Emotion and Mystery

As a follow-on to this post, I set aside that book that was dragging for me and am now 320 pages into a different book that did work for me. And I realized that what this book I’m reading now had in the first chapter that the other book didn’t have was emotion. Specifically, love and concern towards the main character.

This book I’m reading now opens with two characters interacting and one, in their thoughts, is worried about the other. You also can clearly see that the character whose viewpoint it is cares deeply about this other character.

The book itself is about that other character, and we as readers are immediately told this person is someone to care about by being put in the viewpoint of someone who cares for them. Someone who sees their vulnerability and strength and loyalty. We want good things for this character as a result.

And then there’s a mystery, which is why we keep reading. (This is a fantasy novel.) There’s something this character can’t share right now. We know they’re hurting. We know this other character wants to help them. But we don’t know why they’re hurting or if they’ll find a resolution.

And that’s why we keep flipping pages. Or at least why I do.

In writing often the question is, “why should I care?”

Think of all the boring conversations you’ve ever had in your life where someone was telling you about something that mattered to them but not to you. Your reader is that person sitting at the table with you listening to you tell this story.

If there’s no emotion or adventure or mystery to draw them in…their eyes are going to slowly glaze over. It doesn’t matter how passionate you are about the subject, what matters is if you can find a way to draw your audience in, too.

Anyway. I am now a day late in getting my next audio release finalized as a result of this book, but I don’t regret a thing.

(And this is yet another reminder that the really good authors are not at all interchangeable. There may be millions of books published each year, but the number that are operating at that top level of story telling are few and far between.)

Some Writerly Thoughts 20230224

This one’s going to wander a bit, so I don’t have a good title for it.

First, last week I read one novel and three novellas by two different authors. All were very easy to read. I’d start one and by midday be at 80 pages without even realizing it.

This week I started a new novel by an author I’ve read for decades, but it’s like pulling teeth to get through it. There was two pages of description of some sort of device that I didn’t care about. At all. I skimmed, which is not normal for me.

So I’ve been thinking a bit about what makes a book an “easy” read versus a hard read. And this is not the difference between a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, which are to me very engaging authors who are not fast reads, and someone like a Sophie Kinsella, whose shopaholic books I also found engaging to read but were fast and easy. I think the difference between those two types of books is more about the number of layers to the story.

This is more about different genre books aimed at a similar audience. Why are some easy, fast reads and some a slog?

Part of it is sentences and paragraphs and chapters. I think authors who started out thirty-some years ago or more tend towards longer paragraphs and chapters and more dense description. (In general, not all, blah, blah).

So that’s part of it. Looking at a dense page with no breaks for pages and pages for me, someone who reads for ten minutes at lunch, at dinner, and at bedtime, is an ugh moment.

But I’d be okay with it if I were sucked into the story. Which is why I then ask myself, what sucks me into a story?

I think readers need a “why”.

(I as a writer am actually particularly bad at this one. At least with my cozies. I just finished narrating book four in the series and the mystery doesn’t show up until chapter seven in the book. Yikes. I still have readers because they like my characters, but not as many I could if I had better focus on my genre.)

The books I read last week that were so engaging set the goal of the story very early. If you ever read JD Robb (the book I read last week was not one of hers, but she’s a good example) you will see that the crime that needs investigated happens in the first chapter. Maybe in the fifty books she’s written there might be one where it’s in the prologue or chapter two instead, but it’s always up front and center.

I read those books to see how Eve and Roarke and Peabody and Mavis are living their lives, but the core of each book is about a police officer solving a crime and so that’s the focus at the start of every book.

In romances you put the meet cute or the relationship up front so readers know that whatever else happens, these two people are going to find a way to be together.

The books I was reading last week were all fantasies where there’s a challenge to be overcome and that challenge presents itself within the first three chapters each time.

This book I’m struggling with now is also a fantasy and there is a goal for the series, but this is book two and the goal of the book wasn’t clearly presented at the start.

