Archive for 'Publishing'
Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
I had a Skype conversation with Randy Ingermanson. Randy earned a Ph.D. in physics at U.C. Berkeley and is the author of six award winning novels and one non-fiction book. He publishes the world largest electronic magazine on the craft of writing fiction and the FREE monthly Advance Fiction Writing E-zine. The interview is long, so I broke it up into sections. Here is the first portion of the interview.
A dialogue on publishing between Randy Ingermanson and Bob Mayer
Randy: Our subject for today is “New Directions in Publishing”. This is wide open, of course. Nobody has any clue what’s going on. Except the few people who do, and nobody knows who they are.
Bob: Reality is going in a new direction — I’m not sure publishers are. My take is it’s pretty much business as usual in NY. But the retail end is changing, which means they have to change or die.
Randy: It looks like the wheels are coming off of the publishing industry. What’s the current status of the business, as you see it?
Bob: Confusion and fear. Traditional publishers want to hold on to the hardcover and mass market paperback. They say that eBook sales are 10%. If true, that’s a 300% increase from the beginning of this year. I think they’re ‘juking the stats’ because every author I talk to says their eBook sales as reported on royalty statements are 40-60% of total sales. The immediate effect is that publishers are dumping their midlist and going with the 10% of their authors who make 90% of the profit.
Randy: Which means that a lot of midlist authors are suddenly finding things a tough go. And they don’t have any idea what to do next.
Bob: To an extent. If the author is established, they have more opportunities than ever before.
Randy: What I see are two groups of midlisters: Those who say, “Oh no, the sky is falling!” and …
Bob: And those who see opportunity! The Big 6 held a stranglehold on distribution. That’s no longer true.
Randy: Talk to me more about the Big 6. What’s been their market share in past years? And how is that changing?
Bob: The Big 6 Publishers control 95% of print publishing. Starting in 1995, the print business began contracting. The decline of the book chains is the biggest problem for traditional publishers. Borders will soon be gone. I believe Barnes and Noble won’t be far behind. This means the selling of print books will fall more and more to places like Target and Walmart (besides the growing digital market). To me this means midlist authors are in an even worse bind than ever as far as print, because those places are only going to rack Brand Name authors. We’re going to miss Barnes and Noble’s huge shelf spaces. On the bright side, the eBook market is wide open. There are only 300 indie bookstores left and they’re dying off too. 10 years ago there were 4,000. 7 out of 10 books printed by the Big 6 lose money. 10% of their titles generate 90% of their revenue. Those two facts indicate a reality: the focus for the Big 6 is going to be more and more on the Brand authors and less on midlist. The problem is: where are the next generation of Brand Name Authors going to come from?
Randy: Right. And my view is that they’re going to come out of the ranks of e-book authors who have an entrepreneurial spirit.
Bob: Right. And the Big 6 will try to scoop up the successful ones. Except their royalty rates for eBooks have to increase. It’s a Catch-22. If someone is succeeding on their own, why give up 70% royalty for 25% of 70%?
Randy: Exactly. An author would be crazy to do that. I have a theory that authors will e-publish themselves at 70% royalties and then hold onto the e-rights when they sign contracts for p-books with publishers.
Bob: Publishers won’t go for that.
Randy: Publishers will hate the idea. So there’s going to be a period of war before things settle out. But the authors actually hold more power than they imagine.
Bob: The overhead for the Big 6 operating out of the Big Apple is way too high. Heck, even Who Dares Wins Publishing, which we started up this year and operates out of my office in WA and Jennifer Talty’s office in NY, has overhead. We could never operate brick and mortar out of a NY office. So that’s something that’s going to have to be addressed. I see further major contractions occurring in NY and more out-sourcing of jobs to people digitally. The acquiring editors will still be in NY with the agents, but a lot of the other parts are going to be out-sourced. We control content. Readers buy content. Everyone else needs to either help connect the two or they’ll fail.
Randy: Right, and with e-books, we can control our distribution to an extent. Do you think publishers are going to lower prices on retail copies of e-books?
Bob: They have to. They can’t right now because their overhead is too high. So they’re in a crunch.
Randy: Which is why they’re going to continue shedding people. An author can self-pub on Amazon and do fine at a $2.99 price point. Can a major publisher survive at that price point?
Bob: Actually, what Wylie tried to do, may be the future. Random House blacklisting him, told me how scared publishers are. Agents are going to start wondering why they need publishers too. Since they are essentially the quality control for the Big 6.
Randy: That raises another issue — the future of agents. Some people think that agents are becoming superfluous. But I’m not so sure.
Bob: I think they could become more important if they change. I see agents sort of merging with smart publishers.
Randy: Agents have been reading the publishers’ slush pile for years. What else will they do in the future?
Bob: They’ll become publishers. Screen the slush, pick the books they think can make it, then outsource all the editing, uploading, covers, etc.
Randy: An agent is intrinsically a much lighter and more nimble business than a publisher. So they can do that. And authors can be nimble too. But it could make traditional publishers obsolete. The big corporations with big buildings.
Bob: Yes. We’ve changed our business model at Who Dares Wins six times in just this past year. A large corporation can’t do that. Agents can.
This is a good place to break up the interview. In two weeks I’ll post part two.
Wednesday, June 8th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
Now that you have a grasp on your protagonist and antagonist, let’s get to the heart of the story, which is the conflict between the two.
A novel runs on conflict. The entire book has a core conflict lock between protagonist and antagonist. They either want the same thing, which is clear conflict since only one can get it; or they want different things, but in trying to get those things, they come into conflict. The thing each wants, must be a concrete, external object. It must be very clear when one or the other gets that thing.
There also must be conflict in every scene. Thus, each scene has its own conflict lock. The protagonist and antagonist of each scene does not necessarily have to be the book’s protagonist and antagonist.
What exactly is Conflict?
A serious disagreement or argument. A prolonged armed struggle. An incompatibility between two opinions, principles or interests. As a verb it means to be incompatible or at variance, clash.
Try to have conflict at two levels in every scene. What this means if your cops are chasing the bad guys (conflict), they are also arguing with each other (conflict layered on top of conflict).
Your Basic Story Dynamic:
The Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse) because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .Goals (the external, concrete things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing).
The Central Story Question:
Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and achieve her goal?
When the reader asks that question, the story begins.
When the reader gets the answer, the story is over.
DON’T LOOK DOWN: Will Lucy defeat Nash and save herself and her family?
AGNES AND THE HITMAN: Will Agnes defeat Brenda and keep Two Rivers?
This question leads us to the . . .
The Conflict Box: A way of diagraming your protagonist, antagonist, goals, and conflict.
You can either have conflict because:
Protagonist and antagonist want the same thing.
Protagonist and antagonist want different things, but achieving one goal causes conflict with the other’s goal.
To diagram a conflict box draw a large square. Then draw a line down the middle and across the middle, leaving your with four boxes
On the left, label the top two: Protagonist. The bottom two: Antagonist.
On the top, label the left two: Goal. The right two: Conflict
Then fill in each box. For conflict, you put whatever is causing the character conflict in achieving their goal.
A core conflict based on goals that brings the protagonist and antagonist into direct opposition in a struggle that neither can walk away from.
Conflict Box: Same Goal: Agnes wants to keep her house, which she bought from Brenda.
Brenda wants to steal back the house she just sold to Agnes
Conflict Box: Same Goal, Agnes and the Hitman: To see if your conflict is inescapable: Draw a line from Agnes’ goal to Brenda’s Conflict. If Agnes is causing Brenda’s conflict, you’re halfway there.
Then draw a line from Brenda’s goal to Agnes’ conflict. If Brenda is causing Agnes’ conflict, you have a conflict lock.
Conflict Box: Different Goals, Chasing The Ghost: Gant wants to find out who is kidnapping and killing young girls.
The Sniper wants to kidnap and kill young girls.
