Publishing Print Versus Digital Books

Believe it or not, I’m actually working on my book this weekend! I’m very close to having it done, if I will just grind through the tedious formatting parts.

But the grind has left me wondering if it’s worth the effort of doing both a print version and an ebook.

Pros for Print

  • I like reading a copy in print for editing purposes.
  • There are people who don’t have an ereader or tablet and/or who prefer to read a print copy. (Heck, even I like the feel of a book in my hand.)
  • It looks really impressive when you show it off. Here’s my name in print!
  • You can (theoretically) get some copies put into local bookstores.
  • Is it possible that having a print copy available makes your work look more legitimate? People who are lazy about writing probably don’t go to the trouble of doing up a professional-looking print book.

Cons

  • I could print a copy of my book from Word or Scrivener, on regular paper, and it would actually be easier to edit (especially if I do double-spacing).
  • Formatting a print copy takes two or three times as long as it does for the ebook.
  • Making a full cover for the print version takes two or three times as long as it does to make a front cover only for the ebook.
  • So far, I have sold almost no copies of my print book; I think the only people who buy it are my family members and a handful of others.
  • I make about half the profit on the print copy as I do on the ebook, even though the print copy is more than twice the amount of work.
  • If I want to issue a second edition (which I do want to do for Acceptance), I have to make edits separately to the ebook file and the print file, which means, again, twice as much work.
  • I don’t actually sell any of my print copies in local bookstores.

So, from a purely economic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to continue to release print copies. And now that I have a full time job (with no down time), I have less time to write, edit, and publish. So the more time I spend on formatting, the less time I spend actually creating something new, the longer it takes to get my stuff on the market, etc.

So, unless I see some decent sales with the print copies of The Flames of Prague, I think, going forward, that I’m only going to release in ebook.

For those of you who are also writers, how do you feel print copies stack up versus your ebooks, or have you already made the switch to ebooks only?

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Almost Done . . .

final-cover-v3-for-ebookI finally got off my ass and uploaded The Flames of Prague and its cover to CreateSpace. Now I have to wait for their review. If they don’t see any obvious issues (like page numbering or margin issues–both of which I had to wrestle with before I submitted it), then I can order a proof copy.

Fingers crossed that the proof copy will look good. I’ve already had one that was almost perfect, so there wasn’t a lot of tweaking that was needed. If it looks good, the paper copy will go on sale immediately. Meanwhile, I’m going to start the process of stripping all the formatting out to turn it into an ebook.

I hope to have all formats published by next month.

Chasing Nonconformity: A Review

I recently discovered that Michelle Proulx had released the sequel to her first self-published novel, Imminent Danger and How to Fly Straight into It. (It released last year. I confess that not only have I been neglecting my own blog, but I’ve been neglecting fellow writers’ blogs as well.) It just so happens that I re-read Imminent Danger last week, so it was the perfect time to download Chasing Nonconformity and spend my Sunday reading it (instead of cleaning the kitchen).

What you need to know: Young adult science fiction romance series. Firefly-esque. Intended audience: Teen girls up to nerdy adult women. (I.e. Fan girls of all ages.)

First off, I love the title. Titles are surprisingly hard to come up with sometimes. I had the first draft of Acceptance pretty well written before I came up with the title. And I finally decided on the title of the second book just last week (Between Two Worlds). So I appreciate a good title. And “Chasing Nonconformity” can do double duty as the name of a documentary about goth kids, which amuses me.

51yxpaaxbtl0I also have to brag on Michelle’s covers, which are great science fiction covers. I liked the original Imminent Danger cover just fine, but the new cover—and the matching sequel cover—just look super professional. And that’s good, because her books are very professionally done.

There is still a lot of stigma attached to self-published authors; I’ve even heard other self-published authors admitting that they don’t read much self-published stuff. Given some of the crap I’ve seen professional published lately—complete with bad proofreading/typos—people shouldn’t automatically dismiss self-published material.

If you’ve been reluctant to read self-published material, then I recommend you try Michelle’s books because they’re very clean; you will never know that you’re reading something self-published.

I have noticed that a lot of times sequels are sloppy compared to the first book or two. My theory is that an author sweats and labors over their first book for years, and maybe even has part or all of the second written before they finally get their first book published. Then publishers want the subsequent books on schedule. It used to be that there was a year between books, but now it’s about 6 months, on average. Yes, you can technically churn out a book in 6 months, but you can’t do that most crucial step, which is stick it in a drawer for a few months and forget about it. Then you take it out again and start editing. This allows you to look at your book with fresh eyes—more like a reader will see it—and it allows you to say, “You know, that seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I see that it doesn’t work.”

When you’re cranking out a book ever 6 months, you don’t have mellowing time and it shows. (The third installment of The Hunger Games, in my opinion, suffered from “rush to the presses” syndrome, as did the final Twilight book.) The nice thing about being a self-published author is that you can take your time to turn out good material. (If you’re not writing for money—and, at this point, most of us are not—then you should at least turn out something that makes you proud, even if it never makes you rich.) Michelle’s sequel doesn’t disappoint on that account; it is very well-crafted and I didn’t find myself questioning her choices.

