Crossing the Chasm for Self-Published Authors – Part 1: The Chasm

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This past week, I had the obligation opportunity to attend a 3-day business seminar in beautiful Salt Lake City. (Or at least I hear Salt Lake City is beautiful. I just caught a glimpse of it from the taxi window before spending the next three days sequestered in a hotel.)

Like most engineers, just the thought of spending three full days in meetings makes my skin crawl, but I was delighted to discover the keynote speaker was none other than Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm.

“Who?” you might ask.

Well, in the business world, Mr. Moore is somewhat of a legend. You see, his book Crossing the Chasm is considered to be the seminal text on shepherding a new product to mainstream success. I had actually read Mr. Moore’s book many years ago. Back then, I was a member of a fledgling startup software company, and our then-CEO handed out copies to all the early founders as required reading. I quickly devoured the text, and just as quickly forgot most of it as we went about the business of building our business.

Now, many years later, as Mr. Moore walked us through his slides in that rather cavernous hotel ballroom, it all came rushing back to me: the adoption curve, the customer categories, the growth cycles, and of course the chasm. I listened raptly with a vague sense of nostalgia for my startup days, but one thought kept nagging at me:

Can we apply the business principles of Crossing the Chasm to the business of writing, and more specifically, to the business of self-publishing?

You see, as a newly self-published author, I tend to see everything though a writer’s prism these days. As I listened to Mr. Moore speak, it occurred to me that being a self-published author is not all that different than working for a startup company. As a self-published author, there’s a single employee (you), and it’s entirely up to that employee to bring his or her product (book) to the masses. You first have to develop your product (write your book), then figure out how to introduce that book to the mass market.

Unfortunately, publishing is not a meritocracy: no matter how good your book might be, if the market doesn’t know it exists, it will languish in obscurity. Sure, you might pick up a handful of readers here and there, but how do you make the leap from undiscovered author to mainstream success? This is the much ballyhooed chasm I speak of, and making that leap is what Crossing the Chasm is all about.

Still with me? Good. Most engineers and writers have at least 2 things in common:

1. We hate meetings.

2. We hate marketing.

But we also love creating things. So with that in mind, let’s see if we can’t put three days’ worth of meetings to good use and make the leap across that chasm together:

Crossing the Chasm in a Nutshell

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The above image depicts the product adoption curve from Crossing the Chasm. At the left end, the product has just been introduced. There are few users at this stage, and of these users, most are Innovators and Early Adopters (don’t worry; I’ll detail these user categories below). As the product gains more users, the Early Majority drives its popularity to an all-time high. Shortly after, the Late Majority jumps on the band wagon. Finally, as the product begins to wane in the marketplace, the Laggards bring up the tail end.

So, who are all these people, and why should I care?

Well, quite frankly, these people are your target audience. And more importantly, by knowing the type of customer in each category, you can tailor your marketing to fit your current position along the adoption curve. With that being said, let’s delve into each user category:

1. The Innovators These are people who love to try out new products and services. They’re willing to take a risk on an untested product, and are more interested in the potential of a product than its current utility. These people get a charge out of working with the developers to make improvements and enhancements to the product. Oftentimes, they consider themselves a part of the development team.

In the self-publishing world, these innovators would be your beta-readers. These are people who don’t mind that your book still needs a bit of polish. They get a thrill from assisting in the development process and watching the product go to market. You shouldn’t expect to make any money off these innovators. In fact, you’ll probably invest a good deal of your time (and possibly money) working with these innovators. The reward for them is satisfaction, and for you a better book.

2. The Early Adopters – These are the visionaries, people who see a product and imagine what it could do for them. They don’t rely on past success stories of other customers to make their decisions, but instead blaze a path into the unknown with eyes full of hope and optimism. These are the dreamers.

In the self-publishing world, these would be the readers who are willing to buy a book from an unknown author, even if it has no reviews. They’ll read the product blurb, maybe sample a few pages, and throwing caution to the wind, click Buy. Obviously, if you’re just starting out as an author, these will be some of your most important customers.

Early adopters sound great! So, what’s the catch?

Well, first of all, there aren’t that many Early Adopters to begin with. If you look at the distribution curve, there are far less of them than mainstream users. What’s more, these Early Adopters are willing to help a new author, but they want something in return–namely, a discount.

On the plus side, these Early Adopters like to feel personally involved in the development process. Maybe not in writing your book, but in helping you promote it. To this end, they’re willing to write reviews and spread word of your book to their friends, especially if they feel they’ve made a personal connection with the author. If one of these Early Adopters contacts you, be sure to write them back!

