Fiction Plots: Rough Start Romances (review)

In real life, many people want to meet someone… and it’s love at first sight. Everything is perfect, and continues so, through courtship, engagement, and marriage. And, we want to live happily ever after.

Many of us grew up believing that most romances followed that exact path. And, when ours didn’t… we turned to romance novels.

cinderella glass slipper and coachThey affirm that, somehow, we too will find our “other half,” or our “split apart” person, or Prince Charming.

Or, in a not-quite-perfect relationship, romance stories help us reconnect with what charmed us when we first fell in love with the partner we’ve chosen.

And then there’s reality’s darker side. 40 to 50 percent of all American marriages end in divorce. The statistics are similar in the EU and in the UK.

Tip: If you want a long-lasting marriage, Chile may be a good destination; their divorce rate is around 3%. (The trade-off…? Chile seems to rank 47th out of 69 countries, in terms of quality of life. However, I’m not convinced that’s a reliable stat.)

So, in most of the world, romance stories, novellas, and novels have a steady, eager audience. (No matter what genre you write in, a romantic story arc can increase your book’s popularity.)

But… a story that’s just “meet > love at first sight > courtship > marriage > happily ever after” would fill about 1,000 words (or less) before it was a snooze.

One huge trick to writing successful romances is getting the story right. From the outset, readers need to feel fairly certain that everything will lead to “happily ever after” (aka, HEA) or at least “happily for now” (HFN).

They just don’t want to get there too quickly. They want to savor the delicious tension of a growing, intense romance.

And, they want a story that’s believable. If they can’t imagine themselves as half of the romantic couple… well, it’s just more of the disappointment — feeling “left out” — that they’re coping with, in real life.

Mind maps can work

You can take your hero & heroine, and mind map every possible way things can go wrong, and then go right for the HEA (or HFN).

That could be a complex mind map. Possibly the size of an entire wall, to accommodate all the lines & arrows.

And, even then, you might get lost in the details. (I know that I would. I’ve tried this and got overwhelmed in minutes.)

What most romance writers want is a good, simple plan or template they can use, over & over again. Change the hero, change the heroine, change the setting (and perhaps the time period), and follow the formula.

Result…? A story that’s fun to write, and happy readers who’ll buy every story you write. And they’ll recommend your books to their friends.

The good news is: someone has put together a series of formulas for you.

Rough Start Romance (a report)

Generally, I rave about Britt Malka’s reports for writers. She has a knack for reverse engineering stories and plot elements that work.

Britt sent me this report as a review copy. If she hadn’t, I would have bought it. It’s that good.

In Britt’s “Rough Start Romance” report, she delivers one of her best romance analyses so far.

heart of heartsIt’s 26 pages and I think it’s close to essential reading if you’re struggling with a romance plot, or romantic elements in your suspense, cozy mystery, or other genre fiction.

She’s combed through book reviews, reader forums, and blurbs of successful romances, and she’s broken them down into readers’ likes and hates.

And then, she grouped them logically into possible story arcs. Even better, this report is loaded with details, pros and cons, and suggested ways to avoid disastrous plot elements.

For example, Britt opens by analyzing the differences between a one-sided interest and a “hate at first meet” romance.

And then, she breaks them down into how to write each kind, with lots of options. (Like: should your hero be the one who’s interested, but your heroine isn’t, or vice versa? Which is more appealing to most readers, and what are the challenges for writers?)

For one-sided interest stories, she explains a variety of ways to develop the romance, whether you’re writing sizzling and sexy stories, or light romantic comedies.

For “hate at first meet” romances, Britt has figured out several ways that premise can works well. She also explains the deal-breakers… the things that will ruin that kind of story, and result in toxic reviews.

And, throughout this report, Britt includes story ideas, side-character suggestions, body language and speech mannerisms to give your story more depth (and credibility), and a lot more.

My advice: If you want to make romance writing easier, get this report

This report isn’t inexpensive. But, in my opinion, it’s a must-own for any writer who’s struggling to create credible romance plots.

It’s especially useful for new romance authors, who hit writer’s block somewhere around the first third of the book. (Not that I speak from experience, mind you. Ahem.)

Her tips also work for “short reads” stories, as well as epic-length novels.

“Rough Start Romance” clearly explains how to keep your readers engaged (no pun intended) from the first page to the last, with no major stumbles — but lots of juicy, what-will-happen-next tension — from meet to marriage.

Here’s where to find* Rough Start Romance: http://malka.biz/rough-start-romance/

*In the interest of writing unbiased reviews, I don’t use affiliate links for reports and products like this. So, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this report. My review is written from the heart (no pun intended), and I truly believe this is one of Britt’s best reports, so far.

Income: Best Nonfiction Tactics

At this moment, I’m knee-deep in fun: writing and illustrating holiday books.

But, last week, a friend and I discussed some of our best nonfiction tactics. Some are definitely worth sharing immediately.

In nonfiction, there are at least three main ways to earn a steady income. (Some of these tactics apply to fiction, as well.)

1a) Lots of focused books

Write lots & lots of books. Preferably about a single, focused topic, if you’re using the “1,000 True Fans” business model. (And yes, that works.)

If you like that idea, this video explains the concept in detail.

1000 true fans from Anna Do on Vimeo.

PROS

  • You can write shorter, highly focused books, and price them low. (In Kindle, they’re sometimes categorized as “short reads.”)
  • Then, you can also “bundle” a bunch of those shorter books into one larger book, and charge a higher price (earning a far bigger royalty, per book sold), and still give your fans & readers a bargain.
  • Those larger books can also be published in print, via CreateSpace, Nook Press, etc. Your individual, per-book profits can be higher than with Kindle books, and libraries may buy your printed books, in bulk, one or two for every library in their networks.
  • The exposure you get from lots of good books is a great way to be noticed, quickly.  That moves you towards the tipping point of (theoretically) 1,000 true fans.

CONS

  • Your books must be very good (or at least very original) and stand out in the crowd. You must have a pretty good understanding of the field, too. (You can acquire this as you research.) Choose your niche wisely.
  • Unless you’re absolutely fascinated by the topic, by the time you get to the third or fourth book, you may be bored out of your mind. Worse, if you’re bored when you’re writing, your readers are likely to recognize that… and stop buying. So, the time and effort you invested up to that point…? Poof. Gone.
  • If you’re planning to outsource each of your books for $200 or less, or if you expect to use software (and a bunch of high-quality articles you’ve copied, online) to “spin” and turn out books… forget it. You must write your books with a compelling “voice” and viewpoint that’s unique to you.

1b) Lots of topical books

This is the model I describe in “How to Write Fast Books about Hot Topics in 10 Days or Less.”

Basically, you find a trending (or soon-to-trend) topic in the news (or in pop culture).

At the very least, I look at:

  • News headlines.
  • Words and phrases trending at Google and Twitter.
  • Upcoming movies, books in pre-order at Amazon, and trending TV series (and topics related to shows that Amazon Prime TV is testing).
  • Anything I see, online or off-, that makes me want to learn more.

And then I choose a topic (or question) that “glitters” for me. That is, I have a gut feeling that the topic is going to trend in the near future, and it seems like fun to research.

After that, you work crazy-as-a-loon long hours, researching & writing the book.

Then, you publish it via Kindle. (I recommend KDP Select, at least for the first 90 days. Then, people can “borrow” your Kindle book and you get paid for however many pages they read.)

After the first 90 days, if the “pages read” income isn’t significant, take your book out of KDP Select (but leave it in Kindle), and then publish it in a variety of markets via Draft2Digital.

And, you (hopefully) ride the exhilarating wave of popularity (and book sales) for a month or two, or longer.

Then… you do it again. New topic. New books/s.

I describe this in more detail in my article, Several Questions – Answered.

