Plotting visually:You’ve got to see it to believe it

Writing a novel can drive you crazy. There are all these characters running around yakking their heads off and doing weird things. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over any of it.
It makes me think I need one of those big ugly organizational flow charts you might see on the wall of oh, I dunno, the IRS? 
Crazy, right? Well, if I’m nuts than so is J.K. Rowlings. And Norman Mailer. And Joseph Heller. And Henry Miller.
Because all of them, I found out this week, make drawings and charts and elaborate maps to help them find their ways through the thicket of plot and characters. Check this out:
 
This is J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet plan for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (Click to make image larger…you’re gonna need it). And below is Norman Mailer’s drawing for Harlot’s Ghost. (To see other famous writer examples CLICK HERE.)
At first this made me think of that axiom about sausage-making and the law, that it’s better not to see them being made. Don’t we all — readers and writers alike — want to believe that novels arise from some deep mystic well of creativity? But then I realized that no, I really enjoy it when I get a glimpse of the architecture beneath a novel. And like I said, it also makes me feel less…nuts.
We talk alot here at The Kill Zone about the difference between plotters vs pantsers. (ie do you outline or do you wing it?). But we never talk about the picture makers. I am a picture maker. I can’t keep control of my story, can’t control its pacing and rhythms, can’t really SEE where it’s going, unless I draw it.
I used to think I was alone in this but I found out many authors use some kind of story boarding. Some even use software for it, Scrivner being a favorite. My dear late friend Barbara Parker had beautifully rendered storyboards on her office wall that would have made any Hollywood mogul proud.  My scribbles aren’t nearly so neat but they do the job. It also something born of necessity because if you work with a collaborator, you both have to be literally on the same page.
My co-author sister Kelly and I happened upon our methodology by accident about nine books ago. She was visiting me here in Florida and one day I came home and saw this:
Kelly had written all our plot points down on scraps of paper and taped them to a board. (The wine is an optional but vital writing tool). We found this was a quick way to visualize our plot, move chapters or add things. It also acts as a chronology and time line, which is valuable during rewrites.We eventually graduated to Post-It notes. And the PLOT BOARD, as we call it, became more complicated as we refined our methods:
One Post-It per chapter, each with the salient plot points in that chapter. Usually, our Louis Kincaid books are written only from his POV so it’s all yellow. EXCEPT: we sometimes use pink for what we call “personal” chapters. This is because as we mix “case/plot” chapters with character-development chapters (ie personal) we are constantly aware of the need to keep the main plot moving. Too many pinks in a row? That’s death in a suspense novel so we find a way to distribute that extra pink stuff around. It’s all about pacing. This board above, however, is for HEART OF ICE, which is a more complex plot. It has five POVS, so we use a different color for each. Again, it helps with pacing.  
But we do more than just plotting on boards. We often need some pretty elaborate drawings, maps, and charts to keep track of things.
This board above was for THE LITTLE DEATH. The plot concerns multiple bodies found in disparate locations in Florida’s cattle country. Louis finds no connections between the murders until he digs deep into each victim’s life. This board helped up keep the victims’s backgrounds straight as well as where the bodies were found in relation to each other (an important clue).
Here is a board for A THOUSAND BONES. This book drove us nuts because the plot, about a serial killer operating over almost 20 years, was very complex. Its backstory begins in 1964 and the main plot moves to 1990. The killer left tree carvings with each victim but the carvings changed as he got older. We had to kept track of each girl’s backstory, where the body was found (the color coding), what personal items were found with each, and what carving.
We do a lot of family trees. This one above was for SOUTH OF HELL. Almost none of these characters appear in the book but we had to know who begat who, mainly because Louis happens upon an old family Bible that helps him solve the case.  In another book, ISLAND OF BONES, there is a weird multi-generational family living on a remote island in the Florida gulf and Louis discovers a cemetery where the headstones give him major clues. The family tree was so tangled our publisher even put a diagram in the book.  
Above might explain why, despite the fact I was an art major, I do not make my living that way. Seriously, it is a drawing I did for our book AN UNQUIET GRAVE. It is set in an abandoned insane asylum and because I was having trouble explaining to Kelly how I pictured the grounds and buildings, I drew this for her. The blue connecting lines? Those are the tunnels in which our hero Louis gets lost and almost killed.

