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.

What Did You Win, Eric?

 

Littlest Death: An Afterlife Fantasy (a.k.a., Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel):
Winner: Independent Publishers Awards Silver Medal for Fantasy.
Winner: International Book Awards for Visionary Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Fantasy Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Best New Fiction
Finalist: International Book Awards for Cross-Genre Fiction

What Did You Win, Eric?
by Eric Witchey

Last time I posted in this blog space, I talked about award sickness because one of my novels had just won the Silver Medal for Fantasy Fiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Since then, that same novel has won First Honors in the Visionary Fiction category from the International Book Awards. It also won finalist (top five) positions in several other categories, including Fantasy Fiction. At the same time, another novel of mine won First Honors in the Fantasy Fiction category from the International Book Awards. Yet another book won a Finalist position for both cover design and short fiction. The books are, respectively, Littlest Death: A Labyrinth of Souls Novel from ShadowSpinners Press, Bull’s Labyrinth from IFD Publishing, and Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure from IFD Publishing.

Note: Thanks are in order here for Alan M. Clark for his cover designs for both Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure and Bull’s Labyrinth.

Has my good problem, Award Sickness, gotten worse? Yes. Yes, it has. Thank you for asking. On top of that, I now have another good problem. I now have conversations that go sort of like this:

“Congratulations! What kind of stuff did you win?”

“Uh. Um.” Eric looks down and shuffles his feet.

“Really,” they say. “Cash, like the Pulitzer or the Nobel?”

“Uh. No. It’s not like that.” Eric waves his hands as if to push the assailant away and avoid embarrassment.

“Well, what then?”

“Stickers?” It sounds so tiny and pointless to Eric, so he adds, “I won some really cool stickers to put on my books. And a certificate!”

“That’s it?”

“A silver medal on a ribbon. I won that, too.” He doesn’t want to say he could wear that heavy bit of kitsch around his neck if he wanted to shout to the world that he is the worst kind of self-impressed language geek.

This kind of conversation confuses non-writers who often think recognition of excellence means income or fame. Having won quite a few awards for my writing, I can say with some confidence that awards rarely translate into income or fame. Sometimes, but rarely. This absence of fame and fortune even confuses some writers, so it’s time to come clean on the whole award thing.

Here’s what I won.

On a purely material level, I won stickers, a medal, and several certificates.

On a marketing level, I won the right to have Littlest Death presented to an international audience at the New York Book Expo and at the Library Book Expo in New York. Also on a marketing level, Littlest Death press releases went out to 800 various media, blog, and vlog outlets for consideration for exposure. Oh, and I can put stickers on the covers that appear as part of the presentation and advertising on places like Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and GoodReads.

Yay! Of course, I have no idea what that means in terms of sales. I won’t know for months, and possibly years, to come.

From my personal perspective, I won validation for the Afterlife Fantasy genre, which is embodied by Littlest Death. I had been thinking about writing an Afterlife Fantasy for some time, but I probably would never have done it because it would not have fit into any existing marketing category served by the octopus imprints of the big five publishers. A book like Littlest Death would have made the rounds of the imprints for several years. I’d have received the usual “loved this but not quite right for us” rejection letters. Instead, it came out from a small press that isn’t quite so risk averse.

Most important from my perspective, I won validation for the creative process that resulted in Littlest Death.

When I teach, I often say that craft tools should be based on the underlying linguistic and cognitive principles that govern the reader’s internalization of emotion from story. The test of a principle-based tool is pretty simple. It must be all of the following:

  1. Useful as a descriptive tool for finished, text-based story.
  2. Useful as an analysis tool and solution predictor for revision of text-based story.
  3. Useful as a design tool for the production of text-based story.

To that end, I have spent about 25 years obsessively characterizing and recording tools that fit the above criteria into a personal catalog. I use these tools constantly, and I teach them to others. However, prior to writing Littlest Death, there were a few tools in my box that I believed fit the criteria but that I had never actually tested on the design level. I had only used them as diagnostic and revision tools.

