- Books for writers
- FAQ: I’m a new writer: which book should I read first?
- FREE Nail Your Novel Instant Fix: 100 Tips For Fascinating Characters
- My writing process: the picture tour
- Nail Your Novel: A Companion Workbook
- Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence
- Reviews of Nail Your Novel
- Who’s tweeting about Nail Your Novel …
- Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
- Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel
- Email me
Posts Tagged Kobo
Tomorrow (or maybe today or last week, depending on when you’re served this post) I’ll be taking part in a Book Industry Communication debate on the future of ISBNs. I’m providing the author perspective, so as part of my research I canvassed opinions to see what the mood is.
Much of the feedback centred on whether authors should buy ISBNs or use the free ones from CreateSpace, Smashwords et al. There were sound arguments on each side. But what emerged for me was the way self-publishers view ourselves. It’s a snapshot of our times that goes a lot further than a little piece of industry bureaucracy.
For and against
Julia Jones, one of my co-conspirators at Authors Electric, said she bought ISBNs ‘to behave like a publisher in every way’ – a view shared by many. Plenty of authors feel to have their own ISBN is more professional, lets you be seen and counted, and gives you control.
Other writers – among them author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn – feel having their own ISBN makes no difference: ‘I can’t see any benefit, or evidence that having a paid ISBN helps you sell more books’. As Joanna sells whopping numbers of her novels and non-fiction books, we certainly can’t argue with that. (I agree with her. Personally I’d rather put the money towards a better cover or more editing time.)
But it was a comment from Michael N Marcus, who writes and publishes books about self-publishing that hit a bullseye for me: ‘If you want to be known as an author, the ownership of the ISBN is unimportant. If you want to be known as a publisher, own the ISBNs you use.’
Now that’s a very interesting view. We’ll return to that in a moment.
But look, no ISBNs at all
Most striking was Dan Holloway, who publishes experimental fiction and poetry – both his own and that of others. He doesn’t use ISBNs at all – even for printed books. He says: ‘I write and publish for a niche, dedicated audience, providing an experience they can’t get elsewhere. I work with selected independent bookstores and galleries and send customers to them for my books, rather than having my books available everywhere.’ He’s not even on Amazon.
Dan is a firm believer in direct selling: ‘We should be trying to get our fans to buy direct from our websites if we can to foster community – we want to nurture fans with stickability, who will become our bedrock over the years, and the best way to do that is to have a hub that exposes them to us, our ideas and worlds, and all that we have to offer. I buy all my music direct from bands, for example.’
You might think this is a recipe for obscurity. Au contraire, Dan’s ISBN-free books have twice received special mentions for the Guardian‘s first book award, been shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize, and been voted ‘favourite Oxford novel’ by readers at the Oxford branch of Blackwell’s.
Author or publisher? Or something else?
I keep coming back to Michael’s interesting distinction and I think he’s nailed something important. Certainly I put most effort into building an identity as an author rather than a publisher. Like Dan, I am most keen to find people who like my imagination and preoccupations, my way of thinking. Having said that, I like publishing and I want to publish myself; I enjoy the control and creativity. I can also, if needed, wave a CV that demonstrates years as a production editor/chief sub/editorial manager, so perhaps that’s why it’s no big deal for me and you should discount my view as I’m not typical of self-publishers.
Other authors feel ISBNs are an important part of their brand and image – one of many signifiers of their professionalism.
Now, more than ever, there is no ‘one right way’ to self-publish well. We’re all finding our own paths. You might be a Dan, a Julia, a Roz, a Joanna. Most probably you’re something else again. I’d love to know. Oh, and wish me luck tomorrow.