One of the biggest problems I think many manuscripts have is that the reader can’t VISUALIZE the physical action ie the moving around in physical space of the characters. Because the writer has not done an adequate job of describing places and actions, we are confused. And maybe it’s simply because the writer did not take the time to “draw” things out in his own mind. It’s important that a writer be able to clearly SEE a story so that the reader can as well.

Speaking of seeing stuff…
This is our character board. We started it about twelve years ago just for fun. One day, feeling burned out after a hard day writing, we started thumbing through magazines finding pictures of people we thought looked like our characters. On here you’ll find Louis’s foster father Phil (actor Michael Rennie), his old boss Chief Wainwright (coach Bill Parcells), his lover Joe Frye (a young Charlotte Rampling), his best friend Mel Landeta (fellow author Jon King) and Roland the serial killer (a random shot we found on the State of Florida Department of Corrections website of mug shots). We did this for fun but, again, when you have two brains creating characters, it helps it you can visualize a real face.
Postscript: A couple days after I wrote this, I met with my critique group. They were having problems with a scene I had written where a character gets thrown out of a car on I-75. My mates couldn’t VISUALIZE what I had described and I found myself saying “Yeah but this is what I meant!” In frustration, I drew them a picture of the road and the swale, the car’s position, a little stick man body, etc. They all looked at me, shaking their heads, and one said, “Well, that’s not what you wrote.”

Bingo. Once I drew it, I realized I had everything wrong, including what side of the highway they were on.

What about you guys? I know we’ve got pantsers and plotters out there. Any picture makers? Send me your examples and we’ll do a follow up. Send them to killzoneblog at gmail dot com. (Sorry, gotta spell it out to avoid spammers) Show me your pictures!

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How to make it to the Big Show

“Do you know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? That’s 25 hits…25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points…okay? There’s 6 months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks, that means if you get just one extra flair a week, just one. A gork, you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes! You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” 

— Crash Davis in “Bull Durham.”

By P.J. Parrish
I love Crash Davis. And I really love his great speech about that razor-thin line between the major and minor leagues. I was thinking about this speech the other day as I read our royalty statement from Amazon. 
Because for two weeks, we made it to the Big Show. We made it to number one on a Kindle bestseller list. We had 47,000 downloads in 48 hours. We made some really good scratch.
We did it with one book. One book that is 12 years old. A book that is now out of print. A gork, a flair, a ground ball with eyes.

So this is the story of our great Kindle experiment. It’s only one writer’s limited experience. But it has totally reshaped my thinking about my career and my place as a business person within it. Maybe you’ll find it instructive. Or maybe it will inspire you to try something different than what you are now doing. Because I believe that in this fast-shifting landscape, we writers — nay, storytellers — are the only things that can’t be replaced. In fact, this new publishing machine is going to have to be rebuilt around us.  We aren’t cogs anymore; we’re the engines.

A quick caveat: Five years ago, I was one of those folks who preached the gospel of Never Self Publish. It was the road to oblivion, the realm of the desperate. There was a special ring of hell reserved for writers who didn’t want to work hard or pay their dues. And five year ago, self-publishing WAS all that.

But ebooks have changed everything. Now major authors are buying back their ebook rights; mid-listers are finding new life for their abandoned backlist titles; newbies like Colleen Hoover are breaking into bestsellerdom; and everyone is reading the small print in their old contracts.

Five years ago, you were a fool if you self-published. Now, you’re a fool if you don’t.

Another caveat: I was really apprehensive about doing this. I had to be talked into it by two writer friends.(Take a bow Christine Kling and Sharon Potts.). I didn’t think it would work. Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the background: Kelly and I have published twelve books with two traditional New York publishers.  Only our first two-book contract from 2001 has no mention of “electronic rights” so we decided to self-pub.

We chose our second book, “Dead of Winter” because it is far superior to our freshman effort. First rule of ebook self-publishing: DO NOT PUT OUT A “LESS-THAN” BOOK.

