True confession: Yes, I still have far too much failed fiction – novels, novellas, short stories, and half-baked plots – on my hard drive.
And yes, I even published some of it, and instantly regretted it. The reviews were ugly, when anyone even bought one of those books.
It’s been embarrassing. Frustrating. The kind of thing that wakes me up at 3 AM, and I stare at the ceiling, convinced that my successful books were just flukes.
(Hey, at 3 in the morning, anything can seem like high drama, and I can awfulize with the best of them.)
So, yeah. I’m not sure I’m the queen of failed fiction, but I’d certainly rate highly on the runners-up list.
Then, last month, when Bonnie (Lynn) Johnston offered me an opportunity to beta test her new Manuscript Magic course, I dropped everything and rushed to try it.
I’ve always liked her advice, and own lots & lots of her reports & courses.
So… let me tell you about Manuscript Magic.
It’s not often I can give a course (or a book, or anything, really) an unqualified rave review, but that course deserves it.
Yes, it’s $197. If you have fiction ideas, plots, half-baked books, or published books that failed… the course is worth at least twice that.
(Seriously, I expected her to charge at least $350 – $400 for this course. It’s that comprehensive, original, and brilliant. No matter what is wrong with your story, she has at least two or three different ways to fix each area where it falters.)
It’s like a university course. The kind that would take at least a semester, and possibly a full year.
But, you get to work through it at your own pace. Lots of videos. Lots of PDFs. Lots of useful information.
So, if you’re at the point where you have books (or book ideas) and you’re not sure why you’re not finishing the book (or why it got snarky reviews), get this course.
In my opinion, it’s worth eating ramen or pb&j sandwiches for a month, if that’s the only way you can afford it.
His book still seems to be amazingly weird, but his advice was what I needed to hear.
I made some great progress, fixing things that were broken in my books. But then, I stalled. (This was before I took Bonnie’s course.)
Meshing character arcs and story arcs
One thing that continually slows my plotting is trying to mesh character arcs and story arcs. Even before taking Bonnie’s course (the one I talked about, above), I knew that something wasn’t clicking in my brain, in that area of plotting.
Then, Chris Fox posted a related video. It was a huge ah-HA! moment for me. Here it is:
(All of his YouTube videos are very good. I don’t always agree with him, but since his book income – and productivity – are light years ahead of mine, pay close attention to everything he says.)
Anyway, after watching that video, I scrambled to find (and print) Dan Harmon’s advice. You’ll find it here: Story Structure 101.
(That’s the first in a series of how-to articles in a multi-part series. And yes, his language can be NSFW. Combined with how Chris Fox explained this… well, I finally have a clear understanding of how stories can work.)
I strongly recommend it.
With this information, I can see a clear path to relaunching older, failed books, and getting stalled books back on track.
Relaunching = Revisiting categories & keywords
In other news… Dave Chesson’s KDP Rocket software has been updated with some very sweet bells & whistles.
See, I’m working my way through Chris Fox’s Write to Market (again), after getting into his Relaunch Your Novel book. I realized I needed to review his Write to Market research tips, to be sure I was current about book categories and keywords.
So, I turned on my copy of KDP Rocket and – initially – thought my favorite book genre as an absolute no-go. The competition numbers (confirmed with KDSpy) were insane.
That’s when Dave’s updates to KDP Rocket made a world of difference. I found three sub-sub-genres that would work for my books. I can compete for those keywords, and in those sub-categories.
And, since I’m rewriting those books anyway, tweaking them to become exact matches for those sub-sub-genres… well, I can’t quite say “easy-peasy.” However, between Bonnie’s course and Dan Harmon’s plot circles, this actually looks like fun.
(If you know how much I hate rewriting anything, you’ll understand: that’s major.)
So, those are my best, most current tips for fixing failed fiction. I hope they’re helpful.
If you have any questions or suggestions, I hope you’ll leave a comment. I’m always interested in your thoughts on these topics.
On my side of the keyboard, this is a busy research-and-write week. So, even though I haven’t had breakfast yet, I’m flying through another quick post.
(Btw, feedback about Facebook – and the number of people who prefer to hear from me via blog posts – has been surprising. Well, maybe. I kinda-sorta knew that a lot of friends were phasing out Facebook. The feedback confirmed it, big time.)
KDP Rocket or KDSpy?
First up: People are asking me whether they should buy KDSpy or KDP Rocket first.
It’s a coin flip, and if you haven’t written and published at least one to three books, I’d say: buy neither. You can manually research nearly everything those tools do.
(Yes, it will take you time. Yes, it will be tedious. It’s also what most of us did before this software was available. And, unless you can throw money around with wild abandon, you’ll do better to invest in editing, proofreading, or a good book cover. Once you have actual book income, you can dedicate some of it to time-saving tools.)
But anyway… I rely on both KDSpy and KDP Rocket. Both save me so many hours of market research, I can’t imagine being so productive without them.
But, I also understand a limited budget, even after your books start selling.
A lot of writing (and self-employment, in general) can have a feast-or-famine swing, at times. That’s especially true if some of your income is from seasonal books, or you’re paid by traditional publishers just twice a year. (That’s typical in trad publishing.)
So, my answer to the question is: It depends on what you spend the most time on.
If I’m looking for a new or better category for my existing (or planned) books, and I want a better understanding of the easiest markets, KDP Rocket wins, hands down. The new features in the software (updates are always included free, for all of Dave Chesson’s customers) are breathtakingly good.
See… I’d been holding onto old blog posts, planning to use them for some short, topic-specific books in one niche. But, that niche looked crazy-daunting saturated. There was no way I’d waste my time on related books.
Then the new features in KDP Rocket showed me an Amazon category where books (on the same topic as my old blog posts) are selling well, even in short reads, and I can compete, easily.
So, yeah… pretty cool. KDP Rocket just sprinted to the front of the pack, as my go-to tool for Amazon category research, as well as competition research.
But, in categories where I already have books – or, especially in fiction, where my category choices can be limited (sometimes) – KD Spy shows me the current market, the page count, the pricing, the keywords, and more, all in one go. It’s a great, fast trends-checker.
So, if you can only afford one tool at the moment, understand the differences between them. Especially when you’re a new indie author, only invest in what you really need.
Speaking of keywords, here are a few free tools (and tricks) I absolutely love.
For keywords, I rely on Scientific Seller. Sign up for the free account for the best results.
I’m also dazzled by Answer the Public. It’s insanely good and it replaces several research tools/software I’d been using. Export the CSV file for future reference, and print the individual pages if you’re a visual learner.
And then there’s the manual approach, which – sometimes – can’t be avoided. Or shouldn’t be. (KDSpy will tell you the major keywords, automatically.)
Basically, you’ll identify the best-selling books that target your exact sub-genre or niche, and are selling to your exact target audience.
You’ll cut-and-paste their Amazon book blurbs into a word (or phrase) frequency counter. Here’s a free one: Word Frequency Counter.
Then, if you’re like me, you’ll look for what I call “duh!” words and phrases. They’re usually obvious ones I’d omitted.
You’ll also look for outliers – odd phrases that may or may not make sense to you – and consider why they’re being used. (It may just be bad copywriting.)
Compare the results with book titles & subtitles that are selling well. Decide if you should incorporate those words & phrases into your book titles, subtitles, descriptions, or advertising.
Easy-peasy, but time consuming. And it could be one of those make-or-break points in your indie publishing career.
Crazy, Expanding Nonfiction Research
This week (and probably next), I’m blasting through a couple of trending, pop culture books.
They’re the fast, trend-grabbing books I explain in my book, How to Write Fast Books…, which is now available through Kindle Unlimited. Ahem.
The book I’m researching now (or should be, but I’m writing this instead) has a lot of related, “everyone knows” material. But, as a fanatical, thorough researcher, I started double-checking a bunch of those “everyone knows” facts.
I figured most of it would be confirmed with one or two clicks, right…?
Wrong. (I’m sitting here, doing flashing-light hands and making the “bwwaaahhh” buzzer sound with my voice. Because, even at my keyboard, I feel like I’m still talking to you, the same as I would in real life.)
