Articles of assistance to writers.
Accountability is important in habit building. We use accountability aids as a tool for fostering the sorts of behavior we are trying to generate in our lives – whether that is kicking a bad habit, or building a new one. NaNoWriMo is essentially a big month long accountability aid, as we’re guilted into writing 50k words in a month because we’ve told all these people we’re going to get it done.
Many accountability aids are personal and private. These are tools to provide inspiration by showing the progress you’ve made toward your goal. Other accountability aids are more public. Dean Wesley Smith mentioned he used to play a game with other writers where each writer got points for every piece out on submission to publishers or magazines. He also said that many of those writers who excelled at the game are folks he still sees making a successful career of writing today.
I kicked off one accountability aid yesterday, in the form of that little black book. I’ll be logging each day the word count I accomplished, and by tracking the goal daily, I am left with a daily reminder of how far I’ve come, how much I’ve done. Hopefully that will inspire and encourage me. ;)
Today I’m kicking off another accountability aid, this one a public one: ROW80, or “A Round of Words in 80 Days”.
It’s a cool little writing crew dedicated to setting realistic goals that one can peck away at on a regular basis, building a routine of writing effort which will eventually become habit, and move from habit into generating success. The premise is that small goals accomplished regularly are more sustainable than big sweeping goals which force one to put out a huge burst effort. And after my last three NaNoWriMos – each of which left me completing 20-25k words on the last day – I am inclined to agree. ;) I mean, I MADE those word counts, but that’s hardly a sustainable effort for me. In fact, it’s burned me out each year.
So I’m joining ROW80 in an effort to help create a sense of public accountability to steady, sustainable goals, with a crew of like minded writers also doing the same thing.
As part of the joining process, we’re supposed to write a blog post detailing our goals for the next 80 days. I’ve read several other goal posts, and some are very elaborate, with very specific targets. Since this is my first time through, I’m going to use the KISS method and keep the goals as simple as possible. Not easy, but easy to understand and easy to assess.
1) I will try to write every day, at least a little. But I will not beat myself up if an attack of life prevents this sometimes.
2) I will write 7k or more words per week.
3) I will finish 80,000 words over the course of this 80-day ROW80 period.
Those are good goals, I think. They’re in keeping with my already stated goal of achieving 366,000 new words this year – that’s about 1k per day, so 80 days = 80k words. But they’re flexible enough that I should be able to miss some days without feeling it’s a crisis, and at the same time be accountable for those 7k words each week, minimum, so I won’t get too far behind.
It feels like a good place to start!
One challenge in fantasy writing is the craft of designing a magic system that makes sense – that’s believable for the reader – but which is flexible enough that you can continue to toss out new curves over the course of a series.
Often, writers will fall back on some set of tropes that they’re familiar with. The opening to Eragon, for instance, reads a lot like a write-up of a Dungeons and Dragons game. The writer seemed to quickly realize that wasn’t going to work for the long haul, however, and crafts a magic system which is fairly unique for the rest of the books.
Jim Butcher’s Dresden novels have their own fairly unique tropes. Wizards can’t be near technological devices without messing them up, for instance. Wizards have a pool of inner power which they can use up, and replenish by resting. Wizards have varying levels of power. But as the series rolls on, we see those tropes shift somewhat – we learn, for instance, that the “tech restraint” was true even hundreds of years ago – that magic interferes with different things in different times, but always has “issues” with something common to the non-wizard. We learn that stimulants can temporarily boost magical power (at some cost!). And Butcher gives us a much better idea, as the series goes along, what that variation in power level is like.
Getting to classics, Tolkien hardly uses wizardry at all. Actual spell casting is something he brings to the fore only rarely in his Middle Earth books. But when he does, he focuses on one particular element of magic common to almost all excellent fantasy: cost. In his case, there are deep veins regarding the price of power and the corruption power can bring with it, using the Rings of Power as the tool to discuss the issue.
