Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sunday Update: Art and Stuff

I'm late on my Sunday update today.  I forgot that Saturday is the day before Sunday and therefore I needed to do an update post last night. (Which is okay, I needed the sleep.)

Also since I'm not posting anything else until next Sunday, I suppose being on time with this post doesn't matter so much.

It Started With A Line

Earlier this week I did another illustration for a short story of mine: my Noir holiday story "Deadmen Don't Eat Fruitcake."

I was incredibly jazzed about this image. I have always wanted to be better at that cartoon end of illustration.  This is the sort of illustration I'd like to be doing.  But something usually goes wrong.  It's like my brain gets caught between life drawing (trying to be as realistic as possible) and abstraction, and suddenly it gets all awkward and goofy.

So I've been thinking about base sketches, and look at images online where other artists post images that "show their work."  Both fine artists and cartoonists often start with the same kinds of rough sketching of lines -- some basic geometric shapes.  The difference, though is that in life drawing, you look closely at the model and adjust the geometric shapes to fit the model.  You're concentrating on and drawing the model.

With cartooning, you're not drawing reality, you're drawing what's in your head.  And I finally got the hook that helps me see that: you're drawing the abstract shape.  You're adapting life to fit the shape.  So in that sense, you're not looking at and concentrating on a model.  You're looking at and concentrating on the shape on your paper.

It's sort of how I work with the silhouettes: I start with a blob and then start sclupting it; adding something here and erasing something there; watching the shape itself and building on what's good about it.  (The unfortunate side effect of this is that it comes out rather different than I intend.  Such as Rozinshura -- who is a great bear of a man -- who comes out looking kind of like a pencil-necked geek in the illustrations.)

Anyway, the illustration above started with a line. I'd been looking at a lot of abstractions and I had this vision in my head of a kind of cubist gangster, made out of angles and shapes. I drew a line for the plane of his face, and then the triangle nose, and then a rounded lower lip and a jutting chin....  And suddenly I found myself sketching a character rather than just an abstraction.  All in straight sketched lines.  I rounded the angles when I did the final image so it became a cartoon rather than a design.

Okay, that was cool. What could I use it for?  I thought about the Noir fruitcake story (the only story where I had a classic thug that I could remember).  There were two thugs in that story, so I made a duplicate.  Fussed over how they would line up and be a different color, etc.

But when it came to doing Granny Arbuckle, I found myself doing the awkward child-drawing thing again.  Until I told myself "just do her with the same straight lines and angles you did with the thugs."

And she came out better than they did.

So this has jazzed me out to no end.  But it's also done that rebound thing - where I get so excited that I end up doing my happy dance too long rather than actually sitting down and working.

BTW, that story is in my mini-collection 5 Twists.  It is currently free everywhere but Amazon (It's only 99 cents at Amazon).  Amazon just won't price match it.  This annoys me because the formatting is better at Amazon than the simplified conversion they do at Smashwords. (They might finally make it free if someone complains about it via the "tell us about a lower price" link, but I wouldn't count on it.)

Edit: Now this collection is FREE at Amazon US too. (Don't know about the international stores.) It will remain so until at least January 6,  2014. I may keep it free longer as it works as a "sample" of some of my writing styles. (Amazon international stores: UK, DE, FR, IT, ES, IN, CA, JP, BR, MX, AU.)
Barnes and Noble, Apple iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Smashwords

More Covers

In the meantime, I did two new covers for Self-Pub Book covers.  This first one is a retro gothic romantic suspense cover.  I've actually been working on that for a long time. I was inspired by an old book cover -- the impressed image on cloth hardback cover you find under the dust jacket -- of a book about camping.  I think it looked down through some trees on a camp fire.

I thought it could be kind of spooky, so I created the tree frame -- dark green with a yellow background glowing through that gaping middle.  I had to redo it a few times as I made mistakes. There's a lot of detail in those leaves, so resizing or trying to change a color using the paintbucket (which is the only way to change black to a color -- you can swap one color for another, but black sticks to black) means a whole lot of clean up.

Anyway, I liked putting a running figure in there, becuase there are three suspenseful interpretations.  One: A fugitive, hidden in the dark, gives her location away because of the bright sky behind her.  Two: she's running from the dark forest into an eery bright light area.  Three: she could be running from the light into the scary dark forest.

This other image is another case of going with the shape and then deciding what it looks like: I was inspired to do that sky by a WWI recruiting poster.  The sky was orange and yellow (very close to two of the colors Self-Pub Book Covers allows for fonts -- but lots duller) with streaks of one across the other.  And a slope of the ground in green.  There was a column of caissons and soldiers across the middle of the poster.

But once I'd done that sky in colors that matched Self-Pub Book Covers font colors, I thought I had something more futuristic. Well, retro futuristic.  So I made the ground red (because I didn't like the other color choices there) and added a space ship.

I actually really like this.  I don't read or write many of the kind of sf stories it is suited for, but I think I'll do more covers in this style.  (And just hope somebody else is interested in them.

Both these covers have yet to go through the approval process, but they should show up on SPBC next week some time.  I think they're better than my other covers there, but who knows. You can see my portfolio there at DaringNovelist's Covers.   

In the meantime, have a great holiday.  We'll be back next Sunday with an update, at which time I'll tell you what's coming that first week of December.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Story Game - Let's Play!

At last! We get to the moment we've all been waiting for: we get to just play the game.  It's a lot quicker to play the game than create it.  Once you have the story materials in hand, you can play it over and over again -- adding to it, tweaking it or just using it at is.

To review: The series starts with an Introduction and an explanation of the concept of "Character Structure" which we use to create the game.  This game works better with a formulaic story, so we've created a game around the "Woman-in-Jeopardy" type of Romantic Suspense.   (We also talked a little about Erle Stanley Gardener's Plot Wheels, which inspired the game.)

But if you want to get down to the game itself, start with these posts:

*The Situation Worksheet - which we'll fill in using the story wheels.
*Heroine and Hero Wheels
*Villain and Nature of the Crime Wheels
*Titles and Title Words

Today, I'm just going to play the game from scratch, and show you how it works for me.  I will tell you a little about how I solve various issues as they come up.

I rolled a story just before sitting down to write this post -- what follows is real-time brainstorming.  (As it happened, the rolls came out easy -- they don't always do so.)

So here we go... Let's Play!

Here are the Story Wheel results

Title Words: Kept, Melody, Justice, Scorch, Crossfire, Guitar, Duet, Breathless, Night, Know.
Theme: Insiders
Heroine Type: On a Secret Mission (such as: revenge; needs to retrieve something; investigative reporter; must prove someone innocent; etc.)
Hero Type: Mysterious Background Figure - Undercover Cop
Villain Cover Type: Authority Figure - Cop
Crime Type: Blackmail, Version 3 (person being blackmailed is the bad guy, third party the primary victim)

Wow, this is the most consistent roll I've done with this game.  Insider theme; multiple cops; and a heroine on an undercover mission -- this screams "Police Procedural."

And yes, there is a brand of Woman-in-Jeopardy Romantic Suspense which overlaps with police procedural (although it tends toward military right now I think) - but it's one I don't happen to read.  Furthermore, though I love to read regular police procedurals, especially regional ones, I don't feel adequate in writing them.

But that works for this blog series because I'm unlikely to write this story -- and that means I don't have to hold back for fear of spoilers or anything like that.  I can do this as a "writing in public" exercise.

(NOTE TO EVERYONE: if this roll and the ideas for it I come up with in this post excite you, feel free to write it.  Consider it an "Open Source" story idea.  We can all play with it if we like. Note also: I do mention some other stories I am actually writing -- such as "Hours of Need." If those idea inspire you, please change them enough so they don't seem like the same story I'm writing.)

Pushing Boundaries

An ideal story roll will push you a little bit where you don't want to go.  That's why we include some contrary choices and things we don't like on our wheels.  But it's also why you have Full Veto Power over any roll in the game. However, my rule is that you can't ditch or re-roll any element until after you have worked through the choices and found what actually is a stumbling block.

Since pushing boundaries is important though, I believe the best place to start is to glance over the worksheet to see where those most difficult spots will be, and then to really dig in and think about that.  Spend a little time to see if you can find a way to make the problems work for you.  You may not find it at once, though, so if you can't find a solution right off, look to the other elements to see if they have any hooks to help you out with this.

For example: The first roll I ever made with this game came up with an element I had thrown in to give myself trouble:  The heroine type came up "Secret Baby."  Ugh!  That element just does NOT click with me.  I don't empathize with the emotions involved in keeping a baby a secret.  However, when I'd rolled all the other items I found a hook into the concept that really worked for me.  The Theme was "self-sacrifice" and the hero type was "Mr. Perfect she runs away from." And a title words gave me "Hours of Need."  And the crime type was related to a clandestine affair.

