No, not just back-to-school. I’m talking about the upcoming holidays.
In the past week (third week of August 2017), I’ve seen a surprising increase in the sale of my Christmas-themed books.
In other words: holiday-related books can start selling now. It’s not too early (or too late) to write some good, useful books that focus on Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and New Year’s resolutions (diet and fitness).
Keep your readers in mind. They’re as rushed as you are during the hectic holiday season. So, they’re attracted to short how-to guides to holiday projects and celebrations.
As the saying goes, the best books for these readers are “one problem, one answer” books.
How to carve a pumpkin and light it from within. Maybe include recipes, how to dry & grow pumpkin seeds for next year, etc. (Get inspiration at Google Images for “how to carve a pumpkin design. Pick a theme and run with it!)
Make quick Halloween costumes with household items. (Again, pick a theme or a kind of supply, like old bedsheets — ghosts, togas, etc. — or thrift-shop item makeovers. <– Tip: Old prom gowns can make the best “princess dresses.”)
How to make pretty, fire-safe, luminary candle bags/displays. (In addition, maybe offer free downloads of patterns to cut themed designs?)
Thanksgiving on the barbecue. (The Weber blog has some interesting side dish ideas. Not sure which wine or dessert would go best with each, but these recipes are great starting points.)
Thanksgiving entrees for vegetarian and vegan guests. Or people on specialized diets, like the ketogenic diet, and any other new-and-trendy diets, this year.
Holiday lights (and holiday displays) on a budget. Or ideas for a particular holiday decorating theme, like Game of Thrones, Superheroes, etc. (Expand it into recipes, gift ideas (bought or homemade), and a themed Santa to deliver them to the party… your book and presentation could go viral with very little effort.)
Hanukkah traditions made simple (or embellished with rich history). (Many related sites are already updated for 2017.)
Decorate an educational, multi-cultural Christmas tree.
Keep nonfiction in mind as well. Establish yourself as an authority in one holiday niche — or expand your existing expertise to include holiday-related topics — and you might save someone’s Halloween. Or Thanksgiving. Or other holiday with an “oops” moment.
(I’m reminded of the movie, A Christmas Story, where the neighbor’s dogs almost ruined Ralphie’s family’s Christmas dinner.)
It’s not too early or too late to publish some holiday-related books. Think about trends and your personal interests, and you may uncover some great, seasonal “one problem, one answer” topics for successful Kindle books.
I’m continuing to find clarity in my writing process. Earlier this week, it came from Lynn Johnston’s The W-Plot, which showed me that my meticulously outlined scene-by-scene book was destined to fail… and how to fix it.
As I see it, it’s like any theme park thrill ride. If you don’t start the real action at a really dramatic, oh-my-goodness point, your story won’t have the momentum you need when you reach the soggy, energy-sucking middle.
But, I had to step back to see what was broken. I had to partially dismantle my plot to see where it lacked energy. It worked. Now, I’m making great progress.
Yesterday, I was working on a scene and realized I couldn’t visualize it. Not with the crisp clarity I needed, to give the scene an authentic feeling.
I stopped and sketched the hallway where it took place. And, the more I sketched, the clearer the scene was, in my mind’s eye.
This morning, I’m making sure I have all of my story’s main locations visualized.
This means maps and floor plans. A few are easy to sketch. Others… not so easy. To save time (and so I have complete, realistic settings), I’m using some online resources.
Free maps and floor plans
If you’re writing scenes that are set indoors, in a house, Floorplans.com can provide almost any modern home design you might need. 30,000+ floor plans. Just enter the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, floors, and garage bays, and you’ll see several designs that may suit your story.
(To save the floor plans and print them, right-click on the graphic and save to your hard drive. Then print that file. They actually look pretty good.)
Other options include Houseplans.com (40k floor plans), and — for those who want something entirely unique — Homestyler.com (too time-consuming for me).
Need a floor plan for another kind of building? SmartDraw.com offers several ready made designs for locations such as restaurants and offices.
EdrawSoft.com has sample plans for various kinds of buildings, rooms, and even parks. I needed a school floor plan, and they had a perfect sample, ready to download as a PDF.
(I found even more using Google Image Search, with the phrase “school floor plan samples.” It’s another way to find floor plans, etc., quickly.)
For real-life city maps, Google Maps is my first choice. However, you might also like OpenStreetMap (requires registration, free) and similar real-life map sites and apps.
If you’re using real-life hiking locations — or want to use one as inspiration for your story set in a wilderness (or very rural site) — free topographical maps may be the answer.
Or just search online using terms like “free map ________.” You may need to be specific.
I did not expect to find a free map of pubs in the British Isles that allow stopovers (campers planning to spend the night at or near the pub). If that suits your needs, or you’ve just thought of a cool story (romance? mystery?) that would take place at various pub locations, here’s the link: Pub Stopovers Map.
If you’d like to be inspired by others’ fictional maps, be sure to see Urban Geofiction. Lots of maps by many different people, for a wide range of purposes. From vague, hand-drawn sketches to finicky AutoCAD-style designs, I think you’ll be impressed by the collection at that site.
Those links are the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure you can find even more wonderful resources, if you search for them.
Paid maps and floor plans
If time is more important than saving money, gaming resources can be the answer. You’ll find maps of fictional locations, and many include very specific details about those sites’ histories, locales, interiors, etc.
My first choice is DriveThruRPG.com. You’ll find era-specific plans, location-specific plans, genre-specific plans, as well as collections of plans (and maps, of course).
