SPS-350: Live from the NINC Conference 2022 – with Dave Chesson & Julia Spencer-Fleming

Live from the 2022 Novelists, Inc. (NINC) conference in St. Pete’s Beach, Florida, James and Mark talk to Dave Chesson about his passion for creating tools to help authors. And also to Edgar nominated author Julia Spencer-Fleming about writing craft, including creating suspense no matter the kind of books you write.

Show Notes

  • Using Publisher Rocket to drive book sales
  • On creating a tool for writers to use from draft to final formatted book
  • The importance of being able to pivot as an author
  • Creating a good experience for the reader so they keep coming back
  • The balance between vivid description and plot
  • Why suspense matters to every kind of story

Resources mentioned in this episode:

PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page

MERCH: Check out our new 2022 hoodies and t-shirts in the SPF Store.


SPS-350: Live from the NINC Conference 2022 - with Dave Chesson & Julia Spencer-Fleming
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: What suspense really is, is hooking that reader into asking the most fundamental story question of all, which is what happens next?

Speaker 1: 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 and welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. It's a Friday, of course. It's me, James Blatch.

Mark Dawson: And me, Mark Dawson.

James Blatch: And today, Mark...

Mark Dawson: We are at...

James Blatch: We are out of our sheds in our garden. We're in front of the great public. We are at a live recording in front of an audience at NINC 2022.

Mark Dawson: I think they passed the test.

James Blatch: I think the microphones are working because my ears are now bleeding from that. Fantastic to have you all here. It's so exciting. I know lots of people listen to the podcast, but actually it is possible for us to never really know that because we sit by ourselves recording it. Tom and John are here and there's another team behind them who all help to get this podcast out every week. So it's really lovely for us to be on the road. Fingers crossed some of this equipment might work and everyone will actually see this next week. If you're just looking a blank screen now, that's my fault.

Okay. Right, Mark, we have two guests in this show. We have got Dave Chesson, who's a familiar voice on the podcast over the years. Over the how many years we've been doing this?

Mark Dawson: Six, I think. 350 episodes. Never missed a week.

James Blatch: Never missed a week. 350 episodes.

Mark Dawson: You haven't missed a week. I missed one or two weeks.

James Blatch: Did you? Yeah.

Mark Dawson: New York.

James Blatch: New York, yes. Tom stepped in for you and he was brilliant. So good he has not been back in front of the camera. Bless him. And Julia Spencer-Thomas. Is it Spencer-Thomas? Did I get that one?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Spencer-Fleming.

James Blatch: Spencer-Fleming. I know someone called Spencer-Thomas, which is really annoying remembering names. Julia, I said to you in advance that we want to talk to Dave. Lots going on. He's got fingers in lots of pies. Always interesting bloke to talk to. But I always knew that there's this one session that people come out of and say, That was a brilliant session, so let's save that slot. And that's going to be Julia in the second half of the show. Okay.

Do we have any more witty banter? Which is what we're famous for.

Mark Dawson: I can't force banter. Banter just either comes or doesn't. Usually our banter is James waffles on for five minutes, says something stupid, and then I tell him he said something stupid. That's basically the basis of our relationship over the last 10 years.

James Blatch: Yeah, basically I put myself out there, I fall down for comedy, and he sits there looking all smart. Okay, I tell you what we'll do before we talk to Dave, let's talk about the conference.

We're here at NINC. We go to a few conferences a year. We used to go to ThrillerFest, we go to 20Books in Vegas, I've been to 20Books Madrid this year, and here we are at NINC. I hate to say I have a favourite conference because we love Craig Martelle, all the work he does with 20Books. But I do kind of have a favourite conference for a variety of reasons, not least the beach, and that is NINC. I think it is a fabulous conference.

Mark Dawson: Yeah, I can't remember how many times I've been now. I think the first time I ever spoke at a conference was at NINC in this room in I think it was 2015, which is an awfully long time ago. Because I think we missed last year because we couldn't fly and we missed-

James Blatch: We had air tickets and tickets for NINC.

Mark Dawson: And we missed the year before that because I think there was only 20 people here that year. So, that was when we were all locked down. But apart from that, I haven't missed one, I don't think. Yeah, it's great. It's a lovely conference. It's, I wouldn't say small, it's medium sized, 400 people this time I think. It's an intermediate to advance confidence. So, the questions are occasionally challenging, which is good. Keeps you on your toes. It's in a lovely part of the world. The weather this week has been really hot. I had lunch with BookBub this afternoon and stupidly sat with my back facing the sun. I was drenched at the end of it. It was very unappetizing. But yeah, anyway, lovely to be here.

James Blatch: Well, there aren't many conferences where you can, as I did this afternoon, just go 100 yards and have a swim in a very warm Gulf of Mexico.

Mark Dawson: I saw a dolphin today.

James Blatch: Yes. So did I.

Mark Dawson: Did you?

James Blatch: Yes. In the shallows.

Mark Dawson: Yeah.

James Blatch: Did you see it? It must have been the same one. Yeah. I think his name is David Dolphin. Yes. So, that's good. So the beach makes it good. I completely agree. Obviously I've been coming here pre being a writer, struggling to try and become a writer, and now I'm a writer. So now I can sit on the sessions with a little bit more knowledge of what's going on. I agree that the levels are a little bit up here, which is great for NINC. Okay. Right. Shall we have our first guest?

Mark Dawson: Why not?

James Blatch: So, please welcome to the stage, your friend and mine, Mr. Dave Chesson. Dave, look, thank you very much indeed for coming on to the show. You are no stranger to the show. We've had you on several times. During the time we've known you, for people who don't know Dave, a bit of a data geek. I think you probably wouldn't mind being called that.

Dave Chesson: Yeah, a little bit. Definitely. I really love to dig in and try to explore and figure out exactly what the markets are doing. Coming from an engineer background and everything, I was like, man, what can I as an author do to get Amazon to notice me and to show my book? As well as, what kind of test can I do? And so that's just driven me right down that process.

James Blatch: And your main product, I suppose you are famous for, which used to be called Kindle, is now PublishDrive, is that right?

Mark Dawson: Completely wrong. Kindle Rocket.

James Blatch: Yeah, it's Rocket. Do you know, the word rocket would not come into my head then.

Dave Chesson: Exactly. Yeah. So, we created Publisher Rocket. We changed the name because we started talking to Barnes and Noble, iTunes and Kobo and they just don't like it when the name of the thing is called KDP Rocket. So we were like, okay, touche. So we made that pivot and that's really opened up a lot more discussions.

We're still working on a bunch of things that are going to be coming out in the future that I'm really excited about because I love Amazon, it's given us so many opportunities. KDP was a great programme, but truth be told is that there were a lot of other markets and they're really anxious to gain more of that ground. I think we authors need to understand that and prepare.

James Blatch: And in simple terms, if we can simplify this, your product is the place to go to work out what categories your book should be in. You can even go all the way back and look at the data that you can access through that product and work out what categories you should be writing for.

Dave Chesson: Absolutely. You can choose your keywords. But we have a lot of really cool features that are going to be coming out very soon. So the category system itself already has all 14,000 plus Amazon categories in it. But what I'm really excited about is very soon we're going to be able to tell, you can click on any one of those categories and you'll be able to know the percentage of books in that categories that are actually in big publishers or self-published.

You'll be able to look at the percentage of books that are KU or not. Then later on in the year we're going to come out with historical category information, which means you can then look at that category and you can see sales trends, you can see how well it's performing, the amount of competition inside of it and more. So it's just been really cool. I can't wait until everybody gets to see that.

James Blatch: Tell me about the company side of it. You are based near Nashville, I think.

Dave Chesson: Yes.

James Blatch: Where's the work go on for PublishDrive?

Dave Chesson: In order to be able to create something like that, it's honestly a huge endeavour because, first off, we do have the US market inside of Publisher Rocket, but we also have the German and the UK and we're working with others. But we can't just open up those markets because in order to analyse that kind of information and help authors to truly know what's going on in it, we have to work with publishing companies, we have to work with established organisations.

So, it is to make sure the analysis inside our tool is getting the right information. So, we have that.

Also, our support team is full of writers. Matter of fact, we want to make sure that our support covers all areas. So that way, if somebody is on the other side of the world, they still get an answer really quickly. So truth be told, I've never actually marked down all the different countries that are represented inside the organisation, but there's a lot.

James Blatch: We had lunch with BookBub today, as you mentioned earlier, and they try to employ writers as well. Naturally, I think they end up with writers, which is a double edged sword because quite often they become successful and leave because they become full-time writers, which happens. Which is kind of a good thing, but...

Dave Chesson: That is true. But it's also great too to have writers be a part of support because they can write really good detailed responses. Sometimes a little too much information.

James Blatch: Don't need a novel, just need to know how to turn it off.

The other product you're becoming known for is called Atticus. People still write in Word or whatever, but a lot of us write in Scrivener. We've always had a slight pain point at the end of your Scrivener time. I do love Scrivener, I like to move everything about, is then nine times that 10 and editor's going to ask for it in Word. Probably at Times New Roman, double spaced, whatever requirements they have. So you output it to Word, then that becomes your manuscript for it.

Doesn't matter what happens in Scrivener anymore, because that's the live one, that's marked up. That's fiddly, I think, and keeping a track of that. So, I think you saw that pain point.

Dave Chesson: Absolutely. Yeah. The story that really kick-started it off was I used to write in Scrivener and then I would export to Word and we'd go back and forth with the editor. The funny thing is I would always name my files final, and then all caps final, and then this is the final, final, final. The craziest part is I would never delete because I was worried that maybe I need to revert back or something like that. So by the end of it, I have eight different final copies.

 Well, I once published a book where I picked what I thought was the final, I think I titled it This Is The Final Stupid, or something like that. I sent it off to a formatter. Formatter paid all this money, got it, uploaded it onto Amazon, and realised that the edits for the last couple of chapters were not in that version.

While I would like to say that I'm a really good writer, I know the importance of a really good editor. So, I got a little destroyed on the reviews. So it's just that file management has always been a real big problem. The other thing we writers do is that when we look at book writing software, we think about just writing. But the truth is something that is a good book writing software, it needs to be something that helps you to organise, to write.

It should also help you to collaborate. And more importantly, it should help you to format it into a book which turns it from just writing something to a book itself. And we authors have to go through so many different pieces of software. Like you said, you go from Scrivener to Word to a formatting software of some sort, and you have to learn these three.

My goal with Atticus was to create one software where an author would never have to leave. They could manage everything right from the one spot. They could learn just one and really master it instead of having to be a master of many.

So when we launched Atticus, we thought we would start with formatting first because every author at some point needs to format it into their ebook and print book. And there's some great software out there. One in particular has made it incredibly easy for authors to be able to effectively and efficiently turn something into a professional book. But it was limiting because it only worked on Mac and that was Vellum. And the other thing is that there were a lot of features that we figured that we could really add to that.

So we started off with that. We made Atticus work on all computers. So you can do it on Mac, you can do it on PC, Chromebook. You can even put it on your iPad. It technically right now works on a iPhone, but my team needs to go through and make it look better. But my goal with that is that an author can whip out any device they have, access their books, work on them when they're ready and be good to go.

We focused on the formatting. And it's only $147 lifetime. And that's for print and eBooks. That makes it over $100 cheaper than one of the competitors. And we're adding new features just about every day. And so those new features are free upgrades. So we've hit formatting and we're going to round ... There's a couple more things we want to add.

