A Throne of Souls
Charles W. McDonald Jr.
We, the seeds of Humanity, are all the descendants of hardened criminals, fighting to survive the unmaking of A Throne of Souls…
I'll classify these tips into vital storytelling categories, but keep in mind my published, writing experience is entirely in fiction. Here are the categories of focus for this article:
Brand Development might be the most important thing you're going to be tasked with and that's why I put it at the top. What makes your content unique? What one, two, or three words best describe your brand? For me, I would say: radically different and or unconventional. Take the standards of how things had been done in the past and burn it to the ground. That's my brand, but is that your brand? How would you illustrate your brand? For me, it's advanced iconography done at a full rendering level, not just a line-art level. It's steeped in acid-etched and burnished metal with heavily-fissured and textured stone. It's the 'T' formed by Excalibur and the Staff of the Invoker. That's my look and feel of my brand. What's yours? How would you illustrate yours? If you don't know the answer to that question, maybe you should...
Character Development is (IMO) the most important part of telling a story. If your readers can't connect with your characters, you're wasting your time and theirs and might be needlessly killing trees in the process. Writers argue that characters come out of the story, and I'm not going to debate that. However, I've found that if I focus on who the characters are their core, that the story will evolve out of their interactions and backstory. What I do at the very inception of an idea for a story is think about the central character. For example, right now I'm flushing out the main character for a new demonology series I'm working on to follow A Throne of Souls. I want this character to be 1) relatable, 2) realistic, 3) flawed, 4) compelling, 5) demographically different from what I've done before and a tad odd. I want to picture him figuratively, then perhaps with the help of an artist once I understand him better. How tall is he? How old? How much does he weigh and what's his body fat %? How is he shaped? Does he have scars or tattoos? If so, describe them. Act as if you're working with a criminal sketch artist. How big is his nose and what shape? How far apart are his eyes and what shape are they? Eye symmetry is one of the most unique identifiers of a Human and are frequently used in biometric scans because of their uniqueness. Where was he born and to whom? Where did he grow up? Who were his friends and influencers? You get the idea, but if you google protective custody identity creation (WITSEC), those articles essentially have all the elements you need to sit down and think about before you ever write a single sentence of your new story. Then you need to do that at least three more times for your topmost main characters. I had to do this dozens of times for A Throne of Souls and to the nth degree too!
Story Development is what most writers rush to develop first and I'm not here to tell you that is wrong or right. I'm going to tell you how I did it and you can leverage that to your desired effect. I have an eight-foot-wide whiteboard in my office. I started in the center of the whiteboard with one (of many) compelling events. From there I illustratively drew inputs to the compelling event to the left of the event and outputs/outcomes to the right. From there I started assigned characters either impacted by the events or driving these events. Then I started to map out character interactions associated with these critical events. This illustration became the seeds for an outline. From there I let the story percolate in my thoughts. I'll go on long walks around my neighborhood and pop open my notes app on my phone, speaking speech to text into my phone like a crazy person while I walk and think. This plus the illustration I mentioned become the catalyst for the raw manuscript I'll start to outline shortly thereafter. Before you know it you'll have dozens of chapter headings and underneath those headings, you'll have 2-3 paragraphs each that describe the events of those chapters. Always be open-minded to moving events around because the way you originally envision them isn't always the best outcome that makes the most sense to others. In my case, A Throne of Souls is nonlinear, so on more than one occasion, I've moved pretty massive chapters around because it didn't affect the present day or future timeline.
I say this in other sections of this page, but it can't be said enough... What is your story going to bring to the market that hasn't already been done a thousand times over? I don't mean to be cruel, but this is a legitimate question. Think about the last time you went to the movie theater and actually were blown away by the originality of something you just saw... I can think of twice in the last ten years. Once with Inception and the other with Arrival. I'm sure there are a handful of others, but that is my point exactly. It's no more than a handful. Hollywood is STARVING for original content. They're willing to open their pocketbooks for it when they find it--when the right content finds the right producer/director. What are you going to write about that would make a killer, original, unique experience at either the movie theater or at home on TV? If you don't know the answer to that question, and have a great answer actually, you're probably wasting your time. Keep developing your characters and story ideas until you have a great answer to that question. Then you can start.