Michelle really does science fiction well. I am not a physicist, but I’ve had enough science classes (thank you Philosophy of Star Trek 101) to have a basic grounding in the principles. And so far, I haven’t noticed that she gets anything wrong when it comes to inertia in zero-gravity environments, sound in space, etc. But, even better, she’s really good at inventing aliens and alien worlds and describing them in Technicolor. It’s amazingly hard to invent something out of whole cloth. Mouthless aliens that speak by blinking out musical sounds? Fabulous! And my favorite is Miguri’s mood-hair. You can always tell how he’s feeling based on his hair. Agitated, it spikes up; depressed, it droops.

Michells also does a really great job of having a wide variety of characters and keeping them true to character. Her inept peaceniks are always inept in laughable, loveable ways. Characters with odd or unique speech patterns maintain them throughout. She’s also really good at keeping some characters’ status of good or bad questionable. Varrin was a great anti-hero in the first book because we never knew when he would sell everyone for medical experiments; he, more than the plot, was the source of the suspense. In the second book, Fino’jin becomes the questionable one. In the first book, I liked him like you would like a Klingon, but in the second book, he seems less honor-driven and more revenge-driven. His real moral status is still questionable.

Although only a few days separate the first book from the second book, there is a notable shift in Eris’s character; she seems much more mature. I think this is not because she’s supposed to have grown so much, but rather because Michelle herself has changed over the time it’s taken her to write the sequel. I have noticed this in my own writing, especially when I’m writing characters who are similar to me or are actually based on me. As you personally learn and change, it’s hard (maybe even impossible) to keep your characters from reflecting that. The drawback is that it makes it feel like more time has passed between books than was supposed to have happened. (The best way around it that I’ve found is to move the sequel out just a little bit in time and do a flashback if necessary to fill in the gap. I think that hides some of the change by making it feel like a bigger amount of time has passed.)

But, despite that, I really like the person Eris has become. In the first book, her only weapons were her sarcasm/wit and optimism. Those can both be helpful in a tough situation, but they’re not a substitute for having a good blaster at your side. Which is why Eris spends so much time in the first book getting passed around like a bottle of cheap hooch at a frat party.

Not so in the second book. Maybe Varrin’s started to rub off on her, or maybe losing her gun virginity by killing someone at the end of the first book did it, but in the second book Erin is much more in control. She still has people trying to abduct her—and in some cases she bumbles right into it—but she’s stopped passively accepting her abduction and she fights back. It’s like we get to watch her transformation into a space pirate—a moral space pirate, but a space pirate nonetheless.

The only complaint I really have is that it seemed short. I’m not one of those people who reads a few books a week, but I did read all of this in one day. Of course, it’s a testament to its ability to captivate that I wanted to read it all in one sitting, but I would have rather it have been too long for me to have possibly done that. But, at the same time, I really can’t point to any part of the book and say, “There should have been more about X in there” or “this needed to be expanded and explained better.”

I suppose the only place to have made it longer would have been at the end. The end is satisfying enough, but I think it would have been a bit better if it would have ended with 1) a newly assembled crew and 2) a destination for the next adventure–just like the first book did. I mean, we more or less know who the new crew is, but I would have liked to have seen it assembled and everyone in agreement on what they’re doing/where they’re going next. There was no cliffhanger for the main characters, which left it feeling like it was already wrapped up. There was a set up for the third book in the Epilogue, but it only featured a secondary character. I would have like to have seen a setup for the next book with the main characters, then introduce the secondary character as the villain who is going to thwart their newly-laid plans.

But, that’s actually a fairly minor quibble; like I said, the ending wasn’t bad, it just could have been tied up into a bit neater of a bow. I’m still eager to read the third book. All I can say is it better involve a showdown on Rakor, preferably with Eris poised to be a virgin sacrifice to the sun god. Or maybe with her as a knocked-up sacrifice to the sun god. Imagine the shame to the Emperor if his next heir was half-human.

So, five stars. Get a copy. Read it. Badger Michelle for the next one. It’s been a year already!

 

Update!

Okay, so I’ve said several times that I’m going to start blogging regularly again. But I’ve fallen off that wagon faster than I’ve fallen off diets. But things are sort of starting to calm down in my life, meaning I ought to be able to give up a lunch hour or two every week to make a blog post.

So, where am I and what have I been up to?

Firstly, my husband and I bought a house in January and moved to beautiful Polk County, TN, within sight of the Cherokee National Forest and the Appalachian Mountains, and 15 minutes’ drive from the Ocoee River, site of the 1996 Olympic whitewater kayaking course.

559-white-rd-se-oldfort-tn-37362-1

Not the actual view from our house, but just down the road from our place. We’re actually so surrounded by trees, you can just barely see a little mountain peak from our front porch.

