Some More Writerly Thoughts

As I mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot this year, which has involved buying books I wouldn’t normally buy but I’m so desperate for good reading material I’ve been branching out even more than normal. And that means that I’m bumping up against more books that are outside my comfort zone, which has prompted some writerly thoughts.

So here goes.

Issue One:

I’ve decided that there has to be a certain amount of common viewpoint or perspective between reader and writer to achieve the type of full immersion that pulls the reader quickly through a book.

As an example, this week I read a book where someone was being poisoned and they were trying to figure out who it could be. At the same time a neighboring ruler was massing troops on the border as part of military exercises. Now, me, I’m thinking that person who wants to invade your country is the first person to suspect.

But instead the character in this book kept dismissing the ruler of the other country in favor of suspecting their bodyguards and anyone else other than the leader of the other country because the leader of the other country wrote them a nice letter that said of course they weren’t poisoning them or trying to invade their country.

And it kept happening. At least three times in this book others would say, “Don’t you think it’s that leader of that other country?” and the person would be like, “No, of course not. I knew them once.” (And they were driven and manipulative even then, by the way.)

This annoyed me as a reader so much that not only did the book get banished to my “I’ll never read this book again, so you’re welcome to it” room, it took book one of the series with it.

I have no doubt that other readers would’ve skimmed right by that issue. Not a problem to them. Either because you don’t doubt their friends so would’ve never suspected that other ruler or because they really just don’t have an issue with characters doing something like that. But for me, it was a deal-breaker.

That’s where I think alignment between reader and writer comes into play. It didn’t work for me and what I need in a book.

In other books I’ve been turned off by priorities a character had in a given situation that didn’t match what my priorities would’ve been. Or things they did that were incidental to the story that just didn’t sit right with me.

But if someone says they had linen in that particular culture when it wouldn’t at all have been possible, that’s going to slide right by me.

So alignment. There’s really nothing as authors that we can do about this, but I think it’s important to keep in mind. Because sometimes a bad review is down to bad alignment and when that happens you need to be able to set aside that reader’s opinion and focus on the readers you do have alignment with.

Issue Two:

I often see newer writers ask if you can do X. Can you have a series where the viewpoint character changes in each book? Can you use really short chapters? Can you use really long chapters? Can you use a non-linear story technique? Can you use a prologue? Blah, blah, blah.

And when that happens there is almost inevitably someone who chimes in with “Author X did it” and the implication is that because Author X did it that anyone can do it.

And in one sense, that is true. My golden rule of writing is that if it works, it works.

There are brilliant books out there that have broken accepted rules. Les Miserables is the king of info dumps, but it’s lasted hundreds of years because it’s compelling. I wanted to read about the sewers of Paris if Victor Hugo wanted to tell me about them.

The problem is, just because someone else pulled it off successfully does not mean that the average writer can do so. And sometimes it doesn’t even mean that it was the best choice for that writer who seemingly pulled it off.

I’m reading a book right now that I think somewhere below the surface has really interesting world-building and a gripping story. But it’s told in two alternating timelines and uses footnotes, both of which detract tremendously from the story.

So if someone asked, “Can you use footnotes in a novel?” I am sure there would be someone who answered, “Oh yeah. Such and such did and that book was a Kirkus whatever whatever.”

But the honest answer should be, “You can. Such and such did and was a top release of their year, but honestly, the book would’ve been better without that and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try to do it. At least, not using that as an example of success.”

Even if this author had pulled it off–and I want to say that I’ve read a novel that did–the advice should probably be, “I’ve seen it done well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.”

It’s tricky, because you don’t want to discourage someone from being unique and original. But at the same time, just because Famous Author X did that in the tenth book they wrote, doesn’t mean Joe Average Author can do that in the first book they write.

Issue Three: This is just a personal one, but I need to start reading the preview for books before I order them. More than once this year I’ve started to read a book that appeared to be a pure fantasy book based on the blurb but the first chapter revealed it to be something else.

In one case it turned out the first chapter was like a computer report so I assume it was actually some mild version of litRPG. In another case the first chapter showed it to be set in the contemporary world when I’d been lead to believe it was alternate-world fantasy.

For me personally as a reader both of those put the book at a disadvantage up front because it was immediately jarring.

Now, granted, 2020 is just a year so I as a reader am probably being much more cranky than normal. But I do think there are lessons to be learned in my rants above for any author.

One, seek readers who align with what you write. Two, represent your book accurately to readers so that you can effectively find those readers. Three, make sure any writing trick you use actually enhances the story rather than detracts from it.

