Last time, I brought up a subject I never believed would warrant discussing—cockygate. I wish this was the first time a writer did something epically misguided to gain advantage. Some drama to sell their ‘story.’ But, I’ve been around too long. Seen too much.
Yes, I was there for the BIG BANG (dot.com implosion). I also witnessed Web 2.0 shoot out of the dying Web 1.0’s ribcage then skitter up into the vents.
Where did it GO? What is it up to? What does it WANT?
As early as 2004, I projected the digital tsunami that was going to obliterate the world as we knew it.
Why is ‘Age of Aquarius’ suddenly stuck in my head?
Anyway, it began with Napster and Tower Records, then Kodak, blah blah and starting in 2006 I began blogging and predicting the next industry to fall…and the next…and even how and roughly when it would happen. All along I insisted publishing and writers needed to be prepared because we were also in its path.
Over the course my first years as a ‘social media/branding expert’ (an occupation widely regarded as a made-up job like ‘unicorn groomer’) I noted a trend.
Pretty much every year, new and evolved ‘bright idea fairies’ (BIFs) hatched with frightening regularity. This trend continues because shortcuts are tempting. Um…cockygate.
BIFs masquerade as a super cool idea, when in reality they’re total gimmicks that do more harm than good.
***Which is why I dedicated a year of research to write Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.
Social platforms change all the time.
Know what never changes? People.
Just read Shakespeare, watch Dateline, or go look up your ex on FB. People don’t change. This is why I wrote Rise of the Machines to be evergreen.
Only now I may need to update because cockygate sucker-punched us all. I feel like Proctor & Gamble now having to warn teenagers not to eat Tide Pods *sighs*.
We writers are wise to remember a few fundamentals. Stories are for the reader. Story is our product. Readers are our customers who pay money for our product. Readers want a good…story. They really want a superlative story.
Far too many authors don’t need better marketing skills, they need better storytelling skills.
This is simple, though simple is rarely easy. Superior stories are more crucial than ever if we take a quick peek at our industry.
See, when Amazon scope-locked on publishing, they knew exactly how to dismantle the establishment. According to the ancient self-help inspirational guru Sun Tzu, there are only two forms of warfare—direct and oblique.
Amazon is all about the oblique.
Who wanted to go head-to-head with The Big Six? Like, be a real publisher who discovers and cultivates awesome books? How derivative *flips hair*.
Nope. Amazon was not about to face off with NYC where legacy publishing had over a century of dominance. Besides, too much work. Instead?
Get rid of gatekeepers. Open the market to anyone who wanted to string a bunch of sentences together and call it a story. In turn, they get to call themselves ‘published authors.’ Win-win!
Not all of it was bad.
Amazon was banking that excellent books had fallen through the traditional model cracks (very true). They also gambled that some authors not only had a good book, but also possessed sound business skills (also true). Then, there were all these hungry, innovative writers eager to be cut loose and try new ideas like the blog-to-book.
The Martian never would have happened under the old regime.
There were also plenty of traditionally published New York Times best-selling authors and USA Today best-selling authors with HUGE backlists…that NY mothballed. #OUCH
Paper was heavy and expensive and the big-box-bookstore only had so much shelf-space. This meant making royalties off only the most recent title (instead of compounded royalties off 10, 20 or 50 titles).
Amazon offered a place to get these already vetted stories back into reader hands.
The only major advantage traditional publishers ever had was distribution. Yet, in a world of 0s and 1s, this advantage disappeared.
Amazon doesn’t invest in authors or books. They don’t make money off one book selling a million copies. It’s far easier to make money off a hundred thousand ‘writers’ selling ten books. And, Laws of Probability dictate that, out of that hundred thousand writers, a runaway hit will emerge and with that?
Between mid-list defectors and undiscovered gems, Amazon has reinvented the American Dream for writers. They also reasonably wagered it would only take a few years before legacy publishing would no longer be the first choice for many emerging authors.
The lure of these success stories would be too much to resist.
Problem was, this meant the slush-pile landed square in the readers’ laps.
In this new business model we do have options. We can chase the next ad/promotion/algorithm/writing gimmick like a cat after a red dot. Or we can get back to basics, the ‘stuff’ that’s worked since the beginning of time.
Earlier I mentioned humans don’t change. If we fully grasp this, building a platform becomes far easier. So does writing.
Humans have longed for great stories since the HUGE stick and ‘ability to make fire’ was the most advanced tech available.
Sadly, in the digital age, too many writers rush, either out of newbie enthusiasm or veteran panic. Emerging authors often rush the learning curve (how to actually WRITE a good story). Veteran authors who know how to write, frequently cave to rushing the process.
Faster isn’t always better. It’s like microwaving a turkey. Takes only a fraction of the time, but who wants to eat THAT?