All of them are designed for printing. (My free, online resources rarely provide hi-res maps and floor plans. However, in most cases, I just need the general idea of the layout, and even a 72 dpi copy can be good enough.)
At DriveThruRPG, the smallest drawings might fit on a regular sheet of printer paper. Others require lots of sheets of paper (to tile as table-size or poster-size maps and floor plans) and provide an amazing amount of detail.
Prices are usually $15 or less. I usually plan to spend about $5. Also, you’ll find many maps and floor plans listed as free or “pay what you want.”
So far, that site has been a valuable time-saver, not just for maps and floor plans, but for other kinds of fiction fodder, as well.
Be sure to remember that most of my recommendations are from sites with copyrighted images. So, though they’re great references for writing, you probably can’t use them in your book without permission.
However, if all you need is a better understanding of a scene location, these online maps and floor plans can be very useful.
I hope that’s helpful. Now, I’m going back to my book.
I hesitated. Did I really need yet another course, book — or even another article — about plotting?
I already knew about the W template for plotting. (I thought I did, anyway.) Also, between Martell’s books and James Scott Bell’s Super Structure, I figured I had 90% of what I needed.
Maybe my current ennui — my “gut feeling” — was actually nerves. Plain ol’ cold feet.
But what if it wasn’t? (I spent a lot of time talking to myself about Lynn’s course. It wasn’t just the $27, but the time it would take to watch her videos and then use her worksheets. As Mur Lafferty has reminded me, I should be writing.)
Then, I decided to go for it. I bought Lynn’s course.
Best. Decision. Ever. (Okay, more likely “best decision this month,” but — a year from now — I might decide it’s a “best ever,” after all.)
In Lynn’s first video, I saw my problem. It was kind of massive, and would have sabotaged this book. Again. * facepalm *
Seriously, I can make anything complex. And then I analyze all the little complexities, and fine-tune them so each is a work of art… and totally miss the Big Picture.
Yes, the current book had a fine, workable plot, but the initial trigger — the event that was about to change everything in my heroine’s life — it wasn’t powerful enough. Not even close.
It didn’t have enough momentum to carry the story to its conclusion.
Oh, I had all the scenes figured out. My heroine (and her romantic interest) had plenty of things to do. Things that could be complete scenes. Things with some opposition, to give the plot a little energy. (Emphasis on “little,” now that I reflect on this.)
It just wasn’t a compelling story.
Lynn’s explanation of the W plot showed me exactly where the weakest link was.
(She also showed me that most people — including me — don’t get how the W plot actually works. And how great it is for novellas and short stories, as well as full-length books.)
Wow. Through Lynn’s eyes, I saw the W plot in an entirely different light. A useful one. An important one.
Before I went to bed last night, I’d brainstormed a full, handwritten page of story notes for this rewrite. Mostly, they’re backstory, but they also super-charge the current plot.
This morning, I wrote another full page of notes. Those notes are about the Big Bad and his minions (yes, it’s that kind of story) plus his strengths as well as his Achilles heel.
Next, I reworked the opening scene of my book, plus some key points in the climax. Now, both are far more compelling.
So, I’m writing again and feel really good about this book.
Yes, I still need to finish watching Lynn’s videos, but even this tweak has added tremendous power to this story.
What I learned is: Sometimes, I need to step back and get out of my own way. I need to take a look at the Big Picture, and simplify the plotting process. (I’m sure that applies to other areas of my writing, as well.)
Thanks to Lynn’s course, my story premise is more powerful and I’m not looking for excuses to avoid writing.
In fact, I’ve written this post, stream-of-consciousness. This course has helped me so much, I wanted you to know about it, right away. (Pardon any typos. I rushed through this.)
Mostly, I hope this conveys the importance of Lynn’s The W-Plot, if — like me — you tend to make things more complicated than they need to be.
And now, I’ll go back to my book. And feel good about it.
Anyone who achieves even moderate success is likely to attract some unwanted attention. If you write about “fringe” topics, you should probably plan for critics and trolls.
From my experience, fame is likely to reach you faster than an income that will finance privacy buffers such as staff or an entourage.
Plan ahead. I’ve spoken about this before, particularly the topic of pennames.
These are some basic precautions:
Use a pen name. If you can’t think of one, click through some pen name generators until you see a name you like.
Build a firewall around everything related to that pen name. No exceptions.
Be sure your family (kids, parents, doting grandparents, ambivalent cousins, etc.) don’t share your pen name with anyone. If necessary, just don’t tell them your pen names. (Family & friends are your weakest privacy link. Remember that.)
For snailmail, use a post office box or another mailing address that is not your street address. (Best practices include an address that’s not in your hometown, either.)
Avoid posting your actual photos on your author profile at your Amazon Author Page, Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc.
Insulate yourself from the time you launch your first pen name, and you’ll also insulate your family and close friends from problems.
What the Trolls Say
From my experience, if you use a male pen name, you’re accused of being a predator, a deviant, ugly, or you’re involved in a cult, psyops, or mind control. You’re also making up for certain anatomical deficiencies.
If you use a female pen name, you’re a witch, you’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re a lesbian, and you’ll never find a husband. (I’m not saying that those are bad things. They’re just examples of what are thrown at me as accusations.)
And if you use a pen name that’s not gender-specific (Blake, Chris, Dana, etc.), you’ll double the range of verbal attacks.
