Writing and Flow

(Quick note I discussed briefly before: I’m currently not approving first-time posters to this blog. Sorry if you’re new here and wanted to say something.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has been publishing a great series of blog posts recently called How Writers Fail. I almost linked to last week’s post, so check that one out, too, but today I wanted to link to Part 6 of that series, Words.

Go read it. It’s excellent. And written by someone with the experience and sales numbers to be able to stand behind what they’re saying.

I don’t personally talk about this often because even after as many books as I’ve written I feel like some sort of impostor who is just playing at being a novelist.

(I say this as someone who currently has fourteen novel-length works in print under three pen names and has two other novel-length works I chose to unpublish.)

After all this time and all those novels I “only” have 13,814 paid novel sales and 1.8 million page reads on Amazon. (I’m usually wide with my books so there are more sales than that if you bring in the other platforms, but it’s still not a huge number and the bulk of it is Amazon.)

My “low” numbers make me feel like I somehow can’t talk about my process because it’s “bad” and may be the reason I’m not selling more.

(For non-fiction in contrast I have 47,610 paid sales on Amazon so I feel like I have more of a leg to stand on there but my actual process is basically the same.)

In reality those numbers of novels written and of sales are much higher than many people ever reach. So I wanted to share KKR’s post and then throw my own experience out on top of that because at least I have found a way to write books and to sell some of them to people who usually give them decent reviews.

So.

Last month I wrapped up a nine-book cozy mystery series. (Book 1 is here and free.) It’s written in first-person which really helped me get over a particular block I had as a writer.

Which is that critical voice/editor/reviewer voice that sits in the back of many writers’ minds that says, “is that the right word”, “should you say it that way”, “is that the grammatically correct way to say that”, etc.

Writing it in first-person in a contemporary setting I was intimately familiar with and with a protagonist who is very much like me let me look at that critical voice and say, “Yep, that is the right way to say it, because that’s the way I would say it. That’s the way I did say it when I wrote it, thank you very much.”

For example, I learned in school and Word is happy to remind me that you don’t say that something is “more X”, you often say that it is “X-er”. So he’s not more funny, he’s funnier. Here’s a breakdown of that rule. Don’t ask me how correct it is, because I don’t always follow it.

But when I’m talking or writing, I will say that he was more funny than I’d expected. Even if that’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

So there are rules. Many, many, rules. And then there’s “voice” and “character” or whatever you want to call it. There’s the reality of how a person actually communicates.

Having lived and traveled in multiple English-speaking states and countries I can assure you that actual spoken English varies widely. Not just in pronunciation but in sentence structure and word choice. And most of the “rules” that writers are theoretically supposed to follow are based on one very specific way of using English that does not correspond to how most people communicate in English.

Another example of the rules and how they can handicap a story is the insistence on using the appropriate word or phrase. KKR’s post has a good example about a fancy desk, but I also ran into this with the cozies.

I have always referred to the trees in the mountains of Colorado as evergreens. (And aspens, but we’re talking about the year-round green ones here.)

I would have told you until a year ago that was what they were really called. But they’re not. I walked through an arboretum and learned that they are technically a combination of things like spruce trees and pine trees.

But I’m not a tree expert, nor is my main character in that cozy series. So using the precise, technical words, even once I knew what they were, would have been bad characterization.

My character, who had not walked through that arboretum, would still call those trees evergreens.

(I still remember the fantasy novel where someone was on a boat for the first time ever and they used all the technical boat terms to describe things. Threw me right out of the story because that character would not know those terms.)

Those are just two little examples of where the “right” way to do things is actually not right for that particular story and character.

Now, that’s first person and a character who is like me, so it was very easy to dismiss those rules.

But if you write enough books you theoretically have to move away from writing characters just like yourself who live in a world just like yours. So what then?

Well…

Here’s where I came out on it.

My books are going to be flawed. They are going to get some things wrong. They will not appeal to all readers. Some may see me as Eurocentric. Some may see me as ableist or some other -ist. Some readers may have very specific technical knowledge that leads them to hate my book because my character wore a fabric that would not have been worn in that type of society with that level of technological innovation. (That’s one I actually heard a prominent editor scoff about at a conference once.)

Those people are not my readers. I will get criticized by those readers for my flaws, but they are not the people I am writing for. I am writing for the people who are so caught up in the story they just want to come along for the ride. And, yes, that means my readers are the ones that are blind to the history of fabric in the Middle Ages and to the current list of terms deemed inappropriate because they’re ableist and who probably never use whom.

And that’s okay.