From what I can see, the author is sort of treating this book as a continuation of the last book and so didn’t seem to feel the need to bracket the book with a goal.

They also didn’t remind me who the characters are and how they fit together, so I felt lost for the first forty pages. Is this a romance because this one seems to like that one? But wait, isn’t that one married? And if it is a romance, why was this much time spent on this other idea that’s not part of the “world” I’m used to from this author?

I think you can take readers on any journey you want. But I think to do so, the way the story is presented has to say, “this is the type of trip you’re taking” and then stay consistent to that promise.

So, mystery start with the murder or the disappearance. Romance start with that meet cute or introduce the two characters.

Fantasy and sci-fi can be trickier, because sometimes it’s about exploring a world. But I think a lot of the successful fantasy and sci-fi actually contain a different genre as the core. So, yeah, it’s a cool world, but there’s a mystery to be solved or bad guy to be defeated. Or you have the academy structure where the world is learned through the character going to school.

Another thing that I think about, too, is alignment of values. And maybe this is more true for me now than it was when I was younger, but I can be kicked out of a story nowadays when the author has a very different set of values from mine. The book I’m struggling through now started with a first sentence that put me off because it went counter to my current values. I’m sort of done with royalty being considered special so I was already on my back foot when I started.

You know, it’s funny. We can talk about all the things that do or don’t work in novels and then someone will come along and say, “but X book…”, and it’s true.

Books can do things that aren’t what a reader would ideally like and still sell. I have read twenty-two books at this point by an author whose sex scenes annoy the hell out of me at this point. I don’t know if I’m alone in that. Probably.

But it’s possible that someone would point to that series and say, “but X author writes Y type of sex scenes and sells like gangbusters” and be factually correct in that statement. At the same time that the books sell despite that not because of it…

I mean, I mentioned my cozies above. I think what I actually wrote was a small town family saga about finding your tribe that just happened to involve murders and mysteries. And if I had enough readers someone might point to that series and say, but X book is a cozy series and the mysteries don’t start until chapter six or seven but it still sells. And they’d be right, but it would be a bad example of how a cozy should be structured because the books were selling for a different reason.

I know that I could improve the appeal of my books if I could rein myself in enough to put a genre framework around what I write.

I’m not sure I want to do that, though, which is my ongoing challenge and why I end up writing so much non-fiction.

I know by now the basic “how” of things, I just have no strong desire to follow it…

Anyway. Read your genre. Note the patterns. And understand that the exceptions to those patterns may be hobbling themselves not proof that the patterns don’t work.

At the end of the day you can write whatever you want however you want you just have to be prepared for the consequences of that choice.

Random Thoughts and Comments 20230219

I submitted another of the cozy audiobooks for approval the other day so I’m back to the “what next” stage where I read a few books and fiddle with numbers before launching into the next project. This always generates random thoughts about various things.


First, it occurred to me the other day after I wrote that post about my pre-writing career progression versus writing that maybe that “job” mindset could be useful when applied to writing.

Years ago I remember a woman on Kboards who had done well enough with YA romcoms who decided she was going to move into a completely new genre. And at the time I thought, “why?” because she was doing better than most people there at the time.

But just like sometimes people need to move to new jobs to get better opportunities or pay or challenge, sometimes authors need to think about “quitting” their current writer job and moving to a new one.

I know more than one author who started writing one thing and moved to another over time and did better at the second genre or topic. A friend of mine had been trying to juggle two very different pen names the last couple years but realized that it was time to let go of that older name and just focus on the new one that was doing so much better.

As writers we (universal we, not me particularly) have a fan base that would like us to keep doing the exact same thing we’ve been doing. But that’s really no different in a sense from an employer who would really like you to keep working for them. I guess the only difference is the employer accepts that you moved on to something new, whereas the fans send the occasional “when’s the next book coming out” email.

