Writing During Wrenching Times

It’s weird. I’m about to dive into the third and final draft of my sixth cozy mystery. I only finished the first draft on March 2nd and the second draft on the 13th and yet I know going back to it will be odd.

Because it’s a contemporary series and this story ends on the first day of spring, which is basically right now. And I know, for example, that there’s a little back and forth scene in there where my hero and heroine (because there’s a romance subplot) are bantering back and forth about all the places where they could go for a weekend getaway. My heroine suggests Iceland or Argentina or Guatemala. My hero is all for San Diego.

It’s a conversation that I could’ve seen happening when I wrote it a month ago. But now…

Not so much. I’m still going to finish it up as if it wasn’t happening in this world and this spring. But something that should’ve passed by as a nothing scene will have a different resonance for readers now.

My thought had been that I’d turn to a fantasy novel next. I’ve had three of them percolating away in the background of my mind, but in the last couple weeks it’s like those three novels just dried up and disappeared. Maybe because in my fantasy I like to wrestle with big ideas and I’m not sure what ideas I can safely wrestle with right now.

(I had a post I’d written yesterday that I chose not to publish about all the dark things I’ve thought about as part of this whole thing. Those squiggly little thoughts that were well hidden under a rock but are starting to see the light as people reveal themselves through their actions. But who wants to write about that when it’s playing out right here, right now?)

It’s a challenge. To write at all. To figure out what to write. To keep going and keep focused rather than watch the chaos and try to figure out what’s coming next or how bad it’ll get. To not take the anger and anxiety and amplify and spread it further, either in person or through my writing, but to at the same time make sure that people understand what’s coming.

But what’s the other choice? Do you write about happy fluffy bunnies when the world is on fire? People do need them, but wow that’s a tough one to pull off.

And I know the wrenching change isn’t done happening just yet either. So what seems good to write today may not seem so great in six weeks when that first draft is done…But if you want to keep moving forward you have to do it regardless.

 

Reading is My Refuge

My last two years at Stanford were two of the hardest years of my life. I had decided to triple major–which included a major I didn’t even start until my junior year–and I was also working more than full time to pay for room and board. So 19 or 20 units each quarter plus 50 hours of work a week. Oh, and I was commuting from Sunnyvale my junior year so add in a real drive each day as well.

It may seem strange, but what got me through it was reading. Mostly fiction books, but some non-fiction too. (That was when Guns, Germs, and Steel came out and I absolutely loved that book.) That first finals week I think I read three fantasy novels while studying for and taking all of my exams.

I was lucky to work in a bookstore and so have free access to books. (It was a company program, I wasn’t cheating in any way.) But even if I hadn’t, I would’ve worked an extra hour a week to be able to buy books, they were that important to me.

Which is why yesterday I dropped the ebook prices on about a dozen different titles. Since I know there are people like me out there who are desperately in need of a distraction right now, I thought I’d help out a bit.

We’re all going to need to get away and disconnect to make it through this. For some that will be video games or TV shows or movies. For others it will be books.

So…If you’re a book person, here’s what I’ve put on sale. It’s a very eclectic mix as you’ll see. Hopefully there’s something in there for everyone:

Just click on the image to be taken to the Books2Read page which should have links for all retailers. Or you can just go to your favorite retailer and look the titles up. All except for Erelia are available everywhere and most libraries should also be able to get them.

Non-Fiction ($2.99 USD each)

Excel for Beginners open sans boldv2

Excel for Beginners: A guide to Microsoft Excel for those who need to master the basics.

 

 

Budgeting for Beginners open sans

Budgeting for Beginners: A book that will teach you how to figure out where you are financially, judge what that means, and give tips for how to improve. Especially helpful right now for those who are finding themselves without a steady paycheck, because it covers how to approach irregular income like that. (Also available in audio as the Juggling Your Finances Starter Kit.)

Quick--Easy-Cooking-for-One-KindleQuick & Easy Cooking for One: Exactly what it says. A guide to cooking for yourself for the absolute beginner. More concept-based than step-by-step, but it does include recipes.

 

 

Writing for Beginners open sans

Writing for Beginners: An overview of what a beginning writer should know to get started. Includes discussions of point of view, tense, as well as agents and publishing paths. (Also available in audio under the title The Beginning Writer’s Guide to What You Should Know.)

 

Dont Be a Douchebag PC version 20160803v10Don’t Be a Douchebag: Online Dating Advice I Wish Men Would Take: A snarky guide to online dating for men who aren’t doing so well at it. (Also available in audio. Some retailers may have a different cover.)

 

 

Fiction:

Riders-Revenge-The-Complete-Trilogy-GenericThe Rider’s Revenge Trilogy: ($4.99 USD) A feminist YA fantasy adventure trilogy about a young girl who sets out to avenge her father and finds herself caught up in much bigger issues.

