Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Plot Points: Building a Story Arc, a guest post by Nikolas Baron

As a novelist, I'm often asked whether I outline or just start writing. While I tend toward a hybrid approach, other writers - especially of genre fiction - prefer to work from a more solid plan, often tied to the elements of the hero's journey. In this guest post, Nikolas Baron of Grammarly explains that approach.

What writer hasn’t begun writing, only to have their story meander away from their original intentions, bog down in mediocrity, or simply lose steam? The writing of a novel, much like the construction of a building, requires a plan. The writer who sits down to write with only the vaguest notion of a hero and a destination may soon find themselves lost, wandering in what might seem like an endless wilderness.

A simple tool for keeping a plot on track is a story arc. A story arc is a very basic outline, which notes the major points of the story, giving the writer a sort of map to follow as they work through writing a novel. The path may travel through mystical forests of fantasy, futuristic streets in a sci-fi novel, or along a suburban sidewalk in a modern realistic fiction. Following a map is the best way to get from point A to point B, no matter the setting, characters, or conflict that is chosen. Style, spelling and grammar can be maintained with the use of a simple online checker. A grammar and plagarism checker is a valuable tool that will help keep style issues at bay, freeing the writer to focus upon building the plot.

The best way to begin any story is with the beginning. The opening of the novel sets the tone, and establishes the character in his or her home environment. The beginning of the arc can last for a few paragraphs, or a chapter. It should be maintained long enough for the reader to become comfortable with the character, but not so long that it becomes boring.

Once the status quo is established, the conflict comes to break it all apart. Sometimes referred to as the “trigger” or the “call”, the beginning of the hero’s journey is a change that pushes him or her into action. The protagonist is presented with a choice that isn’t really a choice. Frodo was given the ring; Harry Potter received a letter. The invitation may come in nearly any form, as long as it moves the protagonist forward, into the next part of his or her journey: the quest.

Now comes the exciting part of the novel. The hero is moving forward, taking action. He or she is moving toward the goal, fighting and winning. Next comes the challenge. The hero or heroine has reached a crucial point in the quest. Now it’s time to face the biggest challenge, the moment that changes everything. Now, the time has come for the protagonist to make a choice, and the choice he or she makes will determine the outcome of the story. The choice is a challenge, of the moral fiber, the character, or the courage, of the protagonist, and the plot hangs in the balance.

Once the choice is made, the character has no choice but to move forward toward the climax. With the emotional and spiritual battle fought, the physical battle against the forces against him or her remains. The climax is the moment when all hope seems lost, and the protagonist seems defeated, but, through some extraordinary fortitude, driven by the climactic choice already made, the hero or heroine prevails, against all odds, cuing the thunderous applause of the audience.  

Like the beginning, the journey home should last only as long as it takes for the writer to wrap up the story with a satisfying ending. The wedding, the journey home to the Shire, the return to what was before, is merely a backdrop, to show the changes the protagonist has experienced, and the end result of the quest. A satisfying ending isn’t necessarily a happy one, but it shows the reader that the quest, in the end, was worth the sacrifice made by the protagonist, in order for the necessary change to come about, whether the change is in the fictional world as a whole, or in the protagonist. The resolution ties up the loose ends, solves the mystery, and leaves the reader satisfied that this ending, this and no other, was the way it was meant to be. 

Nikolas Baron discovered his love for the written word in elementary school, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children's novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Writer as Creative Entrepreneur: A Guest Post by Natalie Wright

Natalie Wright
I am a creative entrepreneur. It’s not something I dreamed of being. When I was a little girl, when people asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, “I want to be a writer.” I never said, “I want to be a creative entrepreneur.” Yet a creative entrepreneur is exactly what I have become.

Until a few weeks ago, I’d never even heard the phrase creative entrepreneur let alone know that I was one. Recently I was asked by three different bloggers to write a post on the subject of the creative entrepreneur (CE for short). That’s when you know a topic is hot or on people’s minds.

My first question was, “What the heck is a creative entrepreneur?”

John Hawkins defines a CE as a person who “uses creativity to unlock wealth that lies within themselves rather than [through] external capital.” Wikipedia says that CEs “are investors in talent – either their own or other people’s.” Hawkins distinguishes CEs from freelancers. Freelancers, notes Hawkins, think in terms of finding more work. CEs think in terms of creating opportunities.

Harvard economist Richard E. Caves is oft quoted on the subject. Writing in past decades, he noted a distinction between “artists” and “gatekeepers” with gatekeepers deciding on the potential value of the artists work. Now writers are, increasingly, bypassing the gatekeepers and taking their work directly to readers. Now more than at any time in the recent past, writers are taking on the dual role of not only being the creative artist, but also becoming businesses to produce and sell their work.

