Time for NaNoWriMo

I have never in fact participated in NaNoWriMo because I’m not motivated by prizes, competing with others, joining groups, or by someone cheering me on. My motivation is simply to get shit done. (Which is why I have 105 perfect tournament crowns from Microsoft Solitaire tournaments so far this year. Someone send help. I need an intervention.)

This year, though, I’ll be doing what NaNo requires and in the month of November, which is writing the first draft of a short novel in the space of a month.

BTW, for a good general post on Nano and writing check out Chuck Wendig’s NaNo post for 2019.

In preparation for starting this next novel (otherwise known as the procrastination stage), I’ve been doing some thinking.

This will be my 12th novel. And the fifth in this particular series. And I gotta tell ya, I think I’m just now reaching the “you know that you don’t know it” level of writing. After eleven completed novels.

Stop and think about that for a second. How many hours of doing this thing have I put in so far and I’m just now starting to see glimmers of what all is required to make it work well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think my earlier novels are good and enjoyable reads and, for the most part, the reviews back me up on that. People don’t always like what I choose to write about but they generally read to the end before telling the world about it.

But the issue I’m finally becoming concerned with is this: the consistency of the reader experience. Not just writing one good novel or one good series, but writing novels and series that consistently meet the needs of a particular group of readers.

To be really good at this you have to hit enough of the right buttons each and every time so that your particular group of readers walks away satisfied and comes back for more the next time you publish. That is not easy.

It is in fact exponentially harder than writing a single novel. And if you don’t do it well, you end up building on a shaky foundation. A reader thinks, “Well, that book was alright, I guess, so maybe I’ll read another one by them.” That is not the type of readership you want.

Because that kind of reader is the type of reader you will eventually lose if you continue on the way you are. In a hot genre with readers desperate for new material this could take some time. You could probably have a successful series or even two, but it will eventually catch up to you.

So it isn’t about writing a good novel. At least not long-term. It’s about creating a good reader experience across all of your books. And that is much, much harder to do.

And with that cheerful thought, I guess I’m off to “win” my own little NaNo.

Essential Writing Skills

This post is for those authors who want to make money at their publishing someday whether that be via a traditional publisher or self-publishing. If your core interest is in getting your stories down on paper, then carry on.

But for those who want to make money at this somehow, there are some essential skills you’re going to need to have and it’s important to work on them alongside the writing.

First, you need to be resilient and adaptable. This industry, on both the self and trade publishing sides, changes constantly. Today there’s talk that maybe Amazon shifted how it treats borrows from KU for book ranking. (If so, it’s about frickin’ time IMO because someone borrowing a book for free is not and never has been the equivalent of them paying money for a book.)

Sometime earlier this week AMS randomly decided to add Ad Groups to ads which changed where you see your list of target keywords. That was after adding two new markets and then removing the links for those markets from one primary location and changing where billing and other items are found on the page.

A few weeks back a publisher with a decent reputation stepped in it when they took on an author who had been banned from publishing direct on Amazon. And just this week at least one big-name editor was abruptly let go, impacting every single one of their authors.

No matter what path you choose, things will constantly be shifting under your feet. You need to understand that and prepare for it and not be knocked out of commission when it happens.

Second, you need to understand business and numbers and contracts. In a group I’m in where some trade published authors post there was mention of how an author was screwed over by a basket accounting clause in their contract. If you’re going with a publisher and you don’t know what that is, you need to learn. That and all the rest of it.

A while back a publisher contacted me about potentially distributing some of my titles. Sounded great until they sent me a publishing contract that paid no advance and would’ve taken all my foreign language rights for free. If you as an author can’t see a situation like that for what it is and push back, you will get screwed.

And if you aren’t paying attention to profits and are only focused on number of units sold or nice reviews, you won’t last long-term.

I don’t expect authors to take things to the extent I do. (Yesterday I got bored and performed a multi-variate regression analysis to see which ad options I was using were actually driving sales and realized that two of them I was using and thought had been doing well for me weren’t.) But you do need to have some sort of a clue about how this industry works and what is happening with your own business.

