SPS-209: The Fiction Formula – with Johnny Truant
Writing is both an art and a science. Friend of the show, Johnny Truant, talks to James about his new book, which supports fiction authors to make the most of their writing by having efficient processes in place, finding the very personal balance between plotting and pantsing, and making sure all the steps required for writing and publishing are aligned to ensure maximum success.
- Announcements about the first two speakers for the SPF live event in March in London
- Working collaboratively with other authors
- Why more is not always better
- Being more focused with writing output and strategy
- Why writing in a series is, as ever, good for sales and author branding
- How the need for systems goes hand in hand with the need to stand out
- What is ‘genre therapy’?
- What’s working now in book marketing
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
Announcer: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.
Johnny Truant: In the past, one of the things we said was, “Yes, write a series that will help you stand out, that will make your books more magnetic for people to naturally follow.” But today you need to do that and then you also need to stand out. You also kind of need to have your own author brand because there’s just so much stuff for readers to get through.
Announcer: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, no more barriers, no one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson and first time author James Blatch as they shine a light on the secrets of self-publishing success. This is The Self-Publishing show. There’s never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello, it’s Friday. It must be the Self-Publishing Show with James Blatch.
Mark Dawson: And Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Very warm welcome to this week. I’ve got 2020 off to a good start last week. Getting some good feedback on the Becca Syme interview, which I told you I think people would enjoy because it’s quite motivational. Came at the right time of year as well, didn’t it?
At the beginning where we were trying to find our mojo for the next year. We’ve got a couple of things to talk about before … We have a familiar face back onto the podcast as our main interview today. We’re going to speak to Johnny B. Truant in just a moment.
Before then Mark, we are starting to roll out the program for our first live event. Our first live conference going to be March in London. And before you reveal first names, I’m going to say that there looks like … I think we may be in the region of about 50 to 75 tickets held back that we’re going to be able to release probably at the beginning of February.
So very shortly, we will have those out. And last few to be grabbed. There are still a very few tickets left for the boat in the evening. I think we’re down to 10.
Mark Dawson: Have we?
James Blatch: I think so, yeah, I’ll have to check that. But it’s not many. It depends how many of our allocation we’ve got for crew and guests and so on. I can release back into it. That might up the count, but at the moment we’ve got 500 odd coming right to that.
Mark Dawson: Right. What could possibly go wrong?
James Blatch: I know 500 people on the boat. Now on their website … I might post it actually into the group. They’ve launched it today actually. They’ve got this 3D walk through.
Mark Dawson: Who’s they?
James Blatch: This is the people who own the boat.
Mark Dawson: Okay.
James Blatch: The Dexa Queen. Because obviously they rent out these fleets of ships. And you can see exactly how much we’ve paid for it probably if you have a look at their website.
Mark Dawson: Quite a lot.
James Blatch: And they’ve got 3D walk through so you can go through the boat on every level up the stairs and around. Give people an idea what they’re going to be getting into. It’s quite-
Mark Dawson: Wow, what a world.
James Blatch: What a world we live in? As a man who does that … Who obviously earns money from corporate estate agents and from commercial buildings doing that. What a life? Okay, right. But we’re going to talk about the program.
Mark Dawson: We are, yes. We are.
James Blatch: Who have we got talking?
Mark Dawson: Well, I starting to announce the day before yesterday, well yesterday in fact, the first speakers. And the first one I announced was Joanna Penn.
Jo has been a friend of mine for ages now. She was one of the first people I thought to ask and she didn’t do any speaking last year because she decided she’d take a year off. I think this is going to be her return to glory so she’ll be speaking on our stage.
I think she’s going to talk about multiple streams of income which should be quite interesting. I will, as I tell you this, I haven’t shown you the program yet.
James Blatch: Right.
Mark Dawson: As I’ve been working on this in the background. So yes, Jo will be doing a session herself.
And the second speaker announced today as we record this is LJ. Ross. Louise Ross, again another friend of mine for a little while. Louise has sold 4.5 million books mostly in the UK. She absolutely owns the Amazon charts. And she won’t mind me mentioning this because this is in the public domain now. The bookseller have gone into a partnership with Book Stats, which is the company formed by Data Guy who is now Paul Abbassi. That he’s outed himself as Paul Abbassi.
James Blatch: Oh he’s outed himself, has he?
Mark Dawson: He outed himself, yeah. I don’t think that is his real name. Because I do know he is. But anyway, he’s working with them.
As a result of that, they’ve got a new ebook chart. And Louise released a book the day or two days before Christmas called Ryan’s Christmas. So Ryan is her detective character. And according to Book Stats in the books that are out today in the week it released, it sold 45,000 copies which is fantastic. That’s just in the UK, I think.
You don’t need to work too hard to do the math. So at 1.99 she’s making about 1.30 in terms of every copy sold. That’s not bad for a week’s release.
James Blatch: This is not bad. Well, let me just tell you because I’ve just looked up the Amazon charts live as we’re talking and they are, from number one upwards. JK Rowling, JK Rowling, JK Rowling, LJ Ross, JK Rowling, JK Rowling, JK Rowling, JK Rowling.
All the Harry Potter books are in there. Guess that’s Christmas, I don’t know, that’s done that. LJ Ross appears at number 11. Again, for the second time. She appears again in this, I scroll down, at number 20. Unbelievable. And that’s a random way of the week.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, she does amazingly well. And she can get up to number one on a pre-order in the whole store. And then usually that book goes to number one again when it releases so she’s an absolute … Well, she’s just amazing.
We’re thrilled to have her coming to talk. And she’s going to be interviewed, I think, by Barry Hutchison who JD Kirk. Barry Hutchison. Lovely Barry from the highlands is coming down and I asked him if … Given that they write in similar genres and given that you’re going to be very busy interviewing lots of other people, I thought it would be quite nice to get a different voice on the stage. So is Barry is going to do that we think.
Those are the first two, Jo and Louise. And we’re going to be adding in additional speakers. I’ve got a few others booked and ready to go. And you and I have a call booked with Amazon at 11 o’clock on Monday where we’re going to talk about how Amazon might be involved.
There’s a slot there that I think we’ll have an Amazonian on the stage or maybe more than one. And we’ll talk about things that we might be able to do with them.
