5 questions to ask yourself when writing your novel.

I’m sure a lot of people are plunging into novel-writing… it’s January, after all.  Resolution season.  “This is the year I (finish the novel, start the novel, write another novel)…”

You get the picture.

This often also leads to pulling out whatever notes they might have, opening up a document, and diving in, whether that’s outlining or leaping into the draft itself.

But whether you’re plotting beforehand or doing a discovery draft, you might find yourself getting stuck. 

Here are five questions that can help give you some traction and forward momentum — and, if nothing else, will test the underlying bones of your novel.

Note:  because I primarily work with genre fiction, and because it’s my first passion, these questions apply to traditional three-act structured genre novels.

1.  What does your protagonist want?

This is a test for goal.

If your protagonist doesn’t want something, but is simply bouncing off of events and external characters’ actions like a pinball, then you may have a lot of episodes, but you’re going to have trouble creating a through-line.  Readers want protagonists with a clear, urgent desire, even if they don’t agree with the goal.  If you can’t tell me what your protagonist wants, then you’re going to wind up stuck somewhere around the middle of your novel.

You want the goal to be something tangible.  This is the external goal, the story driver.  So to clarify even further, a secondary question would be:  how will your protagonist know when he/she has it?

2.  What happens if your protagonist doesn’t get what he/she wants?

This is a test for motivation and stakes.

If your protagonist “will be unhappy” or “feel disappointed,” then your goal isn’t strong enough.  You want the protagonist to have a clear consequence if the goal isn’t achieved.  It will be more than just upsetting.  It needs to create a problem of some sort.  Preferably with a clear pain attached.

As a secondary check, you might see if the pain can be escalated.  If the protagonist is going for a job, say, the consequence may be that if he doesn’t get the job, he won’t be able to afford the house his family needs.  It can then be escalated if he loses his current job, or if his wife threatens to leave him if he doesn’t get it, or they lose their current housing.  Check for the possibilities of making the stakes higher and the motivation stronger.

3.  What’s standing in his/her way?

This is a test for conflict.

If your conflict is “he’s not sure if he really wants it” or “she keeps getting distracted” then you don’t have conflict, and your motivation is weak.  A character who is truly driven towards a goal won’t waffle about it, which means you’ve got to throw some fairly solid, and escalating, conflict in the way or you’re going to have a very short and unsatisfying novel.

Using the above example, escalating conflict is more than just “he has to go on a series of interviews” with more interviews being added.  It can be his car being repossessed, which makes getting to the job site more difficult.  It can be the introduction of an antagonist, a rival for the job.  It can be a “final jeopardy” interview which requires him to sell a million dollars worth of widgets in a one-week period.  It can mean moving to Antarctica (and away from his family/new house) for a year.  Again, think in terms of “how can I make this worse?”

4.  How is your protagonist different at the end of the book?

This is a test for story arc.  To be a true protagonist, your character needs to develop as a result of facing the challenges of the novel.  If you’re wondering about “how should I end this story?” this question is usually the key to the resolution.

This means more than “your protagonist has faced the challenge and won.”  He or she needs to have grown, in a visible way.

5.  Why does your reader care?

Note that I didn’t say “the reader.”  This is your Right Reader.  I get clients who ask “but don’t readers want more action?  More suspense?  A likeable protagonist?”  The result is usually a hodge-podge of humor, thrilling chases or superfluous murder, with a pandering “he may be a bastard, but he rescues puppies” scene shoehorned in.

Don’t do that.

Look at your character.  Will your audience understand his/her goal, and the motivation behind it?  Will they be able to relate, even if it isn’t a goal they’d particularly want?  Is your character compelling enough to keep the reader along for the ride?  Characters don’t have to be “likable.”  They can’t be boring, though.  Avoid generic.

Pull out these questions whenever you get off track.

Nine times out of ten, when I’m working with an author who is stuck, it’s because they’ve strayed from one or more of the above five questions.  Just asking themselves these questions usually gets them unstuck in a hurry.

Last ten days for editing special.

I’m running my editing special for the month of January.  It’s the only one I run all year.  If you need someone to look through your novel and help you with the structure, flow, and characterization, then now’s the perfect time.  If your novel’s not quite ready, you can reserve the rate for use on any single 500 page or less project through 2014.  Click here for more details.

Daylight’s burning, peeps.  Let’s write some stories. 🙂

Should you use profanity in your novels?

dingdangStrangely, I often see the question “is it okay if I curse in my novels?”

The easy answer is:  it depends.

