Friday, September 28, 2012

Is Your Villain Evil Enough?


In previous posts, I've touched on using villains to add drama to your story. Let’s look at this more closely.

Use Your Villain

On the surface, this may sound obvious. The whole point of a villain is to make your hero’s life difficult, right? But I’ve found that it’s sometimes easy to forget about the villain when you’re focused on the hero’s actions. The villain sets something in motion and then disappears.

If you get stuck in your writing and can’t figure out what happens next, try checking in with your villain. Is he just sitting around, waiting for your hero to act? No! He should be actively trying to thwart your hero, plotting new complications and distractions. Realizing this can be the push you need to get past a slow spot.

I found this helpful for my middle grade historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh. The heroine, Seshta, had done everything she could to track down her missing friend. While hunting for him, she had tipped off the bad guy. When I realized that would mean the villain was actively plotting against her, I had the inspiration for several big action scenes leading to the dramatic climax.

Not every book has an actual villain, of course. But if you don’t have one, consider adding one. Even if it’s not necessary for the main plot, a villain could add drama as a subplot.

Example: In the Haunted series, each book’s main plot involves Jon and Tania trying to help the ghosts. In book one, I created a minor secondary character, a fake psychic who calls herself Madam Natasha. In The Riverboat Phantom, Madam Natasha figures out that Tania can see ghosts – something Tania desperately wants to keep secret. Madam Natasha uses the secret as a threat, as she demands that the kids share information about the ghosts and give her credit for helping them. In The Knight in the Shadows, the kids go to war with Madam Natasha, determined to expose her as a fraud. This is still secondary to trying to help the ghost, but it adds challenges and emotional drama.

Whether your villain is involved in the main plot or a subplot, he or she doesn’t have to be a diabolical evil genius. He can be a bully at school, a competitor on a sports team, a nasty boss, or even a manipulative sibling or friend. Whatever the “villain” is, his job is to make your hero’s life miserable.

Exercise: look over your work in progress. Do you have a major villain? If so, is the villain as active as possible, aggressively trying to stop, hurt, or kill your hero?

Do you have secondary characters with villainous tendencies? Can you enhance these, so they cause even more trouble?

If you have no villain at all, brainstorm ways to add one.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Publicity: A Reader's View


I’ve been using my Wednesday posts to talk about marketing tactics, which are especially valuable for authors who are trying to self publish, but are useful for everyone trying to sell books. Today I want to talk about book descriptions – the text that is used on book jackets, websites, and sales sites like Amazon or B&N.

A small press recently had a giveaway of mystery novels, so I was browsing through their books. But I struggled to decide which ones I was most likely to enjoy. The factor missing? The tone of the book. Was it humorous? Cute/sweet? Gritty and gruesome? Sometimes I could guess from the description – serial killers are more likely to be gritty, while a crafty female heroine suggests something lighter. But sometimes I couldn’t tell at all. And if I wasn’t sure, I was less likely to pick up the book – even though they were free.

If you are writing a book description, whether for a query letter or for promotion, think about identifying the tone of your story. If it’s not clear from the description, say straight-out that this is, for example, "a witty, sophisticated romance" or "a gritty, thought-provoking thriller. I like to see this at the beginning, before the plot description, as often knowing the tone colors how I interpret the rest of the description. (On a side note, be careful about praising yourself. It’s one thing to say the book is “humorous” – that tells me it’s meant to be funny. But if you say it’s “hilarious,” it sounds like you are bragging and I’m going to be suspicious of your judgment.)

Here’s another thing I, as a reader, would like. When deciding which book to read next on my Kindle, I have only the title and author name to guide me, or maybe a cover if they included it inside the book. (The Kindle Fire shows the covers in your library list, but the plain Kindle does not. You only see the cover if it’s included with the text of the book, and then only when you click to “open” the book.)

I have started using categories to organize the titles, but I’d still like to know something about the book when deciding what to read next. I have a printed list of notes I keep with my Kindle, but it would be nice if every book included the book’s description on the opening page of the electronic version – essentially the back blurb, but at the very front. Then I could quickly check the description to figure out what I feel like reading next.

