Saturday, September 6, 2014

Organization: Revisiting the 500 Club by Randy Ingermanson

In April, I wrote a column titled The 500 Club that got quite a lot of attention. Plenty of writers found it a compelling idea and began trying it out.

The basic concept was that you commit to writing 500 words on your novel every day for the rest of your life.

At first glance, that sounds like too small of a commitment to be useful. 500 words is not a lot. At that rate, it would take 200 days to write a novel of 100,000 words.

But the point is that it isn’t a lot of words. It’s doable. You could do it every day, probably in half an hour to an hour. And once you’ve done 500 words, you’ve greased your inner genius and you just might write another 500 or 1000 or even 2000 extra words. 

And that’s significant. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that he writes about 2000 words every day. Which is why he gets so many books written every year.

The 500 Club was a good idea, and I’ve been trying it over the last few months. It works very, very well at ramping up your productivity, but there are some speed bumps I’ve found along the way. Here are some of them:

Speed Bump #1: Travel Craziness

Whenever I travel, my schedule goes right out the window. I find it impossible to work on airplanes, so I’m likely to fail to write on the travel day.

Furthermore, once I get there, my schedule is usually packed from early morning until late at night. This is especially true at writing conferences, where it’s not uncommon for me to be talking with other writers from 7 AM until well after midnight. And if I have a choice between talking to writers and working, I’m going to talk to writers. Yeah, that’s a personal weakness, but it’s the way I’m made.

Since I travel about half a dozen times per year, usually for about a week at a time, I’m going to have giant holes in my writing schedule. I haven’t found any way to beat this. I’m not very disciplined.

My answer to this speed bump is to just plan for it. I plan to NOT write while traveling. I plan to get back in the groove of writing immediately after the trip.

I also have learned to limit my travel to just a few trips per year. This is one reason that I regularly turn down invitations to teach at conferences. Because I can’t do them all and still have time to write.

Speed Bump #2: The Daily Grind

Writing every day, seven days per week, 52 weeks per year, is a grind. After a while, it feels like a routine. It stops being fun.

And writing is supposed to be fun. Writing is a vacation. Writing is pleasure. Writing is a grand escape from life.

If writing stops being fun, then all is lost.

My answer to this is to plan for a weekly break. Normally, this is Sunday for me. That’s my day off from writing. Sometimes I also take Saturday off, when there’s a major project to be done out in the yard. Which is often during the summer.

A weekly break makes writing fresh and new again on Monday morning. 

Speed Bump #3: Production is More Than Just Writing

The point of the 500 Club is to keep producing more first-draft copy. First-draft copy is great, but it’s only one step in the chain to getting a book published.

I wear a lot of hats. I publish this e-zine. I have two web sites. I run the software division of a biotech company in San Diego. I own a couple of acres of massively fertile land in a state where it never stops raining and weeds never stop growing. 

And I act as publisher for my books, which means I’m in charge of hiring my editor, my proofreader, and my graphic designer. I also format my own books and do the marketing. I’ve got 2 to 3 hours per day that I can work on my novels. Period. There isn’t any more juice to be squeezed out of the lemon.

I’m a one-track mind kind of guy, so when I’m writing the first draft, the 500 Club is brilliant. It keeps me churning out copy every day, and I average thousands of words per day. But I can only do that if I’ve first planned out the novel (using my Snowflake Method, of course). And once the first draft is done, I don’t need new words—I need to edit the old ones. Severely.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of days when writing 500 words would be a bad idea. On those days, I need to be focused on other parts of the production schedule.

My answer to this is to modify the 500 Club to the 30-Minute Club. It’s the same basic idea, but instead of setting a very low quota for words, I set a very low quota for time. I’ll work 30 minutes per day on the next task on the production schedule. That might be Snowflaking, first-drafting, revision, polishing, proofreading, working with my graphic designer, formatting, or marketing. 

30 minutes per day is easy. But of course I’m undisciplined and I just can’t stop at 30 minutes, so I’m likely to go on for two or three hours. The point is to make it seem easy so I can get rolling. Then inertia keeps me rolling.

Your Homework

Now how about you? What speed bumps do you have in your writing life? And what can you do to get past those speed bumps so you can keep your writing career rolling as fast as possible?

3) Craft: Planning Your Series
In June, I talked about adopting a virtual mentor, Russell Blake. Russell is the author of a number of action/adventure novels, and he’s got a page on his web site that spells out “How to sell loads of books.”   

