KDP Select: A Brief Overview

by Christina Lay

A few authors have asked me lately about my experiences with Kindle Direct Publishing’s Select option, so I thought I’d condense my notes and present them here. While the topic might be rather dry, it also might be of interest to those searching for new revenue streams for their published or about to be published works. For those who don’t know, Select is a program offered by KDP, Amazon’s ebook publishing service. By enrolling your ebook, you agree to offer it for sale exclusively on Amazon. In return, you get the option to list your book for free, for up to five days of each three-month enrollment period. This can be a big boon to someone who is using the freebie option as a marketing strategy. The second benefit of Select is that your book is available for “check-out” by anyone paying for a Kindle Unlimited subscription. Amazon pays the author for this by a royalty system that I’m sure keeps many up late into the night. It’s calculated by pages read—and each book gets a share of a monthly pot based on its percent of the total.  If you feel like giving yourself a headache, you can read details here.

I should pause a moment to point out that many seasoned, best-selling authors will warn you quite passionately against putting all of your book eggs in Amazon’s basket. I understand and I see the point very clearly. However, there are instances where having your book in Amazon’s free library might be a viable part of your overall strategy. And, when you sign up, the term is for three months. It is not as if you are selling your literary soul to the behemoth that is Amazon. Just remember to unclick the auto-renew option, so you can escape at will.

Are your books gathering dust? KDP Select might be an option for you.

I discovered the benefits of KDP Select by accident.  I published a very short story a couple years ago, with the intent of offering it for free to generate interest in my novels.  The easiest way to do it seemed to be to sign the book up for KDP Select, so that I could have the option of offering it for free on Amazon with no hassle. I did that, generated about 700 downloads, and I felt fairly satisfied with the whole experiment. There was a bump in novel sales, not big, but enough it seemed to have had a bit of an impact. Also, there were now 700 people in the world who at least were vaguely aware of my existence. Maybe someday they will actually read the story and become a fan, write a review, buy another book. That’s the dream.

Nowadays there are more free giveaway platforms like InstaFreebie and so on, to help with the Free Book gambit, but there are other reasons one might choose KDP Select.

I left my book in Amazon’s clutches without much thought of doing anything else with it. The short story continued to sit up there, neglected by me, and slowly, I noticed a few pennies dribbling into my checking account from Amazon. And yes, I do mean a few pennies.  KU’s author reward system is based on pages read, and my very short story generated very few royalties. I considered it amusing, and somewhat interesting.

Flash forward a few years, and I found myself with the rights to a backlist of novels after my publisher closed its doors. I repackaged them and when ready to re-release, decided to opt for KDP Select on the first book in a series, again mainly to generate interest in the rest.  This time the book was downloaded about 300 times. Not bad but not great either.  But then something else started to happen. Instead of a few dozen pages being logged in my KENP report (what Amazon calls pages read), there were thousands. I became more interested in Amazon’s byzantine reward system.  At the end of the month my pages read for that book resulted in a royalty payment that was about equal to the royalties from books sold, thereby doubling my income. Now, these were not quit-the-day-job-and-move-to-the-south-of-France numbers, but it did spark my interest, shall we say.  I signed up the second book in the series, and experienced the same results.  One might ask whether this diminishes actual sales, but there is no way to tell and by my calculations, the royalty result is nearly the same for a full-length book priced to sell (2.99-4.99). My guess is that readers who are paying for the KU option are probably reluctant to pay for a book, especially when they don’t know the author.

KDP Select is obviously not a good choice for everyone, or even most.  Obviously, if you have a solid fan base, your sales are going well and you feel satisfied with the progress of your publishing career, than signing over your fate to Amazon probably isn’t worth the sacrifice.  It is clearly in your benefit to have your ebooks available through every possible retailer.  And there are other ways to offer books for free.

