If you’ve written a book, chances are someone will ask if it’s on Amazon. And in all likelihood, your answer will be "yes" — particularly if you're an independent author, as Amazon's self-publishing branch Kindle Direct Publishing is a no-brainer these days for indie sales and exposure.
But just because KDP is a natural choice for self-publishing your ebooks, that doesn't mean it’s the only choice. There's definitely something to be said for "going wide" and including retailers other than Amazon in your distribution strategy.
In this post, I’ll give a quick primer on why KDP can be a great option for indie authors, as well as a few reasons why you might consider expanding your sales horizons.
The Benefits of Kindle Direct Publishing
1. The publishing platform is easy to use
With KDP, uploading a book cover, inserting a book description, and formatting your product page is simple. And some sleight of hand with categorization and keywords helps users find your book title in the search bar – which means that you have Amazon’s powerful algorithm at your disposal. Though you'll certainly benefit from outside research, KDP guides you through the entire process and makes it easy to optimize your book for Amazon.
2. You get your book on the biggest retailer in the English-speaking world
Even as early as 2014, Amazon dominated 65% of print and digital sales – which means that there’s no real “competition” against Amazon, despite what other consumer platforms may claim. Some independent authors are especially aghast at this kind of monopolization and will opt for a less saturated market. That’s understandable – but you have to balance your values over sales goals, especially in a competitive field like book publishing.
3. With KDP print, you can take care of your print books in the same place
Formerly known as CreateSpace, KDP Print is a print-on-demand service with book cover and interior design tools. It’s a cost-saving measure because you don’t spend thousands of dollars printing books that don’t get sold. And KDP Print is especially helpful for ebook authors who want to link their sales pages together with one click — indeed, there’s even an option for print book customers to download the ebook version of a book for free, which may be an enticing bonus for your readers.
4. You can enroll in KDP Select for extra benefits
If you publish with KDP, you can also choose to enroll in KDP Select: a program that offers additional promotional support in exchange for the exclusive digital selling rights of your book for 90 days. In return, you’ll have access to the Kindle Unlimited program (Amazon’s “Netflix for books”), be involved in site-wide deals, and join the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, where users share books with others. Kindle Unlimited and the Lending Program run on a per-page-read royalty system, so you’ll need to make sure you’ve got a true page-turner before opting into them.
Going with KDP Select makes the book publishing process a true one-stop-shop. “Going wide” involves a lot more work. While aggregators like Draft2Digital simplify the process by publishing and collecting royalties for you from a variety of sellers, there’s still a lot of personal effort involved.
But, if you’re trying to make a business out of self-publishing, going wide is not a bad idea to contemplate…
Why You Might Want to Also Consider “Going Wide”
1. Amazon isn't as huge in other territories
While Amazon owns around 80% of the market shares in the U.S. and U.K., it’s not the only option out there. Kobo, for example, runs 25% of the ebook market in Canada and Apple Books represents 30% in Australia. These brands use creativity and partnerships to get noticed, too, which is an advantage for you. Kobo’s Walmart partnership, for instance, is a way to reach a wide constituency. You’ll miss out on these users by only distributing through KDP.
2. You may have a better chance of being promoted by real people
Companies like Barnes & Noble often promote staff recommendations, so if you’re a top pick, you’ll reap the benefits of their email campaigns. Amazon’s algorithm will give you access to an audience greater than the size of these email lists, yes, but conversions can be lower amongst so much competition. And bestseller lists won’t be in your arsenal either, since listmakers like The New York Times require you to sell with at least two retailers before making the cut. For these reasons, if you’ve written the kind of book that you think will really shine under a more personally cultivated spotlight, you might want to avoid publishing through KDP alone.
3. There are certain royalty benefits
While KDP allows 70% of royalties for books up to $9.99, some other platforms actually have better deals. Apple, for example, offers 70% of royalties on most print and ebooks regardless of price. Authors selling print books on Kobo can also benefit from 70% of the royalties at no price lock, which is great for box sets sold at a $19.99 price point or above.
Granted, there are no rules when it comes to self-publishing and the platforms you choose. That’s what makes the process interesting – the manner in which you execute it can be as unique as your text. But it's important to manage your expectations before going in. By identifying the benefits and drawbacks from the get-go, you’ll set your book up for success from day one.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She's very passionate about independent publishing and hopes to help as many aspiring authors as possible reach their dreams! If you have any comments or questions for her, please leave them below, or you can reach her via email.
The decision to start a blog is big. The decision to post to a blog regularly for the unforeseen future is even bigger. It requires time, sacrifice and takes you away from other tasks—especially when you're a writer.
While you can argue blogging is writing and any practice makes you better—writing blogs instead of your WIP doesn't get your book completed any faster!
Blogging does have its perks, though. Nowadays, it's part of the "Author Platform" expected for modern writers and puts you in touch with other authors, readers and helps sell your books. But like anything in life, and even if you love it, you can find yourself in a blogging rut.
I've had my share of ruts since my blog launched in 2017. There have been posts I've loved that no one has responded to. There have been posts that took ten minutes to write that became my most popular. I've spent a whole week on posts and I've written posts the night before I needed to publish them. I've sometimes wondered if I should keep blogging and I've had readers telling me not to stop blogging (thank you!).
If you've found yourself in a similar blogging rut, these are the ways I've found to dig your way out.
Getting Out Of A Blogging Rut
Take A Break
I know I just said to dig out of the rut and now I'm saying to take a break, the thing I'm not saying is to quit.
If you still have the passion to blog but it's just taking a little longer to get into the groove, all you need to get your mojo back is to take a break.
The only time I've not posted weekly blogs was after having surgery in 2018. I was physically and emotionally drained and just couldn't do it. I was also creatively blocked, so that didn't help. What helped was leaning into that and taking time off. Sometimes you've got to take a break, forced or not, and just give yourself time to be creative again.
Build Up Posts When You're At A Creative Peak
Earlier this year I hit another creative low. Then I went to my first writers conference and got enough material for several posts. Having those posts written gave me a few weeks break from having to pen new blogs, and that allowed me to avoid the rut I was careening toward and work more on my current WIP—refilling my creative cup.
If you ever get into an inspiration peak, go with it and write as many blog posts as you can. They don't even need to be more than a rough first draft. Just having a backup of content takes the pressure off and can really keep your blogging going.
Change Things Up
While routine can be your best friend when you're a blogger and is one key to regular posts, it gets boring.
Knowing you've got to piece together yet another blog post when it feels like you just finished one can spiral you right into a rut. When you feel like you can't take another day of writing intros, thinking of snappy titles, and finding one more image of a generic desk with a laptop on it, it's best to change things up.
Write a different kind of post. Use different pictures. Change your blog theme. I recently launched a newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
It's not often I write about blogging, so this post in itself is creatively different, but you could also try adding gifs, images, or color to your posts. Anything that will make it feel like you're not repeatedly churning out the same thing.
Designate A Blogging Day
Running a blog while writing my YA series Blackbirch was getting overwhelming and the writer-guilt of feeling like I wasn't doing either properly seeped in. When you're feeling negative about the task at hand, that rut looks mighty cozy and a great place to stay.
So, I implemented a non-overwhelming writing routine. Now I have a designated blog day where the only writing I have to do on a Tuesday is a blog post. If one is all I can do, then that's all I do—guilt-free! If I get into a creative flow and write as many posts as I can, I'm then ahead. I aim for those goals every Tuesday, so I'm building up my post stockpile and pulling double-duty to keep myself out of the rut.
Start An Ideas System
One reason you might get into a blogging rut is that you don't have any idea what to write from one week to the next. Planning can help with this, but if you aren't a planner, at least try to become an idea-er (or something that's a real word).
Brainstorming helps. Just sitting down and trying to think of what you'd like to blog about is usually enough to kick start ideas.
If you come up with multiple ideas, start an ideas system. It's as simple as typing them out in a notepad file or Word doc or writing it down in a notebook (but not one of the pretty ones you bought but will never write in).
I use Scrivener and have all my blog ideas in separate note files with the title as the file name. That way I can just scan each file at a glance and decide what I want to work on or drag them to a dedicated "month" folder so I can plan my content and make sure I'm not blogging about similar topics in the same month.
I've got such files going back years, including the year I thought about blogging before actually launching my blog. I may never write all of those ideas, but having them is like having a shovel to dig yourself out of a blogging rut—and is something I highly recommend.
How about you? What do you do to keep your blogging fire burning? Share your tips in the comments below!
— K.M. Allan
K.M. Allan is an identical twin, but not the evil one. When she’s not writing, she likes to read, binge-watch too much TV, and take more photos than she will ever humanly need. Visit her blog at kmallan.com to discover the secrets of the universe, or at the very least, some good writing tips.
We’ve all heard that good characters are the lifeblood of fiction, and when I began work on Gnosis, I didn’t want to scrimp on this vital effort. In keeping with my usual manic personality, I did a bunch of research into character creation. I took my time and consumed a mountain of information on the subject. There are lots of excellent books out there, but to a certain degree, they all required a bit of 'art' to getting the details right. Nothing catered to an organized, systematized approach, and that's what my brain feeds off of.
Eventually, I found my way to Myers-Briggs personality types, and quickly drank the Kool-Aid. Although MBTI types have their detractors, mainly because they’re not terribly predictive of real-world human behavior, they turn out to be perfect for creating fictional character models.
The idea behind them is that they endeavor to categorize human personalities into 16 basic types, represented by four letter combinations, like INFJ or ESFP. There are two choices of letters for each of the four positions, providing for a total of sixteen possibilities: ENFJ, ENFP, ENTJ, ENTP, ESFJ, ESFP, ESTJ, ESTP, INFJ, INFP, INTJ, INTP, ISFJ, ISFP, ISTJ, and ISTP.
These mysterious looking codes, somewhat reminiscent of genetic markers, are quite simple when broken down into their individual components. Taken from first position to fourth, the letters mean:
I or E – Introvert or Extrovert
N or S – Intuitive or Sensing
T or F – Thinking or Feeling
P or J – Perceiving or Judging
Although the terms above are somewhat misleading, if you do enough reading on the subject, they eventually make sense. If you’re utterly fascinated by this, feel free to read the definitive work by Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing.