It’s everything we’ve wanted in a house: no visible neighbors, a creek, plenty of woods, and more. It even has a shed on the back of the garage that’s just what my husband has always wanted for a blacksmith’s shop.

Unfortunately, it has no internet. But, unlike many of our unfortunate neighbors in the area, we actually have the ability to get cable internet–if we only pay to have it run to the house. We’re over 900 feet from the road, so that’s no small expense, but we’re hoping to have it done in the next month or two.

And, of course, there are a lot of other projects and improvements to do around the house. We’re actually still trying to get unpacked and figure out where everything goes. (Although I did make good progress on my craft room recently; it will be ready to use soon.)

Secondly, I’ve finished the proofreading of The Flames of Prague. I just need to order a proof copy, check the new cover and the formatting, and format the print book for ebook. We’re going to a big event in a couple of weeks, but after that, I should be able to get the final formatting done. So the publishing date for Flames is no later than July 31st!

Thirdly, I’ve been hard at work on medieval stuff, including finishing my illustrated medieval history! So look for me to start posting those again. I’m also going to start blogging more about my medieval projects because I want to showcase what I’m working on. And I’ve about been talked into doing some YouTube videos of 14th century hairstyles. (I just started teaching them as a class at our SCA events.) IMG_20160321_143701_889

Fourthly, we have a dog now. We were planning on getting one once we got fully settled at our new place, but she found us first. (Someone apparently dumped her out at the storage place on a night that was too cold for a short-haired pup and far too close to the highway. She now has our sunroom as her very own room and a 5 acre yard to play in.) Based on her coloration, confirmation, and temperament, we believe Zorra to be a black lab/smooth fox terrier mix. Her hobbies include finding trash we didn’t even know we had in the yard and bringing it up to the house, chasing cats, and barking at the cows, horses, and donkeys in the field next door. She loves fetching a ball more than anything. She’s about 6 months old.

Fifthly, I finally started that garden that I wanted to do X number of years ago (and had given up as a pipe dream). All of our stuff is looking good and we’re just waiting for our first tomato to ripen. Biting the bullet and actually doing the work necessary to have even a small garden was hard, but now that we’re over that hump, I don’t think it will be so hard to get started in future years. Even though we haven’t harvested anything yet, we’re really into watching our herbs and plants grow. I mean, I’m counting blooms daily just to see where we stand. I think once we start eating what we’ve grown, we’ll be well and truly hooked. I already have plans for expansion next year! (Not to mention we want to start planting fruit and nut trees this fall.) Up next: chickens!

So, now that we have our own place, we can settle down and start working on long-term and outdoor projects. It’s a lot going on, but it’s a lot to share, too.

New Flames Proof is Here!

I just got the proof copy of my book in the mail! (Ordered it on July 26, so 9 days to print and deliver.)

Initial impressions: CreateSpace warned me that part of my cover picture was less than 200 DPI and that can cause it to be a little blurry. I think it’s the painting part (the two figures). Not sure if it bothers me enough, though, to try and find a higher resolution image (if one even exists) and go through the background erasing part again.
Cover (New)
Secondly, I think I need a little more blank space around the edges of the back cover. (It looks like plenty in this image, but this image contains bleed. The cutting lines actually trim off about half the blank space around the back edges.)

Thirdly, I opted for cream-colored pages this time and I already like them much better! White is very stark–almost glaring. If you look at the vast majority of novels (and most other non-picture books), the pages are cream, not white. It’s definitely easier on the eyes and I recommend it.

One major problem I have right now is that I can’t get in contact with the guy who owns the rights to the pseudo-Hebrew script that I use on the cover and inside the book. I’ve contacted him via email twice and using a form on his website, but have gotten no response. I noticed that he hasn’t updated his website in a few years, so it’s likely that he’s given up his hobby making scripts. But I was still hoping I could buy a license from him for this one. If I don’t hear from him soon, I’ll have to switch to a different font. I’ve found a few options (although I don’t like any of them quite as well as I like the Sefer AH).

Jerusalem

 

This Jerusalem font and is probably the closest thing to the one I have. The drawback is that it’s only free for personal use, so I could run into the same problem of I can’t get in contact with the owner to buy a license.

sholom.regular

This is the next closest font. It’s blockier, though, and I think it looks more like a fun-novelty font. And this is a romance book where lots of people die in horrible ways. (What, you expected me to not kill off a bunch of people in one of my books?) I just fear this is a little too cutesy for the subject matter. But, on the plus side, it’s free for commercial use, so I don’t have to buy a license at all.

MyFonts Option

 

Then we have this one, Faux Hebrew. I think I like it better than the previous one. It’s $24.00 for a license, which makes it twice as expensive as the one I’ve been trying to buy.

kohelet.regular

 

 

Then there’s this one. It’s the least Hebrew-like font, but it has a certain flame-ness to it. It is also free for commercial use.

