The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: Your Character’s Dark Moment
7) Steal This E-zine!
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (241 of you signed up in August), 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: Tracking Your Time
Imagine that your agent calls you out of the blue one day. An editor needs a book written to fill a slot in her publishing schedule. The first draft needs to be done in five months and revisions within the following three. The editor called your agent and asked if he had any clients who could meet the need. Your agent suggested you, and the editor would love to work with you if you’re willing to take the project on short notice.
Now the ball is in your court. Are you interested? Do you have the skills to write the book? Most importantly, do you have the time? The editor has made it clear that the deadline has no slack. Either you can meet the deadline or you can’t. Your agent needs to give the editor an answer tomorrow. What do you say?
You might imagine this never happens.
It happens all the time, somewhere in the publishing world. It happens once in a while to just about every professional author.
And professional authors know how to answer the question intelligently.
Really, there are only two possible answers:
1) “Yes, I have the time. The project will take me 80 hours to write and 50 to polish, and I have that much time in my schedule on a five-month deadline. Then revisions will take another 75 hours, and I have that in my schedule over the following three months.”
2) “No, I don’t have the time. The project will take me 80 hours to write and 50 to polish, and I don’t have that much time in my schedule on a five-month deadline. Not even close. Sorry, I can’t take this project, but thanks for thinking of me. Period.”
Either of these answers is acceptable to the editor. What’s not acceptable is door number 3:
3) “I don’t know, probably. I’m busy right now, but it sounds like a great project, so I’ll just make the time. I don’t know where I’ll find it, but I will.”
Why is that not acceptable? Because it’s nothing but smoke. Editors get smoke all the time from amateur authors. Amateur authors who miss deadlines are the reason that slots open up in publishing schedules, forcing editors to scramble. An editor expects better from a professional.
The reason professional authors can answer this question is because they track their time.
Maybe they use a spreadsheet.
Maybe they use some sort of time-tracking software.
Whatever. A professional author can look at her records and figure out how many hours she needs to produce a piece of work, based on past experience. She can look at her calendar and figure out how many hours she has available over the next several months. She can do the subtraction and come up with an answer—a yes or a no. She can do it quickly, without guessing.
And of course, she might still be wrong. She could break her leg next month and wind up short on hours. If that happens, every editor will understand. What an editor won’t “understand” is that an author said yes on an impossible project without having a clue that she couldn’t meet the deadline.
Some professional authors are fast and some are slow. That’s fine.
Some professional authors have a lot of time for writing and some have a little. That’s fine.
But every professional author knows if she is fast or slow, and she knows how much time she has for writing. Not knowing is not fine. Blowing smoke to get a contract is not fine.
- How much time did you spend writing last month?
- How much time did you spend writing so far this year?
- Are those numbers about what you had planned? (Say within 20%.)
- How many hours did it take you to write your last project?
If you can’t answer the above questions accurately within five minutes, then you need to start tracking your time. There are any number of tools you can use to do that.
If you Google the phrase “time tracking software,” you’ll find enough options to keep you up late into the night comparing all your choices. Because every author has different needs, there is no way for me to make a recommendation that would be meaningful to you, but the tool I use comes up on the first page of the Google search results.
3) Craft: Your Character’s Dark Moment
I’ve been reading a book by a friend of mine, Susan May Warren, on her method for writing a novel. Susie is one of my best friends, and her book will be coming out next month. I plan to have an interview with her in this column next month to discuss her book.
This month I’ll try to set the stage for that by talking about one of the main ideas Susie uses, the “Dark Moment.” Then next month, we’ll be ready to elaborate on that to see how to build a novel using the Dark Moment idea.
And what is a Dark Moment? It’s a particular event in the backstory of your lead character. It’s not a happy event. It’s a terrible event. It’s not necessarily the worst thing that ever happened to your character, but it’s something that has bent your character’s life and is bending it now as your story opens.
That’s what a Dark Moment is. But what’s it good for? Why should you care?
An example might be useful. One of my favorite novels is Ken Follett’s classic thrillerThe Man From St. Petersburg. The plot is simple to explain, and you’ll forgive me if I include some spoilers here, because that’s necessary if I’m going to teach you the value of a Dark Moment:
It’s the early summer of 1914, and Prince Aleks Orlov, nephew of the Czar, has come to England to negotiate a secret military alliance with England. The alliance would obligate Russia to support England in the event that it goes to war. And that would lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Russian peasants.
Russian anarchists learn about the negotiations and send a man to kill Prince Orlov. They desperately want to avoid having Russia dragged into a senseless war. And they know that England gives asylum to anarchists, which infuriates the Czar. An anarchist assassinating the Czar’s nephew will ruin any chance of a military alliance between Russia and England.
The above two paragraphs describe the external story. The story goal of the anarchist is to kill Prince Orlov. He’ll either succeed or fail. Either way, there’ll be global consequences.
It’s a strong external story, and most thriller writers could do a good job bringing it to life. But Follett does an exceptional job by weaving in an internal story. Here’s how he does it.
The assassin, Felix Kschessinsky, grew up in St. Petersburg. Nineteen years ago he met Lydia, the daughter of a Russian nobleman, and fell in love with her. They had a passionate affair that went on for weeks. Then one day, Feliks was arrested, tortured by the Russian secret police, and held for a couple of months. When he was finally released, he learned that his lover Lydia had married an English aristocrat and gone to live in England. This is Feliks’s Dark Moment, and for nineteen years, he learns nothing more about her.
