Can You See What You’re Writing?

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.

Floor planYesterday, 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.

If you’re planning to draw your own fictional town, be sure to read How to Design a Town Map. That site offers many other free resources, as well, including a How to draw a map article, with tips for artists, and some free maps designed for gaming.

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.


Illustration courtesy of GraphicStock.com

WILR – The W Plot

It’s time for another WILR (What I Learned Reading) post.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to write my current book.

Okay, it’s actually a rewrite, but the original book was such a mess, this is almost like writing it from scratch. Again.

But, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I was spinning my wheels. I knew I was light years better at plotting & characters, but something still wasn’t clicking.

I was afraid (understatement) that the middle of this book would stall, like so many others had. My gut feeling said I wasn’t really ready to overhaul this book.

W PlotAnd then I heard from Lynn Johnston. I’ve bought (and really liked) her past courses. What works for her will usually work for me, too.

Lynn’s new course is about writing with a W plot.

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.


Illustration courtesy of GraphicStock.com

WILR – The A-Z Characters course

Here’s another “WILR” (What I Learned Reading…”) review. And, as usual, I’m going to include a bunch of resource links, as well.

This is about creating characters, and the course is The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters. (I like it. A lot.)

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.

Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches is a title that embarrasses me to write. (I’m like that. LOL)

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.

For example:

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.

And Now, WILR…

At first glance, “The A-Z…” report about characters may look good but not great.

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.

A-Z Characters(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.

I’m a bit of a synesthete. (So is Cassandra, a character in The Librarians TV series. I watch it on Hulu.)

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.)

And, I track all of my characters’ names using a worksheet I designed.

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.

WILR – The Partridge Method – Christmas Romance

Merry ChristmasWhat I Learned 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.)

But, this is important: Just as some people collect Christmas ornaments all year long, and they shop at related stores — like Christmas Tree Shops, Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, and Disney World’s Disney’s Days of Christmas — many readers are always looking for new Christmas romance novels and short reads.

Last week, Britt sent me a review copy of her Partridge Method course, for my comments.

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.)

As of mid-July 2017, KD Spy rates One-Hour Short Reads (33-43 pages) Romances : Green for Potential, Green for Popularity, and Yellow for Competition. 

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:

Anyway…

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.

Summary

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.

Here’s where to find Britt’s course: The Partridge Method.*

I’m not sure how long this discount code will work, but it could save you 50%: XmasJuly


*As usual, that’s not an affiliate link. I don’t earn a cent if you decide to purchase this course. I just happened to like it, and think it’s worth recommending.

(I receive plenty of review copies I don’t talk about. But, so far, everything I’ve bought from Britt or received from her as a preview… they’ve all been very helpful.)

illustration courtesy of GraphicStock.com

WILR – Productivity for Indie Authors

WILR is “What I Learned Reading…”

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.)

productivity for indie authors by david lee martinThe first book has to be Productivity for Indie Authors, by David Lee Martin. For me, it’s the book that recently changed everything
about my writing career.

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.)

Anyway…

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.

But, the biggest thing I learned from reading Productivity for Indie Authors is what works (and doesn’t) in my writing career.

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.

Here’s the link to Amazon.com: Productivity for Indie Authors, and here’s the link to Amazon.co.uk: Productivity for Indie Authors.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Story Grid: Review

Moving ahead with David Lee Martin’s brilliant “… Self-Publishing Trenches” advice, I’m ready to take another look at fiction archetypes & tropes.

If I’m going to follow David’s advice to the letter, I need to understand exactly what readers expect in my sub-genre.

The Story Grid, by CoyneThis wasn’t on David’s list of recommended reading, but — last night — I skimmed “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne. (Don’t even THINK about buying it in Kindle… this is a massive book you’ll need to read in print.)

While this book seems more geared to screenplays and literary fiction, I’m gleaning enough oh-my-goodness insights (for genre fiction) that it was well worth reading… and the fairly high price tag.

(Authors, if your public library has a copy, get it. Now.)

This huge book includes a lot of tropes you won’t find at TVTropes.org... and some of them are kind of important. (See http://www.storygrid.com/genres-have-conventions-and-obligatory-scenes/ for the tip of the iceberg, and a good preview of the book.)

But… that said, this IS a textbook. The writing style is good, but the information he’s throwing at you, in almost every sentence…? Kind of overwhelming.

So, I can’t recommend this book to new writers. (However, if you’ve written at least five works of fiction, I think it’s a worthwhile — and perhaps essential — read.)

Geeky writers — those of us who print out everything useful we find online, and highlight it — will love this book.

Authors with several books in print, but ho-hum sales or reviews, should probably read this. I promise, you’re likely to find at least one “ah-HA!” moment in The Story Grid.

Everyone else may use it for a doorstop, and wish they hadn’t spent the money.

I’m glad I bought it. It’s definitely helping me understand a second level of plotting that I didn’t really get.

If your fiction has been lacking something, but you’re not sure what, take a look at The Story Grid.

Here are the links: Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk