Using Films to Understand Storytelling

Late yesterday, I got serious about trying the StoryClock concept. After watching this video, I saw how the “clock” approach could help me plot stories faster and better. And, so far, it’s definitely helping.

So, I was pretty excited about this. See, I already had notes – with times noted – from when I analyzed “story beats” in films, a couple of years ago.

Understanding Storytelling with Films

But, putting those notes onto a “clock” to see symmetry and foreshadowing and all those good things… I realized I’d been noting the times on the TV screen. (In other words, that line – with times noted – that appears when you pause, reverse, or fast-forward through a show.)

So, I worried that the entire clock could be thrown off by as many as 10 minutes, depending on how old the movie was, and how grandiose the opening titles. (The original “Pink Panther” movies come to mind.)

This morning, I re-watched one of my favorite films – in terms of plotting, anyway – and… wow! I’ve learned SO much since then, in terms of telling a story. Now, the movie looks entirely different.

That movie is Crimson Peak. It’s more stylish than most movies, but I won’t pretend the story is The Meaning Of Life. I just love the layers that del Toro puts into his films.

My original notes started at the seven-minute point, when I noted that the girl’s father gives her a pen, and that’s foreshadowing.

But now, I realize that even before the seven-minute point, there’s a funeral, and a scene that resonates with, oh, at least half the creepy scenes in the movie… and then a specific warning about the dangers ahead.

And the symmetry and foreshadowing and so on… they go on & on.

Why didn’t I put those scenes in my original notes?

Well, until I’d learned more about storytelling, I didn’t realize how important they were.

At the moment, this is pretty cool. A whole lot of “Oh, THAT’s how important those cues are, to have the story resonate with the reader.”

So, if you’ve been writing for a while, or have been studying plotting and story beats, go back and watch your favorite old movies. You may see things that were so subtle, you hadn’t noticed them before.

And, as a writer, that’s important. In many cases, you want your cues and foreshadowing to enrich your story as it unfolds.

In films and TV shows, you may see things you’d never paid attention to, until you looked as a writer.

Recommended Reading

If I were stranded on a desert island with pen, paper, and just two books about plotting, these might be those two books. I recommend owning them in paperback, so you can flip back & forth between the pages, quickly.

Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story, by James Scott Bell.

This may look like a thin, short book. Don’t let that fool you. It’s filled with useful insights.

In 14 steps, Bell explains what happens in every essential moment of a good story. And he explains it clearly.

For me, the biggest discovery was what he calls “the mirror moment,” where the protagonist comes face-to-face to the situation he/she/they have landed in… because they made mistakes. 

Adding that moment in a story can make a major difference in the impact on the reader. It adds to the suspense, as the reader wonders, “Will he/she/they get out of this mess? Was the lesson really and truly learned, this time?”

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody

This explains the story beats of each of 10 basic plots/genres. It’s useful to understand how a romance is different from, say, a superhero story.

It’s more by-the-numbers than Bell’s Super Structure book is, but – especially for those new to plotting – this book is a time-saver. Big time.

(And, weirdly, that paperback is currently less expensive than buying it in Kindle format. But, at over 300 pages, there’s no way I’d want to be trying to flip back & forth through the pages in digital format.)

But… if you’re a new writer and you’re working on shorter fiction (“short reads”), you may want to take a look at How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, by James Scott Bell. It’s short, so it’s fine to read in Kindle. Also, he includes a lot of additional information about writing & publishing.

(If you don’t want to spend the $3.99 for the Kindle edition, here’s the most important point I learned from this book: “A great short story is about the fallout from one, shattering moment. What is a ‘shattering moment’? Well, it’s like when you shatter glass. You’ll never get the pieces together again.”)

Related Resources

Dan Harmon’s Story Circles (a bit dramatic/gruesome)

Plot Clock (at Fiction University) – a more formulaic approach, for authors

StoryClock products – notebooks, workbooks, etc. And here’s an explanation of how to use the notebook, but the video I posted at the top of this article is better, imho.

Do you know of a similar/better, circular plotting system? Let me know.

Marketing Basics for Authors

Recently, someone asked my advice about marketing to reach more readers. It was a rush-rush morning, but I wanted to say something helpful.

Here’s what I said, in email, warts & all…

To sell more books, start with the basics. Even if you’ve already set up some of these systems, revisit them regularly. (I do, with my own books & marketing.) There’s always room for improvement and updates/tweaks.

If this is new to you, it may seem daunting. It’s not. You can do nearly all of this – or at least start the ball rolling – in half a day or less.  (My marketing motto is: “Better, not perfect.” A little here, a little there… it adds up to greater success, week by week.)

1) Set up an Amazon Author page.

You’ll do this via https://authorcentral.amazon.com/  You can use up to three pen names per Author Central account.

(If you have more than three pen names – as I do – set up a second Author Central account with a different email address. That’s perfectly legal.)

A short, whimsical/intriguing author bio is good, whether you’re in fiction or nonfiction. In the bio, lean more on “fascinating, extraordinary person” than on the authority angle.

If you’re in a fringe niche, go with the cool/weird/interesting vibe. 

Make sure your blog feeds to your Amazon Author page, too.  You’ll set that up in Author Central, with just a link.

For more details… well, I haven’t watched this video, but Dave Chesson is a good friend and he’s usually a reliable resource:

2) Create an Author Page at Facebook.

Set up a Facebook Page (not a Group) for your pen name. At first, set it up so you moderate all comments. Once the fans are there to speak louder than trolls, etc., you can change that, so you reduce admin time. You’ll use this to promote your books and make it easy for readers to Share your posts, too.

I’m assuming you’re using something like HootSuite‘s free service to manage your social media accounts.

(I’m using PromoRepublic, and absolutely love it. But, if you’re starting out and have more time than money, there’s no reason to leap into that kind of expense… yet.)

Social media is kind of a must. Focus on whichever media reach your target audience. Facebook followers are very different from Twitter followers, in age, income, and interest.

See this article about which audience is where: https://promorepublic.com/en/blog/10-ways-find-audience-social-media/

3) Work on “also boughts.”

If this is new to you, read https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/also-boughts-authors-books/ but don’t pay any service that might look shady to Amazon.

Mostly, think about the people who should buy your book and know what you’re doing. What best-selling books are they already buying? (Yasiv.com can be useful for this.)

Work on those as “also boughts.”  I recommend using your free days in Kindle, coordinated with a $5 promotion or two by bknights at Fiverr.com. bknights’ promotions are easily the best deal I’ve seen for the money, and they can organically improve your book sales, while staying within Amazon’s Terms of Service.

I’m not sure if this podcast might give you more insights, as I haven’t listened to it, but Chris Fox is pretty reliable on any book marketing topic:
https://cksyme.com/episode36/ 

This video (also by Chris Fox) may be helpful, too:

4) Put your book covers (and Amazon OneLink Affliate links to them – https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/help/node/topic/202165020 ) in the sidebar of your website.

Add Pinterest-ish graphics to your posts, for more exposure. I recommend  LH OGP Meta Tags (free WP plugin) for OGP Image selection, and Social Media and Share Icons (Ultimate Social Media) (also a free WP plugin) to get more buzz, as well.

Those are starting points for authors to reach new readers.

When the Writing Spoils the Book – Editing and Proofreading Tools

when writing spoils book - editing and proofreadingAs a somewhat compulsive reviewer – with lots & lots of reviews at Amazon.com – I read (or at least start reading) several books every week. For me, it’s relaxing and I enjoy writing reviews.

But now, perhaps in “physician, heal thyself” mode, I need to talk about the quality of writing in some books I download to my Kindle reader.

See, in my book about fast nonfiction, I said that content was more important than being finicky about editing and proofreading.

The success of many of my own books – that were published despite being first drafts – proved that my readers want facts.

The more data and trivia I can provide, especially while the topic is trending, the better.

That’s still true. But now, competition can be steeper. I need to revise and update my “write fast books” book. Above all, I need to recommend taking an extra day or two to fix the most glaring problems.

While I’m editing that book, the following advice may help fast nonfiction authors. It goes double if you’re publishing fiction.

No excuse for terrible grammar or typos

If your readers see errors in the “look inside” part of your book, they won’t buy or borrow it.

If they get halfway through the book and put it down because the typos or grammar glitches are too annoying, you’ll get one-star reviews.

Spend a little extra time fixing the worst problems that leap off the pages of your book.

Most word processors, including free ones like OpenOffice and LibreOffice, include spellcheckers (and sometimes grammar checkers) that catch far more mistakes than they used to, even two or three years ago.

For free editing, the Hemingway Editor (formerly called “the Hemingway app”) was one of the first free, online editing tools. It’ll highlight the text that really needs improvement. (It will also highlight a few things that are fine, as-is, unless you’re writing a dissertation for your Literature or English degree.)

Note: The free, online version can require a lot of tedious cut-and-paste, and it doesn’t seem as precise as the paid/desktop version that I own… but rarely use, now.

Then there’s Grammarly. I’ve used it and liked it. They have a free version. It can be good enough for most writing projects. Add it to Chrome and then write in Google Docs, and it’ll identify your worst writing blunders. It’s more finicky – but also more helpful – than Hemingway Editor.

About a year ago, I started using (and absolutely love) ProWritingAid. Like Hemingway Editor, ProWritingAid offers a free, online version.

For me, it’s the next best thing to hiring an editor. And, since I use their Premium edition, it interacts with Scrivener.

Their customer support is personal, and run by the team that created the software. They respond quickly.

So, ProWritingAid is easily my top recommendation. I can choose how finicky I want to be. If I’m rushing through a topical nonfiction book, I can decide what kinds of grammar errors I want to fix… and skip the rest.

In other words, I don’t fix everything they flag as bad grammar. Don’t feel as if you have to, either.

It saves me time. It helps me polish my work. I love it. Try the free, online version and see if it works well for you, too.

Ghostwriters can be great… or terrible

Sometimes, I read a book and, within the first few pages, realize it was outsourced. The grammar is awful. The sentences make little sense. Only the gist of the topic (or scene) is there, and even that is difficult to discern.

