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.

A Reading List for Writers

I’ve continued to play around with the new Books2Read reading list option and put together this reading list of all of my favorite writing books. These are the books that are physically on a shelf in my office that I really liked. Definitely not all the writing-related books I’ve read over the years, but the ones I really enjoyed and found valuable.

There were a few that I couldn’t link to because they don’t exist in an ebook version, which I find strange in this day and age. But it is what it is.

I went ahead and created a separate account to do this because I have so many of my own books in my main B2R account, which means pretty much anyone could create an account as an “author” and then put together a list like this.

So, check it out if you’re looking for ideas on more writing books to read or if you just want to see how it works.

A Reading List for Writers

 

Perception vs. Reality in Fiction

If you’re going to write fiction at some point in time you’re going to have to tackle the accuracy conundrum. And I call it a conundrum because oftentimes it’s not actually about what’s true, it’s about what readers perceive to be the truth.

For example, someone recently posted a rant about medieval novels that include breakfast in them. I didn’t actually read their link, because I didn’t care, but the implication was that people who mention breakfast in novels set in medieval times are just money-grubbing hacks who don’t appreciate true historical accuracy.

As a reader of fantasy for thirty-plus years I don’t care if my novels mention breakfast. At all. I want a fun, action-packed story where the character confronts danger and overcomes it. Preferably with some good friends or a stalwart animal companion to keep them company. And, honestly, the less accurate terms there are, the better. I don’t want to have to keep a dictionary of medieval armor at hand while I’m reading.

That’s me.

For other readers, one little misused word ruins the experience and shows you as the hack you are. “How dare you call that a dirk? A dirk was a short dagger used in the Scottish Highlands and didn’t come into use until the 1600s and clearly your story (although it involves dragons and flying horses) is set in the 1400s because of the way you described the village.”

(And now queue someone coming along to correct that example, because that was pulled from a five-second review of Merriam Webster and Wikipedia and a true scholar would see at least three errors in what I just said about dirks.)

The best approach of course would be to be 100% accurate in all of your information and descriptions but to do so in a way that doesn’t alienate readers who aren’t highly knowledgeable about your subject.

That’s not going to happen, though. There will be times when being 100% accurate means that only a small group of your readers thinks you actually got it right. Because common misperception is so wide-spread that most people have wrong information on that subject.

And there will be times when what you said is true but that one reader will miss what makes it true. Or where what you said is technically true but not commonly true and that one reader will want to point out to you your failures.

I would recommend learning and taking to heart this phrase when those moments occur: “Not my reader.”

If you’re highly accurate and people say it’s impossible to read your novels without a dictionary at hand, they’re not your reader. Those people who love completely accurate novels are.

If you’re a little loose with the facts and someone complains that it’s not possible for that to have happened in Chapter 6 because of x, y, and z, they’re not your reader. Those people who value action over accuracy are.

Find your happy place and stick to it. And when you get that review or that email that mentions the flaws in your book, just repeat “not my reader” and go read the reviews or comments from the people who did love your book.

 

You Don’t Have to Share Everything

I’m reading a mystery series right now that is both addictive and fails me as a reader. And it was put on hold after the fourth book in the series, so I’m pretty sure it failed other readers as well. And I’m pretty sure I know why:

Great idea, bad sub plot that then shares way too much information.

Some of you will recognize this series, but I’m not going to specifically call out the author here because that’s not the point of what I want to discuss.

So the novels are mysteries. The main character travels the country and investigates various disappearances. All good so far.

But she travels with her brother. (Well, as it turns out, not her actual blood-relative brother, but her stepbrother that she spent the last decade thinking of as her brother.) In book one there are enough overly-intimate moments between them that it’s pretty obvious they’re going to become a couple at some point in the books.

As a reader, not something I would seek out. (Although there was a very big erotic romance trend around stepbrother romances about five years ago, so obviously many readers would.) So not my cup of tea, but I was willing to let it happen in the background so I could read the mysteries because I liked the premise of the books.

