A Novel Exercise

By Mark Alpert

I got on the bike today, searching for inspiration. Hoping to stumble upon some exciting ideas that’ll accelerate the plot of the novel I’m outlining.

The temperature was in the low 80s, which isn’t bad for NYC at this time of year. I headed for the bike path in Manhattan’s Riverside Park, which runs along the eastern bank of the Hudson River.

I saw a few awesome sights: a big freighter lolling in the current; a hundred cairns crowding the shore like lost souls; the gray GWB outlined against the Palisades.

I passed eight cyclists. Two faster cyclists passed me.

I sweated. A lot.

But I found no inspiration. No ideas for new characters or scenes.

Was I disappointed? Not really. Sooner or later I’ll think of something good.

Does anyone else out there look for inspiration while exercising?

5+

Key Ways to Rediscover your Writing “Fun Mojo”

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Alert the Media. Writing is hard. From the moment I knew I wanted to write a novel, I’ve poured long hours into learning about the industry and the craft of writing. I spent hours in front of a computer, even with my full time draining job. Weekends were spent trying to sneak in hours to write. When I wasn’t writing, I thought of writing. I’ve read countless books in many genres, networked at writer conferences, entered national writing competitions, and suffered through the agony of rejection as many of us have.

When I first started out, I had nothing to lose. Rejections were expected. Some were even comical. I had a rejection ritual that involved mystical incantations and a shredder. Remember when you used the words – “It was a better rejection” – and knew what that meant? It’s not easy putting yourself out there and as the months and years went by–with rejections & expenses piling up with nothing to show for it–it wore me down. When I had hit that point, I asked myself a very real question.

Would I still write if I never sold?

I thought about it and eventually said it aloud. “YES!” It was if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I found that I cared less about rejections. They became opportunities toward my goal. I also didn’t feel the need to follow a trend. Hell, I WAS the trend. As an avid reader myself, if I wrote the kind of book I wanted to read, then I WAS the market. Editors and agents are industry professionals, but so was I. My time had value. Most of all, I had found a passion that I’d longed for my entire life and I was living my dream. That was good enough.

That’s when I sold. (Link to my FIRST SALE story.)

For my post today, I wanted to think back upon that time when everything had possibility and dig into what makes writing fun for me, still. I hope you’ll share what brings joy to you in your comments.

KEY WAYS TO REDISCOVER YOUR WRITING FUN MOJO

1.) Writers Notice Stuff

You may not be aware of this, but after honing the craft of writing, writers become more observant. We look at a setting location and wonder – How I would write this? Or how I would I describe the “feeling” of this place? Writers notice more in news stories, for example. We see the possibility of a story behind the story. A tragedy may be reported in the news–the journalistic facts of who, what, when, where, why–but writers’ minds go beyond the news. We want to know how the story would affect the people experiencing it. We want to know what the reporters might’ve missed. Where are the human stories behind an event? We want to make it personal. Our empathetic minds go there. We see things differently and hone our imaginations into becoming more compassionate human beings.

2.) Writers Tap Into Deep Emotions

When most people suppress their emotions, we want to live them–even if it’s hard. We write from the heart or we write from our worst fears. And it’s not just the word choices we make. It’s what we create that can trigger emotions and experiences in our readers and ourselves. Writing is not just about the craft of it. It’s about how it makes us feel to do it, no matter what level we are in skills.

3.) Writers Know Passion

How many people know true passion? Most people can live a lifetime and not know the passion we experience every day that we write. It’s a solitary exploration that satisfies us. It’s something we can do every day & it doesn’t feel like a job. Even if we’re not sitting at our desks or cranking on our laptops, we can fill our minds and our creative juices with the world we are creating and the plot or the characters we’re developing. We sometimes work through our book issues in our sleep. That’s sheer joy few people know. It’s special and extraordinary.

4.) Writers are Curious and Brain Thirsty

Writers are curious, driven people. We want to know and understand stuff. Research unleashes our inquisitive minds and broadens our writing experiences. Have you ever found yourself so sucked into your research, that you noticed you’d drifted into topics you hadn’t planned on writing about? Your mind drew you into the research and you kept going? The things is, you never know where you might use good info. Your research curiosity may pay off for the next book. Your mind is a sponge. It’s like living another life & filling your brain with ideas for use later.

5.) Writers Experience Books Differently

For good or bad, writers experience more as readers. It’s lovely when you can read a book and get lost in the story, but let’s face it. Many times we see behind the craft and truly appreciate what the author has created–or we hate it–but either way, we experience a book more deeply. Where most observant readers might notice a typo, authors might appreciate a clever turn of phrase or understand what it takes to create a complex character. A well developed plot twist is gold and we can break it down, not just let it happen. We’re insiders to an amazing process.

6.) Writers Don’t Have to be Original

We just have to write the best book we know how. Don’t worry about whether anyone has ever written about a certain plot before. No one can duplicate how you choose to tell a story. No one can filter their storytelling through your unique eyes and life’s experiences. Yes, it’s great to discover a fresh take on something and we should all strive to push the envelope to writing with new ideas, but there’s something deeply satisfying about telling a story that touches a reader in a special way, that only YOU can do.

