The Snowflake Method

If you’ve read much at all about writing, you’ve probably heard of the Snowflake Method; but what is it?

To simplify, it is your story’s structure and design. Think: when you look at a snowflake, it looks pretty simple. Put it under a microscope, and you begin to see complicated designs that form its overall structure.

Randy Ingermanson breaks it down in a lengthy article about the subject. He suggests doing the following (my comments follow in bold):

1.) Write one sentence that summarizes your story. Absolutely do this! The elevator pitch is so important. No one wants to stand around listening to you yammer on about your story because you can’t find a concise way to hook them. When you ramble on, most times people stop listening.

2.) Expand on that summary and go through major plot points. Not a bad idea. Personally, I would have a hard time doing this. Writers have a notoriously difficult time with the middle chunk of stories. It can’t hurt to outline, though. It might even spark some ideas. I outlined 1/2 of If I Let You Go and most of the story changed as I was writing.

Ingermanson seems to like the Three Act Structure. I think we all go for it because it’s what we’re most exposed to. A story that deviates from that structure would stand out – maybe not in a good way.

If I had to sum up my three acts:

1. Edwin has just been promoted and meets a girl at his new job, but they can’t talk… It’s pretty hard to get to know someone when you don’t have a mouth. But Airlee, the girl, isn’t exactly who he hopes she is… As for the other characters, they all have their own issues.

2. A life-changing event takes place, leading to another promotion for Edwin, thus causing him to leave behind the home he’s familiar with. He finds that his new home isn’t all it was cracked up to be and finds himself lost.

3. An attack inside the compound, along with some unbelievable news, causes Edwin to finalize his loyalty.

3.) Get detailed about your characters. You should include names, backstories, goals, the character’s arch, and a one-sentence and full-paragraph summary about them. For complicated stories with a lot of deep characters (or where the characters are at risk of blending), do it. It’s a pain in the ass, but you know what else is? Editing. I still have 10,000 words in the bucket.

4.) Expand the conflicts. Basically, take your three major plot points and branch off of them. Create a full-page outline. Sounds good to me.

5.) Write a full-page outline for each major character. I feel like this could be a colossal pain, but it will help show you where you’re missing a character’s presence, if something needs tweaking in an arch, etc. One thing I’m unsure of in my own story is how to space chapters because it’s mostly in the present tense and needs to have a certain flow. Sometimes characters don’t show up for 30+ pages. If I could go back and rework this without torching the entire story, I would.

6.) Expand on the one-page synopsis of the story and make it four pages. Four pages might be a bit much at this stage. By now, I’d start writing. Personally, just typing away gets my brain juices flowing. This wouldn’t work well for me, at least.

7.) Expand on your characters. Create full charts, including details like birth dates and their favorite foods. You don’t need to include anything in the story, but it will give you a better understanding of the characters as you write them. I think this could be going a little far, but a few extra details can’t hurt.

8.) Use a spreadsheet and go down your outline, listing scenes. For each scene, detail what happens and from whose POV. Include how long you expect the scene to be. I did a modified version of this. It helped me realize the story was going to be short and that I had to go back to the drawing board for some scenes. I went from a having a barely 40,000 word story to now having a book that looks like it’s going to reach 60,000 by the time it’s finished.

9.) Take each scene and flesh them out by writing narrative descriptions for each. This creates an easy way to reorganize chapters in a binder and can serve as a first draft. Ingermanson himself doesn’t do this anymore. If you’re really unsure of yourself, I say go for it, but it doesn’t seem necessary.

10.) Start writing. Use your outlines and summaries. According to Ingramson, writing speeds can triple with the addition of some good ‘ol organization.

Have you ever started a story that either doesn’t go anywhere or just doesn’t seem to end? I have. Fun fact: If I Let You Go isn’t my first book.

My first book was about a group of underprivileged teens and young adults living in a shoddy area of California. They get stuck inside during a bad rainstorm and get to know each other, becoming entwined in each others lives for years to come. It was 365 Microsoft Word pages. I remember clearly; I cried when my brother wiped the family computer and destroyed the file, which I hadn’t saved. Assuming I double-spaced, it was about 91,250 words long. It had no structure. It never ended. I was also 13 when I wrote it; the concept of narrative structure had yet to develop.

If I can also be honest, I had a lot of early angst to work out and damn, hammering away at the keyboard was therapeutic. We writers all have this in common, I feel; notebooks we’d blush at if anyone found them, stories locked up tighter than our social security cards.

These aren’t issues exclusive to people who don’t understand how a story functions. A little organization can go a long way in working out the kinks that invariably pop up while writing.

