Thursday, June 22, 2017

Genre Writing and Formulas


Many new authors assume that only romance writing is formulaic. This is not true. Almost all genre writing is formulaic. Indeed, it must be. Not because authors are at a loss to sustain originality but because unless genre fiction adheres closely to its own conventions, readers will often regard the work as unsuccessful.

This rule applies to movies too. Unless a big budget movie contains the usual genre conventions, it will invariably do badly at the box office. However, if the standard conventions are systematically dealt with in the movie-making process, the final result will almost always do well. So entrenched are we as a species in our desire, our need, for formulaic writing in books, movies, and episodic TV, that we inevitably regard writing that does not exactly fulfill our pre-conceived expectations as somehow lacking.

I use this inescapable fact of life as a starting point for my genre-writing courses. While there is undoubtedly a formula for the ideal plot or story, there is another crucial element that is harder to quantify. That is the particular variety of factors that come together to make one author successful and another, not.

I’ve read thousands of books by the great and good, and many by the not-so-talented. What I’ve noticed most keenly is that successful writers adhere relentlessly to formulas - or at least their often predictably endowed protagonists follow the same heroic journeys. I am forced to conclude, therefore, that the closer a wannabe author works to the established genre conventions, the more likely will be his or her success. 

This is good news for the aspiring author. Learn the rules to get the jewels.

It also explains why, in the traditional publishing world, the practice of book-doctoring is so prevalent. The heavyweight legacy publishers know what people want, and they want the same but different. They want the same formula, template-driven stories, and heroic, archetypal characters presented with different, often fresher, voices. This is also an important consideration for those writers trying to self-publish on Amazon and Kindle.

Different is not necessarily good.

Even from self-published authors, readers want genre fiction they recognize and stories they feel comfortable inhabiting. Take a quick look at the latest bestselling independent authors and you will see this phenomenon in action. It is not original ideas and new approaches that attract legions of fans. No, it is total adherence to genre specifications that are already known to have a market that sell the most.   

To many wannabe authors, this is counter-intuitive.

We’re told ceaselessly that originality is vitally important, crucial to a new artist’s success. But even just a cursory glance at what sells in books, film, music, even paintings, sculptures, and fashion, proves this idea is totally false, every time. People rarely respond to true originality favorably. Mostly, people find originality unnerving, even disturbing. People require the same old thing ad infinitum. But what they do want is for something to seem different the first time they come across it. This is why a new character, a new personality, a new actor, or a model, or a pop star, can appear to offer something fresh, never before seen. Whereas, in fact, what they’re actually presenting is merely another slant on something that people have demonstrated they already want.

Here lies the key to originality when it comes to writing fiction:

It’s not in the idea. It’s in its execution.

And what makes your story more compelling than anyone else’s?

Not the idea. Not the story, or the plot, or even the genre.

There is only one key difference that anyone is interested in, and that is…

YOU.

Originality is in the way you tell the story, as long as you supply all the genre specifications to prove you know exactly what you’re doing within the context of the conventions people expect, want, need, require, let’s face it, demand, before you may be acknowledged as worthy of serious praise or even consideration by the masses.

This is why you often have to write to formulas and templates, with all their easily recognizable components, in order to compete successfully within the genre writing market. And, increasingly, in order to guarantee some sort of success with Amazon, even in the legacy publishing world, you need to keep writing as many novel-length stories as you can, to the same formulaic specifications.

Recently I made a quick calculation of how many novels the average author needed to write in order to become successful, as far as financially self-sufficient and able to sustain a career. The average number was fifteen books. Only the top few household names have ever achieved respect and substantial sales with just five books. The majority of mid-list authors have to wait until their style and vision become popular over the very long term. Picking up a following is clearly, for most, an exercise in extreme patience.

Sure, some authors get lucky. You hear about half a dozen or so of them a year. But most working writers just plod along until their fan base is significant enough to create bestsellers for their subsequent books. Or, more likely, each subsequent book adds extra credibility to their first. It’s a well-attested phenomenon that an author’s first book will end up selling better than later ones, even when later ones sell truckloads. Interest in later books can lead to and force the sale of the first book to bestseller status. This too is good news for the struggling author. If your first book doesn’t sell well initially, keep writing more of the same, and one day that first effort may well outsell all of your later books.

Pleasant thought?

I hope so.

The good news, of course, is that releasing your own books on Amazon is nowadays often a quicker route to author success than spending five to fifteen years trying to get a New York agent and struggling to find a low-paying niche with a traditional publisher. Plus, you don’t have to live off meager advances until you hit the big time or give away 94% of your earnings to people who stand between you and your fans. 

My feeling is that, when it comes to achieving author success, there are five key principles at play:

1. The writer’s love of his/her genre.
2. The willingness to absorb, articulate, and develop the genre conventions.
3. The author’s courage to be him/herself within that genre.
4. Visibility - via self-publishing or by being in bookstores.
5. Persistence - the ability to stick at it, no matter what.

Of course, there is a luck factor too. But, I believe writers often create their own luck by sticking to the above five principles. Contrary to what most online success advocates preach, I do not believe that Internet social marketing is the final answer. Authors have a way of finding their own fans, as is evidenced by the fact that many, many writers manage to become successful and popular by simply being read - and letting word of mouth do the rest. 

Indeed, it could be argued that the average new author’s penchant for social media blitzing might be giving independent authorship a bad name! Being popular on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t generate substantial book sales. Only writing good books can do that.

Keep Writing!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing Effective Back Blurbs



After the cover, the next port of call for the potential buyer of your book is your book description.

And like an elevator pitch, your book blurb needs to be punchy, upbeat, a breeze to read and intriguing enough to make the reader want more.

Set aside an afternoon to write a 500 to 800-word book description.

First, you're NOT writing a synopsis of your story. 

Imagine you're in a bar with a friend and you want to get them to read a book you've just finished.

You don't want to give away the ending - and you don't want to bore them with names and locations and character interactions that aren't immediately pertinent to their understanding of the overall story.

You want to give them the best hook you can think of first - and then only details if their interest in piqued. 

This is where you need to start:

The hook. A less than 50-word sentence that describes what the story is about in general terms. It's perfectly acceptable to use nebulous yet emotive adjectives in blurbs that you might never use in your normal writing. For instance:

    "Death's Door" is a brilliant fast-paced thriller set in the exotic Cayman Islands. Gregg Lestrade is a handsome rich kid with a burning ambition. He wants to marry the beautiful Marie Donohue, his high-school sweetheart, and daughter of a Sicilian mob boss. But she wants him dead - and soon.

You need to amplify the action into mythic status. You need to take your story and, like Hollywood, imply that it is a tale for the ages, unlike any other.

Use words that readers of your genre would expect to see on the back of a book like yours

If your blurb doesn't get your blood pumping, it's probably not going to make anyone want to buy it.

Only include information about the story if it is unusual or elaborate.

Leave out anything that sounds dull - even if it's important to the story inside the book.

As I say, your description is NOT a potted synopsis and should actually give away very little of the story beyond the first 20 pages.

In most stories, the characters are presented in their normal lives at the beginning and then they are tested.

Ideally, your blurb should take the reader up to the moment of the 'test' and no further…

Because, as with the three dots above, the rest is up to the imagination of your reader - which is their cue to want to know more - and buy the book.  

Give away too much and you risk deflating any anticipation the reader might have had for the book.

A short blurb is often better than a long one. But if you want to fill up your allotted 800 words, fill them with the more intriguing aspects of your story.

Say it explores things like "the relationship between love lost and duty" - that kind of thing.

Largely unspecific but thought-provoking. 

Keep editing your book description until it is filled with short sharp sentences that press emotional triggers.

Turning points, ethical conundrums, hard choices, all make for good fiction copy.

Put a call to action of sorts at the end.

Find out more - that sort of thing!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

How To Get Free Fans




Once upon a time you could spend money on promotion and see positive results.

Like actual sales.

Doesn’t work so much anymore.

Ask any reputable advertiser and they will tell you promotion is good for creating “customer awareness” but is now hopeless for selling stuff.

These days I don't recommend authors spend any money on their marketing, their websites, their book covers, adverts, anything at all – at least at first.

It's simply not worth it - until you have some followers and/or some subscribers.

Why?

Because there's simply no point investing in a brand or a concept, even a single product like a novel - unless you know the thing is working.

Until it sells WITHOUT any help.

This is something I learned when I was signed as a singer with EMI Music.

Recording companies only promote music that is ALREADY selling.

Publishing companies, too, only promote books that are ALREADY SELLING.

That's why we too, as independent authors and entrepreneurs, must do the same - only UPSCALE and/or PROMOTE anything that is ALREADY working.

Never spend money promoting unproven books, novels, or anything else you might sell, like on-line courses or writing services.

The best way to find out if there's any kind of demand for your writing or whatever it is you want to sell is to try to pick up followers to your blog post and articles.

That's it.

Lots of so-called gurus suggest you spend money on Facebooks ads or Google ads, or on making expensive videos or websites that wow across all platforms.

It's all rot.

The best way is the free way - simply by writing articles on social media.

It works every time, it’s easy - and did I mention it's free?

But you’ve got to be smart and consistent in your approach.

You need to ask yourself, Who am I writing for?

What does my ideal reader look like?

How old is he or she?

What do they do for a living?

What sort of things do they like?

Build a picture in your mind of your ideal fan. Just one.

Many would-be marketers make a very simple mistake.

They believe they are selling to LOTS of people - and imagine huge crowds of clamoring punters.

Then they ask, how can we appeal to all these people?

This type of thinking leads to huge errors of judgment - and very often failed marketing efforts.

Because you're NOT selling to lots of people, you're not blogging to a crowd, you're not writing for the masses, you are targeting just one person.

And each person is an individual - and needs to be respected, cherished even, like your best friend ever.

That's the secret.

You're writing for an audience of ONE - your ideal fan.

Place the image of that ideal person in your mind whenever you write, whenever you think of a book idea and whenever you design an article, a blog post or even a tweet.

Your writing is a public manifestation of your persona.

But don't get nervous about it.

Remember that you decide what you want to share - and what you don't want to share.

My subscribers often write me as though we're old friends.

Which I love by the way. But even over the last decade or so of perhaps a thousand posts and articles, I've made sure that there are certain things about me that my subscribers will never know - because I choose not to share them.

Not for any dark or sinister reason. Only because, well, perhaps there's things about me that aren't all that fascinating or relevant or - and this crucial - they're not always consistent with the person I want other people to know.

I speak with many new authors who are literally terrified of revealing themselves online.

I completely understand.

When I started out, certain sentences I wrote sent chills of apprehension, fear, and dread through my bones.

I would often shake uncontrollably as I clicked 'SEND'!

I imagined all kinds of repercussions, scorn, hate mail, criticism, and derision.

Which only very rarely happens by the way.

So yes, I do understand that writing online can be nerve-wracking.

But actually, the hardest part is probably having something to say each time you blog.

This is where your ideal fan comes to the fore.

This person - just this one remember - absolutely loves you - and can't wait to get another message from you.

Especially if it's about something you're passionate about.

We feel comfortable with someone who loves us because we can be ourselves and say what we want without fear.

That's what your ideal fan is like.

And so, when you write or promote yourself, imagine you're writing just for him or her.

Then, the process will begin to get a lot easier!

And – did I mention this process is completely free?


Thursday, May 25, 2017

How to Get Inspired




We all know what it feels like to be inspired.

You get a great idea and suddenly your heart feels lighter.

Your body feels more energized.

It seems like nothing is impossible.

Your new project suddenly seems urgent.

You want to get it done before anyone else has this marvelous insight.

It’s the brain’s equivalent of the “runner’s high” - where serotonin and endorphins rush through the body and make you feel invincible.

The great thing about feeling inspired is that it can make you work hard.

But generally only for a while.

That’s the problem.

Just like that runner’s high, the feeling of inspiration doesn’t last.

I once got that runner’s high and it lasted all day. 

Completely out of character for me, I went for a jog along Henley Beach in South Australia one morning, pushed through some resistance and then suddenly felt utterly fantastic, optimistic, full of life - a sensation that lasted for hours!

Of course I tried the same trick the following day but it didn’t work.

Gosh darn it!

But I’ve also felt inspired when writing or when I’ve had a great idea for a story, a screenplay or a book.

It’s a similar feeling but usually not as long lasting as the runner’s high.

Shame - because if you could sell the feeling of being inspired, you’d become a billionaire overnight I’m sure. 

