Want to write a thriller, but stuck on the beginning? Novelist Daniel Palmer uses his own experience and that of his father (bestseller Michael Palmer) and lays out the essentials to get you on your way.
Step 1. Choose your rhino.
Michael Palmer once was asked to describe writing a book. His answer? Writing a book is like following a recipe for rhinoceros stew. The first step of which is to find the rhino—which isn’t your plot, character or hook. It’s that huge idea that defines the book, such as a deadly virus.Daniel’s latest rhino was identity theft.
Step 2. Formulate the What-If question.
Daniel said to think of this essentially as your elevator pitch—that pithy, snappy description of your book you should have at the ready should you be stuck in an elevator with an agent or editor. Cap it at two sentences, 25 words. It needs to be as tight as possible, and it shouldn’t delve into things like characters or plot twists. “I spend days doing those two sentences, and I would urge you to do the same with yours,” Daniel said.
One What-If example from Michael’s work: What if everybody involved in a surgery six years ago is being murdered one by one?
Step 3. Answer the What-If question.
The answer to this pivotal question is what’s known as the MacGuffin: the reason people think they’re reading the book. (MacGuffins can be a confusing subject, but they’re key.) Ultimately, Daniel said the answer is that it doesn’t matter—people read to the end of a book for the characters. But you need something to keep them flipping pages. The MacGuffin is simply that tool that gets them to stay with the characters.
Daniel said when you have the answer to your What-If, you should file it away and forget about it for a while. If you focus solely on the MacGuffin, your book will be plot-heavy and bogged down by it, and you’ll have lost your readers.
Don't be scared.
Step4. Figure out who you’re going to write about.
“You’re looking for your character who’s got the absolute most at stake, and that’s the person who you want your story to be about.” Daniel said to develop your arc as they go along, chasing the MacGuffin, and they’ll change and grow.
BONUS: Step 5. Write on.
Daniel likes to think of plot as a “cannibal’s stew”—a simmering cauldron into which you drop your character in. Once he’s inside, it boils. But you don’t have your character simply jump out—you slam a lid on the cauldron and nail it shut so your character has to figure out how to survive the plot.
If you’re like me, you have a Goodreads account and occasionally use it to update your list of books that you’ve read—but haven’t used it for much else. Goodreads Community Manager Patrick Brown offered up this guest post to me on how authors can use Goodreads to their benefit. I found the information very useful and informative, so I thought I’d share. Here it is:
5 Ways Writers Can Get the Most Out of Goodreads
As the head of the Author Program at Goodreads, I get to work every day with a variety of writers: bestselling authors such as Neil Gaiman, Maggie Stiefvater. Diana Gabaldon and Margaret Atwood, and new authors looking to unveil their long-nurtured book into the world. It’s a fantastic job and there’s nothing better than seeing readers get excited about their books.
The Goodreads Author Program is free and we currently have more than 48,000 authors in our program. Over the years, the same question has come up: “How can I get the most out of Goodreads?”
So, I thought about the authors who have been most successful on our platform and came up with five pieces of advice. If you follow them, you’ll be off to a strong start toward helping your book be discovered by the more than 10 million readers in the Goodreads community.
Patrick Brown serves as the Community Manager of Goodreads, the largest book recommendation website in the world. Prior to heading up the Goodreads online community, Brown was an independent bookseller at Book Soup and Vroman’s Bookstore. With an intense interest in group interaction online and a love for books, Patrick helps connect people with one another and with their passions. Currently Brown heads the Goodreads Author Program and Customer Care Team. He supports and cultivates one of the largest literary presences online by answering member questions and growing the Goodreads Community through social communication.
1. Use Goodreads to help build your platform.
Every author today needs a platform. By creating a Goodreads author profile, you actually get three major benefits. First, you become part of the Goodreads community, which allows readers to easily check out the latest information about you, see a photo of you, and browse which books you have written. And it allows readers to view the books you’ve read.
Second, you can sync your blog with your Goodreads profile. Not only does your blog help make your author profile more interesting, but there’s an added benefit to having your blog on Goodreads. Each week, we send an email to members with new blog posts from authors they like.
Third, you can promote events–simply add your events and invite your Goodreads friends to attend. Virtual events, like online discussions and book releases, are just as welcome as bookstore signings and author appearances.
Bonus Advice: One part of building your profile is making sure that your metadata is accurate and full. This point might sound a bit dry, but accurate metadata is absolutely essential for online discovery. Make sure that each of your books has the correct ISBN/ASIN, publication date, and cover image. Even something seemingly as trivial as page count is important. Many Goodreads members like to update their progress through the books they read—”I’m on page 231 of 540.” This translates to great news for you, the author, because when readers do this, their friends on the site often comment and discuss. Unless, of course, you didn’t enter the page count for your book.
2. Use giveaways to generate those all-important pre-release reviews.
By analyzing our data, we know that the number of reviews – regardless of whether they are good and bad – significantly impacts the amount of interest in a book. When a Goodreads member reviews a book, it automatically appears in the updates of all their friends on Goodreads, providing word-of-mouth marketing.
But how do you get those reviews? The pre-release giveaway is a very effective way to get your book read and reviewed. Each month, more than 1,500 titles are given away on Goodreads. But not all giveaways are created equal. To get the most bang for your pre-release buck, we recommend running multiple giveaways, each open for about a month. Your first giveaway should ideally start about three months pre-publication. Then, a few weeks before your book hits the shelves, run a second giveaway. This is what the publisher of the new Jess Walter book Beautiful Ruin did and the results have been tremendous. There is no limit to the number of giveaways you can run on Goodreads.
Bonus Advice: For some added attention, pair your giveaway with a self-serve advertisement. These inexpensive advertisements allow you to target your giveaway to precisely the right sort of reader for your book. You can target by comparable author or genre. Giveaways supported by ads attract roughly 56% more entries than giveaways without ads.
3. Make it easy for fans to write reviews.
If reviews are essential for discovery, it makes sense to encourage your readers to review your books on Goodreads. Your website likely already has Facebook and Twitter badges on it, but is there a Goodreads “G” on there, as well? Add a Goodreads badge and encourage people to leave a review of your book.
Bonus Advice: Reviews on Goodreads don’t just appear on Goodreads, they are also exported to many other sites, including Google Books, Powells.com, USAToday.com and more. So, a Goodreads review works harder for you than other reviews.
4. Join the discussion.
Goodreads is home to more than 20,000 book clubs and thousands more groups about nearly every topic imaginable. Find a few groups that interest you and join them. But here’s the tricky part: don’t talk about yourself as a writer initially. Use the group as a reader first. After you’ve been an active and enthusiastic member for a bit of time (we recommend at least a month), you can approach the moderator about hosting a discussion of your book. Popular groups like The Next Best Book Club, Romance Readers Reading Challenges, and The History Book Club regularly host chats with authors.
Bonus Advice: While it may be tempting to join the largest groups, you may be better off becoming a member of several smaller groups where you can get to know readers more easily. Always keep in mind with this tactic that you are essentially walking into a great party where everyone loves books. Who would you rather talk to? The person who will engage in a conversation with you about your interests and be genuinely interested in a broad range of topics before you then discover that they are an author? Or the person who walks up to you and says, “Hi, I’m an author and I’d like you to read my book”?
5. Be a reader!
Authors are, by nature, tremendous readers. Goodreads is first and foremost a site about sharing the love of books. Share yours by talking about what you read. Reviews and reading progress updates are two major sources of activity on the site. Members love seeing what authors are reading and if they have common favorite books.
Bonus Advice: If you’re not comfortable writing reviews, make an “inspirations” shelf and add the books that have meant the most to you as a writer. Not only will these books show up in your update feed for your fans to see, they will also make your profile a more engaging place for readers.