There’s a danger in assuming that all other readers are like us. Some people love e-readers, some hate them. Some people read reviews carefully, others don’t even glance at them. Some people think cheap books must be bad, while others won’t pay more than $3 for an e-book. It’s important to take differences like these into account. That said, it’s also helpful to consider your own experiences as a reader, and what you’d like to see, when deciding how to write, publish, and promote your books.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Developing Your Novel: Putting Secondary Characters First


I've been talking about developing a story. Sometimes when planning a novel, we focus exclusively on the main character. But secondary characters are important for fleshing out the story world.

Every novel – and most short stories and picture books – will have secondary characters. In general, the longer the book, the more secondary characters you can fit. These can be family members, friends, teachers or bosses, aliens, mythical characters, or even pets. Some will be nice. Some will be annoying. Ideally, one or more should be trouble.

I’m not talking about villains here (I'll do that next week). But even well-meaning secondary characters can make your main character’s life more complicated. When writing for children, parents are a natural for this role. They may simply want what they see as best for their child – but if that is opposed to what the child wants, it adds complications. These could be strong enough to form the main plot, or could simply be additional challenges the child has to face.

Example: In the Haunted series, Tania doesn’t want anyone to know that she can see ghosts. She’s afraid that her mother would want her to contact her dead little sister, and she doesn’t know how. Her stepfather would want to use her on his ghost hunter TV show, and people would think she was nuts. And her father doesn’t believe in ghosts, so he might think she was lying to get attention. Well-meaning family members with their own agendas make her desperate to keep her “gift” a secret.

Other examples of conflicting desires may be a dad who wants his son to play football, while the son wants to join the band, or parents who don’t want their daughter to date yet, when she’s fallen in love. A parent may be even a greater challenge, if he or she is an alcoholic, seriously ill, or depressed. Then, of course, there’s the issue of a divorced or widowed parent dating!

Even in adult novels, a parent may add pressure. In a romance, Mom may want the heroine to marry and provide grandchildren, nagging her to settle for the wrong man. Bosses can also add challenges, whether by pressuring the main character to do something illegal for the company or simply demanding long work hours which distract from other goals. In my new novel What We Found (written as Kris Bock), the 22-year-old heroine has allies and enemies both at work and at home.

Don’t forget friends, either! Friends can give bad advice, have their own agenda, use the main character for popularity or access to something or someone, or even secretly be trying to steal the main character’s love interest/job/position in society.

That’s not to say all friends have to be sneaky betrayers. Even the best of friends might distract the main character with their own emotional problems. In the teen romantic comedy My Big Nose and Other Natural Disasters, by Sydney Salter, the heroine’s main goal is to save enough money from her summer job to get a nose job, so she can find a boyfriend. Her two best friends have their own problems with boys and jobs. In one scene, the main character is late to work, jeopardizing her job, because she’s been trying to protect a friend who had too much to drink.

Exercise: go through your work in progress and list every secondary character who has a role beyond a few lines. Make a few notes on each one – what is their basic personality and role in the story? What do they want?

Then, for each secondary character, ask:

•    Could I develop this character more, to make him or her more complicated?
•    How could this secondary character be causing problems for my main character?
•    If the character is already causing problems, could they be even worse?

If you don’t have many secondary characters, consider adding some. What kind of character could add complications and drama? Make sure any new secondary characters fit smoothly into the plot, and don’t feel like they are just shoved in to cause trouble.

Check out my latest romantic suspense, written under the name Kris Bock!
What We Found: When Audra stumbles on a murdered woman in the woods, more than one person isn't happy about her bringing the crime to light. She’ll have to stand up for herself in order to stand up for the murder victim. It’s a risk, and so is reaching out to the mysterious young man who works with deadly birds of prey. But with danger all around, some risks are worth taking. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tips for Writing for Content Websites, with Christine Rice

Today's guest is Christine Rice, the author of Freelance Writing Guide: What to Expect in Your First Year as a Freelance Writer. Here's Christine:


Content websites are a platform for freelance writers to publish articles that inform readers and poems that entertain readers, while earning income for upfront payments, page views, or ad clicks and building a portfolio of published clips.