Ecosystem/World Development is one of the most tedious yet rewarding things that I've done in A Throne of Souls. Once you go to the trouble, it is so incredibly helpful to have that to lean on. It makes writing the story nearly as effortless as does great character development. I can't tell you how frequently I referenced this landmark or that kingdom or this historical reference or document. Think about things in our own world important to us: The Bible, The Koran, The Tora, The Dead Sea Scrolls, etc. Does your world have something akin to that? If not, why not? I'm not saying you have to have elements like that. In fact, I'm saying almost the opposite. It might be more unique and compelling if your world didn't have something akin to that IF you had a good and valid reason for not having it. I have found this is where having an artist can be extremely helpful. Sketch out your world in pencil--just the continents, major landmarks, lakes and other bodies of water/ice. Give that to your artist to develop. Layer cities, technology, and other landmarks atop your artist's layers, then hand it back to your artist for another iteration of ideas. Once you do this process three-to-four iterations, you'll have something that can really help your story come to life for you. And, if it's coming to life for you, then it's coming to life for your readers. A good cartography map will cost you between $200-$400 dollars US. Don't skimp! Get a good artist and pay them well when they give you great input! Besides, in the end, if your story becomes a hit the money spent here will be well worth it, and it's highly unlikely your story will be a hit without this step done right.
Publication Steps I'll break down a bit for you and go into more detail on each:
Your manuscript needs to be developed in an application that is widely accepted by editors, proofers, and formatters. That means it needs to be importable into tools that they use. You might not like what I'm going to say here, but this is my opinion and I'm going to tell it like it is not how you want it to be. Virtually every format tool that any professional is going to use will accept MS Word so that's the safe bet and if it costs you $200 or so to buy it, then that's just the cost of doing business and you're going to have to eat it. Sure, you can use freeware, but let me tell it to you this way, you're going to spend that $200 one way or another. You can either save yourself your own time and the time of those you hire to format your book for publication or you can spend the money on the back end paying (in time) that it will take to properly format your book for publication once the manuscript is ready for import. I know writers who use apps like Apple iBooks Author and Scrivener that make going from manuscript to ePub easier, and if you're going to be writing screenplays too, Scrivener might not be a bad idea. However, those tools are NOT intuitive and it's going to take a lot of time on the front end to figure them out. I've used both and hated both for varying reasons. Pretty much everyone knows MS Word to a degree so the learning curve is pretty straight forward.
Regardless of what tool you use to write your manuscript, this is key... Don't use ANY direct formatting! Direct formatting is when you highlight a word or set of words and then directly tell the application to bold, highlight, italicize, etc that word or group of words. In MS Word, the proper way to avoid using direct formatting is by what are called Style Sheets. They're basically pre-programmed styles for certain functions. Heading 1 might be formatted one way while Heading 2 another while Chapter Headings another. Very common use of Style Sheets would be Body Text vs Body First whereas Body First is the first paragraph of every chapter and Body Text the formatting of every paragraph that follows. Another example of direct formatting that's going to cause you lots of problems is carriage returns of open whitespace. These are ignored by most formatting tools especially when you're creating a reflowable ePub/mobi file.
If you like the way my books look and feel, I use MS Word with no direct formatting, then import those manuscripts into Adobe InDesign with the 'place' feature. Then I spend about 4-10 man hours cleaning up formatting for a reflowable layout, verify metadata's correct and whatnot, then export to ePub 3.0x version. Then I'll export to .mobi using the Kindle Previewer app for Amazon. I typically have five Adobe InDesign master files (iTunes, B&N, Generic (Smashwords), Amazon, and Bublish). You want to keep them separate for lots of reasons. I know that creates extra work whenever you make a content change because now you have to make it six times (once for the manuscript and five for the ID files). However, that's a lot safer than mucking around with ISBNs and other content that is unique to each channel, not to mention the fact that features supported by one channel are not supported by another.
BTW you might want to consider getting an Adobe Cloud Suite license which is around $50/month. That might sound like a lot, but I use the heck out of Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat Pro, and InDesign. Individually licensed those tools would be hundreds of dollars each if not over a thousand and you don't get free upgrades when you buy perpetual licenses. When you buy a cloud subscription, all upgrades are free and you get licenses to all the major Adobe Suite of products. If you're going to be working with artists a lot going back and forth with iterations on your artwork, having the same tools they use is vital and most use Illustrator and/or Photoshop.
Here's a handy-dandy tip for you... Do you know (offhand) the only fonts common between the channels I mentioned? That's a useful piece of information. You might think Times New Roman, or Helvetica, but you'd be wrong. It's actually Georgia. Don't ask me why. It's not that great of a font and yet I had to use it. Care to guess why and where? A correct answer earns you $25 US to your paypal account.