And then I got to book three and they finally got together and that relationship took over the books. There were sex scenes in book one but they were either alluded to without giving details or taken care of in a paragraph or two.

This time…

The author included more than one very detailed sex scene of the two of them together, one of which included the main character comparing the shape and size of her “brother’s” privates to those of other men she’s been with.

Ew. (It did not help that the main character continues to think of her new lover as her brother on a regular basis.)

But really. Any shift like that, without the relationship between the two to complicate it further, would be off-putting to a number of readers. You thought you were reading a gritty mystery and now you’re reading erotica.

I think this series highlights an issue many writers face when writing first-person novels. Because there’s no doubt that in new relationships that are sexual that the level of thought someone gives to sex and the amount of sex that happens become pretty central to that person.

So if you were really living in someone’s head there would be a lot of mental space given to sex and thinking about sex.

But it doesn’t have to make it onto the page. A novel is not a detailed accounting of every single thought a character has or of every single thing they do in a given day. That would make it incredibly long, incredibly boring, and provide way too much information about the character’s life.

As a novelist you have to pick and choose what you show to tell the type of story you’re trying to tell.

(By the way, book four was even worse. I had to start skimming. One because there were still these I-did-not-need-to-know-that sex scenes but also because the novel made the reader sit through the reactions of three sets of family members to this new-found forbidden love. Completely irrelevant to the plot, whatever the plot of this one actually is. I’m halfway through and still not sure at this point.)

This is a trade-published book so you’d think they’d have caught this issue. But no. The editor failed the author in this case, IMO.

So, to turn this from rant to writing advice…For all the authors out there, ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here? And does it need to be here in that level of detail? Am I keeping a focus on the story I’m actually supposed to be telling?”

(Especially when you take a left-turn from genre expectations like this one did.)

We Are Not All The Same

It seems I’m always blogging when I should be writing. But yesterday I figured out that the 13K words I’d written on the new cozy needed to be set aside because the book I was writing needed to be book three in the series, not the book two I was supposed to be writing. (Good news, it’ll take less time to write that third book.)

So this morning because I’m not in the flow yet on book 2 I was catching up with some old blogs. And I saw that an agent I used to respect had said something very disappointing. (After this comment and a post a few months back which caused me to stop reading their blog regularly because it was so full of vitriol towards self-publishing, I can’t say I do anymore. Which is sad to me. Because this person seems to be getting more and more narrow in their views. Or maybe it’s just showing more as time moves on.)

Anyway.

The comment was along the lines that anyone who writes three novels in two years must obviously be writing crap. It wasn’t quite that rude, but it was there. The post also included some comments about what a writer’s process is, like there can be only one writing process for all of us.

I have to say, as someone who has always worked faster than those around me, that I find that opinion very narrow-minded. My two hours of time is not someone else’s two hours of time. There are those who can work and create much faster than I can and those who need much more time. To say that the only thing that makes a good novel is the amount of hours spent with your butt in the chair is wrong.

We are not all the same.

And that comment forgets that different people have very different lives. That person this agent puts on a pedestal for taking five years to write a novel may have only spent a hundred hours on that novel over those five years because they had a family and a day job and other hobbies.

If someone has none of that, they could put in those same hundred hours in a few months. And that with downtime to think between drafts.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t be about how long something took to write. It should be about whether the story in question meets the needs of the audience it’s meant to sell to. And different audiences have different requirements. Some people want the language to be as much a part of the experience as the story. Some people (like me) want the words to get the hell out of the way so they can enjoy the adventure without being distracted by the author.

(I used to love China Mieville and still love his ideas, but I stopped reading him after a novel that involved some very very specific word related to giant squid. It wasn’t the only word like that in the novel and I thought to myself as a reader, “Do I care enough to go look this up in a dictionary?” The answer was no. I could figure it out from the context. But for me each time I ran across a word that was one I didn’t know–and I know a lot of words–it threw me out of the story and stopped me cold. I’m sure there were other readers who thrilled with excitement to see each of those words. For me it was a “not my author” moment just like for many authors you have to say “not my reader” when someone hates your book.)

So anyway. After seeing that agent’s commentI figured it was time for a periodic reminder to write however you want to write and take as long as you want to take. It’s the end product that matters not how the sausage is made. IMO, of course.

(I will add that ironically this same agent made another comment around the same time that authors should be able to write the second book in their series in six months. It seems you’re a hack if you write your first novel in eight months but you damned well better be able to write your second in six. Seriously.)

Study Success Not Failure

In a recent post, Dean Wesley Smith made an excellent point that I wanted to highlight here as well. And that’s that if you want to improve your writing you don’t study someone else’s failures, you study what they did right.

I recently ran across this same concept with the reading I did around CliftonStrengths. In a book called First, Break All the Rules--which is an excellent book that’s well worth reading IMO–they explore this concept and give a few examples from Gallup’s research.

For example, in that book they talk about the difference between successful and unsuccessful nurses.

Unsuccessful nurses become too emotionally engaged with their patients and are overwhelmed by their emotions and can’t help their patients effectively.

What do you think the best nurses do?

If you studied just the nursing failures you’d probably assume that they keep an emotional distance from their patients to protect themselves. You’d be wrong. That’s what average nurses do.

Successful nurses become emotionally involved with their patients, too, but they use that to help make the patient’s experience the best it can possibly be.

Same with salespeople. Bad salespeople hate to cold-call. And if you just looked at your worst salespeople you might think that what you need are people who don’t have that reluctance to make cold calls. But you’d be wrong. Average salespeople will just go through the motions and not care. Good salespeople will dread making a call, but they’ll persevere and win over the customer despite that.

As the book says,

“[E]xcellence and failure are often surprisingly similar. Average is the anomaly.”

Now apply that back to writing. Think about the best stories you’ve ever read. Or watched. Were they safe? Were they vanilla-flavored? Or were they bold? And different? Did they take risks? Did they choose to be their own unique experience instead of one of a hundred just like it?

And what do you think most writing rules aim to do? They aim to curtail the bold failures. But what makes one book horrid, can make another awesome. It’s sometimes a matter of degree. Maybe a book was just not quite over the top enough to pull it off and the answer is not to dial it back but to ramp it up.

Which is why you can’t look at what made a book bad and try to avoid that. You’ll never get anywhere. You have to look at what made a book great and find a way to leverage that for your own writing.

I’ll tell you that I stopped listening to most writing rules after I read some Stephen King with my “these are the rules” hat on. Because that man? He’s fearless. He writes what he wants and in the way he wants to write it and to hell with anyone and their rules. (He may be one of the few highly successful writers I’ve seen using parenthesis in his fiction writing.)

When I saw that, I thought to myself, “If he can do that and be that successful, then anything is on the table.”

It’s not about how many adjectives or adverbs you use. Or how long your chapters are. Or how long your paragraphs are. Or even whether or not you use info dumps.

It’s about finding a way to tell an engaging story that pulls your reader through from start to finish and makes them want more.

If you want to learn how to do that, how to make the equivalent of book crack cocaine, don’t study the hundreds of people who’ve failed, study the few who’ve succeeded.

(You could also just sit down and try a couple hundred times until you come up with your own unique formulation, too, but that’s a lot of time wasted learning lessons others could teach you in a few minutes or hours.)

Anyway. Something to think about as we head into the new year…Enjoy!

Writing Books Available in KU

I forgot to mention that my general writing advice books are now available in KU, so if anyone had wanted to try one but wasn’t sure about shelling out the cash, now would be a good opportunity to do so.

Writing for Beginners, Excel for Writers, and Achieve Writing Success are all now available via KU.

Enjoy.