Craft is the heart of the writing life, and in today's show, I discuss Plot Gardening with Chris Fox, as well as some thoughts on how to build a career for the long-term.
Plus, some of your thoughts on the changes at Amazon that I discussed last week.
Chris Fox is the bestselling author of science fiction and dark fantasy as well as nonfiction for authors including Write to Market, and Six-Figure Author. Today we're discussing his book on craft, Plot Gardening: A Simple Guide to Outlining your Novel.
- On the impetus to write a book about craft
- On the development of writing craft over time
- Using the gardening metaphor in relation to both storytelling and author backlists
- Tips for writing conflict that is rooted in story and interesting to readers
- On the different types of conflict that can add depth to a story
- Thinking like a reader when you’re plotting
- Balancing world-building with writing fast
- On the recent changes in Amazon discoverability
- Protecting our future as writers
You can find Chris Fox at ChrisFoxWrites.com and on Twitter @ScholarlyFox.
Transcript of Interview with Chris Fox
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I'm Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I'm back with Chris Fox. Welcome back, Chris.
Chris: Hey, good morning, Joanna.
Joanna: I'm so glad to have you back on the show. Just in case people missed that earlier edition:
Chris is the bestselling author of science fiction and dark fantasy as well as nonfiction for authors including Write to Market, which I know all the listeners know about. And Six Figure Author, which Chris has been on the show talking about before.
Today, we're going to talk about Plot Gardening, which is more about craft and I know everyone loves to hear about craft.
But also, we're going to talk a bit about ads and about data as well because I want to pick Chris's brain. So, exciting show today.
Chris, talk about why you doubled down on craft.
Why suddenly a craft book when you're known for data and Write to Market?
Chris: This was always the plan for me. When I first got into the market, like every author, you've got to get a backlist of books out there so that you can actually make enough money consistently to do this, but you eventually reach a point where, in my case, I had, I think, I don't know, 12 novels out.
I was earning enough money that I could slow down and take a look at my craft. And when I put out Write to Market in February of 2016, I kicked it off with the 21-day novel challenge. I wrote the novel ‘Destroyer' which sailed up to number 200 in the store and it did extremely well for a couple of months and it made great money.
But I got an email from another science fiction author by the name of Glynn Stewart. He's a great writer. I followed his stuff for a while and I knew him from Kboards for a long time, and the title of the email was ‘The good, the bad, and the ugly'.
And let's just say there was a lot of bad and ugly in the email about what he had to say about ‘Destroyer' and none of it was wrong. None of it was incorrect. Everything he pointed out about my craft was accurate.
Around the same time, I was looking at the market and I saw that two different types of books come out. You would have a series that would hang on for a couple of years and do really, really well. Like The Martian, it spread through word of mouth, and people really loved it.
And then you had those series that as long as you were pushing them, they did pretty well, but as soon as you stopped, they just disappeared from the public eye.
And the only difference I could see between them was craft. The series that hung around had better craft, they had better characters. They had more compelling plots, they made me laugh at the right times.
I realized that craft ultimately is what's going to keep you selling in 20 or 30 years. And now that I had extra time, I decided to double down and focus on that.
Joanna: It's so funny because I do feel like the number one, I guess accusation against the indie community used to be quality, but it was often quality around book covers or quality of the book, and I think now we can agree a lot of people have really good covers.
But it's interesting because I didn't like the word quality because it's like, ‘Well, if you're writing about, whatever…' What's your tagline for your science fiction ones, I love it.
Chris: There are a few different ones. Which series?
Joanna: It's something in space.
Chris: Oh. It's ‘Enslaved and forced to fight dragons' and it's got a picture of a guy hovering in space.
Joanna: Which is cool. Dragons in space. That's really cool. And people think you can't write a quality crafted book with a genre premise, I guess.
Maybe put your thoughts on this, the quality word versus the accusations that have been leveled against indies.
Chris: I hate to say it, but there is some justification because if you have a great title, and a great blurb, and a great cover, and terrible craft, and you've never written a book before, you're probably going to sell a lot of copies.
You may get some really bad reviews once people start reading that book. But craft is like the fourth or fifth thing that people check when they're buying a book, and so marketing is really important.
