Dana Sitar on Making Sure Your Creative Work Fulfills a Real Person’s Needs

Continuing our discussion of building THE AUDIENCE — this morning, The Write Life ran a must-read post by writer and editor Dana Sitar titled How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process:

When you set out to define your “ideal reader,” you’ve probably already decided what you want to write — maybe even written it.

You’re sitting on that romance novel, self-help book or blog about what cats have taught you about love, and now you’re ready to market it. So you dream up a reader who fits the bill. They’re male orfemale, between ages 18 and 54, probably own cats and are single. So, obviously, they’ll love your blog.

Voila. You’ve got your ideal reader.

Except that’s useless. All you’ve done is reverse engineer an audience for yourself, and you can’t do that with real people.

If you want to attract actual readers, you’re going to have to do it the other way around: Learn what real readers want, and write it for them.

Go read the whole thing.

Read it twice.

Read it eight times.

Sitar’s formula for making sure your creative work fulfills a real person’s needs — or, as I described it earlier this week, convinces a person to give you money in exchange for an emotional experience — is applicable to nearly every creative project, from the artistic to the commercial.*

I’m not going to share the formula here, because I want you to go to The Write Life and read the entire piece.

But I am going to start applying it to my upcoming work, whether I’m drafting NEXT BOOK or completing a freelance gig.

I should probably even figure out how to apply it this blog.

*I can hear you thinking but what if I just want to create something from the heart and see what happens? DO IT DO IT DO IT, nobody is stopping you! Those kinds of projects are often amazing because they come with a level of emotional connection and personal vulnerability that are absent from more calculated works. BUT BEFORE YOU PUBLISH, remember the difference between play and performance. Make the thing from your heart. Make it just for you, if you want. Then figure out how to turn it into a gift for an audience.

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How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 3 (Getting Your Work In Front of People)

Before I get started on the work of getting your work in front of people, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

To earn money from your creative work, you need to create a piece of work and decide how the payment aspect will intersect with it. As I wrote in Part 1, there are a bajillion ways to make money from your creative work: you can sell the work, you can give away the work for free but put ads on it, you can give away the work for free but sell T-shirts, etc.

But before you can earn money from your creative work, you need to find your audience. That’s what we discussed in Part 2: you won’t get any money from your work, no matter how good it is, unless you put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.

Today we’re going to look at how you do that.

As far as I can tell, there are four basic ways of getting your work in front of the people who might become THE AUDIENCE.

I’ll present them in order of difficulty:

Share your work on multiple channels.

This is both the easiest and in many cases the least effective way of getting your work in front of people. On the one hand, sharing your work on your website and your Twitter and your Facebook and your Instagram and your Tumblr and your Snapchat and your YouTube account and your mailing list and your local open mic (or the equivalent thereof) can help you pick up a few additional audience members.

It can also tell you where your audience is likely to be located. Maybe they hang out on Wattpad but don’t spend much time on Facebook, for example. Maybe they prefer mailing lists to Instagram stories. (Knowing something about your audience’s demographic and which social networks your demographic uses can be useful here.)

On the other hand, sharing your work across every possible channel can be viewed as placing tactics before strategy. Or, more specifically, wasting time on actions that doesn’t give you much value in return.

Collaborate with someone who already has an audience.

This is the ABSOLUTE BEST WAY I’ve found to build an audience.

It isn’t about making the perfect post/book/podcast/video and tagging a bunch of influencers with the hope that one of them will share it with their networks and you’ll go viral and everyone will love you.

It’s about finding a way to offer value to a person or entity that already has an audience, and by doing so grow your own.

Write a guest post for someone else’s blog.

Pitch a website that runs content related to the creative work you do.

Go on HARO and offer yourself as an interview source.

Etc.

I realize that this method favors people who can write well, because so much of the internet is still about writing, these days.

But there are other ways of getting this work done, such as volunteering at an art gallery* or auditioning for a local theater group.

Figure out who’s giving opportunities to new creators, and then go after those opportunities.

