Must Your Novel Have Multiple Storylines?

Nope. But it might be a better novel if it did.

That’s not to say single viewpoint stories can’t be successful. NYT bestselling author Harlan Coben has proven that repeatedly. While his stories almost always stick to a single viewpoint character, he’s been able to devise enough plot twists and mysterious connections to keep readers happy for at least thirty novels. Quite an achievement!

As I’ve often confessed to the students in my writing classes, I get restless sticking with one character for too long. I get tired of their single pallet of emotions, the sameness of their mindset, and the rarely changing role they play. Let’s face it, I LOVE writing bad guys! Who wouldn’t? They get to do all the nasty stuff normal people would never think of doing, and they can often laugh in the process.

But would I want to write an entire novel from the morally fractured outlook of such a character? No. I need good guys, too. And by “guys” I mean males and females. I love creating strong female characters to deal with strong male characters. I like players who bring different things to the table: background, ethnicity, attitude, and most especially problems. (I especially adore bad guys with problems.)

Problems usually result in conflict, and as anyone who enjoys good fiction knows, conflict is what makes stories interesting. You can have a great setting, a magnificent cast, even a brilliant musical score, but if there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

And that’s at the heart of the multiple storyline tale: a handful of memorable characters, each with a mission of some kind–to find, save, destroy, reveal, protect, enhance, or consume something–all run into the hero or heroine at some point and for some valid reason. It’s not just a three-ring circus, it could be a five-, six-, or seven-ring affair. Your only limit is your imagination. That said, I wouldn’t start with an epic. Do some short fiction first and thereby learn the ropes.

Keeping track of all these stories can be tricky, but I devised a fairly simple way of doing it, and I invite you to read about it here.

One of the nice things about having multiple storylines is that they don’t all have to reach a climax at the same time. Life certainly doesn’t work that way. For many of us, it’s a series of minor crises that come along one after another. Using a similar approach in your fiction gives your protagonists an opportunity to win once in a while. Or lose. Losing can be good, too. It keeps characters from becoming too cocky. Just ask Don Quixote.

You will, of course, need to pull at least two of these storylines together as your grand climax, and picking one from the beginning will make it easier to pace the overall story so the final clash will be rewarding for the reader, no matter who or what survives.


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Big Splash; Small Pond

Some people take risks; some don’t. For the risk-takers, there’s a chance for both good and bad, and sometimes the consequences are dire. For clarity’s sake, please know I’m not just thinking about redneck stories, all of which seem to feature the line, “Here, hold my beer.” But as stupid as they are, some risks like these actually do offer something in the way of a payoff. Maybe it’s notoriety, as in: “Hey, y’all! Guess who made the biggest bellyflop splash at the Redneck Olympics? Yep. ‘At’s right. Now, who’s got my beer?”

Hopefully, most of my readers will have loftier aspirations. Selling books, for instance. You can’t sell ’em if you haven’t finished writing them, so this message is clearly intended for those who have. If you want to sell your work to anyone outside your family and close circle of friends, you’re going to have to do some promotion. Promotion costs money, and that means taking some risks.

Most recently I concluded two promotional efforts for which I paid about $600. The former involved 37 websites, of which just over half required a payment of some kind. Some of these mentioned my temporarily free book in an email, a blog post, a newsletter, or in or on some form of social media. The second promo involved one website and a modest payment. The deal called for them to send out 72 tweets over three days to half a million followers.

Aside from the number of promotional sites involved, there was another huge difference. The first campaign offered a free book (the first in a series); the second offered a much bigger book, but at a discount, and the price increased a little every day until it returned to normal. Both deals were co-ordinated through Amazon/Kindle. The former was a Kindle Free Book Promotion. The latter was a Kindle Countdown Deal.

The first campaign was quite successful, and it’s still paying dividends. I will more than make my investment back, and it looks as though that payback will continue for quite a while as additional books in the series are selling well. Thankfully, folks seem to like the first one. I’ve even picked up some great new reviews. The second campaign ended yesterday and didn’t yield a single new sale.

Obviously, I need to keep running promotions. But I intend to be more narrowly focused so I can get a better feel for which websites provide the best return. And it could be that the free and lower cost sites do just as good a job as their more expensive brethren.

I’ll test that next and keep you posted.

The upshot for all this is that there will always be winners and losers, but you can’t count yourself as either one if you don’t play the game. If you’ve invested the time to write a book, doesn’t it make sense to invest something to get it into the hands of readers?