It depends on the genre.  If you’re writing a mystery-thriller or something with a bunch of Navy Seals in it, cursing probably seems pretty natural.  If you’re writing a Christian romance or a children’s picture book, not so much.

It also depends on the publisher.  Some publishers will balk at pushing past a PG-13 rating, for example.  When I was writing for Harlequin Blaze, they were comfortable with the level of cursing that you’d find on primetime television, but tended to shy away from the word “fuck.”  That said, they had absolutely no problem using the “c” word… the boy c-word, anyway.  They were less enthusiastic about the girl c-word.

(And if you have no idea what either of them are, I’m not typing them.  I had a hard time using them when I was writing erotica, and I try to avoid them since I stopped.)

Bottom line, look at what’s most authentic for your characters and your story, and go for it.  Or don’t.  Whatever fits your novel and your voice.

The harder response:  why are you worried?

The thing that always strikes me about people asking “is it okay…?” is the hesitancy involved.  If someone asks if it’s okay to curse in their writing, the underlying question seems to be:  “will this prevent me from getting published?  Will this somehow stop me from making money?  Will people hate me or judge me if I do this?”

So let’s answer those instead.

Will profanity prevent me from getting published?

Yes.  From certain publishers, anyway.

But honestly — if you feel strongly about your characters or your voice, those are the wrong publishers for you.  It’s better to know that up front, rather than continually curb and second-guess your writing.  If you do, you’ll only dilute it to the point where you offer nothing fresh and original, and you’ll be dropped from their roster for not being able to grow a readership.

Will this somehow stop me from making money?

Yes — from certain readers who will read the profanity, become aghast, and then quickly demand a refund.

But again, if you feel strongly about your characters and your voice, they’re the wrong readers.  You want readers that feel strongly about you one way or the other.  Those that hate you will stop reading.  Those that stick around will love you, because you take chances, you’re authentic, and you’re willing to polarize a bit.  Taking a stand can be controversial, even for something as trivial as a bit of cursing.

Will I be hated and judged?


In fact, in my opinion, you should be.  Not for using for profanity, necessarily.  Just in general.

If you’re not doing something visible enough, and authentic enough, that people can’t take a stand for or against it, then you’re probably not doing anything remarkable — and you’re not doing anything that’s going to develop an authentic Right Reader following.

That doesn’t mean you need to be a trash-talking gangster.  People hate Debbie Macomber and she is one of the sweetest women I’ve ever met.  They hate her sweetness:  her focus on the positive; her small-town, folksy, charming romances.  Hell, people hate the romance genre in general — they just focus on her in particular.

But she knows her audience, she knows herself, and she takes a stand.  That takes bravery.

Profanity is my “red velvet rope.”

If you’ve read any of the Rock Your Writing series of ebooks, you’ll probably notice that there’s a sprinkling of cursing here and there.

If a reader is looking for an academic treatise, the first use of “hell” usually tips them off:  whoa, this isn’t that kind of a book.

In my fiction, I tend to go a bit further.  This isn’t because I curse like a sailor in real life. (I will admit, I probably curse more in my fiction because I try not to let the odd blue word fly in front of my seven-year-old son.  My novels are a bit of a pressure relief valve!)  It does fit with the characters, in my opinion, especially for my novel Temping is Hell.  The character is… well, flawed.  (The “patron saint of fuck ups” is her own term for it.)  But a lot of the humor for that book, and the series, reflects a certain impropriety.

What I’ve noticed is, people who dislike profanity really, really don’t like the situations my characters tend to get themselves in, and they tend to hate my humor. So I cull the herd right from the jump with a few deliberate curses.  The people who are okay with a bit of strong language are more likely to enjoy the novel, so it works both ways.

You only need to keep your ideal readers happy.

As I’ve mentioned previously, trying to please everyone means ultimately pleasing no one.  Focusing on one niche of “Right Readers” won’t necessarily alienate everyone else, but it will give those Right Readers fuel to generate word of mouth.

It’s hard to be enthusiastic about something wishy-washy.

Long story short: should you use profanity?

As long as you’ve made a conscious choice…  why the hell not? 🙂


Promotion & Permaculture

A while ago, I mentioned in a post about target audiences and using myself and my December novel as a guinea pig.  It’s August… which in publishing terms means December is more than right around the corner, it’s breathing down my neck.  So that means promo gets in gear.

Do all the things!”