What kind of self-publisher are you?
author platform, authors, Battle of ISBNs, BIC, BIC battles, Blackwell's Bookshop, Book Industry Communication, books, bullseye, buying ISBNs, conspirators, CreateSpace, Dan Holloway, Do Authors Dream of Electric Books?, Eight Cuts, free ISBNs, free ones, Golden Duck, how to write a book, how to write a novel, independent authors, indie authors, ISBNs, Joanna Penn, Julia Jones, Kobo, Michael N Marcus, My Memories of a Future Life, non fiction books, Oxford, publishing, Roz Morris, self publishers, self-publishing, Silver Sands Books, Smashwords, sound arguments, The Creative Penn, The Guardian, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
When I was Kobo’s Writer in Residence at the London Book Fair last month, they were fascinated to hear about my series The Undercover Soundtrack. Firstly because they’re keen on fostering innovative ways for writers to get together and make contact with readers. And second, because they were busily scribbling their own novels and were imagining what they’d say was on their soundtracks!
Anyway, they asked me to write an introductory piece for the Kobo Writing Life blog. If you’ve ever wondered what all those red posts are, here’s Undercover Soundtrack 101. I tried to mention as many past posts as possible – so if you’ve been one of my guests, hop over there and see if you’re starring on the Kobo blog…
authors, books, creativity, cross-creativity, deepen your story, fiction, guest post, how to write a book, how to write a novel, inspiration, Kobo, Kobo Writing Life, literature, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, The Undercover Soundtrack, undercover soundtrack, writing, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart, writing to music
As indies get ever more professional, an entire service industry is springing up to offer us services for every occasion. At this year’s London Book Fair, the Authors’ Lounge was heaving with suppliers, and no shortage of willing customers. While it’s great to have access to these, authors are ripe for rip-off.
This week David Gaughran highlighted unscrupulous companies that charge exorbitant prices, or hoodwink authors into paying for services that could be obtained for very little or no cost.
So this post is a self-publishing 101; a catch-up for those who are wondering what they need to spend money on. In some cases, knowledge is the answer; all books, authors and genres are different, and one supplier does not fit all.
It’s virtually impossible to publish a book without any expenditure, but we can make sure we use our budgets wisely – and stop writers filling the pockets of unscrupulous suppliers who are getting rich on our dreams.
Some authors don’t know they can create their own user accounts on Smashwords, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo and CreateSpace. Or how simple it is – basically, no more difficult than entering your details in a mail-order website.
Some companies offer to upload your books through their account, but this is unnecessary. Even if you don’t make the files yourself, you can still upload them. If your service company went out of business, what would happen to your book listings? Moreover, if a third party controls your access to these publishing platforms, it’s harder to adjust your book’s appearance and description – which as you’ll see is essential to successful self-publishing.
This week, as you may have gathered, I published the follow-up to Nail Your Novel. I was rusty with the e-platforms, but it didn’t take long to get reacquainted.
Basic ebook formatting is dead simple if you can use Word on an everyday average level. You don’t need to be a wizard, but you do have to be meticulous. The best instructions are at the Smashwords Style Guide, a free book with diagrams and reassuringly clear instructions. There are a couple of other useful links in this post I wrote 2 years ago when I first ventured onto Kindle. I reread them when I uploaded my new book last week and it all went smoothly.
Indeed, if you have Scrivener, it will format ebooks for you.
Print book interiors
Print books are more tricky than ebooks, and amateur ones can look dreadful. But there are various tools to help beginners do a good job for very little money.
I recommend you read Catherine Ryan Howard’s book Self-Printed, which I used the first time I ventured onto CreateSpace and I still keep to hand to remind myself how to set up a book. She also has a ton of other useful guidance on book formatting.
How do you make the interior? CreateSpace provides Word templates, if you need help (although I make my books in a design program and upload a PDF). CS templates are pretty plain, and Word isn’t ideal for interior formatting, but it’s fine for novels, which require hardly any design. In any case, a neat finish isn’t created by fancy typesetting, it’s from consistency and readability – and you can find a post I wrote on that here.
If you want a slicker look for little money, try Joel Friedlander’s book design templates for use in Word. Joel has created interiors that you graft your text into – which is exactly what happens when books are designed in mainstream publishers (although they don’t use Word).
Which print-on-demand company should you use? There are two main options: Lightning Source and CreateSpace. LS isn’t suitable for beginners. It costs to start a book project and proofs are expensive. CS, though, is free to set up and holds your hand. Here’s a post I wrote comparing the two for novice publishers.
