Time for NaNoWriMo

I have never in fact participated in NaNoWriMo because I’m not motivated by prizes, competing with others, joining groups, or by someone cheering me on. My motivation is simply to get shit done. (Which is why I have 105 perfect tournament crowns from Microsoft Solitaire tournaments so far this year. Someone send help. I need an intervention.)

This year, though, I’ll be doing what NaNo requires and in the month of November, which is writing the first draft of a short novel in the space of a month.

BTW, for a good general post on Nano and writing check out Chuck Wendig’s NaNo post for 2019.

In preparation for starting this next novel (otherwise known as the procrastination stage), I’ve been doing some thinking.

This will be my 12th novel. And the fifth in this particular series. And I gotta tell ya, I think I’m just now reaching the “you know that you don’t know it” level of writing. After eleven completed novels.

Stop and think about that for a second. How many hours of doing this thing have I put in so far and I’m just now starting to see glimmers of what all is required to make it work well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think my earlier novels are good and enjoyable reads and, for the most part, the reviews back me up on that. People don’t always like what I choose to write about but they generally read to the end before telling the world about it.

But the issue I’m finally becoming concerned with is this: the consistency of the reader experience. Not just writing one good novel or one good series, but writing novels and series that consistently meet the needs of a particular group of readers.

To be really good at this you have to hit enough of the right buttons each and every time so that your particular group of readers walks away satisfied and comes back for more the next time you publish. That is not easy.

It is in fact exponentially harder than writing a single novel. And if you don’t do it well, you end up building on a shaky foundation. A reader thinks, “Well, that book was alright, I guess, so maybe I’ll read another one by them.” That is not the type of readership you want.

Because that kind of reader is the type of reader you will eventually lose if you continue on the way you are. In a hot genre with readers desperate for new material this could take some time. You could probably have a successful series or even two, but it will eventually catch up to you.

So it isn’t about writing a good novel. At least not long-term. It’s about creating a good reader experience across all of your books. And that is much, much harder to do.

And with that cheerful thought, I guess I’m off to “win” my own little NaNo.

Essential Writing Skills

This post is for those authors who want to make money at their publishing someday whether that be via a traditional publisher or self-publishing. If your core interest is in getting your stories down on paper, then carry on.

But for those who want to make money at this somehow, there are some essential skills you’re going to need to have and it’s important to work on them alongside the writing.

First, you need to be resilient and adaptable. This industry, on both the self and trade publishing sides, changes constantly. Today there’s talk that maybe Amazon shifted how it treats borrows from KU for book ranking. (If so, it’s about frickin’ time IMO because someone borrowing a book for free is not and never has been the equivalent of them paying money for a book.)

Sometime earlier this week AMS randomly decided to add Ad Groups to ads which changed where you see your list of target keywords. That was after adding two new markets and then removing the links for those markets from one primary location and changing where billing and other items are found on the page.

A few weeks back a publisher with a decent reputation stepped in it when they took on an author who had been banned from publishing direct on Amazon. And just this week at least one big-name editor was abruptly let go, impacting every single one of their authors.

No matter what path you choose, things will constantly be shifting under your feet. You need to understand that and prepare for it and not be knocked out of commission when it happens.

Second, you need to understand business and numbers and contracts. In a group I’m in where some trade published authors post there was mention of how an author was screwed over by a basket accounting clause in their contract. If you’re going with a publisher and you don’t know what that is, you need to learn. That and all the rest of it.

A while back a publisher contacted me about potentially distributing some of my titles. Sounded great until they sent me a publishing contract that paid no advance and would’ve taken all my foreign language rights for free. If you as an author can’t see a situation like that for what it is and push back, you will get screwed.

And if you aren’t paying attention to profits and are only focused on number of units sold or nice reviews, you won’t last long-term.

I don’t expect authors to take things to the extent I do. (Yesterday I got bored and performed a multi-variate regression analysis to see which ad options I was using were actually driving sales and realized that two of them I was using and thought had been doing well for me weren’t.) But you do need to have some sort of a clue about how this industry works and what is happening with your own business.

Finally, you need perseverance. Sure, some authors hit it out of the park with their first book. And it’s all shiny happy times from that point forward. But not most authors. If you need an example, look at George RR Martin’s career. He left novel and short story writing for a while to work in television. He switched genres. This massive success he’s seeing now? Took decades to achieve. And required him to dust himself off more than once along the way.

I’m sure there are other traits authors need to succeed at writing that have nothing to do with the story or how it’s written (including a good bullshit detector), but these were the ones that were on my mind this morning. So there you have it. The writing is just what you need to play the game. You need far more than that to stay in and succeed.

 

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.)