All those elements pushed me to stick with the "secret baby" trope -- and so I pushed until I had a variation I could work with:  A young woman who runs away from Mr. Perfect because she has to take care of her dysfunctional family, a family where someone is always in their "hour of need."  The secret child is her wild younger sister's child -- and nobody knows who the father is.

And that gave me a character I could empathize with, so that story is on the shelf "in development" to actually write.

Fro this story, I'm going to start by thinking about the police procedural element:  How could I actually write a cop-centered story?  And even if I can't think of a hook that works for me up front, I'll keep a watch for options as I go through the rest of the items too.

My first thought is that two police characters doesn't a police procedural make.  I can make this a small town psychodrama (that is, a soap opera of the individuals in their personal lives, not about the police elements).  This is especially possible since the hero is the Mysterious Background Figure, so we don't have to be privy to his investigation.

I don't have to stick to that if I find another hook in the other elements, but as I look at my title words, I'm thinking there may be a hook that helps me along with this....

The Title Words

We've got no less than THREE music-oriented words in our title word choices: Melody, Guitar and Duet.  The rest are mostly evocative suspense or romance words which will work with the genre.  Great!  Unfortunately, after pausing to generate some titles with these words, I didn't come up with anything exciting.

My top three ideas were pretty simple combinations:  "Crossfire Duet," "Breathless Duet" or "Breathless Melody." But I'll hold out hope for something more resonant after I come up with the story.  (The Night Guitar, Keep to the Melody, Justice in the Night....)

But even if I don't have a title yet, the idea of "Music"gives me a hook into the subject of the story:  Instead of the story surrounding cop culture, it could be surrounding something to do with music.

The heroine could be a musician, the hero's undercover identity could be a musician.  The heroine's secret mission could be to clear the name of a musician friend/relative, or to find out what happened to a missing or dead musician friend/relative. Or she could be an investigative reporter, out to get the straight dope on a famous musician's dark past.  Or maybe there was a mishap covered up, when the "Singin' With The Stars" TV show came to town, and she's investigating.

The mystery/crime could surround a local night spot -- a tavern where there is live music or an open mic.  It could be the center of a local music community.  This could be a community of professional musicians, or just a community of enthusiastic fans.

So the hero and heroine could both be undercover as musicians, hanging out at this tavern.  And that fits with the "insider" theme.

Blackmail #3

Next problem: the villian is a cop who is being blackmailed, and the primary victim is the "third party" (the person the blackmailer threatens to tell), that's a tricky one.  That means the blackmailer is not the most relevant person.

Which means the blackmailer will be a red herring of one kind or another.  He or she could be someone killed before the story opens, which incites the story.  Or he could be a real Red Herring, in that he or she is lurking and doing suspicious things.  He could even be the hero: The heroine's investigation puts pressure on the situation, and that gives the hero an opportunity to put the screws to the badguy (behind the scenes).  This could take on a swashbucklery cloak-and-dagger aspect as the heroine is caught in a deadly game between these two men.

I think the key to this one, though, might be the Victim.

The crime we rolled, Blackmail #3, means that our villain's leading motive is to keep the information from the victim.  What could our cop villain want to keep from someone such that he's willing to become a full blown Suspense Villain over it?  And WHO might he want to keep things from?

This motivation doesn't have to stem from him being a cop.  It could be something completely personal.  However, seeing that he is in law enforcement, two obvious things come to mind: He's an elected official (sheriff) and he wants to keep politically unpleasant facts about himself from the public (with the Public being the victim). OR ... He helped cover up the death of a young music star during a local festival, and this person's mother or grandmother wants to know the truth.

I like the second because that gives our heroine an undercover assignment.  The grandmother asked her to look into it, or the heroine is a relative who is upset about her own grandmother's grief over a dead cousin.  They don't suspect the cop.  They suspect the other musicians. (Hence, the hero.)

Well.... that's a story concept right there.  But there's one more issue that itches at the collar...

What About That Hero?

If the hero is an undercover cop, what is he investigating?  Is he a member of the same department as the villain?  Does the villain know he's a cop?

The simple answer is that he's investigating the death too, for the same reason the heroine is.  (That does not satisfy me.  Too repetitive.)  Also, if this is a small town, it is unlikely that he's a member of the local police, because everybody would know the local cops.  So, if he's undercover, he's got to be a state trooper, or on a task force, or a fed.

And I'm thinking that he wouldn't be investigating a closed case that everybody thinks is an accident.  (And if this is a crime that has been successfully covered up, it needs to appear to be an accident.)  So I'm thinking he's investigating something else.  Something that will turn out to be what lead to the starlet's death.

And maybe, given that the theme is "insiders," the starlet was an outsider who discovered something, or an insider who wanted out -- maybe even someone who fought to become an insider, only to discover something she wanted no part of it.  And she was killed as a part of the cover up.

So she might be the blackmailer after all.

Furthermore, that means our heroine is unwittingly headed down the exact same path.

Now I think I have a story.

It's Never This Easy

I swear to you, none of my other rolls this far have gone this easily.  On the other hand, we haven't done an actual plot yet.  I don't know why the starlet was killed. (I may yet decide that she had an accidental overdose and there is some other non-conspiracy thing going on -- like a rich kid or drunk senator caused an accident.) I don't know what is going on with that tavern, who the people are.  They will be red herrings and helpers.

However, I am glad I changed the game from my first version, and I now hold back on dealing with red herrings and helpers until I get the story concept nailed down.  Creating them can go more smoothly once I know where the holes in the story are.

Other Problems

In the past I've often found I have to tweak the choices to find a story that works for me.  I might have to swap some characters, for instance.

For instance, in "Hours of Need" the villain rolled out as a young woman.  And I kept getting stuck on that. But when I swapped her with another character, that gave me the chance to create the concept about a younger sister with a chiild.  And in the current story I'm working on, "In Flight," I had to dump the title (secrets and journeys) and the theme isn't working out.  (The title words might make a good theme, though.) Also, I think I'm swapping some characters.

That actually happens a lot with a mystery.  It helps to create a twist.  You build a story on one person being the villain, but as you write, you realise this other innocent person also has a motive and could be a great twist.

The changes were good for the story but... with every element I dropped or changed, I did it only after I pulled a story idea together.  I changed them not because they bored me or I didn't like them, but because they got in the way of something good that was taking shape.

Creating More Wheels

One thing that I did with In Flight is make up some mini-wheels to help me move beyond blank spots.  For instance, the hero rolled out as the "Authority Figure - Non-Cop" type -- a guy who gets dragged into the story with her.

That option sounded like a great idea when I put it on the list, but once I was face-to-face with it, I realized that that was a difficult one to make work on a practical level.  But I wanted to make it work, so I had to break out of my "box" in my thinking.

So I broke it down, and came up with a list of kinds of authority figures it could be -- lawyers, trustees, estate managers, bosses -- and rolled a random choice from that. Came up with Boss.  Then, because I still had the issue of how he would be dragged into the story, I broke that down into different kinds of work/romance relationships. (Ones with a vibe I liked.)  He's secretly in love with her, she with him, both secretly with the other, neither notices the other, both hate the other.  Different kinds of bosses.  When I rolled it, I ended up with the kind of boss who barely knows she exists: the suit from the main office.

(I think I'll keep that wheel, by the way. It was a fun way to throw in more variations.)

After I finally decided those things, I was able to start playing with ideas of how he could be dragged into the story, and I decided that it was in his nature to get involved.  My imagination took off, and I realized the guy had a very interesting back story.

Moving from Concept to Story

Right now, I could take the concept of our musicians and cops and cover ups and make it a novelette, or a full novel.  I could make it serious or funny.  Though the hero is supposed to be a mysterious background figure, I could make it very romantic or more a mystery with a romance ending.

It will take another brainstorming session for me to get started.  I wouldn't have to do a whole plot before then...

However, I could also play this into a next game: a Potting Game.  Something like the one Erle Stanley Gardner created.

So over December, I'll be creating a new game, maybe even with Plot Wheels.  I might post one or two interim things in the meantime, but I don't expect to get to plot until January.

In the meantime, a lot of what I'll be doing with plot will come from the Movie-of-the-Week plot structure I talked about this summer.  You can check it out if you want to roll some stories and try outlining a plot.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Story Game Bonus: Theme

This is a bonus post for The Story Game.  It's long, and not fully proofed.  It's just that theme is a really big subject, so I wanted to go into it in more depth. But I also want to finish up the Situation Worksheet before Thanksgiving, so... here goes:

Theme is a very tricky thing -- a very personal thing.  For some people, it's best to not think about it at all and just let your readers discover it.  (This is why I have put the option, in the Story Game, of not using Theme, but using "Subject" or "Prompt" instead.)