3. The Early Majority (Pragmatists) Ah, now we’re getting into some big numbers! These are the users who will wait for a buzz to build about a product, then jump in early and enthusiastically. They’ll hold off purchasing until there are just enough positive reports from the Early Adopters to make success a probable event. These Early Majority users are not willing to risk a total flop, but they also don’t want to be late to the party. They are also more likely to pay full price than Early Adopters.

In the publishing world, the Early Majority would be readers looking for the Next Big Thing. They’ll browse the digital shelves at Amazon, paying close attention to the “What’s Hot” categories. Furthermore, they’ll look for books that have been well-reviewed. If they decide the Next Big Thing is your book, hold on for a rocket ride!

4. The Late Majority (Conservatives) – These are the people who will wait for all the bugs to be worked out of a product. They don’t have any interest in being a beta site, and will happily wait for the Early Majority to fully vet a product. Only once they are satisfied that the risks are minimal will they make the leap.

In the publishing world, these would be your best-seller readers. Less adventurous than the Early Majority, the Late Majority feel they have little time to waste sampling unknown books from unknown authors, and will gladly let the market determine their next purchases for them. Once the winners have been decided, then they’ll jump in. If the Late Majority are reading your books, pat yourself on the back. You have made it!

5. Laggards – These are your least adventurous buyers. They hate change, they hate new products, and they probably hate you, too. The only reason they are purchasing your product now is they have little-to-no choice, as their old product is now obsolete or non-functional.

In the publishing world, these are readers who know what they like, and by God, they’re not changing now! They wouldn’t even bother buying new books except for the fact that their old books have already been “used up,” having been read one-too-many times. They’re likely to read books by the same authors they’ve been patronizing for decades (probably from that author’s back catalog), and would never pay full price for a book. If you manage to capture one of these readers, congratulations; you’ve probably had a long, successful career!

THE CHASM

Ok, so now that we’ve identified the different categories of users along the adoption curve, you might be noticing that large gap between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority. This is the chasm we’ve been discussing, and crossing it is the challenge of any successful product. If you do make it across, you will achieve a level of success most authors can only dream of, but if you fail, you will be banished to the Phantom Zone (not really, but it feels like it).

Sounds daunting. How do we get there?

I’m glad you asked, as that will be the subject of my next post:

Crossing the Chasm for Indie Authors – Part 2: Target Market Initiatives

 

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The Woodlander Lives!

Wow, it’s been a long time! In case you’ve been wondering, no, I haven’t given up  my dream of writing a novel. I’ve just been head-down working on it, so there’s been little time left for blogging. But I’m proud to announce that The Woodlander is finally available at Amazon!

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Some of you may remember my original goal was simply to get published. I wanted to procure an agent, seek out a traditional publishing deal, get my books in stores, etc. But times are changing quickly in the publishing world! I now feel that self-publishing is the way to go.

In my upcoming posts, I’ll explain how I came to this conclusion and detail my own journey through the self-publishing process. Feel free to share your own tips and experiences with me–I’m happy to hear them (and I could really use the help)!

But today’s post is about the The Woodlander (I like to describe it as a cross between Fantastic Mr. Fox and “The Most Dangerous Game”). Here’s the story so far:

Life in Langley Grove might not be as charming as its cobblestone streets would suggest. Sure, the forest creatures who inhabit the Victorian town get along well enough. After all, they are enlightened, as the Woodlanders like to say. But despite having evolved from their natural instincts to prey on one another, some of Langley’s less desirable citizens have been disappearing, never to be seen again.

Enter John Grey, a squirrel on the verge of a serious drinking problem. You see, John used to have it all: a beautiful three-bedroom tree, a loving wife, and an award-winning career as a reporter for the Langley Post, Woodland’s most prominent newspaper. But after suffering an unspeakable tragedy, he is now on the brink of losing everything. Now he just wants to end it all, but to add insult to injury, a crippling case of writer’s block has left him unable to even finish his own suicide note, let alone continue his reporting career.

Desperate, John decides to take on one last assignment, venturing into Woodland’s seedy underworld to capture his greatest story yet. But instead, it is John who is captured, kidnapped and smuggled to a mountain faraway, where he learns not everyone has embraced Woodland’s enlightened ways—there are those who still prefer the old roles: the hunter and the hunted.

Welcome to the The Woodlander. I hope you enjoy it!

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Chapter 11 – The Third Time’s The Charm

The third draft is finished!

I know, I know. I said it would take two months. That’s how long the second draft took to write, so I figured it would take just as long to finish the third. But working long nights and weekends, I somehow managed to tear through the whole thing in only twelve days.

So why the dramatic difference? I think the first draft was like a skeleton of a book. The basic shape was there, but there were lots of holes. And it was kind of scary.

As you may already know, I don’t care much for plotting, partly out of incompetence, but mostly due to sheer laziness. Despite all my attempts to remain completely disorganized, that first draft ended up serving as an outline of sorts. Upon its completion, I had a pretty good feel for who these characters were and where they were going.

