Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Spice Up A Boring Scene With Conflict



Have you ever written a boring scene? Of course! We all have. It’s called a first draft. Today, though, I’m talking about scenes that have snappy dialogue and vivid descriptions and yet are better than warm milk at putting readers to sleep.

When presented with a scene like this a writer has two choices: cut it and send it to the great recycle bin in the sky or make it work. One way to make a lifeless scene work is to add conflict.

On Monday, I began looking at how conflict can add interest to what would otherwise be a boring scene by examining a scene from Michael Bay’s movie, "The Rock." Today I’m going to talk about Chris Winkle’s article: “Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story."

1. Put the good guys and gals in a jar and shake!


Give the protagonist’s allies deep and abiding differences. Give them differences that can make it impossible for them to work together, even though they're both--theoretically--on the same side.

The classic example here--it even has a trope named after it--is Leonard McCoy and Spock. These characters embodied two opposing states or qualities: Reason/logic versus emotion.

For example, this is a familiar scenario from Star Trek: A member of the away team has beamed down to a hostile world. He is in trouble. If the Captain doesn't intervene, he'll die. The problem: If the Captain uses advanced technology to rescue the team member, then he will violate the Prime Directive. (Like that hasn't happened about a zillion times!)
Spock: You can do nothing, Captain. To interfere would violate the Prime Directive. Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. The crewman must be sacrificed.

Bones: Spock, you pointy-eared hobgoblin, do you have ice water for blood?! He is our crewman; we can't just leave him out there to rot. It's not civilized, it's not human.

Spock: Doctor, I fail to see what his species has to do with it.

Kirk: Gentlemen!
Or the difference could be more light-hearted, Bones looking forward to the diversions of a pleasure-planet versus Spock's complete disinterest.

2. Ramp up the protagonist’s inner conflict.


Protagonists are just like your average human--even when they’re from another galaxy. They want things that are mutually exclusive. For example, they want their parents to be proud of them but they also want to live their own lives as they see fit. Sometimes these two goals coincide--often they don’t.

Spock’s father wanted him to attend the Vulcan Science Academy but Spock chose, instead, to join Star Fleet. His father was not pleased. It made those rare times when he stayed on the Enterprise especially interesting.

3. Have a strong rivalry between the protagonist and the scene antagonist.


Winkle writes that what is important in an enemy is that “their goals and methods directly conflict with your hero’s.”

For instance, if a scene is dragging but you don’t want to cut it then think about introducing an enemy, one whose goals and methods are opposite to those of the protagonist.

Winkle suggests that to amp up the interest you could make the scene antagonist someone who the protagonist hurt in the past or vice versa.

4. Cripple your protagonist temporarily.


Take a proverbial crow bar to your protagonist’s kneecaps right when he needs them the most. (This is what happens at the Major Setback.)

For example, perhaps the hero has something, perhaps a magical gem, magical powers or perhaps a person (for instance, his mentor) he counts on to help him achieve his goal. Take this away, take away his support system, and take it away at the worst possible moment. (for example, when Obi Wan Kenobi dies in “Star Wars: A New Hope.”)

Or you could disgrace your protagonist socially. Perhaps your protagonist is the CEO of a company that needs the goodwill of its investors to bring her plans to fruition. If she is disgraced, this backing will disappear. Alternatively, perhaps the protagonist is about to sign a lucrative, life changing, contract with a large company when pictures of her posing beside dead exotic animals surface.

5. Bring on the destructor!


Winkle’s subtitle for this point is “Unleash Disaster,” which is a much better subtitle, but I re-watched “Ghostbusters” last week and couldn’t resist.

If you’ve ever played “SimCity,” you know the unholy glee of unleashing a disaster on your unsuspecting Sims. It can be entertaining to sit back and revel in the destruction, comfortable in the knowledge you’ve saved the game.

The same thing goes for your story. Winkle writes:

“There are all sorts of natural disasters waiting to challenge your hero and endanger innocent bystanders. Disasters work well for characters that are traveling. They’re also a great option if you need a conflict that only shows up once, then disappears.”

Well said! And it can be a good way of killing off unnecessary characters.

Natural disasters can transform a setting in short order, mixing things up, introducing multiple sources of conflict: food and water shortages, different and more severe weather patterns and of course all sorts of wild and hungry beasties wandering around.

Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story,” by Chris Winkle is a terrific article, one I highly recommend.

That’s it! If one of your scenes drags, how do you fix it?

Photo credit: "max" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict

Bayhem And The Importance of Conflict




Today I want to take a look at Michael Bay's movie The Rock and examine how Bay uses conflict to keep our eyes on the screen.

The Importance of Conflict


At the time The Rock (1996) was released several critics were less than kind. Though generally positive in his comments, Roger Ebert pointed out that the movie borrowed from: The Fugitive, Bullitt, Escape From Alcatraz, The Third Man, Alien, Die Hard and Pulp Fiction.

Nevertheless, Ebert concluded his review of the movie by saying:

"No matter. Director Michael Bay ("Bad Boys") orchestrates the elements into an efficient and exciting movie, with some big laughs, sensational special effects sequences, and sustained suspense. And it's interesting to see how good actors like Connery, Cage and Harris can find a way to occupy the center of this whirlwind with characters who somehow manage to be quirky and convincing. There are several Identikit Hollywood action stars who can occupy the center of chaos like this, but not many can make it look like they think they're really there. Watching "The Rock," you really care about what happens. You feel silly later for having been sucked in, but that's part of the ride."

Roger Ebert, to my surprise, gave The Rock 3.5 out of a possible 4 stars.

I agree. I watched this movie to be entertained. Well, that, and to try and understand why Michael Bay's films work. (And, despite what his numerous critics say, they do work, especially at the Box Office.)

Here's why I think Michael Bay's movies work: Conflict. Namely, the expert management of sustained conflict. 

(That, and keeping the viewer slightly off-balance, not giving them a chance to look away. This, though, is more about cinematography. By the way, one of my marvelous Google+ contacts, +Chris Pitchford, shared this link to what I thought was a valuable, thoughtful, analysis of what makes Michael Bay's movies work: Michael Bay: What is Bayhem?)

In any case, as I watched The Rock I thought about Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and thought about how these tips/tricks could be seen in Michael Bay's work.

For example, Winkle writes: "Conflict is what makes a story interesting."

And I think that the success of The Rock supports that point.

For example (spoiler warning) the last scene of the movie has Stanley Goodspeed (played by Nickolas Cage) running from a chapel towards a beaten up old car. The car has a "just married" sign taped to the back and tin cans have been attached to the bumper via string. Stanley's bride--still wearing her white wedding dress--is behind the steering wheel watching for her husband. Stanley bursts out of the chapel pursued by a cleric who passionately accuses him of filching something. Cage hops in the car and his bride floors it. The car shoots forward, trailing streamers and a host of tin cans. As the car pulls away Stanley examines the package he absconded with: a roll of microfilm. The tiny package holds the governments most guarded secrets: Who shot JFK? Do aliens exist? And so on.