Not all stories are for all readers. As a writer my job is to write the stories that only I can write and then as a publisher my job is to find the readers who will like them.

This is why I don’t have first readers. Or editors. I may have shared the first cozy with a few readers before I published it. But the later ones? No one saw those books except for me until they were published.

Because my books are me, flaws and all. I can create that over and over again. Whereas if my book is a collaborative effort formed with the help of first readers, editors, and who knows who else that’s a product that changes as my team changes.

Early on, with the first three novels or so, I did have first readers and I did go to critique groups with pages, because I needed to learn how my words landed with readers. And I did learn from that experience.

But after that? After I knew that most of the critiques I was receiving were “I wouldn’t tell this story” or “I wouldn’t tell this story this way” it was time to stop that.

I figured readers were either along for the ride I was offering them or they weren’t. All using first readers or editors was going to do at that point was bring multiple voices into that story.

There’s also another issue that can happen if the first reader/editor process isn’t done well. And that’s an uneven end product.

I can’t remember if I told this story before, but I’m going to tell it again if I have.

In high school I took a pottery class. One of our assignments was to create a chess set. I was going to have one that was jungle-cat-themed. So the lion was going to be the king and the tiger was going to be the rook, etc.

I made one of the pawns first. It was a dorky little cat-like piece. It had pointed ears and a noticeable face and a tail, but the rest of the piece was just a blob of clay. I could’ve made that little guy another dozen times, no problem.

My teacher came by and as she was trying to instruct me on how to better make an animal shape, she whipped up a gorgeous tiger. It was amazing. Beautiful.

It was also about three times the size of my pawn. And putting those two pieces side-by-side you could tell that they were not done by the same artist.

Size-wise the tiger also didn’t belong in the same chess set. If the tiger was that big, how big would the lion have to be? I would’ve ended up with a chess board that was two feet on a side just to accommodate that tiger.

But the tiger was so gorgeous I didn’t want to get rid of it.

Problem is, chess sets are mirrored sets of pieces. There was no way, even having watched her do it, that I could create a duplicate of that tiger.

So even though the tiger was much, much better than my other pieces, I couldn’t use it.

When I think sometimes of having someone who is really good at writing try to edit something I write, I immediately think of those two chess pieces and how they didn’t go together. How it was better to just use the less-perfect pieces I created rather than to try to merge in that beautiful tiger.

Now, I will say that not all editing experiences are like that and I was actually quite pleased with the edits of my short story I had in a collection last year. I did have to let go of a few personal preferences for how to punctuate my writing, but I figured that was part of sanding the edges off to get a unified product and that at that point my story was part of a bigger piece.

And there was definite benefit to being edited. I had confused mantel and mantle in that story, for example. But a simple light copy edit (assuming you find a good copy editor, which in self-pub spaces can be tricky) can easily handle that sort of thing. And that sort of edit should be for technical mistakes like mantle vs. mantel or eye color mix-ups, not rewrites.

Anyway. To wrap this up.

The way for me to be able to keep writing is to accept that I can only write what I can write and to hope that somewhere out there someone is looking for that type of story and will enjoy it. And to accept that some people won’t enjoy it and to remind myself that they are not my reader. And if at the end of the day no one likes what I wrote, well at least I know it was true to me and I didn’t compromise and bend and twist myself out of shape to then still have people not like it.

Wrapping Up A Series

Yesterday I did the final editing pass on the last book in my cozy mystery series. It was book 9 in the series. And while there were individual mysteries to solve in each book, six with murders, three without, there were also overarching personal stories as well.

Which meant that I wasn’t just wrapping up the mystery in that particular book, I also had to give a satisfying ending to the entire series. (I’m pretty sure I also did this with book six which was supposed to be the original end to the series.)

And while it’s true that writing in series can be better than writing standalone novels in terms of reader retention, promotion, and sales, it’s also much harder to do well.

(If you have nine books in a series that all follow the same cast of characters, are in the same setting, and have the same general feel to them putting book 1 to free will get you much better results than putting one of nine unrelated novels with different characters and themes and settings to free.)

This novel required an extra editing pass for me because of that need to nail the landing not just for the current book but for the whole series.

And I should note here that there are certain types of series where the main character never really changes and so there is no evolution of the character that needs to be addressed in the final book.

It’s just Adventurer A has adventures and they have adventures for as many books as the author wants to write. It’s been forty years since I read them, but I’m pretty sure the Oz books were that way after the first one. Kid goes back to Oz, meets cool people, maybe runs into some old friends, and then goes back home.