Frankly, theme isn't something you impose on a story anyway -- it happens organically, and if you are the sort of person who does think about theme, odds are that you just discover it as you write.

And yet, I have found it incredibly useful in brainstorming.  It can work a lot like a prompt -- you take it up, play with it, if magic happens, you keep it.  If not you adjust it or discard it.  (Which is true of all the elements of this Story Game. We'll talk about that tomorrow when we get to the brainstorming phase.)

What Is Theme?

Theme is the larger subject that a story is about.  It's not a moral.  It's just a personal quality or emotion which the story explores.  In the end, the story may take a stance on it -- and that would be a "moral" -- but the theme is not that stance. It's just the subject of that stance.

It's really hard to write something without a theme.  It just sort of happens.  Usually, though, you can tell a story that has a stronger theme, becuase it ties together in a more satisfying way. Sometimes when the plot itself doesn't hang together too well, but the story seems to work anyway? That's because of theme.

And some genres have specific themes of their own which you write variations into.  Romance is always about finding that "happily ever after." Crime fiction explores justice (or lack thereof).  Within these big themes, the author will have his or her own themes, and a particular series may have it's own theme, and an indivicual story may have it's own variation.

So, for instance, while crime fiction might be about justice, a particular series might be about couples finding their happily-ever-after (mystery/romance), or about a damaged hero struggling to live up to his own standards (many hard-boiled and police procedurals), or about trusting in the genious of a miracle worker (Miss Marple, Sherlock Holmes, etc.), or it might be about the arrogance of crime (Columbo).  And the individual stories may be about self-sacrifice, or fear, or paying your dues.

And in every case, the theme is also about the opposite.  You can't write about fear without writing about courage.  You can't write about trust without writing about mistrust. (Some people place their trust in Miss Marple, but so many dismiss her as unable to deal with anything serious.)

That's why you shouldn't mistake a theme for a moral. It doesn't work if you limit it to the final lesson.  A theme works best when it's open.  When it's about reflections and shadows.  If your main character is afraid and needs to learn to be brave, it's perfectly okay if there's a subplot where someone is too brave and has to learn to be more cautious.

Just having those two things in a story -- like a mirror image -- creates resonance.  It's like harmony -- two notes that are different and yet they work together.  It doesn't even have to be obvious or overt. You don't have to force it.  Just the fact that you have several people dealing with fear and courage in different ways creates these little notes.

Probably the very best example of using other characters and little subplots for theme is Casablanca.  The theme of Casablanca is survival.  It was made at a time when the world had gone mad, and nobody was really sure any we would survive.  And we see dozens of characters responding in different ways -- some being selfish, some foolish, some brave. 

Casablanca makes a good example of how a story can have both a moral and theme -- and they are not the same: Througout the story, people perish or thrive at random.  People die for doing the right thing and for doing the wrong thing too.  The lesson here isn't about how to survive.  The lesson is that, in a world gone mad, nobody cares about your problems, and maybe you shouldn't either.  You have the option of giving up on survival and just doing the right thing.

It's interesting that the writers and actors and director did not know how this movie was going to end until they wrote the ending.  They had planned four different endings.  But as soon as they filmed the first one, they knew it was right.  And it was right because it gave meaning to the whole story that went before.

That's what theme does -- it ties everything together and gives meaning.

But that's why you can't really impose it, and often have to discvoer it.  (So tomorrow I'm going talk about how that works in the Story Game.)

In the meantime, I'll give you a tip to help you find the theme -- and lesson both -- of a story:

How Does It End?

When I was writing screenplays, I did a "Pitch Festival." That's where you go to an event where there are a whole bunch of execs and agents and such in a room, and you sign up to make 5-10 minute pitch meetings.  The bell rings, you run to your assigned spot, and start pitching, they ask some questions, you answer, then the bell rings again and you run off to the next one.

Some of these execs were very good at pulling they needed out of flustered authors.  One guy finished up each session with one simple question -- he said it was how he know the whole flavor of your story: what is the very last thing that happens, the very last image before the credits roll?

The story I was pitching that day was The Scenic Route -- a story about a pair of directionally challenged robbers who get lost on their getaway.  And when I say lost, I mean really really lost. By the end of the first act, they aren't sure what state they are in.  By the end of the story, they've lost everything - even their cool sunglasses, but they've gained some friends -- something they've never had -- and a kind of family, and the first rudimentary sense of responsiblity.

But they have a long way to go, and the only thing they know how to do is steal, so the end I gave the exec was that they steal a car to take care of their friends, and as they make their getaway, they turn the wrong way.  Ha ha.  Funny ending.

The exec liked it, but didn't ask for the script.

But his question bothered me.  I realized that the ending was wrong.  The whole schtick about making wrong turns isn't a joke.  It's a theme.  The story is, overtly, about characters who struggle to find their way morally as well as directionally.  These guys have no point of reference for either thing, except for each other.  They have no compass.  And that's the theme.  It's not about being lost and making wrong turns. It's about struggling to find your way with out a compass. Because they DO struggle.

Having Luther (who isn't usually the driver, but now he wants to drive because he wants to find his own way) make a wrong turn is not thematic.  It's just random.  Furthermore, because they'd gained some members to the gang who aren't directoinally challenged, they do now have a kind of compass.

So I changed the ending.

Luther does indeed turn right when he's told to turn left, but then we hear the voice of one of his new companions saying "Your other left!"  And we see the car stop and turn around.

Now, when I did that, it wasn't because I had thought of my theme in words.  It was more something I felt.  But feeling it did help me make a right choice.

Themes in The Story Game

Themes are incredibly personal.  I often find other people's theme choices to be incredibly dissatisfying.

Therefore, I recommend that you start your own theme list the way you should collect your own title words.  It can, however help to start with someone else's lists -- to give you an idea of the kind of thing you might use.

When I started this game, I used the Brainstormer randomizer to pick a theme.  Half of their choices don't make sense to me, so I usually keep spinning the wheel until I get something that does.

Here are a few of the words I use myself: Courage, Greed, Mentor/Pupil relationships, Fear, Self-Sacrifice, Indulgence, Growth, Darkness, Fire, Reflection, Twins, Celebration, Exhaustion, Desperation, Survival, Loss, Competition, Secrecy, Taste, Love of Life, Caretaking, Duty, Honor, Dullness, Shyness, Outsiders/Insiders, Barriers, Doorways, Inebriation, Amnesia, Self-Promotion, Self-Sacrifice, Pride, Lust, Steadfastness, Rot, Authority...

Taking the items that speak to you, maybe a few that challenge you, but leave the rest.  Fill it in with your own.

I tend to focus on things that affect the choices a character makes.  Personal qualities, relationships.  However, I sometimes throw in something I see that sparks my imagination. I also like to put in words that have multiple meanings. ("Darkness" in a suspense can mean dark moods, evil motivations, ignorance, and the actual darkness of night or a dungeon.)

In the end, it can be anything that evokes a response in you.  Tweak your list as you go.

Tomorrow we finally Play The GameWe'll put all the elements together and brainstorm a story concept out of it. 

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Artisan Writers - Rewarding Loyal Readers vs. Luring New Ones

This fall I've stumbled across two pricing strategies which are the reverse of the Common Wisdom.  They both make a great deal of sense to me.

The first one makes sense to everyone, actually: And author of a regularly published serial had a particular problem. The serial episodes were a little too short to sell for $2.99 each, but when anything is priced lower than that at Amazon, your royalty is cut in half. Furthermore, customers tend to avoid every price point below 2.99 except 99 cents. So she's making 1/6th of the income on those books at 99 cents than she would at 2.99.

She came up with the idea of pricing the episodes at 99 cents only when they first come out.  Then once there are three episodes out, she collects them into a larger volume, which she can price high enough to get the better royalty. Once the collection is available, she raises the price of those individual episodes to 1.99 -- which is a fair price for the length.

This rewards the loyal readers who buy the episodes as they come out.  It allows new readers to catch up with the whole story at a price that's still a bargain.  And people still have the choice of buying the individual eps if they want to.

Of course, this strategy was design specifically for a serial -- something with frequent new publication and an audience which needs to actually catch up with the story in order to follow it at all.

Then I came across a blog post about reversing the common wisdom in pricing, and I realize it is kind of a variation on this technique.

The Common Wisdom

Traditional publishing has always done something we call "windowing" with prices.  You release something as a high-priced hardback, and maybe even let people pay extra for a special pre-release version.  The idea is to reward those who are willing to pay the most by letting them have the book first.  Then you release lower cost versions later, one at a time, filtering through your audience.