The scene is very short. The needed information is communicated--Stanley found the microfilm--but what could have been a fairly dull scene was turned into a spectacle, something that didn't give the audience the opportunity to look away--not that we wanted to.

And how did Michael Bay accomplish this? Through conflict. Through spectacle. The conflict: the cleric pursuing Stanley. The spectacle: a cleric chasing a groom out of the chapel he was just married him. Their getaway car trails paper streamers and tin cans. That has to be the worst getaway car in the history of movies! But that's just it, the whole thing is over the top. 

Cage finding the microfilm could have been dull. It's not like at the end of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark where we see the warehouse that seems to stretch to infinity, providing another (similar) hint of mystery. It is as though the movie says: here are the secrets worth knowing. And then they are placed beyond our reach.

In my post on Wednesday I'll talk about Chris Winkle's article, Five Ways to Add Conflict to Your Story, and explore how inserting conflict into an otherwise lackluster scene can help make it pop.

Links:
Photo credit: "Kidzilla Babysitting" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline

Talking About Conflict: Harmony vs Discipline



I’m always looking for new ways to include conflict in a story.

As you know, a basic theme of any story is the conflict that exists between characters--as well as between characters and the setting/environment itself. One effective way of generating this conflict is to set up two sides with opposing beliefs. Today I’d like to talk about two such opposing beliefs: Harmony and Discipline.

Discipline


According to the excellent article, Harmony versus Discipline over at tvtropes.org,[1] those who believe in Discipline hold that:

People should seek to gain “a measure of control over themselves and in so doing the world around them.”

Discipline is “the belief that mankind can and should master themselves and their environment for the betterment of all. Be it through mastery of the self through rigorous mental and/or physical training, study, exploration or with laws and civilization, this rigorous pursuit usually advocates science, progress, capitalism, Magic in its intellectual aspect, religion in its intellectual and organized aspects, innovation, urbanization and curiosity. Discipline believes that Harmony is too focused on preserving and accepting, and is in fact defeatist by not trying to improve things, this is why Discipline tends to be active.”

But everything has its drawbacks. People who believe in Discipline can be prone to the following errors:

- Interfere where they shouldn’t

People who live their lives according to Discipline often don’t know when to leave well enough alone.

Develop a God complex

Sometimes a person can feel they know so much about the world around them and how to control it that they are, in effect, god—or at least a god. This is never a good thing.

- Sacrifice today for tomorrow

All we ever have is the now, today. Occasionally the followers of Discipline ask others to sacrifice their todays for tomorrows that may never come.

Harmony


Those who believe in Harmony hold that:

People “should accept themselves and the world as it is, seeking not to control either but to coexist harmoniously with the forces in their environment.”

Those who believe in Harmony hold that “untamed nature, be it physical, natural or mental, is preferable and that mankind should not try to dominate or change the environment in which it finds itself. It [Harmony] believes that doing so is Prideful and unnatural, leading only to heartache and calamity. It believes that it is nature (be it Mother Nature, plain old nature, Sentient Cosmic Force, The Lifestream, magic, or even human impulses) that binds us all together into a greater whole that knows how best we should all coexist. Because of this outlook, Harmony tends to be reactive, correcting problems rather than seeking to prevent them.”

Like Discipline, Harmony has a dark side:

- A door to chaos

“Harmony tends to have a wild, uncontrollable and potentially destructive side. It's (usually) completely without malice, but that's cold comfort when a tornado or magically augmented mastodon tears through your house.”

Harmony vs Discipline: Increase Conflict & ‘Hook Into’ Setting


These beliefs relate to how a person should live their life—that is, what the best possible life would be like—and how the world should be. 

Interpersonal conflict as well as societal conflict

The dichotomy between Harmony and Discipline presents a way to amp up conflict in your story; furthermore, this is a dichotomy that science fiction and fantasy writers have been using for decades. For example, think of pretty much any episode from Star Trek, the original series (This Side of Paradise, The Apple, What Are Little Girls Made of? and so on).

Conflict between characters (as well as societies) and the world in which they live.

We all know that to tell an immersive story one’s characters must be ‘hooked into’ their environment—in other words, into the setting—and working with the themes of Harmony and Discipline is a great way to do that, one that many science fiction writers have used for years.

Example: Jedi vs Sith


Do you let The Force “flow through you and enact its will upon the galaxy? Or chafe at the ‘chains’ so imposed and bend it to your will?”

Question: Have you used the Harmony vs Discipline dichotomy in your own writing?

Notes:


1. All quotations in this article are from Harmony Versus Discipline over at tvtropes.org.

Photo credit: "At The Water Hole" by Laura D'Alessandro under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 14, 2014

4 Ways To Write Every Day

4 Ways To Write Every Day


I need to write every single day.

Everyone's different, I know that. What works for others doesn't always work for me and what works for me won't always work for others.

Writing Daily


When I work on a zero draft, or first draft, I work on it daily. But I'm not always working on a draft. Sometimes I'm editing, sometimes I'm on vacation (a real vacation that includes neon coloured drinks with absurd miniature paper umbrellas), and sometimes the minutia of life rises up like a tsunami and sidetracks me.  

Even when I don't have a WIP I'm trying to coax from the ether I still write daily. I blog, I do a writing exercise or I work on flash fiction.

The bottom line is that I've found if I don't write every day then it gets more difficult to write when I need to sit down and spend a few hours doing that creative thing writers do where we capture a story and put it into words.

Ways To Write Every Day


After years of writing, I've noticed certain things about myself, my writing routine, and I thought I'd pass them on in case you're one of those people who's a bit like me.

Here are some suggestions for ways to write every day:

1. Write and publish a blog post, even a short one. It can be extremely satisfying to write something, finish it, proof it, and publish it all on the same day, especially if you're used to writing 60,000+ word novels. If you don't have a blogging platform, here are a couple of articles that can step you through choosing one:

- Choosing a Blogging Platform over at BloggingBasics101.com.
- How Do I Start a Blog? over at BloggingBasics101.com.

(BTW, I don't have any sort of affiliate relationship with BloggingBasics101, I just think those two articles have a lot of useful information.)

2. Complete a writing exercise. I wasn't fond of writing exercises until recently but now I'm enjoying them. There's something about completing a short (under 300 words) story--giving it a beginning, a middle and an end and then publishing it as a comment so that others can read it and, if they like, give feedback. It generally only takes me a few minutes. I find it can be a nice warmup exercise for my writing day.

- Writers Write (Google+) has a terrific writing prompt they share every day.

- I share the Writers Write writing prompt on my Google+ feed and, occasionally, create my own.

- M.J. Bush often shares picture prompts.

3. Create short pieces of flash fiction and publish them. When I'm not busy writing an early draft of my WIP I try and finish one flash fiction story a week. I'll publish these either on my website or on Google+ (often under a pen name!). I find that doing these pieces as part of a writing challenge really helps me finish them. There's something about a group of people writing at the same time, committed to the same goal, to help keep me on track.

- #SaturdayScenes (Google+). +John Ward started the Saturday Scenes community a few weeks ago. It's a place where folks can share a piece of short fiction (generally under 1,000 words) and read the fiction of others. I've been having a lot of fun getting to know fellow writers and reading their work. I encourage you to check out the community.

We all have scenes we loved but had to cut, or trunk stories that have been gathering dust, #SaturdayScenes is a fun way of getting them in front of readers.

- Chuck Wendig's flash fiction challenges. Every Friday Chuck Wendig puts together a flash fiction challenge that, in some way, relies on random chance. Here are the challenges from the last few weeks: @YouAreCarrying, Bad Parents, Doing The Subgenre Twist, Once Again.

4. Keep a journal. I used to think that my non-fiction writing shouldn't count as daily writing, but that's crazy! As I've mentioned, above, you can blog but you can also keep a private journal. Talk about what you've done that day, or how the weather makes you feel or how Aunt Joan would make a really good murderer. (I'm kidding Aunt Joan, love ya!)

Something I've been meaning to try for years is keeping a fake diary. I'd imagine I'd discovered one of my neighbours is an alien (yes, I've watched The 'Burbs a few times; perhaps a few times too many!). It could be a fun way to get some writing done and perhaps spark an idea or three. (I think I would write, "This is writing practise," above each entry so no one takes me seriously!)

5. Wattpad. I'm playing with the idea of writing a series of flash fiction stories that flow into each other, each forming an episode in a larger story. Perhaps they could be linked by the characters, or the situation or ... well, anything! It would be interesting to serialize something like this through Wattpad

That's it! 

Question: What do you do to write every day?

Photo credit: "Alien Life Of The Party" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

DIY: Turn Your Manuscript Into A Physical Book

DIY: Turn Your Manuscript Into A Physical Book
handmade books 36-38 by darkest-red, on DeviantART.

Today, rather than talk about how to write a book, I want to talk about how to bind one--how to, literally, create your own book.

Bookbinding & Writers' Journals


Dabblers in bookbinding--people like me--often make blank journals. These journals are creative, distinctive, and make a thoughtful gift, especially for friends who are writers. (Also, they are much cheaper than anything you can buy; my journals usually cost less than $3 each to make.)

But we can take this one step further. Instead of giving a blank journal, why not print one of your short stories, bind it, and give it as a gift. How cool would that be?! Giving someone a bound copy of your story: a print run of one! Now that's unique. (This is assuming, of course, that you hold the rights to the work.)

In the first part of this post I go over how to bind a simple blank book. Then we'll talk about how to print out your story for binding.

How to make a book: the basics


Rather than go through this myself I'm going to point you to excellent articles, and a video, that document the process.

a. VIDEO: Coptic Stitch Sketchbook


I've watched many videos on now to make a simple book and this is, hands down, the best:



b. Articles


If videos aren't your thing, here are a few articles that will give you the basics:

Chain or Coptic Stitch Bookbinding Tutorial
Create a Stunning Combination Coptic Long-stitch Archival Book

Printing your story for binding


So, now that we know how to bind a simple book, let's look at how to print the pages of your story so they can be easily assembled into signatures.

In just a moment I'll give you links to two articles which give excellent instruction about how to do just that, but the idea is very simple.

1. Decide how many pages/folios you'd like each signature to contain.

Now that we know how to bind a simple book, let's look at how to print the pages of your story so they can be easily assembled into signatures.

In just a moment I'll give you links to two articles which give instructions about how to do just that, but the idea is very simple.

1. Decide how many pages/folios you'd like each signature to contain. 


For my blank journals, each signature is comprised of 10 folios and each book I put together has 10 signatures. For a printed book, though, the number of folios each signature contains will depend on the length of your book, as well as the size/dimensions of the book.

For example, a book the height and width of a mass-market paperback will, all things being equal, require either more folios per signature or more signatures (or both) than a book the size of a hardcover.

2. Decide how many words you want per page.


The number of words which will fit on a page depends on the font you choose as well as the font-size. You will then need to figure out how to print your story so that when the signatures are assembled into a book the pages are in the correct order.

There are programs--InDesign for example--which will do this. You simply need to tell it how many folios you would like per signature and it will collate the pages accordingly. If you're a DIY type of person (like me!) here are a couple of articles that step you through the process.

How-To Create Booklets Using Microsoft Word 2010 by Austin Ruthruff over at groovypost.com.

How to Make, Print, and Bind Your Own Books, by Thorin Klosowski over at Lifehacker.com.

That's it!

If you've made your own book, post a picture on your webspace and leave a link in the comments. I'd love to see it. :-)

Photo credit: "handmade books 36-38" by darkest-red, on DeviantART.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Five Reasons To Write Flash Fiction

Five Reasons To Write Flash Fiction


Today I want to talk about flash fiction and why I think writers, especially beginning writers, should think about writing more of it. But first ...

Flash fiction: What the heck is it?


A work of flash fiction is "a work of extreme brevity." (Flash Fiction, Wikipedia). Although there is no generally accepted definition for what that means in terms of word count, "flash fiction" is often used to indicate a work that is less than 1,000 words in length.[1] 

One of the shortest stories I've ever read--and (arguably) one of the shortest stories it is possible to write, since it contains only six words--is Ernest Hemingway's:

"For Sale, Baby Shoes: Never Worn."
-- Ernest Hemingway

But it can seem odd to call both a 1,000 word story and a 6 word story by the same name. After all, one is a full-blown story while the other could be a tweet. Because of this some folks have begun to call extremely short works of fiction--works of, say, 300 words or fewer--micro-fiction.

Whatever name you would like to use, the kind of stories I'm talking about in this article are, as the dictionary definition has it, works of extreme brevity. To me that means works of less than (give or take) 1,000 words.

The Top Five Reasons To Write Flash Fiction


1. Flash fiction is quick--both to write and to read. 


The more you practise writing--and reading!--the better you'll become. Flash fiction is a quick read, by reading flash fiction you can accelerate the learning curve.

I'm not talking about passively reading, sitting back and reading for pleasure--though there's certainly nothing wrong with that! In fact, I think it's a must. But writers need to actively read complete stories.

Also, writers need to read to discover (a) what the author was trying to achieve (reader identification, building suspense, etc.) and (b) how they did it. 

Or didn't. I think it's just as valuable to recognize an author was attempting to create a certain effect and that it didn't happen. We've all had this experience, we're reading along, happy as a clam, and then the text falls flat and we're thrown out of the story. 

If we're a writer we don't just get angry and throw the book against the wall (though we may be tempted), instead we ask ourselves: What effect was the writer going for and why didn't he/she pull it off? Even more importantly, we ask: How could I re-write this snippet so that the effect does happen?

2. The more stories you finish writing, the better you'll become.


It's not enough to write a lot and read a lot. As Neil Gaiman says, it's just as important to finish what one starts. After all, I could write, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," every single day for the rest of my life and I can guarantee you it wouldn't improve me as a writer!

It is much easier to finish a 900 word piece of flash fiction--I can do that in about two hours--than it is to finish an 80,000 word novel.

