Word of Mouth and Social Media

Have you ever heard of the band Guster? I hadn’t. I have a lot of music in my iTunes account (over 3,600 songs), but I hadn’t run across them before.

There’s lots of great music out there like that. It makes a creator a living but they’re not someone you’d recognize.

But this morning on Twitter one of the people I follow on there shared a post by the drummer for that band. This one. https://twitter.com/Bowl_of_Worcel/status/1536929339274584064

It’s a good post. About putting in the work and how it can be hard sometimes when you have to get out there and perform when it’s hot and there’s no audience and no one who knows your music. (Or at least not many do.)

(I can’t imagine being a performing artist with a low turnout, at least as a writer I can sit in the comfort of my home and feel sad and question my life choices without having to be on for an audience or have anyone else see just how low those numbers can sometimes be.)

But the thread ends on an upbeat note. Because after the concert he had that one fan who he was able to connect with and be reminded that what he does touches someone. And that lifted him back up.

The tweet thread connected for me as a creator.

But I’m also always on the lookout for new-to-me music that I might like. So I went and checked them out on iTunes. And I liked them enough to buy one of their albums. If I listen to it and like it enough I’ll buy their other albums.

Which also makes this a great example of how being on social media and word of mouth work.

A lot had to happen for that one little sale that will probably earn them $2.

First, this guy had to be on Twitter. And active enough that people follow him. He’s been on there since 2015 and has 8K followers.

Second, he had to say something someone else found worth sharing. Because I don’t follow him, I follow a pediatric palliative care doctor who follows him.

(And I say follow but I don’t have a Twitter account. I just peek at certain accounts on a regular basis while avoiding the Twitter pop-ups that urge me to create an account.)

Third, I had to like what the person I follow shared enough to get curious, click through, and read the thread. The guy I follow called it powerful and beautiful. The tweet he shared started with “crappy night”. So that drew me in. What was powerful and beautiful about a crappy night?

(Why, yes, I am a writer who sucks up human experiences like a vampire.)

Fourth, I had to like what the drummer said enough to think, “these guys deserve some support” and go check out their music.

Fifth, I had to actually like the music.

A few times in the last year I’ve seen an artist make the news in some way where I thought, “I should support them, let me see what they have” but I bounced off the music.

One, for example, was a heavy metal band (?) who stopped a concert because the mosh pit was getting out of control and so the lead singer was like, “that’s not how we do this, guys”. This was shortly after there’d been some trampling deaths at another concert. And I thought, “Yeah, good for you.”

But their music was a little too heavy for me. I listen to a lot of things, but I stay towards the middle in most genres. I did find one song of theirs I liked and I did buy it, but I didn’t buy their album.

Another was someone standing up I think against Spotify maybe? And I checked out their music but it wasn’t for me.

So a lot of things have to fall into place to generate a word of mouth, social media sale. And most are not tweets or posts about “buy my book” (or “buy my song” in this case).

It’s about being present. Being interesting enough to have an audience. Saying something real or interesting that others want to share. And then when someone connects with that, having a product that appeals to that person.

It’s a lot that doesn’t directly result in a sale.

I would argue this is also why it’s good to be genuine across the board. In your social media, in your product descriptions, and in the product itself.

First, that takes less effort. I mean, I guess you could fake it all, but look at this example here, right. Who wants to fake who they are for seven years?

Second, when someone resonates with what you say in one setting you want them to also resonate with what you do in your other settings.

You don’t have to have it that way, you can pay someone to do your social media and pay someone else to do your blurbs and pay someone else to edit your work to the perceived popular style, but you lose oomph if everything doesn’t feed back on itself.

Which can be hard even when you’re doing it all yourself.

It’s why I’m not on Twitter. Because Twitter brought out my angry, snarky side and that’s not what I put in my books. Snark, yes. Commentary, oh yeah. But not the negative, angry, this world is a dumpster fire and we’re all going down thing that Twitter brought out for me.

Hell, even blogging sometimes is a danger zone for me in that respect.

I sometimes liken my personality to a 30-sided dice because I have that many facets to who I am.