PROS

  • If you’re already interested in the topic, this can be so much fun, you don’t notice that you’re working 12- and 14-hour days. (If you have a day job, you can do most of the work over a single weekend.)
  • Your research can produce multiple books. They might be tightly focused niche topics. Or, you might write one book from one viewpoint (say, “true believer”) and a second one from the opposite angle (“rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth skeptic”). Tip: In New Age niches, skeptical books rarely sell as well as the “true believer” variety.
  • The money can be kind of amazing. Four figures per month, when it goes well. Even higher if you’re living a charmed life and you hit all the “hot spots” for eager readers: Brilliant topic, perfect editorial angle, superb research, eye-catching cover, and a title that grabs attention. Not necessarily in that order.
  • Some of these books remain popular for years. In one case, I’ve earned a high five figures from a book that took me less than a week to throw together.

CONS

  • Three or four long days into the topic, you may realize you’re just not that interested in it. The remaining long days can be excruciating.
  • Since the book is rushed, it will contain errors, not just typos. Some critics will rip you shreds over that. (My advice: Don’t read your reviews. If you absolutely must know what critics are saying, in case it’s valid: hire someone at Fiverr.com to skim the reviews and summarize them for you.)
  • Also, all the same warnings, listed above, related to writing lots of focused books.
  • The topic may flat-line so fast, your book never stands a chance. Only about 20% of my books have met that fate. But, I don’t flinch at working long hours for disappointing results. Not as long as 80% of the results are worth the time, effort, and exhaustion.

2) … Plus peripheral products and services

If you’re a pro (or can become one) in an area where people seek experts, coaches, courses, or peripheral products (worksheets, or related products you can make, outsource, or drop-ship), a few books can earn you a pretty good living.

The money won’t be so much from the books, as from everything else you’re selling.

Choose any somewhat popular niche.

I recommend anything related to a hobby or subject that’s interested you for years, preferably since childhood. Ideally, you already know a lot about the topic, and relish any excuse to delve more deeply into it.

Of course, make sure the niche isn’t saturated. However, I’ve yet to see any popular (or evergreen) niche with zero opportunities for specialization. (See the “long tail” discussed in the “1,000 True Fans” video, linked above.)

PROS

  • It’s easy to remain focused. You’re only interested (researching & writing) about one topic. You may need to cast a wider net, to include fresh insights — from other fields — in your work, but that’s what will help you stand out in the crowd. 90% of your work will be about one thing, and only that one thing.
  • There’s no limit to what you can add to your income streams, especially if you attract enthusiastic fans who buy all of your books. Sure, they’ll want your niche-related products… they may also want the baseball cap, the mouse pad, the coffee mug, the calendar, the coloring book, the blank journal, etc.
  • Adding a blog (perhaps with curated content and guest bloggers), plus some social media marketing, can be free, easy, fast marketing. Some authors compile and expand a collection of their own blog posts, and turn them into best-selling books.  (Using articles about being a successful author, Chuck Wendig — whose language will curl your hair — has done this, successfully.  Dean Wesley Smith has done this, as well.)

CONS

  • This isn’t as passive as a business model that’s wholly focused on book royalties.
  • You may be dependent on others. Whether you hire staff, use outsourcing or drop-shipping, someone needs to keep an eye on quality control. That part of this model can spread you fairly thin. Be prepared. Hire reliable staff, early.
  • If the bottom falls out of your specialty, you may need to start all over again, from scratch. Be very watchful of trends, especially if your focus is something that’s emerged in the past few years. But hey, that’s true of almost any niche (in nonfiction and everyday life), or even genre (in fiction).

3) …Or, become a celebrity

This is a business model I’ve stumbled onto, repeatedly. I seem to have a knack for it. (I’m not kidding, and that’s not self-aggrandizement. If you know me in real life, you know what I’m talking about.)

If I were to choose this deliberately, here’s what I’d do.

First, I’d look at my own interests. Specifically, anything I’m already enthusiastic about, that’s also related to a pop culture trend. (Preferably one that’s still in its early days, and gaining popularity steadily.)

Then, I’d look at existing books, TV shows, successful podcasts, and topics of panels/talks at related conventions and conferences. (For the broadest possible range of pop culture trends, start with past program lists from Comic-Con and Dragon Con.)

Then, I’d choose a slightly under-served niche, create a hybrid niche, or focus on one where I know I’m already an expert.

And then, I’d choose a pen name (for privacy), set up a blog with news related to the topic, as well as my own work (for fans to enjoy, when they discover me), and write lots of short, focused, fun books on my topic.

After that, I’d start applying to small, local conventions that are related to that general (or specific) area of fandom/enthusiasm.

And then, I’d build from there.

From fly fishing to the original Battlestar Gallactica, there are conventions related to any topic. Some are small, at public libraries. Others occupy multiple hotels in major cities, for three-day weekends.

The money in this business model can come from books. The more books you write & publish, the better.

However, far bigger income may result from personal appearances (and perhaps book signings) at conventions.

Even at the “C list” celebrity level, I could earn four figures per weekend, and all of my travel expenses were included. Often, I was given a really luxurious hotel suite, not just a Motel 6 room that was kinda-sorta near the event site. (The more popular you are, the better your accommodations will be.)

In most cases, all I had to do was speak (or be part of a panel) for a couple of hours during the weekend. And, there may have been a meet-and-greet or autograph session (or both), usually with yummy snacks and great conversations.

To be honest, I’d have gone to many of these events, free of charge, just to have time in the “green room.” That’s where the speakers & celebrities spend their free time, relaxing, and sometimes talking about everything except whatever they’re famous for.

The conversations are rich, delightful, and sometimes hilarious. I’ve treasured every one of them.

Tip: At first, you’ll market yourself and get your own gigs, sell your own books and merchandise, etc. Then, you’ll hire a manager (make sure your contract is great… ask a contract lawyer to review it). And, you’ll probably hire staff to man your event booth/table.

PROS

  • If you’re already enthusiastic about this topic, you won’t be “working.” You’ll enjoy every minute of it. Whether it’s scribbling blog posts, writing books, interacting with fans & fellow enthusiasts via social media and forums, or speaking at events… this can be non-stop fun. It won’t seem like work.
  • The money. I know people who appear at two fan-related events every weekend, every month. Just for showing up, they’re earning five figures per month… and that’s just on weekends. (Some of them have “day jobs,” as well.)
  • Every time you write a book, or create a related product, your “1,000 true fans” will buy it. For as long as you have loyal and enthusiastic fans, your income is guaranteed.

CONS

  • Events can be exhausting. And they take time away from your social life and personal relationships. Most celebrities I know limit themselves to one event per month, at the most. Fewer events = less income.
  • Some enthusiastic fans know no boundaries. If you’re a relatively private person, your privacy diminishes the more popular (and visible) you are. A few people (Tasha Tudor, J. D. Salinger, and others) have managed to achieve wild popularity while living somewhat reclusive lives. Whether you’re shopping for groceries or taking your kids to soccer practice, the fans will still stop you and ask for autographs. And they’ll want to talk. And talk. Some celebrities love that. Some don’t, and — as soon as it’s viable — they hire staff to minimize their exposure.
  • The more popular you are, the less privacy you have, in media, too. Critics will start making personal insults. Expect that. (See my advice above, about not reading your book reviews.) Anne Rice has been a high-profile example. Personally responding to her books’ snarky reviews may not have been a smart choice.
  • When the popularity of the topic collapses, your audience can diminish in a blink. The handwriting may have been on the wall for some time (I’m thinking of the recent cancellation of Ghost Hunters on SyFy. The phrase “docusoap” suggests the market had been declining for some time.) But, if you retain your 1,000 true fans… even a near-total collapse of the general fan base can be okay. Also, it might be an opportunity, because you’ll have far less competition for book buyers and fans.

