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: February 5, 2015
Issue: Volume 11, Number 2
Personal Site: www.Ingermanson.com
 
Circulation: 11,313 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: Whitespace in Your Life
3) Craft: Viewpoint, Characters, and Protagonists
4) Marketing: Comments on Author Earnings
5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com 
6) Randy Recommends . . .
7) What Randy is Reading
8) Randy's Deal of the Day
9) Steal This E-zine! 
10) Reprint Rights
 
 

1) Welcome to the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine!

Those of you who have joined in the past month (416 of you signed up in January), 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: Whitespace in Your Life

Picture this scenario: You go to the refrigerator to get a jug of milk. Should be simple, right? What could go wrong?

 

The refrigerator is packed. The milk is right there in front on the top shelf, wedged in between a pint of cottage cheese and some bottles of apple juice.

 

You’re holding a glass in one hand and you reach up with the other to grab the milk. 

 

It’s wedged in tight. You jiggle it a little bit and realize that you really need to put down the glass and use both hands to unpack things.

 

You reach to put the glass down and … one of the juice bottles pops off the shelf. You make a mad grab for it. It slips away from you. You try again. It bounces off the vegetable bin. You try again. It smashes onto the tile floor.

 

Glass and juice puddle all over the floor and now you’ve got a mess that must be cleaned up right away.

 

What went wrong here?

 

You got careless. It’s probably appropriate to yell at yourself for being careless.

 

But your carelessness mattered because you were trying to do a task with no margin for error.

 

Had there been a little margin in the packing on the shelf, your small error wouldn’t have caused a major mess.

 

Margins matter. Books have a margin that makes them more readable and nice to look at. And the outer margin of a printed book helps protect again errors in cutting the paper. 

 

Another word for margins is whitespace. Your books need whitespace.

 

So does your life.

 

A little whitespace on the refrigerator shelf makes it much easier to take things out. It also makes it easier to find things in the back of the shelf.

 

When you think about whitespace in your life, you can see all kinds of places where it’s crucial. Not just your physical space, but also your time, your money, and your energy.

 

When your schedule is so packed that you have absolutely no extra time in your life, an unplanned trip to the mechanic can have ripple effects that wreck your day, then your week, and then your month. Your schedule needs whitespace.

 

When your financial situation is so precarious that you’ve maxed out your credit cards, that unplanned trip to the mechanic can leave you without a car and without a way to pay for repairs. Your finances need whitespace.

 

When you’re so exhausted that you can barely drag out of bed in the morning or do your duties, an unplanned bout with a cold virus can knock you out. Your energy level needs whitespace.

 

Your life needs whitespace. So does mine. So does everybody’s.

 

Knowing that you need whitespace won’t magically make it appear. There isn’t any whitespace wand you can wave. 

 

The concept of whitespace is just a mirror you can use to help you see when you have a potential problem that could come crashing down on you.

 

The first step in solving a problem is knowing it’s there.

 

Right now, my office needs some whitespace. The stack of stuff on the floor in the corner keeps growing. It doesn’t keep me from closing the door. Not yet, anyway. But it’s a warning signal. By admitting to myself that my office floor needs whitespace, I have a real chance at solving the problem.

 

And what about you? What area in your life has the least whitespace right now? How bad is it? What small error could make things go massively wrong?

 

 

3) Craft: Viewpoint, Characters, and Protagonists

It never hurts to go back to fundamentals. In football, that would be things like blocking and tackling and running and throwing and catching.

 

In writing, one of the fundamentals is your cast of characters. This seems like a simple topic, but there are some nuances to it. Let’s get to them.

 

This column was partly motivated by a recent comment on my blog and partly by a question that was emailed to me.

 

In my blog awhile back, I answered the question of whether you should have multiple protagonists. The short answer is that it’s not a good idea, because your reader wants to know whom to root for in the story. (Or whom to root against, if the protagonist is on some evil mission.)

 

I define the protagonist to be the character that your story is mainly about. In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, that would be Frodo. The story is about his quest to destroy the ring of power. The story has many other characters, and some of them have their own storylines, but the main story is Frodo’s.

 

Now it’s possible to have more than one protagonist in a story. In Ken Follett’s long novel THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, the protagonist shifts from Tom Builder to his stepson Jack over the course of the story. 

 

The novel covers about 50 years in English history. Early on, Tom Builder has a dream to build a cathedral. Over the years, he gets the opportunity to build one and begins work and overcomes many obstacles. But time passes and eventually the responsibility for the cathedral shifts to his stepson Jack, who completes the task. 

 

The story is about building the cathedral. So the protagonist is whoever has charge of building it.

 

Most novels cover much less time than THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, and one protagonist is enough.

 

One of my blog readers took me to task for this, saying that novels with “multiple perspectives” are common.

 

This is true, but it’s not relevant. Most novels have many viewpoint characters, but a viewpoint character is not the same as a protagonist.

 

Let’s define a “viewpoint character.” In any scene, the most common strategy is to put the reader inside the head of a single character for the duration of the scene. You show what that character is thinking and feeling, and you show whatever that character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch. But you do that for only one character in any given scene. The only time you switch to a new viewpoint character is when you switch to a new scene. And you have the option to stay with that same viewpoint character in the next scene.

 

You can make this strategy work using either a third-person or a first-person point of view. In either case, you are going into the head of a single character per scene, the “viewpoint character.” Over the course of a novel, you can have many viewpoint characters, or you can keep it to one. Your choice. 

 

As I said, that’s the most common strategy, but it’s not the only possible strategy. There are several others:

  • Omniscient viewpoint: In this strategy, you adopt a God-like point of view in which you can show the reader what any of the characters are thinking or feeling. You can show the reader things that none of the characters know. You can show anything. This was more common in the 19th century, but it is still used occasionally today. It takes some serious skill to do this well, but it can be done.
  • Head-hopping viewpoint: In this strategy, you switch viewpoint characters mid-scene, sometimes numerous times. There are readers who like this and editors who like this, but most writers frown on it. The problem is that it can jar the reader. I’m not dead set against this, but I’d say that it takes some careful work to do it well. I’ve never used this strategy.
  • Objective third-person viewpoint: In this strategy, you have a “focal character” in your scene, but you never get inside his head. Instead, you try to show what he’s thinking and feeling by his actions and facial expressions. You are doing exactly what a movie director is doing when the camera fixes on one actor. Again, this is hard to do well, but it can be done very effectively.

Now that I’ve defined a viewpoint character and a protagonist, it should be clear that you can have many viewpoint characters in a novel who aren’t the protagonist. 

 

In fact, it’s even possible to have a protagonist who isn’t a viewpoint character at all. Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories are told from the point of view of Dr. Watson. The entire story is told from inside Watson’s head. He’s the only viewpoint character. Holmes is the protagonist. The story is about him solving the case. But Holmes is not a viewpoint character.

 

You can also write a story without ANY viewpoint characters, if you write all your scenes using the objective third-person viewpoint. 

 

To recap: 

  • A viewpoint character is any person whose head you get inside for at least one scene in your story. 
  • The protagonist is the person that the story is mainly about.

They’re different things.

 

I had a recent e-mail that bears on this issue, and it’s worth answering here. The question was this:

 

“Is it always better to tell a story from one viewpoint? i.e. The main character. Would it work if the main character is a team or a group of people?”

 

As you can see, there’s some confusion here about definitions. A viewpoint character is not the same thing as the main character. A story can have many viewpoint characters. But almost always, a story has only one main character (one protagonist).

 

Now you might ask, why can’t an author make a group of people the main character?

 

The answer is that you can do anything you want. You have all power when writing your story. You are the God of your story universe. Enjoy your omnipotence and your omniscience. But you know the drill about great power/great responsibility, right?

 

The real issue is how well it’s going to work. I take it as an axiom that the purpose of fiction is to give your reader what I call a Powerful Emotional Experience.

 

What I mean by that is two things:

  • You give your reader the experience of being somebody else, of vicariously living their life. (Most often by putting the reader inside the skin of a viewpoint character in each scene.)
  • You give your reader some purpose which must be achieved. (Most often by giving the reader one protagonist to cheer on.)

So if you want to make a group the protagonist, then that should be because the group has a single, very tightly focused purpose. That’s not common, but it can happen for short periods of time. (For example, a small group of commandos on a raid.)

 

The question to ask is whether that’s going to work better than focusing on one member of the group as the sole protagonist. It’s easier for a reader to identify with one person than with a group. (Because a reader IS one person, not a group.)

 

I’ll repeat here one thing that I’ve said many times over the years. 

 

The so-called “rules” of fiction are just rules of thumb. People use them because they usually work pretty well. But the great majority of the “rules” can be violated.

 

My philosophy is simple. If the story works better by violating a “rule,” then violate it. Otherwise, don’t. 

 

The “rules” are there to guide you toward a story that works better. A story that gives your reader the best possible Powerful Emotional Experience.

 

 

4) Marketing: Comments on Author Earnings

The new report from AuthorEarnings.com is now out and it’s worth reading. 

 

If you’re not familiar with AuthorEarnings, it’s a web site run by best-selling indie author Hugh Howey and an anonymous techie guy known as “Data Guy,” who is also an indie author. The purpose of the web site is to give out information on how much authors earn.

 

The reason this information is valuable is because good information helps you make good decisions. 

 

Data Guy has a “spider” program that can crawl through the pages on Amazon, collecting data on the e-book best-seller lists in each category: The publisher, the selling price, the sales rank, the position on the category best-seller list, and anything else on the page for each book.

 

The Amazon sales rank is interesting, but the real question is what that corresponds to in unit sales and in dollars earned.

 

Even Amazon can’t tell you that exactly, because it changes all the time. The problem is that a sales rank tells you the performance of a book relative to all the other books. The number of books sold varies each day, so there is no way to exactly correlate a sales rank to the number of units sold.

 

However, we don’t need an exact correlation. Many indie authors record their sales rank each day and also their number of unit sales. If you have enough authors doing this for enough days, you can get a reasonably accurate chart that tells you roughly how many units you need to sell in a day to get a certain ranking.

 

With that chart, Data Guy’s spider can be used to create a giant database of thousands of books and their estimated sales on any given day. (This takes a lot of computing power, which is expensive, so it’s not something you’d want to do every day.)

 

As of now, the AuthorEarnings web site has detailed snapshots of five different days on Amazon (roughly once per quarter). It also has one snapshot from B&N. 

 

The results have been pretty consistent. Of e-book sales on the best-seller lists, e-books published by Big Five publishers account for about a third of all units sold. Indie e-books account for about another third. The remainder are e-books published by Amazon or by small/medium size publishers or by single-author publishers who might or might not be indie (it’s hard to tell).

 

This is an important result, and in my opinion there should be no controversy over it. I’m a computational physicist, so I have plenty of expertise in analyzing data. My view is that Data Guy is doing the right things with his data.

 

Yes, there is some fuzziness in correlating sales rank to units sold, but that fuzziness applies equally to all books. As you average over more and more books, the fuzziness tends to get smaller. AuthorEarnings is averaging over 120,000 books chosen from the category best-seller lists.

 

Since the sale price of each book is known, you can also estimate how much revenue is earned by the publisher. You have to know what fraction of the sale price goes to the publisher. For indies (who act as their own publisher), this is either 70% or 35%, depending on the price of the book. For traditional publishers, it depends on whether they have an agency agreement or a wholesale agreement, but the typical range is 50% to 70%.

 

The results of the revenue calculations have also been pretty consistent. About half of the gross revenue of books sold is going to the Big Five publishers (who of course pay some of that to their authors). About a fifth of the gross revenue goes to indie authors.

 

The big question is how much of the revenue that goes to publishers filters through to their authors. That is not very clear, for several reasons:

  1. Royalties on different print books vary quite a bit. 
  2. Some publishers pay royalties for print books based on the list price and some pay based on the net income. 
  3. Hardcovers, trade paperbacks, mass-market paperbacks, and e-books have different typical royalty rates. 
  4. Many traditionally-published books don’t earn out their advance, which means that the effective royalty rate paid is higher than the contractual royalty rate. (A point that industry pundit Mike Shatzkin has made numerous times on his blog in recent months.)

The current wisdom is that most e-books contracted by Big Five publishers have a 25% royalty rate on net income. Some major authors are said to get a higher royalty rate, but almost nobody is willing to talk about this on the record. And some publishers pay less than 25% on e-books.

 

If you assume that 25% of the Big Five publisher e-book revenue is going to their authors, then it’s possible to estimate roughly how much total e-book money is going to Big Five authors as compared to indie authors. 

 

Under that assumption, the total revenue going to indie authors for e-book sales is slightly more than the total revenue going to Big Five authors for e-book sales.

 

This is a controversial result, for a couple of reasons.

 

For one thing, Big Five authors earn much more than indies in sales of paper books, so a comparison of e-book revenue is not the whole story.

 

For another, Big Five authors are often not earning out their advances, so their real earnings per book are higher than what you’d compute from their royalty rates. It’s hard to get hard data on how many books don’t earn out their advances. Most editors and agents I’ve talked to over the years have given me off-the-record estimates that range from 60% to 90%. And that agrees with my own experience—most of my traditionally published books have failed to earn out their advances.  

 

Mike Shatzkin had a recent blog post (January 29, 2015) at http://www.idealog.com in which he said that three different publishers have told him their “effective royalty rates”—the actual percentage of book revenue that goes to authors. The three numbers quoted were 36%, 40%, and 42%. 

 

Shatzkin claims that this fact “dooms Hugh Howey’s ‘Author Earnings’ report to irrelevance.” 

 

My own view is that Shatzkin is overstating his case here. If the numbers the publishers gave him are correct, then the e-book revenue going to Big Five authors is higher than Author Earnings estimated, but not radically higher. And it can be estimated.

 

Data Guy reran his numbers using an estimate of 40% e-book royalties on Big Five e-books instead of 25%. This boosted the share that Big Five authors earn to be a bit more than the share earned by indie authors. 

 

But the fact remains that indies as a group are doing pretty well.

 

That doesn’t mean that every indie is doing well. It means that a reasonable fraction of indie authors are doing well, as compared to the fraction of authors doing well in traditional publishing.

 

Let’s be clear that the great majority of indie authors don’t earn much. Everybody agrees on this. But the great majority of writers pursuing traditional publishing earn nothing at all because they never get published traditionally. They either give up or eventually go indie. Everybody agrees on this too. A visit to almost any writing conference will confirm this.

 

In either group, the number of big winners is quite small. That’s just the nature of the publishing industry.

 

There’s a lot more to be said about how much authors earn, and you’ll find loads of interesting data on the AuthorEarnings.com web site. Check it out and read the comments and form your own opinion.

 

The publishing industry is notorious for having very little public data. Many people think this is a good thing. Over the years, I’ve heard plenty of editors and agents warn authors not to compare notes on earnings, because it just leads to envy. 

 

But the result has been that most authors think, “Everybody else is doing vastly better than I am.” I know because I’ve talked to a lot of authors. Feelings of inferiority are incredibly common. That’s just as damaging as envy. 

 

My opinion is that information is better than ignorance. 

 

My opinion is that AuthorEarnings has the best publicly available information. It’s incomplete and it’s only an approximation to reality. But it’s better than the information from anywhere else.

 

One final note: I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all approach for authors. I have many author friends who are best off working with traditional publishers. I have many who are best off being indie. And some of them are best off with a hybrid arrangement. 

 

Choose the approach that works best for you, based on the best information you can find.

 

Personally, I prefer the indie route. My indie earnings in 2014 were quite a lot higher than my best year ever when I worked with traditional publishers. And I think 2015 will be substantially better. 

 

I like being an entrepreneur. Not everyone does. The important thing is to know your options so you can choose what’s best for you.

 

 

5) What's New At AdvancedFictionWriting.com

Writing Schedule

 

January has been a month of editing and travel for me. I took two trips out of town and worked on revisions on the first in a series of novels about one of the most influential humans ever to walk the planet—Jesus of Nazareth. Is there anything new to say about this mysterious man? Oh, Lordy, Lordy, yes. Stay tuned…

 

Teaching Schedule

I normally teach at four to six writing conferences per year. In 2015, I’m currently scheduled to attend four conferences, though I won’t be teaching at all of them. 

 

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 2015:

  • March 27-31: Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference near Santa Cruz, California. I’ll be teaching two workshops on indie authoring. Details here.
  • August: Oregon Christian Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. I’ll be teaching a major track on being an indie author. Details soon.
  • 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.
  • October: Novelists, Inc. Conference in St. Pete's Beach, Florida. I will not be teaching. I’ll be learning. This is a conference for professional novelists only, and it’s outstanding. And it’s on the beach, so it’s a place to suffer for your art.  Details here.

If you'd like me to teach at your conference in 2015 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 travel.