The idea is to get the most money possible out of each price point.  People want to pay the lowest price will have to wait the longest just to be sure that you got more money out of those ahead of them.

The problem with this is that it actually doesn't reward those loyal, eager, first readers -- it punishes them.  It rewards the people who don't care so much about your work.

Which is okay.  I mean this strategy works.  The people most eager and loyal want to support you.  The other folks feel good getting a bargain.

And yet, when readers acknowledge this strategy and talk about it, they often say they feel used by it.  They accept it, but it feels manipulative.

First Book Free

The other common strategy is what my friend calls the "first rock of crack is free" -- the idea that most of your books are at the full price you think is fair, but the first book in a series is free.

The idea here is that you can lure in new readers with a free book.  Once they're hooked they will pay for your other books.  The fact that it's your oldest book makes it a variation on the "windowing" that other publishers do -- except no manipulation where your most eager readers pay more than your new readers.

This strategy rewards those who are willing to experiment.  But it does depend on having a large number of books in a series.  If you're giving your first book away free, permanently, then you need to have enough other books to make up for the income lost.

But the real down side of this strategy is that you are luring people in with your first book (or the first in a series): and your first book is likely to be your worst book.  You'll be more experienced, and have a better idea of what is most fun about your series later on.

Also, this strategy doesn't reward your loyal readers any.  They've already bought and read your first book.

Reverse Windowing

The idea here -- as proposed by Ed Robertson in his blog post -- is that you release every new book at a lower price: a bargain price. Then raise it to the price that you've set for the long term.  This sounds kinda like the "Free First Book" strategy, except with this strategy, it won't be the first book at the lowest price, it will be the latest book. Your first book will be at full price.

There are several reasons why this might be a good idea.  The Ed mentioned that it would give your first couple weeks of sales a bump and work the algorithms, and get you reviews, etc.  And those are good reasons.

However, too me, the very best reasons for doing this are these:

*It rewards your most loyal readers.  They're the ones who will buy right away.  Getting a deal on the book they've been waiting on will only make them happier, and all that much more eager for your next release.  Happiness will make them happier to talk about your book too.  More word-of-mouth. More reviews.

*It lures new readers to your most recent book.  Of all the books you've written, your latest book is the one you wrote with the most experience and understanding. It's likely to be the best book you've written so far.  Furthermore, it's going to be only book of yours that's on the "new books" list.  That old backlist book is not going to get on a "New and Hot Releases" list.  So why not have an alluring price on the book for the short time it's got that exposure?  Readers who look closer will notice that the price is discounted over the past books.

Plus you can combine this with your "Free First Book" strategy!

Your latest book is discounted, and it gets attention.  The new customer looks for your first book, and, hey, it's free! (Or also discounted.)  So they buy it.  Or maybe they buy both -- especially if they believe that your latest book is on special.

Loyal Readers Vs. New Readers

Word of mouth is important for all writers, but I think it's especially important for the artisan writer, and extra-especially for those who really are taking a path less traveled.  Reader loyalty and enthusiasm is something you have to build over time.

The best way to build it is to produce books they love on a regular schedule, but for some of us, our imaginations don't cooperate with that.  So it's best to reward them in every way you can.

This is one of the reasons I put off my experiment in higher prices. I'm waiting until I have enough books in a series so that I can use this "lower price on latest book" to reward my existing readers.  When I have that, I will raise the prices on my backlist -- the books they've already read.

Now, I can potentially use the strategy that serial writer uses -- raising the prices on short individual works after they are made available in a bundle for a bargain price.  You don't have to have a whole serial for that.  One more Mick and Casey novelette and I can bundle the trilogy.

I think this is also something to consider for those authors who have been selling at super low prices for a long time, and maybe want to start raising prices: both of those strategies are a good way to change your prices without punishing your customers or creating sticker shock.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Update - Using Art To Entice Readers

This week has been full of ups and downs on the personal front, but lots of creative stuff going on.  I'm still mostly on a visual kick, which I'll talk about below.  But first, what's coming up:

This week on the blog,

Monday: Rewarding Loyal Readers vs. Luring New Ones. I'll talk about a pricing strategy which flies in the face of common wisdom, but it sure makes a lot of sense to me -- at least in some circumstances.  I think it particularly makes sense for less commercial writers.

Thursday: A Bonus Story Game Post: Theme and Subject. This will be relatively short, but I want to pay full attention to this before I get to "putting it all together" with the Friday post. 

Friday, The Story Game: Putting it All Together.  We'll put all the pieces of the Situation Worksheet together, and talk about brainstorming from it.

In the meantime, an epiphany about art and images and feeding the readers....

Enticing Readers With Art

I'm finally getting my drawing skills back to the point where I feel I can do some illustration.  (What you've mostly seen from me, other than the occasional photo replication, is design, not illustration.)  I have a long way to go before I get where I want to be, but I have reached my minimum requirements.  Call it the "pre-professional" level; a level at which I feel comfortable showing off, but not ready to use my illustration skills in creating book covers or the like.

What I need to get to the next level is lots and lots of practice.

AND... I had an interesting epiphany on Twitter the other day.

I've noticed that a lot of people have taken to putting quotes on images and tweeting those images lately. Usually this is a picture and quote from some wise historical figure, a quote from a comedian, or a more outspoken political figure, or a mouthy cat.  They do this because people like pictures, but also because they aren't limited to 140 characters when it's on a picture.

The other thing that has been on my mind is that I've wanted to do more artwork for Twitter and Tumblr in general. Images are popular on both services and I'd like to start posting some illustrations there.

And, I mean, those poor writers who aren't artists can only post quotes from their stories, and they're limited to 140 characters or an image full of text.... wait.  Oh!

Then it hit me: I could create illustrations as if for the book, but post them with quotes.  Best of both worlds!

I personally really really like this idea, in spite of the fact that it is incredibly labor-intensive and not likely to gain me much.  However what it will gain me is something I was going for anyway: improved illustration skills.  And it might get people interested in my stories.

I've started already with The Man Who Did Too Much.  Here is a mostly finished one from the opening page. (It doesn't really look like George as I imagine him -- but it doesn't NOT look like George either.)  

Now here is the interesting thing: MW is close to the least suitable subjects for illustration.  It's a mystery, and though there is some action, it mostly involves static scenes of people talking and thinking.

So why did I start with it?

It's the quotes.

If the purpose is to illustrate the quotes (as opposed to having illustrations in a book), then this book immediately had a bunch of things that came to mind.  It can also be hard to quickly communicate the tone of this book.  With these characters, it's much more fun to show than tell.

So I've come to the conclusion that this is why all those old-time books had so many illustrations of people standing around and talking: they were there for the quotes that appeared with the illustrations.

And so often, that's what works about a great cartoon too: the image and the words come together and make something greater than each are separately.

I didn't quite fully realize that at first, though, and I went through the book, picking out sufficiently visual moments to illustrate -- and I found at least two per chapters.  Good.  But when I went hunting for quotes... I found even more.

The problem?  There are 32 chapters in that book.  With an average of three illos I want to do for each of them, that's almost 100 pictures.  Pictures which take hours to do.  And as I am practicing and learning, I'd like to do some of them over in a couple of different styles.  Futhermore, I would like to do illos for my other books too.  Also, I'd like to WRITE some other books.

This is looking less and less like a good idea.

So, I'm all for it!

(At least until I get tired of it.  We're chasing enthusiasm, after all.)

An unfinished sketch from the end of Chapter 1.

The goal for now is to write during the day, when I'm at my standing desk and it's harder to draw.  But then in the evening, I will put on some music or audio books or TV shows and start drawing, and draw until I'm bleery-eyed.

When the bloom is off the rose on doing that, I'm going to start putting 15-minute writing sprints in between drawing sessions.  Also, I'll be looking to find a stand up drafting desk that will work for digital art. (Need a place to put the small laptop that doesn't put the screen too far away, while still letting the tablet sit on a slanted surface at the right height.)

The creative goals for this Illustration Project are as follows:

*Use The Man Who Did Too Much to practice creating and rendering characters in the classic illustration style: four more elaborate illustrations (perhaps in color) as in the old days when there were four "plates" in an illustrated book; and 12-32 ink and wash or pencil drawings, which would be like the illos you find at the heads of chapters or embedded in the text.

*Also do some more abstract decorative style images -- for that or other books -- of the sort you might find in illustrated caps, or in the footer or header of any chapter.

*Since I plan to layout paper copies of my other books over summer, I have set the beginning of June 2014 as the time to assess whether I am ready to incorporate any of this into paper books.  And which books and how many illos and what type.