Too Lazy

I was thinking yesterday about how I’m too lazy to ever actually succeed at the traditional publishing route. Which is ironic given the amount of additional effort that self-publishing requires. But in a sense I’m also lazy there, too.

I’ve determined it’s because I’m missing the “please like me” gene.

Let me explain.

This week I redid over twenty covers for my short stories and loaded them to five different distributor sites. This was for two pen names so once I had the basic template in place it was relatively easy to create each of the covers, but it was still probably a day or two of design work and a full day of updating and uploading the files.

I had recently bought Affinity and wanted to experiment with it and also have bought over the last year a large, large number of fonts through Design Cuts’ bundles as well as a few fonts that were just really nice, fancy ones.

And it was time to level-up those covers.

When I did the speculative fiction covers, I also decided I’d go ahead and publish a couple short stories that have been moldering away on my hard drive and were doing no good there.

This is where it gets back to that laziness. Because one of the stories (The Taste of Memory) was a semi-finalist sometime recently in the Writers of the Future contest. That means it was top 16 in that quarter’s entries. And the critique I got back on it was essentially you could tweak this one thing, but this story should be sellable as is.

So I sent it out to a handful of pro-paying markets, I think maybe five of them. And then I lost interest and just let it sit.

Because I’d done the part that interested me–I’d written my story and explored the nature of memory and the creative process and how much trauma plays into that. That’s what I cared about, personally.

Which meant that all that was left was to put in a bunch of effort trying to find someone who’d like it enough to pay me for it. And that’s…boring to me.

I know other authors who write to be read. They get their satisfaction from others reading and liking what they’ve done. But that’s not me. I’m missing that gene. I’m like, “Oh, you don’t like it or me? Okay. Whatever.”

So after a little bit of effort to see that the story wasn’t going to sell to one of the top markets, I moved on.

Which is not how you succeed in this business, by the way. If you want to break in with short stories you have to write a story and keep that story going from one market to the next to the next to the next until someone buys it. And while you’re waiting you just keep cranking out new stories.

It can take years for one story to sell. (I once had an almost sale with The Bearer and I want to say that Tor.com held onto it for over six months. Six months for that one submission to finally get a no. Have a few of those on the same story and, yeah, years. I got great personal rejections on The Bearer, but after a while I was just bored with sending it out again.)

But that’s what you’re supposed to do. Keep sending it out until it sells. That’s how the game is played. You keep submitting until someone says yes.

Same with queries, right? You’re supposed to query something like a hundred agents before you give up on that particular novel. And then you write the next novel and do it all again. And again. And again until someone says yes.

(Dating works that way, too, by the way. But this post isn’t about dating.)

It turns out I’m just too lazy to deal with all of that. So I self-publish. Where the work is ten times as hard. And, really, you’re having to pursue the same sort of “do you like it” thing that you do with traditional publishing, but you just do it with advertising instead.

It’s crazy. And honestly it’s a miracle I’ve made any money at this thing given where my particular laziness lies…

So anyway. Look at some of my pretty new short story covers:

In Search of a Hero7 small  The Taste of Memory small  The Bearer5 small

Puppy Love Holiday Surprise small  Puppy Love Volumes 1 to 13 small

(That now won’t sell because I did the fun part already and am now going to move on to something else like writing a new novel instead of doing anything more to promote them. Hahaha. Sigh.)

 

Good Advice from PCW

It’s been a while since I reminded people that they should be following Patricia C. Wrede’s blog because she gives some excellent writing advice every Wednesday. This week’s post is, in my opinion, a must-read for any author who has ever found themselves stuck or dissatisfied with what they were writing:

Making It Harder Than It Needs To Be

Basically the advice is trust your gut and write what you want to write in the way you want to write it.

I spent a year writing short stories early on because some agent told me they could never sell my novel to the Big 5 if I didn’t have short story credits first. I’m not one for reading short stories and am more naturally inclined towards novel-length ideas and character development so it was a complete change for me.

I didn’t do bad at it (I ended up with some nice personal rejections from some big markets) but man I wish I’d just kept writing novels instead.

Every author probably has something like that. Being told you should plot when you’re a pantser. Or pants when you’re a plotter. Or being told what to write, when to write, or how to write it.

The truth is you need to follow your gut and do what moves you forward and makes it enjoyable for you. Life is too short to not live it in the best way for you.