And remember — you can always pitch me.

Invite people to collaborate with you.

I’m listing this step below “collaborate with someone who already has an audience” because if you’re in the early stages of your creative career, it’s going to be a lot easier to get a guest post on someone else’s blog than to convince someone else to write a guest post on yours.**

This is where being part of a community of creative peers can really help — and I do mean “peers” literally.

When I was at VidCon 2011, for example, I heard Hank Green give a talk on the art of growing your career through collaboration. He suggested working with people who were at your level or just above your level, because they were likely to be the people most interested in working with you.

Also because — for lack of a better phrase — a rising tide lifts all boats.

If you find your community of creative peers and begin collaborating with each other, and if one of your peers gets a bit of additional creative success that grants them access to a larger audience, that person might recommend your work to their audience or collaborate with you on a project that’ll go in front of that audience or etc. etc. etc.

And it goes without saying that if you are the person with the additional creative success, you should do the same.***

There’s another way of using this technique to grow your audience: if you are an established creator with an established audience that you’d still like to grow — because audiences are constantly shifting and changing and attrition is a real thing — you can give opportunities to other people. These people may only have a small audience (for now), but if they get excited about their guest post or podcast interview, they’ll share it with their followers and some of those followers might become your followers.

This is the other reason why you should pitch me.

Create new work.

This is the final and hardest step in building your audience, because THE WORK is both the most important part of your creative career and the most time-consuming part (and the part where you’ll agonize that it’s not good enough, or worry that you haven’t made enough revisions, or feel disappointed that it doesn’t look the way it did in your head, or feel like you need to rush to get it out there).

A single piece of excellent work might get you THE AUDIENCE.

But you’ll need a steady flow of new work to maintain and grow your audience — as well as convince your audience to give you money in exchange for the emotional experiences they’ve come to expect from your work.

So keep working. ❤️

*Volunteering can be tricky, because some organizations are really happy to let artistic types hand out tickets and pick up trash, even though everyone involved knows the volunteers want to do more than that. If you volunteer with an arts organization as a way to meet people and form artistic collaborations (vs. volunteering because you want to help with the grunt work) and your volunteering work isn’t helping you connect with other collaborators, FIND ANOTHER ORGANIZATION.

**If you have a well-written guest post, you are offering value to someone else — specifically, the value of giving them something to put on their blog without them having to do the work of writing it. You can offer this value regardless of the number of followers you currently have, if the work is good. (ASK ME HOW I KNOW.) On the other hand, if you don’t have many followers yet, asking someone to do the work of writing a guest post for you takes away time they could have put towards a more valuable project.

***There’s a really hard moment when you have to decide that a former creative peer is no longer someone you want to collaborate with, either because their work hasn’t grown and improved or because they don’t share your values. I’m not going to write much beyond that, except to note that it’s a really hard moment.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 2 (Finding THE AUDIENCE)

Before you can make money from your creative work — before you can even ask for money for your creative work — you need to find your audience.

Which, in keeping with the conventions of this blog, we’re going to call THE AUDIENCE.

Finding THE AUDIENCE is a creative project in and of itself, which is one of the reasons some creative people hire other creative people, e.g. publicists, to help them.

It’s also one of the reasons people sell the rights to their work to a larger company, e.g. a publishing house or a record label. These entities are theoretically supposed to find the audience for you, although lately it’s become more of a collaboration and many artists feel pressure to prove that they already have an audience (you’ll see this called “the platform”) during the early stages of this process, e.g. when querying agents.

At its core, finding THE AUDIENCE is a simple process.

All you have to do is put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.

Repeatedly.

Until you have enough people to form THE AUDIENCE.

You also have to maintain the interest of the people who initially showed interest in your work, but you can generally do that by creating NEW WORK on a REGULAR BASIS and putting that in front of them as well.

In fact, every time you create NEW WORK, you have the opportunity not only to maintain and/or grow the interest of your current audience, but also to share your work with new people who might become part of THE AUDIENCE — and might be interested in both the NEW WORK and your back catalog.