So it’s all starting to come together and it is mainly because I looked at the diary and realized oh God it’s like two months away. So there’s no messing around.
James Blatch: We’re quite busy at the moment anyway, but my Christmas period was characterized by me waking up in the morning and thinking about this show. And then, I’m writing down stuff that occurred to me that needs to be done. And I’m starting to get to panic … Not panic mode, but just anxiety level slightly raised.
It’s a big event that needs organizing and there’s lots of small things that need doing. But we are getting there. The good news is people are coming. I mean people organize these conference and their sweat is trying to sell tickets.
Mark Dawson: Well, I mean as a slight aside here, we’re not going to get into the minutia of this but people in the community will know that RWA has had, shall we say, a rough start to the year for lots and lots of different reasons.
Damon Suede who’s been on the podcast before resigned yesterday as the President of RWA.
James Blatch: Oh did he? I didn’t see that. He resigned yesterday?
Mark Dawson: He did, yeah. The executive director resigned as well. It’s just an absolutely … I mean the … We definitely need to bleep this but the trending hashtag on Twitter is #RWAshitshow. Because it’s just been unbelievable.
But the relevant thing in terms of conferences, RWA makes its money, as far as I can make out, three ways. They have annual dues for people who want to be a member. They weirdly charge, I didn’t know this, they actually charge for their contest, it’s called the RITAs. The romance awards.
James Blatch: They charge to enter that too.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, and I think it’s they make six figures on that which is … Usually, when you see contests you have to pay to enter. That makes me think that’s a scam. Now no one is saying the RITAs are scams, but that’s unusual. That’s been canceled this year because of all this kerfuffle.
And then, as you’ve just said, you booked Sam’s Town in Vegas for the 2020 conference, I’m sure Craig’s on the hook for quite a lot of money.
I know that RWA … I mean I’ve spoken at their conferences twice. This year was in San Francisco. Last year was in New York. They will have paid for that hotel already which I imagine, again, is must be six figures. Now they could find themselves in a position where no one comes because no one wants to go to that anymore.
Loads of the publishers have pulled out so Avon, Harlequin. We’re not coming to your conference until you get your house in order.
So these people have pulled out and so that might mean that RWA is saddled with six figures, maybe mid six figures in terms of this year. Next year will be booked as well. It could something that bankrupts that organization. It’s not impossible. So yeah. There you go.
James Blatch: Yeah, let’s not have a meltdown.
Mark Dawson: No we don’t want to have a meltdown. And I am starting to think about what we might do next year if do … Will we do more than one day? If we do, where would we do it? And what would be necessary?
The events business. We’re starting to learn about that now and there’s lots of things that you need to think about.
James Blatch: Yes, I’ve also been thinking about that. I’ve been thinking whether we find one of these seaside towns which is traditionally where the big conferences are because usually out of season, myriad of a range of accommodation.
Mark Dawson: Is that right?
James Blatch: Yeah-
Mark Dawson: You’re thinking of the conferences?
James Blatch: Yeah, well it’s not just they’re the high profile ones, but the Brighton Centre is a good example. It’s a great venue. You do get big conferences there. Blackpool Imperial Ballroom, which is where the conferences are at there. But it means that you have a five star hotel or you can have very cheap B&B and they’re all next to each other in that small area.
Mark Dawson: Right, that’s interesting.
James Blatch: And Brighton’s a really cool place actually.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, Brighton is. I’m sorry but I’m not going Blackpool.
James Blatch: You’re so snobbish.
Mark Dawson: I am terrible but-
James Blatch: You know LJ Ross comes from up north?
Mark Dawson: Other side of the country.
James Blatch: I know but-
Mark Dawson: But Brighton would be nice. That’s not too far from London either. 40 minutes from London.
James Blatch: Yeah. The Brighton Centre’s great.
Mark Dawson: This is how our business works. We’re basically planning the 2021 conference live on air.
James Blatch: This is how we roll.
Mark Dawson: Let’s announce it now March 9, 2021 in Brighton.
James Blatch: You remember when ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest?
Mark Dawson: No, because I’m much younger than you.
James Blatch: With Waterloo in 1972 or ’73.
Mark Dawson: Wasn’t born. Carry on.
James Blatch: Where did they win that? Where were they singing that?
Mark Dawson: Well, it couldn’t possibly be Brighton, could it?
James Blatch: It was the Brighton Centre is right where it was.
Mark Dawson: Wow, okay. That’s auspicious.
James Blatch: It is. Okay.
Mark Dawson: Stop waffling, Blatch.
James Blatch: I’m not waffling. We’ve made good progress. It’s funny how we combine our business planning with rambling on the podcast.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. Well, that’s efficient.
James Blatch: It is efficient. Anyway, should we get his one out the way first and then … I tell you what I will say is we do need to plan our international travel this year. So we’ve had a chat between us about it.
If people want to put your suggestions in there. I know there’s a big thing in Auckland. Actually, it might be Wellington. I can’t remember, in New Zealand. And Eileen has been on to me about that and I’d love us to go there. I’d love to go that part of the world. We can’t just do it this year.
In fact, I’m in California as that’s on. We’re probably not going to get to, unfortunately, Oceania or Austrasia this year. But are there any other conferences that we’ve missed that would benefit from our presence? You can post that into the community group. We want to take a look at them.
Talk about the community. Let’s talk to Johnny B. Truant, who’s actually going to be Johnny Truant for the publication of this book which he has written, of course along side Sean. I don’t think David has been involved this. I think it’s Sean and Johnny.
The book they’ve just brought out is called The Fiction Formula. And I actually can’t think of two better qualified people to talk about the structure and process of writing a book because they have the experience. Yes, I know you’re very good, but you don’t do craft.
I mean the experience behind these guys. Just numerically is what his book sells, is incredible the number of books they’ve written together and helped other people. So look without rambling any further, let’s hear from Johnny and then Mark and I’ll be back to give you our views afterwards, here’s Johnny.
James Blatch: Johnny Truant. Welcome to The Self Publishing Show. It’s been a while since you’ve been on.
Johnny Truant: It has been a while. If I’m remember right, it was at NINC last time that Sean and I sat down with you?