If you haven’t tried this type of writing before, the following tips will help guide you to: select a content website, format your writing for online publication, and be successful as a freelance writer.

Do your research
Don’t jump into joining a website before you’ve researched all of the websites. You will probably need to do several Web searches. This article, which has a list of ten websites that pay upfront for your articles and five content revenue sharing websites, will get you started. Check out each website that you come across in your searches thoroughly by reading the pages that have information about the company, articles from the writers of the website, and details about the website’s memberships.

Pick one or two websites to join
Don’t join every website you look into, because it will be overwhelming if you have too many websites to write for. It’s best to concentrate your efforts on one or two websites at a time. If they don’t end up working well for you, you can try other ones.

Browse the website thoroughly
Once you are a member of a content website, you should take a couple of days to browse the website as a member to get familiar with the layout and its features. You should read the FAQs, visit the forum and introduce yourself, and learn the website’s setup so that you no longer feel disorientated.

Choose the highest paying opportunities that are most fitting for you
From browsing the website you should have learned where you can select the writing assignments. For some of the websites, you may have discovered that there is more than one way you can earn money from your writing on a single website. Choose the opportunities and assignments that are most fitting for you as a writer and that have the highest pay, because the articles will be the easiest and most rewarding to write.

Format your articles like print magazine articles
If you haven’t noticed, print magazine articles have lots of small “block” paragraphs (no indentation and a space between each paragraph), bullet points and lists, and subtitles that stand out. The reason for all of this is to make the articles easy and enjoyable to read. That is how you should format your articles for content websites. Make sure to also check the website’s writing guidelines, because each website has slightly different guidelines.

Write as many quality articles as often as possible
Writing quality articles should be your first goal. Your second goal should be to create as many articles as possible. A lot of quality articles will turn out to be an impressive portfolio and will earn you the most money on the content websites.

Share your articles on your social networking websites
After you publish an article, you should share it everywhere. Post the direct link to the article on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, writing communities, and your website. Share the link only, because, since the article is published, you will not be able to publish the article itself elsewhere, depending on the terms and conditions of the website. Then, write more articles as you watch the page views of your articles increasing and the money adding up.

Now that you’ve received some inside tips on writing for content websites, go online and find some to write for. Or, if you’re already a member of one, start writing. Good luck!

Christine Rice is the author of Freelance Writing Guide: What to Expect in Your First Year as a Freelance Writer. If you enjoyed this article, check out her book, which has additional information about writing for content websites, many more freelance writing tips, and other topics that are important for new freelance writers to know. Her book can be found at Amazon, Lulu, Smashwords, and other online retailers. You can learn more about Christine on her blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Christine is on a blog tour this month. To see the other sites she'll be visiting, click on the image below.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Unity of Character and Plot, by Andrea J. Wenger


For my Friday craft posts, I've been talking about developing your novel. Let's explore building a strong middle in your novel by considering your characters. To start, I'm reposting this guest post by Andrea J. Wenger, who contributed an essay to my writing book, Advanced Plotting.

The Unity of Character and Plot

Several years ago, at the North Carolina Writers Network conference, I attended a session where the instructor claimed that character is plot. While I understand her point, I think she went too far. Many things happen in our lives that we can’t control. In fiction, the response to external events demonstrates character and propels plot. But generally, by the end of the story, the protagonist becomes proactive instead of responsive, and the protagonist’s positive action creates the climax.

Character and plot must work in harmony. For the story to be believable, the actions the character takes must be consistent with the character you’ve created. For instance, imagine if two of Shakespeare’s great tragic figures, Hamlet and Othello, were the protagonist in each other’s stories. How would those plays go?

Act I, Scene 1: The ghost of the old king tells Othello to avenge the old king’s death by killing Claudius.

Act I, Scene 2: Othello kills Claudius.