The key is the lines must cross. Each character must be causing the other character’s conflict in order to have a conflict lock.
If you don’t have it, you don’t have a story.
Wednesday, June 1st, 2011 by Bob Mayer
The explosion of eBooks and the number of midlist and new authors choosing self-publishing has brought about some heated discussions on price point and perceived value. How much should we charge for an eBook? 0.99? $2.99? $6.99? $9.99? $14.99? What is too much? What is not enough?
Many authors are upset over the 0.99 book. They argue that it’s devaluing the work of the writer. That it somehow tells potential readers that the writer and their work is only worth 0.99. We understand the argument. We know what it takes to write a book and our time is worth far more than 0.99 for the year it took to write.
However, if we sold 1500 in one month of that one book (which we have done this month on several venues) then the book is worth 1500 x .99 x .35 = $519.70. That is number of books X price of books X royalty given by Amazon/PubIt = total income for one month. It’s not an earth shattering number, but that is only one book out of many books we offer, most of which we are charging 2.99 for and get 70% royalty. We have only a few books at .99 and they are leads to series or genres, such as the first Atlantis book, and Eyes of the Hammer, which was Bob’s first thriller ever published.
Price point is a marketing tool and when considering price, a business owner must consider the range for what consumers are willing to pay and it doesn’t have to do with the value of the writers’ time or the value of a single book. The idea behind the bargain book is to pull readers in, hook them on the quality product so they will buy more (at the higher, and valued, price).
When we write a book, we need to get into the minds of the reader or we end up with too much backstory, or too much over explaining, or give the reader information they don’t need. When we enter the business of publishing we have to do the same thing and stop thinking like a writer and think like a consumer AND a business person.
Readers do troll for the 0.99 ebook. If they don’t like the book, no biggie. They don’t buy from the author again, but if they did, they gobble up every thing they can find from that author…and at regular prices.
There is another argument about how eBooks should be the same price or close to a paperback book because the content of the book is the same. Just because it costs less to produce the ebook doesn’t mean content is any different therefore it is worth the same price. Then wouldn’t that be true for the hardcover and the paperback? Identical content. Consumers wait all the time for the book to come out in paperback for the sole reason they refuse to pay the higher price for the same product. Additionally, let’s consider a $6.99 paperback for which the author is receiving an 8% royalty from the publisher. That means the author gets .56 per book sold. For a $2.99 ebook, the self-published author gets a 70% royalty from the distributor, minus some other minor charges, but it comes out to $1.99. So the $2.99 ebook make the author almost four times the royalty of the print book.
But we’ll tell you what makes absolutely no sense. Pricing an ebook between $10 and $19.98, where, strangely, many traditionally published ebooks are priced. Here’s why it doesn’t make sense: go below $2.99 or above $9.99, your royalty rate goes from 70% to 35%. So any ebook over $9.99, up until it hits $19.98, is actually making less money than an ebook priced at $9.99. Can anyone explain to us why many publishers are clinging to a price that makes absolutely no sense except for the delusion that it will drive people to buy the print version? Instead of being concerned about the .99 ebook, authors need to really be concerned about the blatantly destructive agency pricing models many publishers are using.
One of the reasons the price has been driven down is because of the influx of books being put out on the web. This is partially related to the law of supply and demand. But another reason the price is being driven down is due to another P in the marketing mix: placement.
You can’t sell if your product isn’t seen. In traditional publishing that meant the racks at the front of the store. Indie Authors are getting their placement via a lower price.
We’ve discovered a key to ‘placement’ for ebooks is to get on a bestseller list in a specific genre. Amazon breaks books down to subgenres and lists the top 100. For example, Atlantis, is now in the top 50 overall on UK Kindle sales, and has been as high as #2 in science fiction, just behind Game of Thrones. It’s in the top 10 in science fiction in the US, nestled among, again, all the Game of Thrones books. Chasing The Ghost started as a .99 book, hooked a place in the top ten in men’s adventure, we raised the price to $2.99, and it’s still there in the top 10. Why? Because it’s a good book. But we needed that .99 lead to get it that ‘placement’.
