The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine

"Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing"

The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine

 
Publisher: Randy Ingermanson ("the Snowflake guy")
 
Motto: "A Vision for Excellence"
 
Date: Feburary 27, 2017
Issue: Volume 13, Number 1
Personal Site: www.Ingermanson.com
 
Circulation: 16,276 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: One New Skill
3) Craft: World-Building and People Groups
4) Marketing: Google Analytics
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 (444 of you signed up since my last issue), 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/

My daughter got married in December, and the wedding was in India. My family and I spent two weeks in India, and we all had a wonderful time, but the trip pretty much rearranged my calendar for weeks before and after. I had planned not to do an issue of this e-zine in December. As it turned out, I just couldn’t do an issue in January either.

 

2) Organization: One New Skill

It’s remarkable how much your life can change when you add one new skill to your arsenal.

Many years ago, I was working on a project at my day job and I needed to deal with a number of tables of data. Messy data that needed a fair bit of cleaning up to be useful. Too much to deal with on paper.

I took one day and taught myself the basics of Microsoft Excel. Pretty quickly, I got the data beaten into submission. I got the project done. And I’ve been using Excel ever since.

One skill, learned in one day, made a difference in my life.

The lesson here is not that you should go out and learn Excel. The lesson is that there are certain skills that make you massively more productive and sometimes the investment in learning them is very low.

Learning those high-value low-cost skills may be among the best things you ever do for yourself. 

Not all skills can be learned in one day, of course. In my world of software development, it can take weeks or months to learn a new programming language with moderate competence. Learning a new human language can takes months or years. 

But it’s amazing how quickly you can learn the basics of some new skill when you put your mind to it. It’s amazing how fast you can become an expert when you volunteer to teach a beginner’s course in it. 

I can’t tell you which skills would be most useful for you. You know your own situation better than me. I’ve known writers who could only type with two fingers. Imagine how much more productive they’d be if they could type at 50 or 100 words per minute.

Here are some skills that many writers find useful. It’s not a complete list, but it should get your neurons firing:

  • Typing
  • Using a spreadsheet
  • Using a filing cabinet
  • Web development 
  • Marketing
  • Writing sales copy
  • Accounting 
  • Graphic design

The above skills are intentionally vague. For example, “Web development” can mean a lot of different things, so this one topic covers easily a dozen different skills. Very few people ever learn all those skills. Very few people need them all. 

The important point for you is to ask yourself what one skill you could learn this year that would make a big impact on you as a writer. (Or if you have a day job, what one skill would make a big impact on you as a wage-earner. The better your day job pays, the better your life as a writer will be.)

If you only learn one new skill every year, you’ll become massively more productive as the years go by, and the effect on your writing life will be amazing.

Homework

  • What one new skill would have the biggest impact on your life this year?
  • How many hours of actual learning time would it take to develop that skill?
  • How many days or weeks or months of calendar time would it take to learn that skill?
  • How much would it cost to buy a book or take a course? Is there a place you could study it online at no cost? 
  • Make a list of the steps it would take to get started learning this skill. 
  • Who can you talk to about this new learning project that could keep you accountable so you’ll actually do it?

I’ve already picked out a new skill to learn in 2017. If I work hard, I could have basic competency by the end of March, and I could be very good at it by the end of the year. Of course, I might decide after a few weeks that it’s not as useful as I thought. If that happens, I’ll drop it. But my hunch is that it’ll make a big difference in my life.

3) Craft: World-Building and People Groups

In the last issue of this e-zine, I wrote an article on social networks in building your story world. That’s a fine-grained approach. This month, I’d like to take a more macro viewpoint by looking at “people groups.” 

Just to review, world-building is extremely important in three categories of fiction:

  • science fiction
  • fantasy
  • historical fiction

It can also be important in other categories, but world-building is most strongly associated with the above.

Going Deep or Going Wide

World-building is a large topic with many aspects. We’ll focus on people groups this month, but keep in mind that it’s not the only aspect. 

Generally, novelists choose to go either deep or wide in constructing people groups. 

“Going deep” means focusing on one single people group that’s different from the one the target audience belongs to. (For example: Amish fiction, targeted to non-Amish readers. Alternatively, World War II fiction set in Nazi Germany, targeted to American readers.)

“Going wide” means having many different people groups that interact with each other. (For example, The Lord of the Rings has humans, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, wizards, balrogs, ents, and more. The humans have several different people groups—the villages around Bree, the Rohirrim, and the men of Minas Tirith. The elves are likewise split geographically into people groups that live in Mirkwood, Lothlorien, and Rivendell.)

So how do you construct a people group? You have a lot of options, but they boil down to asking two very important questions:

  • What do all members of this people group have in common?
  • How does this people group split up along party lines?

Going Deep

As an example, in the Harry Potter series, the main people group is composed of the witches and wizards. There is a second people group composed of muggles—non-magical people. But the Potter series goes deep—the witches and wizards get the great majority of the air-time in the series. 

  • What do the witches and wizards have in common? They all have the genetic ability to do magic.
  • How are they split along party lines? They differ in their attitudes towards muggles. Lord Voldemort’s party believes that muggles should be ill-treated. They can be killed, tortured, or harassed at will. Witches and wizards who have muggle ancestors are considered “mud-bloods” and should be repressed. Albus Dumbledore’s party believes that muggles should be treated with decency and respect. 

Notice a key point. The storyline of the Harry Potter series is driven by the party differences among the witches and wizards, not by their commonality. Yes, it’s interesting to see how magic plays a role in their ordinary lives, and this provides a lot of local color to the story. But the great arc of the storyline is driven by Lord Voldemort’s attempt to take over the magical world, and Albus Dumbledore’s efforts to defeat him. 

The Potter series goes deep, and the story is driven by internal factions within one people group. 

That’s not the only option, however. You can go deep but have the story be driven by the battle of your main people group with some other people group. As an example, the movie Independence Day told the story of an invasion of planet earth by aliens who are mostly not seen. 

Another option is to go deep and have the main conflict be driven by differences between individuals in the main people group. As an example, an Amish romance novel would feature a single people group and could have no factions at all but could simply focus on the classic romance storyline—will the hero and the heroine get together? In this case, your main work in constructing your people group is understanding the things that your people have in common, especially those things that are different from the ordinary world of the target readers. 

Going Wide

When you have multiple people groups that play a central role in your story, you now have a third question:

  • What are the central conflicts between your people groups?

In The Lord of the Rings, we have many of these:

  • The orcs hate pretty much all the other people groups, and are slaves of Lord Sauron, who is not an orc but created them for his own purposes.
  • Elves hate the orcs and will never cooperate with them, but they might choose to insulate themselves from the orcs, giving them free rein. The elves have the right to leave Middle Earth if they choose. Elves are impervious to disease and aging, but they can be killed. So doing battle with orcs has an enormous cost—the elves risk dying in battle.
  • Dwarves also hate orcs, but they don’t like elves either, and it’s very difficult to get the elves and dwarves to cooperate to defeat their common enemy. Dwarves have fewer options when it comes to insulating themselves from the orcs. They can’t flee Middle Earth, as the elves can. Dwarves have a love for gold that makes it possible, in principle, to buy their allegiance to the dark side. But they much prefer to keep to themselves.
  • Humans mostly hate orcs, but some of them have gone over to the dark side and collaborate with them. Humans look with suspicion on the elves and dwarves and believe that they have to rely on themselves to get anything done. The humans are ready to fight, but they live shorter lives than the other people groups, and they sometimes feel like they are doing most of the work in battling evil, while getting little reward for their trouble.
  • Hobbits are barely aware of the wider world. They know that the elves and dwarves and humans and orcs exist, but they don’t think that the wars of these outsiders make a difference to them. Hobbits are happy to keep to themselves and live their own lives. 
  • Ents are a frozen race. They’re essentially immortal, but they’ve lost the ent-wives, so they aren’t reproducing. They’ve secluded themselves even more than the hobbits in their own little enclave. They’re also very slow to make decisions. But once they choose to fight, they are extraordinarily powerful.
  • Wizards are sent into Middle Earth in the guise of men. It’s not clear what wizards are, but their role is to guide the free peoples of Middle Earth to maintain their freedom, but without subjugating them. Wizards can go over to the dark side, and one of them does.

So The Lord of the Rings has one central conflict—Lord Sauron and his orc minions are trying to subjugate the elves, humans, dwarves, and hobbits. The wizards, led by Gandalf, are trying to resist Lord Sauron and ultimately defeat him. 

Sauron’s strategy is to divide and conquer. He’s helped by the natural animosities between the elves, dwarves, and humans, and he does his best to boost these animosities.

Gandalf’s strategy is to unify and resist. He must get the elves, dwarves, men, hobbits, and ents to set aside their differences and fight Sauron. No easy task, but if it were easy, there wouldn’t be much of a story. 

When Sauron and Gandalf learn that the One Ring of Power still exists, the race is on to find it and use it to tip the balance of power. But the Ring is so corrosive that it can only be trusted in the hands of the hobbits, who are least susceptible to its power.

Homework

1) Are people groups an important aspect of your story world? (If your target audience is essentially similar to all the characters in your story, then the answer is probably no.)

2) How many important people groups do you have in your story? (The important ones are usually the ones that contribute at least one primary character.)

3) For each people group, what does this group have in common? What binds it together? (This could be religion, philosophy, geography, customs, or anything else that tends to make different people think that “we are all in this together.”)

4) For each people group, what are the internal factions that tend to destroy the group unity? Why do these factions exist? What drives the conflict between them?

4) Marketing: Google Analytics

If you’ve got a web site then you need Google Analytics.

What’s Google Analytics? It’s a free tool created by Google that lets you track things that happen on your web site. 

What kind of things can you track? Lots of things:

  • How many people visit your site. 
  • How many pages they visit. 
  • Which pages they visit. 
  • How long they’re on your site. 
  • How they got to your site. 
  • Who sent them to your site. 
  • Typical paths they take through your site. 
  • Which pages they come in on. 
  • Which pages they leave from. 
  • How fast your pages load. 
  • Which days of the week people visit most and least. 
  • Tons more.

Installing Google Analytics

If you don’t have Google Analytics installed on your site, it’s easy to get it going. Here’s what you do:

  1. If you don’t have an account on Google, (a Gmail account or a Google Plus account or whatever), go to plus.google.com and sign up for one. It’s free and all you need is an email address. 
  2. Once you have a Google account, go to analytics.google.com and sign in.
  3. Set up your account to track your web site. You can find directions here: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1008015 
  4. When you finish the above step, you’ll have a small piece of code that you’ll need to insert into every page on your web site. The exact way to do this depends on how your web site was created. If you use WordPress for your site, then you can install a plugin and paste in the code there. If you don’t know how to do this, ask your web developer to do it for you. (Usually, your web developer should have done all of the above when they created your site, but if they haven’t done it, they can do it now in very little time.)

Once Google Analytics is installed on your site, it begins tracking visits immediately. The code that you inserted in every page on your site will send messages to Google’s computers to track site visitors. You won’t ever get any personal information on who these visitors were. But you’ll get statistical information on them as a group. 

Using Google Analytics

Google Analytics gives you enormous amounts of information on what’s happening on your web site. That can be overwhelming. 

Every web site is different, so it’s impossible to give out advice that applies to everybody. 

Instead, I’ll give you meta-advice—advice on how to make your own decisions on how to use Google Analytics.