We decided to enroll it in Kindle Select. This means you can’t load it into any other reader formats like Nook and Kobo. Why did we do this? Because Kindle Select lets you give the book away if you want (More on that later) and the book is placed in the Kindle library, which means readers can borrow it instead of buying it. (More on that too)

Also, Kindle’s formatting is pretty easy to learn. Many authors pay others to do this but Kelly is tech-savvy and we mastered the learning curve quickly. Nook’s formatting program is a bitch. (More on that later).

Kelly designed our cover (below). You can’t legally use the original one your publisher created.

Then we wrote our “description.” This is like the back copy on your book and potential readers can click on it to find out what the book is about. It’s important that this be enticing; authors often go back and tweak this endlessly to get it right. Here is what we wrote:

Available for the first time in eBook! Read the thriller that launched the award-winning New York Times bestselling Louis Kincaid series.

In the quaint tourist town of Loon Lake, Mich., a killer is taking his vengeance. One by one, the bodies of cops are found, brutally executed, with mysteriously coded death cards placed with each corpse – the gruesome signature of a psychopath. And the only sound louder than doors being locked against evil is the sound of hearts beating in terrors. Louis Kincaid came north looking for refuge, a place to forget his past. But now he’s landed in the middle of an investigation that’s a terrifying journey through a town’s fiercely protected heart of darkness.

2001 Edgar Award Finalist
Praise for DEAD OF WINTER and PJ PARRISH
“Stylish blend of mystery, knife-edge tension and a complex hero readers care about.” – USAToday
“Tense, thrilling, and your manicurist’s best friend – you’re going to bite your nails.” – Lee Child
“Full of intrigue and edge-of-the-seat suspense.” – Michael Connelly
“The author’s ability to raise goose bumps puts her in the top rank of thriller writers.” – Publishers Weekly starred review

We priced it at $2.99, loaded it up, sat back and waited for the hordes to line up at our virtual door.

After 51 days, we had sold 128 copies. I’ll do the math for you: Even at Amazon’s 70% royalty rate, that means we made $267.90. Which means I made $133.95. (Remember, there’s two of us.)

Big whoop, huh?

We decided we didn’t like the way the cover looked in the Amazon store. It looked muddy and had no pop. (I wrote a KILL ZONE blog about bad ebook covers Jan 15; you can find it in KZ archives) We downloaded a new cover.

On day 52, we pulled the trigger on Amazon’s giveaway option. We gave our book away free for three days.

In the first forty-eight hours, we had 47,000 downloads. It shot to No. 1 in Amazon’s free bestseller store for all mysteries and thrillers.

After three days, we took it back to $2.99. In the first three days, it sold almost 3,000 copies. And here’s the gravy: It was “checked out” of the Amazon library almost 1,400 times. You get an extra royalty for that which averages $1.88 per download but has gone as high as $2.85 for us.

“Dead of Winter” rose to No. 15 on the PAID mystery/thriller bestseller list. It made it to No. 39 on the paid list for ALL Kindle books (that includes all fiction and non-fiction, classics, cookbooks and even the Bible). We — P.J. Parrish — suddenly appeared on Amazon’s Most Popular Author’s list. (I didn’t even know it existed).

We did no advertising. Nada. We announced it on Facebook and sent out a newsletter blast (But that goes to our fans who’ve already read it; we were trolling for new fish). The only thing we did was to take a day to contact blogger sites that are dedicated to giveaways. (There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to this. See Christine Kling’s FOR WRITERS website for advice on this. Nancy Cohen also listed some here at KZ in her February 13 post.)

The book continued to sell at the same fast rate through all of January and into February. Our borrows increased. Today, as I write this, the “glow” is over. (That’s what Christine calls that big sales bump after a giveaway). Sales are on a slow descent but even last week, the book sold an average of 112 books a day.

Other benefits I didn’t see coming: Our reviews for “Dead of Winter” went from 32 to 93, all from readers who said they had never read us before. The book was featured on dozens of blogs. And get this: We saw a bump in sales for our other ebooks (based on Amazon ranking). The ones put out by Pocket, priced at $7.99 moved up. But we saw a significant bump for the ebook that our other publisher priced at $4.08. That book, “An Unquiet Grave,” published 7 years ago, went from Amazon Siberia up to no. 7,057 and today is hanging on at No. 64 on the Private Eye Bestsellers list. Which illustrates, to me at least, the important of being able to price your ebooks right.