My tool basically allows a writer to quickly put together a character sketch based on a handful of dominant trait choices. You can provide as much or as little information as you want, but with each bit of data you give, the software filters the possibilities for subsequent choices. It forces you to remain consistent within existing Myers-Briggs types.
The result is that with a very minor time-investment, you can assemble a character that makes sense. It won’t be a random collection of traits that don’t belong together. It will be behaviorally consistent.
So what does ‘behaviorally consistent’ mean? Well, let’s consider a simple example. Let’s say your character is an Introvert. Generally speaking, most Introverts are uncomfortable in large group settings. They tend to be shy at parties, dress in less ostentatious ways, and are often poor at reading social cues. They even have common ways of speaking, food preferences, and hobbies. (These tendencies don’t describe ALL introverts, however. Only some of them. But that’s another discussion entirely.) This being the case, your Introverted character would most definitely not act like Tony Stark (Iron Man) from the Marvel Comics movies. Robert Downey's version of Tony Stark is about as far along the extroverted scale as a character can get.
Unfortunately, there are LOTS of different flavors of introverts. They range from the dreamy, offbeat Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter), to ruthless 'fixers' like Doug Stamper (House of Cards). There are opinionated know-it-alls like Cliff Claven (Cheers), and steadfast confidantes, like Dr. James Wilson (House MD). It’s simply insufficient to label a character as an Introvert or an Extrovert, and think you have something interesting. Personalities are far more complex and nuanced than that.
My Character Creation Gadget helps you navigate the sea of possibilities, and define the core of your character. The result will be consistent with each of the components that make up a particular Myers-Briggs designation, and the best part is, you don’t have to understand how any of the psychology works. The tool will make sure you color within the lines.
Click on the image to the left to go to my Character Creation Gadget. It will open a new browser window and load up the tool. (You may have to turn off your popup blocker to see it.) Give it a few seconds to load up all of the data files. The word “calculating…’ will be displayed in the workspace while it does this. When it says “Ready”, you’re good to go. You might want to check out the “Help” button in the upper left corner first, as this will give you a quick 8 minute YouTube tutorial that shows you how everything works.
(And yes, I couldn’t resist putting a link to my novel, Gnosis, in the upper right corner of the tool. The tool itself is totally free to use, despite the amount of work I put into it. I like giving back to the writing community that gave so much to me. But if you’re of a mind to show some appreciation, please do consider following the link to my Amazon page and picking up a copy of Gnosis. It’s only 99 cents and after the first two months, it has netted all 4-and-5-star reviews.)
Mark tells me that he had a small issue when my tool turned off his Spartan Clips software, but he was able to turn it right back on again without issue. My Character Creation Gadget is still in beta, so I'll continue to try to resolve little issues like that. In the meantime, feel free to drop me a note if you find a bug, or have suggestions for new adjectives, archetypes, characters, etc. Enjoy!
Of course, you’re a writer if you write. The act of putting words down on paper to create a story is the very definition of being a wordsmith, but what takes you from wannabe writer to writer, and then upgrades you to a serious writer?
Spoiler alert, actually writing is only a small part of it.
10 Signs You’ve Upgraded To Being A Serious Writer
1. You’re not afraid to show others what you’ve written.
2. Receiving rejections from agents and publishers no longer stings (as much).
3. Sending a query or submission doesn’t fill you with (complete) fear.
4. You’re happy to pass on the advice that you’ve learned to other writers.
5. You’re writing daily or regularly enough that actual pages are being added to your MS.
6. Ideas for stories come thick and fast. Your creative brain is always on.
8. Walks and commutes to work are soundtracked to writing podcasts instead of music.
9. Your TBR pile now includes non-fiction books about editing or the craft of writing.
10. You have money put away for writing courses and/or professional edits.
A writer might start off their journey as a wannabe, daydreaming about ideas or noting down a few lines of purple prose every now and then. One day, they might decide to give writing a "real go" and get as far as a terrible first draft that languishes in a drawer. It might be years later still before they learn more, practice more, and apply those skills to the next manuscript, the next draft, the complete rewrite, and the endless edits before finally typing, “The End”.
If they're consistent and work hard, they may even get to write “The End” on multiple manuscripts, but being a serious writer isn’t about completing as many WIPs as you can, it’s about what you do with those pages of gold afterward.
No true wordsmith wants to spend all that time writing a book that no one else will ever read. Give your MS to family, friends and beta readers. Submit to publishers. Enter writing competitions. Launch a blog. Start your own writing podcast. You might not see all the signs in yourself yet, but even if you can only cross off one or two on the list above, you're well on your way.
Be a wannabe until you're a writer, but then don’t forget to upgrade to being a serious writer and do something with what you’ve written.
— K.M. Allan
K.M. Allan is an identical twin, but not the evil one. When she’s not writing, she likes to read, binge-watch too much TV, and take more photos than she will ever humanly need. Visit her blog at kmallan.com to discover the secrets of the universe, or at the very least, some good writing tips.
So you’ve finally done it. Written a book after hours at the keyboard, filling in plot holes, shedding tears, drinking cups of tea, and fending off self-doubt. You’ve even made it through beta readers who questioned your genius and still found typos.
Your book is perfect, and more than ready to be snapped up by a publisher. Sure, there will be some rejections, but you’ll welcome those because you’ll need a rejection slip to hang on your wall and keep you humble when you’re rolling in royalties and five-star reviews.
But that publishing deal hasn’t come. It must be them, you tell yourself. There’s no way it could be your book—it’s perfect!
You decide to take a look at the MS, just to confirm that it’s still as wonderful as you remember. Then you see it, the reason those form rejections have been coming in thick and fast. Your MS isn’t perfect. You’ve looked at it with fresh eyes, the realistic eyes that can see the mistakes. Those amateur mistakes, such as…
Otherwise known as not giving the reader any credit and explaining everything. You want them to know why Jessie hates Carl as soon as they’re introduced. No using curt remarks to build tension, or dropping hints to create some mystery, you’ll just explain it all then and there!
Same deal when it comes to connecting the intricate threads of your mind-blowing plot. You can’t be subtle with those threads or rely on the reader to make those connections. What if they miss something? Can you trust the reader to work things out for themselves? Yes, yes you can.
As the author, you may want to authorsplain the finer points to get the story onto the page, but that’s what the first draft is for. Tell it to yourself, then cut it back and find the right balance. Test with beta readers how much little info you need to give in order for a reader to understand what you mean, and then allow them to fill in the blanks. It makes for a much more satisfying read.
This is one of the basics of writing, but it can be tricky to master. Info-dumping, especially in the first few chapters, is a mistake all amateur writers make, some without realizing they’re doing it.
It’s another one of those elements you’ll need during the first draft so you can work out your plot, but after that, you’ve got to use your other drafts to break the info up. Don’t use a page long narration from your MC to explain the situation she’s in, foreshadow it, drop cryptic hints, have a short but sweet conversation between two characters that gives you one half of the story, and the rest of it later.
As the writer, you know that the info is important to the plot, but it doesn’t need to be dumped on the very first page! Save some for the middle, bring it all to a head at the end. Let your characters and the reader live in the moment and find out what they need to know at key points only—not all at once.
Hands up if you over describe how a character gets from Point A to Point B? I’ve done it, in fact, I can’t help including almost every single detail when it comes to my characters' movements.
It may be part of my early draft writing process, but I really don’t need to keep in my later drafts that my MC heard the doorbell ring, put down his cheese sandwich, slid the chair back from the table, walked through the living room, wrapped his fingers around the silver knob, and pulled open the door.
Save the stage directions and the lengthy descriptions for when you need to invoke some real imagery, or to make a payoff work. The most important thing the reader needs to know is who is at the door, not a step-by-step of how the MC answered it.
Extreme Scene Setting
Some writers can set the scene of a book so well it’s almost as if it’s another character. For us amateurs, you’re better off mastering how to give the reader only what they need to visualize the setting.
The trick to this is adding just enough detail to create a sense of space or what the place looks like while allowing the reader’s imagination to do the rest.
For example, they might need to know a living room has a couch because a character is sitting on it, but they don’t need to know about the rug, the coffee table, the lamp, the TV, or the fake plant sitting in the corner. Unless the lamp you painstakingly describe for five sentences is going to be the murder weapon (in which case, you and Professor Plum better hightail it out of there), stop wasting words spelling it out. Most readers would have seen a living room and will get an understanding of what one looks like with a few choice words.
While it may take an experienced eye to spot these amateur mistakes—and even more practice to stop making them in new drafts—mastering them will make you a better writer. One who will, hopefully, one day, also have an acceptance letter to hang on their wall.
— K.M. Allan
About K.M. Allan
K.M. Allan is an identical twin, but not the evil one. When she’s not writing, she likes to read, binge-watch too much TV, and take more photos than she will ever humanly need.
Visit her blog to discover the secrets of the universe, or at the very least, some good writing tips.
There are a lot of reasons writers quit writing, but this is perhaps the deadliest.
A conversation in a local coffee shop the other day sent my mind in a whimsical flurry back to where I was a handful of years ago. The point that nearly broke me as a writer, and it had nothing to do with finishing a first draft.
I was talking to someone about my off-grid cabin, the conversation slipped into my novels and content creation, and he mentioned a friend of his who had thrown in the writing towel fairly recently. The reason that person had quit struck me directly in the feels, because I've been there.
If you've be an advocate of self-publishing from the start, this might not resonate so much, but anyone who has tried to land an agent may know this devil in the details far too well. If you are a budding novelist, please take in the entirety of this article and let it simmer. Come back to it again if needed. This one mistake will most certainly sink any hope of a writing career, and you don't want to make it.
So the Story Goes
Many people think the first draft is the hardest part of writing a novel. The truth is that draft is the first in a series of hurdles that will continue for the rest of your life. This isn't a 100 meter dash, it's a steeple chase...that never ends.
My new friend recounted the story something like this:
A friend of mine wrote a book.
He spent a long time working on it. I don't know how you guys normally do things, but he was trying to get an agent and pitch the book to big companies. He finally ended up tossing in the towel.
Sound familiar? Let me quote you another little passage:
After pitching it to over 100 agents, ... I cut the sequel short, and had a lapse of "writer's block" for three years. Strike that, I let myself fail, for three years.
~McConnell - Finish the Damn Book!I had gone through exactly what this guy's friend had, and it took a pretty fired-up poker to get my butt back in the writing chair. I don't know if this young writer will experience the same, but I plan to meet with him someday and educate him more about the process.
