Plot vs. Character?

For as long as I can remember, people in the writing community have debated the issue of plot versus character — which should drive a story? One side of the argument claims a complex plot will generate enough conflict to keep all the characters busy, and therefore interesting. The other side points out that if a character isn’t developed well enough, readers won’t care what happens to them, and the complexity of the plot becomes moot.

My own feelings fall somewhere in the middle. When writing a story, be it a novel of epic proportions, a short story, or a bit of flash fiction, there’s no reason why it can’t offer both good characters and an interesting plot. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be.

The nice thing about plot is its adaptability.  One can start with a basic action plan and use it in almost any genre. Here’s an example from one of my writing classes. It’s about as basic as it gets:

  1. The point of view character (POVC) has run afoul of the primary authority figure where they live.
  2. They must leave or suffer consequences.
  3. They have three opportunities to make their exit.
  4. The first two exit opportunities don’t work for them.
  5. They choose the third exit opportunity, but it turns out not to be as advertised.
  6. Something unexpected happens.
  7. The story ends.

In terms of 7-point plotting, the first two items on the list provide the opening: a Person, in a Place, with a Problem. Items 3-5 provide the Try/Fail elements. Item 6 is the Climax, and item 7 is the Denouement (“…the marryin’ and the buryin'” according to Twain).

On face value, the plot isn’t intriguing. In fact, it’s cut and dried. But notice how easily it can be bent to fit almost any genre, and there are no restrictions on the POVC. If this were to be a fairy tale type fantasy, the lead character could be an elf, a unicorn, a dragon, a princess, or virtually any sort of creature which might inhabit that domain. Or it could be a western in which a crooked politician, a wealthy rancher, or the owner of the town’s only saloon calls all the shots. The POVC could be a cowboy, an Indian, a barmaid, a schoolmarm or whatever.

The same framework could easily support a space opera, a romance, a detective story, or a tale of the macabre. When I present the framework in my classes, I ask the students to choose any genre that appeals to them and use it.

I also ask them to select a premise for their story — just a simple sentence to guide the direction of the tale. There are a gazillion possibilities, most of which come neatly packaged in cliches. F’rinstance:

  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Never look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Love conquers all
  • There’s honor among theives
  • Befriend everyone; trust no one
  • Better lucky than smart
  • Etc.

A premise can be a remarkably handy device. And, like the simple plot framework, it’s flexible. Take any of the examples above for instance, and reverse the sentiment:

  • Honesty is NOT the best policy
  • ALWAYS look a gift horse in the mouth
  • Love conquers NOTHING
  • Honor among thieves? Are you kidding?
  • Befriend no one; trust everyone
  • Better smart than lucky

I suspect you’ll find it much easier to write the story with these three things already in hand: Plot framework, Genre, and Premise.

From there just pick a POVC you find interesting, plug him (or her, or it) into the opening scenario, and you’re cleared for take-off. The premise will make it fairly easy to determine why and how the first two exit options aren’t suitable and why the third one is.

I usually stretch the writing assignment for this exercise over two or three weeks. I only ask for the opening — a couple hundred words, give or take — to be shared with the class when it next meets.

I’d love to see what some of my readers might do with this. Give it a try, and if you like what you come up with, let me know, and I’ll tell you how to forward it to me. If there’s enough response, I’ll feature some of the openings in a future post.

Now, get busy!

–Josh

 

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Platform? What’s a platform?

There’s a hard truth awaiting some who write in hopes of publishing. Far too many don’t discover this truth until they’ve finished a book and put it on the market. So let me give it to you up front: for the great majority of writers, books are hard to sell. Really, seriously, hard to sell.

If you’re a professional athlete, a well-known politician, or a celebrity ax murderer, you will have already established an audience. All the publishers know this, and because of it, they know they’ll reach a fairly decent level of sales automatically. The publicity you’ve already received guarantees it. The rest of us, however, must build our readership, or as it’s called these days, our “platform.”