The End

No story, right? And if Iago hinted to Hamlet that Desdemona were cheating on him, Hamlet would answer, “You cannot play upon me.”

For the two plays to work, Othello’s hero must be action-oriented, while Hamlet’s hero must be introspective.

Keep in mind, though, that when under extreme stress, people (and characters) behave in ways they never would otherwise. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass advises novelists to imagine something their character would never think, say, or do—then create a situation where the character thinks, says, or does exactly that. If it’s critical to your story that your character behave in uncharacteristic ways, put that character in an environment of increasing stress, until the point that the character’s “shadow” takes over.

Isabel Myers, co-author of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, defined the shadow function as the least developed part of our personality. Even in the best of times, we may have difficulty using this function in a rational and mature manner. When someone is under stress, and the shadow takes charge, the results can be disastrous.

In your own stories, do character and plot work in harmony? If a character behaves in an uncharacteristic way, be sure to show that the character is under enough stress to make the action believable.

Andrea J. Wenger is professional writer specializing in technical, freelance, and creative writing. Her short fiction has appeared in The Rambler. She is currently working on a women’s fiction novel. She blogs and speaks on the subject of writing and personality. She is a regular contributor to Carolina Communiqué, a publication of the Carolina Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. www.WriteWithPersonality.com.

Get more essay like this one in Advanced Plotting, along with a detailed explanation of the Plot Outline Exercise, a powerful tool to identify and fix plot weaknesses in your manuscripts. Buy Advanced Plottingfor $9.99 in paperback or as a $4.99 e-book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in various e-book formats from Smashwords.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Using Giveaways for Promotions 3


Two weeks ago, I talked about my experiences with doing a free book giveaway through Amazon’s KDP Select program. Last Wednesday, I quoted M. Louisa Locke, author of the Victorian San Francisco mysteries Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, on her views. Other authors have had mixed success with free book giveaways. Here are some of the things that have come up:

One author said when she includes a sample chapter of the next title in the series at the back of a book, sales of that title double or triple in the weeks after the first book is available for free. (On a personal note, I hate thinking I have 10% of the book left and then having the story suddenly end, because the last part of the book is a sample chapter or other promotional material. It might help to have a notice at the front of the book letting the reader know what’s at the back.)

One author said that the book she has put up for free most often is by far her best seller, but the giveaways haven’t made much difference to her other books. However, people may take a few months to get around to reading a free book, so there’s still the possibility of a trickle-down effect.

Several authors have said that they got great results the first couple of times they did free giveaways, with thousands of free downloads and strong sales afterwards. However, the more often they made a book free, the poorer the results. This may indicate that everyone who was interested had already found and downloaded the book. Authors wanting to make the same book free on a regular schedule will need to find new ways to advertise the sale. It’s probably also a good idea to spread out the giveaways instead of having them too close together. (Though from my experience and other anecdotal evidence, having at least two and ideally three days free in a row gives you the best impact in your rankings.)

I'd also like to announce the release of my latest romantic suspense novel, published under the name Kris Bock!

A summer afternoon
A stranger’s body
A life changed forever
And above, a hunter watches....

What We Found:

When Audra stumbles on a murdered woman in the woods, more than one person isn't happy about her bringing the crime to light. She’ll have to stand up for herself in order to stand up for the murder victim. It’s a risk, and so is reaching out to the mysterious young man who works with deadly birds of prey. But with danger all around, some risks are worth taking.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Plot Like a Screenwriter 2 with Douglas J. Eboch


Last week I posted a partial excerpt of an essay by my brother, scriptwriter Douglas J. Eboch. Here's a little more about plotting like a screenwriter, from his essay in my writing book, Advanced Plotting. Last Friday I posted the section about the Dramatic Question.

Apparent Failure/Success

There’s one other critical structural concept you need to understand. That is the moment of apparent failure (or success). Whatever the Resolution to your Dramatic Question is, there needs to be a moment where the opposite appears to be inevitable. If your character succeeds at the end, you need a moment where it appears the character must fail. And if your character fails at the end, you need a moment where they appear about to succeed.