Orson Scott Card’s Hart’s Hope creates a world where magic is created by killing something. The larger the creature, stronger its life force, and closer to the magician the being is, the more magic you derive from the killing. And Card takes that thinking to its logical and fairly frightening conclusion.
It seems obvious on the surface: magic must have limits. If it didn’t, wizards would use magic for everything, and writers would have a hard time crafting interesting stories about someone who had so much power with no cost. It’s possible, of course to create stories where magic has no cost – you CAN create a fun story about magic without price. But at that point you need some other limit instead. Someone who could only create a 10-watt light in their hand could have no cost involved in the process and probably not unbalance a story. Someone who can create any size light of any intensity should probably have a price involved which grows larger as the light gets bigger and/or brighter.
In the Ryan Blackwell novels, I’ve fallen back on the familiar trope of magic wearing out the spellcaster. Use magic too much, and you won’t have anything left for later. Ryan, however, has a couple of twists. His story takes place on top of a huge ley line nexus. This gives him a well from which he can draw extra magic – at some risk (cost!). That same well has a tendency to attract dangerous elements of the magical world, though (cost!). And in fact, as Ryan learns, the more magic one uses, the more likely one is to attract the attention of certain parties who move against powerful new magicians. Sometimes just to eliminate future rivals. Sometimes as food. Sometimes a little of both.
That’s not really a cost, exactly, but it definitely creates a “threat” around the use of magic!
In the end, part of what will make a magical story memorable and interesting will be the way you set up the magical system, and the unique/creative elements you invent for your magical milieu. The less you rely on “standard tropes”, or at least create strong twists on those tropes, the more unique the magical element of your story will become. Creating interesting costs can be a challenge, but having some twist which differentiates your story from others will lend it strength, interest, and memorability.
1. You must have a great cover.
Your readers will be scanning a page full of twenty or so little postage stamp size books. They will then click “next page” unless a book cover & title interest them. That’s all you have for advertising – just your cover and title. That is your initial hook. Cruddy covers are generally instant death for ebooks.
2. You must have a great blurb.
Learn to write the blurb. Study the blurb. The blurb is not a review – you do not tell the reader “this is the hottest novel since…” or “this is just like so-and-so’s books”. SHOW, don’t tell. Read the backs of some paperback novels, if you’re writing a novel. Once your cover hooks someone to the book page, only your blurb will hook them to take the next step. Just like writing a query letter is a different skill from writing a book, writing a blurb is its own skill. Learn it.
3. You must have an outstanding sample.
Ditch as much front matter as you can. Shrink your image to take up as little file space as you can. Only the first X% of an ebook is in the sample, and it’s by file size, so cover seems to count (please correct me if I’m wrong there, that’s my observation, concurred with by a few other Kindle authors). Small file size JPG for the cover (reduce quality a little in Photoshop when saving), put as much front matter at the back of the book as you can, and give them the biggest sample you can. The sample must be interesting. The sample must be great writing. The sample must grab the reader so well that they immediately buy the book when finishing the sample.
Cover to blurb to sample to purchase.
4. You must have a good price.
That doesn’t mean 99 cents, unless it’s a short story or a loss-leader story, say the first of a trilogy. I’d stay in the “money range” for most books, which means $2.99 and up. No higher than $6, I think, since I’ve noticed sales seem to take a hit in that range for many writers. Keep it high enough to make a good profit on sales, and low enough that it’s *easy* for the reader to click that “Buy” button after finishing the sample. You don’t want to make them think about it. You want them to click.
5. You must have a compelling book.
The rest of the book has to be as good as the sample. Remember, they can return the book if the sample is stunning and the rest of the book is your grocery list. You want them to walk away from reading with a feeling of deep satisfaction in the purchase.