So, one of the things we have to accept about inspiration is that it’s fleeting.

And though it’s wonderful and motivating for a while, ultimately you can’t rely on it.

Indeed, if you want to be a prolific writer, it’s best not to even think about it as a source of ideas.

Fact is, writing provides you with all the inspiration you need.

It works that way round.

Write first - keep writing for long enough and you’ll think of a great idea WHILE you’re writing.

Don’t wait for inspiration before you start.

That’s a waste of time.

Don’t get me wrong, waiting for inspiration CAN work, but you’ll have a VERY LONG WAIT between writing sessions if you rely on inspiration alone!

Lots of writers I’ve spoken to do wait for inspiration - and they can go YEARS between writing sessions!

If you want to be productive, then simply to get on with the task and get it done, EVEN IF inspiration never comes during your writing session.

It’s actually fairly common for professional writers like Stephen King, James Cameron and JK Rowling NOT to get inspired while they’re actually writing at their desks.

So don’t feel you’re not being a proper writer just because you’re not inspired.

Indeed, relative to writing time, REAL writers are probably LESS inspired than the rest of us.

The trick they have over us is simply that they’re writing MORE OF THE TIME!

Honestly, try it.

Even if you don’t feel like writing one day, do it anyway - and I guarantee that within minutes you WILL feel inspired. 

Keep writing!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Your Mother Should Know


Went to a Society of Authors drinks party the other day - met some lovely writers and their partners. It was in the back room of beautiful old colonial building, replete with wood beams, deep carpets and sweet staff to help the night along.

We met a writer who had the dream happen to her.

You know the one.

You spend a decade or so trying to write a book, in between work and life, finally getting it done.

You send it out and it's immediately picked up and published to great acclaim by the first major publisher you submit to...

I mentioned to her at this point, "You know that never happens?"

"Yes," she said. "And I feel awfully guilty."

"No need," I said. "Writers need proof it can happen. Just to keep us going!"

We met other writers at various stages in their careers. Some unpublished, some having books coming out of their ears. It takes all sorts - and curiously I realized it's next to impossible to tell how well a writer is doing just by looking at them...

Most have this de rigueur scruffiness about them. I guess because dressing up is alien to most writers and not something that needs to happen much. 

A couple of the successful writers mentioned that the whole concept of going out into the world and talking about their books felt bizarre. Clearly, if you're the kind of person who wants to spend long hours alone and writing, you're not going to be ideally suited to being a great public speaker. With exceptions of course.

Many of the conversations turned to how our parents felt about us being writers. And how most of our mothers disapproved or were openly hostile to the idea of writing for a living.

Odd that - because Robyn and I thought we were unique in that regard. Apparently not. Mothers - as a breed - obviously regard writing as some kind of shameful career, not to be encouraged.

I'm sure much of that has to do with our mothers wanting the best for us - knowing instinctively that the odds of success are against us.

There again, in my experience, pretty much all writers who commit to the life eventually make it in some way.

No, it seems to go further. As though the act of writing is somehow a betrayal. As if wanting to be a writer is a kind of slap in the face to our mothers. Like they've somehow failed in their parenting if they spawn so lowly a life form as a writer.

Plus, writing is about commenting on life, our upbringing, our beliefs, making sense of the world's insanity. So I guess if we spend our lives questioning and recording life's inadequacies and people's foibles, then perhaps we really are worrisome individuals who don't necessary feel content in our skins... perhaps that is the bad thing in their eyes.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it - and my mother wouldn't approve. She who got angry when I said - at fourteen - I wanted to be a journalist - and cried a few years later - at seventeen - when I said I wanted to be a rock star.

I'd failed her because I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer. But this is the woman who thought I should be an assistant in a hardware store or a factory worker or an office drone - ANYTHING but an artist.

Even when I was turning thirty and we met for drinks in London one fine day, she was still saying, "Oh, Robert, you should settle down. Leave all the music and the writing behind and get a proper job. Haven't you got all that out of your system yet?"

As if I ever would...

Funny things, mothers.

Maybe we just remind them of all the things they gave up to look after us - like being a writer perhaps.

They only want us to be happy, apparently.

And perhaps being a writer is like saying: "I'm not happy!"

But of course, if that's the case, then writing is what makes us happy. 

