Some Great Writerly Advice

First, yesterday Chuck Wendig posted An Oubliette of Unconventional Writing Advice. Read it. It’s excellent. I particularly agree about the critique group point. His example is Tolkien (who is too slow for me as well), but my example is Nora Roberts. If I were in a critique group with her I’d tell her to stay with one point of view per scene and not to randomly move to another point of view for a paragraph just because she wants to.

But you know what? Nora Roberts has done just fine for herself without advice she would’ve received in probably 99% of critique groups. I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that what readers went is a good story that resonates with them emotionally and that as long as your writing stays out of the way of telling that story, you can do pretty much anything.

Sure, writers who are also readers may hate you and cite you as an example of horrible writing, but the standard reader like my mom won’t even notice.

Second, Joanna Penn has gone through some of the books in the NaNo bundle and pulled out a few gems in her post on how to win Nano. Definitely worth taking a look.

And speaking of Joanna Penn…

One of the perks of being in the StoryBundle is that I get all of the books for free. And the first one I decided to read was Joanna’s How To Make A Living With Your Writing. The first part is a good solid overview of your publishing options when it comes to books, but it was the second half of the book that had me thinking.  The second half covers other ways to make money with your writing, like affiliate income and providing courses.

I’ve been toying for about a year with the idea of putting the information covered in the Excel books either up on YouTube or as course offerings through a site like Udemy, and I think her book has pushed me to decide it’s time to do that. (Now it’s just a matter of prioritizing it all, but don’t be surprised if you see a tab show up on this page with Excel videos at some point. I just have to figure out the best software to use for recording the videos and where it’s best to post them.)

So that advice right there would’ve paid for the bundle for me. And if I were earlier on my publishing journey the first part of the book would’ve saved me hours of research. And that’s just one of the thirteen books in there. If you haven’t already, check it out: NaNo Bundle.

It Ain’t The Road That Kills You…

It’s the paper walls.

That’s from a song I happen to love by Marc Cohn:

The portion of the song where he says that doesn’t actually occur until the end. (At 3:39 on that video.) If you listen to it you may be asking yourself what on earth that song has to do with anything except people making really strange choices about who they hook up with and when, but stay with me for a moment.

Because, as always, I take something completely different away from that song than probably anyone else would. See, I hear that line “It ain’t the road that kills you…” and I think that the song is about how it isn’t being alone that’s the problem, it’s knowing that others aren’t and being able to hear (in this case) what you’re missing and how knowing what you’re missing is the real issue.

Now to bring this back to writing.

I ran a promo on Rider’s Revenge this weekend. It ends today. And, good news, I sold at least 374 copies of book 1 and 24 copies each of books 2 and 3. The promo isn’t even over yet and it’s already been profitable and sell-through to books 2 and 3 over the long-term will make it more so.

Fantastic, right?

Except I kind of felt like crap about it the last two days. Because part of the promo was an international-only Bookbub. And according to their site, the average number of sales from this particular list should be 550, but I’m only at about 300 off of the Bookbub.

It paid for itself. And I think I’m still missing Google sales and maybe even some iTunes sales. But I’m not going to hit 550. Which bummed me out.

I had a successful promo. I made a profit. I hopefully have a couple hundred new fans. And yet…knowing that others have done better running the same promo spoiled it for me.

It’s like we’re all trying to hike a mountain here. And I know that as long as I keep going and putting one foot in front of the other that I’ll get there eventually. But it’s harder when someone breezes by like there’s nothing to it or the person you started the trail with leaves you behind because you’re going so much slower.

(Real life experience: I hiked Mt. Quandary, a 14er, years ago with a couple co-workers. They were both in excellent shape and left me behind after the first hour or so. But I made it to the top. Eventually. Just in time for them to be ready to turn around and head back down…)

It’s easy to always be looking to others and feel constantly dissatisfied.  Because there will always be someone selling more, getting more reviews or better reviews, or signing high-profile deals. But you can’t do that. It’ll kill you.