3. Writing--and reading--flash fiction gives you confidence.


Reading the flash fiction of peer writers--people who have reached the same stage of this crazy journey you have--can help you because it can help you see your work in a new way.

Let me explain. When you read the work of peer authors you're bound to come across beautifully written stories. Yes, sure, this can be demoralizing if you think your stories have all the appeal of a white room, but you'll also see that these same authors don't always get it right. They'll stumble and when they do you'll see it. That is, you'll see where their prose went flat or their story turned left when it should have gone right and then something amazing and wonderful will happen to you: you'll be able to see these things in your own work

Or, maybe not. Maybe you're different from me. For myself, when I read a story I've written it's impossible to get past the story in my head. When I read a line I know what the line is supposed to say because I've got the story dancing around my brain. Unfortunately often the line doesn't say what I want it to and I can't see that because I'm too close to the story, I'm too connected

When I read another persons work and I see the flaw in their work often something will click, a mental connection will be made, and I'll suddenly realize that's what I've done too. But, often, I'll need to see this mistake in another person's work, first, before I'll see it in my own.

4. Writing flash fiction can give you an audience.


When we start out we write stories that we look back on in later years and quietly, reverently--even tearfully--inter in trunks and (if you're me) in shoeboxes under the bed. But those stories were important, they needed to be written. If they hadn't been written we'd never have gotten better. We'd never have improved.

It helps (especially when one first starts out) to share our writing--even if it is far from perfect--with others. 

Why? Because ...

First, every writer needs encouragement, especially in the beginning. 

Second, beginning writers need encouragement that doesn't come from their mother! Mother's have to love everything you've written, it comes with the job description.

5. Writing flash fiction makes it easier to make connections with other writers.


Readers love flash fiction. Yes, sure, there are probably exceptions, people who want to focus exclusively on longform fiction, but in general readers would prefer to critique a 1,000 word piece of fiction rather than a 100,000 word piece because ... well, because the most important thing a writer can do--and the thing they must do--is write. Time is precious and while it is important to critique the work of others the single most important thing a writer can do is write.

Joining A Writing Community


A terrific way to motivate yourself to write is by joining a community that helps motivate its members to not only write regularly, but to publicly share what they've written. 

Saturday Scenes on Google+ (#SaturdayScenes)


I'm a member of one such community: SaturdayScenes. Saturday Scenes was created by +John Ward with the intention of giving writers a friendly nudge to write more, to publish what they've written, and to read and comment on the work of others. 

Each saturday participating writers publish a scene (generally each scene is no more than 500 or 1,000 words) on their Google+ profile and then share a link to that post with the community. 

Saturday Scenes is only a few weeks old, but already a vibrant community has formed, one held together by the shared experience of publishing work and having it read, and commented upon, by others. 

For the last few Saturdays I've been sharing scenes from one of my "under the bed" stories, one that I've gone back to and fixed up. It's also a good way to share scenes that you love but which you've had to cut from a novel. 

Critters.org


Another terrific organization I've belonged to for a number of years is Critters, run by Andrew Burt (Aburt). If you join you'll need to commit to doing a critique a week, but in return you are pretty much guaranteed to get several thoughtful critiques of your own work.

Interested? Read more here: What is Critters?

Note: Critters.org focuses on short stories over 2,000 words long. You can submit flash fiction pieces but they aren't worth as much reading credit.

That's it! Have you written any flash fiction? If so, tell us about it. Did you enjoy writing it? What about reading the flash fiction of others?

Notes


1. I say this based solely on my experiences, how I've seen the word used. In putting up these descriptions I don't mean to imply that this is what the words mean, full stop, but only to make it clear how I am using these words.

Photo credit: "the tide comes in - wet feet" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Mark Coker's Tips On How To Sell More Books

Mark Coker's Tips On How To Sell More Books



Let's talk about book marketing. 

I prefer to concentrate on writing so I tend to shy away from marketing. That said, writers need to make a living wage if they are to keep writing, so marketing--learning how best to present our work to readers--is important.

Each year Smashwords founder, Mark Coker, shares the most significant factors in a book's sale on Smashwords[1]. Here is his analysis for this year: 2014 Smashwords Survey Reveals New Opportunties for Indie Authors

Even small changes can have big effects.


It will come as no surprise that, as Coker writes, "A few titles sell fabulously well and most sell poorly." But what Coker takes from this is worth thinking about: "An incremental increase in sales rank is usually matched by an exponential increase is sales."

The takeaway: Do those things that "give you an incremental advantage so you can climb in sales rank."

What follows are a few ways in which you can give your book an incremental advantage.

1. Longer ebooks sell better.


In the 2014 survey, as in earlier surveys, it was clear that longer books sell better. 

When I read this I wondered: How long is longer? 70,000 words? 80,000? 100,000? But Coker doesn't put a wordcount on this. All he says (see below) is that a book that has fewer than 50,000 words, all things being equal, would be at a disadvantage.

2. Price points: books priced at $2.99 and $3.99 sell best.


Mark Coker writes:

"The highest earning indie authors are utilizing lower average prices than the authors who earn less, but this doesn't mean that ultra-low prices such as $.99 are the path to riches.  $2.99 and $3.99 are the sweet spots for most of the bestsellers."

"FREE still works great, but it's losing some mojo [...]."

3. If you offer your book as a pre-order, it will sell more copies.


Mark Coker writes: 

"I think preorders today are where free was five years ago.  The first authors to effectively utilize preorders will gain the most advantage, just as the first authors to enter new distribution channels gain the most advantage.  Five years from now once all indies recognize that preorders are a no-brainer essential best practice, the effectiveness of preorders will decline."

4. Books in a series sell better than standalone books.


Not only do books in a series outsell standalone books but the best performing series have longer books.

5. Books under 50,000 words sell fewer copies.


Mark Coker writes:

"Also interesting, we found series books under 50,000 words are especially disadvantaged.  This is not to say that you can't become a bestseller writing shorter novellas.  Multiple Smashwords authors have had success here.  But what the data does tell me is that successful novella writers might achieve even greater success if they write full-length.  The data appears to suggest that series books under 50,000 words might create friction that makes readers incrementally less willing to buy."

6. Offer the first book of a series free of charge.


Mark Coker writes: "We found strong evidence that series that have free series starters earn more money for authors than series that do not have free series starters." 

To sum up:


- Longer ebooks sell better.
- Books priced at $2.99 and $3.99 sell best.
- Books offered as a pre-order sell more copies.
- Books in a series sell more copies.
- Short books (books with fewer than 50,000 words) sell fewer copies.
- Series sell better if the first book is offered free of charge.

Question: What works for you? If you have a marketing tip to share, please leave a comment.

