The Fictorians

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When to Rein in Your Characters

8 April 2014 | 2 Comments » | frank

SquirrelEver gone to a school performance where the one kid who’s supposed to be a supporting character, like a tree or a second line singer, either breaks out of character and does something hilarious, or performs with such enthusiasm that they steal the show from the lead actors?

Or, imagine this: Two aliens walk into a bar. One is an intergalactic hit-man and the other is a mind-reader helping him hunt down his next target. They scope out the bar and begin closing in on the target. At that point, the story is locked in and the readers are focused either on rooting for the hit-men or for the hapless victim.

But then imagine one of the serving girls stumbles into them, spilling beer all over their clothing and short-circuiting the electronics of their laser guns. When they try pushing past to chase their escaping quarry, she sets their alcohol-soaked clothing on fire and handcuffs them to the bar.

The story focus just totally changed. If that was the intention, perfect. Great twist. If not, then the waitress either needs to become a major focus of the story, or that scene needs to be cut. All depends on what the author has in mind and what the real story is being told.

Sometimes letting a secondary character really roar pays off in spades. The easiest examples can be found in movies:

  • LokiThe saber-tooth squirrel in Ice Age
  • The Joker from Batman
  • Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride
  • Loki from Avengers
  • Even Wilson the volleyball from Castaway

Sometimes when a secondary character bursts free of the originally-planned constraints placed upon them, it can be a good thing. Perhaps it’s your subconscious mind trying to explain that you picked the wrong protagonist or that there is more story to be explored there.

However, sometimes those secondary characters are just unruly and despite how funny or distracting their antics might be, they threaten to derail the real story. In those instances those characters need to be reined in and controlled.

How do you tell the difference?

Well, it depends.

I hate it when people use that answer because it always feels like a cop-out. The reason it works here is that it really does depend on the situation, and only the author can really tell.

For example, In the novel I am writing now I chose to explore some side characters and develop secondary conflicts in greater detail than originally planned because I had not outlined that part of the novel in great depth and I was still searching for the best way to pursue the heart of the story. I accepted the cost and spent the time exploring the characters and the setting and,
although I’m planning to cut most of that work, it helped bring the setting to life and solidify in my mind the most important scenes. Those secondary story aspects threatened to derail the focus on the primary story line, and there is not enough room in the book to follow both. So I’ll kill those upstart character arcs, re-focus the narrative, and consider it time well spent instead
of a waste.

Then again, in another novel where I had to create a secondary antagonist, the resulting character was so fascinating they really became a primary antagonist, and readers loved it. The ‘real’ bad guy carries over into sequels, but this secondary character is the one that helped the first novel shine and set up the other antagonist for greater success later in the series. So in that case,
exploring the secondary character’s fascinating potential really paid off.

In another twist, in my YA fantasy novel, a couple of the secondary characters needed to take a larger role in the story because they provided comic relief and I chose to focus more on the humorous aspects of the story. The resulting changes make them some of the best-loved characters in the story even though they are not the primary protagonist, but their arcs interweave closely with his and result in strengthening the story instead of breaking it.

Inigo MontoyaSo, when to let your characters roam free and when to rein them in? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help decide:

  • If I explore the new ideas, will they fundamentally change the story? If so, is it an improvement?
  • Will this diminish the power of what I’m trying to accomplish with the main character, or will this add complexity and interest to an already strong story?
  • Do I have any idea where the changes are leading? If not, and if I follow that road, I accept the cost in time and rewrites when I hit the likely dead end because that cost is offset by the pleasure of following that road through the fog to find out where it goes.
  • Should I switch to a more interesting protagonist? Or is there something fascinating I can borrow from this secondary character and imbue my protagonist with it to make him more powerful?
  • Are the antics of this secondary character making improvements or are they just hamming up the stage with no long-term gain?

Enjoy the process, make your plan, but be open to flashes of inspiration that might just make it better by derailing it.

Who are your favorite supporting characters, and why?

Literary Agents are Still a Good Idea . . . Sometimes

10 March 2014 | 1 Comment » | frank

ebook vs physical bookWhen the ebook revolution first began a few years ago, people rallied into two very distinct camps: one was the camp of the revolutionaries who pomoted the ebook-only route and
proclaimed the death of traditional publishing and teased those who still believed in the ‘old ways’ of being dinosaurs.

The other was the traditionalist camp scoffing at the young upstarts and their wild west approach to books, promising that no good end could come to those who started down that dark and unproven path.

It was a pretty exciting (some might say nerve-wracking) time, and no one was sure which camp would ultimately win the war of words.

ReesesThe situation reminded me of the Reeses Peanut Butter Cup commercials arguing about chocolate vs peanut butter. And like the commercial, reality seems to have found a way to bring those two great approaches to book publishing together. It is no longer an either/or discussion.

The most recent evidence suggests that the market is stabilizing. Ebooks now make up a large part of the new landscape, particularly the US market, while traditional publishing has survived the coup and has stabilized. The good news is that more books are being sold through both mediums. As of today, neither ebooks nor traditionally published physical copies appear to be heading the way of the dodo any time soon.

