We All Have Different Reasons

I recently wrapped up the third round of Advanced Strengths for Writers coaching with Becca Syme and it had me thinking a lot in the last few days about motivation and goals. (Next session is in late October for anyone interested: https://betterfasteracademy.com/strengths-for-writers/)

What I found interesting about the sessions I did this time around was that the “answer” for each person was vastly different.

I had one person I coached where we discussed their dissatisfaction in only hitting six figures a year self-publishing and how they didn’t see why they shouldn’t strive for more than that. Given their Strengths my answer for them was that there was no reason at all they shouldn’t strive for more, the only question was how to do so in a way that played to their Strengths instead of trying to emulate an author who I suspect is high Discipline.

With another person we ended up discussing whether any form of publication made sense. They have a day job they love that feeds their Strengths in a way that fiction writing probably never will, so full-time writing has the potential to actually be unsatisfying for them because they will lose something vital if they give that day job up.

I also had more than one discussion about which path made more sense: trade publishing or self-publishing and how each person’s Strengths played into that decision.

So often these days writing conversations are based on the idea that you must get published and you must earn as much money as possible from that publishing. (One I tend to personally follow, admittedly, as seen in my post on mindset.)

But I’ve come to realize that’s not what drives every writer.

Some writers just want to indulge their creative side. They want to imagine worlds and people that don’t exist and flesh them out until they could be real, but that’s all they want.

Some want to be part of a community of creators. They want to interact with people who are imagining these new worlds and to be part of that community they feel they too must create.

Some love to tell stories and even to share those stories but they have no desire whatsoever to commercialize their writing. They just want to do what they want to do in the way they want to do it.

Some do want to sell their stories. They want to master the business side of writing as much as the creative side. But maybe they don’t care about maximizing profits. They want sales, yes, but will choose to write something less desirable if it scratches an itch for them.

And some would love to spend the rest of their writing career in the #1 slot of every bookstore on the planet and won’t be satisfied until they make that happen.

Any of those options is fine.

We each have to find our own path.

I think a lot of the stress or dissatisfaction I see in the writing community comes from writers in one category trying to discuss how to do things with writers in those other categories.

The key is to figure out where you fall and then surround yourself with the people who support that view.

Ask yourself why you do this. What do you want from it? What do you need from it?

Once you have that answer, don’t let anyone knock you off your path. Your choice is just as valid as theirs is.

Finding a Way Forward

One of the most challenging things in this business is trying to figure out what to do next. And it’s something that happens to authors at all levels. There is no point in time where an author becomes immune to those questions.

Unless they’re number 1 in all the stores all the time. Maybe then it’s not an issue. But even then I think that author would wonder or doubt or question. “Do I keep writing what got me here? How long will I stay here if I do? What if I don’t enjoy it anymore? What if the readers don’t enjoy it anymore? What if I’m out of ideas?”

And when you’re not where you want to be, it becomes even trickier. You wonder, have I just not given it enough time? Or am I making a mistake here? Am I writing the wrong thing? Or do I need to improve my craft?

Back when I started publishing, the common advice for fiction writers was that it took three books for a series to take off. Some might take off before then but there were many, many authors saying that they suddenly saw a jump in sales at book three. So often authors were told to just keep writing until they had those three books out and then think about what to do next.

I’ve even seen the advice to not even try to advertise until those three books are out. (Advice I hate. If you’re going to do that, then hold all three books back and publish them close together.)

The last year or so that advice has shifted so that now people say that it takes four or five books in a series to take off.

But…

The problem is sometimes you’re not actually hitting reader expectations and so no amount of books are going to get you there.

If you’re headed in the wrong direction, continuing down that path just makes it worse. Especially when writing in a series because most times the next book will sell less copies than the one before. (Unless the whole series suddenly takes off a la JK Rowling.)

The problem with the “wait three books or four or five” advice is that authors don’t stop to question the presentation or quality of their books when they really should.

A while ago on one of the author forums I saw an author tell another author something along the lines of, “I’m so glad to see how successful you are because it lets me know that if I keep going with this, I’ll be successful, too.”