Notes:

1. Mark Coker's survey is based on "over $25 million in customer purchases aggregated across Smashwords retailers including Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, the Smashwords.com store, Sony (now closed), Diesel (closed), Oyster, Scribd, Kobo, public libraries and others." In other words, it is based on books offered on the Smashwords platform as well as on platforms owned by Smashwords' publishing partners. As a result, this data may not apply to those who sell on other platforms. That said, I have heard many of these points echoed by people who sell primarily on Amazon.
Photo credit: "June 2014" by *Light Painting* by Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Eight Tips: How To Tell A Scary Story

Eight Tips: How To Tell A Scary Story



Here are eight tips on how to write horror from Brad Falchuk, the co-creator of American Horror Story. These pointers come by way of Joe Berkowitz's article "How To Tell Scary Stories, From The Co-Creator Of American Horror Story." (Thanks to +Moxlonibus Krypt, fellow horror aficionado, for sending me the link to the article.) 

1. Start with a big idea.


Think of movie posters. They usually try and communicate one big idea, the idea the movie is based on. Star Wars was swords in space, Indiana Jones was a fearless adventurer, and so on.

The big idea for the first season of American Horror Story was that of a haunted house. It was about how ghosts--and other, hidden, things--can haunt people.

How do you know if your idea is big enough?

- Does your idea immediately suggest characters for the story?
- Does your idea immediately suggest various adventures--or misadventures--that could embroil your characters?

2. Start with a believable situation, then twist it.


Create a scene your audience could easily imagine themselves in.

When I was a teenager I babysat. A lot. So did my friends. For those of you who didn't have the pleasure, babysitting involves a lot of sitting, alone, in a stranger's house after dark. Many times you don't have anything to do except look out into the darkness and imagine what sorts of things it might conceal, and what they might do if they broke into the house.

So, naturally, one of the favorite topics at sleepovers was our fear that someone would break in after dark and go all squicky on us. We talked about gruesome stories we'd heard and scared ourselves silly.

Brad Falchuk says:

"[...] you can imagine being attacked by some kind of monster in your house. It could be nighttime and you hear noises outside, and if you can imagine yourself in some character’s shoes at that moment, it’s scary."

3. Horror is about truth, falsehood and consequences.


Always include a lie; the more, the better.

Brad Falchuk says:

"Scary stories are very much about the idea of truth. What is truth, what is a lie, and what happens when you lie? For me the greatest horror out of anything you do is to lie, and so in any instance of great scary storytelling, there’s a lie. The biggest lie in the more typical horror movies is that you’re safe. You’re out by Crystal Lake, its beautiful there, and don't worry--those murders that happened were a long time ago! They’re not going to happen again! So you're living in a lie and you're going to suffer for it. In almost any great horror story, there’s a lot of lies."

I hadn't thought of it quite that way before, but yes. That.

Horror plays with the comforting lies we tell ourselves: "Sure the house is built over an ancient burial ground but, hey, we got it cheap! I'm sure nothing bad will happen."

Or perhaps a teenager tells her parents she's going to the family's summer cabin to study. Uh huh. Right. And then her (totally sober) friends disturb the spirit of the lake, or they run over someone, and then a gypsy curse is involved and it's all downhill from there.

4. Relationship trouble: real-life horror


The first season of American Horror Story is about infidelity. It's about how people, living people, can haunt our lives and how, sometimes, that doesn't stop after they die.

Memories of people and past events--of opportunities lost--do tend to stick around and pull one back into them when one least expects it.

5. Start an idea for a scary scene and work backward.


This works well for any kind of story. Brad Falchuk says:

"You might have this one thing, like, 'He’s a Nazi doctor doing experiments on people.' Then you just start talking through story points--does this happen? Does that? Once you hit one or two big story points--like, the doctor’s injecting something into the victim’s eyes or he chops off their legs and injects them with this stuff--then you start to think about how the victim got captured by him. What can we do in the scene before this one to make it feel even worse, and where does she end up after this happens?"

Wow. Injecting eyeballs. I'm definitely an amateur.

We're used to thinking about scenes in terms of one flowing into another so it is often less natural to think what the build-up, the preconditions, for a particular scene could be. Reversing the flow of the story, asking not what has to happen now, but what had to happen for this to be the case, is just as effective--sometimes more effective--in creating a gripping tale.

6. Don't be afraid to use tropes in your work, but be sure to put a twist on them.


Audiences often want the same thing as whatever else they loved--just different. Brad Falchuk says:

"You’ve seen the shower scene in Psycho--the shocking moment with the music blasting--and it’s hard to not use those kinds of moments. People come looking for them because they like them--they just want to see a different version."

That's the trick, isn't it? To take the thrills and chills from a great scene and transform it, give it a twist, and make it new but still scary as hell. BF gives us a few tips:

- If it feels too easy then it probably is. 
- Does this scene get you excited? If it does then it'll probably make others feel that way too.

BF tells writers to keep pushing, to go further, and suggests two ways of doing this:

a. Take the trope further along the same lines. The movie Saw did this well. That film wasn't my cup of tea but I have to admit that it pushed squicky torture to a new level.

b. Push the trope in a different direction. "Any time you think left, you go right. The moment when you think this is a great moment for brutality you go into kindness and vice versa."

7. Show the Big Bad in all its hideous glory.


But not too often. One of the reasons Jaws worked so well was the guessing, the not knowing. As BF says, in Jaws you see the severed head float by and imagine the moment of decapitation--and probably do a better job than most special effects departments!--but at some point the audience needs to see the shark, the big white, in all its hideous, low tech, glory. Great movie.

8. Have a big-picture outline.


You want to know where you're headed, even though that can (and usually does) change as you write the story.

You don't have to know every single aspect of the story, just the big picture. BF says that "It’s like driving from New York to L.A.: you know you’re going to get to L.A., but there’s 10 different routes you could take."

I like that analogy.

Again, all quotations are from "How To Tell Scary Stories, From The Co-Creator Of American Horror Story." Thanks for reading.

Photo credit: "Twitham Court Farm B&B" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

How To Turn Story Ideas Into A Novel

How To Turn Story Ideas Into A Novel


Today I discuss Jack Bickham's advice about how to transform your story ideas into a novel. All quotations are from Mr. Bickham's excellent book, Scene & Structure.

The Game Plan: How to develop your story ideas into a novel


Let's dive right in.

1. "Consider your story materials as presently imagined. Look for and identify, in terms of days, weeks or months, that briefer period of time when 'the big stuff happens.' Plan to eliminate virtually everything else."


I've had these kinds of big-picture ideas. Not only do you know what's going to happen to your protagonist--what she wants, what opposes her, her motivation, and so on--but you know the history of the entire story world! The hard part: Where do you start? Where do you begin telling the story?

Jack Bickham says: Start when 'the big stuff' starts happening to your character.

For example: 

In Star Wars IV the big stuff started happening when Darth Vader boarded Princess Leia's shuttle while she was on a diplomatic mission.

In American Beauty the big stuff starts to happen when Lester Burnham sees his daughter's friend, Angela Hayes, shake her pom-poms (literally!).

In Breaking Bad the big stuff starts to happen when Walter White discovers he's dying from cancer.

2. "Think hard about your most major character and what makes him tick – what his self-concept is, and what kind of life he has built to protect and enhance it."


In Star Wars IV Luke Skywalker wanted to travel, to see the galaxy, and to become a pilot; he loved flying. In Luke's case what was notable was the contrast between the life he lived (a life of duty) and the life he dreamt of living.