Don’t Stray from the Formula!—Part III

(This article is part of a series. Missed Part I or Part II?)

Hopefully you will choose (preferably consciously, but maybe unconsciously) what formula your story will follow before you start writing it. And hopefully, once you start writing it, it stays in its pre-selected category.

But if it changes, you need to realize that it’s changed, and then you either need to scrap it and try again (if it really matters to you that it follow a particular formula) or you need to fully and whole-heartedly embrace the change.

Summarize the Story from the POV of the Formula

As I covered last time, the formula for the Acceptance series changed on me; it’s no longer a romance. My problem has been that I haven’t recognized that. When I tried to summarize my story (or especially if I tried to distill it to a one- or two-line “elevator pitch”), I found myself going in multiple directions, because when I tried to start with the romance angle, I found other elements that were just as important (a good indication that you’re describing multiple subplots, but not the overarching formula).

I became very frustrated because I knew that my response was scattered (and I certainly couldn’t get the story down to a single line!). I felt like the story in my books worked, but for some reason I couldn’t tell anyone what the story was in less than 109,000 words.

That’s because I didn’t identify what the story was. The coming-of-age tale wasn’t a subplot, but the plot, and the romance—and everything else—are subplots.

When it comes to summarizing your book, tell the reader (or agent or publisher) what the book formula is from the get-go. Don’t mention the subplots much, if any, and they become like little surprise treats along the way because the reader isn’t expecting them and doesn’t know where they will go.

If you’re presenting a coming-of-age story, then you (and the reader) know what’s going to happen in the end: the main character is going to lose their innocence and learn to live in the real, adult world. If it’s a Dude with a Problem story, the end is inevitable: dude will solve his problem. Who wants to see a Western where the bad guy wins or the good guy dies senselessly, having accomplished nothing? That sort of thing is popular in art/indie films and some literature, where the creator wants you to feel that life makes no sense, or they just want you to feel uncomfortable and unfulfilled at the end because that’s somehow superior to walking away feeling fulfilled, but those kinds of movies and books are never terribly popular. Your average person wants you to follow the formula; they want the predictable ending to happen. Subplots are where unpredictable things happen, but the main plot should end predictably.

(I think this is why “serious” writers look down on “genre” writers. If it has a genre, it almost certainly follows a formula (although not all stories in the same genre follow the same formula). Many “serious” or “literary” writers think writing to a formula is too predictable, too déclassé; it’s writing for the unwashed masses. They want writing that’s full of symbolism, completely unpredictable, and maybe has no plot or purpose at all. But, in truth, this sort of post-modern literature, which exists only for its own sake, is a johnny-come-lately in the history of human literature. You can be sure that cavemen told stories about monsters around a campfire. They didn’t, however, ramble endlessly about characters who spend their time wrestling with the question of whether anything is really good or evil, or if anything can actually be true or untrue. There’s a reason why people continue to buy romance novels and watch action movies wherein dude has a problem that he fixes.)

Giving the Formula the Middle Finger

p167496_p_v7_aaSo here’s an example of a modern, artsy movie that just wanted to give the formula the middle finger: Atonement.

The story was about a rich English girl of good family who was in love with a common boy who was nonetheless trying to rise in the world with the hopes that he would be accepted by her family.

But the girl’s younger sister (who is telling the story) catches them doing the nasty in the library, and when her friend is raped soon after, she puts the two incidents together and decides that the boy is a rapist who not only assaulted her sister, but her friend, too. So she lies and says that she saw him raping her friend, because she thinks that she’s doing the just thing. So boy—who is really innocent—gets sent to jail and he loses his chance for a good future and marriage with his love interest.

Only later, when the narrator is older and she can look back on what she saw with adult eyes, does she realize how wrong she was to lie and ruin the boy’s life.

Meanwhile, we see sister trying to make her way in life while pining for her love, and we see him released from jail in exchange for being drafted into WWII. He gets injured in France, ends up recovering from his injuries, returns to England, and he and his love finally get their long-overdue reunion. They even get their opportunity to vent their anger on the now-grown sister who tries to apologize for ruining his life and their romance.

That’s a Buddy Love/romance story, right? Lovers are separated wrongly. Eventually wrongs get righted and the two lovers get one another in the end. Everyone walks away happy.

Then the screenwriter decided to give the formula the middle finger. Instead of stopping the story there, it cuts to the narrator, who is now an old woman and we find out that she’s a writer who just published this story as an autobiography. Only she confesses in an interview that she lied about how the story ended. It did not end happily ever after. The boy died of his injuries at Dunkirk and her sister died during the bombing of London. She wrote a happy ending to the story because that’s what she wanted to happen; she wanted to be able to make amends, make things come out right, and be free of her guilt. But the moral of the story is that some things can never be put right.