Nonfiction can earn as well as — or better than — fiction

Fiction writing can be an easier choice for some writers.

Your books never have to be updated. New fans will continue to discover you… forever.

Many fiction authors — especially indie authors — can earn a comfortable, full-time living from their book royalties, and nothing else. No book signings, no personal appearances at events, etc. That can be appealing.

However, for those who can look “outside the box” (or perhaps “outside the books”), nonfiction can provide a stronger income and a more interesting, diversified lifestyle.

Fiction and nonfiction share a lot in common. But, looking at them as business models, you’ll see some sharp contrasts.

Choose the one with the most appeal, for now. You can always shift gears (and pen names) if you change your mind.

Nonfiction Book Series – Britt’s Ideas

I bought Britt Malka’s “Divide and Conquer” report out of curiosity. I’ve been writing nonfiction — mostly for traditional publishers — since the 1980s. I still write a lot of nonfiction, especially shorter books that I publish myself.

Britt Malka - Divide and ConquerSo, in Britt’s report, I didn’t expect to learn much. Not much that’s new to me, anyway.

Her report was a surprise. (That’s an understatement.) It’s not the same old “how to get 5 articles/books/videos out of one idea.” Far from it.

My experience

I spent about an hour going through this report. Using Britt’s suggestions, I produced a list of 28 short, nonfiction books (in one sub-niche) that I can write with little or no research.

Many of them can be written in a single day. The others will take me three days at the very most.

Since Britt’s report is $9, the 28 book ideas works out to about thirty* cents per idea. Even better, these are GOOD book ideas… not just “sure, why not?” ideas. I won’t be writing fluff, and I won’t be repeating myself.

Readers will like these books.

My first book from Britt’s report

This past week, I wrote one in two half-days. (I worked on other projects for half of each day, and then dictated — to Dragon Naturally Speaking — for a couple of hours.)

I edited that book the next day, and created its cover. (I continued working on my other projects, as well.)

On the third day, after one final pass, I published the book. With no marketing — not even mentioning the book on social media — copies were already selling.

I won’t claim that starting with an Amazon rank of #150,000 is great, but this is a niche where I’m competing with TV stars who write their own books.

So, I was pretty happy with that rank on the first day.

Today (four days later), my book is on page one at Amazon Kindle, for its top keyword phrase. And, my book outranks the current best-sellers of two TV stars in that same niche.

I’m pleased. And, I’ll write another book from my new list, later this week.

Yes, I recommend Britt’s report.

Once again, I’m impressed by how well Britt writes reports to spark fresh book ideas and insights.

This report can pay for itself (in book profits) in less than a week… maybe much less. (In my case, it’s already a winner.)

After that, I’m confident these books will continue selling for years.

But here’s my usual advice: This only way this report is worth buying is if you actually write more books. (And, if you’re already writing and this would be a distraction, skip it… for now. Don’t get sidetracked. Finish your current books!)

Britt offers solid, evergreen book ideas. They’re different. If you’re like me, you’ll see fresh topics many authors will never think of.

When I checked my sub-niche, only three (of the 28 ideas) had any competition at all.

And, checking the competition, I thought of four more book ideas for that audience.

If you’re writing nonfiction (or have ever thought about it), you probably need this report. Here’s the link (not an affiliate link): Britt Malka’s E-Book Series Ideas (aka “Divide and Conquer”)

scripty-divider

*When I first rushed through this article, I said three cents. That was, obviously, a typo. It should have said thirty (30) cents. Either way, this report still delivers remarkable value.

Publishing for Love, Money, or Both?

This morning, I’m inspired by Seth Godin’s latest article, Looking for the Trick.

As I see it, there are two ways to earn a good income from books. (There’s also a hybrid version, which I’ll talk about later in this article.)

The hungry audience

One way is to find a desperately hungry audience — readers who are so frantic for the kinds of books they enjoy reading, they’ll buy and read almost anything. For them, “good enough” can be good enough… until really great writers show up and offer them something better.

That’s true in fiction and in nonfiction.

The more books you publish, the more you can earn. Book quality, cover design, book title, and book description… each can be a factor, but the basic business model is, “Find a hungry niche. Publish lots of books in it. Make money.”

The only tricky parts of the equation are (a) finding a category with desperate fans, and (b) throwing enough “good enough” books at them.

And, of course, when to move on to the next hungry-but-underserved audience.

On this path, publishing books is “just business.” To succeed with this model, you MUST separate yourself from how you feel about your books. You cannot care about snarky one-star reviews, and jeers by competing authors.

Income is all that matters. As long as the money is there, don’t change anything.

The realm of your passions

The other business models relies far less on marketing.

(If you’re at all practical, category research is probably a good idea. Not imperative, but a good idea. Obviously, Neil Gaiman can write anything he wants, and his books will sell. As he describes his process, “I make things up and write them down.” But, even Neil Gaiman had to build his career, gradually.)

Let’s say you love the Victorian era. If you could “live” in that era, in your mind, and write books, that would be bliss. So, you might write Victorian romance, mysteries, adventures, steampunk, dreadpunk, or books in any other genre that can be kinda-sorta set in a Victorian context.

Maybe you’re a mystery buff. You’re as happy crafting “locked-room” mysteries as you are writing whimsical cozy mysteries, or even police procedurals.

Or, maybe you’re a nonfiction writer, and love producing books about the latest weight-loss trends, or musing about royalty, past and present.

Perhaps you wake up each day, eager to see the latest news about UFOs, reptilian aliens, or treasure hunting opportunities. You can hardly wait to share your enthusiasm with others, in your books.

If you know that there’s an audience — even a small one — and you write with passion, insights, and originality, you can build a successful career as an author/publisher. Whether it’s as fast a route to success as the first business model… that’s a coin flip.

With either of these two approaches, you don’t have to have a bazillion eager fans.

The 1000 True Fans rule applies: Produce enough things (books, audios, courses, mouse pads… whatever) that your 1000-or-so fans keep buying, and you’re set for life.

(If you like that concept, here’s Kevin Kelly explaining it in 2016.)

But, whether or not the 1000 True Fans concept seems practical, the real question is which business model will make you happier, long term.

(I’m assuming that — until we live in a Star Trek-ish reality with a guaranteed basic income — paying your bills is an essential part of “happier.”)

Each of those two business models — publishing for money or writing for love — can involve equal amounts of passion and energy. Each can be equally satisfying, depending upon your goals.

With one approach, you take pride in your ability to meet audience demand quickly, with just enough effort to see your income grow.

With the other, you’re immersed in a very personal world where you are happy. Money is secondary. You’re thrilled if you can earn enough to “live” in the world of your books, every day. Or even a few hours a day. Or on weekends.

Is a hybrid path the answer?

Many aspiring authors decide on a hybrid path.

That’s a business model that uses “hungry audience” book categories as a springboard to achieve your long-terms goals as an author.

To start, you can spend hours (days, or even weeks) researching different book categories, to find desperate, under-served readers. Then, you’ll identify the essential tropes necessary to sell to them.

Or, you’ll pay a consultant (or join a related mastermind-ish group) to identify those categories and tropes for you.

And then you’ll publish books in the recommended categories.

That income will pay the bills while you work on your true love… the books you love to write.

Fingers crossed, by the time you’ve hit burnout as a “good enough” publisher, your own books are reaching an appreciative audience and the income is good.

At that point, you no longer need the “good enough” books to pay the bills.

But, as Godin suggests in his article, that hybrid path can be the most toxic choice among the three. No matter how “quick, cheap, and easy” the shortcuts seem… sometimes, they aren’t.

Shortcuts – do they cost too much?

There’s the financial cost of business consultants & memberships, hiring ghostwriters, and advertising.

There’s the emotional cost. To be honest, turning out “good enough” books can feel like a sham. It can erode your creative soul and embitter you.