7.) Writing is Therapy

When bad stuff happens to writers in their lives, we have a way to explore it through our writing. We can distance the pain from our own stories by telling what happened through our characters. Writing is about emotion. It’s a gift to tell your story and tap into feelings that readers can relate to. It’s one thing to be compassionate and empathetic when we imagine what a character might be feeling, but to add a personal reflection (even when it’s painful), takes guts. Dare to be gutsy and you may find it helps you in return.

8.) Writing is Community

As writers, we instantly become a part of a wonderful community of creatives. If you’re reading this, you are one of us. I’ve found that most writers are a generous lot. We know how wonderful it feels to write and we want to share that success with others. When I first sold, I began to see writing as part of a grander stage. Writers can relate to actors, singers, song writers and other artists who create something special from nothing.

9.) Writing Comes with a Thick Skin

Rhino skin can be a blessing. There, I said it. Rejections CAN be a good thing. Most people don’t have critics looking over their shoulders as they do their work, people who criticize everything they do. Online book reviews and beta or social media comments can hurt, but we get through it because we’re driven by our passion to write. There are precious few people who pursue writing and actually finish a novel. In light of that, reviews and harsh comments mean nothing.

10.) Writers Publish

Isn’t it glorious that authors have choices these days? Whether we sell our novels through traditional publishing houses or self-publish, we have options that weren’t always available in the past. We can explore the opportunities to sell or become our own publisher and retain the margin and the creative control from formatting, to cover design, to promotion and pricing. We can do both. It’s great to have choices.

***

I love being a part of our TKZ writing family. Having an online community to read what others are experiencing means a lot to me. It bolsters my spirit. When authors share tips on writing craft or share what works for promotion or research–whether it’s in a blog post or in comments–that is a solid reminder that we all share the passion of writing and it’s so worth it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What brings joy to you about writing? Please share what you would put on YOUR list.

12+

Panic Attack

By John Gilstrap

I’ve done a lot of writing on the run these past few weeks.  My tour for Total Mayhem has spun out over the past month or so, keeping me away from home and away from my desk.  Yet my September 15 deadline hasn’t moved.  I’ve been spewing words from hotels and restaurants, and from moving platforms like trains and airplanes.

I’ve always written a fair chunk of my first drafts long hand.  Sometimes, the creativity flows better and the there’s the added plus of a built-in second draft when I transfer the handwritten text onto the computer.

Up until a couple of years ago, I did my home-based writing on a desktop computer, with a lightweight laptop reserved for travel.  More recently, the desktop has been mothballed and all my computing needs are served by my Surface Book Pro.   If I’m traveling any distance, it’s coming with me.

While it’s unlikely that my computer would be lost or stolen, I recognize the possibility, so I therefore store virtually no data on my hard drive.  Instead, I’ve come to depend heavily on external storage.   When I finish a writing session, I save the day’s work to a thumb drive that contains pretty much everything I have written in at least the past five years.  Once that’s done, I save the same document to my Dropbox account, and then, finally, once a week or so, I save a copy to my hard drive.  When I start a new session, I use the thumb drive copy as the primary document.

Before the days of cloud storage, I carried that thumb drive–or one of its predecessors–everywhere I went, always in my left front pocket.  My theory was if the house burned and the took the hard drive with it, I wouldn’t lose too much of my writing.

Nowadays, that thumb drive stays with the computer.  It only leaves the house if the laptop leaves the house.  When it does go on the road, it has its own dedicated pouch in the the backpack that doubles as my briefcase.  Routine.  A place for everything, everything in its place.

Until it’s not.

This morning I awoke ahead of my alarm in the fabulous Brown Hotel in Louisville, KY, ready to be home again after five days of being away.  I showered, dressed, packed my bag, and then as I was putting my backpack together, the thumb drive was gone.  Clearly, I had misplaced it somehow, even though I never before have done so.  I unpacked.  I dumped the backpack.  I re-searched the closet and dresser drawers.  I searched the pockets of previously-worn pants.  No luck.  It was gone.

Here’s where my accident investigation training kicked in.  It couldn’t, in fact, just be gone.  Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, remember?  That thumb drive was someplace, and I was confident that when I found it, I would remember that it was exactly where I had put it.  So . . . where?

I’d left the backpack behind for yesterday’s tour event at Fort Knox, so I knew it could be neither somewhere on post nor in the car of the escort who drove me there.  It had to be in the hotel.  But where?

I checked my backpack for a third time.  Nope, matter still had not been created.

Ah-hah!  When I’d returned from Fort Knox, I’d taken my computer up to the “club room” to transcribe my handwritten manuscript pages.  I must have left it there somehow.  Breaking from routine, I’d decided not to bring the whole backpack with me into the club room, so that was how it had transitioned into my pocket.

Thing is, there was no way I would leave the thumb drive behind.  Not after this many years of routine.  Still, I had to track down the lead.  No, the manager told me, no one had found a thumb drive.  Of course, that didn’t mean someone hadn’t picked it up and kept it as their own.  Or, maybe they’d turned it in down at the front desk.