By the time I began the second draft, those characters already had their own personalities, their own backstories–all the little quirks that make them seem real. The downside is they also had a lot more to say, and it was up to me to record every word.

I’m joking about that last part. It was a real pleasure to bring these characters to life. As a group they fought through some difficult situations. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost. Either way, they grew closer together, and I grew closer to them. They made me laugh, they made me cry (well, maybe I got a little misty-eyed). I was almost sad to see the book come to an end… until I remembered there’s always the sequel.

I think that’s why the second draft took so long. There was just so much more to invent. I wish the ideas always gushed out of my head like a fire hydrant, but sometimes they drip slowly like a leaky faucet. You end up just as wet, but it takes a lot more time.

The third draft was much more mechanical than the second. You know how it is, fixing all the awkward phrases and questionable punctuation. It needs to be done, but it’s much less mentally taxing than creating a world from nothing. For the second draft, I was lucky to complete a single chapter a night. By the third draft, I could edit three or four chapters a night.

There was also a great deal of cutting. I find cutting takes considerably less time than creating, unless you find it difficult to kill your darlings. My advice is not to dawdle. Your darlings deserve a quick, clean death.

I consider all that cutting to be a good thing. Afterwards the writing feels tighter, though halfway through I began to worry when the word count dropped a couple thousand words. The second draft wasn’t terribly long to begin with–would I end up with a pamphlet?

But not to worry. I flexed my nouns and adverbs, building the prose up to a lean but buff 91,000 words. Nobody’s kicking sand in my YA novel’s face!

So am I finished? Not exactly.

My original goal was to present the third draft to a few select friends for critiquing. Now that I’m nearly two months ahead of schedule, I feel I should use some of that time to further improve the book. Plus I’m really dreading their critiques, so I’ll do just about anything to put that nightmare off.

I could make another pass through the text, but I fear I’m too close to it. I might not see the forest for the trees. I want to gain some real insight, not just make another mechanical pass. No, I need to get further away.

Don’t worry. I’m not taking another break. Except to write this post, you lucky devil.

The problem is I’ve never really read the novel. I mean, I’ve read every word at least a dozen times, but not like a typical reader would. It’s always in the word processor. That blinking caret just beckons fix me! The temptation is too great to tweak every little detail. How am I supposed to gauge the flow of the story if I keep stopping every few seconds to add or remove a comma?

Writer, step away from the keyboard!

I’m going to try something new. I plan to print out a copy of my book (yes, on paper) and read it straight through. I’ll keep a red pen handy to jot down any thoughts I might have, but I’ll try my best not to stop and tinker.

Just read, baby.

Do you remember what it was like to just read a book? I’m talking about way back before you ever had the insane notion of writing? Now you have to analyze every word, every piece of dialogue. But there was a time when you could just read with innocence and wonder…

They say there’s no going back. Once the ink enters your blood, you’re doomed to write for eternity.

But dammit, there’s a little story in there that needs me! I’m going back in, not as a writer, but as a reader. I shall read my book! Do your worst to tempt me, devil-muse, I shall not give in!

Okay, maybe between chapters I’ll pause to make some notes. But that’s it! Unless I have a really good idea after a paragraph. Then I might jot some notes in the margin. But that’s where I draw the line! Unless that extra comma’s really bothering me. Then I might circle it. But not one stroke more!

Yeah, I’ll let you know how that works out.

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Chapter 10 – Some Quick Thoughts On The Revision Process

As some of you may know, I started the third draft of my novel The Woodlander a couple of days ago. I thought I would take a quick break to give you my initial impressions.

So far I’ve revised the first three chapters. That’s about 10,000 words. I’m very pleased with that pace. It means I should finish the draft in about three weeks.

Based on how long it took me to complete my first revision, this is fantastic news. I scheduled two months to complete the third draft, but at this rate I should finish it in half that time.

Why is this draft going so much faster? I like to think it’s because the writing is so much better, but truth be told, the first draft was pretty sparse. I tend to write very minimally, focusing heavy on the action but no so much on the details. I think the the first revision involved filling in a lot of those little details to flesh out the story.

Now I’m just focusing on what’s already on the page. If anything, I find myself cutting more than adding. I think that’s a good thing.

I’ll probably continue this pattern of writing a sparse first draft followed by an expanded second draft followed by a third cutting draft. For the first draft, I don’t like to get so bogged down describing someone’s curtains when I still haven’t figured out the main plot yet. I’ll save the cutting for the third draft and later when I can really tighten the story up.

So what do I think of the story so far? I’m pretty happy with it. The book starts out much darker than I remembered. At first I was tempted to soften it a little–I didn’t want to scare away any potential publishers. But I decided that edgy is good. It lets the reader know right away what they’re getting into. Besides, if I start compromising now, what will I have left when the editors get hold of it?