James Blatch: I think it was two years ago.
Johnny Truant: I think so, yeah.
James Blatch: I was nervous because I listened to you guys and we were interlopers. Coming in brash with our podcast … We’ve got a podcast now. And suddenly, I was sitting in front of you guys and you were like the self-publishing podcast.
Johnny Truant: Oh well, but now it’s flipped around because you guys are so much more pro than us that now it’s … Like now I was a little nervous. I was like oh I want to be in the show.
James Blatch: I remember you saying that and I was laughing internally. The bit of sticky tape, if you were, keeping everything together.
Well, look, we’ve got a lot to talk about. Particularly your new book which we are definitely going to talk about. But I want to find out and I think people will want to know as well. Where you guys are now because it’s been a bit of a transition for you over the last couple of years.
In fact, when we spoke two years ago it was a very interesting time and you were playing about with ideas at that stage.
Johnny Truant: It was. We pretty much always played about with ideas and that’s the funny thing. It’s both a great benefit and it’s a curse. It’s both things at once.
So my partner, Sean, is very much an idea guy. He’s a visionary and we wouldn’t be where we are if not for those ideas. But not all of the ideas, of course, are golden. And we ended up trying to go down a bunch of different paths at once.
And so what you were speaking about, I believe was, we were doing Stories To Go at the time. And that was a collaboration for higher service. And the market wasn’t as interested in that as we were prepared for it. And that’s true of a lot of the things that we did.
We recently stopped doing our summit. Our Smarter Artists Summit that we were doing every year in Austin just because we needed to move on and do more books. We’re trying to do more books. And pretty much anything having to do with education or courses or masterminds or anything, we’ve stopped doing. I mean where are we? It’s very simple.
We’re just writing books now. Which may feel like, okay we were doing a bunch of innovative things and now we’re just writing books. But that focus is actually what we have always needed.
James Blatch: And the book writing process is still a collaboration between the three of you?
Johnny Truant: More than that actually. I write collaboratively with Sean. I also write some stuff on my own but most of my stuff is with Sean. And when we spoke before, it was mainly Sean and I would write or Sean and Dave would write, our third partner. And that was about it.
There was a little bit more going on. Now we have a studio of 15 writers in addition to the three of us. And Sean is kind of working with everybody and I just work with either myself or Sean still.
So I’m this writer over here and Sean is this polygamist as far as creative endeavors are concerned and he works with everybody. Collaboration is a huge part of what we do, but not it’s like pan collaboration. It’s like we’re collaborating on this wide front.
James Blatch: Yeah, and it’s a novel factory.
How many books are you turning out? How many are you hoping to turn out in the next 12 months for instance?
Johnny Truant: In the next 12 months, I’m trying to think of what the current number is. I know for a while it was just south of 180 and we’ve actually trimmed back just voluntarily because one of the things that we’ve found … What I just described going from doing a lot of education and fiction to doing just … It’s not just fiction, but it’s primarily fiction. It is just books and some amount of non-fiction books.
We’re increasingly learning that more isn’t always better because it divides focus. And the same is true of the books.
We had more non-fiction books planned for next year and we scaled them back so that we could focus better on the ones that we are still launching. I guess this is my long winded way of saying that I think we’re probably down to about 140, 150 books next year which is still a lot. But less than it was going to be.
James Blatch: That is a lot. And I was going to ask have things, on a personal level, because you guys were … I think you got to a point where you were crazy busy.
Johnny Truant: Yes.
James Blatch: Has that got better?
140 odd books or a hundred and whatever books now, it still doesn’t sound completely peaceful to me, but is it better than it was?
Johnny Truant: When we met before, we were crazy busy in terms of a lot of very different things that we were doing. We were doing collaboration for higher services. We were doing a mastermind. We were doing an event. We were selling a few courses. We were doing a boot camp and books on top of that.
Whereas now, it is busy, but it’s busy in one narrow channel, it’s all book production. And one of the things that The Fiction Formula, what makes it different from our previous book, Write, Publish, Repeat is that in Write, Publish, Repeat of 2013, it would have been more chaotic because we would have just been chasing each book.
It was the wild cowboy days. We’ll just put stuff out and it’ll sell. Whereas now, things need to be a little bit more methodically thought out. And because they need to be, we’ve had to develop internal processes that have also made things less chaotic.
So everything is just a little bit more process based now and as far as me, all I’m doing is really writing books. And so it’s much, much less chaotic. It’s much less distracted. And Sean isn’t here right now, but he feels the same way. Focus has been good for us.
James Blatch: It’s good to hear.
You can only go so long, I think, where you go to bed every night with 15 things swirling around your head and you don’t sleep well.
Johnny Truant: Right. I don’t think he’d mind me sharing with but Sean and I started out with different visions of what we wanted to do with the company. The metaphor that I used is it’s like it used to be me, Sean, and Dave and we were out building a fire in the wilderness. And I wanted to build that fire bigger. Let’s make that fire bigger with me, Sean and Dave.
But what Sean wanted to do is he wanted to build a house and that would be a fireplace within the house. He was building walls and all this stuff.
And eventually, the house was built and it required a big staff to maintain the house and well hold on, you’ve got to do stuff with cleaning the house. And I’m going well, I never wanted a house. I just wanted a bonfire. So I actually don’t remember the question. That was an interesting little diversion there but what was the question? Where was I going?
James Blatch: Well, it was just really, from a personal point of view, you can only go on so long, I think, at that level of chaos, if you want to call it that of busyness.
Johnny Truant: Oh yes, yes. So my point was going to be that Sean does prefer a little bit more chaos. I don’t. I want to narrow down. I want to work on just a few things so our …
The way we’ve shifted the business a little bit now is it does allow Sean to play with everybody and to do a lot of things and to have that more chaotic feeling whereas I can just … Okay these are the books that are in front of me now. These are the projects that are in front of me. And that does help my brain.
James Blatch: Nice. Well, that sounds like a lovely place to be writing.
Johnny Truant: Yes.
James Blatch: And with some time to do that.
Johnny Truant: Life could be worse.
James Blatch: Yes, exactly. And you’re still down in Austin?
Johnny Truant: I am. Yeah, it’s wonderful down here.