Publishing has changed a lot, but it’s still a business. Part of our job is to understand that business. There needs to be a balance. We can’t promote or price a product if we haven’t taken the time to better our craft. But, on the other hand, if we don’t take the time to understand what is happening in the business, we reduce our chances of selling our books to our readers.
Price point is a tool. One that can be abused. But it is one that can send you to the top of the Amazon lists and earn you a nice royalty check at the end of the month.
Wednesday, May 25th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
This is a guest post from Jen Talty, the other half of Who Dares Wins Publishing and the one who does our covers. We’ve had a huge learning curve on covers over the course of the past year and a half.
A good cover can make or break a book, especially for on-line buying. In a bookstore, most books are racked spine out, so author name sometimes means more. Readers can pick up your book, thumb through, get a feel for story and writing and then decide. On-line, readers see your cover. It has to say, “buy me, I’m a good book” to the reader. If it doesn’t, why would they take the time to possibly download a sample, or even look at product description? The changes in publishing have given the author many great opportunities and self-publishing is a viable option. However, self-publishing requires the author to make a few major decisions, and one of those decisions is cover.
You have a couple of options. You can do it yourself or your can hire a cover artist. There are many programs out there to choose from. There are many do it yourself programs, free programs, even programs that come with your computer that can create cover design. Even Word has the capability of designing a basic cover, but will the cover be good enough to invite the reader in? The question you have to ask yourself is it worth your time and energy to do it “right”. Hiring someone to do your covers can run as low as $50.00 and as high as $600.00.
This is not an easy decision, especially when you factor in other costs that go into making an eBook available to the reader. We made the decision to invest in the proper tools to do it ourselves because we had the design background, and the technical ability. We purchased the complete InDesign package from Adobe ($1,299.00) partly for the ability to create covers for on-line purchasing, but also because it made it much easier to create the full-jacket cover for our print-on-demand books and for web design.
Even with the proper tools we made a few cover mistakes along the way.
Publishing Mistake #1: Always Judge a Book by its Cover.
This cover sucks. Actually, every single one of the original Atlantis Covers was a disaster except for Assault on Atlantis, which remained almost identical as the original. So why does it suck and why did it make sense to change?
First. It’s too dark. I don’t mean color scheme because you can have a black cover that isn’t bad, but this cover lacks contrast. The color scheme is too similar. The letters and background blend together. If you have a dark background, you want letters that stand out. If you have a light background, you want letters that will pop.
Second. Do you know what the object is in the background? I know Bob does. I’m not going to tell you. You all can guess. Though, if you read the book, you probably know. Point is, what does this cover mean to the reader? I say this cover almost says pass me by.
Third. Logo. Wow. What were we thinking? I know we thought we were being brilliant when we put our very first logo on all our covers for them to stick out like a sore thumb. For those observant readers, you will notice here at Write It Forward we now have a new header. That look will be added to the Who Dares Wins Publishing website. I’ll get into that change in another publishing lesson. The point here is that the logo adds absolutely nothing to the cover. As a matter of fact, it takes a way from the already bad cover, making it worse.
If you were in traditional publishing it would be too bad, suck it up, go promote it’s the only cover you’re going to get. If you had hired someone, you’re be paying them to redo it. If you did it yourself, you’d be redoing it.
So what is best? I recommended if you don’t have the knowledge of basic design and design programs (for example how layers work) then hire someone. It’s why I do the covers and Bob doesn’t.
Publishing Correction #1.
The content of the book has not changed. However, the cover changed drastically. Why is this a good cover?
First. It has contrast. The color of the letters, while still complement the background, are bold and pop of the page. The background is vibrant and alive. It’s inviting. It doesn’t look dark and drab and boring. Yet, it is a very simple cover. Simple is often better.
