Common Misconceptions about Conflict #2: Conflict = Tension

I have a very special guest for you today. Each month, I guest post at Fiction University, a site overflowing with helpful information for writers at all stages. Fiction University is owned by Janice Hardy, and this week, I’m honored to have her here to share some wisdom with you.


Common Misconceptions about Conflict #2: Conflict = Tension

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Conflict is one of the more misunderstood aspects of writing fiction, because it’s not always clear what someone means when they say, “conflict.” This has no doubt tripped up a lot of new writers (and even some experienced writers), and caused quite a few unproductive writing sessions. It’s hard to create strong conflict in a novel if you’re not sure what conflict is. It’s even harder when you think it’s actually something else.

Confusing tension with conflict has probably caused more frustration than any other aspect of conflict, because these two are so closely linked they seem like the same thing—except they aren’t. You can have conflict without tension, and tension without conflict. Struggling over which boy to go to prom with is a conflict, but if there’s no sense of anticipation about that choice, there’s no tension. Sexual tension between characters keeps readers interested, even though there’s no conflict since both parties want the same thing. The tension comes from the anticipation of how they resolve that attraction.

Tension is the reader’s need to know what happens next, and the sense that there’s more going on than meets the eye. It’s the anticipation of something about to happen, good and bad. That’s it.

Conflict creates tension by putting a character into a situation where the outcome is uncertain, and readers anticipate what will happen or what will be discovered.

For example:

  • The fantasy protagonist sneaks through the dark, scary graveyard and jumps at every sound, sure she’s being followed. (Being nervous isn’t a conflict since there’s nothing opposing the protagonist, but anticipating what might be following her can create tension in the reader.)
  • The romance protagonist banters with the love interest, but never acts on her attraction and leaves without doing anything. (Playful bantering isn’t a conflict, but readers eagerly read on to see where that banter might go, creating tension.)
  • The mystery protagonist eavesdrops on a suspect. (The potential for being discovered isn’t a conflict, but the fear that she might be found can create tension, as can the anticipation of what she might overhear.)

While all of these examples can be filled with tension, there’s no opposition, no struggle, and no choice to be made to resolve any of them. Eagerly waiting for the next summer blockbuster to come out has tension, but no conflict. Trying to decide if you’ll go see the movie on opening night, even though your best friend can’t go with you and you promised to see it with her, is conflict. It offers a choice—see the movie or hurt the friend.

Some scenes can get by on tension alone, and the fun is in the anticipation of what’s to come, not the uncertainty in what might happen. Certain genres, such as romance, keep readers hooked even though everyone knows the outcome of the story. Gut-wrenching conflict isn’t needed in every scene, though there will be conflict throughout the book. Other genres, such as thrillers or mysteries, focus more on the uncertainty of the outcome to entertain readers. Both are valid ways to write a novel, which is why it’s important to know when using tension, conflict, or both is the best thing for the scene.

If you’re unsure if you’re swapping conflict and tension, look at your scene or story and ask:

Is there opposition to your protagonist’s goal? Conflict exist when something or someone is preventing the protagonist from getting what she wants. If there’s no opposition, there’s no conflict. If the whole point of the scene is to overcome or achieve something, that opposition is critical to keeping readers engaged.

Is this opposition creating a challenge to overcome, or just an obstacle to get past? It’s not uncommon to see an obstacle in the way of the protagonist’s goal and think the scene does indeed have conflict. But obstacles in the way aren’t usually good conflicts. If the result of the scene is the same even if the protagonist hadn’t encountered the obstacle, it’s not actually a conflict. This is one of the more common conflict issues, especially in plot-heavy novels. Getting past the obstacle doesn’t mean anything, even if it’s fraught with tension.

What’s driving the reader’s need to turn the page? A good conflict/tension mix will have the anticipation of what’s to come with the uncertainty of how it will turn out. The conflict creates the uncertainty (typically making the protagonist struggle with a choice on what to do), and the tension creates the need to know what happens next. It’s not always easy to be objective about our own writing, but take a step back and consider why a reader would want to read the scene and what would make them want to keep reading. If they skipped the scene, would it really matter? If the answer is no, odds are the scene needs more conflict.