James Blatch: Yeah, nice and creative environment. Okay, so well let’s talk about the non-fiction title that we’re here to talk about.
Write, Publish, Repeat was when? Remind me when that came out?
Johnny Truant: 2013. End of 2013 and I believe the Kindle debuted in 2010 or ’11. And so that was right at the beginning of maybe 2009, but it was still really the wild west days was Write, Publish, Repeat and then 2013. And then 2019. So six years later, we wrote the sequel.
James Blatch: Well, it’s quite interesting about the title of Write, Publish, Repeat is that, for me, it took people a little bit longer to work out that series and volume was a critical part of being a successful self-published author. Like product on the shelf. That’s very clear now.
But I’m not sure it was when I got involved in 2015. You understood at that stage, this is what was going to be important to self-published authors.
One of your books is not going to earn a million pounds probably but 20 of your books might earn 10,000 a year and that suddenly turns into big money.
Johnny Truant: Right and if they’re in a series, there’s a logical progression. You increase the chances that any given person will buy a second book from you because they’re incentivized. They want to know what happened at the end of book one.
Interestingly, we’ve found … And I don’t know if this has been true in your circles as well, but the market is just so full now that you have to do different things to stand out. So in the past, one of the things we said was yes, write a series. That will help you stand out. That will make your books more magnetic for people to naturally follow.
But today, you need to do that and then you also need to stand out. You also need to have your own author brand because there’s just so much stuff for readers to get through.
James Blatch: Is that what the new book is about then? This is what we’re moving on to?
Johnny Truant: It’s certainly a theme of it. I mean The Fiction Formula is called The Fiction Formula in a way that, like the very first, as soon as you hope it, we say, “Hey guess what? There’s no formula.” There’s a little bit of a story behind that.
We had somebody who knows a lot about publishing and is an authority. And he read Write, Publish, Repeat and said, “You guys should call this The Fiction Formula. Because you’ve developed a way to commoditize that feels wrong to me, but it is accurate.”
We’ve commoditizing fiction like being able to put a little bit of a production line behind fiction. And we couldn’t do that. It just felt way too oily to call it The Fiction Formula.
Well, it took us six years and now we’re comfortable with that kind of oiliness because it isn’t a formula in that if I told you, James, exactly what I do and then you tried to follow exactly what I do. Like obviously that wouldn’t work.
You’re different from me. You have different circumstances from me and different peers and different readers. But that said, there are repeatable steps. And so, things like we always do pre-production the same way. We hand off to editors at the same time. Usually, we’re trying to work ahead now rather than that hurry, hurry, hurry publish. And so the need for systems does go hand in hand with the need to stand out. So it is both of those themes.
You said is the new one about the need to stand out in a marketplace? Well, yes. One of the ways that you can do it is just by paying more attention to your author brand and how you communicate with people and what kinds of stories you’re telling.
The churn and burn approach is just different now. It’s just very different. You can’t just put stuff out and expect people to come to it.
James Blatch: Johnny, how much of this book is about craft and writing to market, et cetera? And how much is about the production process and marketing?
Johnny Truant: It’s almost entirely about craft in some way, shape, or form. But not in the way that Bird By Bird is about craft or something like that. It isn’t an in the trenches, here’s how you write your story thing.
But that said, I have the table of contents here. Because I forget my own stuff. But we talk about planning is a big deal because planning and something that we call genre therapy which I can go into that too if you’re curious has become a huge … Okay, so I guess I would say it this way.
We used to just say we can shoot any arrow and it’s going to hit something. And now it’s been much more about okay, no, no, no. You need to pay attention to honing, aiming that arrow, honing that arrow, making sure it will fly true.
Our pre-planning and genre therapy in particular are in the same realm as write to market. What book do you want to write? What tropes do you want to hit? What’s best for you as an author? What genre should you be working on?
So there’s all of that that goes ahead of actual production, actual craft so that you’re more likely to hit something rather than writing a great book and it goes into the void.
James Blatch: Is that what you mean by genre therapy? It’s an interesting expression.
Johnny Truant: Genre therapy is something that’s a name that Sean coined.
The original genre therapy story goes like this. We were talking to an author and she was writing romances because that was what she’d fallen into. Romance was lucrative. To make a living, she figured well romance is the way to go. She knew a lot of romance authors so she writing it.
But she kept stalling out. She didn’t really like writing them. And she really didn’t like writing sex scenes or happy endings. If you know anything about romance, sex scenes and happy endings, especially happy endings, that’s required.
James Blatch: Yeah. If you’re going to write a sex scene, it’s going to have a happy ending, right?
Johnny Truant: Right. We were trying to work through what are some of the things that are holding you up? And what’s slowing you down? And she was brainstorming her ideal story and she said, “Is there anything like a …” She paused. She said, “Like a Jack the Ripper romance?”
And we kind of went, “No. That’s really weird.”
And the long and short of this is that what she liked about romance was the relationship between the people and their banter. But it didn’t need to be a romantic relationship.
Once we pulled back and dissected it, it’s like you can either do banter in the context of a romantic relationship where you’re following the tropes and going through the romance arc, or what she liked was much more like Mulder and Scully from the X-Files and their banter.
James Blatch: Moonlighting.
Johnny Truant: Or Moonlighting. Right, exactly. Something that’s not leading to romance. And so what she ended up doing was writing thrillers and really dark stuff. And now she’s writing them like this.
What we found is that the more people we have talked to about this, a lot of writers aren’t even really writing in the right genre, they’re writing in a genre that they felt they should be writing in because it was hot at the time or they knew people. Or they misinterpreted something like banter. Therefore, I should write romance when banter actually I should write X-Files sorts of stuff.
The light always comes on. It’s always like oh my God, I can actually do that. And then we find that people after are writing more fluidly. They’re having more fun. And they do end up selling more because they actually write more genuine books. And that is genre therapy. Because the process looks like therapy.
James Blatch: I’m sure there’s probably graphic novels that do a Jack the Ripper romance thing. But anyway.
Johnny Truant: It would be a really twisted romance. I don’t think it would be a traditional romance.
James Blatch: Yes, niche.
Johnny Truant: Right.
