Friday, January 27, 2012

How to Turn Your Idea into a Story: Setting up Conflict

To develop your story, you'll need conflict. But conflict doesn't just come from dramatic things happening. It comes from the character – what he or she needs and wants, and why he or she can't get it easily.

Start with a premise: a kid has a math test on Monday. Exciting? Not really. But ask two simple questions, and you can add conflict.

• Why is it important to the character? The stakes should be high. The longer the story or novel, the higher stakes you need to sustain it. A short story character might want to win a contest; a novel character might need to save the world.

• Why is it difficult for the character? Difficulties can be divided into three general categories, traditionally called man versus man, man versus nature, and man versus himself. You can even have a combination of these. For example, someone may be trying to spy on some bank robbers (man versus man) during a dangerous storm (man versus nature) when he is afraid of lightning (man versus himself).

Get more tips like these in Advanced Plotting.
Back to the kid with the math test. Let’s say, if he doesn’t pass, maybe he will fail the class, have to go to summer school, and not get to go to soccer camp, when soccer is what he loves most, and all his friends will be going. That’s why it’s important. Assuming we create a character readers will like, they'll care about the outcome of this test, and root for him to succeed.

Our soccer lover could have lots of challenges—he forgot his study book, he’s expected to baby-sit his distracting little sister, a storm knocked out the power, he has ADHD, or he suffers test anxiety. But ideally we would relate the difficulty to the reason it's important. So let's say he has a big soccer game Sunday afternoon, and is getting pressure from his coach and teammates to practice rather than study for his test. Plus, of course, he'd rather play soccer anyway.

We now have a situation full of potential tension. Let the character struggle enough before he succeeds (or fails and learns a lesson), and you’ll have a story. And if these two questions can pump up a dull premise, just think what they can do with an exciting one!

Come back next week for more tips on linking your conflict to your character.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Should You Write Short?


I’m doing a series of Wednesday posts discussing my career decisions and the reasons behind them. Last week I talked about committing to indie publishing. Now I’ll go into some specific details.

Decision #2: Write shorter books.

When I wrote Rattled, I was planning on submitting traditionally. I targeted 85,000 words, which is on the short end of what most publishers will accept for a genre novel. (The exception being Category Romance, where 60,000 words is standard.)

Now that I’m focused on self-publishing, I’m targeting my books at 60,000 words. Here are the reasons I’m going shorter:


  • Shorter books are faster to write. When I’m working hard on a novel, I try to write 10,000 words per week (though it doesn’t always happen, especially when I have too many paid jobs). Add in the extra editing time for a longer book, and 60,000 words saves me at least three weeks over an 85,000-word book. More books published equals more potential income. Writing shorter books may allow me to increase my output from three books per year to four. (Don’t bother trying to make the math work – I have to take breaks in between the books to catch up on paid work, and then there’s always delays due to illness, travel etc.)

  • Shorter books are cheaper to print. For print on demand, my total cost is dependent on the number of pages. It’s not a huge difference, but Rattled has a minimum price of $9.68 (meaning I need to price the book higher than that to make any money on it in certain distribution channels). Whispers in the Dark has a minimum price of $8.65. Shorter books mean I make more profit per book on print on demand copies. (Or I could price them lower if I thought I would bring in more sales.) If I wrote an even longer book – say 110,000 words – I’d have to price it above $9.99, and once you go over that $10 threshold, sales should drop, if you believe that research on shopping behavior.

People like fat paperbacks because they take longer to read. It’s the airport theory – If you’re going to get on a plane for a long trip, you want a book that will last the whole trip. Plus, people feel like they’re getting more for their money with a longer book. These visual cues disappear with digital copies. You don’t want to make the book too short, because if people think they’re buying a full-length novel and they get a novella, they can get angry – and take it out on you in their reviews. But the advantage to writing a very long book goes away.

What if you have a very long story to tell? Or what about genres such as adult fantasy, where incredibly long books are the norm? Even then, you may be better off splitting a long book into several shorter ones, releasing them individually, and then offering the complete trilogy at a discount over buying the three books separately. (For example, release each individual e-book at $3.99, and then release the complete trilogy in one book for $9.99.) With digital publishing, especially indie publishing, people don’t like to pay high prices. They might not want to pay so much for a single title, but they’ll feel like they are getting a deal with a discount for the set.