I used the opportunity to write my Afterlife Fantasy to test the design power of the untested tools. Specifically, the tools I often used in revision and description but had not really applied during story design were:

  • Irreconcilable Self as a control for character psychological and sociological development.
  • Vertical Story Analysis as a design tool to support manifestation of Dramatic Premise (Lajos Egri) and Character Arc prior to composition.

I’m not going to explain these tools here. Sorry. It would take too long. I’m just saying that these tools have been in my box for a while, and I have used them to revise many stories that went on to sell. In fact, I used them to revise Bull’s Labyrinth, which won the International Book Award for Fantasy Fiction. I also used them to revise some, but not all by any means, of the stories in Professor Witchey’s Miracle Mood Cure. I had just never used them up front before initial composition, so I felt a little bit like a fraud when I taught them because I had only proven to myself that they worked on two of the three levels of proof for “tool” that I require.

Once Littlest Death went into print and I started getting emails from people who cried tears of joy while reading, I felt pretty good about having demonstrated the tools’ usefulness in design. Once Littlest Death won two awards and several finalist slots in competition against many thousands of other novels, I started thinking it might be worth considering a few more such experiments in design.

What did I win?

I won validation of knowledge, confidence in that knowledge, and the confidence that sharing that knowledge with others will be useful to them.

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.

 

 

Caution: Learning Curves Ahead

by Christina Lay

So you’re thinking about self-publishing, or possibly other-publishing and you’re getting ready to take the plunge. The whole world knows how easy it is these days: write an amazing novel, proofread the heck out of it, maybe pay a professional editor, get it into a printable format, cajole an artistic-minded friend to create an awesome cover, upload the docs, and voila, your book exists.

Depending on your goals, for some people the process can be almost this simple. If what you care about most is getting the book out there and you aren’t overly concerned about how it looks on every device, availability across various markets, the overall professional quality of the end product, building a reputation as either an author or a publisher or both, selling in bookstores and at conferences, the degree of control you have over your product, etcetera, etcetera, then creating a clean Word document and an eye-catching cover will be your main hurdles.

However, the chances are that once you dip your toes into the world of publishing, you will be swept away in a tide of choices you had no idea existed, and the decision making process is not made any simpler by the fact that the rules and the markets are always changing. Be warned, if you know some authors who are self-publishing and decide to ask for their advice, they will all tell you something different. Any topic you Google will bring up several blogs with conflicting opinions. Know this, and prepare yourself for a wild ride.

The most important thing you can do for your sanity is to set some clear goals for your project. Is this a one-off, something you’re doing purely for your own satisfaction? Then a lot of the decisions won’t torment you too much. You can happily use Create Space and all the easy-peasy options they offer. If you are building a career or a business, then things get trickier.   Are you content with selling ebooks only, with maybe a few print-on-demand sales on the side, or do you want to get into bookstores, organize readings, sell your book at conferences? Answering one of these question will inevitably lead to several more.

Because I am naturally a benevolent sort, I thought I’d organize my recent experiences in launching the Labyrinth of Souls fiction project and write-up a short list of things you will need to understand and make decisions about. The short list quickly became long, and so this post is a very abbreviated overview of the business side of things. A shot across the bow, if you will. I won’t even get into design and formatting issues.

First of all, why not use Create Space for your print book? (KDP is the ebook side of things). Amazon’s self-publishing print book service is very user-friendly, and Amazon rules the world, so many people consider using any other option akin to shooting oneself in the foot. But there are other considerations. For instance, the rest of the bookselling world sees Amazon as a Borg-like entity and everyone else as a loosely knit Federation of booksellers valiantly struggling against being assimilated, so not everyone plays nicely with Amazon and therefore your innocent Create Space book might never escape its Amazon.com orbit. So what, you might ask? 97% of book sales happen on Amazon, right? The answer, which is actually a question is, do you want your book in bookstores? Barnes and Noble won’t order Create Space books, or at least, they wouldn’t when I put out ShadowSpinners Press‘ first book, A Collection of Dark Tales. Amazon promises expanded distribution, so imagine my surprise when I lost the chance at a B&N book signing because they couldn’t (read, didn’t want to) order from Amazon.   The lesson I learned (don’t forget, things are always changing, so I’m giving you my latest experience only) is that if you want to do readings and have your book carried at conferences, you need to go through Ingram.

