Shifting Focus and Changing Plans

For most authors in search of traditional publishing, it is only after diving into the deep end head first that you realize that you can barely tred water among all the other authors in the pool. It is only then that you might decide to take a step back and survey the landscape so that you can find a more likely path. In my case, that’s exactly what happened, and now I’m changing course toward calmer waters. It’s not the shortest journey, but it’s become more apparent to me now more than ever that an author must have patience and, in my opinion, layout a series of stepping-stone goals.

It has been my goal to get my novel published. However, the path that I chose to get there was to submit to literary agents (the gatekeepers to the publishing industry). My reasoning was that I knew they could educate me on the process, negotiate for a fair deal (so I would know whether I am being taken advantage of), and sell my manuscript better than I could. However, submitting to literary agents as a new author is like trying to take a shortcut in the publishing world. Literary agents generally look to get their clients that highly desired hardcover deal which is not often achieved by first time authors.

So it is time that I “start small” and choose the other path. I’m going to submit directly to some of the smaller, more focused publishing houses that usually deal with paperback and ebook deals. This was somewhat difficult for me to wrap my mind around as any self published author can achieve those same things via Amazon’s Create Space or other similar venues. However, a publishing house does more than just publish. It’s the editing, the marketing, the recognition amongst the consumers of a quality product, the brick-and-mortor store distribution, and the commitment of a team that is involved in your success as much as you are.

I feel that now, with my short story published, my query letter will exhibit more confidence, and with my progress into book two, it’ll demonstrate my dedication. If successful, I’ll have to negotiate the terms of my own deal and manage my own career, but it’s all about the journey, and it will all be worth it in the end.

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Staying Focused as an Author

Many authors suffer from the greatness of their creativity, especially fiction writers. They will be in the middle of composing one manuscript that they have been working on for quite some time, and then Poof!, a MUCH more awesome idea pops into their head. They become an immediate slave to their creativity and begin fostering the new idea into something more, causing their first story to begin collecting dust. Worse yet, it most likely happens to them again and again. And in more extreme cases, their brain may be generating so many good ideas that they fail to even start on one. Does any of that sound like you or someone you know? I’ll offer some advice to help you stay focused on your project at hand.

So how does an author like this ever finish anything they’ve started? Well, it’s not easy, but no one ever said being an author was. Completing a manuscript is a long arduous process that requires self-motivation, determination, and focus. While it is possible to keep exploring every idea of your imagination, then you’ll be stuck with writing multiple books at once – which is a less than ideal situation. It’ll become a chore to remember the details and nuances of each of your works-in-progress. It’ll also most certainly degrade the quality of your work. Plus, if you are serious about becoming published, you will already be overwhelmed. One author described the publishing life as, “You will be marketing and promoting book 1, while editing book 2, while writing book 3.” Staying focused and concentrated on one book at a time is key to success. “But I want to have multiple completed manuscripts to increase my chances of getting published,” you say. Well, as someone that has tried multiple business ventures simultaneously in hopes that one gets traction, the reality is that it forces you to spread yourself too thin. Instead of having one great book/idea/business, now you have many crappy ones that don’t go anywhere. Pour all your energy and love into one book and success will follow.

If you are just overflowing with ideas and are having trouble just getting started, this is what I suggest:  Write down all of your ideas in short summary paragraphs. Compare them all to each other. Separate them by judging your own ideas so that you now have your “A-List” ideas and your “B-List”. Grade them using whatever criteria is important to you, for example, maybe one is better than the other simply because it would be more fun to write, or one idea could be made into a series, or perhaps one is more “commercial/salable” then the rest. The choice is up to you, but whether you think writing is an art form and shouldn’t be judged on it’s ability to sell, the bottom line that every author must recognize is that we are entertainers, and as such, we must please our audience. As entertainers, you have decided to choose a life of servitude, to create stories that are designed to captivate the imagination of the masses. And if you don’t judge your ideas that way, literary agents and publishers will. So now, looking at your A-List, most likely you have just honed your creative mind to concentrate around 1 or 2 (3 tops) best ideas. Pick one, then create realistic goals/milestones/deadlines for yourself and post it up all around your desk. Whenever you feel yourself getting distracted, look at your goals – they will keep you on a path toward success.

