A Message of Hope and of Responsibility

A while back, a guy wrote an article on salon.com about his failed attempts at self publishing. There was a lot of criticism about the piece because it seemed to cast a negative light on self pubbers and the guy didn’t seem to have tried very hard to make his book a success. Hugh Howey recently wrote a counterpoint article. (Links to both at the bottom of this post.)

If you haven’t read these articles, you should. The blogosphere is aflame with posts about the dueling viewpoints — and rightfully so. They express two points of view that I read a lot in my journeys through forums and blogs:

POV 1 – Over 3 million books will be published this year. If yours sells more than a handful, thank the stars for your luck at finding a market.

POV 2 – If your work is good enough and plentiful enough and you market it right, you will find an audience.

Note that I have no idea where I got that number about the quantity of books to be published. I can’t remember and, frankly, have no idea if it’s accurate. I do know that 93.499152168291063% of all statistics are made up.

The voices espousing POV 1 are much more plentiful than those for the counterpoint, and, I must admit, they sometimes give me pause. There are a lot of authors out there who have spent hundreds/thousands of dollars to publish a book and have sold about 50 copies.

Let’s be honest. I’ve read a lot of traditionally published stuff over the years. The majority of it is simply meh. Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of indie and small pub stuff. Overall, I’d say the quality is less than that of the traditional material.

No one is saying, “If you put something out there, no matter how crappy it is, you’ll sell mega copies.” What POV 2 says is, “If you work on your craft and produce stories that are compelling to your audience and you work hard and smart to find that audience, you will succeed.”

What Hugh says in his article, and what Michael Sullivan preaches all the time, is that there are a lot of people out there earning their living from self publishing. Though you wouldn’t recognize them if you hit them with a truck, they do exist, and they’re plentiful.

This view gives me hope.

This view scares me.

If success absolutely can be achieved, the only person I have to blame if I fail is me.

If POV 2 is correct, there are only 5 reasons for failure:

• I didn’t work hard enough at my craft.
• I didn’t work hard enough producing a sufficient quantity of products.
• I didn’t work smart enough in producing something my audience wants.
• I didn’t work hard enough at reaching my audience.
• I didn’t work smart enough in determining how to reach my audience.

I have hope; I can succeed. But, if I don’t, it’s all my responsibility.

Links:

I’m a Self-Publishing Failure by John Winters

Self-Publishing is the future — and great for writers by Hugh Howey

Examining the Essentials

As my planned date of publication for my debut novel draws closer, I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a story worthy. What should an author most pay attention to? I came up with 4 essentials.

Essential 1 – Don’t Make Stupid Choices

So your story takes place in some ancient country that I’ve never heard of. Great. I’m sure it’s a wonderful setting, but do you really have to use authentic names for your characters? The five scholars who make the study of that country’s history their lives’ work will be appreciative, but the rest of your potential audience will give up reading when they lose track of who and where.

I do understand that no problem is too great that it can’t be solved, and a creative writer can make anything work.

The truth is, writing something people will want to read is freaking hard. Becoming competent in the basics is challenging enough. I just don’t need additional hurdles.

Essential 2 – Setting and Events Don’t Matter Without Context

Let’s say I’m writing a story and choose for my setting: late evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 7, 2010.

To the vast majority of people, the time and date will have no relevance. The location might have some. They may remember a drunken Mardi Gras. Perhaps they have a pleasant association involving their appreciation of the city’s architecture. Maybe they have a negative feel for the place because an old girlfriend from there dumped them.

I wasn’t there at the time the story takes place, but I get goose bumps thinking about it. If I expect my audience automatically to feel the same way, I’m an idiot. It takes work to get them to that point.

The story isn’t about a setting or the events; it’s about a guy. If I show him as a long-suffering Saints fan — throwing the TV remote at the end of yet another 3-13 season, his despair at a series of poor decisions and squandered opportunities — when I take the reader to the culmination of Super Bowl XLIV with this guy surrounded by throngs of the faithful, I can make any reader feel the same emotion that I do (well, maybe ANY reader. It requires the capacity for emotion, and I have a hard time ascribing any human attribute to a Falcons fan.).

Essential 3 – Tension

If a story is life without the boring parts, tension is what removes the boredom. Truthfully, if you want to find a single area on which to concentrate, pick this one.

