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Fiction Writers’ First Hurdle: Getting & Keeping Readers’ Attention

Earlier on this site, I was quite enthusiastic about selling “the unsellable” – pulp, erotica, horror / gore, experimental, and other “fringe” stuff.  This is because I believe in freedom of fiction, I’m an “adventurous reader,” and also because it posed a particular challenge to sell.  Which was fun for me, a nerd who thrives on that sort of thing.

Now that I’ve gotten four more years of experience since I posted last, I realize that the publishing problem has changed.  Four years ago, it was a lot less crowded in the indie publishing marketplace.  From talking to other people, that seems to be true of most areas of online businesses.

ALL fiction authors now face the same huge initial hurdle, regardless of what genre they write in.

Forget that first sale!  Your first real hurdle is getting and keeping your readers’ attention.  

After that, if the books are any good, repeat sales are usually not a problem (if you do some things right!)  But the initial hurdle is high in this “age of attention competition.”  While erotica / pulp / gore authors still face obstacles in advertising non-family-friendly content, all authors are facing this same basic hurdle.

So now, this site and my articles and resources will be aimed toward ONLY getting (and hopefully keeping) your audience’s attention.

Yes, KEEPING their attention.  You are not done once you’ve gotten over that first attention-hurdle.

There are so many diversions that will eat your lunch if you don’t keep your readers’ attention.  I’m not talking about other books.  The attention-stealing diversions are

  • stupid pet Vine compilations
  • inflammatory political “news” headlines
  • getting in flame wars in comment sections
  • pointless Flash games that just make you feel angry

These are all things that no one really wants to spend their time on, kind of like eating the reject flavored jellybeans left in the bowl.  (Do you like them?  No.  Do you eat them?  Well, they’re there, aren’t they?)

They’d be much better off reading your books.

So, this is what my articles and tutorials will be about – recommending awesome and fairly new ways of getting and keeping your readers’ attention.  I’m not going with cutting edge stuff – that’s expensive and untested.  What I will do is report on what’s working for us at the publishers.  These recommendations will be inexpensive and reasonable.

We’re real belt-tighteners at work, so be assured that everything I recommend is what we think has a chance of breaking even or better.

– Kat



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Response to Chris Guillebeau’s “Legacy Projects” post

Original post is here. Read it — it’s short, and the comment thread on his site is almost always thoughtful.

Relevant exerpt:

“You wanted—and expected—them to say, “This is great! I always knew you could do this. How can I help make it better? How can we tell the world about it?”

But no, you don’t get that at all. You just get the the faint praise, the brush-off, the indifference.

Then you realize… maybe this thing just wasn’t that important to them. Or maybe you didn’t know them as well as you thought you did. How sad.”

I have a very different experience in that I never expected any of my family and close friends to get what I do.

After all, I’m an erotic writer. And not because I want to make my living from erotica/romantica/erotic romance because it’s a huge trend in publishing right now.  My impulses to do adult work have very early origins. Sexuality is part of how I understand people in their entirety. It comes out in my art, because it’s my way of expressing my human experiences and empathy for other humans.

Do I expect my conservative father to get it?  No!  He’s embarrassed at sex scenes in movies (so am I, but for different reasons.)  He was shocked when I saw The Crying Game and Basic Instinct at a slumber party.

Do I expect my close friends to get it?  No!  My close friends are not vocational.  They are good friends from childhood and college, and not part of the sex fiction world.

Achievers desperately need support, but it’s often just silly to expect it from people close to you.

You don’t get to pick your family — why should you expect them to get you?  Don’t a lot of teenage fights come from parents not understanding what really drives you?  Your parents often have different values and participate in different emotional fantasies (EFs.)  Their definition of success comes from your achieving fulfillment of their EFs and values, not your own.

They simply don’t know what yours are, and being human, they probably don’t see them as valid as their own.  For example: one my mother’s emotional fantasies (she’s an interior designer) is to have a home that truly reflects her personality, somewhere she can be comfortable in.  She works constantly to fulfill this EF for herself and other people.

I live in a co-op, have very few possessions, and sit on the floor.

My top value is freedom.  It makes me uncomfortable when my place fills up with too much stuff.  I have The Purge every season and very little attachment to objects.  She really doesn’t get it, and thinks that her EF will make my life more complete, if I’d just try it.

If your best-friend-growing-up’s ultimate EF is to have 3 daughters and coach soccer, do you think he’ll truly get why you want to write scary mime erotic horror?  Of course not.

I’m totally not offended when I get a weak response from them.  In fact, I rarely tell them what I’m doing, just that I’m doing a project that I’m excited about.  I save the details for my vocational friends, the ones who do share my EFs and values, and can immediately connect what I’m doing to fulfillment.