And I hope that before then I will have pushed my skills to the point where I can make use of them in cover design.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Story Game: Titles and Title Words

Just to review what we're doing with these Friday Story Game postings: We're creating a game for brainstorming a pretty detailed story idea and plot.  It's actually a set of little games or exercises which can be used together or separately.  The first step is to create the game itself to suit the kind of story you want to tell.

We're creating a specific kind of "Woman in Jeopardy" type Romantic Suspense story as an example.  You can have fun with this game as is, or adapt it to suit whatever kind of story you want to tell.

Last week we talked about the Villain and the Crime that drives the story -- which finishes up our Character Structure.  Now we're going to talk about a couple of things that will tie the various ideas together -- in particular, the Title.

What's In A Name?

A title can just be a tag we put on a story to identify it.  And sometimes we don't name a story until last -- after it's written and we've discovered what the story is like.  And that's fine.  As far as this Story Game is concerned, we're coming up with a working title, or even just title words, to help with the idea generation, but the final title will probably change.

All the same: In my opinion, title is the single most important element of a story.

It's more important than the cover.  More important than the first line.

Actually, the title IS the first line.

It's the very first text anyone sees of the story. And it may be the first or only thing they will see of the story.  Think about it: when people talk about the book to their friends, they don't draw a picture of the cover.  On a blog or a forum, most of the time they'll only mention title and author.  Only when they are writing more formally do they go to the trouble to post a cover.

People say the cover is the thing that gets people to look at the blurb, but very often the title is the thing that gets them to look at the cover.

And even when you see the cover of a book, the most prominent thing (especially at thumbnail size) is usually... the title.

Titles Can Sell a Story

Sometimes a spectacular title will sell the book all by itself.  I often like to say that my thriller play, Slayer of Clocks, played to sold out audiences at the Discovering New Mysteries drama festival... but I'll be honest, the reason they were sold out had nothing to do with how good it was.

When they reserved their tickets, the attendees knew nothing about my play except the title.  It had the same cast as all the other radio dramas at the festival, so it wasn't like there was a star attracting them.  And my name meant nothing at all to them.  There was no preview, no word-of-mouth.  No cover or poster.  Just a title.

But it was a cool title. Slayer of Clocks.

This title refers to the way the antagonist sarcastically signs his name. (People think he's crazy ever since his boss found him crouched in his driveway, in a dirty bathrobe, whaling away at a clock with a hammer.  It was just therapy, but he will never live it down, so he plays to it.)

In this case, the title didn't come before the story: I came up with Milo Banks and his time-killing activities before I came up with the title.  (You could say he came up with the title for me.)  If I'd come up with the title first, I doubt if it would have lead to Milo -- but I think it would have lead to an interesting story. 

A cool title raises my interest as a writer the same way it raises the interest of the reader -- and so starting with a title is a way to make sure we pay off on that anticipation.

Another reason I think titles are so important for selling a story: I've noticed a pattern in the successful writers who particularly adhere to the adage "the best promotion or one book is another book" tend to be good at titles.  In particular I'm talking about those who don't stick to one genre and don't market or promote -- they just write and write and write.  These authors tend to be good at titles.

And I've noticed that those who make a living at short fiction (aside from erotica writers) tend to be those who write magnificent titles.

This makes complete sense: Glance down a page of tweets or a list of books or any page of text, and you'll find that an interesting, provocative or evocative title will grab your attention.  It doesn't just work for blog posts. It works for books too.

So learning to create a great title is a really important skill.  If you don't play any other part of this game, playing games with titles will be useful to you.  Make it a hobby.  Make it a passion.  Get good at it.

Playing the Title Game

There are lots of games and exercises you can do with titles, but here are three common ones:

1.) Half-Titles: Dean Wesley Smith -- one of those people who does well by just writing stories -- often generates his stories from titles. He has lists of "half-titles" he's gleaned from pulp magazines and he puts two halves together to make a new whole.  Then writes a story to suit the title.

2.) Chapter Titles: on a similar note, I like to collect the Table of Contents of old books from Project Gutenberg.  These titles were written as teasers to keep people reading their way through the story, but they can also make provocative titles for a full story.  Sometimes they're weird or old-fashioned, sometimes ordinary but still evocative:  "Beggars Under the Bush" "Uncle Dick's Plan" "Picq Plays the Hero" "A Whisper From Afar" "A Strange Teasure" "The Warning"

Someday I want to take one of these old books, and write a flash or microfiction story to suit each title in the table of contents -- and publish them as a collection.

3.) Random Words:  Some people will use a dictionary or a book or some online "word generator" to come up with a couple of random words.  This often works better as a writing prompt  than as a title generator.  I mean, if the words are truly random, they are often boring.

But the concept is good, and since this Friday Story Game is about random choices, I have come up with an enhanced version of this random words game to use with The Situation Worksheet.

And it's a method I recommend you use for your real writing and titles.  But it takes a little work:

Your Personal Word Collection

Start collecting evocative words.  I look anywhere for them, but the best place to start is with lists of your favorite books.  And if you want to write commercial fiction in a particular genre, start with the best seller lists for that genre.

But go further than that.  You want your title to stand out.  You want your title to evoke something curious.  So collect some from other sources -- titles of other genres, old books, poems, non-fiction.  I've even collected them from my Twitter feed. (I just scanned through what was currently on my screen and grabbed up any words or phrases that sounded interesting.)

Collect these words and phrases, and keep them in a numbered list.  I keep them in a spread sheet so I can sort them alphabetically -- and thereby spot any duplicates.  (I have over a thousand.)  The row numbers work just fine for numbering the list, so I can use a random number generator to pick them at random.

Also, one more thing to do while you're collecting the words: Pay attention to patterns.  Are one-word titles in vogue with your genre right now?  Names, phrases, adjectives, verbs, nouns.  Pay attention to what sounds like a title in your genre.

Creating A Title For the Game

As I said above, the title I generate in the game isn't necessarily the title I'll end up with.  However, I think it's worth putting in a  little extra effort here -- if only to practice coming up with great titles.

For this game, randomly select ten words from your word list. Of these ten, you'll find that some of them are boring or don't match up in any interesting way with some of the things you rolled for the characters. But you should be able to choose a couple of words that evoke the right feeling.

Choose three (even if there aren't three good prospects -- pick the three best).  You can mess around with them. Change the tense and such. ("Fly" can by "Flying" or "Flyer" for instance -- but try to come up with something good for the original form of the word.)

Sit down and brainstorm as many variations as you can think of with the words individually or together.  Say your words were "fly," "dark" and "flame."

You'd start writing down: Flying though Darkness; Dark Flyer; Flame Flyer; Flight of Fire; Dark Flames; Fly to the Light; Fly in the Flames; etc.

You might even find yourself going a bit afield of the words -- that's okay.  Just keep pushing it.  Come up with a page of ideas.  If everything seems boring or doesn't evoke the feel you want, pull in one of the other words of the ten you rolled.

And if you just don't come up with anything that works, don't sweat it.  Just put in the three original words in the slot for "title" and move on to the brainstorming phase.  You can change the title, or you might find that the words help you form a story which has a more obvious title.

Sometimes I'll play a Title Generation Game outside of this bigger story game. If I do that, I'll only pick 1-3 words, and I have to stick with them.  And I'll see how far I can push it.  Come up with a crazy number of titles. Then when I'm done, I'll keep the best ones, and throw the rest away.

Next Week - Theme and Subject

These are the last items for the Situation Worksheet.  Then we'll take a break for Thanksgiving Weekend, but during December I'll talk about putting it all together -- maybe talk about the story "In Flight" that I'm writing from the game -- and maybe have a look at the Character structure of some Audrey Hepburn movies (Wait Until Dark and Charade).

Then in January, we'll talk about actual plotting games.

See you in the funny papers.

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Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Game Generated Story and Cover Draft

Last week I did a test run on The Story Game, and I have been fiddling with a story entirely generated by it.

It looks like it's going to be a novella.  It's hard to tell because I've been writing awfully bare bones prose. (When I rewrite it gets longer.)  I'm probably going to publish it under a pen name -- not a secret name, just one for this particular genre.  I'll talk about that later.

Tonight, I did the first work on a cover.  I like where it's going. The main work I'll do yet is on the figures -- which I'd like to make more abstract and "graphics" style, and less cartoony. I don't know if they will match the texture of the cliff or or be flat and dark. (Maybe the texture but with color saturation dropped down so they look blacker.)

Also, I don't know if "Vera Avrila" will be my pen name.  I am fond of the typographical possibilities of As and Vs.  (I will undoubtedly play with the typography a lot more, too.  I might use a casual font rather than the good old "move poster font" Trajan.)

I don't have a simple logline yet. Here is the blathery version of the pitch:

When she was seven years old, Lee Lee (Lily) White shoved her father over a cliff.  She didn't meant to hurt him. She was only protecting her step-mother from his erratic anger.

