The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
“Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing”
What’s in This Issue
3) Craft: How to Create a Character, Part 1
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1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (224 of you signed up in April), 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: Ridiculously Easy
We all know people who seem to sail through life. They always have it together. When things go right (which is most of the time), they’re always working productively or playing hard or flossing their teeth. When things go wrong (which seems to be rare), they surf right over those glitches and carry on.
I think we all secretly despise those people. They seem to have their lives on autopilot, never struggling. That’s not fair.
My hunch is that these people actually do struggle, but we just don’t see it. They put in serious effort, but they put in their effort in a different way than most of us do.
These annoying people put their effort into creating good habits. I wrote about the habit of making habits in this column in January. Since then, I’ve had some new thoughts on it. If you missed that column, you might want to read it now. If you’ve forgotten it, you might want to review it on this page.
It takes some serious effort to build a habit. Once you’ve got a good solid habit going, you don’t have to put in much will-power to keep it going. The habit keeps going under its own steam. You just maintain it. You appear to be coasting.
The conventional wisdom is that it takes 21 days to get a habit running under its own steam. But that only works if you can actually get through those 21 days. And it’s easy to sabotage that startup effort by trying too hard.
Let’s look at an example to see what can go wrong.
You decide you’re going to get back in shape. Back when you were younger, you used to run five miles per day. You can do that again, right? Sure you can. So you get your exercise gear all together, you set your alarm, and you wake up tomorrow all charged and ready to go.
On Day 1, you leap out of bed the instant the alarm goes off. You suit up, you warm up, and you get rolling. The first mile is a little slow. The second mile is a little slower. Somewhere in the third mile, something pops in your knee.
You limp back home, thinking that you’re not 18 anymore. You ice your knee. You get cleaned up. And you dial back your expectations to 2 miles per day for tomorrow.
Tomorrow morning when the alarm goes off, every muscle in your body is sore. Your knee still hurts. And you decide you’d better give yourself a recovery day.
You wind up in recovery for three weeks, and finally your knee feels better. Then you either repeat the whole thing, or else you give up.
What went wrong?
What went wrong was that you put two hard things together in the same place. It’s hard to instantly raise your daily mileage by five miles. It’s also hard to form a habit.
If you want to form a habit of daily exercise, DON’T start out with a hard workout. Start out with one that’s ridiculously easy. Maybe you decide you’re going to walk half a mile every day. You can do that in ten minutes. You can do that every day. You could do way more than that, OF COURSE, because it’s ridiculously easy.
But don’t. Do a ridiculously easy workout until your habit is firmly in place. Why? Because you’re doing something else that’s already hard—you’re using your will-power to build a habit.
That’s very hard. Don’t make it harder on yourself. Make it ridiculously easy to do it every day.
When you do that, you WILL do it every day. You may feel stupid for “only” doing such a little bit. Don’t. You’re not being stupid. You’re being smart. You’re exercising your will-power to get yourself in the groove.
After a few weeks (hopefully 21 days, but this is probably highly variable), you’ll find that you’ve built a habit. It’s a habit you enjoy because, after all, it’s ridiculously easy. You do it every single day because, really and truly, it’s ridiculously easy.
Once that habit’s solidly in place, ramp it up. Not a lot. Ramp it up a little. If you were walking half a mile a day, boost that to walking three quarters of a mile. Or jog the last eighth of a mile at an easy pace. Or whatever. And stick to that new regime for a ridiculously long time. Maybe a week. Maybe two.
Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Habits that you build now that you keep in place for the next thirty or forty years will give you ridiculously great benefits.
You may know writers who put in eight or ten or twelve hours of writing, seven days per week. You may feel horrible because that’s not you.
It’s not me, either. It’s not most writers.
But there’s got to be some level of writing that’s ridiculously easy for you. Maybe it’s ten minutes a day (if you like a time quota). Maybe it’s 100 words a day (if you like a word quota).
Find your level that’s ridiculously easy.
Make it a habit to do that on a set schedule—five or six or seven days a week. Without fail. No excuses. (And why would you make an excuse to skip a ridiculously easy thing that you enjoy doing?)
When the habit’s solidly in place, ramp it up just a bit, but still keep it ridiculously easy. Then ramp it up again. And again. As time goes on, your definition of “ridiculously easy” will increase.
Thirty or forty years from now, you’ll look back on a long career in which you produced an amazing amount.
You may never be one of those obnoxious people who sail through life without a struggle. So if you’re going to struggle, put your effort into the things that matter.
Building a daily writing habit is a thing that matters.
Even if it’s ridiculously easy.
3) Craft: How to Create a Character, Part 1
Over the last three months, this column has focused on building out a plot from a one-sentence summary to a one-paragraph summary to a full two-page synopsis.
Plot’s good, but it’s not the whole story. The reason the plot matters is because it matters to the characters. Readers read because of the characters. If you replaced your characters with unfeeling robots, your readers probably wouldn’t care about your story.
So how do you design your characters?
I recommend starting small. Here are six questions that will get you rolling. Answer these questions for each of your main characters:
- What is this character’s role in the story? (Hero or heroine, villain, sidekick, clown, friend-zone buddy, or whatever.)
- What is this character’s name? (You can leave this blank if you’re desperate, but you’re going to need some sort of handle for this character, so I recommend that you pick something early and then change it later if you come up with a better one.)
- What does this character want on Day 1 when the story opens? (This isn’t necessarily the main story goal. You’re looking for something that the character wants RIGHT NOW that will drive the story forward in the opening scene. This should be something specific and concrete that the character could conceivably get almost immediately.)
- What keeps this character from getting what he or she wants? (Again, this isn’t necessarily the main obstacle in the story, but it’s the main obstacle in the first scene the character has a role in.)
- In the bigger picture, what does this character want out of life? (This is probably going to be fairly abstract, but it might be concrete if the character has a very specific dream.)
- What threatens to keep this character from ever having any chance of getting what she wants out of life?
It’s easy to answer these questions for your hero or heroine. Most authors can quickly drill out the answers to all six questions for their protagonist.
It’s not so easy to answer them for your villain (if your story has a villain). That requires you to put yourself in the villain’s skin. To think like the villain. To empathize with the villain. And many people chafe at the idea of empathizing with a villain.
But if you don’t empathize with your villain, it’s very likely he’ll be a cardboard, uninteresting character. And if that happens, your story will very likely be thin.
It’s also easy to skimp on these questions for the lesser characters—the sidekicks and clowns in your story. But if you do this work, your story is going to become deeper. Because now your sidekick doesn’t exist solely to make your hero’s story come out well. Your sidekick now has his own story with his own goals, and those may come into conflict with your hero’s goals—even if they’re both the best of all friends.
The above questions are not all there is to character development. They’re a start. They’ll get you rolling. We’ll talk more about building out characters in future columns.
When should you do this preliminary character work?
I like to do it as early as possible. The reason is because the characters influence the plot. So until you know your characters, you can’t fully work out your plot.
The plot also influences the characters, of course, so my preference is to work on the plot for a bit, then work on the characters, then get back to the plot, and keep alternating like that for several rounds. This is a core principle in my widely used Snowflake Method of designing a novel.
How well do you know the characters in your current novel?
Can you easily answer all six of the above questions for each of your major characters?
4) Marketing: Does Permafree Still Work?
People ask me all the time if permafree still works as a marketing strategy.
That raises a couple of obvious questions: What is “permafree”? What does it mean for a marketing strategy to “work?”
I’ll tackle this issue as a series of questions and answers.
Q: What do people mean by “permafree?”
A: “Permafree” is a blend of the two words “permanently free.” It’s a marketing strategy that works only in one particular case—when you have a series of e-books for sale. You make the first book in the series permanently free, and then readers who like that book go on to buy the others in the series.
Q: You’re kidding me, right? Who would be stupid or desperate enough to try that?
A: Not kidding. Lots of indie authors use this strategy. I know many, many successful indie novelists, and my best guess is that the majority of them have used a permafree strategy for at least one series. Of these, most of them consider the strategy a powerful tool for bringing in new readers. I have used it myself and it’s worked very well.
Q: But isn’t this just training readers to have an entitlement mentality and expect everything for free?
A: There are all different kinds of readers. Some readers have an entitlement mentality and will only read free books. They will miss out on many great books that cost actual money. That’s their loss, not yours. Those readers won’t buy your books, but they may still generate word-of-mouth for you, and that has value. The great majority of readers are willing to pay money for good quality books. If they like your freebie, they’ll buy your non-free books. Yes, really.
Q: This sounds like it could only work for those cheesy self-published authors, not real authors who work for legitimate publishing houses.
A: Let’s be clear. Indie authors are legitimate. Many of them are earning tens of thousands of dollars per year. Some are earning hundreds of thousands. A handful are earning millions. Per year. Indies do have a huge marketing advantage here. If they decide to run a permafree campaign, they can do it without any hassle. They don’t have an editor or marketing director to say no. I do know of one small publishing company that ran permafree campaigns for all of its authors that had series. That company boosted its sales significantly. But permafree seems to be rare among traditional publishers.
Q: Why do you only do this for e-books?
A: Because paper books cost money—for paper, printing, handling, shipping, etc. E-books can be given away at such a low cost that the major retailers don’t charge you for it. They know it’s good advertising for the paid products they carry.
Q: Major retailers? You mean you can do this with Amazon? Barnes & Noble? Apple?
A: Yes, all the major retailers. Amazon. B&N. Apple iBooks. Kobo. Smashwords.
Q: I don’t believe you. I just checked. It’s true that Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords allow you to set a price of $0.00 on an e-book, but B&N and Amazon don’t. If you try to enter that price on your dashboard, you get an error message.
A: These two retailers are special cases. You can’t directly set the price to $0.00, but you can do it indirectly.
Q: How do you do it for B&N?
A: Use a distributor. B&N accepts e-books priced at $0.00 from distributors. You can use Smashwords or Draft2Digital or any of the other distributors. These take a cut of your profits, but if your price is $0.00, then their cut is also $0.00.
Q: How do you do it for Amazon?
A: Amazon has a policy of price-matching the lowest available price of the other major retailers. Set the price on Amazon for your e-book to the normal price you charge for the other books in your series. (If the others are $2.99, set the price for your permafree book to $2.99.) Then set the price on Apple, B&N, and Kobo to $0.00. Then go to the Amazon sales page for your book and click the link that says “tell us about a lower price.” A form will pop up. Fill in the form giving the URLs of the sales pages for the book on the other retailers.
Q: And Amazon will just automatically change the price to $0.00?
A: Maybe. Or maybe not. If they don’t, you can always politely ask Amazon to price-match your book from their Contact page. Remember that they aren’t obligated to do so, so don’t act as if you’re entitled. However, there is an enormous amount of sales data that proves that price-matching to $0.00 will earn them more money. So the odds are good they’ll do it.
Q: And this actually works? You actually earn more money?
A: Lots more. You’ll see many more free downloads that you would have seen paid sales. Of those, some percentage will go on to read Book 2, Book 3, and so on.
Q: What percentage? Prove it!
A: I’ve heard different numbers from different authors, ranging from 0% up to about 25%. I can’t verify any of those, but here are my own numbers for my 3-book City of God series. Book 2 has a conversion rate of about 4.3%. Book 3 has a conversion rate of about 3.5%.
Q: That doesn’t sound like much.
A: That is vastly better than the conversion rate on tweets.
Q: This sounds like some fad that’ll be gone by next week.
A: Permafree has been around for several years. I don’t know who tried it first, but I heard about it sometime in 2013. I began trying it in the early summer of 2014 and it’s been working for me ever since. It has declined in effectiveness, but it still works pretty well. When combined with a BookBub ad, permafree is amazing.
Q: This all sounds like hocus-pocus or voodoo or something.
A: Actually, it sounds like smart marketing. A sound marketing strategy takes potential customers through three phases:
- Attract potential customers who never heard of you.
- Engage them so that they know whether they like what you have to sell.
- Convert them to paying customers by making a great offer.
The free book Attracts readers like crazy. If the book is good, that Engages them; by the end of the book, they know if they like your writing. At the end of the book, you make a pitch for the next book in the series and Convert them.
Permafree is a simple, elegant marketing strategy that has been battle-tested by many successful authors. And furthermore, you only have to do the work once. Then it works for you forever. That’s passive marketing, and passive marketing is way easier than active marketing.
Q: If permafree works so well, why do you tell everyone about it? Aren’t you damaging your own sales?
A: Like every other novelist, I write in a niche. I’m not competing with the hundreds of thousands of other novelists out there. I’m not competing with the 14,000 readers of this e-zine. I’m competing with those few novelists who write books similar to mine, and most of those people are my friends. I hope all my competitors try permafree, because I want my friends to do well.
Q: This is way off-topic, but what niche do you write for?
A: I’m weirdly obsessed with ancient history. I’m also a theoretical physicist. I write heavily researched time-travel adventure novels set in first-century Jerusalem. By all logic, I should have no more than about ten fans, eight of whom should be my mother. But life isn’t always logical, and thousands of readers have been willing to take several adventures in my imaginary world. Most readers of this e-zine couldn’t care less about what I write, but for those few who do, here are the premise and links for Book 1 in my City of God series:
Transgression: A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.
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 finished off Book 1 a few hours ago, and am looking forward to Books 2, 3, and 4. And I’m planning another research trip to Israel to work on an archaeological dig. Because I’m one of those sick people who can never do enough research.
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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