But the other thing that's really cool about it is that it's also designed to be written in. So it's not just a formatting software. So you can open it up and you can start writing your book. And we have a lot of tools. But right now my team is really going to be adding a lot more coming up very soon so that you can have character cards, you can have plotting, you can pull in plotting information from other plotting software. Because let's face it, we authors are very particular about how we plot. Nobody's going to get it right. There's a lot of flavours. And there's going to be analysis, there's going to be tools, everything. A good way to kind of explain how we're going to approach our writing is it's Scrivener, but you don't need a course to learn how to use it.

So then at that point, once we have that done, we'll add the collaboration component. And what this will allow an author to do is that you can write your book and when you're ready, you can send a link to your editor. And the editor doesn't have to own Atticus. They can open it up and we're going to design it for them to look and feel just like Word. Because let's face it, editors really prefer that layout.

Now there's a couple of things. We've talked to a whole bunch of editors on what they would like to see inside of it, and we're going to make it a better tool, based off of their decision. And so when the editor starts working on that book, the author can see it right there in their Atticus and then they can accept the changes and that gets applied to their book.

My favourite thing about collaboration is that when you're done, you can literally remove that person's access. So you can collaborate with other writers, editors, art team in beta and formatters. You can bring them in with certain permissions and then when they're done, say your beta readers, you can just click, click, click, and they no longer have access.

So now you as an author have control of where your book is, you know who has what permission, and then you can remove that when ready. Once we have that out, that would allow an author to be able to start, write, collaborate, and format and never have to leave, never have to have multiple file formats and never have to have a file that says this is the final stupid.

James Blatch: That's amazing. And the collaboration I think's really exciting. So if I've got this right, it goes off to your copy editor for instance, you can see the changes they're making and you can be working behind them, accepting the changes, not accepting them, making your own changes, sort of seeing them going forward.

So speeding up the process. You don't have to wait three weeks for them to get the whole manuscript back with one or two small changes.

Dave Chesson: This is why it's super important to meet with the editors, and we've gotten a lot of feedback from them. First off, a lot of editors said, "Hey, I'm not really sure I'd like it if the writer can see the chapter I'm working on at that moment. And what if I don't want them to stop me while I'm working on something?"

So we're actually going to have in there that in this case the editor can work on a chapter and when they're finished with the chapter and they're ready for the author to be able to check out and accept or whatever, they can clear it. So then the author can go in there and work on it. But also too, we're going to make it that if that's really important to the author, the owner of Atticus, that that's the case, then they can work it that out with the editor and they do have the ability to turn that permission off.

The key thing to the collaboration is that when you go to select, either to work with another writer or an editor, there will be a window that pops up and you can choose the kind of permissions or the way you guys work together. And I think that's the best way to have a team with you and your editor and to have that collaboration work effectively and efficiently.

James Blatch: You see yourself using a collaborative tool like that?

Mark Dawson: No, probably not. But that, it's great, it's a good idea. I think it's great that there's lots of different options, but I've written 40 books now, so I have a very set procedure.

James Blatch: He's aiming at the kids, the younger generation. Actually and I think that is a good question. You've come up with a good product, and it's going to be a useful product and I used it myself.

How do you turn that into something that becomes a household name in self-publishing?

Dave Chesson: Yeah. Well, it's kind of like what we did with Publisher Rocket. Regardless of when we hit all those moments, I have a full team of eight full-time full stack developers working around the clock. And we're going to constantly be working to add, improve. Publisher Rocket's been out for seven years and even today we're still, the whole thing we talked about with the categories.

As an author, I'm constantly looking at things and saying, "Man, wouldn't it be nice if?" I would love to know the percentage of books in a certain category that are KU or not KU. That might help me to make a decision. If I'm thinking about writing a category and I don't know if I should or shouldn't, that's a good number. And so I just turn to my team. I'm like, "Guys, we got to figure this out. Let's do it." Honestly, that took us six months to figure out because it's not easy.

