Thursday, March 24, 2016

Why Size Matters…in your book video trailer

I’m a sucker for videos of cute baby animals. Kittens, elephants, bears. Thankfully, the Internet is full of these and millions of other videos that help pass the time between waking up and when the caffeine kicks in.
I must confess that I’m miserly with this bit of morning time. Before I watch a video, I check to see how long it is. Over three minutes? I won’t even click play. Doesn’t matter if there’s a dancing penguin and kissing a polar bear in it.
Certainly, I’m not the only fussy video viewer out there. With our social media feeds being bombarded by video, viewers are pickier than ever with our viewing diet. So, if a three-minute video about something that I know interests me isn’t going to get watched, how much worse would it be for a commercial endeavor such as a book preview?
Book video trailers have been a staple in publishing promotion for nearly ten years now. And like regular commercials, some are terrific and some stink. Most fall into the middle ground. They are good representations of a book, but fail to hook viewers. 
No hook, no views. That’s the sad reality of promoting on social media today. I will be talking about visual hooks in a future post, but today I want talk about how you can hook your readers before they even click play. 
It’s simple. Keep it short. Think about it. Would you sit through a two minute commercial if it interrupted your favorite sitcom? I’d probably get up and make a snack. We have a little more leeway online, but keeping your book video to the one minute mark will ensure that more readers hit the play button. And like medicine, it doesn’t matter how good your promo is if readers don’t digest it.
Hold on! There are many book videos that are two minutes and longer. That’s true. And, just like commercials, longer videos can work. Take for example the Budweiser ads or Friskies “Dear Kitten” series. But these commercials aren’t pure promo. They tell a story. And viewers watch them for the same reason that I watch baby elephants taking a bath. They’re fun. 
Longer book videos that tap into the fun, cute or inspirational vein can work well. Likewise, videos that offer something more, such as an interview, often need more than two minutes.  In fact, while researching this article, I looked at the view count for many trailers I’ve made over the years. The ones with the higher view count weren’t always the 60 second trailers. I’ve made many successful trailers of 2 minutes or more. But these videos use visual and audio cues to hook the reader along throughout the video. As I mentioned, I’ll be talking about this in a future article.
Unfortunately, many book video trailers fail to hook the viewer. These tend to be the longer videos that could have easily been trimmed to a shorter, more effective promo. Let’s take an example. A friend of mine (we’ll call her Leslie) made her own trailer for a memoir she self-published. Leslie’s video was two and a half minutes long with images of her early life, landscapes of the farm she grew up on, and sweet music playing in the background. Each image stayed on the screen for over ten seconds, far longer than I needed to take it in. The accompanying text did a good job of describing the book, but the slow pace soon made my finger itchy to click “next video.” Because Leslie is a friend and I wanted to learn about her book, I watched it to the end. But those were 150 seconds of my life that I will never get back. 
A snappier, sixty second, video could have related all the same information and left me satisfied rather than grumpy.
So while the length of your video is not the deciding factor of its success, consider it as the first and most important hook. For more tips on creating great trailers, see my past article Trailer Gaffes and Greats

Feel free to post a link to your trailer in the comments. I’ll offer a short and honest critique of all trailers posted. And just to show that I can take it as good as I give it, here’s the trailer for my new book, Hibernaculum. 

As a side note, while researching view times for this article, I realized that I’ve made nearly 500 book video trailers since 2009! Wow! I’ve had the opportunity to work with some fascinating authors. I think I should celebrate when I hit the 500 mark? What do you think? Any ideas to celebrate this landmark? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Kim McDougall is the founder of Castelane Inc, a book promotion hub. Since 2007 she has made nearly 500 book video trailers, lectured on the art of book videos and critiqued trailers for several review sites. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How I Outline

One of the main reasons I go to writing conventions is to talk to other writers about how they outline. I ask every presenter during panel discussions and bring up the subject of outlining during lunch and cocktails. Maybe I'm a bit obsessed. But I find the wildly different answers from writers both enlightening and frustrating.

There is no single 'right way' to outline. Every writer has their own tricks to laying down the foundations of a book.

A casual observer might say that there are two thought camps to outlining: those who do it and those who don't. Some call this the plotter versus the pansters (as in seat-of-the-pants) theory. But of course that is oversimplifying things. There are many hues of variation between one extreme and the other. Some pansters might create general outlines and only leave the individual scenes up for free-writing. Plotters come in many colors too. Those who create elaborate, detailed schedules of every scene, POV, and character, to those who prefer to outline in a single narrative summary.

I was always a panster, probably because I wrote mostly short fiction and could keep all the plot points in my head. When I put aside my third draft of a novel because of irredeemable plot holes, I decided it was time to trade camps and learn how to outline.

That's when my frustration really began. I wanted someone to tell me, "Here. This is how you outline your novel. Now sit down and do it." Of course, like in real life, no one was going to hold my hand to that extant.

Instead, when I asked the question, "How do you outline," I received hundreds of different answers, each one valid for that particular author and each with the caveat, "You have to take what works for you and discard the rest."

That was just the problem. I didn't know what worked for me. Yet.

At this point, I should give a shout out to two talented authors who did help me answer that question. One is James Scott Bell with his book Plot & Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot That Grips Readers from Start to Finish and the other is K.M. Weiland with Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Both of these books helped me focus my thoughts and streamline my unwieldy story into a coherent plot.  Like the others, both Weiland and Bell advocate taking what suggestions work best for me. And after a few tries, I'm finally learning what is best for me. For instance, Weiland likes to write her initial notes by hand in notebook, then transcribe them onto the computer. This was exactly the kind of hands-on advice I was looking for, especially since she took me right through her note-taking process.

However, my own attempt at this failed miserably. You see, I often have pain in my hands and fingers which is exacerbated by writing with a pen for long periods of time. So my notes were barely legible and the process was painful and not inspiring.

Simple fix: I make my initial notes on a computer. It works better for me. I'm learning.

Since I am so interested in how others outline, I thought I'd share my process here with you. This is by no means a complete dissertation on the art of outlining. I'll leave that to the masters who have come before me and expressed themselves so well. But maybe it will inspire some other writer lost in the fog of plotting. I would invite you to share your outlining insights in the comments below, so we can all take what is useful for us.

How I Outline

1. I write a one page narrative that gives a basic shape to the story. For this, I use a pared down version of the Snowflake Method, which begins with one potent line and builds exponentially from there.

2. I spend some time in "What if" land. This is where I question every motive and action made by the characters. This often points out gaps in the story or suggests new turns in the plot.

3. I highlight the 2 main scenes that will hinge the book. These are the doorways that the character must go through. Doorway one is the point of no return. This is the action or decision that propels the character into the story. The second is the action or decision that ignites the climax of the story.

4. I fill in the blanks. How do I get from doorway 1 to doorway 2? Here I use small blocks of text that highlight key scenes in a chronological order. I'm not worrying about chapters yet. Only scenes.

5. I write. Outlining doesn't stop here though. Before I start each chapter I decide which scenes it should include and where the best cut off point would be, to leave the reader wanting to turn more pages. Then I take that small chunk of outline and expand it into a full page. Here I lay down specifics. If it's a fight scene, I trace each character's movements. If it's a dialogue scene, who is saying what and for what reason? Even internal monologues can get this treatment. What info needs to come out here? What are the key motivations of each character in the scene? What is the conflict that moves the scene? I call it my floor plan because it's like those footsteps painted on the floor for dance lessons.

This last bit of outlining is new to me, an innovation that I added after trying many other ways of outlining. It works for me and here's why:

-With a clear floor plan, I can be free to write creatively, knowing that I won't forget important plot points.
-Staring at a blank screen can be daunting. The floorpan reassures me that I have some place to go. In fact, I often end a writing session by creating the floor plan for the next day. That way, I feel confident to get right into it as soon as I turn on my computer (after I get distracted by Facebook, my adorable pets, the need for coffee, etc. But that's another blog post.)

So that's it. Does it work? We'll see. After four failed attempts at my current work-in-progress, I swore to myself that draft #5 would be the last. If I don't succeed this time, I'm scrapping the whole project (which has years of world building behind it) and moving on. Such is the life of a writer. Sometimes we must kill our darlings.

But draft #5 is now at 65,000 words and holding its own. So far, no major plot holes. Just a few leaks that I plugged with chewing gum until revising time. I'll let you know how it goes.

Feel free to share your outlining successes or failures (those are just as important) in the comments below.