Tips for Better Stories
Ditch the Derivative
Readers want the same but different. Bad copies of stories that are ‘hot’ are simply bad copies. My challenge is for all of us to use that robust imagination for the powers of good. Amateurs retool stories. Artists reimagine them 😉 .
A Thousand Acres—King Lear on an Iowa farm.
Wicked—The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West—There’s always more than one point of view. Let’s hear from the ‘other’ side, shall we?
The Wife Between Us—Fantastic mind-bending story. It’s as if the famous play (movie) Gaslight and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train had a baby. But namely, it’s Gaslight reimagined in the modern world.
There are way too many tired tropes so have fun. Can you change time, setting, perspective or characters and create something fresh and new, but rooted in pedigree? What about a new story that gives the ‘real’ scoop on an old one?
Jack the Ripper as a female, a virtuous wife betrayed. The killings are motivated by a woman scorned and shamed. Could happen 😛 .
Cinderella as a serial killer. Red Riding Hood as an Old West outlaw. The Little Mermaid as a vengeful stalker (Fatal Attraction) *wink wink*. ALL THE FUN!
Y’all get the gist and Cait has a class coming up that can teach y’all how to think in new and perverse…creative ways in her class Once Upon a Plot: Retelling Myths & Fairytales.
Leave the Low-Hanging Fruit
All stories need some amount of description. Yet, I’m challenging ALL OF US to try harder. I see all kinds of samples where the hero/heroine has emerald, jade, amethyst, sapphire, onyx, (pick any precious or semi-precious stone) eyes. Hair color is like a bad drop-down menu—raven, copper, spun gold, etc.
Her eyes were blue as the Western sky.
Never read that before *rolls eyes*.
To an extent we ALL do it. I’ve done it, too. So one judgy finger pointed at y’all and THREE back at me. Yet, here’s the thing.
We are wordsmiths, and wordsmiths should be able to write a better description than any random non-writer challenged to pen a description.
His eyes were like dazzling emeralds.
Wow. Bet that burned some brain cells to come up with.
Dig deeper. Sure, sometimes we want to keep it simple so we don’t wear out a reader being super clever all the time. On the other hand, can we do a better job than penning a description we might give to a police sketch artist?
He had a shaved head, scars, big nose and ears…
He had the face of a man who loved to pick fights, but wasn’t any good at fighting.
Just leaving that there 😉 .
Throw a Wrench in Everything
Stories are about problems. PERIOD. Three hundred pages of pretty sentences is not a novel. It’s three hundred pages of pretty sentences. Using a crap ton of fancy words only proves we know how to use a thesaurus…and maybe should be banned from owning one.
Description is not story.
Everyone getting along is not story…it’s a sedative.
All stories have ONE core problem that must be resolved. Until that happens? Welcome to hell. No one agrees and nothing comes easily and anything that can go wrong does…twice. The MC must solve the core story problem and the crucible is never curved.
No one respects someone who wins without working for it in life…or fiction 😉 .
***Scroll down to On Demand classes for hardcore storytelling training from MOI!
What Are Your Thoughts?
I love hearing from you!
Do you struggle being a sadist to your characters? Did you do like me and look at your descriptions and go, ‘Wow, I should totally try harder’ *face palm*?
Did I maybe get the brain percolating? Mine is.
I now want to write Hansel & Gretel in the 1920s as Bonnie & Clyde-style gangsters and candy is a metaphor for BOOZE and SEX….
*Cait slaps me hard*
OWWW! *rubs back of head*
What do you WIN? For the month of MAY, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also NOW OFFERING MORE CLASSES PLUS ON DEMAND…
Retelling Myths & Fairytales
Instructor: USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds
Price: $65 USD Standard (Cool Upgrades Available)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: FRIDAY May 25th, 7:00 PM E.S.T. to 9:00 P.M. EST
Myths and fairytales are as fundamental to human existence as communication itself. We grow up hearing these stories, being formed by them, and often rebelling against them.
One of the hottest trends in publishing right now is bringing these stories back and giving them new life with creative interpretations and retellings.
Done right, a retelling can capture the public imagination, give us new insights into our society and ourselves, and sweep us away to a time and place where everything, including justice and happy endings, is possible. Get your spot today! HERE.
The Yarn Behind the Book: Backstory
Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, June 1, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST
Behind every good book is an entire story that happens before the reader ever opens to page one. This is the backstory, and done right, it is what sets the stage, provides clues and cues, and rescues you from writer’s block.
A good backstory will help with logic and consistency in the plot, developing complex motivations for characters, and sorting out exactly what needs to happen going forward as you either plot or pants your way to the end.
