You may be familiar with the Self-Publishing Podcast – hosted by Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright – which has featured all sorts of people doing interesting things in the world of self-publishing. Well, now the SPP guys have released a book – Write. Publish. Repeat – and it’s fantastic.
Long-time readers of this blog might remember Dave guest-posting here way back in October 2011 about a serial fiction experiment he was conducting with Sean. The experiment was a huge success and Sean & Dave have since written a bunch more serials, including one for Amazon’s SF/F imprint 47North.
Sean also co-writes with Johnny, and together they’ve written a bunch more serials too (over a million words published last year alone), and all three of them are now making a living from book sales. In short, these guys know what they’re talking about when it comes to writing fast, publishing well, and building loyal readerships.
Johnny & Sean have now taken all the knowledge gleaned from both their experience and their podcast, and written a book about self-publishing that is, in my humble opinion, the best out there on the topic.
I was lucky enough to get an ARC of Write. Publish. Repeat. last week, and I gobbled it up pretty quickly (my Amazon review is here). I had several lightbulb moments while reading it, and, no matter what your experience level with writing or self-publishing, I’m confident you will have several lightbulb moments too.
The excerpt I’m sharing today was incredibly helpful for me personally. I have a pretty good process for writing non-fiction, but my fiction process is a mess. Their method has shown me a way to convert my non-fiction process into something workable for fiction, which should improve my speed. Without further ado, here it is:
Preparing Your Beats (for Fiction)
AMONG FICTION WRITERS, THERE ARE two main groups: “plotters” and “pantsers.” Plotters like to create plots for their novels in advance. Pantsers like to fly by the seat of their pants, never knowing what comes next until it happens on the page. The way we work — me and Sean and me alone — is somewhere in the middle. I used to be a pure pantser, and today I blame it for my inability to finish a second novel. Conversely, as far as I’m concerned, our current use of story beats are the reason we’re both able to move so fast.
Story beats are kind of like an outline without being an outline. They’re sort of like CliffsNotes, written in advance, by someone who is barely paying attention. The reason I say that last is because story beats, for us, are merely a starting point. The beats are the plotting part of our mid-range writing style, but the story always, always grows beyond the beats, and that process is very “pantsing-like.”
The process looks like this: Working together, we come up with a vague idea for a story. For Unicorn Western, that vague idea was born on our Better Off Undead podcast. Sean wanted to write a western with Dave; Dave grumbled that westerns took too much research. Sean and I both balked that you don’t need research; you need a gunslinger, horses, a love interest, and a man in a black hat. Dave continued to bluster, saying that we didn’t even know what color smoke came out of guns in those days. He said we’d screw it up, and end up with unicorns.
I said that was a great idea. If we put a unicorn in the story, we could point to that unicorn whenever someone suggested that the story seemed unrealistic. Sean then laughingly proposed that we write a straight-up western, but instead of riding a horse, the gunslinger could ride a unicorn.
That was it. That was the vague idea. We chatted it out a little — deciding what the gunslinger and his unicorn might do — but basically that’s all it took to get Unicorn Western started.
So, after we have our basic idea, Sean will write story beats. He breaks them down by chapter, and we always decide in advance how long the book should be, so we therefore know how long the chapters should be. In the case of Unicorn Western, Sean gave me 12 short paragraphs that I was supposed to grow into chapters of 2,000 to 2,500 words each.
Here are a few, keenly noting that Sean is more or less incapable of writing story beats without repeatedly using the word “fuck” and/or mentioning weed:
Chapter 5: Clint is now all angry and grizzled and fuck everyone, so he decides to go up on the Mesa, and use Edward’s magic to look across the plains and see what he can see. As he’s leaving town, he’s approached by Theodore (mention him earlier), an orphan kid who does odd jobs for everyone. Teddy wants to go with Clint, but Clint tells him he can’t. He’s too young and will get himself killed. Teddy insists, and reminds Clint that he was looking for reinforcements. Two is almost worse than one since it’s more like a tagalong. He either needs a lot of people, or he needs to be by himself. The kid sticks up for himself, and after a short and funny argument wins Clint’s approval. He finally agrees to let him go. He has his own horse, but he’s so poor that his horse is the cowboy equivalent of a Pinto. Edward acts like a cock about it. They ride out of Solace together. Clint feels guilty during the ride, wanting to go back to Mai. He thinks about his haunted past, and how lonely he’s always been. How maybe all of his habits are wrong. Maybe the best thing he could do would be to return to Solace, sweep Mai onto the back of Edward, then ride through the night on their first day toward The Realm. Not far from the Mesa, they run into trouble. A band of outlaws is stopping by a stew pool, wells of water scattered throughout The Sprawl. The water inside stew pools is replenishing for mind and body. One might say magical.
Chapter 6: The kid wants to charge them, and knows the Marshal could do it. Clint tells him he’s a fucktard and too young to know it. The kid argues that Clint’s too old, and that his instincts are dull. Clint smacks him down, articulating why he’s the king of the motherfucking desert. Way Clint sees it, no one’s in The Sprawl by accident, and it makes a lot more sense to see what they’re up to than to kill them outright. The kid argues that they need the element of surprise. Clint checkmates his shit because the element of surprise isn’t dick when you ride with a unicorn. Clint tells some story about the kid that shows he’s an impulsive fuckup, then they agree to circle around and use Edward’s magic to see what they can find out.
