How to Write Best Selling Fiction: Entry Two

Yesterday I chewed through another seventy or so pages in Dean Koontz’s, How to Write Best Selling Fiction and ended up taking a lot of notes.

Some of the stuff I already knew, like the fact that it’s a helluva lot easier to break the unwritten and often unknown rules (and yes, they are rules, folks, not pirate code) of writing when you’re someone who has proven they can write effective within the standards, than some unproven unknown who has convinced himself that because Stephen King or GRR Martin did this, so can he.

There was some good advice on writing story complications and the acknowledgement that readers are willing to forgive a favorite author for one or two or even three badly written books, but their indulgence is not without limit.

The section on plot solutions was interesting and of far more help to plotters than pantsers. If you’re a plotter, I think you’ll find this section very useful. If you’re a pantser, there are still a few useful things on pacing the ending and writing a satisfying resolution.

One of the more interesting sections for me was the one on plotting for mainstream audiences (as opposed to category/genre ones). It was interesting because when he explained the difference between a mainstream story and category fiction, I had to re-read the section three times to make sure I read what I read. It did cast some light on my own writing, one that I’m still struggling to process. The gist of it is that a mainstream story (regardless of the genre it’s going to be put in) treats elements of story such as plot, characterization, background and theme, quite differently than category fiction. Neither is better than the other, except it is. The mainstream novel transcends genre and appeals to the mainstream, i.e. sells more copies.

Like I said, I’m still chewing that one over. This is why:

According to Koontz, science fiction authors concentrate on plot and action at the expense of all the other elements of good fiction. Now, do keep in mind that this book was published in 1981 and may have been written years earlier. [I don’t know if back then it took three years to bring something like this from manuscript to publication or if it took less time because it was Koontz; so let’s just assume it was written around 1980].

Since I’m primarily a science fiction writer, this section was of particular interest to me. Koontz goes on to say that in category science fiction characters are chess pieces used to advance the plot or mouth pieces to explain various scientific theories. And I don’t disagree. I have seen this far too often, especially in older works, and still see it in newer ones, especially those pegged as “hard” science fiction. It IS one of the reasons I moved away from that sub-genre, because if I wanted to read a technical manual, I’m perfectly capable of doing that. It’s one of the reasons Asimov never appealed to me, and even some of Clarke’s works left a bad taste in my mouth, especially after science became my work. I transitioned to being the kind of reader that read fiction for entertainment rather than to learn science because I was already drowning in science. College does that. And I don’t think I ever emerged from that phase. I wonder how many of my science-fiction reading cohorts have undergone the same transition.

Back to the elements of science fiction. One crucial element is a sense of wonder. Think exotic backgrounds such as alien worlds. Koontz says that this element often distracts from solid characterization and keeps a thematic structure from being integrated into the story. Again he’s talking about category sci-fi. I point this out because I can just hear you guys going, “But, but, what about …”

“What about Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.” [see, I filled in my own objection there]. What a coincidence! Koontz goes on to list it as one of the truly successful science fiction novels that gave us memorable, well-rounded characters. By “truly successful” he’s talking about a category sci-fi novel that appealed to mainstream audiences. Stranger in a Strange Land won the Hugo in 1962, back when that accolade meant that a book was commercially successful. Whether Heinlein or Stranger is to your taste or not, the point is that mainstream-quality characterization efforts paid off and took the book out of the category/genre ghetto and put it into the mainstream.

In Chapter 5 Koontz goes over the difference between plot and action as well as how to handle pacing and make non-action scenes fascinating. I found this far more useful than the trite “advice” of “omit the boring parts” which I think does absolutely nothing helpful. No one sets out to write a boring part–they set out to write a part that requires the delivery of information or the setup for something else. A book written with no downtime (what some call the boring parts) for the reader never gives a reader a chance to catch his breath and desensitizes him to the tension. It’s an exhausting read. To keep your reader from becoming exhausted, you alternate between scenes of high tension and scenes of low tension.

Chapter 6 covers the five traits that heroes need. One of those is imperfections, but there are wrong and right ways to handle those so that the character remains likable. The most interesting part of this chapter for me was the assertion that while a category/genre novel can get away with either a hero or a heroine, a mainstream novel should always have both. This goes against absolutely everything I’ve been told about writing, i.e. that your novel is always about one person (except in a romance where it’s about a couple). Koontz is NOT saying that every book should be a romance. He is saying that there should be a strong co-lead (not a sidekick or minor character or “team” member; a co-lead; now do you see why I’m still chewing on this one?)

While I found Chapter 7 (Believable characters) interesting because it had some essential elements, I skimmed a lot of it because I don’t do character sketches ahead of time. If you use this technique the list of questions to ask yourself about your characters might be very useful to you.

I skidded to a stop in Chapter 8 (Plausability). When Koontz says “plausibility” he’s talking about the need for high quality characterization as well as the ability to set a scene and unobtrusively integrate background material. You’ll be interested to know that most rejections stem from lack of character motivation rather than plot, so the discussion on motivation really piqued my interest and it should pique yours too. He goes into how to work the primary motivations of love, curiosity, self-preservation, and greed. The motivation of self-discovery is reserved for the “Literary” novel. That is, if the primary motivation is self-discovery, you have “Literature.”

There are far more details than what I’m summarizing here, so if you really want to grasp any of the concepts I mention at this surface level, I encourage you to read the book for yourself. I’m sure you’ll get far more from it that way and you’ll probably get different things from it than I did.

The motivation that caused me the greatest distress was duty. According to Koontz, modern readers have little to empathize with here, so duty should be a secondary motivation only, not a primary one. What a sad statement on the state of the world, then and (if still true) now.  I ran a poll in two Facebook groups and that target audience overwhelmingly disagreed. This was much to my relief, but still a source of distress for anyone aiming to make it big in the mainstream market since no exception was made for either historical or speculative fiction (as this chapter did not focus on category/genre) . Have things changed since 1981? Since the “me” generation?  It was interesting to see the debate unfold in the poll’s comments. Thank you to everyone that participated in my polls, especially for the comments, and a thank you to the group moderators for allowing me to post there.

While there was a lot in Koontz’s notions that I personally disagreed with (my worldview allows for both honor and duty as primary motivators even in today’s world) I pulled a lot of useful information on craft and technique from these chapters.

Koontz’s last motivation is revenge and he reserves it for villains.  He does address historical and speculative genres in a round-about way here, mainly through the opinion that most people today rely on the police/courts and that (with few exceptions) it’s hard to accept anyone but police/judges as the sole servants of justice. I think this is why I see revenge as a motivator for a hero mostly in fantasy, alternate history, historical or speculative settings.

I would be remiss in omitting a bit of writerly advice that everyone should consider: Know Your Audience. Because if you’re going to sell them on a concept they are not ready to accept (like the fact that the police/judges are not the sole arbiters of justice) then you have a different (and more difficult) world-building task on your hands than if you take the easy route.

 

 

How to Write Best-Selling Fiction: Entry One

Dean Koontz’s how-to book, How to Write Best Selling Fiction, came with more than a few recommendations. It’s a hard book to find. I had to use inter-library loan and I got the notice that it was available for pickup about halfway between Texas and Georgia. It of course went to the top of my list of things to tackle when I got back from DragonCon, because nothing makes you want to read something faster than a due date and a no renewal option.

The perceived value of this book was further enhanced by how much it seems to be in demand thirty-seven years after it was published. No, that’s not a typo. This little gem was published in 1981.

It’s got some of the most interesting chapter titles I’ve ever seen. For example:

Chapter 3: The Changing Marketplace. I’m sorry, but we’re no longer buying epistolary Gothic espionage novels set on the planet Mars in the seventeenth century. Readers seem to be tiring of that genre.

It made me laugh out loud. Wow, were epistolary Gothic espionage novels ever a thing? And on Mars in the 17th century no less? Guess I better cross THAT project off my list.

Interesting things I learned from today’s reading:

The demands of the average reader. There are eight of them. Very useful.

Why villains are easier to write than heroes. This explains so much about some of the awful stuff I’ve read where there is no heroic figure, so guess I’ll still with my initial bias to write heroic figures.

Favorite quote of the day:

…academe’s kiss is the kiss of death… its embrace is an assurance of eventual, total, lasting obscurity.

Yup, I knew this one. Still made me go “Right, on.” It’s nice when Koontz agrees with me.

How and why category fiction suffers declines in popularity. In some ways it’s so obvious it should not need to be said, but it did. Keyword is “quality.”

