“Dedicated to helping you create strong, vibrant, and beautiful fiction”
- David Farland, award-winning author, international bestseller
An odd thing happened recently. A friend of mine, Matt Harrill, was contacted by a reviewer for a major newspaper a few weeks ago, who said that a rave review would be coming out in the paper shortly. He’d read the advance review copy of Matt’s first novel, Hellbounce, that the publisher had sent, and went on about how the book was fantastic, better than Stephen King.
Well, you can imagine how you would feel hearing such great news. But for several weeks in a row, the promised review didn’t come out. So Matt contacted the reviews editor at the paper and discovered that the editor didn’t know this reviewer and no review was forthcoming. After a bit of digging, Matt’s publisher learned that the reviewer did indeed work for the major publisher, but apparently had just sort of pilfered the book. He loved it, the review was honest, but the review will not be published.
Sigh. I’ve met a lot of frauds in my time, but never a fake reviewer.
I did know a literary agent years ago who would get new writers to give her manuscripts, and then never send them out. She told one of my friends that her book had been rejected some nine times before I began to smell a rat. I happened to be at a World Science Fiction Convention and meet one of the editors who was supposed to be reading it—while sharing a cab with some of the other editors who had supposedly rejected the manuscript. I found out that the agent had never sent it to any of the editors, and two of the three editors told me that the woman was blacklisted from their agencies. The good news was that the agent did agree to look at the manuscript once the agent was fired. A couple of months later, she bought it, and the book went on to win the American Book Award.
So what did the fake agent get out of this? She wasn’t making any money. Instead, I think that she was feeding off the hopes and expectations of new writers. She got to be the center of attention at parties.
Sometimes, that’s all that these people want. A decade ago, I was working in Hollywood trying to get a fantasy movie made. After the final Lord of the Rings movie won eleven Academy Awards, I came into the office in the morning and found that we were deluged by people who wanted to invest in our movie.
So we set up an appointment with our first investor. He arrived in an enormous banana-yellow limo, and got out wearing a white suit and top hat. He looked spiffy, and he had three gorgeous young women hanging on his arms. The girls must have all used the same plastic surgeon, because their breasts all seemed to be filled with the same prodigious amount of silicone in them.
He came into the office, listened to our pitch, looked at our documents, and eagerly announced that he’d have all $84 million to us within four weeks. So we were feeling rather celebratory until we checked his accounts. He had absolutely nothing. In fact, he had just put the tab for his limo on his credit card and maxed out the card by paying for a hotel room that was going to run $2000 for the night.
Our CFO wondered aloud, “What in the world does he get out of this? It’s not like he’s going to make any money out of it.” But I observed, “He’s going to sleep in a $2000 room tonight with three hot babes at once. He’ll be talking about it for years.”
Of course, most of the frauds really are out to prey on people. It seemed to me that in Hollywood I couldn’t turn over a rock without finding one. We had one fellow who got hold of the pitch materials for our fantasy film and began talking to potential investors—contact videogame companies, film investors, studio execs, and so on. As he put it, “This is the single best movie proposal I’ve ever seen.” We couldn’t get him to return our materials or to stop trying to get investors. “Cease and Desist” orders didn’t work. Last I heard, he was hiding out in Brazil after bilking some investors out of $12 million.
So watch yourself. There are publishers out there who never publish anything.
There are “agents” who scam authors in the hopes of getting paid “reading fees.” A few years ago, I had a student in Colorado who called me in tears because he didn’t have the $12,000 that he needed to pay his fake agent.
There are 10,000 movie producers listed in Hollywood, but most of them have never made a single movie that got a distribution deal. What good is an agent who can’t get a distribution deal? Don’t waste your time even talking to them.
I was recently asked by one movie producer to write a book about the types of fraud that you can get sucked into in Hollywood, but I declined. As I told him, “Every time that you think that you’ve seen everything, someone comes up with a new con.”
So, here are some questions to consider when you meet a new contact:
1) If you meet a publisher, find out if the publisher can get you distribution to the major bookstores. If he doesn’t have it, then you have to wonder, is this person doing anything that I can’t do myself? Is he just a wannabe publisher?
2) If you meet an agent, does that agent charge a reading fee? If so, it’s probably not a real agent. Then again you have to ask, “Does the agency act as the ‘publisher’ for their clients’ electronic books?” If so, the agent has a conflict of interest, and you should not do business with him or her.
3) If you meet a movie producer, find out, “What motion pictures have you gotten national distribution for within the past four years?” If the producer isn’t getting access to distribution, run! Seriously, these producers will try to talk you into running up your credit cards and mortgaging your grandmother’s house in the hopes that they’ll be able
to make a movie and get distribution.
Any time that you meet someone who claims to be in your business but you haven’t heard of them, start digging for the truth. There isn’t anything wrong with someone who is starting out in a business, or trying to work into it. But if you meet someone who claims to have distribution in the movie or book industry, or claims to understand the industry better than all of the people who’ve been working in it for years . . . just beware.
Note: We have a new course at www.mystorydoctor.com. Make sure to check it out.
You can also check out Matt Harrill’s book Hellbounce, even though his glowing review stating he’s better than Stephen King will never be published.
This Saturday, join me and others as we celebrate Matthew W Harrill‘s book HELLBOUNCE at this Facebook event. I will be donating 100 copies of Nightingale and 100 copies of After a Lean Winter. Maybe you can get one. https://www.facebook.com/events/611192022321330/
You can redeem your coupon here:
When you write a story, it may seem to be about a character, in a particular setting, struggling to overcome a problem. But if that is all that your story is really about, it will fail.
A good story isn’t about fictional characters; it’s more concerned with the reader, with the individual who is sitting in an easy chair in some distant time in some remote location. To a great degree, you are writing to that person about his or her concerns, whether you know it or not.
Any story that doesn’t address some topic greater than itself, is destined to fail.
This was brought home to me this week when I took my wife to see the movie The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a powerful movie, beautifully directed, with actors who will all be going up for Academy Awards, and the screenplay was exquisite. I haven’t read the book that it was based on yet, so I’m not sure how well the dialog reflects the author’s vision, but the movie showed something interesting.
First off, I should tell you that this is a drama about a teenage girl who is facing death, and the entire movie focuses the viewer’s attention on death.
So, is the film about a teenage girl who is dying, or is it more about the audience facing their own deaths?
Obviously, the author is talking to the audience about death—our deaths, that most unpleasant of topics.
But the author is also talking about life, how to savor it, so that death loses some of its sting.
In doing this, the author uses a technique that I discuss in my online writing classes. It’s a technique that I learned from Shakespeare, in which the author has various types of characters—romantic interests, sidekicks, guides, villains, contagonists, etc.—and each has a slightly different view on a topic.
The characters may either express their views in actions or in dialog.
What does this do? It allows the author to explore important philosophical questions by showing it from various points of view, so that we get a fuller understanding of the question—both on an emotional level and an intellectual level.
In this film in particular, we see a young woman who is facing death, and thus we garner her reflections. But we also hear from others—a mother who is terrified of losing her daughter, a boyfriend who narrowly escaped death a few months earlier, an author who watched his own daughter die, Anne Frank, and so on. We see how the fear of death shapes the lives of each of these people, and how ultimately each struggles to face oblivion.
In other words, the best of stories always focus on a thematic issue, a topic that the author deals with unflinchingly.
Stories that don’t do this, that never address issues other than the story itself, ultimately fail to satisfy. Beautiful prose and astonishing story pyrotechnics alone won’t wow an audience.
Ultimately, when you finish a story, you want to feel that you’ve accomplished something worthwhile, that you’ve learned something of value, that you’ve grown.
A good story feeds the reader, nourishing him or her with valuable insights.
Just regaling the reader with interesting factoids doesn’t satisfy. I’ve read stories by authors who try to substitute real insight with trivial philosophies, or worse. Some authors try to advance dangerous notions and pawn them off as wisdom.
Look at something like 50 Shades of Grey. Ask yourself, what do you think of it? As literary food for the soul, is it really nourishing, or could it be junkfood, or even poison?
We still have spots open for my Atlanta writing workshop happening October 10th and 11th. Space is limited, so if you want to attend, don’t hesitate to sign up.
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How Big is Your Pond?
Many new authors feel torn between two loves. They might ask, “Should I write science fiction, or should I focus more on young adult novels? Which way should I go?” There are three answers to this question.
You should be aware that this really is a big problem. I know many authors who start writing for small markets, only to realize that they can’t make a living in that market. For example, one author who pens religious fiction for a small church recently came to me for help, trying to figure out how to crack the national thriller market. He was one of the best-sellers in his pond, but it is a very small pond. So far, he is still struggling to make it big. Another who was writing little novels about kids on sports teams wanted to move into YA fantasy—and fortunately he was able to quickly transition into a much larger pond. He went from making perhaps $10,000 per novel to making, literally, millions.
So, here is my advice.
1) Write what you love the most. When you love one particular genre more than another, you will usually invest yourself into it more fully, master it more quickly, and develop a name. It is possible to write a truly monumental novel in just about any genre. So if you’re 80% drawn to, say, science fiction and only 20% drawn to young adult, the choice should be easy, right?
But hold on just one moment!
Yesterday I read a piece of advice that said, “Write what you love.” The author pointed out that when George R. R. Martin wrote Game of Thrones, the fantasy genre was “mostly dead.” He stated that when Rowling wrote Harry Potter, she was writing the same Middle Grade story about a wizard school that had been written dozens of times before, and no one expected it to go big.
However, I have to say this. When Martin wrote Game of Thrones in 1996, fantasy was doing quite well. Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, Stephen Donaldson, and a host of others were all making a very good living in the field. That was just about the time that I jumped into it. So it wasn’t “mostly dead” at that time, it was the healthiest that it had ever been.
And with Rowling? She was writing Middle Grade, jumping into a pond that is quite large, where authors often do strike it rich. For example, when R.L. Stine wrote in the Goosebumps series in the mid-1990s, he captured 45% of all sales in his market for a time, making tens of millions. Now, it’s true that others had written novels about schools for wizards (heck, I began writing one when I was 17), but Rowling’s love for the idea really did shine through. Hers was by far the best.
So really loving a genre is important, but it helps immensely if that genre is already huge.
It is even possible to resurrect a dead genre. A good example of this was Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. When he wrote it and won the Pulitzer Prize in the 1980s, the Western genre had been all but abandoned by New York Publishers. Fifteen years ago, my editor at Tor pointed out that he was one of only two editors in New York who still published Westerns. As far as ponds go, the Western genre is one of the smallest. Yet you can sometimes make a good living writing in mud puddles.
2) Write what makes economic sense. Look at the genre that you feel drawn to. Are any writers making a living in that field? Check out the news magazines for the field by going to publishersmarketplace.com or Publishers Weekly to find out what kinds of advances authors are getting. That will tell you something about the health of the field.
Let’s say that you want to write space opera but you’re also drawn to dystopian YA. Look at how much space operas are bringing. Can you really live off an advance of $30,000 per year for your books? If you’re the major breadwinner in your family, probably not. Meanwhile, if you could be pulling in a couple of hundred thousand per book by writing dystopian YA, then the YA market appears healthier.
So if you’re 50/50 on which field to write in, money might sway you. Just be aware that genres are always shifting in popularity. Editors right now are getting a little jaded about dystopian YA, and it might be more difficult to sell this year than it was three years ago. So try to stay educated on your markets.
3) Write in both fields. Choosing a field doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. If you’re prolific, if your mind is agile, if you have the energy and desire, it is possible to write in more than one field at a time. Just about anything is possible.
I used to know a writer some thirty years ago who made a living selling short fiction—under nearly 30 pen names. He had one moniker for when he wrote for Christian Science Monitor and another that he used for writing for Hustler. One world-renowned poet that I used to know also wrote episodes for the television show Dr. Who. An award-winning fantasy novelist that I know also scripts episodes for cartoons. An acclaimed horror writer ghost writes autobiographies for celebrities.
So if you’re worried about which field to write in, perhaps you shouldn’t worry too much.
I like Kevin J. Anderson’s “popcorn theory” of writing. He suggests that you write a lot of books and see which one “pops” first. Write a dystopian novel and send it out, then pen that science fiction book you’ve been wanting to do.
Spend less time worrying about what to write, and just write!
Dave’s Writing Workshops are on sale for 25% off through Saturday, July 12. When you buy, simply type in the code WESTERCON.
For those who are looking at starting a novel, may I suggest “The Story Puzzle.” In this course, you learn how to brainstorm your story first—creating your world, your characters, and your plot—and then you learn how to mold your outline so that your book can reach the widest audience possible, boosting your chances at becoming a bestseller.
If you’ve been wanting to write a novel and don’t know quite how to put it all together, this is where you start!
Sometimes as writers, when we give writing advice, we often give advice by telling “How I write” instead of “How to write.” This idea came to me strongly after I spoke on a podcast with the good folks at Writing Excuses.
At one point, Howard Tayler, a cartoonist who writes mainly for the online Schlock Mercenaries mentioned that he found it helpful to do what I’ve heard called “Blast Writing,” where one will sit and just write for fifteen minutes straight without stopping, just to get a thousand words or so on paper.
It’s a technique that I rarely use, but probably ought to try more often. I don’t use it often though because when I do it, I feel like a race-car driver hurtling along on the Salt Flats in Utah, trying to set a land-speed record, barely under control.
But when you’re writing a first draft of a novel, by using this technique you can get good ideas on paper quickly, and you’ll be brainstorming as you do it.
My friend Dean Wesley Smith likes to do what we call “Single-Draft Writing,” which is very similar. One of our mutual mentors, Algis Budrys advocated this technique. When authors were typing, they had to learn to focus hard on their work, to laser in, and to type quickly just to pay the bills. Since paper could cost a significant amount of money, by writing only a single draft they saved both on time and paper, so learning to become a single-draft writer was a valuable skill.
I never use that technique. I’ve always found that I want to niggle with my words too much. Once again, I feel like a race-car driver, perhaps in the Indy 500, barreling along at a dangerous pace. Yet this technique works for some people.
On our podcast, my old friend Dan Wells said that he preferred a different method. He likes to tell himself that his work really isn’t important, that the piece that he is writing will probably never be published. In short, he makes his writing sessions “stress free.”
For him, writing is more like a Sunday drive.
Now, once again, this is a technique that I seldom use. Yet it’s a valuable technique. Many writers get stressed out when they write, and stress will dampen your creativity. By using this technique, you free up your creative mind, so that you can allow yourself to make a few mistakes while often finding exciting ways to express yourself.
So I certainly recommend his technique. In fact, I do use this at times when creating what I call “set pieces” for a novel. For example, I can write a little description of a character or a setting, and then just drop it into the novel at the right time. It’s a nice way to brainstorm your project and get something accomplished at the same time.
For me, though, I try to seek a balance most of the time, where I push myself to write high-quality and to do it at what I consider to be a relaxed but reasonable pace. I might think of myself more as a “precision driver,” the kind of person who works driving limousines, hoping to get my customers to their destination quickly and smoothly.
That’s the way that I typically work, but sometimes I feel that it’s restrictive. It’s like trying to drive to work in a car that will only go into first gear.
So if you’re having trouble pacing yourself, try switching gears. Perhaps you could start your day by writing a fifteen-minute “blast” where you get ideas on paper. Then time yourself and do some “stress-free” writing using the technique that Dan Wells does, then finish off for another hour to two working to use my precision-driver method.
That’s what I’m going to try this morning.
My Shawna Reppert has an urban fantasy called Ravensblood on sale through July 11th. Check it out here.
I’m going to talk a bit about audience analysis. It’s always good before you begin to write to really understand who your audience is and that they’re needs are, so that you can better meet those needs. But it’s also important to understand who you are as an author, and what it is that you want to achieve.
Once I was helping an author write a query letter, and as I did, I was thinking, “Now what more can I say about his book? What sets this apart from other books in its genre?” Those are the same questions that I ask myself any time I’m looking at a query letter, but I don’t just ask them about the book. I ask them about the author.
A few years ago, an author I knew flew to New York to be interviewed by the legendary agent Al Zuckerman, the founder of Writers House Literary agency. As they spoke, Al suggested that the author “define his niche in the marketplace.” For example, you might say, “I’m the John Grisham of Middle Earth.” By that you might mean that you’re writing political/legal thrillers in a brilliantly devised fantasy setting. Is there a market for such books? Maybe. And if you think of a potential mixture that excites you, one that energizes any agent or editor that hears about it, you can instantly command a fortune in advances.
For example, years ago my former student Dan Wells mentioned that he wanted to be the “Stephen King of young adult fiction.” I thought that was an odd and interesting combination. Yet when his first novel, I am Not a Serial Killer came out, it earned him huge advances overseas and led to the start of a brilliant career.
So you as an author, when you prepare to write a book, might consider whether you want to brand yourself.
Just as importantly, you might want to look at your novel and brand it. What does that mean? It means that you set goals for your story—goals that have to do with understanding how it fits in the genre and what kind of qualities you want to achieve. When I began the Runelords series, one goal that I set was simple. I said, “I want this to start out like a traditional medieval fantasy, but by the time that a reader finishes the series, I want them to realize that there is nothing ‘traditional’ about this.” So I set out to work on biological world creation, magic systems, and so on in ways that I hadn’t seen before.
In a similar way, when I wrote my novel On My Way to Paradise I set a list of goals. At about spot number twelve I wrote, “I want to write the best battle scenes ever put into a science fiction novel.” Now, I had a lot of other goals, ones that were more important. But I was gratified when I got a gushing review from one young man who seemed not to notice all of the other cool literary things that I did: he just talked about the mind-blowing fights which he described as “the best battle scenes ever shown in science fiction.”
So ask yourself the questions: “What kind of writer am I? What do I want to achieve that is similar to some of the bestsellers of all time? How am I going to carve my own unique niche in the world? As I write this coming book, how will it help reach that goal, or does it take me off in the wrong direction? What kinds of goals do I want to reach with this novel?”
As I set my writing goals, I find that it’s best if I actually write them down, turn them into concrete, specific goals.
Give it a try!
This week I’m at FantasyCon and WesterCon. To celebrate, I’m offering a 20% discount on all the MyStoryDoctor.com workshops when you use code Westercon. The coupon lasts for this week only.
I’m partnering up with Kindle Book Reviews for a Kindle Fire giveaway happening now. Just go here and use the rafflecopter to enter for a chance to win.
One of my past students, Danyelle Leafty, has a new short story out for $0.99. She writes middle grade and young adult fiction and specializes in fairytales. Check out her new story here.
My lecture Recharging Your Creative Batteries is now up and available for $29.95. Learn more about it on MyStoryDoctor.com.
The Persistent Character Problem
Sometimes, readers fall in love with a writer’s characters. It’s hard to say who the reader falls in love with, actually. Sometimes a character becomes imbued with bits and pieces of an author—the author’s quick sense of humor, his or her sense of honor, or the author’s eloquence. So the author’s construct, the author’s alter-ego, gains some notoriety, and readers find themselves eager to spend time in the presence of this imaginary character.
We’ve all fallen for it. Many readers can point to a character like Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or Scarlet O’Hara and tell you with all honesty that they are completely captivated by that character. So they want to read stories about that person over and over again.
The problem is, as I’ve said before, that if we as authors allow our characters to grow, eventually the character’s story demands to be told in full. This means that the major conflicts must be overcome, or else the character must suffer the ravages of those conflicts. Either way, the tale reaches its conclusion.
Because of this, you as an author probably can’t sustain a character in a series for very long. Certainly, you’ll find that it is difficult to spread a tale over a ten or eleven books in a series.
So when you write a series, there are a number of steps that you can take to keep it going.
1) You can decide that some conflicts will not be resolved, period. For example, let’s say that you’re going to write a romantic comedy in which the audience is going to fall in love with your male protagonist, a detective, and will also love his loyal partner, who happens to be a woman. You can decide that though they may flirt, though they may be in love, they will never resolve that conflict in any book. It just can’t be done. As soon as it happens, the readers will say, “Okay, now they’ll live happily ever after,” and the readers will drop out of the series. A few years back, we saw this happen with Moonlighting, a series that had a flirtatious romance that lasted for years.
We see the same problem in the modern series Bones. The writers love to tease us, but they know that if love leads to marriage, the series will drop off the charts. So this technique has some advantages, but the truth is that it leaves the audience feeling unfulfilled. In other words, the series will become episodic in nature, and eventually I think that the audience feels as if the tale wears thin, since the major conflicts are never resolved.
2) A second technique is to parse out the conflicts. For example, if you look at Harry Potter, Rowling did something masterful: she started a series with an 11-year-old, a book for middle-grade readers. Over the course of the series, each year the character grew, completing a school year, so that by book three, we were officially now a young-adult series. By the end of the series, we were out of the young-adult stage and into the official level of “adult audience.” So Rowling was able to parse out conflicts—resolving a new mystery in each series as Harry Potter discovers his own past, and his own destiny. In some ways, he never does get to grow up. Yet we know in the end that he will be all right. He’s grown through the challenges of his life. I think that all in all, Rowling had the best solution to the persistent character problem. The difficulty here, of course, is that you need to start with a character who is sufficiently young so that you can age him or her over the course of a dozen novels, if needed.
3) A third technique is to populate your novel with multiple protagonists, perhaps a dozen of them, and tell the stories of them all. You can see this being done in novels by Robert Jordan, Larry McMurtry, and even myself. Handling a series this way does allow the author to create a huge and diverse cast, with characters that are old, young, male and female, and this can be a plus since it allows the author to try to interest a wider audience than a single protagonist can.
Yet the tradeoff is costly. The series will often balloon out of control, as has happened with a number of contemporary fantasy authors. In an attempt to keep the stories interesting and let the characters grow, the author tries to expand the series by adding new characters—until there is such a large cast that the readers begin to long for their favorites, to return to those earlier novels where a favorite storyline unfolded.
As an author concentrates on one character, sometimes for an entire book, other characters may get lost. For example, in my novel, Chaosbound, I spend an entire book following the adventures of my character Borenson, his wife, and his children. Now, mind you, in a poll that had been on my site for some time, I asked readers who their favorite character in the series is. The answer, overwhelmingly, was Borenson, and over the last couple of years I’ve gotten several letters asking, “Now wait a minute? Whatever happened to Sir Borenson? When’s he coming back?” The truth is that he plays a pivotal role at the end of the series, so I had to tell the end of his story. Yet I’ve gotten a couple of letters from angry readers over it. One of them said, “I’ve only read the first thirty pages of the novel, but I can tell that it’s going to be terrible. Why should I want to read about Borenson?”
So in trying to satisfy the readers who love that character, I ended up loosing some readers who feel more attached to other characters. That happens, I think, in every instance where a writer tries to handle a large cast of viewpoint characters. I’ve heard fans complain bitterly that Jordan had ignored their favorite character for the past couple of books, etc.
Beyond that, I’ve seen authors compound the problem by making the mistake of “trimming the cast.” Thus, you’ll see authors killing off longtime protagonists in an effort to get the series back under control. In such cases, I think that the cure is worse than the ailment, and readers are likely to feel betrayed and bewildered.
4) There are some interesting techniques that authors have used that are rather uncommon. Orson Scott Card, for example, in his Ender series has managed to re-tell the same story from different viewpoints, and he has done it quite successfully, as is befitting a talented writer.
A few years ago, a novelist told a series of stories that were, in essence, the same story, told the eyes of a single character, but the tales were set in alternate universes. In short, the tales had persistent characters, but the worlds changed—some being dystopian, others utopian—and as they did, the conflicts in the characters’ lives changed, so that people who were bitter rivals on one world were the best of allies on another.
So once again, when you decide to create a series, there are some real challenges that you’ll have to face when deciding how to handle the persistent character/persistent world problem. Hopefully, this series of articles will help you figure out how to write a long, intricate series that is both powerful and emotionally satisfying.
I’m partnering up with Kindle Book Reviews for a Kindle Fire giveaway happening now. Just go here and use the rafflecopter to enter for a chance to win.
One of my past students, Danyelle Leafty, has a new short story out for $0.99. She writes middle grade and young adult fiction and specializes in fairytales. Check out her new story here.
My lecture Recharging Your Creative Batteries is now up and available for $29.95. Learn more about it on MyStoryDoctor.com.
Dave’s just rolled out a new video lecture, Recharging Your Creative Batteries. Everyone needs to recharge their creative batteries when they are worn out and in this lecture, Dave discusses some of the best ways to do this. The lecture consists of four videos:
- Learn to See and Hear Truly
- Take Interest
- Be Kind to Your Brain
- After-novel Blues
You can take a look at it here and even try out the first video!
Strategies for Writing a Series
I’ve heard Tom Doherty speak about what he would like in a series, and he will tell you that he wants a “persistent world with persistent characters.” This means that the setting remains pretty much static—the same world that you created in the first book, in roughly the same time frame. It also means that you use the same characters that are introduced in book one. Usually, this means that you have a very strong and likeable protagonist. Rowling used a persistent world with persistent characters for her Harry Potter series, just as Meyer has done for Twilight.
However, there are problems that arise for an author when you try to do that. The greatest risk of course is that people will get tired of your world and your characters. I remember a series I read as a teenager. In the first installment, I felt the book had a world that was bizarre and wonderful beyond description. But as I got into the series, by the second book I felt that the planet had sort of lost its luster. I kept hoping that the author would take me deeper into the mysteries of the setting or that I would get to visit some other planets. In short, I felt to a great degree that we were rehashing things we’d seen in book one. Others might like that, but I’m a bit more adventurous.
A second problem in that series arose with the hero. In book one, he grows so much and to such great heights, that by book two, there isn’t really a positive direction he can go. He had attained all his goals already.
So that’s the great problem that one face when writing in a persistent world with persistent characters.
Thus, as author we have to figure out ways to keep the reader interested, keep them eager to come back to our world and visit our characters once again.
There are only a few approaches that one can take to counter this problem. So let’s go over them:
As an author, you can choose to set your story in various places. One way to do this of course is to have the world changing and growing. You might create an epic that takes place over a lifetime. The story might begin, for example, in Germany in the 1920s and follow a character through a lifetime. A young German boy might start out as a street urchin, join Hitler’s youth, become an S.S. officer and move to Poland during the war, raking in a fortune from bribes from various people who want to escape. After the war, he might be imprisoned for his war crimes, and then get freed on condition that he becomes a NAZI hunter. In his old age, he might move to South America, where he is still hunting for the Holy Grail of all NAZI hunters—Hitler himself, whom he believes is still alive. (After all, some conspiracy theorists claim that Hitler killed a double.)
So you can create a changing world, one that allows us to cross oceans and explore life at various times.
As a child I used to love watching this television show called “Have Gun, Will Travel.” It’s the story of a gunslinger who goes from town to town in the Old West, helping young widows get their land back and otherwise righting all wrongs. I’ve often thought that the same concept could be used in science fiction—in which an intergalactic lawman visits strange new worlds, teaching the aliens about gunplay and justice.
In fact, I use this technique of visiting altering worlds in my Runelords series. The story begins in a little country called Heredon. In book two it moves to Mystarria and Indhopal. In book three we go to Inkarra, while in book four my characters travel into the Underworld. Book five is spent crossing an ocean to reach a whole new continent, Landesfallen, while in book six, through a magic spell, two worlds are suddenly combined. In book seven some characters go to a new alternate world, while I also explore the world of the “Wyrmling Hordes.” You get the idea. Since the books take place over a period of twenty years, the world also is altered temporally.
In short, there are a number of tactics that you can take to make your settings more interesting and varied. One way, for example, is to simply move about in your own world, much as you’ll see done in a James Bond movie—where we might have an adventure in Morocco, one in Beijing, and a third in Buenos Aires, all in the space of an hour!
Later I’ll talk about some ways that authors get around the static character problem.
Westercon and Fantasycon are this week. Hope to see any of my subscribers there!
Dave was in the news today. KUTV, a Salt Lake City-based television station, ran a spot on him in the evening news. You can find the video here:
If you want to understand how vital character growth is to good fiction, take a look at a few classic movies. Study such films as Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, Orange County, and The Silver Linings Playbook. In each of these films, every major character grows during his or her time on camera. It’s a motif in Hollywood. Having a character grow as a person is practically a requirement for any comedy, any feel-good movie. But it’s not a new thing.
In fact, this pattern of growth remains consistent through nearly all great works of fiction ever written. (I only say “nearly” because as soon as I say all, someone is going to come up with something that doesn’t have growth, like Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then we’ll have to argue all day about whether it was great literature.)
Note that in literary fiction, it is often said that the characters should merely “change,” not grow. But it is not nearly so enjoyable watching the demise of a protagonist as it is to watch one succeed. Change may intrigue, but growth inspires.
Indeed, here’s a key not only to understanding characters, but to understanding people: look at anyone who is feeling anger, depression, or sadness. Look at anyone who is acting out or trying to attract attention, and you will nearly always find one common factor: the person feels frustrated. He’s not growing, not progressing. It may be that he’s frustrated with his economic fortunes, his love life, his health, but somewhere these feelings of sadness, worry, and anger are rooted in frustration.
As organisms, we feel driven to constantly progress.
A pattern emerges in many of the world’s most popular stories. Consider for example A Christmas Carol, Lord of the Rings, and Ender’s Game.
In each of the tales that I mentioned, the protagonist starts out like a child, viewing evil as something outside himself. Poverty is not a problem that Scrooge normally worries about–it’s something that happens in other counties. Frodo’s Dark Lord is in lands far away. The Buggers are on another planet.
But evil soon strikes closer to home. The protagonist discovers that it’s in the people around him. Scrooge discovers that his best employee is suffering. Frodo confronts his Boromir. And young Ender Wiggins discovers that children who should be fighting evil are cruel and divisive.
Eventually, the protagonist of course discovers evil in himself. Scrooge sees himself as a moral pauper, to his own dismay Frodo claims the Ring at the Crack of Doom, and Ender finds that he is guilty of genocide. When the protagonist recognizes that evil is not a distant thing, that it’s something within him, he is forced to either accept evil, or to change.
First he must find the strength to change himself; only afterward can he hope to affect change in the people around him and the world at large. That’s what these popular tales are all about—the journey from moral darkness to enlightenment. This enlightenment is the goal of the mythic journey, and that’s what growth literature boils down to. Growth tales can be very compelling.
But you should also know that all literature isn’t growth literature. Much literature—even some very popular literature, is about stagnation. It may let us retreat from issues of growth, and return to that safe place we all occupied before we had to grow up.
In stagnation literature, the protagonist is almost always stuck at the adolescent level. He never grows up. He doesn’t engage in adult activities—such as marriage, the raising of children, taking a day job, or caring for an elderly parent. Instead, he remains an adolescent, without responsibilities, without ever recognizing his own need for change.
Let’s take a look at a classic: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. The name suggests a growth novel, but in this one, aliens who look curiously like Christian devils invade the world. They’re brilliant and they teach mankind a great deal. Eventually, the whole world becomes a hive-like organism in which people are but drones, and human society evolves into something new——and mankind leaves the planet. The only person left on Earth is the protagonist who refused to participate in the exodus. He remains alone and damned, the perpetual adolescent—and apparently unsure whether he has won something or lost.
In the same way, Heinlein’s characters never grow up. They like to go around saving the world, but have no day job. They recognize that everyone around them is wrong, but they’re . . . well, they’re supermen. They don’t fall in love, they just have lots of sex. In essence, his protagonists too are always trapped in the adolescent state, and they have no desire to move beyond it.
In short, growth is unimportant in these tales simply because this is “escape” literature. The story transports the reader back to a safe time in his life, to a time when the reader did not have to worry about the complexities of life, and that is a major appeal of the tale.
In case I make it sound as if only science fiction literature offers adolescent/stagnation literature, let me assure you it’s not. In fact, if you look at literary stories—the kind you read in The New Yorker—you’ll find that much of it is stagnation literature. Oh, sure, the college professor may be burdened with a wife and child, but he’s also usually out exploring sexually, discovering that his life is meaningless, and wallowing in sophomoric angst. In short, he’s an adolescent trapped in a world where he doesn’t want to grow up.
In every genre there are plenty of stagnation stories around, simply because so many people read in an effort not to confront their challenges, but to evade them.
These readers don’t want to grow up while reading fiction. Such challenges are too discomforting—the conflicts can become too personal, strike too close to home.
Think about it: ultimately, when your character reaches adulthood, he accepts personal responsibility for the world’s state of affairs and then spends the rest of his life in service to his community. In essence, he accepts a kind of death, the death of his selfish desires and dreams.
So, my challenge as a writer of growth literature is to figure out how to get beyond that. How do I sell the message that growth is good and necessary and beautiful?
That’s easy. You simply show that the community is good, that family is necessary and beautiful, so that when your protagonist sacrifices himself for these things, we as an audience see the nobility in it.
As you consider your tale, it will be up to you to decide: do I want my characters to grow or not?
Registration for my online writing workshops closes today. If interested, you can do register here
In a column on writing advice, I tend to try to avoid certain topics. I don’t talk a great deal about the latest marketing tricks, for example, because I know that most of them will be out of date in a week or two. This is a post that will be out of date soon.
I’ve had a number of readers ask about the Amazon-Hachette debate. As you may know, they’re involved in a massive lawsuit. Amazon insists on setting low prices for e-books. Hachette is suing for the right to set its own (higher) prices. At stake, quite frankly, is control of the publishing market.
Now, if you’ve been reading about the controversy, you’ll see that Hugh Howie and many other Indie authors are favoring Amazon. Among authors, a few are championing Hachette. You should know that I’m a Hachette author (in the UK), but that the bulk of my income last year came from e-book sales.
So, what is this all about? Amazon has sent out press releases thanking us readers for reading, and reminding us that they are our good friends, and that they are championing low prices for e-books. On the other hand, Hachette has been “over-charging” for years, and insists on gouging the customers with inflated prices. So what is the truth?
The truth is that the two companies don’t do the same thing at all. It’s comparing apples with rocks.
Hachette is a book publisher. They hire editors to hunt down good manuscripts, then pay the authors in advance for those manuscripts. They then design, print, market, and ship the books. Many of those books don’t sell, so the publisher then has to either take the books back, or destroy them. At the end of the accounting cycle, they have to make an accounting and figure out whether they’ve made any money.
Now, a book publisher typically doesn’t make a lot of money. The high cost of printing, shipping, and marketing a book doesn’t really bring a high return. If you study the profit-and-loss statements of major publishers, you’ll know that as far as businesses go, this isn’t one that makes a lot of money.
Amazon.com is not a publisher in the same sense as Hachette. They’re a bookstore. They don’t edit the e-books that they put up online. They don’t have anyone select them, looking for quality or readability. No one designs or approves the covers. No author is paid in advance.
Amazon does print books and ship them, on demand. That means that they make sure that they make a profit on every book before they even print it. That’s not what traditional publishers do.
So they’re more of a bookstore, one where they create an electronic catalogue and let their readers buy the files with the push of a button. No inventory is created or stored in the traditional sense.
So the two companies are doing different things.
