Exploring Pantser and Plotting Approaches to Fiction

Anyone looking for how-to tips on novel writing is bound to come across the old debate about whether to outline a book before typing a single word or to just sit down and write. I’ve experimented with both and have found that what works best for me is somewhere between those options.

When I wrote my first mystery, I didn’t create an outline. I simply faced the blank page and wrote down whatever came to mind. This is the pantser method, although I didn’t know the term way back then. Many times I had to go back and fill in the plot holes and logistical issues.

For the second book, I decided to spend more time plotting the novel first by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline. It became important to know who was killed and why before I started writing. Now, this sometimes changed once I got into my second and third rewrites while sorting out the story’s development. It’s also why I believe that flexibility with outlines is important.

Ten books later, I still outline with those key questions in mind, but primarily just for the first third of the book. For the middle section, or second act, I jot down key elements and plot twists that I want to happen. By the last third, there’s almost no outlining as the story is set up to reach a logical conclusion, hopefully one with a twist.

When I began my writing my urban fantasy, I decided to try the pantser version again. Despite the pitfalls, it just felt important to free myself and let the ideas and connections unfold without direction from an outline. Before I started writing, I did a lot of thinking though, and did have four main characters in mind and a good idea of what the book’s theme would be. On this sixth, intense draft I’m going through now, I’m still working on nuance issues and connections that I wish I’d thought of in earlier drafts. Would outlining have helped with that? I don’t know.

After reading every draft, I make notes along the way, which probably sounds familiar to you authors out there. The further into the edits I get, the more I need to check my notes, which is what happened this week. To ramp up the excitement, I introduced another element, which forced me to go back five chapters and rewrite the scene, which created a domino effect for most of the remaining chapters. Despite going back, I’m still moving forward with my improvements, so that’s a good thing. I just wish I’d been a little faster at picking up on the nuances and connections. Thank goodness I’m not writing to deadline or I’d be really hooped.

When I was writing essays and articles twenty years ago, outlining key points was essential, as was giving careful thought to the message I wanted to convey. If I return to nonfiction, outlining will be essential. Should I get around to writing a second fantasy, there will definitely be more outlining but who knows how much?

There are a number of online quizzes to help you determine if you’re a pantser or a plotter, but really the best way to decide is to try both. So, I’m curious about my author friends out there, which method do you use, or have you got a completely different method?

Pondering the Trade Paperback Question

Back in 2015, I parted company with my publisher and got the rights back to my four Casey Holland mysteries and cover art. It was an amicable arrangement and I purchased unsold stock at a really reasonable price. Until COVID, I was selling copies of those four books at various craft fairs, festivals, and other events until COVID.

I ran out of stock on the first book, The Opposite of Dark, so I reformatted the book to match the formatting I did for books five and six. What I didn’t do was create a paperback version on Amazon. Given that my publisher sold few print books through that venue, I never seriously considered this option. In fact, the vast majority of indie authors I know sell few print books on Amazon.

As I suspected, the book cover art that my publisher gave me no longer fits. With my formatting, the font is slightly larger to make the text more readable, but it also adds 40 pages to the book. After discussion with a colleague and some fiddling with my daughter’s help, the cover still won’t fit. It looks like I’ll need to have all four covers reformatted by a professional, which I’m hoping my jacket designer can do.

I haven’t reformatted the other three books yet. I’m down to between 50 and 100 copies of each book, which will last a couple of years or more, depending on how soon craft fairs reopen. Honestly, though, reformatting is a finicky, time-consuming process, especially when I’m busy editing new work and marketing my ebooks. So, now I’m wondering if it’s worth the time and effort to redo the print books now, when I won’t need them for some time and they’re not likely to sell on Amazon. The thing is, I don’t plan to sell at craft fairs indefinitely. I’ve done it for seven or eight years now and, on some levels, I’m ready to wind down that part of my writing life.

