Queen's Innovation Runway Podcast

In this episode, we interview the founder and CEO of Fictionary - Kristina Stanley. Combining her degree in computer mathematics with her success as a best-selling author and fiction editor, Kristina is the creator and driving force behind Fictionary - a book editing software for writers and professional editors.

Show Notes

In this episode, we interview the founder and CEO of Fictionary - Kristina Stanley.  Combining her degree in computer mathematics with her success as a best-selling author and fiction editor, Kristina is the creator and driving force behind Fictionary - a book editing software for writers and professional editors. 

To learn more about Fictionary, please visit their website or follow them on Twitter.

Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Resources at Queen’s:
  • Queen’s Partnerships and Innovation - link
  • Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre – link
  • Smith School of Business – Centre for Business Venturing- link

What is Queen's Innovation Runway Podcast?

Hear about the emerging success stories (startups and small- to medium-sized businesses) from Queen's University and Eastern Ontario.

Jim: [00:00:00] Welcome to this episode of Queens Innovation Runway podcast. In this episode, we have Kristina Stanley. Kristina is the co-founder of a company called Fictionary in combining her degree in computer mathematics with success as a bestselling author and fiction editor. Christina is the creator and driving force behind Fictionary growing right here in Eastern Ontario. Christina, welcome and Thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

Kristina: Hi, Jim, it's a pleasure to be here today.

Jim: So tell us about Fictionary. what is the burning problem you're solving? what drove you to decide to jump into the entrepreneurial waters?

Kristina: Sure. So I love talking about Fictionary, as it's my company and you know, I decided to create Fictionary, because there's a great need in the world right now for proper story editing and by story editing, I mean, editing at a high level, the structure of a story. So characters, plot, setting the story arc, [00:01:00] basically how the story is built. So not looking at words, but looking at the actual story. And with the explosion of self-publishing there's millions of writers today who are publishing their own books. And that's great. It's a fantastic time to be a writer and have that opportunity. The problem is how do you edit your own story? If you don't know how, and it takes years of studying to actually. Learn how to story at it properly. And so the first problem we solved was helping writers themselves, be able to edit their own story before they go onto a professional editor, or publish themselves either way. This works for them. So then the next problem was where do, writers find professional editors who know how to story at it? And what's changed in the industry today. As publishers no longer have apprenticeship programs for editors, there's really nowhere in the world right now to learn how to be a story editor at a high [00:02:00] level. There's many, many opportunities for copy editing and proof reading. So we created a product for editors to help them, not only story edit, but to learn how to story edit. And we also created a certification course that goes with it to help them so we can solve the problem of writers, wanting to edit their own story And editors who want to be a professional editor, but really have nowhere to go to learn and don't have a tool to do it. And so bringing the two to get there, we hope to bring better stories worldwide.

Jim: So two products. And, your target is aspiring authors that may have a 50, 60, 80,000 word manuscript in hand. And they're saying, okay, ha, I've done it. What's my next step. And that's where you, can take a service like Fictionary, and tell us about how the process would work with your technology.

Kristina: Yeah. So it's of course I love it because it's mine, but the magic of [00:03:00] Fictionary really happens when a writer has that manuscript, as you say, they've written a draft. And so they have a story, fleshed out, doesn't have to be finished, but they have an actual story. And so what they do is they import their manuscript into Fictionary and Fictionary then analyzes it. Using natural language processing and it builds the story arc for them. It shows them the word count per scene. It breaks everything out and organizes the story into chapters and scenes. So for the first time ever a writer or an editor can see a story in a visual way, they can see the story arc and see if it's actually working. If it's going to produce a working story. I'll talk a little bit about the story arc in a minute and the value of a story arc, but the software is very visual and it's very organized and it's full of writing and editing information. So as the person works through the story, they can learn how [00:04:00] to do this at the same time.