It may not even be clear to a lot of authors that they don't have the writing chops yet to produce a novel that's going to sell really well until they actually start getting it out there and getting fan reactions. But to those people who do focus on craft, the beauty of this is you can have both speed and quality.
The more you know about writing, the cleaner your first draft is going to be when you turn it out. And so, if you do make craft a priority, and if you're always reading a book on craft and kind of working on that, every project that you finish is going to be better than the last one.
That continuous improvement's really going to serve you over the course of your career.
Joanna: At the moment I'm reading aloud some short stories that I wrote in 2014 and there's a lot of passive voice, and I didn't know that. Those stories were actually commissioned and published, and I had an editor an everything.
I didn't even realize that there were problems at that stage. Obviously, I know I'm not the world's best writer, but I feel like craft is almost an issue because we've marketing.
There's a problem because you don't know how to do this particular thing. But often with craft, you might not even necessarily realize that there's an issue.
So, for me, I reckon it was around book five when I was like, ‘Oh, I'm writing quite differently now.'
Do you think there's a certain number of words? Is it the million words thing? Or what?
Chris: I feel like we're continuously leveling up. So, a year into it, I was like, ‘Wow. I'm glad I'm not making those mistakes anymore.' And then, you get a year further and you're like, ‘Oh, my God. There are all these things I didn't know.'
Here I am today, 17 novels into this and I have to wonder what am I going to think next year? What am I gonna realize that I was doing incorrectly?
I don't know if there's ever a point where you stop learning and stop having those aha moments.
Joanna: I've just been doing Dan Brown's master class on masterclass.com, which I love. I love Dan Brown. Obviously, he's my hero.
He talks about his first book, Digital Fortress. He said it was a young book. I actually really like those words. It's like, yeah, it's a young book.
So, to people listening, he might be feeling like, ‘Oh, no, I should just put all my books down and rewrite them.' I don't agree that's what we should do. It's almost an acknowledgement of a young book.
And then your job as a writer is to grow up and learn more.
Chris: That's a great way to put it, because you're always still proud of that book that you put out, even though it was a young book. But you can look back at it, I think in context and say, ‘Okay, I did make some mistakes. And I was maybe not as advanced a writer as I am now.'
Let's get back to Plot Gardening.
Why the gardening metaphor? And how does it help authors who might resist the sort of hardcore outlining approach?
Chris: I think the architect analogy that I hear constantly, never really fit with me. I've never met an author that just makes an outline, sits down, and writes the book and follows the outline.
It's always some blend of creativity where maybe you'll create a character midstream that you didn't even think about or you'll suddenly do a 90-degree turn in the plot that you didn't see coming that wasn't in our outline.
It's sort of like planting tomatoes or planting corn. You know what the crop that you're aiming for is, but you can't really predict what's going to come out. And it's going to take its own form and its own shape.
And while you're going to get tomatoes, you don't know how big they're going to be, or what color they're going to be or how many you're going to get. I felt like it was a better analogy and that you preserve the creativity that you need to embed when you're writing a novel.
Whereas the coldly analytical I'm just going to do an outline and that's going to be the story, scares so many authors because you feel like it chases away that creative part of you.
Joanna: I like the metaphor as well and I don't even garden, but I like the idea. I also feel that sometimes I end up with seeds of things that I've read, or seen, or been, and then years later, something pops up that you just didn't expect from the garden.
But also, you have to tend that garden or it totally goes nuts. Would that be another way to look at it?
Chris: Very much so. You've got to till that soil. You've got to have guide poles for your plants to grow along.
The analogy includes planter boxes. Think of every novel as a different planter box and you're attending the five or six at once, maybe. You have ideas about projects you're not even actively working on, but you're tossing some seeds into those other boxes so that next year maybe you'll get to those.
Joanna: The other thing I've been thinking about a lot is the tending to the backlist. I almost feel that you can get your crop and then eat that crop now, but unless you're looking after your backlist of books as well.
Because I feel like a lot of people are sort of racing into the next book all the time. I agree with you that there's no relationship as such between speed and quality.
But the constant pushing out of new books feels like that's not necessarily what is going to make a long-term successful career.
Chris: In gardening terms, sometimes a farmer will need to let their field lie fallow for a while, and I think most authors need to do that. So, not all of them.
