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.
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.