That’s also how you make money from your creative work. You put it in front of people who might be interested in it, over and over.

Then, when enough people are interested, you give them the opportunity to participate in the creative work by paying for it.

I’m using the word “participate” deliberately; as you might remember from my post on play vs. performance, a successful piece of creative work is an experience that includes THE AUDIENCE — and people are very eager to pay for experiences.

Think about the types of creative work you’ve paid for in the past month. Why did you make those purchases? I support artists like Mikey Neumann and Lindsay Ellis on Patreon because the stories they tell about storytelling help me see the world in different ways, and I want them to keep providing me with those types of experiences.

When I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams writing seminar earlier this month, I bought a copy of a book I had already read multiple times, for free, at the library because I wanted the experience of meeting Maggie in the book signing line.

I own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because maybe someone will see it and say “hey, I also like Steven Universe,” and then I’ll have the experience of meeting someone new.*

None of this is about making sure artists get paid or wanting to show my appreciation for their work or anything like that. I mean, it kind of is, in that I understand that if people like Mikey and Lindsay don’t earn money they’ll stop making videos, but mostly it’s about ME ME ME.

So. If you were to email me and ask how you can earn money from your creative work — and people do — I’d suggest:

  1. Create the type of work that takes an audience through an experience.
  2. Put that work in front of people.
  3. Create new work.
  4. Put that work in front of people.
  5. Give those people the opportunity to pay you, either for the work itself or for accessories related to the work.

When we continue this discussion, we’ll look at how to put your work in front of people, because — as I noted at the beginning of this post — that’s a creative project in and of itself. ❤️

*I also own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because some days I want the experience of feeling courageous and thoughtful and empathetic like Steven.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 1 (of Many)

There are one bajillion ways to earn money from your creative work.

You can make a single unique piece of work and sell it for a lot of money.

You can make an easily duplicated piece of work and sell each duplication for a smaller amount of money.

You can give away your primary creative work for free, but put ads on it.

You can give away your primary creative work for free, but sell community-identifying accessory materials such as T-shirts.*

You can give away your primary creative work for free while creating an online community of financial support through services like Patreon.

You can do the above while also selling your work, i.e. you can sell the primary creative product and the T-shirt and have a Patreon going at the same time.

You can sell the rights to your creative work to someone else, e.g. a publishing house, and collect royalties.

You can sell tickets, either to watch you perform the work, to watch you create the work, or to watch you give inspirational lectures on how you created the work.

You can teach classes on how to create the work.

You can write a book about how you created the work.

Etc.

But you can’t do any of this unless you have a group of people who want to give you money for your work.**

In other words, you can’t do any of this until you have an audience.

That’s where we’ll start tomorrow. ❤️

*I don’t need to explain that we wear the T-shirts to advertise ourselves as a member of a certain community or fandom, and/or to connect with other people in that community, right?

**The enthusiastic consent model works really well here.

THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY

Yesterday I asked whether “does it make money” should be a factor in determining a creative work’s success.

This, by the way, is one of the oldest questions in the book, we were debating it back in grad school, but in grad school we were also all on food stamps because that was literally part of the orientation process.*

Since then, I have had varying levels of income — specifically, two periods of earning at or above the median income in the United States, separated by a few years during which I earned significantly below the median income — and I’ve become less interested in the philosophical question of whether creative work should make money then the practical question of how to earn money from your creative work.

Here’s what I have come to believe:

  1. The big creative work you want to do with your life — aka THE WORK — should include a money-making component.
  2. THE WORK might not earn enough money to be your sole source of income. (If it is, congratulations!)
  3. You will probably need to do additional types of work to fund THE LIFE you want to live. If possible, choose work that complements and/or supports both THE LIFE you want and THE WORK you want to do.
  4. A successful piece of WORK should, at minimum, earn back the cost of producing the WORK. This cost may or may not include your time.

None of these foundational beliefs address the question of how to earn money from your creative work — we’ll get to that, probably next week — but, at least for me, they set up a framework through which I can structure THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY while simultaneously evaluating the success of all of the above.

