Three Publishing Choices

When I’m stuck on writing (which is disturbingly often these days), I look at my numbers and try to decide what to do next. It’s all a big stalling game because moving in some direction is better than sitting around trying to figure out the “best” direction to go.

But, well, yeah. Some days spinning in circles is all there really is to do.

When I do this I focus on three key choices I can make. I think I’ve discussed this before, but it never hurts to go through it again.

1. Increase sales of existing titles

This is partially why I’m taking the FB ads course right now. Because I feel like I’ve maxed out what I can do with AMS for my existing titles and I wanted to find some other form of advertising that I could do day in and day out.

This could also involve putting an existing title out in a new format. Or moving a title from wide to KU or KU to wide. Or listing your books direct. Or listing them with all the little distributors you can find.

Sometimes that three hours of effort to do something like that can make more money per hour than writing the next book. Or it can make more money in the short-term than writing the next book.

If you’re not properly leveraging what’s already there, there’s a lot of room for improvement in this area.

(I would probably include as a lesser option here rewriting or rebranding existing titles. It can feel good to rewrite an existing title, but I’d argue it isn’t the best use of your time/efforts. I still remember going back to my very first short story and wanting to rewrite it and realizing there was no point because there was no central conflict to rewrite around. The idea was simply flawed from the get-go. And I did rewrite my first novel after I’d written a million words, but that was time I probably could have better spent on a new novel instead.)

2. Write more of the same thing

The second option is to write more of what you’ve already written. So you look at what sells best and you write more of it. More in that series, more in that world, more in that genre, more under that author name. You add to what’s available to feed your existing fan base and get another chance to bring in more new readers.

This is probably where most self-publishers spend most of their time and effort although I might argue that pursuing 1 and 3 may be the better option for a lot of writers. Not when you’re new, though. When you’re new production is king.

3. Write something new

The third option is to do something brand new. I usually do this at least once a year. So, for example, this year I wrote a book on regulatory compliance. It had nothing to do with what I’d published before but I figured it was worth the time and effort to see if there was any sort of market for it. I’m not rushing to write more but it did well enough I’m pleased I took the time to write it.

I added the cozy series two years ago and Data Principles last year. If something works, it goes into category 2 where you keep doing more of it. If it doesn’t, you move on. But you don’t know until you try. As I mentioned in Data Analysis for Self-Publishers, data analysis is good for what you’ve already done. Not near as helpful for what you haven’t tried yet.


Yeah, so that’s what I think about. And then I come up with a list with four ways to increase existing sales and eight ideas for writing more or something new. And then instead of doing any of it, I come write a blog post instead. Haha. Being creative while the world burns is not easy to do.

A Few Random Thoughts

We’ll start with writing.

I’m taking a course on FB ads right now (by Skye Warren) that looks pretty good so far. It was hard to decide to spend that kind of money ($600 or so) but I figured I’m about at the point where I need to expand beyond using mostly AMS ads and I’ve been impressed by what she has to say over the last couple of years. Our mindset aligns on a lot of this.

But making the decision to spend that money is  part of one of the trickiest things you have to deal with in this business, which is knowing who to trust and when a big money spend makes sense.

There are a lot of people out there who charge a lot and don’t deliver. They may rank high but they’re doing so by buying that rank and you really don’t know up front that that’s what’s happening. (I took another class recently that wasn’t as expensive but where I suspect that was the case.)

I see so many people who’ve taken expensive classes later blame themselves for not being able to make it work when sometimes it was the instructor that was the actual problem. Maybe not deliberately, but sometimes they think they have it worked out when they don’t.

(I say this as I’m about to release a new book for self-publishers….Ah, irony. In so many respects.)

So I’m always nervous about a big spend like that, but sometimes you have to spend that big money to get to where you want to go. (This goes for covers and maybe editing, too, not just courses.) It’s a calculated risk.

One thing writing the new book and taking this class have reminded me of, though, is that at the end of the day what we have available to sell is what it is, which is very likely a flawed product in some respect.