There's millions of books. How do you that? Especially since Rocket is a one-time fee, because I personally don't like subscriptions. So how do we as a company do that so that it's not costing us oodles amounts of money and yet make it so that it's really accurate? So it takes time.

But I truly believe that there's so many ways to improve and since we don't have one-off workers or one programme or any programme or anything like that, it's going to allow us to not only continue to make it better, but to pivot as the industry changes. I mean, just look at what happened with the MOBI files. Amazon used to say that that was the file of choice. Now they don't accept it. But then they're like, "Oh no, in order to send it to a Kindle it's got to be a MOBI." Oh, okay. We as tools and software really have to be prepared to pivot and adapt to the changes in the marketplace.

And I think that's what really makes kind of a product grow and grow. And as more people use it and they put their books on there and they've enjoyed it, that word gets out and more and more you use it. And like I said, I think at one point, we hope to add more that makes it a great product or a project management tool for authors. Imagine you have a couple of books you're working on. Bringing an editor here, bringing a formatter there and you can see the progress of all of your projects on one screen. I think that would be great for medium to small publishing companies as well.

James Blatch: I think that's the secret to staying agile and being able to pivot. I mean Amazon is so large though. I think they find it very difficult to make changes. I think you can still upload Word documents, can't you, instead of MOBIs? I think they still have that, because if they turned it off, there'd be someone somewhere, well 10,000 people somewhere be bereft. But I can't imagine not uploading Word documents, my final document, my book. But there you go.

Dave, thank you so much. You've had a good week here at NINC?

Dave Chesson: Oh, it's been amazing. Yeah, NINC is one of my favourites to go to as well because you get to hit a lot of the advanced topics. And like you were saying too, you've got these really incredible questions and you don't have to start off by defining what an Amazon bestseller rank is or you can really get into the nitty-gritty. It's also great because after the events, there's a lot of time to talk with other authors. And I've learned a lot. It's really cool to hear what's happening and what people are doing. So it's just an amazing event in that respect.

James Blatch: Super. Thank you very much indeed, Dave Chesson. Your technical task now is to unplug yourself from your chest, leave the microphone on the ... You can take your water. And thank you very much, Dave.

I love the way he's dual wielding with his microphones. It's like he's in a video game, pointing them at the audience. Well done. Well done Young Tom.

Okay, our next guest is one of the speakers. Yes, it's you. It's you, Julia, one of the speakers this week and did a couple of fabulous sessions, very well received. We want to talk craft because we come here to learn marketing, but we also come here to learn craft. And one of the things I like about this conference is, particularly in NINC because it doesn't matter whether you are traditionally published or indie published or however you write it on the side of a tree, it's writing. And story is story. And getting people to turn the page is the key thing for most of us.

And I think, Julia, that is what you've been talking about this week.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Yeah. Actually I'm from Maine and we do in fact write all of our books on trees there.

James Blatch: Yes.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: And then you have to convert it from a woody to something else.

James Blatch: Yes, a woody. Isn't that ... Oh, it doesn't matter.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Okay. We'll move on from that. See, I'm good at banter.

James Blatch: There you go.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Fundamentally you can market up the wazoo of course, but if you are not creating an experience for your readers that makes them want to dive into your fictional world and turn the pages and get to that last page and say, "Oh my gosh, I can't wait to read the next book by this author," you're not going to take off.

Mark Dawson: I think that's fundamental. Actually, someone asked me this week what the secret was for kind of, well, what was the secret to get someone to continue through a series and to buy more books. I said to them, I'm fairly confident I could use digital advertising to sell the first book of anything. Doesn't matter what the quality is, if the cover's decent, the blurb's decent, I can probably sell that to a reader.

But at that point, my job as a marketer becomes much less important because it's then my job as a craftsman, as an author. Because if the book's no good, it doesn't matter how good my advertising is, the reader's never going to buy the second book.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Yeah, ultimately what sells the book? The book sells the book. So I've been here talking specifically about two aspects that are condensed versions of seminars that I have given teaching an MFA course. One has been about using setting and landscape to really anchor your reader in the fictional world. John Gardner famously calls it "falling into the fictional dream."

