All the Non-Writing Stuff

I haven’t written a single new word since July 27th. Part of it was working on a consulting idea you’ll hear more about soon, but most of it was deciding to re-do all of my covers.

This wasn’t a big design change. I suspect most people won’t even be able to tell the difference. But I decided to get on the up and up with my font usage. See, problem is that GIMP pulls fonts from your Windows folder but those fonts aren’t always available for commercial use.

Now, there’s a question about whether fonts are even copyrighted and it seems that the computer coding that renders a font is copyrighted but the font itself is not. So maybe I was okay. But I get something into my head and there I go.

Initially I was just going to buy a subscription to a font package that included all the fonts I needed. I figured $9.99 a month wasn’t much to pay for peace of mind. Unfortunately, because it’s a subscription and they don’t trust you, the files were hidden somewhere on my computer where GIMP couldn’t access them. So there I was with access to the fonts already but no access to them through my subscription. And could I really be sure that the Bodoni version I was using that was already on my computer was the same as the Bodoni version in the subscription? No.

So, long story short, I tried, it was a miserable failure, I cancelled the subscription, and switched over to free fonts instead. Which meant going through all of the covers I’ve done and checking the font on each one to see if it was a free one for commercial use or not and changing it over if it wasn’t. I also figured I’d update backmatter at the same time.

Now at this point I have about sixty books that are live where I’ve done the covers myself. And almost all of them are wide. And a lot of them are in paperback.

So my August so far has been: check and/or redo ebook covers for all sixty books, check links for all sixty books, regenerate ebook for all sixty books, load to five different sites (Zon, D2D, Kobo, Nook, Google), redo paperback for all sixty books, update also by in paperback for all sixty books, submit paperback for approval to CreateSpace.

It’s an ongoing process. I suspect this will take at least another week. Especially because I’m spacing the CreateSpace submissions out so that all of my books aren’t down at once.

Also, me being me, it’s lead me to redo three covers (but oh my god the CreateSpace for Beginners cover is so much better now) and reformat two paperbacks into a new size.

I’ve also had to angst about which books to list where. My ego hates to have books on Amazon with bad ranks even though I know that at least if those books are there they’ll occasionally sell to those who want them. So I sometimes take books down from Amazon. But then I change my mind. And then I decide to take them down again…

(As of now, five of the M.H. Lee short stories are up on Amazon again. Until the next time I go through this.)

Anyway. Writing is not all sitting in your posh office creating new worlds or puzzling out how to explain a complex topic. Sometimes it’s just hours and hours of uploading files and checking that they look good. At least, that’s the way it is if you self-publish.

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.)

 

Why You Wait

In a blog post earlier this year I mentioned that some advice had been given at a conference to not even advertise until you have at least three books out. And I objected to that advice. Because in this climate just publishing a book and not advertising it means selling that book to your friends and family only (which will mess with your also-boughts, assuming those continue to exist) and then not seeing any sales until you do finally advertise. And with the Amazon cliffs at 30/60/90 days, that means an uphill battle to get sales and movement when you do start to advertise.

(If you’re going to do that, might as well hold back the books and publish all three within a very short period of time. Either all at once or a few weeks apart with clear pre-orders up.)

My argument was that putting out a book that doesn’t sell is soul-crushing and will lead to feelings of failure that make it that much harder to keep going. And I do still stand by that.

I have also said more than once that I think I am a good enough writer that people will keep reading the rest of my books if they’re there and available, but not such a good writer that people will wait for me for years and come back when my next book is out.

Which means that the more sales I get early on, the worse that is for my long-term success. Because if I get 1,000 sales on Book 1 before Book 2 is out that’s at least 500 and maybe more readers that never buy Book 2. And if I get 1,000 sales on Book 2 before Book 3 is out that’s 750 or more readers that never read Book 3.

So it’s a fine tension you have to live with. Do I get sales now to feel good about myself and stay motivated to keep writing? Or do I wait and get sales later when I have a better chance of sell-through and converting a casual reader to a fan? Not an easy choice to make.

I did this chart yesterday of Book 2 and Book 3 sales on my fantasy series to illustrate this point. It’s just Amazon US and nothing from KU, but representative of my book sales.

Riders Rescue to Riders Resolve Sales

If you look at September onward you can see that things fall into a pretty consistent pattern where if people buy book 2 they also buy book 3. But that I never make up for all those people who bought book 2 before book 3 was out.

Something to think about…

(I’ll still advertise before a series is complete because I need that validation as I go along, but it’s worth reminding myself that it’s best to save the biggest push for when the whole series is ready to go.)

Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,  you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.

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…)

 

Release Fast, Stay Focused. Or Not.

It came up in an advice thread on a writing forum today and it came up at that conference this weekend, too, so I figured I’d also weigh in on this idea that you have to release quickly and in the same subgenre if you want to make money at self-publishing.

It’s just not true.

I want to try to unpack this from a few different angles.

First, the book is the core.  What you write and how much it connects with readers drives everything. The more you write a book that readers want to read the better you will do at any type of publishing. And if you hit that target well enough, frequency of release is not going to matter as much.

(In the trade publishing world just look at George RR Martin or Patrick Rothfuss.)

A book that readers love will get steady sales for years. Because those readers will tell other readers about that book. And if it’s an evergreen sort of title it’ll continue to appeal to new readers as they find it.

So if you have a choice between writing a mediocre title and a great title, write the great title. It’s much more likely to sell itself and to continue to sell for a longer period of time.

Second, yes, there are factors that skew in favor of frequent releases. The Amazon algorithm is one of the biggies. Amazon makes it much harder to sell a book that’s more than 90 days old. They like new and shiny and they don’t care what that does for an author’s income.

Not to mention that more books equals more organic visibility. And more bites at the apple. More chances to connect with a reader who will then go read your other books.

If you find a reader who loves you it’s hard to keep their attention. None of us (or at least almost none of us) write so fast that we can be the only source of books for a reader. But if you’re releasing frequently the reader will see your next book is out before they forget about you.

So there is absolutely a benefit to releasing faster.

Third, yes, keeping a narrow focus will help. If readers liked A from you, chances are they want more of it not B or C or D. China Mieville is about the only author I can think of who really gets away with writing across the board and keeping my attention. That’s because I read him for his ideas not the type of story he’s telling. But, for example, when Anne McCaffrey decided to stop writing about dragons and started writing about a unicorn girl in space she only kept my attention for two books and then I moved on. Same with other authors I liked who then moved on to writing a different kind of book.

Readers like what they like. They attach to a story world or a character and that’s all they want from you. Or a feeling. (I’m thinking Nora Roberts here who my mom has historically bought without hesitation who recently wrote a post-apocalyptic book my mom tried and hated and then a school shooting book my mom wouldn’t even buy.)

So, yes, writing fast and giving readers more of what they already liked are ideal as long as you can maintain quality.

But what a lot of this advice ignores is that writers are human. We’re not machines that can just crank out the same but different thing over and over again. I said in that comment thread today that if I had to do that I’d just go back to consulting. Take away my freedom to create and change direction and you’ve taken away a large part of the reason I do this.

And some writers who try to do the write a book a month thing can’t do it. Maybe for a year. Maybe two. But not forever. They burn out. They have to step back. And because (and no insults meant here) most of the rapid release model requires more simplistic plotting approaches most of those books are not evergreen books. They’re cotton candy not Lindt chocolates. (Most, not all.)

By that I mean people will buy your brand of cotton candy if it’s there and available but they won’t think twice about buying a different brand of cotton candy if yours isn’t there. Whereas people who like Lindt brand chocolate are going to go out of their way to find more of it. Which means that if you choose to follow the rapid release model when you stop producing you stop earning.

Now, the question is, can you make money if you don’t follow the release fast, stay focused model?

Most will answer no. They’ll argue that you just get buried and no one will ever find you.

My reply is “define make money.”

March of this year I grossed close to $4K and netted close to $2K. It’s about the equivalent of $12.50 an hour for a forty-hour-a-week job. A lot of people live on that much. Hell, people raise families on that much. So for many that would qualify as making money.

(It’s not where I want to be, but it’s not nothing.)

That was without having released any new title since December. And while one title was about half of that my top five titles for that period were two non-fiction titles, two romances, and a fantasy novel written under three different pen names, the most recent of which was six months old at that point and the oldest of which was released in 2014.

It’s not easy to take the path I have. And it’s probably not the path to making a million a year, but with enough time I could see earning six figures a year this way.

So for those of you like me who write a variety of things (or who write slowly) and know that writing the same thing and publishing a novel once a month would destroy you, take heart.

(And for those of you who are, rightly, pointing out that non-fiction is part of why I’m where I am right now, let me say that there are authors out there who have done well with slow releases of fiction, too. They hit a sweet spot and took off. It’s possible. And I’ll also add that I would’ve never gotten to where I am right now if I weren’t the type to write whatever pops into my head because my best-seller is not something I thought would sell.)

And one final thought: If you are going to follow the slow path, I recommend focusing on novels and/or non-fiction. And not doing long series unless your books take off. Trilogies are a nice compromise there. They’re meaty enough to draw readers in but not so long you spend years writing something readers don’t want to read. (Refer back to my first point that the book is the core.)