Friday, November 27, 2015

Let's Get Visual!

As a creative writing teacher, I sometimes struggle to get concepts across to my students. That’s why I created the Amazing Story Spiral, a visual tool to help students plot stories from character rather than event. (You can read about the Amazing Story Spiral in a previous blog post here:

Since then I’ve developed three more visual tools for fiction writers (I created all three when I was supposed to be reading student stories – avoidance is sometimes a writer’s best friend!). I’ve drawn pictures of these three tools and while I’m no artist (as you’re about to see), hopefully they’re good enough to get the idea across,

THE NO-PROBLEM STORY PROBLEM WHEEL One of the most common problems my creative writing students have is difficulty keeping their stories focused on a specific story problem – a central conflict around which the entire action of the story revolves. A huge part of this difficulty is being unclear on how their characters are connected to the story problem. I created the Story Problem Wheel to help writers make sure that all their characters are connected to the story problem in ways big or small, and therefore serve a specific, vital function in the story. This technique is simple enough. You write the name of each character on one of the spokes, and then you write an explanation of how that character is connected to the story problem. This technique can also be used as a plotting aid, for once you know how the characters are connected to the story problem, you can design scenes to show their connections. For example, let’s say the main story problem is that Sally and Bob are separated, and Sally wants to get back together. One of the characters is Sally’s friend Joan. Joan’s connection to the problem is two-fold: she wants to support her friend, but she’s secretly in love with Bob, although she’s never expressed her feelings to him. Now we know that Joan’s role in the story: she will serve as an advisor to Sally while at the same time trying to convince her to divorce Bob for her own benefit. We’ve strongly connected Joan to the story, her role is integral, and we know what role she’ll play in the plot.
THE INCREDIBLE VIVID FICTION CHART The more vivid fiction is, the more effective it is. Most writers, raised on a steady diet of movies and TV shows, usually only evoke the senses of sight and sound. But we experience reality on so many more levels, and writers need to be able to create the illusion of reality in their fiction by reflecting this richness of experience in their work. I created the Astounding Vivid Fiction Chart to give writers a framework to help make their fiction more vivid. Elements of experience are listed down the left side of the chart: dialogue, thoughts, emotions, sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, memory connections, and imaginative connections. These last two might need some explanation. Memory connections are associations characters make when something in the present reminds them of something from their past. Imaginative connections are associations a character makes with his or her imaginative, like seeing a spindly, leafless tree in a graveyard and thinking it looks like a skeletal hand emerging from the ground. The vertical sections of the chart represent units of a story – a scene, a paragraph, even a sentence, whichever you choose. As you’re working on a story unit, you can chart the experience details you use by putting a dot, an X, or a checkmark in the appropriate box. You don’t need to use all the different types of details every time. The chart can help remind you to make your fiction more vivid as you write it, but you can also use it to go over parts of a story you’ve already finished and chart how vivid those parts are. If you see you aren’t using enough variety of details or that you’ve fallen into a rut in terms of the details you use and you need to change things up, the chart can give you guidance for revision.
THE ASTOUNDING SCENE DIAMOND Another difficulty students often have is considering the emotional aspects of their scenes as well as the action aspects of their scenes. In fact, they often neglect the emotional aspect altogether. This visual is designed to help writers think of the action level of their story along with the emotional aspect, with the story goal/throughline running through the middle of the chart. Action obstacles are on one side of the throughline, emotional obstacles on the other side. Each scene has both a physical and an emotional obstacle, and each scene has a reaction to the character’s dealing with those obstacles. The action and emotional qualities can be different aspects of the same obstacle. For example, a character wants to confront a rival at work. The confrontation is action. The anger the character feels during the conformation is emotional. The confrontation turns violent, and the rival punches the character. The character decides not to continue the fight and leaves. That’s action. The character also feels anger, shame, and self-loathing for retreating. In each scene, the character deals with both the action and emotional obstacles, reacts to them, then moves on to the next scene. The end of the story the climax has both an action aspect as well as an emotional aspect. The value of this chart is that it continually reminds writers to tend to the emotional level of their stories, making their fiction far richer in the process.
Give these three tools a try and see what they can do for you – and if you’re a teacher, feel free to steal them for your classes, and see what they can do for your students. Let me know how they work for you, and especially let me know if you find ways to improve them. After all, we’re all in this together, right?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

To Market, To Market

When you’re a writer, marketing your books is a necessary evil. (And I’m a horror writer, so I know evil!) There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people out there who are only too happy to share their advice on marketing fiction. Some of these people are relative newcomers who are still trying to figure out the whole marketing thing themselves, while others are seasoned professionals with years of experience who offer tried-and-true techniques. But regardless of where all these people are coming from, their advice has one thing in common: it deals with marketing a book after it’s finished. I’d like to suggest that the most important marketing happens before a book is written.