I shouldn't go on so. Ever since Freud mothers have had a bad rap, probably always have, even before. Nowadays they get the blame for psychopaths too. Hardly fair.

Robyn's mother once apologized for not having faith in her - admittedly after her eightieth book! Mine's yet to do that.

Dad's always was a secret admirer - even when he disapproved of my rock band days, he whispered to me confidentially that he thought it was cool I got paid for drinking in the day time (his personal fantasy) and sleeping till noon when I wanted.

Later he was just relieved I'd got a house, a wife and cars. The rest - having bestselling books - was just a bonus as far as he was concerned.

Mom's harder to read.

Maybe we can never live up to our mother's expectations, if we ever knew what they were.

In the mean time, I still have a few projects left to write, Mom, now that I have settled down - as a writer.

Keep Writing!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Give Them Some Attitude


The other day, a writer friend of mine told me her publisher recommended she read a certain book to get the flavor of what they liked to publish. Eager to know, my author friend rushed to find the book and devour it... only to feel disappointed - and confused.
She wondered what it was about this book the publisher liked. The story wasn't great. The writing was average. Some of the pacing seemed awkward. Then it hit her. It was the ATTITUDE of the protagonist that gave the book its appeal. The hero was feisty, quick to anger, even spiteful and yet somehow lovable.

It's no secret that I believe the key to good story telling is 'character'. It should come before everything else - before plotting, before story, even before putting pen to paper. If your characters aren't real to you, their stories will never work.


And while I've spent much time elsewhere talking about the importance of creating believable characters, I don't think I've given over as much time on their 'attitudes' as perhaps I could have done.


So let's do some exploring, shall we?

Think of some classic fictional characters. What's the first thing that comes to mind? Their physical appearance? Rarely. It's usually their demeanor, isn't it? Their unique way of interacting with the world - yes, their attitude towards what they do.

James Paterson's Alex Cross is a great character because he's all heart. He loves his family and truly values friendship - and takes his psychopath's activities very personally!

Patricia Cornwall's Kaye Scarpetta doesn't respond well to being patronized or underestimated. She's also way too protective of her niece. Notice too that she gets much more critical of her partner's habits as the series progresses.

The Da Vinci Code's Robert Langdon is intrigued by mystery and secret symbols. Interestingly, despite being a simple college professor he seems to possess almost superhuman powers of endurance. In Angels and Demons, for instance, he actually falls out of a plane without a parachute over Rome... and survives with barely a scratch!

I think Harry Potter's appeal has much to do his ordinariness. He never believes he's capable of what he has to face. Everybody and his dog knows he's supposedly destined for greatness but he doesn't ever seem quite ready for it.

The next time you're inventing (major and minor) characters, don't just imagine their physical attributes, try to give them depth by wondering what they would be passionate about or, conversely, have little interest in. What would annoy them - or thrill them?

Give them short term and lifelong agendas, things they are committed to achieving or seeing come to pass. These are the things that will help with your plotting. Once you know what one of your characters would definitely NOT do, your stories will begin to take on a life of their own.

Remember, never impose a story on a character. The best stories come out of the main character's conflicting agendas.

For example, it's not enough to have some anonymous killer trailed by any old ordinary detective. The killer must be fully realized - there must be very good reasons (if only in his own mind) why he does what he does. Similarly, for good fiction, the detective should be motivated by much more than just 'doing his job' to make a story like this compelling.

Once we know the killer hates women and perhaps himself, and that the detective is terrified of losing his wife to him, then we begin to care about the outcome.

I think one of the reasons Hollywood movies work so well is that the big stars come with a ready made attitude. We all know what to expect from actors like Robert Downey Jr, Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson. No matter what characters they play, we sense their attitudes, their strength and depth, even though we know they're only acting!

So, the message is that during character development, try to imagine being inside the head of your character. Don't just give them attributes, histories and agendas, go the extra mile and give 'em attitude!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

If In Doubt Leave It Out



You probably won't be surprised to learn I read a lot of unpublished manuscripts. I also read a lot of published work. Are there some glaring differences between the two? You betcha.

The fact is most beginning writers write too much. That's okay for the first draft but when it comes to editing, you need to give that delete key a thorough work out!

Good writing is about pacing. It's about taking the reader on a journey and keeping in step with them along the way.

If you get the pacing wrong, the reader will stumble and begin to lose interest because it will seem you are more interested in writing the words than telling the story or relaying the information.

Here are some tips on how to cut down on unnecessary verbiage!

The Art of Description

With the advent of global communication and visual media, we all know what most things and even most places look like. It's no longer necessary to spend more than a couple of sentences establishing what things are, where scenes are set and what the weather is like, if that's important for mood.

Many readers nowadays will actually skip descriptive passages because they find them dull and interrupt the flow of the text. So don't beat yourself up over getting all the details across - that's what the reader's imagination is for!

Qualify That

Sometimes we write scenes etc., we're not sure the reader will understand - so we add extra words to explain ourselves, resulting in more confusion than clarity. For instance, look at this:

"With the divorce weighing on his mind, and his fears about losing his job, John was having difficulty deciding what to do with himself. Could he face going out, knowing that Pete would probably spend the evening ribbing him over his his inability to get along with his boss and his problems with his estranged wife?"

Clearly this is clumsy and confusing to read. Much better to remove the qualifiers and simplify:

"The divorce was on his mind. Did he want to go out? John wasn't sure. Pete would probably just want to rib him."

In the above version, even though the propositions are only loosely defined - the reader still gets it. You don't always need to explain every little nuance to get a point across.

Quite the opposite in fact.

Room to Breathe?

When you write you make a contract with your reader - whom you must regard as your equal. Not someone who is slow to understand and needs to be carefully led, shown everything and generally talked down to.

It's perfectly okay to leave out obvious - and therefore redundant - details. You don't always have to explain exactly who said what, what happened where, why and for how long.

New writers clog up their stories with unnecessary backstory, linking scenes, plot justifications and long complicated explanations of things the reader already regards as clear.

If you write with honesty and intelligence, your reader knows what and who you mean - when you over explain, you insult the reader. Don't do it.

Direction

Quite often writing suffers because the reader doesn't know where you're going. They wonder why you're focussing on certain characters and details - especially when you haven't first hinted at the 'point' of your story.

When you open a piece, you need a big 'sign' that tells the reader you're going THIS WAY - so that the reader knows what to expect along the way. You need to define your objectives - your purpose - in some way on the first page.

For instance, if you're writing a murder mystery, don't spend the first chapter following the protagonist around doing her laundry. Get on with the story and as soon as you can, show us the body!

Play By The Rules

Especially in genre fiction, you have to adhere to certain rules, because that's what the reader wants. Horror stories need to be at least a little horrific - right from the start.

Romance requires that you have lovers at odds with each other by page two. Science fiction and Fantasy require the elements of their genres too.

Publishers often say that, though many writers are good, they often write themselves outside of any given genre in their desire to be different or original - thereby, alas, disqualifying themselves from publication!

Of course it's important to be original - but if you can do that within the confines your reader expects, your chances of success skyrocket.

Focus

What you're looking for is sharp writing that relays the facts. When you go back and edit for sense, go for simplicity rather than exposition. If you waffle on about the intricacies of conflicting thought processes or meander through long descriptions of the countryside, you lose all sense of tension.

Pick up any popular novel. The best ones have no words that are about writing. They're all about story.

Speech tags

Okay. Speech tags - you know all the 'he said, she cried, they exclaimed blah de blah' - I'll keep this advice simple and precise. Unless you're writing children's fiction, lose them. As many as you can. It's the way of the modern writer.

Use other, more subtle ways of suggesting who is saying what. It's easily done, it just requires a little thought.

You can refer to character's actions just before or after dialogue, or use different styles to suggest different people.

Just as an experiment, try editing out all of the speech tags from your next MS. I think you'll be surprised and... master this technique and readers will love you for it!

Adverbs

Yep - we all know we're not supposed to use them, especially after a speech tag. They are redundant and add nothing to the story. Repeat to yourself three times before bedtime: I will edit out every word that ends in 'ly'! 

​​​​​​​The general rule, by the way, is that at least 20% of your MS is probably surplus to requirements! And that goes for all of us!
(PS. I love DC Legends!)

The Easy Way to Write

Welcome to the official blog of the Easy Way to Write from Rob Parnell, updated weekly - sometimes more often!