Tag Archives: genre fiction

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.

Marketing a Book (or any Creative Work)

You as a Brand

If you are a writer or artist of any kind, you are a brand. I tell my students, every person is a brand: you become associated with a product or service. Your reputation for integrity and quality will proceed you. I could write a long essay on the value of being honest, hardworking, and so on.

Writers rely on building a following, usually based on consistently good works. But, even that’s not enough. You also have to get people interested enough that they will read or see your works. Marketing matters.

One of the mistakes authors and artists make is assuming that a publisher, producer, agent, or someone else will deal with marketing and promoting the work — and your career. You might tell yourself, “My success is their success.” Unfortunately, you’re likely one of many. Yes, you might be viewed as a commodity by the people you expect to market you.

Agents, publishers, publishers… they do love you while your career is hot. Become the next big thing, and everyone will be more than happy to work to promote you. This is not because everyone is greedy or selfish; it is more complex. Since these people represent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of artists, they have to invest their energy (and money) wisely.

An author recently told me that he didn’t want to be the one promoting his works. It felt like pride or conceit to be claiming people should buy his book. As an artist, you created your work for an audience, though we sometimes tell ourselves differently. You must reach out to that potential audience, somehow.

The Marketing Steps

Step 1: Ask Permission

Be honest with your agent or others involved in promoting your work. Ask if you can do some of the legwork to promote yourself and your work. Keep things positive, explaining that you understand your work is one of many and you simply want to help.

Step 2: Review Existing Plans

You should know what has been or will be done to promote your work. Compare any existing plan to the remainder of this quick and simple marketing guide. Only do those things that won’t undercut the efforts of marketing experts. Just as you should let an editor do what an editor does best, let the marketing pro do his or her job. But… you might need to help fill in some gaps.

Step 3: Web Presence!

If you don’t have an “official” website and/or Facebook page, create those. (If you need help, we are available to guide you.) If your works are available on Amazon, also create an Amazon “Author’s Page” and link that to your other Web presences.

Have your online sites complete and ready before moving to the next steps. You should include links to your website and Facebook page within your email signature, on business cards, and in any marketing materials.

Step 4: Create a Media List

Create a list of the local media. Starting local is much easier than trying to contact national media. Start with local newspapers and broadcast media. Once you identify those organizations, identify particular columnists, reporters, and show hosts with a history of covering authors and artists. Sending press releases, marketing materials, and review copies of a work to “Editor” or “Manager” is ineffective. You need specific names. You also need to know enough that you can connect your work to others the media personality has mentioned.

Step 5: Write a Template Letter

Personal letters work better than press releases. Compose a template letter that can be customized to each media personality you hope to reach. The template will be the “body” of the letter, and then you will write custom openings and closings for each recipient. Today, most people will send an email. Still, use the template approach instead of sending “off-the-cuff” letters to strangers.

Step 6: Customize the Template

Your customized letters should begin with a mention of some the media personality has done that enjoyed and that connects to the work you are promoting. For example:

Your interview with Beverly Smith, author of Knights of Nowhere, was a great introduction to a master of young adult fantasy. As a fantasy author, I appreciated your respect for the genre. My new work, Middling Squire No Longer, was recently mentioned by Smith on her website.

End the letter with a similar connection to the personality.

Step 7: Contact… and Follow-Up

After you are satisfied with your template letter and the customized versions, start sending them. Send only two or three at a time, instead of sending every letter at once. Keep a week or two interval between the mailings, until you have contacted every media outlet on your list.

Two weeks after each mailing (or emailing), send one follow-up note to each personality contacted. Do not contact anyone a third or fourth time, unless you are asked to do so.

Step 8: Local Organizations

As you contact local media outlets, also begin compiling a list of local organizations with a history of having guest speakers. As a writer or artist, libraries and museums are certain to be on this list. Search online for other organizations, too. Sadly, many people have forgotten local service organizations are still active: Lions Clubs, Rotary, Soroptimists, and others. (Maybe you should join some groups, too.)

Additional Suggestions

Never say “No” to an interview or public appearance, no matter how small the group or media outlet. Remember, you need an audience — readers, viewers, listeners, et cetera. They have plenty of choices. Be accessible and it will be rewarded over time.

Help other writers and artists with kind words — and online links. On your website, Facebook page, and elsewhere, be sure to support other writers and artists.