(For newer writers it can be flawed in many respects. Maybe the writing isn’t there yet or it’s a genre mash-up that’s hard to advertise effectively or the cover isn’t what it needs to be or the blurb or the editing or…all of it. My first attempt at a romance novel the couple agreed at the end that they were better off as friends. Talk about violating genre expectations.)

So we can learn all these lessons about packaging and marketing and see that others had great results, but at the end of the day the book we wrote just can’t perform the way we need it to. We can bring readers in, but if the book doesn’t satisfy them then all that effort and expense is wasted.

Sometimes you can fix the book, but often you have to just let a project go and move on and do better the next time. Or lower your expectations. Know that this project isn’t going to be a top 100 title or a premium title or one that people shout about to their friends, but it may still be profitable for you…It may still pay those bills and have a loyal following.

Something to think about…


In non-writing news, I picked up my grandma yesterday and took her to see my mom. In these times something so simple is fraught with worry because they’re both at risk if they get this.

I’d been home except to walk the dog for ten days, my mom had been home for three weeks, my stepdad had been home for six days, and my grandma had been home for two months but with people dropping in probably more often than I’d like.

So there was risk. Ideally given what we know about disease spread none of us would’ve gone anywhere for fifteen days before we all got together. But it seemed like a manageable level of risk. And it was good to hug one another and share a meal.

But I do worry that my grandma took this as some weird sign that it’s now safe and okay to have people over or go to people’s houses. And that my mom and stepdad are now getting out more than they were before because somehow our state moving to a “safer at home” mode has changed things. (Nothing has changed, though. I think our governor just decided he couldn’t keep people at home much longer so he’d lighten restrictions rather than face insurrection.)

Hopefully we’ll see a seasonal dropoff with this thing and they will be relatively safe, but I suspect a lot of people will get caught out by this loosening of restrictions thinking that somehow the fundamental facts of the situation have changed. But as long as we have free movement across the country, and across the world to some degree, that’s not the case. It only takes one or two uncontrolled introduction events for things to flare right back up.

I’m lucky to work from home, but I worry about those who can’t. And I worry about some of the ridiculously stupid shit I see people say. (Nextdoor is a vision to behold in my area. Not to mention what I’ve seen elsewhere.) You’d think we could all agree on a set of objective facts, but it turns out that we actually believe different facts and I don’t know how you solve that when people don’t trust the methods used to determine those facts.

Anway. Life is weird right now.

For anyone looking for a good overview of the current understanding of SARS-CoV-2, Johns Hopkins has a Coursera course on contact tracing. The first week takes about an hour and is all about what’s known about the illness. (https://www.coursera.org/learn/covid-19-contact-tracing?edocomorp=covid-19-contact-tracing) You can take it for free and get a certificate, too. I thought it was worth the time.

And now back to editing…

50,000 Paid Sales

I realized just now that sometime in April I passed the 50,000 paid sales mark. It’s a lot less than a lot of people have hit, but it’s a helluva lot better than the 53 books I sold my first year of publishing.

So what changed? How did I go from just over 50 books sold in an entire year back when things were supposedly easier to almost 20,000 last year? And not at 99 cent price points either. Last year I averaged about $3 in revenue per unit sold.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and again and again: What you’re publishing matters. All titles are not created the same. The market size isn’t the same, the price points aren’t the same, and your personal ability to deliver to that market is not going to be the same.

My first year of publishing I put out a handful of short stories and a couple non-fiction titles in an area where I had no established expertise.

With rare exceptions, short stories just do not sell as well or for as much as novels. If I were still only publishing short stories I do not think I’d have increased my sales all that much. It let me practice publishing, but if you’re writing short stories, and especially in SFF, you are much better off submitting to the SFF magazines and getting published that way.

I honestly am not even sure short stories as a lead magnet are all that worth it. I remember a few years back an author who got the rights back to a series and republished it and did really well doing so. I read their first book and enjoyed it, but when I then went and picked up their lead magnet I did not. If I had been a reader who found the lead magnet first I would’ve never read that series.

Personally I believe that short stories and novels are two different forms that require different skills and I’d argue that readers prefer one over the other most times and that most writers tend to do well at one given length but not at any length.

(I do think that can vary across genres. My mysteries naturally come in at 45K words, my fantasies come in around 90K, and my romances around 75K.)

What else changed?

I also learned more about marketing and covers.

My first covers were horrible. One might argue that my current covers aren’t amazing works of art, but I do think they get the job done. Those first covers…did not.

But I kept trying until I got something that did work. I didn’t just quit right away. Or leave it as is.

It’s also scary to look back and realize that I didn’t spend any money on advertising until fifteen months after I’d published my first title. Maybe that was a good thing because, like I mentioned, the covers weren’t where they needed to be. So I may have been throwing money away if I’d tried to advertise early on.

Then again, back then there was a lot less expectation of quality covers.

When I did finally start to spend on advertising, I would argue I didn’t initially spend my money on “good” advertising. Some options, like AMS, simply didn’t exist back then. But I was also cheap. So the list-based advertisers I used were not the best. When you are only willing to pay $5-$20 for a promo you’re going to get what you pay for and it’s not going to be a whole lot of anything.

These days I primarily spend on AMS because I can advertise full-price books that way. But if I can get a Bookbub feature or a Kobo promotion I’m all for that, too. With a Bookbub feature I’ll add in Facebook and Bookbub click ads. I’ll also run the occasional other promo with a well-regarded advertiser like Freebooksy/Bargainbooksy.

There are still many flaws in how I approach all of this. And I pay for those flaws. I am not doing as well as I could be. I know enough now to know what I do wrong (for the most part, there’s probably more I don’t know I do wrong yet) but I’ve had to accept that I am not going to be that perfect book-producing machine.

The way to maximize your performance is to test things out until you find what you’re good at or good enough at and then to keep producing in that one area.

And ideally to find something you’re good at that can support that continuous production. That’s why genre fiction is such a good choice. Fantasy, mystery, romance. Any of those will work if you’re giving the readers what they want. Do so consistently and frequently enough and back it up with promotion and good packaging and you’re on your way.

I do think it’s the rare author that can actually do all of that, though. They’re out there, don’t get me wrong. There are hundreds of authors making six figures each year who manage to do that. Who produce a product people want, do so on a good consistent schedule, get it in front of that audience so they know it exists, and package it in a way that appeals to that audience.

But there are probably tens of thousands of authors who don’t do that and never will. And I probably fall on the upper end of that group of tens of thousands.

So am I pleased with where I am?

Yes and no.

I’m glad I’ve improved as much as I have. (I wouldn’t still be doing this if I hadn’t. There’s a difference between having faith in yourself and being blindly foolish about something. I’ve put in enough time and effort to expect improvement year over year.)

And my profit per month is now at a point where I could live on it if I weren’t extravagant in how I chose to live or if I lived somewhere cheap. But I want to be a little extravagant, so I’m not where I personally want to be yet.

(I don’t really want to get back to my consulting-level income, though. I don’t honestly need that kind of income and it creates weird barriers with the people in my life who matter to me. Plus, it’s easy to become a jackass when you’re making a lot of money or maybe that’s just me.)

Also, it frustrates my ego that I’m not doing better on the fiction side. I get good reviews but I haven’t cracked the launch and marketing combination to get the sales I want on that side of things.

I may never crack it, honestly. I have a love/hate relationship with getting attention for my work and I don’t think there’s a way to get to where I want to with sales that doesn’t involve developing a fan base which comes with headaches I really don’t want.

So, anyway. That’s me. Big milestone-yay. Not where I want to be yet-boo. Still going to carry on for the time being because working at home with my dog and not having to deal with office politics is my personal idea of bliss.

 

 

 

 

Random Publishing Thoughts

For any of the writers/publishers who follow this blog I imagine that my focus on other issues recently has been a bit disappointing, so let me see if I can share some writing and publishing thoughts that may be of help to someone else.

I spent the last month(?) updating my print book covers as well as my interior files that had screenshots. It was one of those situations of you don’t know what you don’t know and when you figure out what you didn’t know feeling compelled to fix it. In this case there were at least four different issues I needed to figure out and the cover and interior issues were not the same ones.

Of course, knowing it in the first place would’ve saved a lot of effort, but that’s the journey of self-publishing. You try your best, you learn that your best isn’t the best possible, you level-up, try your best again, learn that it still isn’t the best possible, and so on and so on forever. And most of what you realize wasn’t the best is stuff that the average person on the street won’t even have noticed or if they did notice won’t have been able to actually describe to you.


For me personally there was a month there where I saw a big dip in sales/revenues because of Amazon and how they chose to handle print books. That seems to have resolved itself although IngramSpark is now reporting printing delays of up to two weeks. And turns out with IS if there’s a pending print order for a book of yours you can’t update it, which is annoying since I submitted updated files for each series at the same time but some books are through and approved with new files and others still are not after almost two weeks. But what are you gonna do? Old processes, new situations, they don’t always work well together.


In the world of AMS ads, I’m pretty pleased. I can’t check AMS spend from a year ago but I’d say that I’m probably spending less on ads right now than I was then but getting a better return on them. Also I think cost per click is down for me from a year ago. Keep in mind that’s very much dependent on what you’re advertising so that may not be true in genres like romance. But it seems to me there was a lot of stupid money in the ads last year that has since gone elsewhere. (Probably Bookbub ads or it seems a lot of folks have circled back to FB ads if public comments are any indicator.)

I have two ads that have generated more than $20K each in sales, so I’m still a big proponent of getting a good ad going and then keeping it alive as long as I possibly can.


David Gaughran posted on his blog recently that there’s now a portal for Apple for uploading books via a PC so you no longer need a Mac to go direct. I used the portal today to update three books and it looks like it worked. No idea why Apple didn’t tell anyone about it yet, but that’s how it goes it seems. Nice thing is that it makes it clear you have to provide your cover with each update even if it’s not changing which I didn’t realize the first time I updated an interior file on Apple.

The last page of the update process acts a little weird if you didn’t have an ISBN, but clicking on the help icon for that field seemed to address the issue for me. And there was no clear easy way to update a second book without going through the whole navigation process again but I assume they’ll smooth out the bugs over time. It was nice to not have to go break out the Mac just to upload those files. (I still need it for Vellum, though.)


A friend in another group recently mentioned the power of backlist. They have a pen name they abandoned years ago that still makes a few hundred a month for them. And I think it’s important to remember that a new reader doesn’t really care when a book was written (unless it’s dated somehow). All they care is that it’s a good read. So don’t give up on old titles just because they’re older.

Having said that I’m definitely an unpublisher. Sometimes it’s because information becomes outdated (for non-fiction) and sometimes it’s because those stories aren’t a good fit for who I am as a writer now. And sometimes it’s just because I want to reclaim the mental space I was giving to that title.

But if you still like a story and still think it will appeal to readers then give it another chance. New covers, new blurb, some ads. I definitely have titles that made more money in their third or fourth year of publication than their first. Often publishing more under a name helps tremendously. You have a new title boost and if you’ve learned better packaging and marketing that can flow back to the first title.


What else? I think the current situation is probably stressing different people in different ways and I’ve seen a lot of talk about how it’s harder to be creative right now than before. I suspect Strengths play into this so that’s not true for everyone. And maybe where you fall on DISC as well.

For me I’ve been working more hours than usual but what I’ve been doing is very rote as opposed to creative. I just finished recreating probably 600+ screenshots and putting them into documents. But since I’d already worked out what those should look like it was moderately mindless work. Detail work, but not in the same way as writing something new.

So if you’re stuck right now, finding tasks like that might help. I had other ideas on my to-do list like checking all of my pricing and streamlining it. With currency exchange rates changing over time my Canadian and Australian prices were out of whack. I like to at least be consistent across a series if nothing else. (And pay attention to the suggested prices from Amazon because those are way off in a few of the listed currencies.)

Or you could spend time checking your book categories. Your blurbs. Your links on your website. The paragraph spacing of your book descriptions on each site. (Paperback on Amazon is a notorious issue. HTML tags are a must.) Basically just all that housekeeping that needs to happen. I’ve let my ad spend tracking fall by the wayside and need to enter all of that. Submit for a Bookbub feature deal or a Kobo promo. Run a few list-based promos. Finally figure out how to list direct on some sites rather than through a distributor. Etc. etc.


I don’t think this whole situation is going away anytime soon. Even if you’re in a country that has it relatively under control if you’re a writer/publisher then the U.S. is probably a big part of your sales and we’re going to be dealing with this for I’d say at least the next year. In terms of ebooks and audio things are probably pretty good although I wouldn’t be surprised by slower response times if you have an issue and perhaps more publishign delays. If you sell heavily in print I’d expect further disruptions due to staffing and supply. And if you’re POD perhaps more quality issues. (My last batch of books from IS that I ordered to check the cover changes clearly showed someone wasn’t being as careful about things as normal.)

All we can do is continue on as best as possible and adjust as needed. As always.

How to Write a Novel

Patricia C. Wrede has a good post up on her blog this morning, Getting Started, that I think is well worth reading for anyone who wants to write a novel.

At this point I’ve written thirteen novels. One multiple viewpoint fantasy, a YA fantasy trilogy, three romance novels, and six cozy mysteries.

And I’ve pretty much pantsed every single one. Meaning that I had an idea of what I wanted to write and I started writing. Now maybe some would quibble and say that because I’d jotted down four or five plot points that I was really plotting, but no. I don’t do beats or story arcs or have a list of what should happen in chapter ten.

Which is not to say that I don’t end up with beats and arcs and rising and falling action. I’ve been a voracious reader for over forty years. Story structure is in my blood by this point. Stopping to map that out would ruin it for me.

It’s like trying to think about driving a car. If you don’t make me think about it, I know how to shift and which pedal is the brake. (I drive a stick.) But make me stop and think that through consciously and I’m in trouble. I’ll put my foot on the gas instead of the brake because it’s not something that I do at a conscious level.

Same with typing. I’m a seven-finger typer. I think. I use the three fingers on my left hand and the three fingers and thumb on my right hand. Maybe. I’m trying to type this and figure it out without actually paying enough attention to myself that I stop typing and it’s very hard to do.

But make me stop and try to figure out how I type the way I do, because it involves having different fingers type a specific letter depending on the letter that came before it, and I’d fall apart.

Some part of my brain has a spatial map of the keyboard. (Which is why ergonomic keyboards are a flat out nope for me.) But it’s not a conscious place. It’s not something I can deliberately tap into.

That for me is how a pantser works. It’s not that they aren’t looking at story structure, it’s that they’re not doing it at a conscious level.

So how do you write a novel? In whatever way works for you and lets you eventually get those words down.

For some that will mean staring off into space for a week while they think about the story before they ever write a word.

For others it will involve creating a three-inch binder of all of the information they need to create their story.

Others will want a one-sentence-per-chapter outline.

Still others will want a chapter-level outline that’s as detailed as some others’ first draft.

Do what works for you.

For me, I start with (1) story genre (mystery, romance, fantasy with a certain type of conflict), (2) story length (short story versus novel), (3) basic story issue (this can be a theme or a source of conflict or an event like finding a dead body), (4) basic setting (city vs. country, general type of society and technology) and (4) character (who is the main person in this story).

And then I go. If it’s contemporary and real world that pretty much sets up everything I need because the character and setting will drive the rest of the story for me.

If it’s fantasy then about six chapters in I have to sit down and have a little chat with myself about how this world works. What kind of magic does it have? Who has power? Are there magical beasts? Etc.

But usually I only do that enough to keep going and I often have surprises that pop up later. Because no one knows everything about their own world. They often only learn something new when they get out and explore or face a situation that requires them to learn. So I’m there with my character learning along the way.

My last mystery I didn’t even know who the killer was until the chapter before the reveal. I knew who the main suspects were and why each of them could be the killer. But the story world was completely under my control so I could make the killer any of those suspects I wanted to just by choosing which evidence to make real and which to make the red herring.

For me this is why my second draft is just as important as my first draft. Because once I’ve reached the end of the story and understand all the rules and all the players then I can go back through and smooth out rough spots or add foreshadowing or a little more of a reveal earlier on. Although, surprisingly, it doesn’t require as much as you’d think it would. Mostly just a sentence here or there.

(I am also an under-writer on a first draft so I have to add place and people descriptions and actions during dialogue which does increase wordcount by about 25%. But that’s not the main story that’s being fleshed out, that’s just bringing the reader deeper into the story.)

So anyway. There is no ONE WAY to write a novel.  You do you and don’t let other people tell you you’re wrong if the way you do things works for you.

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.

 

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.

 

Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…

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.

 

Writing: Point of View Matters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I mean, I always am reading, but I think I’ve been diving into more new-to-me authors lately which means I’m running across more writing approaches or styles than normal.

And I’ve realized as part of that exploration that the point of view the author chooses to use can make or break a story.

I’m reading a novel right now that’s written in first person, something I personally have no problem with. My cozies are written in first person. But as a writer reading this book I am annoyed at the author for making that choice.

Because they chose to write in first person but they included at least six different points of view. ALL of them in first person. NONE of them identified in any way at the start of each section. And they change point of view within chapters. So you have on first-person point of view starting the chapter and then another picking up at the section break halfway through. It feels like I’m constantly playing catch up in each new section, trying to figure out who is talking now.

The story itself is fine. But I know because of the point of view choice this author made that my mom won’t be able to read it. She’d never be able to make those switches successfully.

And what annoys me so much is that the author could have simply used a deep third person point of view and accomplished the exact same thing but had it work better for the reader.

This is not some new author. This is a trade-published author with I think 11 books out. (All in first person, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But by now you think they would have read enough to know that deep third can be very close to interchangeable with first person.) And they have an editor who should’ve seen this, too.

So that’s one. And probably the one that prompted this post. But another I’ve been thinking about lately is that I just don’t like to be in the point of view of nasty human beings. It’s like immersing myself in slime. I don’t mind reading stories that have nasty human beings in them (as long as they get their comeuppance at the end), but along the way I really really don’t want to sit in their head for any length of time.

I read all the JD Robb books this last year and there was one (of the fifty?) that I really did not like for this reason. She’d included the killer’s point of view in a certain number of chapters and I just didn’t want to read them. I didn’t want to see some self-centered asshole murderer justifying their actions.

As a writer reading something like that I then step back and ask, “Did that help the story? Did the story gain anything by having an insight into this character’s thoughts?”

And my personal answer there was no. That was the only book of that series that I really didn’t like, but it wasn’t the only one that included the POV of the killer. But I don’t think any of the books I read in that series that had the POV of the killer benefited from having it. And I think in some cases it actually took away some of the suspense because we already knew things about the killer that the detective hadn’t yet discovered so false paths we might’ve gone down as readers were taken away.

Now, those books are so good that I’ll keep reading them anyway. I think she is a master of her craft and does so many things so well that she’s well worth studying.

But another author that I’d recently started reading I’ve stopped reading for also including the bad guy’s point of view in the story. In that case it was a lazy user-type who starved his kids and beat his wife. He gets killed in the end but about half of the book felt like it was in his head and I just did not want to be there. Especially since it was a world that should have killed him much earlier on.

I’m sure there are other POV changes I could think of given enough time, but those were the two that were top of mind for me just now. But I guess in a sense they both boil down to the same issue: don’t do something with your writing that pulls the reader out of the story. And if that seems to be happening, then check you POV choices.