A Few Good Posts on Critical Voice

I bookmarked this post yesterday to share at some point: Confessions of a Hate Reader…by Jeannette Ng and then realized today that Dean Wesley Smith has been talking about critical voice the last couple of days as well. Here and here. Also, this has been a bit of an ongoing discussion I’ve been having with a bunch of writer friends.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most successful rule-breaking books are ones that were an author’s first book. Because often that book is written before a writer attends a bunch of writing conferences or joins writing forums or joins writer Twitter and is told what isn’t allowed or what’s pass√©. (Sparkling vampires? What are you thinking? English boarding school books? Been done before.)

It’s also before they’re actually published and have to contend with negative reviews of their work, some that are quite strongly-worded.

I wrote my first draft of my first novel in six weeks with no one else’s opinion involved. I’d been reading fantasy and other genres for thirty years so I knew basic story structure and I just did it. It wasn’t good. I had to revise it to make it work, but I did it because no one told me I couldn’t. And it went so fast because there were no road blocks in my mind about what I should or shouldn’t write.

I gave a character blue eyes, because I like blue eyes. I didn’t think if that was something that’s overdone. Or if it made me racist. I just wanted that character to have blue eyes.

But as I became more steeped in writing circles I found more and more criticism and objection to so many things. (Like characters with blue eyes.)

It wasn’t directed straight at me. It was directed at other books. But I heard it. I saw it.

They weren’t judging me directly, but they didn’t have to. I applied those judgments for them to my own words.

And eventually it stopped me from writing my next fantasy novel when I was about six books in. (Medieval settings are so boring…Who wants a love triangle…Am I just writing the same story again…Are my sentences and paragraphs too short…)

I pivoted to non-fiction for over a year.

And then I switched to writing cozies. A completely different genre.

I’d had a story idea for ages that I wanted to write, but honestly I think part of the reason I decided to write that series is because I hit my breaking point with all the criticism.

I figured if people were going to hate me for what I wrote I might as well be writing a version of myself onto the page so there’d be no ambiguity about who they hated. Hate that character, you’re going to hate me, too. We’re not identical, but we’re close enough for that to be the case.

I’ve always been okay with the fact that not everyone will like me and that for some of those people nothing I do will change that fact. I learned that lesson in middle school.

But I had to relearn it with my writing: Not everyone is my reader.

It’s not possible for everyone to be my reader. The world is too diverse for that. What someone loves about my writing, someone else will hate. That is a given. And the key I think to surviving as a writer is to either be like DWS and not care at all what anyone thinks or to focus on your readers and give them more of what they want and ignore the people who don’t want it.

(Which is hard to do. I don’t want my writing to cause harm to others. But if I want to keep writing at all, I have to at some point put those other voices aside and write my stories, flawed as they may be.)

Anyway. Something to think about. I’m off to finish the next non-fiction book. Haha.

Almost 2020 – Ten Lessons I Learned

I keep trying to write a post about how it’s almost 2020 and a decade has passed since I left my last full-time job but those posts keep getting way too deep for what I wanted to put up here.

So let’s try this again, with just a focus on the writing and some numbers. That should be safe enough.

A decade ago I hadn’t even written my first novel. But in 2011 I finally did. And then in 2013 I wrote a non-fiction book I knew I’d never query traditionally, so I self-published. There were some interruptions in there, like a seven-month consulting project when I didn’t write at all, but six years after that first self-published title…

I currently have two romance novels, four cozy mysteries, and a YA fantasy trilogy published as well as a series of billionaire romance short stories that continue to sell despite my efforts to ignore them. That’s on the fiction side.

On the non-fiction side I have way too many books about Microsoft Excel as well as books about Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. I also have a book on budgeting, a cookbook, a series of books on dating, another on puppy parenting, and a handful of books on self-publishing and/or writing. There’s also a book on data principles that probably needs to be renamed but won’t be.

I had also published but have mostly unpublished at this point a large number of short stories and a book on grief.

Maybe not surprisingly given my background, my most profitable titles have been on the non-fiction side. Six of my top ten most profitable titles are non-fiction. But there are two fantasy novels and a romance novel and those damned billionaires rounding out the top ten.