Second. The cover says something about the book. Actually, it says something about the entire series, which involves the Bermuda Triangle, the Devil’s Sea and other strange and eerie places. It invites the reader to take a look inside and see if they are interested in the content. This is critical regardless of whether you are in a store thumbing through all the books in this particular section, or browsing on line trying to find a good read. A good cover can make or break you. We found when we changed the cover, our sales improved.
Third. No distracting white rectangle that means nothing to the reader.
While editing this post, I realized this cover still has one minor flaw. Every thing is centered. We’ve learned that alignment is another aspect you need to consider when designing a cover. Is it time to change it? No.
Publishing Lesson #1.
There is a time when it’s best to leave well enough alone. For a long time the first cover was it. It wasn’t until I had finished with the 6th and final cover in this series that we realized we had a problem. Not all of the books were in print at that time. We knew that it would cost us to make the upgrade and the book had already earned out and beyond. Our business had grown and we had a different set of tools to work with, specifically InDesign by Adobe which allowed me to create covers that I didn’t have the capability before. After much discussion, we began the revamping process. It took at least 6 more tries before we got to this one. Change was necessary, and unlike traditional publishing when it comes to covers after book release, non-traditional publishing allows us to make this change. However, timing is important as well as not rushing things. We had to get it right, and this time we did.
Lately, we’ve started a new trend to make our cover distinguishable by brand. We’re re-releasing Bob’s first series on Special Forces. So we want the covers to look somewhat alike, yet really pop in thumbnail. Here are the first ones:
We will shortly be re-publishing Bob’s classic Area 51 series and will use the same motif.
Wednesday, May 11th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
I recently followed a discussion about what writers should charge when they’re invited to speak. 100% of those responding posted about how they didn’t charge anything, or only expenses, etc. Not a single person posted that they charged what they felt their time was worth. In fact, it seemed as if most felt grateful that they were invited in the first place.
Being the troublemaker I am, I posted a link to Harlan Ellison’s Youtube video reference Pay The Writer.
I like to be an author advocate since there doesn’t seem to be many of them. An indie bookstore closes, there’s an article in the paper, a blurb in PW, people lament, but an indie writer goes out of business there’s not a blip on the radar. I’ve found taking this position is not publicly popular. On Twitter, on loops, on Facebook, on this blog, there are people who have attacked me. The funny thing is, though, I then get a ton of emails and DMs privately, telling me they appreciate what I’m doing.
We’re recently had several flaps about writers responding to negative reviews. That one I’m not getting involved in. I have a simple rule of thumb on that– writers don’t respond to reviews. Hell, don’t even read them.
We don’t like talking about money (except for those who make a lot of it) in America. In White Palace, Susan Sarandon’s character asks her yuppie boyfriend how much he makes. He doesn’t want to tell, and her response is basically: we can have sex, but you can’t tell me how much you make? Apparently not.
Before I get crucified, yes, I do think one should volunteer to help certain non-profits (but also remember, a lot of people working at non-profits are getting paid and often they earmark funds for speakers. Schools, for example, often set aside funds for speakers and there’s nothing wrong with taking them) and also donate. At Who Dares Wins Publishing we donate a percentage of our gross at the end of each year to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. I’ve also made numerous talks and presentations gratis over the years. However, there is a difference between giving back to your community (doing select free workshops etc) and being asked to forgo your ability to earn a living.
We teach people how to treat us. This is a tenet of Warrior Writer. When I branched out from the writing world into other businesses with my Who Dares Wins consulting, I was surprised to find that if I quoted a speaking/consulting fee that was too low, I was treated as if what I was presenting was not very worthwhile.
You have to consider not only the actual talk, but your expertise. When I present Who Dares Wins, I’m not just giving a company a two-hour presentation. I’m giving them the benefit of decades of experience as a Special Forces student, team leader, operations officer, commander, soldier, instructor at the JFK Special Warfare Center and consultant to previous organizations. Also, being a NY Times bestselling author who has sold millions of books and started up a successful publishing company. That stuff was hard to come by. It’s worth something.