The problem I have seen with many promotional theories — even my own, back in the day — is that they assume you can’t miss anything, so you should somehow try everything.  That usually means getting on every type of social media there is (twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google Plus, Pinterest, Linked In, whatever) and then constantly streaming stuff about your book and yourself.

What’s more, there tends to be too many tactics.  You’re expected to set up a blog tour, send out review copies, write guest posts, comment on book blogs, keep up with Goodreads, work your social media, set up local signings, order and send out promo items, and maintain an author blog on your own website.

While writing.

And, presumably, maintaining the rest of your life — namely, your family, your day job, your social obligations, and your own self-care, which tends to come in last on the list.

Promotion burnout.

The main complaint I have heard from other authors:  they are overwhelmed, unsure of where to go, and exhausted from trying to do everything.

What’s more, most aren’t even sure the tactics work, and if they are working, they have no proof and no sense of connection between activities and results.  This is where the “I write the best book possible and hope for the best” tribe tends to spring from.

That said, if you haven’t been doing all the things, and you’ve got a book launch around the corner… what’s an author to do?

Slow approach to promotion.

It’s often said that the best time to “build your platform” is long before your book is published, and with a continual, steady effort.  I can agree with this, although part of it, for me, is a mind-set thing.  There’s a difference between getting in contact with your community and making genuine connections, and acting like a Mafia don, doling out favors that you fully intend on recouping later.

In a “bestseller” world, the key is traction.  You want to sell not only a lot of copies, but you want them to sell in a short time frame.  Booksellers look for traction to see if a book is worth re-ordering or pushing. From a digital standpoint, traction tends to nudge the algorithms that “suggest” books to buyers.

When it comes to print books, traction is more important because after a certain time frame, you either justify taking up space on the shelf, or you don’t.  In digital, while you may languish in obscurity, you won’t get kicked out.  There’s time to grow.

How I think this would work:

  • Lower the goal.  Set a lower sales goal… but at the same time, actually set one.  Or maybe a different metric.  Reviews.  Subscribers.  Something measurable.
  • Widen the time frame.  Most launches seem to live or die in the first four weeks.  If you don’t make it in that first month, your publisher’s on to the next (unless you’re self-published.)  Set a lower goal, with a wider time frame.
  • Tighten the focus.  Most promotion efforts and tips I’ve seen want to target the greatest number of potential readers.  I am wondering if a smaller but more focused group is a better idea.  (This is going to be the bulk of the experiment, I think.)
  • Track the results.  It’s impossible to see if your promo efforts directly result in sales unless you’re generating sales directly from your site, or something.  Which is why those other metrics, especially subscribers, might be a better way to go.  Need to noodle on this, to determine “yield.”


The experiment.

In my next post, I’m going to go into more detail of the actual experiment. (Plus, I’m going to talk to my science-y friends and discuss how an experiment is best set-up.  It’s been years.)  But in a nutshell, I’m going to test:

1.  Creating goals that are measurable and achievable (with time frames and everything!)

2.  Creating a strategy that takes into account how much time I can spend/want to spend, with a set of criteria that all tactics need to go up against.  Sort of a “What Would My Right Reader Do?” decision matrix thing.

3.  Creating tracking metrics and definite check-ins (which I will then report back.)

I think that it’s possible to hit a Slow Writing target, with a minimal but consistent amount of energy/time expended on a weekly basis.  In my next post, I’ll lay out the parameters of the experiment for my December novel.

And, now that I think about it… I might need to get some control subjects, to see what the difference is.  (Anybody else have an Urban Fantasy coming out in December they might want to also use as a guinea pig?)

What do you guys think?

What would you most want to test?


Target audience, and writing for Rina.

Rina, my BFF.

My very best friend in the world is Rina.

I met her my first year in Berkeley, in my first art class.  We struck up a conversation about Disney’s Fantasia re-release, I wound up going to her house to watch it, her mother fed me lasagna and I basically lived as her unofficial roomie, like a stray cat, for four years.  Then an additional four, after graduating and spending several years in the wastelands of L.A.

Rina was the one who loaned me the first single title romance I ever read, The Lion’s Lady by Julie Garwood.  She then inadvertently gave me a career path and an addiction to genre fiction that she continually feeds, like a dealer.  (I say this without malice, since she introduced me to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and I am now returning the favor by hooking her on my favorite series.)

Rina is my ideal reader.

She has a twisted sense of humor and an eclectic taste in stories. If readers were types of animals, she’d be like those deer that nibble a bit of everything yet still manage to decimate gardens.