Another way to increase how many people are furious with you is to write a book related to celebrity conspiracy theories. Apparently, some people take those theories very personally, pro and con. (If you’re going to write about those topics at all, niche research is important. Choose celebrities whose fans actually buy and read books.)
Far too many people with time on their hands (and a phone or keyboard within reach) are venting their frustrations in unhealthy ways, or otherwise obsessing.
Worse, being a troll can be profitable. People build five- and six-figure incomes using YouTube and other ad-supported platforms to rant about the actors, musicians, and — yes — authors they choose to demonize.
Those attacks can be vicious and deeply personal.
It’s why celebrity like Leslie Jones and Ed Sheeran close their Twitter accounts. Others — like Adele — respond directly to the accusers.
Have I scared you enough, yet? My intent is not to terrify you out of writing books, even polarizing, controversial ones. (Controversy does sell.)
Instead, set up privacy protection from the start. Think of it as a precaution, like using the lock on your front door or a password that isn’t “123456.”
Privacy and Your Author Profile
Use a pen name. You could start with a generic surname, and add initials for the first and possibly middle names. That makes it easier to find a matching domain name. To keep an even lower profile, consider a gender-neutral name.
(In addition to my articles & advice about pen names, see Dave Chesson’s article & resources at How to Choose a Pen Name.)
If you create an author website, consider hosting it separately from your other (real name) accounts, and anything that could be traced back to your real name.
When you’re starting (and on a limited budget), WordPress.com is a good option. So is Blogger, etc. Just make sure you’re using a unique account/email when you set up that pen name’s website.
Inexpensive hosting services like Namecheap and HostGator offer small-scale hosting accounts, sometimes for less than $1/month (look for sales & coupons).
If you’re building an author platform and plan to make public appearances, use an old photo, or one that’s not a full-face picture. Or, hire an artist to create a very stylized sketch or portrait of you.
If you hire artists at Fiverr or similar site, be sure they don’t post your real photo and their artwork, side-by-side, as an example of their work.
Why take such precautions? If fans or critics can recognize you in the produce department at the grocery store… trust me, they will want to start a lengthy conversation. Usually, it’s when you have frozen food in your grocery cart and need to rush home before the kids arrive home from school.
If you’re not going to make public appearances and need an author photo, I recommend combining photos of at least three celebrities at MorphThing — or hire someone at Fiverr (etc.) to do the same kind of work. Be sure the photo is cleaned-up so it’s not an obvious morph.
Use a separate email for that pen name. Do not use an email forwarding service (to your usual email account) and then reply/send emails from your main, personal email account.
Instead of a formal mailing list, consider using a free service like Feedburner.com — with a unique email account, when you register — and consider add-ons like FeedFlare.
(Planning to email your new subscribers a pre-planned set of sequential emails, or instant, sign-up freebies? Feedburner can show you a list of your sign-ups. That step can mean a little more work for you, but Feedburner’s advantages can make this worthwhile.)
Social Media and Trolls
At the moment, I’m too busy to deal with daily social media maintenance. I’m not ready to hire a PA (or VA), either.
(Personally, if I’m going to hire an assistant to monitor my emails and social media comments, I want to interview that person, in real life, face-to-face. And, I want them to live near enough for regular meetings, not just via my phone or monitor.)
If you’re using a Facebook Fan Page for your pen name, and you want to avoid spam comments and troll comments, here’s a tip: At your fan page, go to Settings > Page Moderation. Then, add the top 10 (or 20) common English words to the list, plus the usual NSFW words. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_common_words_in_English
Spammers and trolls (and their FB friends) will still see the comments they leave, and you’ll see them (in light gray), but no one else will see them, unless you approve those comments.
I recommend deleting spam/troll comments at least once a week. That’s especially true if those comments spawn others and it starts to look like a free-for-all scene.
On many other social platforms, you can select privacy/comment settings that meet your needs.
Blocking rarely works. In fact, it can make things worse. They just change usernames and return. And tell all their angry little friends to comment, as well.
Are you making public appearances? If so, the most fervent fans and zealous opponents may (later) recognize you when you’re shopping. Or at the county fair. Or whatever. That’s true even if you wear heavy makeup for appearances, but your daily routines rarely involve makeup.
(Also, the fans who recognized you on a bad-hair day, when you’re wearing no makeup, and are recovering from a bad sunburn after a day the beach or on the ski slopes…? Yes. Those are the fans who will plead for a selfie with you. For the entire Interwebs to see. Just say no… politely, of course. I am not kidding. Learn from my mistakes.)
If you’re not making public appearances, but someone recognizes you anyway (overzealous fans may spot your voice/accent from podcasts & radio shows), consider denying everything.
The best response if you’re uneasy…? Blink and ask, “Who?” Or, say “Yeah, I get that a lot, but I’m not [pen name],” or “No, sorry, I guess I should be flattered.”
Do not take out your driver’s license or passport to prove that your name is not Nancy Jane Author. (If they see your real ID, they’ll see your real name. Sooner or later, they may connect the dots.)
If this is a steady problem (or your fans/critics are persistent), I suppose you could get a convincing fake ID to prove your point. (Even my most rabid fans haven’t pushed me to that extreme.)
I don’t want to scare you so much, you don’t write books. Instead, I’m hoping you’ll plan ahead for success and the visibility that comes with it.
Set up your privacy firewalls as soon as you create the pen name. Once your real name is linked to your pen name, anywhere online, it’s too late.
The past couple of months have included a steep learning curve.
Oh, it’s been a great experience… but challenging. Sometimes, even frustrating.
