Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.

 

A Good Post on Writing Scams To Watch Out For

One of the hardest aspects of getting published, either traditionally or by self-publishing, is knowing what’s legitimate and what’s a scam. And there are people out there who make a very good living by taking advantage of the ignorance and hopes of aspiring authors.

Anne R. Allen had an excellent post on her blog this week outlining ten current publishing scams to look out for.

My one quibble with what she said is that for non-fiction I think print is a much bigger part of sales than it is for fiction, even for self-publishers.

But still. Don’t go paying for a box full of books to sell out of your garage unless you are already established as a speaker with an audience you can sell them to. Print on demand (through KDP Print or IngramSpark) is the best option for print for self-publishing, IMO, unless you’ve pre-sold a large number of books already, like, for example, through a Kickstarter project and can justify the cost of a print run.

(And those scams targeting teens have been around for ages. I once “won” placement in a lovely gold-embossed book of poetry which was only $50 to buy. Fortunately, I was not so excited to see my poems in print that I paid it.)

Knowledge is Power

There’s a thread on Kboards right now where someone posted about how anyone can make a living self-publishing and then shared that they were making $4,000 a month with minimal advertising (they had some free titles) off of approximately a thousand 10,000-word erotic romances.

That’s 10 million words of content. The OP stated that they’re working 15-18 hours days to do this and don’t mind because they come from a background of having to put together a bunch of minimum wage jobs to make ends meet.

I admire the OP’s work ethic and what they’ve accomplished for themselves. (At my current writing rate it would take me another twenty years to hit 10 million words published. I currently have about 2 million.)

But what it really made me think about was class differences and knowledge and opportunity and how incredibly-hard-working people can almost kill themselves working hard for small rewards simply because they don’t know that there are better options out there.

For example, I took a year off in college. I had this notion that I’d become a stockbroker and earn enough to go back to Stanford and pay for it with cash if I could just work as a stockbroker for five years. (Turns out I hate selling people things and would almost try to talk them out of investing with me since I was twenty years old at the time and it made no sense for someone to trust me with a hundred thousand dollars they’d worked hard to earn for decades.)

When I went back to college the next year I needed a job to make ends meet. (Kids, check the cost of living where you go to school. Seriously. Palo Alto is not cheap.) As a kid from a lower middle class family my immediate instinct was to go get a job at the local mall. Which I did. They were happy to have me and to pay me some amount a little above minimum wage, but not that much above minimum wage.

Which meant that while I was completing that triple major I’d decided on, that I was also working forty plus hours a week to pay my rent and car payment and put food on the table.

But there were so many other choices I could’ve made that would’ve made my life easier. I ended up getting fired from that job about two months before graduation. (About a week after I’d complained about being made to feel very uncomfortable by the manager’s brother who followed me around all the time and then got into a shouting match with the manager over the fact that I was wearing shorts and he was wearing shorts but she said I wasn’t allowed to while he was, but that’s another story for another day.)

When I lost that job, I learned a few interesting things that I wish I’d known earlier.

First, I was working enough to earn vacation time at that job but had never been told about it. So on my last day they handed me a check for something like $400 I hadn’t even known I was due.

Instead of working through finals week because I needed the money, I could’ve taken a few paid vacation days. Who knew? (My manager…)

Second, turns out I was able to go down the street to a temp agency and immediately get a new job that paid me twice as much as the bookstore had. For stuffing envelopes and updating a database of customer addresses. Brainless work.

I had grabbed the first opportunity I found because as someone who came from my background and had no financial reserves to take the time find “the best job” and no one to tell me there were other options, I didn’t know I could do better than that almost-minimum-wage job at the mall.

(Honestly, if I’d been really thinking about how to make the most while working the least I would’ve taken one of those “we’ll pay you $25K for your eggs” ads in the back of the school paper seriously and not had to work at all. But, ya know. Hindsight. And growing up with a mindset that expected to work hard for what I received.)

What’s interesting is that I almost fell into that same mistake again when I graduated. Working full-time to barely make ends meet while trying to complete a degree like that meant that I hadn’t followed the proper path to get a consulting or investment banking job. (Or to prepare for grad school.) I had no clue how any of that worked, so I failed all those interviews.

Which meant after college I found myself back in Colorado with no access to the fancy campus recruiting options and no job prospects.

Not knowing what else to do, I applied for a manager position at a local ice cream shop. The salary was enough to pay my bills and I was qualified for it. Not based on my degree. Based on my prior experience managing the cashier’s office at an amusement park for a couple of summers.