In American Beauty Lester used to see his life through the eyes of his wife, his friends, his boss, his neighbors, his colleagues. He bought the kind of house they would envy, he has the kind of job that lets him fit in well at dinner parties and barbecues. 

Then something happens, a crazy event that shatters everything. It's as if a mischievous cherub shot him through the heart and he does something massively inappropriate, he falls madly in love with his daughter's friend, Angela. 

As a result of this intoxicating experience, Lester's life re-orients. No longer does he see himself through the eyes of his wife or his neighbours, or his friends. No. He sees himself and everyone else through the eyes of his beloved: a sixteen year old child. As a result he sets about destroying his old life and erecting a new one in its place, one that he hopes will meet with Angela's approval.

At the beginning of Breaking Bad Walter White is the guy with the enormous brain and the small life. Other people make his decisions for him. He's safe. Predictable. Then Walter White discovers he's dying and he, in his words, "wakes up." Rather than passively accepting money for his treatments he gets the money himself. His way. 

3. "Identify or create a dramatic situation or event which will present your character (and your reader) with the significant, threatening moment of change."


Everyone is going to have their own opinions about this, but in Star Wars IV I think this moment of change came when Luke stood in front of the smouldering ruins of his uncle's home and saw the charred skeletons of his aunt and uncle. That was the moment of change, the moment that Luke went from child to adult and took up his own quest.

In American Beauty the moment of change was bizarre: Lester fell head-over-heels in love with his daughter's teenage friend. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary moment in a perfectly ordinary day. And then, wham! Lester's life changes forever. There's no smoking skeletons, but his old life, his old world view, is just as thoroughly transformed.

In Breaking Bad their was more than one moment of change, but, arguably, the big moment happened in the oncologist's office as Walter White was told he had a short time to live.

#  #  #

I'm going to end here but Jack Bickham continues to list another five points, but I encourage you to pick up a copy of his book, Scene & Structure, or get it out of the library. 

All the best to you as you work diligently on your WIP!

Photo credit: "The Jet Pack Pack" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Ed McBain: 7 Ways To Write A Crime Story

Ed McBain: 7 Ways To Write A Crime Story

How many different kinds of crime stories are there? Yesterday I happened across this gem of an article by Ed McBain: She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word, over at nytimes.com.

Ed McBain writes:
"There used to be a time when a person could make a decent living writing crime stories. Back then, a hard-working individual could earn 2 cents a word for a short story. Three cents, if he was exceptionally good. It beat polishing spittoons. Besides, it was fun.

"Back then, starting a crime story was like reaching into a box of chocolates and being surprised by either the soft center or the carmel or the nuts. There were plenty of nuts in crime fiction, but you never knew what kind of story would come out of the machine until it started taking shape on the page. Like a jazz piano player, a good writer of short crime fiction didn't think he knew his job unless he could improvise in all 12 keys. Ringing variations on the theme was what made it such fun. Getting paid 2 or 3 cents a word was also fun."
Ed McBain hints that there are 12 templates for crime stories ("in all 12 keys") but doesn't list them all. Though I'm addicted to murder mystery stories, I haven't read widely in crime. If you can guess what the remaining categories are, please let me know!

7 Basic Crime Stories


1. Private Eye Stories


Ed McBain writes:

"For me, Private Eye stories were the easiest of the lot. All you had to do was talk out of the side of your mouth and get in trouble with the cops. In the P.I. stories back then, the cops were always heavies. If it weren't for the cops, the P.I. could solve a murder -- any murder -- in 10 seconds flat. The cops were always dragging the P.I. into the cop shop to accuse him of having murdered somebody just because he happened to be at the scene of the crime before anybody else got there, sheesh!

"I always started a P.I. story with a blonde wearing a tight shiny dress. When she crossed her legs, you saw rib-topped silk stockings and garters taut against milky white flesh, boy. Usually, she wanted to find her missing husband or somebody. Usually, the P.I. fell in love with her by the end of the story, but he had to be careful because you couldn't trust girls who crossed their legs to show their garters. A Private Eye was Superman wearing a fedora."

I love that line, "A Private Eye was Superman wearing a fedora." 

2. The Amateur Detective


Ed McBain writes:

"The Amateur Detective was a private eye without a license. The people who came to the Am Eye were usually friends or relatives who never dreamed of going to the police with a criminal problem but who couldn't afford to pay a private detective for professional help. So, naturally, they went to an amateur. They called upon a rabbi or a priest or the lady who was president of the garden club, or somebody who owned cats, or a guy who drove a locomotive on the Delaware Lackawanna, and they explained that somebody was missing, or dead, and could these busy amateurs please lend a helping hand?"

3. Innocent Bystander


Ed McBain writes:

"Even more fun was writing an Innocent Bystander story. You didn't have to know anything at all to write one of those. An Innocent Bystander story could be about anyone who witnessed a crime he or she should not have witnessed. Usually, this was a murder, but it could also be a kidnapping or an armed robbery or even spitting on the sidewalk, which is not a high crime, but which is probably a misdemeanor, go look it up. When you were writing an Innocent Bystander story, you didn't have to go look anything up. You witnessed a crime and went from there."

4. The Biter Bit


Ed McBain writes:

"The hardest story to write was what was called Biter Bit. As the name suggests, this is a story in which the perpetrator unwittingly becomes the victim. For example, I make an elaborate plan to shoot you, but when I open the door to your bedroom, you're standing there with a pistol in your hand, and you shoot me. Biter Bit."

McBain also talks about:

- Man on the Run/Woman in Jeopardy
- The Cop Story

I encourage you to read McBain's article,  She Was Blond. She Was in Trouble. And She Paid 3 Cents a Word. It's a funny and irreverent summary of the kinds of crime fiction McBain was so good at. 

Dig in and get it done, by Ed McBain


Before I close, I want to mention an article by Evan Hunter/Ed McBain in which he discusses his views on writing: Dig in and get it done. This article first appeared in The Writer in April 1978. 

McBain's article is unformatted and looks like a straight text dump of an archived file. Still, I share it here because it seems to have been posted with the permission of the rights holder. Also, this seems to be the only place the essay still exists. It's an interesting read.

Photo credit: Untitled by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax

Jim Butcher On How To Write A Suspenseful Story Climax


Someone once said to me: The first few pages of a novel sell that novel, the ending of the novel sells the next novel.

I believe that.

Endings are important. If I like a book but hate the ending I probably won't read another book by the same author. 

How does one create an exciting, satisfying, ending?


Yesterday, as I worked on the ending for my WIP, I wondered: Is this any good? Is it interesting? Exciting? How can I tell? What makes an ending good? Bad? Indifferent?

So I did what I usually do at times like those, I went to my digital library (also known as the internet) and re-read Jim Butcher's essay, Story Climax. It's an informative, easy, read. And it's funny. (Sometimes I think humour is like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.)