However, if your sales are lagging, if you have books that have been around the block and are gathering dust on the virtual shelves, or if you have a series that could use a boost, this might be a golden opportunity to reach new readers.  And, if like me, you are an unknown minnow in a vast sea of unknown fish, having your book free on Amazon can give you a marketing lift like no other (assuming you don’t have a huge publicity budget, that is).  Over the span of my publishing experience, I must admit that sales via Amazon equal about ninety percent of my total, so being exclusive is not much of a sacrifice for me, especially not in the short term. Remember this is for ebooks only, not print.  So is it worth sacrificing a handful of sales to B&N and Apple readers? Only you can decide that.

Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.

Patiently Pondering Puddles in Pursuit of Poetry

by Christina Lay

The other morning as I pulled out of my driveway on the way to work, I found myself waiting for a little kid who, squirrel-like, was meandering around in the street right behind my car. I watched him out of my rear view mirror until he was finally far enough away I could continue. Only then did I see what he was doing.  He was going puddle to puddle and jumping in each one, then standing there, transfixed. Maybe field testing his galoshes, or measuring the depths in scientific pursuit, or imagining what it felt like to be a tadpole. Probably delaying arriving at school, much like I delay arriving at work every day.

As I drove away, I flashed back to myself at that age—about seven-ish, I’d guess—and a rainy day on my way home from school. I had to cross a big playing field and that day, the field was more pond than grass. Oblivious to everything else, I wandered back and forth, jumping in puddles, watching the ripples, most likely feeling how cold rain water and wool socks aren’t a good mix and basically having a jolly good time until I heard a car horn beeping. My mom, in a valiant effort to save me from getting soaked in the torrential rains, had driven the five blocks from our house to the end of the field to give me a ride. And there she sat, watching her crazy kid go puddle jumping.

Not much has changed, I’m happy to report. I’m still much more a first-grader in galoshes wandering through the world in questing admiration than a sensible adult who actually arrives at work on time.  But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with writing?

Not a hell of a lot, except for the fact that it’s April (or was when I started writing this), which means torrential spring rains and poetry. April is National Poetry Month and my first thought as I drove away watching that crazy kid standing in the gutter was that he was seeking out little moments of poetry. A scrap of haiku.

Puddles in the path

How can I not jump when

School, the big nap, waits?

So I’m not a poet. But poetry has always informed my writing and when I want to go deeper into a character’s emotion, or the quality of a setting, or the truth behind a relationship, it’s the quiet moments that I seek out. The feel of rain soaking into socks. The reflection of a hazy sun in a puddle.  The things not said.

I’ve been attending the symphony a lot lately, and one thing I’ve been learning is how to appreciate the silences. The purposeful pause, the breath held. With all those instruments clamoring away to create a glorious noise, the moment of silence can be an extremely powerful thing.  As can a reflection in a puddle.

I am naturally a curmudgeon and the louder things get, the faster, brighter, ruder, and more brutal movies, books and music seem to become, the more I resist. The more I want to be the kid in galoshes, oblivious to all but the simple wonders. Like waiting for a hummingbird’s buzz or the trickle of a stream, it takes more effort these days to hear the silence and notice what is not moving, what is not flashing, blinking, or shouting for our attention.

If your characters are in the middle of a screaming argument, a sudden silence might be much more powerful than a string of obscenities. If your character is racing to battle, the sensation of rain soaking into his boots might give us a better glimpse into his heart and mind than the thunder of cannons and the vision of body parts flying.  If Cinderella is arriving at the ball, having her notice a dandelion sprouting through the cracks in the brickwork might prove more telling than an extended description of the palace.

And then everything can explode. Or not.

As entertainers, we do tend to focus on the grand and exciting moments. Nothing wrong with that, as long as we don’t forget the importance of the threads that hold the crazy quilt of reality together. When the ordinary and divine meet, and we look up from the page, and say “oh”. When we as artists achieve the goal of expressing the inexpressible and using words to say what is beyond words.  That’s poetry, and we could all use a little more of it.