When I write “fast books” (mostly nonfiction), I seize a fun idea. Then, I spend a few days collecting all kinds of information and trivia. After that, I throw the book together and hit the Publish button.
Within a month (or so), that book usually earns four figures, and continues to sell well for weeks. A few of those books have continued selling for years, long after the topic left the headlines. (Earning five figures from a book that took me about two weeks to research & write…? Yes, I’m okay with that.)
But, I’ve wanted to get back to writing fiction. Over a decade ago, working with traditional publishers, fiction was fun.
I liked “living in” a world I’ve created in my mind. I enjoyed crafting plots that were whimsical and intriguing.
But then, indie publishing became easier and faster. It certainly pays much better, as well.
I tried it and liked it.
Soon, I switched to nonfiction after a couple of my “fast” books sold like hotcakes.
But, a few years later… I miss fiction. And, long-term, fiction is probably a better income path for me.
So, I’ve been re-learning how to write fiction. This involves catching up on a wealth of fiction-writing resources. (When I wrote fiction, years ago, even the “Hero’s Journey” concept was new.)
Now my biggest struggle is getting used to the pace of writing fiction. That process is almost 180-degrees different from how I build & write my “fast”nonfiction books.
After lots of trial-and-error testing, I’m finally finding my creative path to good fiction.
I start with an idea for a story. (I have no shortage of ideas.)
Then, I go straight to research. I look for credible locations, names for my characters, and authentic lifestyle elements that fit the sub-genre.
After that, I think for a few days. Maybe weeks.
That “thinking” part seems to involve letting my creative mind run in the background, while I’m reading books, going for walks, visiting Disney World (see my photo, above), cooking in the kitchen, or watching TV.
Usually, I seem to do best with mindless TV that has little or nothing to do with the fiction I’m planning. This week, it’s included the new Dirk Gently series (BBC America & Hulu), and the new Midnight, TX series (just started on NBC & Hulu).
Those choices are odd. I’m radically revising a book that’s YA romantic suspense, and plotting a light, sweet Regency romance.
But… both the Gently series and the Midnight series are weird and dark. There are no dots to connect, between what I’m watching and what I’m writing.
So, yes, I’ll admit it: All this “what does this have to do with writing?” stuff… it’s been frustrating. I feel like I’m not working. Not making progress. Being a slacker.
I get to the end of the day (or week) and feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I should be doing things… right?
But then, like yesterday morning, I wake up with half the plot (and all of the worldbuilding) in my head. I grab a pen and scribble it onto the yellow, lined pad of paper I keep next to the bed.
Four pages of notes. Lots of arrows connecting one concept to another, indicating things that will repeat and give the story rhythm & resonance.
Wow. It’s perfect. Even I am impressed by the originality and depth. This is a story I’d read and enjoy.
And then, last night, after another day of cooking, reading, going for walks, and watching more oh-dear-heaven TV shows… I grabbed my pen & paper, again.
Suddenly, spilling out of my mind, I had the rest of the plot, plus some character nuances, and a few worldbuilding embellishments.
Already, I love this book! I keep looking at my notes and thinking, “Wow, did I actually come up with those ideas, myself?” * blink, blink *
Well, yes, I did.
But here’s the weird part: I’m not sure I could have “worked” my way to this plot, world, and characters.
This level of freshness and whimsy (plus an engaging, original plot) seems to happen when I’m deliberately not working.
This process is more relaxed and intuitive than I’d expected.
So, that’s been my latest discovery. I’m sharing it in case it’s helpful to you, too.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve realized that I’m kind of terrible when it comes to crafting characters.
Sure, for walk-on characters that may not even have a name, the charts at 350 Character Traits can be useful.
But, ask me to craft a character that’s truly authentic…? Err. Umm. It’s been a struggle.
Oh, I own some great books about characters. I should read these (and then use them) more often.
On My Bookshelf
45 Master Characters is a good, all-purpose reference for pre-constructed characters. They’re based on classic and mythic archetypes. (Athena is subtitled: The Father’s Daughter and the Backstabber. It fits.) Everything is explained, nicely. This book is especially good for “red shirts.”
One reason you’ll rarely see inexpensive used copies of this book at Amazon, is because anyone who owns this book is likely to hold onto it, forever.
I had to buy a copy because I’m utterly worthless when it comes to staring evil in the face… and turning it into a character I’ll have to live with (in my head) for any length of time.
I’m so uncomfortable making a character evil, I either make them “too nice” to seem like genuine villains, or I refuse to think about them much, and write them as two-dimensional stereotypes. Either way, they’re boring and not-very-credible.
This book not only describes each kind of villain (or monster), it also explains what motivates most in that category, how to write them, and a lot more.
I have no idea why this book is available, used, for under $2 (as I’m writing this), because I think it’s a great book.
Writer’s Guide to Character Traits is strictly for people who want to delve into the clinical, psychological aspects of good guys, bad guys, and everyone in-between. If you’re going to have to be “in the mind” of your character and don’t know exactly how to write him (or her), convincingly, this book might be helpful.
(I rarely use it, but keep it on my bookshelf anyway. At some point, I expect that I’ll be glad I did. Meanwhile, I default to Angela Ackerman’s Negative Trait Thesaurus. I own all of her thesauruses — or is that thesauri? — as printed books, and keep them within arm’s reach of my keyboard.)
Less often, I refer to What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. If you’re writing mysteries or thrillers, and your protagonist needs to evaluate people, visually, this book provides good insights. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from the photos in it, and tend to flip through the book when I need a quick, revealing gesture, movement, or pose.