While that may be true in life, what a horribly depressing sentiment for a movie! I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to movies (or read books) to learn that other people have lives as horrible as or even worse than mine and they never get a resolution, or find a happy ending, or improve their lot in any way. Yes, people die bitter and unfulfilled all the time, but I don’t want to know about them; their stories give me nothing but depression. (My husband declared that Atonement, “made me angry. I wanted those two hours of my life back! I felt like I had been cheated.)

Personally, I want a positive message that makes me feel better about myself and my life; I want something that actually improves me or motivates me. I want to know that true love can really exist. I want to know that no matter how bad my life is, it can get better because people who were in worse shape have managed to turn themselves around. I want to know that hard work and unwavering belief in my dreams can make me successful and prosperous.

If you’ve got nothing to give me but unresolved issues or the message that life sometimes (or even often) sucks, then I’ll give you the middle finger and walk away.

And that’s true of the vast majority of other people. There’s a reason why stories that follow the formula tend to be hits, while the things that exist just to give the formula the finger aren’t popular with anyone but hipsters who live to give everyone the finger.

Think about stream-of-consciousness writing. Who wants to read that? There is no plot or formula. It doesn’t matter how poetically you may describe what you’re seeing or feeling, if there’s no larger point to the project, your average reader is not going to want to read it.

This is also the reason why Renaissance art is more popular than modern art. Renaissance paintings teach a moral or tell a story or illustrate a human condition or maybe even show us something universal and emotional in a stranger’s face. Art has its own formulas which art, since the beginning of homo sapiens up to about the Impressionists, has followed. Then modern art came along and it was all about giving the formulas the finger. Now, the purpose of art is to have no purpose. It can be splatters of paint on canvas. It can be an uncarved rock. It can be a blank canvas with no paint on it at all. You no longer need to have any talent or years of experience to be an artist; if you can make something exist, then that’s enough.

(I really like the explanation given by artist and professor Robert Florczak on “Why is Modern Art so Bad?”)

Lascaux-Photo9

Notice the stalks of grass beside and in front of the horse; it’s running through tall grass on the plains.

There’s a reason why most people ridicule modern and post-modern art. Even people who have no art education understand, at least subconsciously, that art should be about something—should have a purpose—that it should follow a formula. You can look at the paintings in Lascaux cave and see the world of our caveman ancestors. You can almost see the horses and animals that the artist saw moving across the plain. You are looking back into time, into another world. The artist gives you that.

You do not get any of that when you look at a painting that’s just a bunch of paint splatters on canvas. Sure, you might see hints of shapes in the splatter, but you can see shapes in clouds, too; that doesn’t make clouds art. And most people understand that. They don’t want to see weird shit that means nothing; they want to see things they already know. Or, as Blake Snyder puts it, they want to see the same thing, only different. This is why there are hundreds of thousands cheap romance and Western novels in existence. You don’t reinvent the formula; you just change the characters and the setting and the subplots. There’s infinite variety in those three things while staying true to the underlying formula.

Legitimate Twists to the Formula

So, your task now is to figure out what formula each of your stories most closely follows. If you can’t tell, then you almost certainly have a plot problem (as we’ve discussed, nobody wants to read a story that meanders around, directionless, accomplishing nothing) and you can fix it by bringing your story into line with one of the formulas. (It is possible that you have followed a formula that’s not covered here, but make really, really sure that’s the case and that you’re not just wandering in and out of other formulas at random.)

If you have followed the formula right up to the end, then inserted a surprise twist that causes the story to jump into another formula or into no formula at all, then you need to seriously, seriously reconsider that. As I’ve pointed out, that’s never popular. A surprise twist needs to stay within the formula.

Look at Titanic. That’s a Buddy Love story, because it’s exclusively about Jack & Rose’s relationship. But the twist is that Jack dies at the end. Normally, buddies either survive together or die together; one living and one dying is normally against the formula. But the twist works for two reasons: one, we’re warned about it from the very beginning when we find out that Old Rose had a relationship before she married the man who would be her husband for the rest of her life—so we know she doesn’t get her happily-ever-after with Jack; and two, we see in the epilogue that Rose kept Jack alive in her heart by doing all the things they had planned to do together, so in a way, he was always with her. And when she (presumably) dies, she goes back to the ship and finally joins him again, so they’ll have a heavenly sort of existence where they will never be parted again. So she loses him, but not really. If James Cameron had cut out the epilogue part, so that we never see Rose’s pictures telling the story of her life post-Jack, and we didn’t see her reunite with him in death, then people would have been angry and the movie would have flopped. We want to know that our hearts will go on, damnit, and that you really can love one person for your whole life.

Or, if you’re doing the Monster in the House scenario and your character battles the monster and finally prevails, the twist can be showing the reader that the protagonist wasn’t battling the real monster at all; the real monster still lurks in the shadows, waiting for the next victim. (In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lector escapes at the end, so one monster is defeated just as another one gets loose.) Or maybe the heroine escapes, but we see that she’s infected or has set loose the monster’s progeny, so we see that one head has been cut off the hydra, but another one will grow back in its place. The formula calls for the monster to die or the protagonist to escape (Jurassic Park is a good example of when people escape and leave the monsters to rule the house). You must follow that formula. But it’s okay to leave an opening so that the monster can come back or start over in a new place. That’s a twist, but still within the original formula.

What’s not okay is to tamper with the formula. My dad used to be a professional comedian, and he had a joke about why you never see rednecks in horror movies: because rednecks always have a gun handy.

“Oh, you’re a scary booger!”
KABOOM
“Call the coroner because this booger’s dead.”
End of movie.

Or, “You always see people screaming when the booger jumps on the hood of their car and they panic and jump out of the car. Me, I want Jason on the hood of my car. I’ll gun the engine and he’ll have to throw away the knife to hang onto the wiper blades with both hands. And I’m going to run through every barbed wire fence and briar patch in the county. He’ll eventually jump off and limp back home to lick his nuts like a wounded dog.”

My dad always got huge laughs with his routine.

Exposing the formula and talking about breaking it is funny. But you wouldn’t actually go see a movie where the protagonist killed the monster in the first fifteen minutes, then spent the rest of the movie lying on the couch and drinking beer. You would be constantly waiting for the monster to resurrect or for its kin to come and avenge it. And if the movie ends without any of that happening, you would feel very cheated and declare it the worst movie ever.

Don’t give the formula the middle finger. As Blake states, pretty much all of these formulas are so primal, so part of the human condition, a caveman could follow the story.

Applying Writing Formulas to Your Own Work—Part II

(This article is part of a series. If you missed the first part, here it is.)

So, now that we know what the formulas are, let’s apply it to our own work. Take a look at all the stuff you’ve done and see if it’s following one of the formulas.

What Formula Am I?

The Last Golden Dragon is a Golden Fleece quest. Aine sets out to find the last golden dragon so she can hear his story and go tell the tale around the country. You find out during this quest that she is stubbornly independent and not content with a normal woman’s life. But during her quest, she learns that love and marriage doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game where all her hopes are dashed and she lives in a cage; love means both partners give so that they can be happy both as a couple and as individuals. She ends up not only fulfilling her quest, but finding much more than she was looking for.

However, the (as of yet unpublished) sequel, The Return of the Dragons, is a Buddy Love story, because it’s about the maturation of Aine and Eamonn’s relationship. I’m contemplating writing a sequel to that which would probably be a Rites of Passage, because it would about Aine having to come to terms with the fact that she can’t have everything she wants at once, and that she’s going to decide what’s more important to her and give up the other thing (at least temporarily).

(In other words, your sequels don’t necessarily have to follow the same formula as the original story. After all, how many times can one person go on a quest of introspection and self-discovery? If you’re following the life of one character over a period of time, you might want to change up the formula, because in life, we go through periods where we’re questing, but not all the time; we have problems that we need to fix, but not all the time; we have buddy love, but that typically comes and goes as friends and lovers come and go; we’re part of the institution, but usually only when we’re in school; etc.)

The Widow is an example of Bubby Love. Carol is trapped in her grief and can’t move on with her life—even though it’s past time for her to do so. Daniel acts primarily as a friend to help draw her out and get her functioning normally again. He is the person who is constant and acts as a catalyst while she is the one that does the changing.

The Flames of Prague is a Dude with a Problem story. First, Jakub’s problem is that he’s getting too old to fight and he doesn’t know what to do with himself; he’s facing his remaining years being a bored homebody. Then he meets a girl and he thinks his problem is solved; he’ll marry her, have children, and have a purpose again! Then he finds out there’s a problem with her: she’s a Jew. He has no solution to this, so he goes back to being bored—plus he’s now lovesick as well. Then he gets a new problem when he finds out that people are killing Jews and his love-interest is in danger. Does he risk his life to save her? And if he saves her, then what? He still has the problem of her being a Jew, but if he doesn’t overcome that problem, he’s left with the problem of being lonely and purposeless. The book concludes with him solving his various problems—sometimes with brute force and sometimes just by deciding that a “problem” is really just a design feature.

The sequel, The Children of Israel is the same thing, only there are 2-3 dudes with problems because I tell the story from the POV of two different characters. Samuel has to deal with the problem that his wife was raped prior to their marriage and she’s terrified for him to touch her. His sister has to deal with the fact that her parents can’t seem to arrange a marriage for her, but then she finds out her father’s man-at-arms is in love with her. And although she finds herself feeling the same way about him, they have the old problem of she’s a Jew and he’s not. And then Jakub has to deal with the problem that his family has been denounced as Jews and there are people who want to kill them. (His problem, however, gets taken up by Samuel, so Samuel is the one who has to find a solution to it.)

I’m contemplating a sequel to that which will follow another child of Jakub’s, and it will also be the same dude-with-a-problem format in that Jonatan has to deal with two sides of his family being at odds with one another and arguing over what he should or should not do, and later someone kidnaps his woman and he has to get those warring family members to unite to help him get her back.