What didn’t I like about the first three chapters? I thought some of the writing was just too dense. There were some really long paragraphs, for instance. I simply broke these into two or more smaller paragraphs. It’s just easier to read a short paragraph.

There were also plenty of unnecessarily complex sentences. Some of these sounded like I was trying too hard to “be a writer.” I simplified these sentences in the name of readability, even if it means they’re not so artsy anymore. Ideally the reader shouldn’t even notice my writing, but instead be captured by the story. It’s my job not to get in the way.

I think that’s worth repeating: It’s my job not to get in the way. That’s hard on any storyteller’s ego, but I think it’s a lesson that will serve me well.

I need to get back to writing, so that’s all for now. I’ll post further impressions as I continue this rewrite. Feel free to let me know about your own revision process!

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Chapter 9 – Zen and the Art of Automobile Maintenance

As I left work today, I realized I needed to replenish some supplies before I returned home. I was in a hurry and it was very hot, so I stopped at at the convenience store.

For some reason there’s always a line of people buying lottery tickets at the convenience store, but it still beats fighting the late afternoon crowd of blue hairs at the grocery store. I waited my turn patiently, but with a stern look of disapproval that I’m sure will dissuade these people from returning in the future.

After paying the clerk, I returned to my car. It was at least 100 degrees outside and even hotter inside; sweat immediately dampened my shirt. I unfastened a top button as I inserted the key into the ignition, eagerly anticipating a cold blast of air from the vents. I turned the key.

Nothing. Nada. Not even a click.

I sat there for a minute, fiddling with the various controls. Of course I’ve started my car thousands of times before, but part of my brain clung to the hope that I had just done something wrong, violated some automotive ritual. If I could just get the sequence right, the automotive gods would smile on me and she’d fire right up. I turned the key again.

Silence. The sweat was starting to bead on my forehead, so I cracked the door open to let in some relatively cool air. The door chime rang once, then fell silent.

Yep, pretty sure that battery is done for. Dead, deceased, finito.

But that couldn’t be right. The battery was only three years old and hadn’t given any indication it was dying. No hard starts, no dimming lights. It must be something else.

I popped the hood open and stepped out of the car. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, but it seemed like the manly thing to do.

Yep, that’s the battery all right, just where it’s supposed to be. Not much to be done. I wiggled the battery terminals just the same.

Of course that did nothing. Time to call in some reinforcements. I phoned my friend John, who immediately drove over. We attached some jumper cables and waited several minutes. There, that should do it.

Click. Click. Dead. Hmm… a little better, but not even close to turning over.

Time for a new battery! There’s an AutoZone not far away, but I didn’t have any of my tools with me to extract the old battery or install the new one. In hindsight that was rather foolish. I have an extensive set of tools at home, but they weren’t doing me any good there. I could have gone home to retrieve them, but that’s all the way downtown. It probably would have taken an hour in rush hour traffic, and I didn’t want to inconvenience my friend any further.

So I bought a new battery at AutoZone, along with an assortment of wrenches, and a pair of pliers, (just in case)–$200 worth of automotive goodness in total. Hopefully the automotive gods would be pleased with my sacrifice and grant me the power of internal combustion.

Every now and then the stars align. We installed the new battery and the car started right up. I shook John’s hand before driving off and made my way downtown, finally arriving home two hours later than I originally planned.

Well, it was just two lost hours. No big deal, right?

You don’t understand–I had plans! I was going to watch “Dead Poets Society” and write an inspirational blog about how I was going to start the third draft of my novel tomorrow. My routine was totally ruined! Why must life be so unfair? Argh!

Well, sometimes life has its own plans. I still ended up watching “Dead Poets Society” and writing this blog entry–just at the same time. It was a pretty good evening.

I do want to write something about starting my third draft tomorrow, but in the interest of time, I’ll condense my original entry thusly:

I took six weeks off from my novel so I could approach the next draft with a fresh set of eyes. Those six weeks end tomorrow. Like my car, my brain now has a new battery, and I can’t wait to get back to work.

P.S. Thanks, John!

P.P.S. Carpe Diem!

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Chapter 8 – Who Said That?

“Let’s talk about dialogue attribution!” exclaimed Kirk enthusiastically.

Haha, that’s a pretty bad one. If it’s not obvious why, hopefully it will be in a moment. But first, let’s make sure we all know what I’m talking about.

Dialogue attribution is simply assigning a quote to a specific character.  The most common form is “said,” as in:

“That’s one dull sentence,” Kirk said.

The “Kirk said” let’s you know I’m the one speaking (although you might have already guessed that from the brilliant dialogue).