This brings me to Grant Sabatier’s new book Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need.

Sabatier wrote this book as a sort of unofficial sequel to my very favorite personal-finance book ever, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence. (Vicki Robin wrote the foreword to Financial Freedom, making it an official unofficial sequel?)

Your Money or Your Life teaches you how to interact with money; how to calculate your true hourly wage and identify jobs that give you the most value for your time, how to avoid blowing your cash on impulse buys and poorly-thought-out purchases, and how to save and invest for the future.

Financial Freedom teaches you how to earn more.

Financial Freedom also provides an updated guide to the whole saving-and-investing thing. The original edition of Your Money or Your Life was all about savings account interest and U.S. Treasury Bonds (both of which are no longer performing at a rate that can lead a person towards long-term financial security), and Financial Freedom focuses on newer strategies such as index funds and Roth IRA conversions.

If that’s not where you are in your financial journey, you can skip that part.

But I would argue that every creative person should read both Your Money and Your Life and Financial Freedom, if only because these books will cement the connection between THE WORK, THE LIFE, and THE MONEY.

If your job is not giving you enough time and/or money to live THE LIFE and do THE WORK, these books will help you find and/or create a better job, preferably one with a higher true hourly wage.**

If THE LIFE you want to live does not match the life you are currently living, and especially if you are spending extra money because you are dissatisfied with your life, these books will show you how to shift your habits and your spending to get you closer to THE LIFE you want.***

If you want to go all Marie Kondo on your everyday expenses and ask yourself “do I really want to spend $780 every year maintaining my pixie cut or do I want to invest that money and turn it into three months of financial freedom,” well… guess what, I started growing my hair out.

(Financial freedom, by the way, translates to “the amount of time you can live comfortably without earning another dollar.” You can stack up your months of financial freedom to provide security for the future, or cash them in for a big purchase such as a house or a sabbatical or an indie-published book.)

Most importantly, if you want to figure out how to turn THE WORK into THE MONEY-MAKING WORK, Financial Freedom has several excellent suggestions.

That’s all for today. Next week we’ll continue discussing how to make money on your creative work, so… see y’all on Monday. ❤️

*The orientation, which was student-led, consisted of two components: don’t sleep with the undergrads and here’s how to get on food stamps.

**I know jobs don’t grow on job trees and getting a new job is not always easy. But if you are going to do the work of job-hunting, it’s worth knowing what kind of job you’re hunting for.

***I can hear you saying “I don’t earn enough money to change any of my spending habits,” which, believe me, I’ve been there. I first read Your Money or Your Life in 2004, when I was making $9 an hour working as a telemarketer. (That’s the equivalent of $12 an hour today, if you were curious.) I could make very few changes to my spending, but I started doing things like making peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches because a tub of raisins was cheaper than a thing of jam, and taking the bus during off-peak hours because it was less expensive, and finding a job that paid $13 an hour, and within nine months I had saved $500, which was NOT A LOT, but also proved that the system worked.

On Play, Performance, and Profit

I told you some of these would be about money, since I’ve been writing about personal finance for the past seven years — and, arguably, I wouldn’t be making the money I do on my creative work without the personal finance background. (Or, at least, not as much money.)

About a month ago, I got an advance reader’s copy of Grant Sabatier’s Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, which released to the public this Tuesday. I reviewed it on The Billfold this week from a personal finance perspective; I’m going to review it on this-here blog tomorrow from a creative perspective.

Because I have been thinking about this book a lot.

But before we get into that, I want to ask a question about the link between play, performance, and profit.

I have not yet written the promised blog post on why I believe there is a difference between play and performance, or how I came up with this particular theory, but I have given you my personal definition of play vs. performance, so let’s recap:

Play is a gift you give yourself.

Performance is a gift you give an audience.

I have been to many performances that were, in fact, play — the people onstage were doing it to satisfy the internal urge to create but not the external urge to connect.*

Sometimes the people onstage charged money for us to watch them play, and in some cases I was a little disgruntled once I realized what I was watching.