The Little Dragon of Writing
Among a lot of other advice, one thing I was told over and over again in the early days of novel writing was that the first book is just that. The same root that causes this "writer's block" nonsense in the drafting phase (The seed of doubt, or the dragon's egg) spawns something far darker and scarier in the editing phase. Looking back on your own words after writing 100,000 is pretty daunting. But even that is nothing but the hatching of a baby dragon that will learn to breath fire as you enter the querying phase.
When you start to query, if you're smart, you'll have your query letter torn apart by other writers. They will question the merit of your story as an agent would. They'll drill you about the stakes, the plot, and how dull you make the whole thing sound. They'll stab at your ability with hopes that the book isn't as boring as your query letter
But all of this is good. You hammer down the query and perhaps revise a few things in your manuscript. You probably put in another round of editing just for good effect, and you're ready to face the dragon that is rejection.
My first novel was rejected over 100 times, mostly on the strength of the query letter alone. Without sending a response, these people told me that my story sucked without ever reading it.
This has happened before, and it'll happen again, maybe to you! I can think of one blog follower that's reading this right now with her eyes sharpened to my every word. For you, I'll drop a little hint here: Be ready for rejection. Expect it. Welcome it. Write the next book.
The cloud of darkness during the submission process can be daunting. Ask me how many of my stories have been tossed out by almost every literary mag that exists before I got a tiny spot in an upstart mag for the second year in a row. Not exactly a Nobel Prize, but it's a little feather in my cap.
By the time you've worn yourself out sending matched queries to agent after agent, been torn apart by your peers, and look upon your shiny new script with scorn, a little piece inside of you will die. An alchemist would call this step putrefication or calcination. A phoenix can only rise from dead ashes.
Rebirth, New Life, New Stories
So the dragon gave you a good roasting. So what?
Even before I got back into writing again, I encountered a ton of good advice to supplement the bad. It wasn't enough, but I'll share some of it with you now, just so we're on the same page.
It would be wrong not to paraphrase my favorite Steven Pressfield story here. After his first movie hit the theaters, the reviews came in, and it sucked. He even drove out of town to see how it was playing in other theaters. Same result.
He asked the guy at the ticket booth, "How's King Kong Lives?" (did I get that title right? Doesn't matter) The register jockey gave him a big thumbs down and replied, "Miss it, man. It sucks."
After talking with his mentor, he was given the option. Take a few knocks and keep writing, or quit. Thanks from all of us, Steven, that you kept writing.
We all get crushed. We get hard knocks. Our egos get beat down and withered. Those hi-toned authors at the last con may dress themselves with a confident facade, but trust me, they have plenty of skeletons and monsters in their closet too.
One friend of mine landed a deal with a publisher, through an agent, and his book went out of print a year later. Writing is the kind of job where you face rejection and harsh words all the time. The more successful you are, the more people there are in the world that hate your work. It goes with the territory.
The silver lining in all of this is that you aren't standing on the sidelines, or shouting from the nose-bleeds. You're down there in the mud, bleeding your heart into something you love. So screw the haters. You have two choices. You can keep writing. Or you can quit.
Greatness courts failure.
~Tin CupActually, I encourage you to look up that scene on YouTube. There's a lot of wisdom in very few lines... here you go:
How to Carry On
Keep writing. It's that simple. If you have to shelf the first novel, or second, or tenth, then who cares? Some of us put our work on WattPad. Some self-publish. Some start their own media companies, or do freelance work for a while. Some of the best shit that I've ever written doesn't have my name on it, and I made less than minimum wage writing it. But it's out there in the world, helping people live their lives while helping others build their businesses. The goal of every story is to last, to be told and heard, to be repeated, and to live on.
Some stories stay small and local, others go big time. It's not a mark against you. It's just what the market is shopping for that day. Don't be let down by rejection slips, failed queries, and all of this other nonsense. Start writing another story. If you played the agent game and got burned, then welcome to the fucking club! You're doing what you're supposed to be doing. You didn't fall for a predatory publisher, and you finished a freaking novel. Give yourself a pat on the back, and start on the next story.
I don't recommend framing your first story as a trilogy, even if it has the potential, for that reason. You're first story is akin to your first painting, your first gig as a musician, your first marathon, or your first day at a new job.
Yes, writing a novel takes a while. Editing takes longer, and marketing is a frickin' nightmare. Embrace it. Keep telling stories, keep honing your writing, and get on the path that YOU are meant to be on. Don't worry so much about the cookie-cutter professional publishing thing. You can always submit new books to new agents, and perhaps one day you will land one, but keep telling stories. If you stuck it out through one novel, you can write another one, and the next one might be better than the first.
Keep learning. Keep growing. Drive your own plot.
I had a family member to give me the kick in the ass I needed to write the Incorporated series, which led me to the original publisher for Viral Spark. Don't count on having that. If you need to be kicked in the pants, I'm here, and I have a heavy pair of boots. Shoot me an email. But it's far better for you to realize that getting kicked in the teeth is part of the game. So what? Move on. You have other stories to tell, and if you don't, the world will never see them, and they'll die. ... or quit. But understand now that quitting will be your own choice. You can't unread this article, and now you know that this is something that ALL of us go through at some point. Slaying these little dragons is part of the job.
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him on twitter @spottedgeckgo or at his website writefarmlive.com.
You’ve written your first book or your tenth book, the amount doesn't matter—how do you get your book in the hands of readers? Book signings? Pitch to local bookstores? Libraries? Social media? Advertising on social media or on Amazon?
If you’re counting on social media, you could be banned in an instant. Recently, you may have heard on the news several prominent users with millions of followers were banned from Facebook and Instagram. If you were to be banned from social media would you still have a way to communicate with your readers? You can’t count on social media, but you can count on your email list that you’ve built by sending out blog posts (a.k.a., newsletter, articles, updates).
What’s the first thing you see when you go onto a website? It’s that annoying “Sign-up for our email/newsletter/list” – it pops up or swooshes in from the side or it takes over the screen. Sure they want you to receive their content, but more importantly, they want to know where they can reach you.
I’m signed up to receive emails from some big-name authors. Yes, even the big names want your email address so they can still reach you if something goes awry with any or all other marketing channels. The email list is golden.
How do you get an email list? Blogging from your website or a blogging platform (many how to videos on YouTube, look for recent videos as services change). Email services are typically free until you reach a certain number of subscribers. I began blogging before I published my first novel, everything I’d read said blogging was a must. It’s a conundrum for authors—with nothing published what would you blog about and why would anyone sign up to receive something from you? You have to start with friends and family.
Blog about what inspires you. Something drew you to write in your genre; think hard, what inspires you? Is there a specific era or event? Maybe there’s a location? Paris, France has been the inspiration for many romance novels.
Let’s say you write historical romance inspired by Paris. You could blog about Paris and drill it down to specifics. What was happening in Paris during the time period you write about? Was there a street you fell in love with when you vacationed there? In my case, I write in the mystery/thriller genre. Because I worked in public education, school crime inspired me. I blog about my school crime research. Blogging about research is fun and most authors have a plethora of research.
How about zombie apocalypse genre? You may have pondered what if people in Chicago, Illinois, were infected with a virus that turned half the population into zombies? Actually, that may have been Bird Box. Okay, let’s use Bird Box as an example of what to blog about. You could write about the city setting which inspired the city in the story, and the same for the grocery store, the bird’s behavior, the river, the cabin, the bird sanctuary, etc.
A word of caution—when you do blog, keep it relevant to your books. If you write war stories, blogging about your passion for cooking will not help you get your war stories to your target audience.
Here’s where I’m guessing you feel like this is too much. There’s a bonus I didn’t know when I started blogging—your writing will improve because it doesn’t matter if you’re writing novels, articles, or blog posts, it all helps to improve your writing.
Lastly, run your blog posts through a grammar and spelling check the same as you would for your full novel (or have Word Refining proofread them for you). I use Grammarly for blog posts and love it, here’s a link to the free version (I’m not an affiliate – I just love it). Grammarly
So to blog or not to blog--YES! Blog and be consistent and cohesive. If you say, you’ll send out your blog post every Saturday, stick to it. Steven King sends out an email about every six months or when he has news.
Email me if you need help deciding on what you should blog about or how to blog in general. We can figure it out together—authors helping authors—with no strings attached. Robin@RobinLyons.com
About Robin Lyons, Author
Robin Lyons writes mystery/thriller stories based on disturbing reality.
The concept for her School Marshal series came about after a beloved school principal and friend in her hometown was gunned down in his office by an employee. The loss felt by the school district and community was tremendous. The tragedy changed Robin's view of life in a small town.
Check out the Research Blog where she shares information from researched cases, true crimes occurring at or connected to schools.
Twenty-nine years working as a school employee and six years as an elected school board member provided plenty of inspiration for her stories. www.robinlyons.com/
#blogpost #blogging #blogcontent
No matter what kind of author you are, querying agents can be a pretty arduous process — especially if you’ve never done it before! You’ve probably heard different bits of advice here and there, so you may not be sure what the correct protocol is. After all, a query letter is supposed to perfectly encompass your book in such a way that agents will be squabbling to take it on — a tall order for what should only be a single page of persuasion.
That’s why I want to help you get this process exactly right. Here are five tips and tricks for querying agents that will start you down a path to success.
1. Keep your synopsis short and snappy
When trying to fit a lengthy book into a page-long query letter, it’s hard to know what to include vs. leave out. You might be tempted to dive deep into your book: covering not just the main characters, but the secondary characters, subplots, and underlying themes you feel are important.
But your query synopsis is not the place to do this! When querying, it’s crucial to keep the summary of your book as short and snappy as possible. Otherwise, agents may not even read it — or if they do, they probably won’t remember it. And nothing’s a one-way ticket to an agent’s “reject” pile like an unmemorable synopsis.
When crafting your own, remember that there are three parts to a great query synopsis: the hook, the key plot points (read: not all of them), and the wrap-up, all of which should take up about a page. You likely already have some idea of what a hook is: it’s the most exciting or original aspect of a work, the thing that makes it stand out from the crowd. For example, if you were Alice Sebold writing a synopsis for The Lovely Bones, your hook would be, “Narrated from beyond the grave, this book tells the story of Susie Salmon, who’s killed by her neighbor but can still see him — and all her friends and family — from heaven.”
Following this would be the key plot points, which should be 3-5 sentences at most. You’d round it off with some kind of resolution, which I’ll talk about next. And bonus tip: if you can convey your writing voice in your synopsis, that’s even better. Just make sure you’re not doing so at the cost of brevity (which is the soul of wit, after all).
2. Include the ending
One of the most common misconceptions about querying is that you shouldn’t include the ending of your book, because you want to “always leave them wanting more,” as P.T. Barnum supposedly said. But, just like that quote being misattributed, the sentiment isn’t exactly sound when it comes to querying.
The truth is, most agents don’t care about story endings being “spoiled” for them — in fact, it’s encouraged, especially if you have a great ending. After all, agents who don’t have the time or patience to read through a long-ish synopsis certainly don’t have the time to read your entire manuscript just to find out your ending and decide to represent you. So even if you have the best twist ending in the world, don’t use it to bait agents without telling them what it is: just reveal it outright in your synopsis.
3. Use effective comp titles
On top of your hook and ending, another great way to sell agents on your book is to use comp titles. What are comp titles, you ask? Well, you’ve probably already used them: if you’ve ever described a book, film, or other piece of media as “[Thing A] meets [Thing B],” then you’re a regular comp title connoisseur!
As you can surmise from this, comp titles compare something relatively unknown (or unknown to the party being addressed) to things that are well-known or successful in their field. So if you’ve written a magical adventure novel that takes place on a desert island, you might pitch it to agents as “Earthsea meets Robinson Crusoe.”
However, there are two critical things to avoid when using comp titles to describe your book. The first is choosing comp titles that are super-famous and popular today — it would set expectations way too high. For example, you wouldn’t want to compare your book to Harry Potter and Divergent.
The second is that you usually don’t want to compare your book to two other titles that are very similar — e.g. “Robinson Crusoe meets Swiss Family Robinson” — because it doesn’t provide a particularly notable take. You’re basically just saying, “My book is part of this genre, same as these other two books,” which the agent should be able to figure out by themselves anyway.
Remember that your comp titles should make your book seem unique, yet identifiable within the literary canon. Moreover, if you use comp titles really effectively, your agent might even pitch your book that way to publishers — and your publisher could use those same comp titles to attract readers down the line! So think carefully about your comp titles, because they may end up going a long way.
4. Query selectively
If you’ve ever written a book (and if you’re reading this article right now, I’m guessing you've at least gotten started), you know that the finished product takes some serious blood, sweat, and tears. In fact, it’s like a child to you at that point — and you wouldn’t let just anyone take care of your child, would you?
By that logic, you shouldn’t let just anyone handle your book. You want someone who will actually care about it, and who has experience with your genre or subject matter— just as you would want someone with previous childcare experience to look after your child. (At least, I hope you would.)
So when you’re deciding how many agents to query, and what conditions they should meet, keep quality over quantity in mind. If you really do your research into each agent’s mission statement, the books they typically represent, their greatest past successes, and their current demand, you should be able to find a small but superlative pool of agents to contact. Personalizing your query letter accordingly would be your next step.
Trust me, this will lead to much better results than sending out a mass query to every agent’s email you can find! If you put the work into your research, you’ll get someone who’s actually invested in your work, and you’ll be that much closer to getting a publishing deal.
5. Follow up
Finally, if you don’t hear back from an agent who seems like they’d be a great fit for you and your book, follow up with them! Of course, sometimes agents take a long time to sift through their emails, and their not getting back to you might simply just be a product of that. But if it’s been a couple weeks and you haven’t heard anything, you’re well within your rights to send a brief follow-up email. That follow-up could be the difference between an agent you settle for and an agent who’s your professional soulmate.
If querying doesn’t go well, or you’re getting frustrated with how long the traditional publishing process takes, don’t fret: you have more options on the table, like self-publishing (which Clayton also details in this post). Or you can go back and revise your book for another round of queries — especially if some agents offer you feedback to that end. Basically, don’t give up on your dream of publishing your book: no matter what path you ultimately take, there’s always some way to make it work.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She's very passionate about independent publishing and hopes to help as many aspiring authors as possible reach their dreams! If you have any comments or questions for her, please leave them below, or you can reach her via email.
This post is a basic overview, and is aimed at helping those who are writing, or who have written a book, and would like to see it published.
While this post focuses on self-publishing with Amazon, I’m going to briefly cover the three most common avenues to publishing.
Traditional publishing- For an unknown author this method requires the most effort and often yields the least results. Querying agents to represent you to traditional publishers is not only time consuming, but it can be demoralizing as well—prepare for rejection. I finally gave up on finding a better than thou publishing agent when I learned that the odds of an unpublished author landing one, is roughly 1 in 6,000. I was given that number by a professional in the publishing industry.
The Vanity Press- A vanity press is a publisher that, if you pay them, they will publish your book. We’ve all seen the TV commercials: ‘Have you written a book and want it published? Call us, we’ll publish your book and get it in bookstores everywhere.’ Once it’s published, they will also market your book, and you will receive zero royalties from the books they sell. Leaving the author with a slim market margin to sell and receive their own royalties. If you want to make any kind of money from publishing and selling your book, this is not the way to go.
Self-publishing- This option will likely leave you less frustrated, less demoralized, and more optimistic. It did for me. Self-publishing puts the author in complete control of their book, from formatting, to cover design, to marketing and making money from their work.
The outline below will lead you down the pathway to self-publishing your book. Take one step at a time, focus on the task at hand, and you can have your book published and available for purchase sooner than you might think. It's very possible to go from blank page to published book in less than 90 days.
1. Write the Book. While this may seem like a no-brainer, it actually isn’t. In reality, if you want to have a successful book launch, one where you sell copies as soon as it goes into print, then marketing your book is the official first step. I’ve heard it said that if one plans on publishing a book, they should begin marketing three years, or more, in advance. This gives the author time to build a fan base and for people to become familiar with them and their work. When the book comes available, there will be a multitude of people anticipating its release, leading to immediate book sales. This post, however, is about getting your book published, and in order to do that, you must first write your book.
If you need help, or ideas for writing, do a search, there are countless articles on this topic. You may also consider something like the #WritersCommunity on twitter, it is a great place to find writing advice, encouragement, and support from other writers. And it’s free!
2. Proofread. Once your book is written, you’ll undoubtedly want to read through it for mistakes, but be not deceived. A once through will not suffice. It’s common to write something, and since we’ve written it, we think we know what it says, making it very easy to read over the same mistakes time and time again. I have read some of my books a dozen times after the initial draft, only to have someone else read them and find mistakes.
It's been said that you don’t have to write a good story in order to sell your book, your book just has to be well written. This means very few (if any) typographical and grammatical errors. Freckle a book with typos, misused words or forms of words, punctuation errors and other common writing mistakes, and we have a book that no one will likely ever finish reading.
Having a professional set of eyes to proofread your book before publication, is the best thing you can do for your writing. You spent all the time and effort writing the book, make sure it’s the best it can be, hire a professional proofreader, it’s money well spent—it’s an investment!
My last book was proofread by Mark Schultz at wordrefiner.com. I also plan on hiring him to proofread my future books. He provides a professional service, he has an eye for errors, and his rates are completely reasonable.
3. Cover Design. While your book is in the hands of a proofreader, you’ll want to get to work on the cover.
Note: if you plan on marketing your book before it’s published, or even written, mocking up a cover for a visual representation is one of the first things you should do. Even if it’s subject to change. You will need something for people to see and become familiar with.
By the time your manuscript is complete, you have undoubtedly thought about what you want the cover to look like. There are a couple options when it comes to cover design. You can hire someone to do it, or, you can design the cover yourself. The online tools available today, make the second option a realistic prospect, check out DIY Book Covers.
It’s also very easy to make a professional book cover using a graphic design program and a free book cover template from amazon. Don’t want to purchase an expensive program? Here’s a link to a great program that many Indie Authors use to design their covers, it’s FREE to download and use, get it here GIMP! It’s the perfect alternative to Adobe PhotoShop, and as I mentioned, it’s free. There are endless YouTube videos on how to create a cover using Gimp, everything from retrieving and uploading a cover template, to program functions, and putting it all together.
If you are looking for a professional cover designer, I recommend checking out Ellie Douglas. Her cover designs are outstanding, they’re high quality and they stand out. She has a knack for creating great covers.
However, if you’re like many Indie Authors, the thought of designing your own cover is an exciting prospect. The easiest way to do this is to sign up on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). You’ll first need an Amazon account to sign up and access the cover creator tools. I have not used their cover creator tools, I simply download a template (from KDP) and load it into my design program. In order to create a cover, you’ll need a page count of your book, which you now have since your manuscript is complete.
DIY Book Covers, or the KDP cover creator tools may be the way to go if you want to design your own cover, but have no experience with a graphic design program.
You will want high quality images for your cover, this will likely require using one of the image download services to ensure that you don’t infringe on the copyright of a picture. I personally buy my images from Shutterstock. I found them to have the best purchasing options for my needs.
If you have a good camera, taking your own pictures for your book cover is another option.
If you’re looking for a professional, custom-designed image, I recommend checking out Desha001 at fiverr.com. He is the best illustrator I have found, bar none. His illustrations are high def. between 300 and 600 dpi and his rates are totally reasonable.
4. Purchase an ISBN. Note: eBooks do not require an ISBN. If you plan on making your book available exclusively on Kindle, you do not need an ISBN.
Amazon will also assign your paperback a FREE ISBN if you wish. However, that ISBN is only good for Amazon. If you want to sell your book elsewhere, you will have to purchase an ISBN.
For this, you will need to open an account at Bowker.com, this is the place where you can purchase ISBN’s, bar codes, and start your copyright application. Bowker can also assist in book marketing. Sign up for their newsletter and you’ll receive all sorts of great information on self-publishing, launching a book, and successful marketing tips. Bowker is where a lot of the magic in self-publishing takes place.
Note: It’s not necessary to purchase a Bar Code from Bowker. Amazon will place one on the back cover of your book for free. When you order author copies of your book, the Bar Code will be there.