That’s great news for writers.

But the world has definitely shifted and writers need to approach this new world intelligently. The two markets are different, and different types of books tend to fit better in different slots, so writers need a plan.

As Brandon Sanderson, best-selling fantasy author recommends, it is a good idea to take shorter novels that can be produced more quickly (every 6 months max) and publish them as ebooks while taking longer novels like epic fantasy and publish those via traditional publishing, probably at the rate of one book per year. It makes so much sense that most of the authors I speak with are considering or actively pursuing the Reeses Approach, trying to establish a presence in both markets to leverage different strengths in each.

That is the approach I am taking.

Last year I entered the ebook world with an urban fantasy novella, Saving Face. This year I will complete and e-publish a trilogy set in the same urban fantasy setting. Those books are the beginning of my indie publishing market penetration, the chocolate in my Reeses.

At the same time, I still chose to secure the help of an agent, and am working with him to find a traditional publisher for my big fat epic fantasy novel, and another large YA fantasy novel. The signs are promising, so hopefully deals will be struck with both of those series this year. These are the beginning of my traditional publishing market penetration, the peanut butter side to the equation.

Some people ask, “Why do I need an agent now that we have ebooks?”

The answer is, “You may not.”

If you are convinced your only road to publishing is to directly e-publish your own novels as an indie author, or perhaps go with an ebook-only publisher like Musa Publishing, then an agent is not going to be able to add any value to you.

But in the traditionally published book world, agents still make a lot of sense. They not only have access to many publishers that authors just cannot reach, but they have established relationships with sub-agents to sell their authors’ works internationally. Those international sales can provide a huge advantage for authors, as the ebook revolution has not made such inroads in much of the rest of the world and physical copies still make up the majority of book sales there.

So when a writer decides to pursue traditional publishing for some of their works and they find an agent who extends an offer of representation, the next step is to establish the writer/agent relationship.

This generally results in a short legal document that both parties sign that lays out the agreement between them. It should include the percentage commission the agent expects to receive from the various types of media through which the books can be marketed. For example, a common commission rating is:

  • US Rights: 15%
  • UK or Foreign Rights: 20% inclusive of sub-agent’s commission. 15% if direct.
  • Translation Rights: 20% inclusive of sub-agent’s commission. 15% if direct.
  • RADIO 15%
  • THEATRE 15% Subject to negotiation
  • TELEVISION 15% Subject to negotiation
  • NEWSPAPER & MAGAZINE ARTICLES, S,SHORT FICTION,ANTHOLOGY 15% when applicable (7.5% when contract vetting only)
  • FILM 15% Subject to negotiation

The agreement should also include a termination clause, which allows for either party to terminate the agreement, usually with a month’s prior notice. Generally the agent still collects commission on those works which were sold through them, and will collect commission for any works sold within a set period of time after the termination of the contract if they were the ones who submitted those works to publishers (usually 90 day window).

Given that many authors now follow the hybrid Reeses Approach, it is a good idea to include a clause in any agreement signed that explicitly states that those books which the author directly e-publishes on their own instead of traditionally publishing through the agent and a publisher who will produce physical copies are exempt. But any ebook royalties on the electronic sales of those books published through traditional publishers and negotiated with the help of the agent are included in the commissions they would expect to receive.

The agreement should be short, simple, and clear. I am not a lawyer, but that is my opinion.

So yes, I am a believer in the Reeses Approach to book publishing. I did sign with an agent and I am anxious to sign that first deal with a traditional publisher that he is working to line up for me because I see value in getting hard copies into bookstores and gaining access to the international markets that would be difficult to penetrate as an indie-only writer. I am also loving the indie publishing route and am looking forward to completing the new trilogy, getting those books online, and participating in all of the exciting marketing opportunities for indie writers.

Emotional Roller-Coasters

18 February 2014 | 1 Comment » | frank

roller coasterStow any loose belongings, settle in, buckle up, and hold on for a wild ride.

Great stories are emotional roller coasters that carry readers out of space and time to another place where they can be dropped into pits of despair or thrown high enough to taste glory. They hurl readers through dizzying loops and heart-stopping drops. The vicarious ride explores emotions that readers could never dare consider in real life, but that are necessary to understand nonetheless.

I am not a romance writer, nor am I a horror writer. However those genres prove so successful because they push the limits of opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Just as people flock to the wildest rides at Disney to experience the thrills they can’t get anywhere else, readers flock to stories that push the uttermost limits of the emotional journey.

Great stories are the ones that tap into our emotions. The ones that make us feel the story are the ones we love, the ones that really affect us, the ones we can’t put down. So as a writer, I need to know how to craft a story to tap into emotions of love and romance while also understanding how to drag my readers down into the shadowy catacombs of terror. Without those emotions, stories feel weak, boring, uninspiring.

The best stories are the ones we can relate to, and therefore ones we feel the emotional impact of the greatest. Since we’re talking horror and romance this month, let’s look at a few examples.