Just so we’re clear, being a CE is nothing new. For as long as humans have been creating, there have been CEs. I recently spoke with a writing and publishing veteran, Dan Gutman. Dan, a children’s book author, had his first book published in the 1980’s and currently has over 100 books in print. When I spoke with him about writing, publishing and author marketing, it was clear that Dan’s isn’t an “artist” sitting in a coffee shop, typing passionately away while the nasty business of selling his work is taken care of by a benevolent publisher. Dan’s advice to me – and one that has become my mantra – was, “Bust your ass. Every single day.”

Early on in Dan’s career, he took marketing into his own hands and visited as many schools as he would have him. He gave school talks for free and met and befriended teaches and librarians, i.e. people who were in a direct position to influence his would-be audience. That one librarian/teacher/school/reader-at-a-time approach was a successful strategy.

Dan is a CE. He not only uses his creativity to produce a product (his books), but he uses his creative energy to think of ways to market (i.e. sell) his product as well. I don’t want to discount the help that his publishers may have given him. Dan noted to me that he has had more than one publisher and some of his books are out of print and others are not, and that that has more to do with the publisher than it does with Dan. But Dan used his creative entrepreneurial genius to create his own success. He took control of his own destiny and he did it before the surge in self-publishing or the existence of social media. Though Dan built his career by taking himself and his books on the road, he now leverages social media to maintain his readership just the way you’d expect a CE to do.

And that highlights another characteristic of the CE: adaptability. The publishing world is changing rapidly and true CEs see the change as opportunity rather than crying in their Malbec and bemoaning the loss of the “good old days.”

Being a creative entrepreneur means you don’t get stuck in one way of doing things. It’s about being open to try new things. It’s about collaborating with others who have talent and skills you can leverage to make your project a success. Being a CE means that you are willing and able to drop something (or someone) that isn’t working and move on. You are agile and you pursue new opportunities that are exciting to you or show promise.

I like this quote from Mark McGuinness. “The only real security lies in taking an entrepreneurial approach to our own careers, by taking responsibility for developing our skills, building our networks and reputation, and creating opportunities for ourselves.”

Perhaps for writers, this has never been a truer statement than it is today.

Action Item: Take five minutes and brainstorm 10 things you can do this year to increase the reach of your author brand. Use the same creativity you apply to your writing and think outside the box. Try some things you haven’t tried before.

Are you a creative entrepreneur? And if so, did you set out to be one or did you find yourself in the role by happenstance?

Natalie is the author of The Akasha Chronicles, a young adult paranormal fantasy trilogy. When not writing, blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Wattpadding or eating chocolate, Natalie nurtures her young daughter, plays with her two young cats, and feeds her dog too many treats.

Natalie enjoys walking in the high desert, snorkeling in warm waters, travel, and excellent food shared with family and friends. She was raised an Ohio farm girl, now lives in the desert Southwest, and dreams of living in a big city high rise.

Natalie enjoys chatting with readers, so stop by and say hi:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Author Tips: Collaboration

Gail Giles and I at the Matanuska River in Alaska

Tomorrow, our book officially meets the world.

Our book. No Returns.

It happened because my co-author, Gail Giles, is a very cool person. Her debut novel, Shattering Glass, was an ALA Best of the Best Book, a Book Sense 76 selection, and a Booklist Top 10 Mystery for Youth selection. Her second, Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters, was an ALA Top 10 Quick pick and a Book Sense 76 selection. She’s got over 12,000 ratings on Goodreads; this week, it happens that she’s in the top fifty followed people there.

Gail and I got acquainted through writing, and we’d known each other for a number of years before we began playing around with co-written titles. After a couple of false starts, we ran with an idea Gail came up with, for a middle grade/YA novel about three boys in a band who accidentally call up the devil.

While vacationing in Cabo, we wrote the first few chapters of No Returns, then finished the book through a series of phone calls and emails. We fell in love with the boys in the band, and we even developed an affection for a certain little demon named Fred. I’m glad we decided to make this a series, because writing the sequel is proving every bit as fun as writing the first book.

If you’re thinking of co-writing a book, here’s some advice based on our experience: 
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and secure in your friendship before you tackle a project together. Collaboration works best when you share mutual trust and respect. If one (or both) of you has control issues, you’re likely bound for an unpleasant ride. 

  • No one’s the diva. Be honest with one another. Without feelings getting hurt, you have to be able to tell your co-author if you feel things are going in the wrong direction. Writing is hard work, but collaborating should be fun. 