Fiction is Folks (published in 1983) is kind of fun if you like old-school approaches to writing, or if you’re writing something with a strong “literature” style. I read this book for entertainment, because the author (Robert Newton Peck, perhaps best known for A Day No Pigs Would Die) really gets YA characters, and he also throws in some juicy writing advice.
One word can save a sentence.
The sentence you just read, obviously, has not been saved at all. It is boring and dies a horrible death at the hands of this writer. It’s dull. But let’s give it another go.
One word can gussy up a sentence.
Sometimes, all a sentence needs to brighten it is just one little buzz word. That one unexpected blast is the pothole in fiction’s road. An awkward word to hopscotch a reader’s eye. And thus, tickle a fancy.
A buzz word is matter out of place. It doesn’t belong there. Yet, without it, the entire sentence is about as exciting as opening night at the You-Scrub-It Car Wash.
(After that, he goes on to explain how to come up with buzz words that will make your sentences interesting, and hold your readers’ interest.)
While you can still find a used copy of this book for under $20, I recommend it. If you’re planning a writing career, it’ll come in handy at some point.
Don’t be deceived. Take a second look. It might change your mind, and — if you’re like me — be a very worthy use of your time.
(Also, I’m saying “report” because I think I bought it for $7, when it was just a 20-something page report. Now, it’s around $10 and includes a video and audio that I haven’t seen. They may give even more important, extra depths to the course.)
It’s true: Initially, I wasn’t impressed by this report. The letters-of-the-alphabet approach seemed like a gimmick. Also, I’ve read much of this before, in other courses and reports.
I kept reading it, anyway. (Okay, being honest: I just skimmed it.)
Then… I’m not sure how much was that quirky letters-of-the-alphabet thing, or his actual information, but — suddenly — I saw what I’d been overlooking in my characters (and character interviews).
That was a major discovery.
Very simply, I didn’t take them deep enough.
Sure, I knew my character’s name. The name even felt like the character.
If I name a character “Greg,” he has medium-brown hair, his gaze is clear and intense when he actually looks at you, and he probably has slightly flat feet. He also likes mac & cheese for lunch, and whistles when he works.
Yes, for me, that’s a “Greg.” (It’s not all people named Greg. It’s just what my “Greg” would be, in my story… at this very moment. Next week, he might be tall, blond, and gorgeous, with a smile that’d take your breath away.)
Most often, I choose names that will seem “right” (familiar) to my target audience. (For that, I select the decade-or-so when they were born, and choose a moderately popular name from that era. For the US — which is home to about 50% of my readers — I use Top 5 Names…)
Sometimes, I know the meaning of the person’s name. (I use Behind the Name for the name’s roots, though Meaning-of-Names can be better for actual meanings.)
But a dimensional character my readers will care about…? Something just didn’t click with how I think… until I read The A-Z report.
A Rose By Any Other Name…? No, A Name Can Be A Door
Suddenly, reading just one part of this report, some essential mental lights turned on. At that moment, I realized: The character’s name can be a key to understanding far more about her (or him).
That tip in that report — one of many useful ideas — asked why her parents named her that.
What did it mean about her parents?
Who was she named after?
If it was an ancestor, what was that person like?
Did my character’s parents hope she’d have similar qualities, and how did that affect her upbringing?
In other words, the name led me to a better understanding of where my character came from, her family’s traditions (good or bad), their values, and how her parents’ expectations (and hopes) may have affected her.
For me, it was kind of a door to realizing, “Ah-HA! This is how to craft characters!”
Will I do that with every character’s name…? Maybe, but probably not.
And, that’s just one of several useful ideas in this report — yes, it contains one idea for every letter of the alphabet — that made a significant difference to how I’m writing and editing my books.
If characters aren’t your strong suit, and that kind of tip intrigues you, this course might be a big time-saver when you’re writing future books. (If you’re disappointed by it, he offers a 30-day money back guarantee.)
The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters* may not be pure gold from start to finish, but — for the price (under $10) — it was a worthwhile purchase for me. All I needed was one good spark to get me un-stuck with my characters This report delivered much more than that.
So, if you’re struggling with characters and the usual advice isn’t working, I recommend this course. It’s not just what Barry McDonald says in it, but how he presents it. For me, that’s where the magic is: Something in how he explained the character crafting process… it made more sense to me than all the previous resources I’d used, put together. (And made the latter more useful, as well.)
[As usual: If you’re not actually working on a book, do not collect yet another “ooh, shiny!” object. Place your posterior in the chair and write! <– Advice I need to follow more, myself. LOL]
*If you’re new to my reviews, the only affiliate links at this site are my Amazon links. In other words, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this course… or any other course I recommend. The only reason I write these reviews is to be helpful to other writers.
Before I talk about the creative side of writing — especially creating believable characters — I want to explain my writing process. It might be your process, as well.
Usually, I default to (admittedly archaic) terms like “right brain” for the creative side of thinking, and “left brain” for the analytical, tidy process. But, you could call it yin and yang. Or Bert (analytical) and Ernie (creative), I suppose.
While some aspects of writing come straight out of my creative side (yin), other writing tasks are definitely analytical (yang).
So, here’s how I’d describe writing my writing process:
The spark or idea that leads to a book: it’s from the creative side.
