It’s common knowledge among writers that Hollywood uses a basic, three-act formula for screenplays. It’s equally agreed upon that writing Act 2 is the most difficult. That’s where most spec screenplays (and many movies) break down. Why is that? Here’s a theory to which I happen to subscribe: Act 2 is the hardest because it takes the most work, and most writers have neither the knowledge nor the discipline to do what is necessary to transcend mediocrity.
Act 1 is the set-up. The hook. It’s closely tied to the premise, or idea that got you writing in the first place. You get to introduce all your characters, so your enthusiasm and effort are in high gear. Act 3 centers around the climactic scene, which is often “already written in your head,” so again, the enthusiasm is heightened. (Not to mention the excitement of being almost done!)
That leaves us with Act 2. The middle stuff. The obstacles and subplots. This crucial section of any story often comes out too sparse, too disjointed, or just plain boring because that’s how writers (unknowingly and unwillingly) approach the task of writing it. Their semi-subconscious goal is to simply get through it, and onto the more exciting Act 3.
Now consider, using those terms, a “movie” called The Indie Author starring YOU. As you probably already know, it’s a drama/adventure flick with a little comedy and (hopefully not too much) horror mixed in. And keep in mind, you’re not only starring in the story – you’re writing it, too. What I’ll try to do here in thispiece of writing is offer some broad-stroke guidance. Just some things you might want to think about. I’m not a big success or an expert, but I’m generally known as someone who knows what he’s talking about. Read on and see if you agree . . .
Act 1 is writing a great book. Not one that just you and your polite friends think is “great.” I mean a book that a total stranger will think is great. It’s hard, but absolutely essential that you do this. And if you need some blogger to tell you how to write a great book (be original; create characters that connect with readers; writing is rewriting; proofread; have your cover professionally designed), then you’re probably not cut out for this sort of thing. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but you wouldn’t be able to just start doing any other profession without a fair amount of knowledge, experience and skill, so why should author be any different?
And being an avid reader doesn’t give you the skills to be a writer. It can certainly spark an interest, and if it does, that’s great. But you have to learn the craft. I like to eat at restaurants, but that doesn’t mean I can be chef without a LOT of training and practice (not to mention an inherent talent that I may or may not have). I also love going to museums, but I know that – despite studying art and painting into my college years – I’m no artist. While at Disney, I was lucky to work with and befriend quite a few insanely gifted artists who studied and toiled for years to get where they are. And none of them are rich or famous, by the way.
Just because you can write sentences and paragraphs in your native tongue, know how to punctuate dialogue and can get the grammar (mostly) correct, doesn’t make you an author. I’m sure you can draw a face that anyone would recognize as a face. But you wouldn’t dream of calling yourself an artist based on that.
I’m not saying all this to discourage anyone. I actually want you to become an author, but I want you to do it the same way you’d become a chef or a painter or a rocket scientist: the right way, via the long road of hard work and study and experience and feedback and failure. If that idea makes you curious, then maybe writing is indeed your thing. If it makes you nauseated or annoyed, then probably not.
And remember . . . that’s just Act 1. Are you getting the hint that this is shaping up to be one loooooooong movie?
You might think Act 1 ends when you write “The End.” That would be nice, but no. Act 1 ends when your book is published and is available to all those strangers whom we hope will think it’s great. Getting from “The End” to “For Sale” is easy enough these days and the process is explained in great detail all over the Internet. Easy search.
Act 2 (which you may have guessed by now) is the marketing and self-promotion of your work. Ugh, right? Wait, it gets worse: Act 3 is your life as a successful author. Who wouldn’t want to rush and cut corners to get there? But realistically speaking, you can’t. Now that you’ve spent all that time learning the craft of writing, you get to put all those skills and all that talent on the shelf while you engage an entirely different set of professional-level skills.
Wait, you don’t have those skills? Hmmmm . . . yeah. Unfortunately, you’re now going to have to learn those, too: marketing, promotion, publicity, etc. Did I mention Act 2 is really difficult? This is the breakdown: the thinking that you can achieve success by tweeting about your book. (Or worse, by paying someone who hasn’t read your book to tweet about it amid a non-stop string of tweets about other people’s self published books that he or she hasn’t read either.)
To increase your chances of success in Act 2, learn the business side of publishing. It’s an industry that’s been on its ear for a while now, and as an indie author, you can use that to your advantage. Make no mistake. The hardest part is separating your great book from all the terrible ones flooding the market today. You don’t want to be associated with those, but guess what? You are. The goal is to be the cream that rises upward in the indie, self-published ocean of fiction. (I know I mixed my metaphors there with “cream” and “ocean,” but the giant coffee cup image wasn’t working for me.)
How do you do this? Start small. Reach out to book bloggers for reviews. If the most popular bloggers are booked up (which they mostly likely are) or don’t review self-published titles (which they often don’t), just find ones who do. There are plenty, and if you can’t search and find them without me providing a link here to a gift-wrapped list, then you have to sharpen your computer/online skills. You’ll need those skills, so just do the search.
As you know, much of your marketing will take place online, and part of that is social media. I’m all for social media, but my advice would be to go into it knowing its limitations. Nobody likes a one-note self-promoter. You already knew that, but if I didn’t say it here, you might think I didn’t know that’s the single most important advice regarding social media marketing. I do know it, and it’s true. Join conversations. Read and comment on other people’s work.
The most important marketing effort you can make, however, is offline. Reach out locally to the people who work in nearby bookstores. (Again, don’t know where they are? Search online.) If interested, they’ll most likely work with you in one of two ways: consignment, which means they shelve a number of your books and take a percentage cut from each sale (usually around 40%), or they will buy a few books from you at a wholesale discount and then sell them at the retail price to make their money from the profit. If your books sell, they’ll buy more from you. The trick here is to promote yourself as someone with whom business people want to build a long-lasting, working relationship. If you quibble over display location or sales percentage points that will (maybe) put an extra 50¢ in your pocket, then you’re more trouble than you’re worth. It’s that simple.
Also, branch out not only to the bookstores in nearby towns, but also gift shops and other small business merchants. They might see promoting a local author as kind of cool for them (provided that you’ve completed Act 1 successfully. If you go in there with Book 1 in your bondage erotica series, you’re on your own. Seriously, don’t tell them I sent you.)
So if you follow my advice, fame and fortune are pretty much guaranteed. (Ha. Just messing with you to see if you actually read this far! If you did, thanks!) Honestly, I do hope my thoughts have been helpful and inspiring. And lastly, I don’t have any real tips (yet) on Act 3, but if I did, they’d probably focus on being humble and philanthropic with your riches.