But that manager did the biggest kindness to me that anyone has probably ever done me. He told me they were willing to hire me and that they’d give me the job if I really wanted it. But he also told me that he thought I could do better than that job and encouraged me to keep looking.

So I did.

And about a month later I was able to get my first regulatory job which ultimately led to my consulting job.

That one difference in which job I took after college meant the difference between working sixty hour weeks to earn $40K a year with minimal benefits and working sixty hour weeks to earn $160K with good benefits and promotion potential.

(Not immediately. We’re talking ten years out. One job had career potential with an upward trajectory, the other did not because it was a small family-owned business.)

I was lucky. Because a complete stranger was kind enough to share with me that broader perspective that they had but I didn’t. No one in my family had been down that path before. My brother and I were the first to go to college straight out of high school. And I was certainly the first to end up with an “elite” degree.

(One I still didn’t leverage properly even where I ended up. Starting i-banking salaries plus bonus the year I graduated were probably more than that $160K. But coming from where I had that wasn’t even something to imagine let alone expect.)

So bringing this back to that post on Kboards.

I see this woman who is happy with her accomplishments and happy with her income and I think of how many people come from those environments where you have to work tremendously hard to stay above water. And where it never occurs to you that you can work in a different way to accomplish that same goal. And where you don’t have the time or energy or connections to show you that easier path or to even tell you it exists.

A part of me wants to take that woman aside and say, “work smarter”. Write longer. Advertise.

But I don’t know that that’s an option for her. Maybe the quality isn’t there for that to help. Maybe it will just destroy what she has created.

So instead of reaching out to her, I wrote this blog post. To say that if you feel like you’re working at your max to barely get by that maybe it’s worth taking just a moment or two to look around and see if there isn’t a better option out there. If you’re good at what you do, see about a raise. If you’re not using the skills you trained on, see what’s out there job-wise. Ask yourself if there’s something else you could do that would pay more for the effort you’re putting in.

It’s too easy to get a little bit of something and cling to it when you’re right at the edge. But that can keep you at the edge.

Sometimes head down, full speed ahead isn’t the best choice. It got me a lot of what I ended up with, but looking back I know there were better choices I could’ve made.

Maybe that’s the case for you, too…

Writing Speed

One of the conversations that often happens around writing is how much can a writer feasibly write in a day or a week or a month or a year.

Often people will discuss how many words per minute they can type and try to extrapolate that to some number of words they could write if they just had the time. “Oh, I write 50 words per minute, so if I have sixty minutes that gives me 3,000 words which means if I quit my day job and write for six hours a day I can write 18,000 words a day. That means I could write the first draft of a 70,000-word novel a week.”

Now most people aren’t that extreme about it. But there are definitely people out there who argue that it’s easy enough to write 5,000-10,000 words per day. And that doing so for five days a week gives you 40,000 words in a week which gives you a novel a month easily.

What got me thinking about this is that I started the next cozy mystery this morning. And in the space of about an hour I wrote the first 2,400 words of the cozy, which for me was two chapters, each written in a thirty-minute chunk.

It’s only eight-thirty in the morning right now. I have a call in half an hour and need to feed the dog and spend time with her, but I have at least four more hours I could write in this afternoon. Which makes it look like I could easily hit 5,000 words for the day. And if I can do that today, why not tomorrow and the day after and the day after.

But it turns out that, at least for me, how many words I can write has nothing to do with my typing speed. It has to do with my idea-generation and refilling-the-well speed. I wrote 2,400 words this morning but none the past three days. And I’ve been pondering the way into this story and the plot for the story for months now. (The general idea–a cold case–was actually going to be the idea I used one or two cozies ago, so I’ve been trying to come up with a good cold case idea for months now. Which, because it’s a cozy, also has to be a bit light-hearted, too.)

It’s quite possible I’ll be able to sit down this afternoon and write the next chapter or two. But it’s equally possible that I’ll sit down to write that next chapter or two and not quite be ready for them yet. Or that I’ll write them and then need to go back after five or six chapters and smooth things out and ramp things up to keep the story momentum where I want it.

After many years of this I’ve found that for me the steady writing pace that helps me keep moving with a novel and not burn out averages around 2,000 words a day. (Non-fiction averages closer to 3,000 words a day and requires less downtime between drafts.)

And that’s still a higher number of expected words than I actually produce in a year because I need downtime between projects where my mind is working on the ideas and turning them this way and that and imagining scenes or dialogue I might include but I’m not writing.

Others work differently. Some people are binge writers. They just dive in and write for hours on end until they’re ready to collapse. Some people extensively outline so that when it comes time to write they can also put words on the page for hours at a time. Some are so high in Ideation that the ideas are always there and they don’t need that pause.

And some have to achieve perfection the first time they type a sentence so only get down 250 words an hour.

The key is to learn what’s reasonable for you and to plan accordingly. Don’t push yourself to be something you’re not. Find that steady pace that you can hit comfortably and work from there.

And also understand that others work differently and so will have different results than you do. Which means you shouldn’t tell someone they’re not capable of writing faster than you do just because you can’t do it. But it also means you shouldn’t tell someone who writes at a slower pace that they’re just not trying hard enough.

We all work at our own unique pace.  The key is finding what works for you and is sustainable for you.

 

Writing: Point of View Matters

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. I mean, I always am reading, but I think I’ve been diving into more new-to-me authors lately which means I’m running across more writing approaches or styles than normal.

And I’ve realized as part of that exploration that the point of view the author chooses to use can make or break a story.

I’m reading a novel right now that’s written in first person, something I personally have no problem with. My cozies are written in first person. But as a writer reading this book I am annoyed at the author for making that choice.

Because they chose to write in first person but they included at least six different points of view. ALL of them in first person. NONE of them identified in any way at the start of each section. And they change point of view within chapters. So you have on first-person point of view starting the chapter and then another picking up at the section break halfway through. It feels like I’m constantly playing catch up in each new section, trying to figure out who is talking now.

The story itself is fine. But I know because of the point of view choice this author made that my mom won’t be able to read it. She’d never be able to make those switches successfully.

And what annoys me so much is that the author could have simply used a deep third person point of view and accomplished the exact same thing but had it work better for the reader.

This is not some new author. This is a trade-published author with I think 11 books out. (All in first person, though, so maybe that’s the issue. But by now you think they would have read enough to know that deep third can be very close to interchangeable with first person.) And they have an editor who should’ve seen this, too.

So that’s one. And probably the one that prompted this post. But another I’ve been thinking about lately is that I just don’t like to be in the point of view of nasty human beings. It’s like immersing myself in slime. I don’t mind reading stories that have nasty human beings in them (as long as they get their comeuppance at the end), but along the way I really really don’t want to sit in their head for any length of time.

I read all the JD Robb books this last year and there was one (of the fifty?) that I really did not like for this reason. She’d included the killer’s point of view in a certain number of chapters and I just didn’t want to read them. I didn’t want to see some self-centered asshole murderer justifying their actions.

As a writer reading something like that I then step back and ask, “Did that help the story? Did the story gain anything by having an insight into this character’s thoughts?”

And my personal answer there was no. That was the only book of that series that I really didn’t like, but it wasn’t the only one that included the POV of the killer. But I don’t think any of the books I read in that series that had the POV of the killer benefited from having it. And I think in some cases it actually took away some of the suspense because we already knew things about the killer that the detective hadn’t yet discovered so false paths we might’ve gone down as readers were taken away.

Now, those books are so good that I’ll keep reading them anyway. I think she is a master of her craft and does so many things so well that she’s well worth studying.

But another author that I’d recently started reading I’ve stopped reading for also including the bad guy’s point of view in the story. In that case it was a lazy user-type who starved his kids and beat his wife. He gets killed in the end but about half of the book felt like it was in his head and I just did not want to be there. Especially since it was a world that should have killed him much earlier on.

I’m sure there are other POV changes I could think of given enough time, but those were the two that were top of mind for me just now. But I guess in a sense they both boil down to the same issue: don’t do something with your writing that pulls the reader out of the story. And if that seems to be happening, then check you POV choices.

 

A Few Good Posts on Critical Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I pivoted to non-fiction for over a year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does It Cost to Self-Publish A Book

I tend to ignore the conversations where people discuss what’s required to self-publish a book. A few years back someone who’d done very well with self-publishing who I know and like posted a list of everything a new self-publisher should take care of before they publish and I remember staring at that list in horror and thinking I’d never have self-published if I’d thought it required all of that.

I always figure it comes down to a difference in philosophy. I long ago accepted that I will never be perfect and that the level of effort to reach perfection far outweighs any benefit I’ll receive from it. In school being perfect would’ve meant I couldn’t take all the courses I wanted to, play the sports I loved, and do the extracurriculars I enjoyed all at the same time. It seemed oddly limiting to me to spend all that time on one thing so I could get an A+ or up my shooting percentage in basketball when I could get an A- and still start varsity with a lot less effort.

I also long ago learned that arguing with the perfectionists is exhausting and a waste of my time and energy. And in self-pub especially where everyone thinks they can see and judge your performance it’s an even more obnoxious experience. Because, since of course I’m not perfect, if I say, “you can do it for free” then someone will call out my writing or my covers or my blurbs or my book rank.

But here’s the thing: You can do it for free. Or at least close to it. It just takes time.

I’ve published two books so far this year. One non-fiction title in an area of expertise I have. One cozy mystery.

I used GIMP (a free software) to create the covers myself. Will they win awards? No. Do they achieve their purpose? I like to think so.

The non-fiction cover had one stock image, the cozy cover had three. I’m still working through a DepositPhotos package I bought that came with something like 100 images for $50. So, let’s say one cover cost me 50 cents. The other cost me $1.50. And time. It maybe took me an hour, probably less, to create each cover.

(Keep in mind at this point I’ve created well over a hundred covers in GIMP. Probably more than triple that if we start counting paperback covers as separate.)

I also self-edit.

Yes, that means that there are people out there who will read one of my stories and tell me it could’ve been better. But every story can always be better. Every single one ever published. And no story will appeal to all readers. Ever. But the stories I publish are me. They are consistently mine. People may not like what my characters do or what they value or the level of action/emotion/exposition/etc. in my novels, but for those who do like my worldview they know they’ll get a novel that delivers what they like.

I did have three subject matter experts read the non-fiction title to make sure I wasn’t saying anything dramatically controversial but at the end of the day that was my take on a field where I have twenty years of expertise. It was delivered in my voice and with my opinions based on my experience.

And, sure, maybe I could pay a few hundred dollars and have someone find five extra typos, but I don’t think it’s worth the expense. It’s certainly not worth it on the fiction side to find someone who may not know any more about writing than I do to tell me what they think is wrong with my story.

I format my own files as well.

Nowadays I use Vellum for ebooks and for fiction print books. But before I purchased Vellum a well-formatted Word file worked just fine. (Styles are your friend.) I still use Word to format my non-fiction print books using the free template from Amazon. I’m not trying to deliver the most beautifully formatted book out there. I’m just trying to deliver my words in a way that lets the reader absorb them easily and without distraction.

I also upload the files myself.

And write my own blurbs.

(Again, my blurbs may not be the best blurbs that could possibly be written for each book, but they’re mine so they fit perfectly with what someone will actually get when they buy the book.)

Because of all of that I was able to write, prepare, and publish two books for $2.

And my time.

The reason you might pay someone to do these things for you instead is because there’s a learning curve. My first-ever cover was absolutely horrid. I did not know how bad it was. I thought I’d done a good job with it.

But that’s the beauty of self-publishing. A cover can be changed out in a day. It will only live on on Goodreads if you were unfortunate enough for it to make it there. (Which for that book I was not.)

As a new writer I had that time. And really, honestly, if I’d paid for those services back then I would’ve been throwing my money away because I didn’t know enough to judge what I was paying for.

I have no doubt there are “formatters” out there right now charging a couple hundred bucks to run a file through Vellum because there are authors out there who don’t know better and will pay them for that.

Now, of course, in any discussion about this someone will inevitably come along and argue that six-figure authors don’t do it all themselves and give that as proof for why new authors should pay for all of this, too.

But that’s a fallacy.

Because the decision a six-figure author is making is very different from the decision a new author is making.

My most successful title has made me a profit of $725 per hour it took to write. If I knew that every title I wrote would be that successful then I’d be a fool to do everything myself.

Better at that point to pay someone $250 for a cover than spend an hour (which is worth $725) creating my own.

This is why a number of the very successful authors I know pay for editors. Not because they can’t do it well enough themselves, but because that time they’d spend on editing can be better spent writing the next book. They can publish a couple more books a year by using an editor.

They have the ideas and the audience for that to make sense.

But for a new writer? It doesn’t.

The sad truth is that for most new writers that first book will not be a resounding success no matter how much money you spend on it. You can get the best edits, the most beautiful formatting, the perfect cover. You can even spend on blog tours and hire a publicist (which, really, honestly does not make sense for 99% of self-publishers). And you can put thousands into ads and develop a launch strategy and all of that.

But at the end of the day that book will still not sell.

Because most first efforts are simply not that good.

And what they generally do have going for them are the things that extensive inappropriate editing can destroy. (Voice, a unique perspective, etc.)

So remember: You really can publish for free. And if you’re new, that may really be the best choice to make.

Take the time, learn how it’s done. Get that first title out there. See what happens. Rinse. Repeat.

(And if that title does have legs, if you’re one of the rare early successes, then use your profits to buy a prettier cover or some paid ads. Just be sure you know by then what will work for the type of book you published.)