A great cover is money well spent. But you need to take creative control because you could end up with something unsuitable, horrible, or even illegal if the designer downloaded images from Google instead of sourcing them legitimately. This happens.
When you hire a cover designer, you need to know how to choose them and how to know when the job has been done properly. Identify your genre, familiarise yourself with its most successful covers, then you’ll know how to judge which designer is right for your book. Here’s a post I wrote recently on getting a cover designed.
At LBF I talked to a publicity company to find out how they’d publicise a literary novel. They hadn’t tackled literary fiction before, and seemed unwilling to admit it until I pressed them hard. If I’d been a newbie, they’d have been selling me expensive packages that were unsuitable for my book. (I wasn’t looking to buy anyway; I was asking out of curiosity.)
With marketing, learn as much as you can before you hire publicists or buy advertising. I’ve learned a lot from Joanna Penn’s blog, and this is where I’d send you too.
Not all marketing has to cost money. Book descriptions, price point, tagging, titling and categorisation will all affect whether your book can be found by its ideal readers and you can experiment and tweak ad infinitum. (Remember I said you don’t want to have to ask a third party whenever you adjust your book’s back end? This is a good reason why.) You might find you know more about marketing than you realise, as I did when I was asked to write this guest post.
- Choosing a Self-Publishing Service by the Alliance of Independent Authors
- and Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran
psst… Editorial services
First, of course, you need a book that’s fit to be published. In a publisher, there would be a team of people handling different editing stages:
- developmental (the big picture: book structure, characters, narrative voice, plot etc)
- copyediting (niggly details like plot consistency, names, timelines)
- proofing (looking for typos and other mistakes)
It’s worth hiring expertise to help you with these and it’s unlikely that you can do it cheap. But you can choose wisely: here’s my post on issues to be aware of.
What other warnings and tips would you add to my self-publishing 101?
Alive and sparking now on all ebook formats
Alliance of Independent Authors, authors, Authors’ Lounge, book design, book marketing, books, business, Catherine Ryan Howard, Choosing a Self-Publishing Service, cover designers, CreateSpace, David Gaughran, Ebook formatting, ebooks, editing services, how do I make ebooks, how to make ebooks, how to self-publish, how to self-publish free, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Joanna Penn, Joel Friedlander’s book design templates, Kindle, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo, Let’s Get Digital, Lightning Source, literature, London Book Fair, marketing, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, POD, print on demand, publishing, Roz Morris, Self-printed, self-publishing, self-publishing 101, self-publishing scams, self-publishing services, Smashwords, technology, The Creative Penn, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama
Book marketing, self-publishing – and should you seek a publisher? All the fun of the London Book Fair 2013
Last week I was one of Kobo’s writers in residence at the London Book Fair. Several of the questions I was asked reminded me that every day, writers are trying to grasp this new publishing world. I thought it might be helpful to post their FAQs.
Should I post samples of my book on my blog to tempt people to buy?
You could, but you don’t need to. The ebook stores offer a sample of the beginning before readers buy. Here are two other things I do.
- I use the eye-catching animated widget from Bookbuzzr (here’s Nail Your Novel).
- I also have an audio file of the first 4 chapters of my novel – 35 minutes of listening, perfect for a commute. It’s either downloadable (hosted as a file in Google Docs) or there’s an immediate-play version on Soundcloud.
Should I make a print edition?
If you’re going to meet readers in real life, yes. For my talk, I’d brought along print copies. When I pulled them out of my bag, the reaction was immediate and adoring, as if they were fluffy kittens. Even from the Kobo staff. People picked the books up, flicked through the pages, stroked the spine, read the back (spine and back covers are as important as front). I was amazed, actually, at how much impact a print edition makes.
I have a post here about interior formatting, but it’s quite a faff if you’re not used to it. Which leads me to…
If your book is traditionally published, the publisher does a lot of jobs you’re probably not aware of. Developmental editing, copy editing, proofing, design of cover and interior, typesetting and ebook formatting. It’s a growing business to offer these services to indie authors, so The Alliance of Independent Authors has released Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013, with testimonials and warnings where necessary. Before you part with any money, get this book.
