Sunday, November 22, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Part Six)

This is Part Six in my ongoing series about how one might fix a novel that is languishing.

F) Once your book is published at an affordable price ($4 or less on Kindle), you need to get reviews, especially consumer reviews on Amazon. Amazon reviews have become one of the single most important things for a writer's career. The more reviews your book has, the more significant it will seem to potential readers, and the more it will sell. In fact, if you have a great, pro cover and lots of reviews, it absolutely will sell in some degree, which is no small thing considering that hundreds of thousands of books on Amazon have never sold a single copy. How can you tell? If the book doesn't have a "sales ranking" number, it has never sold. Of course, once your cover and reviews convince someone to buy your book, it is the quality of the story and its editing that determine if they spread the word and buy your future books.

The problem is, reviews for new authors don't happen spontaneously. Most estimates say that you will only get a spontaneous review on Amazon for every 200 - 300 books you sell. In the beginning, it is very difficult to sell 300 books! Do you know 300 people who will buy your book just because you are their friend? I certainly didn't when I started out.

And the unfortunate reality is that most people - even those who adore a novel - will not write a review. They simply don't think of it. They may love your book so much that they write you a glowing email, but they don't think to write a review. Unless you ask them. Then, many of them will be eager to write a review and do whatever they can to help.

So you need to ask for reviews. (Yes, I know you're an introvert. All writers are. Why else would we choose to spend thousands of hours alone, toiling away on a novel? But we have to learn to do some of those things that come naturally to extroverts. Like sending out an email to someone, even - gasp - a stranger, and ask for help.)

To ask for reviews, simply write (don't call on the phone because that puts people on the spot) and politely ask people you know, people you've heard about who read or belong to local book clubs, book bloggers, people you meet at book-related events, etc., if you may give them a signed review copy in exchange for review consideration. Stress that there is no obligation. Many people will be happy to help. They can write in their review that they received a free copy in exchange for honest review consideration. (Note that this is another reason to join writers groups, critique groups, and book clubs, as they become good possibilities for book reviews.)

Here's something to remember about asking for reviews. If any publisher wants a review in Publishers Weekly, or Library Journal, or Booklist, or dozens of other review journals, THEY HAVE TO ASK FOR IT. Reviews aren't automatic for anybody. Publishers send out ARCs (Advance Review Copies) and ask for a potential review. So asking for a review isn't groveling, it is the norm in this business.

Stay tuned for the seventh and penultimate serving of ideas...

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Part Five)

This is Part Five of my series on what you can do if your novel isn't selling.

E) Get a dot-com website (not dot-net or dot-biz, etc.) that uses your author name as its domain name. If your name is not available in the dot-com format, use your name with the addition of the word "books" or "author" or something similar (i.e., johndoethrillers .com). If people hear about your book, one of the first things they do will be to Google your name to find your website. If you can't get a dot-com domain using your name in some fashion, consider writing your book under a pseudonym that is available in the dot-com format. (Note that this may change in the future, and there are now a few successful authors who are only using Facebook. But they are a tiny minority. For the foreseeable future, you need a dot-com website as the hub that asks for readers to contact you (from which you can begin building your email list), directs readers to your blog if you have one, your social media pages, and to your books' pages on Amazon. Note the use of plural "books" instead of singular. You are writing more books, right?

A website can be expensive, but it need not be. I took a cheap website design class at the local community college and did my own website. I pay Godaddy for domain hosting for several years at a time at a very cheap rate. And in the beginning, when I got confused, I visited the website teacher at the community college for occasional help and advice.

Stay tuned for Part Six...

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Part Four)

This is Part Four of what you can do to change up your book to make it a good seller.

D) Get a cover designed by a professional book cover designer. You might say, "But my son knows Photoshop, and he can do amazing things with it." That's like saying, "My son is a great mechanic and is amazingly skillful with his hands, so I'm going to have him fix my teeth."

Yes, a professional book cover is expensive, anywhere from $400 or $500 up to $1500 or more. But this is your novel we're talking about, one of the most significant things you've ever done. Skip eating out for a few months if you must, but get a professional cover. I can't count the number of authors who've proudly handed me a copy of their new book and my first thought is to wonder why they skimped on a cover. Buy a used car instead of a new car. Do whatever it takes.

Here's a useful thought experiment. Imagine your book on a table with 20 current bestselling novels. Now imagine people walking by and, without opening any of the books, picking out the one that looks like it will have the best story. Will it be yours?

You might be wondering about my covers. Although I'm extremely happy with them, and I think my cover designer is amazing (Keith Carlson Graphic Design), I now see that I made a mistake in the beginning of having my name small because I was an unknown. I thought, "An unknown name is certainly not going to help get attention for books!" Multiple people told me otherwise, including, I think, the designer, but I didn't pay attention. (I often miss the obvious.) I've since come to realize that the author name should take the same, larger format on the first five books as it does on the next eight. More work to do, but it will be worth it. Even so, many times people come by my book exhibit and buy books having never opened them up to even read the first sentence. They say something like, "This book looks like it is really good." And then they buy it. I know, crazy! But it happens often.

Will a professional cover make your book a success? No. But a non-professional cover will almost guarantee that you won't find success.

Stay tuned for part five...

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Part Three)

This is the third part of my series on what you can do if your novel doesn't sell. I've previously written about getting your novel critiqued and moving life-or-death trouble up to the beginning, preferably the first sentence. Next,

C) When you've rewritten your book, get it professionally edited by a book editor who isn't your friend or relative, then rewrite, then get another edit. You might say, "But my daughter majored in English and got straight As. She is a great editor." Sorry, this is like working with a critique group. In the beginning especially, the value of editing is connected to the fact that your editor is a professional editor who doesn't know you.

Note that editing is different from critique. Critique comes just after you've finished your first or second draft. Critique is about the big picture, the story arc, the characters and their motivations, the rising plot curve, the big reveals.

Editing comes after you've figured out all that other stuff and rewritten your book three or four or seventeen times. Editing is polishing. Editing is fixing all the little glitches, polishing the rough spots, making sure your POVs are consistent, that you don't have two chapter 39s (as I once did). Editing is making sure your words are spelled correctly. Editing is making sure that your book follows the dictates of a consistent style. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style says that numerals are okay in many places in your prose but that numbers should be spelled out in dialogue as people speak words not numerals. There are a hundred stylistic things like this.

Stay tuned for Part Four...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Part Two)

This is the second batch of ideas for things you can do to change your book into one that sells...

B) Move Life-Or-Death trouble to the first paragraph, or, better yet, the first sentence of your book. Life-or-death being defined as the life or death of all that the character really cares about. If you are writing in most genres, life or death is literal life or death. If you are writing a caper or romance or romantic comedy, life or death is the loss or likely loss of all that your protagonist cares about (i.e., the one true love they desire).

You might say, "But my favorite books in my genre don't do this." That's true for most "favorite books" in most genres. Favorite books are by known authors whose readers believe they will get a good story even if it starts slowly. But new novelists don't have the luxury of starting a book slowly. With the explosion of self publishing, there are approximately one million new novelists each year. Let's say a reader actively pursues discovering a good new novelist each week, reads their books, and post reviews of each of them. That's 50 books out of a million new titles available each year. That means your reader who is exclusively buying new work by new writers like you ends up discovering just half of one percent of one percent of the available books by new authors. What are the chances that your book will be in that group? (0.00005 times 1,000,000 books)

And how many readers out there ignore the deluge of new books by their favorite authors to exclusively search out new authors like you? Almost none. And if, against those odds, you somehow succeed with this imagined reader who doesn't need excitement at the beginning of the book, how many of your books will other readers like her buy? Will you be able to build a career out of those few readers slowly spreading the word?

If you are an unknown author who wants to get a reader to stop reading their favorite famous authors and try yours instead, you need to grab them. You need to get their blood going immediately. If readers don't know your work, they don't know if they can count on you to tell a good story. So you have to prove it by making the first few sentences of your novel gripping/thrilling/exciting.

Stay tuned for Part Three...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Your Novel Doesn't Sell? You Can Change That. (Part One Of Eight)

There are countless writers who have a novel out that hasn't sold. At each of my events, I get lots of questions about this. I've noticed that the questions these authors ask me can be summarized as follows: "I've written and published a novel, but I haven't gotten any traction with it. Advice?"

If you are one of those writers whose book hasn't found an audience, read on. If you are not, you should probably skip this post as you will find it boring.

Before I write this post, I want to stress that I don't have the one true vision. I don't think my knowledge about writing is especially significant. I have no pretensions about being a great writer. And, at 355,000 books (both paper books and ebooks) in circulation, I'm nowhere near as successful as the big names in the business. But I've learned enough about writing entertainment fiction that many authors at an earlier point on the career arc ask me questions. I am making a good living telling stories, so perhaps my perspective is useful. In light of all the questions I get, I realize that I would have liked this kind of information when I was new at this business. So I'm going to write this as if I'm talking to the former me, when I was beginning to write my Tahoe mysteries 20 years ago. Even so, the hubris of giving advice makes me uncomfortable. It may well be that you shouldn't pay any attention to what I think...

Okay, here goes the first of an eight-part series.

If your novel hasn't sold, you can do one of three things.

One, you can decide that you don't care because who needs an audience, anyway? You did it for the satisfaction of seeing if you could do it. If so, congrats, you've succeeded at achieving your goal. (That may sound like I'm being sarcastic, but I'm actually speaking earnestly. Writing a novel is a big achievement in and of itself, and you can sleep with a smile on your face just knowing you completed something significant, something that only the tiniest percentage of people ever accomplish.)

Two, you can decide that you didn't win the author lottery, and that life isn't fair, and that you're not charismatic or beautiful or young enough to be TV talk show material, and you can blame your publisher and/or your agent and/or reviewers who can't recognize genius when it calls out from the page. (Okay, there's some sarcastic snark.)

Three (back to earnestness), you can change the situation and start over, either redoing your current book or starting a new one that fits the recommendations I'll outline in this series. (But please note that if you do all of the following, it won't guarantee your success. However, it will go a very long way in the right direction. After that, your success will get down to how hard you try, how badly you want it. If, instead, you think you are the exception who doesn't need to heed all of the following, then I will submit that whichever of the steps in this series that you didn't do is a part of the reason you haven't found the audience you seek.)

Here's the first step in re-shaping your novel and its presentation to the world with the goal of finding readers.

A) Get multiple critiques of your book from other writers in your genre, writers who are not your friends or relatives. Then consider carefully all of their comments as you rewrite. You might say, "Yeah, but I really know this genre because I read voraciously, and, besides, I asked my best buddy, who has a Masters in English, to be my beta reader, and he told me the honest truth about what he thought."

First, you might be a voracious and super intelligent reader, but that won't help you solve the problems in your novel. And your Best Bud Beta Readers won't tell you the truth. Worse, they'll bring an agenda - pro or con or something else - to their critique. Simply knowing you renders them incapable of telling you what they really think. Join a critique group/writer's group made up of people you don't know and trade critique. "I'll critique yours if you critique mine." Then do it multiple times. If you can't find a critique group in your town, join an online one.

You might say, "I got it critiqued once, and it was good, and I'm sure that is enough to make my book sufficiently better." I believe that one critique is not enough. (My books certainly need more than one critique.) As with the following points, if your book isn't selling, maybe that alone is indication that you didn't get enough critique.

Nothing about this business works unless you have a good novel, a gripping story, a flawed sympathetic hero, a rising plot curve that can't be ignored, fascinating side characters, impeccable prose mechanics, and all the other aspects of a good book. Multiple critiques are the way to get there.

Stay tuned for Part Two...

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Starting A New Novel? Fun, But...

In my previous post, I wrote about completing one's first novel. The whole Done Is Better Than Perfect mantra. You might think that those issues I wrote about don't apply to me because, for better or worse, I've published 13 novels and completed 4 more that remain in a drawer.

But the truth is that it does apply to me. Not so much on my Tahoe Mystery series, in which I've found a kind of groove. But it applies to a non-Tahoe thriller I've been writing but haven't made much progress on (i.e., a completed first draft). Although I've been working on this new novel for some time, I haven't settled even the most basic questions. Will it be part of a trilogy? Or will the eventual result be two or three related stand-alones? Or - the ideal goal - another series?

You see, Done Beats Perfect applies to every kind of project you can think of, including writing in a new direction. In a sense, it restates the Nike phrase, "Just Do It."

I've got a good concept for this second writing gig. I've got a hundred-some pages of the first book done. I've got a character I'm pretty sure will fly. I've sketched out a plot that appears to have lots of possibilities.