That night, she and her step-mother fled, shutting out the past and establishing a new life.

Twenty years later, Lee Lee has become Angela, a young woman with a life and job she likes, her past catches up with her as a relative walks in the door at work.  She prepares to flee again, to protect her beloved step-mother, the woman who loved and raised her who will be charged with kidnapping at the very least if caught.

But she can't help but want to know more about the family she can't remember, and why her step-mother really fled that night, and why the official story of her father's death is so very different from what she remembers that night.

Pursued by her own demons and mysterious figures, as well as by her good-looking and persistent boss (who may or may not want to fire her) she realizes she has to go home and face that cliff, and the truth of what happened that night.

I'll tell you more about how I used the game to come up with this story later.  Tomorrow, we'll get to generating titles and themes and subjects for the game story.  Though that is often the most important part of the generation for me, I have already abandoned my original title words for this.  The original title words were "Secret" and "Journey."  These did contribute to the generation of the idea, but I decided that "In Flight" was a better title.  I'm not sure the theme is going to survive either. (Though it might -- it's there under the surface. It's about generosity.)

Anyway, I'll talk about that stuff later.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sunday Update: Ghosts

En descendant la Rue St-Jean, J'ai rencontré mon père....

It was three years ago today that my father died.  It's funny, but since he died the song "La Rue St-Jean" by Gilles Vigneault had haunted me.  I don't speak French well enough (and certainly don't hear Québeqois well enough) to really understand the words.

But as I listen closer, I think it's about exactly what it means to me personally.

Plains of Abraham, not far from La Rue St-Jean, 1967
The Rue St-Jean is the oldest street in Québec City.  It's an active busy popular street, and a place where people meet.  But it's also an historic street where the past meets the present.  And Gilles Vigneault is a poet whose songs are always filled with metaphor and meaning about Québec and its people and history.

In this case the first line is; "On walking down the Rue St-Jean, I met my father again.  He was walking along his dirt road and I was walking on a cement road...."  The narrator raises his hand to stop and talk, but his father doesn't see him.  Later in the song he uses phrases like "each his own time/age". He talks about running into other people who seem to be there at a different time: an old lover with an umbrella as though she's there on a rainy day, even though it's a fair day.  And he sings about how the road remains when the people have worn out.

I'm pretty sure this is a song about ghosts.  Real ghosts, ghosts of memory.  Which is kinda how it felt to me even before I looked beyond that first line.

I'd like to wave and get my dad to stop and tell me what the rest of the words mean.

But he doesn't see me.

So he keeps going on his chemin de terre....

("La Rue St-Jean" on YouTube)

On a less melancholy note: What I'm Up To

I haven't kept up on the blogging goal.  Well, I guess I sorta did. I wrote a bunch of blog posts.  Unfortunately, they were mostly the same post, over and over again.  I kept pitching it out and trying again, thinking "This time for sure!" like Bullwinkle.

And like Bullwinkle, I'm thinking maybe I need to get another hat.

Specifically, I think I've lost my enthusiasm for all the wrangling that is going on in the self-publishing community.  In particular, I thought I was going to have something profound to say about the sudden controversy about whether "Write More" is good advice or bad.  But instead, I'm finding that such overblown, irrational debates really just annoy me.

All I really want to say is to quote William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything."  (And then add: "So chill out, will ya?")

So there may or may not be an Artisan Writers post on Monday.  That may go on hiatus for a while.  Instead I might start up with the Tuesday Passion Posts again.  Not a long series, but I have a number of topics I want to talk about.

*French Scenes -- a different way of looking at how to define scenes: doing it in terms of character dynamics.  This is actually how I "beat out" a sequence or chapter before writing (when I feel the need to). It's more about entrances and exits than locations.

*A look back at half-forgotten books (ghosts of books, if you will) that I'd like to capture some tropes from and maybe create my own genre to play with. (Or "series" for you genre puritans.) Think of this, right now, as the Nostalgia Project.

I don't know if I'll post about either of these this week. I'll probably wait until I have posts in hand.

I'm also back to writing fiction.  Just now I'm playing with a story I generated purely from the game this week.  (Part of my interest in French Scenes is because that's what I was doing today.)  I think it's going to be a novella.  Although I rolled the words "Secret" and "Journey" -- which led partly to developing the story, the working title is now "In Flight."

Youl could say there are ghosts in that story, since it is about a heroine who is haunted by very dimly remembered events of her early childhood.

And More Ghosts

In the meantime, I just finished listening to the audio podcast of The Uninvited on Forgotten Classics. (The link it to the library of all past episodes.  The Uninvited starts around #98.) It's a classic ghost story (not a horror story).  It was made into a great movie, but I think the book is even better.

I'm now listening to some Edith Nesbit stories from Librivox. (Right now: The Railway Children.)  This seems to fit into my Nostalgia Project, since I'm reallyu interested right now in children (or innocents) on Journeys and in Changed Life Circumstances

I listen to these while I draw. It's a good excuse to do art on a specific schedule -- maybe an hour to an hour and a half a day.  I've been doing a lot of individual parts of artworks -- figures running, ornamental dingbats, "clip art" sorts of things -- but not that much on finished art works. I'm going to work a little on my fine art too now.  I want to expand my options on how things look.

This week, I might post something any or every day -- or I might just post on the Friday Story Game.  In any case....

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Story Game: The Villain and Crime Wheels

Just to review what we're doing with these Friday Story Game postings: We're creating a game for brainstorming a pretty detailed story idea and plot.  It's actually a set of little games or exercises which can be used together or separately.  The first step is to create the game itself to suit the kind of story you want to tell.

We're creating a specific kind of "Woman in Jeopardy" type Romantic Suspense story as an example.  You can have fun with this game as is, or adapt it to suit whatever kind of story you want to tell.

Last week we created the random choice Heroine and Hero Character Wheels of our little game story.  This week we're going to talk about the key attributes of the Villain -- his disguise -- and the crime that drives the story.  (And also a little about the Victim, Helper and Red Herring characters.)

Villain's Cover Identity

One of the first things I noticed when I started reading romantic suspense is that the killer appears harmless and maybe even likeable and is the person the heroine confides in.  And for this reason, at least on the romance end of the spectrum, it's not at all hard to spot the villain. Sometimes he's the only other character than the hero.

But as I mentioned yesterday, in any kind of suspense (romance or not) the audience may well know who the bad guy is up front.  There will always be twists and secrets and surprises, but a suspense story isn't the same as a whodunnit. (Although they can overlap.)

However, suspense almost always hinges on the heroine not knowing who to trust.  At some point she will trust the wrong person, and not trust the right person.  And, IMHO, the strength of the story will rest on how much we agree with her motives for trusting and not trusting.

Furthermore, since this formula I'm writing is based on my own preferences within the genre, I gotta admit I'm partial to mystery.  I don't mind that the puzzle doesn't drive the story, and that the protagonist may be too busy running for her life to run a cold and logical investigation.  But I like it when I can be mentally flipping through the suspects and possibilities while the heroine is busy with  more urgent matters.

Therefore, I like the villain to be in disguise, even to me.

The Villain's Disguise

The key to the villain in this kind of story is that he/she blends in with the other character types.  In pure suspense, he could even be the romantic lead.  However, romance readers seem to dislike it when a woman is truly torn between two lovers, therefore the villain or any other romantic rival should  never be a real contender for her love, even if he does earn her real sympathy, friendship or general affection.

And because the killer is disguised as one of the other types of players, his wheel can be like a "Wheel of Other Characters."  Or if you were a writing a straight mystery a "Wheel of Suspects."

I am currently not happy with my villain list.  However whenever I run through the game, I never get stuck on the villain, so I guess it's good enough.  I might also roll the sex and age of the character if it is not defined in the item.

1. Woman (older mentor or helper type)
2. Woman (same age pal from school, college, childhood, coworker)
3. Woman (rival)
4. Non-romantic Guy Pal (gay)
5. Non-romantic Guy Pal (mentor)
6. Non-romantic Guy Pal (relative)
7. Romantic interest (flawed ex-boyfriend or husband)
8. Romantic interest (too perfect)
9. Romantic interest (poor schlub she'd like to dump but she doesn't want to hurt feelings.
10. Romantic interest (charming cad she knows better than to get tangled with)
11. Authority figure (boss or landlord)
12. Authority figure (cop)
13. Authority figure (town leader)
14. Apparently unconnected person (neighbor)
15. Apparently unconnected person (worker - cable guy, secretary, butler, lawyer)

The Victim -- and The Nature of the Crime

In a suspense story, the crime might not be murder.  There may be no intension of killing the victim.  Or the victim could be someone killed before the story starts.  The victim may even be the most boring character in the story. She's kind of a MacGuffin: she drives the motive but doesn't have to matter to the story or audience.  I call her she, because in my mind, the symbolic character for her is the wealthy dowager who can be tricked into signing over her bank account, or murdered for inheritance, or whom the villain has been sucking up to, and desperately doesn't want her to learn of his sordid past.

