THE CRAFT OF WRITING — MARCH 2021
THE CRAFT OF WRITING — MARCH 2021
The Craft of Writing blog continues in 2021 with alternating monthly posts between craft experts and award-winning authors. Today I am thrilled to welcome craft expert and award-winning author Randy Ingermanson back to the blog.
Randy is probably best known for his wildly popular craft book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. However, he’s also an award-winning novelist. Transgression was the first book in his City of God series and won the 2001 Christy Award for best futuristic novel in Christian fiction.
Randy has been interviewed on this blog once before: in 2019, he discussed How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. In today’s interview, I’d like to explore his follow up craft book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. Enjoy!
Randy Ingermanson wants to teach you how to write excellent fiction.
He’s been teaching for more than twenty years, and he’s known around the world as “the Snowflake Guy” in honor of his wildly popular Snowflake Method of writing a novel.
Randy is an award-winning novelist and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine. He says that “Fiction Writing = Organization + Craft + Marketing,” so he focuses on those three topics in his e-zine.
He also blogs when the spirit moves him. He is trying to get the spirit to move him weekly, but the spirit gets touchy about schedules.
Randy lives in the Pacific Northwest and works as a manservant to two surly and demanding cats. Visit Randy at AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Write a Dynamite Scene with Randy Ingermanson Click To Tweet
Welcome back to the Craft of Writing blog, Randy Ingermanson. Thank you for joining us!
Thanks for having me again, Kay!
Your book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method is an enormously popular book on the subject of writing. Can you tell us how you came about writing that book?
If my memory is right, I was talking to an agent friend of mine, Steve Laube, at a writing conference in the spring of 2014. I’ve known Steve for nearly 30 years now, and he bought several of my novels when he was an editor, back when I was writing for traditional publishers. So we have a long history together and we make it a point to spend some time talking whenever we’re at the same conference.
Somehow or other, Steve and I got onto the topic of my Snowflake Method, and the amazing response it’s generated around the world. The Snowflake Method page on my website has been viewed more than 6 million times, and it’s made me famous.
And I mentioned to Steve that I had once tried to write a book on the Snowflake Method, but my agent at the time said he didn’t think he could sell it. Steve pointed out that I didn’t have an agent anymore, because I was publishing my work independently. And I decided it couldn’t hurt to try it on my own.
So I went home from the conference and started typing. Within four months, I published the book, and it’s now sold over 50,000 copies and is still going very strong.
How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method is a follow up to the first. Why did you decide to write that book?
A few years after I published the first Snowflake book, I realized that it had incredible legs. It was still earning nearly as much money every year as it did the year it launched. And I was still getting a lot of email from people who loved the book.
And it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to writing than just the overall design of a novel. One of the most popular talks I teach at conferences is my talk on how to structure a scene, which happens to be Step 9 in my Snowflake Method.
It’s a very important step.
There are two scene structures that work. Only two. If you master those two structures, you’ve made a quantum leap forward in your writing skills. I remember back in the early 1990s when I was learning to write, and I discovered these two scene structures. Within months, my writing level had jumped up several notches. My critique buddies were astonished at how much better my writing got, month over month.
So I decided to write a book on just that—the simple secrets of structuring a scene that automatically gives your reader a powerful emotional experience. If you follow these two “design patterns,” you can’t help but write perfectly structured scenes.
Please give us a quick synopsis of How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method.
There is one thing your reader desperately wants from you, and you have the power to give it to them. Your reader desperately wants Story. And what is Story? Story is what happens when you walk through great danger in somebody else’s skin. There are two key elements to any Story—a character and a crucible. You put the character inside a crucible; and you put your reader inside the character. The fundamental thing you need to know about writing scenes is that every scene in your story must be a story in its own right. That is, a scene is a story-within-a-story. Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and end, and therefore every scene does too. Over all the centuries that writers have been writing fiction, two kinds of scenes have been found to work incredibly well as stories-within-a-story. One kind is called a Proactive Scene. The other kind is called a Reactive Scene. If you master the mechanics of these two types, you can’t help but write powerful scenes. Every time. The book covers these two kinds of scenes in extreme detail.