Participate in any “niche” organizations related to your works. If you write romance, join the Romance Writers of America. If you are a playwright, join the Dramatists Guild of America. Connecting to colleagues builds a network that will help your career. Do not merely join groups, either — be an active member.

Be patient. Marketing takes time.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Book Reviews, Part III

Concluding our survey of book review formats, I want to explore the “analysis” or “coverage” that publishers and editors sometimes provide to authors. In the film industry, script coverage is something many screenwriters pay a consultant to provide. Knowing what others think about your manuscript helps identify when you didn’t quite accomplish your goals.

Too many of the aspiring writers I meet confuse professional coverage with traditional reviews. One writer recently told me, “Friends and colleagues love the manuscript. The coverage I received couldn’t be right.” Yes, it could be right. You can submit the best written literary work of all time — and it could receive a thumbs-down from the reader.

Coverage Analysis versus a Review

Only one criteria matters to an editor or reader providing coverage: Will a work attract a large audience? No audience, no book, play, or movie. Publishing and producing are expensive endeavors. If your work isn’t going to appeal to a sufficient number of people willing to pay money for it, nothing else about the work matters.

No single factor decides what will or will not have a market. Some works with average plotting have a market thanks to appealing characters. Other works are simply well-timed to the marketplace. The tastes of publishers and producers also matter.

I’ve had writers ask what the point of a coverage and analysis report is, especially if the coverage isn’t meant to make you a better writer. The real question is how you define “better writer” and why being better matters. Better at what? Coverage defines better as “marketable” and interesting to the largest possible number of people.

A literary critic has different understanding of better writing, often reflecting his or her academic grounding. Some critics embrace experimental literature and film, while the audiences for such works is relatively limited. Magical realism might impress a literary critic, and obtuse references to literary traditions might warm another critic’s heart. But, will the work sell? A literary critic is supposed to focus on what the public should read and watch, not what they actually consume.

If you would rather be a literary great than a commercial success, don’t pay for coverage of a manuscript. Instead, take some courses at a good MFA program.

SUMMARY OF EVALUATION

Formal coverage begins with a few sentences stating if the work should be published/produced. If the evaluator has concerns, he or she might mention them in the summary. Some publishers and production companies use a simple “A through F” grading scale. A work with an A or B grade moves forward, while everything else is tabled.

I’ve seen one-sentence coverage summaries, both positive and negative. Some of these have been humorous, probably unintentionally. A science-fiction writer I know received the following summary: “Good story, interesting characters, no way it would sell.” Welcome to the business.

MARKETABILITY

When considering a market, there are various groups readers consider. Does the work appeal to everyone? There are works called “tent-poles” because they are expected to turn a huge profit, propping up a producer or publisher. These are summer blockbuster films and Oprah list books. They aren’t made or published to stand the test of time: they are meant to sell, and sell big.

Film studios also describe films in terms of male/female, youth/mature, YA, tween, family, and so on. The “four-quandrant” work promises to deliver men and women of all ages. The “key demo” (the ideal demographic) in film and TV remains the 18-to-25 block. In publishing, you want either the YA (young adult) or the “mommy” reader. Yes, “mommy fiction” is derogatory — the Fifty Shades of Gray trend is called “Mommy Porn” for a reason though. We know that the largest reading segments are girls and women. The YA group from 12-to-18 and the 25-to-45 group drive book sales. (Maybe the college years are too busy for mass market book reading?)

Think about your audience, even as you decide what to write. Romance books sell. Think about the two types, though. We have the Twilight series and the Fifty Shades books. Right now, paranormal is hot, with distinct segments in the YA and adult markets. It is difficult to market books to men. Movies for men? Much easier to sell, from raunchy comedies to action films, young men are a good market for screenplays.

If you don’t know your market, don’t expect the coverage reader to tell you what the market is for a manuscript.

GENERAL LITERARY ELEMENTS

Don’t expect a reader to offer much in the way of literary criticism; they focus on the potential market, not the potential for a lasting legacy. Still, readers offer minimal guidance for writers. You tend to receive more feedback the closer a manuscript is to being optioned. If you receive a lot of comments, that’s a good sign. Readers don’t waste time with hopeless causes.

PLOT

Expect to be told when the plot’s pacing is off, especially if events move too slowly or events don’t advance the plot in any clear way. What you might believe to be an essential event might not be so obvious to a reader.