Is the outcome obvious? If there’s anticipation but no problem to overcome, the outcome of the scene will likely be obvious. There won’t be a choice to make, or a challenge to face, because there’s no conflict preventing the protagonist from acting. The critical element here—is the reader interested in how the protagonist gets to that obvious outcome? For example, knowing the kiss is coming is obvious, but the fun is in watching the courtship dance to get there. Tension without a lot of conflict can work just fine in this situation. But watching the protagonist struggle to disarm a ticking time bomb readers know from the start she’ll disarm lacks tension and conflict and just makes readers wait unnecessarily.

When in doubt, a handy question to ask is:

What’s the challenge facing my protagonist?

If there’s no challenge, and no struggle to overcome that challenge, you might be using tension instead of conflict in the scene.

Conflict works with tension (as well as stakes, and a slew of other things) to put characters into situations that make readers want to know what happens next, and thus read the novel you worked so hard on to find out.

What challenge does your protagonist face?

Looking for more tips on creating conflict? Check out Janice’s latest book Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), an in-depth guide to how to use conflict in your fiction.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the fantasy trilogy, The Healing Wars, and multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It), Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure and Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft. She’s also the founder of the writing site, Fiction University. For more advice and helpful writing tips, visit her at www.fiction-university.com or @Janice_Hardy.

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Advertising Strategies for Indie Authors

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Each month you can find me guest posting for Janice Hardy’s Fiction University on topics related to self-publishing.

I’ve recently started a new series on advertising strategies for independent authors. Advertising can be a bit controversial because it can eat up a lot of money and give few results. When it works, however, it can help bring a book the attention it needs to find new readers.

Here are the first two posts:

The Basics of Advertising for Indie Authors

Is It Ever Okay to Lose Money on Advertising?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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Building a Mailing List through Reader Magnets

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

One of the almost universal pieces of advice we hear as indie authors is that we need to build a newsletter mailing list. A mailing list allows us to keep in touch with readers and let them know when our next book releases. Theoretically, they’ll be excited to buy our book, sending it up in the rankings.

The tricky part is how do we convince people to give us their email addresses?

One solution is the reader magnet.

I’m back at Fiction University today for my regular monthly guest post, and this time I’m talking about building a mailing list through reader magnets.

If you missed last month’s post, you can find out the benefits of ebook preorders here.

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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Kindle Unlimited: Is It Worth It?

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Back in June I wrote a post where I outlined the pros and cons of Kindle Select, a program where you’re required to make a book exclusive to Amazon for 90 days in exchange for certain perks. 

One of those “perks” is that the book we enroll in KDP Select is also placed into Kindle Unlimited. Kindle Unlimited is a subscription-based service where readers pay a flat monthly fee for the ability to read the books in KU without paying anything additional for them. Authors whose books are in KU are paid based on how many pages of their books are read. The per-page payout varies per month, and Amazon announces what it will be on the 15th day of the following month. (In other words, you find out on March 15 what the payout will be for page reads from February.) 

Whether or not an author chooses to enroll some or all of their books in KDP Select is a personal choice and should be based both on what’s working now and on what our overall career goals are. I can’t tell you what to do because there’s no one right answer in this business. 

What I can tell you is that the reason my pen name’s books are all still in KDP Select is Kindle Unlimited. 

So what I wanted to do this month is share some of the data I’ve been able to collect about my page reads compared to my sales and how borrows have influenced my sales’ rank in order to explain why—for me—Kindle Unlimited is worth being exclusive to Amazon. 

Please join me today at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University!

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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When to Capitalize Titles

By Chris Saylor

Today, we’re going to talk about when to capitalize titles. What I mean here is when to capitalize mom or dad, military ranks, honorifics, job titles, and so on.

You do capitalize a title when making a direct address (calling someone by “name”). You also capitalize a title that’s being used in place of a name.

How do you like Arizona, Mom?

Before the airplane took off, Dad stowed his bag under the seat.

I was not going that fast, Your Honor.

In each of these examples, you could sub out the title for a name.

How do you like Arizona, Suzanne?

Before the airplane took off, Tom stowed his bag under the seat.

I was not going that fast, Frank.

You do not capitalize a title when you are not making a direct address, when you would use the title to indicate a role.

My mom is in Arizona for the winter.

The lieutenant will hear about this.

The judge only sentenced me to a fine and community service.

Here’s how these would look if you tried to substitute a name.

My Suzanne is in Arizona for the winter.

The Tommy will hear about this.

The Frank only sentenced me to a fine and community service.

This should help you see how in the second set of examples, you would have to change the sentence to make it work with a name. That’s an easy way to tell whether or not to capitalize titles.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Using Apostrophes

By Chris Saylor

Last week, I talked about formatting dialogue within dialogue, as part of an attempt to address a request about using apostrophes in fiction. Today’s post will build off of last week’s.

You can use apostrophes in two ways. First, you can use them when combing two words to form a contraction. Most native English speakers learned about contractions in school, but here are a couple of examples just to refresh your memory.

I don’t drink. (don’t = do not)

She hasn’t had any lunch. (hasn’t = has not)

I shan’t vote for that candidate. (shan’t = shall not)

If you want to learn more about using contractions in fiction, see my post on using contractions in fiction.

Second, you can use them to indicate possession. This can be done to indicate singular possession (one person possesses something) or collective possession (a group possesses something).

Here are some examples of when you should and shouldn’t use apostrophes in fiction.

The Browns went to dinner.

We went to the Browns’ for dinner.

In the first example, we don’t use an apostrophe because we’re talking about a group of people—the Brown family. In the second example, we do use an apostrophe because we are showing that the place where we went to dinner belongs to the Browns.

The Browns own the Browns’ house.

One more example so you can see this in action:

Melanie’s shoes had holes in them.

We use an apostrophe here because the shoes are owned by Melanie.

My grade 8 class had three Melanies in it.

We don’t use an apostrophe here because we’re talking about a group of people.

Do you have any questions or any other aspects of grammar for fiction writers you would like to see discussed? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to address them.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is Tenses.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Taking Back My Crayons and Falling in Love with Writing Again

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

Welcome back to the third part in my in-depth exploration of why I decided to launch a secret pen name.

If you missed the other parts, you can find them here:

Reason #1 – Part of a writer’s brand is their name.
Reason #2 – I wanted to run an experiment about how to best gain visibility and sell books.

Today I’m diving in to reason #3. I saved it for last because it was the single most important reason behind my decision. It’s also the post that scares me the most because I’m going to be honest and vulnerable about things I’ve never shared publicly before. I’m sharing because I hope it will help others who are feeling the same way.


What I’m calling my third reason was inspired by a quote from an artist named Cinnamon Cooney. She has an excellent YouTube channel where she teaches acrylic painting in a way that’s meant to allow people to explore their creativity and have fun. It’s a no-judgment zone. She says she’s trying to give people their crayons back.

What does any of that have to do with writing and why I chose to launch a secret pen name?

When I first started writing fiction, I wrote for the sheer joy of it. I was like a kid with crayons. Kids don’t draw and color for any reason except that it’s fun. They experiment without fear of someone criticizing what they do. They’re free to learn by failure and to try again and to love the entire process.

Then somewhere along the way, the weight of expectation crushes us. It’s no longer good enough to create because we love the act of creation and to create what we love. Now we have to make sure that what we create meets the expectations of everyone watching us, judging us, waiting to see if we’ll succeed…or fail.

The weight of those expectations was killing me creatively.

I’d had a few people tell me that, when I released a novel, there would be those who would criticize it more harshly because I’m also an editor and a writing instructor. I’d also had people suggest that if my books weren’t excellent, they wouldn’t trust my editing or non-fiction teaching. I knew there was going to be a certain level of expectation for my work that might not be there if I wasn’t an editor and writing instructor.

The fear built from there. What if I published a novel and it tanked? Would that hurt the other side of my business? At the time, the income from my editing, teaching, and Busy Writer’s Guides was what paid my bills. I couldn’t afford to jeopardize it.

On top of that, due to a series of circumstance a few years ago, I’d lost my confidence in myself as a fiction writer. I knew I’d once had the skills—I had the competition wins to prove it—but I was scared I’d lost them.

As if those fears weren’t enough, I was afraid I’d lost my voice too. I’d spent four years co-writing, tamping down on my voice to meld it with someone else’s, and more years than that mimicking other writers’ voices in my editing. I wasn’t even sure I could find my voice again and find my way back to who I was as a writer.

To me, the bar felt like someone had perched it on top of the moon and my rocket-booster boots were all out of fuel.

I had confidence in my abilities as an editor and a teacher, but what I knew (and many people forget) is that a good editor or teacher isn’t necessarily a good writer and a good writer isn’t necessarily a good editor or teacher. The skill sets involved are different. I was terrified I was one and not the other.

Worse, the one I knew I was good at wasn’t my dream. Editing was something I started doing a decade or so ago because it came easily to me, I liked helping people, and I liked paying my bills and eating. I just didn’t want to spend my whole life doing it, and I started to fear that I’d wake up one day thirty years from now to find that my life had passed me by and I’d never done the things I’d dreamed of.

See, I’d been promising myself for a lot of years that “next year” I’d start slowing down on my editing load so that I could spend more time writing my personal work. It never happened. There was always some reason why I had to keep packing my editing schedule so full that, at the end of the day, I didn’t have any creative energy left. I’d given it all away to everyone else. My mind was filled with stories that weren’t my own.

I felt trapped. And I seriously considered walking away entirely from writing and from editing. The past few years had been so difficult on a behind-the-scenes personal level that a day job with set hours, a dependable pay check, and health benefits was starting to look better to me than spending the next thirty years editing, watching from the sidelines as other people achieved my dream. I’m pretty sure I could have walked away and never looked back. I was tired deep down in my soul.

I’d finally reached my breaking point. I either had to make a major step toward my goal of being a full-time fiction author or I had to quit and make my life better some other way. But I was frightened that taking that step would hurt us financially in a way we couldn’t afford if it turned out I wasn’t a good writer.

In the movie The Avengers, there’s an exchange between Captain America and Tony Stark. Captain America accuses Stark of not being the guy who’d lie down on the wire and let others crawl over him. Stark says, “No, I’d cut the wire.”

I had to find a way to cut the wire.

If you’re in a similar place, how you cut your particular wire will be different. For me, it meant creating a secret pen name. Here’s why:

(1) Having a secret pen name made writing fun again.

A large part of my struggle was that people had expectations of me and those expectations made writing harder than it should have been. I was tied up into knots trying to create a book that wouldn’t disappoint anyone. (Those of you who’ve been publishing for years are laughing now. A book that everyone loves doesn’t exist.) Writing under a secret pen name meant no expectations. I could write what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write it, simply because it was fun to do. Because no one expected anything at all of Pen Name.

(2) Failure had to be an option. 

In one of his posts, Dean Wesley Smith wrote, “Remember, quitting is not an option. Failing is fine and you will do that a lot, but the moment you find a reason to quit and stay away, you and your art are finished.” I didn’t feel like failure was an option under my real name. With a secret pen name, I could take risks, make mistakes, and fail spectacularly because I could walk away from it. I could start all over again with a new pen name if I wanted to. What I wrote wouldn’t continue to follow me for the rest of my career.

Starting a pen name gave me my crayons back.

I hadn’t written any new fiction since 2014, maybe longer. After I created my pen name, I wrote and edited three novels and a novella in around five months (despite everything else happening in my life). And then I published them in a short span of time, and I didn’t look back.

They’re doing well enough that I’d be thrilled to admit they’re mine. But I’m not going to. Right now, I want to keep the pen name for me. It’s my place to play and to fall back in love with writing. I don’t need anyone else to know that she is me to feel good about those books. I know that I succeeded.

And, for now at least, that’s what I need it to be.

I’d love to hear your stories. Have you ever gone through a period of time where you lost your confidence? How did you overcome it? Is fear getting in the way of achieving your dreams? Have I changed any minds about launching a pen name?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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Formatting Dialogue within Dialogue

By Chris Saylor

Hello, everyone! I’m back from my too-long holiday break. I hope you didn’t miss me too much!

Today’s post comes from an email request. It’s about properly using apostrophes, especially in dialogue.

Apostrophes are a huge topic, so first I’ll cover what I think this requester was really wanting to know, which is how we handle what I’ll call dialogue within dialogue. In other words, how do we handle it when one of our characters is quoting someone else?

This is done by following the regular rules for dialogue, except that you need to use single quotation marks (or a single quotation mark and an apostrophe, however you prefer) around the quoted text. Here are some examples.

Jessica pursed her lips. “And when I got to the counter, he said, ‘You don’t have the right forms.’ Can you believe that?”

“Everything was going so well.” Mary wadded up a bunch of tissues in her fist. “And we were having a nice evening, and then, out of nowhere, he said, ‘I think we should see other people.’”

Do you have any questions or any other aspects of grammar for fiction writers you would like to see discussed? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll be sure to address them.

Every Saturday for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here in the Editor’s Corner, simplifying some of these grammar concepts for you and showing you how they specifically apply to your fiction. Coming up next week is Using Apostrophes.

Want to hire Chris for a proofread or copy edit? You can find out more about him at https://saylorediting.wordpress.com, or you can email him to talk about rates and availability at christopher.saylor21 [at] gmail.com. You might also want to check out the book he co-wrote with Marcy, Grammar for Fiction Writers, available at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or Apple iBooks.

Selling Books Through Social Media Vs. Selling Books Through Ads

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

If you’ve just stumbled upon this post, this is actually the second in a series where I’m sharing my reasons for launching a secret pen name.

Here’s the roadmap:

Reason #1 – Part of a writer’s brand is their name.
Reason #2 – I wanted to run an experiment about how to best gain visibility and sell books.
Reason #3 – I wanted my crayons back.

Today I’ll be talking about Reason #2.


Let me start by saying that my purpose in this post is to share my personal experience and to help others carefully consider the choices they’re making. Your results may vary.

Don’t start to blog or stop blogging because I (or anyone else) tell you to. Don’t change your social media strategy because I (or anyone else) tell you to. Research your options, test things for yourself, and make the decision that works best for you. And be willing to adapt. The publishing world is in constant flux, so what works today might not work tomorrow.

An additional caveat is that I’m talking in this post about selling fiction. I’m not talking about selling non-fiction. They are different. If you’re writing non-fiction, I think a blog is essential.

With that out of the way…

One of my reasons for launching a pen name was that I wanted to run an experiment.

The single biggest obstacle faced by all authors is visibility. In order for people to buy our books, they need to know our books exist.

The most common answer to the visibility problem is “build a platform.” We’re supposed to blog and we’re supposed to be on social media to build relationships with potential future readers. We don’t need to be on all the sites, but we should pick one or two to focus on. I’ve said as much myself in the past.

But now, years into blogging and my social media platform, I’ve started to wonder if there are a few flaws with this idea.

(1) It doesn’t always work.

Yes, I realize there are no guarantees in anything and the quality of the book matters, but I’ve seen authors who’d built up their platforms launch novels and have few sales. I’ve also seen authors launch novels that had a quick spike in sales but then didn’t stick in the rankings. From my (non-scientific) observation, it seems that blogging is much more effective at selling non-fiction books than it is at selling novels.

I also have a theory that blogging attracts people who like you, but it doesn’t necessarily attract people who like to read in the genre you write. I read blogs by people whose books I’ll never buy. Or, if I buy one of their books, it’s simply because I want to support them.

But even if people buy our book simply to support us, that’s not necessarily beneficial to us in the long-term. Those loyalty sales confuse Amazon’s algorithms about what type of people will actually like our book.

(2) Blogging and social media eat away at the time needed to write books.

I understand that blogging hones our non-fiction writing skills and teaches us to meet deadlines. It doesn’t teach us to be better fiction writers, though, and most of us have a limited amount of time to devote to writing.

What I found personally was that sometimes blogging would eat up all the writing time I had. I know I can’t be the only one, and I started to question if this was the smartest way to spend my limited writing time. (Like, right now, I should technically be working on my fiction because I’m behind schedule and yet here I am.)

(3) It seems to have a high burn-out factor.

I blogged and was on social media for years before I ever had anything to sell. That was fine when it came to the writing-related posts because I was also a developmental fiction editor so I was still building my business and helping other writers.

It wasn’t working out the same way when it came to the other posts. One of the reasons I took a break from my scifi and fantasy posts last year was that I realized I was burning out. I was using up my ideas long before my fantasy novels were available for sale, and I felt like I was starting to repeat things I’d already said.

Honestly, I like a quiet life. Crazy-exciting things just don’t happen to me every day. My husband and I play board games and go for walks. We take care of my elderly grandparents. We live outside of the city limits and some days the most thrilling thing that happens is we splurge and drive into town to buy a cup of coffee. This past year, I could have written a lot about doctors and specialists and the best time to visit an emergency room, but that’s not the kind of material people on social media want to hear either. Until I have a book out, my potential topics are finite (at least if I want to be genuine and authentic to me and to what I enjoy writing about).

I’ve noticed that many people who start to blog, even when their blogs are great and they’re doing it exactly like the experts tell them to, burn out before they ever have a book to share. Some of them end up never having a book to share. I saw myself walking that path, and it frightened me.

(4) Readers who love our books would probably rather we were working on the next book instead of blogging or being on social media.

If social media is about discoverability, then perhaps there’s a threshold at which it stops being useful. Social media and blogging might be more useful when we’re unknown, and less useful once we have a fan base. Once we have readers, the single best way to continue growing our readership is to write more books, not to write another blog or spend time on social media.

I’m not one who likes to invest a lot of time into something only to abandon it. I really don’t like investing time in something that doesn’t serve the purpose it was intended to. So the possible temporary relevance of social media/blogging annoys me a bit. (Yup, I am going to be bluntly honest in these posts.)

And now, in hindsight, I can tell you that I’ve never received an email saying “will you please blog more?” but I have received emails asking when the next book will be out or encouraging me to write faster. Readers want books more than they want blog posts or Facebook status updates.

Please understand—I’m not anti-blogging or anti-social media. Obviously, I’m blogging right now.

Some people enjoy social media. Some people enjoy blogging. I have times when I love them and times when I hate them. If you’re someone who enjoys blogging and social media then all of the points above are moot. Do it because you love it…but understand why you’re doing it. If we don’t enjoy it, then I think we need to consider whether there are other more profitable or equally profitable ways we could be spending our time.

I also see the value in using social media options like Facebook groups as a networking and learning resource. I’ve been involved in fantastic group promos because of Facebook connections, and I’ve also gleaned amazing tips about writing and marketing from my fellow writers in those groups. But, again, that’s a different way of using social media. It’s not about connecting with potential future readers.

Bottom Line – I just wasn’t convinced anymore that blogging and social media were the only way (or the best way) to gain and keep visibility for our fiction writing and to connect with fiction readers. Since I have an established platform under my real name, I couldn’t test this theory at all as me.

Enter the pen name experiment.

I wasn’t going to start a second blogging and social media platform for my pen name. I don’t have the time for that. I barely have time for the platform I currently have. (My husband might argue that I don’t have the time for it, but we’re not going to ask him.)

In fact, the need to start a second platform is one of the main arguments levied against pen names, especially private ones. For other reasons, I’d fallen in love with the idea of pen names, but I knew they’d only be a viable option for me (and many others) if they didn’t require a second high-maintenance platform.

That meant that my pen name would need to find her way in the world sans platform. I wanted to know if this was possible. (And in the fall, when I–hopefully–release some novels under my real name, I plan to compare the results. It’s possible that my platform will shoot my fantasy up higher than my pen name books went and prove that social media and blogging are still the best means to build an author career. I’d be happy for that to happen too 🙂 )

I did set up a website for my pen name because I think it’s important for an author to have an online home where readers can find out more about them and email them. It has blogging capabilities, but I plan to use the blog mainly to share excerpts and announce new releases. I also created a Facebook page for her, but it’s only there as a way to connect with readers after they’ve read the books. I’m not using it to try to “meet” new people.

In other words, all the online presence I set up for her was intended for engaging readers further after they already knew about her, not about gaining name recognition or building a platform pre-release.

However, I’m also not a believer in the Field of Dreams version of building an author career. They won’t come simply because you build it. Even if they did, it’d take years. I wasn’t about to wait years. I’m self-employed. If I spend time on something, it’d better help pay my bills pronto.

So I decided that my pen name would experiment with ads. Ads tend to split writers down the middle. Some people say ads don’t sell books, and a lot of writers have lost a lot of money trying them. Other people swear by ads and credit them with making their career.

The big three when it comes to ads (as of early 2017 when I’m writing this) seem to be Facebook ads, Amazon ads, and email newsletter ads (the best-known being BookBub).

I tried all three.

