Reader Alignment

I’m reading a book right now that I find incredibly frustrating as a reader.

Before I started writing I would’ve just struggled through it (because it’s good enough to finish) and not thought much more about it other than, “Not again,” when it came to reading that author.

But now that I’m writing books myself I stop and ask myself, “Why? What is it about this book that doesn’t work for me as a reader?”

And let me make this point first: There are readers who loved this book. One of the reasons I picked it up is because a few people gushed about how great it was.

So just because a book doesn’t work for me as a reader does not mean that book is not a good book with a large audience or that that author isn’t going to succeed. They absolutely are.

And I think that’s crucial to understand. Something can not work for one person (me) but work for a thousand others, because we all read for different things.

In this case I suspect this book taps into the slow-burn monster-with-a-heart romance audience and they’re willing to put aside other issues to get that.

For me, I don’t care so much about the romance. I want a main character who takes agency and acts when it’s clear they can.

The character in this book has been thrust into a new situation. One where her life is in danger and where others are doing everything they possible can to survive. There are clear indications that if the character asked the right questions she could do something about it.

And yet she does not ask those questions.

Nor does she sit herself down in the massive library and read every single book she can get her hands on in search of answers.

Nor does she take on kitchen duties while everyone else is literally bleeding themselves out to try to keep her and themselves alive.

She just…reads poetry?

My reaction to that is, “Woman, step up already. Pin that person who won’t answer your questions in a corner and grill them until you get some answers.”

And that’s a reader alignment issue.

I personally as a reader want certain choices and decisions to be made by characters when they are in certain situations. Not all readers need that. Not all readers would even see what I see when I read the story.

Other readers might have different frustrations with books they read. They might want a character who pursues relationships and be frustrated if they read a book where the main character turns away from a potential romantic interest.

Or they might want characters who pursue power and not be able to connect with a character who walks away from it or doesn’t care about money or influence.

When you get past the level of competent writing, I think this is where stories either do or don’t find their readers.

There’s a need for overall genre alignment. “Is this a fantasy novel?”, “Is this a romance?”, “Is this a thriller?” etc.

But then it’s down to reader alignment.

“Does this character make sense to me?” “Or do they frustrate me?” (In this book it’s also very clear at one point that a bad person is going to kill two people and yet a different character not only doesn’t see it coming but doesn’t even wonder if that’s what happened after the fact.)

Another one I’ve noticed more with TV than books is that I will stop watching shows that don’t mirror my own personal values enough.

As an example, there was a medical TV show I started watching that was good. I liked the characters for the most part and it had tension and all that fun stuff you want in a medical drama.

But three times in the first season or two there was a scenario where a doctor chose not to respect a patient’s wishes about their own healthcare.

Once, okay, fine, I can see that happening and I’m sure some doctors feel that way. “If we can save them we must whether they want to be saved or not and regardless of their quality of life.”

But three times? Nope. That’s a point of view on medical care that this show wants to present that I’m not here for. Done.

Another one was a TV show where the main character is a narcissistic politician who’s just evil and he keeps getting away with it over and over. His evil acts get him ahead and have no consequences.

I finally after a season or so Googled the series to see if he ever got his comeuppance. At the time it was five seasons in and the answer was, “nope”, just keeps rising through the ranks. Combine that and the image of the FU cuff links at the end of one of the episodes and I was out.

Another one was a police procedural where a young rookie discovers a murder committed by their seasoned mentor who then kills more people to cover up the initial murder. Instead of the show being about how the seasoned mentor is brought to justice it was about how the rookie loses their career trying to take them down.

Again, nope. Not what I want to reward or ingest.

But that’s me.

Each of those series were highly successful. Because it’s a matter of individual taste.

There just wasn’t alignment there. And that’s okay. For me as a reader I have no problem saying, “not an author for me.”

As authors we shouldn’t take that personally when that happens. We cannot please all readers. Some readers want exact opposite things from their stories. The key is finding enough readers who want what you write to be able to keep writing.

Which, you know, easier said than done for some of us based on what we write.