Jim Butcher is a funny, brilliant and wildly successful author--a #1 New York Times bestseller--so I'm going to try and dip into his well of wisdom and talk about a few of his thoughts about what goes into creating an exciting, couldn't-stop-reading-if-you-wanted, ending.

What do readers want?


I think that the key to success in writing is to figure out what your readers want and give it to them. So, what do readers want? 

The ending should be vivid.

Jim Butcher writes that if you've gotten your readers emotionally invested in the story then, "when you reach story's end, they are INVESTED in its outcome. They want to SEE what happens, preferably as vividly as they possibly can."

The ending should be satisfying.

Jim Butcher writes:

"By the time you've reached the end of a story, a good writer has got their readers on the edge of their seats, at 3:30 in the morning, and the pages are tearing every time they turn because the reader is so excited.

"You've made an implicit promise by getting your reader so bound up in the story. You've /got/ to deliver on it, or that reader is going to freaking /hate/ you for doing that to them. They are gonna go away from that ride all hot and bothered and frustrated as hell. That's what catharsis is: the release of all that tension and sympathetic emotion that the reader has built up because of the writer's skill at weaving the story. Done right, your readers will cheer and cry and laugh out loud and dance around their living room."

We can see that a lot is riding on writing a vivid, satisfying, exciting, climax. This just intensifies my need for an answer to the question: How does one go about doing that?!

1. A specific, concrete, event should mark the start of the climax.

It's all about dominos. 

About two-thirds of the way through a story, right after the great swampy middle, there's an event that is akin to the first domino dropping, an event that sets in motion a cascade of rising action that sweeps the reader inexorably on toward the conclusion of the story.

2. The conclusion, the climax, of a story has six parts.


Jim Butcher writes:

"The actual climax itself, the absolutely peak of it, though, is what I generally refer to as the Showdown or the Throwdown or the Beatdown, depending on my mood and testosterone levels at the moment. The most dramatic point is the actual confrontation between your protagonist and antagonist, where they are directly contending with one another, and where both of them know that the story question is about to be answered.

"For THAT confrontation, there several structural components that you can use to organize it that will be really helpful, much like the components used in a Sequel [...]."

These are:

a. Isolation
b. Confrontation
c. Dark moment
d. Choice
e. Dramatic reversal
f. Resolution

Let's go over each of these in turn.

a. Isolation


At the end, the hero should meet the villain by himself without backup. Jim Butcher writes:

"At the end of the day, your protagonist stands alone. That's why that character is the protagonist. Oh sure, there can be other people around, but the one who really COUNTS is your protagonist. The more alone he is, the higher the tension levels are going to be, and the more satisfying the climax is going to be for the reader."

b. Confrontation


Your hero, your protagonist, should bring the fight to the antagonist. He or she confronts the Big Bad, the Nemesis. Butcher uses Inigo Montoya as an example: 

"Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Best. Scene. Ever!

c. Dark moment


As Butcher writes, the confrontation between hero and villain "Does Not Go Well." The hero finds out he's completely outclassed and, moreover, that what he thought was the worst possible outcome wasn't. The cost of losing is actually much, much, worse.

Jim Butcher doesn't use this name, but this beat has also been called "All hope is lost." He writes:

"In the recent Narnia movie, that moment was at the death of Aslan. The Great Lion is gone, the White Witch has made fashion accessories out of his mane, the bad,guys have them outnumbered and outgunned, and there's just no way to win the fight that's coming the next day--but the folk of Narnia need Peter to lead them."

d. Choice


Here's where Jim Butcher's books really shine (IMHO). It's all about choice. He writes:

"Your protagonist has to CHOOSE whether or not to stay true to his purpose or to let himself be swayed by fear, by temptation, by weariness, or by anything else. In that Dark Moment, he has to make the call that ultimately reveals who your protagonist really is, deep down. And the choice has GOT to be a BAD one. If it's an easy choice, there isn't any drama to it--no tension, no release for the reader."

The first time I read that I was thrown. Bad choice? What did Jim Butcher mean by that? Should my protagonist go to the dark side and start torturing kittens? 

No. Of course not. A bad choice is a choice that any rational person would consider crazy. Insane. Here's Butcher's example:

"'Use the Force, Luke,' urges ghost-Kenobi's voice. 'Let go, Luke!' Luke visibly makes a choice, turning off his targeting computer, putting his faith in the Force to make the shot that the whole galaxy is literally riding on, the way a Jedi should. He's alone, with the baddest guy in the movie hot on his tail, and even his friends are telling him he's nuts. 'His computer's off. Luke, you've switched off your targeting computer! What's wrong?' 'Nothing!' 
says Luke. 'I'm all right!' Not ONLY is he about to get blown out of the air by Vader, but he might miss the shot, too. Luke is about to do something INSANE. He's about to sacrifice his life to take a literal shot in the dark."

Luke's choice wasn't a bad choice, it's the only choice that would have worked, but it seemed completely crazy, insane, to all his friends and allies.

By the way, here's where all that character development you've done comes in handy. Your readers need to know the hero well enough--their personality, their traits, their quirks--that taking the crazy high road is believable. At the end of Butcher's Dresden File books I often shake my head and think, "That's insane. That's so Harry." 

e. Dramatic reversal


When I pick up a new Dresden Files book I know one thing: Harry's going to wipe the floor with some bad guys and he's going to come out of it okay. (Yep, Ghost Story threw me for a bit of a loop.) So we know that the crazy thing the hero does--the bad/insane choice he makes--is going to pay off in the end.

You'd think that that certainty would leech the story of its suspense. You'd think the certainty would make the eventual rosy outcome less than satisfying. But it doesn't. Why? 

I think there are several things involved here. 

First, although we strongly suspect the hero is going to come out of this just fine no matter what risks he takes, others might not. 

Second, we don't know exactly how the hero will triumph. (Often there's a bit of mystery involved.)

Third, poetic justice. Jim Butcher writes:

"The intrinsic nature of the story or of the protagonist's character influences or causes the events of the confrontation to be changed in an unexpected way, causing an outcome that is in harmony with the principles of poetic justice."

Great storytelling is all about developing believable characters readers care deeply about, putting them in jeopardy and then, as in a magic trick, making it all work out in the end--or not.

f. Resolution


This is where everything gets wrapped up. Butcher writes:

"Time to hand out the medals, kiss the girl, go to the wedding, put the star on the Christmas tree, raise the curtain on the rock concert, attend the funeral, or otherwise demonstrate that with the conclusion of the story, some kind of balance has been restored. The catharsis is complete, the tension eased, and the reader can catch their breath now.

"My advice to you on resolutions: Keep it short. Once you've gotten through the Showdown, write as sparingly as possible to get to the end, and don't draw anything out any more than you absolutely must. You've already kept your poor reader up until 3:30, you heartless bastard. Let them get some sleep before they have to rush off to their shift in two hours!

"Then you get to type the most satisfying words in any book you'll ever write: T H E  E N D"

I urge you in the strongest possible terms to read Jim Butcher's articles over at Livejournal.com if you haven't already. Not only is the advice sterling, but his articles are easy to read and delightfully funny.