Why novels will never be replaced by movies or series. I think his reasoning is sound thirty-seven years later, so he was onto something. If you don’t agree, I suggest you try to novelize just the first fifteen minutes of your favorite movie. After you’ve taken down the description and the dialogue, make sure you add in the important stuff like evoking the emotions you felt when you first saw it.

What makes a well-written story. Words like “complex” and “extensively researched” and “thematically ambitious” were used.

Elements of a classic plot and why it’s NOT a formula, but a proven pattern that’s flexible and satisfying. Seems at odds with the above, but it’s not.

How to handle the opening of a story that requires that many characters be introduced and the story background be established before the story problem can take the stage. To be honest, I was getting a little worried up until I got to this one, because of his emphasis on starting with a crisis. Every single example he gave (where it started with a crisis) bored me to tears and I was beginning to think, maybe this is not a book for me after all. You have to share some basic theories of fiction to find usefulness in a how-to book.

And that’s just the first hundred or so pages, so, I’d say, a good start cause I’m still interested in what he has to say.

 

 

 

My writing life: August 2018

August turned out to be a busy month. Far busier than I had expected.

On August 17th, I found out that my story for Tom Kratman‘s upcoming Carreraverse anthology (Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation) made the cover. Call me whacky, but the donkeys are my favorite. When I was researching mule trains for “Bellona’s Gift” (my story) I learned that mule trains actually consist of a bell mare (who leads the train, because all mules have a horse as a mother and will instinctively follow her), the mules, and a donkey. Unlike mules, donkeys stand and fight. They are the equine version of a guard dog and I just couldn’t resist having one, not just for the sake of realism, but because any animal with strong protective instincts has a special place in my heart.

Also on the cover, several elements from the Carreraverse–a trixie chasing a moonbat, and progressivines. What a fun universe to play in. It was such a great honor to be included.

It was an even greater honor–and shock–to find out that I will be making my Baen debut with my name on the cover. I found this out at the Baen Roadshow at DragonCon. Even with a photographic evidence (snapped in haste) it’s still hard to believe. Terra Nova: The Wars of Liberation is set for release in August 2019.

On August 20th, I released my first self-published work of fiction, my hard SF novella, Promethea Invicta. It’s available not just on Amazon, but on Kobo, iBooks, Scribd, Nook, and Smashwords.

Shortly after releasing Promethea Invicta I got a request for an audiobook version of it. One of my writer friends (and a great sci-fi author), Karl K. Gallagher, who had recorded his own audiobooks, was kind enough to point me in the right direction. I devoured Making Tracks: A Writer’s Guide to Audiobooks (and How to Produce Them): Second Edition in a day and started experimenting with Audacity (software) via some YouTube tutorials. I found out that the best place to read was my closet.

And you guys thoughts that writers just wrote, didn’t you? I wish that were true. We wear many hats. Thinking back, I had to learn how to do layouts for my manuscripts, write ad copy, sales copy, blurbs, and use several platforms to sell my books. So there are definitely times when marketing eats up a lot of your precious writing time. Then there’s self-promotion and the introvert’s kryptonite–networking.

On August 28th, a wonderful writer’s milestone happened: I got another rejection for my novelette-length female space samurai story, called Featherlight. The reason this is a milestone is because I didn’t even blink. In fact, I’d even forgotten I’d sent it out or where. Rather than feel disappointed, I was looking at it as an opportunity to expand it past the constraints of most pro-rate magazines which tend to limit the word count to between 15K and 17K words.

Then as I was preparing for DragonCon I found out that eight outfits was nowhere near enough and packed another. Or two. This was my very first DragonCon and while I had a vague idea for what it was, it turned out to be far more intense. Only 80K people. No problem. My goal for next year is to attend as a pro.

Several other wonderful things happened at DragonCon, but I can’t yet tell you what they were. Not yet.

Which brings me back to why you might want to subscribe to my newsletter. First, I won’t flood your inbox with a ton of useless stuff, just relevant updates, maybe 2-3 times a month. Second, the social media platform I’m most active on, Facebook, suppresses content. Just because you’ve liked my author page on Facebook, doesn’t mean that you’ll see the latest updates in a timely manner or at all, since Facebook makes its money selling ads. If you only occasionally use Facebook, chances are you’ll miss my posts. So, opt-in to my newsletter (it’s really easy; just fill in the newsletter opt-in in the upper left hand corner). To quote a memorable movie line, “It’s the only way to be sure.”