  1. Schedule a regular time to visit Google Analytics to review your data. If you’re obsessive, this might be daily, but that really only makes sense if your web site is earning you thousands of dollars per month. Decide how often you should visit Google Analytics (weekly, monthly, quarterly, whatever) and then schedule it. Mark it in your trusted system—your calendar or whatever tool you use to organize your life. 
  2. On your first visit, give yourself an hour to fiddle around with Google Analytics and see what’s available. You can’t really break anything, so try things and see what you can learn. Make a list of the things that seem relevant to you. If you have a blog, then you’re probably interested in knowing how many people actually read it. If you link out to your books on the online retailers, then you probably care about how many people click those links, and which ones they click.
  3. On each visit, the first thing you should do is set the date range that you want to see data for. I typically just want to know what happened in the past calendar month or in the past 30 days. 
  4. Next, work through your list of data that you care about. Are things improving? Getting worse? Staying about the same? Do you see any crises? (For example, was your site down for an extended length of time that you didn’t even know about? Has your bounce rate zoomed up to 100 percent? Is it taking an unreasonable amount of time for your pages to load?)
  5. Think for a few seconds about what actions, if any, you should take, based on what you’ve just seen.

If you decide that you need to become a guru in using Google Analytics, there are courses and books you can buy that will teach you vastly more than I know. I have no particular recommendations, but you can easily find them with any search engine and make your own decision on what would work for you.

How I Use Google Analytics

You aren’t me, so the data I’m interested in is not necessarily the data you’re interested in. But for what it’s worth, here are some of the things I routinely look at in my regularly scheduled sessions on Google Analytics:

  • What is the total number of page views I’ve had in the last 30 days?
  • Which pages are getting the most page views? Any surprises here?
  • What is the bounce rate on these pages? 
  • What is the average amount of time it takes for pages to load on my site?
  • Since I have an online store on my site, I measure the conversion rate of my sales pages. The conversion rate for a sales page is the percentage of page views that result in an actual sale. I also look at the total number of visits to the sales pages. 

I typically get close to 100,000 page views on my site each month. That’s a fair bit of traffic for an author, and not all hosting companies can handle that much traffic at a decent price. Also, not all hosting companies can deflect attacks by hackers well. Google Analytics has been helpful to me in the past in making the decision to switch to a better host—faster and more impervious to denial-of-service attacks.

For what it’s worth, I now use WPEngine.com to host my web site. They’ve proven to be both fast and secure, but they’re not cheap for low-volume sites. I’ve been very happy since switching to them. (In case you’re wondering, I have no affiliate relationship with WPEngine. They don’t pay me a single dime to mention them here, and they have no idea that I’m doing so.)

Homework

I’ll repeat myself, because this is important. If you have a web site, then you need Google Analytics. If you don’t have it installed already, do so. If you aren’t using it yet, schedule it as part of your regular routine.

Knowledge is power. Google Analytics is free and easy to use and gives you extraordinary amounts of information. Have fun!


5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com

Writing Schedule

I’m hard at work on a series of novels about one of the most influential humans ever to walk the planet—Jesus of Nazareth. The series is currently planned to have four books. The first one is in the hands of my beta readers now. I’ve got the next three planned out and am working hard on them. This is my most ambitious writing project ever. I can’t predict when it’ll be finished, but I’m pursuing it at full speed. 

Teaching Schedule

I am currently on sabbatical from teaching. I’ve taught at many, many conferences over the last sixteen years, but the time has come to focus on my writing. So I’m no longer accepting requests to teach at conferences. When that changes, I’ll make a note of it here.
 

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. 
 

 

7) Steal This E-zine!

 
This E-zine is free, and I personally guarantee it's worth at least 6.214 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, 2017.
 
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.
 
At the moment, there is one place to subscribe: www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com
 

8) 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 16,000 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.
 
 

The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine is Published by:

 
Randy Ingermanson 
 
 
Copyright © 2017 Ingermanson Communications, Inc., All rights reserved.
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