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Hitting the target

So, last week I pulled the trigger. This week it’s time to discuss whether or not I hit the target. I’m thinking of a scene from the old 1938 Errol Flynn movie, “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” wherein the title character shows up at an archery competition disguised, because the evil prince put a price on his head. If he had a lick of sense he’d have stayed at home, but nooo. It’s a contest, and he’s determined to prove what everyone already knows: he’s the best bullseye buster in the realm. So, the heck with caution. Pretty soon he’s faced with a challenge. The shot he has to improve on lands dead center in the target. He nonchalantly draws his bow and lets his arrow fly. Naturally, it splits the first shooter’s arrow from nock to noggin. And the crowd goes wild! Mayhem ensues, and the intrepid archer sneaks out the back door with his reputation, and his neck, intact.

Thankfully, my task wasn’t quite as dramatic. I didn’t have to do better than anyone but myself. And no one was waiting to string me up simply for entering the arena. Nevertheless, I felt some tension. My goal was to distribute 5,000 free copies of one of my books.

Here’s a bit more background on my Little Primitive campaign, a giveaway of the first book in a three-volume series about a two-foot tall warrior living in the utter boondocks of Wyoming. The book originally came out in January 2014. So did the sequel, cleverly titled A Little More Primitive. I was quite ready for the world to show up at my doorstep waving money and clamoring for autographed copies.

I waited a long time, but damned few people showed up. In March of 2015, I published book three in the series, A Primitive in Paradise, another <cough> tour de force of fantasy storytelling. I even had a healthy smattering of reviews, virtually all 5-star, and still the path to my doorstep remained uncluttered by rabid fans, or those of any other stripe.

In January of this year, I finally decided to do something about it. I invested in ads which ran on Amazon, and my sales quickly went up. Not enough to cover their cost, however. But that was okay since I told myself I was building an audience, and any day now they’d discover my diminutive warrior and his cowboy entourage. Alas, very few made the leap.

The problem was pretty simple: few outside my circle of acquaintances knew the books existed. I had to get the word out. Doing so would cost some money, but if the books were really any good, folks would jump on ’em once they became aware of them. That remains my fervent hope.

So I invested roughly $550 in a 5-day giveaway campaign of the first book. I contacted 39 different websites to help in the promotion. Their combination of emails to subscribers, postings in newsletters, blurbs on Facebook and other social media sites, plus tweets to Lord only knows how many people, constituted the bulk of the campaign. I also emailed everyone I knew and quite a few I wasn’t sure of. The message was simple:

Here’s a great book, and it’s yours for FREE!

The results thus far have been positive. Some 5,800 free copies of A Little Primitive were downloaded during the 5-day period (8/25-8/29). Surprisingly, sales of the book nudged up, too. As did sales of the second and third books in the series. Hopefully, the “Pages Read” numbers will stay up as folks work their way through the collection. (Amazon/Kindle pays about a half-cent for each page read.) Here’s how sales and page reads shaped up for the month of August 2018:

The pink area represents earnings from ebook Sales. The blue area represents earnings from Pages Read. 

Okay, so I haven’t made quite enough to take the New Zealand cruise I’ve been dreaming about, but the results are pretty clear: average Sales and Reads tripled, at least briefly. Promotion pays. And hopefully, it will keep paying even though the promotion is over.

I’m so pleased with the progress so far that I’ve planned a new promo for a different book. It’ll run from 9/5 through 9/8. The focus this time is a stand-alone novel, no sequels exist. I’ll provide more details next week.

Anyone interested in a list of the websites I used for the Little Primitive campaign can email me for a copy. You can reach me here:


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Pulling the trigger

Self-promotion sucks. To me, it feels like standing up in front of a room full of people and shouting, “Hey, look at me! See how cool I am.”

And then, of course, everyone in the room will commence throwing vegetables at me along with whatever else they have handy. Shouts of “Burn the witch!” ring out. Flaming torches and sharp-pronged pitchforks mysteriously appear as a bloodthirsty mob forms. Lightning shatters the darkness outside, but I can’t go there and hide–too many angry people stand in the way, all of them clamoring for my head.

Okay, so I might be guilty of a wee-tiny bit of hyperbole. Not everyone will come bearing a torch or a pitchfork. Some will be satisfied just hunting me with an ax. Oh, yes, I can see it now…

I know. I covered this topic last week, and here I am doing it again. But this time, I’m doing it while I’ve got a big promotion running for one of my favorite books, A Little Primitive. The promotion began yesterday and will end at midnight this coming Wednesday (Aug. 29, 2018).

