The Rule of Three

“There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

This quote is usually attributed to W. Somerset Maugham, and it’s been kicked around a lot over the years. There may, or may not, be some truth to it depending on your view, your experience, and your sense of humor. But there is something to the rule of three.

The rule of three is a staple in the writing world. It’s known by many names—the triple, the triad, the trebling, and the trilogy. The three-act structure of beginning, middle, and end is a prime example of the rule of three.

The rule of three suggests that a trio of events, characters, or phrases is more effective, satisfying, or humorous than other numbers. Think of the “walks into a bar” jokes. An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman or a brunette, a redhead, and a blonde.

The rule of three can apply to words, sentences, and paragraphs. It can be used to frame chapters, whole books, and a series of books. The three-rule also applies to poetry, oral storytelling, and films.

What got me going on the rule of three this morning was stumbling on a writing resource titled The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It’s written by Christopher Booker and first published in 2004. Apparently, Booker worked on this book for thirty-four years.

I’m going to quote from Mr. Booker’s book where he deals with the rule of three:

“The third event in a series of events becomes ‘the final trigger for something important to happen.’ This pattern often appears in childhood series like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. It also appears in adult works like Fiddler on the Roof, A Christmas Carol, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

In stories, the Rule of Three conveys the gradual resolution of a process that leads to transformation. This transformation can be downwards as well as upwards. The Rule of Three is expressed in four ways:

1. The simple or cumulative three. For example, Cinderella’s three visits to the ball.

2. The ascending three where each event is more significant than the preceding. For example, the hero must first win bronze, then silver, then gold.

3. The contrasting three where only the third has positive value. For example, The Three Little Pigs—two of whose houses were blown down by the Big Bad Wolf.

4. The final or dialectical form of three. For example, Goldilocks and her bowls of porridge. The first is wrong in one way, the second is wrong in an opposite way, and the third is just right.”

I also stumbled upon a formula for the rule of three. This is often used in joke telling and comedy writing. It’s called the SAP test.

S = Setup (preparation)
A = Anticipation (triple)
P = Punchline (story payoff)

Let’s look at a joke by comedian Jon Stewart:

“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”

The rule of three appears so many times in so many ways that it’s barely noticed as a delivery technique. In the rule’s simplest form, outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics, it’s the classic beginning, middle, and end which is a time-proven structure. But think of all the times you’ve encountered the rule of three:

The truth, the whole, truth, and nothing but the truth.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.
Ready, aim, fire.
On your mark. Get set. Go.
Veni. Vidi. Vici.
Solid, liquid, and gas.
Three wishes.
Stop, look, and listen.
Snap. Crackle. Pop.
Blood, sweat, and tears.
Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.
Faster. Higher. Stronger.
See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.

What about you Kill Zoners? How often have you used the rule of three in your works? And can you add to the examples?

How to Earn Short-Term Rewards During the Long Haul

Author Debbie Burke and Buffy

No, this picture is not Photoshopped clickbait. It’s me and a real bear. Details below. 

 

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

In your real-world job, would you be willing to work for two or more years before receiving a paycheck? Probably not.

Yet, as authors writing books, that’s exactly what we do.

Writing a novel is often likened to a marathon. It takes months, if not years, to complete a book. Traditional publishing tacks on another one or two years before you see your book for sale. Indie-pubbing speeds up the process but it still doesn’t happen overnight.

Thirty-plus years ago, I was stuck in the endless loop of writing novels, submitting them, and being rejected. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Because fiction was my passion, I didn’t really consider writing nonfiction until a couple of journalist friends offered their help and encouragement. I dipped my toe into article writing and made the happy discovery that nonfiction was much easier to publish than fiction (not to mention it paid better).

At last, I had the satisfaction of seeing my words in print.

One magazine gig led to another. As my file of published clips expanded, editors began to call me. Article assignments took a little sting out of the rejections that my novels continued to collect.

Many more years would pass before I reached the ultimate reward of a published novel but, along the way, articles were small consolation prizes. They encouraged me to keep moving toward my goal.

My journalist friends taught me another neat trick—take the same article but re-slant it for different markets. Do research once and get paid several times.

For instance, a story about how to run a successful garage sale could be pitched to community newsletters, antique/collectible magazines, and senior-interest markets as tips for retirees to earn extra money.

An article about gold mines might fit in a travel magazine, a state historic journal, and a niche publication for hobbyist prospectors.

Often, during research, I ran across interesting people and wrote personality profiles about them.

One in particular led to a number of offshoot articles plus a memorable experience with the stunning bear in the above photo.

At the Flathead River Writers Conference in the 1990s, I met Ben Mikaelsen, a kid-lit author who had his own bear. Buffy had been a research cub that couldn’t survive in the wild. To save him from being euthanized, Ben adopted him. Life with Buffy inspired Ben’s award-winning novel Rescue Josh McGuire and several other books.

Side note: Ben does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets. He went to great effort and expense to build a suitable home for Buffy that was approved by state and federal authorities.

The unique friendship between an author and a bear was a story idea that begged to be written. Ben graciously invited me to his home near Bozeman, Montana, for an interview and to meet Buffy

Yes, that really is me feeding Wheat Thins to the 700-pound black bear. Fun fact: He didn’t use his teeth or tongue to take the treat but rather his prehensile lower lip, similar to an elephant’s trunk. I watched in awe as his bottom lip gently folded around the cracker in my hand.

The amazing encounter resulted in multiple articles that were published in Writer’s Digest (including a reprint in their annual children’s writing guide), several Montana general interest magazines, and international nature and wildlife magazines.

This experience was definitely not a consolation prize but rather a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’ll always be grateful.

Back to the marathon. While I wondered if I’d EVER have a novel accepted, articles were like short sprints where the rewards of publication and payment were only months away rather than years. Those helped sustain me through decades of discouragement.

In addition, writing nonfiction helped hone my craft.

Here are a few things I learned:

Write concisely and clearly. If an editor said 500 words, that’s what has to be turned in.

Choose what’s necessary and what should be cut. No matter how fascinating the research might be, it can’t all be crammed into the allotted space.

Always meet deadlines.  

Most important, I learned about storytelling and pacing to keep the reader engaged.