Before I started writing a novel, I never thought much about dialogue attribution. It was just a couple of words after the quotation mark–what’s the big deal?

Well, apparently it is a big deal to many readers and writers. These could be the same people who will be judging your work some day. I’m not saying you should pander, but if you’re trying to get a book deal, you might want to know a few things that could turn these people off before they even give your book a chance.

I’ve searched the world over to come up with a few simple guidelines for the modern writer. I’m not saying you have to agree with the rules (I don’t always), just be aware of them.

Rule #1 – Use “said” and “asked”—period.

There are two basic types of dialogue: statements and questions. It follows that you should only need two words to attribute this dialogue: “said” and “asked.” These words are practically invisible to the reader; anything else is just distracting.

Furthermore, if your writing is strong enough, you shouldn’t need to inform the reader that something was exclaimed, whined, or yelled; the reader will already know it.

How do I feel about rule #1? Meh. I’ve read plenty of books that don’t follow this rule, and it didn’t bother me in the least.  That being said, now that I’m aware it irks some people a great deal, and these might be the very people critiquing my novel, I try to avoid alternate attributions like “cried” or “growled.”

Then again, sometimes “said” can just seem so dry:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

How do you feel about the use of “said” in that sentence? I hate it. It just seems so flat. I mean, my hair’s on fire, and Bill is just saying it as if my shoe was untied? Shouldn’t he be yelling or screaming? Just how good of a friend is this Bill, anyway?

Well, I have to somehow let the reader know Bill is speaking, but if I can’t say he “exclaimed” it, what’s a writer do? I could just ignore the rule (and from time to time I certainly do), but maybe I can rewrite the whole sentence like this:

Bill jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at my head. “Your hair’s on fire!”

Ah, my faith in Bill as a friend has been reaffirmed. But you say I just avoided using dialogue attribution in the first place? Why, yes I did, which leads me to the next rule:

Rule #2 – Don’t Use Dialogue Attribution Unless Absolutely Necessary

Now here’s a rule I can get behind. Take the previous example but slightly modified:

Bill jumped to his feet and pointed a bony finger at my head. “Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

There’s no need to add the “Bill said” on the end there. We already know Bill is speaking–his bony finger is in my face!

This rule appeals to me because it speaks more to function than aesthetics. People can argue all day whether “exclaimed” is good dialogue attribution–it’s a matter of opinion. But if something is redundant, then it’s redundant. That’s a fact, Jack!

Besides, I prefer books that read fast; all those extra words just slow me down. If you don’t need the words, cut them like Freddy Krueger.

Rule #3 – Don’t Use Adverbs in Dialogue Attribution

Ah, the infamous Tom Swifties! You know, those old books where that spunky kid… um… you know, the one with the hair… um…didn’t he have a dog with a hat?

OK, I didn’t read those books either. But I have a pretty good idea what a Tom Swiftism looks like:

“Shut your trap,” Bill said angrily.

That adverb on the end is what makes this a Swiftism. Apparently the Tom Swift books were full of this sort of dialogue attribution. I don’t know for sure, but sometimes it’s just best to believe what you read on the internet.

Anyway, what do I think of this sentence? It’s not great, but I don’t think it’s horrible either. The “angrily” does seem unnecessary, but I don’t find it all that distracting. If every quote had this sort of attribution then it would probably grind on me.

My main beef with this rule is that sometimes that hated adverb can completely change the meaning of a sentence. For example:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said merrily.

See? Now Bill and I are no longer friends.

Sometimes an adverb is the most efficient way to convey your meaning. Sarcasm, for instance, can be difficult to express unless you tell the reader someone is speaking sarcastically. If your writing is less clear because you’ve chosen form over function, you may have a problem.

My advice here would be to use adverbs sparingly, but if you feel it’s the best tool for the job, don’t be afraid to use it. After all, the rules are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules, matey.

Rule #4 – Dialogue Attribution Order

This one’s interesting. There appear to be two camps when it comes to whether the noun or the verb should come first in dialogue attribution. The first camp believes the noun should always come before the verb like this:

“Your hair’s on fire!” Bill said.

The verb should never come first like this:

“Your hair’s on fire!” said Bill.

The second camp doesn’t think the order matters all that much; either order is fine, at least with proper nouns.

But with pronouns like “he” or “she” you should always put the pronoun first, unless you’re speaking the King’s English, said he.

Where do I fall on this rule? This is one of those things I didn’t even think about when I wrote the first draft of my novel. I found myself casually switching between the two forms.

But now that I’m aware that there’s a group of people who just can’t stand reverse-order, I try to put the noun first. I figure the second camp doesn’t care either way, so I’ll cave to the tyranny of the first camp. Unless it just sounds too awkward.  Then the first camp can go pound sand.