I’m curious to know if those of you who are authors consider it essential to have a paperback version of your books available on Amazon and other platforms?

Progress and Nostalgia, an Uneasy Mix

Last week, British Columbia’s lower mainland enjoyed an unusually warm, sunny week. I used the opportunity to walk through my neighborhood and a little way beyond. I live in Port Moody, a city of just over, 33,500 people, one that’s rapidly growing. We’re about about a half-hour drive east of Vancouver, faster if the many traffic lights work in my favor, and share borders with Burnaby and Coquitlam. I’ve lived in this beautiful, mountainous area at the end of Burrard Inlet for over thirty years, and I’ve seen some changes. But when Vancouver’s SkyTrain, our above ground, light rail transit system came to Port Moody four-and-half years ago, things began to change. They’re now changing at a head-spinning rate.

I live in a 40+ year old home a quiet residential street, a 7-minute walk from the local SkyTrain station. So, I guess it’s no surprise that there are four major developments under construction within five minutes of my house. I don’t oppose the six-story rental units because people need them, but as you’ll see below there are also concrete condo towers being crammed onto fairly small lots.

There’s another tower being built behind one of them

These changes and COVID isolation have made me nostalgic for the past lately. So, I thought I’d share some of the structures that represent fond and/or poignant memories. All of these locations are within walking distance of my home. The photo below is a small part of the recreation center where I facilitated writing workshops until last October. It’s also where I brought my kids when they were toddlers to their first play sessions. I miss facilitating.

A newer, larger part of the complex is to the right

Right next door and sharing the parking lot, is Port Moody’s city hall and library, where I’ve done readings, attended launches, presented workshops, and launched one of my own books. I remember when this structure was built. Until COVID, it was bursting at the seams as more people come to our city. I haven’t stepped in the library for over a year.

So many fond memories of the library, on the left side of this building.

The lovely building below is actually a seniors’ retirement home, but the top floor is the hospice where my mom spent the last month of her life. I remember the kindness of the staff and the inviting atmosphere of the lounge, where the larger windows face out onto the street. As you can see, there are plenty of trees around. Mom loved looking at the trees through the window in the room she rarely left.

The lounge winds and building entrance are behind the blossoming tree.

Last but not least, is my friend Julie’s former townhouse complex before she moved to the BC interior. I remember many great critiquing sessions with talented, inspiring colleagues. Julie’s now lives much closer to her family and has certainly enriched the writing community in her area. I know she reads this blog, so shout-out to Julie! See how much the trees have grown around your townhouse?

Port Moody loves its trees!

As you have gathered, I have mixed feelings about my area and about the prospect of leaving it in a couple of years time. We will be moving to a quieter part of the lower mainland, not yet invaded by progress on this scale.

I write about Port Moody in some of my books. In 2008, I published a mystery called Fatal Encryption which depicted scenes of my city. The final confrontation between villain and hero takes place in an empty parking lot at Rocky Point Park (a much-loved landmark) during a stormy November night. By the time the book was published, half of the parking lot had been replaced by a restaurant. Maybe I’ll try to incorporate more scenes of Port Moody in my work as it is now, because tomorrow will look quite different, and one day I fear I won’t recognize it.

Rethinking Audiobooks

Pexels photo by Stas Knop

Back in January, one of my goals was to create audiobook versions of my mystery novels. I began reading up on the topic and one information source, in particular, caught my eye. In fact, information from the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) is making me rethinking my strategy because this is where I first learned of Audiblegate.

Some of you might be familiar with the term, but Audiblegate apparently stems from an author pressure group known as TERM, The Equitable Rights Movement. They created a campaign known as Audiblegate after determining that there were consistent and significant discrepancies on royalty statements from Amazon with regard to their ACX platform. Of particular concern was Amazon’s “easy exchange and refund” program. They discovered that Amazon was paying for customer refunds through authors’ share of royalties and not their own resource fund, which wasn’t stipulated in the contracts.