You want to hold out your hand and have the reader place their hand in yours and you're going to say, "Trust me, I'm not going to lead you astray. You are going to believe that you are a Cold War aviator." And what is one of the ways that we get our readers to trust us? It's getting those details right.

But on the other hand, we don't want to do five pages of a description-

James Blatch: No, I definitely don't do that.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: The wing of one certain time-

James Blatch: I would read that, but I don't write that.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Okay. Yeah, my husband loved those books. What we want to do is to be able to focus on the setting and the scene in a couple of different ways. First and foremost, we use it to define character. Different people notice different things. Someone who has never seen an aircraft before is going to have a completely different experience looking at that than someone who is an aviator.

Someone who is a Mainer, who has come to the beach in Florida is noticing different things than the guys on the beach who were laying out those fabulous cabanas that we had the chance to go into. So being able to look at your landscape through the eyes of your character, keeps you focused on the few important details that ground you, ground your reader in reality, but also don't waste that description. Your description should also be revealing the character and moving the plot forward.

James Blatch: There's got to be, as you say, that balance. And I think that's a key thing. We've talked to Jenny that very similar and she's a big proponent of this as well. And one of the things when I was writing my book, I was very motivated by Top Gun. I love Top Gun, I think it was a great story. Told really well, grabbed everybody back in it day. Not the new one necessarily, the old one. And I read quite a lot about the writing of that. And one of the things they did with that is they used the aviation language of the day without explaining it.

So if you watch that original Top Gun, they talk about "There's bogies all over me, I'm going to Angels 14." And they talk in a language that only really means something to people who know that. And a lot of films that were less confident I think would feel the need to do the kind of laboured, what was it? Back to the Future, "It's your brother Chuck, it's your brother Martin Berry."

Do what Steven King says, trust your audience. Throw that stuff in because that becomes atmospheric and it becomes part of the scenery, which I think is what you are talking about.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Yeah absolutely. I mean, generally speaking those terms, you don't actually need to know what a bogie is and you can get it under context, if there's an enemy fighter coming towards you, I guess that's the bogie. I do believe in trusting your reader and also giving them, again, those particular sort of details that put them in the scene without slowing the action down.

James Blatch:You can be over descriptive, right?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: It can be over descriptive. One thing that we talked about in the workshop was, you can use description to help with your pacing. So I gave an example of my current work in progress where the hero who is a cop is on a mountain, in the Adirondacks. And he's searching through there. And so I slowed the description down and I used short rhythmic sentences to give, hopefully subliminally the effect of someone walking. And I slowed it down, I increased the depth of description I was using because I wanted to stretch that out to ramp up the suspense. So when he finds a booby trap alarm, it becomes shocking and a lovely twist for the reader to get into.

James Blatch: I think that comes onto the other area you've been talking about, which is pacing.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Right pacing. I did my second workshop this morning on suspense. And of course suspense is I think often misunderstood. People hear suspense and they think, "Oh it's a thriller." I write small town cosy, I write romance. And the example that I taught with that everybody knows is Cinderella. Because what suspense really is, is hooking that reader into asking the most fundamental story question of all, which is "What happens next?"

At the end of every scene, at the end of every chapter, we want those readers saying "What happens next?" And so in Cinderella, we get to see how this classic fairytale ramps up using escalating stakes. So the first stake that Cinderella has to do, she's got a problem in front of her. Suspense always involves the protagonist who's got a goal, and that goal is going to get frustrated.

She's got to sew her own dress. Did you see the Disney version? Actually the mice help her out, which is kind of cheating. But she's got to sew her own dress so she can go to the ball, that's her goal. She meets that goal, but then her awful stepsisters tear the dress apart. Her goal has been frustrated. Now she's even worse off than she was before because now it's the night of the ball. The carriage has left, she's stuck there, and then her fairy godmother comes along.

But now we've got another impediment. She's got a great dress, she's got mice who've turned into guys who are driving her pumpkin coach, but now there's a ticking clock. After midnight, that's it. The dress disappears, the coach turns into a mouldy pumpkin. So she's got to get there, do her thing with the prince, and then get out again. And then she's back home. And now the stakes have ramped up even higher because he loves her, she loves him. We're not going to go into the detail of falling in love with someone over the course of two hours of dance, but-

James Blatch: Well, we can be romantic.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Okay. But now she's locked up in the attic. It's the biggest stumbling block of all. And at this point, the stakes are so high. If she can't get out of the attic and try on that slipper and meet the prince, she loses the whole ball of wax.

One of the reasons I like to use this example is because Cinderella's not risking life or limb. At no point is she in physical danger. I mean, her stepmother's mean, maybe she's going to get housemaid's knee eventually. But she's got food, she's got shelter, nothing's going to blow up, she's not going to sink into the quick sand.

The suspense is there because a protagonist that we care about wants something desperately and has to keep overcoming a series of obstacles. That even when she conquers them, still lead her down into a place where she has to have another obstacle to be conquered.

James Blatch: And when you put it like that, it sounds simple, doesn't it? When people say, "I couldn't put the book down." That's what they're talking about, because they're invested and they need to know. So I'll take questions on it by the way, if you've got some questions you want to just let young Tom know over there and he'll be racing towards you in a moment. Some writers talk about writing their protagonists into an impossible situation and then seeing how they could write themselves out of it. And that's quite a good way of doing that, of always having that stake there.

Can we overdo this? Can we constantly have a stake one after another ratcheting up?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Yeah, you absolutely can. If we're constantly ratcheting tension, it exhausts the reader. It's like watching those movies that just... It's one thing immediately after the other. Sooner or later you've got to pause it and go in the kitchen and get something. We don't want our readers going into the kitchen to get anything. We want them sticking there with their nose in the book.

So the normal progress of tension is, I always teach in scene. We start the scene, you have a goal, there's a conflict, and then there is a resolution. The resolution could be you're solved, but now you have another question or something to do. It could be utter disaster. Cinderella solved the problem, and now her dresses is in taters.

And it could be the reversal of disaster, which is an interesting way of playing on our storytelling sense. Because maybe things go really well and we all know when things are going really well and you're not five pages away from the end of the book, something bad is coming down the line. So using scenes enables you to create a natural rhythm where you are rising, there's more tension, and then the reader gets a little breath, and then the next one is even higher tension. And then your reader gets another breath.

James Blatch: I think when we chatted about this a couple of days ago, you talked about we very often have dual storylines in books, that you can actually be clever and have, as one going down, the other one starts coming up.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Yes. We often have whatever you call it, the subplot or the B story or what have you. And very often your B story is also going to have a protagonist who has got goals that the protagonist cares about, the reader's going to care about, and they may be getting frustrated or advancing the questioning.

For instance, in my own books, the A story is always a mystery, I write mysteries. We find out something, someone's been shot. Well, that's actually the inciting incident. And then, at the end of the scene, the detective, the sleuth has an answer, but then that leads to more questions. It always leads to more questions.

But my B story is the forbidden romance between the two protagonists. When they are sitting, talking, thinking, planning their next move, that story ramps up. Maybe he catches her eye or she notices the smell off of his hair. That's cliche, I wouldn't do that, but something like that, which gives the reader's experience a height and height and a height, so there's always tension pulling the reader into turning those pages, but you're not exhausting the reader because it's not all the same thing.

James Blatch: And this is the same for a small-town romance or a little RPG or whatever genre?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Really. In almost any, even a hard edge techno thriller, you have got personal stories going on as well. Characters are not pursuing their love lives necessarily while they're running for their lives and they finally found the safe house in Budapest and shut the door. Okay, now you're in the safe house. Now we can have a scene where they are dealing with their personal lives.