Also, if you’re looking for a good book about being a writer or living a creative life, I just finished and really liked Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was excellent in a number of ways, but I think each writer will probably take very different things from it depending on their own experiences. Well worth the $10 Amazon is currently charging for the paperback.

How to Write a Novel

Patricia C. Wrede has a good post up on her blog this morning, Getting Started, that I think is well worth reading for anyone who wants to write a novel.

At this point I’ve written thirteen novels. One multiple viewpoint fantasy, a YA fantasy trilogy, three romance novels, and six cozy mysteries.

And I’ve pretty much pantsed every single one. Meaning that I had an idea of what I wanted to write and I started writing. Now maybe some would quibble and say that because I’d jotted down four or five plot points that I was really plotting, but no. I don’t do beats or story arcs or have a list of what should happen in chapter ten.

Which is not to say that I don’t end up with beats and arcs and rising and falling action. I’ve been a voracious reader for over forty years. Story structure is in my blood by this point. Stopping to map that out would ruin it for me.

It’s like trying to think about driving a car. If you don’t make me think about it, I know how to shift and which pedal is the brake. (I drive a stick.) But make me stop and think that through consciously and I’m in trouble. I’ll put my foot on the gas instead of the brake because it’s not something that I do at a conscious level.

Same with typing. I’m a seven-finger typer. I think. I use the three fingers on my left hand and the three fingers and thumb on my right hand. Maybe. I’m trying to type this and figure it out without actually paying enough attention to myself that I stop typing and it’s very hard to do.

But make me stop and try to figure out how I type the way I do, because it involves having different fingers type a specific letter depending on the letter that came before it, and I’d fall apart.

Some part of my brain has a spatial map of the keyboard. (Which is why ergonomic keyboards are a flat out nope for me.) But it’s not a conscious place. It’s not something I can deliberately tap into.

That for me is how a pantser works. It’s not that they aren’t looking at story structure, it’s that they’re not doing it at a conscious level.

So how do you write a novel? In whatever way works for you and lets you eventually get those words down.

For some that will mean staring off into space for a week while they think about the story before they ever write a word.

For others it will involve creating a three-inch binder of all of the information they need to create their story.

Others will want a one-sentence-per-chapter outline.

Still others will want a chapter-level outline that’s as detailed as some others’ first draft.

Do what works for you.

For me, I start with (1) story genre (mystery, romance, fantasy with a certain type of conflict), (2) story length (short story versus novel), (3) basic story issue (this can be a theme or a source of conflict or an event like finding a dead body), (4) basic setting (city vs. country, general type of society and technology) and (4) character (who is the main person in this story).

And then I go. If it’s contemporary and real world that pretty much sets up everything I need because the character and setting will drive the rest of the story for me.

If it’s fantasy then about six chapters in I have to sit down and have a little chat with myself about how this world works. What kind of magic does it have? Who has power? Are there magical beasts? Etc.

But usually I only do that enough to keep going and I often have surprises that pop up later. Because no one knows everything about their own world. They often only learn something new when they get out and explore or face a situation that requires them to learn. So I’m there with my character learning along the way.

My last mystery I didn’t even know who the killer was until the chapter before the reveal. I knew who the main suspects were and why each of them could be the killer. But the story world was completely under my control so I could make the killer any of those suspects I wanted to just by choosing which evidence to make real and which to make the red herring.

For me this is why my second draft is just as important as my first draft. Because once I’ve reached the end of the story and understand all the rules and all the players then I can go back through and smooth out rough spots or add foreshadowing or a little more of a reveal earlier on. Although, surprisingly, it doesn’t require as much as you’d think it would. Mostly just a sentence here or there.

(I am also an under-writer on a first draft so I have to add place and people descriptions and actions during dialogue which does increase wordcount by about 25%. But that’s not the main story that’s being fleshed out, that’s just bringing the reader deeper into the story.)

So anyway. There is no ONE WAY to write a novel.  You do you and don’t let other people tell you you’re wrong if the way you do things works for you.

Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.

 

Writing: Point of View Matters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I mean, I always am reading, but I think I’ve been diving into more new-to-me authors lately which means I’m running across more writing approaches or styles than normal.

And I’ve realized as part of that exploration that the point of view the author chooses to use can make or break a story.

I’m reading a novel right now that’s written in first person, something I personally have no problem with. My cozies are written in first person. But as a writer reading this book I am annoyed at the author for making that choice.