I lost money on the Facebook ads. (And before anyone assumes that it’s just because I didn’t know what I was doing, I’ve taken Mark Dawson’s paid Facebook course.) This could have been due to the genre I’m writing in, or it could be that the Facebook ad market is now so glutted with authors that it’s going to become even more difficult than usual to get a positive ROI. I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t work for me. It also didn’t work for my non-fiction books under my real name, so I’m leaning toward the platform being overly crowded as the reason.

The first month I broke even with the Amazon ads, but now they’re giving me a positive ROI. I wonder, though, if they’ll soon experience the same over-population as Facebook ads and lose their effectiveness, especially after Mark Dawson adds a module to his course about them.

I got a slot in two mid-sized email newsletters that accept new releases (not all do).

In the first week, my pen name’s Book 1 ended up in the top 100 of its category and peaked at the rank of #2,243 overall on Amazon. The first month after it was released, it outsold all my other books…combined. Since then, it’s stuck high enough that it’s still my bestseller by far.

Part of this might be due to the genre I’m writing in. It’s not romance, but it is a popular genre, so there are a lot of voracious readers there. This might not work as well in a less popular genre or with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre category. I tried to be strategic when I designed the series my pen name would write, while still picking a genre I enjoyed and a story idea I loved. (Though I’ve learned so much now that I also wish I could go back and give myself a few tips.)

I’ve tried other promotional activities since then, but what I think my experiment shows is that it is possible to succeed as a fiction author without a platform—you just have to be willing and able to spend some money to do it. (I spent about $300 USD on my promotional campaign in Book 1’s release month.)

It comes down to the age-old divide that you can either invest time to get something done or invest money. For me, the monetary cost was worth it when launching my pen name. Time is a finite resource, and if the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I want to savor every moment I have.

That doesn’t mean my choice is the right one for everyone. You might choose to solve the visibility problem by building an online platform first. My whole point here is this: know that you have options and make a thoughtful, strategic choice about what will work best for your life and your career.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you think blogging helps fiction authors sell books? Do you think blogging and social media shouldn’t be used as a way to sell books and instead should be done for a different reason? What has your experience been with ads and other promotional opportunities?

**Please remember the comment policy of this blog. I welcome opposing opinions with open arms as long as you’re respectful in the way you state them.**


Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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Why I Launched a Secret Pen Name

By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)

So, umm…surprise. I have a pen name.

She published two novels and one novella in 2016 with the third in her series already complete and ready to go in a few weeks. In 2017, if all goes according to plan, she’ll put out books 4-6 in the same series as well.

Up until now, few people have known about her existence, and even fewer know her name. I’m not going to share her name in this post. I’m not sure yet if I’m ever going to openly “own it,” even though I’m proud of everything she’s written.

But I decided I wanted to explain my reasons for creating her and some of the lessons I learned from publishing her books in the hope that it can help others. Even if you’re 100% opposed to writing under a pen name (whether that be a pen name in addition to your real name or whether you write solely under a single pen name), I still think some of these items are things every writer should consider. Some of my reasons were business-related. Some of them had to do with fear and broken confidence.

As you might have guessed, this is going to be a multi-part series. As I add each part, I’ll link them here for newcomers. Here’s the roadmap:

Reason #1 – Part of a writer’s brand is their name.
Reason #2 – I wanted to run an experiment on how to gain visibility and sell books.
Reason #3 – I wanted my crayons back.

Today I’m going to look at Reason #1.

After this mini-series finishes, I’ll be diving in to some of the craft topics that you voted for in my recent survey. (If you haven’t voted yet, there’s still time. If you want to choose more than one option, you can select the “Other” option and write in your answer too.)


As Marcy Kennedy, I’m the author of non-fiction books for writers, and my long-term goal has always been to publish science fiction and fantasy.

That’s already a divided platform and public image because many of you won’t be interested in my fiction. You read my blog for writing advice and you buy my non-fiction books about the writing craft, but you’re not speculative fiction fans. When fiction readers come to my website after reading one of my future novels, they’re not likely to be interested in my writing craft posts.

So I’m already trying to find the tenuous balance between my two audiences. Half the time, I don’t know what to share on social media because I keep thinking about the part of my audience I’m either alienating or failing to build. I hate that.