For some authors, no matter what they write at the core they are who they are. So their blog posts and mysteries and sci fi and fantasy all have that same personality and appeal.

For others, like myself, it’s more like having six distinct personalities in the room who appeal to very varied groups of readers. It’s why I like pen names.

Anyway. I am now blathering on past the point. So social media. Word of mouth. Out of your control, but it happens. Usually by showing up, putting in the work forever and not worrying about doing anything to “sell” yourself other than be a genuine human being who says things people can connect to.

Wrapping Up A Series

Yesterday I did the final editing pass on the last book in my cozy mystery series. It was book 9 in the series. And while there were individual mysteries to solve in each book, six with murders, three without, there were also overarching personal stories as well.

Which meant that I wasn’t just wrapping up the mystery in that particular book, I also had to give a satisfying ending to the entire series. (I’m pretty sure I also did this with book six which was supposed to be the original end to the series.)

And while it’s true that writing in series can be better than writing standalone novels in terms of reader retention, promotion, and sales, it’s also much harder to do well.

(If you have nine books in a series that all follow the same cast of characters, are in the same setting, and have the same general feel to them putting book 1 to free will get you much better results than putting one of nine unrelated novels with different characters and themes and settings to free.)

This novel required an extra editing pass for me because of that need to nail the landing not just for the current book but for the whole series.

And I should note here that there are certain types of series where the main character never really changes and so there is no evolution of the character that needs to be addressed in the final book.

It’s just Adventurer A has adventures and they have adventures for as many books as the author wants to write. It’s been forty years since I read them, but I’m pretty sure the Oz books were that way after the first one. Kid goes back to Oz, meets cool people, maybe runs into some old friends, and then goes back home.

I, unfortunately, am incapable of writing that sort of series. I’m a very character-driven writer which means my characters react and grow with every personal interaction they have. They aren’t the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. They’re always learning. And, in my case, bringing new people into their w0rld.

And in a series where the character is learning and growing and evolving you have to leave them at a good spot that’s satisfying to the reader at the end of the series.

So each mystery can end with the mystery solved. That’s easy enough. That’s the novel-level denouement. For adventure fantasy you end that leg of the adventure. For romance you give that couple their HEA or HFN.

I should also note here that there are some fantasy series, like GRRM’s, that aren’t meant to be that way. He views his series as one big gigantic story that happens to sprawl across a number of books. The type of series I’m thinking of here for fantasy is more like David Eddings’ Belgariad where each stage of the adventure is covered in one book. (Been a while since I read those, too, but that’s how I seem to remember they worked.)

So.

I’m talking here about series where each book has a predictable way to end it (mystery solved, special object found, couple gets their HEA) but where there’s more to the overall story.

And with a series like that, you have to answer in that last book, “Why did we go on this journey and why does it end here?”

Nora Roberts has fantasy romance trilogies that do this well. Each book ends with one part of the quest finished and one couple getting their HEA, but the whole series ends when the ultimate goal is reached.

I also think you have to give some impression to the reader of where those characters go from that moment and that where they’re headed has to be satisfying for the type of story told.

I personally don’t believe in the “ten years later” sort of ending that one very popular series used. (I saw it in the movies before I read it and was thinking, “Why did they add this crap at the end?”, only to find out later it was in the books.)

So for me personally it has to be an ending that wraps up the big arc of the series, maybe even brings things together in a new way that I couldn’t see until that ending, is satisfying in that moment, and hints at a future for those characters that leaves me satisfied.

Which is a lot.

And you have to weave it around the ending of that particular book. Because there’s also a thing with readers (at least me as a reader) where they only want to stay with you for so long after the big conflict is finished.

As a reader I reach a moment where I’m like, “Hey, we defeated the big baddie like five chapters ago, why are we still here?”

(Which just reminded me why I didn’t like the ending of a very famous fantasy series that I won’t mention because it’s fans will tell me it’s the best series ever written and how dare I criticize it. But that thing dragged at the end.)

Now, you might be wondering why does getting a solid ending to the series matter so much? Readers have bought the books and stuck through to the end, why is how it ends such a big deal?