Because they chose to write in first person but they included at least six different points of view. ALL of them in first person. NONE of them identified in any way at the start of each section. And they change point of view within chapters. So you have on first-person point of view starting the chapter and then another picking up at the section break halfway through. It feels like I’m constantly playing catch up in each new section, trying to figure out who is talking now.

The story itself is fine. But I know because of the point of view choice this author made that my mom won’t be able to read it. She’d never be able to make those switches successfully.

And what annoys me so much is that the author could have simply used a deep third person point of view and accomplished the exact same thing but had it work better for the reader.

This is not some new author. This is a trade-published author with I think 11 books out. (All in first person, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But by now you think they would have read enough to know that deep third can be very close to interchangeable with first person.) And they have an editor who should’ve seen this, too.

So that’s one. And probably the one that prompted this post. But another I’ve been thinking about lately is that I just don’t like to be in the point of view of nasty human beings. It’s like immersing myself in slime. I don’t mind reading stories that have nasty human beings in them (as long as they get their comeuppance at the end), but along the way I really really don’t want to sit in their head for any length of time.

I read all the JD Robb books this last year and there was one (of the fifty?) that I really did not like for this reason. She’d included the killer’s point of view in a certain number of chapters and I just didn’t want to read them. I didn’t want to see some self-centered asshole murderer justifying their actions.

As a writer reading something like that I then step back and ask, “Did that help the story? Did the story gain anything by having an insight into this character’s thoughts?”

And my personal answer there was no. That was the only book of that series that I really didn’t like, but it wasn’t the only one that included the POV of the killer. But I don’t think any of the books I read in that series that had the POV of the killer benefited from having it. And I think in some cases it actually took away some of the suspense because we already knew things about the killer that the detective hadn’t yet discovered so false paths we might’ve gone down as readers were taken away.

Now, those books are so good that I’ll keep reading them anyway. I think she is a master of her craft and does so many things so well that she’s well worth studying.

But another author that I’d recently started reading I’ve stopped reading for also including the bad guy’s point of view in the story. In that case it was a lazy user-type who starved his kids and beat his wife. He gets killed in the end but about half of the book felt like it was in his head and I just did not want to be there. Especially since it was a world that should have killed him much earlier on.

I’m sure there are other POV changes I could think of given enough time, but those were the two that were top of mind for me just now. But I guess in a sense they both boil down to the same issue: don’t do something with your writing that pulls the reader out of the story. And if that seems to be happening, then check you POV choices.

 

A Few Good Posts on Critical Voice

I bookmarked this post yesterday to share at some point: Confessions of a Hate Reader…by Jeannette Ng and then realized today that Dean Wesley Smith has been talking about critical voice the last couple of days as well. Here and here. Also, this has been a bit of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with a bunch of writer friends.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful rule-breaking books are ones that were an author’s first book. Because often that book is written before a writer attends a bunch of writing conferences or joins writing forums or joins writer Twitter and is told what isn’t allowed or what’s passé. (Sparkling vampires? What are you thinking? English boarding school books? Been done before.)

It’s also before they’re actually published and have to contend with negative reviews of their work, some that are quite strongly-worded.

I wrote my first draft of my first novel in six weeks with no one else’s opinion involved. I’d been reading fantasy and other genres for thirty years so I knew basic story structure and I just did it. It wasn’t good. I had to revise it to make it work, but I did it because no one told me I couldn’t. And it went so fast because there were no road blocks in my mind about what I should or shouldn’t write.

I gave a character blue eyes, because I like blue eyes. I didn’t think if that was something that’s overdone. Or if it made me racist. I just wanted that character to have blue eyes.

But as I became more steeped in writing circles I found more and more criticism and objection to so many things. (Like characters with blue eyes.)

It wasn’t directed straight at me. It was directed at other books. But I heard it. I saw it.

They weren’t judging me directly, but they didn’t have to. I applied those judgments for them to my own words.

And eventually it stopped me from writing my next fantasy novel when I was about six books in. (Medieval settings are so boring…Who wants a love triangle…Am I just writing the same story again…Are my sentences and paragraphs too short…)

I pivoted to non-fiction for over a year.

And then I switched to writing cozies. A completely different genre.

I’d had a story idea for ages that I wanted to write, but honestly I think part of the reason I decided to write that series is because I hit my breaking point with all the criticism.

I figured if people were going to hate me for what I wrote I might as well be writing a version of myself onto the page so there’d be no ambiguity about who they hated. Hate that character, you’re going to hate me, too. We’re not identical, but we’re close enough for that to be the case.