What is an ePub vs a mobi and when do I need one versus the other? An ePub is essentially a website in a single file and is the most universally accepted format for an e-book. Virtually anyone who will get your e-book to market will accept an ePub v3.0 or higher formatted file and if they won't ditch them because they're not legit or worth your time. Mobi (or .mobi) files are pretty much exclusively used by Amazon and are a pretty archaic format, but Amazon is trying to get them up to the capabilities of a modern ePub. Amazon has many tools to convert ePubs to .mobi with Kindle Preview 3.x being my favorite. You can just upload your Word or ePub to kdp.amazon.com and roll the dice hoping the engine will convert it properly and if you don't have a very complex manuscript that will likely work fine for you. However, if you're like me, and you've got 50+ style sheets plus and tons of graphics, the odds are that isn't going to work nearly as well as running the Kindle Preview tool as many times as it takes iteratively until your mobi preview looks right and then export that mobi to upload that to kdp.amazon.com. Realize, I'm telling you what worked best for me. I have hugely complex manuscripts.
I would STRONGLY urge you never to use a fixed-layout file structure. Your reader's will NOT be happy with you if you do. I learned that the hard way. Reflowable is the only way to go. Don't waste your time with anything else.
TRADITIONAL, VANITY, OR SELF-PUBLISHED:
Traditional Publishing is defined as a publishing company that pays you an advance so you can pay your bills while you write for them. Most books under traditional publishing don't pay out, meaning the advance amount was never fully collected in the royalties so the advance is the only money the author ever sees. Traditional publishers make the bulk of their money off of monster hits and their lucrative contractual deals with distributors, wholesalers, retailers and the like. So, they can afford to take a chance on the occasional novel that doesn't fully pay out. However, a traditionally published book that doesn't sell 5,000 copies is an unmitigated disaster and will assure you never see another traditional publishing deal the remainder of your career. So, food for thought... And, that doesn't even begin to talk about all the doors that will get slammed in your face along the way as you attempt to navigate this path with no sales, no name recognition, no awards, no fully-flushed out product, etc. Good luck is what I'm telling you.
Vanity Publishers will try to pass themselves off as 'real' publishers, but if they ask you for money, they're not a 'real' publisher, they're a vanity publisher. I'm not about to debate the merits of this track. If you think it's for you, go for it. However, I already had a professional editor, a professional artist (several in fact), and I had a clean, professional product. They still wanted me to spend several thousand dollars on their editors, their artists, their process to do what I had already done. Their argument was, "Yeah, but we can get your book in front of people you can't." I found that to be largely untrue if you know what you're doing. Now, if you are starting from scratch using the staff of a vanity publisher might 'appear' more attractive, but buyer beware. That's all I'm saying.
Self-Publishing... is a minefield to navigate and there are several important things you need to understand before you even begin...
A low complexity novel with only cover art should cost you in the neighborhood of $2,500-$3,500 if you go it alone on the self-published route. Yes, you can get a cover for $250 US, but it's going to look like shit and it's going to be Photo-bashed for sure. It might even be unlawful to use it commercially depending on how the artist 'acquires' the photo's he/she's using to build your cover. A 'real,' 'legitimate' cover will be painted professionally for you or photographed specifically for you or a combination thereof and will run between $500-$1500 US. A 'real' professional editor is going to run around $750-$2500 per 100,000 words depending on how deep the content scrub is along with how bad your grammar and contextual spelling turns out in the raw, first copy-edit manuscript.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT:
You can expect your first novel to give you a return of a few dollars on average. I've read several articles that say essentially that there are anywhere from 70,000-150,000 novels self-published every year and growing. So, there's ubiquitous content and a scarcity of attention to read it. As such, the vast majority of self-published authors don't get more than 20-50 people to read their first novel even if they're giving it away for free. If you're starting this expecting a return on your investment, look elsewhere for your investment. However, if you're looking at the long-run, expecting to lose thousands of dollars for years while you continue to pour your heart, soul, and money into this and you believe you've truly brought something unique to the market, then you've got a shot. You need to be persistent and wise about your marketing budget. You need to build a brand, a following, exposure, and street credit. That's largely dependent on your first two-to-three novels.
