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?


The Easy Way to Write

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