More importantly, she likes my work, she likes me, and best of all, she gets me.  As in, she gets what I’m writing about.

We have inside jokes.  We have outside jokes.  One of these jokes is that we share a brain.  (When one of us did something dumb, we’d call the other and ask, “okay, do you have the brain today?”)

Rina is my “target audience.”

I was once told by a marketing professional that it’s a mistake to assume your readers are just like you.  I get that.  It’s what’s known as The Usual Error — we project what we like and dislike, how we think, onto other people.

That said, it’s taken me over ten years to realize that just because my readers aren’t just like me, doesn’t mean that I need to “target” the largest “likely demographic” and work toward attracting and convincing “potential readers.”

I just need to find my Rina’s, essentially.

How to find a Rina.

I didn’t go to Berkeley saying, “Today, I am going to find a best friend.  I am going to look at most likely candidates.  I am going to wear my most friend-attracting clothing.  I am going to have a dedicated plan, and I am going to work it religiously.”  Hell, I was eighteen years old, and I was lucky to roll out of bed on time for class.  I didn’t exactly have my shit together.  Even if I did — seriously, who does that?

I found Rina by being where I wanted to be — a practice of art class.  As an art major, which was a scary and exciting thing.  We both discussed something we loved:  Disney, and animation.  (Something the other art majors did not seem to be into, strangely enough.)  From that discussion, we segued to reading, another shared passion.  And over the years, that’s just solidified.

How does that translate to promotion?

In my opinion:  the best way to promote is to simply be yourself.  In public.

I love reading.  I’m finding places that not only discuss reading, but discuss reading stuff that I like.  In short, even if I weren’t a writer, I’d “hang out” there anyway.

I’m commenting on things that I find interesting, and leaving stuff I don’t find interesting alone.

I’m seeing what other people are saying.  Finding friends.  They may not buy my books — but they may know people who would love them. I don’t know, that’s not my business.

Process, not project.

You can’t control people.  You could do all the “right steps” and still have no financial gain to show for it.  The trick, I think, is to realize it — to surrender the illusion of control, and simply connect with readers who like what you like because it’s frickin’ awesome to connect with other readers who like what you like.

It’s a sort of magic, but I think the readers will follow.

Be yourself out loud.

Connect where you can.

And let your right readers — people you’d hang out with, people you like — find you.

Testing this theory.

I realize that, even for me, this concept is amazingly woo-woo.

I want to set this up as a bit of an experiment.  (Apparently 2012 will be forever known in RYW lore as  “Year of the Experiment.”)

I’ve got an Urban Fantasy coming out in December.  I have never written UF before, so that’s already a bit scary.  I lost a good chunk of my newsletter subscribers when I switched email service — and honestly, I have sucked at newsletters, so that hasn’t been a very viable avenue of promotion for me.

My author blog?  I am going to owe Kristan Hoffman a big fat “you were right” — because I’m re-thinking how the author blog should and does work, and what I want to do there.

I want to see if I can prove that you can develop a readership in non-icky, totally benign and even fun ways.  Just by connecting.  I think I’m going to use the newsletter as my “measurable proof.”  Well… or book sales, I guess.  (It’s squishy science, but I’m not writing my doctoral thesis here.)

What do you guys think?  Is this something you’d be interested in reading about?




5 Reasons Why Readers Won’t Buy Your Book.

1.  They don’t know about your book.

This seems painfully obvious, doesn’t it?

With the rise of e-readers, the decline of shelf-space, and the sheer overload of information, getting noticed by a target audience is a lot like shouting your title randomly at a Rolling Stones concert.

Consequently, it’s more important than ever to promote.  As Cory Doctorow said, “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”  (I love that quote, btw, even though I think he was referring to free reads on Amazon.)  You need to get the word out.

Possible solutions:  a well-planned launch… with plenty of time to lay down the ground work.

2. They don’t know what your book is about.

Think about how you buy a book at a bookstore.

You’re attracted by the cover.  You pick it up.  Then you flip the damned thing over, read the back cover, then crack it open and read the first few pages.

If you’re an e-reader, then you usually stumble across a title… and do the same thing, essentially.  You’re going to check out the cover.  You’re going to read the blurb. Then you’re going to read an excerpt, or a download a sample if one’s available.

This is where knowing your hook and your high concept is really, really helpful.  You might have about ten seconds to catch a reader’s eye.  Throat-clearing and “well, it’s about a girl, and she’s been…” will result in one quick click away.

Possible solutions:  make sure you’ve got a hell of a blurb; an excerpt on your book page; a sample on buy sites; an excerpt for digital distribution.