Oh, yeah.  The front desk.  Tick-tock.  I had a rental car to return and there was an airplane with my name on it.  I needed to check out of the hotel and move on.

The lady at the front desk could not have been nicer.  After giving me my receipt, she disappeared into the back office to check lost and found.  Neither of us felt much hope.  While she was gone, I looked out onto the lobby bar where I had dined last night, and as I did, I pulled my phone out to check if the flight was still on time.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket.

My left front pocket–the same one that once was dedicated to my thumb drive back when I carried it everywhere.  My seat for dinner had been a nice one, next to a window with a pretty view of the street.  I remembered that as I sat at the table, I’d pulled my phone out of my pocket and placed it on the window sill because I’d been expecting a call.

With a growing sense of hope, I walked over to last night’s seat and pulled out my chair.  And there it was, a black-and-red plastic thumb drive hiding in the pattern of the plush black-and-red carpet.  Just sitting there, waiting.  It wasn’t where I’d put it, after all.  It was where I’d dropped it when it piggy-backed out of my pocket with the phone.

My morning got a lot brighter.

So, TKZers, how do you save and backup your work?  Ever lost a chunk of it?

 

13+

A Sense of Place:
We’re Lost Without It

Winterfell from Game of Thrones

A novel doesn’t begin to glow until its setting comes to be accepted as true. — Eudora Welty.

By PJ Parrish

I am bingeing on Game of Thrones. I know, I know…I’m the last one to the ceremonial beheading. But that’s the way I roll these days with television. I’m in season six, about halfway through. SO! Don’t any of you DARE include any spoilers in your comments or I will hunt you down and run a Valyrian Longclaw sword up your gut.

Now, I didn’t read any of George R.R. Martin’s books, but a writer friend of mine read them all, and he tells me he has learned a lot from analyzing how Martin sets up his characters and builds his worlds in just a few pages. Martin made his chops as a short story writer before hitting it big with A Song of Ice and Fire, so that tells you something there. And if you watch GOT, you get whiplash from trying to keep everyone — and every place — straight. There’s even a Game of Thrones For Dummies.

Sometimes, the internecine family story lines feel disjointed and the subplots suffer from kitchen-sink syndrome. I had planned to write today’s blog about what happens when you have too many subplots — as GOT often does — but I couldn’t get my brain wrapped around it. Besides, James already wrote a good post on that years back — click here. 

I want to talk, instead, about GOT’s sense of place. It’s pretty darn amazing. I’m not a  fantasy-phile. (Although I really do have a mad crush on King Arthur). But I have totally bought into the world GOT lays out.  The world feels vaguely medieval  British-Isles-centric, with seven warring kingdoms with knights, ladies, eunuchs, whores, and more rolling royal heads than you can shake a broadsword it. But it’s also got dashikis, deserts, and dragons, oh my.

And don’t even get me started on the blue-eyed zombies living out there beyond The Wall as everyone cryptically mumbles that “winter is coming.”

A short digression: I love great opening TV credits, especially the ones that act as intros to the episode. (Six Feet Under might be my favorite.) The opening of Game Of Thrones is brilliant, not just for its dark throbbing cello score, but because it underscores how important PLACE is in the story. In his piece for Thor.com, analyzing GOT’s sense of place, Brad Kane points out that the opening shows each of the warring kingdoms popping up in a whirring montage of mechanical gears and castles. They are game pieces on a world map (read chessboard).  There, in mere seconds, the complex, conjured world is literally built before your eyes — and if you’re clever, you’ll catch imbedded clues of what’s to come in the plot.

Even if you’re not a GOT fan, go watch the opening for a second to see what I mean:

Sense of place is dear to me. I love books that have it.  I try to write books that honor it. I never start a new book until I can see the world where it takes place.  This has meant actual traveling, down into the Paris catacombs, through San Francisco’s dive bars and the Florida Everglades and up to the farthest tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It has meant cyber traveling into ruined Scottish castles, British police stations, and into the dark tunnels below abandoned mental asylums. It also meant one really long Google Street View ride across America on I-80 from New Jersey to Oakland California.

All because I had to see it to make you believe it.

Eudora Welty understood the importance of world building. In her essay “Place in Fiction,” she argues that a sense of place is as important as character or plot or symbolic meaning. She tells of how she was struggling with her short story “No Place For You, My Love” — until she took a trip.

“What changed my story was a road trip with a friend down south of New Orleans to see that country for the first (and so far, only) time. When I got back home, full of the landscape I’d seen, I realized that without being aware of it at the time, I had treated the story to my ride, and it had come into my head in an altogether new form.”

“Full of the landscape I’d seen.”  What a great turn of phrase.

But Welty is full of such wisdom. She says the primary responsibility of the writer is to “establishing a chink-proof world of appearance.” Couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones after reading that line.

Which, at risk of turning off you non-GOTers, I must now return to.  If you read the books or watch the series, you will understand immediately what I mean when I praise GOT’s world building power.  If you’re not a fan, I’ll let Brad Kane explain it. Martin and the TV series create three distinct and disparate worlds — and they have nothing in common. But, as Kane points out:

Yet they are all part of the same story. And that’s the genius of George RR Martin. You’d never confuse the barren lands of Winterfell with the towering peaks of the Vale. You’d never mix up the volcanic crag of Dragonstone with the dangerous shores of Great Wyk. Every story world in Westeros and Essos feels visually, culturally, and thematically distinct—and yet it all ultimately fits together.

He accomplishes this through close attention to detail. You may have read fantasy books where nations are defined as “the people who build ships,” or the “folks who smoke the good tobacco.” Not so in Game of Thrones. The world of the Starks is very different from the world of the Lannisters, which is very different again from the worlds of the Targaryens or the Greyjoys. Local attitudes, ways of speech, tools of war, sexual mores—they all change radically from country to country.

The telling details. Specifics. Verisimilitude. That is what goes into the best fictional world building. It doesn’t matter if the world you’re building is as small as a rural Virginia police station, or as grand as a ninth century Venetian dukedom. Our jobs as novelists is to make that Virginia cop shop sound, smell, feel, look, like no other place on earth. Our jobs as novelists is to make the long forgotten world of the Venetian doge feel, smell, look and sound as fresh and believable — nay, relate-able — as our own neighborhood of today.

If you make the place come alive in your readers’ minds — if you make them feel it with all their senses — they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Or at least as far as Winterfell.

 

7+

youBooks?

Photo by Daniel von Appen, courtesy unsplash.com

Let me set my current mood for you. It is a beautiful, picture-perfect summer day in Westerville, Ohio. One of my backdoor neighbors is having some work done on his home’s exterior, and the rhythmic sound of busy hands and happy hammers has been heard through our little corner of the world practically non-stop since eight o’clock this morning, which, all things considered, is a reasonable time to start working. The carpenters, however, are also playing music. The song they have been playing over and over without pause is “Photograph” by Ringo Starr. I decided that enough was enough about a half-hour ago. Since my emotional development was arrested at age eighteen and sentenced to life I decided upon a passive-aggressive approach. I am playing “Psychosocial” by Slipknot through a Bose SoundDock amped to eleven and pointed out the window in the direction of the workers. “Psychosocial,” for the uninitiated, sounds like a freight train commandeered by demons and driven straight at the listener. We’ll see how this develops. 

That said, today’s topic comes by way of a lifelong friend of mine. He spends what some might consider to be an excessive amount of time on YouTube but it gives him a unique perspective on what is currently happening in popular culture and, perhaps more importantly, where it is going. My friend suggested that I go to YouTube and search for “short stories.” I did so. A number of videos popped up on the menu. Some were videos which consisted of stills of pages of books in the public domain, synched with a sonorous reading of the appropriate page. There were also videos which displayed each page of a children’s book which someone read the page aloud. Those were interesting, but I hope that parents aren’t using that as a substitute for reading their children a bedtime story. 

I eventually found what my friend was referring to. I located several videos, each of which consisted of a written story, comprised of white text being slowly scrolled against a black background while an acoustic guitar played as accompaniment. The stories are original, (mostly) graphically erotic in nature,  and generally running from between three to twenty minutes. They have names such as “Pastor’s Daughter” and “Short Story #031.” The stories are variously credited to “Jim Bray” and “Stacey” but I suspect that the same person is writing each and all of them. I can’t attest to the quality of the stories as they weren’t really what I like to read. I was surprised, however, at the number of views that each of the stories has obtained. These ranged from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands. I don’t think it was because of the subject matter, either (though a number of comments for each of the videos were very laudatory in nature). 

The reason that I was surprised is that I don’t get it. I asked myself, and will ask you: why would someone go to YouTube to read a story in such a fashion? The format is similar to an eBook.  A reader, however, can control the speed at which one reads with an eBook, while this video book — let’s call it a youBook — scrawls at a slow pace which cannot be increased or decreased. It’s not as if reading material of an erotic nature is unavailable as an eBook, either. YouTube is free, of course, but one can sample almost any eBook on a Kindle at a similar cost and can often purchase the entire work for an amount equal to the change one can find under their car’s floormats. I asked my friend why he read them in the format. He told me that he doesn’t like eBooks but loves YouTube and that this was another way that he could enjoy the website, one that did not feed into his addiction to Taco Stacks videos and stop-motion animation.  

What say you? Forget about the erotic genre, which seems to be the exclusive genre in the format for the moment. Ask yourself if this format appeals to you as a reader of any genre or as an author. You could utilize YouTube in this fashion to get your own work out there — it apparently isn’t too difficult to set up  — in order to see if your work flies with an audience or not, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble. I don’t really see this as something an audience would want, what with other, and to my mind better, formats being so readily available. I’m not always the go-to guy to ask about such matters. I appreciated the concept of eBooks almost immediately, but it took me years to embrace the idea of digital music. So what do you think, as a reader and as a writer? 

And just like that…no more “Photograph.” Enjoy your weekend.

 

 

 

6+

Don’t Miss Your Deadlines: A Great Big Cautionary Tale

With thriller writer friend Shane Gericke, 2009. Photo by Judy Douglas Knauer via Facebook

This pic with my dear friend, Shane Gericke, was taken at the now-defunct Love Is Murder conference back in 2009, near Chicago. It was February, and I was promoting my second novel, which had come out in the once dead zone between Christmas (2008) and New Year’s Day (now a pretty good time to be published). Why the dead zone? Primarily my own fault because I made the sophomore mistake of being more than a month late getting the book turned in. If I’d been the professional I am now, I would’ve gotten it in on time, published in October, and the book probably would’ve been in paperback as well. Though my #sophomorefail wasn’t helped by the publishing industry’s January 2009 implosion. Everyone in the business was either deeply distracted by waves of bad news, or their hair was on fire.

That winter, I was way too green to realize my novel had been published “dead,” as the description goes. If a book is published dead, nothing happens. I mean nothing. Oh, my book was on library shelves, and made it into bookstores, and there were reviews. (Joe Hartlaub loved it, which is everything to me.) But it was not pushed by marketing, and not embraced by readers. The publicist still took my calls, but my editor was harder to reach. I don’t think I had another conversation with him until an awkward New York cocktail party a couple of years later. As I mentioned above, there was no paperback.

When it came time for the house to review my next book’s proposal and chapters, per my contract, my agent was the contact. The rejection was so swift that I hardly had time to get anxious about the proposal being out. I wish I could say I wasn’t surprised. I wish I could say I wasn’t hurt. I wish I could say I didn’t take it personally. Now, I find myself embarrassed at my naiveté.

Why am I telling you this cautionary tale–aside from the fact that I have an odd confessional streak? A public service announcement about meeting deadlines never goes amiss. Seriously, don’t miss your deadlines! The entire trajectory of my career was (possibly, probably) changed because I screwed up so badly.

Five years ago, maybe even two years ago I wouldn’t have shared this story with you. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to. Yes, I was ashamed and embarrassed. Also, it’s a bad idea to mess with your professional reputation online. You never know what potential editors might think. Potential readers. Then there’s that ego thing. I got the once-in-a-lifetime debut, two book contract. And lost the plot. Nobody wants to be fodder for the Writer Schadenfreude Gossip Machine.

Except that ten years have passed already. I’m what you might call a mid-career author. (Okay, if I die tomorrow, then today I actually would’ve been an end-of-career author. Huh.) These days, I find little value in being opaque. I’m a writer, and I’m human, and I make mistakes. Still.

This whole mid-career thing has taken me a bit by surprise. It feels like no time at all has passed since I sat so nervously in that hotel lobby with Shane. Steve Berry was also there. In fact, I was so nervous about being in public, and around writers and readers whom I didn’t know, that I would go hide in my hotel my room and practically hyperventilate several times a day. But as with so many other things, time brings perspective.

As a writer and human, you will screw up. Accept it, then move on.

If I hadn’t screwed up so badly, I never would’ve taken my rejected novel and started my own little press with my husband. I wouldn’t have learned about self-publishing in the early days, been able to teach my writer friends about it, or gotten to a place where I understand that readers don’t really care who published a book, but mostly just care about the story, and–very occasionally–the author. I might not have pushed myself to come up with a story concept that got me a three book series with a traditional publisher. Or a chance to publish with a truly brilliant young editor. And so on.

You never know.

(And don’t miss your deadlines!)

 

Dear TKZers–Do you have a cautionary writer’s tale to share?

 

 

 

8+

Story Stakes and Free Book Giveaway Contest

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

What makes readers care about your story?

STAKES.

What are stakes? Quite simply, they are the consequences if the protagonist fails. What will s/he lose?

The world could end; the lovers may not get together; the serial killer might claim more victims, etc.

I recently read H.R. D’Costa’s craft book Story Stakes. My copy is now full of yellow highlighter markings because she makes her points clearly and concisely. Her style is straightforward, logical, and easy to follow.

Using specific examples, D’Costa lists 11 types of stakes to “increase tension and reader engagement.” Screenwriters are experts at creating high stakes, therefore many of her examples are from films. But the same principles apply to books.

With her permission, here is her list:

Stake #1: General Protection – from the fate of an entire galaxy (Star Wars) to the safety of passengers on a booby-trapped bus (Speed), general protection focuses on the lives of others who will suffer if the hero fails.

Stake #2: Demise – physical death is the consequence to the hero or someone precious to him/her.

Stake #3: Livelihood – failure by the hero means loss of a job, profession, ability to support family, etc.

Stake #4: Freedom – the hero or someone close to him/her will go to prison or otherwise lose their freedom and autonomy.

Stake #5: Reputation – if the hero’s good name is besmirched, his/her legacy is disgraced. That can lead to other stakes coming into play, like the loss of respect/love of family and friends, or loss of livelihood.

Stake #6: Sanity – the hero could lose his/her mind. Gaslight (Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer) and Hitchcock movies like Vertigo and Rebecca explored this stake.