But I looked at that author’s reviews because I was going to make a marketing suggestion to them (apply for a Bookbub because they had gorgeous covers) and I realized that in their case their problem was quality. There were consistent remarks in the reviews indicating that this particular author needed to stop publishing what they were publishing and probably take some craft classes or pay for an in depth critique.

(I should note here that there’s a difference between negative reviews that say “OMG, I read this book in a day and it was awesome but someone please get this person an editor” which actually indicates someone’s doing something right and should keep going and will probably do even better if they get that editor as long as the editor doesn’t destroy their voice, and “I had to quit halfway through because I got so sick and tired of the pages and pages of characters telling each other what had already happened” comment which indicates a craft issue.)

(By the way, this is not someone I know other than seeing them post online, so no one who knows me think this is about them.¬† I actually try not to look at my friends’ books unless they tell me they’re doing really well for this reason. I even avoid the books of people who comment here regularly.)

I think it’s healthy to stop and think about what you’re seeing in your own books. Not what the general trend is, but what you’re seeing. What are your reviews? What are your sales? Are things trending up? Are they trending down? Do you get fan mail?

And I think, too, that sometimes even when you’re doing well it’s worth taking a risk and trying something new. I know more than one author who has moved away from their initial genre to much greater success in a new genre.

There’s value to picking a direction and going in it (if I had done so earlier today I’d be writing the next thing already instead of this blog post), but there’s also value to stopping and adjusting and reassessing, too…

 

Timing Issues

I’m on book four of a NYT-best selling YA fantasy series. I’ve devoured the series. Each book is about six hundred pages long and I’ve probably read the last three in less than a week. But an issue I noticed during book one is making it really hard to finish book four, so I thought I’d write about it here for any authors looking for non-obvious ways to improve their writing.

This author is great at characterization. Look at the 25,000+ reviews that each book has and you’ll see that readers love how fleshed out the characters are and how real they are.

But the author has issues with timing.

In book one there were some obvious ones. For example, in one chapter we’re told it’s been two weeks since an event happened and two chapters later we’re told it’s only been two days. This happened twice that I can remember. They were little hiccups that were somewhat annoying but not enough to keep me from immediately ordering the rest of the books in the series.

Now I’m up to book four and the finale is upon us. There’s someone trapped in a dungeon, another character under siege in a castle, others have fled the invading army, etc. And now all of a sudden all of those timing issues are getting painful. Someone takes¬† a day to follow a trail one direction and an hour to go back down the same trail. Earlier in the book weeks passed, possibly months, for something that should have been incredibly urgent. And a council whose first meeting was supposed to be in a week or two somehow didn’t meet for perhaps months.

All the timeframes are muddied and conflict with each other. Character A goes off to do something and it takes five days. Character B does their thing and it takes two weeks. Then they intersect as if they both took the same amount of time.

I’ve already complained elsewhere about a series where two main characters became so out of synch in how their storylines were presented that they were months apart in alternating chapters. To the point that a minor character was in back to back chapters in completely different parts of the world.

This is worse than that because it’s clear the author didn’t have a good handle on how long anything in the book took to happen. And because they didn’t have that firmly established for themselves, the timing of events slips and slides around in the story that made it onto the page, too.

It’s worse with this book because of the multiple points of view. But this can still be a problem even with single POV novels.

You send someone off to do X, does it make sense that they would take as long as they did to do it?

Or, for example, with my cozies I have to account for the fact that the character actually has a job to show up for six days a week. She can’t just be off solving a crime for three days straight without there being a consequence for that. Right? Or take off for hours every day to investigate clues. At least not during work hours.

So watch for this one. With my multiple POV novel I actually had an Excel spreadsheet with a timeline for all of my main characters and where they were and when to make sure it matched up. But it can be as simple as reading through the novel once with an eye to timing if the focus of the novel is tight enough.

Anyway. Something to think about when you’re not worrying about plot, pacing, characterization, tense, point of view, or genre expectations.