But many times, when I think about working on it, I just, you know, think. Sit and think. Walk and think. Drive and think. Often, I don't open up the laptop and start writing a scene. Why? Because I'm not sure I'm heading the right direction. I'm not sure that my character has proper motivation. I'm not confident I've figured out the foreshadowing necessary for the critical plot revelations. I can't seem to fix this problem I found with the villain's character. I'm not certain the reader will suspend his or her disbelief.

Oh, wait. I'm doing that thing again that I wrote about two weeks ago. Dragging my feet over desires of perfection before I even finish the first draft. I need to remind myself that Done Beats Perfection.

Get the first draft done, Todd.

When I begin a new Owen-and-Spot adventure, I always have problems of structure, character, motivation. Scene settings, timing, staging. Sometimes the problems seem to never end. But I go ahead and write that first draft anyway. Once I have that to work from, I can start fixing the big problems in my first rewrite. The slightly smaller problems may have to wait until my second rewrite. Details and continuity and prose mechanics issues can be dealt with in future rewrites. The key is to get the first draft done.

Check back in five years or so to see if I followed my own advice.

Done Beats Perfect.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Best Hikes In Tahoe - Hawley Grade - South Shore

Category - Moderate
View Rating - 6 out of 10
Distance - 3.8 miles round trip
Elevation Gain - 900 feet
Highest Point - 7400 feet
Special note: This trail crosses a waterfall, so it is often impassible in the spring and early summer. The trail is best hiked in late summer or fall.

Hawley Grade is a relatively easy hike that combines some nice views with great history of miners as well as the Pony Express crossing the Sierra.

When the Gold Rush began in 1849, thousands of would-be miners headed west across the country with dreams of striking gold. Their goal was Hangtown, the center of the Gold Rush area and what is now known as Placerville. The problem was getting over the Sierra. The best route to Hangtown had been to go from the south end of Carson Valley in Western Nevada, up the canyon past what is now known as Woodfords and up into Hope Valley at 7000 feet. From there, they followed a difficult route up and over Carson Pass at 8600 feet before heading down to the foothills.

Looking for alternatives, explorers wondered if they could get to Hangtown from the Tahoe Basin. They soon found two routes from Hope Valley into the Tahoe. One was Armstrong Pass, also high at 8400 feet, and Luther Pass at a mere 7800 feet. The problem was getting out of the Tahoe Basin. Echo Summit was the logical destination because it sits at a relatively low 7400 feet. Unfortunately, getting from Tahoe up to Echo Summit meant climbing steep rocky slopes with many cliffs.

Private parties financed and built Hawley Grade in 1857, and named it for Asa Hawley, owner of a nearby trading post. The trail was the first one gentle enough for horse-drawn wagons to get up and down the slope. (Although when you hike the grade, you will find it hard to imagine a wagon of any size on the trail. Any wagon would have to be small and narrow!)

For several years, Hawley Grade became the choice of travelers heading west to Hangtown and their dreams of gold. In 1860 - 1861, the short-lived Pony Express riders also used the grade before the telegraph put them out of business. After the Gold Rush waned and silver and gold were discovered in the Comstock Lode beneath Virginia City, many of those Hangtown miners reversed their earlier travel and headed east back up to Echo Summit and then down Hawley Grade on their trek to Virginia City. Several years later, Hawley Grade was itself eclipsed by the construction of Meyer's Grade, an even gentler route down from Echo Summit.

To get to the Hawley Grade trailhead, drive Highway 50 to the base of Echo Summit and turn south on South Upper Truckee Road. Drive about 3.5 miles south down a valley that locals call Christmas Valley. Look for a smallish sign on the right announcing Hawley Grade. It is at a green Forest Service gate that may be locked during the snow season, so be aware of weather if you are going late in the year. Take a pass if it is snowing. If you get to a point on South Upper Truckee Road where the road veers to the left and crosses a bridge over the Upper Truckee River, you went too far and missed the turnoff.

If the gate is unlocked, turn right off South Upper Truckee Road at this sign. If the gate should be locked, you can park off the main road and hike in. As you can see in the picture, the short road to the trailhead is numbered 1110. A short distance in is a small parking area. (See below.)

This is the beginning of the hike. A short distance in, you may hear the Upper Truckee River on your left. You can take a short detour through the trees and brush to see it.
In the spring and early summer, this is a gorgeous rushing rapids.
(But this is not the waterfall path that Hawley Grade crosses.)

Back on Hawley Grade, the path does an about face from south to north, and you begin climbing up a long gentle incline toward Echo Summit.

As you climb, you begin to get some nice views across Christmas Valley.

The trail goes by some gorgeous Incense Cedars.

This one has a Hobbit hole. A narrow, rickety, circular stairway wound down three flights, and, peeking down, we could just make out the edge of a rocking chair lit by a flickering lantern. The smell of baking biscuits mixed with a strong, crisp hoppy scent. I guess they like beer as much as we do.

Eventually, the path crosses a waterfall. Although gorgeous in the early summer, it's a heck of a lot easier to navigate when the water isn't flowing.

As we climbed higher, we got our first view of Tahoe in the distance to the north.

Although the valley drops away to the side, it doesn't feel dangerous. But as with all hikes, BE CAREFUL. There are a few places where one could slip and slide a long way.

Higher still, Tahoe gets closer. If you look close on the upper left, you can see the ledge where Highway 50 climbs around the cliff below Echo Summit. Our end destination is not far from that point.

Near the end of the trail, the path switchbacks up a steeper slope with some large steps to help you hike. You will hear the traffic of Highway 50, which is just past the upper edge of this photo. The path brings you out on one of the side roads that lead to Forest Service cabins. The view is fine, but I wouldn't walk out onto the highway as there is no shoulder to walk on and the traffic is moving fast. It is best to turn around and head back down.

Be sure and pack a picnic lunch and pick a nice spot with a view to relax. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Key To A Completed Novel Is Completion

There's a catchy meme circulating on the internet.

Done Beats Perfect.

As soon as I read it, I thought about several writers I know who have been working on their novel for a long time.

A loooooooooonnnng time.

It is good, of course, to make your novel a quality piece of work. In fact, it could probably be said that most writers decide too early that their novel is done, and they put out a volume that could still use significant editing and rewriting.

But there are those perfectionists - you know who you are - who believe that they can continue to improve their novel, and they want to get it just right before they launch it.

The flip side of their desire for perfection is the fear that if it isn't perfect, they will find embarrassing mistakes after their book is published.

Well, let me corroborate your fears right now. No matter how perfect you make your book, it will almost certainly have mistakes. Because as you rewrite and fix every last mistake in the book, that very "fixing" process will create more mistakes. So know going in that your book will have at least a few glitches. And also know that if you've done a good job, they will be few, and your readers will forgive you.

Better that than having your novel be a work-in-progress forever.

You've probably read Winston Churchill's famous quote about a book starting out as an amusement, then becoming a mistress, then a master, then a tyrant, and that you must eventually kill the monster and fling him to the public. What he said is appropriate. At some point you simply have to make the decision that the book is done and move on to the next one.

There is actually evidence that suggests that switching your focus from perfection to production leads to greater perfection.

In their perennial bestseller Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, the authors discuss an experiment one of them did in a ceramics class he taught. He divided the class into two groups.

The assignment for members of the first group was to create a single perfect pot. They could take the entire semester to produce this pot, and their grade would be determined by how perfect the pot was.

The assignment for members of the second group was to produce as many pots as possible over the course of the semester. Their grade would be based only on the final number of pots, regardless of quality. They were told to ignore quality.

What happened?

The group that focused exclusively on quantity ended up making the highest quality pots.

The group that focused exclusively on quality ended up making inferior pots.

The benefits of practice are clear in every field. If you want to be a better skier, spend more time skiing. If you want to write a better book, write more books.

If you are one of those perfectionists still trying to make your first novel better, now is the best time to decide it is done, or at least set a hard deadline for when it will be done.

With a few notable exceptions, the best writers tend to be the ones who've written several books at the minimum.

Speaking for myself, I utilized some skills in my most recent book that I'd never even thought of at the time I finished my first. I won't claim any particular level of quality, although my most recent book is getting great reviews. But I do know that writing more leads to writing better.

So go ahead. Take the leap. Finish your first novel.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Smart Writing That Really Isn't

We writers all do it. We write something especially smart or clever. When we reread it, we feel a self-congratulatory smugness. Look how insightful we are.

A few days later, if we're observant, we become aware that we're still noticing our words, oozing with perspicacity. Wait. Is that what we really want? Words that emanate intelligence?