This class will cover the following topics – and much more:
- The elements of a backstory;
- How to take your current plot idea and work backwards into a backstory;
- Integrating character profiles and the backstory;
- How the backstory relates to the logline and synopsis;
- Using the backstory to dig yourself out of corners and shake off writer’s block;
- Why a backstory is crucial to writing a series.
A recording of this class is also included with purchase.
About the Instructor:
Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.
On Demand Training!
Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!
For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:
ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY.
Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .
The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.
And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…
Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).
Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN!
I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.
I’ve got this book of Celtic folk tales that I keep swearing would make awesome story-seeds if reimagined in the modern age. One of these days, I’ve got to buckle down…
I have published 32 books and yet I always learn something from your blogs.
Another excellent post, KL!
I miss you! So when can I come visit and camp on your couch? I will cook for you 😀 .
Motivating post, Kristen! Thanks for the kick in the pants!
Great information. I’m tired of people complaining they don’t know how to sell their books when in reality, they don’t write good books.
Clever…that’s the word out of all your words that reached up and smacked me. I have a post-it (of 7 or 8 stuck around my monitor) that yells: Are you trying to be clever?!! Are you??!!!
I catch my own writing turning clever at times, which is different that ‘cute’, but just as irritating. I also encounter it in every manuscript I edit.
I don’t think coming up with a new twist to a classic theme/idea is impossible (particularly like Red Riding Hood as Old West Outlaw), it’s writing that story so it stands on its own and allows us to be delighted with the ‘re-make’ — and fondly remember the original.
Thanks for the reminder that writing a good, entertaining, possibly beloved story is just.dang.hard.
btw—I meant that I really liked the Red Riding Hood idea…
I’m printing this to post on my wall: “All stories have ONE core problem that must be resolved. Until that happens? Welcome to hell. No one agrees and nothing comes easily and anything that can go wrong does…twice. ” Thanks for the reminder, Kristen.
Bring back the gatekeepers! Great post, Kristen.
Also, it’s important to make sure you look at writers who are at the level you want to be, like the best sellers. I had to leave writing message boards because too many people wanted to keep everyone at the beginner, unpublished level.
I think I wrote a pretty decent book the first time (so readers tell me), so I’m taking your advice that what sells a book best is another book.
What’s the next thing that actually needs to be in this story? I ask myself. Where is the conflict in this scene? It helps that my MC has a character I personally find irritating. I’m happy to help him grow through suffering. 😀
I have published at total of, zero books. I have already quit on my first novel and moved on to the next. I know how this sounds, but I’m not caving. Your posts are great, inspiring and I am the dork that actually takes handwritten notes on some of your tips.
Not a dork, a nerd 😉 . Go through my posts on plotting and structure. They’ll help you finish. You’ve already done what most people never do…STARTED. Now all to do is learn and fail and do over and finally FINISH. I think it took me no less than 15 bright ideas that failed as novels before I finished because this IS HARD. Writing a novel is FREAKING HARD. So lighten up on yourself and keep pressing.
Thank you for your words of encouragement. I am going to look through your posts on plot and structure right now!
I love making trouble for my characters. And I’m always striving to learn more about the craft. Slow and steady wins the race.
His eyes were the color of low hanging green grapes.
LOL. I saw his eyes hanging on his cheeks. But it’s a great colour for eyes.
Ah, thanks Kristen.
Jack and the Beanstalk where cutting down the beanstalk is just his entry into a life of crime? LOL.
This was great. I agree; try harder. And description is a pain. I run out of original on “his hair was brown.” Not really, but it feels like it, and there’s only so many face shapes, but within that, you can do all sorts of things with the landscape of the face. Not all men are buff, or women a size 6. I wrote something about a “lumpy toad of a man” and wondered … but it worked because he was warty with dark hair and a smarmy smile. He creeped me out, and he’s in my story. It needs work, and I harder try, I’m sure, but there he is in a first draft.
Always good to read your blog.
a great reminder of story over gimmicks. The gimmicks can be necessary at times, if I’m being honest, but they can become too much of a focus.
“Far too many authors don’t need better marketing skills, they need better storytelling skills.” Well said.
I just finished reading Stephen King’s IT, and noticed there is exactly zero purple prose of any kind. He uses maybe two adjectives to describe every character, yet you know exactly who they are with just a paragraph of backstory.
Cinderella as a serial killer? I like it!
Ah, tired tropes! Love ’em. (I shouldn’t write fanfic, but the title “The Talented Mr. Riddle” is waving its tiny hands at me).
Seriously, I did twist a trope, the old ‘I have magic and no one understands me’–instead, I did ‘I don’t have magic and no one understands me’, which resulted in a novel that actually made me money (working on the sequel now). So it can work.
Great blog post! I can so relate to this. For many years, I either neglected the backstory altogether or put too much of a backstory. Also, I wanted to add more and more adversity to my characters until I had to trim quite a few parts from the story. Thank you for this!