And, of course, with writing someone can circle back to an old series twenty-plus years later. So in writing no door is ever permanently closed. (Not even when an author dies, really, as evidenced by all the names that have been continued by ghost writers or co-writers.)

But it seems to me that maybe writers should be better at letting go of what doesn’t work.

In a sense I’ve done some of that. Three of my pen names are basically dead. The content is still out there but I don’t advertise them at all. Occasionally I might do a new cover, but that’s more the fun of doing covers than anything. I also did do some short audio on two of them last year as a build up to doing the full-length novels.

They bring in a trickle of money, about $500 in profit last year, but at some point I decided that my time was better spent moving forward than trying to bring everything I’d ever written along with me. There are only so many hours in a day and letting go of things is as important as choosing where to go next.

The other thought I had was around burnout. A few years back I became a Gallup-certified Strengths coach because I found Strengths so incredibly valuable in helping me understand myself that I wanted to know ALL THE THINGS about Strengths. (I could’ve saved myself a substantial amount of money if I’d realized the coaching packet could be ordered without taking the very expensive class, but, well, there you have it.)

Anyway. Every year they have some special sessions for the coaches and one of the sessions this year revolved around burnout. I think they’ll be publishing those findings in early March to the public, so definitely keep an eye out for that.

But what was interesting to me listening to that talk was comparing my writing life to my pre-writing life. I am an Achiever with high Responsibility so I don’t actually burn out from having too much to do. I burn out when I can’t get things done because of politics or bureaucracy. Or when someone is indecisive so the goal posts keep shifting.

Set me a target and I will get it done. But don’t tell me the target is A on Monday, B on Wednesday, and C on Friday because I will glare daggers at you for not knowing your shit.

One of the things I thought about, though, listening to that talk was how many writers I do know burned out in the last five years. Because they were full-bore ahead, cranking out a novel a month in a popular genre that maybe wasn’t a natural fit for them.

I can’t count the number of authors I knew five years ago who’d say, “well, I’m writing X because it sells but someday I’d really like to write my true passion, Y”. It was all over the place back then.

I think sometimes it isn’t the career that’s the issue when it comes to burnout, it’s how we approach the career that drives it. Or it’s the specific employer. Or department. Or manager.

There has to be an alignment between the person and the role. I know some writers who absolutely revel in writing spicy stuff so high-heat romance is a perfect niche for them. It would not be for me. And if I tried to force myself into that box to make money I would eventually burn out.

So if someone out there is feeling burnout, figure out what it is about the current set-up you’re in that’s driving that and see if you can fix it. It doesn’t have to mean walking away entirely.

(I have a few friends in non-supportive marriages with young kids and high-powered jobs who really can’t fix things so much as endure until the kids get older. So sometimes there is no short-term fix. But oftentimes there is one if you step back and think about it.)

That was one of the interesting lessons of that burnout talk. For executing-type folks, their default for dealing with stress is to just dive into the work or exercise. And it does help.

I think it was the influencing-types whose default was to spend time with friends and family. And again, it helps.

But for both they would be better off sitting down and thinking about the situation and how to improve it.

(Don’t quote me on that, by the way. I may be slightly off in how I interpreted that presentation. I just remember walking away with the idea that people would be better served taking a bit of time and thinking through how to better address their situation.)

Finally, I continually circle around this notion that the world, at least the one I live in, has the wrong focus and priorities and it makes things worse for so many. But that to reset that would be highly destructive and disruptive for probably fifty or more years.

So what do we do? Go on squeezing more and more people to the breaking point while a very small number live very good lives?

It’s the constant issue. People choose not to experience short-term pain or suffering only to ultimately choose even more pain and suffering long-term as a result. Because ultimately we’re all tied together.

Also, I think very few people actually see what can be versus what is. Strategic is theoretically one of the top five Strengths around the world, but…hm. I don’t know.