So I guess you could say that the victim is actually defined by the nature of the crime that drives the story.  Just as the Heroine is defined by what makes her vulnerable, and the hero by what keeps the heroine from trusting him, and the villain by his disguise.

Some crimes have multiple victims, so even if you spin the wheel and pick randomly, you may still have to decide which is the primary victim.  For instance in the scenario above:

A Gigolo is sucking up to the Wealthy Dowager, and is blackmailed.  You could make the blackmailer the villain, and the Gigolo the victim.  Or you could make the Gigolo the villain and if he kills the blackmailer, both the Blackmailer and the Dowager are the victims.  In that case I might prefer the Dowager as a victim -- because she's an ongoing victim. But in some stories the murdered blackmailer might be the prominent character -- someone close to the heroine.  And there is always the possibility that the Dowager herself is much more aware of what is going on, and she is the villain herself.  She might want to kill the blackmailer because she wants the gigolo to keep paying attention to her. (Agatha Christie was always good at pulling that twist off.)

So you could say that any blackmail plot is going to be defined by which of the three characters (the blackmailer, the blackmailee and the third party the secret is kept from) is the villain, and which is the primary victim.

I like blackmail as a crime for a suspense story, so I am going to break it down into several options so it has a better chance of being chosen.

So without further ado, here is my list for the "Nature of the Crime Wheel"

1. Blackmail (Blackmailer is the victim)
2. Blackmail (Blackmailer is the villain, blackmailee is the victim)
3. Blackmail (Blackmailee is the villain, third party is the victim.)
4. Blackmail (Third party is the villain, manipulating the blackmailer and blackmailee)
5. Fraud
6. Embezzlement
7. False Identity
8. Faked Will
9. Faked Death
10. Long term secret jealousy or passion
11. Bigamy
12. Smuggling
13. Forgery
14. Money Laundering
15. Professional Fixer (cover ups for drunk driving Senators, etc.)
16. Assassination
17. Long Term Love Affaire with Consequences
18. Protector of Reputation of famous figure
19. Kidnapped or Abandoned Child Returns
20. A Family Preserves Its Honor (keeping secrets in the midst of strife)
21. Hidden Loss of Family Fortune
22. Gaslight - Driving someone crazy to cover a search for hidden loot
23. Scooby-Doo (Campaign of harrassment to get someone to sell property.)
24. Competition for Hand of Heiress
25. Competition for Local Honors (Texas Cheerleading Mom, Top Churchlady, etc.)
26. Dirty Local Politics

Secondary Characters - Helpers and Red Herrings

If you wanted to completely automate the creation of this story, you could reuse the villain wheel to create the remaining characters. (After all, he's supposed to blend in with them.)  The question is.... should you?

I think you shouldn't.  Or at least not until later.  That's becuase, by the time you get done with all of these choices, you're going to have almost too much to to work with.  You're probably going to want to veto some of your more important choices. (We'll get to that in two weeks when we get to playing the game.)

With some stories, once you have those four basic characters (Heroine, Hero, Victim, Villain) and the theme/title idea starter, the additional characters may be obvious.  You will want to just fill them in.

Or sometimes you find that the main four characters completely cover the roles by themselves.  After all, the victim can be a helper or even a red herring, the heroine or hero can be victims, the hero can be a red herring, etc.

So you might roll the age and sex of these characters (along with the victim and villain), but hold them in reserve.  Then during brainstorming, if you find yourself in need of a new kick during brainstorming, roll these other "spare" characters.  Use the villain wheel, or if you want to, create a new wheel that suits the story.

Here are some thoughts on these last two character types to help you think about htis.


The helper character is incredibly important to the suspense story, for two reasons.  One is that the killer may disguise himself as a helper, so always having a good helper around gives more options to twist the story.

The helper doesn't have to be likeable.  The protagonist is isolated, so it's best not to give her a sidekick.  That's her problem -- she is on her own.  So if the helper is a grumpy neighbor who gives her constant shit about the condition of her yard, or the churchlady who firmly disapproves of her in every interaction, that's only for the good.

The helper is a bit of a utility player.  She (let's go with the churchlady) can be a gossip who can be counted on for good information.  She can be counted on to stick her nose in and hamper the villain at a key moment.  She can be a cop, or call the cops, when you need the cavalry.  She can provide shelter from the storm when your character is at wits end.  And she can be a secondary victim.  She can even be the main victim.

You might find, after you get the characters and story concept all worked out, that you can swap the helper with the villain for one more twist.

Red Herring

While the Helper is a bit of a utility player, the Red Herring is fully a utility character.  Basically, this character can be a second version of any of the characters as needed.  He can be a love-besotted swain who persues the heroine through rain and snow and sleet and a hail of bullets.  She could be the blackmailer who gets killed.  A sneaky sidekick.  The rival for the hero's affection.  Or a secondary helper who provides confirmation (or disproof) of key information.

Unless you're writing a full-blown whodunnit, though, this character is likely to be a bit player or maybe a sidekick to one of the others.  You may not even need this character at all. 

Next Week: Title and Title Words

Okay, next week we'll deal with the remaining two items on the situation sheet: Title and Theme.  I held them until last because they are simple, but also because they are fun.   The truth is, it's really common to use titles and themes or subjects as writing prompts.  And, imho, you could substitute any other kind of writing prompt for these items and come out the same.

Then in two weeks, I'm going to put it all together with a  post about the brainstorming stage.  I have played around with this, but I decided this week to actually formally roll a story, and see it through -- maybe a half-hour to an hour a day -- as a test run.  I'm dating the notes as I brainstorm, and I'll see if anything interesting comes of it.  I might post the development of the story -- spoilers and all.

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Few Words About Suspense

In the Friday "Story Game" posts, I'm talking about a particular kind of formulaic romantic suspense.  And this Friday -- tomorrow -- we're going to talk about an important character: The Villain.

But while I was writing that post, I found myself going off on a tangent as I talked about fact that the heroine will trust the villain at the wrong time.

There is a choice that you have to make with suspense: is the villain's identity as secret from the audience?

Suspense is not a whodunnit.  It's perfectly permissible to show the audience who the bad guy is.  This actually is a great tool for raising the tension: Suspense is always about what the audience knows, not what they don't.  You'll notice that in many Hitchcock movies you know who the bad guy is.

The problem with letting your audience know more than your character is that the audience will then hold the character to a higher standard.  They will be less forgiving if the character does something foolish.  Heck, they may not even forgive her for doing something smart: sometimes they feel that if they know the truth, she should have figured it out.

(At the same time, the audience does get a little satisfaction from being smarter than the heroine -- so the more they know, the smarter you need to make your heroine.  Because there is no point in feeling superior to a twit.)

When you have an audience who knows too much (because you needed them to know for some other element of suspense) one great trick is to make them anticipate something, and then have something else happen.

This is something that we've seen in comedy since the dawn of time:  There's a clown having a bad day.  There's a pie.  The pie is going to get thrown: the audience knows this for a fact.  Then the policeman arrives.  Oh, crap, the clown is going to throw the pie at the cop and get arrested.  Yep, there, he picks up the pie.  He turns, and lets loose... just as the cop bends down to look at the license plate of the car or something.  The pie sails past and hits someone else.  That person thinks the cop threw the pie. Now the cop is in trouble and the clown isn't.

(Edit to add: Actually, now that I think about it, the best twist is when you expect the pie to be thrown and someone sits on it instead.)

You can do this in a non-comedy too.  Hitchcock did it all the time.  And here is the irony of it all: One of the best ways to get the audience to trust you as a storyteller is to trick them like this.

If you raise the specter of inevitability, and then give them something unexpected, they will love you.  Because they want to anticipate and feel smart, but they don't want to be bored.  And it doesn't matter whether the unexpected thing is a relief or something that makes the tension tighter.

Except for one thing: the audience has to know how far to guard their feelings. So if you lead the audience to believe that you will, ultimately, save the puppy, then you can't pull a switch on that one.  You can never let the puppy die.  If you want to pull a surprise on them because you think they are expecting the puppy to be saved, then you can only go two ways: have the puppy saved in a surprising way (for instance, the villain decides he loves the puppy), or make the puppy suddenly much harder to save.  But he will have to be saved by the end.