And of course romance is a very easy one to point out but it could be a daughter who is in conflict because her mother's always been cold to her and has never really felt accepted. It could be the son who is in conflict because his father wants him to take over the family business and he doesn't want to. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as protagonists that your readers care about want that goal. It's got to be the most important thing to them.

James Blatch: Okay. We've got a couple of minutes left. Any questions anybody would like to ask, in the audience? There's got to be a question surely, they've been talked to out-

Julia Spencer-Fleming: I've just covered everything they need to know about suspense. Boom.

James Blatch: At this particular moment, it does feel like the last few seconds of a conference that's lasted all week in the hot sun. There is one question there. Come on, Tom. You've got to race over there. There you go. Look at him. Look at him move, it's like a gazelle in the jungle.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: See, his goal is: can he reach the microphone in time? It's a ticking clock.

James Blatch: We need a camera on you. The camera's moving much slower and is going the wrong way. Sorry, just one second because we do have to film this and the camera is not a gazelle. The camera is a wildebeest, roaming majestic across the plain.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: He's not getting that urgency that keeps the suspense on.

James Blatch: No. Exactly.

Speaker 2: I have a question too.

James Blatch: Here we go.

Speaker 2: Julia, how do you interweave the reader caring about the character with ramping up that suspense? Does that add to the suspense?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Yeah. Suspense is really just a function of how much we care. It's our reaction as readers to how much we care about someone. And the example that I gave is you think about right now there's a war going on in Ukraine and we're all concerned about it. We think about it, we read news articles about it. But now imagine how you would feel if your family was there, if your brother was behind enemy lines and you didn't know where he was or how he was or if he was alive right there. And that's just our human reaction. The goal is to make your readers care enough about those characters in the same way that they care about their family and their brother. I think I just hit my microphone.

James Blatch: Julia, thank you so much indeed for coming to talk to us today and being here in NINC. Have you enjoyed your week here?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Oh, it's been-

James Blatch: Has it been your first week where you've been here?

Julia Spencer-Fleming: It's been my first one. I've learned so much. There is so much that I've gotten as a traditionally published author that has just been amazing. Also, I've had about half my body weigh in rum drinks, so that was real good.

James Blatch: Okay. Julia, thank you very much indeed. Big round of applause.

Well, I've come to the end of a big packed show. Just to let you know, we'll be recording the next one in Huntington and Salisbury in the UK, next Friday. So, if you could all make it over there, we'd like you to be in your seats by 3:00, please. This has been a bit different, isn't it?

Mark Dawson: Yeah, very different. It's been a good week. Not finished yet, because who's coming to the karaoke tonight? Probably Wayne has got the first song.

James Blatch: Who's singing at the karaoke tonight? It's going to be going to be quiet.

Julia Spencer-Fleming: More rum drinks.

James Blatch: Everybody's planning for somebody to go and do Sweet Caroline. So we can all just shout, sing along. Okay.

Speaker 3: Piano man.

James Blatch: Piano man, there we go. We'll do that. Okay. Yeah, that will be fun tonight. We've got a dinner first, and then we're going to-

Mark Dawson: We do, yes. We are flying out tomorrow and James is waited until Wednesday. Forgetting... Well, not forgetting, but unfortunately for James, there's a hurricane coming in.

James Blatch: Yes, I'm staying for the hurricane. It should be fun. So, I may or may not be alive by Friday.

Mark Dawson: So, it could be a solo show next week.

James Blatch: Yeah, it could be a solo. Okay. All look, Thank you very much indeed. I want to say thank you to NINC for hosting us. It's been brilliant this week. Thank you to our guests, Dave and Julia. Thank you so much indeed for coming to watch this live recording of the show and you can give yourself a big round of applause.


Speaker 1: Get show notes, the podcast archive, and free resources to boost your writing career at Join our thriving Facebook group at Support the show at And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author.

 Publishing is changing. So get your words into the world and join the revolution with The Self-Publishing Show.


Leave a Review