Sometimes it was a situation where the audience wanted to pay money to watch great artists play — to see the creative process in process. I’ve gladly purchased those kinds of tickets.

I’ve also purchased tickets, bought books, paid to visit galleries, etc. to see performances, by which I mean completed work designed to guide an audience through an experience that engenders an emotional response. (Yes, I’m counting books and other forms of static art as performances.)

Sometimes these performances were given away for free.

More often, money changed hands. Willingly. Eagerly. Not out of obligation (like the $45 the dance studio makes you pay to attend your kid’s ballet recital) or even out of friendship. The audience paid money because they wanted the experience.

Which leads me to the question: is a performance effective if people are not willing to pay for it?

On the one hand, of course not. We don’t need to give people money in exchange for experiences; we’ve just agreed, culturally, that it’s the thing you do.

On the other hand: since it is a cultural thing, if people are not willing to give you money to experience your thing, then…

ON THE THIRD HAND THERE ARE A LOT OF PERFORMANCES IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW, INCLUDING MANY EXCELLENT ONES, AND NOT ALL OF THEM ARE MARKETED EFFECTIVELY.

On the fourth hand I wrote “profit” in the title because of the alliteration, and there’s a huge difference between making money and making a profit, and I’m going to address that when I review Financial Freedom tomorrow, but let’s just keep in mind that good art can make money but still not be profitable because it cost more to make the art than the audience paid to experience it.

We’ll stop here, mostly because I’m out of time.

More tomorrow. ❤️

*This is one of the reasons there’s that perennial joke about nobody wanting to watch their friends do improv. (BUT WE DO IT ANYWAY BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU. Also because improv is six-sevenths of the way towards improve.)

Three-Act Structure vs. Hero’s Journey

As promised, I did some work last night to reshape NEXT BOOK’s plot into a traditional three-act structure.

Except once I got started, I realized that my outline for NEXT BOOK already fit a fairly standard plot structure: the Hero’s Journey.

The two plots are similar, in that they both follow the general “exposition, inciting incident, midpoint, rising action, climax, falling action” shape, but the specifics of each path are slightly different and YOU KNOW I’M ALL ABOUT SPECIFICITY.

I don’t want to get too spoilery about what I’m planning to write, but I’ve already shared enough about NEXT BOOK that very little of this should be new information. At this point, my outline goes something like this:

Our 30-something graying-haired heroine feels stuck in her responsibilities and MILLENNIAL BURNED-OUT.

She meets a mysterious stranger* (one of the two ways to start a story, if you believe the cliché) who’s all “you’re interesting, let’s have dinner.”**

Since she’s a 30-something woman in a year that is very like 2019, she’s all “um this is not how it’s done these days, also I don’t have a free hour on my calendar until April and maybe I don’t even want to deal with men right now” and nopes out.

The very next thing she does, according to my outline that I wrote before I reminded myself of what the Hero’s Journey actually was, is visit her grandmother. Because eldercare is one of her many responsibilities, and also because Grandma’s got some intriguing information to convey.

At this point, I was all huh, that’s the Refusal of the Call followed by the Meeting With the Mentor, wonder how the rest of my outline fits into the Hero’s Journey and it turns out that it fit, like, 80 percent perfectly and the rest can be handled by tweaking or not caring.***

If you would like to learn more about the Three-Act Structure and/or the Hero’s Journey, Reedsy has some excellent posts on each, with infographics (I love a good infographic):

How to Write a Novel Using The Three-Act Structure

The Hero’s Journey: an Author’s Guide to Plotting

And at this point I do think I’m actually ready to start writing. Which is good, because that’s my favorite part of the process. ❤️

*Yes, I know you’re thinking “but she said this would be a portal fantasy,” where do you think the mysterious stranger came from?

**The minute I figured out the whole “if you eat a food, you have to leave your home and live in a strange world” thing was not just a big deal for fairies, but also for Greek mythology and literally the story of Genesis, was a BIG MINUTE.