The 21st century changed the market for short nonfiction from print to online. As the internet expanded, magazines went out of business.

Nowadays my articles are mostly digital content. Fewer trees give their lives. I no longer have to buy sample print copies to study magazines’ style and focus. Finding outlets to write for is as easy as asking Mr. Google.

The downside is online markets often pay little to nothing because there is so much free content on the net. To make significant money, one needs to find particular niches that pay for specialized content.

However, there’s a different kind of reward: Publication is fast. As soon as authors hit submit, their writing is available to an audience of millions. 

On top of that comes the gratification of immediate feedback. I really enjoy reader comments on my posts for TKZ.

Steve Hooley recently asked me if research for an article had even sparked an idea for a novel. Not yet. But the research I do for articles often finds its way into my plots.

The second book in my series, Stalking Midas, concerns elder fraud. I attended seminars presented by local and state watchdogs to learn about that growing, insidious crime. Unfortunately, research turned personal when my adopted mother was victimized by a caregiver. Her experience became a True Crime Thursday post.

Several newspapers published my elder fraud article. It also formed the basis for a talk that I give to senior groups. Additionally, I revamped parts of Stalking Midas to incorporate what I’d learned.

I started writing articles to counteract discouragement during the long marathon of trying to get novels published. Articles became short sprints refreshed by water breaks of publication. They helped keep me going toward the ultimate finish line.

In 2017, my thriller Instrument of the Devil was published.

Seven novels later, I’m writing more articles than ever because…

A funny thing happened during that decades-long marathon. I discovered I like writing nonfiction as much as fiction.

Especially when I get to meet a bear.

~~~

TKZers: Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? How important is getting published to you? What sustains you during the long haul of writing a book?

~~~

 

 

DNA is supposed to prove guilt or innocence. Instead, it reveals deception and betrayal in my new thriller, UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY. Please check it out at these online booksellers.

A Disturbing New Trend

There’s a disturbing new trend on social media that could bankrupt authors. I first learned about it on Facebook, but it’s since traveled throughout all social media.

Some readers feel it’s fine to buy a Kindle book on Amazon, read it, enjoy it, and then return it for a full refund. After all, who’s it hurting? Authors, that’s who.

Did you know if authors rack up too many returns Amazon can send them a bill? I didn’t realize this, either, but it’s happening as we speak. I’ve heard from more than a few Indie authors who, along with royalty payments they received a bill for returns. And these are professional authors who sell 200-500 books per week.

Before you dismiss this post because you think it doesn’t apply to you, this trend affects all authors regardless of how they choose to publish.

A massive influx of returns might result in a publishing house dropping the author. At the very least, they may be hesitant to buy the author’s next book. Why? Because too many returns give the impression that readers are not enjoying the series, when in fact these habitual returners do it to save money. For some reason they’re under the misguided impression that all authors are rolling in dough. They also don’t take into consideration how hard we work. Most authors I know work six days per week, sometimes seven if they fall behind.

Is it fair for these habitual returners to prevent us from earning a livable wage?

Look. I’m not sayin’ if the book sucks due to a lack of editing or poor formatting you shouldn’t be able to return it. That’s different. But to read the entire book and then return it is just plain wrong. Would you go to a theatre, watch the movie, and then ask for your money back because you didn’t like the ending? Of course not. So, why do habitual returners think the same rules don’t apply to ebooks?

Amazon makes it easy to return digital products within a seven-day period. Here’s the kicker. If these habitual returners continue to game the system, Amazon can stop them from buying more Kindle books for at least a year. Nowhere could I find the parameters of what’s considered abuse, but there’s at least one habitual returner who publicly apologized for her behavior after getting banned from Amazon.

Thankfully, I haven’t seen an increase in returns, but this new trend worries me. Some authors are even habitual returners — and they’re bragging about it on social media! I will never understand what goes through some people’s mind. Be reckless all you want with your own life, but don’t let your crazy loose on the rest of us.

I have never returned a Kindle book in my life, and I’ve slogged through more than my share of crappy reads. Now, I download the sample first. If I like it, I buy it. If I don’t, no harm done. That’s why Amazon has the sample feature.

The return feature is available for readers who one-click by mistake.

SUBSCRIPTION ALTERNATIVES THAT DON’T HARM AUTHORS

Join Kindle Unlimited

For $9.99 a month, you can read an unlimited number of Kindle books. You will only have access to books within the KU library, but for voracious readers it’s a good option. Amazon offers a free 30-day trial period or a two-month deal for $4.99.

FREE ALTERNATIVES THAT DON’T HARM AUTHORS

Prime Reading

Yes, you need a Prime account, but most households have one to save shipping costs. If you don’t, you will need a subscription ($99/yr.). Otherwise, a Prime account automatically gives you access to FREE Prime Reading books. I’ve found some amazing new-to-me authors this way. If I love the author’s writing, I usually buy all their books, but that’s me. You could stay within the Prime Reading lending library and never buy another ebook.

Local Libraries Offer FREE Ebooks Through Libby.

Download Libby from the App Store or Google Play. The welcome page will ask if you have a library card.

If you do, click YES.
Then click ADD LIBRARY.
Enter your zip code.
Select your local library from the list.
Enter your library card details.

If you don’t have a library card, click NOT YET.
Libby will walk you through requesting a library card through the app.

Once you’re inside Libby, you can browse through the books or search for a specific title, author, or genre. Libby adds new titles all the time.

If you read on a Kindle device, click READ ON KINDLE and Libby will open an Amazon account log-in window.
Enter Amazon username and password, and the ebook will automatically download to your Kindle.

Never worry about late fees. At the end of the loan period (time varies among local libraries), the book vanishes from your device.

Libby also provides audiobooks, as Jim mentioned in this post. If you live outside the U.S., you can access Libby through Overdrive.

Become a Reviewer on NetGalley

Use NetGalley for free to request, read, and recommend books before they are published — and provide essential reviews and feedback to publishers and other readers.

Contact Your Favorite Author

Tell the author how much you love their work and ask to join their ARC team. If you keep up your end of the bargain by posting honest reviews, the authors will continue to send you FREE ARCs. Plus, you’ll be the first to read new releases!