STORY

Stories are wrapped around plots and characters. Readers focus on if the story appeals to the widest possible audience, or a well-defined (and profitable) audience. Read about loglines. If your story cannot be conveyed as a logline, readers will likely give a pass to the manuscript — and I don’t mean a passing grade, either.

http://www.scriptologist.com/Magazine/Tips/Logline/logline.html

POINT OF VIEW

Readers look for a “sympathetic” point-of-view when they provide coverage. The assumption is that audiences want to see a story told through a likable, trustworthy character to whom they can relate. The point-of-view does not need to be that of the hero; companions are often the guides through a film or book. The key is that the perspective should be consistent.

Film presents a bit of a problem, since your primary guide might not appear in every scene. In books, the common mistake is mixing point-of-views within a chapter or scene. Think of every scene as a self-contained narrative, from one character’s perspective. That character can only know what he or she experiences.

Try to emphasize the scenes with the primary guide. Viewers and readers try to imagine what the main characters do and don’t know. When the audience knows too much, because you’ve let the point-of-view slip to an antagonist, then some of the mystery and suspense is lost. Your audience wants to be on the edge of their seats. Controlling the point-of-view allows you to control the audience.

THEME

Popular books and movies tend to have simple, easy to appreciate themes. Good wins, usually, and the theme is obvious. Don’t confuse a theme for a thesis or moral, which is an argument supported by the work. A theme might be “Accepting people despite differences.” A thesis would be, “Accepting others leads to a better understanding of yourself.” Yes, popular stories teach a lesson, but the theme is what you can sell in a short logline.

STRUCTURE

To sell a work, start with a three-act structure. It should have a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, I suggest concentrating on the “Hero’s Journey” model for your structure. That’s not because there aren’t other formulas, but because coverage readers like the journey models taught in film schools.

I’ve argued this with emerging writers and literary writers: structure matters when you want to sell a story. That assertion does not imply every story must adhere to the formula coverage readers expect. You are free to break whatever rules you want — but don’t expect an easy time selling a work that doesn’t adhere to the simple three-act structure.

CHARACTERIZATION

Make your character distinct. You don’t want characters that are similar to each other. Also, the protagonist and antagonist in a story need motivations. They need backstories. You should know the details of a character’s life, even if those details are never in the story. Coverage is going to focus on whether or not an audience is going to enjoy a character.

Not every “enjoyable” character is good. Darth Vader is enjoyable. Freddy Krueger is enjoyable. Characters that are odd, a little quirky, and distinctive are enjoyable. An audience should want to follow your characters, good and bad, because they are larger than life.

DIALOGUE

Dialogue sells books and movies. Since film has drifted away from narration (voice over), books are starting to do the same. As a result, the dialogue between characters is how readers learn what a character is thinking. Write good, tight dialogue; every word matters.

SETTING

Coverage readers look at settings in two ways: 1) How expensive would it be to film? 2) How much will audiences care about the setting? Cheaper is better for film, while more elaborate and amazing is better for some types of book. Remember, books are an escape from reality for many readers — and it costs nothing to create a setting with words.

If the setting is essential to the story in a book or script, be sure to research the details. If the story could take place anytime, anywhere, then you’ll be focused on the characters.

DESCRIPTION

Script readers want minimal description and narration in a film or stage script. As they say, “Let the director do his (or her) job.” Scripts are sparse, only 4500 words or so for a full-length feature. That’s the length of a short story. You cannot afford to get lost in detailed descriptions.

For a book, paint with words. Be as descriptive as possible. You are the director, the cinematographer, the set designer, and more. The book author is all-powerful. Use that power, but use it wisely. A manuscript analysis will indicate if you need to add description. Rarely does an analysis suggest less description, but it does happen. Describe what matters.

Book Review – After Dark by Jayne Castle

One of my favorite features of GoodReads is the ability to get book recommendations based on books listed or ranked in your library. Using the GoodReads recommendations, I have already found dozens of new authors and books to try.

The most recent book, After Dark by Jayne Castle, was one of those books. I’ve read other books by Jayne Castle/Jayne Ann Krentz/Amanda Quick so trying this new series, Harmony, was an easy choice.

Although I do like the story, an antiquities theft-murder mystery, the paranormal part of the story is tossed in a little too casually. Terms like para-archaeology, rez-shrinks, para-rez, and a few others are sprinkled within the narrative before they were explained, and the explanations, when they did come, were not detailed enough to eliminate any confusion. Readers are a few dozen pages or a chapter or two into the novel before learning the series takes place on an off-world colony that has been cut off from all Earth contact.