***Even some of the episodes I had originally written into my outline fit the Hero’s Journey — “our heroine Slacks her friends to ask whether they would theoretically go through a theoretical portal if they had the theoretical chance” counts as Gathering Allies, and the friends turn out to be very helpful at the end, NO SPOILERS.

Using Comp Covers to Clarify What Readers Need to Know About NEXT BOOK

I already had a mood board for NEXT BOOK (by which I mean I had a Google Doc with a bunch of internet images pasted into it), but at the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams workshop last Saturday we discussed getting really specific about both mood and what types of emotions a reader can expect to have while reading the book.

One way to clarify this is to find other book covers that communicate the mood/emotion “if you pick up this book, you will get this kind of story” thing to the reader.

So… here we go.

Covers that suggest portal fantasies centered around a female character

Fun fact: neither of these books are actually portal fantasies! But they both feature a woman standing in front of SOMETHING NEW without fully stepping into it, which is the emotional conflict that drives Act 1 of NEXT BOOK.

Both books also suggest the SOMETHING NEW is SOMETHING OLD — an old clock, an old castle, etc. This is also an important component of NEXT BOOK, and something I’d like to flag for potential readers.

The colors on The Lost Girls of Paris are also kinda right for the mood I’m going for: this story includes both a portal and a mystery.

Yes, these books are both women’s fiction titles, which means they’ve got the perhaps-overdone FACELESS LADY on the cover, but FACELESS LADY works for a reason. (The reason is we imagine our own face on her face.)

Covers that suggest the primary conflict takes place inside a female character’s head

A Kingdom of Exiles, by S.B. Nova.
More Than Words, by Jill Santopolo

This set includes one fantasy title and one women’s fiction title, and of these two the fantasy book feels more like the overall mood I’m going for, but what I like about both of these books is that they suggest the story is about A WOMAN WHO MAKES A CHOICE. Does she choose the dream inside her head, or the expectations outside of it?

I also like these books because both of these women have their hair pulled up, and when I was doing image research for my main character I found this exactly-what-I-was-looking-for Instagram photo:

View this post on Instagram

“There are a lot of things about getting old that are far worse than the gray hair. I almost caved and dyed it the other day when some 11 year-olds figured out my age and said they were confused because their moms are at least a decade older but don’t have any gray hair. I didn’t cave, though. I’m going to teach loving oneself by example. 👵🏻” thanks for the inspiration! -Jen, 34, gray since my early twenties thanks @jdowt for sharing a courageous story with us. #grombre #gogrombre ▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️▫️#goinggrey #greyhair #greyhairdontcare #greyhairs #grayhairdontcare #grayhair #grayhairs #silverfox #goinggray #goinggreygracefully #greyingout #naturalisbeautiful #confidence #naturalgrey #naturalgreyhair #naturalgray #naturalgrayhair #saltandpepperhair #saltandpepperhairdontcare #silversisters #silversister #naturalgreyhair #naturalbeauty #naturallygrey

A post shared by Going grey with (grohm)(bray) (@grombre) on

So that’s another reason why these covers feel right to me, although I’d also like to tip the reader off to the fact that this character is a woman in her 30s with graying hair. (BECAUSE THAT’S WHEN IT STARTS, Y’ALL.) We are often attracted to books that feature people similar to us, and I want to make sure that similarity is visible on the cover.

Covers that imply the universe and/or light science will be involved

I don’t think either of these covers contain enough information about the themes present in NEXT BOOK to be particularly useful, but I like the idea of cuing the reader in to the fact that THERE WILL BE A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION FOR THE PORTAL. Is that the most important thing the reader needs to know before deciding to read the book? Not really. (I could probably communicate it just as easily over flap/back cover copy, too.)

