Learning to Create Blockbuster Books By Fiction Writing
What I Learned From Dean Wesley SmithTook the last week studying multiple video courses from Dean Wesley Smith. What follows is combining what I learned with what I’ve already understood from five years of direct study and a decade of self-publishing. All in preparation for the “Great Fiction Writing Challenge” upcoming.
Smith talks from his 40+ years of writing, where he’s had to fit the molds created by the corporate (traditional) publishers. I got into publishing just before the ebook started breaking those molds, particularly with Amazon. And there is a lot more mold-breaking to happen. Amazon itself is ripe for disruption, and that is in progress as I write this.
Most of Smith’s ideas of genre are set from how New York corporate publishers accept stories. Amazon has these differently. And my ideas come from outside both of them.
Plot Structure Vs. GenrePlot structure is different from genre. Plot structure is physical, genre is based on reader preferences for different combinations and formats.
There are three physical plot structures: romance, mystery, adventure. Don’t confuse these with genre. They are structure of the plot itself.
Romantic is two characters and their attraction for each other. This will also then go into marriage and family scenes.
Adventurous is basically in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but usually uses the Lester Dent format to tell it (actually, all of these do.)
Mysterious is almost a reverse adventure, where the crime happens at the beginning and the rest of the story is built around figuring out who, how, and why it happened.
In these three structures, the bestselling small and big books combine all three structures. One structure will be dominant. While the Thriller is action-packed, it actually derived from the Mystery genre, as a crime is committed at the beginning and it’s a race to figure it out. Thriller is all about break-neck pacing, as a specialty sub-genre.
The vast majority of these all have a happy ending or positive resolution. When they don’t, it’s called tragic. Romeo and Juliet was a tragic romance. Tragic mystery structure is often utilized by horror. Tragic adventure stories can be where the main character is motivated by vengeance (destruction.) All tragic main characters will self-destruct at the end of the story. Villains as “anti-heroes” are tragic.
The hero has a learning curve through the story through multiple try-fail cycles and the final resolution is try-succeed. Villains are often worked up as mostly executing try-succeed cycles, except their successes always cost them. Often more than they win. Ultimately, they lose and have to quit the story line.
Genre and Reader PreferencesAccording to Smith, genres developed during the Golden Age of pulp fiction, when a multitude of writers came on the scene. Readers developed preferences for different formats of books. As these story structures cross with each other, they have developed sub-genres.
Smith holds that the market demand determines what genre survives, along with New York’s willingness to publish these. Obviously with Amazon and other book outlets, corporate publishers are losing their control of what sells when and where. A study of the K-lytics analyses and Author Earnings reports shows where the income is being made.
Meanwhile, Amazon is creating new sub- and sub-sub-genres almost weekly, depending on where they see a valid class of reader preferences showing up. K-lytics has been able to track these changes and identify the “hot” categories by their changes. Corporate publishers are behind the curve on most of these changes, which is why they have consistently been losing market share.
Smith’s data also has to be taken with a similar grain of salt, as he admits he’s not up on “electronic publishing” as he calls it. His emphasis is selling books to corporate publishing markets, which includes print magazines (with their electronic-versions.) He even founded his own small press publishing house that he sells his stories to.
Most authors around today have come up outside corporate publishing. Ebooks are normal for them, and frequently don’t even publish a hardcopy version (a marketing decision to leave money on the table.) As regularly reported by Author Earnings, corporate publishers have been slow to adapt and this has cost them market share. Indie authors and small press imprints have taken up the slack. Currently, Amazon is starting to make inroads into the small press area with their own imprints, but that is really just cannibalizing their own market to get a larger percentage of the income. That is where they are going to be disrupted as they continue to inbreed their markets internally. (Nothing to do with this article’s main subject except as a sidebar.)
What Readers ExpectThere are five elements to a book which readers want at various levels in their genres:
- Story or Plot
- Style of writing
- Voice of Character(s)
- Priorities: Character – Story – Setting – Style/Voice
- Romance is two characters following a story line of meeting and falling in love, working out their obstacles to live happily ever after.
- The setting usually has to deal with the female main character and is appropriate to her. Modernly, a romance can happen anywhere, but you’ll usually see this rule more than not. Romances also go right into marriage stories, and family stories.
- The style of writing and character voice aren’t a priority.
- Priorities: Character – Setting – Story – Voice/Style
- A crime mystery is solved by someone finding clues in a specific setting.
- The story is about how the main character (MC) accomplishes this.
When you change the setting, you change the sub-genre. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was overall a tragic romance, but the weekly installments were usually mystery procedurals.
Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Priorities: Setting – Story/Character – Style/Voice
- Where the story happens, what world or universe it exists in and the rules of it, determine what readers will buy it.
- Story and characters play near equal roles after that, with style and voice lesser important.
Other Major GenresWesterns means Setting is in the late 1800’s American West. Everything else is secondary.
Literary is all about writing Style. Plot is least important. (You either love literary stuff, or leave it alone.)
Historical is all about the accuracy of the Setting, and the writing Style.
Horror is a tragic mystery or at best a tragic adventure. Lots of people die in these, like the old war movies.
Umbrella GenresThese are embracive terms where you can use any of the other types of genres underneath them.
Christian – has to do with espousing Christian values in everything they do.
Young Adult – the protagonist is between 20 and 30 years old.
Erotica – lots of graphic sex.
Sub- and sub-sub-genresEssentially, these exist when enough books accumulate that meet similar genre-specific reader expectations. Military Science Fiction is obviously about just that. Police procedural mysteries, or amateur sleuth detective-mysteries are also obvious. Noir anything is dark and bleak. Contemporary fantasy is close enough to our current world time-line to borrow heavily from it, as does contemporary romance.
Amazon’s Genre SlottingAmazon, as covered, will invent new sub-sub genres as often as weekly. No other outlet else does this, categorizing instead by BISAC codes, and those are at best updated annually.
Amazon’s biggest main genres currently are:
- Literature & Fiction (umbella)
- Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
- Science Fiction & Fantasy
- Teen & Young Adult (umbrella)
- Erotica (umbrella)
Again, it’s the importance you put on the five elements of a genre and what readers expect to find in their books for that genre. If you don’t meet reader expectations, you won’t sell well.
Overall, the main expectation is to be instantly transported to another world and kept there for the duration of the story. If you do too many unexpected things, then the reader will leave your book and never look back (especially at any other books by that pen name.) The ideal is a reader finishing the book and wanting more. That of course explains the success of having books in series, and having a huge back-title list always in print.
Your physical story structure determines your plot.
Reader expectations determine your (sub-)genre.
One funny statement rolled up: conventional wisdom has emphasized writing only to specific, profitable sub-genres. But one author at the top of her game said to go ahead and write your short story and then see where it fits. The inspiration and integrity of the story is more key than trying to cramp it into a certain sub-genre through your Editor Mind. That was from someone who has already internalized everything I’ve just uncovered and written here. But even if you are just starting out, write what you like to read.
(Today, I read an article about a person who started writing fiction as an outlet for his throat cancer treatment. He couldn’t talk, but he could still write. He’s now written 33 Westerns and is making decent income and at writing. He was again on Amazon’s bestseller list in that genre. Westerns are supposedly a “dead” genre. Again: write what you love, publish where it will get the most sales.)
Big Books and Small OnesAlmost all of electronic book publishing is small books. AKA: Also-rans. The runaway bestsellers are the “big” books. DWSmith essentially said that the big books are defined by Albert Zuckerman in his “Writing the Blockbuster Novel”
“[P]ublishers often are happier and more comfortable agreeing to a million-dollar guarantee for a novel than to a ten-thousand-dollar one. For the seven-figure payment, they presumably are acquiring a book whose author talk-show hosts will interview; that bookstores will display in their windows; that drugstores, supermarkets, and airport newsstands will stock; that film and television producers will compete for; that, despite the intense competition from movies, TV, sports, the Internet, and other activities for people’s leisure, will somehow break through and penetrate the vast public’s consciousness. The book that accomplishes this is (for want of a better term) the Big Book.”Technically, as DWSmith alludes to, “Bestseller” is a genre all on its own. This is the way Amazon has it as well. It’s where they send you to when you look for any type of book. Bestsellers make publishers (and book outlets like Amazon) the most profit.
Zuckerman covers some key elements of big books in his second chapter:
- High Stakes – “The first thing to note about a big novel is that what’s at stake is high—for a character, a family, sometimes a whole nation. The life of at least one major character is usually in peril. But more than that, in this type of book the individual at risk often represents not just himself, but a community, a city, an entire country.”
- Dramatic Question – “[T]he book’s spine—the ongoing central conflict around which its major characters interact, the main issue that drives and unites its myriad scenes—couldn’t be more basic and clear-cut. This novelistic foundation is its suspense factor, which I call the dramatic question.”
- High Concept – “[I]n essence a radical or even somewhat outlandish premise. Can a young lawyer escape a seemingly respectable law firm that secretly launders money for the Mafia, whose hoods kill any attorney who even talks about trying to leave?”
- Setting – “Readers of popular books enjoy escaping into the minds, hearts, and vicissitudes of fictional characters, but they also like to be drawn into new, unfamiliar, and even exotic environments.”
- Larger-Than-Life Characters – “Characters in fiction, as in life, are defined by what they do, and in big novels the main characters do extraordinary things.”
- Multiple Points of View – “The story is not primarily narrated by an omniscient author or by a single character in the novel in the first person, but rather expressed through the feelings, thoughts, and sensibilities of a small number of major characters.”
Most of this is far beyond the average ebook author, who works in genre fiction. That means “Writing to Market.” And that concept is exactly where the lower stages of authors exist. Since they are only working out how to create enough sentences that are grammatically correct and fill up a certain word count. They are following conventional wisdom they’ve accepted. And it will take them years to get up to the point where Zuckerman’s book would be useful.
That’s all WDSmith explains in his videos and books. He’s simply paying it back. By teaching the future authors as best he can. Based on his 40 years experience.
This is the make-break of writing. Spend decades at really learning the craft and churning out tons of work.
The authors who routinely turn out big books have. Those are the titles who hold the top spots and sell millions of hardbacks for every new book.
The authors who won’t put in the time and pay their dues never make it. They think that advertising will hold their top spots. They don’t see the point of writing truly outstanding works that are their own best advertising – through near endless word of mouth. And that advertising can’t be bought.
As a note, we skip Zuckermans’ editing approach here in favor of the Lester Dent approach, which is also the format used by successful TV series and successful books in our Western culture. The idea here is to graduate from plotter to pantzer and “write into the dark” as WDSmith recommends. This is faster and more remunerative. Not multiple drafts and rewrites, just several proofs.
Sure you write a lot. Just write straight ahead. And you’re always learning. Once you know the basics, it takes a lot of practice. Learn and apply.
It takes reading and writing. Lots of both. Studying what you like to read to improve your writing. Enjoying what you’re writing.
How to Study To Learn Your CraftThe vast majority of the books available about writing and publishing are only to do with the mechanics of putting books up on outlets for sale. All the courses and material about advertising and promoting your book is just more mechanics.
The bottom line to all books that will keep them being purchased long after you and your business organizations are gone will be the craft you know and put into writing your stories.
“Bestsellers” on Amazon are mostly a joke. Because they change so fast. And the NYT bestseller list is frequently scammed to get a one-week wonder up there. That list is selected mostly around getting a book selling on the East Coast in certain bookstores (and having a non-conservative subject or writing style.) To a lesser extent the other bestseller lists are also faulty.
The point to all of this is not your name in lights, other than it helps you earn more sales. If you create a book by applying effective craft, your sales will continue with little promotion. Word of mouth will do it all. And the secret to why word of mouth is the most expensive to achieve is in that word craft.
Dorothea Brande covers how to study books to learn your craft. It’s in the eighth chapter of her “Becoming A Writer” (book | course) Essentially, you study books that you really like. The ones that transport you. The ones that produce an emotional/hormonal shift that you want. (They make you feel the way you expect.) She says to read, make notes about what stands out to you about that book – what you remember most, then re-read to see how they achieved that effect on you.
DWSmith breaks this down a bit more with a list of things to look for:
- Openings – first lines and paragraphs.
- Setting(s) – at every scene opening, not just the beginning of the book or chapter)
- Pacing – usually accomplished by sentence and paragraph length.
- Endings – through the book as well as the end. This includes cliffhangers and hooks.
- Chapters – their length, how many scenes, patterns, where they are placed in the book.
- Characters – how they are introduced, their viewpoints, specific tags assigned (the one-armed man, the chain smoker, etc.), the character-specific voice.
Refer again to Zuckerberg’s books with more points you can keep an sharp eye out for. And work up to internalizing. (Just don’t take his stuff on multiple drafts and outlining very seriously.)
Geoff Shaw has a great Udemy course of how to dissect TV shows to quickly come up with plot ideas. As you get a greater concept of how stories are put together, you’ll start seeing how these are accomplished in video. Of course, all these shows had to be written first…
Learning Blockbuster Fiction Writing Is PossibleStudy, learn, practice. That is what it takes to learn blockbuster fiction writing. Years of all this. Prolific output. Constant improvement. And enjoying everything you do as part of your journey in this.
Meanwhile, write short and publish long.
from The Great Fiction Writing Challenge – Living Sensical http://ift.tt/2Blc62a