If you use Twitter, follow me @HouseDobromil. It’s the Twitter version of my author page. The newsletter is better, trust me.

 

 

SSTOs and the law

Esteemed space lawyer and fellow sci-fi writer, Laura Montgomery, reverse-lawyers (i.e. reverse engineers) the realities and legalities of launching vehicles into space on her blog.

Her excellent review of Promethea Invicta looks at the real world path set up by Congress. A path that, like so many Congressional acts, delegates the actual rule-making and regulation to other entities, such as the Secretary of Transportation. Ultimately, it’s the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that issues the needed licenses and permits.

Her Ground Based Space Matters Blog is an excellent resource for anyone that wants to learn more about private space activity, the FAA, NASA, and associated agencies.

The multi-talented Ms. Montgomery also writes excellent sci-fi. Her latest release, called Like A Continental Soldier, (Book 3 of the Waking Late series) just came out. Take a look at her author page and check out her other works.

 

Promethea Invicta, ready to rock-n-roll

I’m very excited to announce that my hard sci-fi novella, Promethea Invicta, is out.

The Sovereign Republic of Texas of 2071 is no longer part of what used to be the United States. But it is still bound by the treaties it inherited, including the Outer Space Treaty.

Theia Rhodos is ready to free humanity from the shackles that keep lunar resources out of her reach. She’s done taking “no” for an answer and she’s ready to sacrifice everything.

And her enemies are ready to let her.

Everything in life has a cost. And a price.

Available as from your favorite book seller, as well as through libraries (via Overdrive and Bibliotheca).

 

Interesting write up of To Be Men

Blogger, Powered by Robots, had some interesting things to say about voices, writing, and To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity.

I decided to write about this because I’ve gotten a hold of a review copy of the To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity anthology edited by Sirius Métier and published by Superversive Press. It was published digitally about two weeks ago (as I write this) and seems to be doing pretty well, both relative to its Amazon reviews (five so far, and all five star ratings) and in terms of sales.

One thing the twitterati forgot about when they were raking male authors over the coals, was the intended audience of the story being written.

Read the rest, and his follow up posts based on each story, here.

Time and Distance: The benefits of cycling.

One of the reasons I work on multiple projects at a time is because my writing process is unlike anything else in my life. Most other aspects of my life are filled with clearly defined steps, checklists, and algorithms. Exceptions are clearly defined by “if,then” statements. Loops are set up in very specific ways. This includes the laundry.

Writing is the one thing I do that doesn’t work that way. It’s why I don’t outline (waste of time; I don’t stick to it; I write them AFTER).

Give me a beginning and/or an end, a theme or a moral point, and I can make it all work. Give me an already written ending and a song and I’ll give you a story (more about this when it’s official).

Think of a finished story as a sequence of scenes, numbered from 0 to N. Chances are, it’s been marinating in my head for some time and exists in one form or another as a set of notes, scribbles, and research references in a Scrivener file, waiting on me to get stuck on my current project and in need of something else to work.

A work in progress (WiP) might originally start out as scenes 5, 12, 18 … 52. Of course, at the time I’m writing them, I don’t actually know that, but you get my point. It’s not unusual for me to realize that I need to cycle back as I’m writing scene #18 and then come up with #13-#17 or go back and fix #12 so it works with #18.

Yesterday I spent the whole day writing (for the first time in awhile as I’d gotten side-tracked by other projects; I spent the whole day in pajamas and I think I ate).

There is nothing quite like time and distance to make you see that scene #156 is no longer a good fit. There’s also nothing quite like time and distance to make it easy to gut #156 if that’s what the story needs.

And by gutting, I mean opening up a new Scrivener scene document, and typing it out fresh after getting myself solidly set inside the character’s head. It is being inside the character’s head that allows me see that scene 156 no longer works.

It’s an entirely different process that “editing” an existing set of words and polishing the hell out of that turd hoping no one will notice what it is.

This is why writing takes time–and I’m talking writing here, not typing. All kinds of time go into “writing.” Research time. Down time (like a hobby or reading for pleasure).

Time spent cycling back to read what you’ve written so that you can get into your viewpoint character’s head before you move forward.

Time spent looking stuff up as you go along when you realize you need an essential piece of information (like can they really match bullets to specifics guns–the answer turns out to be a resounding NO!).

Time spent arguing with your characters because they don’t want to go where you want them to (aka writer’s block, at least in my case).