If I’m working on fiction, the brainstorming as I build my story… those ideas are from the creative side, too. So far, for my current book, I’ve scribbled seven full pages of notes on yellow, lined paper. (If I’m working on nonfiction, the brainstorming is still creative, but more of a connect-the-dots exercise. More of a “what are the questions, and what are the answers?” approach.)
For me, especially when I write nonfiction, the next step is a mindmap to create a tidy, organized plan for my chapters. Clearly, that’s from my analytical side. (If it’s fiction, I might create a flowchart for each main character. Things like, “When she faces the dragon, does she take out a sword? And, if so, what are the possible outcomes, and which fits best with my story?”)
Then, I finalize my formal book outline. That’s definitely an analytical process.
When I write my first draft…? It creative. And sometimes messy, or even really really bad. I’ve learned to throw that together as quickly as possible. No tweaks. No edits. No proofreading, either. I spill the words onto the page, and hope they make sense to me, later.
Editing follows. That should be analytical, and somewhat merciless. Several best-selling authors have recommended a book I own but haven’t read yet: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. (If you can’t be objective about your writing, hire an editor. Or swap manuscripts with another writer, so you edit each other’s books.)
Rewrites are the next step. They’re creative.
Steps 6 & 7 can be repeated, multiple times. Beta readers may be involved, as well.
Whether or not this is your writing process, too, it’s important to let your analytical side have the last word.
When your analytical side says your book is “good enough,” PUBLISH IT.
Do not let your vulnerable, creative side insist, “No, it’s not perfect yet! Let’s give this one more tweak!”
Likewise, never end your writing process with words that landed on the page while your creative side was still steering the ship.
Editing must always be the final step before publishing.
(That’s “do as I say, not as I do” advice. Every time I’ve rushed to publish a book, thinking my latest creative additions were superb and needed no further editing, I’ve regretted it.)
Why I’m Telling You This
Right now, I’m going through nearly a dozen past books. I wrote some of them over a decade ago. Others are more recent. All of them desperately need improvements, but — until recently — I hadn’t a clue how to fix them.
Thank heavens for a recent “ah-HA!” moment, when I read William Martell’s book, Act Two Secrets. It’s brilliant, and identified a big Achilles heel in my writing.
I’ll talk about the Horwitz book in a future article. Meanwhile, though I think his concepts are brilliant and they’ve helped me a lot… his writing books swing between boring and so zany I’m not always sure what his point is.
If you’re determined to see what I mean, immediately, start with Finish Your Book…, preferably in print. If you get to the last page and wonder what in Hades you just read, get Blueprint Your Bestseller. The latter will be repetitive and boring, but it explains several points more clearly. Maybe.
If you can get past the boring & zany stuff, I think his approach is pure genius. (And, as I said, I’ll talk about it in a future article.)
About a week ago, I realized why my characters are generally flat and uninteresting. Maybe even unbelievable.
I’d been trying to construct them analytically, with endless “character interview” forms, etc.
That hasn’t worked.
Usually, all of my heroic characters sound like me, and all of my villains sound like Miss Smith, the seventh-grade English teacher who told me (often, and usually in front of the entire class) that I’d never be a writer.
By mid-book, even I am bored with my characters. They’re flat. Often, they’re far too predictable.
But, so far, character interviews have not sparked my creativity. Deciding that my character’s favorite color is blue, and she thinks ketchup is an abomination… that provides quirks but not character.
What ILearned Reading… The Partridge Method, Britt Malka’s course about writing romantic Christmas novellas in 12 days.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about Christmas romances: Readers buy them all year ’round.
I’m not kidding.
Of course, Christmas romance novellas are most popular from early November through mid-January. (K-Lytics analyses suggest a sales bonanza that’s worth noting. The rest of the year… your numbers may not be so great.)
As usual, I was impressed by the amount of information Britt included in this course. It’s a 68-page course, plus a 28-page worksheet for plotting your Christmas novellas.
As usual, she takes what could be a complex topic, and simplifies it.
(I don’t know about you, but it’s far too easy for me to get caught up in unimportant details, wanting everything to be “just so” in my books. And, in the process, I become overwhelmed and my first draft stalls. Or I never even complete the outline.)
Oh, do not think this is a “Cliffs Notes” version of writing romances.
Yes, to get the most from this report, you should probably know the main romance tropes — and typical story beats — in general.
For romance novel tropes, check the TVTropes.org list. (Warning: that website can devour your entire day. It’s that fascinating.)
Yes, some of TV Tropes’ descriptions are snarky, and a few are NSFW. You may be happier with Mindy Klasky’s list, and Lime Cello’s article (including her blunt opinions) goes into more detail about a few of those tropes.
But, in this course, Britt doesn’t leave out anything important. She includes all kinds of details… many of them make-or-break points that few writers might think of, on their own.
What I Learned from The Partridge Method
One point that surprised me is how Britt built a romance story from the traditional, Christian story of Mary and Joseph. And, she did it in a way that wasn’t the cliché of “pregnant, single mother meets generous man, and he falls in love with her anyway.”
Seeing Britt craft a truly fresh story to fit traditional romance “story beats” was impressive.
Also, her romance included religious themes without being preachy. I like that. Non-Christians could enjoy this kind of story, too.
That concept hadn’t crossed my mind.
But then, Britt used the exact same kind of story structure to outline a second story. It’s a secular Christmas romance. A story like this can capture all of the wonder and magic of the holidays, without specific religious references.
So, Britt’s course expanded how I think about Christmas romance stories.
At the moment, I’m writing some Halloween-themed books. But, thanks to Britt’s suggestions, I’m already brainstorming some Christmas “short reads.”
