Time for NaNoWriMo

I have never in fact participated in NaNoWriMo because I’m not motivated by prizes, competing with others, joining groups, or by someone cheering me on. My motivation is simply to get shit done. (Which is why I have 105 perfect tournament crowns from Microsoft Solitaire tournaments so far this year. Someone send help. I need an intervention.)

This year, though, I’ll be doing what NaNo requires and in the month of November, which is writing the first draft of a short novel in the space of a month.

BTW, for a good general post on Nano and writing check out Chuck Wendig’s NaNo post for 2019.

In preparation for starting this next novel (otherwise known as the procrastination stage), I’ve been doing some thinking.

This will be my 12th novel. And the fifth in this particular series. And I gotta tell ya, I think I’m just now reaching the “you know that you don’t know it” level of writing. After eleven completed novels.

Stop and think about that for a second. How many hours of doing this thing have I put in so far and I’m just now starting to see glimmers of what all is required to make it work well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think my earlier novels are good and enjoyable reads and, for the most part, the reviews back me up on that. People don’t always like what I choose to write about but they generally read to the end before telling the world about it.

But the issue I’m finally becoming concerned with is this: the consistency of the reader experience. Not just writing one good novel or one good series, but writing novels and series that consistently meet the needs of a particular group of readers.

To be really good at this you have to hit enough of the right buttons each and every time so that your particular group of readers walks away satisfied and comes back for more the next time you publish. That is not easy.

It is in fact exponentially harder than writing a single novel. And if you don’t do it well, you end up building on a shaky foundation. A reader thinks, “Well, that book was alright, I guess, so maybe I’ll read another one by them.” That is not the type of readership you want.

Because that kind of reader is the type of reader you will eventually lose if you continue on the way you are. In a hot genre with readers desperate for new material this could take some time. You could probably have a successful series or even two, but it will eventually catch up to you.

So it isn’t about writing a good novel. At least not long-term. It’s about creating a good reader experience across all of your books. And that is much, much harder to do.

And with that cheerful thought, I guess I’m off to “win” my own little NaNo.

Essential Writing Skills

This post is for those authors who want to make money at their publishing someday whether that be via a traditional publisher or self-publishing. If your core interest is in getting your stories down on paper, then carry on.

But for those who want to make money at this somehow, there are some essential skills you’re going to need to have and it’s important to work on them alongside the writing.

First, you need to be resilient and adaptable. This industry, on both the self and trade publishing sides, changes constantly. Today there’s talk that maybe Amazon shifted how it treats borrows from KU for book ranking. (If so, it’s about frickin’ time IMO because someone borrowing a book for free is not and never has been the equivalent of them paying money for a book.)

Sometime earlier this week AMS randomly decided to add Ad Groups to ads which changed where you see your list of target keywords. That was after adding two new markets and then removing the links for those markets from one primary location and changing where billing and other items are found on the page.

A few weeks back a publisher with a decent reputation stepped in it when they took on an author who had been banned from publishing direct on Amazon. And just this week at least one big-name editor was abruptly let go, impacting every single one of their authors.

No matter what path you choose, things will constantly be shifting under your feet. You need to understand that and prepare for it and not be knocked out of commission when it happens.

Second, you need to understand business and numbers and contracts. In a group I’m in where some trade published authors post there was mention of how an author was screwed over by a basket accounting clause in their contract. If you’re going with a publisher and you don’t know what that is, you need to learn. That and all the rest of it.

A while back a publisher contacted me about potentially distributing some of my titles. Sounded great until they sent me a publishing contract that paid no advance and would’ve taken all my foreign language rights for free. If you as an author can’t see a situation like that for what it is and push back, you will get screwed.

And if you aren’t paying attention to profits and are only focused on number of units sold or nice reviews, you won’t last long-term.

I don’t expect authors to take things to the extent I do. (Yesterday I got bored and performed a multi-variate regression analysis to see which ad options I was using were actually driving sales and realized that two of them I was using and thought had been doing well for me weren’t.) But you do need to have some sort of a clue about how this industry works and what is happening with your own business.

Finally, you need perseverance. Sure, some authors hit it out of the park with their first book. And it’s all shiny happy times from that point forward. But not most authors. If you need an example, look at George RR Martin’s career. He left novel and short story writing for a while to work in television. He switched genres. This massive success he’s seeing now? Took decades to achieve. And required him to dust himself off more than once along the way.

I’m sure there are other traits authors need to succeed at writing that have nothing to do with the story or how it’s written (including a good bullshit detector), but these were the ones that were on my mind this morning. So there you have it. The writing is just what you need to play the game. You need far more than that to stay in and succeed.

 

Sadly, I Am No J.D. Robb

A lot of the reading I’ve been doing this year is of the In Death series by J.D. Robb (probably better known as Nora Roberts). I’m almost done. That’s close to fifty books.

