Thursday, May 31, 2012


            It’s not hard to stir up a difference of opinion about what category of book most fiction falls into when you narrow it down to literary vs. commercial. Some will say, “plot driven” and mean commercial, while others prefer “character driven” and presume it applies to literary. Still others will insist you can’t have one without the other, and therefore the dichotomy makes no sense.

            Whenever I hear diverse opinions on this subject, I think of James Bond. I readily admit to never having read Ian Fleming and have no plans to add spy thrillers to my library. But when I consider Bond, James Bond, based on his character, what comes to mind is a hero who is adept at surviving narrow escapes, thinks on his feet or while dangling from a flaming helicopter, uses the latest technological gadgets, is comfortable in a tuxedo gambling for high stakes in a posh casino, and enjoys causing things (planes, buildings, islands) to explode. In the end, he always wins and he always gets the girl. (He doesn’t want to keep the girl, however, because marriage and fatherhood don’t fit his profile, i.e., commitment is boring.)

            If I am entertained by the latest story (and I’m not saying I am) involving yet another master villain with a nefarious plot, it isn’t because I expect to learn how James Bond feels or even what he thinks. I’ll watch (or read) because I want to see how he’ll manage to escape after retrieving the diagrams/code/flash drive, thereby thwarting the evil plans of the bad guys. The forward thrust of the story is based on action.

            It’s not that Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan could replace James Bond (different alma maters for starters), but it’s not Bond’s characteristics that drive the story. It’s events run amok (martial arts experts, car chases, laser beams) while the bomb keeps ticking that drive your interest in the story. You hold your breath until he escapes, not to see if he’ll finally tell Moneypenny he’s realized his repressed misogyny is a dead end and he truly loves her.

            James Bond doesn’t ever change, not even his Etonian accent or his martini. Neither does Harry Potter or Stephanie Plum. They don’t have to evolve to deliver a satisfying story. We find them appealing as individuals who fit into their particular story the way no one else would, but it’s the external elements or pressures that most hold our attention.

            Personally I get more reader satisfaction from stories where the heros/heroines have to learn something about themselves. Exciting action during their journeys to self-discovery is a bonus. Dorothy Gale endures lots of hardships and (mis)adventures to figure out “there’s no place like home.” We care about her because she didn’t realize she always had the power to go back home, not because she gets to wear the ruby slippers. You can add all the flying monkeys and talking trees you want, but the story would never work if Dorothy didn’t change by the end.

            Take another look at your novel or concept. Does your protagonist have to learn something by the end of the story? It might be fair to say your character is more important than the action. If your character stays the same throughout as events unfold, then perhaps the plot takes precedence.

            It’s true that you can’t have character without plot, and vice versa, but it helps to be able to discern between literary and commercial. This is one way to attempt it.

Cynthia J. Stone

Look for Mason’s Daughter, available on Amazon in July 2012

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Jell-O, Nails, and Miracles

In this age of the Internet, writers have created a communications network that delivers their words to other writers at the speed of light. And since most writers think of themselves as having something worthwhile to say, they are in no way hesitant to do so.

We are in the midst of a transformation in the publishing industry that is changing at that same speed. Keeping up with it can easily consume a writer's every waking moment and leave little time for doing what we are supposed to be doing. But why should we expect anything different?

I think most writers would agree that to finish a first novel and polish it for prime time are more difficult and time-consuming tasks than they ever imagined. For some, it may get easier the second and subsequent times around, but for others it seems as if each novel is like a Pandora's Box. Figuratively opening the lid with the first word on the first page frees the demon to haunt your life once again.

In the world of indie publishing, successfully writing the novel places before you another Pandora's Box with the potential to make the writing of it seem like child's play. To transform that manuscript on your computer into a product and position it for sale demand attention to details that most writers I know simply don't want to deal with, and for good reason.

The best and most productive use of a writer's time is writing. Every hour spent dealing with publishing the novel is an hour that can't be invested in the next one. That said, someone has to do it. If not the writer, then someone hired by the writer, which adds the commitment of venture capital to the hours of equity already invested.