 

If you'd just like to hear me teach, I have a number of recordings and e-books that are outrageously cheap. Details on the products page of my web site.
 

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’m still reading a lot of research books.  

 

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 January:

 

Edge of Eternity, by Ken Follett. This is Book 3 in the Century Trilogy, an incredibly ambitious series that covers most of the 20th century—from World War I up through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. This book covers the Cold War, the Kennedy era, the civil rights movement, Watergate, and the Reagan era through the eyes of the next generation in each of five families—one from Wales, England, Russia, Germany, and the US. I was only 4 when JFK was assassinated, and I was 9 when MLK and RFK were, so it was interesting to get some context on the sixties.

 

Clutter Free, by Kathi Lipp. Kathi is a friend of mine and she writes better-living books targeted at Christian women. Clutter has been an ongoing problem in my life since approximately forever. My office is a mess right now, so when Kathi told me about her book, I had to get it. I hope to see results when I start applying her ideas. (January has been travel month and tax accounting month for me, so it wasn’t a great time for me to take on anything new.)

 

The Powers That Be, by Walter Wink. This was a research book for me. It’s a summary of three famous books that Walter Wink wrote on the “principalities and powers” mentioned in the New Testament. What are these spooky “powers” and how can any self-respecting person in the 21st century believe in such things? Walter Wink wrestled with these questions and found an answer that makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t think it’s the whole answer, but I’d say he’s given a big part of it.

 

How God Became King, by N.T. Wright. This is yet another research book for me. Wright’s main thesis is that the New Testament gospels are each the story of how God became king. And what is that supposed to mean? It would take a whole book to explain. Wright’s book is probably the minimal book required for the task. If you’ve ever wondered what is the point of all those stories about water into wine and walking on water and healing lepers, this book is a good start at explaining it.

 

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, by Kenneth E. Bailey. Still more research for me. Dr. Bailey spent six decades living in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem, and Cyprus. He’s applied what he knows about middle eastern culture to the stories about Jesus found in the gospels. And he includes comments by the great medieval and modern Christian scholars who wrote in Arabic. Context is important, and this book explains many of the questions that come up when a westerner reads the gospels. One of the strangest parables Jesus told was of an embezzling servant whose master commended him for his theft. Huh? What’s up with that? There’s a simple explanation that makes good sense to me.

 

That’s all for January. One novel, one self-help, and three nonfiction research books. Next month, I need to read some more fiction.

 

 

8) Randy's Deal of the Day

In recent months, I’ve been offering a special “Deal of the Day” for one of my books.

 

This month I’m running a deal on my e-book The Fifth Man. It’s on sale for only 99 cents. This deal ends Sunday night, February 8, at midnight, Pacific Time. 

 

Valkerie Jansen’s dream all her life has been to go to Mars to search for evidence of life. Now she’s there. Now she’s found a real Martian fossil. Now her whole life is coming unglued.

 

The two men on the mission can’t seem to get it through their heads that Valkerie is not the prize in some macho competition. 

 

Valkerie starts seeing things that nobody else can see. Evidence that the four astronauts are not alone on Mars. Evidence that an intelligent entity has come along for the ride. Evidence that this entity wants to kill her.

 

When Valkerie gets infected with a strange illness that doesn’t come from planet earth, NASA has to ask some hard questions. Has Valkerie gone loony? Is her mysterious “fifth man” a figment of her fever-addled brain? And is it safe to bring the astronauts home and expose planet earth to this mysterious Martian disease?

 

The Fifth Man is a fast-paced science fiction suspense novel, first published in 2002. My co-author, John. B. Olson, holds a PhD in biochemistry. My PhD is in physics. We had fun writing this book, which is a sequel to our novel Oxygen.

 

Find the e-book on Amazon: 99 cents   

Find the e-book on iBooks: 99 cents  

Find the e-book on B&N: 99 cents   

Find the e-book on Smashwords: 99 cents    

 

Usual caveats: The 99 cent price ends Sunday evening, February 8, at midnight Pacific Time. Online retailers outside the US may sell the book in local currencies, and the price may not be exactly 99 cents. 

 

 

9) Steal This E-zine!

 
This E-zine is free, and I personally guarantee it's worth at least 1.61803 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.
 
At the moment, there is one place to subscribe: www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com
 
 

10) 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 11,000 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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