The last point I want to make is a bit more theoretical. I read some comments recently on how all the time we spend on the computer and digital devices is changing our reading patterns. People are more likely to skim over news stories or blog posts. We expect and like shorter sound bites.

It seems reasonable that this might translate into a preference for shorter books, especially in digital format. With a paperback, you always have the visual cue of how much story you have left. Digital readers may have a bar marking the percent of the story you’ve finished, but it doesn’t seem quite the same. (And for myself, when I glance down and see that I’ve only read six percent, I sometimes get a sense of dismay that I’m only that far along, a feeling that never comes from getting through the first chapter of a paperback.)

As people get used to shorter online news stories, skimming through blog posts, reading Facebook updates and super-short Tweets, a long book might start to feel “too long” and therefore a bit slow and dull, whereas a short book may cater better to our restlessness.

So, those are my reasons for writing shorter. Any thoughts on my logic? What do your own reading experiences tell you? As a writer, do you have a preference?

I should note that given my background in writing for children, shorter books come more naturally to me. I would never cut out important story elements or great plot twists in order to come in shorter. It’s more a matter of not searching for additional plot twists and subplots in order to lengthen a book. (See my post on Making Muscular Action! for advice on how I once nearly doubled the length of a manuscript.)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Career Choices in Publishing

Somehow in the past few months I’ve gotten a reputation (at least in certain small circles) as a self-publishing expert. Which is pretty funny, because I’ve been doing this for less than a year and I’m learning as I go. But I’ve been willing to share what I’m learning, and I guess even my minimal experience puts me farther along the path that a lot of people who are in a “wait and see” pattern or still completely dismissive.

Since people seem to be curious about this journey, I thought I’d share some of the decisions I’m making now. I can’t guarantee that these are the right decisions, but I’ll explain the logic behind them. Maybe we can check back in a year and see how they look in hindsight. I’ll be posting and explaining a decision each week, on Wednesdays.

On Fridays, I’ll be reposting some of my craft articles. (Yes, for a while these will mainly be repeats, but craft doesn’t change much, and even if you’ve heard it before, it often helps to hear it again.) So, on to the career decisions.

Decision #1: I’ve committed to self-publishing for my adult genre novels.

I first switched to writing romantic suspense thinking that I would submit traditionally. I’d hoped the market would be better than for middle grade novels. Adult novels aren’t quite as influenced by market trends, since each genre and subgenre has devoted fans. And advances were supposed to be higher.

But the more I heard, about both traditional publishing for adult genre books and about self-publishing, the more I questioned that path.

With traditional publishing, it’s harder than ever to sell a book, and advances are down. It can be easier to sell to a smaller, digital-only or digital-first publisher, but many of these offer no advances, only paying royalties. Genre publishing can have fairly strict guidelines for word count. With romance, each line even has different standards for how sexy they can be. Some imprints won’t allow first-person narration or multiple viewpoints, or else require you use both the hero and heroine’s viewpoint. You could spend a lot of effort targeting one publisher’s imprint, and if they reject the book, it won’t be suitable anywhere else. Authors can also find themselves trapped into writing a specific style determined more by their publisher than by their own tastes.

Traditional publishers can help with marketing, but you never know how much promotion you’re going to get. It takes a couple of years to get a book published, which means you’re not building name recognition yet. Many publishers are unwilling to experiment with pricing or free offers to increase sales. And if the book is suffering from a lousy cover or poor description, they are more likely to go on to something else than to make changes.

And worst of all, traditional publishers are offering increasingly worse contracts, trying to take more rights while holding down royalties. This will change – it has to change – but signing a contract now may mean you suffer financially for years.

Self-publishing has many challenges, but also a lot more flexibility and freedom. You can release books on your own schedule, starting to build name recognition and a least a few sales quickly. You may not sell large numbers, but you make a lot more per book. You can experiment as much as you want with different covers, descriptions, pricing, and promotions, seeing what works best.