But as a reader myself, I tend to avoid the types of fantasies that aren’t rooted in reality (or at least a plausible reality). Suddenly finding yourself in the Magical Kingdom of Whatever isn’t good enough. I want to know why you, and why is this place a monarchy, and how does this fit in with the available parallel universe theories that are legitimized by math.*

So that’s where I am, in terms of figuring out what I want this book to communicate to its reader. Because that’s what this exercise is really about, since book cover trends change so quickly that you can’t set your heart on one type of cover before you’ve even written the first page.

*No, seriously. It is extremely mathematically likely that there are parallel universes, if the universe operates according to the rules of mathematics. Go read Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

What the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams Seminar Taught Me About Plot

I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids this morning,* but I wanted to tell you all that Maggie Stiefvater’s Portraits and Dreams writing seminar was AMAZING and HUGELY INFORMATIONAL and OH WOW I WANT TO START WRITING THIS BOOK RIGHT AWAY EXCEPT I HAVE A FEW MORE PIECES I NEED TO PUT TOGETHER FIRST, and if you were thinking about attending one of the upcoming Portraits and Dreams seminars you have my word that it is SO SO SO SO WORTH IT.

That said, I’m not going to give you any specifics as to what was discussed at the seminar, because no spoilers.

I will note that before I actually start writing NEXT BOOK I am going to do some extra background work on the mood I’m trying to convey with this story, which is not technically a spoiler because Maggie Stiefvater has already written about the importance of mood in storytelling on her Tumblr.

I’ll also note that the seminar made me think absolutely 100% differently about plot. This I think I can share, because it wasn’t actually discussed in the seminar at all.

Well, plot was. In the traditional three-act-structure sense.

I have never been a huge fan of the traditional three-act structure, mostly because I could see through it by the time I was ten years old. (It was 1992. I was watching The Mighty Ducks, and when they got to the part where the coach did a bad thing and the team split up but then someone came back with an inspirational speech and they all went out on the ice anyway I remember thinking all these stories are just telling the same story and I was furious.)

This is one of the reasons why The Biographies of Ordinary People is episodic. That and the fact that I was trying to write a contemporary book that made 30-something readers feel the way we did when we read (or re-read) Little Women or Anne of Green Gables, both of which are episodic stories.

But Maggie was talking about the way she used three-act structure in The Raven Boys, and I was sitting there thinking “well, but that isn’t really three-act structure because there isn’t the part where the coach does a bad thing and then the team splits up and then someone comes back with an inspirational speech and they all go out on the ice anyway OH WAIT.”

Substitute Cabeswater for “the ice,” and literally all of that happens in The Raven Boys. It’s just not the emotional focus of the story. When Gansey and Adam fight and the team does in fact split up, you don’t really notice that’s where you are in the three-act structure because emotionally you’re with Gansey and Adam in this intimate, human, complicated moment. You don’t even notice that the team has split up because the team doesn’t think they’re split up. (Or, more accurately, they’re still hoping they can stay together.)

In other words, unlike the types of books that made me never want to write a traditionally-plotted novel in my life, the chapter doesn’t end with “The door slammed. That was it. The Raven Boys were through.”

Maggie did not discuss how to write the type of story that has the emotional satisfaction of the traditional three-act structure** without the predictability of such, but it made me think of her blog post about how to create characters that aren’t cartoons or clichés.

I suspect the path towards creating a plot that isn’t a cliché leads in the same direction.

Anyway, NEXT BOOK is going to have a traditional three-act structure now.*** First to see if I can do it, and second to see if I can hide what I’m doing while I’m doing it.

Wish me luck. ❤️

*This is a lie. Not the part where I’m flying back to Cedar Rapids on Monday morning. The part where I actually wrote this post on Sunday night.

**We did discuss emotional satisfaction in the seminar, so no spoilers, but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to hint that Aristotle was right.

***I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a goof, but no I didn’t really have a structure for NEXT BOOK. My outline had an opening, and it had an inciting incident, and then it had a bunch of episodes because I’m reallll good with episodes, and then it had a big thing that changed everything, and then I told myself I’d figure the rest out when I got there. TIME TO FIGURE IT OUT, and also cut a few of those episodes and make the whole story actually story-shaped.