The Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine
Publisher: Randy Ingermanson ("the Snowflake guy")
Motto: "A Vision for Excellence"
Date: May 13, 2015
Issue: Volume 11, Number 5
Circulation: 12,391 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: Focus on Focus
: Test Driving Grammarly
4) Marketing: The Golden Trifecta
5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
6) Randy Recommends . . .
7) What Randy is Reading
8) Steal This E-zine!
9) Reprint Rights
1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!
of you who have joined in the past month (422 of you signed up in April), welcome to my e-zine!
2) Organization: Focus on Focus
Focus is good. This month I decided to try something new to improve my focus.
The plan was simple. Every day of the week, I work on only one thing. A little context here might be helpful:
My life is pretty scattered. I work half time as Director of Software Engineering at a biotech company in San Diego. I also have my website at AdvancedFictionWriting.com and another small business with my writing buddy John Olson. And I write fiction.
I like writing fiction and I like writing software and I like writing this e-zine. (There’s a pattern there somewhere.)
What I don’t like are the gritty little administrative tasks that come along for the ride. I hate those. I outsource what I can, but there are some things that can’t be outsourced.
Since I’m constantly juggling several flaming torches, some things never get done because they’re “not important”. Which secretly means I don’t like doing them.
I was talking to John about this last month and complaining that I had a pile of things that never seemed important enough to do because every day I had a long list of tasks, so I always did the things I liked doing first.
John suggested that I try doing only one kind of work every day. That seemed too simple, but he convinced me to give it a try.
So my schedule right now is ridiculously simple:
Monday: Write all day.
Tuesday: Work on biotech all day.
Wednesday: Admin tasks all day. Oh, the horror!
Thursday: Work on biotech all day.
Friday: Write all day.
I’ve been trying it for a few weeks now, and here are my thoughts.
I really love Mondays and Fridays. And I’m getting a lot of words written because on those days I don’t have a long To Do List hanging over my head. I can have fun all day long with no guilt. Yay!
I’m working extremely hard on Tuesdays and Thursdays because two days out of five doesn’t make half-time. So in theory, this can’t work, but in practice it does, because when you have to put in the time, you find a way. It may mean working extra in the evenings or on the weekend, but it works out.
I hate Wednesdays. Really hate them. Wednesdays are hell on a razor blade. But that list of horrible admin tasks that I’ve been putting off since forever—that list is shrinking. When you’ve got all day to work on grunge work, there is only so much time you can spend checking e-mail and reading blogs. At some point, you have to face the list and knock some tasks off it.
This plan is still early, but I rather like it. Four days out of the work week are really fun. One day is wretched. The evil To Do List is shrinking. I have this fantasy that it’ll shrink to zero, and I can do fun stuff on Wednesdays again. Then again, I also have fantasies that I can fly.
What about you? Do you see any ideas here you can use in your own life? Can you bundle things so that each day has only One Main Thing?
Maybe your life isn’t shaped that way. Maybe there’s an irreducible part of your life that has to happen every day.
But maybe there’s a way to focus the fun parts of your life, so they’re vastly more fun, and to focus the unfun parts so they actually get done.
Think about it. It just might work. If it does, that’s a win. If it doesn’t, then you can always revert back to normal with no loss.
3) Craft: Test Driving Grammarly
A couple of weeks ago, one of the folks at Grammarly.com e-mailed me to offer a free test-drive of their tool.
Grammarly is an online tool that lets you check your writing for various writing problems.
I have some friends who use Grammarly, but I didn’t know much about the tool. I thought it would be worth testing. In the worst case, I’d waste a couple of hours and find it useless. In the best case, it would be useful.
So I agreed to do a test-drive, and the Grammarly people set me up with a free account for two weeks.
I’ve done some testing, and this article is a report on the results.
After logging in to my account on the Grammarly Website, I looked around to see what I get. There are several pieces to the tool:
- The main site, where you can paste in a section of text and see results online.
- An extension to the Chrome web browser that lets you use Grammarly when writing anything on the Web—for example in Gmail or on your blog. I didn’t test this.
- An add-in for Microsoft Office that you can use in Word and Outlook on Windows. I write on a Mac, so I couldn’t test this.
All my tests were done directly on the Website by pasting in blocks of text. I normally write in Scrivener, where it’s natural to work with small sections of text.
The Organization Article
In my first test, I pasted in the Organization article from this e-zine.
Within a few seconds, Grammarly had analyzed the text for spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, and style. (These are the default tests you can run. There are others you can turn on manually.)
Grammarly caught a few places where my text had two spaces between words. It also caught some missing commas and made some suggestions on wording choices and other suggestions.
I didn’t take all the suggestions, but I at least considered them.
Then I noticed that you can also turn on a plagiarism checker, so I did that. Grammarly flagged four phrases, ranging in length from 8 to 11 words, with links to articles on the web where these phrases appeared.
Of course, the phrases weren’t plagiarized. But none of them seemed like very fresh writing, either. If I found a lot of these phrases, I’d probably want to buff up the writing. But my opinion is that it’s not necessary to be totally original in every single sentence you write.
Then I saw that there’s also a vocabulary enhancement option, so I turned that on. Grammarly suggested that the word “constantly” is often overused. This may be true, but it seemed to work in the sentence, so I left it unchanged.
Then I noticed that you can set the type of document you’re writing. I set mine to be “Article/blog post”. Grammarly flagged another couple of phrases as “unoriginal text”.
At this point, there were no more tests I could run, and my score for the article stood at 100, so that was the end of it.
My initial reaction at this point was that Grammarly can be quite useful in helping me fix my commas, and it can help me catch other minor issues, such as wording. And it might be useful in catching trite phrases and lazy writing.
Chapter One of a Book
In my second test, I pasted in the first chapter of a book I published last year, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.
As the final stage in writing the book, I hired a professional proofreader (my daughter Carolyn) to review the document. I kept the before-and-after versions of the text, so I thought it would be worth comparing Grammarly’s work with that of a talented human proofreader.
The results were very interesting.
Grammarly flagged some missing commas that Carolyn passed by. Carolyn changed some that Grammarly allowed. I’m no authority on commas, but it seemed to me that they were about even.
Grammarly made a number of suggestions on wording choices. I rejected most of these, but there was one passive phrase that I would probably change if I were editing the book right now.
This particular chapter was short, and neither Carolyn nor Grammarly had very many changes flagged.
I decided to try testing the whole book in Grammarly. I knew that this task took Carolyn about eleven hours. How fast would Grammarly do it?
I clicked the Upload button in Grammarly and selected my original Word document.
A few seconds later, it gave me an error message saying that the file was too big—that it could only accept 20 pages at a time.
That was a disappointment but not a disaster, because I usually write in Scrivener, where it’s normal to keep each scene in a separate chunk of text.
Chapter Two of a Book
I pasted in the second chapter into Grammarly and ran the default set of tests and the plagiarism and vocabulary enhancement tests. This time, things got more interesting.
Grammarly pointed out a number of phrases of “unoriginal text.” Again, these were 8 to 11 words, and my judgment was that none of these were so trite that they needed changing.
Grammarly also pointed out some overused words, such as “actually.” If I were editing this manuscript, I’d probably change a couple of these.
Grammarly also caught a weak adjective and pointed out a word choice that I’d probably change now.
Grammarly suggested that I change the word “coauthor” to “co-author”. Carolyn had allowed this word. As far as I can tell, either is correct.
Grammarly made some suggestions that I rejected. A number of these were in dialogue. For example, Grammarly flagged a very long sentence for “wordiness.” This is correct; the sentence was wildly wordy. But that was intentional. It was a point in the dialogue where my character Goldilocks was confused and nervous, so she started gabbling.
Grammarly also caught an “overused” word that I would delete if I were editing now. It caught a hyphenation error and a spelling error, both of which Carolyn had also found.
Grammarly suggested some changes that were incorrect. In my opinion, every automated system is going to do that. You should never blindly accept the suggestions of any tool. The point of a tool is to catch possible problems so you can think about them. It’s better for the tool to incorrectly flag non-errors than to incorrectly miss actual errors.
Grammarly did miss some actual errors, and it’s worth noting these.
The story has a major character named Goldilocks and another named Baby Bear. At one point, I typed “Baby” instead of “Baby Bear.” At another, I typed “Baby Brother.” Carolyn caught both of these errors. Grammarly missed them both. I’d have been shocked if Grammarly caught them.
In another case, I made a blunder in a sentence of dialogue, leaving out the comma and the word “said”. Carolyn caught this. Grammarly missed it.
First Scene of New Book
As my final test, I loaded in the first scene of a book I’m currently working on. I’ve not yet run this past a human proofreader. Grammarly analyzed it pretty quickly.
As a result of Grammarly’s analysis, I’ve made the following changes:
- I added in a missing comma.
- I changed a passive construction to a more active one.
- I corrected the phrase “any more” to “anymore.” I didn’t know the difference before. Now I do. Grammarly explained it.
- I noticed that “really” is overused, and removed a couple of them.
- I changed a preposition to a better one that Grammarly suggested. I had already been uncomfortable with this sentence, but couldn’t quite think why. Grammarly told me why.
- I corrected “teen-age” to “teenaged”. I didn’t know the hyphen was incorrect.
Grammarly is currently showing me a few other overused words that I still need to tweak.
I’m not a bad proofreader, and I catch most typos myself. But I’m not perfect, so my policy is to hire a proofreader before publishing.
It’s clear to me that Grammarly is no substitute for a human proofreader. (The Grammarly representative made this point to me, also.)
However, Grammarly is clearly catching a substantial fraction of my typos. It’s showing me overused words and none-too-original phrases, which is something I don’t expect my proofreader to do.
My judgment is that Grammarly makes a nice second pair of eyes that will help me deliver a cleaner manuscript to my proofreader.
So my plan is to buy a subscription after my free trial version runs out. I’ll try it in my work for the next few months and then reevaluate to see if it’s worth it to me long-term.
(No, Grammarly isn’t offering me a free permanent subscription or any other incentive. In particular, I have no affiliate arrangement with them. The only thing they’ve given me is a free two week trial run, with no obligation on me to do anything.)
How much does Grammarly cost? The prices are shown here:
Monthly: $29.95 per month
Quarterly: $59.95 per quarter
Annual: $139.95 per year
That’s a bit pricey, probably too much for many authors. It’s a question of how much quality is worth to you. My goal is perfection. I know that’s impossible, but I keep trying anyway.
PS: After writing this article, I checked it with Grammarly. Grammarly flagged 79 issues, of which I chose to fix 11.
4) Marketing: The Golden Trifecta
In mid-April, many of my indie friends were buzzing about a virtual conference, IndieReCon 2015. The program is here.
I was busy that week and didn’t have a chance to go to any of the sessions. Afterward, several of my friends were especially excited about a talk by H.M. Ward, “How to Sell a Bazillion Books!"
H. M. Ward ought to know about selling bazillions. She’s sold close to ten million copies of her books as an indie author. A real powerhouse.
I sometimes hear people saying that indies who make it big are “lucky.” I don’t believe it. Most of the big-shot indie authors I’ve come across have several traits in common:
• Very talented as a writer
• Hard working
• Incredibly smart as a business person
H. M. Ward is all of those. So I listened to her talk, which ran about 90 minutes. If you have a chance, you might want to tune in. I’ve summarized her main points in this article, but there’s nothing like hearing it from the source. A direct link to Holly’s talk is here.
I’ll focus here on Holly’s “golden trifecta”—the three marketing items she says you must have working in order to sell books:
Let’s look at each of those in turn. Some of what follows comes from Holly’s talk, and some is my own commentary on what she said. Since I can’t easily disentangle her ideas from mine, just assume that all the good ideas are hers and all the others are mine.
People often say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but everyone does. It’s a visual representation of your story.
Holly compares a cover to a “stop sign”—in the following sense. When you see a stop sign, you don’t have to read it to know what it says. The shape and the color and the height above the road all tell you in an instant to stop. Even if somebody painted over a stop sign with the word “Go” you’d still stop. You’ve been trained.
Covers are like that. A cover should tell you right away two things:
The genre is the category of the book. Amish sweet romances have one look. New adult novels have an entirely different look. You want your book cover to have a look appropriate to your category.
The tone tells you a bit more about the book. Within its category, what is its particular emotional focus? What is the story about?
A good way to learn how this works is to choose a category you’re interested in. Go to the best-seller list for that category on Amazon and look at the covers for the Top 100. You’ll see the patterns very quickly.
There’s room for variation, of course. Some categories allow more variation than others.
If your book isn’t selling, Holly recommends that you take a hard look at your cover. Is it clearly telling the category? Can you guess the tone of the story?
As an exercise, take a look at one of the many Facebook groups that allow authors to promote their books. Look at each cover and guess the genre and the tone. Then click through to Amazon and read the story description and the sample chapters. Is the story paying off on the promise made by the cover?
The second element of Holly’s golden trifecta is the blurb. This is the book description that the online retailers show.
Holly compares the blurb to the query letter that you’d have used to get the interest of an agent. The purpose of a query letter is to hook the agent’s interest so he asks to see your proposal.
The purpose of a blurb is to hook the reader’s interest so she reads the sample chapters. As Holly emphasizes, this is a tease, not a summary.
When a reader comes to the sales page for a book, the first thing she wants to know is what kind of book it is. So in your blurb, use terms that are typical in your genre. Yes, this means you’re going to use a few of the standard cliches. You will also show some originality. You need to strike a balance.
Holly suggests that you ask yourself what’s the most awesome element of your book and focus your blurb around that. That sounds like a brilliant idea to me.
You learn to write blurbs by writing them. And also by reading them. Check out the best-seller list in your category on Amazon. Read the blurbs of the Top 100 books. It’ll take awhile. Which ones resonate with you? Why? What genre-specific terms can you use on your own blurb?
When writing blurbs, remember that people skim, they don’t read. So keep your paragraphs short. And if your blurb is wrong, fix it. Now.
The online retailers let readers see the first few pages of the book online. This is an amazing feature. It lets people try before they buy.
Use this sample well! Make sure the beginning of the book sings. You don’t have much time to capture your reader’s attention.
Holly suggests three things that can grab your reader’s heart:
I’m sure there are others that will work, but these should be high on anybody’s list. Can you start the story in conflict—with two characters at odds with each other? Or can you start it in a high-action sequence that gets your reader’s blood flowing? Or can you tap into some powerful emotion that makes your reader empathize with your character?
The first sentence sells your first paragraph. The first paragraph sells the first page. The first page sells the first chapter. The first chapter sells the book. The book sells the next book.
Thoughts For You
If you have control of the marketing of your books, take a look at the online sales page of your worst-selling book.
• Does the cover instantly tell your category and tone?
• Does your blurb have a powerful hook and use genre-specific terms?
• Does your first chapter sing?
If something isn’t working and you have the power to change it, do so. That’s how the big gun authors sell bazillions of copies.
Let’s be clear that not all writers will be huge sellers. But some will be. You increase your odds by doing what the successful authors do.
5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com
April has been a month of catching up on admin stuff for me. Taxes and organization—stuff I hate. I’m taking a break from editing my current novel while my subconscious stews for a bit. I’ve started writing a new book on how to self-edit a novel manuscript, and it’s coming along nicely.
I normally teach at four to six writing conferences per year. In 2015, I’m currently scheduled to teach at only three conferences. I’ve turned down several invitations to speak this year because I’m planning a major research trip to Israel, where I’ll be working on a couple of archaeological digs. That will be a fantastic adventure, but it’s going to suck a lot of time out of my calendar for the year.
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:
- August: Oregon Christian Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be teaching a major track on how to be an insanely great indie author. A few details here.
- 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.
7) What Randy is Reading
You might be interested in some of the books I’ve been reading recently. Then again, you might think some of them are terribly dull, since I’ve been reading a lot of research books lately.
As always, I’m omitting books I started and didn’t finish. I’m also omitting books that were horrible but I read anyway. (There are certain aspects of the craft of writing that you can only learn by reading really wretched fiction and asking yourself what makes it so bad.)
Here are the ones worth reporting from April:
Trial Run, by Thomas Locke. This is a novel about quantum computing and out-of-body experiences, with a dash of spy-craft thrown in. This book is not available in stores yet. The author is a friend of mine who writes epic fantasy and techno-thrillers, and he asked me to read it for endorsement. A research team in Switzerland has developed a scientific method of astral projection. Naturally, the bad guys are interested in getting the technology, and all hell breaks loose. The book has a very large cast of characters, and the plot has wheels within wheels.
Simply Good News, by N.T. Wright. This is a research book for the series of novels I’m currently writing about Jesus of Nazareth, the real Most Interesting Man In The World. A “gospel” is supposedly “good news.” In what sense is the story of Jesus “good news” (as opposed to “moral advice” or “fire insurance” or “a fairy tale”?) “Wright is a well-known New Testament scholar who has the bad manners to write clearly and sensibly. Naturally, lots of people hate him.
Disarming Scripture, by Derek Flood. This is yet another research book for my current series of novels. Why is the Bible so full of violence? Does God have some serious anger issues? If so, why? If not, what’s all this about killing Canaanites? And what about that brimstone thing? Was Jesus just kidding about loving your enemies? Derek Flood isn’t afraid to ask questions that would have sent your Sunday School teacher screaming. If you didn’t like your Sunday School teacher, you might like Derek.
The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns. Another research book for me. Peter Enns is a theologian, and this book deals with the fundamental question of how to read the Bible and make sense out of the most disturbing parts of it. Dr. Enns warms up on that pesky problem of the Canaanite slaughter and accelerates from there. If the Bible has never disturbed you, you’ll probably hate this book. But if it has, you might just love this book.
That’s all. One novel and three research books. A bit below par, but there’s a simple reason. The novel was in PDF format and I read it on my iPad. The small print was tough on my eyes and forced me to read a lot slower than normal. Lesson learned—next time, I’ll just convert it to Kindle format so I can expand the type to a more readable size.
8) Steal This E-zine!
This E-zine is free, and I personally guarantee it's worth at least 365 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 12,000 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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