I happen to like Amazon’s service. There are plenty of good books that publishers miss. Usually the big publisher’s reject books for poor quality, but very often there are good books that are just too “quirky” for major publishers. Perhaps the publisher doesn’t see a good market for the book, or more often just doesn’t see how to market it easily.
So Amazon could serve as a nice niche publisher. But they don’t. There is no quality control on Amazon. As one reader recently put it, “Amazon is publishing other publisher’s slush piles—the manuscripts that others rejected.” For that reason, he said, he would not be buying any more self-published books.
I don’t feel that way. I personally think that there are a lot of times when the major publishers get it wrong. For example, Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers before it got picked up and became the bestselling novel of all time. What’s with that? Are the publishers really doing that great a job at picking what we like? Obviously not. So I like the idea of having a wider market.
I don’t like Amazon’s pricing policies. Why? Amazon’s upper limits on book prices are too low. I’ve always felt that. Let’s say that you spent years writing a textbook, doing heavy research, double-checking all of the facts, and you want to publish the book electronically. Let’s imagine that this is a legal textbook for first-year law students. You know that the market is fairly small, so in order to make a profit on the book, you need $40 per book. With Amazon, you can’t do that. Since Amazon is trying to keep the prices artificially low, they penalize you for charging a high price for a book. They take 65 percent of any book that costs over $9.99. That means that for the writer of this legal text to get $40, he’d have to set the price of his e-book at $133, and Amazon would be taking the majority of the profit.
As a writer who does write non-fiction, I’ve been faced with that quandary. I wish that Amazon would allow writers who need to charge more to do so.
Now, paper publishers are finding themselves in competition with Amazon. Many avid readers, those who buy 50% of all books, have moved to e-readers, so the sales on hardcovers and paperbacks have dropped dramatically.
The traditional publishers feel that they should have something of a grace period on a well-written novel. After spending a lot of money on acquisitions and marketing, they want to make their money back. So they would like to charge a premium price for their product at first, then lower the prices later.
In other words, they want to treat a book as if it were a movie. You can either choose to go see a movie in a theater in its opening run—where you might pay as much as $10 for a ticket—or you can watch it on television in a couple of years.
During that “first-run” of the book, the paper publisher can’t afford to let Amazon.com undercut their prices, and under Amazon’s current contract, Amazon can do whatever they want. Amazon reserves the right to set its own prices on an author’s book, regardless of what the author wants to set it at. So, Amazon could set the price to a new release under its current contract as low as 99 cents. I know this to be true because I have had a couple of instances where Amazon has dropped my prices without notifying me, and when I complain about it, they remind me that “Hey, we can do that!”
If Amazon does this to a major publisher, it would “cannibalize the sales” on the hardback and paperback versions of the novel, causing the major publisher to lose money as they have to take in large numbers of returns or destroy paperbacks.
Now, would Amazon like to hurt the major publishers? Amazon is currently the largest bookstore in the world. It has already wiped out most of the other major brick-and-mortar chains. I’ve seen published rumors that it is trying to buy Simon and Schuster.
Yeah, Amazon would like to move into the space that the major publishers now occupy. They’ve already taken the majority of the e-book markets, started their own imprints, and have created a healthy model for on-demand publishing. They’re moving into movies and television now, too.
You see, book publishing isn’t just about books. A book publisher can control the rights to the movies and television shows that the books are based upon. And the merchandise generated by a big hit is worth far more than just the books or movies. Thus, with a book like Lord of the Rings, we saw that the merchandise earned the movie companies some 7 billion dollars while the book sales and movie sales together probably didn’t generate more than about half a billion (much of which was then spent on advertising. Note that Peter Jackson and the Tolkien estate have both sued the filmmakers because on the books, the movies still haven’t “earned out.”)
So what is the fight really about between Hachette and Amazon? It’s a fight over positioning. It’s a fight over control of the markets. In essence, this is a territorial battle between two t-rex’s. They’re in a grim battle over their food source.
The question is, should we as authors take sides?
Sure you should. If you want to try to create a market where bookstores thrive and traditional publishing thrives with it, throw your support behind Hachette. Go to a local bookstore and buy some paper books. There are a lot of people who still prefer to read book in paper, and I have to admit that I’m one of them. I spent a hundred dollars last week on paper books.
On the other hand, if you think that it’s time to let the paper book market die, and you do really prefer to read books in e-book format, then buy e-books. I buy books in e-book format plenty too, and have probably spent an equal amount on those in the past few weeks.
Me, I don’t have the time or energy to fight about it. Personally, I’d like to see both companies do well. You see, as a reader, I feel that I’m served better by having a healthy marketplace for both traditional markets and the Indie market.
This weekend, anyone who buys a course on MyStoryDoctor.com will get two free seminars. So make sure to go over there and check them out.
Matt Harrill’s book Hellbounce recently received a glowing (real) review. Here is a part of it:
A truly mystery filled, suspense packed, on the edge of your seat, toe curling , blood curling, screaming my head off read, and an absolute masterpiece of a book. Best of all this is only part one, so there is a loads of more kick ass awesomeness to come. All I will say is Matthew Harrill get your ass back to writing as in NOW! -Desere