The genre I wanted to write in with my pen name isn’t science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s so far from those two genres that the odds of many people crossing over were slim. So if I hadn’t used a pen name, I would have been creating yet another distinct segment to my audience.

Some writers choose to put all their genres together under the same name anyway with the idea that readers will simply ignore what they aren’t interested in. That might be true. I know some writers make it work.

But I had qualms about this for me.

(1) I’ve been studying other successful creatives—writers, artists, and musicians. What many of them have in common is a clearly defined brand.

They’re specialists. They don’t try to appeal to everyone. They don’t need to in order to make a good living from their work. What they need to do is connect with their people—the ones who “get” what they’re doing and love it.

This specialization makes them memorable and instantly recognizable. You know a piece of their art when you see it. You know what you’re getting when you download their new album. Their name is almost synonymous with their genre. Everything about them online and in person fits this brand.

It makes them a go-to for their audience and easy to recommend to people with similar interests.

Which leads in to my next point…

(2) I want to become an auto-buy for readers.

They see that I’ve put something out and they purchase it because they trust and enjoy my writing. I want them to know they’re safe investing their time and money in me. The promises I’ve made to them with my past work will be kept in the newest work. I don’t want them to have to pause and figure out whether this particular new release is in a genre they enjoy or will be a type of story they’ll enjoy. (I’ve written more about this at Janice Hardy’s blog if you’re interested.)

I also don’t want them to get into the habit of sometimes ignoring me. I want them to expect that everything I produce—whether it be a Facebook post, a blog, or a book—will interest them.

(3) I’d already made the mistake once of publishing something where the tone was different from my other work.

In a recent Creative Penn podcast, Kristine Kathryn Rusch mentioned that one important criteria for whether or not you need a pen name is tone, not genre. Readers will often read across genre if the tone is the same. They’ll be upset if they pick up one of your books and the tone is very different from what they’ve come to expect from you.

When I released my book of short stories (Frozen) a few years back, I made the mistake of not considering content and tone. Those short stories are suspense, and they’re darker and more disturbing than my fantasy or science fiction, and the feedback I got after releasing them was that people (some positively, some negatively) now expected that same feeling from my fantasy. And my fantasy isn’t like that.

It hurt my brand. There are people who won’t read my fantasy when it releases because they think it’ll be grim dark. If my short stories hadn’t given them a false impression, they would have been more likely to read my fantasy and would have seen that it’s much more noble bright, full of hope and people who want to be good and honorable making hard choices in difficult situations.

Likewise, the difference between what I have planned for release under my real name and what I was thinking of writing under my pen name goes deeper than genre. I instinctively knew there’d be differences in tone as well. My pen name writing has more humor in it. It’s quirky. It’s more light-hearted. It’s the girl-who-wears-funny-socks-and-dances-around-her-kitchen side. It reflects a side of me that didn’t fit with the fantasy stories I wanted to write.

If I released this pen name series under my real name, I knew I’d be making the same mistake as I had before, but on a much bigger scale. I’d be muddying up people’s expectations—losing potential future readers of my fantasy and, later, disappointing current readers when my fantasy wasn’t the same as my books in the other genre.

(4) Amazon’s Also-Boughts and Algorithms can help make you or they can bury you in obscurity.

Right under the description of a book on Amazon, you’ll see a section called “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” It’s a selling tool. The theory behind it is that people’s buying habits are predictive. If a lot of people who buy a certain book also buy your book, then other people who like that first book should also like your book.

The best-case scenario is that your book will appear in the Also Boughts of other popular books in its genre and that your book’s Also Boughts will be filled with other books by you in the same series or genre.

But if you write in multiple genres, then the Also Boughts stop serving their purpose as a sales tool. I didn’t want that kind of Also Bought pollution happening to my fantasy books or to my other genre books.

When you write in multiple genres, Amazon’s algorithms also have a more difficult time figuring out who to show your books to. And if they show your books to people who don’t buy them, eventually they stop showing them to anyone at all.

So there you have it. I’d love to hear what you think. Are you in favor of pen names or against them? Do you find it frustrating when one of your favorite authors starts writing in a new genre (one you’re not interested in)? Have I missed anything that you think writers should consider when it comes to pen names?

Interested in more ways to improve your writing? Check out my Busy Writer’s Guides such as Description, Deep Point of View, or Showing and Telling in Fiction.

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