In addition to the dozens of websites and promotional newsletters and blogs, I put together an email flyer of my own. I sent it to everyone I’ve ever met, taught, or corresponded with. And, because I’m basically suspicious of anything that’s offered to me for free, I started it this way:

Here’s the rest:

There is no catch! It’s a free book, and one that’s been selling pretty well.

So, why give it away? Simply to introduce you to one of my favorite fictional worlds. In this case, it’s the world of Mato, a two-foot-tall native American Indian whose grasp of technology is firmly rooted in the stone age. But he’s not. Nor are the members of his tribe. They just aren’t quite as adventuresome. And the rest of the cast is plenty interesting.

Here’s what one reviewer had to say about them:

Shawn, a vengeance machine with a boning knife, is searching for his ex-wife, Tori, who is hiding out in a remote Wyoming cabin expressly to get out of his reach so she can work on the translation of an ancient encoded document. Bit by tantalizing bit, she teases meaning from it with the unexpected help of a two-foot-tall Indian who gives new meaning to the phrase, “Look what the cat dragged in.”

Together, the two must survive and prosper despite having nothing in common and more mortal enemies than friends.

Sound like fun? It is! Now download your FREE copy HERE!

Is this the best way to run a promotion? I have no idea. This is the first one I’ve attempted. It’s way too early to report on the results. I’ll tackle that next week.


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Shameless Self-Promotion

There’s no way around it; if you want people to read what you’ve written, you have to promote it. You’ll also have to promote yourself. You and your product are inextricably linked. Forever.

That’s just the way it is. But self-promotion, for most people, is a damned difficult thing to do. It’s even harder for writers. We’re used to being sequestered, hidden away in our cozy little garrets where we can dream dreams of varying sizes and pretend to know everything there is to know about whatever it is we’ve chosen to write about. Sheer bliss.

And, probably, sheer bullshit for most of us. The truth is we write despite obstacles and distractions, major and minor crises and somehow manage to generate something we hope people will want to read. For most writers, the work stops there. We hope people will read our stuff. We might even send out an email or two announcing the fact we finished the project that’s consumed us for-frickin’-ever. Don’t believe me? Ask a writer’s spouse.

The thing is, if the story was worth telling, it’s worth telling people they should read it, pony up a few drachmae, and find out what all the fuss was about. And, at least in the case of my own books, have a good time.

Why is that so damned hard for most writers to do? It doesn’t matter if we produce our books independently or have an agent and a publisher pushing us. Unless you’re a noted politician, a sports star, or a celebrity ax murderer, you’re the one who’s going to have to do most, if not all, of the marketing. Get used to the idea. Suck it up, buttercup.

So, in the spirit of practicing what I preach, here’s what I’ve done to enhance the sales of my work. In addition to this humble blog, I’ve taught classes on writing and publishing. I’ve done some public speaking. I’ve even done some advertising. Alas, the great, flaming tour bus of fame has yet to park in front of my house and bid me enter. There are, it seems, a <cough> few writers somewhat better known than yours truly.

But I’m not quite ready to rest on my laurels, or my hardies. (I readily forgive my younger readers for not understanding this. It’s old guy speak.) Nope, I’ve decided to try my hand at a promotional campaign. It will officially launch on August 25 and run for five days.

During that time, somewhere between 25 and 35 web entities will be flogging their readers, followers, and twitterees about the temporary availability of a free copy of my book, A Little Primitive. Though only available on Amazon, it can be downloaded and read on either a Kindle device or a computer. I don’t know the extent of my audience for this onslaught of ads, but there’s a chance I could reach upwards of a half million potential readers. I’d like to think I can convince 1 percent of them to take a chance. It’s a FREE book, for cryin’ out loud! What do they have to lose?

With any luck, I’ll hit my target goal of 5,000 downloads. Sadly, I won’t make a nickel in book royalties, but I’m okay with that. My diabolical plan is based on the hope that enough people will actually read the book, that when it comes time for Amazon to reward me for Kindle Pages Read (at just a hair under a half penny per word), I’ll make up the considerable investment I’ve made in the ads. Then too, there’s the hope that readers will be so intrigued by the characters in this book, they’ll eagerly cough up real cash in order to buy the two sequels.

I’ll report back in a couple weeks with the results. Wish me luck!