With all these free options, why return Kindle books? Unless you one-click by mistake or the book is riddled with typos or formatting errors, please, please, please stop returning ebooks to save money. Think about your favorite authors. Do we deserve to feed our family? Do we deserve a roof over our head? Do we deserve heat in the winter and cool air in the summer? Then let us earn a living. We’re not asking for donations. We’re simply asking habitual returners to stop stealing our work.

If you want to help prevent this trend from continuing, sign the Change.org petition.

TKZers, have you heard of this disturbing new trend? Have you been affected by it yet?

The Fine Art of Editing

 

By Elaine Viets

Here’s one reason why I like my London publisher, Severn House: Editing.
Like most writers, I try to turn in clean copy. I’m also an editor myself. So I appreciate the masterful way Severn House edited my latest Angela Richman mystery, Late for His Own Funeral, due out in the US this November. The editors took care to fine-tune the sentences with small but significant changes.
Take a look at these. The way I wrote the selection is first. The edited version is second.
(1) In this first example, Angela is recalling her friend’s doomed married. The change helps set the scene.
Elaine: Back then, Sterling had seemed awed by Camilla’s cool elegance, and she fell in love with his humor and energy.
Severn House: When they first met, Sterling had seemed awed by Camilla’s cool elegance, and she fell in love with his humor and energy.

(2) Elaine: I walked over to him and looked right into his red eyes. We were both the same height.
Severn House: I walked over to him and looked right into his red eyes. We were the same height.
This change gets rid of a redundancy. If Angela could look the man in the eyes, then they were the same height. I didn’t need that “both.”

(3) Elaine: The cut on her forehead had been stitched. She’d have a heck of a bruise there tomorrow.
Severn House: The cut on her forehead had been stitched. She’d have a heck of a bruise there.
I didn’t need that “tomorrow.”

(4) This change makes the sentence sing.
Elaine: The child wore a pink polka-dot T-shirt and jeans, and had pink ribbons in her hair.
My editor rearranged it as:
Severn House: The child wore jeans and a pink polka-dot T-shirt, and had pink ribbons in her hair.
(5) Here’s a shorter way of saying the same thing:
Elaine: We were at my car now.
Severn House: We reached my car.

(6) Elaine: I fired up my iPad and opened up the Death Scene Investigation form.

Severn House: I fired up my iPad and opened the Death Scene Investigation form.
No need for that second “up.”
(7) Another unnecessary phrase bites the dust:
Elaine: “It’s going to be rough for a bit,” I said. “But you’ll get through it. I promise. You have a real advantage – one of the best lawyers in the Midwest.”
With that, Mrs. Ellis entered the room carrying a tray. “I’ve brought you some food, Camilla dear.”
Severn House: “It’s going to be rough for a bit,” I said. “But you’ll get through it. I promise. You have a real advantage – one of the best lawyers in the Midwest.”
Mrs. Ellis entered the room carrying a tray. “I’ve brought you some food, Camilla dear.”

(8) This small change makes for a cleaner sentence.
Elaine: I was on duty at midnight tonight, so I packed a small overnight bag with my DI uniform and added my office cell phone charger.
Severn House: I was on duty at midnight, so I packed a small overnight bag with my DI uniform and added my office cell phone charger.

(9) Elaine: Millie watched fascinated while the server mixed the ingredients together in a large glass bowl, then added the dressing and tossed the salad.
Severn House: Millie watched fascinated while the server mixed the ingredients in a large glass bowl, then added the dressing and tossed the salad.
If the ingredients were mixed in a bowl, naturally they’d be “together.”

(10) Here’s another two-letter change:
Elaine: Linda’s apartment, 615, was in the middle of the hall. I could hear the TV on and hoped Linda was home.
No need for that “on.” If I could hear the TV, it was definitely on.
(11) One last one-word change.
Elaine: I went home to my place, feeling discouraged. Chris and I didn’t have a fight. I just wanted to be alone tonight.
Severn House: I went home to my place, feeling discouraged. Chris and I didn’t have a fight. I just wanted to be alone

Most of these changes were small and subtle. Also, I don’t have to accept any that I don’t like. Some got lost in translation when they crossed the Atlantic. Like this one:
Angela says: “I was a bridesmaid in her wedding ten years ago, and we marched down the same aisle now blocked by her husband’s casket.”
The copyeditor had changed it to: “I was a bridesmaid ‘at’ her wedding.” I had to explain that if you’re “at a wedding” you’re attending it, while if you’re “in a wedding,” you’re an attendant.
Sometimes we truly are two countries divided by a common language.

Now hear this: My Dead-End Job mysteries Murder with Reservations, Clubbed
to Death, Murder Unleashed and Killer Cuts are now on Scribd.com. Listen to them during your 30-day free trial.

The Secret to Being a Successful Writer

Rachel Thompson, today’s guest, is my mover & shaker writing friend who hosts two sites, Bad Redhead Media and RachelInTheOC.com. We’ve cross-blogged over the years and hang around on Facebook and Twitter. Rachel shared her popular post titled The Secret to Being a Successful Writer on my website a while back, and it had great reception—it’s a real motivational kick-in-the-a. I thought it’s well worthwhile for Kill Zoners to read, so Rachel generously gave me permission to repost it here. Let’s welcome writer, book marketer, and social media expert Rachel Thompson to the Kill Zone.

———

Regardless of how you publish your books, articles, or blog posts, the secret to being a successful writer is not anything pie-in-the-sky or full of inspirational goo-gah. Besides, I’m not the kind of person to spray glittery sunshine up your you-know-what, so here’s the real deal. It’s the big secret. Ready? Grab your pen.

Don’t Be Lazy.

That’s it. Let me deconstruct this a bit. Pull up a chair.

Make It Happen

You. Yes, you. Stop looking around.

I’ve worked with writers in all kinds of ways since hmmm, gosh, 2009-ish. Ten years of observing that unique species of human we refer to as, writer. I’m a writer myself (six books released so far , been in a few anthologies, two new books on deck for this year), so I fully comprehend the challenges of balancing writing, marketing, the day job, real life, chronic pain, mental health, and single parenting.

Completely and totally get it.