Plenty of people will give you marketing advice, but not all advice is good advice. What I can tell you is that since I decided to do nothing except follow Russell’s advice, my sales have skyrocketed.

The #2 item on Russell’s list is to write a series. Because readers like series. And the smart author gives her target audience what it wants.

Fortunately, I already had a series of books on my backlist, just waiting to be published. In May, I released my City of God series and then in early June (following Russell’s advice) made the first one permanently free on all the major retailers.

It’s done so well that it now makes great sense to continue that series. This was a series that my publisher abandoned mid-stream ten years ago. That was before e-books were popular. That was before permafree was a viable discoverability strategy.

So I’ve been thinking lately about how to plan out a series before you write it. I can’t recall seeing much advice on writing series, and I haven’t done much teaching on the subject myself. So this is fairly new territory for me. 

Here are some of my thoughts. I’ll probably add to these in coming months, because I’m working on a new series right now, which means I’ll be thinking intensively about how a series works:

A Series is a Mini-Brand

Many authors HATE the idea of being branded. They don’t want to be typecast for life. A brand is an unspoken contract with your target audience that “this is the kind of novel I write.”

A series gives you all the advantages of branding, but without being typecast to the end of time. 

In a series, your contract with your target audience only extends through the end of the series. Once you finish the series, you can go write a different series with a different brand. 

The best of both worlds, no?

Story Arc or No Story Arc?

Some series have a story arc and some don’t. Those that have a story arc may have a tightly wired arc or one that’s more loosely bound.

In the epic series The Lord of the Rings, the three books are just one gigantic story broken into three volumes. That’s a very tight story arc.

In the seven-book Harry Potter series, each book stands on its own as a story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. But each book also moves forward the larger story about the quest of Lord Voldemort to achieve total world domination. Every book is essential to that larger story, but you could read any one of the books in isolation and still feel like you read a complete novel. To enjoy the series, you’d need to read them in order.

In Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, she follows a string of Roman aristocrats in a sweeping historical saga over several decades, covering the lives of Gaius Marius, Cornelius Sulla, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony. In principle, this series could go on for hundreds of years, telling a continuous story that focuses on a sequence of characters. The story arc would be pretty thin, because it wouldn’t follow a single character, but you could pick it out. 

In the Jack Reacher series, by Lee Child, each book stands on its own, with no real need for any of the others. There’s some continuity between the various novels. But you could read the books in pretty much any order, because there’s no larger story. You could remove any of the novels and the others would still make exactly the same sense. Reacher just wanders from place to place, having adventures that aren’t related in any way.

Your series can have a story arc if you want, but you aren’t required to have one. You just need to decide up front what you want to do.

Character Growth or No Character Growth?

Most novels have a character who grows or changes in some way. 

In The Lord of the Rings, the hobbits learn that they are powerful. Frodo grows so much that in the end he’s too big for Middle Earth. Sam grows from a simpleton gardener boy into a brave and moderately wise hobbit who serves as mayor. His carefree friends Pippin and Merrie also grow into bold, adventurous hobbits, able to lead their people in battle.

In The Harry Potter series, Harry, Ron, Hermione, and their friends grow into adulthood, always taking on tasks a bit beyond their range. Ultimately, they emerge as powerful young wizards and witches, able to stand up to Lord Voldemort. That’s some serious growth.

In the Jack Reacher series, Reacher doesn’t really change at all. He’s a wandering vagabond with no responsibilities at the beginning of the series, and he’s the same wandering vagabond all the way through. 

Should you have your characters grow in your series, or shouldn’t you?

If you’re writing a short series, you’ve got room for your characters to grow. As the series gets longer, there’s less and less room, especially if they’re adults. With teen characters, you’ve got more latitude to grow them, but eventually, they’re going to have to become adults and then you’re going to run out of space for growth. This is why YA series can be longer and still show characters constantly growing.

If you’re writing a really long series, (common for mystery and adventure writers), then it probably makes sense to have little or no character growth. Your lead character may age, but she doesn’t change emotionally or psychologically. 

This is something you should decide in advance. If you start your series with your characters growing in each of the first few novels, you may run out of room for them to grow, which will force you to make some changes in mid-series. Either you’ll have to add new characters (who can grow in the later books) or you’ll need to transition to stories in which your characters don’t mature any more.

Are you working on a series right now? What’s the mini-brand for this series? Do you know the overall story arc for the series (if any)? Have you made a decision on whether your characters will show growth in each novel?

I expect we’ll return to this subject in coming months, as I think harder about what makes a series tick.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 9,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit