18 July 2017

Bestseller Metrics with Editor & Author Elaine Ash

by Paul D. Marks

Today I’d like to welcome Elaine Ash, editor, writer and friend. Elaine was born and grew up in eastern Canada, but calls L.A. home these days. Under the pen name “Anonymous-9,” Elaine’s crime fiction is included in numerous “Best of” lists every year. Anonymous-9 was invented as a blind for her hard-hitting, experimental short stories. Her work has been praised by T. Jefferson Parker, Ray Garton, Johnny Shaw, Douglas Lindsay, Josh Stallings, Robert Randisi and many others.

But Elaine also edits fiction writers, from established authors to emerging talent. As the former editor-at-large for Beat to a Pulp webzine, Elaine worked directly with writers of all genres to develop stories for publication. Some of those writers went on to fame and fortune such as recent Edgar nominee Patti Abbott (Polis), Jay Stringer (Thomas and Mercer), Chris F. Holm (Mulholland), S.W Lauden (Rare Bird), Kieran Shea (Titan), Hilary Davidson (Macmillan) Sophie Littlefield (Minotaur, Delacorte) and many more.

Today, she works with private clients, helping them shape manuscripts, acquire agents and land publishing deals. She also ghostwrites and edits for industry clients.

Elaine has a new book out called BESTSELLER METRICS. It’s a different approach to writing novels so I thought it might be of interest to people here and I asked her some questions about it:



Paul: What made you decide to write Bestseller Metrics?

Elaine: I saw that if writers could get novel structure right before hiring an editor, everybody would win. Well-structured stories attract bigger agents and land better publishing deals. That might sound like a sales pitch, but it’s the truth. 


How did you develop it and how did you figure out what it takes to have Bestseller Metrics?

I developed it over years of editing novel manuscripts. In my view, people who give hard-earned money for an editor’s opinion deserve proof that the changes will move them closer to publication. I had metrics in my head for many years before I wrote them down. The key here (that you may not know about) is based on my personality type. The Myers-Briggs personality scale reveals that I’m an INTJ, “Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging personality. There are 16 types and INTJ females make up 0.8% of the population. Males make up 2% of the population (https://www.16personalities.com). We are called “The Architects” and our brains never stop categorizing and creating systems out of information. For kicks. Really. Don’t I sound like a fun date? A colleague of yours and mine, the indubitable Dana King says I “put into words what’s been sitting in plain sight.” Metrics patterns have been showing up in books for a hundred years at least. Nobody was oddball enough to document them in terms of novel structure until I came along. 


I understand that you’ve trademarked your plan, what is so different about it that it deserves a trademark?

The system has registered patent pending status from the US Patent Office, which is different than a trademark. That may be changing, however, after my conversation with Dr. Gregory Benford, a physicist and professor at UC Irvine, also a Nebula Award winner for his science fiction. He told me about a genetics testing company that operated under trade-secret law. It’s nothing strange or new—the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe is a trade secret. So I came up with a plan. I’ve released the initial part of the system to the general public in the book, while other parts are being developed as publishing industry software that will operate as a business trade secret. It sounds great, but as Dr. Bentham said as he walked away from me, “Just remember, every mook with a gat thinks he’s a tough guy.” So we’ll see if the plan actually works in the real world. 


What one thing holds back most unpublished manuscripts?

Structure. There so little information for aspiring authors. For decades, I’ve seen manuscripts with sparkling prose, 3-D characters and great premise ideas fail solely on structure. It’s not because writers don’t want to learn—they’re paying for books, classes, conferences and workshops. They’re breaking their fingernails to get it right. But structure is rarely taught, or it’s taught in a way that is not accessible to large numbers of learners. My greatest wish is that educators will pick up this book and start teaching it. On my to-do list is to create teacher-support materials for use in classrooms. I’ll work with any teacher who contacts me.




You talk about “Imaginary Memory.” What is that and how does it affect writers and their writing.

The Imaginary Memory tricks a writer into thinking details are on the page that aren’t really there, or are only partly there. As an author reads his or her own writing, a parade of stored memories and images flood the mind, filling in missing plot points and smoothing over missing descriptions. A cold reader can tell something’s missing immediately, but the writer feels like everything’s complete. Imaginary Memory is a trickster. That’s why a writer can be convinced they’ve just turned in a tremendously vivid piece of work to a writers’ group, and reaction falls flat. I invented tests to help short-circuit IM and give the writer clear indicators of what’s missing.


How is Bestseller Metrics different from the average how-to book on writing fiction?

It’s a window on the creation of novels. It offers a series of tests for writers of every genre to find how close they are to the metrics of bestsellers. If you can count from 1 to 10 you know enough math to do the tests. The book has crystal-clear diagrams, cartoon line drawings, detailed analyses, and a sprinkling of humor and encouragement so it stays interesting and entertaining.


You talk a lot about numbers of characters in best-selling novelscan you tell us a little about that. Character countingwhat is that? And why is it important?

Too often, good manuscripts are flawed by a carousel of characters dropping into a chapter and then vanishing, never to be seen again. Too many characters create confusion and complicate the plot. Successful novels have basic and measurable numbers of characters that track from beginning to end. Key information a writer needs is, “What’s the right amount of characters?” I’m talking about average-sized novels around 100,000 words or less. Epics and sagas with huge word counts like A Game of Thrones have their own metrics, and there are separate chapters on that.

Leaving the literary leviathans aside, there is a predictable amount of characters that appear in the first quarter of the books I examined. The first quarter of a story is golden—it’s the time when readers get to know the main character and “the world.” Inside the books on my list, in every genre, between 25 and 53 characters appear in the first quarter, no matter if the book is 62,000 words (The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett) or  146,000 words (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn). Flip to the last quarter of each book and you’ll find a range between 4 and 22 characters that made it through to the climax and ending. Will you find novels that don’t match these metrics? Of course! Art isn’t set in stone. But for the beginning novelist, trying to craft a manuscript for sale, these guidelines are tried and true. They will help you create a story that works. Like I say in the book: “Learn the rules, land a publishing deal, and then break all the rules you want.” 



You talk about discovering the secrets of best-selling books like— 

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding, The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler, Gone Girl - Gillian Flynn, The Color of Magic - Terry Pratchett, Interview with the Vampire - Anne Rice, A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin, Harry Potter - J.K. Rowling, A Confederacy of Dunces -John Kennedy Toole, The Shining - Stephen King, Lady Chatterley’s Lover - D. H. Lawrence, The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins, The Devil Wears Prada - Lauren Weisberger, The Lincoln Lawyer -Michael Connelly, Monster Hunter International -Larry Correia, The Other Side of Midnight - Sydney Sheldon, Kill Shot - Vince Flynn 

—what are those secrets?

I examine each cast of characters and their relationships to one another. I provide simplified outlines for some books and point out the major plot elements. Nailing the first and second act plot twists can be tricky, and as far as I know, no book has distilled this information before. Hollywood does these breakdowns for films all day long, but nobody’s done it for novels. This is the kind of information I longed for and searched everywhere for as a first-time writer. A career novelist email me yesterday and said, “If I’d had this book 20 years ago, I could have saved a lot of time.” That was a pretty big compliment.


Anything else that you’d like to say?

Friend me on Facebook and ask any questions you like. Visit me at bestsellermetrics.com. You can email me there, too. Look inside the book at https://www.amazon.com/Bestseller-Metrics-Novel-Writing-Structure/dp/1546524886. FYI, there is no e-book and there likely won’t be one. This is a full-size workbook meant to be written in.

Thank you for joining us, Elaine.

***


And now for the usual BSP:

My short story “Blood Moon” will be coming out in Day of the Dark (Stories of the Eclipse). Edited by Kaye George. Releasing July 21, 2017, one month before the big solar eclipse on August 21st. From Wildside Press. Available for Pre-Order on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073YDGSL5


www.PaulDMarks.com

9 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Paul, the word for this is one I seldom use--fascinating.

Steve Liskow said...

Fascinating interview, Paul and Elaine.

I wonder how many agents could verbalize what you say here, Elaine. I remember sending queries and partials to a few agents who said things like, "you write well, but I can't sell this." End of explanation. It took me years to figure out that my weakness was (and still is) structure.

Structure DOES get short shrift in a lot of writing books. I've read many books on plot, and most of them talk about the sagging middle, the middle third, the middle half, and similar, but seldom explain how to get through the development. It's pretty much a given now that a major twist happens 25-30% through the MS and another at 75-80 (the climax), but most books don't tell you exactly how to get from one of these points to the other.

Elaine, you mention screenwriting metrics. For what it's worth, the books that helped me learn structure were actually geared to screenwriting more than novels. John Truby's book is one, and Victoria Lynn Schmidt's is another (both writers are also script doctors).

I'll definitely be checking your book out, too, Elaine. Thanks for visiting. And Paul, thanks for sharing this info.


O'Neil De Noux said...

Sound a little like applying math to art.

Which means W. Somerset Maugham was wrong when he said, "There are three rules for the writing of a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are." Apparently this woman knows.

I guess Stephen King was also wrong when he said, "You don't always have to take the editor's advice. Sometimes the way you see it is the way it should be.”

EA said...

Hi Fran, Steve and O'Neil,
Great comments, thank you. Lovely to hear from all of you. For the record, I make no rules. I point out patterns in bestselling books that have not been documented before, and leave it to the individual writer to decide what they'd like to adopt or not.

I'll check back now and then and see if there are any more comments from Paul's terrific readership and Sleuth Sayer colleagues. Thanks so much for your interest.
Elaine Ash

GBPool said...

Since two people already used "fascinating," I'll have to say how great to know there is method in all this madness we writers do. Great post Elaine and Paul.

EA said...

Hi Gayle! Thanks for dropping by.
Elaine

Rusty Barnes said...

Looks like a great and useful book.

EA said...

Thanks Rusty.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. And thanks again, Elaine, for stopping by.