Anyway. My writer thoughts for the day.

200 pages to go in this book so I can find out that the book of poetry from her mother is going to be important and that’s the sole reason a person who thought they were going to die immediately packed an entire bag full of books that they managed to keep with them while they ran for their life through a forest, but somehow didn’t think to pack a single extra dress or pair of shoes just in case they survived.

Best get back to it.

Reading As A Writer

There’s currently a kerfuffle on Twitter about someone who said that writers must read and questioned why on earth someone would want to write novels if they don’t read them. It’s not new advice, but who said it or how they said it led to accusations of them being ableist since not everyone can read novels.

(I think they may have called out ADHD in particular. I don’t know, I didn’t dig in deep enough to care and imprint it on my mind. If so, that person failed to understand that ADHD can present with something called hyperfocus in which case that person with ADHD will not only read that one novel but everything ever created by that author. In a week.)

Since I’m pretty sure I have said that writers should read more than once, I figured I’d wade in with some thoughts.

(Quick note that I’m still not approving first-time posters to this blog so if you have thoughts about my thoughts and haven’t posted here before, feel free to share them on your own blog or social media but they won’t end up posted here.)

So. The reason I am writing this post is because one of the people I’ve seen reacting to the initial statement did a long thread today or yesterday about reading and writing.

They spoke about how they currently do not read and used that fact as justification for refuting the writers should read statement.

But in that thread they talked about being an incredibly voracious reader at one point in their life.

And that is a very important difference.

Never having been a reader of novels and expecting to write them versus having at one point read a large number of novels and now wanting to write them even though you don’t read much anymore are two completely different things.

Because what reading novels does for you is it internalizes story structure.

I often see discussions about how long should a chapter be. Or whether or when to use scene breaks. Or how many chapters you should have. Or how long a novel should be.

For me as a writer who came to writing in my mid-30s but who was a lifetime reader, that was never something I had to think about.

Because by the time I sat down to write a novel I had easily read a couple thousand novels. So I had seen a wide variety of chapter lengths and uses of scene breaks. And I had a good intuitive feel for how long the types of novels I wanted to write were.

I was primarily a fantasy reader and my first novel was a multiple viewpoint fantasy novel like many of the ones I had read. The final product came out right there in the accepted range for that type of novel.

And that happened naturally because I had read so much in that genre that I had internalized those lessons about how much to include or not include in the story and what made a good break for the first book in a series.

(Was it perfect? No. But I firmly believe that I was able to write that first novel first draft in six weeks because of the amount of novels I’d been exposed to prior to that.)

Another thing that reading widely gives you is an understanding of what stories have been told in your genre.

Now, this one maybe doesn’t require reading, you can consume movies and TV shows, etc. to see what’s out there instead. But the type and depth of stories that are told in novels are different from, for example, the type and depth of stories told in TV shows. Or in movies for that matter, which often work best when based off of short stories not novels.

A wide exposure to other works lets you understand the difference between something that’s widely used in a genre (dragons) versus something that may have been more unique to a specific author (memory fire).

When that series we don’t name became so popular there were actually readers out there who criticized other series for stealing the idea of wizards going to a boarding school. But that’s been a part of the genre forever. “Reading” widely lets you know what’s out there already and helps spark unique material by giving you more components to recombine.

That doesn’t mean, by the way, that you have to read all the classics of the genre, which is another discussion that often results in strong feelings.

You should try, so you know what’s been written before, but if there’s nothing to connect with in that original work, move on. Life is short.

I personally have tried to read some of the best-known fantasy writers and been bored to death by them. Whatever story they were telling wasn’t one I was there for. Either I’d encountered later works by other authors that took the same story elements but emphasized the things that interested me more, or I just didn’t care about that type of story.

So I’m not saying you have to read everything in your genre. But reading widely does help. And if it’s something you can do, I’d suggest doing it.

Do you have to read to write? Well, no. Not technically. But it seems to me that’s like trying to be a ballerina without taking dance lessons.