I do feel uncomfortable when someone asks how much I charge for a talk, particularly in the writing world when I know money is tight for the organizations. I remember, though, what I was told one year at the Maui Writers Conference. A CEO of a very successful company told me that in the corporate world, to get the kind of high level expertise that was being given at Maui (Terry Brooks, Elizabeth George, John Saul, Dorothy Allison, Robin Cook, Frank McCourt, Dan Millman, etc. etc.) one would expect to pay tens of thousands of dollars. And all these best-selling authors were getting was a plane ticket and a hotel room for their collective experiences and expertise.
I believe writers should value their expertise. If asked what you charge, consider who is asking, what is being asked, and what value it will have to those who receive your expertise. Remember, all they can do is say no, or tell you what they can pay. Or you can always negotiate. One technique I use for some of my day long presentations is give a percentage of my book sales at the event back to the organization. This is a win-win situation.
Publishing is changing. Writers used to treated (except for the few brand name authors) as the bottom rung of the food chain. We were interchangeable parts. We’re not any more. All those people between us and our readers (agents, editors, publishers, book reps, bookstores) are the ones whose jobs are in danger, although the ones who are adapting will prosper, just as writers who do will also. If we don’t respect ourselves, we’re not going to get respect from others.
Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
Your basic story dynamic is the Protagonist (the character who owns the story) struggles with . . .The Antagonist (the character who if removed will cause the conflict and story to collapse) because both must achieve their concrete, specific . . .Goals (the external, concrete things they are each trying desperately to get, not necessarily the same thing).
The Protagonist: Must be someone the reader wants to identify and spend time with: smart, funny, kind, skilled, interesting, different. Consider giving your protagonist an anomaly. What this means is they have something in their character that doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ who they appear to be. Russell Crowe in LA Confidential is, in essence, a thug cop used as muscle. No one thinks he’s very smart. But from the very beginning of the movie, he goes out of his way to protect women in peril, even when he has no vested interested. Why? That ‘why’ is a hook that keeps you following his character. This anomaly gets explained eventually.
How do we get a character anomaly out quickly? To give us some commonality, let me use some popular tv shows:
A private investigator with OCD– his name is Monk.
A brilliant diagnostic doctor, addicted to vicodin, who hates people but saves their lives. His name is House.
A southern belle in LA, always wears dresses, had affair in previous job with new boss, who heads a major crimes unit in LA and is a superb CLOSER. (Fish out of water story)
I’ve watched a lot of canceled series on Hulu lately. Some had really good ideas, but the character just didn’t cut it:
LIFE: What if a LA cop is wrongly convicted of murder, sent to prison, but then is exonerated by DNA and as part of his settlement gets 50 million dollars AND his gold detective badge so he can try to find the real murderer.
Good idea. The writing was decent. But the character just didn’t pop. Lasted one season. The anomaly they tried to give the character didn’t work: he buys a huge mansion with his money, but he doesn’t put any furniture in it. Besides not being very interesting, it doesn’t make sense.
STANDOFF: A male-female hostage negotiation team who are secretly having an affair, have it revealed during a situation.
The writing on that show was actually very good. Some excellent episodes. But if your hero and heroine are involved from the pilot, you don’t have that Moonlighting or X-Files sexual tension.
Remember also to consider extremes when writing about characters in order to involve your reader more intensely. You can have a good character and a bad character. But would the reader prefer to see an evil character and a noble character? Think of personalities as a pendulum and understand that the further you swing that pendulum, the more involved the reader usually will be. Therefore, take any very positive trait you can think of and try to find its opposite. Do the reverse. Then use those traits to develop your characters.
Your protagonist must be in trouble, usually not random.
Must be introduced as soon as possible, first is preferred. Usually, we must meet the protagonist by the end of the second scene. Right away you’re signaling something to the reader if you introduce the problem before the protagonist and vice versa.
Your protagonist must have strong, believable motivation for pursuing her external and specific goal. Note I say external and specific goal—something tangible. Don’t confuse goal with motivation.