James Blatch: The biggest divergence, I think, of novelists is the pre-drafting stage and this is crudely put down to pantsing or plotting and it’s much more complicated than that and they’re not great words anyway.
You talk to two novelists in front of you. Both at the same level of success and you’ll get a wildly different approach to how they write. Which I find very interesting.
Now the next part of it. The revision, editing, marketing, there’s some differences but broadly the same.
Do you cover this before you write chapter one and start writing? Do you have a device of a certain way you think works?
Johnny Truant: Yeah, we do. We talk about plotters and pantsers but we also find that that’s a spectrum. I’m somewhere in the middle. The approach that we use more often than any other at Sterling and Stone amongst our writers is BEATS. Which is something people have asked a lot about.
It’s a loose outline that just basically gives you some beats to hit. Some guideposts. So and so comes back from his vacation and he’s upset. But it’s not a formal element and an outline, follow this, follow this. It’s a very loose form of make sure hit this, make sure you hit this, but you can diverge wildly in between the beats. Or sometimes you need to rewrite the beats.
Talking about BEATS is something that we’ve done a lot. And people have always asked can you tell me more about BEATS? How do you use BEATS?
So that’s something that we covered a lot is for a pure pantser or a pure plotter, they’re on the ends of the spectrum. But most of the people that we work with are a little bit more in the middle. They want some guidelines, but not so much that it’s restrictive. And we do talk a lot about pre-production in that particular way in this book, but yes.
James Blatch: And just to be clear about BEATS, we’re talking about the moment in a story that you have to hit for the story to make sense. And how you get there and before and after can very but you’ve got to the point where so and so dies.
Is that what we’re talking about with BEATS?
Johnny Truant: More or less. I actually like really skeletal BEATS. I am a little bit more on the pantsing side of this than the plotting side.
Like everything we’re evolving. Sean and I used to work together. He would give me more and more beats. Okay, this happens, this happens. And he’d describe all of it and all the why’s and all the things I need to know. And I’ve started requesting, give me a lot about characters and setting and situation, but very skeletal beats.
It is something like you just said. So and so dies. Or so and so moves to Seattle. And if I have, I don’t know, say between 20 and 40 of those sorts of points for a story then I can meander within them. And I often also find that halfway through, I may have diverged from the beats and we have to rewrite the ones going forward. So there’s a lot of freedom in that approach.
James Blatch: Typically, when you’re advising if I was to read, I’m sure I will, the book.
How many beats would I be looking at scripting before we start writing?
Johnny Truant: It totally depends on the person. The way that we do it is 40 sentences. Four zero. And the reason for that is because we think in terms of four acts.
This is something that we do talk about in the book. We do explain it. But in brief, usually people talk about three act structure. And then that middle act, the act two, is this large like 40, 50 percent of the book and people always get lost in the second act. That’s the doldrums.
What Hollywood does in the second act is they put a mid act climax in the middle. And, I mean, people do it intuitively with books too, I think, good writers. But if you’re putting a climax in the middle of an act, come on, that’s really two acts. So we split the second act into two.
We say act one and act two are before the midpoint. And act three and act four are after. If we have four acts, then 10 happenings per act felt pretty good. We usually start that way and then that gives you 40. But people can do more or less. It just totally depends on the writer and the story.
James Blatch: I was going to say towards the detailed end of things to me.
Johnny Truant: Yeah, and again it depends on the writer. I actually do tend to skim a lot of that. And Sean does give me fewer beats than most people. But some people do.
We have 15 people working with us in addition to the three of us now. And there are some people who really like outlines. There’s no right or wrong. It’s just what works for you.
James Blatch: At that point, you’re drafting. Because there is another stage which I actually did in my third draft of my book which was to take those beats and turn them into a five to 10,000 word description of the novel in still more or less outline form. And then start drafting the scenes.
I quite liked that. I really liked reading the description I’d written two months ago, reminding myself of it and then enjoying the freedom of writing the scene without having to think, what do I need to do here? Where does it need to go? I knew all that.
But other people wince when I tell them that and they go, “Oh, I could never write like that.”
Johnny Truant: Oh no, it’s interesting. It actually made me intrigued when you were describing it. Because I’ve never tried that. Because there is this balance that I find personally and this is just me with BEATS of the reason that I’ve asked Sean to give me more skeletal beats is because when he writes them down, I feel allegiant to them.
I will read a long beat. Now this is one beat. This is one of say 40 and it’ll be half a page long. And I will feel they need to include everything. Now I don’t have to but I feel that psychological need. So that’s interesting what you just said about being able to do it without going back and referencing every little thing. I could see that being really freeing. I’ve never tried it but it’s interesting.
James Blatch: Yeah, well I learned that from Jenny Nash so credit to her. She’s a great editor. Okay. So we’re into the drafting stage now. And drafting’s drafting I guess.
Do you then talk about a process re-drafting or go straight into revision. What’s it look like?
Johnny Truant: There’s a lot about the actual drafting, but it’s kind of like it could bleed into pre-production as well. So character stuff. What to consider with arcs and internal conflict and what makes for a satisfying story whether you, as the author, are thinking it or not or the reader is thinking as they read it.
But as far as once the drafting is done, then one of the things that we say is that writing is rewriting meaning that … And I’m in the midst of a project right now that I feel like I’m lost in this forest, right? It’s just like this book has been going on forever and it’s a 160,000 words, which is twice what it should have been.
I very much feel the need to just get it out right now like a lot of authors do, and then when I’m done, I get to go back and actually find the story. And so that’s when we talk about re-drafting or writing as rewriting is you got everything out. So now go back in and find the story.
Go back and write it better. Add things, subtract things, find common themes and pull them throughout. Things that happen at the end that come out of the blue and feel like a Deus Ex Machina, you can go back and seed those things in.
Generally, I’m a little intimidated for this current book because I feel like it’s going to need some surgery. But usually that’s a a very, very satisfying pass for me because it’s a chance to take okay I told the story, but now I can tell it really, really well and that is the next pass that we do.
And it just depends on the author. There are some books where I will go through it. I’ll write the draft. Then I’ll rewrite it or I’ll revise it. And then Sean gets and then I get it back. But usually, I write one and then he gets it.