There isn’t room in any of those roles to be lazy if we’re being #TruthBomb honest here. Yet, in my ten years of working directly with writers, I can count on one hand the writers who are get-out-of-my-way go-getters.

Not the kind who will eat you for lunch with some fava beans and a nice chianti. I mean those who actively set aside time for writing AND marketing AND promoting strategically — not creepy, spammy, ‘must take a shower after seeing this’ ways. Nope, I mean those who treat their publishing career as a business, not a hobby where they lollygag around on social media arguing politics or talking about writing their book, then hope and pray someone eventually buys it.

In fact, I so related to that panicky, ‘Where do I even start?” feeling I experienced with my first book back in 2012, that I created an entire month last year (year two is happening right now! and every May going forward if I decide to continue this exhaustive effort) where I’ve wrangled publishing experts this entire month of May to generously donate books, guides, and consultations, and yet shockingly (she says not shocked), few writers are taking advantage of it.

When I speak with them as to why not, several have told me they know about it but don’t want to participate because then they’ll HAVE to work on their writing and marketing.

This baffles me. And yet, nah, it doesn’t.

Lazy Writer Syndrome 

It’s a thing, right? We all get it. I get it, too. It’s not that I’m not writing. I’m here, aren’t I? I also write for my own author blog, RachelintheOC.com as well as on Medium, which are important parts of my author marketing and business marketing. I have those two manuscripts mentioned above on my desktop: one is in edits, and the other is in draft. I also keep a journal, a planner, and a book just for creative notes and ideas.

So, yea, I’m writing. Yet sometimes it feels like I’m not writing writing.

Am I accomplishing stuff? Am I climbing the mountain? Well, yea. Kinda.

It feels like this: it’s a big mountain, full of mud. It’s raining. Hard. I’m carrying this heavy weight. But I’ve got this! It’s just that some days it’s just…so exhausting. Or I have a migraine. Or I’m running my kids around (single mom). Or I’ve got client deadlines (solopreneur).

So, I set the weight down and make camp. For a little while. To rest and recuperate. And then get back out there when I’ve got my wind back.

That’s okay. I’m getting there. We’re all getting there (wherever the hell there is). (Maybe lazy doesn’t describe me. I am a Capricorn, after all.)

Are You a Lazy Writer?

These are the hard questions you have to ask yourself:

  • What am I doing to move my writing career forward?
  • What am I not doing?
  • What actions am I taking to build relationships with readers?
  • How can I learn more about how to market my work?
  • How am I standing in my own way?

Creating an author platform is not a choice in today’s market. It’s not an option. At least, not if you want to sell books and be taken seriously by not only readers but also other writers, book bloggers, and book reviewers (as well as agents and publishers, if you go that route, or plan to). Many writers refuse to treat their writing like a business — they think if they can just sign with a traditional publisher, and then that publisher will swoop in and do all that work for them.

If only.

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I deal with many stumbling blocks: anxiety, depression, chronic pain. There are days where all I can do is the bare minimum for my business, kiss my kids, and that’s it. And that’s okay. Big fan of The Four Agreements: always do your best, and if your best is just getting out of bed that day, okay. I Scarlett O’Hara that bitch: tomorrow is another day.

In my business, many of my clients are traditionally published. Big 5 even. They hire me to do their social media and book marketing because no publisher does that for them. It’s on you, writer friends. Start early, share often. Learn author branding (we brand the author, not the book).

You don’t need to hire someone to do this marketing stuff for you. You learned how to write. You can learn how to market.

The other big secret I’ll share with you is this: Book marketing isn’t about spamming your book links with everybody (that’s desperation). It’s about building relationships with readers early on.

I do a free weekly chat on my @BadRedheadMedia business Twitter, #BookMarketingChat, every Wednesday, 6 pm pst, 9 pm est. Every week for the last 4 years, I share my time and/or recruit an expert in publishing and marketing to share their expertise with you, the writing community.

Invariably, someone says, “Yea, I should do that,” or “I’ll give that a try.”

Writing is great. Publishing is a business. Treat it like one.

———

Rachel Thompson released the BadRedhead Media 30-Day Book Marketing Challenge in December 2016 to rave reviews. She is constantly updating the book, and released a newly updated version in 2020 in both ebook and print.

She is the author of the award-winning, best-selling Broken Places (one of IndieReader’s “Best of 2015” top books and 2015 Honorable Mention Winner in both the Los Angeles and the San Francisco Book Festivals), and the bestselling, multi-award-winning Broken Pieces (as well as two additional humor books, A Walk In The Snark and Mancode: Exposed).

Broken People was released in 2020.

Rachel’s work is also featured in Feminine Collective anthologies (see Books for details).

She owns BadRedhead Media, creating effective social media and book marketing campaigns for authors. Her articles appear regularly in The Huffington PostFeminine CollectiveIndie Reader MediumOnMogulBlue Ink Reviewand several others.

Not just an advocate for sexual abuse survivors, Rachel is the creator and founder of the hashtag phenomenon #MondayBlogs and the live weekly Twitter chats, #SexAbuseChat, co-hosted with Cee Streetlights and Judith Staff (Tuesdays, 6 pm PST/9 pm EST), and #BookMarketingChat, co-hosted with Melissa Flickinger and Dr. Alexandria Szeman (Wednesdays, 6 pm PST/9 pm EST).

She hates walks in the rain, running out of coffee, and coconut. A single mom, she lives in California with her two kids and two cats, where she daydreams of Thor and vaguely remembers what sleep is.

———

Thanks so much, Rachel, for joining us here at the Kill Zone. What about you KZers? Am I the only writer here who gets lazy from time to time and have someone else do their bi-weekly post for them? Does the L bite you too? Let’s hear the comments!

Interview with Randy Ingermanson – The Snowflake Guy

By

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

 

Randy Ingermanson AKA the Snowflake Guy

Brilliant people understand complex concepts. But, despite their superior intelligence, they often cannot explain those concepts to less-than-brilliant folks.

But Randy Ingermanson can. He’s brilliant but he has a simple way of breaking down the incomprehensible so we mere mortals understand what he’s talking about.