I do know some, like Amanda Lee, who just continuously crank out content and never seem need to stop, but a lot of us, we've got to take a season off and watch some documentaries and play some video games if that's our thing. Or read some books, or watch some Netflix, and recharge and refill that creative well.
Joanna: That's certainly what I feel. Plus, I feel that that's the really, I find the research, for example, the planting of seeds, a really enjoyable part of the process. So, that's something I'm going to definitely keep doing.
I wanted to ask about conflict because you have a lot of great chapters in the book about craft, but I feel like the conflict one is interesting because you write genre fiction and I also write genre fiction as well.
Some people will think that conflict means exploding spaceships or fight scenes with fists or knives or guns. But it doesn't mean that, does it?
Can you give some tips on writing conflict that will keep a reader engaged?
Chris: Sure, this was a big light bulb moment for me. Like many authors you hear, ‘Oh, we've got to have conflict in there.' Just having somebody walk up and punch your character in the face is conflict.
But if it's not rooted in the story, it's just going to confuse your reader and they're not going to be emotionally invested. All conflict that pulls reader in is in some way tied to that plot, to the stakes, to what's going to happen between your protagonist and your antagonist.
Your antagonist wants something and your protagonist wants something. And the conflict arises from the fact that they can't both have that thing.
In science fiction, most of that conflict tends to be physical. You've got dragons tearing apart starships or robots punching each other. But almost all types of fiction, and this includes science fiction have other types. And I didn't understand this until maybe a few years ago.
There's also psychological conflict. So maybe your character is afraid of certain things, and they're having to face those fears and overcome them.
There is social conflict. Maybe they are fighting against society and certain norms that exist, that they're being penalized for because they're maybe coming from an underclass.
And then, there are moral flaws. Maybe they're in a position where they have an opportunity to do something that goes against their morals but will benefit them, and we as the reader want to know how does that conflict resolve? Do they do the right thing? You can continually ratchet up the stakes around any of these decisions.
The example that I use in the book is maybe you've got a main character who has fallen on hard financial times, and you can show that by saying, ‘Okay, their mortgage is three payments behind.' And then, you can also show maybe their spouse is sick and so they need to get money to pay for that.
Only then do you put them in a situation where their morals are tested. So, maybe they're at work and they have to do the right thing and blow the whistle even though it's going to cost them their job. And as the reader, by the time the character gets to the scene you know, oh no, their wife is gonna be in danger because they can't afford the medicine, and their mortgage is behind. You care a lot more because it's rooted in the story.
Joanna: I think you're right. And actually, that internal conflict can be very powerful.
This is not a political show, but what's interesting in the world we're living in right now, in 2018, here in Britain and in America, particularly, we have a lot of conflict within a country that is almost a sort of moral conflict, societal conflict.
In any other old generation, like 100 years ago would have been a civil war, but we're actually doing it online.
It's so interesting how this internal conflict doesn't necessarily mean physical attack, or even physical death. It can be the death of some things you care about like the European Union.
Chris: Yes. Or maybe the death of your old self. The person that you thought that you were at the beginning of the story.
Joanna: So important. And you also mentioned emotion, because I think we notice it more and more.
In fact, my husband and I were talking about Pixar and about when you're starting your story, do you start with character or do you start with plot?
Or do you start with the emotional resonance you want to leave people with?
How do we incorporate that emotional resonance into our book? You mentioned reader loyalty to your book because of the way they feel over the long term.
Chris: I think it begins with thinking like a reader. You need to understand who is reading your books and why they're reading your books.
If you are a romance reader, you're probably seeking a very different emotional resonance than if you were a horror reader or even an epic fantasy reader. Everybody's looking for different things and you need to understand what those things are.
Usually, you could begin that process just by looking at yourself because odds are good that as an author, you're probably also a reader of some type. And hopefully, you read the same genre that you write in. In my case, epic fantasy was my big genre of choice when I was a kid. And I'll try and make the story fast.
I'm putting this in air quotes for audio listeners. I was kidnapped by my mom at age 8. So, my brother and I… She lost a custody battle for us. And she decided, you know what? I'm not going to obey the courts.
She took us and we lived on the run for a year. And I went by my middle name and so did my brother, so I became Todd and he became Alex.
But the takeaway from writing is that I felt very unstable. I didn't know what school I was going to be in, in the next week and my life was changing constantly. I discovered ‘Narnia' and I discovered ‘Lord of the Rings.'
I found all these series where the protagonist was a young man who had no control over his own life, but through the course of the story, gained that control and became powerful enough to make their own decisions and to affect the world around them.
And so, as I age as an adult, I realized that's the emotional resonance I was seeking because I could get the certainty that I was in control by reading these books.
As an author, you want to look at what is my audience getting from this. And then, you want to craft an emotional experience that's going to satisfy the things that those people are looking for.
Joanna: That's a good way of putting it. think the themes of our fiction repeat over and over again in our books, like you're saying. You might write a different story or a different character, but those themes that you care about always come back over and over again.
And it's funny. The type of dark stuff I write and I read with horror is always bad stuff happens but good will win, or someone will survive or the monster is defeated. It's not about the horror. It's about defeating the monster, good killing evil. And that's in all my books. It's so funny, isn't it?
Chris: That's why I read books like yours. I love thrillers, because you're going to see bad things happen to good people, but I have that knowledge going in that the good people are probably going to triumph in the end and that's kind of what I'm looking for. It's going to be a struggle which they'll win.
Joanna: And the funny thing is how they're going to win, not if they're going to win.
Let's go on to writing fast. We've talked about a bit, but you are also famous for the book 5000 Words Per Hour. And you do have some good book titles, Chris, 5000 Words an Hour. Everyone's like, ‘Yeah, I want that.'
We talk about the importance of time, spending time world building. And I thought was interesting in your book, especially with fantasy.
How do you balance going deep into world building and all of the things we've talked about as well as getting your words done?
Chris: I tend to separate the activities entirely. My writing is done in usually a two to three-hour block in the morning. I do writing sprints and I just kind of am cranking out chapters that have already plotted.
And then after that work is done for the day, I get to do the fun stuff. For me, the fun stuff is world building. I love thinking about characters on my next novel, and I'll watch a documentary and think, ‘Oh, I can do a character like this or a locale like that.'
I'll create a document and toss it into whatever appropriate script or document I've got. And I typically am world building for, like, three or four novels at the same time. So, I am doing that 5000 Words an Hour and I'm working as hard as I can every day to get that down.
But then in the background, I'm also world building on the side. I recommend as an author that if you can, you silo these activities. You allocate some time to world building. And if that's hard for you, if you don't like world building, maybe you try and do that first.
Some authors do find the natural flow state of writing a little easier, although most people that I talk to tend to find that difficult and find the world building a little easier.
Pick whichever one you like the best, make that the reward, the icing on the cake and do that afterwards, and then try to take care of both activities separately. And that's worked pretty well for me.
Joanna: I agree. I'm just writing the second book in my Map Walker Fantasy Series. And that's got a magic system. I've never had a magic system before so it's really interesting too.
That is actually something if you don't sort out early, you're going to have to do some editing later, editing around who can do what.
Also with segregation, one of the ways I segregate my time is the creative stuff is completely separate to the marketing. I do want to come on to marketing because as we talked about in our first interview, you've come out of the data world, the IT world, apps, Silicon Valley type space, so you're very comfortable with data.
Things have really changed with Amazon, as we speak in November 2018. There's been a real shift in the environment. I wonder if you would perhaps comment on what you think has happened.
Are we in a pay-to-play environment? What does that mean for authors?
Chris: Right. This sort of change happens fairly frequently.
But this time, I am a little more concerned than I have been in some of the past changes that Amazon has made. They are removing real estate that we're used to having as authors, but it's not the first time we've seen it.
You remember back in 2013, 2014 with Facebook, where we used to be able to reach our entire audience. You'd make a post, and they'd all see it. And now, of course, we have to pay to boost posts.
So, things are getting more expensive. We are having to put more money into advertising, but that's expected and there is still tons of profit on the table.
I guess the positive takeaway is, there's more readers than ever. I see more and more people in Kindle Unlimited. I see more and more authors getting into the game. And yet it seems like since it's not a zero-sum game, a lot of us can still continue to make a living.