What are your thoughts on the Snowflake Method? Do you think it’s overkill?

A Day in the Life

I have absolutely no energy to accomplish anything. None. I’ve done a lot of writing and editing this week, but I still manage to find myself in an I-Just-Want-This-Done-Now mode. I keep hearing that this is a success killer, so I’ve been avoiding working on anything when I feel this way. So, here’s a fun glimpse into my average weekday:

5 AM: Get woken up by my brother getting ready for work. Usually it’s someone else.
5:15 AM: Fall back to sleep. I think I dreamt about bears.
6:15 AM: Slept through my alarm clock. Oops.
6:20 AM: Eat breakfast. This morning it was chocolate and vanilla Chex. I regretted that later – my stomach is sensitive to something or other in them, but dey so good.
6:30 AM: Down my coffee as I watch the news in a frozen, sleepy haze.
7:20 AM: Leave for work – on time this morning, despite sharing one bathroom with two other people. No need to operate at 75 on the highway!
8:00 AM: Arrive at work. I wanted a few spare minutes to nod off in the parking lot, but alas…
8-12 PM: Work is slow. Google recipes, work on brainteasers with my co-workers, make a lot of jokes with them (which get progressively more insane as the day goes on – the waves of construction work haven’t annihilated us yet)
12:00 PM: Eat lunch with my co-workers in the warehouse. Ham & Turkey club. I don’t really want it (see 6:20 AM), but I shovel it in, anyway. More insane jokes ensue.
12:50 PM: I’ve stayed in the warehouse longer than my allotted time because there is quite literally nothing to do in the office. No one in the office cares. Re-commence Googling. Do a quick quote and order here and there. I’m too fast at my job now. I will regret thinking this in two months.
4:00 PM: Text someone about plans this weekend. It looks like they’ve flaked and my weekend will now consist of cat documentaries on Netflix. There needs to be a Tindr for friendships only. … Seriously, how do you make friends after you leave school?
4:30 PM: Go home. Contemplate a nap.
5:00 PM: Shovel down another sandwich. Internet.
6:30 PM: Shower. Never took that nap.
7:00 PM: Work on If I Let You Go, my first book. Get distracted by music on YouTube. … This is all I’ve been doing since then, and it is now midnight. Poisons of the night: Korn, A Perfect Circle, Porcupine Tree, Slipknot. Not sure why so aggressive. … That’s a lie, actually. During this period, I also got distracted looking for apartments and houses. I can’t find an apartment that’s less than 59% of my post-tax income and I’m ripshit about that because I no longer feel like my current living situation is healthy. It would be easier if I found a roommate, but no one wants to drop this kind of money on a one-bedroom apartment. I’ve accomplished writing 252 words of a new chapter. That’s it.

So, as you can probably see, today wasn’t that great. I have a lot of personal crap going on, but hey, who doesn’t? Because we all like to complain, I will list a few complaints here:

I need to sign up for vision and dental insurance at work. In 6 months, I will need to sign up for health insurance. In the meantime, apartment prices in my area are going to keep going up. What is now 59% of my income will easily become closer to 65%. If I buy a house, it’s going to be an ugly hole that looks like it was transported from the 1970s. I’m okay with that.

A company in Cambridge approached me for an interview last month. It was for a marketing manager job paying over $70,000 a year. They saw that I have excellent sales, marketing, and leadership skills and wanted to gauge how I’d fit with an opening they had. Naturally, seeing as my current pay affords me to live in a really nice cardboard box, I was interested. It never went anywhere, but it gave me the confidence to ask myself a couple questions: What is my worth, really? What are my long-term goals aside from writing and what am I doing to achieve them? I actually really miss the creative side of marketing. I’m playing with the idea of freelancing again (got to afford a $200,000 shack in MA somehow; I can’t move), but is it even worth it? With what little free time I have and the demands of clients, I’ll never sleep again. The extra tax forms alone might cost more than I’ll make. The best I can do is transcription, and transcription sucks. I might as well be a waitress, but I don’t have the time for a part-time job job.

I’ve got chronic pelvic pain. Doctors have been saying it’s XY&Z for years. Thought I almost had the cause, but nope. The way I’m starting to look at things is… This chronic pain thing is hopeless. I have no control over that. But I do have control over my general health, and I’m not at my healthiest. I would like to be stronger, leaner, less stressed out. Maybe fixing the basics will pull me up in some way. If not, there’s still exploratory surgery. Some things have to change, which means setting aside time.

Time that I don’t have and it’s going to get worse as things at work pick up. But really, even 20 minutes of planks is something.

I know that someday I’m going to be able to use all of these experiences and grievances for something, so I’m trying not to be too bitter. Some of it is just life at 25, and there are people who have it worse.