 

 

Erelia blue flame 20151222v5Erelia: (Available on Amazon Only, $2.99 USD and in KU) A dystopian utopia. Life seems perfect on the surface, but the reader sees just what horrible actions create that perfection. Also has a pandemic subplot. (I had unpublished this one just because I thought it needed a sequel and I wasn’t sure when I’d write that sequel, so be forewarned.)

 

A-Dead-Man-and-Doggie-Delights-KindleA Dead Man and Doggie Delights: (99 cents) First in what will soon be a six-book cozy mystery series set in the Colorado mountains. For lovers of Newfoundland dogs, Colorado, and quirky characters who like a little murder on the side. (Book 2, A Crazy Cat Lady and Canine Crunchies is also reduced to $2.99 USD.)

 

Something-Worth-Having-KindleSomething Worth Having ($2.99 USD): Contemporary romance bordering on women’s fiction. About a woman facing a breast cancer diagnosis who goes on a road trip with a man she is absolutely not allowed to fall in love with. (A related but standalone title, Something Gained, is also just $2.99 right now.

 

Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.

 

The Beauty and Danger of Publishing

One of the things that appeals to me most about publishing is that something I created long ago can continue to pay me money. I have titles I published in 2013 that continue to sell today. (Not many copies because those are all dead pen names that I don’t do much to promote, but sales are sales and that effort was done and dusted long ago.)

But most titles won’t continue to sell forever without continued effort to release more material under that name or promote them. So the same thing that appeals to me about publishing (long-term income from a project I finished long ago) is also what I have to guard against.

So far today I’ve sold 36 books on Amazon, which is great and will help pay my rent. But book sales are a lagging indicator. They happen after all the work has been done. After all the words have been put on the page, all the editing and formatting has been done, after the cover and title have been chosen, and after the publishing and promoting have been done.

It can be easy to focus on the sales number and forget about the months of effort that were required to get those sales. And because sales of most titles do trail off over time that means you can be headed for a fall off a cliff and not realize it. And when you do realize it you can be months behind where you should be to get things back on track.

So far today I haven’t written any words. I could probably continue to do that for six months without seeing any sort of huge impact on my income. It would probably require more promotional effort over time, but I could keep pretty steady for a while. But if I did that for a year? Or two? I’d definitely feel the pinch.

That’s why it’s important to track leading indicators as well. My big one, of course, is words written. (And to some extent, titles published. Writing words is meaningless for what I’m talking about here if those words aren’t going to lead to publishable titles.) The words I write are always the first step in the process. Without those, I have no new material.

The other one for me–that I also make into a New Year’s resolution–is ad spend. I target a certain amount of ad spend per month with the expectation that ad spend leads to sales.

So while it’s nice to see those sales and it helps take a little of the pressure off to know that money is coming in two months from now, it’s not safe to focus on just that sales number. I need to instead focus on production and building a base of material because it is far too easy to get lulled into a sense of false security with publishing.

 

A Good Post on Writing Scams To Watch Out For

One of the hardest aspects of getting published, either traditionally or by self-publishing, is knowing what’s legitimate and what’s a scam. And there are people out there who make a very good living by taking advantage of the ignorance and hopes of aspiring authors.

Anne R. Allen had an excellent post on her blog this week outlining ten current publishing scams to look out for.

My one quibble with what she said is that for non-fiction I think print is a much bigger part of sales than it is for fiction, even for self-publishers.

But still. Don’t go paying for a box full of books to sell out of your garage unless you are already established as a speaker with an audience you can sell them to. Print on demand (through KDP Print or IngramSpark) is the best option for print for self-publishing, IMO, unless you’ve pre-sold a large number of books already, like, for example, through a Kickstarter project and can justify the cost of a print run.

(And those scams targeting teens have been around for ages. I once “won” placement in a lovely gold-embossed book of poetry which was only $50 to buy. Fortunately, I was not so excited to see my poems in print that I paid it.)

Writing Speed

One of the conversations that often happens around writing is how much can a writer feasibly write in a day or a week or a month or a year.

Often people will discuss how many words per minute they can type and try to extrapolate that to some number of words they could write if they just had the time. “Oh, I write 50 words per minute, so if I have sixty minutes that gives me 3,000 words which means if I quit my day job and write for six hours a day I can write 18,000 words a day. That means I could write the first draft of a 70,000-word novel a week.”

Now most people aren’t that extreme about it. But there are definitely people out there who argue that it’s easy enough to write 5,000-10,000 words per day. And that doing so for five days a week gives you 40,000 words in a week which gives you a novel a month easily.

What got me thinking about this is that I started the next cozy mystery this morning. And in the space of about an hour I wrote the first 2,400 words of the cozy, which for me was two chapters, each written in a thirty-minute chunk.

It’s only eight-thirty in the morning right now. I have a call in half an hour and need to feed the dog and spend time with her, but I have at least four more hours I could write in this afternoon. Which makes it look like I could easily hit 5,000 words for the day. And if I can do that today, why not tomorrow and the day after and the day after.

But it turns out that, at least for me, how many words I can write has nothing to do with my typing speed. It has to do with my idea-generation and refilling-the-well speed. I wrote 2,400 words this morning but none the past three days. And I’ve been pondering the way into this story and the plot for the story for months now. (The general idea–a cold case–was actually going to be the idea I used one or two cozies ago, so I’ve been trying to come up with a good cold case idea for months now. Which, because it’s a cozy, also has to be a bit light-hearted, too.)

It’s quite possible I’ll be able to sit down this afternoon and write the next chapter or two. But it’s equally possible that I’ll sit down to write that next chapter or two and not quite be ready for them yet. Or that I’ll write them and then need to go back after five or six chapters and smooth things out and ramp things up to keep the story momentum where I want it.

After many years of this I’ve found that for me the steady writing pace that helps me keep moving with a novel and not burn out averages around 2,000 words a day. (Non-fiction averages closer to 3,000 words a day and requires less downtime between drafts.)

And that’s still a higher number of expected words than I actually produce in a year because I need downtime between projects where my mind is working on the ideas and turning them this way and that and imagining scenes or dialogue I might include but I’m not writing.

Others work differently. Some people are binge writers. They just dive in and write for hours on end until they’re ready to collapse. Some people extensively outline so that when it comes time to write they can also put words on the page for hours at a time. Some are so high in Ideation that the ideas are always there and they don’t need that pause.

And some have to achieve perfection the first time they type a sentence so only get down 250 words an hour.

The key is to learn what’s reasonable for you and to plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself to be something you’re not. Find that steady pace that you can hit comfortably and work from there.

And also understand that others work differently and so will have different results than you do. Which means you shouldn’t tell someone they’re not capable of writing faster than you do just because you can’t do it. But it also means you shouldn’t tell someone who writes at a slower pace that they’re just not trying hard enough.

We all work at our own unique pace.  The key is finding what works for you and is sustainable for you.

 

A Few Good Posts on Critical Voice

I bookmarked this post yesterday to share at some point: Confessions of a Hate Reader…by Jeannette Ng and then realized today that Dean Wesley Smith has been talking about critical voice the last couple of days as well. Here and here. Also, this has been a bit of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with a bunch of writer friends.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful rule-breaking books are ones that were an author’s first book. Because often that book is written before a writer attends a bunch of writing conferences or joins writing forums or joins writer Twitter and is told what isn’t allowed or what’s pass√©. (Sparkling vampires? What are you thinking? English boarding school books? Been done before.)

It’s also before they’re actually published and have to contend with negative reviews of their work, some that are quite strongly-worded.

I wrote my first draft of my first novel in six weeks with no one else’s opinion involved. I’d been reading fantasy and other genres for thirty years so I knew basic story structure and I just did it. It wasn’t good. I had to revise it to make it work, but I did it because no one told me I couldn’t. And it went so fast because there were no road blocks in my mind about what I should or shouldn’t write.

I gave a character blue eyes, because I like blue eyes. I didn’t think if that was something that’s overdone. Or if it made me racist. I just wanted that character to have blue eyes.

But as I became more steeped in writing circles I found more and more criticism and objection to so many things. (Like characters with blue eyes.)

It wasn’t directed straight at me. It was directed at other books. But I heard it. I saw it.

They weren’t judging me directly, but they didn’t have to. I applied those judgments for them to my own words.

And eventually it stopped me from writing my next fantasy novel when I was about six books in. (Medieval settings are so boring…Who wants a love triangle…Am I just writing the same story again…Are my sentences and paragraphs too short…)

I pivoted to non-fiction for over a year.

And then I switched to writing cozies. A completely different genre.

I’d had a story idea for ages that I wanted to write, but honestly I think part of the reason I decided to write that series is because I hit my breaking point with all the criticism.

I figured if people were going to hate me for what I wrote I might as well be writing a version of myself onto the page so there’d be no ambiguity about who they hated. Hate that character, you’re going to hate me, too. We’re not identical, but we’re close enough for that to be the case.

I’ve always been okay with the fact that not everyone will like me and that for some of those people nothing I do will change that fact. I learned that lesson in middle school.

But I had to relearn it with my writing: Not everyone is my reader.

It’s not possible for everyone to be my reader. The world is too diverse for that. What someone loves about my writing, someone else will hate. That is a given. And the key I think to surviving as a writer is to either be like DWS and not care at all what anyone thinks or to focus on your readers and give them more of what they want and ignore the people who don’t want it.

(Which is hard to do. I don’t want my writing to cause harm to others. But if I want to keep writing at all, I have to at some point put those other voices aside and write my stories, flawed as they may be.)

Anyway. Something to think about. I’m off to finish the next non-fiction book. Haha.