A story with the tension done right will keep the reader turning pages even if everything else about it pretty much sucks. The reader will finish the book and say, “That writing was kinda crappy,” but they’ll probably buy your next book.

A Brief Aside…

Not making bad choices is the least important of the essentials. Unfortunately, it’s also the one I’m the best at.

I didn’t come to understand the importance of filtering through your POV character until writing my 3rd draft, and I think it shows. I made a valiant effort in my editing, but I still have work to do.

I don’t think that tension is a weakness of mine, but I also wouldn’t consider it a strength. I’ll try to ramp it up in both the final drafts.

That brings me to:

Essential 4 – Emotion

If you want your reader to love your book, you have to make them feel something. The only way to do that is to get the emotion right, and that’s not an easy proposition. You can’t just tell the reader what the character feels; you have to demonstrate it in a way that makes the reader truly understand. If you go too far, though, it induces eye rolling.

This morning, I used my DVR to catch up on an episode of Grimm. One of the ongoing plot lines is the development of a relationship between two of the supporting characters, and it struck me how well the writers are handling that subplot. They don’t devote a lot of time to it, but, what time they do spend, they use well.

First, the guy is just enough of a loser to be sympathetic. I’m firmly rooting for him to win the girl.

Second, they don’t get sappy. He never pines over her. Instead, they show him doing things that indicate his feelings.

In the episode I watched today, the character, a clock repair man, gives his girlfriend a, wait for it, clock. He doesn’t go on and on about his feelings for her; he goes on and on about how awesome the clock is. The camera cuts to the girl, and her expression indicates her understanding of his meaning. It’s fantastic writing.

Quite simply, the 3rd draft of my novel is not where I want it to be in this respect, but I’m working on it. I found this blog post recently that offers tremendous advice: http://awriterstouch.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/words-concrete-and-stacking-stories-3-tips-for-writing-emotion-in-fiction/

I strongly suggest you check it out.

When Is a Book Ready to be Self Published?

I need your help. I’m confused. Bemused. Befuddled.

I. Just. Don’t. Under. Stand.

(Note to Mark: Not a typo; I separated the single word, “understand,” for effect.)

First, some background info:

I’ve done a lot of work in preparation for self publishing Power of the Mages. I’ve:

• Set a goal of what I want the book to accomplish – Not as much in terms of what the book will bring me as far as money goes but what I want the writing to achieve. I want to immerse my reader and evoke an emotional response.
• Studied writing – I think I know, from a theoretical standpoint at least, what it takes to achieve my goal.
• Taken steps to make sure I’m achieving my goal – I’ve sought feedback from sources that I trust.

Most of all, I continually re-evaluate if the book is ready.

I have an aggressive timeline ahead of me. I’m going to read the 3rd draft in early May, jot down notes, collect beta reader comments, and incorporate all relevant suggestions. By May 8, I want my 4th draft to be in the hands of my editor.

Once I get his analysis, my schedule stays tight — six weeks to get to the finished stage in order to release on August 1.

If I can’t meet that goal or the editor tells me the book needs a lot more work, I’ll push my deadline.

I feel two competing interests warring inside me:

1. The book will never be perfect. I could spend the rest of my life working on it, and, on my deathbed, I’d find something that could be tweaked. At some point, I just have to send it out there and accept that my next book will be better because my skill will be better.
2. If the book isn’t good enough, it does nothing for me. My marketing plan relies on the book compelling readers to recommend it to others. If it’s not at that level, publishing it is pointless.

There are tough decisions to make in my future, and thoughts of that process have me thinking a lot about when and why a book should be self published.

Here’s what I do understand:

Situation 1

An author studies the craft, creates an incredible book, and self publishes it. This situation is the one I want for me. I also want to find these books so that I can recommend them to others.

Situation 2

The author is delusional. Let’s face it, there are many people out there who just don’t get it. They think their book has merit simply because they put in the hard work of writing it. You can usually tell in the first couple of paragraphs that they don’t understand how to construct a simple declarative sentence, much less convey a story. Telling them what they did wrong is pointless; they lack too much basic understanding. While I don’t desire to encounter these books, I, at least, understand what drives the publishing of them. My response is to roll my eyes and move on.

Situation 3

Though the technique and writing may be spotty and editing close to non-existent, there’s something about the story that appeals to the audience. A reader of romance may not care much about story and style as long as the emotional punch is delivered. An action fan might not care about the plot plausibility as long as their pulse is kept pounding. A writer of this type of work has discovered that it’s more profitable to produce the next book than it is to tweak the first one to death. I respect and understand that decision.