Jim: So we've chatted offline about this going back way back in history. Storytelling is probably one of the primary knowledge transfer knowledge retention tools instruments we have, whether it's families telling stories down through generations, but over time, there's actually quite a formulaic approach to stories, not to spoil it for anybody who learns this and have it spoiled movies or stories, but there's a fairly set story arc or story formula that you need to follow that with your background in math, computers, et cetera. It's very interesting that by the way, I should have mentioned, so Christina's a best-selling fiction author. So she's got the left brain and the right brain coming together to develop this natural language processing tool, it based on that sort of tried and true time tested formula for stories that you compare these manuscripts against.[00:05:00]

Kristina: Yeah. And so what we did is we took, we started at the first book stories, not books, of course at the time. Beowulf first Anglo-Saxon story, epic poem, but followed the three act five key scene story arc. Throughout time, all widely read stories, widely told stories, widely watched stories, follow some form of the story arc. And there's different versions that have been developed over time from, you know, just the three-act structure with Aristotle, of course. And then, moving on to others that have 7, 12, 28, 30 different points, you have to hit in a story. And so we took all of that and mapped it into five common scenes that all of the different story arcs have. And so it's, it's a starting point for the writer. To go. Okay. If you have these five key scenes, you've created a story that the human brain [00:06:00] is adapted to and inclined to enjoy. It's how the human likes to enjoy a story. And there's been a lot of research done through various universities. The theory behind this. And so we created formulas to actually analzye the story and pull out the inciting incident, plot point 1, the midpoint plot point 2 in the climax. And these are the five key turning points of a story. And when you know them, you'll see. That all of the popular stories have these scenes. And so the first thing for a writer to do is to look at, do I have all five key scenes? That's step one. And if you don't, you got to go back and rewrite and put them in. And if you do, do they do all the things, those five key scenes need to do. That's the next step. And then after that it's are they in the right place in the story? So if you ever watch a story, for example, It's dragging at the beginning and you're thinking, okay, something has to happen. That means the inciting incident occurred too late in the story. And [00:07:00] so the reader is bored and thinks, ah, okay, I'll put the book down. So it needs to occur 15% into the story or earlier, and all of the story, art forms over time. Some want it right at the beginning, some around 10%. And so that what we've done is created a form. For an author, a structural form for an author to follow. So they still have the leeway to move things around and their artistic talent comes in with that. But if they hit the guidelines for it, then their story is it is going to be a strongly structured story.

Jim: And by looking at it through those elements, does that give authors then a chance to sharpen their pencil? So to speak, to increase the dramatic qualities intensity to make it a little more robust by focusing on those landmark time points in the story arc so that they can presumably increase the readability and uptake. I guess then you'd hope have more success with finding [00:08:00] agents or getting a book published.

Kristina: Right. And so that's the first thing they do. And then the next thing is the software has broken down the story into chapters and scenes, and we have, uh, developed the 38 Fictionary story elements and the writer or editor analyzes the scene against those 38 elements for every scene. So they go to a high level structure. Then they edit on a scene by scene basis. And when they're done that, they go back. Because at that time you typically delete scenes, add scenes, move scenes around. You know, shorten them, lengthen them, whatever. And so once you've done all the scene by scene, you go back to the story arc, which redraws, every time an update is made. And so you can see as you go the story arc change and you can get it to be in the right, in the right areas. And so it starts high level goes to scene by scene, goes back to high level. And by that point there's a strong story. And then they can [00:09:00] move on to copy editing, proofreading publishing, et cetera.

Jim: I'm always fascinated how these products starts I'd like and I think I've. I'd like to get you to chat about it, but in watching some of your YouTube videos and by the way, Christina and Fictionary publish a lot of helpful information on their YouTube channels and social media. So be sure you go to check those out running workshops and all those types of things all the time, really building a community to help writers. In this YouTube video I watched for some of your early, published fiction works. You actually went through the trouble of breaking down your story into all these elements, chapters, scenes, keeping track of the weather character, arcs what they were wearing, what they knew at certain times in Excel in a spreadsheet. And I just can't imagine how much time that took, but was that the inspiration to say, well, I'm a writer and I use this and this was valuable. If I could turn this into something else, maybe we could make this available at scale to other authors.[00:10:00]

Kristina: Exactly. That's what, so what happened? Uh, the acquiring editor, the agent I had at the time, I'd written three books and they decided that they thought book three should be book one. So I had to flip it and rewrite it. So try keeping track of all of that. Right. And the other feedback I got from the agent was you need to make your protagonist more likable, which is really vague. Like, what does that mean? So then I, built. Massive connecting spreadsheet with sheets that drew graphs and drew my story arc and my word count per scene. And I built this huge complex thing to do my books and really edit them properly by myself because I was struggling with, you know, I'd probably at that point, read hundreds of books on how to write. There's very few on how to edit, I took all of that information. I put it into this spreadsheet. Okay. This is what point of view is, this is what you need to look at for this scene. And so I had this huge [00:11:00] thing built and then of course comes the. The, you know, that moment where you think, wow, we actually have something here and people kept asking me for my spreadsheet. You think, no, that took me two years to build, build your own. Right. That's crazy. I'm like, you know, my friends of course, but I didn't, it was mine. Right. And so then at that point we decided. Let's turn this into an app, we'll start a company. You know, how hard can that be? Ha ha and we'll build enough and make it available. And the editing part for professional editors came on after, when we really saw how many writers were struggling with finding an editor. Who could properly edit at the story level. And we ran into too many people who thought they had a structural edit and it was really a copy edit. And that's really tough, I think, oh, I spent all that money and I didn't get what I needed. And so then we started working with editors and editors started pushing [00:12:00] us. Well, why don't you have a product for editors. They can do the same thing. And so that's our story, coach product, and it's basically enabled editors to do, way better quality and half the time. And so they have a structured process with their own set of teaching information in it that it was sort of pulled out of us after we figured out once we had product market fit for our storyteller product for writers, the editor thing came in afterwards. We weren't thinking of that when we first started.

Jim: Well, it's nice to see how that evolves. So you start with the product for writers and then say, well, wait a minute, editors could actually use this. And you've used the keywords for any startup, which is allowing editors to do their job faster with a higher quality, probably at a lower overall cost. So they're in the business of selling their services as editors. They want to increase their margins. Presumably if they can deliver a better product using a software tool, that's going to be a [00:13:00] compelling value proposition. is that the pitch?

Kristina: Yes. exactly. And, um, you know, w we took probably nine months to work with editors all over the world to get it right, to figure out what they need. You know, story coach is very new. It's been out for about nine months now. And, you know, we're pretty excited about it because it, it's, you know, I'm a writer at heart and so. Uh, my soft spot really is to help writers. And so you know, for writing wants to self-edit great. They should before hiring a professional editor anyway, but if they do want to go and, um, use a professional editor, I want them to have a place to go where they know that editor is great.

Jim: And so in addition to the coaching product, you have a certification so that if somebody goes to use them and they've got the Fictionary seal of approval, you know, that they've been trained and are qualified to use the product and engage in those services, kind of as a quality check, I assume. In the publishing business, there's a range of service [00:14:00] providers out there. Let's just put it that way. And this is one way to get some idea that you're getting quality. Is that the idea.

Kristina: Yeah. And that's, I mean, that's really the goal is that it's a quality edit and the certification program it's, it's hard. We're the only course worldwide that offers, a person, the opportunity to edit a full manuscript. There's lots of courses where they teach you how to do a fictioneditg on a scene. But that doesn't tell you, you have a novel that works. And how do you know how to edit a full novel is very different editing, 2000 words to 80,000. And so we are right now, the single place. If you want to learn how to do a full story, coach edit. That's it.

Jim: Just as a slight tangent, have you ever taken like a Harry Potter manuscript and put it through your platform or other known books? Must, be a kind of an interesting experience to go through and see how those plot elements come through your software.

Kristina: And, you know, and it's fascinating. So what we do, because of course we don't have the [00:15:00] rights to copy a book in. We put in all the points ourselves manually. So we can, you know, you pick up and so we've done Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones, and you know, of course, starting at Beowulf and moving forward through Jane Austen, Hemingway on and on and on. Right. So, we've also done some movies like Thelma and Louise to see, where they hit any, just divided up on the 25, 50, 25% mark and look at, okay, where are these things happening? Where is their inciting incident? And so it all. It, it just works. And so every one of those stories is dead on. and by doing Harry Potter, it, it also teaches things that, so in her first book, the climax is a bitter. But she uses that extra space to set up book 2. So if you're writing a series, it's a little bit different, so you can go, okay. In this book, climax is here because these things needed to happen to close off the story and set up book 2. Game of Thrones was a really fascinating one to do, to figure out who the protagonist is. [00:16:00] And so, I actually wrote a small ebook on that because it's, such a popular story and written from many points of view and, Jason Bourne, the Bourne Identity and another one for a beautiful example of hitting the story arc and really having a strong protagonist that, that draws the readers through. And so we've done all of those books and we continue to do new books as they go. And honestly, I can't help it when I read a book, I have to just go, okay. What is it? Oh, that's the inciting incident. Where are we in the book? Okay. We keep going. So I can't read any other way now.

Jim: Once you've got the story, arc structure and formula. That's the lens you look at fascinating. Before I forget now, does an author need to have a full manuscript or could they use one of your two software products to actually write the manuscript?

Kristina: They can, so I'm an author would only ever use storyteller because it's meant and designed for someone who has a draft or is writing a draft versus someone who's editing a full manuscript, which is [00:17:00] story coach. And it's designed for a person editing someone else's. So in storyteller, we started initially. Yeah, you had to have a draft. So you needed 50,000 words or more. And then of course the pull came well, I finished my first book. I want to write my second book in Fictionary. So we thought we don't really want to be a writing software. We want to be editing software, but what, as it turns out as they're writing all of the story elements are there right beside there, it sits side by side. So the novelist here and their story elements are beside it. When they're looking at their screen, they, okay. So what's my entry hook. Ah, okay. This is what it is. And so they just looked down the side yet. It's like almost having a checkpoint as you write, oh, I don't have any tension in the scene. I better do this. Okay. I'm missing an exit hook. How am I going to do that? And so, what we did for that is we developed very basic editing. So it's not meant for formatting. We don't want the writer to get distracted with, okay. I need a paragraph indent and I want this highlighted. We don't want any of that. We want them to [00:18:00] focus on the story and not be distracted. And so we put in a very straightforward editor where they can actually write their software or write their novel. And the story arc builds as they write it needs to have a full story. So it won't actually draw until a draft is there, but the word count per scene, the characters per scene the point of view insights, they all draw as the writer is writing and they can see the story develop while they're writing so that's pretty cool too. Yeah. And they can see Right. away. Oh, this scene is too long compared to the other scenes. And it's not one of my key scenes. I better figure out how I'm going to shorten this and make a second scene so they can see the balance and the structure of the story with before they get carried away, basically.

Jim: Let's turn to a question that you've been working at Fictionary for a couple of years now. You just said the latest product was launched recently. Give us an example of a couple of challenges that you've gone from being an author and book editor to running a software as a service company.

Kristina: [00:19:00] Sure. So you know that the actual running the company is not so bad because we both, my husband, I run it together and we both have a lot of business experience leading in. So that part was okay. That the hard part. So when we started, we bootstrapped and we spent our own money to build the beta. We got some paying customers, you know, we thought, okay, we have something people are excited about. We'll keep going. And so at that point we needed outside funding and the world of funding is a huge learning experience on its own of how do you actually. Engage people and get them to spend their money on your company. So we did our first round of funding in, uh, early 2018 ish. I'm not, I don't remember exactly the date, but somewhere around there. And we were very lucky because we met Scott Lake, who is one of the co-founders of Shopify. And so he was our first [00:20:00] investor and we met him through an accelerator program in Victoria, BC called Viatech. And he was our advisor and then became our first investor and so huge knowledge base there. Right. And if you think of. You know, he, his background and coming through Shopify and starting a snowboarding company to turning it into the online shopping store. Well, that's a pretty big transition, right? So super smart guy. and then after him, we, um, pitch to the woman's equity lab in Victoria, and it's a, an organization that a group of women basically pool their money into a fund. And then they invest in Canadian companys. So we were lucky enough to, to have them as our second investors and then it went from there. But it's really difficult when you've never pitched an idea to investors or worked with investors to figure out how [00:21:00] to do that. Right. It's you know, I have my math degree and I write books. Um, that was really, that was a stretch for me and very nerve wracking because there's a lot in it, you know, you need the money. And so you want the answer to be yes. And you go through the standard rejection process and you spend a lot of time pitching and people aren't interested on and you get dragged along for awhile. And then people go, well, you're actually too small for us and think, but you knew that six months ago, could you not have told me then? So I didn't spend all that time doing that. I could have been working with somebody else. So. You know, as a startup, if you need money it's and we were, we were lucky too, because of Scott. Then once we had him, he coached us through, you know, we got to practice all our pitch decks on him. And, and so we had him to help us do that, which I think without that, you know, it would have been much more difficult. And [00:22:00] so then the challenge becomes market awareness. And that is in a way we are like Shopify in the sense that before Shopify, there were no online stores that people had themselves. Nobody knew they needed one it just, okay, you did why you sold how you sold. Right. And then Shopify came along and now look at them. And, and for us, all of the, writers who are coming out to the self publishing don't know. They need to self edit their own book before they go anywhere. So we have the struggle of showing people what to do and why they need it. And so I think you know, the funding problem, we solved the market awareness. We're still working really hard at because it's, you know, things are continually changing and you know, so we have Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram and we've actually hired someone to deal with all of that for us, because the [00:23:00] it's it's too high, a volume. And, and so as a founder, you have to kind of start the stuff on your own and then give it off to somebody else and go the next step. And so it's a continual growth pattern of doing something that maybe is a little bit outside of your comfort zone, but you have to do it.

Jim: You've hit on a lot of the key points for startups. If you can find a mentor and advisor that will show you the ropes and understand what an investor's perspective will be, the fact that. All investors are not created equal and that's because they all have different goals, depending on the size of their fund and the companies they want to invest in and their investment, horizon, outlook, and all those kinds of things. And as an entrepreneur, you've got to titrate your story down to the very best compelling views of what your value proposition is. What is the burning problem that people are willing to open up their wallets and give you the money to spend on your software. And it sounds like. You've got a [00:24:00] product doing that. It's now your challenge of figuring out how to reach that audience, because the benefit to them is I guess, better chance of getting publishing or if you're self publishing a higher chance of getting traction and getting sales. Right. I imagine in the advent of the digital age, in recent years, Is there a lot out there. And so the signal to noise ratio, if you're a self-publisher you put something out, I guess almost anybody could put something on Amazon, I guess.
Kristina: Yeah. And the value proposition goes all the way from the writer, which is where we started, because we wanted to help them get better books out there. So you're not crushed by terrible reviews or no sales all the way to, you know, a company like Amazon, who basically they don't make any money until the writer sells book. So it's all done on royalties and they take 30%. Of of sales. So if an author doesn't sell, they, you know, they're carrying the network there. There's, they're supporting [00:25:00] all of the backs of the, has to be there. And whenever, so, you know, as, the books get better, more books sell and it's, more profitable. And then, then the hope is there that the Amazon continues to support writers. Right because they have more books out there that are high quality. So it's that full circle. Plus then you go to just the reader, joy of reading, a book that, you know, just because the book is self published doesn't mean it's not a great book. Right. And so they get, they get a wider selection of books from authors all over the world.

Jim: Just as a, maybe another slight tangent, how often is an author's first book going to become a best seller?

Kristina: It's rare. And you know, and it's a, it's an interesting thing because it took years and years to write Harry Potter. And, you know, Jody Paco's another one of my favorites, just from a story point of view that she's done extremely well. She writes young adult novels and she was [00:26:00] interviewed and the interviewer asked, you know, what, on her first book, you know, w what does it feel like to be an overnight success? And she said, if you consider 12 years of hard work overnight success, it feels great. And there it is.

Jim: So that's, that's just a message to authors everywhere, I guess. Right? It is. It's hard to do it, but if you're committed and passionate to it, but I think Fictionary would be a great platform for people to think about. So how can listeners find out more Kristina?
Kristina: Yeah, so, well, our website is fictionary.co. So it's Fictionary spelt like dictionary, but with an F and.co not.com. And they're right up at the top, we've got, we have four writers, four editors, and so you can see there and we have a YouTube channel that we put lots of educational videos up there. Our goal is to put as much. Um, how to edit information for free up as we can manage, you know, based on time limits is kind of the only limitation of what we're, what we're [00:27:00] doing. And so our YouTube channel is, is pretty popular for the educational part of it. And then on the actual, if you want to try it out, we have a two week free trial for storyteller, for writers, and we have a 30 day free trial for story coach for editors, because we want to give them a chance to try out a full manuscript. Prior to actually making the commitment to buy the software. So we thought in a month seemed like a reasonable time to be able to go through and figure out, you know, if it really works for them or not.

Jim: Excellent. Kristina, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us. So we encourage everybody to go check out Fictionary on the website and on social media, and we wish you all the best growing this business in Eastern Ontario. Congratulations on your success and best wishes for the future.

Kristina: Thank you. And I have to say it was really fun being here because as you know, I don't live too far from Queens university, so it has a little soft spot in my heart too. So it's really been a pleasure today talking to you.