Do each of those craft books stand on its own, or does the reader have to read the first before the second?
They each stand alone. There are somewhere between six and twelve important skills that a novelist needs to learn. One of these is story design, and the book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method teaches you one approach to that skill. Another skill is scene structure, and the book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method teaches you that. Some writers are good at one of these skills but not the other. Some writers need to learn both skills.
You won a Christy Award for Transgression, the first book in your City of God series. Was Transgression your first work of fiction?
Transgression was the first novel I actually got published, but it wasn’t the first one I wrote.
I started writing on Easter Sunday in 1988 and I worked at my novel for a couple of years. Then a writer friend of mine pointed out a serious flaw in the story—it didn’t have one protagonist, it had eight. That was seven too many. The book simply had too big of a scope.
So I started a new book that trimmed it down a lot, with only one protagonist. But then I realized it was still too sweeping in scope. I was trying to cover too much history.
I junked that novel and started another–and actually finished it, four years after I first started writing. I never did get that third novel published, but maybe I will someday, if I rework it. It was good enough to get some requests to read by various agents, but not good enough to actually get published.
If I’m remembering right, Transgression was the sixth book I started, and I had a very strong hunch I was going to sell it. I just felt like I had learned enough of the skills of fiction writing to actually tell a story that would engage my reader’s emotions. I started it in the spring of 1996 and sold it in the spring of 1999. My publisher originally planned to release it on January 1, 2000, but that got pushed back a few months.
How concerned should new authors be about winning an award for their books?
Awards are good, and they definitely help validate you as an author. When I won a Christy award for Transgression, it was up against books by two very famous authors. Nobody thought it had a chance to win, because it was my debut novel, and at the time, no debut novel had yet won a Christy. At the awards ceremony, nobody even knew who I was, other than my editors and a couple of writer friends. My editors entered it figuring we had absolutely nothing to lose.
So when they called my name, that was a huge shock to everyone, including me and my editors. But overnight, it put me on the map in Christian fiction. After that, I quickly sold several more novels to other publishers, and I was on my way.
But it’s just a fact that there’s a huge element of luck in awards. Your book needs to be good, but there is no scale that measures “goodness,” and a lot depends on what the judges like. I got lucky, but I’m not going to complain.
I certainly encourage writers to enter their books in awards contests, because winning helps, and losing doesn’t harm your career. (It may harm your ego if you take the whole award game too seriously. Don’t.)
But I don’t think it’s wise to plan your career around winning awards. Plan your career based on the factors of the “Success Equation:” Write for a particular target audience that’s large enough to sell to. Focus relentlessly on improving the quality of your writing. Get your production level up to a strong, sustainable level. And when all those are working, build out a marketing machine that emphasizes automation and discoverability. (Please note: social media emphasizes neither.)
If you do that, in the long run, awards will be the tinsel on the tree.
There are an enormous number of writing contests available. Do you have any guidance on how an author should go about deciding which contests to enter?
I’m just now submitting my latest novel, Son of Mary, to several writing awards contests. These cost money to enter, so there’s a tradeoff here. I don’t think it makes sense to shotgun out applications to all the many contests.
Some of the awards are well-established and I think it would be great to win any one of those.
Some other awards look a little shady to me—maybe I’ve never heard of the award, or their past winners have terrible sales numbers on Amazon, or they have basic spelling and grammatical errors on their website. Maybe they just have too many categories, which suggests that their main interest is in collecting entry fees and passing out as many meaningless awards as possible.
In the end, I think you should go with your instincts and submit your work to awards you’d be proud to win. Then send it in and forget about it. If something good happens, that’s great. Otherwise, you have a life to live and books to write and a family that you need to spend time with while you have them.