It’s Not About The Monster

by Christina Lay

It’s Not About the Monster

Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world. -Ben Okri, poet and novelist (b. 15 Mar 1959)

I just finished writing an entirely different post about the TV Show Stranger Things. Then, after walking away from the computer, it occurred to me that I hadn’t said a single thing about the flashy bits. You know, the monster, the cool other dimension, the ick and awe factor, the “strange things”.

Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t watched Season One yet, you might not want to read this

If you don’t know, Stranger Things is an Amazon original series that I would put in the genre of “Cozy Horror”. It is cozy because our favorite characters tend not to die, and good triumphs over evil, eventually. However, people do die, either at the hands of a rogue government entity or at the ick-dripping talons of the monster.

However, it doesn’t really matter how they die or who/what is chasing our heroes around. The source of The Horror could just as well be an infestation of pissed-off dragons, or powerful magic gone awry, or a swarm of giant ants, or an out of control disease. Personally I prefer monsters. What is important in a show like this is the characters, and how they react to The Horror.

In the first post I wrote, I discussed how we as writers might make up for the fact that we don’t have a three-dimensional Winona Ryder who will leap out of the page and bring our brilliant prose to life for the reader. I’m full of admiration for Winona’s skill and her excellent job of bringing Joyce Byers, the distraught mother in Stranger Things, to life. She is a lot of what makes this show so compelling. So as writers stuck with mere words, we can focus on character development, adding layers and depth to our characters by giving them everything from quirks, gestures, odd habits and facial tics to long and murky histories, skewed motivations, poor coping skills and a smorgasbord of emotions that may or may not control their actions. Winona and the true-to-trope hard drinking sheriff with a murky history, skewed motivations and poor coping skills get most of the action, character-development wise. The true-to-trope gang of nerdy and plucky kids are all great, as is “The Chosen One” with the powerful magic gone awry. A couple side characters like the Princess and The Loner/Outsider have some good moments, and even the good-looking Jock/Jerk gets a shot at redemption. They’re all interesting in their way, adding to the fun by roping us in with their charm.

But it’s Winona as the mom and David Harbour as Chief Hopper who really get to face The Horror, which is what this show, and most stories like it, are all about. In facing The Horror, a character is either destroyed or they prevail. There are so many ways either can happen. One, they can get their head ripped off. That is the ultimate failure. But they can also fail to face their fear, they might run away, they might turn their backs on their friends, they might join the enemy, they might deny the existence of the Horror until it shows up and rips their head off. They might choose to destroy themselves, with alcohol or a supremely reckless act, all the while denying those repressed emotions that are controlling them. The sheriff is drinking and denying in order not to face the emotional truth of having lost a child. The mother, on the other hand, steamrollers her many flaws and actually utilizes them in a supreme effort to save her child. Sometimes, it is an asset to be slightly crazy.

To prevail, one must survive the season (or the novel). Beyond that, the hero must grow, realize her own strengths, identify what is most important, listen to her instincts and intuitions, trust in her allies if they exist, overcome all those cleverly developed character flaws, and defeat the monster. At least for now.

Some viewers might disagree, but I believe this is the key to a successful show, not the cleverness or wow factor of The Horror. Don’t get me wrong, I think the monster in Stranger Things is cool. The Upside Down is a creepy and clever concept that they do well. But it would all put me to sleep if it weren’t for the people who are dealing with, reacting to, dying in the face of, and kicking the ass of The Horror. If those people are one-dimensional, shallow, too true-to-trope to swallow, or just flat out dull, no amount of pyrotechnic evil wizardry is going to keep me tuning in.

This brings us to the question of why we do this to ourselves. Why do we like to watch clever, likable, heroic characters be tortured and tested in this way? I think the answer is pretty simple, and it’s why we tell stories at all. We all have a Horror in our life, maybe several. Maybe they’re small horrors, but the world is full of big horrors and it takes very little imagination to conceive of The Horror being visited upon ourselves. A cozy horror TV show like Stranger Things allows to process some of that pent up fear, and it lets us watch “ordinary” characters take the bull by the horns and defeat The Horror. Yes, it is cathartic, and it is just scary enough to let off some of scream steam and, possibly, allow us embrace the happy for now ending and the hope that good not only can but will triumph over evil.

Now Non-cozy Horror, where everyone dies? I don’t know what’s up with that. Liz?

 

 

 

 

 

Do The Hop

by Christina Lay

If you’re a writer looking for low-cost marketing opportunities, there’s no shortage of options. With so many social media platforms, apps, websites and companies offering all sorts of promotional services, deciding on what is an effective use of your time and resources can be overwhelming. I am personally in a constant state of whelmed, especially now that I am promoting a series of books on behalf of ShadowSpinners Press and not just my own. This requires me to reach across genres, constantly in search of that blog, ezine, reviewer or tour company that can help me get the word out to the right set of readers. It ain’t easy, and is very much a matter of experimentation, not to mention that results can be hard to determine.

One activity I’ve found to be consistently worth my time is participating in blog hops. For those of you who have no idea what that is, a hop is usually set up in one central location (a dedicated webpage or perhaps a feature on an author’s blog) where the links to all the participants’ blogs are listed. The idea is that the reader can go to one location to find many authors in one place. Often the hop is united by genre, sometimes holiday specific flash fiction, or even a cause, like the Hop Against Homophobia. Often they take place once a week on the same day all year. Sometimes they are an annual event.

Most of the blogs I’ve participated in require the author post a short excerpt from their work. I find this to be by far the least painful form of blogging, as it requires minimal effort to assemble a post. Also, an excerpt is the best way for a reader to decide if they are interested in reading more. But there are more benefits to blog hopping than marketing. Below are the main reasons I’ve kept this up even while other promotional activities fall by the wayside.

  • Connect with other writers: Writing is a lonely endeavor, and workshops and conferences can be few and far between. Regular participation in a hop can lead to virtual friendships with like-minded writers (and readers!). Not only can you commiserate, ask questions, and share victories, a virtual connection can lead to much more. My hopping has earned me an interview on USA Today online, guest spots on numerous blogs, chances at group marketing, sales, reviews and connections with authors who’ve contributed to this blog.
  • Spy on other writers: You don’t have to visit many blogs to figure out which writers have it going on. Their websites are professional, their content is engaging, and they are always friendly and willing to reciprocate. When I find a writer whose presentation I admire, I check out what they’re up to. What other hops do they participate in? Who hosts their website? What sort of promos do they run? Who creates their book covers? What does their newsletter look like? There are all sorts of things you can learn just by looking around, and a hop is a great place to find active, professional indie writers.
  • Motivational Editing: There’s nothing like putting your work out there for all the world to see to get you to do that critical bit of proofreading and editing. Most blog hop posts are short, so you really get to hone in on those few precious words. The hop I most frequently participate in, Weekend Writing Warriors, limits excerpts to ten sentences. Because I’d like to get a satisfying mini-scene into the post, I often find that I can cut a sentence or two and make that paragraph stronger and more exciting.
  • Motivational Writing: If you’re the kind of writer who needs a little push, knowing you need that scene or those ten sentences or that piece of flash written in time for the hop you signed up for can really get you going, especially at 10 PM the night before when you’d rather be binge watching Paranormal.
  • Find books to read! Writers are readers, believe or not. I’ve purchased many books based on excerpts I read on hops, and have even become addicted to a series or two. These from Indie writers I never would have discovered otherwise.
  • Keep that blog active: As I said before, posting an excerpt is easy-peasy compared to crafting an article from scratch. Every writer knows they have to have a website, but then what? How do you keep it from sitting untouched for months at a time? Commit to an ongoing blog hop, and you won’t have to rack your brain for ideas.