 

 

Let’s Talk Luck

One of my coaching calls this last week was with an extremely successful author. Multiple six-figures and for multiple years. And during part of that conversation the author said, “I’m just lucky, that’s all.” Or something along those lines.

My response was very immediate and very adamant. “No. You were not lucky to be where you are. Sure, maybe the genre you chose and when you published factor into things and that can be about luck. But the ability to produce novels on a consistent basis that meet your readers’ needs has nothing to do with luck. That is all you and your hard work and talent.”

It was an interesting conversation because I’ve never been a fan of the other side of that argument where people who’ve done extremely well say that there was nothing lucky about their success. That it all comes down to how hard they work. I always think that’s a bunch of bullshit, to be honest.

To me it’s always a balance of the two with the hard work taking more than its share but serendipity playing a part as well.

Let me give an example that has nothing to do with writing.

My very first job out of college we were each assigned to a mentor who taught us how to conduct securities examinations. We worked side-by-side with our mentor for about a year. We also had to study for and take a series of tests in that first year, but the bulk of the learning occurred on the job.

I started within about a week of another individual in our office who was extremely intelligent. Fully capable.

But I was assigned to a first-class mentor. Probably the best examiner in our office. And that other person was assigned to one of the worst examiners in our office. It was luck that I was assigned to who I was and that they were assigned to who they were.

And as a result I was provided an environment in which I could flourish and they were not. Luck.

But the hard work I put in to then take advantage of that opportunity was all me. I was the one going after opportunities and eager to learn. I was the one asking questions and working hard to get up to speed.

As a result, I was quickly promoted and this other individual was not. It made a significant difference in our career paths.

And, sure, I can point to how much effort I put in to make that happen.But the fact of the matters is that all that hard work and drive would’ve been wasted if my mentor had been someone else.

So when I think about writing, I always look back on that situation. And I acknowledge that it’s about luck and effort.

Luck happens when the right reader sees your book and helps it go viral. Or you write something that it turns out is in demand with a large number of readers. Or you catch the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time in just the right way.

Effort happens the rest of the time. When you’re writing those books and getting them out there for readers to discover. When you’re learning from your early mistakes and adjusting your plan to account for what you’ve learned about readers or your writing or the market. When you acknowledge what you don’t know and take steps to learn it.

Yeah, maybe it takes luck to make half a million a year as a writer. But most of the authors I know who are very successful in this business (consistent six-figures) also work very hard and very smart. They consistently produce good books that their audience devours.

To do that year in and year out requires more than luck. It requires talent and dedication. So if you’re one of those people, don’t sell yourself short.

Unreliable Narrators

I did something interesting this morning. I read through my diaries from twenty-five years ago. It was fascinating to see what I wrote about versus what I remembered. And it was fascinating too to see what I wrote about and didn’t know I was writing about.

Often in writing we hear about the unreliable narrator. The person who is telling you a story and maybe not telling the whole story or telling the story their way instead of telling the truth. And there’s always this idea that maybe that’s deliberate.

But the funny thing about reading those diary entries was that eighteen-year-old me was telling the truth as I saw it at the time and completely missing some things that were right there on the page. I wasn’t trying to be unreliable. Who tries to be unreliable in their diary? But I was being.

Even more interesting is that I went reading back through those entries because I’d started to wonder if a close friend of mine had maybe been not so close and if I’d just failed to see it at the time. (They ended up dating both someone I’d had a complicated situation with and my best friend which prompted the question all these years later. Coincidence? Or something more?)

And what I realized after doing so is that when you hold memories in your mind and have no record of them when they happened that they grow and shift and take on different forms than they actually had at the time.

Turns out we’re all unreliable narrators. (And more so, whether real or not, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened in the past are more important than what actually happened because the stories we tell ourselves are what we let shape our future.)

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

6- Me 2

Copyright vs. Plagiarism

In the comments on the last post I made about copyright, onereasonableperson asked about plagiarism and how that fits into all of this. For example, can you plagiarize an idea or is it only plagiarism when you copy someone’s exact words (which is generally where copyright comes into play).

I had my own gut feelings on the matter, which is that you really need to be copying words not just taking an idea and putting your own riff on it, but I also knew that there have been some pretty big scandals that alleged plagiarism that weren’t for exact word-by-word copying. So I went digging.

(And I’m hoping that Dave Higgins, who is an actual lawyer, will jump in on the comments here with some further insights. When in doubt, listen to the lawyer.)

Here’s what I came up with:

Plagiarism is not a legally defined term. It is an ethical and moral issue and generally defined within the context of an institutional code of ethics. For example, in academic writing using the ideas of another academic without acknowledging their contribution is a big no-no. Hence the large number of footnotes and citations in that kind of writing.

(See Wikipedia.)

Because it’s an ethical issue not a legal issue, the definitions of plagiarism do in fact include ideas. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s definition of what it means to plagiarize:

“to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use (another’s production) without crediting the source” or “to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”

The problem is, this is easier alleged than dealt with, especially in trope-heavy genres like romance or LitRPG. When does it move from following a standard progression of story elements to essentially copying the creativity of another?

When this question came up on the other post, my immediate thought was that Cassandra Clare had been sued at one point by Sherrilyn Kenyon for “plagiarism” for essentially too much similarity in terms of story elements between their series. I found an article about it in Slate that you can see here.

But when you go look at the actual court filing, which is posted here, you’ll find that the actual lawsuit alleged copyright and trademark infringement that impacted the value of Kenyon’s property (goodwill).

So while the ethical allegation was one of plagiarism and that’s what showed up in headlines when the case was filed, the legal allegation had to be for copyright and trademark infringement because those are the legal standards that come into play.

And, to add to this point, you can see in this post here on Clare’s website that the copyright portion of the case was eventually dropped from the suit (likely because there was no word-for-word copying that occurred, but that’s just my personal speculation).

Also, according to that post, the trademark portion was eventually settled. In other words, it wasn’t litigated and so can’t be used in any way to show a point where common elements between novels or the marketing of those novels becomes grounds for a trademark violation.

You can see this copyright vs. plagiarism issue play out again in the recent situation involving Cristian Serruya. Here’s a post where Courtney Milan (a highly competent lawyer in addition to being a talented author) tells other authors how to address the situation.

Note that the first item recommends making a report of an ethics violation to a membership organization (RWA) where Serruya is a member. But that the second item goes back to copyright.

In the Serruya case there was word-for-word copying of other’s works, so that made it very clean.

If there hadn’t been word-for-word copying then I suspect that would’ve made the legal basis for challenging her very difficult, but she would’ve still been crucified in the court of public opinion because authors and readers don’t appreciate seeing someone take someone else’s work and try to pass it off as their own.

I remember a situation a few years back where someone had taken an erotic short story and rewritten it in their own words, but kept everything else about the story the same. (I honestly thought the rewrite was better, but that’s just me.) It wasn’t a copyright violation. It wasn’t a trademark violation. But it didn’t matter because it upset a large pool of authors who made it their mission to go after that author until the book was taken down. (And the author name probably permanently blackballed.)

There was another situation a few years back related to an author who’d done very well in urban fantasy and then someone came along and published a book that basically copied the intent and format of their blurb, named the main character after the other author, and copied elements of the other author’s book. Once again, lots and lots of uproar over that one. It didn’t destroy the second author’s career, but it certainly blackened their name. I looked just now to see if there was a lawsuit filed and am not finding anything, although I know the first author did discuss doing so and that their publisher’s legal team was involved but I can’t even find discussion of it now, so I assume that one was settled as well.

Heck, I’ve run into this one myself where someone took a blurb on one of my books and basically switched the words around just enough to not be copying what I’d said while still saying the exact same thing. If I’d had a big, voracious following for that book it would’ve been ugly for the person who did that. Because I didn’t they just got the side-eye from me.

So bottom line for an author: Legally it’s going to come down to copyright, trademark, or, as Dave mentioned in the other post, moral rights. Ethically and in the court of public opinion it’s probably best to find your inspiration from a wide enough variety of sources that your book doesn’t look like a thinly veiled copy of another’s work.