But, being practical, you say to yourself, “It’s this or working in fast food,” while you’re building the career of your dreams.

(Okay, it may not be that extreme. However, even a pretty good 9-to-5 job — more like an 8-to-7 job, now — can leave you with little energy for your own writing. “Publishing to market” — as some call the first, hungry market business model — can be a far better alternative.)

On the flip side, if you pour your heart and soul into your own books, you run the risk of not being recognized for your work… not in your lifetime, anyway.

(You may also pour buckets of money into high-priced editors, cover designers, and book marketers.)

You can feel just as jaded as the “I’m in it for the money” indie publisher.

So, neither path is a sure thing. Even the “it’s just a business” approach can fall flat, if a book category isn’t as viable as it looked… or if (and when) too many others start exploiting it.

Sometimes, decisions aren’t easy

If you’re trying to earn a living wage from books, trial-and-error may be necessary.

I’ve been a full-time writer/author/publisher for over a dozen years now. I used to write for sites like Suite 101 and for Write For Cash, earning $15 per article. I averaged about $10/hour, and supplemented it with Google AdSense income, back when that was viable.

I still work with traditional publishers. I’m still under contract, but only for books I write in a specific nonfiction sub-niche. I also write large portions of seasonal, traditionally published anthologies.

And, I’ve been self-published (indie) for decades.

My current business model (late 2016)

Right now, my hybrid to-do list includes a tangle of book projects. Over the next year, I hope to narrow it to two main categories.

  • As of September 2016, I’ve spent months writing short fiction in “hungry audience” sub-genres. Fortunately, I like these sub-genres. (This route isn’t as easy as it sounds in sales letters.)
  • I’m writing nonfiction in a niche I love, and where I have some fame. But — to be honest — that audience tends not to buy books. (I absolutely love my fans. Thank heavens for Kindle Unlimited “pages read” income, and libraries that buy print copies of my books.)
  • I’m publishing coloring books and related nonfiction, which provides a little more income each month. They’re fun, and the fan mail is wonderful.
  • I’m writing the occasional topical book (my fast nonfiction) for quick cash. It’s exhausting but profitable… in spurts.
  • And, I’m working on short fiction in sub-genres that I’m more-or-less making up. They’re what I enjoy, but even those short books take time… lots of time, as I weave story threads in my mind. I scribble long passages on pads of lined, yellow paper. And then I rewrite them the next day. Gradually, those stories take shape.

With lots of different book projects providing income, I’m able to put any one kind of work to one side, if I need a break from it. I’ll return to it, weeks or months later, with a positive outlook and fresh energy.

However, books and creative projects are my “day job.” Every morning, I can choose what to work on. I know that I’m lucky/blessed in that respect.

Are you making great stuff?

So, I’m looking at Seth Godin’s article, and nodding my head in agreement. Making great stuff is the best path of all.

The challenge for most of us is: finding a personal path that’s practical, but leaves us enough energy & enthusiasm to pursue our great stuff.

The answer is not one-size-fits-all. Some false starts may be involved, and a few glimmers may fizzle out.

Of course, guard your bank account. Investing in every “shiny thing” that shows up in your mailbox or in conversation… that’s a Very Bad Idea.

But, more importantly, guard your creative soul. If you’re doing anything that puts it in jeopardy, look for another, better path.

“Overnight success” may not be on your menu of options.

Find a path you’re contented with. Find one that — even if it meanders — is leading you in the direction of your dreams.

And, if you have a minute or two, let me know what that is. Leave a comment. I’d love to know what you’re working on, and what you’d love to be writing.

Nonfiction: My One-Day Book, and How I Wrote It

Yesterday, I woke up with an idea for a new, nonfiction book.

Since I’ve spent the last couple of months refining my fiction-writing process — and feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels — I desperately needed to publish something. Anything, really.

So yesterday, when I sat down at my cluttered desk, I gathered up all the papers, reference books, and stray Pringles potato chips (guilty pleasure), and put them on top of the nearest bookcase.

I decided to write and publish a book in one day, even if it meant going without sleep to complete it.

The process took 14 hours. That includes two walks — for exercise and to clear my head — time spent browsing the Internet for references for a totally different book, and several breaks in front of the TV.

alarm clockHere’s what I did, hour-by-hour.

4 AM – 5 AM

  • A brief breakfast.
  • Jotted notes and a mini-mindmap of the book idea.
  • Checked my email and Facebook to see if anything needed urgent attention. (Only a couple of things needed my attention.)
  • Researched the book topic and printed a few references to look at, later, as I was writing.

5 AM – 6:30 AM

  • Created my book cover. I always start with the cover. When I don’t, my books don’t seem to have enough focus. For me, the cover is what the book is about.

Supplies & tools I used:

  • A cover illustration from GraphicStock.com. I have an annual subscription. I think this is my second year with them, but it might be my third. They’re good, not great, but certainly useful enough for my purposes.
  • Fonts from FontSquirrel.com. They’re free and safe for use in commercial projects.
  • Photoshop. I’m using Photoshop CS3, bought from eBay. (Yes, I know the risks of that. My original, legal copy of Photoshop didn’t transfer well to my new computer, and my original CDs are in storage in NH.) This copy isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough for my needs. Support from the seller (an authorized Adobe seller) was excellent, the one time I had a question.

6:30 AM – 9 AM

  • Gathered my notes. Set up my computer for writing.
  • Started dictating my book, and completed the first 1,692 words of it. That’s about 800 words/hour. Not bad, for first thing in the morning.

Tools I used:

  • Dragon Naturally Speaking (Version 11, already on installed my computer). When I upgrade, I’ll get the Premium edition, so I can dictate books into a voice recorder when I’m on the road or taking a walk.
  • My microphone, an old Samson Q1U mic that seems to work better than my Blue Snowball, for dictating to Dragon. (I also have a standard foam cover for the mic, which helps filter any pops or sputters.)
  • The hands-free hardware that holds it so I can lean back in my chair and look out the window, and talk.
  • I dictate into Notepad. It uses the fewest computer resources, and seems to play nicely with Dragon. Better than OpenOffice does, or Scrivener.
  • All of those tricks (and more) came from reading The Writer’s Guide to Training Your Dragon.

9 AM – 10 AM

  • Took my morning walk to clear my thoughts, and to come up with fresh ideas to include in the book, or at least improve it. (And, oh yes, the exercise is good for me.)
  • Had an opportunity to promote my coloring books to friends-of-a-friend that I saw during my walk.

10 AM – 11:30 AM

  • Tweaked the book cover. (During my walk, I’d come up with a better title.)
  • Talked with my husband.
  • Corrected and lightly edited what I’d already written.
  • Did more research online. Well… to be honest, I got sidetracked. I probably spent an hour reading news stories, catching up on friends’ blogs, and watching ridiculously cute animal videos.

11:30 AM – 4:30 PM

  • Wrote, and wrote some more. (All of it via Dragon.)
  • Went through the usual phase of “I hate this book, it’s awful, no one will ever read it, and I’m a terrible writer.”
  • And then I got past that.
  • Kept writing, taking 5 or 10 minute breaks every 45 minutes or so. (That’s not enough. I should be taking more frequent breaks, and a longer one every hour or so.)

4:30 PM – 5:30 PM

  • Went for another walk. Had another “ah-HA!” idea to improve it.
  • Took a break for dinner, and to catch up on what’s new at Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon. Added far too many things to my queues.

5:30 PM – 7 PM

  • Completed my book. Before edits, it was around 7k words. Maybe a little less.
  • Edited the book with the desktop version of the Hemingway Editor, formerly called the Hemingway App. I edit inside the editor, and then cut-and-paste the results into Scrivener. (I could not use that software until I took David Lee Martin’s course, Scrivener Unleashed. He was the first person to explain Scrivener in a way that made sense to me.)