The first thing to do is secure your name as a web address. If your name is Joe Doe, you need to grab the rights to the domain name: JoeDoe.com. If you’re name is Harry Beefsteak, go get HarryBeefsteak.com. If you intend to write under a pen name, get the domain name that captures it. Just search the web for “domain names.” You’ll find a ton of places which can do the job for you at very little cost. It’s easy, but it’s important. If you can’t get your own name, work out a variation of it, and try for that. More on this later.

Whether you intend to produce your book independently or via a traditional publisher, you will need to establish a base readership, folks you can count on to either buy your work or tell people they know about it, preferably both. Where and how does one do that?

Start by building an email list of the folks you know–people who can be counted on to support your efforts. Friends, family, and close associates will fill that list, of course. Then what? Assuming you have a thousand or so names listed, you’ve got a great start. But even then, you still need more. So review all the social connections you have: church membership, civic clubs, professional associations, etc. Track down those addresses, too. You’ll need ’em all.

Sadly, it still won’t be enough. Where to next? Social media, whether you’re already active or not. It’s time to reconnect with old school chums, former neighbors, anyone and everyone you can find from your past who might be a potential reader. At this stage your main concern is volume. The more connections you can make, the better. Not everyone on your list will buy your book, obviously, but because they know you, they might. Or they might mention it to someone else.

Building your platform further will require extra effort, and this is where your domain name comes into play. You’re going to need a website where people can go to find out more about you and your book(s). And, you’ll have to opportunity to sell your books there, simply by linking your titles to the on-line retailers who carry them. You can even become an Amazon Associate, and earn a commission on any sales which result from someone clicking on the link you provide.

If you’re really serious, you may want to start a blog. If you have or can present some expertise on a subject, make that your focus. Otherwise pick something you can write about for a long, long time. My own blog, which focuses on writing, has grown steadily since I started it a few years ago.

Writing and maintaining a blog is a huge commitment. I update mine every week, but I know others who post every other day. Posting less than once a week is unlikely to result in much of a following. You’re building readership, right? To do that you must provide something to read. If possible, you’ll want to establish  two-way communication with your readers.

Soliciting feedback is a great way to do that. Sponsoring contests and encouraging use of the remarks feature will give your readers the means to do it. It’ll also give them a sense of ownership, and they’ll be more receptive when your next book comes out. You’re not just building an audience; you’ll be building relationships.

This doesn’t mean you should hammer your readers with one sales pitch after another. In fact, the opposite is more effective. Save your announcements for when they’ll be most effective, post them, and then go back to business as usual.

And if you STILL don’t have enough names (hint: you’ll never have a list big enough), it’s time to go back to the salt mine.

Here’s another way to build your platform: public speaking. By the time you start thinking of this alternative, you probably will be an expert, so why not take advantage of it? There must be a million clubs and organizations who are looking for dynamic speakers to liven up their meetings. That could be you! It is the proverbial double-edged sword, however. If you’re just simply a horrible, boring speaker, you run the risk of chasing folks away. So, be charming, clever, and above all, humorous. And don’t forget to make your books available for sale afterwards. That’s a perfect time to collect still more names and email addresses.

If you find you actually enjoy standing in front of people and sharing your wisdom, consider teaching a class at one of the senior centers in your area. Most cites have at least one college with a continuing education department. See what you might be able to do there. Good teachers are hard to find. Play that to your advantage. And don’t forget to keep collecting those names and addresses!

Once you’ve got that starter list–and there are plenty more ways to expand it further–you’ll have the nucleus of a platform. Use it to announce new books, public appearances, contests, book signings or other opportunities for shoulder rubbing, hand-shaking, and book selling.

That’s it in a nutshell. There’s a lot more to the topic of marketing: book launches, signings, publication parties, etc. But this is enough for now.

 

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Have All The Stories Been Told?

When looking at recent movie titles, it’s easy to wonder if all the really good stories have already been told. They haven’t, of course, but one still wonders. Not every new film is a remake, but it seems like quite a few of them are. So, is it the same with novels? Are the same stories simply being told over and over again?

For some writers, that’s true, especially for books which feature the same cast in volume after volume. Some of those stories definitely suffer from sameness. But then one only has to consider popular TV shows which also feature an ensemble cast dealing with a terrible new crisis every week (or one especially ugly crisis which is dragged out all season). The difference is that a variety of writers are generating stories for the small screen while most novelists are working alone (James Patterson’s fiction factory notwithstanding.)

And then there’s Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s likely the record holder for movie remakes. Obviously, there’s something endearing about young love, family enmity, leaping to conclusions, and tragedy, right? No, wait. Maybe it’s the poetic dialog, because don’t we all just love to ruminate in Elizabethan English? (Try poking a “wherefore art thou” into a contemporary novel and watch readers flee.)

So, what is it? Where’s the magic? Why do certain stories get lost in the crowd while others become all-time favorites? That list includes such worthies as Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” and Edgar Rice Burrough’s “Tarzan.” And everything in between! So what makes these stories stand out? What makes them the ones people never forget?

I believe it’s a variety of things which all combine to form a rollicking good yarn. For openers, there must be originality. Love stories will always be popular, but “boy meets girl” by itself isn’t enough. There were stories set in the tropical wilderness long before Tarzan slid from the pen of a Sears Roebuck employee in 1912, not the least of which was Kipling’s Jungle Book. Tarzan turned out to be an English Lord, but Mowgli? What did become of him? Here’s a thought: what if someone wrote a story about a boy who went into the jungle to raise wolves? Hm….

The story must not only be original, it must be well-told. The author’s voice must be appealing; the characters must strike a chord with a majority of readers, and the content must be profound enough to survive the advance of technology. That’s a lot to ask of a first time novelist. Yet Harper Lee did it with To Kill A Mockingbird, and Margaret Mitchell did it with Gone With The Wind. Nor were they the only ones.

There’s no shame in setting your sights high. There’s also no shame in managing your expectations. The marketplace is more crowded today than ever before, and it’s only going to get worse. Not long ago all you needed was a louder voice than the competition. That’s no longer true since just about everyone is screaming. That means you need a compelling message and a consistent and persistent delivery.

You’ll also need faith and a great heaping helping of good, old-fashioned luck.

Just for kicks, what books have you read that you’d like to see made into movies?  (I’d nominate several of my own, but that probably violates some sort of ethical standard. <sigh>)

–Josh

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So *Much* Excitement!

The title should actually read: SO Much Excitement! Because it stands to reason that the more emphasis you can squeeze into the typeface, the more excited your readers will be to read it. Right?

Uh, no.

If you’re one of those folks who simply can’t stand not giving your readers stage directions (multiple punctuation marks, boldface, italic fonts, UPPER case letters, or God forbid, all FOUR!?!) then you should probably be keeping a journal. Not because you may want to record insightful thoughts about tender moments in your life, but as a convenient storage place for all the EXCITEMENT IN YOUR WRITING!!! 

When it comes to font follies, I’m firmly in the minimalist camp. At least in my novels and short stories. I will italicize a word or two from time to time, but I try to limit that. As for the rest, no thank you. Why? Because readers hate it. They don’t need to be told what’s funny, or exciting, or puzzling, or ironic. Playing games with the typography won’t improve crappy writing any more than will printing it in a different color or on heavier paper. The only thing you can do to make your story more exciting, or funny, or whatever, is to concentrate on what will best garner those results.

You want mystery? Pose something mysterious. You want excitement? Put your players in peril. You want irony? Design it into your plot or better yet, let one of your characters slam into it at an awkward moment, preferably while being chased by a demon, an ex-spouse, a former employer, or perhaps a debt collector.

I don’t get much pleasure from chatting about the mechanics of writing. For most folks it’s deadly dull. But, when I look at some of my student’s work, I wonder if any of this is still covered in schools. I know many systems have abandoned cursive writing, but have they abandoned writing basics, or did that go out of fashion with chalk and slates?