5. Copyright Application. While you’re on Bowker, it’s a good time to purchase a copyright package for your book. They charge $79 for the initial fee, the US Copyright Division charges another $55 for filing. This is the best deal I have found for a copyright service and here’s a hint, if you place the copyright into the shopping cart and sign out, Bowker will send you an email within a day, containing a coupon for $10 off your copyright. That’s a good time to sign back in and purchase it.
It takes a few steps, but broken down, it is relatively easy to submit your work for a copyright. It’s also a crucial part in publishing your book. You want the protection of a legal copyright.
6. Upload on KDP. You’re now ready to publish your book. If you already signed up on KDP to access Amazon’s cover creator tools, or download a cover template, all you have to do is sign into your Amazon bookshelf. If you haven’t yet done so, you’ll need to sign up on KDP at this time, it does require an Amazon account.
On your Amazon bookshelf, you’ll be able to upload your manuscript, book cover, write a description, set a price, monitor sales and more. They even provide you with marketing tools and a barrage of information, covering most anything you will want to know.
Closing. This post was written to help aspiring authors (who would like to self-publish on Amazon) place things in order and gain perspective. This has been a broad-brush overview of the steps to self-publishing. I will cover each of these steps more in depth as I go through them with my latest book.
Thank you for reading, and happy writing!
Will a few misspelled words, missed or extra commas, or run-on sentences really affect your image as a writer and your book reviews? Are readers really that picky or even that knowledgeable on proper grammar?
The answer is a resounding—Yes! Readers are in fact that picky, and way more of them than you realize are that knowledgeable on proper grammar. Readers can be highly critical, especially of books written by new authors. Why do you think it’s so difficult to get a publishing contract with traditional publishers?
As an editor and grammar nerd, I see mistakes all the time on websites, social media, and published books. It’s very unfortunate, because these mistakes can ruin an author’s or website’s credibility. Think about it. Would you put your trust in a medical or news website if the content was riddled with misspelled words and grammar mistakes? Likely not.
Likewise, book readers do not want to be overwhelmed by a huge flux of books filled with mistakes because the author either didn’t proofread before publishing or put too much faith in their own ability to find their mistakes.
If authors could separate themselves enough from their own work to do a truly proficient job of proofreading, then the big name publishers would save money by having the authors do it themselves instead of paying high salaries to highly educated and experienced proofreaders and editors. The truth is, authors are too emotionally and mentally attached to their own work to look at it objectively the way an unfamiliar reader can and will.
Indie and self-published authors, it's very important to remember that mistakes found in your books will reflect in your reviews. These reviews can make a huge difference in your career. But it's also imperative to keep in mind that those reviews do not just affect you. They affect every self-published/indie author!
The publishing world has seen an astronomical boom in self-publishing over the last decade. With so many writers doing their own publishing, it is beginning to reshape the quality level of books for readers.
I almost always read reviews before I purchase a new book. I recently read a few reviews left on Amazon for some self-published authors that were overall not good. One of them was asking Amazon to please put a stop to letting all of the "wannabe writers" from publishing just anything.
Have you stopped to think what if Amazon, or other book marketers, decided to listen to these requests and took more seriously the negative reviews? What if enough readers got fed up with the high amounts of poor quality books available and all-together stopped purchasing books produced by self-published/indie authors? The effects of that would be devastating to thousands of authors.
In a world as advanced as ours, anything could happen. It can't be stressed enough— proofread, edit, and repeat with a different set of eyes before you publish. Don't write "The End" then hit publish. That's a fast track to a bad review that reflects on all self-published/indie authors worldwide.
How your book looks and reads for the general public expresses how you, the writer, look to your readers and potential readers. Do you want them to see you as a serious, professional writer or a no-talent amateur? Do you want them to see all self-published/indie authors as a serious breed of writers or a class of low-quality amateurs?
When enough self-published/indie authors decide to skip the editor/ proofreader or don't take enough time to make a serious effort themselves on it, and when they don't take the time to properly learn their craft and genre in order to write well-crafted story lines, then the world of readers gets the impression that self-published/indie authors are not real, professional writers. That's not the impression we want our readers to have.
Do yourself and the world of self-published/indie authors a favor and hire an editor and proofreader. It’s worth the expense. If you can't afford it, then find a fellow writer that might like to swap manuscripts for editing and proofreading—but sample their editing work first to make sure they know what they're doing.
I am still accepting submissions for editing, proofreading, cover designing, and self-publishing assistance. I believe every author should have a clean, polished, professional quality book regardless of their budget. That's why I do everything I can to make sure that the author can afford my services. My prices are competitive with industry standard rates. I have an author assistance program that consists of a payment plan and discounts on select services if necessary.
You can read about my business and check out all of my services on my website www.tsarinapress.com. If you have a book that’s getting bad reviews for grammar mistakes and typos but were positive you published a clean book, your readers are most likely right. I’ll be happy to take a look at the book for you to assess it and let you know what I find. Use the contact page on my website or message me through Facebook to set up an appraisal.
Editor and Book & Cover Designer
You need to strengthen your voice.
This obnoxious sentence makes writers want to poke their own eyes out with an unsharpened pencil. An unassuming, simple sounding criticism, the words frustrate us, and for good reason. The obvious response, “okay, how do I fix that?” is invariably met with a shrug and an ambiguous, useless retort.
“It’s a matter of experience,” they tell us. Or “you just have to write until your voice emerges.” My personal favorite is “I can’t define it, but I know it when I read it.”
Yeah. Super helpful. Thanks so much.
As writers, we’re eager sponges, with a desperate urge to hone our skills. We rarely approve of our best efforts, and when we encounter criticism, we take it seriously. But what hope do we have when the people who point out the problem can’t even define it, let alone tell us how to fix it?
I’ve read plenty of blog posts, articles, and books on voice. Most fill the pages with endless contrasting examples of ‘good voice’ and ‘bad voice’. “See?” they proclaim. “Do it like this. Not like this.”
I’ll take it on faith that I’m dense, but this approach did nothing for me. The burning desire to improve remained, and seeing examples of ‘good voice’ was akin to showing a starving squirrel an oak tree surrounded by an electric fence.
What I needed was for someone to connect the dots, and no one could pull it off.
That’s when I decided to stop looking for other people to solve my problems, and do it myself.
To start, I had to set aside my frustration and admit that the vague advice I’d read on the subject of voice wasn’t without clues. The most important of these was “good voice is confident.” I started with that.
Unfortunately, the solemn wisdom didn’t extend much further than that. When offering advice on how to achieve this magical confidence, the ensuing suggestion was “you have to believe what your character is saying. It’s like method acting.”
Yeah. Writer here. Not an actor.
Nevertheless, I thought about it for a while and decided that maybe there was more there than what I saw at first glance. I turned to my favorite device: identifying a suitable model to compare it against. I asked myself “Who is confident?”
Well, leaders for starters. So why not look into leadership techniques, and see where that goes?
We’ve all read that the primary quality of intuitive leaders is a decisive, unshakeable belief in what they’re saying. Much like the advice offered above, the leader believes what they say.
With that as my starting point, I dove headfirst into the challenge, and happily, it took very little time to discover quite a few pearls of wisdom at the bottom of the uncertain sea called the Internet.
Luckily, there have been quite a few studies regarding the speaking style of leaders. Numerous articles pointed out that if one parses a leader’s words, a number of specific, quantifiable tactics emerge.
Don’t Equivocate. It’s okay to be judgmental
It’s shocking how often writers convince themselves that their protagonist is “only human”, and that it’s perfectly reasonable that they would experience moments of uncertainty. The problem is that readers don’t want this in their heroes. We all know that.
But do we, as writers, remain true to that premise? Look at your narrative. How often do you fill your writing with equivocations like:
must have, sort of, that kind of, a little, probably, he guessed, sometimes, she believed, she thought, perhaps, as far as he was concerned, most, a lot, might, can, could be, she assumed, reminded him of, tends to?
It’s all too easy to thoughtlessly sprinkle phrases like these into the narrative, introducing doubt and uncertainty through the eyes of the POV character. You need to jettison the caveats.
Imagine your character is a scientist researching a cure for cancer. Her peers are hot on the trail of a new form of gene therapy, but our erstwhile heroine is convinced they are chasing a red herring. In the narrative, you might write:
She didn’t think they had it right.
It’s a simple, direct sentence, and it reflects her genuine uncertainty, so what’s wrong with it? Well, everything if our readers want confidence. Heroic protagonists are manifestly sure of themselves, and the sentence above is far from decisive. Stronger would be:
They knew nothing, and people would die while they wasted their time.
The difference is stark. The narrator is confident, maybe even judgmental and arrogant. The bold statement, presented as fact, may prove right or wrong, but the narrator took a stand, and that’s what readers want. They want the hero who surges defiantly into the face of adversity and dissent.
The list of equivocation phrases above isn’t exhaustive, but if viewed through the lens of under-confidence, a clear pattern emerges, and armed thus, examples take on actual meaning.
Most reasonable people understood that what she was doing – walking outside during a hurricane – was dangerous.
We watched her sauntering up the street into the teeth of the storm, wondering how long it would take for a falling branch to crush her skull.
The little boat bobbed on the waves, reminding him of a child’s toy.
The little boat bobbed on the waves, a bathtub toy in a dangerous ocean.
In these examples, the narrator shifts from making reasonable assumptions to stating bold, judgmental truths. From equivocation to decisiveness. From the caveat-laden language of reasonable people to the unshakeable declarations of a person with convictions. The changes are relatively subtle, but nonetheless important.
Comparing them, the former are the phrasings of uncertain followers, while the latter are the confident judgments of leaders.
Don’t Babble or Justify
Leaders are also succinct. They understand that excess words take longer to process and invite critics to pick at the details, and these things undermine the faith that followers have in them.
If you think about it, long explanations or justifications sound as if the speaker is unsure of themselves, and trying to talk themselves into something. Followers always want to believe that leaders know what they’re doing. That’s why people follow them.
Leaders speak in short, punchy, memorable chunks. They state simple truths and reach quick conclusions.
Writers often embed constant justifications into the narrative. They justify this by claiming that it is necessary in order for the reader to understand the character’s motivations.
Give your readers a little credit.