6. You must write other books.
If you want to sell, and keep selling, you should be writing more books. Your next book is your best form of marketing. The more books you have up, the more each tends to sell. Short stories are great ads for your other writing, too, but books are best. Continuing to write new books keeps recent releases of yours in the spotlight – in an ideal world, you want to produce at least one every three months, to stay in the “released in the last 90 days” category. Realistically, most writers can’t do that: jobs, family, and lack of experience stand in the way. So we do what we can. Produce quality each time, but continue producing. I suspect – but can’t prove – that ebook publishing is a bit like the old shark swimming myth; if you stop moving, you’re dead.
Every book you have up compounds the chances that a reader will see the cover, like the blurb, download the sample, buy the book, have a great reading experience – and then go buy another book you wrote. Get them to buy a few of your books in a row, and you have a fan. That reader will remember your name, maybe for years. They will look for your new releases, and grab them. If you have just one book up, your name will likely be forgotten shortly after the book is done. You need to reinforce the brand recognition by getting readers to read more than one book.
Some folks like Bob Mayer and John Locke have even gone so far as to suggest you not begin doing any marketing – or even not bother publishing at all! – until you have 3-5 books ready to roll. Lots of indie writers burn themselves out marketing away, spending hours on that process which they could be using to write the next book. Which remember, is the primary form of marketing for all your work. Stay on task, keep getting your books out and up and rolling. I favor the publish right away, and publicize later option. It’s not like the books are going to vanish if you don’t market them. They’ll still be there a few months later. Get the other books up, then market the lot of them. With three books up, every tweet, every blog post, every ad, every review becomes three times as effective. With five books, it’s even better.
Even if you do all these things, it doesn’t guarantee success. But failing to do these things invites failure.
Having trouble figuring out book format, terminology, typefaces, etc.? Want to know about some of the perils and pitfalls to avoid in designing a good book? I was directed to this site by a tweet from The Passive Voice (another great blog to follow, incidentally, regarding the publishing business in general). Take a look.
Some great articles there. The one on 7 Things You Can Do Today to Improve Your Book Design is pertinent for many self publishers. But there’s a collection of other articles there, including a nice one on fonts, and another which walks you through print book terminology, which can be very helpful.
Worth taking a look at, folks!
Well, while Robin and my little drama was unfolding (thanks again, all, for the outstanding support!), I completely missed the other big news in reading and literature. On June 4th, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon about young adult literature. Her take? That YA lit has over the last few decades become something dark and potentially harmful to teens reading it.
The whole article is worth a read, if you haven’t yet. Try not to knee-jerk about it, as you do: look at it from the perspective that this woman is concerned about our youth, and wants the best for them as best she understands it. I disagree with her on quite a lot of points, but her goal, to keep kids safe and help them grow up sound, is a noble one. There’s some good commentary on it here and here. And honestly, google “yasaves” and you’ll see scads more. It’s a hot topic.
I was a precocious reader. I read “The Hobbit” in kindergarten, and the Rings trilogy in first grade. Needless to say, when the RIF van came around with new books, I had a really hard time finding anything to read! I got special dispensation to go check out the tables set aside for the 7th and 8th graders. The books there (things like the Black Stallion books or the Three Investigators novels) were really below my reading level at that point, but were fun quick reads.
But during that year, I brought home one book about a cat, and got my very first lesson on censorship. My mother spotted the book, read some of it, immediately running into scenes where a vile child puts kittens in a sack and tries to drown them in a river. When several survive, all but one then gets eaten by dogs.
My mom, well meaning soul that she was, threw the book out. I was stunned. I’d never been told I could not read something before. Understand, I grew up in a house where reading was a, if not the, primary form of entertainment. We had thousands of books. I had read, well, lots of them. But I’d never been told not to read something. A very small part of me never completely forgave her for that.
Was she right? Maybe. Somehow, I think if I could handle Sauron, RingWraiths, and giant spiders without nightmares, I could manage an abusive jerk hurting kittens. Maybe not. But it definitely impacted my reading. I began reading things quietly. I stopped talking to my mother so much about what I was reading. When I came across a couple of boxes of my Dad’s old pulp novels in 3rd grade, I tore through them without even asking. Alien. The original Conan stories. Jirel of Jory. Fritz Lieber. Lovecraft. Hundreds of others. I didn’t ask, and just as important, I didn’t tell. I’d learned the lesson that reading was something which could be curtailed without warning or explanation. So I read what I wanted and kept anything I thought might be questionable out of view.
And I handled it pretty well, although it probably contributed to a love of books that has kept me writing stories. So arguably, I was permanently damaged if you see a burning desire to write as damage. ;)
But see, there’s that problem with censoring things. When you censor without great care and caution, you undermine a child’s trust in your judgement. Undermine that trust, and you handicap your ability to help the child to understand and cope with the things they’re bound to run into sooner or later anyway. I have kids of my own now: 5, 5, and 2. And while the older pair (twins) are not as precocious as I was with reading, both can now read. In a year or two, they’ll probably be physically capable of reading pretty much whatever they want. Our house is crammed full of books of all sorts – thousands of them, just like when I was young. Censoring all of that simply isn’t going to be possible. In the internet era (all three kids are internet savvy already, in a totally-parentally-supervised manner), if kids want to access something, they can and will find it.
Parental role, then, shifts toward helping children understand and cope with what they find. And that, in turn, requires that we find ways to ensure our children continue to trust us and see us as a source for help in that coping. I don’t want my kids to linger in silence and confusion about something they read, because they no longer trust me enough to tell me they read it.
There’s another piece to this puzzle, too. The original article said:
How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18.
Mirroring the tumultuous times, dark topics began surging on to children’s bookshelves.
But look for a second at other forms of entertainment. Check TV: where instead of fairly black and white (morally) shows of the 80s and 90s, the last few years have churned out drama after drama depicting badly flawed characters and often horrific situations. One only needs to scan the prime time channel guide to see scads of police procedurals, more often than not peering into the darkest parts of our society and culture.
“Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it,” says Gurdon. But this is the language most teens now use among each other. YA novels use the language they do because that’s the language teens use. Trying to remove it would make the books seem unreal, distant. Teens would lose a sense of connection to the characters.
And the other, yes horrible, material? Once upon a time, a teen who became pregnant was removed from school. Now, often, they continue education. Once upon a time a molested child was never rescued, and just grew up “dealing with it”. Now, our culture collectively does battle against this crime, and when we catch an offender it is splashed across newspapers and TV screens as a warning to other predators and a battle cry for everyone else to continue the war. Once upon a time kids didn’t have metal detectors in schools. Once upon a time brutality and evil were not spoken of. They still happened, though. What’s changed is our awareness.
Kids today are growing up in a world where terrorists have slaughtered thousands of people. Where gunmen have attacked schools, have killed doctors. Where Amber Alerts serve to help catch kidnappers – noble, worthy, valuable!- but bringing into constant awareness of these children that they are under threat, under siege, by people who actively want to hurt them.
The age when an eight year old is truly innocent of the idea that some people want to hurt, rape, or kill him/her is gone, if it ever existed. We teach children to stay close to us in crowd so they cannot be taken away from us. We teach children not to get into strangers’ cars. We teach children how to go for help, and to talk to us or teachers if someone touches them in certain ways.
Kids are not stupid. They understand what all this adds up to. The world is a dangerous, sometimes incredibly hostile place. And the literature they choose to read reflects that, and reflects a desire to understand it, to absorb it, and to find ways of dealing with it and moving on.
So I disagree with the article and the points raised. I mourn that our world is not one where children can grow up idyllic and care-free. I would give some of that to my children if I could. I can’t. We don’t live there. And so the very discussions I have with them to keep them safe are a steady education in the darkness and danger that exists in their world. No matter how abstract I get. Like I said, kids are not stupid. They’re often far brighter and far more able to make connections than parents give them credit for. If teens are opting to read books which help them find ways to cope with the bad parts of living in our world through exploring the darkness, I’m thinking it would be unwise to block them.
Rather, I think I will try to be the parent who is there, a trusted friend and confidant, able to give help in dealing with the things they run into when they need it. If we do not give them our trust, though, they will never give us theirs.
Who can resist quoting Yoda?
OK, back to a more serious note. When Dean Wesley Smith commented a couple of months ago that he saw a war in publishing on the way, and sides already forming up, I really wasn’t sure. I mean, I saw folks who didn’t want to believe things were changing as fast as they were. And I saw a lot of folks still stuck in the “Writer’s Digest” myths. But I sorta thought that people would gradually catch on, and writers would settle into a new world of putting their own stuff up as ebooks and print on demand books, and then selling some books to big publishers as a loss leader to get their marketing dollars behind a writer’s name. My gut said that writers, being generally smart people, would do the smart thing.
Oh, was I ever wrong.
I’m convinced, now. Dean was right, is right.
A large chunk of writers are simply not happy with the changes taking place. They don’t want to have to be responsible for their businesses. They want to basically be employees – write a book, get paid. Unfortunately, it’s never really worked like that (despite myths to the contrary), and is less like that today than it’s been in decades. But there’s a big chunk of writers who don’t want those changes. They want their agents taking care of the business stuff. They want the publisher marketing the book. They want to sit back, write, and not have to worry about anything else.
That mindset is doomed.
Dean just wrote a new article about how the latest agent scam is taking off and blossoming. More and more agencies are becoming publishers. They offer to take your book, get it ready to publish, publish the ebook, and split “net receipts” with you after expenses for the book are paid. Dean goes into why this is a horrible deal in a lot of detail here. Short form? Your $4.99 ebook would make you $3.50 a copy if you sell it yourself. With these agents, your $4.99 ebook earns you $1.75 a copy MINUS whatever their operating expenses are – *after* you’ve paid off whatever their production costs were on the book with those $1.75 chunks. So if they decide the “net receipt” is $2 on that $4.99 ebook ($3.50 minus $1.50 for their operating expenses, accounting dept, etc.), and they decide they spent $10,000 getting your book edited, formatted, and uploaded, you will need to sell 10,000 ebooks before you get a red cent from them. And after that you’d get $1 a book.
Not saying those are the numbers any specific agent gone publisher is using. But they could. “Net receipts” is an extremely vague term unless it is absolutely defined in the contract. Basically, these agent deals are very nearly the same thing as the scam subsidy presses out there – the ones who charge writers up front AND charge a percentage of income per book. The difference is, instead of charging up front and laying the fees out on the table, these agents are potentially able to obscure their fees so that a writer might have a very hard time figuring out what they’re actually supposed to be making. Extremely dangerous.
Kris Rusch just wrote an article, too – talking about some of the other grabs going on. Agents not longer work for writers, she asserts. And that seems borne out by the flat-out dangerous and outrageous clauses showing up – not in publishing contracts, but in *agency* contracts! Clauses which give the agency a chunk of any future sale of the work, even if the agency is fired. Clauses that give an agency a chunk of any future sales in that world, or with those characters, and definitely any sequels. Even if the writer has since fired that agency.
It was bad enough that publishers were pulling those sorts of dangerous contract clauses. But now, agencies are as well.
I agree completely with her take on the subject.
- There is no longer any reason for a writer to have an agent. If you want someone to go over a contract, get an IP lawyer, it’s cheaper and they’re actually regulated by the government and actually educated about contract law.
- If a writer does not stand up for him or herself, nobody else is going to do it. It’s up to us.
- Writers now have options. We can say NO to a contract and just publish the book ourselves. If the contract is bad, and the other side won’t budge, say no.
But I’m not really sure that’s sinking in. I spent part of last week over on a writer’s forum that’s well known and pretty well regarded. It’s a very popular hang out and location to get advice. And they had forums for both self publishing and e-publishing, so I popped in. I quickly found myself embattled by a bunch of folks who were passionate in their resistance to the idea of self publishing, to a degree that was almost scary. Even the designated mods of the forums were pretty solid in their negative feedback about self publishing. It didn’t take me too long to catch on. The self publishing forum was in place to collect posts about the subject, so a bunch of folks could trash the idea regularly enough that writers stopping by see that self publishing is clearly still a bad idea, and not a valid route for writers to follow. Maybe OK to dabble in, but not as a career route.