Brad Whittington recently called to our attention an article in The Guardian that documents what we already know. More than half of indie-published authors make less than $500. If you hire anyone to do much of anything to produce your book in any format, you'll spend way more than that. In effect, most of us are paying for the privilege of publishing our novels.

Of all the tasks awaiting the indie author when accepting the role of publisher, dealing with the problem of discoverability is without doubt the most uncertain and mysterious endeavor. And if you pay for publicity in any form, you are gambling with worse odds than you will find anywhere in Las Vegas.

But you don't have to spend anything to hit the jackpot, right? All you need to do it enroll in KDP Select, accept the conditions imposed by Amazon, and entrust the first 90 days of having your book on the market to what many authors embrace as a sure thing.

Well, it's time to shake hands with reality again. Another bit of information shared by Brad offered the observation that Amazon's basement has filled to the point of overflowing with a flood of indie-published junk enrolled in Select. And further, that this repository of trash has become the new slush pile. Here's the quote from the source:

"These are the people who create slush piles for agents if they go the trad-publishing route. But in the self-pubbing world, these kind of people create a slush pile on Amazon, which deals with them efficiently by never showing them on a bestseller list or in the list of "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought." I suspect that Amazon's method of dealing with slush is more efficient than the average agent's method."

Interesting thought, although it's comparing apples and oranges.

Any submission to an agent that ends up in the slush pile has failed to meet the agent's standards. Ignoring for the moment the question of whether those standards are valid, at least they were applied.

Other than complying with Amazon's contractual provisions for Select, there is no selection going on. Anyone can enroll anything in Select, so they did. By the thousands. Jump on that rocket ship and ride it to the stars of indie success.

In the months since Select first arrived on the scene, authors have engaged in lively e-conversation about every conceivable facet of the game, and let's acknowledge that fact up front. The time-sequenced series of Select benchmarks plays the numbers game that all begins with a single element of Amazon's algorithms for determining how a book is treated: counting free downloads as sales. From that point all things magic flowed.

The problem that created the Select slush pile is no different at its core than the reason an agent's slush pile reaches the ceiling. The majority of people who think they can write a book worthy of a reader's money and time are very much delusional.

But in the case of Select, the gate has no keeper. Who wouldn't expect a massive rush to publish?

Our own Brad Whittington did everything right with Muffin Man and achieved phenomenal success with Select. We had an insider's viewpoint as he planned and implemented the series of actions required.

But before any of us take away lessons he taught us and use them for our own benefit, we have to acknowledge yet another reality that trumps every other consideration. I hate to keep quoting the guy, because it swells his head (not really!), but here it is:

Write a good book.  

Which he most certainly did.

The final point of this post is this: residence in Amazon's basement does not automatically plaster the slush label on the cover of a book whether or not it's enrolled in Select.

Analogous to the fact that a novel sitting in slush piles on the desks of 99 agents can hit the jackpot on the desk of agent number 100, good novels, worthy of a reader's time and money, do lie undiscovered in the darkness.

Which brings me full circle to the final final point: Creating discoverability is like trying to nail Jell-O to the ceiling. If you can "git 'er dun," as the redneck comedian says, you have performed a feat worthy of being called a miracle.

And they do happen, right?

Tosh is the author of the aviation mystery/thriller Pilot Error, the second-in-series Red Line (Fall, 2012), and two non-fiction series: Book One of Wings On My Words, tales from the writer's desk is available now, and Book One of Words On My Wings, tales from the cockpit is coming soon. Visit him online at 

Monday, May 21, 2012

WANT TO WRITE A BESTSELLER? Have you heard about Fifty Shades of Grey?

WANT TO WRITE A BESTSELLER? Have you heard about Fifty Shades of Grey?

Blush, blush. Everyone’s talking about this trilogy and it’s simply gone viral. This is not just erotic sex, my dear colleagues and friends. This is pure unadulterated S&M. And feminists like Marlo Thomas and Ellen DeGeneres are reading it.