I, unfortunately, am incapable of writing that sort of series. I’m a very character-driven writer which means my characters react and grow with every personal interaction they have. They aren’t the same person at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. They’re always learning. And, in my case, bringing new people into their w0rld.

And in a series where the character is learning and growing and evolving you have to leave them at a good spot that’s satisfying to the reader at the end of the series.

So each mystery can end with the mystery solved. That’s easy enough. That’s the novel-level denouement. For adventure fantasy you end that leg of the adventure. For romance you give that couple their HEA or HFN.

I should also note here that there are some fantasy series, like GRRM’s, that aren’t meant to be that way. He views his series as one big gigantic story that happens to sprawl across a number of books. The type of series I’m thinking of here for fantasy is more like David Eddings’ Belgariad where each stage of the adventure is covered in one book. (Been a while since I read those, too, but that’s how I seem to remember they worked.)

So.

I’m talking here about series where each book has a predictable way to end it (mystery solved, special object found, couple gets their HEA) but where there’s more to the overall story.

And with a series like that, you have to answer in that last book, “Why did we go on this journey and why does it end here?”

Nora Roberts has fantasy romance trilogies that do this well. Each book ends with one part of the quest finished and one couple getting their HEA, but the whole series ends when the ultimate goal is reached.

I also think you have to give some impression to the reader of where those characters go from that moment and that where they’re headed has to be satisfying for the type of story told.

I personally don’t believe in the “ten years later” sort of ending that one very popular series used. (I saw it in the movies before I read it and was thinking, “Why did they add this crap at the end?”, only to find out later it was in the books.)

So for me personally it has to be an ending that wraps up the big arc of the series, maybe even brings things together in a new way that I couldn’t see until that ending, is satisfying in that moment, and hints at a future for those characters that leaves me satisfied.

Which is a lot.

And you have to weave it around the ending of that particular book. Because there’s also a thing with readers (at least me as a reader) where they only want to stay with you for so long after the big conflict is finished.

As a reader I reach a moment where I’m like, “Hey, we defeated the big baddie like five chapters ago, why are we still here?”

(Which just reminded me why I didn’t like the ending of a very famous fantasy series that I won’t mention because it’s fans will tell me it’s the best series ever written and how dare I criticize it. But that thing dragged at the end.)

Now, you might be wondering why does getting a solid ending to the series matter so much? Readers have bought the books and stuck through to the end, why is how it ends such a big deal?

First, there’s the peak-end rule where people judge the overall experience by the peak moment and the end. So your series will ultimately be judged based on the best or worst moment in the series and by how it felt at the end. End poorly and it won’t matter how well you wrote the rest of the series, readers will be unhappy.

Second, if you want future sales of other books you write, those sales are going to be driven by the experience a reader had with the last book they read by you.

And moving between series is the most likely time to lose a reader. A reader may stick with a so-so series just to see how it ends. But then they’re done.

If you’re offering a reader a new series with new characters and setting and premise, they have to have been satisfied enough with the experience of reading the first series to follow you to the new one.

(You’ll notice that a lot of long-term best-selling authors stick to at least the same world or general type of story. It makes that leap to a new series with new characters easier because at least readers know they already liked the world and the type of story. I’m not going to say that all of them do so deliberately, but I will say that it’s a successful strategy if you can do it deliberately.)

The fact that the end of a series is when you’re most likely to lose readers is why getting that series ending right matters so much.

So how do you make sure it lands well?

I’m not going to claim to be the expert on that. What I did is I wrote my last book in the series, cleaned it up so that it was mostly there as a standalone story, and then I went back and re-read the entire series before continuing on through my final draft of the final book. That let me tease out a final story arc that I hadn’t been quite aware of until that moment.

(Essentially the overall arc to that series is that my MC starts out all alone but is joining a community. Over the first six books she finds personal happiness. Over the next three she finds that she’s built a community and shifts her mindset from being self-focused to group-focused. But I had to see the whole journey in one piece to parse that last little bit out.)

Whether it worked for my series, time will tell. But it is something to keep in mind for anyone coming up on the end of a series.

It’s Kinda Funny…

That the better I do at this writing thing the more inclined I am to quit altogether.

Sometime in March I passed a big milestone revenue-wise and probably hit one profit-wise and also came within spitting distance of a new monthly milestone, too.

And for the last few years I’ve earned enough from writing that it would pay a reasonable person’s bills if they lived in a reasonable area and weren’t too extravagant and hadn’t been stuck paying for their own MBA because their former employer pulled a bait and switch on them. (Thanks, George.)

In short, I’m doing better than most and making progress year-on-year.

Not near as well as some, that’s for sure. I think I’ve mentioned before that I know of some authors who are seven-figure-a-year authors and I personally know more than one that makes mid-ten-figures a month and I’m definitely not close to that.

But I’ve been steadily doing better each year. Enough to have some glimmer of hope. Some years are years that “pop” and suddenly I see an 8-fold increase from one year to the next. Others are more steady-risers that increase about 10% or so. But things have trended upward year-on-year as I add more product and figure out what I do that people want to pay for. And I’m doing it at a sustainable pace, too, so it’s not like I’m thinking to myself, “Oh my god, if I don’t work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, this all goes away tomorrow” like some I know.

And yet…

The better I do with my writing, the less optimistic I am about my potential to get to where I ultimately want to go.

I think that’s because when you first start out you think to yourself, “Wow, there are people who make seven figures a year at this. I could be one of those people. All I have to do is try and work hard at it.”

But then you try. And maybe you do work hard at it. But…you don’t make seven figures. Or six. Or five. or four. Or three.

Or you’re like me and you find that you just don’t want to work as hard at it as those other people did. One of the seven-figure authors I know of says she sits down and writes/edits for eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, every week of the year.

Me? I average 10 hours a week. I’m putting in a fourth of the time that woman is. Which is why she publishes 24 novels a year and I published three last year.

Or maybe you do work hard at it. Maybe you do put in those sixteen hour days. But then you put your book out there and…crickets. Or, worse, bad reviews. Or, you get, “Eh, okay, that was sort of good.” Your family and friends pat you on the back and say they enjoyed it. But they never ask for more. Neither do any of the strangers who bought it.

So you find that you’re not one of the crack-cocaine writers. You’re not addictive. People don’t crave what you write. They like it alright, maybe. But they don’t LOVE it. They don’t demand that everyone else read it. They don’t make absurd, unrealistic requests that you get the next book out NOW.

They just, you know, maybe will pick up the next one if it’s there and they can’t find something else they love more.

Those characters and those ideas that were so interesting and fascinating to you aren’t interesting and fascinating to anyone else. Or maybe they would be if your writing were better. You think maybe they would be. But that means that you’re writing isn’t that good right now? And who wants to think that? Especially if you’re a “that one story I’ve wanted to tell forever” writer.

Or maybe you do find fans. And you do work hard enough so you’re putting out enough books that it should work, but then you find out that there’s more to all of this than just writing books. There are so many other people who have written books, too, that you’re lost in the clutter. No one is finding your little adventure novel. No one is taking a taste and getting addicted.

You find out that it isn’t all about writing. You have to learn marketing. And cover design. And how to write ad copy.

Or maybe you have to pay for those things because you’re just not very good at those things. You can write a novel, but not a two-sentence zinger that gets someone to one-click.

And suddenly this thing that was going to make you a good living is costing you money instead. And you get bitter because wasn’t that cover beautiful enough? It if was, why didn’t anyone buy the book? Or why can’t you sell that book for more than 99 cents? Or $2.99? People spend more than that everyday on a cup of overpriced coffee that tastes bitter just to be cool and yet they won’t spend $2.99 on this novel that took you months to write?

And why does THAT book in your genre sell well when it’s so…not yours.

You start out all shiny and new and hopeful and optimistic that you’ll make it to the top. But then…life. And reality. Not everyone makes it to the top. Some barely get started. Some get stuck halfway. Some go up and then come crashing back down.

And the real kicker of it all is that it’s hard to know if you’ve reached the limit of your potential or if this is just a setback.

Is this moment, “Hey, you tried and you gave it your all, but this is as good as it gets.” Or is this the lull before you make that next leap up.

Maybe all you’ll ever be is that so-so writer that people don’t mind but don’t love. Or maybe you’ll turn the dial just a bit, try that next genre or that next idea or that next style of writing or reach that next reader who loves you so much they tell the world to read you, and it’ll all finally fall into place.

The further along you get the more it can start to feel like maybe there’s nothing left to turn.

Sure, you could write more, except…you know you’re not going to write more. You haven’t written more in five years.

Or you could write with more action and less emotion, except…that’s not the writer you are. If you want to do something that isn’t you there’s a nice comfy corporate job that comes with health insurance that’s a lot easier to do and doesn’t result in strangers on the internet making conjectures about your childhood.

You could write shorter. Or write longer. Switch genres. Learn how to be likeable online. Except…That’s not you. You know that maybe that’s how others succeeded, but…you aren’t them.

So then what do you do?

Do you try one more time? Or do you call it? Turn the dial or walk away? Because, really, life doesn’t have to be this hard. Does it?

Some More Writerly Thoughts

As I mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot this year, which has involved buying books I wouldn’t normally buy but I’m so desperate for good reading material I’ve been branching out even more than normal. And that means that I’m bumping up against more books that are outside my comfort zone, which has prompted some writerly thoughts.

So here goes.

Issue One:

I’ve decided that there has to be a certain amount of common viewpoint or perspective between reader and writer to achieve the type of full immersion that pulls the reader quickly through a book.

As an example, this week I read a book where someone was being poisoned and they were trying to figure out who it could be. At the same time a neighboring ruler was massing troops on the border as part of military exercises. Now, me, I’m thinking that person who wants to invade your country is the first person to suspect.

But instead the character in this book kept dismissing the ruler of the other country in favor of suspecting their bodyguards and anyone else other than the leader of the other country because the leader of the other country wrote them a nice letter that said of course they weren’t poisoning them or trying to invade their country.

And it kept happening. At least three times in this book others would say, “Don’t you think it’s that leader of that other country?” and the person would be like, “No, of course not. I knew them once.” (And they were driven and manipulative even then, by the way.)

This annoyed me as a reader so much that not only did the book get banished to my “I’ll never read this book again, so you’re welcome to it” room, it took book one of the series with it.

I have no doubt that other readers would’ve skimmed right by that issue. Not a problem to them. Either because you don’t doubt their friends so would’ve never suspected that other ruler or because they really just don’t have an issue with characters doing something like that. But for me, it was a deal-breaker.

That’s where I think alignment between reader and writer comes into play. It didn’t work for me and what I need in a book.

In other books I’ve been turned off by priorities a character had in a given situation that didn’t match what my priorities would’ve been. Or things they did that were incidental to the story that just didn’t sit right with me.

But if someone says they had linen in that particular culture when it wouldn’t at all have been possible, that’s going to slide right by me.

So alignment. There’s really nothing as authors that we can do about this, but I think it’s important to keep in mind. Because sometimes a bad review is down to bad alignment and when that happens you need to be able to set aside that reader’s opinion and focus on the readers you do have alignment with.

Issue Two:

I often see newer writers ask if you can do X. Can you have a series where the viewpoint character changes in each book? Can you use really short chapters? Can you use really long chapters? Can you use a non-linear story technique? Can you use a prologue? Blah, blah, blah.

And when that happens there is almost inevitably someone who chimes in with “Author X did it” and the implication is that because Author X did it that anyone can do it.

And in one sense, that is true. My golden rule of writing is that if it works, it works.

There are brilliant books out there that have broken accepted rules. Les Miserables is the king of info dumps, but it’s lasted hundreds of years because it’s compelling. I wanted to read about the sewers of Paris if Victor Hugo wanted to tell me about them.

The problem is, just because someone else pulled it off successfully does not mean that the average writer can do so. And sometimes it doesn’t even mean that it was the best choice for that writer who seemingly pulled it off.

I’m reading a book right now that I think somewhere below the surface has really interesting world-building and a gripping story. But it’s told in two alternating timelines and uses footnotes, both of which detract tremendously from the story.

So if someone asked, “Can you use footnotes in a novel?” I am sure there would be someone who answered, “Oh yeah. Such and such did and that book was a Kirkus whatever whatever.”

But the honest answer should be, “You can. Such and such did and was a top release of their year, but honestly, the book would’ve been better without that and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try to do it. At least, not using that as an example of success.”

Even if this author had pulled it off–and I want to say that I’ve read a novel that did–the advice should probably be, “I’ve seen it done well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.”

It’s tricky, because you don’t want to discourage someone from being unique and original. But at the same time, just because Famous Author X did that in the tenth book they wrote, doesn’t mean Joe Average Author can do that in the first book they write.

Issue Three: This is just a personal one, but I need to start reading the preview for books before I order them. More than once this year I’ve started to read a book that appeared to be a pure fantasy book based on the blurb but the first chapter revealed it to be something else.

In one case it turned out the first chapter was like a computer report so I assume it was actually some mild version of litRPG. In another case the first chapter showed it to be set in the contemporary world when I’d been lead to believe it was alternate-world fantasy.

For me personally as a reader both of those put the book at a disadvantage up front because it was immediately jarring.

Now, granted, 2020 is just a year so I as a reader am probably being much more cranky than normal. But I do think there are lessons to be learned in my rants above for any author.

One, seek readers who align with what you write. Two, represent your book accurately to readers so that you can effectively find those readers. Three, make sure any writing trick you use actually enhances the story rather than detracts from it.

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.