I didn’t do any of this right. I spent far too much time writing short stories when I should’ve just gone for novels. I had way too many pen names to be sustainable. I didn’t try advertising to any real extent until I was four years into this journey and when advertising would have been far more effective if I’d tried it in year two or three. I didn’t focus in one genre let alone one niche in one genre. I didn’t follow-up on my successes the way I should’ve. I changed direction too often.

But after all that mess I’ve found some small success the last couple of years. I just hit 45,000 units sold as of November and $50,000 in profit. (Which if you do the math is not a full-time living even when concentrated in the last couple of years, but we won’t go there. I should clarify that that’s not enough for me. Some people would be happy to earn $25K a year. I’m not one of them.)

But it taught me a few interesting lessons along the way.

One, you don’t have to write in the biggest market to make money. My romance sells, but it costs a lot more to sell than other titles because of the level of competition which means either rapid release or low profit margins.

Two, writing to a hot market or hot genre will get you more organic sales. I don’t advertise those billionaire stories, but the collection still hit my top twenty-five most-profitable titles this year, and when the first one released (in 2014) it really did sell itself.

Three, I believe in advertising. Others may not have to (although why you’d see initial success without advertising and not find a way to exponentially increase that success by advertising is beyond me), but for me advertising is essential. It gets my books in front of their potential audience.

Four, I personally can’t write what doesn’t interest me. I wrote that first billionaire story as a lark. Wrote and published it in a day. But it was like pulling teeth to get myself to write the next one. And when I did write the rest of that series, I didn’t follow the tropes. My girl from the wrong side of the tracks went and started her own business so that when she finally got together with her billionaire they were on an equal-ish footing.

(I’ve recently come to believe this might have something to do with archetypes. I think the billionaire romance scenario often, but not always, is exploring the orphan archetype and I think I’m more in line with the warrior archetype or the seeker or sage archetypes. So adventure fantasy? Yes, please.)

Five, while being laser-focused helps–I’ve certainly seen more authors find success by writing in a series or in a specific niche–it’s also worth trying something else. I wrote the first Excel books because I was annoyed that authors didn’t know how to use pivot tables and I was tired of hearing people say they couldn’t figure out how many books they’d sold on Amazon. I expected the generic books about Excel to sell less than the one for self-publishers. But that series has been ten times as profitable for me as any other series even though it turns out not many authors bought the book that was written for them.

I’ve also seen a number of authors level up by switching to a new genre. I can count at least three that I know of that did it this year.

Six, when you write in a smaller niche competition can destroy your profits. I was so happy to see the success I had with the Excel titles that I blogged about it. Within a year at least three other “authors” had entered that same small space. They didn’t find the success I had initially. They just took some of a very small pie for themselves and drove up advertising costs so that every single sale was less profitable than before.

Seven, whatever you write you have to satisfy that readership. And what each readership wants is different. For non-fiction my books satisfy readers when they meet them at their current knowledge level and move them forward. Those who don’t know enough yet will be dissatisfied because the book starts too far ahead for them. Those who already know most of what I’m sharing will also be dissatisfied. With fiction it depends on what genre you’re writing. Cozy mystery readers are more concerned about getting the facts right than contemporary romance readers, for example.

Eight, you have to focus on your readers. It’s easy to see a negative review and think you should change the book to satisfy that reader. But often doing so loses you the readers you already have. Obviously, if a book only has negative reviews and they all say the same thing, there’s probably a craft issue there that needs to be addressed. But if ten readers say they loved the X in the book and one says they hated it, don’t change that. Not every book is for every reader.

And keep in mind that there is a very vocal minority in some genres that make it seem like everyone cares about X. They don’t. The average reader is just out there buying the books they like and keeping their opinion to themselves or sharing it with people they know in real life.

Nine, attitude matters. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. And I triple-majored at Stanford while working full-time. And got an MBA from Wharton while working more than full-time. Not to mention growing up with a terminally-ill parent. It’s not like I haven’t faced challenges before. But writing almost seems designed to erode your self-confidence. You have people very publicly commenting on everything you do.¬† (If you’re lucky enough to do it well enough for someone to care at all.)

As an author you’re struggling for one of a very limited number of spots at the table. Most writers do not sell. Actually, most writers do not even finish their first novel. Those who do and get it published in one way or another, generally don’t sell all that well once they do. And even for those who do sell and do sell well, you’re never certain it’ll last. And even for those who get to the point where it will last or where they’ve done so well the mortgage is covered for life, well that just opens you up to a whole new level of criticism where people say you can’t write or are biased or complain about what you chose to write about or didn’t choose to write about.

Some days the only thing that is going to save you and keep you moving forward is your attitude. So make sure that you surround yourself with those who believe this is possible. Not probable, you don’t need Pollyannas around you, but possible. If you are struggling and those around you all say, “Well, it’s not like you could honestly expect to make a living at this,” that’s the wrong group of people to listen to. You want the ones who say, “Well, you knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but people do it every day. So what can you change?” Or maybe, “You’re closer than you think, just keep going.”

Ten, because I already have nine, so why not make it ten. This is a marathon. You have to find a sustainable pace for yourself. What you can handle day in and day out. There’s nothing wrong with sprinting to get started, because backlist is powerful and so building up ten novels fast is going to really help you, but at some point if you’re operating in the red you are in trouble. Don’t sacrifice your marriage or your relationship with your kids or your friendships or your sanity for your writing. And do not jeopardize your health for it.

Yes, for some writing is a passion they can’t imagine not having in their lives. But really, it’s not enough in and of itself. You need more. Make it a priority, but don’t make it everything.


So there you have it. Onward to 2020 and the decade it brings with it. I expect change of some sort or other. Then again, I always expect change. It’s the one constant in life.

 

 

 

 

Know Your Audience

I was just on Facebook and saw an author mentioning that they’re writing six short stories to serve as an introduction to their main series of novels.

My immediate thought was, that might be a waste of time.

I as a reader am a novel reader. I don’t seek out short stories or novellas. I did recently find myself reading novellas by two authors I like (Kristen Britain and Ilona Andrews) because that’s what they’d released recently and I am constantly starved for more material from what I consider top-tier authors.

They were fine, but if that’s all they ever published again, I’d stop reading them because they wouldn’t be meeting my needs as a reader.

And for a new author? Someone I’ve never read before? I’m not going to buy that 99 cent short story or novella. I won’t even look at it because I’m not a short story or novella reader. Give me a free or 99 cent novel of yours and I might check it out. (Might. I’m weird so rarely buy books on those kinds of sales and still read mostly in print.)

And, yes, there are readers who cross over between stories of all lengths, so writing a short story or novella lead-in to your world might be an effective strategy to bring in a certain percentage of readers. And if you have an opportunity to be in a box set or themed anthology it might make some sense to participate to expand your exposure to new readers.

But, honestly, I would say that if you’re going to commit yourself to writing 50,000 to 100,000 words in a world that you stick to the same general story length and type you’ve already written so that you can pull the readers you attract to one of your titles through your entire series.

As always, YMMV, but something to think about. At the end of the day it all depends on your audience and knowing what they will/will not buy from you.

Make The Voices Stop!

I’m 15,000 words into the first novel of a new series and I’ve hit that point in the writing process where the story is starting to take shape, which also means that point in the process where all of the outside voices start clamoring for attention.

Like the one that says that standard Medieval European fantasy settings are so knee-jerk easy to use and cliched and why would you use that when you have your entire imagination to work with.

Or the one that says you can’t possibly sell that series as a fantasy romance if both of the love interests are going to die in the end, even if the main character does in fact love both of them and struggle around finding happiness with them.

Or the one that says if you’re going to use that legend as the jumping off point for this series then you need to be true to x, y, and z portions of that legend or the readers will hate you forever.

There are other voices, too. Those three are just the loudest today. With each novel I find I have to go through this at some point. I usually take a few days, consider what those voices have to say, and maybe adjust course slightly (like having this series be inspired by that legend but not using those actual names or places). But at the end of the day I have to write the story that works for me. Because if I keep listening to all the voices I’ll never get the words down on the page and certainly never publish them once they’re there.