Here’s a list of a few hops to check out. And if you don’t find one to suit you, you can always start your own.

www.weekendwritingwarriors.com

http://www.thatartsyreadergirl.com/top-ten-tuesday/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/snippetsunday/

https://www.facebook.com/groups/RainbowSnippets/

 

 

 

World Fantasy 2017 ~ Stealth Version

by Christina Lay

LoST Command Central

 

This November I had the interesting experience of attending the World Fantasy convention in San Antonio as a vendor. This is the first time I’ve attended WF, and my first time as a vendor, so there was a lot to learn before I even set foot in the convention hotel foyer. Luckily, a chair behind a table in the dealers’ room is an excellent vantage point. True, I missed 99.9% of the programming, but I did get to watch all 900 attendees walk by and was able to speak to quite a few.

Preparing to present the new series of Labyrinth of Souls novels from ShadowSpinners Press  at a large convention like WF was daunting and there were about a hundred and one details to figure out as I stumbled along. It would have been helpful to have attended WF before so I could have observed how things worked. For instance, I had no idea I could sign up the Labyrinth of Souls authors for a reading. Luckily, Stephen Vessels new all about such matters and arranged a reading for us on the fly. And I didn’t find out there was a hospitality suite serving free lunch until Elizabeth Engstrom stopped by and filled me in. I also didn’t know that just by virtue of having books at the convention I was signed up to participate in the big author signing. Good thing Nina Kiriki Hoffman was there to sit beside me and lure people close with her sweet smile and multi-colored pens. I also thought that sitting behind a table for eight hours a day, four days in a row wouldn’t be much different from the day job. Wrong! Someone has to be there just in case- heaven forbid- someone wants to buy a book. I was doubly blessed to have Matt Lowes and Pam Herber there to relieve me and make sure I didn’t pass out from a lack of hot coffee. So the first and most important lesson I learned is this: have friends who know stuff. I was extremely lucky in this respect. If you’re on own at WF or any big con, be sure to make friends (aka future minions) fast.

Me and Nina at the Author signing.

While all the introverts in the room shudder over the idea of mingling with a herd of strangers, I’ll point out that being a vendor was a very handy thing for me; introvert extraordinaire. I had a place to be and a reason for being there. Nothing like a wall of books to sit behind to 1. Give you an instant topic of conversation and 2. Make you look like have a clue. Although I could not totally avoid the dreaded “small talk with strangers awkward whirlpool of death”, I did find it much easier to interact with the people who stopped by and showed interest in the books.  I even got to pretend to be nonchalant when Terry Brooks came over and looked at our books because I was busy processing a payment! So much better than standing there with an idiotic grin and a bad case of brain freeze.

Naturally there were just enough last minute gremlin-in-the-works type issues to keep me anxious and hyperventilating up to and through the first day. For instance, as we rushed to get the fifth book published and shipped to San Antonio, the printer inexplicably rejected the cover file was  over and over. Eventually they shrugged and said, “yeah, it was our mistake, but we don’t know why.” Nice to know, but not helpful as you end up paying for expedited shipping without having seen a proof and then waiting at the table for the last-second, unseen books to arrive. Second most important lesson, never leave things to the last minute. The last minute being…say…three months before you think you actually need the things.

Other issues/ opportunities that might come up: using the Paypal app on your sure-to-be-surly-and-uncooperative new cell phone, getting a sales permit and forgetting to collect sales tax in Texas, the timing of shipping hundreds of books to a hotel at the same time as 900 other people, negotiating the underground labyrinthine world of a convention hotel, figuring out how to have your corporeal self and fifty books in two places at once, and so on.

So mine was a sort of behind the table, tucked in a corner view of World Fantasy. I got the impression that it was it a pretty awesome con for those attending as readers and writers. I met a lot of interesting folks, heard about some great speakers and panels, sold some books, was given a pile of books, received a lot of compliments for the look and concept of the series and generally had a good time. Was it worth the time, expense and serial headaches? Definitely. The third important thing I learned was that the World of Fantasy is in good shape, and I’m very proud to be a contributing part of it.

 

 

The Essential Ingredient of Story

by Christina Lay

Story:

An invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot. – Merriam-Webster

A plot or storyline. Or an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment. – Oxford Dictionary

A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale. A lie or fabrication. – Dictionary.com

Story is the full sequence of events in a work of fiction as we imagine them to have taken place, in the order in which they would have occurred in life (as opposed to plot). -The Balance

A description of how something happened – Idoceonline.com

What makes a story a story? I’m sure we all have a fairly good idea of what ingredients are needed to turn a collection of words into a story. I know I do, and when I was recently given the opportunity to judge a flash fiction short story contest, I didn’t hesitate to cull about half the submissions on the grounds of “this isn’t a story”, which then got me to thinking about why.

No doubt, it’s much harder to craft a complete story in 400 words or less than in say, 3,000, but it is possible. It’s even possible to craft a story in six words. This classic example is often attributed to Hemmingway:

For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never worn.

Why is this a story? This string of words has action (something being advertised for sale), a character or possibly more (infant and mother, maybe parents), and a conflict/problem (never worn implies a miscarriage or early death).

Clearly, much is left to the reader’s imagination and certain ingredients that you might consider essential to story are left out. Some definitions of story include setting as a required element. There’s none here. Some also describe a story as requiring a plot. Not so much.

So really, when you boil story down to its bare essentials, what do you really need? Jerry Oltion, a successful and prolific writer of science fiction stories, came up with the concept of the “foot stool” story, in which he boils down story to “a character in a situation with a problem”. The challenge is to weed out all the unnecessary elements and write a straight forward story using only those three “legs”, or ingredients.

Going back to those flash fiction pieces that didn’t meet the basic requirements, what was really missing? Certainly they all had a situation, or setting. Most had a character or two. Few had “a problem”. Most of them described a series of events. But in the end, what really kept them from being a story in my opinion was that, although some things happened, there was no indication that anything had changed. Suzy might have walked to the market and bought a tomato, but her state of mind never altered. She wanted a tomato, she got it. The End. No obstacles stood in the way of her getting a tomato and her lack of a tomato caused no particular hardship. She didn’t lose her wallet on the way. She didn’t live in Alaska and find herself taxed with making a Caprese Salad for her exacting in-laws only to find there were no decent vegetables to be had. Nope. Just a nice walk to the market to buy a nice tomato with ample funds for no apparent reason.

This, I believe, is the crux of story. Not only does a thing, or a bunch of things happen, but someone or something changes. The essential ingredient is change; an emotional shift, in both the character and the reader.

Many of the rejected flash fiction pieces struck me as prose poems. Not that a prose poem can’t also be a story, but in this case, the intention (or unintended result) of the writer’s efforts was more of a mood piece, a description of a place or a time. Partially due to the nature of the contest, the pieces tended to invoke one emotion –nostalgia—and that one emotion didn’t change, develop, or grow. Some of the pieces were quite lovely, but static, like a pastoral landscape. This does not make for compelling fiction.

The six word story example is dramatic. The reader goes from a neutral situation, For Sale, to maybe warm fuzzies or fondness or even revulsion (it happens) at the idea of Baby. Then, with Never Worn, there is a shift, an emotional impact. We know nothing of this baby and its parents, but chances are, empathy is invoked.

One of the most important things I ask myself now as I embark on telling any story is how will my character change? What affect will this event or series of events have on them or possibly the people around them? Why? These crucial questions then can lead to many more story-building leads, like why is this happening now? Is it inevitable? What choices and obstacles will my character face as they resist or embrace the change?

If I can’t answer the first basic question –how will my character change—I then have a question for myself. Why am I writing this? Is this a story, or a poem, or something else entirely?