What’s up? Erotica novels have been around since ancient Greece and Rome. There’s been controversy in every era. Think Marquis de Sade, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Jacqueline Suzanne, Erica Jong. But this is, well, it’s shocking. And the three-book trilogy has been on the top of the NY Times Best Seller list for ten weeks and counting.

As the story begins, Anastasia Steele, a college student interviews businessman tycoon Christian Grey for the university newspaper. The predictable transpires and Grey becomes captivated with the beautiful, young, virginal woman. What’s not so predictable is they enter into a contract defining a dominant/submissive relationship. Anastasia is intrigued by the erotic play in the bedroom but maintains control of their relationship outside that arena. They fall deeply in love and over several months (and three books), Ana’s love achieves for him what years of therapy and a loving adoptive family could not: It heals the wounds from his cruel early childhood and teaches him to love and accept love. Talk about a character arc.

No doubt, British author, E.L. James has the ability to elicit sympathy for the protagonist. The reader wants to find out what happens to Anastasia, and that lends the story a compelling, page-turning quality. From all accounts, James’ writing is clunky, adjective-ridden and repetitive. Does anyone really care that this first-person narrative set in the state of Washington is filled with Britishisms. How many American college students talk about "prams" and "ringing" someone on the phone? My critique group would have a field day.

So what can we learn from this bodice-ripping best seller, as aspiring writers who hope find a share of the market? Develop an original concept, fascinating characters, and the ability to keep readers turning the pages. Women readers are always suckers for a great love story. Hot sex doesn’t hurt, (well it might in this case). Outrageous is the common denominator. The public clearly wants some escapism from the boredom of their humdrum lives. Think Anne Rice, Steig Larsson.

While I’m not suggesting you give up writing your great American novel, I’m just pointing out that the public’s interest in suspended reality appears to be what’s happening these days. And note: 50 Shades of Grey was originally marketed as an e-book and print-on-demand in June 2011. Write on.

Laura Resnick-Chavez is an author of novels and screenplays. Her novel, THE GIRL FROM LONG GUYLAND will be available this coming Labor Day.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The best way to sell lots of books

You've written a book and got it published, whether indie or traditional. Now how do you sell it? For over a decade there has been a big push for authors to build an online platform as a basis to boost sales.

In a recent Romance Writers of America poll, I noted a section called "Activities That Do or Do Not Interest the Romance Buyer" and the interaction of readers with authors on social media. Here are a few of the percentages.

Percentage of readers who DO NOT AND WILL NOT:
  • Follow authors on Twitter: 83%

  • Follow authors on Goodreads: 75%

  • Follow an author group blog: 72%

  • Follow authors on Facebook: 70%

  • Participate in online author events: 69%

  • Read an author's blog: 62%
For those who do follow authors on Facebook, 76% said being friended does not influence their purchase decisions. And 67% said that reviews in blogs do not influence their purchases.

The top purchase influence is enjoying an author's previous books.
So what can you do to sell books?

Write a good book.

I'll leave it to Tosh to discuss the practical side of marketing for an indie author and harp on this one point.

Write a good book. I can't emphasize it enough. Study the craft. Learn the craft. Find a critique group with authors of substance. Learn to take criticism. (Probably the hardest thing in the list.)

Read voraciously, mainly the good stuff, but also a little of the bad stuff to see how it reflects the things you're doing wrong in your own work and how bad it looks out in the wild.

Write incessantly. Put in your 10,000 Gladwell hours. Be profligate with your words. Try the same story from different angles, different points of view, different protagonists. Experiment and don't hesitate to throw out 10,000 or 20,000 or 50,000 words if it's not working.

To give a personal example, last week after four drafts and 80,000+ words, I threw away everything I've done on my next novel and started over with a blank screen. And I'm not a newbie. I have four traditionally published books and two indie books. I say that not to brag but to illustrate that you have to be brutally honest with yourself about your work, take criticism from sources you trust, be willing to wipe the slate clean, and start over, regardless of what you have invested.