Britt also offers upsells, which costs significantly more. One includes step-by-step videos to show you exactly how she writes books like these.
Those videos are like having Britt at your side, making each step crystal clear. And, her videos show you how to construct & write Christian/religious Christmas stories and secular Christmas season stories, each demonstrated separately and very clearly.
So, I didn’t have moments of muttering, “Wait. What do I write in this chapter of this kind of story…?”
But, Britt’s basic course provides everything most writers will need. (And, if your budget is limited, don’t feel like you have to buy the upsells. They can be tremendously helpful. They’re not essential.)
A Slightly Different Approach to Plotting
Something else I learned from Britt’s course: She combined Rob Parnell‘s chapter structure with Steve Alcorn‘s version of scene-and-sequel.
The result is interesting. I’d tweak it, of course, not using every part of the structure for every scene.
However, Britt’s 28-page worksheet (included with The Partridge Method course) practically jump-starts your story outline. And, it does that better than most story beats worksheets I’ve seen.
What surprised me most was the flexibility of Britt’s worksheet. This is a system you can use to outline almost any kind of romance, not just Christmas stories.
Note: Britt’s plan is based on 12-chapter books. If you’re writing very short Christmas romances, you may need to modify her outline, condensing some of the action.
For example, you might combine chapters seven and eight. You might make your protagonist’s steep challenges into something so dramatic, she’s plunged into a truly dark moment. At that point, no “happy ending” seems possible.
You might also merge that with the transformational chapter (chapter nine), where she realizes what she has to overcome, personally, to achieve her goal… and she starts on the path back to HEA (Happily Ever After).
Otherwise, if you use the traditional guideline of 1,500 words per scene/chapter, you’ll write an 18,000-word book. That’s close to Amazon’s upper limit (of around 20k words) for any book you’d like them to promote in their “Short Reads” category.
Keep in mind: The 1,500 words/chapter is one of those long-standing standards. In my opinion, it has no credible basis in fact, and it’s not a rule. You can have a 500-word chapter. Or one that’s 250 words long.
And, I know one group of writers who’ve found success with 750-word chapters. (12 chapters x 750 words, each = 9,000 words.)
That’s well within Amazon’s Short Reads limits. If Amazon count an average of 250 words/page, a 9k-word book is 36 pages… but your mileage may vary. I’ve seen some Kindle books figured at over 350 words/page, and others at around 220 words/page.)
Or, at the other extreme, you could write 2500-word scenes. That’s what the Snowflake Guy uses in his books. (But, unless you’re a prolific author, a book with 2500-word scenes will probably require more than 12 days to complete.)
My point is: Don’t let traditional word counts stand in your way. And don’t make Britt’s course a constraint. Use it to make writing — and completing books — easier.
Option: One Chapter at a Time
Britt outlines as she goes along. That is, she outlines one chapter, and then she writes it.
Then she outlines the second chapter. Then she writes it.
And so on.
Thanks to her worksheets, she already knows what’s ahead… generally speaking.
Personally, I hate not maintaining a daily writing schedule. But, I’m not a “pantser.”
That is, I’m not good at making it up as I go along, writing “by the seat of my pants,” with no preparations.
For pros & cons of “pantsing” v. plotting, browse The Editor’s Blog or watch Victoria Schwab’s YouTube video about this:
Before I start writing, I generally outline my entire book, enough to keep from getting seriously sidetracked in the middle of the story.
The problem is: The outline can require weeks to tweak “just so.”
Oh, it’s fun-fun-fun at the time. Well, it usually is.
But, after that, it can take me days (or even weeks) to get back in the daily writing habit.
That part is not fun.
So, I may try Britt’s approach with my next from-scratch book. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me, before. (And, it’s a good example of how Britt often shows me that I’m making writing more difficult than it needs to be.)
Still, no matter what your balance of outlining and writing, I think Britt’s course offers a lot to anyone eager to write a short romance, and especially a Christmas romance.
I believe that — using Britt’s worksheet — most writers can probably complete a Christmas novella in 12 days, just as she says. And, I learned enough from this course to feel good about recommending it if you’re ready to write Christmas romances, especially Short Reads.
However, like any course, this is a good deal only if you’re actually going to use it. If you already have bookshelves (virtual or real-life) filled with how-to books & courses you still haven’t read (or used), work with them, first. Avoid “Ooh, shiny!” syndrome.
Lately, I’ve been digging deeper into writing basics. I want more success from my books.
The truth is: I tend to come up with a book idea, and do a casual check to see if the market is viable. Then, I study the top few books – at least their book blurbs and some of their reviews.
At most, I spend about two or three hours on this.
Then, if everything looks good, I write the book.
If it’s nonfiction, I’m quick to push the “publish” button. I can practically write nonfiction in my sleep, so completing a book isn’t difficult.
If it’s fiction… that’s another matter. I tend to reach the midpoint. Then, I realize that I hate my book, hadn’t thought it through, or I have some other Very Good Reason to stop writing.
So, I quit, thinking I’ll get back to that book, later. Maybe.
And then I move on to the next project, usually following the same pattern.
This is not a healthy career path.
So, I’m reading (and sometimes re-reading) books, studying courses, watching videos, and generally re-educating myself about writing. (Especially fiction, but I’ll talk about those books in later articles.)
In the WILR series, I’ll talk about books (etc.) that I like, those that I don’t, and what I’m learning from each.
Note: These will not be summaries of everything in each book or course. I’ll talk about the points that made a difference to me. (You mileage may vary.)