This moment should come late in the story as the tension is building toward the climax. We need it so the audience can’t predict how the movie’s going to unfold. We may know that in a big Hollywood movie the hero will beat the bad guy and get the girl, but we shouldn’t be able to figure out how they’ll accomplish that. In screenwriting, we call this moment of apparent failure/success the Act Two Break.

[For a full explanation of the three act structure, pick up Advanced Plottingor explore Doug's screenwriting blog, Let's Schmooze.]

The Act Two Break

The Act Two Break is one of the most critical beats of your story. It’s often referred to as the “lowest moment,” though I don’t like that because I think it’s misleading. Seldom do I see a successful story where things start getting better right after the Act Two Break. I think “moment of greatest failure” is a better description. It’s also sometimes called the “all is lost” moment, which is pretty good. The point is that this is when it looks like your character is doomed to fail. The Act Two Break in E.T. is E.T. apparently dying and the breaking of the psychic link with Elliot.

That assumes, of course, that ultimately your character will succeed. Some stories, like Little Miss Sunshine, end with the character failing in their goal, and in this case you have to reverse the Act Two Break. It becomes the moment of greatest success. Gangster movies often work this way—the gangster seizes control of the gang at the end of Act Two and looks like he’ll be unstoppable. But by the end he’ll be lying dead in the street, riddled with bullets.

Why is this so important? Because the ending won’t be satisfying unless it’s hard to achieve. And you don’t want your movie to feel completely predictable. This is the point where the audience needs to think, “Boy, I know the hero must be going to beat the bad guy and get the girl (this is a movie, after all), but I sure don’t know how he’s going to do it. It seems hopeless.”

Hope and fear come into play here. What is the audience rooting for? Do they want the character to succeed or fail? (Both are possibilities depending on your premise.) This is the moment where you make them think the opposite might actually happen. Or in a tragedy you make them think they might get the ending they want, only to snatch it away from them. Romeo and Juliet hatch a plan to run away together… maybe it will all work out after all….

The Act Two Break in Star Wars is when our heroes escape the Death Star in the Millennium Falcon… but we learn that Darth Vadar has put a tracking device on their ship. It’s their biggest failure because they’re going to lead the bad guys right to the rebel base.

The Resolution

The Resolution is the climax of the movie. It should be big and exciting and emotional. It is also the moment when the Dramatic Question is answered either positively or negatively. Thus, it is what we’ve been waiting for since the Catalyst.

In addition to making this a big moment, it is crucial that you make it a final moment. The Dramatic Question must be answered definitively. If our hero can just go out and try again, then we don’t feel like the question is resolved. The Resolution must be the last chance for success or failure. If Luke can’t destroy the Death Star, then the rebellion will be crushed. It’s not just another battle; it’s the climactic battle.

The resolution is usually pretty obvious. Luke destroys the Death Star. E.T. gets to the spaceship. In Little Miss Sunshine, Richard gets up onstage with Olive and dances with her in support, and in defiance of the pageant people who want Olive off the stage. Olive may lose the pageant, answering the Dramatic Question in the negative, but the previously dysfunctional family has come together.

These are [some of] the structural stages Hollywood screenwriters use to build well-plotted scripts. Of course, a well-structured script isn’t the same as a good script. You still have to write the actual characters and scenes. But if you have a strong plot, then you have a solid foundation that will allow you to tell a truly great story.

Douglas J. Eboch wrote the original script for the movie Sweet Home Alabama. He teaches at Art Center College of Design and lectures internationally. He writes a blog about screenwriting at Let's Schmooze where he shares techniques like the ones in this article.

See Doug’s entire 4000-word essay covering all the dramatic story points of three-act structure, plus much more, in Advanced Plotting. Buy Advanced Plottingfor $9.99 in paperback or as a $4.99 e-book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in various e-book formats from Smashwords.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

M. Louisa Locke: Using Giveaways for Promotions

Last Wednesday I talked about my experiences with the KDP Select program for doing book giveaways. Other authors have had better or worse experiences. M. Louisa Locke, author of the Victorian San Francisco mysteries Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits, mentioned on a listserv that she was making both the first and second book in her series free at the same time. I asked:

I’m curious why you chose to make the first two books free back-to-back. My tendency would be to make just one free and hope people would then go on to buy the next book in the series. I know some people with lots of books out like to always have one book free as a promotional tool. But I’m curious what people think about how this could best be used, especially for books in a series.