If you are a person that has no problem getting started on a manuscript, but gets ideas right in the middle of your novel, here’s what I do: I write down every new idea in a single document so they are never forgotten – I call that document my “bag of tricks.” Because I write in the fantasy genre (and because I am writing a series), many things can happen in my world. Whenever I have lost my muse/creativity, sometimes I will dig out an idea from my bag of tricks. It will help me create a scene, introduce a new character, or allows me to insert a minor conflict, etc.

While it seems like the mind can be working against you, you should never stop your mind from conjuring up new ideas. Find a way to work with it, to leverage your creativity while staying focused. You must create your own method or process toward completing your novel. Use my processes above if they seem right for you, but be sure you take steps to manage yourself, to corral your creativity, to focus your efforts. Feel free to offer any suggestions of your own in the comments section below.

How To Design Your Story Outline

Sample Flow Chart Plan for The Mystery of Chimney Rock

I’m in the middle of planning book 2 of my series, The Chromium Smith, and I thought it would be a great time to see if I can improve upon my story outline process and share everything that I’ve found. When designing the outline for book 1, The Soul Smith, I used a chapter by chapter approach toward planning the plot-based events. However, I found it cumbersome because I couldn’t fit all the chapter’s events I had planned into just one chapter, resulting in continuous revisions to my outline. After I abandoned a written plan, I found that I was able to develop my characters more organically as I wrote. I felt that this was a positive byproduct of the lack of a written outline, but I wasn’t without any plan at all.

With book 1, to compensate for a lack of a chapter-by-chapter written plan, I had conceived of the overarching story line and used proper character motivation to get from A to Z. I added one additional mechanic that I coined as ‘The Logic Test’ which prevented me from having any holes in my story. Lastly, whenever I thought of a great scene for the book, I wrote it down immediately. This list of scenes became my ‘Bag of Tricks’ that I was able to pull from whenever I felt a little stuck, or deprived of creativity. All of this was the same tried and true method that I employed when designing stories for role playing games.

So why even do the extra work to generate and maintain an outline? Well, when I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, for critique at Critter’s Writer’s Workshop, I had one reviewer say, “I suspect a lack of outline.” In that instance, my A to Z approach didn’t work so well, but I blame that on my initial choice of an ending (which has since changed). Plus, with my novel, I had made an embarrassing mistake with a character’s name where I unintentionally changed the spelling of it half way through my book. I could have really benefited from a good character tracker system. Also, some publishers like Xchyler Publishing require a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of your book (among other things) when submitting your manuscript for consideration.

I had asked Xchyler Publishing why they required a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and this was their response: “There are a few reasons. 1. It shows you know your story, which means you have spent time, and at least read back through it. 2. It helps our editing staff know what the main points are. So if/when they need to be edited down, the key points remain.3. It shows you are devoted to the success your book as much as we will be.”

What is the goal or purpose of an outline? It is there to help you flush out any holes in your plot, to ensure that your story is solid, and to help you write your novel. It will help you stay focused, monitor your pacing, and will guide you through your story. It will help you think through your novel, so that you can make any changes to plot or story upfront before you write yourself into a corner. In addition, it will (at times) help prevent writer’s block.

What does an outline need?