This is a simplified version of events and there’s much more to this story. Rather than repeat it all, I encourage you to check out the full background story HERE. There’s also a great piece by a writing colleague from my neck of the woods, Colleen Cross. As a professional accountant and mystery author who has several audiobooks on the market, Colleen’s been digging into the accounting side of things and made some troubling discoveries. Please read her piece on “Should You Sell Your Audiobook Rights?” HERE.

While Amazon has made some improvements and adjustments to their refund program (though not nearly enough for some) they haven’t compensated authors for lost royalties. If you are interested in keeping up to date with developments, check out the Facebook page that’s been set up to address this issue HERE.

Upon further reading, my takeaway is that all is not lost as far as deciding whether to venture into audiobooks. There are several other publishing options with good distribution that don’t involve Amazon at all. One of these is Findaway Voices, a company that works with Draft2Digital. D2D already lists my books for sale via Kobo, Nook, and Apple, among others. Still, I need to do more research on Findaway.

This Audiblegate saga isn’t over, but it does demonstrate how careful we have to be when starting a new venture. Things become sticky when key players either change the rules or don’t clearly spell out the rules in the first place. Meanwhile, if any of you have published audiobooks, I’d love to hear about your experience.

More Free Writing Workshops and an Editing Booster

Last week’s newsletter promotion has resulted in 155 downloads of my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark, so far, which is great. The downside is that there aren’t nearly as many new subscribers. In other words, people check the subscribe box, download the book, then immediately unsubscribe. But free things rule this year, right? If you had a chance to check out free mystery and suspense novels, you can find the link HERE. Clearly, you don’t have to stay subscribed!

Now for another freebie. ProWritingAid is offering four days of workshops on crime fiction from April 19-23. Presenters include Karin Slaughter, Ian Rankin, and Lisa Gardner among authors. If you’re interested in attending, check out the link HERE. You’ll see a registration button on the page.

The beauty about registering is that if the timing doesn’t work for you, you can view them later for up to a seven-day period. I learned a lot from the fantasy workshops I took in February. Although I’ve been writing mysteries a while, there’s always something to learn.

During the fantasy week workshops, ProWritingAid organizers offered a significant discount on their editing program. I signed up for a year because I was hoping to find a way to speed up my editing process. I’ve been trying it on my mystery novella and so far find I’m finding it quite helpful. It’s designed to assist with copyediting needs and does everything from pointing out overused and repetitive words, to grammar glitches, punctuation errors, passive sentences, overlong sentences, and so forth. The program also gives me a summary report that lets me know how strong some areas of my writing are and where I could use some tweaking. The link to the editing program is HERE, but if you hunt around, maybe you can try it for free.

They also offer a ProWritingAid university program, which I haven’t signed up for, but I won’t rule it out in the future.

One Promotion Done, Another Underway

Happy April, everyone! I’ve never been a fan of April Fools Day, so no pranks will be found here.

Today launches the start of a brand new promotion I’m taking part in. In a bid to find more newsletter subscribers, I’ve joined a group of 50 other authors, and all are offering free mystery/suspense ebooks if readers sign up to their newsletter. The promo lasts until May 9th , which provides ample time to find great new reads. I have no idea how this event will go, but if I don’t try I won’t have my answer either. The link to all of the offered ebooks is HERE If the link doesn’t work, please let me know!!

Last week’s series promotion on Freebooksy went well, I think. Of course, when you’re trying something new there’s nothing to compare it to. But I sold a couple of hundred ebooks and wound up ranking #52 in the free Kindle books category and #5 in the women sleuths category. This is a rarity for me. I had just over 2,000 downloads on my featured day, but Amazon and other outlets are keeping The Opposite of Dark free until April 5th, and sales are still trickling in. Perhaps the most important part of this exercise is that I improved my discoverability, which is wonderful.