Ingram? What the hell is that? Well, they are the major source of print books for the print book buying world, and most bookstores order through Ingram’s catalogue.   If you’re an indie publisher (read, poor) then Ingram Spark is the way to go. Lightning Source is Ingram’s program for the big boys (once upon a time indie publishers were allowed to sign up with Lightning Source, but now they will politely direct you to use Ingram Spark). The final word on the Create Space vs. Ingram Spark debate seems to be you need to use both. Yup, both, because you don’t have enough logins and passwords to keep track of yet. This of course doesn’t get into the issue of The Others; Smashwords, book services like Book Baby, and so on. You’ll need to make the service provider decision separately for your ebook. Again, KDP is not the only game in town.

Here are some articles on ebook and print on demand services I found helpful:

http://www.newshelves.com/2016/05/21/why-you-need-lightning-source-and-createspace/

https://kindlepreneur.com/smashwords-vs-draft2digital/

http://selfpublishingadvice.org/watchdog-ingram-spark-vs-createspace-for-self-publishing-print-books/

If you decide you want to go with a plan that includes print books in bookstores, you’ll need an ISBN for each book. Again, Create Space will give you one for free, or sell you one that gives you a little more control, but Create Space will always be listed as the publisher, which again, could lead to issues with bookstores. If you want to be listed as the publisher and be viewed in a more professional light, you’ll have to bite the bullet, go to Bowker and purchase an ISBN. A single ISBN costs $125. Ten cost $300. A hundred costs $500 and so on. So you can see it’s a scam in which the big boys get a great deal and the little guy gets screwed. But it’s important, so don’t blow it off. By the way, Bowker will try to sell you a barcode. You don’t need it. Create Space and Ingram will automatically generate one for you when they produce your book.

Here’s a pretty good break down on the ISBN question. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/isbns-for-self-published-books/   Have fun with that rabbit hole.

Here’s another fun conundrum: Pricing and Discounts. Opinions are all over the place on this one. Low prices draw more buyers, but you want to make money, right? You want to be able to offer a discount to bookstores, right? This is something that only research and a clear-headed look at your own finances and goals can answer. Ingram has a pretty good break down of the discount issue here: http://www.ingramspark.com/blog/heres-why-you-should-discount-your-book

And a publisher compensation (royalty) calculator here https://myaccount.ingramspark.com/Portal/Tools/PubCompCalculator

Create Space has one too, of course. Most of the POD services have pretty good resources available.

As you can see, this article is already pretty long and I haven’t even touched on these questions:

*Keywords and Categories: How to position your book so the mighty search engines will find them.

*Online marketing: Virtual tours, FB and Good read ads, social networks and how to exploit them without losing all your virtual friends, and so on.

*Copyrights. OMG, do I really have to fill that out?

*Fun with Legal Questions and Taxes. Am I a business? Do I need: a lawyer, a Tax Identification Number, to register my business name, to write contracts, to issue 1099s, and so on?

*Webpages and domains. Should I use WordPress or Go Daddy or Bob’s Discount Web Pages, hire a professional to build it, buy my own domain name, buy every .com, .net, .org I can get my hands on? Become an Amazon affiliate? Sell books via my website? Use Paypal or Square?

All right, I can go on and on, and maybe someday I’ll write down everything I’ve researched and learned, but for now, I hope this gives you a helpful glimpse at the many learning curves ahead. If you’re still crazy determined enough to move forward, you can start making decisions before you start the publishing process, and therefore not break your brain in a rush to make all the right decisions,  like I fear I might have.

Good luck and Godspeed in all your publishing endeavors.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-