Then again, there is a vast difference between saying, “this is the top way in which you can be successful out of 34 choices” and saying “you are the strongest person at this way of seeing or approaching the world.”

Kind of like the difference between “your best feature is your eyes” and “you have the most beautiful eyes of anyone I’ve ever met.” Yeah?

Anyway. I’m off to probably not be productive. Then again, it’s Sunday here so that’s probably an okay thing all in all. Although it pains my Achiever soul nonetheless. Haha.

How Misuse of AI Hurts Us All

There are a lot of folks out there very stridently claiming that the fast evolution of AI for writing and image creation is no big deal and just the way the world changes and blah, blah, blah.

But you can’t have the ultra-fast generation of written content not impact existing systems in very negative ways.

As a self-publisher I think it will impact visibility and credibility for self-published authors.

Is that new author a legitimate new author trying to find an audience? Or someone churning out a novel a day using AI with light editing trying to make enough money off of a handful of sales per title or the slick presentation of crap?

Who wants to take those risks as a reader, right? So you stick to the tried and true authors you already know. Or you stick to trade pub titles who have theoretically vetted what they publish.

And even absent that impact, the competition for ad space and new release lists and all that is even harder when 100x as many titles are suddenly being published.

One I hadn’t considered though because I’m not active in that part of the industry was short story markets. But as you can see in this article, it’s gearing up there, too. And fast. (Look at that spike in February.)

You thought you needed a good opening line/ paragraph to sell a story before? Hoo boy, is that going to be even more important now…

Lock or Unlock Columns or Rows In Excel

My AMS keywords are showing me that people are searching on Amazon for how to lock or unlock columns in Excel.

First, a retail site like Amazon is not the best place to do a how-to sort of search. It’s just too granular a question. You want to use Google or Bing or something for that kind of question. But putting that aside…

What those people are probably searching for is how to freeze or unfreeze panes. That’s how you keep a top row or left-hand column (or both or more than one) always visible as you scroll through your data.

So. In case someone needs that…First, you can get the ebook of Excel Tips and Tricks for free on all major retailers. It covers freeze panes at a very basic level along with a number of other little tips and tricks to make using Excel easier.

Also, I have a video up on this, too, on YouTube:

Enjoy. Freeze panes is a lifesaver if you don’t already know it.

New Releases and Random Thoughts

First up. The Word 365 titles are out. Main titles are Word 365 for Beginners and Intermediate Word 365. Available in ebook on all major retailers as well as libraries and in print on Amazon right now but making their way to all the other places, too. (IngramSpark doesn’t approve print books on the weekend so hopefully I can review and finalize today.)

The spin-off titles for that series are also making their way to all the sites. Those would be Text Formatting, Page Formatting, Lists, Tables, Styles & Breaks, and Track Changes. Reminder that it’s a better deal to buy the main books than each of those individual titles since those individual titles are just extracts from the larger books. But if you just have that one area you want to learn about, then they’re a good choice.

Now for the writerly thoughts…

I tried to publish direct with Apple again with the main Word books but then just gave it up when I published the spin-offs. Too much effort and headache for too little extra reward. The spin-off titles were live within 12 hours, the main ones took three days. So going direct actually took longer. And because of the mess that is their pricing page those books are available in fewer countries, too.

Every single release makes me think about the issues of Amazon versus wide. Because if you’re wide the level of effort involved in any release is at least double and usually much more than that. I publish to Amazon in ebook and paperback, Ingramspark in paperback (and sometimes hard cover), D2D in ebook, Kobo in ebook, Nook in ebook, and Google in ebook.

That’s six times the effort. But not six times the results. Despite being wide I still am probably 75-85% Amazon revenue.

So why be wide? (Aside from not wanting to help them create a monopoly that will then be turned against authors to suck every penny from them. If you haven’t read that Doctorow article about the enshittification of TikTok, do so.)

One of the main reasons is because Amazon is very trigger-happy sometimes. I’m seeing mentions this week that a number of authors have had their accounts suspended because they’re in KU, so required to be exclusive, but their books have been pirated and posted elsewhere.

Instead of noting that pirate sites are largely out of an author’s control (because they don’t really care all that much about takedown notices, seeing as they’re thieves to begin with) Amazon just went after those authors.

It’s scary to put your entire livelihood in the hands of a company that runs largely on bots and cheap foreign labor. (No offense meant to that overseas labor. They try but employees can only do what they can do. And when you’re a cheap, replaceable cog in a voracious machine designed to chew everyone up and spit them out when they’ve lost value, well…you aren’t exactly empowered to be a problem solver.)

I should thank the person who reviewed my print books, though, because they caught a typo for me on one of my covers. (Reminder that being self-employed means the incompetent employee that made that stupid mistake is always you.)

So exclusivity just makes me twitchy.

I wish readers would turn to libraries or Kobo Plus or Scribd instead, but they don’t. They just see convenience instead of the long-term harm.

And KU is a big market to not have access to. At this point the fact that it can only be accessed by authors who are exclusive to Amazon is wrong. The biggest player in the industry wants to increase their dominance even more and they’re allowed to do so with impunity.

So authors take the hits on both sides of it. If you’re exclusive you know that you can lose your entire livelihood at any time Amazon makes a decision against you. If you’re not exclusive you suffer from lack of visibility on the biggest sales platform because of how Amazon treats KU titles in its rankings and you give up access to a pretty decent chunk of the ebook market at the same time.

It would be nice if the regulatory authorities would step in on any of this, but I have no hope for that at this point. They should. But they won’t.

The other writing-related thought I had yesterday was about Jim Croce. I don’t know if anyone is familiar with his music, but he’s one of my all-time favorites. I’m a very lyric-driven listener and he has some of the best lyrics out there, IMO.

The song I was listening to yesterday is called Age. I’d link to it on YouTube but I don’t see an official channel for him and I try not to link to channels that look like they’re set up to make money off of someone else’s content.

But look up the lyrics at least, they’re very good.

Why I’m writing about him here, though, is because I looked him up on Wikipedia. I knew he’d died young but couldn’t remember how young or what killed him. (Plane crash at the age of 30).

What caught my attention though was the mention at the very end of the career section that he’d written a letter to his wife that she received after his death where he’d decided to quit music and stick to writing short stories and movie scripts.

Here was a man who I would argue is one of the best singer-songwriters of the past century and he had not, while he was alive, found financial success or acclaim.

He’d already written and recorded some of the most timeless classics in music. And yet…He was going to quit.

He’d already done the work. But it hadn’t found success yet.

Now, would the world have discovered him if he hadn’t died tragically? I don’t know. We have this weird thing with music where someone dies and suddenly their music charts. So maybe if he hadn’t died he would’ve gone home and raised his son and written movie scripts and a few diehard fans would’ve listened to his songs but he wouldn’t have achieved the level of fame he did.

It’s scary, though, to think that someone that good was going to quit.

Of course, just because he had written works of genius that hadn’t found their moment yet doesn’t mean anyone else who’s thinking of quitting is in the same situation. Survivorship bias is real. We look at all the stories of “I persevered” and forget the Of Human Bondage flip-side where someone sacrifices everything for their art and fails miserably.

So I don’t know that his life is a “just keep going” lesson. But it’s something to think about.

Okay. Cozy audiobooks did well enough with libraries that I’m off to record number three. Once I update a million, zillion links for the new releases.

Writing Is Weird

Before I decided to focus exclusively on my writing, I had a number of jobs. Some were just those jobs you get when you’re in school and then I had a series of professional jobs.

I started my career in one location with a company and then transferred to another location and position with that same company. I then left that company for a new role related to the same industry. And then left that company with the idea I’d start my own completely unrelated business. Until I fell in love with New Zealand at which point starting my own business in the same field was the better choice. I did that for a while but then added the writing during my downtime between projects until I finally decided to just do the writing.

Each of those pivots was just a normal part of the process of having a career. You work in a role for a while and then move on (hopefully upward) to a new role.

Never once when I was thinking of changing to a new position did I think that I had failed at the prior position, even when I was thinking of going into a completely different field.

Maybe because I hadn’t. Each time I moved in my professional career it was my choice to do so. I was giving notice to that employer or client that it was time for me to move on to the next opportunity.

For the most part I enjoyed what I did, but I always wanted growth and new challenges. I’m not a person who settles into a good-enough job for forty years. (Bless those who do, they’re smarter than I am in many ways.)

But with writing, every time I think of moving on from it, it feels like doing so would be a failure. I think maybe because writing can be anything you want to make it. There is no outgrowing being a writer. It’s always going to have unexplored directions to take.

And so not finding a direction to take that’s financially rewarding enough to stick with it, feels like failure. At this point in time I have accomplished a tremendous amount with my writing. I have a six-foot bookcase with all of my books on it and have written more books than most people who aspire to be writers will write in a lifetime.

Setting aside money and profitability, all the ebooks, print books, video courses, and audiobooks that I’ve created is something to be proud of.

But because writing (at least when you decide to publish) is also entrepreneurship, there’s always also that profitability side to it.

Is this business a going concern? Does it pay its bills? And if the answer to that is “no” then it feels like failure. Because other people pay their bills with it, why aren’t you?

And to be fair, I have chosen to live somewhere more expensive than necessary in order to be near family. If I had chosen two years ago when I sold my house to move to Omaha, something I considered, I’d easily be earning enough from my writing right now to pay all my bills.

But I didn’t.

Also, I don’t know that I’d be happy with my writing right now even if I’d done that. Because the other big difference between a career and entrepreneurship is that–in general, assuming you don’t have a setback–in a corporate-type career you steadily increase your income over time. You either get raises or promotions or move to newer jobs that pay more.

But with most entrepreneurship, including writing, you have up years and down years. It is not a steady progression.

Jim C. Hines has been sharing his annual writing income for years. And you can see that it’s not some nice, steady thing.

Here’s mine:

For a while there it was a steady upward progression. Which let me pretend that this isn’t a highly uncertain business with unforeseen pitfalls.

And if that plateau that you see there were high enough, I’d say, well, that’s okay. You have good years and bad years. As long as it stays above the support level you need, it’s fine.

I have a writer friend, for example, who had a 25% drop in revenues last year. But I’m pretty sure that friend was dropping from somewhere in the $300K range of revenue, so had plenty of remaining income.

Yeah, it sucks to lose $75K in revenue in a year, but when you still have $225K to live on, you can probably make that work, you know.

But when you are still trying to build to a good support level and you level out…And you look at trends in the market and they aren’t favorable…

If it were a simple job, you’d walk away. Hey, my employer is probably going to start cutting staff soon, good time to jump somewhere new. Yeah, sure, you miss the work or the co-workers. Or you regret that the company didn’t succeed. But you make the smart choice.

Writing, though…Even though the very large majority of writers never make much money from it, there’s still this relentless message that you need to stick with it. Even when you can’t think of new ideas, like another writer friend of mine. It’s like it becomes an identity that you can only claim if you’re actively pursuing it.

Skydiving is that way, too. Get past a fun tandem or two and you’re not just someone who occasionally likes to jump out of planes, you’re a skydiver. And if you stop jumping, you sacrifice that identity. And that community.

I don’t know. It’s weird. And something I probably should stop thinking so much about because I’d be better off writing. Or, in the case of what I need to do today, creating six paperbacks that will release sometime in the next week to accompany the two I hit publish on yesterday. But more on that in a day or two when all the sites shake out.

Until then. Enjoy your weekend.