if he possibly can. That’s freaking cool. But there’s more. Katniss is not in love with Peeta, but she doesn’t want him to die, and she finally realizes that there’s a way to save him—by pretending to be in love with him. That’s doubly freaking cool. And there’s more, because this is a world devoid of hope, and Katniss becomes a symbol of hope to desperate people. Katniss must be crushed by the powers-that-be. Her battle is not against her peers. It’s against the evil rulers of her dark world. That reaches biblical proportions of freaking coolness.
Yes Adding Cool Stuff is Hard
Let’s be clear. It’s easy to say, “add stuff to make it freaking cool.” It’s a lot harder to actually do it. That’s why they pay big authors the big bucks—because they do something hard.
But the first step on the road to nirvana is knowing that there’s a road to nirvana. Even if it’s hard, you’re better off knowing it than not knowing it.
Add stuff. Make your story idea cool.
Then make it cooler and cooler.
Don’t stop until it’s freaking cool.
Keep going until it’s as freaking cool as you can possibly make it.
That’s what I learned from one chapter of Larry’s book. That’s not exactly the way Larry said it. I had to work to get it into my brain. Larry might not even agree with my read on it. I’ll have to ask him. But I think I’m a better writer for having read the chapter and chewed on it.
There are sixteen chapters in Larry’s book. If you want to know what’s in the others, you’ll have to go read it yourself. Be prepared to work the book. The more you work, the more you’ll own the ideas.
You can find STORY FIX here:
4) Marketing: Growing Your E-mail List Faster
In the marketing column of the June issue of this e-zine, I argued that every novelist needs an e-mail list.
In August, I explained how to define the vision statement for your e-mail list.
In September, I sketched out how to create the strategy for your e-mail list.
In October, I discussed some basic tactics you can use to grow your e-mail list. These are fundamental. Do these first, because they’re easy to do and they’ll pay off forever.
There are more advanced tactics for list-building, but they’ll take more time, or more energy, or more money, or all three. They also tend to be more complicated, which means I can’t go into great detail on them, because I don’t have a word budget of fifty thousand words.
Let me sketch out a few of them here.
You can buy tools that will pop up a small window with a signup box in a Web browser window. There are many of these available and new ones seem to appear constantly. Google the phrase “website popups” to see the current selection.
There are two facts to know about popups:
- A lot of people HATE them
- They work
You are within your rights to popup an ad for your e-mail list on your own site. Your Web site is your territory, and you are allowed to do anything ethical on your site. Popups are certainly ethical.
But they’re annoying, and I hate the ones that can’t seem to remember that I refused them yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.
If you’re going to use a popup, then use it wisely:
- Don’t have it pop up the instant somebody comes to your page. Give them a chance to get to know you a bit first. Set a reasonable delay on the popup.
- Set your popup to only show to the user once every few weeks (or months). A little popping up goes a long way.
- Use a little humor to defray the anger some people will have when you interrupt their browsing with a popup.
- Never, ever, ever use a popup that hijacks a user’s browser and won’t let her leave your site. That’s evil.
LeadPages.net is the site of a relatively new company that provides you with a powerful set of templates to easily and quickly create effective landing pages that get results.
A definition is in order here. A “landing page” is a Web page that you send people to, somehow or other. Unlike most Web pages, there aren’t a lot of things the user can do on a landing page except read the copy and then take one action. The action you want is for them to sign up for your e-mail list.
LeadPages has a tremendous amount of data that tells what works and what doesn’t. And it adds to that data by tracking the effectiveness of its customer’s landing pages. It gives you tools so you can test out different copy and see which works better. (This is usually called A/B testing or split-testing. Great marketers test just about everything.)
LeadPages has a WordPress plugin, so it’s incredibly easy to set it up if you have a WordPress blog or Web site. But LeadPages works with just about any kind of Web site, and lets you connect to most of the major e-mail service providers. And they make it easy to deliver free goodies to people who sign up.
LeadPages is not cheap. They are a subscription service with several different pricing options. If you’re not serious about your e-mail marketing, then LeadPages is NOT for you. But if you are, then maybe it is.
I have a friend who uses LeadPages and RAVES about it. She told me her numbers, and I’m seriously impressed.
Freebie Offers Inside Your Books
If you’re offering a free e-book or some other goodie on your Web site for people who sign up for your e-mail list, you want to get the word out about that.
One way to do it is to mention it right at the very beginning of all your e-books, with a link to your site. Why? Because people who use the Look Inside feature on Amazon or other retailers will see it when they start reading your sample chapters. And if they click on that link, then they’ll end up on your site. Reading your pitch for why they should sign up for your e-mail list.
You should also mention it again at the end of your e-book. Your reader is right at that moment a very happy customer. She’s just read your book. She’s loved it. And she wants more. Give her a link where she can visit your Web site, sign up for your e-mail list, and get a free book. She’ll get another good read and you’ll get a fan for life, complete with e-mail address.
This is much easier to do if you’re an indie author. If you’re traditionally published, you have to tell your publisher exactly what links you want in the book, and where, and why. And your publisher might or might not want to do what you ask. Or they might do it wrong. You don’t control the situation when you’re trad-published. Try, but don’t assume you’ll get what you want.
If you’ve got some money to spend and some advertising savvy, you might try using Facebook Ads to get people to come to your signup page on your Web site.
The first person I heard of who was doing this was Amy Porterfield. More recently, Mark Dawson has been making a lot of waves with his free video course on using Facebook Advertising to grow your e-mail list. (Mark also has a paid video course which is much more complete, but it’s also quite pricey. Entry to the paid course is currently closed, but it may possibly reopen in the future.)
One important thing to remember is that Facebook will cheerfully take your money whether your ads perform well or not. If you’re going to take this route, you need to be willing to spend some money and to work hard on experimenting. You need to spend time monitoring your ads, tweaking them, and ultimately either keeping them or killing them. This is not for the faint of wallet and absolutely not for the half-hearted.
But some of my friends who’ve tried this have seen remarkable leaps in their e-mail lists. It can work, and it can work incredibly well. It absolutely won’t be cheap or easy.
One Thing At A Time
Growing your e-mail list is critically important. Your e-mail list is your property, which means you can own a tool as powerful as BookBub, tuned especially to your fans.
It will not happen overnight. Focus on adding one new tactic at a time. Research each one to see what you can expect. Learn from people who’ve already used that tactic. Set it in gear, and then pay attention to what happens. You may need to do a lot of tweaking to get it right.
Your goal is to get 10,000 true fans on your e-mail list. 10,000 fans who love your work and are dying to get your next book. 10,000 snarling, rabid fans who will buy your book the first day it comes out. Who will write a review. Because they love you. Because they’re in your Target Audience. Because you delight them every single time.
That’s your goal.
Now go make it happen.
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
This month I rolled out new editions of my two Mars novels,Oxygen and The Fifth Man. With the success of Andy Weir’s terrific novel The Martian and Ridley Scott’s movie adaptation, people are interested in Mars again, and my coauthor and I decided to tap into that. We’ll shortly be rolling out a marketing campaign. This has evaporated all my writing time for the month, but that’s OK.
In the last few days, I’ve got my new Oxygen Series Box Set up for sale (only available on Amazon so far). It combines both novels into one e-book. The software Vellum made it extremely easy to do everything except the cover image, and for that we used a Photoshop template I found online.
As I mentioned last month, I’m beginning 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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