No, we want our writing to be intelligent to the point of getting our story across in the best way. But if the reader is distracted by writing that seems so intelligent, then the writing is failing at transporting the reader to the place the writer wants to get them. Unless, of course, the writer primarily wants the reader to think that they are really smart. Which almost guarantees that the writer will have very few readers.

Mark Twain said, "Never use a quarter word when a nickel word will do the job."

Clever writing tends to dog entertainment writers who are uncomfortable with merely telling an entertaining story. So they spruce up their writing to make it appear, well, smarter.

It also happens to literary writers who are a little too taken with the idea that they are producing great art. So they write sentences that are puffed up and pretentious. Precious is a word that writers use to describe such writing.

All writers do this, writing fancy words and sentences that call attention to themselves and distract from the story. Our job is to go back and find those sentences or phrases or words, and edit them out.

The late great Elmore Leonard was famous not just for his novels and short stories, but for his Ten Rules Of Writing. He followed those with an eleventh rule that summed up all ten and said, "If it sounds like writing, rewrite it."

All writers, entertainment and literary, do best when they follow Leonard's last rule.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Speed Writing For A Tortoise

Last night, I finished a two day marathon writing session where I did nothing from when I woke up until I went to bed but work on my new book. I looked at the word count and found I'd written 15,900 words. In my current format of approximately 300 words per page, that worked out to 53 pages of new material. For me, that's speed writing.

While I'm usually a slow writer, I'm not like the poet who considers finding and removing an unnecessary comma to be a good day's work. Nor am I remotely close to those prolific writers who expect to produce 20 pages every day and thus complete a rough draft after a mere three weeks work (the term "work" being uncomfortable for me considering that a farmer or a logger or even a computer code writer would not consider making up stories remotely close to real work).

Never mind that. I wondered what it was that contributed to such - for me - prodigious production. Thinking back, it was movement. Plot. Action. Those things tend to get down on the page fast. Had I been writing "character," I'd have produced a fraction of the words. I'm not talking of writing about "a" character, but simply "character." Writing "character" is getting down the words and phrases that reveal something subtle and telling about the characters. Writing "character" is slow. Writing plot is fast.

Years ago, when I had completed only four novels, books that are unpublished and entombed in a drawer, there to stay, like a diploma, as an iconic reminder that writers need an education like everyone else, I thought that plot was easy and character was hard. (How's that for a run-on sentence?) But once I came to understand how character worked, I realized that character was relatively easy and plot is relatively hard.

This is ironic. Although I came to develop skills that made creating character fairly easy, it writes slow. In contrast, while creating plot is hard, it writes fast.

I have a poet friend who says he can't plot his way out of a paper bag. I used to think it was because he hadn't tried much. Now I think it's because it's hard to plot your way through even the simplest scenario if you want to surprise the reader, get your characters wrestling with interesting dilemmas, work toward a rising conflict that makes the story interesting, and, hopefully, also include some intelligence and intrigue in your opus. Even more difficult is the plot of a mystery, where the puzzle aspect of the story is critical.

But once you figure out the plot, putting it into words often involves scenes where it unfolds in your mind much faster than you can type, and the typing becomes a rushed torrent, words tumbling over each other as you get it down.

Once you've developed the skills, creating a character is relatively easy. You imagine a specific individual with hopes and dreams and worries and fears. You figure out what makes that person unique, one of a kind, unlike any other person you've ever met, read about, or watched on the screen. You give that person a name. You dream up what they look like and what they wear and how they talk and how they walk. You give them a past. The creation of character comes pretty fast.

But once you figure out a character, putting that person into words is a slow process because you don't just tell everything up front when you first introduce the character. That would be a long, painful exposition and would bore the reader to sleep. Instead, you reveal bits and pieces of your character as they cope with the dilemmas imposed by the plot. Writing these "telling" details, these revealing phrases and sentences that build your character and set them up for a surprising and satisfying transformation, takes a great deal of time and head scratching and walking in the woods.

The next time I get enough of a break from the business of writing to begin another writing marathon, I might be focusing on character. In that case, two days of morning-to-night work might produce a page or two.

Writing slowly is still writing.

Will all 53 pages of my marathon end up in the next book? No. For most of us writers, future editing will cut the chaff from our first drafts, and we'll end up with half or less. But we have to get the first draft down before we can begin the rest of the process.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A Novelist's Law Of Trouble

Can you be successful with a first novel? Yes, and the key is found with The Law Of Trouble which states: First Novels Should Have Life-Or-Death Trouble In The First Few Sentences.

My first novel did (as did #s 2, 3, & 4), and it was one of the smartest (luckiest!) things I've done.

I've talked about this before. But it bears repeating. And repeating...

Multiple times in the past, I've checked the bestseller lists looking for first novels, there to peruse the first few sentences and see how they run. Because bestselling first novels are very rare, it seems especially instructive to see how they grab potential readers and pull them into a story successfully enough that a browsing reader decides to purchase the book.

Here's what I found. Nearly always, the first few sentences of bestselling first novels either had a character in life-or-death trouble, or the narrative intimated that a character was soon to be in life-or-death trouble. Note that I'm not talking about Big Trouble or Serious Trouble or Really Bad Trouble. I'm talking about LIFE-OR-DEATH Trouble. Note, also, that I'm not talking about the first few pages. I'm talking about the first few sentences. Often, the life-or-death trouble shows up in the first sentence.

(I've previously pointed out that the Law Of Trouble doesn't apply to established writers because their readers will buy their books based on other books by the author or the author's reputation, a luxury new authors don't have.)

Last week, I once again checked in with the bestseller lists. The most complete one, with the 100 bestselling books of all kinds, updated every minute or so, is Amazon's. Another one, less complete but equally popular, is The New York Times. As in the past, I was looking for first novels. If I noticed anything different in this last check, it is that there were even fewer first novels than ever before. There were only four first novels on Amazon's Top 100 bestseller list!

Of the four first novels on the current lists, novels that were recently written, the highest ranked on the Kindle list was The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner, #1 on Amazon's Kindle list as I write this. How does the book open? The first words are, "I'm drowning." By the second paragraph, we realize that the person drowning is trying to save another person who's also drowning. A few lines later, we find out the drownings that are about to happen are murder. Life-or-death trouble.

The next first novel on the lists is The Martian by Andy Weir. As many of you know, the novel has been a monster success (at #2 on Kindle as of this writing) and has been turned into a soon-to-be-released movie starring Matt Damon. What were in its first sentences? Trouble from the first four words. Trouble that, by the end of the first eight lines, reveals itself as life-or-death trouble. Trouble that continues to build and get worse.

The next first novel breaks the pattern and belies my law. The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins (#3) on the list does not open with life-or-death trouble. Does that suggest that my law is no good? I looked closely at the first few lines. What about this book is compelling from the beginning? I decided that it is voyeurism. And of course voyeurism pretty much always leads to trouble. So perhaps that is its reason for success.

Even so, it still doesn't fit my Law Of Trouble. Is there anything else about it? Well, it should probably be pointed out that it isn't really a first novel. According to the New York Times, Paula Hawkins published five other novels under the pen name Amy Silver before she wrote Girl On The Train. She also wrote a financial advice book. Did her previous writing successes make a difference? No doubt. You expect a or 6th or 7th book to be pretty sophisticated. But of course many or most of Hawkins' readers were drawn into the book thinking it was her first novel, so they didn't know beforehand that they could count on Hawkins to tell a good story. But her publisher knew that she'd written multiple other books, and that no doubt affected their marketing approach.

So I'll call Girl On A Train a qualified exception to my law, a "first novel" that doesn't begin with life-or-death trouble, but it isn't really a first novel either.

The fourth first novel on the bestseller lists is In A Dark Dark World by Ruth Ware. It opens with someone in a panicked run. The words are rushed, and the tension is significant. By the end of the first page, we've gotten to Life-Or-Death trouble.

In sum, of the four "first" novels among the top 100 bestselling books, three demonstrate my Law Of Trouble, and the fourth isn't really a first novel.

What about those experienced novelists on the list who already have an audience for anything they write? They don't have to put life-or-death trouble in their first sentences. But do they do it anyway?

To check, I looked up other novels on the list. The first one I came to was Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See (#21) on Amazon. If any writer need not put trouble up front, it is Doerr. Yet All The Light begins with trouble, which, by the 5th line, seems life or death. By the 9th line, it appears that mass casualties are imminent.

What to take away? The lesson seems clear. Why not emulate those writers who write bestsellers, whether they are first novelists or experienced novelists. If you want to find an audience with your first novel, move some life-or-death trouble up to the very front of your story.