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.

On Writerly Differences

I think I mentioned to you before the Write Better-Faster course, which I loved. I’m currently taking a more advanced version of that class and an interesting topic came up in the discussion for the class.

So what I loved about WBF was that it confirmed for me that we are all different and have different strengths and approaches as writers. I’d always done my own thing and just shrugged off what didn’t work for me, but that class gave me the supporting evidence for following my gut the way I always had.

What this new class has brought home for me is how fundamentally different some of our views of the world are. I’m over 40 at this point and coming to grips with the fact that others don’t experience the world the way I do has probably been one of my biggest struggles in life. One I still am working on.

Especially because a lot of things come to me very easily. So when my very intelligent friend in high school just could not get Geometry, I didn’t understand. You just flip the triangle in your mind, right? I mean, it’s not hard. Just mentally line up A with A and B with B. (But it is hard for those who don’t see spatially.)

One of the tests we take in WBF is called the DISC assessment. And one of the components of that assessment is Compliance.

Now Compliance is my highest of the four, so I’m motivated to see things done right, essentially. I will put in the work to make something a good product. That need will drive me to work until the product is good. Not just done, but good.

But I’m not really high in Compliance. So when I noted an extra space at the beginning of an entry in a numbered list during the formatting of my latest ebook and fixed it, I didn’t write that down to make sure I’d also fixed it in the print version. Because it was just one little space and I’d already submitted the file for review.

(Now, turns out I found a few other errors that needed fixing, including a horribly misused word. When that happened then I did update the print file and did actually scan through all hundred pages to find that missing space. Because if I was going to fix those other issues, then I did feel like I should fix the spacing issue, too. It’s just that I would have been willing to let it slide before even though that meant the book wasn’t perfect.)

What’s been interesting in this latest class is seeing how others with different levels of Compliance talk about writing and writers and what a book requires. And also the way our instructor has broadened that discussion to cover readers, too, and to help us understand that some readers are high in Compliance and some are not.

Let me give you an example.

Last month I was at a conference where someone mentioned pulling Patrick Rothfuss aside and giving him the rundown on how he’d messed up in his books by referring to both linen and cotton in his character’s wardrobe. This person could not believe an author would that kind of mistake. (They’re an editor so at least they’re in the right job for their level of compliance.)

At the time I thought, “Seriously? That’s what you got from his books? That he used the wrong kind of fabrics in someone’s clothes? You are so not my reader.” Because even knowing how much that person cared about that fact I knew I would never take the time and energy to learn that much about every detail in my books. Not gonna happen.

But that’s how someone with really high Compliance views the world. And writing. And their fellow writers.

Those very precise details matter to people with high Compliance.

I’d never notice something like that. But if I somehow had acquired that knowledge, then I’d get it right when I used it or be annoyed at myself.

For some writers, even if they knew this issue existed, they wouldn’t care if they got it wrong.

And the key here is to realize that there are readers who fall into all of these categories, too.

For me, high high Compliance readers are “not my reader”. It’s why I’m not writing PhD-level papers on my non-fiction topics. I will never be that precise a person that puts in fifteen footnotes to explain something exactly. 95% is good enough in my book.

But it’s also possible that low low Compliance readers are also not my reader. Because I will want a certain level of logic and coherence and accuracy in what I write and that means there are certain crazy, fun stories that I am incapable of creating. I would have to break too many rules to write a story like that so I literally could not force myself to do so.

A reader with really low Compliance will choose a book with a crazy, fun plot and horrible grammar over my more coherent, more grammatically correct book every day of the week.

For my fellow writers I think the lesson here is that a well-written story is not a singular thing that can be defined and put in a box. If you were to sit all readers down and asked them about their favorite story of all time and their most hated story of all time, the same books would be on both lists. Not because some readers have trash taste (which is what people often think to themselves), but because we are not all the same. So what we each want in a story will also not be the same.

I would add that this is why I really don’t like critique groups, because I have yet to see one where the other participants said, “I see the type of story you’re trying to write here and I’m going to set aside my preferences and help you to make the story you’re trying to write the best story it can be of its type.” Usually those groups act as if there is one correct way to write each sentence and one correct way to tell each story. There isn’t.

