10 Years/3 Million Words

In early July I finished my 10th year of writing towards publication. Ten years ago I was in New Zealand with some downtime between consulting projects and an injured knee that led me to stop skydiving so I decided it was time to finally try to write a novel. And I did.

Took six weeks. It was awful. Glad I set it aside for another six weeks before I went back to read it so I could understand just how much work it needed. (I tend to under-write, so that novel which eventually was 90K words ended its first draft at 45K words.)

Fast forward to ten years later and I’ve now written 3 million words. Not all of that is fiction, though. About 1.2 million words of that is various non-fiction. And only 1.3 million of that is novels, the other 500K words is short stories.

I hadn’t initially planned on the self-publishing route. Even when I self-published my first non-fiction title, I still expected I’d go the trade pub route for novels.

And, who knows, I may still end up hybrid at some point. But I don’t know. I don’t have the patience it seems is required for the trade published route. The idea that it’s acceptable in the industry for you to submit a query to an agent and wait a year for them to respond just floors me.

And the idea of having someone that non-responsive handle my business interests goes against everything I ever learned in the corporate world. If I am paying them a fee to sell my product, you’d think I’d have more standing with them than it seems most authors do with their agents.

Plus, I’m a control freak. I was recently negotiating a potential publishing contract for non-fiction with a decent publisher I’d be willing to work with, but the clause where they get all my rights and then can enter into any contract on my behalf without any input from me just stops me cold each time. That’s my name and reputation, you’d think I could have a veto on a disastrous contract.

So I don’t know. We’ll see. There are definitely opportunities that I don’t have access to as myself that I would through a publisher, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to negotiate a contract that makes it work for both me and them.

Which leaves me with the self-publishing. I love the freedom to do what I want when I want. And the flexibility to write the stories I want how I want to write them. But those are probably also my biggest dangers with self-publishing, too. Because I don’t do what you need to do to succeed even when I know at least one of the formulas.

(Write in a series that appeals to readers, release on a consistent and regular schedule, brand well for the genre.)

I’ve been lucky. Despite my writing whatever whenever and self-editing and mostly doing my own covers I’m still closing in on a quarter million dollars in revenue and have made over six figures in profit at this point with just about 70,000 paid sales across all my titles.

It’s a lot more than many authors manage. But it’s also piddling compared to some of the others I know who “do it right” and I’m self-aware enough to realize that if I worked longer hours and with more focus that I could probably have done exponentially better. (Because publishing is one of those industries that is very much winner-takes-all. The top titles do very, very well while the majority of titles sell next to nothing.)

Across those ten years I only spent 3,100 hours writing and editing. (Compare that to when I was a full-time consultant and probably worked 60 hour weeks which with 50 weeks a year of work over ten years would’ve come out to 30,000 hours spent working. Obviously there was some administrative time in there for the consulting and the writing and editing is not all I do on the publishing side, but I definitely am nowhere close to working as hard as I did as a full-time consultant.)

So what to do now? Keep going? My profit has gone up every year so there’s indication that if I keep writing and publishing I can keep growing that profit.

Try to focus and do it “right” this time using everything I now know? Even though I’ve done better in non-fiction I’m still firmly convinced that fiction is where the true upside potential lies.

Or step back, let writing be what I do when I have downtime, and take the easier route and pursue consulting again? I’m not one of those people who must write or I’ll die. I’m certainly not one of those people who must publish. And for hour of effort put in the consulting is going to be more financially rewarding 99 times out of 100 for me.

I don’t know. It’s not a simple question. I’ve never been one of those people who wanted one thing in life. And the things I do want–time to read and spend with my dog, family, and friends–can’t be the number one priority or I’ll eventually lose them.

I could spend two years just hanging out reading and walking my dog, but then I’d be broke and two years further away from any skills that would let me not be broke, right? So it’s always a balancing act. And sometimes the repercussions of those choices can’t be seen for years. There are life paths that you step off of that are almost impossible to step back onto later.

But I digress. Anyway. Ten years in. Not bad, not great. No regrets for spending the last decade of my life the way I have, but not sure if I’ll spend the next ten years the same way.

(Actually, I know myself. There’s no chance the next ten years will be like the last ten even if I do keep my focus on the writing. I am simply not one of those people who settles in.)

The Chicken or The Egg

I’m sitting here listening to a playlist of mine called Fave Thoughtful which essentially consists of slower songs that aren’t as easy to sing along with as my Fave Sing Along playlist.

(I have a ridiculous number of song playlists. My original Faves playlist has 150 songs on it so I decided to break it down a bit more since moving from Thugman by Tweet to The Only Time by Nine Inch Nails to Another Suitcase in Another Hall by Evita is a bit jarring.)

(Below that Fave list I have a total of 43 “like” playlists that combined include 2992 songs at the moment. I have a bit of a thing for music obviously. Anyway.)

It made me realize something odd.

I have a large number of songs on my favorites playlists that I’ve loved for ages. Since I was maybe even a pre-teen. (Kenny Rogers was my favorite singer when I was eight. I remember crying while repeatedly replaying Islands in the Stream during my first big breakup in 3rd grade.)

Long before I had any life experiences that would make me choose those kinds of songs, I loved songs like Spilled Perfume by Pam Tillis and We’ve Got Tonight by Kenny Rogers. Songs about failed love and yearning for lost relationships and choosing the wrong person and loss.

I can now, later in life, tie actual life experiences to some of those songs. And I’ve definitely come to like newer songs because they remind me of a past experience, but for me it was often the songs that came first, not the experience.

And it makes me wonder whether it was some weird sort of predisposition of mine that made me gravitate towards those types of songs and then those types of life experiences. Or whether those songs created some kind of emotional groove in my mind that then led me to seek out those experiences in my life. Like if all I’d ever been exposed to were happy songs about getting married and living happily ever after for fifty years if that’s what I would’ve been drawn towards instead of hitting the road and moving on.

I don’t know. It’s an interesting thought.

And I think this does tie back to writing in some sense, too.

I’ve been reading a lot of new-to-me authors recently and some fit comfortably because the main characters react in a way that makes sense for me whereas others make me almost itchy to read because I keep thinking, “No. Why would you do that? That’s stupid.”

Or wrong. (I’m still angry years later about the character who could see the future and saw their friend being destroyed by drug use who then started using drugs with the friend. Like, what? What are you thinking? You can see this person will destroy their life this way and you…help them do it? Huh?)

I know going forward that I’ll end up reading more from the authors whose characters’ values and decisions fit with what makes sense to me and less of those who don’t which then ends up reinforcing the whole circle of values and beliefs and perspective that I already had.

This is also why I don’t think every author is for every reader and that to succeed with fiction you ultimately have to find “your” readers who are those who align enough with what you write that they stay with and return to your stories. The key is finding those readers, of course.

And now I’m going to stop writing this because while I’ve been writing it Smoke Rings in the Dark by Gary Allan, A Couple More Years by Dr. Hook, I Don’t Need You by Kenny Rogers, and now Not Gon’ Cry by Mary J. Blige have played and I think maybe I need therapy based on my song choices. Seriously.

 

Possibilities vs. Probabilities

As you might have noticed, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about writing success and what counts and what doesn’t and what’s realistic and what isn’t. That’s what happens when I reach a big milestone. I’m kind of go, go, go and then I hit it and I stop and assess.

So Thursday I went to the monthly writers’ group dinner that I attend and I shared my little happy milestone about grossing six figures and one of the guys said that’s a really rare level to reach, like that was sort of an anomaly and be all, end all. Nowhere to go from there.

My response was that, sure it was hard to hit, but I compare myself to the people netting six figures a year and so all I think of is how far I still have to go.

That’s guy’s response was that it basically wasn’t possible to net six figures a year at this because only about 1 in 10,000 people manage to do it.

My response to that was, well, why can’t I be that one in 10,000?

(I’m pretty sure everyone at the table was like, who would think that highly of themselves that they’d even image they could be that person?)

But, see, that’s the thing.

Just because something isn’t probable doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

Yeah, so most people fail at this. Seen and understood. Witnessed. How many people have I known over the years who wanted to write a novel and never wrote the first draft? How many wrote the first draft and never wanted to edit it? How many tried to get a trade publisher, didn’t manage it, and then quit? How many self-published and then quit when they didn’t have instant success? How many are still publishing and not seeing success?

It is unlikely to see a lot of money from publishing books. I will agree with that 100%. It is not probable that any given author who sets out to make a lot of money writing will ever reach that goal.

But it is absolutely, 100% possible to do so.

Can anyone do it? No. I don’t think so. I think some people are just not in a position mentally or life-wise to make that happen. I think some people are just never going to click with enough of an audience to make it happen.

But it’s possible.

I realized then that that guy reminded me of my grandma. In the sense that my grandma, every single time I talk to her and every single time she sends me a card (and she sends lots of cards, bless her), tells me to “be safe”.

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve been getting that message from her for over forty years now. Be safe. Be safe. Be safe.

Why not say, “Get out there and take some risks.” “Be adventurous.” “See if you can fail today.” “Do something you’ve never done before.”

But no, it’s always “be safe”.

Because she, like the guy who said these things to me, lives in the world of probability.

It’s a comforting world. If you don’t exceed what’s likely to happen then it’s easy to say, “well, this is how it is for everyone, right? I didn’t make it because most people don’t make it.”

But the possibility mindset is very different. It says, “If one person could do it, why can’t I? What makes them so special that they can succeed where I can’t?”

The possibility mindset pushes through. It keeps driving for the goal when the probability mindset is ready to sit back and admit defeat.

Which one is smarter? Probably the probability one. It’s why I hope my friends with good jobs who’ve worked steadily at them for 20+ years have a guest room with a nice couch when I finally crash and burn. But it’s the possibility mindset that has the potential to achieve what no one thought was possible.

Two interesting ways to frame a problem if nothing else.