Book Review: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you’ve ever wondered what the love-child of Ender’s Game, Game of Thrones, and The Hunger Games would look like. . . Check out Red Rising. Ender’s Game was fun partly because of the protagonist and his talent for out-thinking his opponents in satisfying and surprising ways. Game of Thrones keeps the reader guessing with political intrigue, betrayals, plotting, and deep characters. The Hunger Games was largely satisfying because of its can’t-miss premise; throw kids into a televised arena where only one is supposed to leave? It would be hard not to make that interesting. Believe it or not, Red Rising does all of the above and more.

Here is the book’s blurb:

“Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.

But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and lush wilds spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.

Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power.  He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.”

I can’t go any further into the actual events of the story without spoiling many of the satisfying twists and turns, but suffice it to say that the scope of the story is enormous and within 100 pages I found myself happily shocked at just how many unexpected turns it had taken. I was initially charmed by the characters and the Irish undertones to the red culture. This didn’t fade, but the movement of the story’s plot kicked into top gear and never lets up.

What’s Done Well? 

This trilogy has two stand-out points. The first is character. The protagonist, Darrow, begins the story flawed but he is incredibly proactive. He always has a plan of action, even if he harbors doubts or is making the wrong decision. Pierce Brown will sometimes hold the details of the plan from readers, even though the story is written in first-person; the result is watching Darrow enter into situations that seem doomed but knowing that Darrow must have something up his sleeve. His gambits don’t always work, either. At times, Darrow will fail. At other times, his success comes with heavier prices than he guessed. Even if the plot wasn’t as strong as it is, watching the growth of this character alongside an equally deep secondary cast would be enough. But as I said before, the plot is done incredibly well too.

I think my ability to guess what was coming throughout the trilogy was about one right guess for every ten. This is where the story brings to mind moments from Game of Thrones for me. Previously, Game of Thrones was one of the few books that made scheming so interesting. I have seen dozens of books try their hand at politics and intrigue, but most authors tend to create shallow imitations. Often, one or two characters are cast as the obvious wolf in sheep’s clothing or the political choices are distant and unimportant to the actual events of the story. Red Rising is like Game of Thrones without the snail pace. You get the same surprises, ambiguous but real characters who regularly reveal that they have interests and plans of their own, and morally testing decisions that directly impact the story. Best of all, you get all of this behind a story that constantly moves and isn’t slowed by multiple perspectives or excessive details.

What’s Not Done Well?

I had very few complaints as I moved through the story. My only problem was the feeling at some moments that Darrow couldn’t do wrong. There’s a sense of progression where he begins as flawed and prone to making mistakes from anger or brashness. But beneath the growth, there did seem to be an almost unrealistic natural ability that sets him apart from every other character. He does fail at times or misjudge characters, but it felt like when the author needed to sort of “turn it on,” Darrow could become an unstoppable thinking and fighting machine. That’s not to say those moments weren’t satisfying, but I had a lingering feeling that those moments weren’t 100% believable.

I also had a gripe with one of the major plot points in the second book. For one, it felt predictable, which was an anomaly in the trilogy. Pierce Brown dropped hints about this point for almost the entire second book, and the predictability left me frustrated that Darrow, who is usually so clever, had failed to see it coming. Still, I think the result was fun enough to make me forgive the predictability.

My last nitpick was the reuse of a few words. I think Pierce Brown has a fixation with describing things as a “ruin” and using the word “rage” in about every way possible. He was rage. Rage consumed him. He saw rage. The rage knight. Even naming two different chapters “Rage”. But over a few thousand pages I can’t really hold it against him. I just started to notice it by the second book and let it bother me a little.

Final Thoughts

I loved Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones, but I would recommend this book before any of them. I really felt that it didn’t just borrow some of the best parts of these books, it improved upon them. It had a wider scope and far more character depth than Ender’s Game. It also didn’t rely on a huge twist for memorability. It’s only real connection to The Hunger Games is the can’t miss plot, which would be compelling even if it was executed half as well. And it takes all the realism and grittiness of Game of Thrones along with the twists and turns but manages to convey it from a single perspective and at a much faster pace.

Basically, you need to read this trilogy. I have some Amazon links below, so if you enjoyed the review and want to support the site, please use those links! Also, there is a movie being made by the director who directed World War Z in collaboration with Pierce Brown. So make sure you read this before the movie is a huge success so you can be that guy who says the book was better.

 

 

 

More Posts Coming Soon!

This post is essentially just an update on where I’ve been and what to expect in the coming months. If you don’t know this about me, I’m a teacher, father of a new baby girl, and also a tennis coach. That’s kind of the inspiration behind a website about quick and easy tips for writers who are short on time. Ironically, I too became so short on time that something had to give. What gave was keeping up with my website. But the end of tennis season and the twelve to sixteen hour  work days it brings is near.

So the short version is that I will resume regularly updating the site with content in roughly four weeks! If you’ve stuck with me this far, I appreciate it greatly, and hope you will still be around when I get back in stride.

 

 

 

Should You Write Faster?

The more time you spend laboring over each sentence in your novel, the better it will be, right? I always thought so. But recently, I’ve been taking a look at the facts, not my instinct, and what I’ve found is a little surprising.

First of all, let me explain what I mean by writing faster. I’m talking words per minute. Personally, my typing speed is around 120 words per minute, but my writing speed has probably been anywhere from 20 to 80 words per minute, depending on whether I’m writing dialogue, prose, action, inner dialogue, etc.

So with that out of the way. Here is what I have found. If I write faster, not only can I write for longer, but my prose comes out cleaner and my dialogue reads better. The two caveats are that A) everybody is different and B) how my dialogue “reads” is subjective. Either way, I have some ideas on why this may be working so well, and even if you think you’re better off writing slowly, I may just convince you otherwise.

Why You Should Write Faster

I was talking with my brother recently and he said something that really stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along the lines of, “you’ve spent so much time writing that it should be like muscle memory by now.” When I thought about it, I realized  he was completely right to think of writing as a skill that used muscle memory.

Think about anything you’re really good at. Or even pretty good. Now imagine trying think really hard about it and analyze every movement as you do it. Granted, if you were thinking about your job as a slow-motion re-inactor or something, what I’m about to say won’t qualify. Otherwise, you probably would not be able to do it as well in slow motion.

I thought about tennis. Athletes can move through the motions of a swing or a motion slowly to warm up, but there’s a difference. I’m a little bit of a nerd about tennis and I have recorded myself in slow motion to analyze various strokes like my serve. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m swinging at a ball in regular speed, my legs, hips, core, shoulders, arm, and wrist all connect in a “kinetic chain” like they are supposed to. When I try to move through the motion of a serve slowly to work through kinks, the kinetic chain falls apart. My legs release too soon and my hips un-coil too late.

What’s the point?

If you’ve practiced writing, it is no different. Slowing down too much breaks apart the natural “kinetic chain” of your writing.

Try It!

My brother was the one convincing me to try writing faster, and a tool he recommended was Write or Die. It is a free website that gives you various options to keep yourself from slowing down when you write. You can set time goals and word count goals. I really don’t recommend “Kamikaze Mode” by the way. I just clicked it when I first tried the site, and then left the 2000 words I had typed in the box to copy over to my story later. When I came back, every-single-vowel had been removed from my work. I ended up just re-writing the section. You could also just hit pause when you’re finished, but really, who wants their vowels deleted. That’s too masochistic for me.

I’d suggest just trying the site a couple times to show yourself that you really can write quickly. You’ll realize pretty fast that what is actually slowing you down are likely those “speed bump” mental moments. Maybe you hit a sentence that you just can’t find the right words for. Blaze right through it! You can always come back later to fix it.

Why It’s Worth Trying To Write Faster

Benefits to the quality of your writing aside, let me dazzle you with some incentives to write faster.

1.) If you have 1 hour a day to write and you write 1000 words an hour, that’s 100 days or 14 weeks or roughly 3 1/2 months to finish a 100,000 word draft. 

OR

You could write 2000 words an hour and finish that same draft in 50 days or 7 weeks or roughly 1 3/4 months.

OR

You could write 3000 words in an hour (it can be done with practice) and, well, you get the idea.

2.) I know authors aren’t supposed to care about money, but let’s talk money. Let’s be pessimistic and say you’re going to profit $4000 for each book you self-publish.

If it takes you 3 1/2 months to self publish, that’s roughly $12,000 a year from writing. Not bad for an hour a day, but still not enough to quit your day job.

BUT if you double your writing speed, that’s $24,000 a year. And if you’re able to write more than one hour a day or squeeze in extra hours on weekends, the possibilities go on.

3.) If your book flops (I know it’s not fun to think about) you can have another book hitting shelves around the same time you realize your first book failed. And you can console yourself by knowing you only put in a few weeks instead of the better part of a year.

Final Thoughts

The numbers above are just to help you realize that if for no other reason, it’s worth thinking about writing faster to get more books published. Maybe it’s time to stop laboring over your little project and start churning and burning!

I believe it was Mr. Miyagi who said, “If you love your book, let it go fast.” Wise words. . .

 

 

mr-miyagi-smiling

Writing – Does It Have To Be Art?

A guilty pleasure is usually a term reserved for something bad that you cant can’t help enjoying: junk food, reality T.V., B horror movies, Youtube unboxings (maybe that one is just me), or books like Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter. Before you stab me with the business end of a broomstick for including Harry Potter with books like those, just hear me out. For the sake of brevity, I’m just going to tackle why you should stop looking at books as guilty pleasures in this post.

Even if you never plan to write a single word of fiction in your entire life, “guilty pleasure” is a label worth taking a closer look at. Calling a book a guilty pleasure is tantamount to saying that something is so bad that it makes you feel guilty to be seen enjoying, yet it’s so captivating that you’re willing to risk social ridicule. So let me get this straight. . . It’s so bad that it is embarrassing. But it’s so good that you can’t stay away from it?

What’s So Bad About Guilty Pleasures?

Most of you are probably thinking, “Well it’s not that it’s bad. It’s just so low-brow that it’s embarrassing to be entertained by it.” And this is the real central nugget. It’s not that a guilty pleasure is poorly done (though if you inspect Twilight, it apparently has glaring errors even on the first page) but that it doesn’t make us feel intellectual enough. At first, this seems like a valid concern. But upon closer inspection, it falls apart.

Entertainment Versus Art

The problem comes from the idea of entertainment versus art. And this is where authors really need to pay attention. I should preface this with a warning: my view on this is pretty controversial and most people who consider themselves writers will probably disagree with me. Go ahead. Anyway, I think the classics are dated and should be removed from the pedestals they are placed on.

When tennis was in its youth, players were taught to point their racquets directly away from the ball on the backswing, and straight toward their opponent at the end of the follow-through. As the sport evolved and the equipment improved, players began finding success with more dynamic swings. Today, players are taught instead to do what’s called a unit turn, where the body essentially coils and uncoils. The swing went from an entirely linear process to a circular process.

What’s my point? When the game of tennis evolved, there was less and less to learn from watching the old players. And if a new player wants to learn how to swing, he or she will model their swing from the current pros. But when it comes to writing, we have the idea that the “original greats” had it right and that we can never hope to match their mastery of the English language.

Frankly, that’s a bunch of bull.

Classic Literature Is Overrated

Fiction mirrors life, and our life and language now are vastly different from the life and language of classic authors. Of course our language should differ. Of course we should simplify our ideas. Of course we should write about emerging technology and social issues. The idea that there was a “golden age” of writing is perpetuated by school systems that tout classics as if they are infallible. Are they still good books? Sure. But should we discount any recent literature as valuable just because it’s not dusty enough?

Though I don’t mention it often in my posts, I teach English honors to high school seniors. And I know first hand how much teacher’s hands are tied when it comes to selecting textbooks. At my school, for example, I have a set list of books that I am allowed to choose from, all of which are at least 100 years old. This results in several problems:

  1. Students think their essays should be as wordy and inefficient as the books we put on pedestals. And why shouldn’t think they so? But there is absolutely no place in the workforce or even the literary world for wordy writing that mirrors the classics.
  2. Young people have it beaten into their subconscious early that books are dated, hard to understand, and a lot of work to read.
  3. The vast majority of young people will never read a classic again. Instead, if they eventually discover a love for reading, they will think of anything that’s not a classic as a “guilty pleasure”.

Aha! Maybe you were wondering where I was going with my tangent. But I feel it’s an important one. Our classification of anything that is compelling and easy to “digest” as a guilty pleasure all points back to the unjustified worship of classic literature.

So when you are working on your fiction, ask yourself if your goal is really to create something that is compelling and easy to digest (which will be labeled a guilty pleasure by society) or something that is thick, goes down hard, and is possibly rewarding, but only with a lot of work (which will not be appreciated by society until long after you’re dead).

And if you disagree with me about the false value placed on classics, tell me why in the comments! I’d be interested to hear other opinions.

 

Motivating Yourself To Write: A Helpful Tip

If you ever find yourself dreading the idea of sitting down to write or struggling to keep working even though it has only been thirty seconds, you’re not alone. For many writers, the struggle to write is a source of guilt. After all, how can you call yourself a writer if you have to force yourself to do it kicking and screaming? The good news is that you’re not alone in the struggle. Even the people who will say writing is pure joy and takes no effort at all have had days when it was not easy, even if they won’t admit it.

Why Are You Writing?

Before I get into a tip to help with your motivation, I think it’s prudent to first ask you to do a little self-evaluation. Ask yourself why you want to write. I’ll differ from some of the big names here because they will tell you the only acceptable answer is because you must or something equally all-or-nothing. But that’s bogus. Writing is a form of entertainment. People like to call it an art, but that is misleading. After all, the crayoned catastrophes churned out by three-year-olds every day are art. And so is this (which sold for millions).modern_art_sold_for_bank_18

The point is that your goals for writing can be small or large. And it’s okay to say you want to make a living from it, because money is just another form of validation—a way for us to know we are doing something worthwhile.

Writing is difficult. It’s often not rewarding. So if you have ever tried it and then decided to try again, you can call yourself a writer.

Making It Easier

Do you do all your writing in one location? Is your story saved as a little word document on a single desktop computer in a cluttered corner of your house? Even if you use a laptop and sometimes write on the couch or at the table or in the pantry, you’re missing out. There are two reasons you need to try writing outside your house.

One is that writing is a creative process, and you would be amazed at how a fresh environment and atmosphere can charge your work. It can be extremely helpful when writing dialogue to just listen in to a few random conversations and measure real speech to your version. If you’re writing a new character and struggling with a description, you can just pick a random person if you’re writing in a public place.

Some of my suggestions for outside-the-house writing spots depend on your personality. A great deal of adults have a degree of un-diagnosed attention deficit disorder (ADD). And the counter-intuitive thing about ADD is that it’s often harder for people with ADD to focus in stimulation-free environments. The key is to create a sort of stimulation “white noise”. Just the right amount of chaos is the perfect atmosphere for someone with ADD to focus. And for someone who has no attention problems, it’s still a great jump-start for creativity. It’s also similar to going to a brick and mortar gym versus working out at home. Something about putting pants on and leaving the house gears your mind up for a commitment of work.

Two is that you may not realize just how detrimental distractions are to your writing. If your house is like mine, ten minutes rarely go by without an animal, baby, or a wife demanding even a few seconds of attention. And if your mind works like mine, being broken out of the “trance” for even a second can spell the end of a writing session. So another type of place that’s great to sneak away to is somewhere outside or somewhere quiet. You could go to a public library and use one of their computers (just save your story to a google document so you can access it anywhere) or you could take a laptop or tablet out to a park if the weather is decent and try that.

For me, the best method is a combination of writing at home, writing in public, chaotic places, and writing in quiet, distraction-free places.

 

Does Your Story Have A Central Conflict?

Every good story needs a central conflict. While every writer from novice to master could tell you as much, not all of them are applying the concept. To demonstrate what I mean, here are some examples and non-examples:

Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: If the protagonist is not successful, a corrupt leader will come to power and bring misery.

Science Fiction: An emerging technology threatens the delicate balance of power and the protagonist must make sure the right people come out on top.

Romance: The protagonist is interested in a long-term relationship with a girl who isn’t ready to settle down.

Thriller: The protagonist discovers a plot to release a chemical weapon in the Boston subway system and he must find a way to stop it.

Non-Examples of a central conflict:

Fantasy: The protagonist wants to learn magic but it’s difficult.

Science Fiction: The protagonist keeps getting attacked by space pirates and has to battle his way to safety.

Romance: The protagonist realizes his ex-girlfriend is in the same restaurant while he’s on a date with his new girlfriend.

Thriller: The hero is tied up and must solve a riddle to free himself before a bomb goes off.

 

Notice the difference? The non-examples do show conflict, but it’s not central. And there’s not really anything wrong with the non-examples; in fact, you should aim to include as much conflict as you can in your story. But the real key is this: every story needs a backbone of dramatic conflict.

If you’re working on something right now and the central conflict isn’t becoming clear to you, be afraid. The gradual unfolding of your central conflict is the stage that your story plays out in front of. It provides context and relevance to the episodic moments of tension, and those moments of tension should ultimately build toward the central conflict, even if it’s only a step at a time. It’s all tied up together like a big, tense hairball. Maybe not the best simile, but you get the point.

Every scene in your story needs to have goals, and one of the most important goals is building toward your central conflict. 

So take a look at what you’re working on now. Leave a comment describing your central conflict. If you can’t figure out what that conflict is, go back to the drawing board and figure out what it should be.

 

 
photo credit: Hunt Peck via photopin (license)

I’m Changing My Philosophy

In the spirit of this update, let me begin this post with a TLDR: I’m going to keep my posts shorter and more to the point going forward.

If you’re interested in why, let me explain. I had traditionally aimed for about 1000 words or more and tried to pack as much information as I could into each post so that it could be a resource for writers. But I think while I work on my own novel (and subsequently getting some proof out to the world that I know what I’m talking about) I’m going to focus on a more “short and sweet approach”. Why? Because you don’t have to put as much trust in someone to read a brief article that gets straight to the point. When you see a wall of text, you’re forced to ask whether you trust the writer enough to commit to reading said wall.

And that’s that.  I hope you’ll continue to stick with me as I make some changes

Self-Publishing With Amazon and Kindle-Unlimited

Before I get into specifics, keep in mind that Amazon changes the rules of the game often and drastically, but as of December 2015, the strategies below are proven and effective.

A few months back, I wrote an article on self-publishing that was based on researching Amazon’s resources.  I had the good fortune to speak one-on-one this week with an author who is currently finding success in the self-publishing world. Aya Morningstar writes romance, which is one of the most lucrative genres at the moment. If you’re interested in reading, or just researching her work to see what’s working in the current market, you can find her books here.

Aya’s first foray into self-publishing was a short story and novella, which showed her that she had a lot to learn about the process. She published 20 erotica shorts (6-9k words) under her second pen name. Within two months, she was making around $3000 a month. However, the changes to Kindle Unlimited rolled out shortly after, cutting into her profits.

Currently, she’s transitioning into writing novel-length books with her third and current pen name, as authors of erotica shorts were hit hardest by the Kindle Unlimited changes (which now pays authors based on pages read versus rentals).

Aya was kind enough to share some of what she has learned about the industry.

First Thing’s First

Before I go any further, it’s worth emphasizing the point I made in my original article on self-publishing: if you self-publish your book without the proper preparation, you are gambling, and the odds are not good. 

The authors finding success in the self-publishing world are not necessarily the best writers. You could write the next Harry Potter, but if you handle it wrong, you’ll end up in deep in the millions on the rankings list. Traditional publishers will also turn their nose up at your second-hand book. The truth is, without an understanding of the process, many authors will make mistakes that bury their books without even knowing what went wrong.

That’s a lot of gloom and doom, but there is hope.

Recency

Amazon rankings are the lifeblood of your book. High rankings are the most valuable advertising your book can get. The higher your ranking, the more visibility, the more sales, the more reviews, and so on. So how do you get a great ranking and keep it?

The first insider trick is the “30-day cliff”. For example, suppose a book needs to sell 20 copies a day to remain at rank #2,000. On day 31, those 20 sales are worth less, and the book’s ranking will start to sink. Amazon wants to bias their rankings toward newer work, or else books like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games would be crowding the top 10 for the next twenty years.

If you haven’t already mentally jumped ahead, consider what that means for you as an author. If you were thinking “the sooner the better”, and just planned to throw your book on Amazon and figure the marketing thing out as you went along, well, think again. The absolute best chance your book has for success is a carefully thought-out launch plan. It is extremely unlikely for your book to climb back up to visibility after the 30-day cliff on its own.

 

Taking Advantage of Recency

One useful bit of knowledge about Amazon’s ranking system is that it doesn’t care how much you price your book for. For shorter works like romance novellas, many authors choose either the $0.99 or $2.99 price point. The $0.99 price is a great idea for the first 30 days, as it will boost sales (which boosts ranking). However, the royalties from a $0.99 sale are not impressive, so the wise option is to offer your book on Kindle Unlimited for free.

The percentage authors earn on each sale is based on the price. For example, a $0.99 book does not earn 1/3 as much as a $2.99 book—it earns 1/6 as much.

Kindle Unlimited pays authors based on how many pages of their books were read. The change hit writers of short fiction hardest, as the potential for earnings and rank decrease with page count (pages read also boost ranking). At $.099, the fees from Kindle Unlimited can account for a vast majority of your earnings.

After 30 days, many authors then change the price to $2.99. This can prove to be a very profitable cycle. If they push out a new book after 30 days, readers will be drawn in by the low price. Some of those readers will look at the back catalog, which will slowly fill up with $2.99 books. Essentially, once you establish a back catalog, your new books are mostly advertising tools to bring readers in to your existing work. On her old pen name, Aya Morningstar even offers a book that is always free to hook readers and get them interested in her other work.

The last piece of advice on rankings is to make your new book free for a weekend and make a huge advertising push. This puts your book temporarily in the free books chart as well, which is much easier to rise to a high ranking. And remember: rank is visibility, and visibility is key. 

Advertising

Many self-published authors squirm at the word. They don’t think they have that kind of money, or that the risk is too big. First of all, put it in perspective. You could potentially reach dozens of people who exactly fit the demographic of your intended audience for the cost of a coffee. However, there are places where your dollars are well spent and many where they are not. Do your research before deciding to spend your money with an advertiser, as more of them are wasting your money than not. If you’re not judicious in your search, you could spend more money than you earn.

One paid advertisement option is Facebook. Facebook paid ads allow you to choose who your ad will appear to based on an almost limitless set of characteristics (finally, a reason to be glad they are creating extensive personality profiles on all of us!).  You only pay if the person clicks your link. The amount you pay is capped at a number of your choosing per day. The cost per click depends on how likely the individual was to click your link: if they were extremely unlikely, they cost more. If they are extremely likely, they cost very little. While it does sound great, the truth is that Facebook advertising is extremely complicated to master. So enter at your own risk, and accept that it’s going to be a learning process.

When To Advertise

According to Aya, one of the most effective times to advertise is during a promotional period where your book is set to free (as long as it’s on Kindle Unlimited). Authors of all genres can use a service on Fiverr for $10 to $30 to help with this process. Another effective technique is to tweet a picture of your book’s cover announcing that it’s free and then find ways to get users with 1-2k followers to re-tweet your post. Just keep in mind that if you’re on a budget, your dollars will do the most work during a free promotional period.

Aya Morningstar Take On Advertising

I use BKnights, one[other] proven romance website that charges $15, and the re-tweet strategy during my free promo. This got me 2,000 downloads yesterday, which sent my book to top 100 in the entire Amazon free store (and #4 in shapeshifters). This means that anyone browsing the free charts in romance is likely going to see my book and can grab it for free. My ARCs [advanced readers who ensure the book has reviews ready at the time of release] were late, so I only have 9 reviews, but they are all five stars. So people see a free book at a high ranking with good reviews and grab it. Now when I switch the book over to paid, I have some real visibility. Also, over 2,000 people have my book and likely around 100 of them are going to click my mailing list sign-up link. This makes my next release more successful.

Beta-Readers

Another factor involved in Amazon rankings is reviews. Throwing your book on Amazon   ..   and hoping for reviews is risky. By the time people read your book and get around to reviewing it, you’ll be nearing the end of your thirty day boost—and that’s if anyone chooses to buy a book with no reviews. The wiser option is to give away free copies of your book in exchange for honest reviews. You can find beta readers on the writing subreddit of Reddit, writing forums, writing communities like Scribophile, Goodreads from friends and family, etc. If you’ve already published or are publishing, you can also add a ARC-list sign up link to your book. Your only task here is to convince someone to read your book and bother going online to write a review for it.

Just make sure you are clear with your beta readers that you expect an honest review.

Cover Art

Your book’s cover matters, and you should not make it yourself. It doesn’t really matter if you’re artsy. The fact of the matter is that like everything else, book covers are an art in and of themselves. The pros know what catches the eye and what doesn’t. You might be able to grab a freelancer for as little as $30 to $50, or if you’re more invested in your project you could check out a site like this that offers packages from $99 to $379. I stumbled upon that particular link on reddit’s writing subreddit, but there are plenty of cover designers for everyone’s taste and budget.

Blurbs

Your book’s blurb is also extremely important. You can do everything within your power to bring people to your book. But for many, the blurb is the selling point. It’s your chance to intrigue the reader and convince them to buy your book. Keep in mind that blurbs are an art, and the best practices vary from genre to genre. Take the time to look at books in your genre and analyze their blurbs. It also would be wisest to study the blurbs of breakout authors who are currently finding success with their first work in your genre. Authors who have established their names often get away with writing weak blurbs.

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists are another critical element to building your audience. While these will not benefit sales for your first release, they will begin paying dividends each time you release new work. You can use a website like Mailchimp and set up a free sign-up for your mailing list. Also, take steps to ensure that your mailing list link is attractive. A simple, “click here to sign up for my mailing list”, is going to gain far fewer subscribers than a more appealing approach. For example, Aya Morningstar recommends writing a short story or offering a free story from your back catalog to your mailing list subscribers. Consider taking time to make a well-formatted image above your mailing list link as well

Aya prefers to put her books out on Wednesday or Tuesday, which gives her advanced readers time to post reviews and time for her to set the book to free. On Friday, she sends out her newsletter (which includes custom-artwork and is nicely formatted) to her mailing list. Her newsletter lets subscribers know the book is out and free for a limited time. She also books her paid ads on Friday. The end-result is an attack from all angles. It’s also a process that builds in effectiveness with each subsequent release.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to get caught up in the writing part of being a writer. Go figure. But if this article has done nothing else, I hope it has at least proved that in the self-publishing realm, writing only one element of the process. It is very much a symbiotic relationship.

If you self-publish and have found any tips or tricks that I didn’t mention, let me know in the comments. If you found this article helpful, consider subscribing to get an email when I post new content (and only when I post new content – I promise).

 

Writing Fantasy – The Story Isn’t About Your Setting

If you’re like most writers drawn to fantasy, you can get lost in your setting. Maybe the most fun part about writing is dreaming up the cool places and cultures that will be featured in your world. That’s fine. But don’t make the mistake of letting the setting take the center stage. Make no mistake about it, your setting is the backdrop to the drama that unfolds, no matter how compelling the world is. Or if you want to put it another way, your setting is the flavor of the ice cream; it’s important, but no one wants to chug a bottle of vanilla extract (let’s pretend no one wants to guzzle chocolate syrup either, even though I can’t promise I wouldn’t—or haven’t, for that matter).

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Characters Are Not Just Eyes

If you’ve ever poked around writing forums or read unpublished fantasy writing, you’ve seen characters that are little more than a pair of eyes to show readers the world. Unless you’re extremely brave or simply don’t care if your work gets published, your story should take place within the setting. I’ll say it one more time for the stubborn among you: Setting is not story! This mistake can manifest in somewhat subtle ways. The simplest test to make sure you’re using setting properly is to ask if it is doing more than one job for your story. Let me give two examples:

“Brynn crossed the main street of Acretia. Above him, a tower of polished black stones thrust upward and into the clouds. Beyond the tower, and taller still, was the southern wall of the city, which bent inward to form a half-dome that cast its shadow over half of the southern district.”

So let’s say I really like the details above and want to include them in my book. I would ask myself some questions about these few lines:

  1. Do they move the plot forward? Not really.
  2. Do they reveal character? Not really.
  3. Do they demonstrate theme? Not really.
  4. Do they build subtext? Not really.
  5. Do they show writing voice? Maybe, but not really.
  6. Does it sound like I’m trying too hard? Maybe the part about thrusting upward into the clouds.
  7. Are they interesting? A little bit.
  8. What would I lose if I cut them from the story completely? *This would depend. If, for example, the domed shape of the wall became relevant later, it might be worth keeping. Or, for example, the tower of black stones could be referenced and then readers would remember having seen it. Otherwise, if this was just for flavor, then I would say no.

Okay. That’s a lot of questions. Should you literally write these out and run every two or three lines of description in your story through them? No. But you should get the general idea that these questions are striving toward and apply it to your writing. Essentially, how many ways can I make this detail about setting rich—and I don’t mean more descriptive, I mean more dense. Density is the key! The more purposes you can pack into a single line, the better.

Alright. If I really wanted to keep those details, I could try to make them more enriching to the story and address as many questions as possible like this:

“Brynn had to shove several beggars to cross the main street of Acretia. His father had told him tales of the city, but they had been just that: tales. The “towering pillar of shadow” was actually a crooked pile of dirty bricks no larger than a Varox. The “scantily dressed women” were things of questionable gender that he would rather have seen veiled in tokars. And the “impenetrable dome” was a lone patch of wall standing at the far end of town with a slight lean to it. No, Brynn thought, If Gurvus could be stopped, it was not going to be here.”

Maybe I got a little carried away. I also ended up changing the details that I originally liked in a way that felt more interesting. But that’s actually the point of questioning your details. Even if you don’t think these particular details are interesting, you can see that my attempt to make them more rich did do something interesting. It made my goal of “describe what he sees” transition into what now describes something about the character (he’s the type of guy to shove beggars) and he’s preoccupied with finding a way to stop someone named Gurvus. It moves the plot forward (whatever is going on with the army shows that he’s actually examining how well the city will stand up to an attack). I also showed his evaluation of the city through the lens of his father’s words, which provides some background on character. Theme and subtext are only hinted at slightly with the beggars and Brynn’s dismissal of them, but if we knew Brynn’s social class, those moments could show theme and subtext more strongly.  And finally, I changed the descriptions a little because I caught myself trying to sound too writerly when describing the tower before. By taking a different angle, I was able to describe the scene in straight-forward language that was more efficient.

And that’s the key. Efficiency.

Final Thoughts

So  if you haven’t already decided to, take a magnifying glass to your story. Look at the moments where you convey setting. And ask yourself if they are at least doing two jobs. In an ideal world, no sentence in your entire 100,000 word novel should be there for one reason only. When you realize how much actually needs to fit in those 100,000 words, it suddenly starts seeming like a limitation instead of a goal. You’ll also realize the need for efficiency. As a reader, efficient writing is like biting into a very satisfying and filling steak. The texture is just right, the flavors are just right, it’s warm, it’s juicy, and it smells great. Single-purpose writing is like snacking on unsalted crackers. They are dry and take a lot of work to chew, and you can eat them all day and still feel hungry (okay maybe you can’t, but I can. I have a big appetite).

Post an example of either some really rich setting sentences you’ve written, or some really shallow setting sentences in the comments.  We all write both of them, so there’s no shame in it. It’s actually easier to learn from the non-examples most of the time too. And as usual, if you enjoyed this please consider subscribing (the only emails you’ll ever get are when I post a new article) or sharing the article.

 

 

If Your Story Is Missing This, It’s Not Complete

It’s easy to get caught up in writing advice. You’ve probably read quotes from authors romanticizing the process by saying things like “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Is that going to change your story? Is it going to be the single piece of information that turns you into a best-selling author? Probably not. Most big name authors don’t like to talk about story structure. That’s because a lot of them have felt their way toward the correct structure through trial and error, talent, or persistence. What if I told you that you can skip the process and jump straight to the information that even most of the pros don’t know they are relying on? You can. It’s out there for you to grab. In fact, a quarter of it is right in this article.

So what is this thing I speak of that no story can live without? It’s a first plot point. If your story does not have a first plot point, it will not succeed.

If your first impulse to hearing the word “structure” is to cringe and throw your ink-well and quill across the room, just take a deep breath and hear me out. Structure scares many writers because they see it as a threat to their creativity. But structure is the backbone of your creativity. At least, it needs to be if you want to have your work read (and that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day). It’s the secret to successful If you were an architect and wanted to build a beautiful cathedral, you would need several types of knowledge and creativity. You might need the talent to carve intricate stonework, put together stained glass windows, and choose furnishings that enhance the atmosphere. All of that is great, but if you don’t know anything about basic engineering, you’ll at best build a shaky cathedral that might collapse at any moment, and at worst have a pile of beautiful artwork sitting atop a misshapen mass of stones and rubble.

Going into a story with the belief that your talent and love of storytelling is enough is no different. When done well, structure is invisible. That means the reader will only notice your characters, your concept, your voice, your theme, and your plot. Using accepted structure in no way compromises yourself as a writer.

Can I address every element of structure in one blog post? Technically yes, because this post could be as long as I want it to be. But for the sake of clarity, no. So for today, I’m going to focus on the first and most critical element of structure. It may not be pretty, and it may not be fun to think about, but it is absolutely essential that you understand the basics of structure if you want to be a storyteller.

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The First Plot Point

Regardless of what genre you’re writing in or what your style is as an author, there’s a critical point in your novel where you must place a specific moment: that moment is the first plot point. according to Larry Brooks (who, by the way, is the wizard of all things structure and taught me everything I know), the ideal placement of the first plot point is between 20 to 25% of the way through your story. You can read books all day and watch every movie there is without consciously realizing the need for a first plot point, but once you see it, you’ll notice it every time. If you’re a reader, you learned a long time ago that it’s unwise to give up on books before about the 60-70 page mark. Ever wondered why? It’s because the first plot point makes or breaks a book. 

I’ll get into more detail on the first plot point at the end of this article, but it’s not a solo act. A successful first plot point requires preparation.

Getting There Smoothly

If you don’t want readers to feel like they have to suffer through the first 20-25% of your book, don’t worry. There are structural tools to help liven up part one. If you’re an unknown name, you can’t expect readers to trust that you know what you’re doing and slog through the first 25% of your book without any reward. So get to know the tools at your disposal and use them well.

The first tool is a hook. There are several ways to hook readers, but many writers are surprisingly bad at identifying them. Here’s something many writers hate to hear: your voice as a writer is not going to hook a reader. You may grab some initial interest with your writing voice, but just like the most delicious pesto sauce imaginable, it can’t be served alone. So how do you write a good hook then?

Show the reader something that raises a question—and make sure they want the answer. For example, a man might kiss his daughters goodnight and appear to be the model father in all ways imaginable. But he might then go down into the basement where he has a woman bound and gagged. This raises questions. If he loves his daughters, as he appears to, why is he risking their safety? Why is he risking his freedom? Why is he doing this in his house? Is he only pretending to love his daughters, and if so, why? I could go on, but you get the idea. In simple terms, the more questions you can raise that compel readers to demand answers, the better.

There’s often a fine balance at play in the first pages of your book. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. You must create conflict, build character, establish your world, introduce the character’s inner demons, foreshadow the events to come, and maybe introduce a portion of the supporting cast. Not always, but often, a story that begins more slowly packs the biggest punch when it kicks off. Usually that’s because the more of this information that gets packed in before the first plot point, the more compelling it becomes, and including all of this information can slow down the pace.

Inciting Incidents

So your hook is over, and it has probably only been about 7 to 20 pages. You still have around 50 to 60 pages to go until the first plot point. It’s often not enough to just coast your way to the first plot point. There’s a fine balance at play in the first pages. If you rush through the necessary build-up, readers will not be invested enough in your character or world to care when the story kicks off. If you wait too long, they will have given up before they reach it. The safer option is to use inciting incidents, or moments that foreshadow and or lead toward the first plot point. The first plot point in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone is his trip to and arrival at Hogwarts. You may want to argue that it’s when he goes down to get the sorcerer’s stone with Hagrid or when he finds out what Hagrid was actually doing for Dumbledore, and it’s worth side-tracking for a minute to clarify why that’s not the case. Remember that:

  1. The first plot point redefines the hero’s goal or begins them on the path toward the ultimate conclusion of the story.
  2. It occurs between 20 and 25% of the way through the book.

So the Hogwarts Express fits first of all because of it’s location—right at 25% of the way through the book if you don’t count chapter one (and you shouldn’t, because it’s essentially a prologue). Beyond that, his boarding of the train is highly representative of his new mission. Harry’s goal for a while is just to keep his head down and survive. But through the first 25% of the book, he gradually and then rapidly realizes there’s another option. It’s only when he boards the Hogwarts Express that he can really be considered to set out on his journey to be a wizard.

So what is an inciting incident? To put it simply, it’s a moment that hints at the first plot point to come and/or the antagonistic force in your story. Think of these as your doses of excitement. This is how you inject energy and interest into your story while you work your way to the all-important first plot point. If you were writing a thriller where a girl is stalked by an ex-boyfriend, you might have her in the middle of a seemingly normal conversation when she notices a man wearing a hoodie watching her. Maybe he gets up and leaves when she makes eye-contact. That’s it. It takes a few lines, she notices, reacts briefly, and the story marches on. But what you’ve done is charged your story with more tension. You’ve also made sure the first plot point will be even more satisfying when it comes. Do this often!

The First Plot Point

Yes, it’s finally here. Or if you skimmed to this point, here it is. . . immediately. The first plot point! As I said earlier, this is the point where your real story launches. Your character and readers may have thought they knew what the story was, and maybe they were close, but this is the point when it really kicks into gear. If it was a love story, this is the point when the girl realizes her boyfriend is losing interest. If it’s a murder mystery, this is when the detective realizes the latest victim is his daughter. If it’s a crime-thriller, it’s when the duo slips up and has to start running from the cops. If you aren’t gathering it from my examples, it can be highly dramatic (like Neo taking the red pill in The Matrix) and waking up in a vat of goo, or it can be subtle but powerful, like in The Hunger Games when Katniss kisses Peeta on the cheek, essentially agreeing to play the game within the game, which defines her goal and the story from that point forward.

In The Matrix, you might have thought the story was going to be about fighting these “agents” and trying to kill them, but you weren’t really sure. When Neo takes the red pill, suddenly it becomes clear. The stakes are bigger. It isn’t just about one person fighting some agents, it’s all of humanity fighting for survival. That’s a big shift. In The Hunger Games you might have thought Katniss saying the famous line, “I volunteer as tribute!” was the first plot point. For starters though, it occurs way too early in the story for that. It’s more of a delayed hook and an inciting incident. You might have thought it was when the games began, but the games aren’t the real story. The real story is Katniss’ relationship with Peeta. Her alliance with him occurs right at the precise moment it should, and signifies a huge shift in purpose from that moment and onward. The games are an excellent backdrop that are interesting enough in their own right. They could have worked as a story by themselves, which is likely part of the reason the series was so wildly popular.

Final Thoughts

Structure is essential. It’s the figurative foundation upon which you build your story. Neglect the formula, and your foundation will be weak. But the formula is out there, so why waste your effort trying to figure it out on your own? If you don’t believe me, go look at any successful book. You’ll find all of these elements lined neatly where they should be, give or take a few pages, especially among new published authors.

 

If you found this information useful, check out my article on Larry Brooks’: Story Engineering. His book is so helpful that it honestly feels like cheating.