And, of course, appreciate the project for its own sake.  (Yes, I’m going to finish that centaur porn piece…)

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An important lesson from classic film: go all the way.

Holy shit.  I just happened to watch “The Conversation” last night (1974).  I hardly ever watch broadcast TV, but it was on in the common room, and I caught the opening scene.  Instantly hooked, I watched one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

These days, a “conspiracy thriller” would consist of:

  1. Hunky or beautiful lead who is clearly on the side of “good,” or thinks he/she is.  Either a weathered, fresh-faced, or beaten-down male, or an impossibly beautiful, strong, and (of course) tough-as-nails female.
  2. Constant jeopardy, such as people breaking through high-rise windows with grenades, snipers with laser targeting, etc.
  3. Clues would have to be pieced together as the lead is constantly on the run, stopping only for Hollywood Sex.

I’m not saying that stuff isn’t entertaining.  I’ve gone to my fair share of American action movies — and to be fair, the “conspiracy thriller” tends to be a lot more story-driven than normal action movies.  But clearly, there’s a formula that works, and people largely go with it.  Even if a movie is adapted from a book, you can tell it’s usually been Hollywoodized (you know it when you see it.)

But The Conversation is different.

Harry Caul, the main character, isn’t hunky or beautiful, but a neurotic and unfashionable middle-aged professional wiretapper.  He’s not threatened by “bad guys;” his problems are all caused by his own character flaws, and there are many.  The director (Coppola) didn’t rely on the easy trick of hiring a good-looking actor to create sympathy for Harry.

Instead, he worked hard at real character design.  And Coppola went all the way with it.  Harry’s character is carried out all the way through to the extreme, even when it makes him unlikeable and unattractive.  For example:

  • Harry is a professional snooper.  The logical extension of this is his constant fear of being bugged, himself, and his inability to trust anyone.  It follows that he is a socially-awkward loner who has trouble with friendships or intimacy.  Here’s the extreme: he wears a plastic raincoat everywhere, even when it’s not raining.
  • His professional code is to not get personally or morally involved, but one of his past assignments led to innocent people being killed; naturally, he can’t help but feel guilty, but it doesn’t stop there.  He is a devout Catholic — extreme guilt!  If I were constructing this character, I would shy away from making him Catholic.  It would just seem like “too much.”  But it’s one of the points that makes this character strong — despite his professional code, I find it perfectly believable that Catholic guilt trumps it.
  • “Another trait of Harry’s that is brilliantly and economically portrayed through sound is his musicianship. At several points in the movie, Harry puts on a jazz record and plays saxophone accompaniment to it. This is a perfect symbol for his willingness to belong to society and inability to commit to it, fearing that his identity will be compromised if it is revealed. Harry is not strictly composing, he is jamming in the jazz tradition–letting the works of others define himself within a group, and not on his own terms. And yet, he isn’t able to jam with other musicians. The closest he wishes to come to humanity is a recording of it.” (from Walter on Everything2.)

What I learned as an adult fiction writer from The Conversation.

If I’d been constructing this character on paper, I would be tempted to scrap it!  The “character rules” would be much too clear and obvious, not realistic enough.  I’d find myself thinking, “a real person would never do that… it’s not believable… it’s too extreme.”  But of course Harry Caul is not realistic — he’s a character, and characters are tidier and more extreme than real people.  Their motivations are supposed to be much clearer than real people’s motivations.

To me, it seems devicey and trite to say, “Oh, he’s haunted by the past,” but that’s because a Tragic Past usually is a transparent device meant to elicit pity for the character.  In this case, Coppola constructed a believable and traumatic event specifically for Harry — something that was convincingly meaningful for him, rather than a generic sympathy-getting dramatic device (such as a lover’s betrayal or child’s death.)  Not only did it gain the audience’s sympathy for an otherwise-repellent character, it served as a good motivating force for Harry.

Why you may not like to write extreme characters.

I know from experience, it can be disturbing to work with an extreme character.  Personality extremes often make people uncomfortable because they’re out of bounds socially: extreme jealousy, extreme passion, extreme attention to detail, etc.  It can make writers uncomfortable to mentally act out a character with extreme traits.

For adult fiction in particular, the leads are supposed to be attractive.  It may be hard to write an extreme trait because that intensity is often unattractive, at least in real life.  It can make you face hard choices, but usually, that’s what makes stories shine.

Going “all the way” might be exactly what you need to do to make your character memorable, and your story more dramatic.  While Harry Caul is an unrealistic, unlikeable character in real life, he integrated perfectly in Coppola’s story world.

But think about the characters you like and remember.  What’s extreme about them?  I have my own examples, but I’d much rather hear from you.