Stake #7: Access – the hero could lose connection with loved ones, lose his/her home, or be shunned by his/her community.

Stake #8: Regret – The hero may have a dream but doesn’t achieve it because s/he didn’t grab an opportunity. Another variation on regret is the hero failed in the past and has been plagued by guilt ever since, such as In the Line of Fire, where a Secret Service agent (Clint Eastwood) didn’t save President Kennedy. The plot offers the agent a second chance to save another president. Failure will doom him to a life of regret but success gives him redemption and peace of mind.

Stake #9: Suffering and Sacrifice – the hero suffers and sacrifices health, wealth, love, or endures other hardships in order to achieve a goal. If s/he fails, all suffering and sacrifice are in vain.

Stake #10: Justice – If the hero fails, the villain gets away with a heinous crime and never faces punishment for evil deeds.

Stake #11: Hero Happiness – The hero pins all hopes and effort on a prize. If s/he fails, the prize is lost.

Stakes are the emotional link between the story and the reader. Through the characters, the reader vicariously faces terrible problems and must make difficult choices with dire consequences.

Stakes make the reader ask questions:

“What would I do in this situation?”

“How would I react if my family was in jeopardy?”

“What would I give up to achieve this goal?”

D’Costa makes clear that a single stake is not enough to forge a strong emotional bond between the hero and the reader. Step by step, she analyzes emotional factors that drive characters’ decisions and how readers relate to those stakes.

She goes on to illustrate how to layer stakes, one on top of another, blending them into a compelling tangle from which the hero—and the reader—cannot escape. The hero must keep pushing forward, despite increasing danger, and the reader must keep turning pages to find out what happens.

She also shows how stakes can change during the course of the plot, starting out with one set of problems that morph into different stakes. Each complication becomes more complex and perilous, leading to ever-worsening consequences.

D’Costa (aka HRD) graciously agreed to share further insight into her book and writing process in the following Q&A:

DB: What specifically prompted you to write Story Stakes?

HRD: First, let me say thanks so much for featuring Story Stakes on The Kill Zone today, Debbie! I really appreciate it.

Your question is an interesting one because I didn’t intend to write a craft guide about stakes—not initially, at least. I was actually working on a craft guide about creating the kind of dazzling climax that would turn a novelist into an “auto-buy” for readers.

In conducting research for that book, stakes came up again and again. They really define the overall quality of your story climax. Anyway, when editing the climax book, it quickly became apparent that the stakes warranted a book of their own.

So I stopped working on the climax book, and began conducting research again—this time focusing exclusively on the stakes, and how to use them to deepen readers’ emotional involvement in a story.

DB: How did you develop your 11-point stakes list?

HRD: Most of my research consisted of watching movies in a variety of genres and asking myself two main questions:

  1. What initially motivated the protagonist to pursue his goal?
  2. What techniques did the filmmakers use to make audiences even more invested in the outcome of the climax?

Looking for patterns led to the creation of a master list of 11 types of story stakes as well as a list of modulating factors (these help you elicit even more emotion from the same set of stakes) and strategies to raise the stakes.

By the way, if TKZ readers would like a printable PDF list with the 11 types of story stakes, they can find one here.

I found it really interesting that some types of story stakes can’t stand on their own (they need to be paired with another set of stakes). Even though these non-standalone stakes don’t drive the plot, they’re valuable because of how they heighten reader emotion.

For instance, throughout the middle of a story, the protagonist experiences several ordeals. If the protagonist fails to achieve his goal, he will have suffered in vain—and these stakes of suffering inject a story with extra emotional intensity.

However, ordeals emerge from conflict. In other words, if your characters are, to quote TKZ’s own James Scott Bell, “Happy People in Happy Land,” your plot won’t just be boring. Because stakes of suffering are virtually nonexistent, your plot will also lack emotional juice. It’s a good example of how one storytelling choice impacts another.

DB: Who are your favorite influences vis a vis writing craft?

HRD: Many years ago, thanks to my dad, I was able to attend Robert McKee’s famous Story seminar. McKee said that we’d learn a lot by comparing a produced version of a film to its original screenplay. I started to do that—and discovered McKee was right. It got me hooked on that style of learning, so I continued along that path. Most of what I’ve learned has come from self-study—analyzing films, screenplays, and novels to understand what works and what doesn’t. That’s why I’d consider them my greatest teachers.

That said, some wonderful craft books gave me a solid foundation to build on. One of my favorites is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. It provides a good overview of story structure. More important, it makes screenwriting feel accessible. After you read it, you think, Yes, I can do this. Although it was written with aspiring screenwriters in mind, many novelists have found it useful, too. (Actually, now there’s an edition just for novelists, but I haven’t read that yet.)

Another gem: Write Away by Elizabeth George. This one really impressed upon me the importance of connecting all your plot events together through cause and effect. Although writers of all genres can benefit from this craft book, it might be especially valuable to TKZ readers since George uses her mystery novels to explain her points. In addition, she shares excerpts from her writing journals. These can be quite comforting to read when you hit a rough patch because you know George went through the same thing.