All of these experiences are going to become a part of me, the way the alcoholism I was exposed to as a kid did; the way being told by my family that asking someone “what’s up?” or “what are you doing?” meant someone was being nosy and didn’t just want to be friends branded me a snob for years (because I believed it) stuck with me; the way I got into a car accident and still walked in to the interview I was scheduled for – where I was insulted by a hostile, disgruntled, and under-educated Russian woman and still kept my cool – affected my sense of self in a weirdly positive way.

We all have bad days and things that hold us back; things that boost us up, yet make ourselves question our sanity a little bit. Use those experiences, whether it’s in your writing or to help the people in your life. Life is all beautiful, even the terrible parts.

The Importance of Character Profiles

Think of the people in your life. You know their age groups, their personalities, their hopes, dreams, and fears. The characters we read and see on TV are no different – at least, the good ones aren’t.

So, I’ve become obsessed with the show Shameless. It reminds me of my own life in a lot of ways. Growing up was tough, and no one’s perfect. When I first read reviews on the show, one thing kept coming up:

The show’s timelines are totally bonkers. It doesn’t just make things unclear, it violates itself numerous times. I discovered this myself tonight. I’ve marathoned seasons 1 through 4 within the past month and Fiona Gallagher has gone from age 21 to age 27 to age 23. I mean, she really went from age 27 (it was on her prison data sheet) to age 23 (she said it) within a few episodes in season 4. It bothered me.

I didn’t write character profiles for If I Let You Go. Airlee, Edwin, River, and Sam are pretty clear-cut characters at the end of the day. They don’t have extensive backstories because their whole lives have been spent pretty much doing the same thing. Their goals are somewhat different, and I’m able to keep track of those in my head. Airlee wants her freedom (whatever that looks like), Edwin has an internal war with himself over the ethics of the compound and wants to do the right thing, River wants the fighting to stop so everyone can decide how to function peacefully, and Sam just wants to appease his boss so everyone he leads can get fed and he can sleep at night. The dynamics of the compound are more complicated than the characters.

However, in a story where you have multiple characters who need backstories, who go through constant development, who need foundations to base all their choices on… You need a character profile.

A character profile consists of things like:

Age
Place of birth/where they live
What was their upbringing like?
What do they do for a living?
What DID they do for a living?
What traumatic experiences have they gone through? Death, divorce, breakups, violent crimes, etc.
What are their goals and passions?
What are their fears?

These are just the basic questions. Remember, your characters aren’t like the people you meet in real life. Your readers/viewers can’t look them up on Facebook and lurk on them. If you don’t tell them or show them what to believe, they won’t know.

I will almost certainly do character profiles for my next book. I’m not sure which story I want to tell next. I get my ideas from dreams, and I’m in a very active dream cycle in my life. I’ve currently got at least three ideas stewing and the characters are all quite unique.

Some writers go as far as to write diary entries from the perspective of each character. I think this is a waste of time. But what do I know?

Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publishing

I get a lot of shocked, disappointed looks when I tell people that I plan to self-publish. I usually get the following questions and comments:

“Won’t traditional publishers market the book better?”
“No one is going to take you seriously.”
“You’d never get a movie deal.”
“J.K. Rowling toughed out getting rejected, why can’t you?”

I remember being in college and chatting with other writing students about the best ways to submit work, query agents, etc. Now this type of thing isn’t even on my radar. I could go on for days about why I plan to self-publish, but here are two big reasons:

#1. Royalties
Let’s get the most obvious out of the way – self-publishing provides you with better royalties. Most traditional publishers offer well under 20% royalties, whereas Amazon alone offers up to 70%.

Also worth considering: would you buy an $8.99 e-book? Hells no! A trad publisher is going to price high despite the cost warding off potential customers. They still just don’t get the importance of the digital revolution. This is disruptive innovation, people!

As a self-publisher, you can set your own prices, too, thus controlling your market better. $4.99 too high? You can offer the book for $3.99. You don’t have to fight with anyone who has to bring the suggestion to their boss and up the food chain…

Then later you can offer it for $2.99 on sale to bolster reviews (which matter a lot in ranking). Hell, it’s recommended to give books away for free for a bit to get people acquainted with you. You think a traditional publisher will agree to that?

Trad publishers are good at selling paper, but in a world where bookstores might as well be considered novelty shops, does this matter? Can you pick out self-published books from Amazon thumbnails alone?

“But,” you say, “traditional publishers market better! Quality alone will be telling!”

Strap in… The truth isn’t pretty.