A year ago, I gave no thought to promoting an entire series, or a newsletter, for that matter. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and taking some risks. One of the best parts is that I’m learning a lot and by sharing my experiences, I’m hoping it’ll help with your strategizing too.

Series Promo Event is Up and Running!

Marketing guru David Gaughran has long advised authors to offer their first book for free when promoting a series. Given the tough financial circumstances many readers face these days, it sounds like a good idea to me, so I signed up to be featured on a book promo site called FreeBooksy on Saturday, March 27th.

Because things can always go wrong with changing prices, especially since I need to rely on Amazon’s cooperation to make the book free, the changes have already been made and are now in effect until April 5th. I contacted Amazon on Monday and requested a price match. This is the only option that authors with wide distribution have to make their books free for a short time period. The tricky part is that Amazon can always say no. I had to provide links to their competitors’ sites, showing that the book is indeed free elsewhere. Luckily, I corresponded with a really helpful person, who made the book free the same day.

So, I’m giving away Book #1, The Opposite of Dark. Book. #2, Deadly Accusations is now at $.99.. #3 Beneath the Bleak New Moon is $1.99, #4, The Deep End, is $2.99 as is #5, Knock Knock. My latest, The Blade Man is $3.99.

One of the cooler things Amazon does is to provide a link to the entire series so readers can purchase all six books with just one click. Right now, the entire set can be purchased on amazon.com for $10.35 US! You can find the link HERE.

The books are also available at:

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/the-opposite-of-dark-2

Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/us/book/id1151714413

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/opposite-of-dark-debra-purdy-kong/1101958680?ean=2940153393650

The cost of this Freebooksy campaign is $170.00 US, however, with the Canadian exchange I have to pay over $200, so we’ll see what happens. As Gaughran says, a large part of marketing is all about experimenting, trying new things to see what works and what doesn’t. I still need to put more focus on ads, but I’m not quite ready until I have a clearer understanding of how they work. Wish me luck!

So, How’s Retirement Going?

Before I start this week’s topic, I want to add extra information I received regarding Access Copyright, which I mentioned in last week’s blog. An author kindly provided a link which indicates that if you are self-published you can apply to Access Copyright as a Creator Affiliate. I’ve provided the link with more information HERE. As my colleague pointed out, it’s not that easy to find the info on their website. But if you’re interested in registering with the program, you can fill out their form HERE.

So, I’ve been retired from my day job a little over nine months now and if you were to ask me how I find it, my answer is that it’s great, except I’m still working full time. It’s just that those hours are spent on editing and the many tasks that go with being a published author.

I’ve been keeping track of I’ve the hours spent on writing, editing, and promotional stuff each week, and was a little surprised to see that I’ve been averaging a 37 hour week from the get-go. Hmm. Am I okay with this? Yeah. It still gives me more downtime than I had this time last year. Did I set out to create a 35-40 hour week? No, not really. It happened because I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I’ve spent a fair bit of time implementing some of the new things I’ve learned in workshops over the past six months.

I start each day, thinking about what I need to get done, what I would like to get done, then head downstairs to my office, and work on what I can get done. I often ask myself how much can I accomplish each day without pushing too hard?

Another reason for the all the computer time is that winter’s kept me from gardening and going for long walks. No matter how bundled up I am, I wind up with runny noses and a cough in damp, rainy weather. Secondly, I’m focused on completing the next round of edits to send my current WIPs to beta readers. Third, I’ll be babysitting Ellie starting in August, which will definitely cut down writing time. We’re also planning to downsize our house (a chore in itself since we’ve lived here over 30 years) and move in 2023, which will likely throw productivity way off course.

I still keep a routine because it helps with productivity and creating more downtime, but I also need some flexibility. Life still involves appointments and unexpected situations. I have no idea what my writing life will be like a year from now. All I know is that I’m enjoying the moment while looking forward to the future. And maybe that’s enough.