What one piece of advice would you give to new writers?
Focus on quality above all else. If you nail the quality thing, everything else will follow. You’ll find agents and editors worth working with. You’ll get your books published. Your work will find readers. You’ll have something you feel good about marketing. Quality is Job 1 for any writer. Until you’ve got quality, nothing else really matters.
And the good news is that quality can be learned. We now know that “talent” is mostly a myth—quality really is about hard, focused work where you’re constantly trying to write just a little better.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently polishing up a novel titled Son of David, which is Book 2 in my Crown of Thorns series. This will be a four-book series of novels on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Last year around this time, I released Son of Mary, which is Book 1 in the series.
You might very reasonably ask if there’s anything new to be said about Jesus. Hasn’t the “greatest story ever told” been pretty much done to death? What could anyone possibly say that would be original?
If you’re asking that, then read what my reviewers say about Son of Mary. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0863CSFDG
I’ve been doing research on first-century Judea since the early 1980s. My personal library has a LOT of books. I’ve been to Israel five times and worked on archaeological digs in both Jerusalem and Magdala—the hometown of Mary Magdalene. I’ve read most of the Old Testament in Hebrew. My wife and I have driven all over Israel, just hanging out at sites, both famous and obscure.
I’ve connected the dots in a new way that my readers like, because it makes them feel like they’ve been traipsing around Galilee with Jesus. That’s all I want for these books.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
If you want to learn more about how to write fiction, I have a website that focuses on just that one thing. I will teach you to write excellent fiction at www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
If you want to learn more about the fiction I actually write, I have an entirely separate website that focuses just on my novels. I will take you on an adventure to first-century Jerusalem at www.ingermanson.com. If you don’t want to go on an adventure to the time and place where Jesus walked, then don’t come to this website, because you’ll hate it. My novels are for people who would jump at the chance to buy a one-way ticket on a time-machine to first-century Jerusalem—and never look back.
Thank you, Randy, for being with us today.Create Dynamite Scenes with Randy Ingrmanson Click To Tweet
Good morning, Kay and Randy!
I’m excited to learn about using the Snowflake Method to write dynamic scenes (just bought the book). This interview is timely for me because I have a work in progress that I want to be a more suspenseful, faster-paced novel than I’ve written before.
I have a question for Randy. You mentioned the conversation you had with Steve Laube “”back when I was writing for traditional publishers.” I’m seeing quite a few writers who used to be traditionally published going indie, including you and Kay. Can you share any opinions/observations about that trend? And if it isn’t to personal, do you mind sharing why you made the decision to go indie and stay indie?
Thanks so much for all the words of wisdom. They are worth reading more than once!
Good morning, Lisa! Thanks for stopping by.
Like you, I’m working on a novel now. I have Randy’s book at my side to help me make each scene a story in itself.
Good luck on your next book. Care to give us a little insight into what it’s about?
Thank you for asking, Kay. It’s about a pastor’s family who have a crisis befall them, as told from the POV of the young adult son. Happy writing!
Going indie became a thing sometime around 2009 for 2010. I forget exactly when, but it happened because Amazon made it free to publish e-books. Authors initially started posting their out-of-print books on Amazon, and they were shocked to see how much money they could earn from books that had been given up for dead by publishers. And they were astounded that they got paid EVERY MONTH, instead of every six months.
There has been a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of indie publishing as opposed to traditional publishing. I’ve done it both ways, so here’s a short and incomplete list:
Pros of working with a traditional publisher:
1) There are no direct costs. The publisher pays for editing, proofreading, cover design, production, and marketing.
2) The hassle to the author is minimized, because the publisher chooses the editor, the proofreader, the cover designer, the book layout, the marketing methods. The author may have some small say in these, but the publisher bears the bulk of the burden.
3) The author gets paid up front with an advance, which is usually paid out in stages. This is guaranteed money, as long as the author does the work and it’s “acceptable.”
Cons of working with a traditional publisher:
1) The publisher calls the shots. They decide which authors will get published, what the schedule will be, the amount of the advance, and whether the work will be declared “acceptable.” If the cover is awful, you can complain, but the publisher can ignore you.
2) Deadlines! These can be bad for anyone. For people with an anxiety disorder, they can be crippling. Don’t ask me how I know.
3) Most of the marketing work actually falls on the author. This is sad, but true. You, the author, will do almost all the marketing unless you are a very big-shot author. And even then you will still do a lot, and you will not be paid one dime directly for your work. The only payoff comes indirectly from the royalties on sales created by your marketing.
4) In case your book doesn’t earn out its advance, your marketing efforts will be completely uncompensated. As an example, suppose your advance was $10k and suppose your book would have earned $5k if you did no marketing, but you worked your butt off and got the sales up so that the book actually earned $9k. Great. Your publisher earned a LOT more money (probably an extra $10k to $20k) as a result of your marketing work, but you earned $0.
5) Even if your book has earned out its advance, your marketing efforts mostly go into the publisher’s pocket. As an example, suppose you spend $1000 on marketing your book, and as a result, your book sells an extra 1000 copies. That is probably around $5000 that comes to the publisher, and they will pass on to you royalties of right around $1000. So great! You did all the work. The publisher got an extra $4000, and you broke even. And this is the good scenario. Your marketing might actually result in no extra sales, but you’ll find it hard to tell, because there is no easy way to measure the effects of your marketing when you work with a traditional publisher.
6) In case your book earns out its advance, it will begin earning royalties. Those are usually paid out twice per year. So if your book sells a copy today, you might receive your royalty on it 8 months later. This is a cash-flow problem if you are paying for marketing today and hoping for it to result in money in your pocket someday.
7) There may be no direct costs for traditional publishing, but there are indirect costs. You typically have to spend years going to writing conferences before you attract an agent who will then be able to find you a publisher. Conferences aren’t cheap, and they may actually cost you more than the contracts you ultimately get. I’ve seen it happen.
Pros of going indie:
1) Freedom, baby! You get to decide what you’ll write, when you’ll publish it, what category it goes in, who will edit it, and whether you’ll accept their criticism. You get to choose the proofreader and the cover designer. If the cover design is awful, you can ask for a different design, or hire another designer.
2) Money! Your e-book royalties with a traditional publisher would be 25% of whatever they receive, and your paper royalties would be somewhat less. This typically means that you earn somewhere between 10% and 14% of the actual sale price of the book. The retailer and the publisher and your agent get all the rest. But if you go indie, your e-book royalty is typically around 70% of the sale price of the book, and your paper royalty is somewhat less, but it’s quite common to get 25% to 30%. So your royalties per copy sold are typically close to 5x higher as an indie.
3) Cash flow! The online retailers (Amazon, Apple, B&N, Kobo, etc.) typically pay you your royalties earned within a couple of months.
4) Marketing data! You have a dashboard on the online retailers that tells you exactly how many copies and how much you earned from each book, each day. So if you did a marketing push yesterday, you can see today if it worked. Knowledge is power.
Cons of going indie:
1) You pay all the costs up front, before you sell a single copy of your book. You pay for the editing, the proofreading, the cover design, the production costs (if any), and the marketing.
2) Without a deadline, you may never actually get your book done. Because mañana.
3) You don’t get an advance, so you are initially working for free.
4) You are responsible for the whole show. If your books aren’t selling, it’s YOUR fault. You are the CEO of your publishing company, and the buck stops on you. So you need to have an entreneurial spirit, or it’s not going to happen.
Lisa, you also asked why I, personally, went indie. It was a combination of several things. I had two books in a row that crashed and burned–meaning that I sold them to major publishers, they paid me an advance, I wrote the book, and then (for various reasons) the book was cancelled. When a book is cancelled, any advances that were paid have to be returned. I had two books crash and burn within a couple of months of each other, not long after I got laid off from my day job. This was less fun than it sounds.