7 PM – 8:30-ish

  • Re-read the book and edited it again. Fixed typos that Scrivener pointed out to me. The final version was around 5,000 words. That’s a “short read,” exactly as I’d intended.
  • Formatted the book in Scrivener. (It took me about four tries to remember which settings do what. I need to jot them down, so I don’t do this with, oh, every single book.)
  • Published the book in KDP.
  • Sat back, then went to the kitchen to make dinner, and spent the rest of the evening flipping through our Roku channels, deciding what to watch.

Around 9:30 PM, I realized how exhausted I was, and my husband convinced me that I needed sleep. (He was right.)

But, I woke up this morning with another book selling at Amazon. That’s a victory. I feel UNstuck as a writer/publisher.

Okay… it’s a kind of embarrassing book (but not porn), with a throwaway pen name I’ll never admit to, but it’s a book. And, for the intended audience, it’s a pretty good book.

I set it to sell for 99-cents (US), and it’s in Kindle Unlimited. I know that the intended audience tends to borrow books (via Kindle Unlimited) rather than buy them, so that’s where I expect to see the most income from it.

So… that was my day. I’m pleased with the results. And, I hope those insights and tips are helpful to you and your writing.

Puzzle Books – Fun or Folly?

crossword puzzlePuzzle book courses seem to be trending, for good reason. The market isn’t the “hot, new thing,” but if you publish lots of puzzle books, the income can be steady.

And by “lots,” I don’t mean five or six… I mean dozens. Perhaps hundreds, if you expect a living wage from these books.

If you’ve always dreamed of building a puzzle book empire, that may sound okay. Maybe even fun.

However, solving puzzles is one thing; designing them — by the hundreds (for just one book) — and then preparing the pages for publishing… that’s something else.

Even after the book looks ready to publish, your work is far from over. You’ll still need to complete every single puzzle yourself (or hire people to test-drive them) to be absolutely, positively certain every puzzle can be solved.

The good news is: Once you create systems — and make use of available software (and perhaps some outsourced help) — puzzle books aren’t quite as arduous as they may seem, at first.

But… is this the best use of your time & resources?

Sure, puzzle books can provide steady income — a little here, a little there — IF you publish enough really good puzzle books.

To earn enough to quit your day job… that’s another matter.

How much can you earn?

When I look at a new publishing niche, I study the numbers.

I focus on two things:

  1. Can I break into the top 20 for that category? That is, can I get my book on the first page buyers see at Amazon when they search for a book like mine.
  2. If I manage to reach #20 on that page, are the earnings worthwhile?

You can read the details of my analysis, at the foot of this article (below the horizontal pencil graphic).

Here are the cut-to-the-chase insights:

First of all, I would not try to compete at the top-level category, Books > Humor & Entertainment > Puzzles & Games. I’d be competing with 54,544 other books.

I’d aim for something like the Sudoku sub-category. There, I’m competing with closer to 11,000 books.

If I publish a 140-page Sudoku puzzle book (around 125 puzzle pages) and price it at $5 to compete with the best-sellers, and I achieve a spot on the first page of Sudoku puzzle books, I’ll earn between $3.76 and $31.96 per day.

That’s between $112.80 and $958.80 per month, before taxes, for a book that’s outselling the other 10,530 (or so) in this category.

If my only reason to create puzzle books was to earn money, this would not be a field I’d get into.

For me, writing fiction and nonfiction is a far safer bet.

Still interested?

But… let’s say you don’t care about the money. And, perhaps your brain is already wired for puzzles, so you’re eager to leap into puzzle book publishing.

If so, create a few puzzles to see if you enjoy this.

Search for “free [kind of puzzle] creation software” at Google or any search engine.

Here are some links to get you started. Frankly, I just did a quick Google search, and haven’t tried any of these.

(Of course, free software rarely performs as well as programs that, you know, cost money. If you decide to publish puzzle books, you’ll probably want to invest in really good software that produces reliable puzzles.)

Do you need a course?

For most people, some training is necessary before you even try to get into the puzzle book field.

Really, there are nuances involved… things that never even crossed my mind. You’ll also want the latest software advice. Personally, I wouldn’t even try to publish a puzzle book without a great mentor, how-to guide, or course.

I haven’t seen the September 2016 course that’s offered by Shawn Hansen. In the past, she’s been a star when it comes to delivering insightful, geeky goodness in her courses & reports. http://5minutecovers.com/go/qepbb/*

Also, her course is about tactics to succeed in the puzzle book market. She doesn’t teach how to create the puzzles. That’s a different topic.

I’ve heard that Shawn’s course will start at $67 when it launches. After that, it will go up in price, at least twice… dramatically.

So, I recommend buying that course early if this looks like a match for your interests. (And, my usual advice: Be sure any course, report, or product comes with a money-back guarantee, unless you read a very positive review by someone you trust.)

If you’ve read this far, here’s what I suggest.

  1. Test-drive free puzzle-making software, first.
  2. Create at least two dozen puzzles.(I suggest creating 50. Then, if you go ahead with this project, you have at least half the puzzles you’ll need to publish your first book.)
  3. Print those puzzles, take out your pencil & eraser, and solve them.
  4. Decide if this is fun or merely mind-numbing work.

Then, if publishing puzzle books seems to be one of the coolest things in the world, take a good course. Otherwise, it’s like jumping in at the deep end of the pool. You’ll spend far too much time & money, trying to publish that first book.

Courses I’ve tried

As I said, Shawn’s course is one of the latest in this field. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say whether it’s a “must buy” for serious puzzle book publishers. (At this point, I’m unlikely to buy it.)

UPDATE: I watched her free webinar, and she mentioned something important — a tip I’d picked up, years ago, from a no-longer-available course called “Kindle Rockstar.”

That tip was kind of important. Not necessarily for puzzle books (which I still think are a ho-hum way to make money), but for my other book research.

In addition, Shawn reminded viewers that her branding is kind of brilliant. She gets branding for these kinds of books (including coloring books).

To be frank, I don’t. My coloring books sell pretty well, but I need her insights. She said she talks about branding in the first lesson of the puzzle book course, and — at the moment — that’s far less expensive than her coloring book course.

So, though I’m still skeptical of the viability of puzzle books, I did buy her course, about an hour before she raised the price higher than $67.

I haven’t watched the lessons yet, so I can’t say whether this was a great purchase or a waste of $67. However, I’m fairly confident I’ll get enough from her advice, to tweak my coloring books and earn back what I spent on the puzzle book course.

In the past, I liked Andy’s guide* to creating Sudoku books, and gave it a rave review (mine is the fourth comment on that page). I received it as a review copy, but I would have liked it anyway.

Andy’s course provided a wealth of information. If you’re a Sudoku enthusiast and would love to start creating puzzles for others, that’s a solid starting point.

Important: That course is only about Sudoku puzzle books, not other kinds of puzzles. However, many of the concepts can apply to crossword puzzle books, word search puzzle books, and so on.

I’ve also seen another, more recent “puzzle publishing profits” course by someone else. The basic $17 report tried to cover far more puzzle book options than Andy’s course. Perhaps too many. In addition, you’d need the $37 upsell to learn about the best resources.

For a truly dedicated puzzle book publisher, that cost might be worthwhile. I wasn’t comfortable recommending it, so I didn’t review it, and won’t link to it, here.

So, those are my thoughts on this field. Whether you see it as fun or folly will depend upon your reasons for publishing puzzle books.

*The only affiliate links at this website are Amazon links. I don’t earn a cent if you buy a report, course, or other product that I recommend.

In other writing news (FICTION)…

In the past week or so, I’ve created some new writing systems to streamline my time at the keyboard.

Yes, I’ve been working on templates and systems, for months. Now, after lots of trial-and-error — and progressively simplifying my templates — I think I’ve found what works for me.