What can I do to market my book?
The guys at the KDP stand reported that this year’s number one question was ‘why isn’t my book selling’? (Some writers were ruder than that. I saw a furious lady collar an Amazonian and growl: ‘I have five books on KDP, what are you going to do about selling them?’. If Amazon starts offering marketing services, don’t wail that they’re evil. They get asked about it day in, day out. And it’s very unfair to blame them for it. They just give you the space to use.)
Amazon had some sensible replies: get a stand-out cover, choose categories wisely, write a cracking blurb, get honest reviews, generate curiosity about your work. And (the representative said this with an embarrassed cough): make sure the book is good.
More on marketing
Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre (on Twitter as @MarkLeslie) gave a rousing presentation on writers connecting with readers. One method was ‘street teams’. Remember The Tufty Club? These days, post-Tufty writers are inviting fans to join dedicated sites and giving away special editions, tie-in jewellery, bags and temporary tattoos. If it fits your genre (I can’t quite imagine a red piano tattoo myself) you could make up a few as competition giveaways.
Another tactic Mark described was authors who band together as a bigger presence. Group blogs in a genre such as Crime Fiction Collective, author collectives (such as Triskele Books and Authors Electric) curated collections such as the League of Extraordinary Authors). And of course there are themed blogs like my Undercover Soundtrack.
One of the takeaways is that marketing isn’t one-shot. It’s about staying visible, steadily and sustainably. As with the editorial and production services, there are a lot of marketing companies who’ll take authors’ money for campaigns, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t need a big budget to keep your work on the radar, you just need imagination and likeminded souls. Paid advertising and publicity has its place but there’s a lot you can do yourself.
Let readers pre-order your book
Did you know Kobo lets you create a page for pre-orders? I didn’t. Why would you do this? Because when the book launches, you then get a big spike of sales because they all process on the same day. This pushes you further up the charts and makes you more visible in the Kobo store. Now, if I can just get my blurb written for Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life…
BTW I changed my Twitter name
If you follow my writing advice stream you might have noticed I changed my handle from @DirtyWhiteCandy to @NailYourNovel. @DirtyWhiteCandy was the original name of my blog. I kept it as my Twitter name because I liked its bossy vibe, but as the years go on, fewer people would know (or care) where it came from and if people are looking for writing advice they’d be more likely to follow a tweep called @NailYourNovel. These days, indie author-publishers are looking smart and slick, rather than roguishly maverick. So, much as I liked the @DirtyWhiteCandy story and sass, it has to go.
FAQ: Should I submit to publishers and agents or should I self-publish?
Hmm. Sound of teeth being sucked. Look back over this post and you’ll see the amount of work involved in publishing. You don’t just write a book, upload and hope the fairies tell the world. You need expert help to create it and you need partners to spread the word. Publishers and agents can be your allies if the deal is right.
One of the highlights for many was the heaving turnout at the Author Lounge in the digital quarter. Every author event was swarming with eager listeners. Authors report overhearing agents muttering about tumbleweed blowing through the foreign rights section, while on the upstart digital stands, all was abuzz.
But don’t be misled. In our own corner authors were calling the shots, but the rest of the conference told a different story.
1: Neil Gaiman
On the Sunday before the main fair, there was the Digital Minds Conference. The keynote speech was given by Neil Gaiman. I have to wonder what the delegates were meant to learn from him about digital media.
LBF’s press releases made much of the fact that he blogs and has a lot of Twitter followers. But, my friends, that’s because he was traditionally published. The publishers may have lauded themselves for inviting an author to tell them the way ahead, but they chose one who reinforces their faith in the old model. Even in his struggling years, Gaiman wasn’t like most new authors, writing books on spec while having another job. He was a contractor at DC Comics, getting paid while he made the work that made his name. In fact, why didn’t they ask JK Rowling, who famously lived hand to mouth while writing?
Better still, their figurehead could have been a bestselling indie author who made their success purely from publishing’s new digital tools. Hugh Howey, anybody? Instead they had Gaiman comparing publishing with a dandelion, throwing seeds out haphazardly and seeing what works.
2: Ahem – monstrous storytelling
Elsewhere at the Fair, the authors weren’t getting much credit. I went to the session on digital storytelling. This featured a panel of publishers and developers, but no actual storytellers – the authors.
One of the panel members, Henry Volans of Faber Digital, wrote an accompanying piece for the Bookseller, in which he mentioned Dave’s Frankenstein app. He credited it to the publisher, Profile Books, and the developer, Inkle. He never mentioned Dave, the author. Now, forgive the personal bias but I hope you’ll see it illustrates a wider point. Dave had the entire idea. He pitched it to Profile, figured out how to make it work, reenvisioned and expanded the entire novel to the tune of 150,000 words. (Here are his posts in case you’re curious: part 1, 2 and 3.) The developer (Inkle) was hired by the publisher to add software and graphics. The reader’s experience comes mainly from the writing, not the pictures or the machinery.
After yet another pundit wrote about Frankenstein and gave all the credit to Profile and the developer, Dave quipped on Twitter: ‘I very much enjoy Amazon’s Wool and Bloomsbury’s Harry Potter.’
Back to the Book Fair
Just two examples, but they betray a general attitude. In an era of revolutions, who gives publishers hope? Somebody who’s conquered the new world? No, a lovable demi-god of the old one. Who might tell them what new products the book might evolve into? The people who understand readers so well they can push the artform onwards? No, the middle men.
Authors still aren’t seen as significant contributors to the industry. And this is reflected in the deals publishers offer. They know you’re far more heavily invested in your book than they are and they’ll take unforgivable advantage. They’ll word the contract with woolly clauses that say ‘at our discretion’ and ‘in our opinion’, which mean they can do whatever they like with your rights and your manuscript. They’ll help you with the launch for a couple of weeks, after which you’ll be as alone as if you’d self-published, only you’ll make even less money. Leaving aside the emotional attachment, they have no idea that the work you put in on the average book probably amounts to two man years, and their contribution is a few man months.
Just tell me, should I seek a publisher?
I still think if you’re new to the industry you should query, because you never know what opportunities you might find. You might get feedback that helps you make the book better, or confirms you’re ready to reach out to the market in whatever way suits you.
An agent is probably more help to you at the moment than a publisher. Even if they don’t get you a deal, it’s a contact in the industry, should you need it. But also consider the agent’s motivation. They’re not risk-takers or talent-nurturers. They want you to make a deal, otherwise they don’t get paid. You might get an offer that looks like quite a lot of money, but it might be all you see and the terms might be punitive.
Publishers at the moment don’t seem to be worth the bother. Smart authors can do better for themselves, but this can’t continue. For a while, publishers will bluster on, trying to keep things the way they are. But in a few years’ time, they might be offering true partnerships and fair, transparent deals.
Bottom line? Explore all your options. Treat publishers like any other partnership or service you might use. Evaluate what they will do for you and what you will give them. Self-publishing offers you a powerful walk-away point, which you can use as a bargaining chip even if you want a traditional deal.
Thanks to everyone who dropped in to see me at LBF! If this post hasn’t bludgeoned you with options and confusion, is there anything else you’d like to ask about publishing?
agents, Amazon, author collectives, authors, blogging, Bloomsbury, book marketing, BookBuzzr, books, fiction, Frankenstein, Frankenstein app, gaming, Google docs, how to market your book, how to publish to Kindle, how to sell your book, how to use KDP, how to write a book, how to write a novel, Hugh Howey, Inkle Studios, interactive storytelling, JK Rowling, KDP, Kindle, Kobo, Kobo Writing Life, LBF13, literature, London Book Fair 2013, Mark Lefebvre, My Memories of a Future Life, Neil Gaiman, Profile Books, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, should you get a literary agent, Smashwords, Soundcloud, The Bookseller, The Undercover Soundtrack, videogames, Wool, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, writing business, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
I have such conversations all the time, but never in that place. I was freelancing on the magazine where once upon a time I was a full-time sub-editor. It was a day of facts, punctuation, page proofs, libel-watching, house style, hard news and deadlines.
Then one of the desk editors told me he’d started a novel and we jumped universes.
First he told me he’d had a story idea. An idle ‘what if’ moment; an entertaining daydream. Then, purely to keep track, it became necessary to write it down.
One day he discovered a book that seemed made for this situation (not Nail Your Novel; we need to have words about that). Before then, he hadn’t known that author manuals existed. He hadn’t done writing exercises since his journalism training, but now he found himself drawing up character sheets and developing back stories.
Ideas continued to ambush him, raining out of the sky like the pieces from random jigsaws. He saw an outlandish person on the train. Big hat, fur coat and tarantula-tight jeans: exactly what his character would wear. Once transplanted into the manuscript, the character disobeyed the story plan and did something else. It’s now a crime novel, which my colleague didn’t intend, but the characters made him do it.
He’s a journalist. He finds the facts, gets the quotes and rattles out the words. This novel, though, is not playing ball. Although it follows him like a mental entourage, it only speaks and moves when he’s not at the keyboard or can’t grab a pen. Strap-hanging on the train, interviewing an expert. Even in the shower. He declared this with some outrage, as though the characters had snuck in and swiped the curtain. Which is pretty much how he regards the whole surprising business.
Writing has been my habit for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like when it was new. Of course we never stop honing our craft but these days my zone of discovery has shifted to marketing, finding where I fit and what new platform I need to learn. Although these tools and possibilities are fresh and exciting, it’s nice to be reminded how I got here and what it all comes back to.
Tell me: how did you get here?
Thanks for the drawing, Freya Hartas, used with permission
NEWS If you’re at the London Book Fair on Wednesday this week, drop by the Kobo stand where I’ll be Writer In Residence! This is a rather astonishing development and I’m still pinching myself, but I’ll write a roundup post afterwards where I can indulge the ‘wow’ moment and hopefully say something useful too. Navigate your way to stand Y505 in the digital zone between 2.30 and 3pm on Wednesday 17th April (or instruct your nose to find coffee because it’s near the cafe).
authors, beginners, books, crime fiction, fiction, having ideas, how to write a book, how to write a novel, inspiration, Kobo, literature, London Book Fair 2013, My Memories of a Future Life, novelist, novelists, novels, Planning, publishing, Roz Morris, self-publishing, starting to write, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?
The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…
What are we talking about?
Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).
Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.
Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)
How exact do these act points have to be?
If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.
Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:
Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around
They do indeed. And that’s good.
Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.
Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.
Equal but not equal
Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.
I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)
Act 1 contains set-up, which has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)
In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.
In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.
Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.
Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.
Novels aren’t movies
Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.
So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!
What would you say to Jen?
Update December 2014: if you liked this discussion, you’ll find loads more in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel – which is launching right now! Special pre-release price if you reserve a copy before 5 January.
3-act structure, 3-point arc, 4-act structure, 4-point arc, Alliance of Independent Authors, authors, Blake Snyder, books, climax, deepen your story, Depth & Heart, fiction, four-act structure, four-point arc, having ideas, Hollywood scripts, how to write a book, how to write a novel, inciting incident, Kobo, literary fiction, literature, London Book Fair, midpoint, movie scripts, My Memories of a Future Life, narrative arc, novels, oscars, Planning, plot point, plot points, polishing, publishing, revising, Rewriting, Robert McKee, Roz Morris, secret of story structure, self-publishing, Smashwords, story structure, Syd Field, three-act structure, three-point arc, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, writing life, Writing Plots With Drama
- Comments from experts… how to use factual feedback wisely in your story (and not go mad when your plot falls apart) June 13, 2021
- Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, author/Bookstagrammer @KateESalisbury (and me!) at @Litopia June 6, 2021
- I made this! Ever Rest is now available June 4, 2021
- How I made my writing career – novelist, writing coach and educator Connie Biewald May 24, 2021
- Reading as a duty and reading for pleasure… plus the oldest book on my shelf. At @jaffareadstoo May 23, 2021
- And then there were three – 7 steps of a long-haul novel May 18, 2021
- Writers, can’t kill your darlings? Read this May 8, 2021