JawsJaws. Brilliant. Even now, when I hear two simple notes played on the piano, it triggers memories of the movie. For years after watching Jaws as a kid, I couldn’t help but think of sharks every time I entered the water, any water. Even though I knew there was no way a shark could swim inland hundreds of miles to an isolated lake where my family was swimming, I’d still catch myself looking around for fins in the water. That movie touched on universal fear of being helpless in the water and prey to a creature of the deep. Who hasn’t ever felt that fear? Because it is so universal, everyone can relate to the characters in the movie, everyone can feel their fear.

That’s why horror movies use the dark so much. That fear of the darkness and monsters hiding just out of sight is another universal fear, one that we can tap into across the entire audience.

Great love stories are a little harder, I think. People love different qualities, and love is often very complicated. Then again, some love stories have proven successful through the ages. For example, Pride & Prejudice is one of the most popular love stories of all time. Jane Austen proved she could draw in her audience and tap into their emotions better than almost anyone. Her stories have spawned an entire industry of copycat stories, most of which are set in Victorian England, although other recent successes in that genre include Downton Abbey and North & South. What makes them work?

Pride and PrejudiceA few of the obvious components include:

- Protagonists that the audience can relate to, who have to overcome challenges that people still recognize today. It’s their struggle to overcome those difficulties that make the audience love them and root for them.

- These stories are accurate representations of human nature. The culture and times may be different, but human nature remains consistent. We see people we know in these stories, which allows the audience to connect better.

- Happy endings. People love to claim they don’t need a happy ending, but there’s a reason happy endings work.

The most powerful stories are the wildest of the vicarious emotional roller-coaster rides. The best love stories transport the audience to another time and place, tightly connect them to protagonists whose struggles are relatable and, after torturing those poor characters almost beyond the limits of endurance, return to a happy place that allows the audience to complete the emotional cycle and climb out of the story back to normal life in a good place, coming away refreshed and uplifted.

On the other hand, the best horror stories take the characters on rides that throw them into a pit of evil where they struggle to survive as most of their companions are killed. The emotional ride drags the audience down into powerful terrors they would never face any other way and, after driving them to the breaking point, bring them home safe. That’s why most horror stories end with the one survivor destroying the evil incarnate and limping out of the darkness into the dawn of a new day. The reader arrives home safe, emotionally spent, satisfied, and newly grounded to face their normal life.

The value of those emotional rides cannot be over stated. How much easier is it to deal with mundane challenges of our everyday lives after surviving the man-eating shark or the aliens or the zombies? How difficult are the challenges we face in relationships compared with the obstacles overcome by Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy?

So get emotional. It’s the only way to make it real.

Superstars Writing Seminar – worth attending again

29 January 2014 | 1 Comment » | frank

SuperstarsSuperstars Writing Seminar will be held February 6–8 in Colorado Springs, CO. It is the premier seminar on the business of writing, period. I attended the first seminar, held in 2010 in Pasadena, CA, and I’m eagerly anticipating attending again this year.

I’m not the only alumni of the seminar to sign up for another year, and honestly I would have loved to have gone last year. This Fictorians group was formed from alumni of the Superstars seminar, and members have begun publishing and making their mark as writers. In the near future, we’ll only see that trend increasing, thanks in part to knowledge gained through Superstars.

You may ask yourself why we’re so eager to spend the hundreds of dollars required to invest in another seminar when we learned so much the last time we went.

It’s precisely because we learned so much last time.

This seminar is different than any other writer’s seminar I know of. It’s taught by bestselling authors, top editors, and publishers, but more than that what makes this seminar stand apart is the content. This is a crash course in the business of writing, where successful writing professionals share what they do and how they manage their career. For writers who are serious about their writing career, be they newbie authors who have yet to complete their first novel, or published writers looking to reach the next level, this seminar imparts a wealth of information that I have not found anywhere else.

You can view a high level description of the curriculum here which includes contracts, agents, indie publishing, traditional publishing, intellectual properties, and much more.

The seminar in 2010 was a career-changing experience for me. I arrived as an eager, wannabe writer with lots of enthusiasm and one manuscript completed. I left even more energized and armed with the knowledge I needed to move into the next stage of my career as a writer. Given the constantly moving target which is publishing these days, the specifics of what is taught each year is adjusted accordingly, so I expect this year’s content to be different from what I saw just four years ago.

What I learned four years ago is still fresh in my mind. Some favorite memories include Brandon Sanderson relating how he landed his first agent; Kevin J. Anderson’s popcorn theory; Eric Flint’s detailed discussion of contracts; and the discussion of how prolific an author really needs to be to succeed.

On top of the top-rate content, this seminar provides other fantastic benefits. Not only did we form the Fictorians from alumni of the seminars, but the instructors have remained available and engaged with the group. We have a private Facebook group where we can all post questions and comments and get advice or feedback from each other and from the instructors. The networking benefits of the seminar are proving an invaluable long-term benefit.

This year I approach the seminar from a slightly different point. I have four novels completed, with four more in various stages of outlining, one novel e-published and an agent working on deals with others. This time I have different needs, and I fully expect to gain the knowledge I need to make even greater strides forward in my career.

So is Superstars worth attending again?


If you’ve never heard of Superstars, check it out. I guarantee it’s worth the investment.



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