(Unlike my dragon series, this series has a different main character(s) each time (albeit all from one family), and it’s about how each of them deals with their own unique problems. In each book, the reader is rooting for the character to win, but overall, she is rooting for the entire family to win. So, in this case, repeating the formula works.)

The Bloodsuckers is one long Dude With a Problem story. It is all about Scott and all the things he has to undergo and how he overcomes them.

Even my Zelda fanfiction follows a formula—and is, in fact, a perfect textbook example of the Golden Fleece quest. Link and Zelda have to go on a literal quest to find the necessary magical items needed to defeat all of the bosses, culminating with the defeat of the final bad guy and the saving of the world. But, along this long (long) journey, the two of them change rather significantly.

My Problem Child

So, that was easy; all of those stories are pretty clear-cut. Yes, there are some places where they sort of overlap with other formulas—quests can have romantic/buddy love subplots, etc.—but the main plot is clearly one specific format.

Then there’s Acceptance.

When I originally came up with the idea of vampires in Tennessee (this was even before I had the idea to have Jewish vampires in Tennessee), the (short) story was supposed to be a sort of supernatural mystery (Monster in the House formula). Kalyn (who is an adult) is out on a dark, snowy night and gets stuck in a ditch. While she’s sitting there, trying to figure out what to do, a guy appears and takes her out of the car. She then enters a period where she feels as if she is in a dream and isn’t really in control of herself. She gets taken to a cave that people—strange people—appear to be living in. The man with her bites her and she finds herself—perhaps of her own choice, perhaps not—giving herself to him fully. At some point, she passes out or falls asleep, and the next thing she knows, it’s morning and she’s back in her car. She looks for some evidence that she was kidnapped by a vampire, but can’t find any (but also can’t find any confirmation that she was in her car all night, either). So was it real or just a dream? She can’t be sure and neither can the reader.

But, somewhere in writing that, I decided that I wanted to know more about her and especially about the vampire with her. So the story morphed away from the monster formula to a romance/buddy love. Ciaran and the Imuechmehah were introduced and Kalyn found herself entering this strange vampire world just when they’re getting caught up in a war between two vampire races.

I wrote quite a bit of that novel, but became increasingly unhappy with it, primarily because Kalyn had no personality and I didn’t know how to give her one. (Also, she and Anselm only seemed to be in love because I said they should be; there was no natural development of their relationship.) I ended up scrapping it and I didn’t look at it again for nine years.

When I decided to resurrect my story, I started from scratch and put Kalyn in the vampire’s world from the very beginning. But instead of being an (adult) outsider being introduced to the vampire’s culture, she is a teenager getting introduced via a rite of passage.

I set out with the intention of writing a romance novel, and that’s what the story had been in its previous incarnation. Acceptance and its sequels were going to be all about Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship.

I’m not sure where I lost control of that formula… or if I ever really had control over it. But when I take a hard look at Acceptance and where its sequels are going, it is not a romance because it’s not primarily about Kalyn and Anselm’s relationship; there are too many other things going on and too many other characters winding their way in and out of the story with important stories of their own. There is no focus on just the two of them, the way there is in The Widow.

Okay, so what is it? Is it Institutionalized? After all, Kalyn is part of a group (her local group, the Yaechahre group, and the vampire/human group—all three come into play in different ways) and she has to learn how to work within all of those groups and she has to fight to save all of those groups. And yet, through all of that, she stays true to herself and her own moral compass—even when she has to go against the groups’ social customs. She becomes a reformer of sorts—a light showing a better path for other people in the group.

But is that really what the story is about, or is it another subplot? I really didn’t set out to write a story about a group of vampires and the human who teaches them a lesson. And, in fact, Kalyn’s not the only rebel in that regard; her friends in her local group share her desire for more integration between human and vampire. Even Joshua, the leader of their people, is supportive of her and is the first person to hold her up as a good example.

I think the institution is a subplot.

Is it a Whydunit? In all of the books, there is the underlying question of where the Imuechmehah came from and why they want to kill the Canichmehah. And we eventually see who is behind the murders and sort of why (as much as you can ever understand why someone is evil). But the real revelation is that all of the death and misery could have been prevented if, at a single moment in time, the Canichmehah had chosen to do what was morally right, even if it was technically illegal. When they decide that the law has supremacy over morality, they set in motion their own destruction.

While that’s a pretty dark revelation, the Whydunit isn’t really driving the plot. The characters are being taken towards it without their knowledge (unlike a detective in a mystery who actively follows the trail). So I think that’s another subplot.

Is it a Golden Fleece quest? Kalyn doesn’t know it in the beginning, but she’s destined to be the savior of her people and she will the ultimate righter of an old wrong. Her quest, in short, is to fight the Imuechmehah and save her people. And she certainly changes along the way and learns things about herself.