That’s why the two hours’ research I’d planned for those facts, have now expanded into two frustrating days.
Because those “facts” were fiction. And I have to rule out every possible, obscure resource, before I debunk those “everyone knows” items in my book/s.
So, I learned to allow about 10x as much research time for topics where fact-checking might be a rabbit hole.
But… the cool part of this story is: my readers will have new information they can be utterly snotty about, as they talk with friends and preen as authorities.
Because my books help people do that. And that’s one of the big reasons many of my fans buy (or at least read) every book I publish.
I just flew through a bunch of points that I think are important. And, since I haven’t had breakfast yet, and this is a rush-rush article, I hope you’ll overlook the typos. Or, if I’ve said anything utterly appalling, post a comment (or reply, if you’re reading this in email) to tell me about it.
And, oh yes, I hope you have great fun (and success) with your writing & publishing. Being an indie can be the best career choice!
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 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.
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.
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.
(That’s not an affiliate link. Aside from my own book, no link in this article earns me a cent. That’s so you can trust my advice.)
Recently, I bought that report and I like it. Amy has done a great job explaining a wide range of options and resources, so I see no need to reinvent the wheel.
In my (admittedly biased) opinion, if you’re interested in writing topical, viral nonfiction — books you’ll write in days, not months — you’ll want both:
My book talks about the research & writing process, and the things that help the book sell well and earn great reviews.
Amy’s report explains how to find — and predict, early — the topics worth writing about.
Nonfiction Niche Selection: Useful Tools
For niche research — when I’m searching for unique ideas that fit my “fast books” writing style — I like KDP Rocket software.
Yes, I also use KD Spy and Ebook Niche Explorer, but KDP Rocket can show where the “hidden” topics are. And, KDP Rocket tells you exactly how much competition you’d be facing.
Of the three, KD Spy is the most simplistic if you need at-a-glance results for categories and keywords you already know. I can click it and see, instantly, whether I’m looking at a good niche… but only if I’ve already chosen the niche or keywords.
Ebook Niche Explorer can be confusing and I don’t rely on the red-yellow-green guide (or the text advice) to tell me if I should bother with that niche. However, as an adjunct to other tools — and strictly for experienced, data-minded writer/publishers — it can be very useful.
For the most in-depth and precise niche research, KDP Rocket may be the best, if you’re serious about nonfiction success. It’ll show you book ideas you may not have considered. And, KDP Rocket is from Dave Chesson. If you’re not reading his website, regularly… start now. It’s a gold mine. And he’s a good guy.
Also, if you’re new to nonfiction, Britt Malka has published a pretty good report that covers lots of basics, stylishly: Write, Publish, and Have Fun: 7-Day Blueprint. It’s best for absolute beginners, but may help others who’ve struggled to understand how nonfiction books can be built, quickly.
I’m still creating and publishing coloring books. However, after some initial, impressive successes — which I’ve talked about, online — my average coloring book income has remained around $20/month, per title.
The problem, according to fans: within a couple of weeks, competing books — with very similar titles and covers — appear at Amazon.
Some buyers have been confused.
And, unfortunately, the artwork in those other books has disappointed my fans. Then they realized the book was just a look-alike.
But, as long as competing publishers aren’t copying my books, line for line, there’s little I can do.
You can’t copyright an idea, and you can’t copyright a book title.
That’s okay. In 2017, I’ll keep publishing coloring books for loyal fans who’ve learned to shop carefully. The initial weeks — before the imitators show up — are usually very good.
And, frankly, I’m going to step up how bold and different my style can be. There’s no way other publishers can copy the extremely stylish designs I can create. So, that’s (literally) on the drawing board for 2017.
Sure, I’ll still publish very mainstream coloring books. They may bring in only $20/book/month, but it’s reliable income. And, for me, those books are pretty easy to build.
In general, I think the coloring book marketplace remains strong, but only if you’re publishing good books, in very high volume.
(If your plan is to fill coloring books with clipart — or mandalas you generated using a free resource, online — forget it. That may have been successful a year or two ago. Today…? Not the best idea.)