It’s the book that started me on my current re-education path.
David is minister, a successful author, and a long-time friend and someone whose integrity I trust. (You may know him from his free report, Published Is Better Than Perfect.)
When David offered to send me a beta copy of his productivity book, I dropped everything to read it.
It was time well spent.
This book really does live up to its title (and subtitle).
Here are a few things I learned, reading it.
First of all, I’m not a great writer. (This may not be stop-the-presses news to some people.)
I’m a storyteller.
Before reading David’s book, I didn’t realize the importance of this. Or even the distinction.
Then, in his book, I read:
See, to be truly productive we do not need to just be producing more. We need to be producing more of the right thing.
Then, he shared insights about identifying that right thing.
That made me pause. I had to go beyond looking at individual books’ sales, or even which book categories performed well for me.
My discovery: every one of my successful books, no matter how badly written, was written in a storytelling style.
When I write something that’s “just the facts, ma’am,” my books tend to fall flat.
Well, they still sell like hotcakes to data-hungry readers who don’t care if the book is well-written.
But, for anyone looking for something written with style, eloquence, and few typos…? Umm… no.
That can severely limit the size (and enthusiasm) of my audience.
This was a h-u-g-e “ah-HA!” for me, and it led to further discoveries.
It was the beginning of my current reading-and-studying binge.
In addition, I read The ONE Thing, which is a more general book about focus and productivity. David had made several references to this concept, and I wanted to know more.
While some of The ONE Thing was intended for a different audience, many of the suggestions applied to how I work, as well.
The ONE Thing brought me important additional clarity. But, I’ve talked with several friends who said they just couldn’t get through the book. So, you may want to see if your public library owns a copy you can borrow. (They probably do. For at least a year, it was a very trendy book.)
The rest of David’s book, Productivity for Indie Authors, delves into productivity tips and hacks. Many of them weren’t new to me, but the way David talked about them made a difference.
In some cases, he explained a fresh way to use things like templates, and how to apply the 80/20 rule, and so on. At other times, his context was something I previously hadn’t considered.
In general, I’ve been delighted to streamline more of my work with the ideas and tools he suggests.
But, for me, the biggest takeaway has been the new way I look at my writing career.
That triggered a rather large overhaul of how I do… well… almost everything.
Uncovering the storytelling ingredient was vital. It was the initial key.
(That may be unique to me. It’s not as if David said “this is the answer.” It just happened to be my answer, and I found it by thoughtfully reading David’s book.)
Regarding productivity, David began his book by explaining, “productivity will look different for different people at different times and stages in the development of their business.”
He’s 100% correct.
For me, some of his productivity advice was useful immediately. Other suggestions will be useful in the future.
That led to me analyzing which things to do more of, which to do less of, and the areas where I need to develop better skills. (That’s one area where the 80/20 rule applies.)
In some ways, this has been humbling. I’ve had to admit to being a slacker. I’ve been looking for shortcuts. Too often, I’ve followed advice in lots of books, reports, and courses that assured me those shortcuts were viable.
Well, yes. They did work, short-term.
Long-term… not so great, and I got tired of constantly scrambling to write & publish new books to make up for the faltering sales of older books.
Now, I’m confident about the decisions I’ve made — and the new path I’m following — after reading David’s book.
I recommend it to any author/publisher at any level of expertise.
Overnight, I realized one way to craft emotionally scarred heroes, and bitter antagonists & villains.
The explanation — an authentic backstory — was right in front of me.
(No, I’m not talking about my husband, though he can be a curmudgeon — but a thoroughly lovable one — at times.)
Instead, it’s a cousin.
Through no fault of his own, my cousin has been rejected by his immediate family.
Now, it’s heartbreaking to watch him in free-fall. He’s changing from a thoroughly cheerful guy to a wounded man with a bitter edge.
I’ve done everything I can to intervene. Worse, it’s the second time he’s had to deal with this issue.
The first time, he understood the dynamics, and the social pressures placed on his immediate family. It was a different era.
This time…? It’s not so easy to reconcile. I’m still hoping for a happier outcome.
Meanwhile, I can see how his dilemma fits perfectly in historical fiction. In a less enlightened time, my cousin’s “sin” was enough reason to act as if he’d never been born.
I’m keeping this generic, for privacy. You can probably think of a variety of issues that fit, from “secret baby” (the person is one, or had one) to gender identification, and from learning disabilities (in a family with high academic standards) to rejection of the family’s harsh religious beliefs.
Here’s how it can work in a story:
To a stranger, the handsome young man (or woman) might seem to “have it all.”
But, he may also have a secret. The evidence is well-concealed. He doesn’t talk about it, and no one knows (or clearly remembers) his family.
His hidden anguish drives him to push people away, or even treat others cruelly.
But, to him — perhaps like the family that rejected him — it may seem like “self-preservation.”
In other words, in his (or her) mind, he’s still the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s doing what’s best for himself, and perhaps for those around him. (His motto might be: “Life is hard. Learn that early.”)
As an author, that gives you a LOT to work with.
Today, I’m revising a romance novel that stopped making sense. One of the lead characters had devolved into a cookie-cutter “angry young man.” The more I wrote, the less I liked him.
Now, with these overnight insights, I know exactly how to give him an authentic (and perhaps poignant) backstory. Fingers crossed, I’m hoping that solves the plotting issue.
And, I’m still hoping for the best for my cousin. It’s not too late for a happy ending to that story, too.