But maybe they work that way because it’s not actually possible for us to set aside who we are when we read. I personally can’t read a story that has tense issues. I just can’t do it. But some readers? Don’t even notice. Blow right past the fact that we just went from present to past and back again in two paragraphs.

So I personally will miss what’s great about a story that has tense issues because I can’t set aside my belief that a story with tense issues is poorly written.

What I conclude from all of this is this: Be careful how you tear down your fellow writers over these kinds of things.

I’ve for years had issues with the way people criticize Dan Brown and E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer. Because those criticisms miss the fact that those writers do something very right for their readers.

After learning more about personality types and how different we all are, I’m tripling down on that view. Instead of saying “That really sucks.” Practice saying, “Yeah, that just wasn’t for me.” It might make the world a nicer place.

(And I know those high Compliance types are shaking their heads and saying. “No. There is one right way to do things and they are not doing it that way.” But that’s okay. You be you.)

 

Achieve Writing Success Now Live

Remember that book I wasn’t planning on writing but realized how to write while walking my dog? I published it today. It has the oh-so-pretentious title of Achieve Writing Success. (Somehow Thoughts on Self-Publishing or Thoughts on Writing seemed a little too…eh.)

Interestingly, this is a book I have been trying to write in some form or another for a couple of years now. Originally it was going to be Self-Publishing 101. Except I didn’t really want to write a self-publishing 101 book. I know how I do things and I really didn’t want to cover the nitty gritty of all the different options. For example, I formatted my ebooks in Word for the first four years and then switched to Vellum. I had no interest in discussing Cailbre or Sigil or hand-coded HTML. But I felt I would have to if I did a how-to on self-publishing.

So every time I tried to write that book I stopped at about the 10K word mark. Because what I really wanted to share was some thoughts on self-publishing and, as it turns out, publishing in general.

Some of the things I’ve shared here already. Like why self-publishing shouldn’t be considered your Plan B when you fail at trade publishing. Or about how you shouldn’t let someone else control your dreams if it means that much to you to see your book out in the world.

And some I’ve discussed with folks along the way. Like the fact that it’s an error to focus solely on print books if you self-publish or to think in terms of print runs instead of POD.

I originally thought it was going to be for self-publishers but ended up gearing it towards any writer who has at least a novel under their belt, because I think some of the lessons are ones that those still on the trade publishing path really need to consider, too.

Anyway. It’s done now. Phew. No more stopping every six months to try to write a book that isn’t what I really wanted to write but that I feel needs to exist. (The bane of my existence that bad habit of mine of writing books I don’t think will sell but do think should exist.)

The Different Levels of Writing Ability

In a post the other day I mentioned that there are different levels of writing ability.

I honestly haven’t worked this one out entirely myself and I suspect there are levels I can’t see right now. As a reader I just know I like a book or I don’t. But as a writer I’ve been trying to understand why that happens. So here goes my poorly-developed theory on different levels of writing ability.

Level 1: Writing Comprehensible Sentences

The most basic level of writing ability is the ability to write well enough that someone else can understand you. Even though it’s the first level of writing ability it is also a tremendous area of knowledge that probably none of us will ever master.

At its core being a writer requires being able to convey your story (or for non-fiction, your knowledge) to another person, the reader.

That’s where things like punctuation come in. (Although it seems that punctuation and even capitalization can be optional, but let’s ignore those outliers, shall we?)

I’d put in this category sentence-level, paragraph-level, and even chapter-level skills.

I’d also argue that this is where most people focus their efforts when they think about learning how to write.

But I’d also argue that most really successful writers are not successful because of their skills in this area. Once you get to the level where others understand the story you’re trying to tell, you’re good enough in this area.

(Yes, I hear all those howls of outrage. I’m going to ignore them.)

Level 2: Telling a Cohesive and Satisfying Story

The next level involves taking all those sentences and paragraphs that work on their own and weaving them together to tell a cohesive story.

This is a huge area as well. And one where I’d say most writers that are one to two years into this fall down. They learn how to put together “well-written” sentences, but those sentences when strung together don’t lead the reader anywhere.

This is the romance novel that doesn’t end with the love interests getting together. (Guilty.) Or the adventure novel that ends with a council meeting. (Also guilty.)

(I’ll note that I fixed those issues in both of those books before I hit publish on them, though.)

It’s also the novel that wanders too far from the central theme so that the reader gets lost and finds themselves asking what story the writer was trying to tell them.

And it’s the novel that leaves five plot threads dangling at the end.

I’d argue that most authors who are trade published and most self-published authors who have a dedicated audience have mastered these skills. They tell a good story that meets reader expectations. But that when you branch out in a new direction you can fall down in this area. So a romance writer who moves into non-romantic post-apocalyptic fiction, for example, can find themselves no longer writing a satisfying, cohesive story.

It’s the one I think is most likely to require constant monitoring.

Level 3: Emotional Resonance

This is where things get murky and I can’t articulate them well. I know this one when I see it. Or more the case, when I don’t see it.

When I read a book I am trusting the author to deliver a story that is, for lack of a better term, emotionally resonant for me. It doesn’t mean people have to all be good or that everything has to turn out perfectly, but it means that the story has to be emotionally true.

This one is hard to explain without calling out specific authors who have caused reader-me rage, but I’ll try to give a few anonymized examples.

The first was a book I picked up at the airport a year or so ago. It had all the elements I should have liked. Magic, coming of age, etc. But about 3/4 of the way through that book I had literally come to hate the author for subjecting me to that book. Because underlying the entire book was an oily view of the world. A pessimistic, nihilistic worldview. And I resented that this person had shared that view of the world with me and that I’d spent two hundred pages with them and their characters before I realized it.

The sentences worked. It was well-written. Things happened like they were supposed to for that type of book. But underlying it all was this nasty take on the world that I absolutely hated. (Someone who I spoke to about the book and who also did not like it suggested that maybe this was because the writer was a literary writer writing fantasy and that there was a sneer behind all of it because the writer felt above the genre.)

Whatever the reason, the book was not emotionally resonant for me. I actively fought against the view of the world that this writer had and will never read another book by them because of that.

The second book is still so raw for me I can barely talk about it without getting angry that I had to read it. It was the second book in a series so came at a time when I felt that I knew the characters. But the characters as I knew them would not have reacted to the story situation they reacted to in the way the author had them react.

The author had one character kill another. And did it off-page so you could spend a scene wondering if that was really what had happened or not. It was flat-out manipulation of the reader, which I did not appreciate. It also deprived the reader (and the character) of the emotionally-charged scene we needed to understand why that action had to occur.

The fact that the author handled that scene that way tells me that the author did not understand the emotional side of their story or their characters.

Once more, well-written. All the sentences worked. I could argue the author had failed in some respects with the story elements as well, but it was the emotional resonance aspect  that lost me.

I think this third level is where the long-term great authors are made. Both of the examples I just gave are currently very successful authors. But I suspect as time goes on and they continue to miss at that level that less and less readers will come back to them.

I still am not articulating this as well as I would like, but I know that the authors I buy more of and go back to over and over again are the ones that can deliver on all three levels.

This is why there can be millions of books available and yet readers can feel like there’s nothing for them to read. Because it’s about more than stringing well-written sentences together.

(And I suspect there’s another level that involves themes, but I haven’t worked that one out just yet…)

 

“When Do I Give Up and Self-Publish?”

I’m at a conference this weekend and there was a small session at the beginning where we went around the room and everyone had a chance to say what they wanted to learn. And two of the participants said some variation on the above question. They wanted to know at what point they should give up on the trade publishing path and self-publish instead.

My answer: You don’t.

(I wasn’t on the panel, hence this blog post.)

It’s a question I encounter somewhat frequently when I venture outside self-publishing forums or groups. There’s still this very prevalent idea that new writers have that they’ll try to find a trade publisher and if that fails that they’ll just self-publish.

And it’s quite possible I thought that way, too, at some point. I suspect if I went back to my M.H. Lee blog and read through my early posts when I was considering self-publishing that I was thinking or saying something similar. Like, hey, those short stories didn’t sell to the pro-paying markets why not self-pub them rather than pursue token markets? I’ll be building my own brand! And making more money!

Haha.

It happens.

But let me tell you why you don’t do that.

As a self-publisher I have to know not only how to tell an engaging story or write an informative easy-to-read non-fiction title, I also have to handle all other aspects of production and marketing. It doesn’t matter if I pay someone else to do it or do it myself, I still have to be able to identify a quality product.

Would you know if that person you just hired to edit your book is a good editor? (Many have found that the person they hired to edit their book was not and only figured that out when the bad reviews rolled in.)

What about your cover? What kind of cover will tell your readers that this is the book for them? A cover designer will design the cover, but most will look to you for direction. And you need to know when something isn’t working. The font on the first version of Rider’s Revenge was not OK. I had to tell my cover designer to redo it. Would you know if you ran into a situation like that? Would you be able to stand up to them and tell them to make the change?

What about the blurb? Can you write appealing back cover copy? Can you recognize appealing back cover copy if you pay someone else to write it? (One of my weak spots.)

What about categories? Where do you list your book? What have you written? Do you know the difference between non-fiction and fiction?

And then there’s advertising.

Let’s assume you wrote a book that people will enjoy, it has the right cover and a strong blurb. Now how do you find your readers? Where are they? How do you reach them? You’re not going to be in physical bookstores. So how do you rise above everyone else online to get that cover in front of your readers so they’ll see and buy your book?

You need to be able to do all of this. On top of writing a good book. There are reasons to self-publish. Timing, control, more potential profit. But it should not be the “I failed on a path that required A so let me try this path that requires A, B, C, D, and E” choice.

If you think of self-publishing as what you do when you give up, let me give you this advice:

Write another book.

Actually, write three more books instead. Novels.  Three novel-length works.

Do not rewrite the same book five times. Write new novels. Brand new ones. Pay attention to your market. Read a ton in the area where you want to publish to understand what readers want.

Write. Read. Write. Read. Write some more.

And then query those novels. To agents.

Chances are, you’ll sell one of them. And you’ll be on the path you wanted to be on.

Take all that time and energy you would’ve spent learning how to be a publisher and spend it on improving your writing. (There are multiple levels of writing skill. Chances are you’re competent at the first one but have yet to master the others. Or failed on one of the others with that particular novel.)

If by the time you’ve written those three novels you still want to self-publish (not as a fallback, but as a way to get your words out into the world in the way you want to get them out there), then self-publish. You’ll be better off for having waited because you’ll have that many books ready to go and you’ll be driven enough to make it work.

The Dirty Little Secret of Self-Publishing

I’m sure there’s actually more than one, but the one I’m thinking about today is this:

How many copies you sell is meaningless.

It’s what so many people talk about and you see it used in advertising all the time, but at the end of the day no author is going to be able to do this full-time, even if they’re selling millions of copies, unless they’re actually making a profit on those sales.

Self-publishing is horribly myopic in this respect. Rarely do I see someone report “I made $X profit.” Instead it’s “I sold X copies” or “I’ve sold $X worth of books.”

And I get it. The gross numbers certainly look a lot better for everyone than the net number. It’s far more exciting to say “I sold a million copies” than “I sold a million copies but it cost me so much that I’m now in the hole $10,000…”

And in this business you gotta celebrate every little victory no matter what. (And perception matters, too. People want to read what other people read. They want to associate themselves with success.)

Anyway.

What prompted this thought is that I realized yesterday that my first-in-series fantasy novel sold it’s 2500th copy sometime in April. Which is a big milestone for me. I had no idea I’d sold that many copies of that title until I stopped and looked at my reports.

Woohoo! Right?

But.

Here’s the interesting thing about that title and that series: it’s my least profitable series. I actually consider it a failure.

It’s only one of three “series” (out of 26) I have that are in the red. And the only one that’s more than $50 in the red. (It’s the cost of those damned covers that I love so much…)

Interestingly, my most profitable series has sold only half as many copies but grossed more because it’s never been on sale and been significantly more profitable because it’s easier to advertise.

It’ll never get a Bookbub. (I can’t even apply for one because it’s under their page count threshold.) I don’t get fan mail for it . I barely get reviews on it.

And yet…

That’s where the money is. Not in the one that’s sold a lot of copies and had three Bookbubs. But in the little workhorse title that just chugs along day after day racking up sales rain or shine.

So if you want to do this full-time. If what matters to you is being able to work for yourself and from home, don’t focus on how many copies you’ve sold. Focus on profitability. Focus on making more in sales than you spend to get those sales. And on leveraging every sale the best way you can. (By writing in series, for example.)