  • Have a system, but don’t be rigid about it. Play off one another’s strengths. While both authors need to be open to alternatives and critiques, they should avoid micromanaging the project. Now that Gail and I have collaborated successfully on one book, we’ve found a sort of rhythm, with each of us writing where we feel inspired and punting to the other where we get stuck. Much like a marriage, the contributions of each person will never be entirely equal. 

  • Agree on the terms. Before you get in too deep, decide what will happen if one of you feels it’s not working. Who’ll have rights to the draft if the book never makes it to completion? How it will be placed and marketed if it does? 

  • At some point, bring other perspectives to the project—agents, editors, and/or beta readers. Books can be a little too much like babies: as their proud “parents,” you risk overlooking flaws. 

If you’d like to ask Gail about what it’s like to co-author a book (or anything else), she’s hosting an “Ask Gail Giles” Q & A at Goodreads on Thursday, Feb. 13

It’s a little early for use to tell how our book will be received, but so far, we like what we’re hearing:

"Turn this book up to eleven! It puts the buzz in Beelzebub and the power in power chords. A musical, lyrical tale that must be read.”
Arthur Slade, author of The Hunchback Assignments

“A powerful story told in an equally powerful voice, with characters you love and root for from the very first pages. A novel of friendship, love and guts about three kids who refuse to surrender—brilliant and strikingly new!”
Terry Trueman, Printz Honor Author of Stuck in Neutral 

“The first movement in an ambitious song cycle of a tale”
Kirkus Reviews

To celebrate the official launch of No Returns, we’re offering the Kindle version at $2.99 from Feb. 12 through Feb. 14.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Marketing Books: Lessons from a Side Trip

Something I seldom bring up in literary circles: For eight years, I sold real estate. My friends and family know it, of course, and so do my former clients and colleagues, but I don’t mention it among fellow writers because frankly, I know some will think less of me for it.

“Scum of the earth.” That’s how my sister-in-law once described those who made their living as I did.

My grand vision for how my life would unfold was that I’d teach for twenty years, retire, and write books. I’d even made sure the house had a short-term mortgage so that payments would end shortly after I retired. Another plus: By my planned year of exit, my first two novels had come out with major publishers.

Still, like most grand visions, mine skidded sideways a bit. I hadn’t factored in ridiculous spikes in college tuition as my kids prepared to enter college, nor a (now ex-) spouse who determined we needed to build a new house right then, which of course meant a new mortgage.

So I did what we all do when our grand visions go a bit sideways. I recalibrated. At a conference, I’d been on a panel with an author who sold real estate on the side. It seemed like something that could provide income with enough flexibility that I could move ahead with my writing.

Income, yes. Flexibility, not so much.

As the market boomed and my business grew, the sixty-hour weeks were the short ones. I kept publishing, but I wasn’t learning and growing as a writer the way I would once I bowed out of real estate, after my kids were through college.

No matter what the side trip, it’s only wasted if we choose to think of it that way. Aside from bankrolling some needed income (if you want to get rich, sell houses, not books), I learned business strategies from real estate that I now use as an author.

Not that a house is a book, mind you. There are huge differences in what you’re marketing (service vs. product/art); what’s at stake for the buyer (a $24.99 investment vs. $249,900); discoverability (if only there were an MLS for books); pricing (it’s everything in real estate; not so with books); and supply (last I heard, 3500 new books published a day in the US).

Differences aside, my side trip taught me a lot about marketing books, whether traditionally or independently published:
  • You can stage a house all you want, but if it’s fundamentally shoddy, you’re going to have a hard time with the sale. Ditto for books. The best cover design, the cleverest query, the best elevator pitch—none of that will compensate for poor writing. As long as there’s some way for people to find it and it’s priced properly, quality always sells. 
  • If you want to be treated like a professional, act like one. Don’t go around shouting up your books and berating those who don’t share your high opinion of them. 
  • Capitalize on your strengths, but don’t try to be what you’re not. Whether is developmental editing or proofreading or cover design, hire out to others the work you know you can’t do well yourself. 
  • Don’t fall for every gimmick that comes along, or do something because everyone else does. Acquaint yourself with the options, review your budget, and invest your money and energy into the ones that are best for you and your book.
  • Know your audience. Target marketing is generally more effective than a general blitz. 
  • Don’t fall asleep at the wheel, but don’t let marketing consume you, either. Whether we’re talking real estate services or books, word of mouth is always the best advertising, and you get that by doing what you do well. Period. 
  • Avoid this big mistake made by lots of new real estate salespeople (and authors): getting so wrapped up in closing the current deal that you forget you’ll need another and another and another if you truly want to make this a career. 
  • Continual on-the-job education is a must. Once you’ve decided you know it all, you’re pretty well sunk.