So, as an author, if you're struggling now because those also bots are gone and you were using that as a primary vehicle to get your book out there, you're going to have to make up that shortfall through advertising.
But if you do it well as a brand-new author, you can still run a couple of $5 a day ads, through Facebook or through Amazon and get some attention on your book.
And Amazon is still happy to use their book recommendation engine to send out mailers on your behalf, or to show their customers that your book exists because all they want to do is sell things. And this really is just one less tool that we have.
Joanna: It does feel like there has been this change, where before, I feel like a brand-new author could come into the indie space, upload a book, and some copies would sell. And I don't think we're there anymore.
I literally think you can't just upload a book and expect it to sell. But then part of me also wonders whether that ever happens. I certainly never made loads of money without…Well, you know, you have to push it in some way.
I know some people will be worried about this. Can you encourage people in terms of…like, you mentioned the $5 a day.
Should they just try a $5 a day on Amazon ads, for example, because that's probably the easiest.
Chris: That would be my suggestion. At this point, really, what you need to focus on is your cover and the marketing copy that you're using. And that's going to be, I think, far more value than any amount of money that you put into advertising.
If you're experimenting with taglines and you're making sure that your covers are really evocative and so are the titles, then just a little bit of money into advertising is going to get you some visibility.
And if you are nailing everything, Amazon really still can do the rest for you and your book can float right up to the top.
Joanna: It's interesting because I actually think indies can react fast to a changing environment. I almost worry more for those traditionally published authors who have the new advanced contracts where the publisher won't have any ad spend.
I see so many indies doing ads, but traditional publishing, it's mainly the big names, right.
Is the midlist going to suffer in traditional publishing because of this change?
Chris: I think maybe so. The advantage that they have is that they are able to sell in a format that we don't dominate at all and that's physical books which are still huge. So, in that regard, I suspect they can still advertise and maybe make some headway because we're not taking up shelf space in most bookstores and we're not supplying libraries and really fulfilling that need.
Maybe they still have an advantage in that regard. But as far as eBooks go, we are eating their lunch for a reason. We can react instantly. We can dump as much ad spend as we want. And as an author, I know if I spend X number of dollars and I make X amount of profit, it's all going into my pocket minus the 30% cut I'm giving Amazon.
Joanna: It's interesting you say that, because about six months ago, I decided…well, no, probably a year ago, when I went into Ingram Spark, I decided to start focusing on print sales. And my print revenue now is 21% of my book sales income.
Joanna: Now I'm putting all my backlist into hardback and large print, which libraries are far more likely to buy and also just sell for high prices.
I actually think the print market share, it's also much cheaper to advertise print books because there aren't so many authors doing it.
And children's authors, I've had Karen Inglis on the show advertising print books for children, is going really well. I actually think what we're going to see is a market share of print sold online going to indies.
Chris: I could definitely see that as we start doing it more and doing it better. I'm certainly seeing the same thing in audio. Probably 40% of my sales these days are audio and it's growing so fast.
Joanna: That's interesting. On audio? How long are your books?
Chris: They vary. But the most successful ones, I have a box set that's 25 hours and I have another one that's 41 hours.
Getting the same book for one credit, people want those big deals where they get a ton of hours of entertainment, and so the series that are based off of those two do enormously well.
Joanna: Yes, and that's what I've said before on this show is nonfiction audio can be short and will still sell, but fiction audio is really hard to sell when it doesn't go over that credit, so box sets are brilliant. And again, you don't see many traditional publishers doing that so we've got an advantage there too, I think.
Are you doing anything differently with advertising audio?
Chris: Not at time. I use a fair number of Facebook ads for the longer box sets. And it's really straightforward. You just put your ad, likes audible, and then likes whatever your audience is. So, it's super easy to zero in on those niches that might buy your audio books.
And then it's as simple as, ‘Hey, I've got this book that's X number of hours long.' And that does all the selling.
Joanna: It's so funny you say that because my husband, he pretty much only buys these fantasy books when they're 40 hours plus. He's one of these customers.
Chris: He is my target audience.
Joanna: He totally is. Okay. So, that's talking a bit about ads. And I'm glad we agree as genuinely we're positive people and we see these shifts as inevitable.
That's the other thing. I've worked in tech and you've worked in tech. Nothing stays the same, right?
Joanna: It changes fast.
Chris: It's always evolving and changing and we have to adapt as authors. But if you keep doing the work, I mean, the money is going to continue to be there for the rest of our lives, I think.
Joanna: I guess that's what I meant about the backlist and tending that backlist, because when you master some of these things, it does compound.
If you keep putting and inevitably, in three year's time, things will be different again, or one year time, or a month's time given how fast things are changing right now.
But I did want to ask you also because you mentioned this, and I've been talking about this a lot. You've said in the book quote, ‘There's going to be an explosion of content in the next decade.' I am listening to ‘AI Superpowers' right now, which is about China.
I saw China literature at London Book Fair and they've recently translated a book in 30 seconds, 100,000 words, 30 seconds translated. And so, I agree with you. I think there's going to be this explosion of content.
How do we compete in that market and look into future protecting our next 50 years, for example?
Chris: I think that content marketing is the wave of the future. And when I say content marketing, I don't just mean a reader magnet. I don't just mean lots of good books. I mean, understanding what your audience is into.
In my case, my audience is people that grew up playing ‘Dungeons and Dragons,' and then they graduated into video games like ‘EverQuest,' and ‘World of Warcraft,' and ‘Diablo.' And there's millions of these people globally.
What they're looking for is something that they can't get just from looking at a book, they like to play these role-playing games. And so, what I've done is I've paid many thousands of dollars to get some amazing artwork. And I've actually created a pen and paper role-playing game like ‘Dungeons and Dragons' that I give out free.
We play tested this for the first time in Las Vegas recently with some other sci-fi authors and it's working pretty well. And when my fans saw this, they just started going nuts because they want to get their hands on this game. They want to be able to make their own tech mages just like I have in the book.
It's understanding what my audience is interested in and then giving them something that they can come together as a community around. They can start having their own adventures, they can chat on the boards that I've created for them. I've given them a place where they can share their love of this thing that I've created.
I think those communities are going to be vital going forward. As an author, it doesn't really matter what genre you're in from romance to mystery. If you can create a community and you can start providing things to your readership that they're not getting elsewhere, then they're going to stick with you and they're going to be happy to do so. And those are the authors that are still going to be selling books, I think in 20 years.
Joanna: It's funny. I did not pay you or tell you to say that. This is exactly what I've been saying. And in fact, I just released, a week ago, a mini course on content marketing for fiction, which is exactly what you just said.
So, totally separately we've been thinking about that. And I agree with you. I feel like the paid ad stuff, it's the short term. It's getting people into our space and selling actual books, but the content marketing is that longer term.
And coming right back to you, the Plot Gardening and the craft, that's the thing that's going to keep people for the long term as a community, like you say.
Chris: Exactly. If you can write better books and you can get your fans together in a place where they can geek out then you're going to have success.
Joanna: You are. Wow. That's awesome.
Finally, just before we finish, you've got a new version of Write to Market coming out soon.
What makes this edition different? Why should people check that out?
Chris: The first version of Write to Market really covered writing to trend really, really well, but I didn't explain that there are other types of writing to market.
Writing to market is simple as you need to understand what a given market is interested in. And if you give them something written to trend, if other people are writing vampires, and you turn out and synthesize a good vampire book, you're probably going to make some money.
But there's a lot more money often in exploiting areas that haven't been discovered yet. When I did Space Fantasy, there was no market of books with dragons and Gods that I was reading, trying to figure out, ‘Okay, this is what I need to do.' I pretty much invented this from scratch. I came up with all my own ideas.
But I did it with an understanding of the emotional needs of my audience and I think I can satisfy them in this way. So, it's bigger risk, bigger reward. And the new version of the book is going to get a lot more into how to understand your audience and how to give them what you think they want.
Joanna: Sounds awesome.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Chris: chrisfoxwrites.com is my main hub. If you were into videos, youtube.com/chrisfoxwrites. It got a couple of hundred plotting and marketing videos.
Joanna: Yeah, it's great. And you definitely do the YouTube really well. I appreciate that. Thanks so much for your time, Chris. That was great.
Chris: Thanks for having me, Joanna.
[Plant images courtesy Markus Spiske and Unsplash.]