And I find myself as an author in awe of her ability to stay true to the demands of her genre. Every single one of those books I’ve read so far is firmly structured as a mystery.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that the opening is about the murder. And the focus of the story is on solving that murder. Those books are definitely character-driven. They would not be the same books without Mavis, Peabody, Roarke, Feeney, McNab, and all the other relationships. And they’re not necessarily the types of murder mysteries where you’re given the clues to solve the murder yourself. You as a reader are along for the ride with characters you’ve come to like.

Despite the fact that they’re character-driven mysteries she still manages to keep the murder and the solving of that murder the frame of each and every single book. I have yet to see her stumble on that point after forty-plus books.

Now, there are some authors who would see that as problematic. They think it’s too predictable. But what those authors fail to see is that that’s how you meet the expectations of readers of a certain genre.

You show them on page 1 that this is the type of story they’re going to get. This is a murder mystery. Someone is dead. And now someone will solve that murder. And then, within that framework, you play with the characters and the story.

It seems easy to do that, right?

But I’ll tell you, I personally do not find it easy to do. I’ve now written four cozy mysteries and finding that balance between the mystery and the personal lives of the characters is the biggest challenge I have in writing those books.

And just today I published a short story set in that world that doesn’t even have a mystery! That’s how much I struggle with it.

Trust me. You don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to explain through your marketing that this book isn’t what readers have come to expect from you.

So I really, really admire J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts for her ability to consistently and continuously work within the frame of her genre and yet create unique and believable characters at the same time. She’s truly a master of her craft. Someday I hope to be half the writer she is.

 

We All Have Different Reasons

I recently wrapped up the third round of Advanced Strengths for Writers coaching with Becca Syme and it had me thinking a lot in the last few days about motivation and goals. (Next session is in late October for anyone interested: https://betterfasteracademy.com/strengths-for-writers/)

What I found interesting about the sessions I did this time around was that the “answer” for each person was vastly different.

I had one person I coached where we discussed their dissatisfaction in only hitting six figures a year self-publishing and how they didn’t see why they shouldn’t strive for more than that. Given their Strengths my answer for them was that there was no reason at all they shouldn’t strive for more, the only question was how to do so in a way that played to their Strengths instead of trying to emulate an author who I suspect is high Discipline.

With another person we ended up discussing whether any form of publication made sense. They have a day job they love that feeds their Strengths in a way that fiction writing probably never will, so full-time writing has the potential to actually be unsatisfying for them because they will lose something vital if they give that day job up.

I also had more than one discussion about which path made more sense: trade publishing or self-publishing and how each person’s Strengths played into that decision.

So often these days writing conversations are based on the idea that you must get published and you must earn as much money as possible from that publishing. (One I tend to personally follow, admittedly, as seen in my post on mindset.)

But I’ve come to realize that’s not what drives every writer.

Some writers just want to indulge their creative side. They want to imagine worlds and people that don’t exist and flesh them out until they could be real, but that’s all they want.

Some want to be part of a community of creators. They want to interact with people who are imagining these new worlds and to be part of that community they feel they too must create.

Some love to tell stories and even to share those stories but they have no desire whatsoever to commercialize their writing. They just want to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

Some do want to sell their stories. They want to master the business side of writing as much as the creative side. But maybe they don’t care about maximizing profits. They want sales, yes, but will choose to write something less desirable if it scratches an itch for them.

And some would love to spend the rest of their writing career in the #1 slot of every bookstore on the planet and won’t be satisfied until they make that happen.

Any of those options is fine.

We each have to find our own path.

I think a lot of the stress or dissatisfaction I see in the writing community comes from writers in one category trying to discuss how to do things with writers in those other categories.

The key is to figure out where you fall and then surround yourself with the people who support that view.

Ask yourself why you do this. What do you want from it? What do you need from it?

Once you have that answer, don’t let anyone knock you off your path. Your choice is just as valid as theirs is.

Finding a Way Forward

One of the most challenging things in this business is trying to figure out what to do next. And it’s something that happens to authors at all levels. There is no point in time where an author becomes immune to those questions.

Unless they’re number 1 in all the stores all the time. Maybe then it’s not an issue. But even then I think that author would wonder or doubt or question. “Do I keep writing what got me here? How long will I stay here if I do? What if I don’t enjoy it anymore? What if the readers don’t enjoy it anymore? What if I’m out of ideas?”

And when you’re not where you want to be, it becomes even trickier. You wonder, have I just not given it enough time? Or am I making a mistake here? Am I writing the wrong thing? Or do I need to improve my craft?

Back when I started publishing, the common advice for fiction writers was that it took three books for a series to take off. Some might take off before then but there were many, many authors saying that they suddenly saw a jump in sales at book three. So often authors were told to just keep writing until they had those three books out and then think about what to do next.

I’ve even seen the advice to not even try to advertise until those three books are out. (Advice I hate. If you’re going to do that, then hold all three books back and publish them close together.)

The last year or so that advice has shifted so that now people say that it takes four or five books in a series to take off.

But…

The problem is sometimes you’re not actually hitting reader expectations and so no amount of books are going to get you there.

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, continuing down that path just makes it worse. Especially when writing in a series because most times the next book will sell less copies than the one before. (Unless the whole series suddenly takes off a la JK Rowling.)

The problem with the “wait three books or four or five” advice is that authors don’t stop to question the presentation or quality of their books when they really should.

A while ago on one of the author forums I saw an author tell another author something along the lines of, “I’m so glad to see how successful you are because it lets me know that if I keep going with this, I’ll be successful, too.”

But I looked at that author’s reviews because I was going to make a marketing suggestion to them (apply for a Bookbub because they had gorgeous covers) and I realized that in their case their problem was quality. There were consistent remarks in the reviews indicating that this particular author needed to stop publishing what they were publishing and probably take some craft classes or pay for an in depth critique.

(I should note here that there’s a difference between negative reviews that say “OMG, I read this book in a day and it was awesome but someone please get this person an editor” which actually indicates someone’s doing something right and should keep going and will probably do even better if they get that editor as long as the editor doesn’t destroy their voice, and “I had to quit halfway through because I got so sick and tired of the pages and pages of characters telling each other what had already happened” comment which indicates a craft issue.)

(By the way, this is not someone I know other than seeing them post online, so no one who knows me think this is about them.¬† I actually try not to look at my friends’ books unless they tell me they’re doing really well for this reason. I even avoid the books of people who comment here regularly.)

I think it’s healthy to stop and think about what you’re seeing in your own books. Not what the general trend is, but what you’re seeing. What are your reviews? What are your sales? Are things trending up? Are they trending down? Do you get fan mail?

And I think, too, that sometimes even when you’re doing well it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new. I know more than one author who has moved away from their initial genre to much greater success in a new genre.

There’s value to picking a direction and going in it (if I had done so earlier today I’d be writing the next thing already instead of this blog post), but there’s also value to stopping and adjusting and reassessing, too…

 

Timing Issues

I’m on book four of a NYT-best selling YA fantasy series. I’ve devoured the series. Each book is about six hundred pages long and I’ve probably read the last three in less than a week. But an issue I noticed during book one is making it really hard to finish book four, so I thought I’d write about it here for any authors looking for non-obvious ways to improve their writing.

This author is great at characterization. Look at the 25,000+ reviews that each book has and you’ll see that readers love how fleshed out the characters are and how real they are.

But the author has issues with timing.

In book one there were some obvious ones. For example, in one chapter we’re told it’s been two weeks since an event happened and two chapters later we’re told it’s only been two days. This happened twice that I can remember. They were little hiccups that were somewhat annoying but not enough to keep me from immediately ordering the rest of the books in the series.

Now I’m up to book four and the finale is upon us. There’s someone trapped in a dungeon, another character under siege in a castle, others have fled the invading army, etc. And now all of a sudden all of those timing issues are getting painful. Someone takes¬† a day to follow a trail one direction and an hour to go back down the same trail. Earlier in the book weeks passed, possibly months, for something that should have been incredibly urgent. And a council whose first meeting was supposed to be in a week or two somehow didn’t meet for perhaps months.

All the timeframes are muddied and conflict with each other. Character A goes off to do something and it takes five days. Character B does their thing and it takes two weeks. Then they intersect as if they both took the same amount of time.

I’ve already complained elsewhere about a series where two main characters became so out of synch in how their storylines were presented that they were months apart in alternating chapters. To the point that a minor character was in back to back chapters in completely different parts of the world.

This is worse than that because it’s clear the author didn’t have a good handle on how long anything in the book took to happen. And because they didn’t have that firmly established for themselves, the timing of events slips and slides around in the story that made it onto the page, too.

It’s worse with this book because of the multiple points of view. But this can still be a problem even with single POV novels.

You send someone off to do X, does it make sense that they would take as long as they did to do it?

Or, for example, with my cozies I have to account for the fact that the character actually has a job to show up for six days a week. She can’t just be off solving a crime for three days straight without there being a consequence for that. Right? Or take off for hours every day to investigate clues. At least not during work hours.

So watch for this one. With my multiple POV novel I actually had an Excel spreadsheet with a timeline for all of my main characters and where they were and when to make sure it matched up. But it can be as simple as reading through the novel once with an eye to timing if the focus of the novel is tight enough.

Anyway. Something to think about when you’re not worrying about plot, pacing, characterization, tense, point of view, or genre expectations.

 

 

Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.