Relatively recently, I discovered Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel. In one chapter, he walks you through four outlines for Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg. Experiencing how the story evolved is both fascinating and instructive. One of my favorite tips from Zuckerman’s book relates to stakes, so it’s a good one to end on. *smile* Here it is: when deciding your point-of-view character for a scene, choose “the one who has the greatest emotional involvement, the largest stake in what’s happening.”

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D’Costa’s 11 variations are not a formula. Writers can mix and match stakes that work best. Learning how to blend stakes increases the emotional impact of your story.

And that leads to satisfied readers.

Story Stakes is a reference tool I’ll be referring to often. Thanks for writing it, H.R. D’Costa!

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About H. R. D’Costa

A graduate of Brown University, H. R. D’Costa (a.k.a. HRD) is an author and writing coach who specializes in story structure and story stakes. Known for her “deep dive” instruction style, she is the author of 8 writing guides including Sizzling Story Outlines, Story Stakes, and the 4-volume Story Structure Essentials series. For practical, actionable writing tips designed to help you keep readers glued to your pages, visit her website scribemeetsworld.com, which is also home to the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet (downloaded over 37,000 times by writers from around the world).

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TKZers – WIN A PAPERBACK COPY OF STORY STAKES

To win a paperback copy of Story Stakes, answer this question in the comments: What are some of your favorite examples of stakes in films or novels?

Debbie will randomly select a winner from the comments and announce the lucky recipient on July 25, True Crime Thursday.

Note: This giveaway is only open to residents of North America, South America, and Europe.

Good luck and happy writing!

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When is a MS Ready?

Having just submitted a new draft MS to my agent, I recently found myself facing the perennial dilemma of deciding whether the draft was actually, really, well and truly, ‘ready’ to be sent…The answer being (of course) that a MS is never ready! But, even though that may be true – a story can never be perfect – such a glib answer doesn’t help anyone, least of all a beginning/aspiring writer embarking on their first few tentative steps towards being published. So how do you know when your MS is ‘ready’ to be sent off?

For me, the answer depends in part on who I’m sending it to…some of my beta readers get my drafts in chunks and stages, depending on the feedback I need. Other beta readers get the MS only when it has been revised and polished to the point where I would send it to my agent – and even then, the MS is still, in my mind, in the ‘draft’ stages. At that point, my story is not even close to being publication ready – It’s just at the stage where I can’t revise it any further without someone else’s input…or maybe when I am so close to the story that I can no longer see its flaws:)

This really is a gut feeling for me – a sense deep inside that the draft is finally done and ready to be sent off (for better or worse) to receive criticism and feedback.  It’s taken me a long time to understand this gut feeling or to have much confidence in it – though I am also lucky that my agent is happy to play the role of first editor so I don’t have the pressure to be totally perfect (at the same time though, I am also mindful of her time and would never want to send her something that wasn’t in my mind ‘ready’).

I’ve also (finally!) begun to accept my own writing process – realizing that time and time again I follow the same pathway when it comes to getting the MS ‘ready’. Although I’ve outlined my own process a few times before in previous blog posts, I thought it might be useful to show how I get to the point where I feel comfortable that my MS is indeed ‘ready’ to be sent into the world.

First comes the proposal – a brief summary/synopsis of my idea that I send to my agent before I start writing the MS. Then, after I receive feedback and (hopefully) her blessing, I proceed with putting together an outline and then writing the first 100 pages of the MS. I spend a lot of time at this stage, focusing on POV/voice, character, and setting. I send these pages to my agent for feedback as a kind of litmus test for the book. At this point, I often get beta reader feedback as well – but not always. For me, these foundational pages have to be virtually perfect before I can write the rest of the book (weird, I know!). When I do get around to writing the rest of the book, I use and revise the outline as I go. I rarely complete a ‘crappy first draft’ of any MS – each major section of the novel gets drafted and revised before I can move on. Once I do have a complete draft in place, however, I will go back through the entire MS for multiple revisions but this rarely involves major plot changes (I’m an outliner after all!). The whole drafting process usually takes me a year to a year and a half…and then of course I make further revisions once I get my agent’s feedback and we proceed with (hopefully) putting the MS out on submission.

I still find that at each step in the process I worry about whether the synopsis/pages/MS are truly ‘ready’ to be sent off. The fear never goes away – fear that my writing is crap, fear that I’m a fraud for even trying, fear even that I’m wasting everyone’s time by making them read what I’ve written…Perhaps, nothing is ever truly ‘ready’ to go out, you just have to be brave enough to do it anyway:)

So TKZers, how do you determine when your work is ‘ready’ to be sent out? How does your writing process help you get to the point where you know (or at least are brave enough) to send out your MS?

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On Producing My Own Audiobook

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know audiobooks are booming. As reported by Forbes:

The publishing industry’s 2018 year-end results are here, and audiobooks did astoundingly well. According to the Association of American Publishers, which collects and reports on data shared by many publishers across the country, estimated publisher revenue for downloaded audio increased 28.7% over 2017. Downloaded audio was worth an estimate of 13.7% of publishers’ online sales.