I also had a terrible time with deadlines. If you’ve ever had a panic attack that lasted 4 months, you can empathize.
And finally, I couldn’t seem to get the hang of marketing. I didn’t know what I was doing and had no way to find out if my marketing efforts were achieving anything. There was no data to tell me, so I was flying blind and making bad decisions.
So I just stopped submitting work to traditional publishers. No hard feelings, but it didn’t seem to be working out.
I spent a few years not pursuing publishing opportunities at all, while I taught myself the fundamentals of marketing. The only thing I published in that time was one book where the publisher came to me and made me an offer–because I had built an incredible marketing platform that they couldn’t miss.
Then when the indie option came along, I began republishing my old out-of-print books and earning some money. Since about 2014 or so, my earnings from indie publishing have far outpaced anything I ever earned as a traditionally published author.
Every writer is different, and some authors will do best with traditional publishers, while others are better off as indies. You get to decide, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. Whatever works for you is right for you.
Randy, seriously, thanks so much for taking time to write such a detailed response. Very good to hear it from an author who is selling, particularly the parts about why you, personally, have stayed indie. I agree that taking point is not for everyone, but it does seem to fit my style for many of the reasons you cited. And others that are my own.
Thank you, sir, for sharing your expertise and experience with us.
Randy, I have to mention one more thing about your lists. They did not mention one thing about indie books being of lesser quality than traditionally published ones. I know it’s up to the author to make sure the book looks and reads great, but it is truly fantastic that the ability to do so exists. Thanks again!
Kay, thanks for bringing back a favorite author of mine! Randy, I’m Mel Hughes, one of your noisiest fans. So very glad to see you here again, and happy to read that “Son of David” is underway.
I *loved* the City of God series and am hoping you’ll provide more entries in that one once “Crown of Thorns” is done. Until then, though, I’ve read “Son of Mary” at least four times, and it keeps getting better. I love your very different take on the disciples, especially John.
In real life I’m an editor, and I’d like to ask about your editing methods. The Snowflake method is terrific for figuring out where you want your story to go (or if you use it to analyze an already-written book, as I frequently do, it’s also great for figuring out where a step was missed). But Snowflaking deals with structure–the skeleton that holds the story up. When writers write, they’re pouring passion onto a page. Then an editor comes in with a red pen and reduces the story to smoldering ash. I imagine writing a story that’s near your heart, such as the life of Jesus–after all the trips you’ve made to Israel and all the walking you’ve done in the paths he walked, I’m sure you must have a strong attachment–so how do you (1) self-edit when you’re very emotionally involved with a story, and (2) deal with an editor who comes in and starts questioning what you’ve done? What advice do you have for an author working with an editor–and what advice do you have for editors working with authors, especially new authors?
Hi Mel. Thanks for stopping by. I also loved the “City of God” series.
Thanks for your great questions. I’ll be interested to see Randy’s responses.
Kay, I have a special message for your guest today:
Hi Randy, I enjoyed the interview very much. In addition, I thought you might be interested to know my debut novel, which was recently contracted by a midsized traditional publisher, was structured using your book “How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.” Interestingly, the imprint publishes mysteries and suspense. My book was a romance with lots of intrigue and suspense, so I’m in the process of revising it to switch genres. Because your how-to book is very general and flexible, it’s relatively straightforward to make the changes the publisher has asked for.
Thanks for developing such a powerful writing technique!
Glad to hear the Snowflake Method was useful to you in your book. You’re one of many thousands who’ve been able to use it to get a book published.
Dealing with editors is a complicated subject, but it’s especially timely for me. Just before I checked the blog here, I noticed that I had my editor’s report in my in-box for my next book, Son of David. So I may shortly be reduced to smoldering ash myself. We’ll see. I haven’t opened the email yet.
Here are a few things to remember about editing and editors:
1) The story is not handed down from heaven direct to your computer. You’re allowed to make changes from your first draft, and God will not be disappointed in you for getting it not quite right on the first try.