But she never realizes she’s on this quest and she never really has a revelation at the end of the story, like you would expect with a roadtripping story. She doesn’t undergo a life-altering change; instead, she just grows up, little by little, along the way.

Which leaves us with Rites of Passage. And I think that this is really what Acceptance and its sequels (both individually and as a collective whole) are about. Kalyn learns—usually the hard way—that there are bad people in the world. Some of them aren’t necessarily evil, but they make bad decisions that put them on the wrong side of morality. Maybe they can change, but they have to want to change. And some people are indeed evil, and you will never know why they’re evil and you will never get them to cease being evil. And being a good person is more than just not being evil or not making immoral choices; being a good person means actively fighting evil. Because if you don’t, it will grow and it will eventually come after you and after the people you love.

And other characters end up doing their own growing up alongside Kalyn. Micah has a particularly acute moment of revelation in the second book (I feel this is the best thing I have ever written) when he realizes that he became a vampire because he didn’t want to grow up and become a responsible adult; he had a Peter Pan moment where he ran off to Never Never Land with the intention of remaining young and carefree forever. But when he ends up spending a week essentially playing the role of husband and father, he realizes that not only does being responsible not suck, but it’s actually deeply rewarding and fulfilling. But, unfortunately, he can’t undo what he did to himself so long ago. He can never have biological children, and given that he looks like he’s a teenager, he’s not likely to find someone to settle down with. His revelation is bittersweet because, while it’s great he’s finally grown up mentally, he will never be able to grow up physically.

Anselm also has some personal demons he has to exorcise. For a man who doesn’t lack courage when it comes to breaking into a den of vampires and shooting all of them, he has little courage when it comes to Kalyn. He is attracted to her early on (and she’s certainly attracted to him), but he tries to deny this and keep her at arm’s length. He says that this is because Kalyn is too young, he’s her guardian, etc. but we eventually see that these are just excuses. In reality, he’s tormented by the memory of the first woman he loved and lost and he’s terrified that the same thing will happen to Kalyn. When he finally allows himself to open up to her, and then something bad happens to her, he sees it as a Divine Punishment for his actions and he retreats even further from her. He has to figure out that in trying to protect himself (and her) from loss, he’s creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby he loses her anyways. In short, he has to find the courage to love, even if he’s not guaranteed a happily ever after. (A basic life lesson that we all have to learn when we’re growing up.)

Which actually leads me back to the question of whether this is a Buddy Love story (but instead of it being about Anselm and Kalyn, it’s about the three of them). Or, perhaps, it’s a Rites of Passage tale that morphs into a Buddy Love story somewhere around the third book.

All the Things

I found a post I wrote in 2012 where I said this very thing: that there are a lot of “plots” in Acceptance. (Really, there are a lot of formulas.)

Or maybe I just don’t know and this is why I’m having trouble. What is my book about? You should be able to put that into a single sentence, but I really have trouble with that. It seems my book(s) are about a lot of things, and I have never been quite able to decide which thing I should emphasize.

I see now that’s because I can’t figure out which formula is driving the plot. Or maybe it’s because I’m trying to apply a single formula to four books about one main character and that’s not reasonable. After all, as I seemed to have intuitively grasped in my dragon stories, it makes sense for the formula to change in subsequent stories about the same character because different formulas rule different parts of our lives. If we aren’t following one formula constantly, why should a character?

I’m almost positive that Acceptance is a Rites of Passage formula. Kalyn has a literal rite of passage, inducting her into the world of vampires and their human counterparts. She has to deal with loss. She has to deal with being personally assaulted. She watches as people are killed. She learns that vampire justice is not the kind you see in Law & Order, and she has to come to terms with that. She also faces a bit of existential disappointment when she realizes that the image she has of Anselm in her mind isn’t who he is in reality. Probably the best piece of writing in that book is when Kalyn finds herself staring at him “across a gulf that seemed much wider than a few yards of poured concrete.” She sees that, for all his outward appearances of modernity—his cell phone, car, guns, etc.—he is, in reality, a product of the middle ages, where torture and execution justice could be executed without batting an eye. And she has to decide if she can accept a man who is, to modern standards, violent, but only for good and moral reasons (i.e. he’s a vigilante, of the Western hero variety).

If I accept that Acceptance is a Rites of Passage story, it makes it easier for me to describe the book, because I need to describe the characters and all the action from that point-of-view: it’s a coming-of-age story. Everything else is a subplot that the reader can discover on their own.

Now, as I’m piecing together the various parts of the second book, I need to decide which theme it should convey. I’m leaning towards it also being a Rites of Passage, but that might have moved to a subplot. So I need to read what I have and decide what story it’s telling. (And I may need to edit out bits that make the subplot too strong and muddy the actual plot formula.)

Part III

Next time, I’ll cover why it’s important for your novel to follow the formulas (and not just because it makes life easier on you when it comes to distilling your novel into a one- or two-line elevator pitch).