That’s how I know the author actually hired someone at Fiverr.com or a super-low bidder at Upwork.com, or at a similar site.

Next, the person they hired may hire someone cheaper, or even use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is ridiculously inexpensive… and the middleman (the one you thought you hired) pockets the difference.

Finally, the author/publisher received the book, and thought it was ready to publish.

It wasn’t.

Maybe the publisher was rushed. Maybe he or she has reading challenges. Or maybe the person’s first language isn’t English.

Whatever the reason, he or she hasn’t a clue how bad the book is.

That’s tragic when it’s fiction and the plot seems fun, but I just can’t get past the awful writing.

Note
From this point on, most of this is for fiction writers. Nonfiction authors should skim this for the points that affect their books, too.

The plot matters… a lot

Make sure you’re starting with a good plot.

If readers don’t care about your characters and what happens to them, or your plot doesn’t hit the right notes, the writing doesn’t matter.

I recommend Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. If you can buy only one book about writing fiction, that’s probably the best one to get. And, in my opinion, it’s most useful as a printed book. (As I’m writing this, it’s less expensive in print than in Kindle, too.)

What to expect from ghostwriters

Many people have jumped on the “hire a cheap ghostwriter and get rich with fiction” bandwagon.

Umm… that can work, but don’t count on it.

Let’s say you had an idea for a book. You (or someone you hired) crafted a great plot with engaging characters.

Then, you hired someone to write a novella, around 25,000 words. Now, you’re not sure if the book is ready to publish.

In ghostwriting, price matters.

  • If you’ve paid them less than $200, expect a rather rough first draft.  It’s not a ready-to-publish, finished manuscript. (Exception: when the ghostwriter is fantastic, but just starting with a site like Upwork.com. He or she may offer super-low prices, just to build a resume and get great reviews.)
  • If you’ve paid over $1,000 for that novella, the book should need little or no work before publishing.

Between those extremes, anything is possible.

Is it good enough?

Here are different ways to decide if (and when) your book is ready to be published.

  • Read the book carefully, yourself.
  • Have a friend (or beta reader) look at it, too.
  • Run it through ProWritingAid or other editing software, to see how many problems it flags.

Then fix what’s broken… at least the worst things. (Hire someone if you can’t do the line-editing yourself.)

Also, authors I know (in real life) rave about the book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I trust those authors’ recommendations, so I bought a copy of that book. I may even read (and use) it, someday. But, to be honest, all I’m using is ProWritingAid.

But how does your book sound?

Here’s one of the best editing tools I’ve stumbled onto, after I’ve run my books through ProWritingAid: Read Aloud. It’s a text-to-speech addition for your Chrome browser.

And it’s free.

I’ve tried several text-to-speech tools, and Read Aloud has been the most glitch-free of the bunch.

Basically, I sit at my desk – with my manuscript open – and have Read Aloud read it.

Note for Scrivener authors: I’ve tried a few options, and like pasting the text into Google Docs, for Read Aloud to read while I have Scrivener open. Then, I fix problems as I hear or notice them. There’s probably an easier way – and I’ll update this post when I find one – but, for now, this works for me.

Hearing my book read has been one of the best ways for me to recognize when a sentence reads awkwardly. Or when a scene needs to be restructured or totally rewritten.

But this bears repeating: Use editing software before – and possibly a second time, after – you use Read Aloud. Don’t waste your time listening to a book that will need a major rewrite, anyway.

When you struggle with English

Back when I edited books at Harvard and M.I.T., one of my clients was a challenge. His writing was terrible.

Oh, English was his first language, but he usually spoke in partial sentences.  (I’d say, “How are you doing?” He’d reply, “Working too hard. As usual. Yourself?”)

Most days, he worked in a lab by himself. He didn’t need to speak with many people. (He was like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory.)

He was a noted scientist, and – no doubt – a genius. But rewriting his books and papers… wow. That was a struggle, every time.

He wasn’t my only client. Most were visiting professors from other countries. They spoke enough English to take courses, and sometimes teach them.

There was no way they could write books and papers, in English, without the help of a line-editor.

I’d edit the work and give it back to the professor, to be sure I had conveyed the right concepts. Then, she or he would sit down with me, and we’d talk about it.

I’d fix what I’d misunderstood. They’d ask how to express certain ideas, and take notes. And then I’d edit the resulting work, one more time.

Often, I was just the first editor. The publishing house would take my work and edit it even further.

If you struggle with English, it can be essential to hire an English-speaking editor. (You can find some at sites like Upwork.com, but be sure to check reviews and references. Or ask your friends who write/publish books.)

My experience as a “fast book” author

I won’t pretend I’m a great writer. Research is where I shine, but that seems to be enough to offset my writing skills.

Competition has increased in the marketplace. I’m editing and revising all of my books. What was “good enough” even two or three years ago… that bar was far too low to remain competitive now.

Keep that in mind when someone talks about outsourcing your way to a fortune, and uses his or her older books as proof.