We often empathize with a reluctant protagonist. Don Maass in How To Write The Breakout Novel says that redemption is the most powerful character arc. The problem is having empathy initially with a character who needs to be redeemed. So we must see the spark of redemption in a negative protagonist very quickly. In the first scene where we meet them, we must see them do something, often a very minor thing, sometimes even just one sentence worth, that resonates in the reader’s subconscious that the character is has the potential for redemption.
The protagonist, as she is at the beginning of the book, would fail if thrust into the climactic scene. This is something you should check after your first draft is done. Take the protagonist from the opening, throw her into the climactic scene, and the bad guy should win. Her arc is the change that allows her to triumph where she wouldn’t have before.
The protagonist drives the main storyline story. You have one for one main story line. You will always have one protagonist and one antagonist. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who is the protagonist?
Why? Because he always comes up with the plans. “You keep thinking Butch; that’s what you’re good at.”
In Lonesome Dove who is the protagonist? Even though we might love Gus the most, the protagonist is Call, because he keeps the plot moving via the cattle drive. Also he is the one still standing at the very end, right back where he started from.
Remember that your protagonist is only as good as the antagonist is bad. There would be no Clarice Sterling without a Hannibal Lecter.
If your protagonist fails, what happens? This tells you what is at stake in your story.
The protagonist is the person on stage in the climactic scene, defeating the . . .
The antagonist, who we will cover in the next post.
Here is a film clip from Nobody’s Fool, starring Paul Newman. He’s a bum, down and out handyman, renting a room upstairs in Jessica Tandy’s house. The basic story is his son has returned to town with his two grandson and Newman wants a relationship with them. The problem is, when his son was born, Newman abandoned him. So the son is naturally blocking Newman’s attempts.
Does this scene make you realize Newman has potential to be a good guy?
1. Nobody’s Fool: Spark of Redemption
Wednesday, April 20th, 2011 by Bob Mayer
“Therefore I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be defeated.” Sun Tzu.
The Supremacy of Character
Which is more important? People or things?
Think of your favorite novel. What’s the first thing that comes to mind? A plot device or a character?
In a showdown between Captain Kirk and Mister Spock, does emotion or logic win out?
In the army we used to get asked which came first: the mission or the men? The approved solution at West Point and in the Infantry was the mission (read plot). My answer was always the men (read characters), because without the men you couldn’t accomplish the mission. When I went into the elite Special Forces, the emphasis was always on people.
Emotion is more important than logic, especially in the entertainment (emotion) business (logic).
One of my non-fiction books, Who Dares Wins: The Green Beret Way To Conquer Fear And Succeed, focuses on the fact that what makes the Special Forces elite is the emphasis on the men, not the mission, because without the men, the mission could not even be attempted. I think the same is true of writing—what makes a story rise above the ordinary is the emphasis on the people inhabiting it.
I was slow to appreciate the importance– indeed the pre-eminence– of characters in a novel. It was a three-stage process. First, I had to accept that characters were the most important aspect of the story. For many that’s a given, but coming from a background where plot ruled, this meant I had to make a 180 degree turn in perspective. I’ve found the opposite is true also. I’ve read manuscripts that were so character oriented there was little to no plot. There are writers who need to understand the importance of having a story in which the characters exist. Things have to happen other than a Frenchman riding a bike in circles with a baguette in his basket.
The second step was to spend as much time developing my characters before starting the novel as I spent outlining my plot. Some people might be able to invent plot or characters on the fly as they write, but I find the time spent before starting, is time well invested. The characters must be real to me before I write word one.
The third, and most difficult step, is to figure out how to show who the characters are, instead of simply telling. What actions, dialogue, decisions, etc. will show the reader the nature of the character while the character is usually unaware themselves of these aspects of their personality.
The first question is: who are my characters? Do I have a good feel for whom each person is? If you don’t, you will find that your characters are two dimensional and not consistent. Your characters must be as true to you as people you know in the real world.