She answered and graciously agreed that I could quote her:

“The question was why do both books back to back free, and my reason was simple, both books had slipped to the bottom (and frequently off) of the historical mystery bestseller list during the 2 months I had gone off KDP Select to try selling on the Nook and Kobo, etc.

“The sooner they went out free, the sooner that both would show back up higher on the list—which is where I get sales. You are right that eventually a proportion would buy the sequel, but not in enough numbers in a given day to affect the best seller rank.

“I also find it easier to promote the 2 books together, so that the buzz I generate for one translates to the other.

“I have also promoted them separately in the past, and will probably do this from now on, once they both go up somewhat in the rankings.” 

Later, she added, “The tactic definitely worked. As of this morning, the first day both books are back at paid, Maids of Misfortune was already at #13 on the historical mystery bestseller list, and #9 on the historical popularity list (it had been 127 on the popularity list before the promotion.) 

“It always takes at least a day for a book to find its new ranking in the bestseller list, so Uneasy Spirits, which just ended its free promotion at midnight last night, is still high in paid list, but dropping fast. But it is already showing up at #11 in the historical mystery popularity list (it had been at 113) so I know it will do well on the bestseller list by the end of the day.

As usual, Maids as the first in the series did better in downloads. Over the 2 days in all the Kindle stores I had 21,767 free downloads—and I haven’t done that well since last February. I had 11,572 free downloads of Uneasy Spirits over the 2 days. Even more heartening, I sold 80 copies of Maids of Misfortune yesterday—the first day it was back for sale while Uneasy was still for free. In the weeks before the promo I was lucky to sell a tenth of that.

“Would I have done as well if I had separated the promotions? I don’t know. Maybe. But it did take time to do the pre-promo and promotional work and, as I said, it was easier to do the work for both at the same time.

“If you primarily sell ebooks online the major way that people discover your books is either 1) through social media and 2) by browsing online. Not being the queen of twitter, my major sales come the second way. I write historical mysteries, readers looking for a new historical mystery go and browse in that category, if my book isn’t in the top 100 the chances of them finding it are very low.

“But if I can keep my books in the top 100 of historical mysteries, I sell. KDP Select when it came available this winter meant that when my book sales would start to falter and my books slide down the top 100, I could do a free promotion, and since these free books count as sales (they now only count as a percentage of sales, which is why many of us aren’t seeing quite the same effect from a free promotion) they would bump up the books in rank. Then they are more visible. I have been fortunate that if people see my book, a lot of them buy it.

Mary Louisa wrote a blog post with more detail about why she’s happy to give away books for free, and why she doesn’t worry about piracy or Amazon accepting returns. She says, “I look at the issues from the perspective of the reader. If I want to sell books, I should be trying to make the reader happy, not the publisher, not the distributor, and not the blogging pundit.”

As she points out and I’ve often thought, that’s why Amazon has been so successful. They focus on trying to please the customer, while many traditional book publishers have focused on trying to force the customers to do what the publisher wants. (For example by not releasing e-books at the same time as print books.)

M. Louisa adds, “Do I mind that more people have gotten my books for free than have bought them? No because my income doubled this year from last after the introduction of KDP Select, and I know from emails and reviews that lots of those people who got the books for free are my future readers of my future books and that they are providing very good word of mouth.”

She also wrote blog posts about her “rather disappointing experiment trying to sell my books on Nook and Kobo.”

http://bit.ly/O3Nmww
http://bit.ly/OpT5Kj

Next week I’ll be back with a few more thoughts on giveaways from other authors.

View Maids of Misfortune: A Victorian San Francisco Mysteryor Uneasy Spirits: A Victorian San Francisco Mysteryon Amazon.