Otherwise, if you’re able to turn out high-quality, unique, very stylish coloring books, standing out in the crowd is key. And, to be honest, income is still a coin-flip.
If I didn’t love creating coloring books, I might not bother at all.
In 2016, I returned to my writing roots and worked on Regency romance stories. I also dabbled in other sub-genres that interest me.
I bought and read about 40 books about writing in general, or about sub-genres that I enjoy. And, I read ~2 books/week in those sub-genres.
In addition, I took courses about writing fiction. Lots & lots of courses.
But… I kept writing flat, boring stories. The few times I actually finished books and published them, I removed them from Kindle within a day or two.
Why? Well, they were awful books. My policy is: if I’d be embarrassed if my mom or grandmother bought one of them, that book shouldn’t be sold to anyone.
Despite that, I think 2016 was a good year. I started to understand what I’m truly terrible at, and where my weaknesses are.
It was a little humiliating, but I’m pretty sure I’ve passed the oh-dear-heaven-that’s-awful stage of fiction writing. (I hope so, anyway.)
In 2017, I’m ready to write better books. And then, with practice (and reader feedback), write better ones.
2017 is going to involve a lot of fiction. And — since it’s my bread-and-butter — more fiction and coloring books.
Private Groups – Worthwhile?
In late 2015 and throughout 2016, I joined several private groups, usually at Facebook. Most came as part of a membership offer, or they were for students in related (paid) writing courses.
Half of those groups never got off the ground, and went silent within a few months. That’s okay. I’d received good value from the related courses.
In addition, a couple of Facebook groups were tremendous to start with.
One still is. It’s related to coloring books, and organized by Bill Platt. I check-in about once a week for updates, and I learn more each time I scroll through the posts. (Bill and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many things, but when he’s brilliant, he’s brilliant. And I say so.)
Another Facebook group — fiction-related — had a confusing start and not much structure from the beginning. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.
Nevertheless, conversations were lively for months, mostly due to member participation. I met wonderful writers, and learned a lot about the sub-genre we discussed. Despite some awkward moments, it was time well-spent. Many group members seem to be moving on to other projects, now.
I have no complaints and feel as if I received good value from each course I signed up for. If the related FB group was helpful, too, I saw that as a bonus.
One Facebook group is still strong and so very good, I wish I could offer you a way to get into it. It’s the group related to Geoff Shaw’s Kindling training. I think it’s by invitation only, or through members authorized to share links to the sign-up page. (Tink Boord-Dill is one of them. Get on her mailing list. Her courses tend to be brilliant, as well.)
Another new-ish one is Paul Coleman’s “tiny books” Facebook group, related to his report/course on the same topic. (I think that was a short-term offer, so I don’t have a link to it.) So far, that’s been a great community.
In 2017, I’ll be selective about which other groups I sign up for, and how much time I’m at them.
Writing and publishing must be my priorities.
Udemy Courses I Recommend
Late in 2016, two Udemy courses helped me grasp what I was missing as a fiction writer.
In it, Brody explains four points that are essential to a “high concept” story. They may not be new to experienced authors, but her approach is a little different. Then, she shares several fun ways to come up with unique story ideas.
I feel as if her four points plus the PDFs made the course worthwhile. (And really, anyone who’s written 15 books and at least two are being made into major films… that’s someone to learn from.)
In Chamberlain’s course, I saw the massive element that was missing from my fiction. I’d thought my stories had emotional impact, but… no, I was clueless.
His course is vital if you’re not getting rave reviews for your fiction, and if readers aren’t telling friends to buy your books.
That course is rather intense, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it for beginning writers. Start with Jessica Brody’s course, instead.
Between those two courses, I have a path forward. I can see exactly what’s been missing, and how to fix it so my stories have the energy they need to sustain my interest — and readers’ — from start to finish.
The PDFs from both courses are pure gold, as well.
(Note: I still recommend every course Geoff Shaw teaches at Udemy. I sign up for them as fast as they’re available.)
Expectations for 2017
I’m far more confident about what I’ll be writing in 2017.
Sure, I’ll still make mistakes. Probably some stupid ones.