First, there’s the peak-end rule where people judge the overall experience by the peak moment and the end. So your series will ultimately be judged based on the best or worst moment in the series and by how it felt at the end. End poorly and it won’t matter how well you wrote the rest of the series, readers will be unhappy.

Second, if you want future sales of other books you write, those sales are going to be driven by the experience a reader had with the last book they read by you.

And moving between series is the most likely time to lose a reader. A reader may stick with a so-so series just to see how it ends. But then they’re done.

If you’re offering a reader a new series with new characters and setting and premise, they have to have been satisfied enough with the experience of reading the first series to follow you to the new one.

(You’ll notice that a lot of long-term best-selling authors stick to at least the same world or general type of story. It makes that leap to a new series with new characters easier because at least readers know they already liked the world and the type of story. I’m not going to say that all of them do so deliberately, but I will say that it’s a successful strategy if you can do it deliberately.)

The fact that the end of a series is when you’re most likely to lose readers is why getting that series ending right matters so much.

So how do you make sure it lands well?

I’m not going to claim to be the expert on that. What I did is I wrote my last book in the series, cleaned it up so that it was mostly there as a standalone story, and then I went back and re-read the entire series before continuing on through my final draft of the final book. That let me tease out a final story arc that I hadn’t been quite aware of until that moment.

(Essentially the overall arc to that series is that my MC starts out all alone but is joining a community. Over the first six books she finds personal happiness. Over the next three she finds that she’s built a community and shifts her mindset from being self-focused to group-focused. But I had to see the whole journey in one piece to parse that last little bit out.)

Whether it worked for my series, time will tell. But it is something to keep in mind for anyone coming up on the end of a series.

Do You Have To Bleed on the Page

I think if you’re around writing circles long enough, someone will mention how writing can be like cutting a vein open and bleeding on the page. You know, pouring a piece of yourself out there for the world to see in all its brutal, painful glory.

I was even in a writing group a few years back that had ribbons drawn up to that effect.

In one of the comments on a recent thread, author Jon Wasik (who has a new urban fantasy release coming out this week, check it out) was wondering if it always has to be that way.

Do you have to put that much of yourself out there every time to write something “good”? Which, of course, makes it all that much harder if the book doesn’t sell like gang busters right out the gate, right? It was a piece of you and no one wanted it.

(Which on Valentine’s Day I’m sure many can commiserate with, even the non-writers. You put yourself out there and…crickets.)

I figured I’d take the response I gave him there and expand upon it a bit since I’ve written a wide variety of things at this point, some that absolutely had a part of me in them and some…that didn’t?

So December 2014 I decided what the hell, I am going to dash off a billionaire Christmas short story and publish it. I did it in a day. Wrote the story, edited the story, put together the cover, and hit publish all in the space of about eight hours. I didn’t even write that story in my office, I wrote it while sitting on my couch watching TV.

And then eight months later I rounded it out and turned it into a collection where they go from that start to married. That took I think about a week to write the rest of it.

So let’s say two weeks of effort.

Now, as I mentioned to Jon, there was a part of me in that story in the sense that I can’t write a rescue fantasy to save my life. Over the course of that series of stories the woman prioritized her family over jet setting with her billionaire, dumped him when he tried to pay her to stay with him, started her own successful company, and only married her billionaire when it was clear that they were going to be equals in the relationship.

It was very much a billionaire romance as written by me.

But it was also a throw away. It wasn’t something I slaved over or had an emotional investment in. It wouldn’t have hurt me personally to see people say rude things about the character or her choices.

As I mentioned to Jon, I don’t think that story is a story anyone thinks about for more than ten minutes after they finish reading it. So it may not fit the definition of a good book. But what it was was a profitable book.

Mostly because it was a billionaire holiday romance. There was and is a voracious audience for that kind of book. (And I’m not saying they’re easy to write, because romance and sex scenes are not easy to write, especially over and over again. I have all awe and respect for romance and erotica authors because that stuff is hard to do.)