The ingredients:

  1. An expanded GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) grid. (Actually, at least two per story: One grid for the person’s life goals at that point in time. Then, a second grid for the person’s goal/s after the “inciting incident” changes everything. That is: the person’s goal within that story or series.) If you’re a fiction writer and haven’t read Debra Dixon’s “Goal, Motivation & Conflict” book, ask for it at your public library. If they don’t have a copy, order directly from the author. (Amazon stocks only used copies, and they’re ridiculously overpriced.)
  2. A story template based (mostly) on Try-Fail cycles (and one Try-Succeed). The template is loosely structured on Dan Wells’ story outline, or — if you can deal with really NSFW language — Chuck Wendig’s What Exactly Makes A Damn Good Story?
  3. Dragon NaturallySpeaking (I’m using version 11), following the exact directions I learned in Scott Baker’s “The Writers Guide to Training Your Dragon…” (I’ve been using speech recognition software since the 1990s, and tried Dragon about a year ago. It was okay, but not great. Now, using the advice in Baker’s book, my writing speed doubled the first day, and doubled again the next day. Go ahead. Spend the $2.99 for his advice. You’ll thank me, later.)

Yesterday, I completed the first draft of a book I’d been wrestling with for weeks. And, I easily met my word count. All of this is equals a major breakthrough for me.

I’m taking today off, and will start editing the book tomorrow.

If this system continues to work well, I’ll happily share my methods with you. For now, those starting points — GMC, Try-Fail cycles, and the book about speech recognition software — may be all you need to increase your productivity.

pencil

Just for geeks: Here’s how I evaluated the puzzle books marketplace at Amazon

To decide whether an Amazon category is worth my time, I use KD Spy to see Kindle numbers, even if I plan to publish a printed book, not an ebook.

(Most puzzle books are printed. Amazon frowns on publishing a Kindle book that requires a later download — even if it’s free — from your website.)

This morning’s KD Spy summary for “puzzle books” isn’t encouraging. In the lower right corner, their analysis suggests only so-so popularity (yellow), with not-great (red) potential, and lots of competition (also red).
However, as I said: KD Spy is designed to evaluate Kindle books, not printed books.

puzzle books - summary of oppty

warning!So, my next step is to check printed puzzle books, manually.

Once again, I’m looking at the top 20 books that Amazon displays when I search for “puzzle books.”

The top-level category, Books > Humor & Entertainment > Puzzles & Games, has 54,544 books competing for the first page. I wouldn’t aim for that level. Not at first, anyway.

Instead, I’m looking at Sudoku puzzle books. In that niche, I’m competing with 10,479 books.

Since I’m a Sudoku fan, I already know that a lot of those books were published using really bad software that turns out as many as 50 puzzles with one click.

So, if I publish a genuinely good book, I might be competing with 5,000 other good books. Maybe fewer. For me, those numbers are okay.

The current #1 book in Amazon’s Sudoku category is ranked #1,903 in Books.

That translates to 68 copies/day, earning 47 cents per copy in royalties, or about $31.96/day income. In a 30-day month, that’s less than $1,000 (US) income, even before I subtract expenses and what I’ll set aside for taxes.

Can I actually break into that category? Maybe. That #1 book is indie published via CreateSpace, so the category isn’t tyrannized by the big publishers.

Getting back to Amazon’s first page for Sudoku books, I want to see how well I could do if I clawed my way up to the lowest-ranked position.

The #20 book in that category is ranked #61,157 at Amazon.

Err… that’s about three books sold, per day. Worse, it’s from a mainstream publisher, who can afford to sell the 320-page book for $7.73. (If you tried to do the same thing as an indie through CreateSpace, you’d lose money on every copy sold.)

But let’s say I publish a book with about 125 puzzles (140 pages) and it reaches the midpoint on Amazon’s first page of Sudoku puzzle books.

The #10 book is currently ranked #26,430, so it’s selling about eight copies/day. If my profit is the same as I calculated for the #1 book (47 cents/copy), I’ll earn $3.76 (US) per day, or $112.80/month, before expenses & taxes.

I can earn far more money from fiction and nonfiction, especially if I publish printed books (via CreateSpace) and in Kindle (and allow my books to be borrowed).

The bottom line: Unless you’re rabidly enthusiastic about creating and publishing puzzle books, this niche is strictly for fun & to cover your Starbucks tab, or something like that.

Advice for a First-Time Indie Author

Curious George toy

The following is edited from PMs I’d exchanged with a first-time fiction writer. Much of this probably isn’t new for anyone regularly reading my blog, but it may provide others with some fresh insights.

Here’s the backstory: Earlier this week, I’d read a friend’s wife’s historical novel. She’d published it in Kindle herself. I was impressed by her writing skills.

As we swapped messages, she asked if I write outlines for my books.

I replied:

Yes, I do outline. I work with a few things, starting with a page of notes (on yellow, lined paper), then I use the “middle school” outline: https://katherinekingauthor.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/but-and-so-your-way-to-plot-summary-the-middle-school-approach-to-plot/

After that, I fill in Larry Brooks’ old tent-style story structure form, to figure the story beats: http://www.realmofsavage.com/download/writing/8-5x11_TentBeatSheet.pdf (Explained here: http://storyfix.com/two-more-killer-visual-story-development-tools )

And then, I write my outline. If it’s a romance, I use Katherine King’s “Love Plot” but a lot of friends like Gwen Hayes’ “Romancing the Beat.” There are other options, as well.

Then, seeing her Amazon rank (and what it meant, in sales), I suggested a few marketing tips that might improve her visibility and sales.

Here’s what I recommended:

1. Use the Hemingway Editor on the first five or so pages, to make the “look inside” easier (meaning: simpler phrasing) to read.

After readers have read more of your book, and they’re used to your writing “voice,” readability and sentence lengths are less important.

However, for marketing, your text needs to be super-simple for readers to get into. Even on the Amazon sales page, you want readers to be caught up in the story from the very start.

I have the Hemingway Editor on my desktop, but you can use it, free, at the website. http://www.hemingwayapp.com/ <— Just highlight their sample text, remove it, and paste in part of your opening. (The software was originally called the “Hemingway App,” and a lot of long-time writers — including me — still call it that.)

2. [She had published using her real name.] Add a co-author name — one you make up — that will be your future pen name, and republish your book.

So, at Amazon (etc.), the authors (two names on the cover) will be your real name, with a second, co-author name you choose, as well.

(I like to find interesting names in my family tree, from the era I’m writing in, and select one as my pen name. Sometimes, book sales will improve with a pen name that’s related to the genre or time period you’re writing about.)

That way, people who know you (in real life) can find this book, but your fans will start following your pen name… and you keep most of your privacy.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of setting up boundaries, early, to protect your privacy and your family’s. Trust me on this. Please. Fans can be a little overzealous. Sometimes in scary ways.

3. Add a subtitle, saying what the book is about. Tell people the time period, and what the genre is. For example, I’m working on Regency romances right now, so my titles (with subtitles) will be something like “The Dangerous Duke – A Regency Romance.”

4. If you can, hire someone to design a professional-looking book cover. The right book cover will pay for itself, quickly.

I recommend going to Fiverr.com and hiring vikncharlie. (That’s her username.) https://www.fiverr.com/vikncharlie/design-you-an-awesome-book-cover

You can hire her at the lowest price and get something pretty good, but I give her about $35 and she creates something amazing for me. In addition, I can use the cover on my Kindle (etc.) books, as well as my printed (CreateSpace) books.

And, any graphics she uses… you can be certain they’re legal to use. (I can’t say that about all Fiverr cover designers.)

Those are the basics, as far as I’m concerned. You can follow-up with more professional marketing, including help from Fiverr book marketer, bknights, and some well-targeted Facebook ads.