(And to circle back to that person who read a lot when younger and now doesn’t but is a writer, that person is like someone who took dance lessons intensively for their entire childhood and now they just rehearse their own works and perform. That’s very different from someone who never took a dance lesson in their life and now wants to get on stage and perform at the age of 40.)

Writing and Flow

(Quick note I discussed briefly before: I’m currently not approving first-time posters to this blog. Sorry if you’re new here and wanted to say something.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been publishing a great series of blog posts recently called How Writers Fail. I almost linked to last week’s post, so check that one out, too, but today I wanted to link to Part 6 of that series, Words.

Go read it. It’s excellent. And written by someone with the experience and sales numbers to be able to stand behind what they’re saying.

I don’t personally talk about this often because even after as many books as I’ve written I feel like some sort of impostor who is just playing at being a novelist.

(I say this as someone who currently has fourteen novel-length works in print under three pen names and has two other novel-length works I chose to unpublish.)

After all this time and all those novels I “only” have 13,814 paid novel sales and 1.8 million page reads on Amazon. (I’m usually wide with my books so there are more sales than that if you bring in the other platforms, but it’s still not a huge number and the bulk of it is Amazon.)

My “low” numbers make me feel like I somehow can’t talk about my process because it’s “bad” and may be the reason I’m not selling more.

(For non-fiction in contrast I have 47,610 paid sales on Amazon so I feel like I have more of a leg to stand on there but my actual process is basically the same.)

In reality those numbers of novels written and of sales are much higher than many people ever reach. So I wanted to share KKR’s post and then throw my own experience out on top of that because at least I have found a way to write books and to sell some of them to people who usually give them decent reviews.

So.

Last month I wrapped up a nine-book cozy mystery series. (Book 1 is here and free.) It’s written in first-person which really helped me get over a particular block I had as a writer.

Which is that critical voice/editor/reviewer voice that sits in the back of many writers’ minds that says, “is that the right word”, “should you say it that way”, “is that the grammatically correct way to say that”, etc.

Writing it in first-person in a contemporary setting I was intimately familiar with and with a protagonist who is very much like me let me look at that critical voice and say, “Yep, that is the right way to say it, because that’s the way I would say it. That’s the way I did say it when I wrote it, thank you very much.”

For example, I learned in school and Word is happy to remind me that you don’t say that something is “more X”, you often say that it is “X-er”. So he’s not more funny, he’s funnier. Here’s a breakdown of that rule. Don’t ask me how correct it is, because I don’t always follow it.

But when I’m talking or writing, I will say that he was more funny than I’d expected. Even if that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

So there are rules. Many, many, rules. And then there’s “voice” and “character” or whatever you want to call it. There’s the reality of how a person actually communicates.

Having lived and traveled in multiple English-speaking states and countries I can assure you that actual spoken English varies widely. Not just in pronunciation but in sentence structure and word choice. And most of the “rules” that writers are theoretically supposed to follow are based on one very specific way of using English that does not correspond to how most people communicate in English.

Another example of the rules and how they can handicap a story is the insistence on using the appropriate word or phrase. KKR’s post has a good example about a fancy desk, but I also ran into this with the cozies.

I have always referred to the trees in the mountains of Colorado as evergreens. (And aspens, but we’re talking about the year-round green ones here.)

I would have told you until a year ago that was what they were really called. But they’re not. I walked through an arboretum and learned that they are technically a combination of things like spruce trees and pine trees.

But I’m not a tree expert, nor is my main character in that cozy series. So using the precise, technical words, even once I knew what they were, would have been bad characterization.

My character, who had not walked through that arboretum, would still call those trees evergreens.

(I still remember the fantasy novel where someone was on a boat for the first time ever and they used all the technical boat terms to describe things. Threw me right out of the story because that character would not know those terms.)

Those are just two little examples of where the “right” way to do things is actually not right for that particular story and character.

Now, that’s first person and a character who is like me, so it was very easy to dismiss those rules.

But if you write enough books you theoretically have to move away from writing characters just like yourself who live in a world just like yours. So what then?

Well…

Here’s where I came out on it.

My books are going to be flawed. They are going to get some things wrong. They will not appeal to all readers. Some may see me as Eurocentric. Some may see me as ableist or some other -ist. Some readers may have very specific technical knowledge that leads them to hate my book because my character wore a fabric that would not have been worn in that type of society with that level of technological innovation. (That’s one I actually heard a prominent editor scoff about at a conference once.)

Those people are not my readers. I will get criticized by those readers for my flaws, but they are not the people I am writing for. I am writing for the people who are so caught up in the story they just want to come along for the ride. And, yes, that means my readers are the ones that are blind to the history of fabric in the Middle Ages and to the current list of terms deemed inappropriate because they’re ableist and who probably never use whom.

And that’s okay.

Not all stories are for all readers. As a writer my job is to write the stories that only I can write and then as a publisher my job is to find the readers who will like them.

This is why I don’t have first readers. Or editors. I may have shared the first cozy with a few readers before I published it. But the later ones? No one saw those books except for me until they were published.

Because my books are me, flaws and all. I can create that over and over again. Whereas if my book is a collaborative effort formed with the help of first readers, editors, and who knows who else that’s a product that changes as my team changes.

Early on, with the first three novels or so, I did have first readers and I did go to critique groups with pages, because I needed to learn how my words landed with readers. And I did learn from that experience.

But after that? After I knew that most of the critiques I was receiving were “I wouldn’t tell this story” or “I wouldn’t tell this story this way” it was time to stop that.

I figured readers were either along for the ride I was offering them or they weren’t. All using first readers or editors was going to do at that point was bring multiple voices into that story.

There’s also another issue that can happen if the first reader/editor process isn’t done well. And that’s an uneven end product.

I can’t remember if I told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again if I have.

In high school I took a pottery class. One of our assignments was to create a chess set. I was going to have one that was jungle-cat-themed. So the lion was going to be the king and the tiger was going to be the rook, etc.

I made one of the pawns first. It was a dorky little cat-like piece. It had pointed ears and a noticeable face and a tail, but the rest of the piece was just a blob of clay. I could’ve made that little guy another dozen times, no problem.

My teacher came by and as she was trying to instruct me on how to better make an animal shape, she whipped up a gorgeous tiger. It was amazing. Beautiful.

It was also about three times the size of my pawn. And putting those two pieces side-by-side you could tell that they were not done by the same artist.

Size-wise the tiger also didn’t belong in the same chess set. If the tiger was that big, how big would the lion have to be? I would’ve ended up with a chess board that was two feet on a side just to accommodate that tiger.

But the tiger was so gorgeous I didn’t want to get rid of it.

Problem is, chess sets are mirrored sets of pieces. There was no way, even having watched her do it, that I could create a duplicate of that tiger.

So even though the tiger was much, much better than my other pieces, I couldn’t use it.

When I think sometimes of having someone who is really good at writing try to edit something I write, I immediately think of those two chess pieces and how they didn’t go together. How it was better to just use the less-perfect pieces I created rather than to try to merge in that beautiful tiger.

Now, I will say that not all editing experiences are like that and I was actually quite pleased with the edits of my short story I had in a collection last year. I did have to let go of a few personal preferences for how to punctuate my writing, but I figured that was part of sanding the edges off to get a unified product and that at that point my story was part of a bigger piece.

And there was definite benefit to being edited. I had confused mantel and mantle in that story, for example. But a simple light copy edit (assuming you find a good copy editor, which in self-pub spaces can be tricky) can easily handle that sort of thing. And that sort of edit should be for technical mistakes like mantle vs. mantel or eye color mix-ups, not rewrites.

Anyway. To wrap this up.

The way for me to be able to keep writing is to accept that I can only write what I can write and to hope that somewhere out there someone is looking for that type of story and will enjoy it. And to accept that some people won’t enjoy it and to remind myself that they are not my reader. And if at the end of the day no one likes what I wrote, well at least I know it was true to me and I didn’t compromise and bend and twist myself out of shape to then still have people not like it.

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.