And I just found this out an hour ago: our new book HEART OF ICE (due out next week) has crept onto the bottom of the Amazon PI bestseller list at No. 97.

Now one word here about Nook et al.

While we were doing “Dead of Winter” we self-published CLAW BACK. Because it was an original novella, we wanted to make it available to all formats. We went to the Barnes & Noble author website to find out how to self-pub it. It was like trying to cut your way through a thicket with nail clippers. We bought the Scribners software to learn Nook formatting but were defeated by its intricacies. (You have to decide where your tech breaking point is).

We sent “Claw Back” to Smashwords, a formatting company. Smashwords also distributes your ebook to all the non-Kindle sites. A week went by and the book still wasn’t in the Nook store. We emailed; B&N said it was in the system. Two more weeks went by. Crickets. B&N just kept saying it would appear “soon.”

On Jan. 17, we pulled it and enrolled it in Kindle Select at $3.99. Sales were small. We dropped the price to $2.99 and it took off. Sales aren’t as great as “Dead of Winter” but they are steady. As I write this, “Claw Back” is No. 95 on the police procedural bestseller list. And we haven’t given it away yet because we want to time it as a “slingshot” prelude for our new book.

I’m not trying to bash B&N here. God knows I don’t want to see any bookstore die. But a report in Slate this week says that contrary to earlier reports, losses in the Nook division are going to grow this year rather than staying flat. They didn’t exactly make it easy for me as an author to reach my readers.

So what’s the take-away here?

I won’t turn my back on traditional publishing. I still want “tree” books in my readers hands, if that is the delivery method they prefer. But I want to reach as many readers as I can and I want to do in ways that are creative and flexible. So I will continue to self-publish.

Because you can hit a gork or a flair and make some good money. If you’re good and lucky you can even make enough to live on so you can write more. But maybe even more important, you get control. YOU decide when to put your book out there. YOU decide what the cover looks like. YOU decide what the price should be. And YOU decide exactly what direction your career is going to go.

Oh, there’s one more cool thing: You can actually make sense out of those Amazon royalty statements.

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Now THIS Is How You Sell Your Book!

It has not been the greatest of weeks. Everyone in my family who is still residing at the homestead (me, my wife, and our fifteen year old daughter) caught the flu. Yes, it even happened to me, my mutant healing factor notwithstanding. My wife teaches elementary school, and my daughter…well, don’t ask your high school aged child what goes on in the school lunchroom. You’ll lose your appetite; it’s a target-rich environment for disease. Anyway, this flu is not fun; it starts with a couple of days of upper respiratory difficulties, followed by two or more days of lower g.i. distress to really make life interesting,  lethargy, and mental confusion (today it took me almost thirty seconds to decide that I did not want to put a soda can into the paper recycling bin). It might be time to re-examine my commitment to the maxim that “was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker,” at least when it comes to flu shots.

There was one bright spot on the week, however, provided by author David MacKinnon. David, an Irish expatriate living in Amsterdam, this year published a new novel entitled LEPER TANGO, which is in equal parts dark and hilarious. It’s not a crime novel; it’s more like a literary version of the movie Bad Lieutenant except that involves an attorney instead of a cop and it’s so funny it will bring you to tears, even as a part of you is horrified by what you behold. As an added bonus, it is also wonderfully written; I bookmarked more of it than perhaps any other novel that I read this year. I happened to review LEPER TANGO for bookreporter.com; that came to David’s attention, and in due course he very graciously contacted me and asked for permission to use 1) some quotes from my review and 2) my likeness in some promotional material. I of course was happy and honored that he should do so. A short time later, I received a copy of the proposed promotional poster which will soon be appearing in bookstores all over Amsterdam, Scandinavia, and…who knows? I present it herewith, for your inspection (please note that while I couldn’t quite get it centered, the effectiveness of the marketability shines through):