First, let me tell you a story. Several years ago I was on a panel at a science fiction convention. The panel dealt with the business of writing and the panelists were a mix of experienced and up-and-coming writers. The moderator began by saying that if you’re going to write, you must treat it like a business, and the other panelists echoed this sentiment in turn. But when it was my time to add my two cents, I said that writing is a creative act, and therefore has an artistic purpose at its core. If writers’ sole purpose was to make money, we’d become doctors or lawyers. I said it’s up to writers to decide what their goals for their writing are, and they can write for pleasure, as a hobby, as a second vocation, or as their primary vocation, but whatever they do, writing is ultimately a creative act, not simply a business proposition. The other panelists then back-tracked a bit and agreed that yes, the artistic aspect was the foundation of a writing career, and the panel went on from there.

My point wasn’t to try to shut down the other panelists. I wanted people to realize something essential about writing: only an idiot goes into the arts with the sole purpose of making money. You’re trying to sell a product – a book, a painting, a song, a performance – that most people aren’t interested in. People who love the arts forget that the arts have a very small audience when compared to the total population. We’re selling a product with limited appeal, trying to sell it to a small customer base, and we’re competing with all the other artists who are trying to sell similar products to the same customers. From a business perspective, this is a recipe for disaster.

The first thing writers need to realize when it comes to marketing is this:
1. We’re creating a product with limited appeal, we’re creating it for a small audience, and we’re competing with each other to capture this audience’s attention.

It’s important to understand this reality from the start. If you want to sell something, you need to understand exactly what it is that you’re selling, and exactly who you’re trying to sell it to.

The second thing writers need to realize:
2. You must decide whether to write what you want or what they want.

Do you write what you want (an artistic choice) or do you write what you think will sell (an economic choice)? If you make the artistic choice, you will be more fulfilled creatively, but you’ll create a product that may appeal to an even smaller section of the book-reading audience. For example, horror fiction has a limited appeal, otherwise the bestseller lists would be filled with horror novels. If you write horror, your audience will be horror fiction readers, a small group compared to all the readers out there. If you write a subset of horror – extreme horror, literary horror – your audience will be even smaller. A few weeks ago on his Facebook page, author and editor Darrell Schweitzer said that authors of genres with limited appeal should realize that they are basically selling books to each other, and what’s wrong with that? I immediately thought of literary fiction, much of it coming out from small-press publishers with low press runs. Who reads those books? Mostly other lit-fic authors.

So if you write what you want, there’s an excellent chance that you’ll have a small audience to sell to, and that no matter what you do, you won’t be able to enlarge this audience in any meaningful way. My mother didn’t read much, but when she did, she liked to read romance novels about nurses. My dad likes to read hard SF and military fiction. Nothing could’ve gotten them to change their reading tastes, not even having a son who writes in other genres.

There’s nothing wrong with having a small audience who appreciates your work, but I think it’s important to recognize this so that your marketing expectations are realistic. (In other words, you’re not going to get rich.)

If you’re lucky to love a genre that’s popular, like Romance (over half the novels published in the USA are Romance), then you can write what you want and have a much better chance at selling your work because there’s already a large readership out there.

If you write what they want, then you need to write in a genre that has a large audience, such as Romance or Thrillers (or weird porn self-published on Amazon). The pros of this choice are obvious. Your book will have a stronger built-in appeal for a larger audience. The cons are that since there are more readers (and thus more money to chase), you’ll have more competition – and worst of all, you may hate what you’re writing because you’re writing it for business reasons, not artistic ones.

But whatever choice you make, write for yourself or write to please an audience . . .
3. Write the absolute best book you can every time (and never stop trying to write better).

In other words, create the highest quality product possible for you to sell. Why would anyone want to buy a poor-quality product even if they generally like that kind of product? Why would I buy shitty lemonade when I can buy delicious lemonade? You want to sell something? It better be damn good. More than that, it better be competitive.

High quality can mean different things for different readers, of course. Some readers prize literary style and characterization more than plot, and vice versa. Some prefer fast-paced stories, some more leisurely paced stories. But while there’s no one-size-fits all definition of high quality when it comes to fiction, you need to decide what it means to you – and more importantly, your audience – and strive for that standard.
4. You need to create an attractive product.

This goes for traditionally published writers as well as self-published ones – although the self-pubbers obviously have to work a lot harder at this aspect since they’re going it alone. Intriguing book title, interesting synopsis, cover art, layout, solid editing, production value . . . Traditional publishers partner with writers to create an attractive product and then share in the profits from sales of that product. Self-pubbers need to hire professionals who can provide these services. Whichever road you choose, at the end of it, you better have a goddamn good-looking book – outside and inside – if you want to attract readers.

Bottom line: Focus on why you write, how you write, and to whom you’re writing, and when it comes time to market your fiction, you’ll be that much ahead of the game.

Earlier, I mentioned there are lots of resources available to give you advice on how to market your book after it’s written. Here are three excellent book marketing resources I recommend:
  • Guerilla Marketing for Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson and Rick Frishman.
  • No Nonsense, No Gimmick Guide to Marketing Your Book, by Eric Beebe.
  • Author’s Guide to Marketing with Teeth, by Michael Knost.

My novel Eat the Night will be available from DarkFuse Publications in January. It should be available for preorder soon.

I’m the featured writer in the latest issue of LampLight magazine. There’s a new interview with me in it, along with a new story called “Tresspasser.”

I have a story in the debut issue of Dreadful Geographic.
My article on writing with emotional impact, “Once More, With Feeling,” appears in Writers on Writing, Vol. 1.