As an example of both babble and justification in one paragraph, consider:
Harvey’s finger hovered over the ‘buy’ button. There was a lot riding on this. Fifty thousand was only half of the total he’d embezzled from the company’s retirement account, but if Optronics split at the opening bell, he could slide the profits in through operating cash budget. No one needed to know. In less than a day, he could erase his crime. There would be no need to explain that the insurance hadn’t covered Lorraine’s medical bills. No need to explain his responsibilities as a husband and father. The risk had been worth it, and he’d do it again if he had to. But none of that mattered now. The worst was over, and all he had to do was take this one last risk.
I know a lot of writers who’d go much farther than that, endlessly rehashing information that had doubtless been provided in previous scenes, dragging out Harvey’s agonized decision. They wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to sum it all up, like a lawyer’s closing statement.
But this kind of information dump is nearly always unnecessary. Even as an opening paragraph, when none of this is known to the reader, the pre-action babble serves no other purpose than to drag out the decisive moment. I’d much rather see:
Harvey stabbed the flashing green ‘buy’ button on his laptop’s touch screen, then wiped his hands on his pants and closed the lid. Accounts receivable was fifty thousand dollars lighter now, but if Optronics split tomorrow, he could replace the stolen funds without anyone noticing. And if it didn’t, well, no matter. Either way, Lorraine was out of danger now, recovering in St. Theresa’s Intensive Care Unit. If that cost him a few years in jail, he could live with it.
In the first example (125 words), there’s no action at all, but there’s a lot of navel-gazing babble. Harvey agonizes over the decision that he had no choice but to make, and the narrator pointlessly justifies it with back-story before pulling the trigger.
In the second example (81 words), the trigger is pulled in the first sentence. Harvey takes immediate, decisive action, and then concisely and matter-of-factly, the narration fills in the gaps.
Yes, sometimes a chain of logic is called for, but unless it’s absolutely necessary, kill the justifications. Your character should be certain. They should state plain, uncomplicated truths. The reader will keep up.
And frankly, we often enjoy those epiphany moments, when the hero’s actions strike us with one of those “Oh wow, that’s why she did that” moments. Don’t ruin your reader’s opportunity for discovery. Don’t undermine their faith in your protagonist. Give the readers a clear, decisive, simple image. Simple truths are viewed as self-evident, more believable by default.
Avoid Delayed Decisions
Much like indecision in word choice, there exists a kind of indecisiveness of action. Often, this takes the form of adverbs.
Hovering outside his hotel room, she reached tentatively for the doorknob.
Examples like this are tricky. Writers can come up with countless reasons why the POV character hesitates before opening any metaphorical door. And to be clear, many of these reasons are valid.
But as is often the case, too much of anything is a bad thing. You don’t want your characters constantly hesitating. Constantly agonizing over every tiny decision. When it’s necessary for dramatic tension, let them pause. But be vigilant. If you find your character doing this more than once every few chapters, you’re creating the same kind of uncertainty that poisons the narrative.
Heroes throw caution to the wind. They casually surge forward, ever ready to meet challenges head on. Don’t casually allow them to hesitate. Ever. When a character pauses before leaping into conflict, it should be a defining moment, nothing less.
Ignoring the flutter in her stomach, she willed a smirk onto her lips and swept into the room.
The woman in the first example is a timid school girl, afraid to commit to a decision. That’s a victim waiting to happen. Fine if it’s a secondary character, but only compelling in a protagonist in unusual circumstances.
The second example shows a decisive woman who won’t let nervousness get between her and whatever she’s after. That’s a heroine, and she forces readers to turn the page.
Understand that there’s a difference between the character and how the writer frames them. In both cases, the woman is nervous before entering the room. But the first example renders a character in uncertain, ambiguous language. The second shows much more clearly her state of mind. Voice isn’t the strength of character. It’s the strength of the description.
Root Out Verbs of Being
This is standard advice for writing and it’s also a component of voice. Verbs of being (is, are, was, were, be, been, being) are verbs that perform little function except to state the existence of a thing.
There’s nothing remotely interesting about simple existence. It conveys no nuance, no texture.
Consider a sentence like:
She was in the middle of the street, ignoring the rush hour traffic
A simple verb change and accompanying affect introduces much more interesting texture, and with it, a stronger voice.
She danced in the middle of the street, oblivious to the angry shouts and honking horns.
She planted herself in the middle of the street, shaking a fist at the rush hour traffic.
I won’t belabor this one, as there are countless good books and articles on passive voice, but I point it out because it’s clearly an impediment to strong voice.
Use Imagery, Metaphors, and Similes
Again, this is standard advice, but again I include it because it is also a component of voice.
Readers like to imagine. Everyone does. And nothing assists imagination more than a good metaphor. Metaphors and similes are a kind of shorthand. They not only provide a visualization for action, making it easier to understand, they also perform a more important function. They bring associations with them.
The point of a metaphor or simile is to use a small number of words to add a large amount of information.
Let’s say we compare an inquisitive person to a ferret.
Twitching his nose like an oversized ferret, he pounced into the room, rooting through the pile of clothes on the floor.
If you’ve ever owned a ferret, you know all about their insatiable, relentless curiosity. When a ferret sets its mind to locating and stealing a shiny object, almost nothing can stand in its way. By providing this association to the reader, we need only four extra words to add all of the instinctive, relentless attitude of nature’s most tenacious rodent into the character’s personality.
This type of imagery makes characters more recognizable. More memorable. And it is ineffably tied to voice.
Writers inevitably get much too wrapped up around the notion of plausibility and reality. In their zeal to represent realism, they forget that readers don’t actually want realism. They don’t. Readers want things that are larger than life. They want to live vicariously through characters that are driven and decisive. Readers want to know what it feels like to confidently stride into conflict, self-assured and prepared to brave the unknown.
As a writer, your language can either add to that goal or undermine it. When you undermine it, that’s what critics mean by a weak voice. Your writing doesn’t match the heroism of your character.
When you render a confident character with weak words, (or even when you render an under confident character with weak words), the result simply feels wrong. There are no grammatical errors. The language may be lyrical and poetic, but voice is more than that. It is the confident, almost heroic way that the writer decisively paints the character.
So in the end, the writer does need to be confident, just as the advice said. Paint your characters with a decisive brush, boldly stating what they are. Don’t hedge. Don’t equivocate. Don’t apologize.
Shamelessly tell us who they are.
Susan Crandall and the Path Home
Dysfunctional families, though they might be enticing and dramatic subjects for countless books and movies out there, bring much more woe than most authors account for or can convey. As a matter of fact, it seems it's become the common trait given to characters writers want to give a tragic background to, a small addition to a mass of elements, ultimately to be cheaply glossed over.
However, there is always the other side of the coin, and today Susan Crandall stands on it with her novel titled The Myth of Perpetual Summer. Where most stories would pay little mind to the family dynamics or create portrayals seeking only to shock the reader, this one approaches the subject with all the honesty and dignity it deserves.
The story opens up in 1972 as we are introduced to Tallulah James, living on her own in San Francisco, having escaped the tragedy which is her family nine years ago. However, she gets word her brother Walden has just been arrested for murder in New Orleans... the brother she once left behind. She doesn't know much, but she is certain she must come back home and try to save him, even if it means getting back in the touch with the family she left so long ago. From there on out the story branches between the past and the present, following Tallulah's upbringing and her current fight to save her brother as well as perhaps salvage what little remains of her family.
A Nonexistent Childhood
On some level it feels as if this book is made from two shorter novels blended together into one. While they do correlate with each other on various levels, for the most part it feels as if you're reading through two independent tales with their own unique characteristics. While I believe many authors would be incapable of adopting this sort of model and making the story feel realistic and organic, Susan Crandall succeeds at it much better than most. The jumps between the timelines as you switch from one chapter to the next never feel too rushed or abrupt, always having some sort of connection for you to hold on to and get into the zone of the incoming pages. Additionally, both stories, despite being quite different, end up complementing each other with their varying qualities.
The storyline dedicated to exploring Tallulah's childhood is particularly fascinating, depicting in great detail the inner workings of a family falling apart at the seams. We walk with her through her childhood largely marked by the absence of her parents and the duty of raising her two siblings which inadvertently fell on her shoulders. We bear witness to the destructive maelstrom of her parents' relationship, how it wreaks havoc on the entire family. Amidst it all, there is the strong and stern grandmother, the dedicated keeper of family secrets. Crandall ensures we feel the full psychological burden of this setting on Tallulah every step of the way, constantly reminded about how every single second of her existence devolved into struggle. The path taken by the family in its unravelling feels very logical, deliberate and realistic... almost to the point where I have the impression it might be based on something concrete, and for that I applaud the author.
Old Demons Never Rest
The expositions into the past provide many interesting plot points and explanations in regards to the characters, but the present day is where, in my opinion, the more exciting and hopeful parts of the book lie. The whole story surrounding Walden and the murder he is accused of makes for a compelling mystery as we always feel there is something amiss, preventing us from seeing the complete picture. As you might imagine, there are more than a few twists and turns to contend with, and while I would characterize some of them as being relatively tame, on the whole I felt satisfied with where the story took me. After all, this isn't an outright thriller and thus it would be unfair to judge it as one.
At the same time it is equally fascinating to see Tallulah reunite with the family she abandoned long ago and watch as she tentatively tries to mend some connections here and there. There are definitely some moments of shining hope to be found in these parts which heavily contrast with the rest of the book, and I believe they are quite necessary in making the story work as a whole. Naturally, with Crandall going for realism above all else, not every story leads to a happy ending, nor do any miracles appear out of thin air to save the day... and I take very kindly to this philosophy. The reminder of the cruelty which real life might bring always looms in the air, to the point where we ourselves are tempted to glance at our own demons waiting to be confronted.
The Final Verdict
In the end, The Myth of Perpetual Summer by Susan Crandall is a powerful novel about family, tragedy, loss, love, hope and redemption, with an entertaining story to boot driven by sympathetic characters. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys family dramas with tragic overtones.
David ben Efraim (https://bookwormex.com)
It might surprise some of my readers to discover that my end-game for a writing career has nothing to do with writing the next great American novel, or even hitting number one on the bestseller list. I'd like those things. I love it when a new reader finds one of my books and enjoys it, but I have much bigger plans in mind, and I've begun the process of executing that plan.
Opening the Doors to a new kind of Publishing House
Gecko Print was never meant to be only a self-publishing imprint. In fact, I dreamed up what I wanted the company to be years ago, and I've been sitting on the website URL for quite a while, just to ensure that nobody else could snatch it up. I wanted to offer something new. Fewer writers, at least at first, but more books. More than a contract. I wanted serious writers, those obsessed with living off their words, to have the options that weren't granted to myself and so many others.