For those who don’t know Randy, he has a PhD in physics specializing in elementary particle theory. According to the bio on his website: “Most of my work was in nonperturbative methods in quantum field theory.”

Did that lose you? Yeah, me too.

When I Googled nonperturbative, I recognized three words in the definition: cannot be described. That’s for sure!

Yet…Randy, in his spare time, became a successful author of fiction and nonfiction as well as a sought-after writing instructor. His two-book Snowflake series and Writing Fiction for Dummies still remain in the top 100 writing reference books on Amazon many years after they were published.

Randy has the extraordinary ability to break down complex writing concepts into easily digestible bites. In addition, his step-by-step plan of action template helps writers track and accomplish their goals.

Randy graciously agreed to chat with us here on TKZ. Welcome, Randy!

Debbie Burke: Your day job as a physicist requires a lot of brain energy. You also keep up the Advanced Fiction Writing blog and write bestselling craft books. Plus you write multiple fiction series, some involving extensive historical research, including archaeological digs. And you have a family. Do you ever sleep?

Joking aside, your ability to juggle multiple projects is impressive. Can you share some hints on how you manage your time and prioritize tasks?

Randy Ingermanson: For a big chunk of my life, I didn’t manage my time very well. I took on too many things and then felt really stressed. But things began to change about 15 years ago when I read David Allen’s classic book Getting Things Done. I realized that I was doing things badly, and that’s the first step to doing things better.

One key thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you just have to prune things out of your life. That’s very hard, but over the last several years, I’ve cut back several parts of my life that I thought were essential. And nobody died. I have a theory that everyone has a set limit to the number of main projects they can juggle. My limit is three. Some people can do four, and I admire them to death, but I can’t do it.

Another key thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK to have a hundred things on your To-Do List, as long as they’re not all visible right now. So I have a cascading sequence of To-Do Lists, one for “Someday”, one for “This Year,” “This Quarter,” This Month,” “This Week,” and “Today.” Every Sunday, I review the lists and promote some tasks from “This Month” to “This Week”. Every day, I choose things from “This Week” to put on the “Today” list. The beauty of this is that a day is a success if I knock off all the things on the Today list. I only have to look at those 15 items and decide which to do next. I don’t have to look at the dozens or hundreds on This Week or This Month or This Year. Those will all get done in due time, but the name of the game is to not be overwhelmed. When you get overwhelmed, your brain goes into panic mode, you spend all day spinning your wheels, and you end up eating all the Haagen-Dazs.

I use a nifty method called “Kanban” to manage my tasks. (This is very popular among software developers.) There are a bunch of websites that let you set up Kanban projects. The one I use is at Kanbanflow.com, and it works for me. But I recommend that people always use a tool that resonates with them.

DB: Writing a novel is a hard project. You have a wonderfully workable system for how to tackle hard projects. Can you explain the steps in that system?

RI: I wrote a blog post awhile back on the general problem of managing any hard project. I’ll refer your readers to that post here: https://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/2021/01/21/how-to-make-an-action-plan/

I’ve gotten extremely famous for my system for managing one particular hard project—writing the first draft of your novel. The “Snowflake Method” will probably be listed on my headstone. It’s a ten-step method I use for writing my first draft. I wrote out the ten steps back around 2002 in answer to a question somebody asked in an online writing group I was on. And some people liked the idea enough that I posted it on my website. And then it just took off. It’s now been viewed more than 6 million times and has earned me a ridiculous amount of money.

The core idea is that you design a novel before you write it. Some people hate this idea and would rather just write by the seat of their pants. That’s fine by me. Different people are wired different in the brain, and it doesn’t matter how you get your first draft down on paper. We all can respect each other and recognize that we don’t all think alike. The Snowflake Method happens to work well for about a third of the writing population.

You start by taking an hour to write down a summary sentence for your story. This will be your selling tool forever, so it makes sense to take a little time to do it. But don’t spend weeks obsessing on this. Write down your best one-sentence summary for now and then move on to the next step. You can always come back and improve it later. In fact, you certainly will.

The Snowflake Method has another nine steps, and I don’t have space to even summarize them here. But anyone can Google “Snowflake Method” and find my 3000-word web article or my 50,000 word book on the subject. If you like to know approximately where you’re going before you start writing, then the Snowflake Method is designed for you. If you don’t, then it’s not for you.

 

 

DB: Most authors dread marketing. What do you recommend as the most important marketing tools for a writer?

RI: I used to hate marketing. In fact, I remember the day I told an agent friend of mine, “I hate marketing! I’m a terrible marketer, and I don’t ever want to have to market my books again!” She got a panicky look on her face and told me not to say such things out loud, because the walls have ears. And she was right.

I now believe there are three main keys to good marketing for a novelist. I call them the Three Rings of Power. They are:

  • Your website
  • Your email newsletter
  • Paid advertising

Your website is important because you own it. Social media is notoriously fickle, and any social media platform can suddenly become unusable, for a variety of reasons. Various platforms can ban you, or go out of fashion, or start charging you. But you own your website and it’s very hard to take it away from you.

Ditto for your email newsletter. If you have a newsletter with 5000 loyal readers who know you and actually read what you send, you have a guaranteed bestseller, every time you launch a book. That’s gold.

Paid advertising is now just a fact of life. None of us like paying for ads, but they work. If you use Amazon ads and Facebook ads and BookBub ads and the various book promo sites effectively, you can move copies with a positive return-on-investment. I think TikTok will soon join this short list of paid-ad opportunities that authors routinely use.

So the Three Rings of Power are great, and I personally have done extremely well using them. However …

However, a lot of authors don’t see a good return on their investment for their website, their email newsletter, and their paid ads. Why not? Do the marketing gods hate them?

No, the reason is very simple. The Three Rings of Power are useless unless you also master the One Ring that Rule Them All. That One Ring is copywriting. The ability to write good headlines, strong sales copy, and a compelling call-to-action, all without smelling like a weasel. This is a fine line to walk, but once you learn it, you can apply it everywhere. To your website. Your newsletter. Your paid ads. And away you go.

As it happens, I began to learn copywriting shortly after I had my “I hate marketing” conversation with my agent friend. And that has made all the difference for me. In some sense you make your own luck in marketing, and my luck changed permanently when I took the time to learn how to write copy.