Photo credit: "Falmouth" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story

How To Write A 'Choose Your Own Adventure' Story


Choose Your Own Adventure stories seem to be making a modest comeback thanks to tablets and smart phones. Today I'd like to look at the structure of a Choose Your Own Adventure story and pass along a few tips about how to write one.

What is a choose-your-own-adventure story?


Choose your own adventure (CYOA) books started out, in the 80s and 90s, as "a series of children's gamebooks where each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character's actions and the plot's outcome." (Choose Your Own Adventure, Wikipedia)

For example, Kelly Armstrong, aided by Random House and Inklestudios, created Cainsville Files, an app that takes the reader through a mystery/adventure where the reader can choose her path and uncover clues leading up to an spine-chilling revelation. 

This morning I bought Armstrong's app and read/played through her story. It took me only an hour or so and I enjoyed myself. I had planned on reading her book, Omens, at some point in the not too distant future, but I'm moving it up on my reading list. I'm interested in the town, Cainsville, and its strange inhabitants. I want to meet them again and learn more about both the town and the story universe.

CYOA stories, when configured as apps, have the advantage that it's possible to show simple animations and sounds. When I'm reading about a rainy night with lightning and thunder it's nice to hear the pitter patter of raindrops and the slow roiling growl of the thunder. (Armstrong's app did not have this background augmentation.)

How to write your own choose-your-adventure story.


Just like putting together a regular story there isn't only one way of going about it. That said, what follows are several tips from avid readers and writers of CYOA stories.

Plotting


There are several programs that can help you keep your decision tree straight. If you're scratching your head wondering what I mean by "decision tree" here's an example taken from The Mystery of Chimney Rock by Edward Packard.

A program I love and use often is SimpleMind+. It allows you to draw mind maps of all sorts. You can pick custom colors and outlines as well as leave copious notes.  

As far as writing a choose-your-own-path story goes, the best program I've looked at so far is Inklewriter over at Inklestudios.com. Here's a YouTube video that provides a brief tutorial.

So lets say you've decided to take the plunge and write a CYOA story. How should you start? Well, first ...

1. Sketch out the story.


Write out a sketch of the story, a kind of zero draft, and then, when done, go back through it and break the story up into blocks.

From what I've seen, most branching stories have 20 or 21 'tiers' or levels. For example, The Mystery of Chimney Rock had 21 levels and 121 story blocks.

What I'm (somewhat clumsily) calling a block of text could be either a scene, a sequel, or some kind of transition. A reader, though, wouldn't read all 121 blocks! Because of their choices, a reader would normally see only one block of text from each tier (though, depending on the story, they might be able to time-warp and circle back).

Story blocks


Len Morse in Writing Tips how to Write a Choose your own Adventure Story suggests, for each block, trying to answer the following questions:

"Who has your hero met? Does your hero have any traveling companions? What is their relationship? (Friends, enemies, peripheral characters, pets, a second head?)

"What is your hero's inventory? Has your hero lost/gained an item? Is it needed to achieve the goal? (Food, clothing, money, weapons, climbing gear, a holy relic?)

"What special abilities or knowledge does your hero have? For how long? (Where is the hidden letter, who was in bed with whom, how to avoid a fight or pick a lock?)

"Has your hero actually achieved the goal? (Reached a destination, killed the enemy, won over the love interest, found the special item, rescued the prisoner?)"

2. Choose your story endings.


Morse mentions that there are five basic kinds of templates for endings:

a) The protagonist is captured.
b) The protagonist is killed.
c) The protagonist acquires treasure.
d) The protagonist finds love.
e) The protagonist fails in his/her quest.

There should be a handful of endings somewhere in the middle that cut short the story. The reader might die or just fail to achieve his/her goal. What this means for the reader is that they will need to go back to the last section and make a different decision the next time round.

Morse writes:

"[...] you might write five of each ending type, for a total of 25 endings. (It would behoove you to write less of the "gets killed" endings. Readers hate that!) Also, there's nothing keeping you from combining your ending types (i.e. Maybe your hero gets the treasure, and then gets captured.)"

Also, keep in mind that, depending on the complexity of the story you want to tell, there may be more than one story thread.

For example, in Kelly Armstrong's book app, Cainsville Files, there was a main storyline--whether the protagonist, Jenn McCoy, will find out why her childhood sweetheart disappeared--and a secondary storyline that was a potential romance. You could fail to make a romantic connection, though, and this wouldn't affect (at least, not that I could tell) the main outcome.

Decide on your secondary characters


There are going to be a number of characters in your story. You won't have all the following but you'll probably want two to four, depending on the length:

- The protagonist's helper/best friend/buddy
- The protagonist's mentor
- The protagonist's sidekick. Often the sidekick is the same as the helper/best friend/buddy, but not always. This could be a secondary helper, perhaps even an animal, who keeps the hero company. For example, Minsc and Boo.
- A wise old man/woman. This could take any number of forms, even that of an animal.
- A Big Bad.
- The Big Bad's helper/minion.
- A red shirt.
- Master page of character types. (Also take a look at the jpg at the top of the page.) 

Events: Kinds of deaths


If you're having a difficult time coming up with inspiration, here are a few possible ways to snuff out your protagonist (or any character):
- The protagonist acquires a nasty disease and expires.

3. Throw in a subplot


This point isn't specifically about CYOA books, but a second plotline can add complexity to a story. In Kelly Armstrong's book app her subplot was a romance--and I thought it worked quite well. 

Pros and Cons of writing a choose your own adventure story


- A CYOA story can be a bit easier to write than an 80,000 word novella written in 3rd person with multiple point of view characters, since it has only one point of view--that of the reader.

- A CYOA story can be a bit more difficult to write than a standard novel because, rather than writing one story, you're writing one story and all (or almost all) it's possible variations.

- A CYOA story is written in the 2nd person. 
Pro: This is one of the few times this narrative viewpoint is used, and it can be used to great effect. Besides, it's good to try something new every so often.
Con: Many people don't like reading a narrative written in 2nd person (e.g.: You turn the corner. A hungry vampire crouches before you, fangs bared, poised to suck your blood).

- Often a CYOA story is told in the present tense. Some readers like stories told in the present tense while others loathe them with a red hot fiery passion.

- Unless you're the Stephen Hawking of the writing world and can hold multiple branching outlines in your head, you're going to have to outline. That's a plus if you're used to outlining and have developed a method that works well for you, but a minus if you regard outlining as less appealing than cleaning out a septic tank with your favorite toothbrush.

Whatever you decide to do, all the best! If you do write a CYOA story I'd love to hear about your experience.

References/Links



2. Inklewriter. "inklewriter is a free tool designed to allow anyone to write and publish interactive stories. It’s perfect for writers who want to try out interactivity, but also for teachers and students looking to mix computer skills and creative writing." For $10 Inkle will convert your story into a file you can read on a kindle ereader.

3. Cainsville Files (app) by Kelly Armstrong.

4. Decision trees:

5. Articles about Choosing Your Own Adventure:

Photo credit: "hunch" by greg westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.