Downloaded audio has long seen increases of this magnitude; the 2018 report reiterates this, estimating that publisher’s revenues in the category grew 181.8% from 2014 to 2018.

This growth, too, is continuing into 2019, which has already seen massive increases: in the first three months of this year, downloaded audio revenues increased 35.3% over the same period last year.

While the industry as a whole is seeing much more modest increases (or, in some categories, small decreases), audiobooks have a ways to grow, providing publishers with an exciting market for many months to come.

And an exciting extra income stream for authors. As many of you know, Amazon offers indie authors an audio platform called ACX. It’s like Kindle Direct Publishing for spoken-word books. ACX was developed by Audible, which was purchased by Amazon in 2008.

Thus: audiobooks created on ACX are sold on Amazon.com, Audible.com, and iTunes (which will soon undergo a transition).

ACX is extremely easy to navigate. For the overwhelming majority of indie authors it is a way to hook up with voice talent for audiobook narration. Here’s an overview of the process. There are two types of deals you can make with the narrator/producer: 1) royalty sharing; 2) cost per-finished-hour.

With the former, you share the royalty with the narrator. ACX pays out a 40% royalty (of the retail price), which you then split with the narrator. [NOTE: This 40% is if you are exclusive with ACX and not distributing elsewhere; if you go non-exclusive, the royalty drops to 25%]. You audition narrators via the ACX dashboard and there’s plenty of talent out there. Like a fellow by the name of Basil Sands who drops by TKZ on occasion.

With option #2, you pay the narrator/producer per finished hour (PFH) for their time and effort. In return, you keep all the royalties. This of course involves a hefty up-front cost. Let’s say you have a 10 hour book and the narrator charges $400 PFH. That’s four grand out of your pocket before you start selling. Just remember to think in terms of sales over years, not just months. You can certainly find excellent voice talent out there. One way to do this is to listen to audio samples on Amazon or Audible of books in your genre. When you find a voice you like go to the narrator’s website and make contact.

I opted for a third way—producing and narrating my own books. Why? Because I’m cheap. Also because I spent a good part of my early years developing my voice for stage and television commercials. Why let the pipes that once proclaimed, “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” in an Off-Broadway production of Othello go to waste?

My big hangup was the technical aspect. I didn’t have a recording studio or sound equipment. I could rent a studio and engineer, but once again…cheap!

So I did some research and found I could put together a workable mini-studio right on my desk. The two main pieces of equipment I needed were a good microphone and sound panels—that soft, foamy material that usually covers entire walls. I found a small, adjustable “sound shield” for under a hundred bucks and got a Blue Snowball microphone and a foam mic cover to go with it.

Next I needed recording software. I’m a Mac guy and thus already have GarageBand. But how to set it up with the right parameters for ACX was going to be a challenge. I was not at all sure I understood what the heck that entailed.

Fortunately, a gentleman named Rob Dircks has generously made available, for free download, his pre-set GarageBand settings for an ACX book. Thanks, Rob!

Finally, I started narrating Write Your Novel From the Middle and uploading the finished chapters to ACX. I created a cover image (the parameters are square, like a CD cover), and filled out all the metadata. When I was all done I hit publish and waited two weeks for the quality review. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe some technical issue I wasn’t aware of would require a re-work of the whole thing. Ack!

But I passed the inspection. And now Write Your Novel From the Middle is an honest-to-goodness audiobook.

As I mentioned earlier, I am exclusive with ACX because it hits the largest slice of the audio distribution pie and pays a generous royalty. I know there are indies who have gone “wide” via other companies, but that is beyond the scope of my current experience. (Anyone who has info along these lines, please feel free to share it in the comments.)

Is narrating your own books an option for you? Many “experts” warn that authors who are not voice trained shouldn’t make the attempt. I say, “Bosh.” (I don’t say “bosh” often, but when I do, I mean it.) ACX has a helpful video and other info for authors as narrators. It does get easier after you’ve done it once. I’m now prepping How to Write Dazzling Dialogue and it’s like an assembly line of audio chapters. I plan to press on and produce all my books in audio.

In traditional publishing contracts, the audio rights are always defaulted to the publisher, with a clause like: Publisher, at its sole discretion, shall have the right to publish a recorded audio version of the Work, for which the author receives 10-15% of net. I’m no math whiz, but 40% of retail sounds a tad more favorable. If you are going to sign with a publisher, you ought to try to reserve the audio rights and create the audiobook yourself. Especially since hard copies (CDs) of audio are rapidly becoming obsolete. In other words, you don’t need Barnes & Noble shelf space to get the most out of your audio rights.

Of course, retaining these rights is going to be tougher going forward because all publishers know audio is the growth area. Discuss this with your agent. Go for the rights; in the alternative, negotiate a higher royalty.

Just don’t put your head in the sand, because audio is a major part of the future.

So what’s been your experience with audio versions of your books? Have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Have you ever said “Bosh” in mixed company?

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