That’s my quick and dirty guide to dialogue attribution. Is there anything else about dialogue attribution that just drives you mad? Let me know before I make the same mistake!

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Chapter 7 – An Ideal Reader?

As you write your novel, do you have in mind an ideal reader? Is this person your spouse? Boyfriend/girlfriend? The cute girl at the bookstore who doesn’t even know your name?

In any case, this is the person you imagine reading your work as you write–your target audience. As you finish that difficult passage or put in that unexpected plot twist, you might be thinking, “Boy, old so-and-so is going to flip when they read this!” Or maybe it’s more like: “They’re really going to hate this. Time for a rewrite!”

Either way, this person shapes your writing, gives it focus. Maybe they inspire you to push yourself further. They could be the reason you started writing in the first place.

Sounds pretty great, no? Well, I have a confession to make. I don’t have an ideal reader.

Nope, no ideal reader. Sure, I hope people like my novel, but more in a general sense. I’m not imagining any specific person as I write it. I just write for myself with a considerable dose of blind faith that if I like what I’ve written, others will like it, too.

Is this a huge mistake? Honestly, I don’t know.

I think as human beings we tend to be very self-focused. Basically no one is as interested in me as I am. It’s only natural. After all, I spend 100% of every day with myself. Everything I know or experience passes through the filter of my brain, giving my world a distinctive “me” flavor.

The vanity of an artist is thinking others will be equally interested in this flavor. Sometimes they’re right. I suspect more often they’re not.

With that in mind, does it make more sense to focus on an ideal reader? To step outside of yourself and imagine your work through someone else’s eyes? Maybe this allows us to broaden our appeal, to gain a certain perspective.

Then again, maybe it’s a form of pandering. I mean, if you really believe in the quality of your work, why should you care what anyone else thinks?

I ponder these questions as I begin the third draft of my novel. What do you think? Should I find my ideal reader?

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Chapter 6 – The Plot Thickens

Let’s talk about plotting. Not whether you should have a plot (I hope you do), but how you create it.

It seems to me there are two schools of thought. First, you have your planners. Followers of this school believe in working out the plot before they even start writing. This can be anything from a rough outline to a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis.

Then there’s the “make-it-up-as-you-go” school of thought. These writers start with a premise or a situation, then just start writing. The idea is that you will discover the plot as you go.

I suppose each school has its advantages and disadvantages. By plotting your novel ahead of time, you can ensure you don’t waste time wandering down dead ends. Your writing gains a certain focus– every word serves to advance the story to a common goal. I’m a big fan of tight writing, so this aspect appeals to me tremendously.

But there are disadvantages to plotting. The biggest might be paralysis by analysis. Frankly, it can be difficult to preconceive all the major twists and turns of your novel before you even start writing. You don’t really know your characters yet, so how can you predict how they would react in a given situation? All that planning can be overwhelming, perhaps preventing you from starting your novel in the first place.

This leads to the second danger of plotting: the dreaded Deus ex Machina, or God of the Machine. By having this preordained plot, you run the risk of forcing implausible solutions, or having your characters react in an unrealistic manner just to satisfy the plot. The good news is this is entirely avoidable! You just need to remind yourself that your outline is there to serve you, not the other way around. If you find yourself forcing your writing to fit your outline, don’t be afraid to alter the plot. It’s not the ten commandments, for crying out loud.

So what about the anti-plotters? These writers prefer to start with setting–a character, a place, a situation. Then you just start writing. With a little luck and a little intuition, hopefully you discover a plot worth writing.

Of course, not plotting has just as many advantages and disadvantages as plotting. Many of these are just the flip-side of plotting. Again for me, the biggest advantage of not plotting is you can just start writing. No planning, no outlines, no rules. Just write, man, just write. Can you dig it?

Another advantage is your characters will drive the story, not the other way around. Without an agenda, your characters are free to react in a realistic manner. You don’t have an itinerary to follow, so if your character feels like turning left, by all means, turn left!

The disadvantages are probably obvious. By not having a destination, you risk writing a novel that wanders aimlessly. No one likes to read a few chapters and think, “Well, that was pointless!” Of course, this is all fixable in the editing process, but it involves substantial cutting. No author likes to “kill their darlings,” so be prepared for some difficult choices.

In reality, I imagine most writers fall somewhere between these two schools. I doubt many writers plot every little detail before writing a single word. And I would be surprised if anyone writes completely in the dark with no idea where the next sentence might lead. If you do exist out there, please write me! I would find your process fascinating.

My own process leans heavily towards the “make-it-up-as-you-go” camp. When I decided to write The Woodlander, I literally had no plot. I just knew I wanted to write a novel.

So how did I start? Well, for reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I decided I wanted to write a story with talking animals. Not a happy Disney-esque story where little Jimmy learns to share. I wanted my world to be dark and gritty, a talking animal story for adults.

In my mind I pictured this dive bar built into the side of a molehill (I briefly considered calling it “Mole’s”). It’s closing time as a squirrel stumbles out. He makes it up the steps of the bar, and then…

What happens next? I had no idea. I just started writing. Fortunately the setting provided plenty of ammunition. Why is the squirrel drinking? Maybe he’s depressed, but why? Because something horrible has happened. But what?

As I wrote more and more, the characters came to life. They all had a back story. I didn’t know where they were going, but I wanted to find out.

As the squirrel stumbles from the bar, he bumps into someone. Someone big and mean. Now what?

As I continued to write, something magical happened. I discovered the plot. Or at least a vague idea of what would happen next. For me, the best feeling in writing is when I surprise myself. This was one of those times. I now found myself halfway between the plotters and the anti-plotters. I still never made an outline, but I had a direction. I had a plot.

So what’s your plotting process? Let me know, I’d love to hear it!

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Chapter 5 – The Writer’s Toolbox

Can we discuss writing tools for a moment? I don’t mean the abstract tools like plot devices or character development wheels. I’m talking about the nuts and bolts–hardware, software, all the tools we use to realize our fantasy worlds. I suppose there are people out there still writing longhand, or perhaps even using a mechanical typewriter, but for most of us this means computers.

Some of you might turn up your noses at such a pedestrian subject. After all, a wise woman once told me it’s not the tool that matters, but what you do with it.

For the most part I would agree, but there’s part of me that can’t help but geek out on an artist’s gear. If I was talking to a guitarist, for example, I wouldn’t be satisfied just knowing he or she played guitar. I would want to know the following:

  • The year, make, and model of guitar
  • The brand of strings, their thickness, and how often they change them
  • Their pick of preference
  • Their amplifiers, and all the settings they prefer (does it go to 11?)
  • Their effect pedals, and again, all the settings they use to get that sound

If none of that interests you in the least, this might not be the post for you. But don’t worry, I’ll have plenty of other posts where I talk about the “art” of writing. But for the rest of you, come geek out with me!

When it comes to writing, I prefer laptops. For reasons I’ve already outlined here, I don’t care to sit at a desk when I write. That’s just me.

I don’t alway work on laptops, but when I do, I prefer Apple. I don’t want to turn this into an Apple versus PC thing. Believe me, I use Windows PCs all the time. My home theater runs off a PC. My work laptop is a PC. I have Windows servers for streaming media and backups. Windows 7 and Windows 2008 Server are fine operating systems, and I’m genuinely excited about the upcoming Windows 8. But for writing, I’ve chosen Apple.

Yeah, I’ll freely admit Apple products are expensive, but man are they nice! Let’s start with the aesthetics. Late model MacBook Pros and Airs are things of beauty. The unibody aluminum cases not only look great, but they feel great, too. They are a real pleasure just to hold. I also appreciate the minimal advertising–no garish stickers proclaiming the manufacturer of the processor inside or the choice of operating system. No tacky logos, just a simple glowing fruit.

But like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, aesthetics only go so far. There has to be some substance. This is where Apple’s tactile interfaces shine. First of all, their keyboards are sublime, offering just enough key travel and “clickiness” to be extremely satisfying as you bang out your latest tome. It sounds like a trivial thing, but when you’re typing thousands of words, it really matters. Second of all, Apple’s touch pads are the best I’ve ever used. They are responsive without over-registering false hits from the heel of my hand. And once you get used to all the different touchpad gestures, it’s difficult to use a laptop without them.

So what model do I use? I wrote the first draft of The Woodlander on a 15″ 2011 MacBook Pro. It has the upgraded 1680×1050 matte display, so text was plenty sharp, and the table lamp next to my couch didn’t produce too much glare. I know that sounds picky, but more laptops should have matte displays!

Anyway, the laptop worked pretty well, but I did have a few problems with it. First of all, we’ve already established I like writing on the couch. The 15″ model was just a tad too bulky to be comfortable. To make matters worse, MacBook Pros tend to run pretty hot. I found I had to be very careful not to have certain applications or websites open while I was writing or the darn thing would get unpleasantly warm in my lap. I even went so far as disassembling the entire laptop and reapplying thermal paste to the cpu (I read somewhere that doing so could reduce CPU temperatures considerably, but I didn’t notice any difference).

So I was on the lookout for a new computer, but I didn’t want to buy anything until Apple’s new line of Ivy Bridge laptops was announced. Apple came out with the new MacBook Pro with a Retina screen in June, but it was only available in the 15″ model. It’s a thing of beauty, but what I was really hoping for was a MacBook Air with a Retina display. Oh well, maybe next year.