Step back and remind yourself what you have done.  See how far you’ve come. Embrace the positives.

(I say as I continue to sit here and sulk.)

Remember, it isn’t the journey that will kill you, it’s comparing yourself to others and letting their successes (or how you feel about them) defeat you.

Serendipity (Or How I Ended Up In That StoryBundle)

There are some things in life that you can’t plan for and my inclusion in this particular StoryBundle is one of them.

What StoryBundle you might ask?  Well this one, of course.

NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle ad

(Sorry, shameless plug. It’s gonna happen a few times over the next two months, but we’ll try to keep it to a minimum.)

A little background. I’ve wanted to be in a StoryBundle for a while now. I emailed them about Rider’s Revenge when I published it and never heard a thing. I have a friend who actually curates bundles for them, but had yet to convince her to build one I could be a part of, so would jealously look askance at people who had the chance to be in one but turned it down.

It’s been on my radar for a couple years now. But I hadn’t done much more than hope and bug my friend about it on occasion.

Then this year I went to a great conference in Colorado Springs, the Superstars Writing Seminars. As part of the conference they also ask you to join their groups on Facebook. One for the whole group and one for that year’s conference.

Now, let me tell you, I’m not a big joiner. I’m a happily content loner. So it felt a little awkward to me to have to join those groups. But I did it. And I occasionally participated as questions were asked that I knew something about.

And then in August the chance came that I didn’t even know was possible. Kevin J. Anderson said he was putting together a StoryBundle of epic fantasy books and needed a couple more to round out the bundle. He needed them soon. Was anyone interested?

Yes! Me! Me! Right here. Me.

Except…

The Rider’s books were in KU at the time. And not due to roll out until early September which was past his deadline.

I’ll tell ya, I was sorely tempted to see if Amazon would notice. But I like to stay on the right side of the rules, so no bundle for me.

I was very sad.

But Kevin had mentioned that there would be other bundles in the future, so I hoped that maybe someday I’d be in one. I figured maybe next year sometime.

In the meantime, I’d done something slightly crazy, which was spend most of my summer writing non-fiction. I couldn’t figure out a direction to take my fiction writing. (Another romance novel, a standalone fantasy novel, a MG fantasy series, a YA fantasy series, an adult fantasy series…The possibilities were endless and no one story was calling to be written.) Rather than sit there and stare at my computer day after day, I had turned to non-fiction writing.

I wrote a book on CreateSpace first. I was supposed to write one on ACX next, but decided I’d knock out an Excel guide to writers real quick.

As I started to write, I realized that what I used Excel for when I was on the trade publishing path was very different from what I use it for on the self-publishing path. And that the two really don’t overlap much.

I also realized that some of my audience might not be all that familiar with Excel. Or might be familiar with the basics of Excel but not the more advanced parts of Excel like pivot tables and conditional formatting.

Suddenly that one 20K-word book that was going to take me maybe two weeks to write became four books that took me quite a bit longer to write.

The whole time I was finalizing them I was kicking myself for being a fool to write them in the first place. Sure, it was fun to do. I’m a bit of a math and spreadsheet nerd and I like to solve puzzles, which is a lot of what writing them entailed.

But I didn’t expect that they’d sell, especially the writing ones. I mean, honestly, how many people have enough of an interest in Microsoft Excel to buy a book that combines Excel and writing?

(More should–if you’re going to self-publish you should at least know pivot tables–but let’s be honest here. It was a niche, niche project I was working on.)

So there I am. Almost done with the books, telling myself this is why I am a crap self-publisher who will never make six-figures in a year. Reminding myself that if the million words I’ve self-published had all been self-published under the same name and on the same general topic or in the same general genre that I might be doing really well at this right now.  And pointing out to myself that all that analysis I do is worth nothing because I don’t put it to practical use and…

Well, you get the point. I was not happy with myself from a business perspective. (From a writing/workday perspective, I actually had a lot of fun with it, which is why I keep doing projects like this, because if I can’t enjoy the day-to-day then I should go back to consulting full-time.)