  • Characters
  • Places and Scenes
  • Problem
  • Plot
  • Theme
  • Tone

How do you design an outline? There are numerous different methods that work well for different people. It could be as simple as a bunch of post-it notes or as scientific as Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. After searching the web, I’ll share a few ways below:

  1. Flash cards or Post-it Notes: Great way to stay organized and keep all the pertinent info in an easy to find place. Have a post-it for each character, write down descriptions for reference, who they are related to, etc.
  2. White Board or Mindmapping: I rather enjoy white boards, and I have a simple one in my home office because I like staring at a visual to be reminded of things, or to think through issues. Similarly, you can connect thoughts, or plot events to characters to show motivations, etc using mindmapping. The free iPad and iPhone app called Total Recall is a great tool for this.
  3. Simple Document: Whether you organize everything into a table, or you have a story board process using PowerPoint, or you write down everything in paragraphs of text, a simple document is a great place to start.
  4. Software: There is too many to list, but you can see them (and buy them) all here: Writers Store
  5. Chapter by Chapter: I tend to think that this document should be made as you write your novel, so that it can become a useful reference guide. It will help you remember which chapter introduces what character, what events occurred in what chapter, and can help you take a glance at the pace of your novel. Reader’s dislike changes in pace, so if your plot-driven events are slowing down, it may be time for some revisions.
  6. The Snowflake Method: Created by Randy Ingermanson, this is an incredibly detailed planning process. It was developed around the idea that novels are designed. At its most basic concept, you start small with one idea and then you expand it outward; writing individual story lines for characters and expanding them to full page descriptions, expanding the plot from a one page synopsis to a four page synopsis, create a scene list and grow it into a multi-paragraph description of each scene, etc. You do this until every tacit of your novel has matured, and then you write your first draft.
  7. Combination: I plan to use a simple document to keep track of characters, as well as  a white board to help me think through character motivations, and a chapter by chapter outline to help me monitor the pace of my novel and use as a good reference. Feel free to use your own combo to ensure that you have a solid plan in place.

Help! My Book Title is Already Taken

I was checking to see how my website popped up in search results on various search engines when I came across some disconcerning results. When I searched for ‘The Soul Smith’ you could imagine my surprise when I came upon the book pictured belowSoulsmith Trilogy cover. My first reaction was anger, my second reaction was anxiety. I immediately dove into this topic and came up with some good news! If you are in the same boat as me, read on!

First, book titles cannot be copyrighted as stated right on the USPTO FAQ page, “Copyright does not protect names, titles, slogans, or short phrases. In some cases, these things may be protected as trademarks.” If you are worried if a trademark has already been filed, you can search for it on the USPTO website here: http://tess2.uspto.gov/. Luckily for me, my title wasn’t trademarked. Trademarking, as opposed to copyrighting, requires an application to register the word mark with USPTO. It costs money (I spent $925 on a lawyer to get a TM before), and it took over 9 months to get approved. Whereas with copyrighting, your original work is protected under copyright law as soon as it is written on the page, and it is free. Though, there are some benefits to registering your copyrighted work with USPTO.

But apparently, using (or I should say re-using) the same title is actually pretty common. You can even search the Library of Congress to see for yourself all the books that were published with the same title by different authors: http://eresources.loc.gov/. In 1978, Harper and Knopf both published books titled Continental Drift.  In 1984, St. Martins and Knopf both published books titled Pearl. This even happens in the movie industry too. A movie titled Blown Away was released in 1993, and then a different movie with Tommy Lee Jones entitled Blown Away came out in 1994. Check IMDB if you don’t believe me.

Second, if you are a published author, or have been offered a book contract, it should be you and not your publisher, that should retain the intellectual property rights (trademark) to your title. You want to be able to license the use of your trademark, which is when you get paid a royalty or fee to allow other people to use your “brand” to sell merchandise, etc. I just checked, and The Twilight Saga and Game of Thrones are both trademarked. If you foresee film, TV, or merchandise being created as a result of your book, you need to trademark the title of your work.

But remember, just because you can use a book title that’s been taken before, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. You can imagine the confusion that might ensue. So if you want to protect the title of your novel without the high cost of a trademark, just keep it a secret until it is published.

Please feel free to leave comments or questions below.