A good book deserves the best marketing you can give it. Of course, your marketing efforts shouldn’t compromise your time (or budget) for actually producing books.

Nevertheless, if you’re publishing books at all, they should be good books and have enough marketing to be discovered by hungry readers in your sub-genre.

photo courtesy freeimages.com and J Aaron Farr

Writing Plots with Movie Story Beats

Earlier this month, I talked about creating story beats and plot templates from movies. Several people wanted to know exactly how I do this, and then use those beats to craft plots.

If “story beats” aren’t familiar to you, a three-act version is at Live, Write, Breathe. Personally, I like Larry Brooks’ beats,  featured in one of Jami Gold’s spreadsheets. Or, you could just watch Dan Wells’ videos — at this website — and learn almost everything you need.

(Only for plotting geeks: Larry Brooks’ Beat Sheet Basics 101.)

What I Do

movie ticket
photo courtesy FreeImages and Kevin Abbott.

It’s especially easy to find story beats if you watch movies from the late 1990s through the present day.

These are the steps I use:

  1. I select a movie with a theme that appeals to me as a general plot premise.
  2. If I haven’t seen the movie before, or if I haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll sit down and watch the movie from start to finish. Sometimes, I take notes about important moments in the plot, as they occur.
  3. After that, I figure the length of the movie, in minutes. (Usually, this includes the opening titles and closing credits, but your results may vary.)
  4. I divide that in half. That tells me — usually within two or three minutes on either side — where the story’s Midpoint is.
  5. I divide each of those sections into three exactly equal (in minutes) parts. The first “break” in the pre-Midpoint section is the First Plot Point, and it’s usually within three minutes of that break.
  6. At the second break, you’ll usually find the First Pinch Point. That’s the twist in the plot, and it’s followed by the Midpoint.
  7. After that, the breaks will be at the Second Pinch Point (another twist to increase story tension) and the Second Plot Point (a somewhat dramatic change)… and then you’re at the Resolution, followed by the closing credits.

In most modern, American-made films, you can practically set your watch by those points. I’m not kidding.

However, the big variable is whether you’re counting from when the movie starts to when the screen goes dark, OR if you’re counting from when the opening titles conclude, to when the closing credits start.

From what I’ve seen so far, at least 80% of the time, you can safely measure from the moment the film starts to when the closing credits conclude.

Example: While You Were Sleeping

The movie, While You Were Sleeping, is 1:42 long, which means 102 minutes.

I’ve seen it many times in the past, so I just skipped ahead to see the story beats.

First, I fast-forwarded to the halfway point, at 51 minutes. Bingo. It’s where Jack & Lucy slip on the ice and nearly kiss. That’s the Midpoint. No doubt about it.

Going back to find the First Plot Point, I can argue that the First Plot Point is at the 14-minutes point, where Elsie needs her nitroglycerin and Lucy finds out she “saved the whole family.” (No pressure, right…?)

However, the First Plot Point is probably right where it should be, around the 17-minutes mark, where Lucy can’t sleep and confesses everything to Peter (in a coma), and Saul overhears her. A lot of the remaining plot is based on Lucy’s assumption that Saul will tell the family the truth.

At the 34-minutes mark…? Joe Jr. tells Jack that he’s “dating” Lucy (with a rude gesture to make his point clear), and Jack really starts suspecting that Lucy is conning everyone.

After that, I already know the Midpoint is at the 51-minutes mark, so I keep fast-forwarding.

At the 68-minutes mark, Peter wakes up and doesn’t recognize Lucy. (Ouch!) That’s the Second Pinch Point.

And then, at the 86-minutes mark, Peter proposes to Lucy and she accepts. That’s the final big change (Second Plot Point) before the Resolution.

Except that the proposal is about a minute late (which I can forgive), this is a movie that fits the pattern, perfectly.

I haven’t built a generic plot from this, yet. Nevertheless, I used some of those beats in a recent story. They were heavily mixed with beats from another film, and from a TV series.

That’s because I rarely use a single generic plot (based on a recent movie) for my stories.

… And that leads us to the topic of originality.

Copyrights, Intellectual Property (IP), and Story Beats

First of all, the disclaimer: though my MIT years involved lots of legal work involving copyright and plagiarism, and weekly consultations with copyright lawyers (to be sure I was getting everything right), I’m an editor and writer, not an attorney.

So, the following is not legal advice; it’s just my understanding of it. Double-check everything, if you have any questions at all.

With that in mind, I think the most important point is: No one can copyright an idea. If someone’s general (not specific) idea seems like a great premise — a brilliant start to a story concept — you may be able to use it in your own, very different story context.

Maybe.

(Keep reading. I’ll explain.)

Copyright law falls within the larger topic of intellectual property.  However, when writers talk about “intellectual property” (aka, IP), we usually mean property (an actual thing, like a book or a movie or a game) that results from original creative thought.

As the University of Huddersfield (UK) explains, “The basic idea behind IP is… to ensure that a creation is not copied or used without permission and to protect the economic rewards of the creators.”

That part can be complex, and the issue has been debated for decades.

From Hammer Film Productions‘ remakes to less obvious uses of others’ IP, the practice of using others’ stories isn’t new. In some cases, lawsuits result. In others, they don’t.

(Tip: Don’t think about blatantly copying anything from Harry Potter books. However, you may find a different popular “world” you can safely write about, at Kindle Worlds.)

Of course, public domain movies and stories are fair game. Just be certain they’re actually in the public domain. (For example, some rights to Peter Pan are still protected in the United States and some other countries.)

From Disney’s Snow White and Cinderella, to TV series like Once Upon a Time to Grimm, old stories and tropes can be revised for success.  (Even Disney’s hit, Frozen, was based on one of The Snow Queen stories.)

And then there are mashups, like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

However, I don’t advocate closely copying any existing story or film plot. Not unless you want your readers to get to page three and say, “Wait. I already know how this will end. It’s the same as the [fill in the blank] story.”

Morphing Generic Story Beats

For fun (and possibly profit), I like to take story beats, like those in America’s Sweethearts, and distill them down to a series of plot points that are plain-vanilla and very generic. In many cases, those general plots could match any of a dozen films, and perhaps more.

Then, I make some changes… big changes. They could be shifting the time period. Or, I might switch genders, so the female role in the film is the male in my story, and vice versa.

Or, more often, I do a mashup of my generic story beats.

I’m not unique. For example, I can see a mix of The Ugly Duckling and (even more obvious) Cinderella in the film, The Devil Wears Prada. That’s the tip of the iceberg. There are even quizzes that mashup movie plots.

My point is: If you’re going to use this movie approach to plotting, it’s a good idea to start with the most generic story beats possible. Make sure you’re using conceptual points, not anything that points to one — and only one — movie. Then mix two or three sets of them.

Use the general premise from one, the First Plot Point from another, and a twist (Second Pinch Point) from a third.

(If you’re writing genre romance, the Midpoint is often the kiss or near-kiss, so you don’t need to “borrow” that from anything. It’s a classic romance trope.)

This can save a lot of time, and result in a great, timeless plot that you can use over and over again, in several different novels.

I hope that’s helpful. And, if you don’t want to sit through a bunch of movies with a calculator, pen, and pad of paper, remember that you can get story beats — as “beat sheets” — from Blake Snyder’s site.

If you have any questions, let me know. I can’t give legal advice, but I’m happy to explain how I work with story beats in my own books.

Movies as Story Beats / Plot Templates

heart of heartsI’m working with a premise that’s very loosely based on the 2001 movie, “America’s Sweethearts.” To simplify the plotting, I created a quick story beats summary, I took the key transitional moments (as I saw them) in the movie… and then I made them generic.

I’m sure I’ll use this as a template for several books.

Please don’t share these links. (And, I may delete this article in a few days.) I’d rather not see a bazillion books that are more-or-less the same story, over & over again.