Copywriting is not particularly sexy or fun. But if you go to Amazon and do a search for books on copywriting, you’ll find any number of sources that will teach you the fundamentals. And then you just need to go do it, determined to learn it, no matter what.

Learn copywriting, and the Three Rings of Power are your servants, not your masters. Many Bothans died to bring me this secret.

DB: What are you working on currently?

RI: I read Steven Kotler’s book The Art of Impossible back in October, and it revolutionized my thinking. I decided that for the next few years, I’m going to focus on fewer things and do them better. I have a day job doing image analysis for a biotech company in San Diego, and that consumes half my life, because it’s a half-time job. I am currently writing a series of historical novels on the most influential person ever to walk the planet, Jesus of Nazareth, and that’s going to take me another three or four years to finish. And I’m working on a project I call “Project Chronologicus” that will combine my mathematical/computer skills with my interest in ancient history—it’s a project to harvest historical data from ancient documents and compute the best-fit chronology for ancient history. (This is a notoriously hard problem, too difficult for any human to solve without a computer; but my whole career has been spent solving problems humans can’t solve alone, so I may possibly be able to write the software to solve this one. And if not, I’ll have fun.)

 DB: Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any questions you wish I’d asked?

RI:  As Gandalf once said, you don’t know your danger when you ask a hobbit such a question, because the hobbit will go on endlessly. This hobbit will have mercy on you and just say no.

~~~

Randy, feel free to go on endlessly with all the knowledge you have to impart to writers! Thanks for visiting The Zone!

Randy’s Snowflake series

Advanced Fiction Writing blog

Randy’s website

~~~

TKZers: Have you tried the Snowflake method of plotting?

Please share your best tips for time management for writers.

Naming Your Baby

 

By Elaine Viets

I’d rather write an entire mystery than come up with a title for it. So much depends on choosing the right name for your baby: Will your title grab the reader? Describe your book? Boost your sales?
If you’re writing for a traditional publisher, your contract will probably call your mystery Untitled Work. It’s your job to give it a snappier name. You’ve lived with this book for months, even years. Maybe you’re too close to think of a good title. It’s time to step back and take a look at tips for mystery titles.
Ask your family and friends. I originally wanted to call my Angela Richman mystery about the murder of an aging Hollywood diva, Death Star. My editor said the title sounded too much like science-fiction. My husband Don came up with a play on a classic movie title. The new book was christened A Star Is Dead.
Keep Your Title Short. Yes, I know The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t hurt by its long name. But short, snappy titles sell well. Consider Michael Connelly’s mysteries, starting with Black Echo. His titles are short and to the point. Stephen Cannell was another master of titles. My favorite is The Vertical Coffin, which he said was a cop term. When the first law enforcement officer rushes the door in a takedown, that doorway can quickly become a vertical coffin. Especially if firearms are used.
Early in my career, I wrote a collection of humor columns called The Viets Guide to Sex, Travel and Anything Else that Will Sell This Book. Lots of laughing readers didn’t line up for that title. Instead, drooling old men infested my signings, saying, “I want that book on sex travel.” Apparently the old boys missed that comma between Sex and Travel in the title. My mystery novels with titles like Killer Cuts attracted a better reader.


Search Shakespeare. Some authors, including Marcia Talley, find titles in the Bard’s work. My favorite Talley title is Unbreathed Memories, a phrase from “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” You can hunt for titles in OpenSourceShakespeare.org
Hymns and the Bible. Julia Spencer-Fleming has found a number of titles in hymns, beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter. They are perfect for her Rev. Clare Fergusson series.

Want to go trendy? For a while every third book had “Girl” in the title. That trend started with novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, not to mention  The Girls With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. None of these women were the girl next door, but their books sold. By the way, The Girl Next Door was used by a wide range of writers, from Brad Parks to Ruth Rendall. It’s even a horror story.

There were also a raft of “Daughters,” as in Leslie Welsh’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter. Now I’m seeing lots of “Wives,” including Daisy Wood’s debut novel, The Clockmaker’s Wife, and Alice Hunter’s The Serial Killer’s Wife.
One word titles can sum up the book. This works well for thrillers, such as Jeff Abbott’s Panic and Aaron Elkins’ Loot. I had a one-word title for a Dead-End Job mystery. I wanted to call the book Catnapped, but there was another mystery with the same name that year.

My editor added an exclamation point to the title and made it Catnapped!, leaving me with a punctuation nightmare. How would you end this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!
Should I add a period at the end of this sentence: “I hope you like Catnapped!.”
Or keep the exclamation point and look like a hyper-excited ditz?
Some words have a mystery mystique. Currently on the Pub Alley Fiction Mystery Bestsellers list are titles with words that seem to grab readers:
Paris. Gets them every time. At the top of the list is The Paris Detective: Three Detective Luc Moncrief Thrillers by James Patterson and Richard Dilallo.
Curse. Another intriguing word. Curse of Salem by Kay Hooper made the list.
Midnight. Two titles with “Midnight” are on the list: The Midnight Lock by Jeffrey Deaver and The Midnight Hour by Elly Griffiths.
Book Title Generators are another tool for clueless mystery writers. You can find several of them here: https://kindlepreneur.com/free-book-title-generator-tools/
I sampled the Mystery Book Title Generator, which claims to be the “Ultimate Bank of 10,000 Titles” that will “generate a random story title that’s relevant to your genre. You can pick between fantasy, crime, mystery, romance, or sci-fi.” http://blog.reedsy.com/book-title-generator/mystery

I clicked on “I’m just starting to write” and got this title: “The Mystery of the Three-Inch Stranger,” which struck me as a bit personal. It’s not the size of the stranger, it’s what you do with him.

Series titles: Sue Grafton has her alphabet series, beginning with A Is for Alibi and ending with Y Is for Yesterday. Mary Higgins Clark and her partner-in-crime Alafair Burke have a song title series, starting with You Don’t Own Me. Stephanie Plum uses numbers. Her latest is Game on: Tempting Twenty-eight.
I’d wanted to call my first novel for Penguin The Dead-End Job. My editor thought that would make a good series title, so that book became Shop Till You Drop.
When you write for a publisher, potential titles are batted back and forth. My fourth mystery in that series featured the murder of an overbearing mother of the bride. I wanted to call it One Dead Mother.
My publisher nixed that title as “too urban.” The novel was named Just Murdered.