Lydia grew up in the highest Russian society. She is the aunt of Prince Aleks Orlov. She is now Lady Walden, the distinguished wife of Lord Walden. When the English government makes overtures to the Russians about a military alliance, the Czar insists that the English negotiator must be a man he knows and trusts, Lord Walden. Lydia is delighted to have her nephew Prince Orlov living in the house for a few weeks to negotiate with her husband.
Lydia has done her best to forget the young man she loved in Russia. The worst day of her life was the day she was forced to marry Lord Walden. That was her Dark Moment, but she’s carefully pushed the memories into the back corners of her mind. She loves her husband, Lord Walden, even if she’s not passionate about him. She has a good life—a large home, a place in society, and a beautiful daughter, Charlotte. But Charlotte is not Lord Walden’s daughter.
Charlotte is Feliks’s daughter. She doesn’t know it yet. Feliks doesn’t know it yet. Lord Walden doesn’t know it yet. But when they find out, the story’s going to blow wide open. The external story will be blown open by the internal story. Geopolitics is going to be smashed by emotopolitics.
The Dark Moment shared by Feliks and Lydia transforms this high-stakes international thriller into a deeply personal thriller as well.
And that’s why you should care about Dark Moments. Dark Moments inject deep personal meaning into your external story.
But how does it work? What are the mechanics of it? How do you find a Dark Moment and how do you use it to blow open your external story?
We’ll talk about that next month, when I interview Susan May Warren.
4) Marketing: Things of Lasting Value
You have roughly a billion options when it comes to marketing your novels. But you only have 168 hours in your week, and you need to spend some of them eating, sleeping, reading, working, or other non-marketing activities.
Your hours for marketing are extremely limited. How will you spend them?
Here is one of my guiding principles when it comes to every area of my life:
“Build Things of Lasting Value”
That’s it. Very simple. Very powerful, because it eliminates most things immediately.
Every marketing scheme that comes across your path is going to demand some time, energy, and money from you. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little.
Ask yourself what you can build that has lasting value.
If you go to a book-signing, you might move a few copies, and earn a few bucks, but the money will be quickly gone. Most authors earn less than minimum wage at a book-signing, so if the money’s all you get, you might decide it’s not worth it.
What might make the book-signing worth it? Maybe you’ll connect with a true fan who loves your work and will promote you in amazing ways for a lifetime. Maybe you’ll build a relationship with the bookstore owner, who will hand-sell you for the next twenty years. Maybe. If you find either of these happening regularly at book-signings, then you’re doing something of lasting value. It’s a rare author who does effective book-signings, but my hat is off to those who do.
Every marketing effort you make should get the same brutal question: “What am I building here that has lasting value?”
My hunch is that authors would do far fewer things if they asked this question relentlessly.
If you asked me what’s the one marketing effort that’s practically guaranteed to have lasting value, I’d echo what I’ve heard from many authors over the years: “Write your next book.”
Your next book is going to earn you money. This year. Next year. Twenty years from now. And it’s going to market all your other books, because people will discover you through that book. Once they discover you, they’ve discovered all your books.
Writing your next book automatically markets everything else you ever will write and everything you ever have written. That has lasting value.
Another obvious candidate for a marketing effort with lasting value is an e-mail list of your true fans.
Notice I said “true fans.” I’ve seen authors spend time and money and effort building an e-mail list of people who want a chance in a drawing for a new iPad. Those people are fans of iPads. They aren’t necessarily fans of your fiction. That kind of list doesn’t have any obvious lasting value.
But true fans—people who have read your book and want to be notified when you write your next one—those are gold. Those are the people who’ll be buying your books twenty years from now and passing them on to their friends. They’ll be writing you reviews—with lots of stars attached. They’ll send you an e-mail telling how much your book meant to them. That’s lasting value, some of it monetary, some of it not. But it’s value.
I live in the Pacific Northwest where we get a lot of rain. Things tend to clear up by June, usually. July and August and September generally have some sunshine. That’s not a lot of time to get out in the yard and keep the place looking nice. I could spend all my time pulling weeds and mowing the lawn. That doesn’t have lasting value. It has some value, and I put in a bit of time on it when I can. I do the minimum on weeding and mowing.
But I also like to do something of lasting value in the yard. This summer, we decided to tear down a retaining wall that was built by the previous owners of our house. This wall was made of old chunks of sidewalk—no doubt a thrifty choice, but ugly as sin. I hated it. Here’s a picture of what the old wall looked like:
My wife and I ordered about three tons of concrete blocks, tore out the old wall, and put up a new one. We hired a guy to haul away the old chunks of sidewalk, but we did the rest ourselves. It was hard work. But I thought it was worthwhile, because this wall has lasting value. Here’s a picture:
We also chopped down an ugly hedge so we can replace it with blueberries. Again, something of lasting value.
Where did we find the time? We spent less time pulling weeds and mowing the lawn. We have no shortage of weeds or lawn, and dealing with them is a never-ending task. But any weeds I pull this week will be back next month or next year. Pulling weeds has some value, but it’s fleeting value. If I skip a week of mowing the lawn, it’ll look just fine the next time I mow. Weeding and mowing don’t have lasting value.
Whereas the wall we built will still be there ten years from now. Maybe twenty if the next owners of our house like it (and they had just better like it).
- Make a list of all the marketing efforts you make for your books.
- Which of them have lasting value?
- Which of them have only fleeting value?
5) What’s New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
I’m hard at work on a series of novels about one of the most influential humans ever to walk the planet—Jesus of Nazareth. I spent parts of June and July in Israel doing research for this series. (My thinking is that two weeks working on an archaeological dig has extreme lasting value.) Now I’m working hard on Book 2.
I am currently on 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. When that changes, I’ll make a note of it here.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
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