And best of all, you retain all rights. Different formats, foreign translations, movie/TV rights – it’s all yours. Granted, you’re unlikely to ever sell most of those rights, but if you do, you won’t have to split the income with a publisher. (Please note, some publishers aggressively sell subsidiary rights, which means you’re more likely to see income from them. But some just sit on the rights and don’t do anything with them until an outside company asks. In that case, they are taking a percentage for doing nothing.)

I waffled over my decision for a while. I even sent Rattled to my agent. An advance sure would be nice. But ultimately, I decided that I don’t have time to wait months to hear back from publishers, when there’s a good chance the answer will be “No.” By publishing independently, I need to do a lot more work on promotion, and of course there’s a learning curve just figuring out how to do all this stuff. But I’m not spending time researching publishers and agents or altering my work to fit specific guidelines.

My decision won’t be right for everyone. Either way, it’s a lot of work. Either way, it’s a gamble. But now that I’ve started down this path, I’m determined to give it a great try. My goal is to get two more books published this year, and then to focus on promotion – but that’s another decision. More on that in a future post.

[I just want to add that my decision to focus on self-publishing only applies to my books for adults. There are additional challenges for self-publishing children's books, in particular when it comes to reaching teachers and libraries, an important part of the market.]

Friday, January 13, 2012

Whispers in the Dark


I will get back to craft posts, I promise. And I have a couple more thoughts about changes in the industry. But I'm swamped this week, so I just wanted to share the news that my latest book is now out. 

Whispers in the Dark by Kris Bock

A young archaeologist seeking peace after an assault stumbles into danger as mysteries unfold among ancient Southwest ruins. Can she overcome the fears from her past, learn to fight back, and open herself to a new romance?


Kris Bock is the name I'm using when I write for adults. These books could be classed as romantic suspense or southwestern adventures. Whispers in the Dark is available as a $3.99 e-book or $9.99 trade paperback on Amazon or B&N (actually, Barnes and Nobles had the print version for a dollar off last I checked). Smashwords also has all e-formats.

Friday, January 6, 2012

No Advances?


Digital Book World, a highly informative blog which I recommend you follow if you are interested in the changing publishing industry, recently had an interview with Ellen Archer, president of Hyperion Publishing. Here’s something I found especially interesting:

JG: Are you suggesting advances will go away in the future?

EA: I’m suggesting that we need to create a “Chinese menu” for deals. There are lots of different ways of how a deal can be structured and we need to explore what those deals could look like. The one pattern that I have seen is that while there is still big money being thrown around for certain books, there is an awareness that we can’t continue to overpay. Advances are already lowering.

Okay, wow. I had heard that advances have been going down in many areas of publishing. And there are some other publishers doing Digital-only or Digital-first editions that don’t pay advances, but get the book out more quickly (and ideally pay a greater royalty rate). I find it interesting that a major publisher is hinting that no advance may be the way of the future. After all, that is one of the major reasons to go with a large publisher.

Traditional publishers basically offer one thing that you can’t get from self-publishing – money up front. Yes, they offer services such as editing, proofreading and cover design, but you can hire professionals to do that (including some of the professionals who used to work for traditional publishers). Traditional publishers may offer some advantages when it comes to marketing, a point Ms. Archer makes in her interview. But her examples are a nonfiction book about a famous person and a TV tie-in book. As many of us know, an unknown or mid-list author may get little or no marketing.

Again, it comes down to money. What traditional publishers have to offer is the money to pay an advance and pay the people who will work on your book. Without an advance, that really just leaves paying the people who will work on your book. This is still valuable for authors who don’t have the money to hire professionals. But I find it puzzling that traditional publishers are actually talking about getting less competitive.

Although I have been experimenting with self-publishing after decades of traditional publishing, I don’t believe it’s the right path for everyone. I’d really like to see traditional publishers become more relevant and remain powerful forces in publishing. Sadly, I am largely seeing the opposite.

By the way, I’m teaching a class called Explore Indie Publishing, and another on Dazzling Description, in Albuquerque on two Tuesday afternoons, January 24 and 31. Get the full description and find out how to sign up at the SouthWest Writers website.