Maybe it’s the influence of email, the internet, and social media monstrosities like Twitter, wherein the user–from president to pauper–wraps up a complete message in 128 characters or less. But hark! If you’re not tweeting, you aren’t subject to those limits, so you can use <gasp> the entire alphabet. You don’t have to construct tortured words to abreeV8 and save on your letter limits or pile up punctuation like rush hour commuters in order to convey meaning. Instead, you can actually write.

And, as long as I’m on this particular rant, allow me to point out the proper function of ellipses. These are the three little dots that have somehow gained super grammatical power among the Twitter folk and others who never had a terribly firm grasp on the finer points of punctuation. In short, ellipses do one of two things: they either indicate when a voice trails off (making it impossible to “hear” the rest of what’s being said), OR they indicate words a writer has deliberately left out, whether from a quote or some other source. In either case, the dots represent words that aren’t there.

That’s it. If an ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence, it’s proper to add one additional dot, the noble period, which typically occupies the tag end of most sentences.

Please note: the ellipsis, like the typographical nonsense alluded to earlier, is not meant to be used as stage direction. It doesn’t indicate a dramatic pause, shift change at the brewery, a hurried breath, time to signal the third base coach, or anything else. It stands for words that aren’t there.

And, by the way, an ellipsis has three (3) dots. No more, no less. Creating a line of dots longer than that will only annoy readers, especially editors, who more often than not love the language and hate to see it cluttered up. So, clutter not!

The take-away for today: be a writer, not a typesetter.

Please, feel free to argue with me. I’d love to hear some good reasons for using all these typographical tricks. I’m ready, really; so HIT me!?!

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Do-It-Yourself Publishing — Part Two

Last time we looked at independent publishing of e-books. Now it’s time to do something similar to their printed cousins, paperbacks and hardbacks.

Why control freaks LOVE printed books:

Because they get to be in charge of everything–down to the tiniest dot and tittle. When it comes to self-publishing, that’s not a bad thing, unless the control freak in question can’t tell when he or she has created a piece of– Well, let’s just call it something awful. Then, some sort of intervention might not be a bad idea.

It all starts with the basic manuscript. If you have Microsoft Word, use it. It’s considered the industry standard and most on-line “service providers” like it. There are other word processors, and yes they all have their adherents, and yes, Word has more than their share of issues, not the least of which is changing the freaking layout every time they produce yet another freaking version in a never-ending quest to cram every freaking thing into one freaking program. (Full disclosure: I was quite happy with Word 6 which came out a couple decades and countless Shareholder Reports ago.) The bottom line: deal with it.

Since there are many free texts available on the internet which explain how to format a manuscript for printed books, I won’t go into details here. I can, however, make some suggestions which could save you time and aggravation. The easiest thing to do, of course, is pay someone to do it for you. But, if you’re anything like me, you’re not eager to part with hard-earned cash. Instead, you can go to Createspace.com, choose the page size you want and download a Word template.

Open the template in Word alongside your epic. Then just copy and paste your text into the already formatted chapters in the template. Also included are formatted pages for all the front matter–title page, copyright page, dedication, table of contents, etc. Pages are pre-numbered, and you can plug in your name and the book title in the header. Couldn’t be easier.

You then upload the .DOC file to Createspace; they work their magic, and in minutes you’ll be able to look at your now-formatted book on-line. If you like what you see, you can order a printed proof (always a great idea), or if you find something that needs changing you can re-open the template, make the necessary edits, and then upload the file to Createspace again. I typically go through this process a few times before I get it just the way I like it. But then, I change lots of stuff like type face, paragraph spacing, font size, etc. Why? Because I can! I’m a control freak; it’s what we do.