#2. Anyone can be a marketer
… and a traditional publisher will expect you to be one no matter what. Often times, authors still have to hire their own publicists, buy ads, and drum up excitement. Traditional publishers focus their efforts on maximizing sales with established authors, so you aren’t going to gain as much of their time as you’d expect.  This entire process can be costly.

Factor in the 12-18 months it takes to publish with a traditional publisher, and there’s also a lot of opportunity cost involved. You’re not earning profits during that time. While your Big 6 (Big 5? Pretty sure one has already gone out of business or merged) publisher is dragging its feet on editing, interior and exterior design, ad creation, etc., you could have been earning royalties and creating a name for yourself.

Anyway, don’t you want to have some say in the professionals hired and the work that they do? With some research, you can track down the designers trad publishers use, anyway. Other authors, friends, and editors-for-hire will criticize your book just as much as an underpaid 9-5er will.

(Sidenote: I’m currently reading The Twelve by Justin Cronin. Solid book so far, but I found a glaring typo within the first 120 pages. All the people who supposedly read over texts? All the gates books pass through before publication? … You’d think they would find a typo. This isn’t to say that Cronin had bad editors and proofreaders – I’m anal. But it goes to show that publishing staff are tired at the least.)

J.A. Konrath described in his blog why he thinks everyone should self-publish and it’s a really interesting read, especially coming from someone who has had success in the traditional publishing industry.

 

Traditional publishing earned a lot of prestige in the past. At one point in time, it was necessary to use a publisher. As tides started to change and self-publishing became more possible, the gatekeepers snubbed it – and they could. They could laugh, they could fight, they could see their own successes, and win the argument.

Such is no longer the case, and anyone holding onto the belief that traditional publishing is the only respectable option needs to re-educate themselves and come to their own conclusions.

At the very least, self-publishers ought to be viewed as hard-working, respectable entrepreneurs.

Book Covers Part 2

Every weekend, my boyfriend and I go out to eat somewhere.  This past weekend, as we were waiting for a breakfast skillet and eggs benedict to be brought out to us, we had the following conversation:

Me: So what do you think of the mockups I made?

Him: Uh…

Me: Come on, the last one wasn’t so bad!

Him: You can’t just find a stock image, shade it a little bit, and slap on a radioactive symbol.

Me: Why not? It looks cool.

Him: Yeah, but you’re not making a movie poster. You’re making a book cover.

Me: What’s your point?

Him: The goal isn’t to look cool. What do you think a good book cover should be?

*silence*

Him: Go on, I’m waiting…

Me: It should tell you what the book is about.

Him: WRONG. Think about Twilight. Wasn’t one of the covers an apple and another a chess piece? I never read them and I know the covers. Did they tell at all what the book was about? No! They made you want to turn to the back cover to see what they were about. That is your number 1 and only goal.

Me: But everyone liked the radioactive book cover.

Him: No one is going to tell you if it’s dog crap because we’re all supporting you. A designer is going to know what the trends are and can edit way better than you did in… What was it?

Me: PicMonkey.

Him: Right… How much did you spend on ISBNs?

Me: $200 or $300 for ten.

Him: You’ll want to spend the $200 on a designer if you’re already spending money.

 

There was much more back and forth than that (I can be stubborn), but I’ll spare you. By the end of the conversation, I submitted. I need to hire a cover designer. I’ve compiled a list of potentials and will be contacting them in a couple weeks.  If you have any recommendations, please let me know!

In the meantime, I found this website online to help with split testing covers: PICKFU

I haven’t heard much about it yet, but it could be handy for anyone else looking into book covers. After I spend money on mine, I can compare it to the radioactive cover… Hah!

 

 

Book Covers

It’s been a while!  Editing is going well with 19,000 words left.

I’ve made 3 book cover mock-ups.

If I Let You Go Cover #4

This was the first.  I like it, but it’s too busy, and it doesn’t give many hints as to what the story is about.

 

If I Let You Go Forest #2

#2.  You can tell which PicMonkey filters I like best. I’m proud of this edit because the original was total broad daylight.  The barrel looks like crap. It should be darker (but still a feature), stuck in the mud… Anyway, no one liked this.  In a book store, it wouldn’t stick out.  You can’t see the text from a distance.  I think I may make a dark cover like this in the future, but not for this novel.  So, keeping the problems with #1 and #2 in mind, I created:

 

If I Let You Go Biohazard Trees

 

This cover won by a landslide. I’m still not sure that it’s what I’m going to go with.  The text is hard to see at a distance.  I’m sure I will need to scale everything a bit.

What are your thoughts on what a good book cover looks like?  Do you have any suggestions for me?  Let me know in a comment.