Can sales but not help but rise through the stratosphere? Move over, 50 SHADES OF GREY! And would I devour LEPER TANGO whole again?  Maybe not this week, but after I feel better…absolutely!
Merry Christmas!  And since we are getting toward the new year as well…what would you like to see 2013 bring to you? Or for you? I already got my wish…a new Louis Kincaid e-novella titled “Claw Back,” coming in January and, in February, the new full length Kincaid thriller HEART OF ICE, both by favorite author and blog mate P.J. Parrish. Thank you, Kris and Kelly!
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What Lucy taught me about writing

It’s three in the morning and I can’t sleep — again. My story is a giant hairball in my brain but it’s more than that. I am obsessing about the world of publishing and my little place within it. There is so much uncertainty in our business right now. Bookstores are closing, advances are shrinking, publishers are paring their lists, and we are all groping for something to grab onto as the eBook earthquake rumbles beneath our feet.
I retreat to the sofa, remote in hand, searching for something to quiet the questions in my head.
Have I used up all my good plot ideas?
Is it too late to switch to erotica? Which might be adapted into Nu Bay Videos?
Should I take out a loan to go to Thrillerfest?
How did that hack get a movie option?
What should I write about for my first Kill Zone blog?
Did I remember to feed the dogs?
In the darkness, the ceiling shimmers with fifty-seven channels of nothing on. Then, suddenly, there she is — Lucy Ricardo. My muse, my all, my Ambien.
Before I know it, eight episodes have passed and the sky is lightening with a new day. I have an epiphany! Everything I need to know about surviving in publishing today can be learned from “I Love Lucy.”

Speed it up!

When Lucy needed to make money she went to work in a chocolate factory but found out it wasn’t easy keeping up. Time was we could get by doing one book a year. Not anymore. Maybe we can blame James Patterson who is fond of comparing novels to real estate — i.e., the only thing that matters is how much room your books take up on the shelf (real or virtual). But the eBook age has accelerated the metabolism of publishing and many of us are pulling extra shifts, churning out novellas, short stories and even an extra book a year. (Lee Child just put out his second Reacher story “Deep Down” and I’m working on a novella prequel to our March 1012 Louis Kincaid book HEART OF ICE). Lisa Scottoline in this New York Times article, calls it “feeding the maw.”  What I call it can’t be printed here. Sigh. But I get it.

Reinvent yourself!

What did the artistically thwarted Lucy do when she wanted to be in the movie “Bitter Grapes?” She went to a vineyard and became Italian. Is your series on life support? Are you in midlist limbo? Maybe you just need a change of identity. If you write dark, try light. Leave your amateur sleuth and write a standalone thriller. Got the “bad numbers at B&N blues”? Adopt a pen name and start over. Or. . .go over to the dark side. I know, we aren’t supposed to like this eBook thing. But it has given new life to some authors, like my friend Christine Kling who put out Circle of Bones when no publisher would. It’s the Wild West and if you want to be a pony soldier you gotta mount up!

Make friends!

When Ricky and the Mertzes forgot her birthday, Lucy joined the Friends of the Friendless. (“We are friends of the friendless, yes we are! We are here for the downtrodden and we sober up the sodden!”). Truth is, publishers aren’t putting out anymore (publicity-wise). So we writers just need to get ourselves out there more! No, a pretty website isn’t enough. Now you need to be on Facebook, Quora, Writertopia, Writers Café, MySpace, Tumblr, Foursquare, Goodreads, Shelfari, Fictionaut, Broadcastr. You need to Tweet even if you’re a twit with nothing to say. Oh, and when you have couple free moments, post something on your blog and what do you mean you don’t have a book trailer on YouTube? It’s all about buzz, Bucky. Or is that branding? I don’t know…
I need a nap. Or maybe a glass of good Sancerre. Probably both. All this advice about what we should be doing to sell ourselves and our books. And you know whose voice I keep hearing? Neil Nyren. He’s the president of Penguin-Putnam books and a friend of mine. (Yeah, I’m namedropping.) At SleuthFest one year, Neil said, “all the time you’re doing that other stuff you could be writing a better book.”  I need to remember that.
That and what happened to Lucy. She tried too hard and ended up too sick to eat chocolate and dyed too blue to get in the movie. I think it’s time for a new muse. Maybe Wonder Woman is available.
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