Enter to win a free copy of Life Without Parole, my latest Angela Richman, death investigator mystery. Stop by Kings River Life magazine: https://www.krlnews.com/2022/01/life-without-parole-angela-richman.html

 

How To Spot + Rewrite Fluff

Those dang pesky buggers that sneak into first drafts and weaken the writing are called filler words and phrases—also known as fluff.

If a filler word serves a purpose, keep it. The objective is to tighten the writing by eliminating unnecessary words and anything the reader might find distracting.

For example, a Bigshot Author I adore had the strangest writing tick in her debut novel. It’s a good thing I unknowingly started with book 5, or I might not have devoured two of her thriller series. I can’t tell you her name, but I will share the tic.

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” he replied, and then, “Blah, blah, blah.”

Almost every line of dialogue had “she said, and then.” The writing tic distracted me, yanked me right out of the story, and made me want to whip my Kindle out the window. To this day I recall favorite passages from many of her high-octane thrillers, but I couldn’t tell you the basic plot of her debut till I jumped over to Amazon to refresh my memory. She’s since re-edited the novel. 🙂

FILLER WORDS

Just

Just should almost always be murdered.

Original: I just couldn’t say goodbye.

Rewrite: I couldn’t bear to say goodbye.

That 

That litters many first drafts, but it can often be killed without any harm to the original sentence.

Original: I believe that all writers kill their darlings.

Rewrite: I believe all writers kill their darlings.

The original and rewrite have another problem. Did you catch it?

Believe in this context is a telling word. Any time we tell the reader things like “I thought” or “He knew” or “She felt” or “I believe” we slip out of deep POV. Thus, the little darling must die.

Final Rewrite: All writers kill their darlings.

So 

Original: So, this huge guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Rewrite: This musclebound, no-necked guy glared at me in the coffee line.

Confession? I use “so” all the time IRL. It’s also one of the (many) writing tics I search for in my work. The only exception to killing this (or any other) filler word is if it’s used with purpose, like as a character cue word.

Really

Original: She broke up with him. He still really loved her.

Sometimes removing filler means combining/rewording sentences.

Rewrite: When she severed their relationship, his heart stalled.

Very

Here’s another meaningless word. Kill it on sight.

Original: He made me very happy.

Rewrite: When he neared, my skin tingled.

Of

To determine if “of” is needed read the sentence with and without it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Kill it. No? Keep it.

Original: She bolted out of the door.

Rewrite: She bolted out the door.

Up (with certain actions)

Original: He rose up from the table.

Rewrite: He rose from the table.

Original: He stood up tall.

Rewrite: He stood tall.

Down (with certain actions)

Original: He sat down on the couch.

Rewrite: He sat on the couch.

Original: He laid down the blanket.

Rewrite: He laid the blanket on the floor.

And/But (to start a sentence)

I’m not saying we should never use “and” or “but” to start a sentence, though editors might disagree. 🙂 Don’t overdo it.

Original: He died. And I’m heartbroken.

Rewrite: When he died, my soul shattered.

Also search for places where “but” is used to connect two sentences. Can you combine them into one without losing the meaning?

Original: He moved out of state, but I miss him. He was the most caring man I’d ever met.

Rewrite: The most caring man I’d ever met moved out of state. I miss him—miss us.

Want(ed)

Want/wanted is another telling word. It must die to preserve deep POV.

Original: I really wanted the chocolate cake.

Substitute with a strong verb.

Rewrite: I drooled over the chocolate cake. One bite. What could it hurt?

Came/Went

Came/went is filler because it’s not specific. Substitute with an a strong verb.

Original: I went to the store to buy my favorite ice cream.

Rewrite: I raced to Marco’s General Store to buy salted caramel ice cream, my tastebuds cheering me on.

Had

Too many had words give the impression the action took place prior to the main storyline. As a guide, used once in a sentence puts the action in past tense. Twice is repetitive and clutters the writing. Also, if it’s clear the action is in the past, it can often be omitted.

Original: I had gazed at the painting for hours and the eyes didn’t move.

Rewrite: For hours I gazed at the painting and the eyes never wavered.

Well (to start a sentence)

Original: Well, the homecoming queen made it to the dance, but the king didn’t.

Rewrite: The homecoming queen attended the dance, stag.

Basically/Literally

Original: I basically/literally had to drag her out of the bar by her hair.

Rewrite: I dragged her out of the bar by the hair.

Actually

Original: Actually, I did mind.

Rewrite: I minded.

Highly

Original: She was highly annoyed by his presence.

Rewrite: His presence irked her.

Or: His presence infuriated her.

Totally

Original: I totally did not understand a word.

Rewrite: Huh? *kidding* I did not understand one word.

Simply

Original: Dad simply told her to stop.

Rewrite: Dad wagged his head, and she stopped.

Anyway (to start a sentence)

Original: Anyway, I hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

Rewrite: Hope you laughed, loved, and lazed during the holiday season.

FILLER PHRASES

As with all craft “rules,” exceptions exist. Nonetheless, comb through your first draft and see if you’ve used these phrases for a reason, like characterization. If you haven’t, they must die. It’s even more important to delete filler words and phrases if you’re still developing your voice.

A bit

Original: The movie was a bit intense. Lots of blood.

Rewrite: Intense movie. Blood galore.

There is no doubt that

Original: There is no doubt that the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Rewrite: No doubt the Pats will move on to the playoffs.

Or: The Pats will be in the playoffs.

The reason is that

Original: The reason is that I said you can’t go.

Rewrite: Because I said so, that’s why. (shout-out to moms!)

The question as to whether

Original: The question as to whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Rewrite: Whether the moon will rise again is irrelevant.

Whether or not

Original: Whether or not you agree is not my problem.

Rewrite: Whether you agree is not my problem.

Tempted to say

Original: I am tempted to say how beautiful you are.

Rewrite: You’re beautiful.

This is a topic that

Original: This is a topic that is close to my heart.

Rewrite: This topic is close to my heart.