Anyway. Not happy.

And then Kevin posted to the group again. He said he was doing a NaNoWriMo bundle and needed a couple more books. (I won’t lie, it’s possible I lunged at my computer in excitement.) I offered up Writing for Beginners. It’s a nice solid book for the writer who doesn’t know anything about anything and needs somewhere to begin their writing journey.

But I also mentioned these Excel guides I’d been working on. Kevin didn’t want Writing for Beginners, but he was intrigued by the Excel guides. He asked for more info. I sent him a list of what each one covered. He said he wanted them. Have them ready the next week.

And then silence.

(I probably shouldn’t be admitting my insecurity here since a lot of people who will read this blog in the next two months may do so as part of checking out the bundle and that doesn’t make me sound very authoritative, but if you’ve read any of my non-fiction writing books you’ll know this is just what I do.)

One week stretched to two. I was trying to be patient and confident. But in the back of my mind was this little voice wondering if he’d reconsidered. Maybe he’d found better books. Maybe he’d found bigger name authors to include. Maybe…

And then I got the email with the contract.

And I signed it.

And I sent in the files.

And then silence.

And again I worried. Maybe the files I’d sent weren’t up to snuff. Maybe they’d reconsidered and were doing some last-minute rearranging to replace me.  Maybe…

Maybe I’m a paranoid freak who has too much time on my hands. It’s just that I’d wanted this sooo much and I couldn’t believe it was actually happening until it happened.

As I said yesterday, I have faith in the books I wrote. In the day job I’ve been paid very good money for what I can do in Excel and for my analysis skills in general. But at the same time, I’m a random person on the internet to most anyone who comes across those books. Across any of my books. There’s a certain level of faith involved in buying non-fiction from a stranger.

Which is why I love being part of this bundle. Because people can buy it for the names they recognize and basically get to check out my Excel guides for free at the same time.

So, for my writing friends.  How do you make something like this happen for yourself? I mean, obviously, as the post says, this was serendipity. It was a bunch of random choices that came together in a great way.

But here’s what I think are the takeaways:

One, make connections. If I hadn’t attended Superstars this year, I wouldn’t have been in that group to learn about the opportunity.

Two, put yourself out there. Kevin posted that he needed more titles for the bundle, but I had to respond and offer up my books. He might’ve turned me down. He did on the one book. But if I hadn’t posted to that thread, I would’ve been eliminating myself.  You can’t do that. (In anything in life. )

Three, have a finished product. It sucks to hear about the perfect opportunity but not be able to take advantage of it because that product you’re working on isn’t done yet.

Four, know what’s out there. One of the reasons I jumped all over this the minute it was posted was because I already knew about StoryBundle. And the reason I attended Superstars is because I’d heard about it from more than one source.

I’m lucky. I have no life. So I can write and publish and keep up on blogs and forums, too. I have friends who write and have families and jobs to juggle so don’t have that chance to keep up on the latest developments, which is hard. I think rule one has to be produce new material. But if you aren’t also monitoring the industry and what’s new, you’ll miss opportunities. (Or worse, get scammed.)

Could I have predicted this at all? No.

Do I know that it’ll be fabulous for me? No, it could be a disaster if people hate my work. (Although I’m already chuffed by the whole experience and we’re only one day in.)

Can I plan to make something like this ever happen again? No.  But it does mean I’ll probably make the effort to attend a few conferences next year that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Because you never know what little thing or new connection will be the one that sets a whole cascade of events into motion.

So there you have it. I look forward to all of you attending Superstars next year and Kevin having so many great choices to choose from on the next bundle he curates that I’m not even in the running. (Kidding on that last bit. I plan to be in the running, so bring your A game.)

The NaNoWriMo Writing Tools Bundle Is Here (And I’m In It!)

