The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
Publisher: Randy Ingermanson ("the Snowflake guy")
Motto: "A Vision for Excellence"
Date: September 7, 2015
Issue: Volume 11, Number 8
Circulation: 13,405 writers, each of them creating a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.
"Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing"
What's in This Issue
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
2) Organization: How to Fill Up Your Calendar
: What Makes The Girl on the Train Fly?
4) Marketing: A Strategy for Your E-mail List
5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
6) Randy Recommends . . .
7) Steal This E-zine!
8) Reprint Rights
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
Those of you who have joined in the past month (305 of you signed up in August), welcome to my e-zine!
If you missed a back issue, remember that all previous issues are archived on my web site at: www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com/ezine/
2) Organization: How to Fill Up Your Calendar
Most people I know seem to be stressed for time. Most of us have too many things on our plate—we have more projects going on simultaneously than we can handle in the time we have available.
How do you deal with that? There’s no easy answer, but here’s a procedure I follow when I’m trying to bring my project list under control (or when I have a friend who feels overwhelmed and needs an objective eye to help sort things out).
Get It All On Paper
First, make a complete list of all the main projects on your plate. These might be your day job, your novel, the yard work, a side business you want to build, some product you’re creating that you could sell, some marketing project that takes significant time. Maybe you’re trying to learn a new language or develop a new skill. Maybe you’re taking a vacation. Get all of these down on paper and leave room after each one to make some notes.
If you can easily schedule all of these right now, then there’s no problem to be solved. Congratulate yourself. You are one of the few people on the planet who isn’t maxed out.
But if they can’t all fit in your schedule, then you’re going to have to cull some of them.
This doesn’t mean you’ll NEVER be able to do them all. If things go well, then you can do ALL of them—someday. You just can’t do them all at the same time. The question is which ones to work on now and which ones to defer to mañana. That’s a hard question.
Costs and Benefits
The second step in this process is to make notes about each project’s costs or benefits. Specifically, you want to know the following:
- Time requirements. How much time will this project take per week, and for how many weeks?
- Cash-flow impact. How much money will this generate (or how much will it cost you)? When will the money be earned (or when will it need to be paid)?
- Level of obligation. Are you doing this project because you have to? If you fail to do it, will you be breaking a legal contract? Or some binding commitment? Or disappointing somebody? How unthinkable would it be to NOT do this project?
- Happiness impact. How badly do you WANT to do this project (or how much will you HATE doing it)?
Filling Up Your Calendar
The final step is to fill in your current calendar with the projects you can reasonably tackle right now. There are a couple of things you need to know:
- How much total productive time do you have for working on all projects? 40 hours per week? 50? 90? (Don’t get too crazy here. You can’t work 120 hours per week. You need time to sleep, eat, and relax. Pick a number you can live with.)
- How much cash-flow do you need coming in each week in order to meet your financial obligations? What’s the minimum amount? What’s a comfortable number? If you had lots and lots of money coming in, at what point would you stop caring about earning more?
Now start picking projects from your list, one at a time. Which one is the MOST ESSENTIAL? This will typically be the one with the highest level of obligation or the one that brings in the most money. If you’re lucky, it might be the one that brings you the greatest happiness.
Add this one project to your list and make a note of how much time it’s going to cost you every week and how much the expected cash-flow will be (either income or expense).
Continue adding one project after another until you’ve scheduled all your productive time. You’ll need to balance four things—the time required, the cash-flow impact, the level of happiness, and the degree of obligation. There isn’t any hard rule on how to balance these out. Your goal is to meet all your hard obligations, earn your minimum cash-flow requirements, stay within your time budget, and maximize your happiness. Not necessarily in that order.
When you’ve maxed out your time, the process is over. You can’t add more. The rest of the projects on your plate are going to have to be deferred.
This process is hard. Different people have different values. Some people feel honor-bound to meet all obligations; others are comfortable breaking commitments. Some people need a high cash-flow; some need much less. Some people value happiness highly; some don’t. Some people have lots of time in their schedules; others have very little.
I’ve found that I run into trouble when I have more than three or four projects on my plate. Then I get spread too thin and none of them really gets the time they need and I get stressed.
3) Craft: What Makes The Girl on the Train Fly?
The Girl on the Train is a runaway bestselling novel. What makes this book fly? This is a good question to ask about any bestselling book, because it may give you a clue on how to make your own book better.
Before we get started, I should point out that the book ends with a twist that most readers don’t see coming. I don’t want to give that twist away, so I’ll have to withhold some information in this discussion.
That shouldn’t cause us a problem. The book isn’t a bestseller because of the ending. It’s a bestseller because of the voice of the protagonist.
Our protagonist is Rachel Watson, and quite a lot of the story is written while Rachel is riding the train, looking out the window, and thinking about her life—which has been a train wreck.
Part of what drives the story is Rachel’s obsession with one particular house she sees every morning and every evening on her commuter train ride to and from London. A defective signal causes the train to stop for a minute or so just across from this house, so Rachel has plenty of time to look at it, to obsess over it.
The couple who live in that house are the perfect couple, a golden couple. The husband is tall and handsome. The wife is small, fragile, and beautiful. And they have the perfect life.
They have the life Rachel could have had. Should have had. Desperately longs to have.
Rachel makes up a story about their life. The man is named Jason; the woman is Jess.
The author reveals information slowly. It’s clear right off that Rachel has an alcohol problem. She’s drinking in the first scene and she’s not quite coherent.
We learn that Rachel used to have a man in her life, a man named Tom. Tom is handsome. Sensuous. Kind.
We learn that Tom actually lives just a few houses down the street from the golden couple. Tom has a new wife, Anna, and they have a baby daughter.
We learn that Rachel was married to Tom for five years. She lived in the house where Tom and Anna now live. She loved that house. She desperately wanted a baby, but it wasn’t happening, and that made her drink more. Eventually, her drinking problem drove a wedge between her and Tom. She’d do horrible, embarrassing, stupid things when she was drunk, but then she wouldn’t remember them the next day. Tom would have to tell her what she’d done and she’d apologize, but she never felt the apology down in her bones, because how can you really feel sorry for something you can’t remember doing?
Now Rachel rents a room from a college sort-of-friend named Cathy. Rachel lost her job months ago, but she can’t admit this to Cathy, so she continues the pretense of having a job, riding the commuter train every day. Sometimes she calls Tom late at night, begging him to take her back. Rachel has become weird, lonely, desperate.
This is the strength of the novel, the emotional driver. Rachel perfectly captures the voice of a woman who’s lost everything she wants, who thinks of herself as a loser, who thinks she can’t help herself. Yet she desperately wants something. The strength of any story comes from the strength of the desire of the protagonist.
Rachel is obsessed with the perfect life of Jess and Jason.
Then one morning, the unthinkable happens. The train stops as usual. Rachel looks out at the house as usual. Jess is alone in her back yard, which is not usual.
No, Jess is not alone. There’s a man with her. A man who’s not Jason. Rachel is sure he must be Jess’s brother, or brother-in-law, or cousin, or the best man at her wedding.
Then Jess stands up and kisses the man, long and hard.
Rachel’s world is shattered. Jess is cheating on her man. Why?
This becomes the story question that drives the rest of the book. Rachel must know. Somehow, she will find an answer—even if she has to insert herself into Jess and Jason’s life. Her plan is to go to that house and tell Jason that Jess is cheating on him. She fortifies herself with a few drinks first. OK, with a lot of drinks. She takes the train. She gets off at the station nearest their house. And then …
The next morning, she wakes up in her own bed, naked. Her clothes are in a heap downstairs at the door. She’s bruised on her legs. Her lip is cut. She’s got a nasty head wound. And she can’t remember a thing about last night. She’s certain that something bad happened, but she’s got nobody to tell her what idiotic thing she did.
Two days later, Rachel learns that Jess has gone missing. It’s in the newspapers and on the Web. Has she run away with her lover? Has she been kidnapped? Has she been murdered?
Rachel learns that Jess’s real name is Megan—and that she went missing the same night that Rachel went to speak to Jason, whose real name is Scott.
Rachel is certain that something terrible happened to Megan that night. She thinks she herself might be a witness. But whatever she saw is locked up somewhere in a black hole in her mind, a memory she can’t access. Or worse, she never formed a memory in the first place, because she was too drunk.
So there are two things working really well in this story. First, Rachel’s voice, which is strong. Second, the storyline, which is mysterious.
Rachel’s scenes are told in first-person present tense. This is an excellent choice for capturing a character’s voice, and the author does this extremely well.
Rachel is an unreliable narrator. Normally, this is hard to do with first-person present tense, which is supposed to tell the exact thoughts of the character. But when the character is drunk part of the time, it’s possible for her to mislead the reader because the character simply doesn’t know the whole truth.
However, there are two other point-of-view characters in the novel:
- Megan, the missing woman.
- Anna, the woman who married Rachel’s ex-husband Tom.
Each of these characters gets some air-time, and their scenes are also told in first-person present tense.
Amazon currently has over 31,000 reviews of the book, and about 12% of them are 1-star or 2-star reviews. This is a surprisingly high percentage. I read some of them to see why, and wasn’t surprised by what I found. There are three main issues:
- All the characters are unlikable.
- The three point-of-view characters have virtually identical voices.
- Megan is an unreliable narrator who omits crucial information in her own thoughts.
The issue with unlikable characters is not a show-stopper. You can easily have unlikable characters who are deeply interesting. I’d say Rachel fits this category. Rachel is interesting because her problems (apparently) stem from her drinking problem, which she wants to stop but can’t. That arouses empathy in most readers. Everybody does things they hate.
The fact that all three women have identical voices is a bigger problem. The author has done an excellent job creating Rachel’s voice. But Megan and Anna feel like clones of Rachel.
The biggest problem is that Megan’s scenes are written in a way that seems to me designed to intentionally deceive the reader. This allows a major twist at the end of the book. The majority of the reviewers of the book saw this as a plus, but a vocal minority saw it as a minus. Either you can get past this problem or you can’t. The glowing reviews are written mostly by readers who liked the twist. The scathing ones are written mostly by readers who felt sandbagged by it.
I enjoyed reading the book. I saw the twist early and put a bookmark on the page to mark the exact spot that tipped me off to the surprise ending that was coming. This didn’t actually bother me, because I don’t read a story for twists and turns. I read a story to get inside a character’s head. My opinion is that Rachel is a strong character who makes the book well worth reading.
Homework for you: Have you read The Girl on the Train? What did you like about it that you might apply to your own writing? What did you hate that you should beware of in your own writing?
4) Marketing: A Strategy for Your E-mail List
In the marketing column of the June issue of this e-zine, I argued that every novelist needs an e-mail list.
In the August issue, I explained how to define the vision statement for your e-mail list.
This month, we’ll talk strategy. A strategic plan spells out how you are going to achieve your vision statement. Generally, you need to do some research, make a certain set of decisions, and take a certain set of actions.
Here are the steps along the way:
Learn How To Not Be A Spammer
Many countries have laws that ban spamming. You don’t want to be a spammer, which means you need to learn the laws.
A good place to begin is by Googling the phrase “CAN SPAM laws” and reading the articles you find.
Once you read these articles, you’ll understand why the next step is important.
Choose an E-mail Service Provider (ESP)
One mistake I’ve seen many writers make is to maintain their list directly in the standard e-mail software on their computers (Outlook, Apple Mail, or whatever).
One problem with this is that keeping the list up to date is hard labor. People are constantly subscribing and unsubscribing. You don’t want to be changing your list by hand. That’s boring and error-prone and slow.
A more serious problem is that the US CAN-SPAM law requires you to have an unsubscribe mechanism built in to any e-mail you send.
All e-mail service providers make it easy to let subscribers automatically subscribe and unsubscribe from your list. The subscription is handled automatically by a signup box on your Web site. The unsubscription is handled automatically by a link inserted into each e-mail you send out.
A good ESP will also have a double-opt-in mechanism so that nobody can be subscribed to your list against their will.
Double-opt-in works like this:
- Somebody subscribes to your list (usually on your web site).
- Your ESP sends them a confirmation e-mail with a confirmation link.
- The user must click on that confirmation link in order to be added to your list. If they don’t click it, they aren’t added.
The double-opt-in mechanism ensures that the e-mail address is valid and that the person who owns the e-mail address actually wants to receive e-mail from you. (Somebody else might conceivably have signed them up on your Web site, but only the owner of the e-mail address can receive the confirmation e-mail. So if the confirmation link is clicked, that is proof that the real owner of the e-mail address wants to be on your list.)
There are many e-mail service providers. Some of them also provide other services (such as shopping cart systems). Here are a few of them:
- Constant Contact
(The fact that I list any of these here does not constitute an endorsement. You should do your own due diligence on which ESP you’ll use. I use MailChimp for this e-zine.)
A good e-mail service provider will give you tools for all of the following, and usually much more:
- Managing your subscribers
- Creating subscription boxes for your Web site
- Creating e-mails, including graphical templates
- Deciding when your e-mails will go out
- Tracking your e-mail results
- Creating autoresponders
- Getting help from customer support
Subscribe to an E-mail Service Provider
Once you’ve done your homework and found the ESP that you want to work with, you’ll need to subscribe to their services. Some of them offer a plan that lets you get started at no cost, so long as the number of e-mail subscribers in your list is small.
Once your list grows beyond a certain number of subscribers, you’ll need to pay for your ESP.
You may be wondering why you should do this when Facebook and Twitter are free. If you’re wondering that, it’s time to reread the column in my June issue. The reason is simple: E-mail works better than social media. It works so much better that it’s worth paying for.
Read the Terms of Service of your ESP. It’ll tell you the ground rules for using their service. You don’t want to unintentionally break the rules. Most of the rules are designed to make sure you don’t do anything unethical or illegal. Reading the rules will help teach you which things actually are unethical or illegal.
Create a List
Most e-mail service providers let you create any number of e-mail lists. You may want to create a test list with yourself as the only subscriber. This will let you test all the tools to learn how they work. It’s embarrassing to send out a half-done e-mail to your subscribers. (Like my alumni association did yesterday.)
Once you’ve created a test list and tested all the tools you’ll be using, you can create your main list. This will be empty at first. We’ll talk about how to add subscribers next month. Before you add subscribers, there’s one more thing you should do.
Create Your E-mail Template
Your ESP should give you a tool for creating a template for your e-mails. Spend some time creating the template you’ll use. You will need this before you send any e-mails. You’ll need it before you set up the signup box for your Web site.
Your ESP should provide a number of sample templates, which you can then tweak. Or you might want to design your own template from scratch, or hire a graphic artist to design one for you.
Growing Your List
Once you’ve got an e-mail template in place, you’re ready to start growing your list. There are many list-building tactics you can use. Some of these are bad tactics and some are good. Next month, we’ll talk about a few tactics not to do, along with a number of Best Practice tactics that will help you build a large, well-targeted e-mail list.
5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
August was a month for catching up for me, after a grueling research trip in June/July that consumed nearly five weeks.
I’m currently writing the final chapters of the first draft of my next book, tentatively titled How to Self-Edit Your Novel Manuscript. The next step will be to work through the steps in the book to self-edit it. This is kind of meta and I’m having fun with it.
I normally teach at four to six writing conferences per year. In 2015, I’m teaching at only three conferences. I turned down several invitations to speak so I'd have time for my research adventure.
Why don't I teach at more conferences? Because teaching is an incredibly demanding blood sport and it sucks a huge amount of energy out of my tiny brain. I prefer to put my absolute best into a few locations than to muddle through at many.
Here’s what my calendar shows me for the remainder of 2015:
- September: American Christian Writers Conference, in Dallas, Texas. I’ll be co-teaching a workshop on the incredibly sexy topic of “metadata” and I’ll be on a panel about indie authoring. Details here.
If you'd like me to teach at your conference in 2016 or beyond, email me to find out how outrageously expensive I am. Just be aware that I often have to say no because I only have a little time allocated in my life for teaching.
6) Randy Recommends . . .
I don't take paid ads for this e-zine. I do, however, recommend people I like.
I'm a huge fan of Margie Lawson's courses, both the ones she teaches in person and the ones she sells on her web site at www.MargieLawson.com
Margie is a psychologist who applies what she knows about human psychology to writing fiction. I believe her material is brilliant. Check her out on her web site!
Please be aware that in this section I ONLY recommend folks who have never asked me to do so. Tragically, this means that if you ask me to list you here, I will be forced to say no.
8) Steal This E-zine!
This E-zine is free, and I personally guarantee it's worth at least 1414 times the price. I invite you to "steal" it, but only if you do it nicely . . .
Distasteful legal babble: This E-zine is copyright Randall Ingermanson, 2015.
Extremely tasteful postscript: Yes, you’re allowed to e-mail this E-zine to any fiction writer friends of yours who might benefit from it.
Of course you should not forward this e-mail to people who don't write fiction. They won't care about it.
9) Reprint Rights
Permission is granted to use any of the articles in this e-zine in your own e-zine or web site, as long as you include the following 2-paragraph blurb with it:
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 13,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
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