The forum isn’t there for discussion so much as it’s there for maintaining a steady flow of disinformation.
But that, and places like it, are some of the fields where the battle is being fought right now. Writers come in hearing about self publishing taking off, and looking for ways to make it work for them. If they happen across Dean’s blog, or Kris’s blog, or Joe Konrath’s blog, they’ll hear about how to make it work. If they go to some other places…they hear about how it’s all hogwash and overblown and doomed to failure.
The level of Stockholm Syndrome in some of those places is pretty frightening.
But then, so is the alternative to a lot of folks. If self publishing really is now the *best* option for most writers, what does that mean? It means writers must take charge of finding an editor. It means writers must learn to format ebooks. It means writers must trust their work enough to put it up for public sales without the “validation” of sale to an NYC publisher. It means writers need to know good art from bad well enough to hire a good artist. It means writers need to learn some basic accounting. It means writers need to market their books (arguably, that was already true since publishers were no longer doing much marketing on most books, but the myth says otherwise).
It means writers need to step up and take charge of the business they are running.
Which scares the beejeezus out of a lot of writers.
But here’s the thing: one way or another, it’s pretty much over for those writers. The ones too scared, too badly grounded in old myths, too ill-informed about industry changes, and – dare I say it – too lazy to take charge of their business are done for. If the bad contracts don’t kill their careers, simple contraction of the ‘traditional’ publishing industry will do it instead. Only writers willing to learn business are going to survive in the years ahead, via either trade publishers or self publishing. The option to have someone else ‘take care of it’ for you is simply no longer valid anymore.
Stand up. Step up. Take charge. Make it happen for yourself. No one else is going to do it for you.
J.E. Medrick invites some of the writers for the “Twelve Worlds” anthologies to do a series of interviews and guest blogs over on his site. Mines up now – actually, has been up a few days now, and I’m a little late getting the word out over on my own blog. Been a busy week though.
I wrote about dreams, and how giving up old dreams can be a big factor in the decision to go indie writer, or not. And how it behooves the indie writer to find new dreams to dream… Upbeat stuff, take a peek!
A little over a week ago, writer and fellow Twelve Worlds contributor BC Woods asked me if I’d be interested in a long interview-slash-discussion over on his blog. He presented a list of topics he wanted to talk about that looked really interesting, and he complimented me outrageously, so I said “sure”. ;)
I have to admit, I was really curious walking in how a co-written Google Docs article would feel. I’ve been listening to Joe Konrath talk about using Docs for real time collaboration between writers on new fiction, which sounded pretty amazing. He obviously enjoys working that way, and this was my first chance to co-write something on Google Docs. The experience was interesting – I think fiction would be even more so.
So we talked about a whole bunch of things, ranging from strengths of traditional and indie publishing, to talking about how to deal with the perceived “legitimacy gap” for indies and working on professionalism in our publishing efforts. And then we got a little farther afield on some topics, talking about quality, awards, professional writing organizations, and more.
It’s a fun interview.
It’s also almost 8000 words. Grab a good cuppa something before sitting down to read it.
Joe Konrath ran an interview with Mark Coker of Smashwords the other day. Great interview. Super comments thread. Well worth reading, even the comments, as there’s a lot of meat and Mark takes the time to go in again and again to address various issues folks have had.
But there was a repeating strand of thought in the comments, about trying to break down the “odds” of self publishing vs traditional publishing. The thought seemed to be that someone could somehow do the math and show the odds of any given book making as much or more self published as it would be likely to make picked up by a traditional publisher.
OK, I’m here today to say that publishing is not a lottery. Nor is it a sure thing.
Publishing is an act of hubris.