Finally, you need perseverance. Sure, some authors hit it out of the park with their first book. And it’s all shiny happy times from that point forward. But not most authors. If you need an example, look at George RR Martin’s career. He left novel and short story writing for a while to work in television. He switched genres. This massive success he’s seeing now? Took decades to achieve. And required him to dust himself off more than once along the way.

I’m sure there are other traits authors need to succeed at writing that have nothing to do with the story or how it’s written (including a good bullshit detector), but these were the ones that were on my mind this morning. So there you have it. The writing is just what you need to play the game. You need far more than that to stay in and succeed.

 

Holding a Fork Is Hard When You’re 2

I visited one of my best friends this weekend and she has a two-year-old. It was fascinating to watch the kid try to eat some sausages on his plate using a real fork. He was very determined to do it himself, but the experience or the motor coordination or whatever it is that someone needs to actually use a fork wasn’t quite there yet.

He tried everything. He put the fork tines-down into the sausage and tried to pull it apart that way. He put the fork sideways to the sausage and then used his fingers on the tines to push down from both sides. He was determined.

But he just wasn’t there yet. Finally his mother rescued him with ten seconds of effort with a fork and knife, making it look so so easy to cut up that sausage.

I tell you this story because it’s an important reminder that we don’t all come into this world fully-formed and capable of doing anything we want or anything anyone else can do. Often we have to try and fail and try some more and fail some more and keep trying even when someone else makes it look incredibly easy.

Writing is one of those tasks that works that way. There are so many moving parts to writing a good book that it’s almost impossible to list them all out. You think you have the list and then someone mentions another aspect of a good book and you have to add it on to the end of the list. And just knowing what’s required doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

When I first started this writing journey I figured I’d have it nailed down in five years. Most people I saw talk about their timelines took ten to fifteen years to get that first publishing contract, but of course I’d done really well in other aspects of my life so why wouldn’t I do really well in writing, too?

Well…

Eight years in and I’m finally willing to admit that it will probably take me a couple more years to really get to where I want to be to make this work. (I’m currently where I was in my first post-college job, net, but I expect more from myself these days than that.)

But every time I start to feel frustrated I’m just going to think about a little boy with a fork trying to figure out how to eat a sausage and remind myself that most skills in life require dedication and time to master. The key is to keep trying until you get there.

We All Have Different Reasons

I recently wrapped up the third round of Advanced Strengths for Writers coaching with Becca Syme and it had me thinking a lot in the last few days about motivation and goals. (Next session is in late October for anyone interested: https://betterfasteracademy.com/strengths-for-writers/)

What I found interesting about the sessions I did this time around was that the “answer” for each person was vastly different.

I had one person I coached where we discussed their dissatisfaction in only hitting six figures a year self-publishing and how they didn’t see why they shouldn’t strive for more than that. Given their Strengths my answer for them was that there was no reason at all they shouldn’t strive for more, the only question was how to do so in a way that played to their Strengths instead of trying to emulate an author who I suspect is high Discipline.

With another person we ended up discussing whether any form of publication made sense. They have a day job they love that feeds their Strengths in a way that fiction writing probably never will, so full-time writing has the potential to actually be unsatisfying for them because they will lose something vital if they give that day job up.

I also had more than one discussion about which path made more sense: trade publishing or self-publishing and how each person’s Strengths played into that decision.

So often these days writing conversations are based on the idea that you must get published and you must earn as much money as possible from that publishing. (One I tend to personally follow, admittedly, as seen in my post on mindset.)

But I’ve come to realize that’s not what drives every writer.

Some writers just want to indulge their creative side. They want to imagine worlds and people that don’t exist and flesh them out until they could be real, but that’s all they want.

Some want to be part of a community of creators. They want to interact with people who are imagining these new worlds and to be part of that community they feel they too must create.

Some love to tell stories and even to share those stories but they have no desire whatsoever to commercialize their writing. They just want to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

Some do want to sell their stories. They want to master the business side of writing as much as the creative side. But maybe they don’t care about maximizing profits. They want sales, yes, but will choose to write something less desirable if it scratches an itch for them.

And some would love to spend the rest of their writing career in the #1 slot of every bookstore on the planet and won’t be satisfied until they make that happen.

Any of those options is fine.

We each have to find our own path.

I think a lot of the stress or dissatisfaction I see in the writing community comes from writers in one category trying to discuss how to do things with writers in those other categories.

The key is to figure out where you fall and then surround yourself with the people who support that view.

Ask yourself why you do this. What do you want from it? What do you need from it?

Once you have that answer, don’t let anyone knock you off your path. Your choice is just as valid as theirs is.

Timing Issues

I’m on book four of a NYT-best selling YA fantasy series. I’ve devoured the series. Each book is about six hundred pages long and I’ve probably read the last three in less than a week. But an issue I noticed during book one is making it really hard to finish book four, so I thought I’d write about it here for any authors looking for non-obvious ways to improve their writing.

This author is great at characterization. Look at the 25,000+ reviews that each book has and you’ll see that readers love how fleshed out the characters are and how real they are.

But the author has issues with timing.

In book one there were some obvious ones. For example, in one chapter we’re told it’s been two weeks since an event happened and two chapters later we’re told it’s only been two days. This happened twice that I can remember. They were little hiccups that were somewhat annoying but not enough to keep me from immediately ordering the rest of the books in the series.

Now I’m up to book four and the finale is upon us. There’s someone trapped in a dungeon, another character under siege in a castle, others have fled the invading army, etc. And now all of a sudden all of those timing issues are getting painful. Someone takesĀ  a day to follow a trail one direction and an hour to go back down the same trail. Earlier in the book weeks passed, possibly months, for something that should have been incredibly urgent. And a council whose first meeting was supposed to be in a week or two somehow didn’t meet for perhaps months.

All the timeframes are muddied and conflict with each other. Character A goes off to do something and it takes five days. Character B does their thing and it takes two weeks. Then they intersect as if they both took the same amount of time.

I’ve already complained elsewhere about a series where two main characters became so out of synch in how their storylines were presented that they were months apart in alternating chapters. To the point that a minor character was in back to back chapters in completely different parts of the world.

This is worse than that because it’s clear the author didn’t have a good handle on how long anything in the book took to happen. And because they didn’t have that firmly established for themselves, the timing of events slips and slides around in the story that made it onto the page, too.

It’s worse with this book because of the multiple points of view. But this can still be a problem even with single POV novels.

You send someone off to do X, does it make sense that they would take as long as they did to do it?

Or, for example, with my cozies I have to account for the fact that the character actually has a job to show up for six days a week. She can’t just be off solving a crime for three days straight without there being a consequence for that. Right? Or take off for hours every day to investigate clues. At least not during work hours.

So watch for this one. With my multiple POV novel I actually had an Excel spreadsheet with a timeline for all of my main characters and where they were and when to make sure it matched up. But it can be as simple as reading through the novel once with an eye to timing if the focus of the novel is tight enough.

Anyway. Something to think about when you’re not worrying about plot, pacing, characterization, tense, point of view, or genre expectations.

 

 

Unreliable Narrators

I did something interesting this morning. I read through my diaries from twenty-five years ago. It was fascinating to see what I wrote about versus what I remembered. And it was fascinating too to see what I wrote about and didn’t know I was writing about.

Often in writing we hear about the unreliable narrator. The person who is telling you a story and maybe not telling the whole story or telling the story their way instead of telling the truth. And there’s always this idea that maybe that’s deliberate.

But the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

Even more interesting is that I went reading back through those entries because I’d started to wonder if a close friend of mine had maybe been not so close and if I’d just failed to see it at the time. (They ended up dating both someone I’d had a complicated situation with and my best friend which prompted the question all these years later. Coincidence? Or something more?)

And what I realized after doing so is that when you hold memories in your mind and have no record of them when they happened that they grow and shift and take on different forms than they actually had at the time.

Turns out we’re all unreliable narrators. (And more so, whether real or not, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past are more important than what actually happened because the stories we tell ourselves are what we let shape our future.)

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

In the comments on the last post I made about copyright, onereasonableperson asked about plagiarism and how that fits into all of this. For example, can you plagiarize an idea or is it only plagiarism when you copy someone’s exact words (which is generally where copyright comes into play).

I had my own gut feelings on the matter, which is that you really need to be copying words not just taking an idea and putting your own riff on it, but I also knew that there have been some pretty big scandals that alleged plagiarism that weren’t for exact word-by-word copying. So I went digging.

(And I’m hoping that Dave Higgins, who is an actual lawyer, will jump in on the comments here with some further insights. When in doubt, listen to the lawyer.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Plagiarism is not a legally defined term. It is an ethical and moral issue and generally defined within the context of an institutional code of ethics. For example, in academic writing using the ideas of another academic without acknowledging their contribution is a big no-no. Hence the large number of footnotes and citations in that kind of writing.

(See Wikipedia.)

Because it’s an ethical issue not a legal issue, the definitions of plagiarism do in fact include ideas. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of what it means to plagiarize:

“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source” or “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”

The problem is, this is easier alleged than dealt with, especially in trope-heavy genres like romance or LitRPG. When does it move from following a standard progression of story elements to essentially copying the creativity of another?

When this question came up on the other post, my immediate thought was that Cassandra Clare had been sued at one point by Sherrilyn Kenyon for “plagiarism” for essentially too much similarity in terms of story elements between their series. I found an article about it in Slate that you can see here.

But when you go look at the actual court filing, which is posted here, you’ll find that the actual lawsuit alleged copyright and trademark infringement that impacted the value of Kenyon’s property (goodwill).

So while the ethical allegation was one of plagiarism and that’s what showed up in headlines when the case was filed, the legal allegation had to be for copyright and trademark infringement because those are the legal standards that come into play.

And, to add to this point, you can see in this post here on Clare’s website that the copyright portion of the case was eventually dropped from the suit (likely because there was no word-for-word copying that occurred, but that’s just my personal speculation).

Also, according to that post, the trademark portion was eventually settled. In other words, it wasn’t litigated and so can’t be used in any way to show a point where common elements between novels or the marketing of those novels becomes grounds for a trademark violation.

You can see this copyright vs. plagiarism issue play out again in the recent situation involving Cristian Serruya. Here’s a post where Courtney Milan (a highly competent lawyer in addition to being a talented author) tells other authors how to address the situation.

Note that the first item recommends making a report of an ethics violation to a membership organization (RWA) where Serruya is a member. But that the second item goes back to copyright.

In the Serruya case there was word-for-word copying of other’s works, so that made it very clean.

If there hadn’t been word-for-word copying then I suspect that would’ve made the legal basis for challenging her very difficult, but she would’ve still been crucified in the court of public opinion because authors and readers don’t appreciate seeing someone take someone else’s work and try to pass it off as their own.

I remember a situation a few years back where someone had taken an erotic short story and rewritten it in their own words, but kept everything else about the story the same. (I honestly thought the rewrite was better, but that’s just me.) It wasn’t a copyright violation. It wasn’t a trademark violation. But it didn’t matter because it upset a large pool of authors who made it their mission to go after that author until the book was taken down. (And the author name probably permanently blackballed.)

There was another situation a few years back related to an author who’d done very well in urban fantasy and then someone came along and published a book that basically copied the intent and format of their blurb, named the main character after the other author, and copied elements of the other author’s book. Once again, lots and lots of uproar over that one. It didn’t destroy the second author’s career, but it certainly blackened their name. I looked just now to see if there was a lawsuit filed and am not finding anything, although I know the first author did discuss doing so and that their publisher’s legal team was involved but I can’t even find discussion of it now, so I assume that one was settled as well.

Heck, I’ve run into this one myself where someone took a blurb on one of my books and basically switched the words around just enough to not be copying what I’d said while still saying the exact same thing. If I’d had a big, voracious following for that book it would’ve been ugly for the person who did that. Because I didn’t they just got the side-eye from me.

So bottom line for an author: Legally it’s going to come down to copyright, trademark, or, as Dave mentioned in the other post, moral rights. Ethically and in the court of public opinion it’s probably best to find your inspiration from a wide enough variety of sources that your book doesn’t look like a thinly veiled copy of another’s work.