3.  They don’t know if they’re going to like it.

Why do bestsellers stay bestsellers?  Because in a lot of cases, they’ve earned it.  They’re a proven commodity.

It’s not merely a case of “oh, readers are unadventurous sheep who only want the same pap delivered in slightly different packaging.”  It’s “readers have been screwed and seen money go down the drain for wall-bangers.”

Right now, they want authors they can trust or a near-guarantee that they’re going to enjoy it.  How are they going to figure this out?

The sample or excerpt will go a long way towards easing that, but possibly even more important:  social proof.  That can come in a variety of forms:  cover quotes are huge. Reviews, either industry, book blogs or reader reviews on buy sites, are also influential.

Also, I would not overlook the promotional potential of libraries. I disagree with authors who want libraries to give royalties to authors.  First, I’ve worked in libraries and spent years there: budgets are tight, and I think if they paid royalties every time a book was checked out, in our economy, libraries would vanish.

Second, libraries are one of the best sources of promo out there.  Yes, there are readers who either cannot afford your book, or simply will not shell out the cash to buy your book (or any other book.)

You know what?  You’re not losing the sale, because they wouldn’t have bought it no matter what.  However, there’s a third library patron: the one who doesn’t want to spend the money because, again, doesn’t know whether she’ll like it.

So she reads it. And loves it.  And gets a late fee, because she doesn’t really want to give it back.  Next thing you know — she goes out and buys it.  And if you can hook her on a series from a library read?  I speak from experience: there is nothing as frustrating as waiting to borrow a series in order. A true fiction addict, once hooked, will go out and clear out your back list as soon as budget permits.

Possible solutions:  cover quotes from authors readers recognize; reviews and more reviews; and free reads and library copies don’t hurt.  Especially for the first in a series.

4.  They don’t know who you are.

I recently read a blog that said that readers don’t simply want to read books anymore: they want a relationship with the author.  “You are your brand” is becoming a bit more than a tired platitude as readers make buying decisions by not only checking out reviews and buy sites but your web presence, either on your site or on social media like Facebook and Twitter.  If you want to live like an online recluse, your book had better be frickin’ mind-blowing.

Possible solutions:  a thoughtful, authentic and accessible presence, online and possibly through speaking engagements/radio/face time.  A frickin’ mind-blowing book also helps. 🙂

4b. Corollary: they know who you are, and you’re bugging the crap out of them.

There are some authors who, in a fit of desperation born of knowing the previous four steps, lose their damned minds and consequently promote as if their lives depended on it. Every tweet, every post, the eight billion yahoo groups they belong to, the forums, the blogs they comment on…all get papered with the promotion equivalent of shrapnel as they try to ensure that people know about their book.

They’re trying to jump start word-of-mouth, but all they’re doing is convincing Those That Generate WOM that they’re desperate and irritating.

When you’re “your brand,” suddenly your book carries with it the mark of Cain: it could be the next Harry Potter, but nobody wants to crack it open because frankly, they don’t want to give you the sale.

Possible solutions:  the “friend test.”  For whatever promo you put out, think about it as if you’re telling your best friend…. one you wouldn’t feel awkward about telling that you’ve got a book out.  Someone you know would love the book, and wants to buy it.  Asking once is a reminder — hey, I’ve got this book out!  Twice, if she’s forgetful.  Nine times?  Now you’re nagging.

Or imagine if you, as a reader, were hearing what you’re about to be sending out. Yes, repetition is important — but if you got the same message, with no other benefit or information or “cookie” for the reader, five times a day every day, wouldn’t you start to get a little pissed off?  Wouldn’t your cursor hover over the “unfriend” box?

Other solution:  moderation.  Everything in moderation.

5.  They are not the Right Reader for your book.

Again: you’ve got the next Harry Potter, let’s say.  There will still be a bunch of people out there who will simply not buy your book.  They may have read the title, the blurb, downloaded the sample, saw the reviews on Amazon, discussed it with enthusiastic friends who say ohmygod have you read this yet you absolutely MUST!

But they’re still not gonna buy.

Maybe because they don’t have the money.  Maybe because they just can’t seem to connect with the concept. Whatever.  They’re just not your Reader.

Possible solutions:  know who your Right Reader is — and let it go.  You can’t sell them all.  Good news?  You don’t need to.

If you found this helpful, or know someone who might, please go ahead and re-tweet or re-post with one of the sharing buttons below.  Thanks!