I haven’t written anything new under that name in years, that’s really the only big thing I ever published under that name, and advertising options are limited because they’re short stories. Despite all that the series has sold 3,600+ copies and made me a profit of close to $2,000 after taking out advertising and audiobook costs.

Not big numbers if you’re a romance author, but big numbers for me at the time. And for a short story series? Really big numbers.

And it was not because I bled on the page. I did not carve a part of myself out and offer it to the world. What I did was meet the expectations of the readers I was targeting enough that they bought the initial story and went on to buy the collection as well.

Sometimes readers just want enjoyment. Or a good laugh.

I actually think that putting emotional weight on the page can be the harder thing to do. At the writing workshop I attended almost five years ago, they hated my writing for the most part. It was too emotional. Get on with it. Stop sitting in the feelings and give us action. Make things happen. We don’t care what your character is feeling or thinking. At least not that much.

My first fantasy novel a good friend called the character whiny. Probably for the same reason. She was too busy grieving her dad to ride her horse around having adventures.

It is not easy to have a character on the page be deep in their feelings and have most readers care.

For me that first fantasy was about grief and losing your parent. But that friend who found my character whiny? Has never lost a parent. I’m pretty sure they’ve never lost anyone, not even a pet. Maybe a grandparent. Maybe. They couldn’t connect what was happening to their own experience so they wanted to move on to something more interesting.

So if you’re going to put emotion on the page you have to either accept that you’re not writing for that type of reader who can’t identify with the emotion you’re writing about, or you have to get so good at writing emotion that you can suck any reader into it and make them care. That is much harder to do than dashing off some fun romp.

Of course, I do think the stories we remember and that go on our shelves and that we tell everyone else about are the ones that are deep and somehow make us feel those emotions.

So lasting literature that people rave about? Yeah, that probably requires putting a piece of yourself in there. But profitable literature? The thing that can pay next month’s rent? Eh, not so much.

Do You Really Have to Up the Stakes?

I recently binged the entire series of Cold Case, which was a police procedural that ran for seven seasons in the United States from 2003 to 2010. I remembered liking the show when it initially aired so tracked it down on streaming to watch start-to-finish.

But watching it highlighted something that happens with a lot of television shows for me. They take a good premise with lots of meat to it–in this show it was investigating cold cases in the Philadelphia area–and then they ruin it by trying to up the stakes.

That is my personal opinion as a viewer, of course. But I’m going to use this series as an example of what I mean.

The series revolves around a team of detectives who investigates cold cases, often cases that are decades old. That alone is interesting and has plenty of inherent conflict. Someone died. They were murdered. Who did it? Why?

In addition I really liked that the show incorporated good music from each time period. So, crime drama, yay. Good music, yay. Likeable characters, great. Give me that for years and I’m happy.

But about three years in they must’ve decided that was too boring. Maybe ratings were slipping and they were settling into their long-term audience and it wasn’t a big enough audience for the powers that be. Or maybe some new writer came on and wanted to shake things up. Or the original writer stepped back. Something happened.

And suddenly the lead detective has to get shot.

And then later when they decide yet again that it’s getting too boring they shoot another detective.

And then they have someone run the lead detective off the road and she almost drowns.

And instead of focusing on her cases when she gets back she starts stalking the guy who ran her off the road and we’re made to think she maybe killed him.

None of that has anything to do with solving cold cases.

And this is not the first series I’ve seen do this. I finally stopped watching NCIS when I realized that every major female character who left the show was going to do so in a body bag.

It seems with all of these shows that someone somewhere is like, “Hey, we need to up the stakes. Get a ratings boost. Shoot someone. Or kill someone. Put the major characters in danger somehow.”

Even Law & Order occasionally makes this mistake. The rape cop gets raped. The criminal investigators get bombed by the Russian mob. The prosecutor has to go into Witness Protection.

For me as the audience, that’s not the way to increase my engagement. It’s a distraction from what I’m watching that show for.

That first shooting is when I thought, “Eh, do I really want to keep watching this?” The second one just pissed me off. And the car accident had me seriously debating whether it was worth watching to the end, but I was close enough I did.

If they hadn’t cancelled the series when they did I would’ve probably stopped watching at the whole, “rescue her sister from some random drug dealing jerk” story line they tried to introduce at the end. Like, what? Why?

I just wanted likeable people solving challenging murders. With good music in the background. Is that too much to ask for?

I’ll add here that I also have this pet peeve when it comes to personal relationships in series.

Like, did that character really need to cheat just so you’d have some conflict? Did that other one really need to be an ass? Can’t we have parts of the story that are just decent and good and work fine?

I bounced on Grey’s Anatomy at the exact same point twice for that reason. There’s so much conflict inherent in the setting did we really need the guy who’s supposed to be her one love to reject her when she puts it all on the line? Couldn’t you think of something else to move the story forward?

I think the key in these situations is to understand the audience and what they want. And it’s possible I am not the main audience. My mom still watches Grey’s Anatomy and she had no problem with that issue. So maybe she’s the super-watcher that these shows want. Me, I’m the canary in the coalmine most times and I stop watching a show about five years before it gets cancelled if it makes it that long.

So to tie this back to novel writing since this is presumably a writing blog at times…

If you want to write one of those long-running more episodic series with an investigator or detective or super solider or someone who has to go solve a new problem each book, maybe you don’t need to up the personal stakes each time.

Maybe they or their family don’t need to get hurt by the bad guy. Maybe they don’t need to discover the nefarious secret plot that will bring down their organization. Maybe just having a cool, interesting job with a challenge to solve each time is enough…

Because one of the other issues that can come up is that when you raise the stakes, it’s hard to lower them again.

Someone somewhere said that if you have the protagonist saving the city in the first book, they need to save the country in the next one, and the world in the one after that, and the universe in the one after that.

You don’t start with them saving the universe. And you don’t have them save the universe and then go home to rescue cats from trees–unless you’re writing an entirely different sort of story that most authors don’t write.

To be fair, I will add here that there are absolutely series where the whole point is finding the nefarious secret plot or overcoming the bad guy who’s harmed your family. But those series all end, too.

Maybe the author keeps writing in that world or they try to introduce a new big bad guy, but generally defeating the bad guy or uncovering the nefarious plot is when things run out of steam. So for a never-ending series, that is not the way to go.

Anyway. Just a thought.

Let’s Talk Backstory and Flashbacks

I read A LOT. Probably five times as much as I write. Every day I spend at least an hour hanging out with my dog while I read. And I read at bedtime, too. But I’m not a pure reader, I’m a writer who reads.

And what I mean by that is that when I read a book, I not only see the story the author chose to put on the page, I see the story they could’ve written.

With really good authors, this generally doesn’t happen. I think I’ve read 50 JD Robb novels at this point and there was only one that made me wish she’d chosen to tell the story in a different way. For the rest of those books, I’m just along for the ride.

For pure readers, it’s always like that. The story is locked in cement. It is what it is and can’t be changed or fixed or improved.

If a pure reader reads a book they don’t like, they say it was boring. It wasn’t interesting enough. They didn’t like the ending. They were never able to get into the story. It’s too bad X happened.

They don’t see any of that as authorial choice. It’s just the story.

But underlying any of those types of reader comments is generally some sort of craft issue that could actually be fixed.

So I’m going to talk about one today that I ran into with the book I just finished reading. (A trade pub title from 2006.) And that’s the issue of backstory, flashbacks, and where to begin the novel.

This book I just read was 600 pages long. At page 180 I actually stopped reading it and swore I wouldn’t go back, but the characters were just interesting enough that I finally did. (I will not be reading the other three books in the series, though.)

So what made me stop reading?

In that first 180 pages, the story started probably six different times.

We had two prologues, one that was a straight info-dump, one that was a storyteller info dump. Then we had Character A. Then we had completely unrelated Character B who never actually shows up again even though it seems like this could be partially his story. (It’s actually Characters C and D who are in the background of Character B’s scenes who are a large part of the rest of the novel.)

Then we jumped ahead twenty years and had Character A again. And Character C. And Character E who never really needed any scenes at all. And then we jumped some more years and had more random, unrelated scenes.

Then the first part of the novel ended and the second part started. Literally, Part 2. And there was some whole introduction following a bird who flies all kinds of places which again read like the beginning of a novel not Part 2 150 pages into the novel.

That was about where I quit. Because I had nothing to hold onto. There was no story thread that connected everything that had happened in the first 150 pages. They were vignettes.

It turns out the author did have a story they wanted to tell. And that story was contained in the other 450 pages of the novel, pages that actually did hang together fairly well.

As I read those 450 pages I realized that what that first 150 pages represented was the backstory of the characters.

The author needed this information to write their novel, but instead of knowing this information and then doling it out during the main story as little snippets or flashbacks, the author had instead provided the reader with everything in straight chronological order.

So instead of a scene with two lines added to it that references that this character met that character when he saved their life, we got a chapter that showed them meeting and then the next chapter was a different character five years later.

When an author takes that approach they have to be damned good. Because for every break they insert in the story flow they have to be so compelling a writer that readers are willing to keep going. Each of those little vignettes needed to read like its own compelling short story.

But they didn’t. (And I checked reviews, there were a lot of DNFs on this book.)

Now, you might be thinking, but that backstory matters. It needs to be there.

And I’d agree. Backstory is what adds depth and layer to the present story. My reaction to X event is driven by my past. Someone else could experience X event and have the complete opposite reaction because of the life they’ve lived. So backstory matters a great deal.

But it doesn’t have to be on the page before the moment it matters. If it’s important enough, you can include a whole flashback scene at that moment. But until it then it’s just “oh great, I get to hear about that time you did something cool or stupid in college, please, tell me more.”

And usually you don’t even need a full flashback scene. A deft writer can drop backstory in a sentence or two at a time so the current story keeps flowing smoothly.

For example, this book had a whole convoluted history involving multiple races that was provided as an info dump in the prologue. It could have easily been dribbled out as part of the story when each race was introduced. And then we’d care. “Oh, it matters that this person is not like these people because of X, Y, and Z history between these peoples. Interesting.”

So it’s not that you shouldn’t include those details in your novel. It’s that you have to wait to include them until the reader wants them. Your primary goal at the beginning of your novel has to be to draw the reader into your story and make it so they want to continue. Just one more page, just one more chapter, what’s next. And you have to keep doing that for the entire length of the novel.

(As an aside, I’ve mentioned her books before and they’re fresh on my mind because I just read all of them, but someone who I think handles multiple points of view across an epic tale very well is Michelle West. Start with The Hidden City if you’re going to start reading her now, but then look up a reading order because you need to hop to a different series after book 3 in that series if you want to stay chronological.)

Volume Matters

This is a post for the fiction writers, so if you’re not a fiction writer it may not be of interest.

I’m supposed to be starting on a new novel today. I have eleven days between now and my house inspection after which I’ll be (hopefully) desperately packing to move. But of course me and starting a new novel means me and doing anything but starting a new novel most times.

And today that meant looking at numbers. 2021 has been my best year profit-wise so far with my writing and I like to know where that’s coming from. Which lead to the title of this post: volume matters.

For 2021 as of the end of April I had sales across 101 different titles and seven pen names. That included 14 titles I released this year. (I just released four more in May but those haven’t hit my reports yet. It’s been a busy year.)

Obviously some of those 100+ titles sold far more than others. The 80/20 rule very much applies to this business.

And four titles actually lost me money when you take into account advertising. But three of those were first in series and the overall series was profitable. (The other lost me 35 cents because I can’t help but try every once in a while with a dead title to revive it.)

I believe that a large part of what has gotten me to the point I am with my writing income is the volume of titles I’ve published.

There’s the “try until you find something that works” aspect. There’s the increased visibility that more titles can give. There’s the little streams adding up to bigger streams idea. There’s the idea that the more writing you do the more you theoretically improve. It all ties in there.

But there’s also the base fact, at least in fiction, that more titles means more room to play with advertising. (Assuming you have sellthrough. If you don’t have sellthrough you have a genre expectation, reader engagement, or writing quality issue.)

My YA fantasy and cozy mystery series are a perfect example of how this can play out.

The YA fantasy series has three books in it which are currently priced at $3.99/$5.99/$5.99 but for most of the year were at $4.99 each. The cozy mystery series has seven books in it each priced at $3.99.

Both series have received similar promotions by me because I’m lazy so I tend to say something like, “Let me make all my first in series fiction titles free this month and then sign up for X, Y, and Z ads for all of them.”

Here’s where the volume thing comes into play:

Of these two series for 2021 the cozy mystery series has been more profitable. Even though the 2nd and 3rd titles in the fantasy series are individually more profitable than the 2nd and 3rd titles in the cozy mystery series.

Having the four additional books for readers to move to with the cozies has meant that even though they are priced lower and have worse sellthrough, I make more on that series than I do on the fantasy series. Which makes sense because if someone ends up liking the series they spend $28 on my books versus $15 for the fantasy series.

A few years back I dug into which authors were in the top 100 authors for the SFF genre on Amazon and my unscientific gut result was that it took about a dozen novels to get there. Sure, there were authors who were on there with one or two titles, but those were the exceptions.

It was the authors who had enough titles to benefit the most from advertising and to get enough visibility and were productive enough to stay visible who did well.

Now, just like the review myth, volume is obviously not enough. You also need writing that appeals to readers in that genre and enough readers that like your writing that it’s sustainable.

And it’s easier if you’re writing about subjects that interest those readers. Dragons will always do better in fantasy than shape-shifting millipedes. The more off-center you are from a genre the harder it is to get a toehold.

(Again, not saying it can’t happen, but just saying that being on the outside or fringes of your genre increases the difficulty.)

Also volume isn’t everything. If you write a bunch of useless crap to achieve volume that’s not gonna work. You still have to write what readers want.

But if you have a good book and you’re feeling frustrated about your sales the answer may very well be to write more. Don’t double-down and promote that book for five years at the expense of writing. Don’t give up and walk away. Write the next in the series.

Aer.io

I’m supposed to be setting up a Facebook ad for my new release but I ended up going down a bit of a rabbit hole with a site called aer.io.

Basically it’s a site associated with Ingram that lets you create a storefront to sell any print books that Ingram distributes.

You can create collections and offer your own discounts off of the list price. It’s a little clunky still (see the Stephen King book cover in the attached link which is not in English but fine when you click on the link) but definitely intriguing.

If you want to see one of my experiments, here’s what I did for a list of the books on my best writing advice books shelf. There were only two on that shelf I couldn’t find in their catalog:

https://shop.aer.io/WritingBooks

And here’s the link to the non-fiction store I’ve been working on for my books:

https://shop.aer.io/MLHumphrey

There are things I don’t love about it like the overlay on collection names. And it seems to like to overwrite the description for the page that you give when you go in to edit, but other than that…pretty cool.

Looks like anyone can set one up and you’re basically a little online bookstore.

Do You Engage Your Readers?

I have one writing rule: If it works, it works.

The only thing that should matter is whether what you wrote works for your readers.

Did you convey the story to them? (For fiction) Did they learn what you wanted to teach them? (For non-fiction)

Those are the ideals.

Often readers will read a different story than you tried to convey. And they will learn a different lesson than you tried to teach.

(For the record, I do not ever recommend using the automated keyword setting for a new AMS ad for a new book, as an example.)

But if you want a chance to get to that ideal you need to do one thing first: You need to engage your audience. You need to draw readers into your book and you need to keep them there.

This is where some of the one-size writing advice comes from like: Start with action! Have a clear conflict! Skip the prologue. (I actually agree with that last one 99 times out of 100.)

Those are all tips to help make a story engaging. But they aren’t requirements to make it engaging.

All you need to do (and I say this like it’s easy but it is not) is find a way to grab your target reader, bring them into what you’ve written, and keep them there until the end. How you do that is entirely up to you and who your target readers are.

So when you start to panic about “I write like this and it’s wrong” stop. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s the exact right way to engage your readers.

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.)