If you’re a solo author, then obviously you’re doing those passes yourself. So we tried to consider the process that, in various ways, that people might do it with a partner, without a partner, with many passes, with one pass. Just depends on your situation. And whether you produce like a clean first draft. Or some people produce a messy one. And that’s fine. It’s just you have to adapt to who you are.
James Blatch: It is interesting hearing everyone’s different ways of doing it. I was chatting to a couple at 20Books Vegas a couple of weeks ago. They write together. He writes the story but has no … He just said, “I have no ability to tell you what anyone’s thinking or why they’re doing anything. I just write the story.” And then she gets the book and turns it into a novel by basically describing why people have done that. Their internal conflict from that character. And I thought that was quite an interesting way of doing it.
Johnny Truant: That’s fascinating.
James Blatch: You could do that by yourself, right?
Johnny Truant: Yeah, but I’m really curious now about these people so does the woman ever interpret internal motivations and stuff differently than the guy intended?
James Blatch: By the way they spoke, I think he has nothing to do after this point. It’s her guesswork of what’s happened and she is completely at liberty to turn it into whatever she wants.
Johnny Truant: That’s interesting. I like that because that feels like a true collaboration to me. Like it’s one person’s and then it’s the other person’s and when it’s done, it’s both.
James Blatch: Yeah, I mean most stories you can write. You could write what happens in Jaws in one page. But the book’s this thick.
Johnny Truant: Right.
James Blatch: So I think that’s what happens. He writes not one page, but not far off that. But you could do that yourself.
I was sitting there thinking well that’s one approach to doing that. I struggle a bit more, I think, with consistent character arcs and stuff. That weighs me a down a little bit, but I quite like the story.
Working on your strength first and then when you’ve got that foundation, maybe working on the character stuff.
Johnny Truant: I think there’s a lot of trust in yourself that goes into writing some of this stuff. It was interesting for me to be writing The Fiction Formula in the midst of the current book that I’m telling you about, that I mentioned because normally I write a very clean first draft and it requires very little revision and it’s great. It’s like there’s the story. It’s mostly done. You can polish it up but it’s mostly done.
This feels like I’ve done a rough and now it needs to be manipulated into something. There is an act of faith.
It’s like okay, well I guess I’m going to make it better the next time. But I’m spoiled and I think a lot of writers, especially new writers who don’t know what to expect are “Oh this story isn’t coming out the way I thought. And, hold on, this thing happened but I should have put it in act one and I put it way here at the end.”
Then they feel, “Well, should I go back? Should I revise it?” And my advice would be, no finish the book and go back. But that’s easy for me to say as somebody who normally doesn’t need to do that. Although this time I do.
James Blatch: There you are. We’re into, I guess, the production side of things. Or revision. You’ve talked about the revision process a little bit. And editing and so on.
How much detail did you go into about that?
Johnny Truant: Quite a level of detail. So in collaborative relationship, it would then go to the other person. We talk a little bit about how to work with somebody else’s copy.
But in general, we talk about the process of self-editing because if you just give somebody your vomit draft, like to an editor, then I mean maybe if the editor’s a good sport they’ll work with your vomit draft. But they can only make it so good if you … It’s garbage in, garbage out. If you give them stuff that’s not very good to begin with then it’s not going to come out very well at the end.
We talk about self-editing, preparing for an editor. And then the different kinds of passes. A line editor will fix things. A line editor will tell you, okay you aren’t using punctuation correctly. This sentence doesn’t make sense. It’s line by line.
But a developmental editor is supposed to help you with major story issues. I don’t believe the motivation of this character. This person showed up out the blue. Why would this person do this?
The problem with developmental editing is it’s so incredibly expensive. And when you’re done, you then need to go back and make significant changes to your draft. So one of the suggestions that we make is to have a development editor look at your book at the BEATS stage. Or if you’re an outliner at the outline stage.
They can usually spot a lot of flaws at the outline stage. So that when you’re writing, you know you’ve already had developmental help. So we do talk about developmental editors, line editors, proofreaders, and then alpha and beta readers. Sending out to the people in your audience to either get feedback in the case of alpha readers or in beta readers to get reviews. To generate reviews.
James Blatch: I think that’s great. It’s just a much more logical way of writing a book. To get that development. Professional view or collaborative view at the outset.
A mile away from the traditional role of somebody sitting entirely by themself in their house writing an entire book. Then for the first time sending out a query list with it to agents. The professional people whose job it is to sell it see it for the first time at the end of that process. It’s crazy. They should be involved at the beginning.
They should say, The conversation you had earlier with your friend. This genre is not selling. This is a much better genre so you don’t writing something no one’s ever going to buy anyway. I think that’s a really good tip for people.
Johnny Truant: Yeah, thanks.
James Blatch: The book itself is out now?
Johnny Truant: It will be out as of tomorrow. We’re recording this but a day early. Yes, for anybody who hears this, it is out.
James Blatch: Good, so here’s an obvious question.
Who is this book aimed at?
Johnny Truant: I hate this answer because I know how it sounds. I was going to say it can be aimed at just about any writer. And I know that the idea is supposed to be okay well know your audience. Have a niche audience. But this really is for anybody. Anybody can take anything from it.
One of the early sections is should you go traditional or indie? That’s there because we anticipate people who are traditionally published to get something out of it too. Not even just indies.
I think the beginners are going to get a lot of story structure, what do I do sorts of things? An overview of the process. But I’d like to think that people who are a little more seasoned and know their stuff are going to be able to get maybe more process oriented details out of it.
The idea that some of the things that we’ve systematized which is a large difference in this book and Write, Publish, Repeat. Write, Publish, Repeat was like here’s a bunch of stuff to do.
The Fiction Formula is a lot more like well, you really need to have your ducks in a row. You need to follow more of a procedure. And just be more conscious about everything that you’re doing. And I think that that idea of ready, aim, fire instead ready, fire, aim is something that even advanced people can resonate with.
James Blatch: It’s almost a manual for the modern writer.
Johnny Truant: I think so. That was the idea. Write, Publish, Repeat was meant to be a manual in 2013. And this was meant to be more of a manual today.
James Blatch: Before we wrap up, Johnny, fascinating stuff. I am genuinely looking forward to reading the book. I need a handbook on how to be a modern author so it’s perfect timing.
I want to ask you a little bit about your marketing now. Obviously, you’re churning out books. You’ve got a great staple of authors.
What’s working for you at the moment marketing wise? Any particular ads platforms? Any particular freebie? Procedures or strategies?
Johnny Truant: I have a way to answer that that doesn’t have anything to do with really advertising per se. Like advertising venues. Your readers may know this all day long, but I’ll just go ahead and you can say, hold on everybody knows that.
The biggest tip I would give people is to only send your book to people who are right for your book, which is not what most people do. Most people just like hey I have a book. Who do I know? I’m going to send it to grandma and grandma’s canasta club. I’m going to send it to everybody who’s ever said hello to me on Twitter.
And what happens if you do that is you’re going to end up confusing the Amazon algorithms. Specifically talking Amazon here. Because then Amazon says, “Okay, so who likes this book? Well, it’s people who play canasta. It’s play who are doing whatever on Twitter.”
So you’re not going to get a coherent data set of these people who bought this book like this kind of book over here. And that will show up in your also boughts.
What used to happen to us with fiction, for instance, is we used to just tell everybody, “Hey, we have a new book coming out. A new fiction book.”
Then what would happen was our self-publishing audience people would go and buy it. And so Chris Fox’s How To Write Fast in 5000 Words An Hour or whatever, those would all end up in our also boughts and so Amazon would never deliver the book to the right people. It would deliver it to more people who wanted self-publishing. Or it would get confused and say I don’t know who to send this to.
So the biggest thing we’ve tried to do is to exercise some moderation and send books only to people who it’s laser targeted for. Let’s say you have a Jack Reacher style thriller. And sending that book out to 300 people who are perfect Jack Reacher style readers and that is exactly what they read is way better than sending to 10,000 people who just like books.
That isn’t a very sexy strategy. It is something that says go buy this ad or something. But everybody wants to send to everybody. Sending to a very, very narrow targeted list teaches the algorithms how to go sell it for you after your part is done. And that is probably the biggest thing.
James Blatch: That’s great advice. And relevancy is crucial. And it ultimately comes down to getting these other platforms to work for you like the algorithm at Amazon. But also, once you do start running paid ads or the rest of the it, they call become much more efficient or profitable for you if they’re going to the right people.
Johnny Truant: Yes. And actually do you mind if I turn the tables on you and ask …
James Blatch: Sure.
Johnny Truant: Because you guys are in the ad space, I’m curious what’s working right now. Because we haven’t done a lot of paid ads because we’re trying to get this part of our house in order first.
James Blatch: Well, interestingly, so for Mark, and I think quite a lot of authors in his space, Amazon ads has really taken over. Really taken over.
Facebook ads are doing a little bit of list building and finding some new audience in the background, but I would say 90% of his time, effort, and probably money is going on Amazon ads at the moment.
Having said that, one in every seven or eight people I meet, for them, Facebook ads are driving them. I think romance still, Facebook ads is a good one to find audience. Amazon ads, BookBub ads, they’re the ones that are driving at the moment.
Johnny Truant: To the extent that we have dabbled recently. Because one of the things that we’re doing and I didn’t go into this and I don’t know if you care is we actually didn’t release a lot of books this year because we’re stockpiling for next year. A lot of the things like large ad campaigns or still, we’re waiting for a critical mass of now it makes sense to do it. So I was curious about that so that’s good to hear.
James Blatch: We’ve just updated and both the major courses with the later strategies and we’re doing advanced courses at the moment. So let me know, Johnny, if you haven’t got access, you can have access to those. Great. Look, I think that’s it.
The last question is where can people find The Fiction Formula and anything else you’ve got to offer our wonderful loyal audience.
Johnny Truant: You can find it at sterlingandstone.net/thefictionformula. And it’s on all the booksellers.
We also do have How To Write Fast book. It’s a book we wrote called How To Write Fast and it’s free for anybody who wants to get in there and join our list. And that’s sterlineandstone.net/how-to-write-fast. And yeah. So enjoy that. People really liked How To Write Fast and we hope people really love The Fiction Formula.
James Blatch: Super. Johnny, it’s really great to catch up. Hope we see each other in flesh again at some point. mAybe in 2020?
Johnny Truant: Yeah, likewise.
James Blatch: Are you going to come over? Guess you’re not probably coming over to London in March?
Johnny Truant: I would love to go to London in March, but my guess is no. That’s only three months away and I don’t see that happening. But I would love to.
James Blatch: Yeah. Well, you let us know if you want to come over to our conference in March and there’ll be a seat for you, for you guys. But otherwise, maybe we’ll see you at one of the conferences in the States.
Johnny Truant: Yeah, for sure. For sure. Well, thank you so much for having me on.
James Blatch: Our pleasure.
Mark Dawson: You missed a trick there.
James Blatch: Yes, I did. Here’s Johnny. I should have said. Okay, so there’s Johnny. I do love Johnny, Sean and I’ve never met Dave actually.
Mark Dawson: No one’s met Dave.
James Blatch: No one’s met Dave. I know he does exist. But I was thinking after speaking to Johnny and I think I probably said this in the interview but for me, they are a powerhouses within indie. They’re incredibly enthusiastic. Incredibly energetic.
But at the same time, I’ve always felt that they’ve never quite known what to do with what energy. And I think they’ve felt over the last couple of years. They’ve tried a few things and pulled back.
I think Johnny says this in the interview, they’re going back to the core business of writing books and things that very, very closely dovetail with that, which is The Fiction Formula, teaching people how to write. How to write quickly, productively, and well. It feels like they’re in a good space now. And there’s no question our community is all the richer for having those three guys at the center of it.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, they have been … I’ve felt that too. They’re very enthusiastic, but I don’t think any of them are very great at planning or thinking strategically. I think they see shiny things and then go off and do those. So it’s … I know they got … Sidetracked is probably not the right word, but they certainly got into the education side of things for a while and they had a conference.
They had software with Story Shop. They had lots and lots of different books. And it did feel to me that they were trying lots of different things, but not really doubling down on what they were best at.