Believe me (to start a sentence)

Original: Believe me, I wasn’t there.

Rewrite: I wasn’t there.

In spite of the fact

Original: In spite of the fact that he said he loved you, he’s married.

Rewrite: Although he professed his love, he’s married.

Or: Despite that he said he loved you, he’s married.

The fact that

Original: The fact that he has not succeeded means he can’t do the job.

Rewrite: His failure proves he can’t do the job.

I might add

Original: I might add, your attitude needs adjusting, young lady.

Rewrite: Someone’s panties are in a bunch. *kidding* Adjust your attitude, young lady.

In order to 

Original: In order to pay bills online, you need internet access.

Rewrite: To pay bills online you need internet access.

At the end of the day

Original: At the end of the day, we’re all human.

Rewrite: In the end, we’re all human.

Or: In conclusion, we’re all human.

Or: We’re all human.

Over to you, TKZers. Please add filler words/phrases that I missed. I’m hoping this list will help Brave Writers before they submit first pages for critique.

“I did not think this series could become more compelling, oh how wrong I was! Coletta delivers shock after shock and spiraling twists and turns that you will never see coming. I was glued to the pages, unable to stop reading.” 

Look Inside ? https://buff.ly/3hmev0C

Short Stories: Small and Twisted

By Elaine Viets

Did you ever say this? “I’m trying to write a short story, but I’m blocked. I’m getting nowhere.”

That happens to every writer. It certainly happens to me. Short stories are hard to write. In some ways, they may be harder to writer than novels. Here are a few tips for when you feel blocked working on your short story:

Think small – and think twisted.
There are good reasons why you can’t continue your short story. You could be blocked because you have too much going to on. In short, you may be writing a 5,000-word novel instead of a short story.
In a short story, you don’t need long, dreamy descriptions of the scenery.
You don’t need six subplots.
You don’t need to tell us your character’s awful childhood – unless it’s vital to the plot.
It’s a short story.
Think small.

Here’s another reason why your short story may be blocked: How many characters does it have?
If your short story has more than four major characters – you may — accent on may –have too many. It’s like being in a small room with too many people. You can’t move.

The short story is a small world.
Don’t make work for yourself. Giving all those people something to do is hard labor. Think small. Cut back on your characters.
If your story is going nowhere, consider some pruning. Clear out all the extraneous details, the unnecessary characters, the descriptions of the weather.
If you’re still not sure, read the story out loud. Read it to your spouse, or your dog, or your wall. But tell the story instead of looking at it on the page.
That’s a good way to find out what works – and what doesn’t.
Lawrence Block is a master of the traditional short story.
Let me show you what he does in one paragraph – one – in a short story called “This Crazy Business of Ours.” It’s in Block’s anthology called Enough Rope. If you’re interested in traditional short stories, I recommend this anthology.

“This Crazy Business of Ours”
The elevator, swift and silent as a garrote, whisked the young man eighteen stories skyward to Wilson Colliard’s penthouse. The doors opened to reveal Colliard himself. He wore a cashmere smoking jacket the color of vintage port. His flannel slacks and broadcloth shirt were a matching oyster white. They could have been chosen to match his hair, which had been expensively barbered in a leonine mane. His eyes, beneath sharply defined white brows, were as blue and as bottomless as the Caribbean, upon the shores of which he had acquired this radiant tan. He wore doeskin slippers upon his small feet and a smile upon his thinnish lips, and in his right hands he held an automatic pistol of German origin, the precise manufacturer and caliber of which need not concern us.

See how Block establishes a character in one paragraph? That is true economy of writing.
Make sure your story is about what it’s about. In a novel, you don’t have to get to the story right away. You have time to develop it. Time to build. Slowly.
In a short story, you have to hit them and run.

This is one of my favorite short story leads. It’s by Maria Lima in the Chesapeake Chapter Sisters in Crime anthology called Chesapeake Crimes I. Here it is:

“The telegram said it all: AUNT DEAD. STOP. BUTLER DID IT. STOP. FLY SOONEST. STOP. GERALD.”

That’s short and to the point. The writer has hooked you and she’s ready to move on to the story.


That takes me to the second requirement of a good short story. It needs a twist. It needs a surprise – either in the beginning or the end. But get that surprise in there.
Here’s the lead to my short story, “Red Meat,” which was nominated for an Agatha and a Macavity. It was in Blood on their Hands edited by Lawrence Block, and now in my own anthology, Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories.

“Ashley has a body to die for, and I should know. I’m on death row because of her.
“You want to know the funny thing?
“My wife bought me Ashley. For a present.”

There’s your twist – in three sentences.
Maybe your short story has all those things, but so what? It still feels lifeless.
You can’t make it get up and walk. You need something to liven it up. Ask yourself what specialized knowledge you have that could make your short story unique, and then build the story around it.
I was asked to write a short story for a gambling anthology. I panicked. I was going to tell my editors no. I don’t know how to gamble. I don’t play poker or blackjack. What am I doing in a gambling anthology?
Then I realized I did know gambling. My aunts used to take me to bingo. I was brought up Catholic – and I learned how people can cheat at bingo, and especially, how they can cheat at cruise ship bingo. Do you know what the prize is for cruise ship bingo?
Twenty thousand dollars on some cruises. That’s major money. That’s big-time gambling. Bingo! I had a short story.


The result was “Sex and Bingo,” which was nominated for an Agatha Award.
At a short story seminar in New York, I heard top editors talk about what made a good short story, what they buy, and what they won’t buy.

Here are some things editors DO NOT want:

– No more stories about husbands who kill wives, or vice versa.
– No more stories ending, “And then I woke up.”

What do they want?
A fresh voice.
An unusual location.
An offbeat character.
An opening that grabs them.
That was the most important part. You have one sentence – maybe two – to catch an editor’s eye with a short story.
Make every word count.
***
Elaine Viets was nominated for a 2021 International Thriller Award for her short story: “Dog Eat Dog” in The Beat of Black Wings, edited by Josh Pacher. Crippen & Landru has published Elaine’s own collection, Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories Stories. Buy it here:  https://www.amazon.com/Deal-Devil-Elaine-Viets/dp/1936363275