Writing Income, Beyond Bookselling

Photo from Pexels

Surveys and data collection sources in the UK, Canada, and the US, have shown that writers’ incomes have decreased significantly over the past decade. 2020 made things worse for many, so I thought I’d share ways that authors can potentially earn some extra cash through their writing. The list below represents things I’ve done over the years to supplement my income.

  1. Submit, articles, personal essays, and short stories to magazines and periodicals
  2. Enter contests
  3. Guest speaking
  4. Workshop presentations
  5. Facilitate creative writing sessions for my local community center
  6. Joining PLRC and Access Copyright (available in Canada)

I haven’t submitted shorter pieces or entered competitions for years, so maybe it’s time to reconsider. Most magazines don’t pay well but every bit helps and it’s a great way to build your CV if you’re just starting out. Competition prize money averaged around $200 for me, which was a great sum when I was starting out. Still is, actually.

I know writers who also offer professional editing and publishing services. Others conduct virtual courses for reasonable prices. Of course, grant money can be available, and many cities have writer-in-residence programs for authors. There’s also mentoring and coaching for beginning writers, plus tutoring for people who have difficulty with English or writing in general.

Until November’s shut down, I was facilitating creative writing sessions through my local parks and recreation community, which is work I really enjoy. It also pays better than my day job did, although facilitating is only 2.5 hours a week. Happily, that might be starting up again in April.

For those of you unfamiliar with Access Copyright and PLRC, here’s a little info.

The Access Copyright Foundation is a Canadian non-profit national organization that compensates authors whose work is being photocopied at educational and other institutions. Those of us whose work is not directly copied still receive a small share of the collective pool every November. It’s available to any Canadian who registers with the program and has published work (but not self-published, as far as I know) in a variety of categories. To learn more, check out the link HERE.

The Public Lending Right Program compensates authors whose books are available for free use in Canada’s library systems. According to their website, over 30 countries offer similar programs, so it’s worth checking out to see if this is available to you. I joined many years ago when I published my first book in 1995 and still receive money for it. Seven more titles have been added over the years, so the check I receive every February is now in the modest four-figure range. To learn more about how the program works, see the link HERE.

I’m sure more opportunities are out there. It’s just a matter of doing a little digging. So, do you find other ways to earn writing-related income or plan to near in the near future? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Making the Most of Freebies in 2021

Free ebooks and workshops have been fairly common for some time, but over recent months the popularity of free anything appears to have exploded.

I used to resist offering one of my books for free, mainly because my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark was traditionally published a decade ago, at a time when advanced review copies were the only freebies my publisher offered and self-publishing was just starting to ramp up. Things have changed a great deal, including my mindset, and I now offer the book free for anyone who signs up to my newsletter.

I also offered the book free during a BookBub promo event in late 2019, which garnered enough sales of the other books to make this event profitable. Based on a recent blog post from author and marketing guru David Gaughran, 2021 is the year for free, and he recommends offering at least one of your books for free more than ever before. You can read more HERE.

I was recently told that there are now over 2 million books published worldwide, and over one million in the U.S. alone, each year. A staggering number when you think about it. With the collapse of in-person book selling opportunities in 2020, more authors turned to online selling through book promo sites, for example. To compete with all the others, many of them have offered at least one book, if not a whole boxset, for free.

I’ve taken part in a number of cool free workshops lately, one on marketing and others related to fantasy writing. The information’s good and the presenters knowledgeable, but there’s a lot of upsell with links to purchasing software, courses, and other things, which seems fair enough, as long as they’re not bombarding me everyday. But it really does feel like free is king these days, which is okay is you have a series, but not so much if you only have one published title.

Self-isolation and uncertainty is tough for many of us, but I’ve found that taking workshops is a good use of time. Once things go back to normal (whatever that might look like) I doubt I’ll be inclined to spend as much time at home in front of the computer. Who knows, maybe all the free courses will disappear too. It’ll be interesting to see what bookselling looks like a year from now, and if David will still recommend free for 2022.