I bit the bullet and purchased a 13″ 2012 MacBook Air.  I just got the base model with 4 GB of ram and 128 GB solid state drive. I figure I’m just using it for writing, and for that purpose it should be plenty. Besides, the Retina display Airs could be coming out soon…

That MacBook Air is what I used to finish the second draft of The Woodlander (and what I’m typing this post on right now). I like the 13″ form factor a lot better for couch-writing. I briefly considered the 11″, but after playing with one at the Apple store, I dismissed it as too small. Now if I need a travel computer some day… nah, focus, Kirk!  The MacBook Air still gets a bit warmer than I would like, but it’s much cooler than my old MacBook Pro. I wish the display was sharper and had a matte screen, but maybe next year.

Let’s talk software. I can’t imagine writing without some sort of word processor. I use Scrivener. Before I even started writing The Woodlander, I scoured the web for recommendations on writing programs. Scrivener came up often, and it seems to have a loyal and active fan base. It wasn’t too expensive, so I gave it a try.

My favorite thing about Scrivener is that it separates the formatting from the writing. You still have the basics like underline and bold, but you don’t have to worry about line spacing, font, and all those types of things. When you’re ready to “publish” your work, you tell Scrivener what format you want and it outputs a copy in that format. It has several built-in formats like manuscript and Kindle e-book. That’s pretty convenient.

The second thing I like about Scrivener is the organization. It’s fairly easy to move chapters around, put together an outline, use notecards to organize your thoughts, generate word counts and word count targets–all sorts of things. Honestly, I’ve only used a fraction of the features available so far, but I like knowing that they’re there.

I hear an iOS version of Scrivener is coming out. I wouldn’t want to write an entire novel on an iPhone or iPad, but that could be handy for those times when I’m away from my computer. Many nights I’ll wake up with an idea I don’t want to forget. For now I type those ideas into the Notes app on my iPhone, but it would be nice if I could type them right into the Scrivener project.

Which reminds me, I save my Scrivener projects to Dropbox. Besides providing some level of backup, this makes the project available to me from any computer. I might not be able to open the Scrivener project on my PC or phone, but I can still open the RTF files that make up the individual chapters. That has come in handy more than once. I think you get 2 GB free with Dropbox, which doesn’t sound like much, but that’s a lot of text.

And speaking of backups, I’m pretty invested in the Apple infrastructure, so I use TimeMachine. It’s simple to use and pretty reliable. I don’t like having an external drive attached to my laptop, so this necessitates a network attached storage solution. So far, I’ve resisted buying a TimeCapsule from Apple. I’m getting by with a free piece of software called FreeNAS 8 hosted on a Windows server. The latest version has TimeMachine support built in, but it is tricky to set up. It has worked pretty well for me so far, but lately I’ve been experiencing some problems on my MacBook Pro that have required me to periodically rebuild the backup. If that problem continues, I’ll probably cave in and buy the official Apple TimeCapsule.

Whew, that was more than I expected to write! I could go on for pages, but in the interest of brevity (heh), I’ll go ahead and wrap things up. Thanks for geeking out with me. I’d love to hear about your own setup!

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Chapter 4 – The Workspace

What is your ideal workspace for writing? In my head, I imagine a cabin in the mountains. A log crackles in the fire as I sit at my vast but spartan desk. Through the window I can see snow gently falling. These are the only distractions as I type vigorously, the inspiration rushing over me like a fever.

Yeah, my real workspace is nothing like that. As I write this, I’m sitting with my back against the armrest, my legs stretched out until they nearly reach the other end of the tiny couch. I live in a small condo in downtown Austin, Texas. It’s near 100 degrees Fahrenheit today, and the air conditioning struggles to keep pace. You don’t have to listen long to hear the firetrucks racing from the fire station across the street. My condo is noisy, hot, and cramped, and I love it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d still like to have that cabin in the woods some day, but I find couch writing quite manageable. Sure, I could sit at my desk and write, but I sit at a desk eight or nine hours a day at work, just staring at a computer all day. When I get home, the last thing I want to do is sit at a desk. So I sprawl out on the couch, and I write.

Now that’s not to say there aren’t concessions. The ergonomics are quite bad. My neck is bent at an awkward angle, sometimes for hours. My arms are pinched inward until I look like some sort of brainy T-Rex. And there’s a reason manufacturers now call laptops “notebooks.” They can get quite warm. Not hot enough to burn, mind you, but warm enough to be uncomfortable in your lap on a hot summer day. Let’s just say there can be perspiration and leave it at that.

But you know what? Once I start writing, I mean when I really get going, all that goes out the window. I forget all the minor annoyances and lose myself in the fantasy world I’ve created. I can go for hours, ergonomics be damned. I guess what I’m trying to say is my ideal workspace is the place I feel most comfortable, not necessarily in body, but in mind.

For me, that’s always been home.

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