(Yes, many successful genre fiction stories are the same few stories, told different ways. I just don’t want this particular story/theme to show up in a dozen-or-so books in the same sub-genre I’m writing in, all at the same time.)

The following PDFs show how I’m working with this concept. And: full credit goes to Geoff Shaw’s “Reverse Engineering” method taught in his superb Udemy course.

http://eibhlin.com/writing/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/AmericasSweethearts1a.pdf

http://eibhlin.com/writing/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/AmericasSweethearts2.pdf

Also, if you haven’t seen the movie (which I recommend to romance writers), my PDFs contain spoilers. The film is on Netflix right now, so you may want to watch it, first. It’s a romantic comedy with some suggestive jokes, but no nudity.

P.S. Some of these plot points are similar to story elements in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park.” Mary Crawford is a lot like “Mary” in my 2nd PDF. I didn’t realize that until I re-read the PDF.

And now… back to writing!

Product Reviews for Authors – July 2016

hand_writingIt’s been awhile since I posted my product recommendations. Here are some recent writing-related products that have stood out, as great, pretty good, … or not worth the money.

*Britt Malka’s course, Socrates Plotting, is a winner. You’ll start with an idea. Not a full premise, just a line or character or idea that you like, but don’t know how to develop into a scene, much less a plot.

Using Britt’s “Socrates” method, I came up with four great plots in under an hour. (And that was at the end of a long day, when I was almost too tired to think.)

So, I recommend her report.

Speaking of plotting, since I’m working on some romance novellas, I’ve been scrambling to find good plot templates to work with. For full-length romance stories (40k words or longer), I recommend The Love Plot, by Katherine King.

Romancing the beatAt the moment, I’m trying to merge her advice with tips & templates from Quickies: Writing Short Fiction for the Romance Market, and Romancing the Beat.

I laughed my way through Romancing the Beat, and Gwen Hayes has a great (free) Scrivener template you can use, too. It’s designed for full-length romances, but it can work for shorter books, as well.

If you’re writing romance of any kind (or word count), I think her Romancing the Beat book is a must-read.

Quickies Short Fiction Romance MarketBy contrast, Quickies… is specifically for those of us writing shorter romances, and I like the simplicity of her concepts. However, some are a little too simple for my taste. Also, the book has some obvious typos and regrettable editing, but I could overlook them.

I strongly recommend Quickies… if you’re trying to plot a compelling romance for a book that will be 15k words or less. She offers some really useful tips to get the most emotional impact into shorter-length works.

Also, for all kinds of books (not just romance), I’m a major fan of K. M. Weiland’s advice, so I love her article, How to Write the Perfect Plot (in 2 Easy Steps).

And, if you’d like to see a template I’m developing, specifically for Regency Romance novellas, see my article, A Typical Regency Romance Template? (Don’t expect much. It’s still a work in progress.)

Also, since I first recommended it, the out-of-print book, How to Write and Market the Regency Romance, has become very expensive. (It’s $47 or more, as I’m writing this.)

I bought my copy when the price was under $20.

It’s a little dated, but it’s still one of the very best books you’ll find about writing Regency Romance books that will please readers and continue to sell for years to come. So, I think it’s worth owning, even at a high price… but only if you’re serious about writing Regencies.

RomanceNovelsForDummiesIn addition, I like Writing a Romance Novel, for Dummies. It’s by one of Harlequin Books’ most respected editors, and she definitely knows romance. At the moment, you can snag a used copy for around $1.50 plus shipping. I recommend it.

Getting back to course reviews: if you’re tempted to take the Udemy course, “Short Story Outlines – Romance Book 1,” don’t bother. The instructor probably had some good ideas to start with. However, the content was so strange, disconnected, and confusing, it’s the only Udemy course that’s been so awful, I asked for a refund. (The money was back in my PayPal account within minutes.)

If you like Udemy — and I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with their new interface — I enthusiastically recommend any course by Geoff Shaw. I think I’ve taken every Udemy course he offers, and love every one of them. I’ve gone through his Short Reads course at least three times, and keep learning more from it.

His Reverse Engineering for plots course was also excellent, but some people won’t get what he’s talking about. If you’re the kind of person who sees patterns in things (and can apply those patterns to slightly dissimilar things) I think you’ll like this.  Otherwise, the value of that one course might elude you.

Everything else Geoff has at Udemy… it earns my unqualified praise.

And now, a few products I’ve seen in the past week:

*Britt’s Female Character Sketches are reports based on genre fiction archetypes. They’re also part of the easiest and best mix-and-match system I’ve seen for creating female characters with depth.

I saw her product before she released it, and I’m not sure it’s available yet. But, if/when you see it, if you’d like a sweet, simple shortcut to creating female characters… snag Britt’s system.

I strongly recommend it.

On the other hand, I didn’t like the course called Book-A-Day Kindle Short Reads. I think the guy’s basic ideas may have been good, but the product was a huge disappointment. It’s not well-organized, and many of his suggestions were copied directly from articles easily found, online.

Worse, there’s no refund if you don’t like the Book-A-Day course. (I’m usually wary of any product that doesn’t come with a guarantee.)

If you’d like to write short books, fast, here’s where you can find very similar advice, free:

Michael Moorcock’s 3-Day Book Plan: http://www.wetasphalt.com/content/how-write-book-three-days-lessons-michael-moorcock

Lester Dent’s pulp formula: http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html (This is almost identical to the “Book-A-Day…” advice, which the product author admits.)

2k to 10k words a day delivers some of the best advice if you’d like to write more, faster: http://thisblogisaploy.blogspot.com/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html

And, if you’d like to try the Pomodoro Technique, you don’t need to spend a cent for that, either: http://lifehacker.com/productivity-101-a-primer-to-the-pomodoro-technique-1598992730

Shifting gears a little, let’s talk about book marketing resources.

If you’ve published books and you’d like to promote them, I’ve joined some expensive ($$$) groups that have been… well, only okay.

I like Bill Platt’s course about writing book descriptions, particularly for nonfiction. I think I’ve mentioned it before.

(For fiction, especially romance, I’m seeing studies that say a 150- to 250-word book description is ideal. You may or may not need a course in book descriptions for such a short blurb.)

However, the very best all-around book marketing course I’ve seen is Geoff Shaw and David Lee Martin’s *Author Email Recipe Book. I also like the “recipe cards” they offer as an add-on. (These “recipes” are step-by-step guides to marketing your books directly to readers, especially through mailing lists… the non-spammy kind.)

Yes, you do need a mailing list to keep in touch with your readers and fans. Otherwise, you’re relying on Amazon (etc.) to tell your fans when you’ve published something new. (And, if Amazon close your account for any reason…? You could be out of luck. Do not take that chance!)

Had I bought David’s course before the pricier ones I’ve signed up for… well, I could have saved myself over $500. Really. David’s “Author Email Recipe Book” includes better information, more clearly explained.

And, since I know at least one of David’s pen names (and can check his book sales with KD Spy), I can personally confirm that his advice works.

So, when you’re ready to market your books, David’s is the course to get. (Just don’t think it’s about cookbooks. It’s not. His course is about promoting all kinds of books, both fiction and nonfiction.)

And finally, before I close this: K-lytics remains a great resource for finding out which Amazon book niches and genres will produce the best income with the least competition. I’ve just provided them with a testimonial, because — for the price — their individual reports deliver some amazing insights. I’ve bought several, and refer to them over & over again.

So, that brings you up to date on what I’ve liked (and haven’t), very recently. I hope it’s helpful!

This is a free clipart divider.

*Products with an asterisk are those I received as review copies. That never influences my reviews.

Also, the only affiliate links I ever use are to Amazon products. I’m uncomfortable recommending products — especially expensive ones — if I’d earn money from the sale. When I write reviews, I like to avoid any conflicts of interests.