Write a good book.

That's table stakes. Because otherwise all the marketing tricks in the world are nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig, which is just a waste of lipstick and it annoys the pig.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Make A List. Check It Twice.

So you want to write a book? Good for you. Tell me about it.

Have you selected a genre yet? If you’ve already chosen fiction, that’s half the battle. But there’s more. A lot more.

Better know your genre up front. There are guidelines for what each genre should include, and you need to be aware of them so you don’t confuse or disappoint your future readers. Let reader expectation be your guiding light.

There’s a fine line, or a big gap, for example, between children’s and young adult, between thriller and mystery, between crime and horror. Learn the differences and avoid problems later. Not just in the story, but also in the marketing.

You probably already have your idea for a story and a character. Some people say if the protagonist changes at the end, then your story is literary fiction because it’s character-driven. If it’s action, your book lands on the commercial side instead, because it’s plot-driven.

Helpful for a starting point, but that’s not all there is to it. My writer friend Tosh McIntosh points out that literary vs. commercial are really “two sides of the same coin.” Things happen to your character that might fascinate or frighten a reader, but the story unfolds a certain way because of who the person is or becomes.

Decide which is more important to you and focus on your story with those differences in mind. Make a list in two columns and see which is longer. (We’ll talk about building a character in a future blog.)

Once you’ve decided on a protagonist and a storyline, the temptation to sit and pour out words will overtake you. Succumb to it and wander anywhere you like. Write all you can for several pages. Then stop and realize you can’t use much of it. Why? Because you didn’t make a list.

How can storytelling be distilled into a list? Glad you asked, even if you aren’t a list maker.

Every idea yearning for success morphs into a plan, and you are about to embark on a journey more entrepreneurial than you perhaps realize. You are inventing and creating a product for a specific market, and if you don’t pay attention to product details from the beginning, you are doomed to a mediocre outcome. Or an endless existence spent wondering how to get out of Limbo Forest.

Some writers make outlines of scenes instead of lists. Where to start? At the beginning. Who is in the first scene, when and where does it take place, and what happens? Four easy columns on a spreadsheet. Details aren’t necessary at this point; a broad brushstroke is acceptable.

Now add a fifth column. What changes at the end of the scene? You must know this to propel the story forward. The change can be action (the aliens landed) or internal thoughts or realizations (this person doesn’t love me).

Move on to the next scene based on what the character decides. For a good definition of scene and sequel, see Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain. Get a least five combinations down before you start to write a single word. And don’t even try a whole paragraph yet.

Once you have a reasonable working outline for the first third of your story, you’re still not quite ready. Even if you already know the ending. Time for another list.

What now? Be patient.

Say hello to your protagonist. Then sit down with her/him and get acquainted. Make a list of traits, both physical and intangible. Listen to this person, who isn’t you. Hear the voice, the cadence in speech, the accent born of locale or ethnicity. Ask where s/he is from, about her/his family, job, religious beliefs, attitudes, politics, education, prejudices. What makes her/him angry or happy? Extrovert or introvert? Conceited or humble?

Determine what is your protagonist’s biggest challenge (fighting the aliens or finding true love) and list what qualities s/he possesses to achieve the goal. What is s/he lacking? A flawed character is more interesting.

List the flaws. It will help you develop a character arc (how your protagonist grows or changes) if you are writing literary fiction and will make your thriller more thrilling and your mystery more mysterious if your story is commercial. See ‘character archetypes’ for guidance. Also read The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogel.

Now list the other characters, especially the antagonist. Yes, here we go again, another list. Interview the main ones, ala the protagonist.

Once you’ve completed outlines and interviews, it’s easier to see the path your story will take. This method is flexible with creativity, not chiseled in granite, and will keep you from wandering into the wilderness. It’s work, but so worth it.

Cynthia J. Stone

look for Mason's Daughter, to be published soon