2) Editors are human and don’t know everything. They might be wrong. They might also not mesh well with you.
3) There is always a very, very, very remote possibility that the editor is right. I’ve seen it happen.
4) It’s OK to be mad at the editor when you first read what they said.
5) The editor is not saying your baby is ugly. The editor is saying your baby is not yet an adult.
6) There is a difference between your manuscript and you. If your editor says your manuscript has flaws, they are not making a personal attack on you.
7) A manuscript needs to work on many levels, from the big structural design all the way down to the little details. When you start editing, sort things out into levels, and tackle the big structural things first. Then work on the medium-level structure. Get the details right last.
8) Some editors are just lame. I had one like that, once upon a time. Most authors have. If you’re traditionally published, you have to live with it. If you’re indie, you can find another editor.
Mel, you asked how I’ve dealt with editing in the past, and you also mentioned you liked my City of God series. So here’s a little story about editing the third book in that series, Retribution, which ends in a very dark place (and a historically very accurate place). I’m sure you remember how it ended.
I was working on final edits for Book 3 when I heard from a fan who had read the first two books. She wanted to know how Book 3 was coming, and I said I was just wrapping up edits. She asked if she could get a sneak preview, so I sent her a copy about a week before my deadline for final revisions.
Within a few days, she emailed back to say she loved the story, except that the ending was awful. And she explained what was wrong.
I was of course incensed. I had a real editor at a major publishing house, and HE didn’t have a problem with the ending. Just who did this fan think she was????
But a day or two later, I realized she was right. The ending was not right. So I worked around the clock for the next few days to make the ending right. It was a dark ending, and it had to be dark, because that’s what actually happened, but it needed some hope in there.
Well, I missed my deadline. I emailed my editor and told him I had second thoughts on the ending and needed a couple more days to get it right. He was OK with that. I worked through the weekend and got the ending right and sent it in. It’s an ending I still like to this day.
And that fan of mine? She became one of my very closest friends, and she’s been my editor ever since, on all my novels and all my indie books. Because she gets my work. And she’s the editor who just sent me a report on my next book today. It’s sitting in my in-box and I think I smell smoke. I’m sure there will be surprises in those comments. But I’ll wait a few days and think about them and by Friday, I’ll have decided that (once again) my editor knows something.
And then I’ll get to work and make the book the best I can.
There is nothing I can say to make the task of receiving a harsh edit easier. It’s not easy. It’s hard. The only way through the swamp of despair is to keep moving. I’m sure a little humility would be a good thing here, if only I had some.
Randy, thanks for this detailed reply. And for the honest thoughts contained! I always fight with myself to remember that editors can be wrong too, because I’ve certainly been wrong a few times…
I *do* remember the end of “Retribution,” mainly because I was sobbing through it each of the six times I’ve read it over the years (I think it’s time for another City of God binge-read to hold me over till “Son of David” is out for public consumption). Very dark, very tragic, very historically accurate. Have I mentioned that I love the work you put into historical accuracy? (That’s a pet peeve of mine. Any time I see people riding horses with stirrups in a Biblical epic I gag.) I really enjoyed the story of how you got your editor and how she helped save the ending of “Retribution.” A lot of times an author will have a little niggle of a feeling that something is wrong with a scene, a subplot, or something, and an editor will put their finger on it.
Thanks for visiting again, and for all your excellent advice.
Thank you so much, Kay and Randy, for such an informative interview–and the answers to the questions! I learned a lot. I didn’t even know about this second Snowflake book–so that’s helpful to know also. I enjoyed the Q&A as much as the interview itself. Thank you!
Barbara, thank you for stopping by. I agree there is a lot of great information in the interview and the Q&A! Valuable stuff.
Thank you, Randy, for being on the blog today. You’ve given us a wealth of information and insight. “How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method” will be a treasured companion for me in the months ahead!