I've seen fair-to-moderate ROI in marketing budget spent on Facebook, Google Adwords/Adwords Express, and Bublish. OnlineBookClub.org can also be a decent bet depending on what you're expecting to get out of it. I would NEVER waste your money on Kirkus reviews. That's my personal opinion because I know for a fact they did not read my novel in its entirety after I paid them $500 to do so. When I complained about it, they essentially told me, "We're Kirkus Media. Go pound sand!" Understand what you're getting with each of these investments... With Facebook, you're getting exposure--likely not sales. With Google Adwords/Adwords Express, you're getting website traffic. With, Bublish you get a little of exposure and a little direct conversion but it's not huge. Then again, neither is the cost. An average marketing budget for an average self-published book is around $3,000 US and you'll easily spend every dime of it just getting people to know who you are and what story you're affiliated with.
If it sounds like this is an expensive hobby, you're damn right it is. If you want to be taken seriously you have to produce serious, unique content that no one else has ever conceived of and you've gotta be prepared to open your wallet to get the word out. Remember, ubiquitous content and scarcity of attention. Those two things are automatically working against you on top of zero name recognition, zero built-in audience, etc. This process takes time, patience, and a ton of money if you're going to do it right. If you've got an easier path, good for you, but this is the path most will have to follow if they want to see success. Then again, I guess it depends on your definition of success. My bar has always been the moon, the sun, and the stars so that's what I'm shooting for. Best of luck to you...
I could go on for hours and hours here, but I think that's a good start. I'll come back and add more to this page later and if you'd like to fire up a conversation on this topic, email me and I'll add it to the forum or you can kick off the topic yourself if you become a forum member.
I could write an entire novel on writer's struggles, but for the purpose of this article I'm going to focus on the top three-to-five and give you the kick in the pants you just might need to get off the dime and get it done.
Constantly re-writing a scene is a common issue and I face it too. Typically my process is, I'll write as much of the chapter as I have time in one sitting. That might be 20%, or it might be 100%. Sometimes, I'll write several chapters end-to-end in a single sitting. Since my story is asynchronous it's not uncommon for me to write chapter 20, and then before I start writing chapter 21, I skip ahead to 32 where the content in that chapter is most closely linked to what I just wrote in chapter 20. Makes sense I hope...? So, that's step 1 (not including research required to write said content). Then, I'll usually come back and button down certain elements I didn't focus on the last time. The first time through, I was trying to get the 'theme' of that chapter accomplished so I might not have described the attire or full appearances of new or tertiary characters. I might not have filled in all the vivid details of the room/scene/structure around the events happening in that chapter. So, my second pass through that scene is filling in those details to make it 'vivid.' Frequently there is a third, fourth, and fifth pass as I come up with a finer-tuned execution of the 'theme' of that given chapter, and I always end my chapters on a 'hook.' Is that constantly re-writing? I would say not. I'd say it's a series of layers of writing, each pass performing a different function and each function is absolutely necessary to execute my style of writing. If you struggle with re-writing chapters, know you're not alone and know that it might be purposeful and necessary, but when you go over a chapter you've already 'writen,' make certain it's for a specific purposeful outcome. Don't re-write for the sake of re-writing or to avoid the challenge of writing the next phase of the material.
Your characters have 'gone rogue' and are taking the story in a direction you hadn't intended... Congratulations! That's exactly what's supposed to happen. The best stories I've ever read were written that way. Don't stop. Don't correct course. Lean in and let it flow! Let it rip and see where it takes you!
I hear writers struggling with titles (often book titles) and that's why they never bother writing chapter titles. I don't know what to tell you here. I don't have this issue and I never have. I'm frequently complimented on my chapter, book, and series titles, and my character names too. That's just part of creativity I guess. My only recommendations to you are: 1) write the content and afterward pick the top three titles that most accurately (though subtly) capture the 'theme' of your content then poll your friends and relatives for the title they like best; 2) read some books that are designed to boost your vocabulary. You'll find that increasing your vocabulary and exercising it will open your mind to new and hidden parts of your language. In much the way we forget about great songs because we haven't heard them in ages, taking your vocabulary out for a thorough spin around the block will wipe the dust off those old favorite songs, helping you find inspiration in meanings you had forgotten.
Finding time to write... Well, I have a full-time job, exercise two hours a day, and have a new infant son. If I can do it, so can you. Keep your phone by your bed and write down ideas that come to you in the middle of the night. This will make your writing time productive, rather than you sitting at your computer staring at a blank screen trying to force the creative juices to flow. When you sit down to write, you shouldn't have to 'force' anything. You should be thinking about your story nearly every minute of every day. If you're not, you're doing it wrong. YOU need to crawl inside your story before you can expect anyone else to invest their incredibly valuable and limited time in reading your story. YOU need to live inside your story (at least in thought). If you can't do that, maybe you should consider doing something else.