After two years of freelancing, mostly writing copy, I realized one morning that I could cut right through the red tape and get my products directly on the marketplace. Since I already have the publishing company established (including a business license in Missouri), all I needed to do was pivot.
The plan for the company all along has been a writer-centric vision. The big 6, and many, many other publishing houses have gone the one-off route. They take on a book, after it's passed through several rounds of vetting by agents and acquisitions, and they place a bet. The book will either be a success or a flop. That success or failure is based on only one thing, whether the book "earns out." This means it needs to sell enough copies in a limited amount of time to pay for the author advance, advertising, store placement, and of course the usual costs of running a business.
If the book fails, then it's the book's fault. Nevermind that the author wasn't helped in cultivating an audience. Nevermind that very little is usually done to help the debut author flash in the spotlight, even for a moment. Simply the same old "roll out some red carpet and launch the book" attitude which has dominated this market for well over seventy years. Books are becoming Hollywood productions. They either go blockbuster hit, or they're duds. The hits pay for the duds, and the market has modeled itself around that philosophy. The big sellers need to cover the costs of the risky projects.
As an author, this means that the odds are always stacked against you. Having your book flop is also like getting a black eye, especially if you took a large advance against sales.
Pioneering a New Way
There are some normal start-up fundraising things that need to be gotten out of the way with any business. With Gecko Print Publishing, I want that whole process to convert directly to author benefit down the road. In short, I'm drumming up my little writing mill again, but this time I'll be the one in charge of the final products and projects, writing copy for small businesses and even indie authors looking to grow their audiences. While this may not seem beneficial to authors, here's the benefit:
I don't know about every author, but I was desperate to make a living off my words only for a while, and for 2 years I struggled to find content clients that would keep me afloat and pay me a fair salary. For GPP authors, they will ALWAYS have a place to make some extra cash, writing fun and engaging short works about their various areas of expertise. Most authors tend to have a bunch of hobbies.
It will also work the other way round. If I start hiring some content creators for full-time work, and they write a novel, we'll work closely with them to cultivate their story to the point of publish-ability, and at the very worst, we'll give them pointers for their next book. The only vetting process will be the strength of the story, everything else can be fixed, and audiences can be grown.
Another back-channel strategy involves the people who purchase our marketing projects. Since these are businesses that thrive on selling content and copy, any connections made in this arena will have the benefit of large platforms that aren't accessible to other publishers.
The GPP Family Experience
We don't see readers as targets to be sold to, or wallets with no soul attached. We see them as champions for our books, and they deserve something in return.
We don't see other authors as competition, and we know there are plenty of indies out there producing good work that needs a chance to shine also. They're probably writing stuff that our readers are interested in as well.
After finding a little glitch in the way Amazon does business for freebie promotions, GPP is currently constructing an algorithm that will find the best books from indies and smaller houses. The big houses can't afford to do freebie promos, but the little guys can, and the books that make it to the top are almost always of high quality.
This will level the playing field, excluding those unwilling to sacrifice a few unit sales to build an audience for their work, and at the same time, books can only appear on most of these lists for a maximum of four weeks out of the year, which means carousel content for readers looking for new authors and new books. The readers win, and as our influence grows, we'll be helping those indies who hit our lists by directing voracious readers their way. No charge. In fact, the basic idea behind the list is for it to be as incorruptible as possible. Writers will never be able to "buy" their way onto our hit list. We may or may not provide an advertising slot or two later down the road, but these will be labeled appropriately.
The free book list is in its first iteration, and live on the GPP website right now. This is only the minimum viable product, using Amazon's API to generate free books after you click on the page. Carousel content, good books, and of course everything on the list is FREE on Kindle, at least when you see it.
Join the List
There are numerous places around the website to sign up for our email list, in which we'll be sending out some of the best books in each category every Sunday, but also posting updates about cool stuff that we're doing to change the industry, and of course once we open our doors to a few freelancers or authors to submit work for review. The email doubles as a weekly reminder that we're still here, with up to 50 free books sitting on our page at any given time, just in case you want to read something on Sunday and aren't sure where to look, or don't want to drop a lot of cash.
I'm building this mostly on my own, though I do have a few good editors and cover designers in mind once we are up and rolling. Till then, I'll keep my nose to the grindstone, and see what kind of flour comes out of the mill.
In the meantime, enjoy all the free books :)
Martin McConnell, author of Finish the Damn Book!, holds a Physics degree from SIUE, and when he isn't writing speculative fiction, he's motivating other authors, stargazing, reading, or playing Kerbal Space Program. He avidly encourages everyone he meets to seize control of their dreams by driving their own plot. You can find him on twitter @spottedgeckgo, or at his website writefarmlive.com.
My approach to writing has always been to start at the most strategic level and work my way down to the details. For me, it's easier to focus on the words if I've already solidified the main concepts that direct those words. That's why things like audience expectations, story structure, and outlines are so well suited for me. They free up my writing brain to focus more on craft. With that in mind, I'd like to bring a pretty cool concept to your attention: The Soul Triptych.
This is a somewhat obscure technique that I stumbled across a few years ago, and I was so enamored with it that I used it during the writing of Gnosis. Put simply, a soul triptych is a model that facilitates the intelligent crafting of a trio of main characters in a way that is surprisingly organic and also appeals to some fundamental human traits.
For some of you, a triptych might be a familiar concept in the world of art. It refers to one of those three-in-one fold-out panel paintings. An example of one is Hans Memling's Triptych of the Resurrection, shown here. Depending on the artist, the triptych often depicts three different facets of the same subject matter.
In a similar way, we can think of a trio of main characters as three facets of a complete human personality, with each character representing one of the three basic drives.
The three most commonly used facets are: Body, Mind, and Spirit. You can define each of these in a variety of ways, but for the most part, your definitions will be similar to:
The Body – This character is usually, but not always, physically strong. They are driven by passions and desires. They are earthlike, grounded in physicality. They are typically very practical and concerned with reality, rather than abstractions. They don't often dive too deeply into mysteries, and tend to react spontaneously. Their passions run strong, and they are often deeply loyal and unconditional.
The Mind – This is the brain of the trio. They are the one who devises the plans most often. Detail oriented and intellectual, they strive for logic. They are driven by clear, rational thinking, and the inevitability that this creates. They can be abstract, often skeptical, and sometimes cold and aloof.
The Spirit – The Spirit is driven by compassion when making decisions. They are all about feeling. They can be inflexible. Having once made up their minds, they can be driven by desire to see things through to the end. They are the spiritual leader of the trio (which doesn't necessarily translate to the actual leader).
Now, before you go all crazy and suggest that this creates fractional, two-dimensional characters, relax. That's not the intent. The purpose is to allow each character to focus on a different aspect, not to be constrained by it. Characters should have depth and the ability to deviate from their role from time to time. The soul triptych role simply points at their dominant traits.
Looked at in this light, the soul triptych is a story representation of the three powers of humanity. And because you have three characters each representing a different one, then together they make a complete unit. This provides an interconnectedness. An intrinsic need for each other. The triptych is often a very tight, indissoluble team.
Whether intentionally or not, we see this model in successful fiction, television, and movies. A LOT. Here are a few examples:
Body Mind Soul Book/Movie
Ron Hermione Harry Harry Potter
Han Leia Luke Star Wars
Buttercup Blossom Bubbles Powerpuff Girls
Kirk Spock McCoy Star Trek
Gale Katniss Peeta Hunger Games
Montoya Wesley Buttercup The Princess Bride
Samwise Gandalf Frodo The Lord of the Rings
Dmitri Ivan Alyosha The Brothers Karamazov
Porthos Athos Aramis The Three Musketeers
Take a moment and consider any of the above trios. Let's consider Ron, Hermione, and Harry from the Harry Potter series. Go back and review the definitions of Body, Mind, and Soul above. It's abundantly clear which role each character serves. These are not shallow, two-dimensional characters. They each have lots of things going on and they each maintain a level of individuality and uniqueness. They are a very tight, loyal group, and they need each other. In any given book in the series, each one is vital to some element of the overall quest. Together, they form a complete unit, with all of the necessary traits to overcome adversity.
And knowing what their intended role is makes it easier as a writer to devise challenges that are suited to one character over the others, thus rendering all of them useful and necessary to the story.
As readers, when we are presented with a triptych, we identify with the experience of the characters being portrayed. The triptych represents universal human characteristics that we are all familiar with. We need wit, determination, and strength to exist day-to-day. By magnifying these qualities and embodying them in individuals, writers then provide these qualities with the necessary exaggeration to make them heroic.
It's possible that there is an even deeper connection between humans and the triptych. Plato spoke of the concept millennia ago. We might even see it reflected in Christianity, in the form of the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus. One could provide a chicken-and-the-egg argument about the ultimate source of the concept, but regardless of one's belief's, it has been around for a very long time. Long enough to have become ingrained in our basic expectations of humanity.
And that's why it works so well.
There are variants on the concept as well. We've all heard the phrase body and soul as a reference to a complete human. This pair can also be used as a soul diptych, with similar results. (Oh, and notice in the above list that any one of the three can be the actual leader of the group. In Harry Potter, the Soul leads. In Star Trek, the body leads. In Hunger Games, the mind leads. There is no requirement that any particular facet must be dominant. And that's good, because it allows the writer to retain maximum flexibility during the character creation process.)
The Body and Soul definitions from above can still apply, but the dynamic between them changes. The triptych often creates a tight, harmonious trio, where the three forces have an almost democratic means of resolving internal conflict. With a diptych, conflict is more common, since there is no third party to turn to in the event of disputes.
Diptych duos are often tense. Although allies in some sense, they are constantly at odds, working against each other while pursuing some overarching goal. Their relationship can be more accurately described as a rivalry. They can be protagonist/antagonist, but when they are on the same side, there is a lot of friction. It is a classic collision between reason and emotion. Harnessed correctly, it can make a powerful duo, but success is often balanced on a razor's edge.
With that in mind, let's look at some well-known Soul Diptych examples.
Body/Heart Mind/Reason Book/Movie
Mr. Hyde Dr. Jekyll Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Tyler Durden The Narrator Fight Club
Mulder Scully X-Files
The Hound Arya Stark Game of Thrones
Patrick Spongebob Spongebob Squarepants
Dr. Watson Sherlock Holmes The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Victor Dr. Frankenstein Frankenstein's Monster
Again, consider how this kind of duo interacts. The body is grounded, simple & clear, often physical and strong. They are experience seekers. The Mind is more skeptical and analytical. Often smarter and more cynical. The duo is sometimes a forced alliance, and sometimes antagonist/protagonist, but either way, the relationship is built for conflict. With no third party to mediate, these two are oil and water. They still usually need each other, though, so like it or not, they have to find ways to tolerate each other, even when their personal goals are at odds. The diptych has the makings of great tension.
Alternatively, you could just as easily define your own necessary facets of the human condition and create roles for your characters to fill. The point is that it is a tool, and it opens up avenues of thought that you might not otherwise have considered. And because the model involves, or should involve, fundamental aspects of the human condition, then it can produce consistent characters that will resonate with your readers in a natural way.
As I said in the beginning, it isn't necessary to use models like these. They're a tool that may help you think and create. They can channel your thinking. Maybe they'll get you off to a good start and then you jettison them, or maybe you'll follow them rigidly to the end. Either way, they make your writing fun to think about, and that's worth something all by itself.
Let’s take a moment to look at a surprisingly underutilized element of fiction writing: the active environment.
Have you ever found yourself watching a movie and one of those moments occurs when the camera enters a new scene for the first time? The camera pans slowly around the room, and the audience is presented with a collection of objects. No narrative takes place. There are no characters. Very little is in motion. Yet we find ourselves learning fascinating things about the character that inhabits the environment.
Most of us just absorb it and enjoy the moment that this inevitably short bit of camera work creates, but as a writer, you should pay close attention. Very close attention. There’s a fabulously powerful technique that’s taking place here. The environment is telling you a story.
In my class on game design, this is one of the lessons that I try to instill on my students. I give them an assignment that has proven quite popular (and instructive) over the years. I provide them with an occupation and a couple of adjectives, and then instruct them to design a space that that character might inhabit. But to really hammer the point home, I provide a number of caveats:
At first, the students look confidently at this assignment and are raring to go, but very quickly they discover that it’s actually much harder than it seems.
We’ll get into the nuts and bolts of how to think about it momentarily, but for now, I’ll give you one of the better results. The student was asked to come up with an environment for an Arrogant, Newly Divorced, Bitter, Neurosurgeon. Here’s what he gave me:
The corner office is mostly barren save for a few choice pieces of furniture. A large mahogany desk paired with a leather office chair sits towards the back of the room. Next to the desk is an anatomical model of a brain on a stand. On the white walls behind the desk hangs a large picture of a man in his late forties receiving a plaque from Michael J. Fox. This same plaque, with engravings from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, is found hanging next to the picture, as well as a large diploma from Harvard University. Two simple chairs face the desk with a box of tissues close by and a picture of the same man next to Christopher Reeves in a wheelchair. On the floor is another picture surrounded by broken glass. It is a picture of the same man in a tuxedo embracing a woman in a white wedding gown. A half empty bottle of whiskey sits next to an empty whiskey glass, and at the bottom of this whiskey glass is a solid gold ring. Stabbed through the table is a scalpel, pinning another picture down. Three people in cap and gown are shown in the picture. Two of them are from the wedding photo, and the third individual has the scalpel plunged through his face. A computer monitor on the desk shows an unsent, half written email titled “YOU FREAKING JUDAS” with the name Derek marked as the recipient. Next to the keyboard, a contact book lies open showing the address of a Derek. Beneath, a mostly empty desk drawer is pulled all the way out. Inside, only an empty pack of cigarettes and three loose bullets can be seen.
I can’t express how fascinating I found this scene. Notice how the objects give clues to the occupant's job and state of mind, without ever TELLING us. The collection of objects presents us with a very clear story. Obviously a doctor, the occupant of the room fell in love with his college sweetheart. His best friend was the best man at his wedding. There was an affair between the best friend and the wife. The doctor found out about it. He’s angry, and contemplating violence.
There’s almost no text (except for the email) in the scene. No leading adjectives. No narrative. And yet a story with a crystal clear beginning, middle, and end has been provided. It could be better written, but that was never the point. The scene is intrinsically evocative.
Let’s take a look at another example. In this one, the student was given: A bored, social climbing wannabe, secretary. Here’s what she turned in.
A desk sits close to the entryway of the room. The desk is “L” shaped and has a small counter connected to the top of it. Several thick padded chairs sit against the wall with an end table holding Business Magazine sitting in neat stack divides the chairs. The lights are all turned off including the desk lamp and overhead ceiling lights. Nothing sits on the counter of the desk other than a small metal plaque that reads “Stephanie Walker.” The desk itself holds a landline phone as well as a computer. A calendar reminder popup regarding a networking event hosted by Riverbed Technologies covers over google map directions to a local beauty salon. Several personal photos sit upon the desk including one of three young college girls in bikinis on the beach making triangles with their fingers. Another photo depicts two girls, one slightly older than the other, windsurfing with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. Bright red lipstick labeled “Seductive Enchantress” lies cap-less on the desk. An iPhone 7 sits on the computer keyboard lighting up every few seconds. One drawer is slightly open and inside is a pile of rubber bands and what looks to be the start of a rubber band ball. The desk chair is tipped over and a red thong lies on the ground just under the desk. A bookshelf behind the desk has several books tipped on their side and a stapler sits on the ground with the staples spewed out on the ground. To the far side of the room is a glass wall and a door leading inside. A metal plaque on the door reads “Executive Manager Eric C. Sharpe”. The blinds on the other side of the glass wall are shut.
Although it doesn’t quite contain the breadth of the first example, these objects nonetheless give the audience an evocative scene. We know who this secretary is, we get insight into her motivations. We know where she is right now. The reader hasn’t been ‘spoon fed’ information. This is one of the things you’re always being admonished about when you hear the classic “show, don’t tell” advice. In scenes like this, the reader is drawing their own conclusions based on the objects you choose to put in front of them. And it’s that sense of inference and discovery that makes environments so powerful.
In the next example, the student drew an environment for an aggressive, paranoid, garbage collector. Here was the result:
A bright yellow safety vest lies bunched up on the floor. Shoe scuff marks mar the edge of an old dented coffee table. On the second-hand coffee table is a pair of thick brown work gloves set atop a National Enquirer with the image of a stereotypical alien shaking the hand of President Donald Trump. The caption reads “Trump Appoints Martian Ambassador.” An old style TV with antenna sits pushed against one wall of the living space. Foil is wrapped around each antenna of the TV and only static plays. The blinds over the window are closed and drawn even though the windows are also covered in foil. An end table holds a ceramic lamp that flickers on and off. The lamp looks as if it was pieced back together with glue and lacks a lamp shade. Next to the lamp is a page-a-day calendar with Tuesday January 20th showing. The couch has a faded floral pattern that is reminiscent of 70’s wallpaper. A light dusting of white powder and small pieces of plaster speckle the couch. The wall directly behind the couch has a fist size hole. On the floor lies a map of what looks to be a suburban area with different colored lines drawn from one central location to different areas of the map. The key on the map shows that each color corresponds to a different day of the week. The Tuesday line is highlighted.
Again, we have an interesting character portrait comprised of nothing but static objects. Now, we are left to speculate about what is soon to take place. Clearly, we have an unstable, obsessive compulsive, blue collar worker. He or she is violent, and seems prone to conspiracy theories. The Enquirer article leads us to believe that perhaps this maniac is considering an assassination attempt. We don’t have all of the information to form a solid conclusion, but sometimes the ominous implied threat is even more interesting.
Finally, a student rendered an environment for a Washed Up, Bitter, Retired Cop.
There’s a room solely lit by a dim, bare lightbulb, hanging by a chain. An empty shoulder-holster hangs from the rack, along with a ratty leather jacket. The room is primarily occupied by a large square table. Several cups of unfinished coffee and Styrofoam carryout boxes are clustered in one corner of the table. All are in various states of moldy decay. A collection of newspapers are scattered about the table. Each features a front-page photograph. Some are of an elderly policeman handing a badge to an elderly man in a suit in front of a tall brick building with stone pillars. Others are of the same two men shaking hands and smiling. In each photograph, members of the crowd are applauding. The elderly policeman’s face has been circled in red marker in every photo. On one wall of the room, several framed photographs hang. One photo features a mid 30’s version of the elderly policeman and young blonde officer. Both men are standing, arm in arm and smiling, behind a large pile of cocaine parcels. Another photo is a group photo of 15 extremely young looking policemen and women, two of whom are the arm-in-arm men from before. Everyone is smiling and holding a framed piece of paper. Next to the photo is a framed diploma from a police academy. A box of ammunition sits on the center of the table, with several loose bullets scattered around it. A worn police badge sits atop a neatly folded piece of paper.
Here we see the police officer’s life on display. We see him graduating from the academy, making high profile busts, getting awards, and retiring. We see a happy, fulfilled life. Yet the badge atop the note, the empty holster, and the bullets add a dark twist. Somewhere around here, we’re bound to find the body. Clearly, this officer’s life has ceased to have meaning since retirement.
In all of these examples, the student had to grapple with a challenge. They had to tell a story in a static way. And what they all learned was that you can’t do this without a bit of up-front planning.
To do something like this correctly, you have to have the story in your head first. You have to understand the character’s past, present, and future plans. It’s usually a simple story, like with the newly divorced neurosurgeon, but it’s evocative: people who are contemplating suicide or violence; people who have having an affair; someone who is obsessed. These are strong stories and emotions that a reader can identify with.
Once you know what your character’s simple story is, then you have to walk a mile in that character's shoes. Imagine the trail of breadcrumbs they would leave as they go about their daily lives. Much of this trail would be innocuous, and you would leave it out of the collection of objects, but some of it would be much more meaningful. Those are the things you have to zero in on. Don’t just settle for things that give a static glimpse of personality. Tell a story that spans time. Show us who this person is, where they came from, what they’ve experienced, and what they’re thinking/doing now.
Then once you’ve jotted down your collection of objects, let someone else read it. See if the objects tell the story you were imagining. It will take a bit of practice, but when you can learn to let the objects tell the story, it makes a wonderful tool to add to your writer’s toolbox.
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