I’ve always been okay with the fact that not everyone will like me and that for some of those people nothing I do will change that fact. I learned that lesson in middle school.

But I had to relearn it with my writing: Not everyone is my reader.

It’s not possible for everyone to be my reader. The world is too diverse for that. What someone loves about my writing, someone else will hate. That is a given. And the key I think to surviving as a writer is to either be like DWS and not care at all what anyone thinks or to focus on your readers and give them more of what they want and ignore the people who don’t want it.

(Which is hard to do. I don’t want my writing to cause harm to others. But if I want to keep writing at all, I have to at some point put those other voices aside and write my stories, flawed as they may be.)

Anyway. Something to think about. I’m off to finish the next non-fiction book. Haha.

What Does It Cost to Self-Publish A Book

I tend to ignore the conversations where people discuss what’s required to self-publish a book. A few years back someone who’d done very well with self-publishing who I know and like posted a list of everything a new self-publisher should take care of before they publish and I remember staring at that list in horror and thinking I’d never have self-published if I’d thought it required all of that.

I always figure it comes down to a difference in philosophy. I long ago accepted that I will never be perfect and that the level of effort to reach perfection far outweighs any benefit I’ll receive from it. In school being perfect would’ve meant I couldn’t take all the courses I wanted to, play the sports I loved, and do the extracurriculars I enjoyed all at the same time. It seemed oddly limiting to me to spend all that time on one thing so I could get an A+ or up my shooting percentage in basketball when I could get an A- and still start varsity with a lot less effort.

I also long ago learned that arguing with the perfectionists is exhausting and a waste of my time and energy. And in self-pub especially where everyone thinks they can see and judge your performance it’s an even more obnoxious experience. Because, since of course I’m not perfect, if I say, “you can do it for free” then someone will call out my writing or my covers or my blurbs or my book rank.

But here’s the thing: You can do it for free. Or at least close to it. It just takes time.

I’ve published two books so far this year. One non-fiction title in an area of expertise I have. One cozy mystery.

I used GIMP (a free software) to create the covers myself. Will they win awards? No. Do they achieve their purpose? I like to think so.

The non-fiction cover had one stock image, the cozy cover had three. I’m still working through a DepositPhotos package I bought that came with something like 100 images for $50. So, let’s say one cover cost me 50 cents. The other cost me $1.50. And time. It maybe took me an hour, probably less, to create each cover.

(Keep in mind at this point I’ve created well over a hundred covers in GIMP. Probably more than triple that if we start counting paperback covers as separate.)

I also self-edit.

Yes, that means that there are people out there who will read one of my stories and tell me it could’ve been better. But every story can always be better. Every single one ever published. And no story will appeal to all readers. Ever. But the stories I publish are me. They are consistently mine. People may not like what my characters do or what they value or the level of action/emotion/exposition/etc. in my novels, but for those who do like my worldview they know they’ll get a novel that delivers what they like.

I did have three subject matter experts read the non-fiction title to make sure I wasn’t saying anything dramatically controversial but at the end of the day that was my take on a field where I have twenty years of expertise. It was delivered in my voice and with my opinions based on my experience.

And, sure, maybe I could pay a few hundred dollars and have someone find five extra typos, but I don’t think it’s worth the expense. It’s certainly not worth it on the fiction side to find someone who may not know any more about writing than I do to tell me what they think is wrong with my story.

I format my own files as well.

Nowadays I use Vellum for ebooks and for fiction print books. But before I purchased Vellum a well-formatted Word file worked just fine. (Styles are your friend.) I still use Word to format my non-fiction print books using the free template from Amazon. I’m not trying to deliver the most beautifully formatted book out there. I’m just trying to deliver my words in a way that lets the reader absorb them easily and without distraction.

I also upload the files myself.

And write my own blurbs.

(Again, my blurbs may not be the best blurbs that could possibly be written for each book, but they’re mine so they fit perfectly with what someone will actually get when they buy the book.)

Because of all of that I was able to write, prepare, and publish two books for $2.

And my time.

The reason you might pay someone to do these things for you instead is because there’s a learning curve. My first-ever cover was absolutely horrid. I did not know how bad it was. I thought I’d done a good job with it.

But that’s the beauty of self-publishing. A cover can be changed out in a day. It will only live on on Goodreads if you were unfortunate enough for it to make it there. (Which for that book I was not.)

As a new writer I had that time. And really, honestly, if I’d paid for those services back then I would’ve been throwing my money away because I didn’t know enough to judge what I was paying for.

I have no doubt there are “formatters” out there right now charging a couple hundred bucks to run a file through Vellum because there are authors out there who don’t know better and will pay them for that.

Now, of course, in any discussion about this someone will inevitably come along and argue that six-figure authors don’t do it all themselves and give that as proof for why new authors should pay for all of this, too.

But that’s a fallacy.

Because the decision a six-figure author is making is very different from the decision a new author is making.

My most successful title has made me a profit of $725 per hour it took to write. If I knew that every title I wrote would be that successful then I’d be a fool to do everything myself.

Better at that point to pay someone $250 for a cover than spend an hour (which is worth $725) creating my own.

This is why a number of the very successful authors I know pay for editors. Not because they can’t do it well enough themselves, but because that time they’d spend on editing can be better spent writing the next book. They can publish a couple more books a year by using an editor.

They have the ideas and the audience for that to make sense.

But for a new writer? It doesn’t.

The sad truth is that for most new writers that first book will not be a resounding success no matter how much money you spend on it. You can get the best edits, the most beautiful formatting, the perfect cover. You can even spend on blog tours and hire a publicist (which, really, honestly does not make sense for 99% of self-publishers). And you can put thousands into ads and develop a launch strategy and all of that.

But at the end of the day that book will still not sell.

Because most first efforts are simply not that good.

And what they generally do have going for them are the things that extensive inappropriate editing can destroy. (Voice, a unique perspective, etc.)

So remember: You really can publish for free. And if you’re new, that may really be the best choice to make.

Take the time, learn how it’s done. Get that first title out there. See what happens. Rinse. Repeat.

(And if that title does have legs, if you’re one of the rare early successes, then use your profits to buy a prettier cover or some paid ads. Just be sure you know by then what will work for the type of book you published.)

 

A Reality Check Moment

I recently had a conversation with an author privately that prompted me to write this post. Now, first I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to call out this author and if they read this post I hope they won’t feel that way. But what they were saying was out of sync enough with what I think the reality of publishing is that I wanted to post about it publicly.

Essentially we were talking about submitting a book to a trade publisher. And the comment this author made to me was that because any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing that they would not be willing to accept any advance that wasn’t seven figures.

Now part of my problem with discussing something like this with another author is that I am constantly scanning for information from a number of sources, but I don’t tend to bookmark or index those sources so that I can refer back to them and pass them along as needed. For me, knowledge is one big mulch pile and I take what I suck in and process it in ways that get me to conclusions that I probably can’t tick and tie for another to follow.

But I’m going to make some sort of attempt to do so here, because I want this post to be educational not just opinionated.

So let’s unpack that person’s belief starting with the belief that “any well-written and well-packaged book that wasn’t written in some niche genre could make them six figures through self-publishing.”

Yeah, no.

But this belief is out there. And I think it exists for a couple of reasons.

First, I avoid these conversations myself because I know it’s just an invitation to be criticized. As soon as I say, well, no, that’s not really true someone will respond with “Oh, well you didn’t do it because your cover sucks, your writing sucks, you’re in a bad subgenre, you don’t know how to market, etc.”

No book is perfect. Every book has flaws. So when someone is trying to win this argument they will find those flaws and poke at them to prove their point. And I’d add here that a writing style that works perfectly fine for a majority of readers (cough, cough, Dan Brown) may not work for a picky group of writers debating quality.

So no one tends to push back on these statements that are made because they don’t want to be publicly called a loser.

And, two, generally only the people who do really well talk about how they’re doing to any great extent. I remember at one point posting about how thrilled I was to have 500 audiobook sales and having some very successful author come along in that thread and say, well I have 50,000. Gee, thanks, way to crush me. Maybe they didn’t mean to do it, but the message was sit down and shut up. Which many authors do.

I still talk about numbers here on occasion because I want people to see how the journey looks for someone who wasn’t an instant success but is making steady progress, but I almost never post numbers on that forum or discuss them there in any way for those reasons.

So over time authors get a really good glimpse of the lower end of the high range (because the really high end of the high range tend not to hang out and talk publicly about their numbers) and the lower end of the low range (where things are going so badly they’re begging for help). Everyone else in the range between those two groups tends towards silence, which can create a really skewed view of the realities of the situation and lead to someone believing the sort of thing I quoted above.

So let’s try to walk through this and see what we can actually determine.

In my opinion the Author Earnings Report was flawed in a number of ways and, of course, no longer exists. But it gets us some sort of ballpark to start with. The June 2016 report, which is discussed in this post (https://publishingperspectives.com/2016/06/author-earnings-more-data-profitable-authors/ ) estimated that there were 1,340 authors earning more than $100,000 from Amazon sales at that time.

That was trade published and self-published. All authors. 1,340 of them earning more than $100,000. Total.

Now understand that number is gross earnings. It doesn’t account for covers, editing, or advertising, all of which are costs on the self-publishing side. Also, some of those author names were the same individuals writing under more than one name, but that’s probably balanced by the authors who weren’t listed but could have hit that level across pen names. And it was just Amazon, not wide, but for most authors Amazon does still dominate their sales even when they’re wide so that probably offsets the costs that aren’t account for.

Compare that number, and this is a bit of apples to oranges comparison, to the current membership on Facebook of the 20BooksTo50K group which is at 36K. Or Self-Publishing Formula, Mark Dawson’s group, which is at 45K. Presumably these are people who want to make money from their self-publishing efforts.

Okay, so flawed as the number is, right there we have that only about 4% of “serious” self-publishers are hitting six figures.

(Now we pause while I question all of my life choices….)

(Okay. Done. Let’s resume.)

So getting to six figures at all is not a given. But let’s break down another part of that statement above, the notion that it can be done with one book.

Here is a survey that Written Word Media published earlier this year. It’s not a perfect article (is it really that hard to list right up front your sample size and the percent for each category), but it’s a start: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/author-income-how-to-make-a-living-from-your-writing/

And what I want to point out is that first graph that shows that the median number of books published by an author grossing six figures or more is 28.

These authors are in the six figure range based on sales of all of their titles. Not one title. ALL of them.

(Now here’s where I pull a number out of my ass.)

Let’s assume that the median net income for those over-six-figure authors is $280,000. I think that’s probably way too high but it’s nice math and no one is going to yell at me for being too stingy with the number.

Okay, then. So if the median net income is $280,000 and the median number of titles published is 28, that’s $10,000 per title on average in a year.

Sure, a new release might take up the bulk of that, but the few six-figure authors I’ve heard throw around actual numbers for new releases talk about earning $30,000 with each new release or having about 7,000 sales at release.

So, $30K to each new book. Three or four books per year released. That’s $120K if it’s four books. The other $160K for the remaining 24 books in the backlist.

And, honestly, that’s not even how it works. The 80/20 rule is alive and well with publishing. Most authors are going to see that only 20% of their titles really perform well and that those titles make up 80% of their income.

So in a given year an author with 28 titles earning $280K will have five of those titles that account for $225K of that income. Note: still not six figures for an individual title.

And it’s not like the $30K/7,000 sales on release are numbers that author saw with their first release. Most authors only get those kinds of numbers when they’ve built up a sufficient audience and backlist. (I looked at the top 100 authors in my genre on Amazon at one point in time and want to say that the ones who were on there long-term had at least a dozen novels out.)

There are exceptions, sure. I know an author who sold something like 5,000 copies on the first day their first novel published. But thinking that anyone can self-publish one book and make six figures on it is not accurate thinking. Especially depending on the price involved.

Assuming a title needs 20% spent on advertising to sell, how many copies would an author need to sell to make $100,000 net on that one title?

At 99 cents they’d need to sell a little over 360,000 copies.

At $2.99 they’d need to sell about 60,000 copies.

At $4.99 they’d need to sell almost 36,000 copies.

Those are not small numbers. Bookbub which is the god of mailing list promos, has an average of about 3,600 sales for its biggest category. So if Bookbub can get you 3,600 sales at 99 cents where do the other 357,000 sales come from to hit six figures?

Also, I doubt this number is true anymore because of so many authors selling at lower price points, but the number I used to hear thrown around was that the average published book could expect to sell 200 copies.

Compare that 200 (which I think was a trade-pub number) to 36,000 copies. That’s a lot of difference.

And if that 200 number was accurate and was derived from trade publishing that’s for a well-packaged product (in general) that was written to a standard that passed muster with multiple levels of professionals. That’s a product that is supposed to sell.

So. Summarizing point one: Yes, there are authors who make six-figures. And they may even do so on a single novel over the lifetime of that novel. But most authors at that level have many novels to their credit and are making money across their entire catalog as opposed to from one single title. Also, the number of those authors as a percent of all authors trying to self-publish is probably far smaller than most people want to believe it is.

On to our second point. The myth of the seven-figure advance. I don’t even know where to go for this information. I tried. And I found an article on one YA series that attracted a seven-figure offer. And another article on some literary novels that had done so as well. And one on an established fantasy author whose books have been made into movies who was given one on their latest series. So those offers do happen. And if I were willing to pay for a subscription to Publishers Weekly I’d probably find more.

But they don’t happen often.

I am pretty sure that some of the self-published authors who did really well with self-publishing have been offered that much, but it was after doing really well with self-publishing already. To the point where the offer probably seemed like less than they could do for themselves financially and they only considered it for exposure to a new audience or access to markets they couldn’t readily access themselves.

But for a new author going the trade publishing route to expect seven figures? Oh no. Last I checked average advances for new authors were somewhere in the $5,000 to $10,000 range and maybe heading lower. And that’s for the publishers that even pay that kind of advance. A friend of mine signed with a smaller publisher and I think their advance was under $1,000.

(Now that’s where you say, I’d be better off self-publishing, thanks.)

So, summarizing point two: A seven-figure advance is going to be very rare. It is not something to expect in any way, shape, or form. It is certainly not a reason for turning down a six-figure offer.

And a further note here. There are many paths to publication. Trade pub is one. Self-pub is another. There are definitely authors who have done well as hybrid authors. Ilona Andrews is one who comes to mind. But when starting out it is best to pick one and pursue it exclusively.

The two paths are different beasts that have different rules and different challenges. And in a sense different tastes and expectations. At least on the fiction side. I like to say, and maybe it’s not 100% true, that on the trade side they’re always looking for “same but different”. They’re asking, “How is this book different from the hundred others I’ve been shown this year? Why would someone get excited about this particular novel?”

On the self-pub side a lot of the readers want more of X. They don’t need an author to change things up or advance the genre in some way. They liked X, they want more of X. (Not always, yada yada, but there’s certainly a component of readers that self-publishers “feed” by giving them more of the same.)

Which means a book that could make an author good money on the self-publishing side at 99 cents and in KU quite possibly would attract no interest at all on the trade publishing side.

So wrapping this up. I think one of the biggest challenges to being a writer is to learn enough to have realistic expectations. I certainly failed at this early on and it’s probably why I’m still here. But the other challenge of being a writer is remaining confident despite knowing enough to have realistic expectations.

There’s no harm in hoping or aiming for that seven-figure advance. Or that title that just breaks out and sells more copies than you could’ve ever dreamed it would.

Just try not to let it ruin you if the reality is closer to the norm than you’d wanted.

Learning To Put Up A Wall

I just responded to a post on another blog that was asking for some how-to-write book recommendations and earlier today I had a Strengths coaching call (I’ve stepped back from coaching for WBF, but I still do private coaching), and I realized that one of the essential skills I’ve had to learn and am still learning as a writer is how to put up a wall against well-meaning advice that doesn’t fit me.

One of the key benefits for me of taking the initial Write Better-Faster class with Becca Syme was that it walked me through how I was a specific type of writer (an almost complete pantser) and how other writers were not.

That let me put up a wall against advice that would work for a plotter but not a pantser.

So, for example, the presentation I watched where an author pulled out their two-inch-thick, three-ring binder that they spend six months preparing before they ever write word one, was not a presentation for me. I was able to put up a mental wall and let that just flow right on by.

But for someone else, that could be an absolutely great approach.

Same with advertising advice.

I’m a huge advocate of using AMS ads. It fits my Strategic Strength and makes my anti-social Relator happy. But it’s become clear to me that there are some people who are not well-suited to using AMS ads. Just like I am not well-suited to throwing book birthday blog blasts or (shudder) live-posting a video in a Facebook group.

I’m convinced that part of the journey of finding your successful writer path is learning how to put up a wall against the bad advice that isn’t going to work for you.

The author I was coaching today can write a novel a month without breaking a sweat. And those novels are good enough to sell tens of thousands of copies upon release. So that author needs to put up the wall against the “you can’t write fast AND good” crowd.

But other authors I’ve coached need lots of time to ruminate on their plot and polish it until it’s a shiny jewel before they ever start writing, so they need to put up a wall against the “just sit down and write and the story will come” crowd.

There is no one true way to do this. And sure there can be room for improvement here or there, but honestly the biggest struggle I’ve seen in my coaching is the author who is working against themselves because they can’t put up that well against well-meaning but bad (for them) advice.

So find who you are and then build your walls and move forward doing what works for you. (Unless you’re high in Woo or Connectedness and the idea of building a wall to keep others out is horrifying. Then don’t. See how that works?)