I adhered fairly closely to the beats for the first Unicorn Western book (the finished story does follow the word frame above), but that changed dramatically by the time we reached later books in the series. I started deviating all over the place, going down rabbit holes that appeared during writing, chasing ideas that Sean couldn’t have seen coming because he wasn’t the one discovering the increasingly complex draft as he went. Still, beats are always worth doing for us. We always sort of follow them, at least at the beginning, and they give us a framework to work within. They also allow us to discuss in the middle of stories, because we both know what’s going on — more or less, anyway.
Unicorn Western was our first project together, so our beats have evolved. Sean understands that I deviate and that some of our best gems are discovered outside the beats (that was certainly true of the larger Unicorn Western saga), and many times I ask him for thinner beats because I can never get to them all if they’re comprehensive.
This also varies by project. For instance, here are three chapters’ worth of beats for the pilot of our sitcom Everybody Gets Divorced:
Scene 3: Alex and Andrea’s proposal plan explained.
Scene 4: Alex and Andrea’s proposal plan executed.
Scene 5: Alex and Andrea’s proposal plan horribly backfires.
Neither of us had any idea whatsoever what Alex and Andrea’s plan would be. We only knew who Alex and Andrea were (smart, friendly, mischievous twins whose best intentions always collapsed into something horrible) and what the plan had to accomplish (a suitably “romantic enough” way for our hero, Archer, to propose to his girlfriend, Hannah). The rest had to come from the blue, during the first draft.
Stephen King says in On Writing that he thinks plotting is clumsy and anathema to creation. Overall, we tend to agree. Some books — often fast-paced thrillers — suffer from a mechanical style of progression, where everything is really convenient because it has to be lest the structure crumbles. But we also think, for us at least, that having some idea of where the story will eventually go is absolutely required to avoid a meandering narrative. Stories should be tight and focused, even if they’re quiet pieces without serious action. Beats will help that. We don’t think Stephen King would object to the idea of beats (not that we need to impress him) because they’re not rigid. You think you’re going here, but if you end up there? Ain’t no thang.
We write our beats with the idea that we’re predicting what will happen rather than requiring it to. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes we guess wrong.
If you guess wrong but still feel that something must happen, this is where the “pantsing” part takes over, and you deviate from beats on the fly. Here’s the rule: You’re allowed to manipulate the environment, but not the character.
Let’s say that you need your character Mary to reach Chicago for some reason vital to your story. In your beats, Mary was planning to leave her daughter with a friend before heading off to Chicago. But during writing, you realized something about Mary: She’s very, very attached to her daughter. Like, overly attached. She’s a helicopter mom. Also, during the course of your story — and you totally didn’t see this coming — the daughter’s become sick. Now Mary is worried in addition to being overly protective.
Mary can’t just leave, though that’s what a hack writer would have her do regardless. Someone who didn’t truly understand or obey her characters would say, “Well, Mary has to go to Chicago, so I’m going to write her boarding a plane anyway.” Boom, just like that, your story lost veracity.
A smarter, more skilled writer will realize that while she can’t manipulate Mary, she can manipulate Mary’s world. Here are a few options that, if you handle them correctly, would all feel more “real to character” than Mary simply leaving her sick daughter behind: Someone could kidnap the daughter and take her to Chicago; something could arise to make Mary believe that the only way to help/save her daughter is to leave her and go to Chicago; the best hospital for the treatment of the daughter’s condition could turn out to be in Chicago. In all cases, you change things in Mary’s world to see if you can nudge her in the direction you want (or need) her to go, but in the end, you can only nudge. Mary must go on her own.
If you choose to use story beats in your writing, remember that they are guideposts, not rigid plot elements. If your characters start to deviate, you must be prepared to adjust your beats and keep massaging as you go until you reach a satisfying conclusion to your story.
I think that rigidity is what Stephen King doesn’t like about plot, and we agree with him on this one: An inflexible structure forces characters into a predetermined framework rather than letting them be what they want to be and prevents them from finding their own organic (and often better) ways. Working with flexible beats that can change on the fly can be a very nice happy medium, wherein you have that organic character feel while also having an idea where your story is headed. Plus, it satisfies Stephen King, which is important because he’s the sage and all.
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That excerpt was only half the relevant chapter from Write. Publish. Repeat. and you can read the second-half, showing how to apply this same method to non-fiction, here (PDF).
1. I noticed from checking out the reviews of Digital and Visible that I have a lot of crossover readership with authors of other books on self-publishing. Writers seem to purchase multiple how to books and take bits that work for them from each. So I don’t consider this competition, but what Joanna Penn calls co-opetition. My readers may check out their book, but their readers may check out my book.
2. Books don’t really compete with each other anyway. And even if that’s less true of a how to than a thriller, I think that Digital, Visible, and Write. Publish. Repeat. (and indeed Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book) complement each other very well. My books are about the nuts-and-bolts of self-publishing and what you could call visibility marketing. Joanna’s book is a very holistic approach to marketing and platform building, especially great for anyone afraid of the whole idea of marketing. And Johnny & Sean’s is a wonderful guide on how to divest yourself of all sorts of analog thinking that’s holding you back from writing faster, publishing better, and building a sustainable writing career that isn’t reliant on fads or tactics that will be useless next year.
3. It’s a great book and I got a lot out of it, and I think my blog readers will too.
That’s it! Don’t forget to check out Write. Publish. Repeat. Aside from being incredibly useful, it’s an entertaining read. To save your overworked hands from scrolling back up, you can grab a copy for the special launch price of $2.99 (raising to $5.99 soon) from Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo (Apple to follow).