So this is the bit of news I was alluding to yesterday. My books, Excel for Writers and Excel for Self-Publishers, are both part of the 2017 Nano Storybundle. For $15 you can get both of my books as well as…

  • How to Make a Living With Your Writing by Joanna Penn
  • Hurting Your Characters by Michael J. Carlson
  • Writing as a Team Sport by Kevin J. Anderson
  • The Author’s Guide to Vellum by Chuck Heintzelman
  • Time Management by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
  • The Magic Bakery by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Business for Breakfast Vol 6: The Healthy Professional Writer by Leah Cutter
  • Q&A For Science Fiction Writers by Mike Resnick
  • The Unofficial Scrivener Workbook by Michael J. Carlson
  • Story Structure and Master Chapter Outline Workbook by C. Michael Jefferies
  • Blood From Your Own Pen by Sam Knight

Look at that list. Joanna Penn who has a brilliant podcast. Kevin J. Anderson who co-wrote the Dune series and is the mastermind behind the Superstars Writing Seminars. Kristine Kathryn Rusch whose Thursday business blog posts are a must-read.  And Dean Wesley Smith whose classes on depth and character definitely strengthened my fiction writing.

And those are just the ones that happened to be in my list of web links. I am honored and humbled to be amongst their number. (And proud enough of the Excel guides that I think they hold their own in that list.)

You’d have to pay $10 to get both of my books. For $5 more, look what else you can get. (And, of course, you can always pay more if you think that’s warranted since part of the proceeds are also going to charity.)

So, what are you waiting for? Go buy yourself some brilliant writerly wisdom while it’s cheap.

(I’ll be reading all the books myself and probably mentioning a few here on the blog during the next two months while the books are available. And I’ll also tell you how this all came about in another blog post, since that’s what would matter most to me as a self-publisher.)

It’s Done When You Hate It

A lot of times newer writers ask when you know something is done and ready to publish. Often the answer is some variation of “when you’re so sick of looking at it that you need to get it out the door before you light it on fire.”

So true.

Last night I hit publish on four Excel guides. I literally wrote a novel’s worth of words about Microsoft Excel.

Why? Because I’m weird and I actually find solving problems with Excel fun.

And I have fiction writers’ block at the moment because I’m not sure what novel to write next, so while my back brain works on solving that problem I had to do something to keep busy. (Last year I wrote a random cookbook when this happened.)

It was fun writing the guides at first. Asking myself things like how do you teach someone about pivot tables?  Or how do you calculate a factor for AMS that accounts for KU borrows? Or how would you build an advertising tracker that calculates whether an ad was profitable or not? (Something I’d been doing manually up to that point.)

But by the time I had to redo all of the images in all of the files because I decided they were too blurry. And by the time I finish formatting each of them in Vellum, trying to decide which annoyed me more–an extra space above an image or an indented paragraph after an image. And by the time I decided that in the ebook form I really needed to split out sub-headings for some of the chapters into their own chapter so users could easily find those sections…

Yeah. By then I hated the guides. I’d seen those words so many times.

So so many times.

I was done. Get it away from me before I take a sledge hammer to it.

I get like that with novels, too. When I’m at the point where I think I’d rather poke sharp knives into my eyes than read the darned thing one more time, I know it’s ready to go.

(By then the creation part has long since passed and it’s just little fiddly bits and finding those last five typos that you swear weren’t there the day before.)

Of course, I’m actually not done just yet. I still have to do the paperbacks…

Sigh.

And publish to Kobo and Nook. And set up on AMS on the books. And…

Yeah.

Good news is I’ll be ready for a brand new project come Friday.  And it won’t involve Excel. Yay!

Bad news is I have to grit my teeth and push through today. (After I take the pup in for x-rays and have lunch with my grandma whose brother just died. Because some things matter more than the writing.)

Too Much Focus on Earnings, Too Little on Expenses

Self-publishing is a business. You’re selling a product to people for money. And, unless you have some independent source of wealth, at some point you need to make more than you spend to keep doing it.  And yet…

What do self-publishers focus on 90% of the time? (I think the exception would be some of the promotions threads I’ve seen where people break down what they spent and what they earned from a promo.) They focus on earnings. Or how many books they’ve sold.

We talk about six-figure authors and how impressive they are without ever asking how much they spent to earn those six figures.  And we take their advice over the advice of others even if it’s possible that they’re worse business owners than someone who makes fifty thousand a year. If someone spends $90,000 to make $100,000 they’re actually doing worse than someone who spends $10,000 to make $50,000.  At least from a long-term sustainable business point of view.

(Now, we could argue about whether that person making $100,000 will be better off in the long run because they’re building a bigger customer base for all their subsequent books, but if you’re not in fast-build mode that 90/100 ratio is not going to be sustainable unless you can scale the hell out of it. And if the only way you’re bringing in those readers is with heavy advertising and they aren’t staying once you get them…Well…That’s not good either.)

So why am I talking about this? I’m not at either level.

Well, because I needed a reality check on this myself.  I was so proud in June to have my first $1,000+ month. And to repeat that in July and now August. I thought, finally, I’m getting some traction with this. I envisioned a $30,000 year maybe. And that was exciting to me.

And then I added advertising costs into the mix.

Revenue-wise, year four was more than four times year two. But when you account for advertising?  Year four was only 1.25 times better.

I made thousands more, but I also spent thousands more to get there. And even though I’m still net ahead year four vs. year two, it’s not by near as much as I thought it was. And my best month when you account for advertising expenses? The month I released my written to market billionaire romance short story. My second best month? When I completed the other stories in that series and ran a free promo on the first in series.

Good news is that since I started running AMS heavily in July of last year my months have been more profitable than before. But that sure shows me the power of writing to market, because when you do that customers are looking for you. You don’t have to pay to find them.

A Mini Rant

So yet again I’m seeing James Patterson’s name drug through the mud because supposedly he doesn’t write his novels.  And it annoys me. Not because I read the man’s books, I don’t.  Or at least can’t remember reading any of them.  But more because I find it a symptom of the “they don’t deserve it” -itis that is so common in the writerly community.

Hang around long enough and you’re bound to hear how horrible Stephenie Meyer’s writing is, how E L James’ books are awful, how Dan Brown can’t write his way out of a paper sack, and, of course, how James Patterson doesn’t even write his own books.

It drives me nuts.

One, because so often when this critique is made it’s because writers are focusing on one aspect of writing (the words) and failing to see how plot or emotional engagement are just as important.

And, two, because it comes off sounding like sour grapes. As in, why is that horrible author so successful when I’m so much better?  (Well…perhaps you aren’t.)

And the James Patterson thing annoys me because I took his Masterclass (through masterclass.com–I also did the Aaron Sorkin and Shonda Rhimes ones and enjoyed all three) and in there he talks about his co-writing process.  And from that I can assure you that he doesn’t just slap his name on something someone else writes.  He’s heavily involved in the process and in the plotting and polishing of the novel.

And if we go back to this concept of what is writing a story, I would argue that the easiest part of writing is putting together the sentences.  Finding a way to make those sentences work together to create an experience that pulls a reader through the book is the challenge. Having something happen that’s unbelievable yet totally plausible at the same time isn’t easy either.  And coming up with a way to engage with a reader’s emotions so they actually feel something about your characters and what happens to them is maybe the hardest skill of all.

When these criticisms crop up, those skills are never considered.

Anyway. Next time you find yourself wanting to complain about some very successful author and their lack of writing ability, maybe check yourself and try to figure out what they do right instead.  And, no, it isn’t going to be “spends a lot on advertising” because the people we’re talking about here are all people who’ve generated word of mouth beyond their advertising efforts and who I’ve heard readers rave about.

So when that happens, ask yourself why. You might just find a way to improve your own writing.

(And this rant is not directed at anyone that I know reads this blog, so if any of you recently wrote or posted about this, I’m not writing this rant because I saw your post. It most recently came up in a forum discussion about something else, but it was the third time I’d seen someone say something similar this week and figured it was a good choice for a Wednesday random thoughts post.)