Here are two keys to keep in mind with characters:
Motivation and Goals
1. Goals are what characters are striving for.
2. Motivation is why they are striving for their goals.
When I run workshops, I always take a poll. I ask how many people in the room are a sidekick? Then how many are a minion? Sometimes, someone snarky will raise their hand, but in reality, no one considers themselves a sidekick or minion. Thus, in your book, every character thinks the story is about them.
Every character has a core motivation. Viktor Frankl in his logotherapy called it the ‘One Thing’. When all else is peeled away, the core motivation is what will dictate a character’s decisions and actions. The core motivation can be anything, but it must be believable to the reader.
In real life, sad to say, many people’s primary motivator is fear. We can couch it in different terms, like a desire for security, but ultimately it’s fear. Fear is: “a feeling of alarm or disquiet caused by the expectation of danger, pain, or the like.” Note the key word there is expectation. Heroism is taking action in the face of fear. Fear is an emotion and often stems from uncertainty. It’s often the primary motivator because we need base needs to be fulfilled first. If you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you have to know where each of your characters fall:
1. Physiological needs: water, air, food.
2. Safety needs: a cave to hide in.
3. Belongingness and love: Other people.
4. Esteem: Something outside of ourselves to believe in.
5. Self-actualization: Very few people reach this.
Remember, your characters are not all self-actualized. What is very difficult to write is a character who is not consciously aware of who he is.
The reader must believe that your characters believe all will be lost if they don’t achieve their goal.
Motivations, like goals, come in layers that are peeled away as the story escalates in conflict and the character is under more and more pressure.
The motivational layers are all present in the beginning of the story, but the character is often not conscious of the layers. They have a surface motivation that is driving them initially.
Thus the motivation and goals shift as the story goes on and we peel away layers. In Don’t Look Down, my hero, JT Wilder arrives on a movie set as a consultant. Here are his layers of motivation.
What do you want? (Wilder: Laid and paid.)
What do you really want? (Wilder: Relationship)
No, what do you REALLY need? (Wilder: Relationship with community)
One thing I like to do with motivation is be able to sum up my character’s primary motivator with one word: Loyalty. Dependable.
Some motivations stem from key events in a character’s life. You must know this key moment, but the reader doesn’t, especially not right away. In LA Confidential, we can see from the start that Russell Crowe’s character protects women in peril. We don’t learn why until he reveals it to Kim Basinger far into the movie and he talks about a key event earlier in his life.
Motivation is the most important factor to consider when having your character make choices or do actions. Once you have a feel for your characters’ motivation and they come alive for you, then to a certain extent you lose control over your story. For your characters to be realistic, they have to act and react like the people you have developed them to be, not like you need them to in order to move your story ahead. Every time a character acts or reacts, I ask myself if that is consistent with whom I projected the character to be.
For example, in my first Atlantis book, I wrote a scene where some people were trying to talk my main character into traveling back to Cambodia where he had last been over thirty years ago. Where his Special Forces team had been wiped out horribly and my character had had nightmares about for years. And I needed my character to agree to go (or else the book would have been rather short). But I had to come up with a legitimate reason for my character to go. I had to figure out what would motivate him to agree to do something that he normally would not do and the reader would not believe him to do if he had any common sense. It had to be believable to the reader, which means it had to be believable to my character. That motivation comes about because you give the character a concrete goal they want. In this case they played a radio message they’d just intercepted from one of his former team-mates, who apparently was still alive in that place in Cambodia. So now his goal is to rescue his old teammate based on a core motivation (loyalty), which is completely understandable.
Often your protagonist is initially reluctant to get involved and circumstances force him or her to do so. Your protagonist also usually begins by reacting, but eventually must make choices and take actions or else they will lose reader empathy. A classic example of the reluctant protagonist is the Bruce Willis character in Die Hard.
Goals are tangible objects. Something external to the character so that we very clearly can see whether they have achieved their goal or not. Too often people confused motivation with goal. In the conflict box, you must put this tangible goal for both the protagonist and the antagonist. The easiest conflict is when both want the same thing.