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For My Fellow Magicians….

Years ago I bid adieu to the rodent relay, and I couldn’t be more happy about it because now I have the time to do the things I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. One of those things is teaching, and more specifically, teaching writing to those who want to learn the craft. Most of my students are of my generation, and most are also retired. Like me, they want to take advantage of the time and resources they have, and I’m tickled to be able to help them.

I love to see the great strides many of them make. Some have had little or no formal training, others were steeped in academic writing, but very few have any experience with what I call “commercial” writing. That is, writing meant for a mass market, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, essay, travel, or almost anything else. I make a special distinction for one kind of writing: I refuse to teach anyone how to write documentation. I did that for way too many years, and no one in management liked the way I did it. (On the other hand, the folks who had to read it often thanked me for making it light and humorous whenever I could. Management, evidently, has no sense of humor.)

There’s an issue which pops up frequently among my more successful students, those who’ve applied themselves for an extended period and have produced a children’s book, a novel (and in some cases, several novels) or a memoir. Every last one of them claims not to “feel” like a writer. They can’t say what a writer should feel like, but however that is, they don’t feel it.

Well, I’m here to set the record straight. So, be it known now and forevermore: Anyone who writes a book and takes the time and makes the effort to produce something as good as it can be, is a writer.

Most of the writers I know are modest folk, and that includes many tremendously successful ones. There are a few pompous assholes to be sure, but by and large, the writing crowd is characterized by people who are not only imaginative and creative, they’re generally thoughtful and caring as well.

We may not all come from the same places, socially, ethnically or politically, but that doesn’t matter. The feeling that we’re somehow frauds because we turn ideas into words and words into pictures is fairly universal. It’s a kind of magic, and most of us aren’t willing to accept that in some cases, magic really does exist. And, in fact, we’re the magicians.

Therefore I want to celebrate all my fellow magicians, no matter where they fall on the scale of creation. What we do has value. What we do makes a difference.

What we do makes us who we are.



Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Character Emotions — Part Nine

While far from a complete discussion of emotions, we’ve touched on those I think are the most critical and/or difficult to convey in any kind of writing. But one emotion that’s gone undiscussed until now is also one fiction writers should treat with extreme caution: happiness.

Waitaminute! Treat happiness with caution? But why? Happy is good, right?

One of the hallmarks of great fiction, or at least readable fiction, is conflict. So how does one square the happy character with one who must face a dilemma or two? Or more–like an attacking horde of zombie Viking cannibals?

The thing to remember about happiness is that it’s usually temporary. People who run around perpetually happy are instantly suspect. They’re either up to something, or they’re insane. Either way, there’s potential for conflict. If they’re always happy, and nothing dreadful comes their way, there’s no story. G’nite Irene. Zzzzz….

There’s also the issue of mistaking contentment and happiness. They aren’t the same thing. You could think of it this way: happy is when your team wins; contentment is when you pay off your mortgage.

There’s nothing wrong with having a happy character, even one who’s diabolically happy. But more often than not, you’ll have a character whose happiness is either illusional or about to abruptly end. Perhaps even tragically.

For writers of fiction, that tragedy is usually a good thing. It means there’s a story coming, and if an author is willing to do something dreadful to a beloved character, the chances of that story being truly compelling multiply exponentially.

So, how does one depict happy? By following the same guidelines provided for any other emotion:

  • Eschew clichés. Don’t tell your readers Egbert was happy as a clam, which besides being a cliché is just stupid; clams can’t even smile much less giggle, chatter, skip, or hum. Any of which might be useful in portraying someone in the throes of happiness.
  • Be specific. There’s bound to be a reason for this joyful moment in your player’s life; don’t keep it a secret. If your character has just discovered a cure for something awful, make sure your readers know exactly what that awful thing is.
  • Emotional range. Like every other emotion, being happy can and usually does encompass a range of feeling. A newly engaged female might experience a sharp burst of bubbly energy when she gazes at the sparkly new adornment on her ring finger, but that initial zing will likely dissolve into a contented sigh or maybe even one of relief.
  • Trust your own life experience. Unless you’ve never been happy, and that would truly be unfortunate, find something in your own history that made you gleeful, exuberant, or just plain silly. Examine those feelings and amp them up or down to meet the needs of your character.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the formula I offer for depicting all these widely varying emotions is exactly the same. The emotions aren’t, but the strategy is. All I ask is that you try it. You might surprise yourself!


Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments