On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Great Market for Self-Published Books

An important and often overlooked market for self-published books is public libraries, and you need to prepare for this market before publication.

This market requires a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN). An LCCN is a unique identification number for your book in the Library of Congress’ catalog record. Since you’ll be applying before publication you need to get a Preassigned Control Number (PCN) (http://pcn.loc.gov/ ). The PCN requires cataloging in publication (CIP) data, so you will also need to get your book data, called publisher-generated CIP data. The librarian I chose gave me a good price and fast turnaround of a few days at http://www.cipblock.com. There are other people who do this also; you can compare prices etc. with a google search. The CIP data allows individual libraries to categorize your book for their own shelves.

If you obtain a PCN, you will need to send a copy of your final book to the Library of Congress once it’s published.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Viral Marketing

John Kremer (http://www.bookmarket.com/) is one of the best-known authorities for promoting book sales. He tends to think “out of the box,” as anyone who has read his 1001 Ways to Market Your Books will tell you.

One interesting tactic he promotes is the theory of Viral Marketing. Kremer argues that as more people read your book, more people will talk about it and pass it on. I’m not quite sure about this, at least unless you have many titles, since once a person has a copy of your book and reads it he’s probably not going to get it again unless maybe for a gift. If you the author don’t have anything else to sell to him, then the relationship is over. There IS a role for giving books away, say for endorsements (ARCs), book reviews (ARCs), or prizes, but for what my experience is worth I saw a lot of my *free* books being sold on Amazon (used and new option) or ebay. I didn’t see consequent increases in sales even though my book was supposedly getting to more people.

But that’s just me.

I wonder if a happy medium might be to offer a few chapters for free, and if the reader likes the book he can read more. Kindle already does this automatically, but it might not be a bad policy for e-books in general. Of course the sample chapters should contain valuable information, or else the person may decide it’s just not worth purchasing more of this drivel.

For anyone who is interested in viral marketing, Kremer has set up two web sites offering free e-books for fiction (http://www.allbooksfree.com/) and nonfiction (http://www.freebooksforall.com/). I’d love to hear what you think of this!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Hero's Mirror

In writing your story, what is your protagonist most afraid of as he pursues the story goal? A useful technique to make his fear larger and more tangible to the reader or viewer is to use a mirror.

The mirror character often acts as an antagonist (not necessarily the primary antagonist) in the story to *block* the hero from reaching his goal, meaning that the hero has constant run-ins with the mirror. But who is this character?

The mirror character is, or used to be, very similar to the protagonist, and faced the same dilemma or moral choice or fear that the hero is facing now. The difference: the mirror made the WRONG choice, and therefore shows what life will be like to the hero if he isn't able to handle this problem correctly.

Two very powerful mirrors are used by JRR Tolkien in his genius work The Lord of the Ring. As a very quick explanation in case you're not familiar with the series, the stories center around THE ONE RING as a representation of absolute power, forged by the ultimate evil being called Sauron. A number of creatures, both good and bad, pursue the ring. The ring has fallen into the hands of a humble hobbit named Frodo who must carry it through dangerous lands to destroy it where it had been created, the fires of Mount Doom. Frodo is assisted by many including Samwise Gamgee and Strider.

Mirror #1: Aragorn and Isildur:

Aragorn (Strider) is the rightful heir of Gondor. He is afraid to claim the kingship because he is afraid to be corrupted by the power that it represents, and his fear is mirrored through his ancestor Isildur. Isildur was seduced by the One Ring before he could destroy it, and set into play a traumatic series of events that lasted many generations.

Mirror #2: Frodo and Smeagol (Gollum):

Frodo is the ringbearer until he can destroy it. He is afraid of the strong seductive power of the ring: seductive because it promises ultimate individual power to the bearer. His fear is mirrored through Smeagol (Gollum), a ruined hobbit once very similar to Frodo, who long ago found the ring and hoarded it inside the mountains. After losing the ring, Smeagol (Gollum) acts nothing so much as a drug addict trying to regain his prize, alternately helping and harming Frodo and Sam as they inexorably travel towards Mount Doom. He ultimately plots (and almost succeeds) to kill Frodo to regain the ring.

These mirrors work together in the story: Aragorn must regain the power although he is afraid, Frodo must relinquish the power although he is tempted.

While designing your story, consider whether you might be able to use a mirror. This powerful technique can add strong resonance and demonstrate your theme in a clear, tangible way.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Word Tics

No matter how much you don't want to do this, almost certainly in your manuscript you have included word tics. These little buggers are simply words that you overuse, your list of personal cliches that make sense to you but will start to grate on a reader if used too often. For example, in my first manuscript I found that my characters kept "murmuring" to each other.

I found a website that counts the incidence of words in a passage and lists them from most to least common. "The" and "and" appear, of course (although you can specify not to search for little words), but then you'll find the specific words used in your writing.

Great tool! http://www.wordcounter.com/

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Autographing a Kindle Book

One advantage DTBs (dead tree books) hold over e-books is that the DTBs can be autographed by the author while Kindle books cannot. Until now. Evan Jacobs has created an application through Twitter that allows a person to request an autograph from a listed author. The author receives the message, writes a few words and gives an autograph, then sends the completed form to Kindle that then delivers it to the requester.

I don't know how well this particular application works, but the idea is certainly the wave of the future. Check it out at http://kindlegraph.com/about.

Another organization that is also working on this problem is Autography at http://www.autography.us.com/.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Query Letter

I've been hearing about my cousin's book, a memoir, through the family grapevine for about a year. Those who have read it love it. During my last conversation with his mother, my aunt, she said that he was seriously contemplating giving a company a fair sum of money to publish it.

"Has he tried to find an agent?" I asked.

"I don't know."

"Has he looked into creating a company to publish it himself?"

"I don't know."

"Has he thought of just putting it up as an e-book?"

"I don't know."

"Tell him to contact me, and don't pay anyone anything. NO MONEY!" I explained that in my coaching for writers I was aware of many options for publishing one's work. The problem with paying a company to publish your work is that doing this automatically narrows your options to one -- subsidy publishing -- that in my opinion is rarely your best option, even if the company you're working with is a good one. Furthermore, many of these companies are rip-offs pure and simple.

I didn't know any more until happily my cousin e-mailed me a month later. He explained that he's been writing a newspaper column for the past ten years and his writing is considered to be on a professional level. For his manuscript he'd had an editor go through it to make it shine, and the many people who had seen it loved it. The problem was that he couldn't get an agent to look at it: he'd sent out about fifty query letters with no requests for more information. He was ready to self-publish (really subsidy publish) because he didn't think there was any other way.

"That sounds like a problem with the query letter," I wrote to him.

The query letter he was sending out was well-written and funny, full of personality, but only talked about his book.

In the real world, the literary agent or editor doesn't *really* care about how good the book is, but only how well the book will sell. The book biz is just that, a biz, that wants to move as many units as possible. The units in this case happen to be books, and if one doesn't work there's always another.

I suggested that my cousin might want to focus on the buyer since his memoir has some good lessons and relevance for others. Open with statistics. Explain why XYZ is a problem, and how the book might help. Determine the marketing groups, the people who are likely to purchase the book. Explain your platform -- how many people you come in contact with through your blog and newspaper articles, and how hard you the author would work to tell others about the book.

This is a common misconception in publishing: Many people think that just holding the book in your hand is the end of the journey. I'm sad to inform you that this is just the beginning. P an attractive book together, whether through a company that you pay, by yourself, or through a traditional publisher, isn't that hard. The hard part is transmitting the message that this book a) exists; and b) could give useful information and/or be entertaining because of XYZ.

I'm happy to inform you that my cousin rewrote his query, sent it out to another agent, and within 24 hours the agent requested the first few chapters. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for him!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Some Thoughts about Opening Your Story with a Bang

Some writers espouse opening a story that sets the reader or viewer immediately into the middle of a horrific disaster or other spectacular event. While this can work well, especially for films, this is a challenging technique to pull off especially for new writers.

Before the reader can be drawn into the disaster, he needs to understand what is going on (clearly presented descriptions and detail) and to care about the characters. A horrific unfolding disaster may even prevent the reader’s emotional engagement into your story because it’s so painful that he won’t want to become involved.

I would like to suggest, instead of a devastating situation, that you form a relationship between your reader and point of view character. If you must have the exciting fire or other big event, build into it and allow the time for your reader and character to first become acquainted.

Building reader interest in your protagonist can be done in several ways:

1. Create Sympathy. If your protagonist suffers from something, whether an injustice, a physical defect, or a terrible loss of some sort, this will go a long way to create reader identification because the reader will feel sorry for him and therefore, of course, want him to win.

2. Put Your Protagonist in Jeopardy. Any time a character is in real danger, whether by physical or emotional threat, the audience is riveted. Start with a jeopardy small enough so the reader doesn’t automatically disengage from a painful situation, and build up from there.

3. Make Your Protagonist Likeable. We all want to be around pleasant rather than unpleasant people, and this is no different in stories. The person may behave well, or be funny, or be good at his job, or whatever—he has likeable traits that the viewer can appreciate.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Are You Ready to Publish?

Let's face it: the goal of getting a novel released through a traditional publishing house can seem unattainable, especially if what you've written is out of the mainstream. You’ve heard that waiting for months is par for the course, even after you’ve signed with a good agent. Once signed to a publishing contract, you may be unpleasantly surprised to find how little the publishing company seems to value your book: So-and-so Big Name Author is getting a ten city tour, and you're lucky if you can finagle a few extra books to send to local review sites.

In this remarkable age of the internet and many publishing options, it seems doable to just put out your book and go it alone. You know what you have is great! Furthermore, you’ve heard the success stories of self-published books that made millions: The Christmas Box was written by Richard Evans as a sweet Christmas story he wanted to share with family and friends. Eragon was written by a 15 year old homeschooled kid, Christopher Paolini, for a project. The Shack was an *inspiring* story written by William Young for friends and family.

There are many choices and nuts-and-bolts steps you can take to gain access to traditional publishing or to produce a self-published book. However, the most important thing that no one seems to talk about, is that before you start investing time to find a literary agent, or putting money down to publish yourself, you must honestly ask:


You might be surprised if you take an objective, impartial view of your manuscript (admittedly difficult). I happily support both authors applying to agents and self-published authors, but have to admit that the quality of writing in self-published novels usually doesn’t strike me as being ready. Upon reading the manuscript I find fixable problems that are enough to torpedo the book. For example, the author might need to cut about a fifth of the manuscript, put in better transitions, or write a satisfying ending.

Even the biggies of the self-published novels aren't necessarily as great as the hype. I saw the television movie The Christmas Box before I read the book, and found that the book meandered without the same satisfying and sharply cut story. Eragon in my opinion seemed to be heavily derivative of Lord of the Ring, and it had a lot of excess verbiage. The Shack seemed to be better written, but even this wasn't so much a story as a philosophical conversation. (One with which I disagree, by the way, but here isn’t the proper venue to discuss why).

In other words, I'd argue that (just maybe) these books weren't quite up to a publisher's standard? In my opinion, these books took off because they all had a resonant premise, even though the writing left much to be desired.

My experience working with the wannabe and soon-to-be self-published manuscripts I’ve seen is that their authors want to move to the next stage now, now, now. You can't really blame them, but still, I gently try to dissuade them when I feel my opinion might have an impact on the outcome.

Before you start sending out your ms to find an agent, or start to self-publish, ask yourself: is my novel REALLY ready? Be objective and hold out the standard that your book will be as good as anything else out there -- because it must be.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why Should the Reader Care About Your Story?

Why Should the Reader Care About Your Story?

The Story Question: the overarching question of whether the protagonist will or will not reach his goal, is the string that pulls the reader through your story. The Story Question is something that can be unequivocally answered, yes or no by the end of the story: Will Taylor be able to convince Kristen to marry him? Will Donna be able to realize her dream of being a rock star? Will the X-Thumpers be able to save their home world Terranthia from the invading evil aliens? Your protagonist will actively pursue this story goal, encounter many obstacles, bravely fight, learn something about him- or herself, and ultimately triumph (or not, although failure stories don't tend to be popular unless there is a compensatory win -- think Rocky).

Once you have a good story question you're almost there: you only need to make the reader care about whether the story question is answered. To do this, you make the reader care about the protagonist, and therefore since the protagonist cares about the story question the reader or viewer will also.

OK, so how do you make someone care about your protagonist? The quick answer is not necessarily to make him likeable, but instead to make him someone with whom the reader or viewer can admire or identify with to understand why he does what he does in the story. There are several techniques you as the writer can use:

1. Create Sympathy -- if your protagonist suffers from something, whether an injustice, a physical defect, or a terrible loss of some sort, this will go a long way to create reader identification because the reader will feel sorry for him and therefore of course want him to win.

2. Jeopardy -- any time a character is in real danger, whether physical or emotional threat, the audience is riveted.

3. Capable -- we all tend to admire capable people, and this is no different in stories. The person may behave well, or be funny, or be good at his job, or whatever -- he has positive traits that the viewer can appreciate. If he is pleasant or charming (not always the same thing), rather than unpleasant, this is even better.

Two examples of characters that are not "good" or "likeable," and yet riveting, are Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, and Salieri in the 1984 movie Amadeus. Scarlett didn't care who she hurt as long as she could run her life. Salieri was obsessed with wanting to be the best, and yet not being able to be. We don't agree with what they do, but we understand.

Another thing to remember is that a story question, and the protagonist, need to be established in your story as early as possible. Your audience quickly needs to have someone to root for, and know something they want to do -- otherwise your story is irrelevant and at risk of being abandoned by your reader.