It seems to me that the fantasy/sci-fi part of this story should have been introduced and explained earlier in the story, and with more detail, so that the setting is more thoroughly established. I’m guessing that Jayne Castle wanted the romance and mystery to be the predominating story, not the fantasy aspects, but you cannot sprinkle in references to your specific “world” without explaining them.

Unfortunately, After Dark reminds me of an old rule I established years ago: don’t bother reading fantasy written by non-fantasy writers. The “worlds” creating by non-fantasy writers do not have the same level of detail, thought, and organization as the “worlds” created by people who specialize in writing science fiction or fantasy.

I’ll keep an eye out for more in the Harmony series, and am I still looking for books in the Arcane Society series in used book stores, but they aren’t high in my “want” list. I hope with practice, Jayne improves her fantasy writing skills because I do like her contemporary and historical novels.

Book Review – A Midsummer Night’s Scream by Jill Churchill

A Midsummer Night’s Scream is book 15 in what is now, and hopefully remains, a 16-book series featuring Jane Jeffry, a crime-solving stay-at-home mother. The title of each book in the series is a play on a famous book title, cleverly tying the mysteries to Jane’s love of reading and what is probably the author’s love of books.

As this title implies, Jane and her best friend and neighbor, Shelley, are loosely involved with a local college-run theater. I say loosely because Jane and Shelley’s only involvement is catering snacks during the play’s rehearsals so that Shelley can test new catering companies for her husband. During this time, two people associated with the theater, one of the actors and a janitor, are murdered. Jane’s long-time boyfriend, Detective Mel VanDyne, is assigned the two cases.

Despite the series name, A Jane Jeffry Mystery, Jane had almost nothing to do with solving these murders. Most of this book revolved around tasting testing caterers and attending a needlepoint class.

Previous mysteries make use of Jane’s intimate knowledge of all things domestic. In fact, it was her thorough grounding in her domestic life and children that was usually the key to solving the mystery.

Testing the caterers during the theater rehearsals was a feeble way to involve Jane and Shelley in the theater. Having them attend a needlepoint class as a way of befriending two of the characters in the story was equally feeble. Although the catering companies and needlepoint class would fit the description of “domestic,” they were poorly used devices. Neither the caterers nor the needlepoint class had anything to do with the murders, except as a distraction, and served no purpose in advancing the story or the mystery. I was waiting for the tie-in and was baffled when nothing happened.

There was also a slip in characterization, with Shelley feeling “hurt” that she and Jane weren’t working on their needlepoint together. Shelley wouldn’t feel hurt by something so silly, however briefly it was mentioned. The author also slipped in Bell, Book, and Scandal with Shelley’s character. At one point, Jane was worried that her preoccupation with the mystery would annoy Shelley to the point of damaging their friendship. The first reaction after reading these two sections of the novels was, “huh?” Shelley would never overreact like that. She should also know by now, after years of friendship with Jane, that Jane usually does solve the mystery and her instincts for the solution are usually correct.

A Midsummer’s Night Scream is clearly a continuation of the slow downward slide in quality that began with Bell, Book, and Scandal, and ends with the horrible The Accidental Florist.

Bell, Book, and Scandal had, I believe, only one change in viewpoint: we jarringly switch from Jane’s viewpoint to that of one of the victims. A Midsummer’s Night Scream had several changes in viewpoint, mostly to Mel’s view, which is unusual in this series. In the previous books, Mel was never a well-developed character and we never saw the mystery from his point of view, only Jane’s.

Unlike previous mysteries in this series, Jane does very little thinking about this mystery and had almost no input into the solution.

The oddest part of this book: the epilogue. No previous book in this series has ever done a “where are they now” ending to the story. It was out of place, not remotely entertaining, and again, not from Jane’s point of view. None of the “where are they now” statements would be anything Jane could possibly know.

Jill Churchill, if you are tired of writing this series, just stop. Don’t try to wrap everything up neatly for Jane as you did in The Accidental Florist. Just stop writing.

On a scale of 1 to 5, most of the Jane Jeffry Mysteries would get a 3 or 4. The previous book to this one, Bell, Book, and Scandal, would receive a 2, as would A Midsummer Night’s Scream. The final book in the series, The Accidental Florist, would receive a negative number if possible.

Title: A Midsummer Night’s Scream
Author: Jill Churchill
Publisher: Avon Books
ISBN: 978-0-06-050100-6