Fantasy author Jefferson Smith is the mad scientist behind the Immerse or Die Report, a three-strike rating system designed to identify which indie-published books can keep him walking on his treadmill the longest. This week, I talk to Jefferson about what it takes to keep readers immersed in your story and what makes readers close a book unfinished.
All These Shiny Words – A FREE anthology of survivors of Immerse or Die
After having spent years in the Hollywood special effects software industry, Jefferson Smith started his indie publishing career in 2011 with Strange Places, the first book in his Finding Tayna series. Although he enjoyed his work in Hollywood, he was frustrated to be spending all his time working on other people’s stories. He wanted to be working on his own stories.
He researched traditional publishing and found it to be wanting. For such a mature and supposedly robust industry, he says, he found the decisions being made by publishers as standard operating procedure baffling, especially how the entire industry is run as a consignment store allowing booksellers to return unsold books.
The biggest problem, he says, is that traditional publishers are not emotionally invested in their products, which is a big mistake…and which is completely counter to what happens in indie publishing. Where a traditionally-published book is typically given three months to prove itself a success or a failure, in indie publishing a soft or underwhelming launch is not the end of a story, but just the beginning of the next phase. This is a much more healthy market driver, he says, than the model used by traditional publishers in which “failures” by an author not to sell through on their print runs guarantees a smaller run the next time around (commonly known as the “death spiral”).
“With my background as an entrepreneur, I decided I wanted nothing to do with being just another roll of the dice for somebody who’s got their eyes closed.”
And so Jeff went indie, going on to publish several titles. The third and final book in his Finding Tayna series is due to come out soon.
Immerse or Die
Disgusted by the “fire hose of dreck” that was being published by indie publishers, plus his need for exercise despite the fact that hehates the treadmill and TV just wasn’t cutting it to distract him from how much he hated the treadmill, Jefferson came up with his mad scientist idea:
“The premise of the Immerse or Die challenge is simple. I get on my treadmill, open a book, and start the clock. Then I do my best to stay immersed in the story until I reach the end of my 40 minute morning walk. If I make it, that book qualifies for all the attention ImmerseOrDie can bring it. But if I can’t stay immersed, the buzzer sounds and the book is closed.”
The question is, what makes a book immersive? What is it about the writing that enables that deep connection with a book?
Jeff points out that people are predisposed to being immersed in a story. It’s intrusions — or WTF moments — that pull a reader out of that immersive experience. He says, “Suck me into your world and hold me there for 40 minutes, or get off my treadmill and I’ll go on to the next book.” He gives each book three WTF moments. After the third one, he’ll close the book, note the time, and move on to the next one.
Then he’ll write up an Immerse or Die report, identifying how long he was able to stay immersed in a story and the issues that made him ultimately close the book. So far, he has done 350 of these reports, which he posts on his website creativityhacker.ca.
- Only 27 out of the 350 have survived 40 minutes. That’s less than 8%.
- 50% of stories fail in the first 10 minutes.
- There are only 15 or 16 “Immerse or Die jewels,” books that took him way past the 40 minutes.
Jeff does take submissions, which tend to be from newer authors. He notes that some authors whose books have failed the challenge will go on to use the info to help them improve their work. And although the standard might seem harsh, he says, only 3 out of 29 responses from authors whose books “failed” were negative. The rest were very positive, which is good. It’s been his intent to create a shared resource for writers to help them avoid common mistakes.
Jefferson has compiled a list of 51 WTF issues that can jolt a reader out of an immersive experience, but here are the top offenders:
- Horrible editing.
- Violation of physics. Example: A character walks up a hill beyond which lies a city, but describes the city before he makes it to the top and would logically be able to see the city.
- Show versus tell inconsistencies. Example: A character is described as “quiet,” yet gabs frantically in the scene.
- Echoing head words. By far the most recurring issue, Jeff says, is when an author uses the same word in two successive sentences or paragraphs. Example: Successive sentences that begin with “He went,” “He saw,” “He conquered.” The repetition of the pronoun-verb structure without variation can be disconcerting.
Jeff’s Advice for New Authors:
This is a business, not a hobby. If you want to sell products (ie., books), treat it like a business. Learn to work with professionals to get professional work done. And invest in inventory. Build your book catalog. If you treat it like a business, you’ll be more likely to succeed.
“The real truth is that there’s no such thing as a book that has no audience,” Jeff says. “I don’t care how badly it’s written, how bad the cover is, there’s always an audience for every single book written. The question is how big is that audience and how easy is it for you to find them.”
Most importantly, make sure you’re having fun telling your stories.
“Write stories for yourself. If you are not entertaining you, you are not entertaining me.”
- Try out Jeff’s game yourself. Using his list of 51 things that break a reader’s immersion, try reading a handful of books and noting where you “pop” out of immersion and analyze why.
- Have someone else read your book using the same criteria, noting where and why they were popped out of immersion. If you’re feeling really brave, consider submitting your book for the full treadmill treatment by Jeff.
What is the most common mistake authors make that cause you to put a book down and why?
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