Meanwhile, in tomorrows Story Game post, we'll create our randomized choices -- our story wheels -- for the villain's cover identity, and for the nature of the crime or plot that drives the story.  We'll also talk about the secondary characters: the victim, the helper and the red herring.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Artisan Writers: The Indie Shake Up, Pt 2

Last week I posted, in response to some other blog posts, some thoughts on how we seem to be moving into another phase of change in publishing, one that affects Indie Writers. (The Indie Shake Up, Pt. 1)

I want to emphasize something from last week's post: While I see this as a widespread continuation of the "sea change" that hit publishing with the advent of viable self-publishing, I don't see this is a burst bubble or even a major issue for most indie writers.  What we're seeing is a maturing of the systems, so there aren't so many "get rich quick" cracks to exploit.

And I hope it doesn't sound like I blame those who have suffered a bigger loss recently for their own problems: Their only fault, if they have one at all, is if they thought things wouldn't change and they didn't leave themselves an out.  Quite frankly, most of the writers I'm going to talk about below, didn't think it was going to last forever (though they might have hoped), and they aren't just sitting around crying "woe is me" -- they're scrambling to rebuild other options they may have let lag.

I also apologize if this post comes out a bit rambling -- I see things changing around me pretty fast, and my points kept changing on me too.

Is There An Indie Shake Up?

I'm not 100 percent sure we're actually seeing a shake up so much as we're seeing people's perceptions and expectations are adjusting to the realities of life.  When we start out on something new, we look forward, make our best guess as to what we are getting ourselves into, and then jump in.  Our first guess is always going to be a little wrong, but it takes a little time for it to prove out and show us how it's wrong.

If there is anything going on right now in indie publishing, it's that we all started around the same time, and the first big wave of first and second guesses are just reaching their expiration date.

One of these "First Best Guesses" that is common not only in publishing, but in every new wave of business and finance, is The Pareto Principle.  And, imho, it's a principle that tends to slam people against the wall pretty quickly.

The Pareto Principle Holds The Seeds of Its Own Destruction

The first couple years of Indie Publishing were very much like what we saw when the web went mainstream, and the subsequent sub-economies that rose from it.

It began with a lot of enthusiasm, creativity and experiment.  And people took common sense advice (know your audience, produce more, specialize) and used it to succeed.  But because the system was new, people were basically trying everything.  And then they narrowed it all down to what worked best.  That process is what the Pareto Principle is about.

The Pareto Principle is the concept that 20 percent of your efforts will bring in 80 percent of your profits.  And 80 percent of your problems and costs will come from 20 percent of your business.  So the idea is that you cut off that twenty percent that gives you more trouble than income, and focus on that 20 percent that gives you the most return.

The problem with the Pareto Principle is that it ignores the facts that:

1.) Usually there is a big overlap between the 20 percent that gives you trouble and the 20 percent that gives you profits.

2.) Sometimes that highly profitable 20 percent is dependent on some of the margin created by the other 80 percent.  One would not exist without the other.

3.) Sometimes that top 20 percent is a temporary situation or fluke.  It's a bubble, and can kill your business when it bursts, if you depend to much on it.

The publishing industry has long been in the thrall of the Pareto Principle.  Or to be more exact, the Big Book Distributors (such as Barnes and Noble, and Borders) were in the thrall of it. That's why they killed the midlist to focus on the best sellers.  Their only margin, then, was provided by new writers, whom they treated like cannon fodder.

(What is "margin"?  It's room for error.  Elbow room.  Room to maneuver.  It's that little bit extra -- the safety margin -- that keeps you from disaster, and also allows you to move more quickly and easily when something changes or goes wrong.  Some people mistake it for "waste.")

Many indies have optimized their business model just like the big publsihers did.  And just like the big publishers, some are now finding that the world is continuing to change, and they have to scramble for alternatives.

Luckily, indies have a MUCH more flexible business model.  They can change course almost instantly, if their emotions, preconceptions and financial planning allow it.  (For us, "emotions, preconceptions and financial planning" are our margins.)

But what they're finding is that it's harder and harder to find "hot spots" to exploit. Either the area is saturated or the audience moves on or the opporutnity gets cut off.

Recently the erotica market experienced a big shake up, and it makes for a good example. (Largely because some of the writers involved are generous and open people who have shared a lot of details.)

The Great Smut Disaster

(First off, I want to say that I'm not singling out these authors as having done something wrong.  They're just an example of something that happens in smaller, less dramatic ways to all kinds of writers and business people -- especially small operators on the internet.)

A little over two years ago, Dean Wesley Smith speculated on a business model that could provide a writer with slow steady income just writing short stories.  If you wrote a short story a week, just on any genre, and submitted the most marketable ones to commercial magazines, and self-published the rest at premium prices, in a couple of years you'd have a nice, tidy -- but slow -- income.

Several people on KBoards decided to try this.  And soon they were reporting phenomenal results -- maybe not superstar level, but far beyond what Dean had predicted.  So a few more people joined in, and others started watching the experiment closely and considering it.

But as more and more people reported in, I started seeing red flags waving.  People would start this process writing all different sorts of genres, but they would discover that one or two genres were the ones that made them all the money.  They started applying the Pareto Principle to what they were writing.

And in nearly every case that was being reported, they were focusing on the same couple of closely related genres: erotica or erotic romance.

Those who were reporting success with other genres were much more in line with what Dean first speculated about.  And while that might be cool, the erotica writers were reporting ten times the return.  (That's a guestimate.)

Which is to be expected and not that alarming in terms of the future of the strategy.  Sex has always sold.  There was no reason to think it wouldn't continue to be. (And also no reason to think it wouldn't be very competitive.)

But then I began to learn more about what the most successful people were writing.  They were writing fiction that emulated very taboo subjects -- subjects which were downright forbidden by Amazon and other vendors.  These writers were staying within the letter of the rules... but pushing the boundaries as hard as possible, and frankly, not staying within the spirit of the rules.

I'm not going to argue against the rights of these artists to create and publish what they choose.  However, I can't believe they didn't see it coming that Amazon and other retailers would crack down on this.

I understand Kobo went so far as to remove ALL Indies from their UK store, at least temporarily.  Amazon has been combing through the works, unpublishing things that have too extreme of a cover, or title or blurb. (Last I heard, they were letting the works themselves stay as long as they adhered to the letter of the rules -- but they couldn't be advertised or described in any way that appeals to those who would like the rules broken.)

And the writers have been scrambling to fix their books, or take them down before Amazon does.  They're taking a second look at their business model.  Most of them are flexible enough to go back to writing less troublesome works.  But they have to adjust their expectations -- because the less troublesome works are also less lucrative.

Most of these writers -- at least the ones I know -- are smart people who can adjust.  A few probably had a good idea this was coming and were just taking advantage of a great market while they could.  And even those who are unprepared haven't been at it long enough to have dug themselves into a rut.

It's Not Really About Smut

It's easy to pretend that what happen was an anomaly just because those people were writing smut.  The fact is, what happened to the erotica writers happens all the time.  For instance, web businesses often use the Pareto Principle to totally optimize their business into the most lucrative niches and to select the most lucrative strategies.... and then Google changes the algorithms. And those websites saw their great income completely dry up.

I remember when I was writing articles for eHow, a situation very much like this happened.  Everyone started writing articles all on the same lucrative subjects with the same lucrative take on it.  They were making a good living. They started writing books to help each other do the same thing.  And eHow decided they no longer wanted 25 million articles on How to Refinance Your Home and How To Lose Weight With (Ingredient of the Month) -- and they started deleting duplicates. And now these authors saw their income dry up.

In both of these cases, there were lots of warning signs, and lots more discussion about the problems than there were to warn the erotica writers.  But if you're making money, it's kinda hard to listen to warnings.  (And if you do, a lot of the time you listen to the wrong warnings and regret it.)

So.... What Does This Mean?

Things are changing so fast that I no longer think that my original conclusions to this post are relevant. 

I think Scott William Carter has got it right when he said that the long tail is getting longer and more spread out.  I think that opportunities are continuing to crop up, but they aren't the low hanging fruit any more.

I know for sure that I can't presume to tell anybody how best to make a big best seller -- and if that's what you want, don't come here for your advice.  However, I also know that the opportunities for the small operator, the niche writer, the artist and artisan and homemade fiction writer are growing.

They're growing in number and variety, though, not in size.

And that's part of why I decided to start writing about business from the Artisan point of view on Mondays.  I think the time of the small operator is rising, and maybe we need more points of view out there on what's happening in the publishing world.

Next week I want to take on the latest controversy about writing more.  There seem to be some people who feel betrayed by the advice to write more -- they aren't making more money.  Was the advice wrong?

See you in the funny papers.

If you read this blog, and find it useful or entertaining, buy a book once in a while, or make a donation. 

Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations are via Paypal)