Now, if you’re really a control freak, just filling in a template that someone else built likely won’t be enough. Even if you fiddle with some of the settings. If you’re really into control, and you want to handle absolutely everything, then you need to invest some time in a desktop publishing program (DTP). There are several excellent applications to choose from, and they’ll all do an amazing job. You’ll have the full range of layout techniques at your disposal. The downside? Like everything else, it’s time and money. The price range for DTP programs is pretty wide. There’s perfectly adequate software available for about $100. I like a program called Page Plus (as of this writing, they’re on version 9. I use 8.) At the other end of the spectrum is Adobe InDesign currently available for around $200 a month.

There are also some open source DTP programs available, and I’ve heard some good things about them. I hesitate to suggest a specific one since I’ve never used them myself.

This article is by no means intended as an exhaustive survey of layout options. There are many service companies, programs and individuals who can and will help you, for a fee. My advice, if you’re going to be doing this more than once, is to learn how to do it yourself. You won’t regret the time spent or the money saved.

Next up: it ain’t a book ’til it’s got a cover.

 

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Do-It-Yourself Publishing Part One

Because there is so much information already available about self-publishing, I’m only going to scratch the surface here, but hopefully I can shed enough light on the topic to make it a little less intimidating. More than anything else, self-publishing requires patience. There are quite a few steps, and some of them can be downright tedious. None of them, however, are so difficult that someone with average or above intellect can’t deal with them. For most folks, it’s not an intellect issue at all; it’s a time issue. They’re either in a hurry to see their work published, or they don’t want to take the time to learn how to do it on their own.

The alternative is to pay someone to do the parts you can’t or won’t tackle independently. There’s no shame in that. Most people have no idea how to design a cover, arguably the most important part of an indie publisher’s marketing program. A bad cover will almost certainly result in bad sales. But, so will a bad story. I’m going to assume that since you’ve been reading this blog, and you’ve applied all the lessons, you’ve written something worth publishing.

Why control freaks don’t like e-books:

An e-book, no matter how the reader views it–on a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, a PC, a smart phone, or whatever–consists of text. The reader gets to choose what size. Oh, and what font. And what color. In fact, the reader gets to pick everything, not just whether or not to read the book. As an author, you get no say in how your brain child appears on somebody’s reader. You either write something so good they’ll want to buy more of your stuff, or you don’t. Other than adjusting the price and making your books available in as many different formats as possible, you’re done.

If you’re wondering how to format a version of your manuscript for e-books, get Mark Coker’s excellent guide. It’s free! (Here’s the link.) He’ll show you, step by step, how to clean up your manuscript and get it ready for e-publication. Coker is the founder and head honcho at Smashwords.com. He’s been in on e-books since Day 1, and he knows whereof he speaks. While Smashwords is not the only e-book aggregator around, it’s one of the oldest and most reliable. I use it and have never been disappointed. Only very minor changes are needed to get your manuscript ready for the 800-pound gorilla in the e-book room: Amazon Kindle.

If you’re going to produce e-books, then you’d be insane not to format them for Amazon’s stable of Kindle e-readers. Kindle Direct Publishing has a new (as of this writing) program that will take your Microsoft Word document and prepare it for uploading to Amazon. I used it on my latest novel, Oh, Bits! and it worked just fine. I fiddled with it for awhile but quickly got comfortable with the (limited) options available. In short, it’s free and works great. You don’t need to pay anyone to format your e-books for you.

28951541_ml compositeMost self-publishing efforts rely heavily on e-books. Though the royalty payments are lower, since the purchase price is lower, sales are usually much higher than for print books. Many self-publishers use print copies as give-aways and to solicit reviews. These are called ARCs or Advance Reader Copies. The advantage of e-books, aside from their lower price, is portability. Readers can use them almost anywhere and under almost any circumstances.

If you just can’t stand the thought of doing the work yourself, you can always hop over to Draft2Digital.com and let them do it. It’ll cost you a slice of your profits, but it’s not too high. They provide a service similar to Smashwords by aggregating sales through many of the biggest e-book retailers. And, like Amazon, they pay you monthly rather than quarterly.

Next time around, we’ll take a look at self-publishing print books.

–Josh

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