I wasn’t that surprised when they closed that side of things down and just concentrate on writing stories, which I think is probably the thing for them. And it was always what I most drawn to when I started listening to their podcast nearly 10 years ago. That’s always been. They’re good at that.
Johnny’s a very, very prolific writer. I think I listen to his podcast, their podcast over there and he’d had a 12,000 word day which I’ve never … I think the most I’ve ever done is 10. And normally I’ll do two maybe. I’ll be pleased with two.
He’s extremely impressive in terms of the way he can churn out. And Sean has lots of ideas. Dave’s a very strong writer. So they work really work together. I’m pleased that they’re focusing on what they’re best at.
James Blatch: It feels like a focus now for them. And I think there’s been benefits from the various avenues they’ve gone down. And certainly they’ve learned a bit. I think within their team, again, I did the interview a little while ago. But I think Johnny did say there’s a bit of one of the characters is oh shiny new thing. Another character is oh no let’s just concentrate on what we’re doing. And there’s been a bit of tension in that sense there.
But it feels a bit more cohesive at the moment which is great. I really hope we will catch up with the at some point in our travels this year.
I don’t think they’re going to be able to get across to London. They’d love to come and I’ve given them an open invitation obviously to come and join us for that. So I reiterate now, Johnny, Sean, and Dave, do come and join us in London if you want this year, but hopefully we’ll see them at some point.
Now just to remind you, the book is called The Fiction Formula: The New Rules of Self-Publishing Success. Sort of an update of Write, Publish, Repeat. And certainly a very up to date of the sort of things you need to be thinking about and focusing on to make a success of this whole business here.
Can we announce that we’ve made a signing? I think I can probably announce I’ve made a signing. Because actually at the time we’re speaking, it’s going to be Tuesday next week. We’re recording this on Friday.
In a couple of days time, I’m going to be taking paper contracts and signing our first author on a little publishing venture that you and I are involved with. His name is Robert Story. He has six book series called Ancient Origins. I’ve got actually one of them there.
There’s a tragedy behind the story. Unfortunately, Robert took his own life last year. Suffering from a debilitating pain condition which developed into a very severe depression. Lovely man. I had several communications with him over the years.
What changed his life which is positively for the better was, of course, finding your course, Mark. He was one of the early guys in late 2016. So in 2017 and ’18, he had terrific years. And unfortunately, events … And he just … And his parents who I’m close to with now been dealing with a lot, building up to the point that we had to sign this contract, were unable to, in the end, save him. Which is beyond tragic.
But we are more than happy to partner with his parents who are in their 70s and very business savvy themselves. And naturally, they want his legacy to live on. They want people to be able to read his books. And they want them to reach their commercial success. And particularly my view of partnering in this with me, our passion to try and get this little publishing business off the ground.
Now I immediately got several emails of submissions last time we mentioned this. We are not looking for submissions at the moment. My focus is going to be on the mechanics of getting this business up and ready with our first author. At some point, we’re going to open the door to fresh submissions. Won’t be too long, but I haven’t got time to consider them at the moment unfortunately. So that’s exciting.
Mark Dawson: Yes, it is. It’s a good opportunity for us as well. I mean those books have done pretty well for Robert. And very six figures well for him which is great.
But as his parents discovered, they don’t know anything about self-publishing. They have no idea, which why would they? It’s not something that they would be expected to be interested in. So if they don’t do anything to those books, they will lose what little juice they’ve got left and they’ll stop selling and they’ll disappear.
It gives us a chance to try and build something that will help to sustain those books. And it will obviously include advertising. But if it doesn’t work, it’s no harm, no foul because we couldn’t do anything that would damage those books. They will stop selling eventually anyway.
What I’m confident that we’ll be able to make sure that doesn’t happen. And then if in the process of doing that we can build a system that will enable to publish other people who just would rather write rather than do the marketing side of things. And as we said, we can operate with the other things that we do.
So this would be three business for me and two business for you. When you launch your book, that’s three for you as well so we need to work all that out. But it’s a good opportunity so I’m looking forward to that.
We’re going to get them new covers. We may have a certain Mr. Bache involved.
James Blatch: I should say Stuart is a part of this business as well.
Mark Dawson: Yeah, so there is nice, new covers coming up. And we’ll start looking at some Amazon ads and some Facebook ads. And we’ll see where we go from there. But yeah. It’s going to be interesting.
James Blatch: I’m particularly excited about it. I’ve bored you to death about this over the years, but just from feeling a part of a transition in an industry which is what this is.
And we go to 20Books and every other person I meet not only publishes their own book, but publishes a few books of their friends who just don’t want to get in marketing. That is how, and I’ve said this before, this is how the industry is going. And being part of that transition into a much more equitable split.
If Robert’s parents hadn’t … We hadn’t been in contact with them. They contacted us obviously after Robert died and said that they wanted access to the courses. Or first of all to let us know. And we gave them all the help we possibly could.
After a bit of time, I kept thinking this is just a serendipitous opportunity so I had a conversation with them about it. But without us being around, they potentially might have gone to an agent who might have been interested.
And if they’d been really, really lucky, this agent would have picked up these books, but probably not.
Mark Dawson: No.
James Blatch: Which is the experiences of most writers. But even if they had, they would be on an 85/15 split, something like that. 90/10 even.
Mark Dawson: That’s the absolute best they could hope for and it wouldn’t have happened. Without someone like us to help them, those books have no future.
James Blatch: Well, and I’m happy to say that we’ll be on a 50/50 split with them which, for me, is equitable and fair for writers. Writing the book has to be worth more 10% of the income. Of the profit.
Mark Dawson: Oh God, yeah absolutely.
James Blatch: Good, okay. We’re going to change the world one piece at a time. We’ve got about 20 seconds left, I think, of our recording time.
Mark Dawson: We do.
James Blatch: So it’s a busy show, good chat. We are going to have a look back at Mark Dawson’s 2019 at some point. I don’t think it’ll next week, but it will be in the next few weeks. We’ll try and time that before we get too far away from the beginning of the year. So that’s coming up.
Good, excellent, we’ve got lots to do so I guess all I have to say now it’s a goodbye from him.
Mark Dawson: And it’s a goodbye from me.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
Mark Dawson: Goodbye.
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