Is it worth it? I guess it all depends. I’m not a big fan of typing*.

Typing: Julie was a dog lover.

Writing: Julie tossed a TV dinner into the microwave for her husband and rushed out to the grill to make sure that Precious’s steak didn’t get overcooked. Great Danes were known for their particular tastes and she hoped he liked the kobe beef as much as the butcher seemed to think he would. Of course, the butcher had been under the impression that it was for her husband, and she hadn’t enlightened him. He wouldn’t understand. No one would. No one but Precious.

*For a better explanation about the difference between typing and writing, I recommend Writing to the Point: A Complete Guide to Selling Fiction (The Million Dollar Writing Series)

 

 

Now LIVE! on Kobo

Kobo was actually the easiest one to set up. Added bonus, they are part of OverDrive, a system that allows libraries to lend eBooks. So, if you’ve wondered how to get your work into libraries, this is one venue. I think it’s also available through other aggregators.

But why would I want to “give” my eBook to libraries? First, you’re not “giving” anything. Second, having your book in a library is advertising. Someone who enjoyed your work might just decide to check out and see what else you’ve written. Gasp! What a concept.

Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide is now available on Kobo.

Didn’t need an ISBN for this either. Yes, this means they’ll have different ISBNs, but I don’t expect this to be something that needs tracking to justify the cost of an ISBN.

Now LIVE! on iBooks

As I said before, the self-pub plunge is as much for the benefit of the experience as anything else. iTunes Connect was easy enough to navigate. iTunes Producer, like most Mac programs, a breeze.

Easy set up. One glitch because I didn’t have the latest version of Java installed.

Review was MUCH faster than Amazon.

And now I’m live on iBooks with Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide.

One of the nice things I noticed about this is that it’s very easy to set up promo codes.

No, didn’t need an ISBN for this either.

I took the self-pub plunge

Most of my author friends are self-published or hybrid writers. I often feel “out of the loop” when it comes to the details of the self-publishing process, so I decided it was time to take the plunge. At the behest one of them, I took the six blog posts about my workshop experience and why a rejection is an opinion (not a death sentence), and created a book: Rejection 101: A Writer’s Guide

Although it took all day, it took far less time than I thought it would.

I already had the KDP account set up, but I had never worked with the KDP system or Vellum (the layout software).

Here’s the run-down of what it took to go from a series of blog posts to a finished product.

I chose an image off DepositPhoto.com, and fired up Pages. This probably ate up most of my time. It had been awhile since I’d worked with Pages for anything other than writing, but it all came back to me. Create a black background. Add image on top. Check the reflection option. Add the fonts for the title and author. I spent more time playing around with fonts and colors, to be honest. Way too many choices, most of them bad. Saved it, changed the type of file, and done. Reopened it in Preview in order to adjust the ratio of image width to height, per Vellum’s suggestion. That took like another minute.

Next, Vellum. Great software, took about ten minutes and one very specific question posted to a group, and I had it figured out — the front and back matter, the chapters, the headers, dividers, everything–bam, bam, bam. It was amazing. By contrast, I was struggling with Jutoh for days before I threw my hands up in disgust and wished I’d never heard of it. With one press of a button, Vellum generated everything for all the platforms/venues/formats, all in one step: Generic ePUb, GooglePlay, iBooks, Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and Print (i.e. a PDF).

It took longer to actually proof the PDF, Kindle and iBooks files (by looking at every page inside the file) than it took to put the book together, and that includes futzing around with the fonts and colors. (BTW, leave the extra pages in the PDF alone. They’re there for a reason.)

Vellum is pricey, but worth it (works only on Mac). You can play with a full version for free, but you have to have a license to hit that magic button that spits out all the stuff you can then upload to the various venues. No, you don’t need Vellum if you’re doing KDP because you can upload a .docx or .PDF or .rtf file instead, but that doesn’t mean that all your versions will look the same if you wide (other platforms).

Uploading to KDP was simple enough. The one snag I hit was with the paperback version, which took two tries to get right, so maybe fifteen minutes to re-do.

Did learn that you don’t need an ISBN–Amazon will “give” you one.

There was a 24-hour turnaround on the approval process.

Voila. That’s it, in a nutshell. Even a rocket surgeon can do it.

Up next, publishing on iBooks, Kobo, and Nook. Also CreateSpace, D2D, all this stuff I’ve heard of but never had a reason to look into too deeply.