It’s said that J.K. Rowling had the whole of the Harry Potter series in her head before she started. If you’re in the JKR camp, read no more. You’re way ahead of me. On the other hand, if you’re not a long-range planner, my experience may be of use.
Like most writers, I have antennae that alert me to the Good Idea that might make a Good Story. My first image for the mystery series that starts with Dying in the Wool was of a man, a father, unable to return home. Someone needed to find out who and where he was. Step forward Kate Shackleton, sleuth extraordinaire. I then knew I wanted to go on writing about Kate, and so I had an eye towards her longevity. That’s as much planning as I did. For me, starting a series was like any other writing, a combination of characters, setting and plot.
GIVEAWAY: Frances is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners can live anywhere in the world. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before.
Guest column by Frances Brody, who lives in the north of England, where she was born and grew up. Frances started her writing life in radio, with many plays and short stories broadcast by the BBC. She has also written for television and theatre. Before turning to crime, she wrote sagas, winning the HarperCollins Elizabeth Elgin Award for most regionally evocative debut saga of the millennium. Four books in the Kate Shackleton Mystery series:Dying in the Wool,
A Medal for Murder, Murder in the Afternoon and A Woman Unknown.
A Medal for Murder will be available from Minotaur in February 2013. Visit Frances online at www.frances-brody.com. She is also happy to be contacted through Facebook, on Twitter.
There were certain givens. Kate would need to be at home in different social circles, and to be independent so that she could take off at a moment’s notice. An investigator needs the right sort of people around her. Kate is adopted. Her adoptive father is a police superintendent; her mother an aristocrat who married for love. In book three, Kate meets her birth sister who is from a very different background. This creates a wide social spectrum for possible stories. It’s the 1920s. Although much has changed for women, there are still many restrictions and difficulties. Kate would struggle without her sidekick, Jim Sykes, who can go to places that would be closed to women.
A sense of place is particularly important in a mystery novel. Readers have to believe that these events are happening in this particular spot, at this time. Early on, I visited locations and went house-hunting for Kate. Places and road layouts have changed a lot since the early part of the last century. Old maps became essential. I have a collection of maps. (The ones I don’t have, I find in the library). Whether Kate is walking, driving her 1913 Jowett motor, or riding the tramcar, I can trace her journeys. Time spent working out her route, and how long it takes to reach her destination, is additional thinking time for me, as if I’m tagging along with her. This also helped as I planned and wrote the subsequent books. Kate has her patch: Yorkshire, the largest county in England.
Recently I came across the advice that you should read around the genre you plan to write. Find out what’s on publishers’ lists; analyse the market. It didn’t occur to me to do this; although I do read widely, including crime fiction. I had a brilliant idea and wanted to get on with it right away, not spend time analyzing where my story might slot in, or to even think about genre. If I had read around my sub-genre (horrible term!) perhaps a stylistic trick or two might have lodged in my subconscious and a reader would say, Oh, she’s a bit like Author X. So I’m glad I jumped straight in and pressed on.
This approach has a disadvantage. When I showed Dying in the Wool to my agent, she liked it but was a little impatient. ‘It’s a crime novel. You have to have a body by page one hundred.’
I went to a library event to hear Robert Barnard, an author with a list of crime novels as long as your arm. When it came to questions, I asked, ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you should have a body by page one hundred?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘but I always have a body by page sixty.’
In my second novel, A Medal for Murder, Kate finds the body by page thirty. And in Murder in the Afternoon … but you get the idea.
Sometimes, practical tips are best. Here are mine. When starting work on a novel, I buy two A4 spiral-bound notebooks, for research, characters and story. I take a camera when I visit locations. Reading for background research is useful, but it doesn’t beat meeting the experts, and they are usually willing to help. I am never happy with my first drafts but save them. To avoid the confusion of a bleary-eyed start on the wrong draft, I highlight abandoned versions and give them a colour. At the end of each day I email work to myself, so if the house burns down while we’re out, or a burglar strikes, my manuscript lives on in cyberspace. Not very high tech, but this works for me.