Here’s what completely baffles me:

I’m reading a book right now that fits into a fourth situation, and I just don’t understand the concept. If it were an isolated case, I’d simply shrug my shoulders. However, I’ve encountered it many times.

Situation 4

An author is talented enough to create compelling story elements but the work — both from a storytelling and technique standpoint — is unpolished.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 1. It’s not good enough that I can recommend it to others. It feels like a decent second draft.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 2. The author has some skill. He’s not so delusional that he obviously has no idea what makes a book good.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 3. There’s no strong core to the book that’s going to produce an audience.

Simply put, it feels like the author put in a lot of work; got tired before getting to the finish line; said, “Screw it, good enough;” and hit “Publish.”

Don’t let that be you. If you’re that close, please take it the rest of the way. I know it’s a hard road, but making it to the end will be so much more rewarding than collapsing onto the curb.

Push on, writer. Push on.

We Hold These Truths About Self Editing

In my travels around the internet and my adventures critiquing others’ writing, I’ve found two statements about editing that bother me.

“Truth” 1: You can’t edit yourself.

Before you editors in my audience get too worked up, I’m not disagreeing with the premise that a finished, professional product requires the services of a professional editor. I can’t imagine putting a work for sale without, at the very least, a structural edit.

I disagree with an implication I’m getting from the statement, one that I’m not sure was intended but that bothers me a lot — that an author shouldn’t do everything he can to edit himself. After all, if it’s not possible to edit yourself, why should you try?

More indicative of this attitude is a statement I’ve seen too many times to count from those who have been critiqued:

“Truth” 2: I don’t have to (punctuate correctly, understand basic grammar rules, craft a coherent thought, produce more than a jumble of random words, etc.); that’s what editors are for.

That attitude makes my head want to explode.

Here are my truths about editing:

Truth 1 – If you’re going to be a writer, do it right.

You simply must employ the services of an editor before hitting “publish” for your precious manuscript. If you’re not serious enough about producing a quality product that you can’t make that monetary investment, how can you expect anyone to pay for your work?

The most likely results of failure to do so is:

• You embarrass yourself.
• You make the rest of us self-publishers look bad.

If you truly don’t have any money, try crowdsourcing. If your work has any merit, you should be able to generate enough money for at least a manuscript review by a freelance editor. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

Truth 2 – Self edit before the edit.

Three reasons:

• Your editor is a professional, meaning that’s how he makes his livelihood. He’s charging you per word as a way to estimate the amount of time he will spend working on your manuscript. He cannot afford to spend more than that allotted amount of time. Once he hits that limit, he has to move on to the next client. Would you rather he spent his time taking your work from horrible to readable or from good to great?
• Editing is freaking expensive. Unless you have a publisher that’s paying for it or you expect your book to make six figures, it’s simply not cost effective to have an editor fix mistakes that you could have caught.
• An editor can only take your work so far above the starting point. When I critique someone, I can’t do much if I can’t understand what they’re trying to convey. All I can do is point out the confusion. If I can understand but the wording/technique is off, I can suggest a remedy. If the wording/technique is good, I can focus on how that piece fits in with the overall story.

Truth 3 – Sweat the small stuff.

Similar to the attitude that it’s the editor’s responsibility to fix all your wrongs is the attitude that small mistakes don’t matter.

What’s more important — not using adverbs or having a coherent plot?

Obviously the latter.

The big stuff — plot, character, tension, emotion — take your work from useless drivel to readable. If you want to find any audience at all, you must master these elements.

If, however, you want your work to be great, you have to master the small stuff.

No one, beside another writer, is going to read your book and say, “It was awesome. The author didn’t overuse adverbs.”

What’s going to happen is, since you found ways to immerse the reader in lieu of using adverbs, the reader is going to turn page after page until the end and say, “Wow, that was awesome. I couldn’t put it down.”

Each time you make a mistake, you pull the reader out of the story. Enough mistakes, and you lose them.

There Are No Magic Sentences

Did you do this? When I first decided to become a writer, I’d finish reading a book that had totally engrossed me, and I’d look at the individual sentences and wonder how the author had created such magical constructs of words to transport me to another time and place. My confusion grew as I realized that each sentence was simply a combination of ordinary words put together in an ordinary manner.

As an adult and someone who has studied writing for quite some time now, I know a couple of truths:

Truth 1 – There are no magic sentences.

Words are simply there to convey the story. There’s nothing special about them or the way they’re combined. Bully for you if you happen to come up with the “perfect” sentence or a nice turn of a phrase, but, really, it’s not necessary.

Truth 2 – If your story is compelling enough, your readers are going to love it regardless of breaking “rules” or your skill with craft or anything else.

I can use the best craft imaginable to convey my story, but, if the story isn’t compelling, it won’t matter. At the same time, if the story is good enough, the reader doesn’t care about my craft.

Some of the people reading the above sentences are thinking, “Exactly. There’s no reason for me to follow the ‘rules;’ I can write however I want.” Some long-time readers of this blog are thinking, “Then why in the crap do you spend so much time on this blog emphasizing writing tips if they’re basically worthless?”

Both those sets of readers missed the biggest two-letter word in the English language — if.

Over the last year, I’ve read a lot of self published novels. During the years before that, I read a lot of traditionally published novels. Through my experience, I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion:

You are not as good at crafting a compelling story as you think you are.

There are few novels that are truly compelling, especially in comparison to the number of novels produced. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that your novel is compelling, and, if it’s not, you need every advantage you can get in order to produce a quality product. That’s where the “rules” come in.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time examining ways to put words together. They’ve discovered what tends to engage the reader and what tends to draw the reader out of the story. They understand that writing isn’t math — there are no absolutes — but they assembled guidelines that, in general, help an author to convey their story better.

I can hear your question, “Even given that skill at technique is needed, if story is more important, why so much focus on technique?” I’m glad you asked. There are several factors at play:

1. Writers learn basic storytelling from a lifetime of experience reading. If you’ve read and watched television and movies for a long time, you probably have a decent understanding of the fundamentals.
2. True skill and discernment at storytelling is difficult to master and doesn’t easily break down into a set of guidelines. It’s going to take you a lot of time and effort reading analytically and trying to reproduce results to master the craft. Even after you spend a lot of time at this pursuit, you’re not going to see much in the way of measureable improvement until you reach breakthroughs.
3. Technique is easy to learn. There are millions of books and posts telling you how to improve.
4. Getting better at technique leads to immediate improvement that’s easy to see.

Let me be completely honest with you. I think Power of the Mages will be a decent book. Most people who read it should come away with a positive experience. My storytelling doesn’t completely suck, and I’ve worked hard to bring my technique up to a level where it doesn’t detract from the story.

The novel, however good it will be now, is but a shadow of how good it would be if I waited another five years to publish it due to the anticipated development of my storytelling ability. Maybe I should wait. When it comes right down to it, though, I think it’s good enough to be published and good enough to start building me an audience.

If you believe the alternative is better, to build your storytelling skills first, here’s how you do it…

TO BE CONTINUED

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of this post. Same Bat-Time. Same Bat-Channel.

Why I Plan to Ignore My Marketing Advice

At the moment, I think that my marketing activities are proportional. I spend a bit of time here and there doing research, and I blog for about 3 hours a week. Were I to keep up that rate, I’d say it would be a good balance of producing new work to selling activities.

Instead, I plan to spend an entire month doing nothing but marketing — almost no writing at all.

• April – Work on Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion
• Early May – Collect 3rd draft beta reader comments for Power of the Mages and send it to the editor
• June – Finalize Power of the Mages and create review copy (including, ugh, maps)
• July – Besides last minute touches, do marketing
• August – Release Power of the Mages, finish up rough draft of Daniel Darcy 1, and work on compiling blog posts into a nonfiction book

Obviously, this approach does not embrace the balance that I called for in previous posts. Here’s why I made that decision:

1. I fear losing motivation – The vast majority of self published authors sell a few copies to their friends and family, and that’s about it. If I don’t do better than that, I think I’ll get seriously discouraged.

2. The need to swing for the fences is a personal trait – While it’s not likely that a first novel by a self published author is going to be a runaway hit, the possibility exists. I need to give the book that chance of success.

3. It fits my long term plan – Between August 1 of this year and August 1 of 2014, I want to have 5 works on Amazon:

a. Power of the Mages (August 1, 2013)
b. 12 Simple Techniques for Improving Your Fiction Writing: Avoiding the Most Common Mistakes of New Authors (late 2013)
c. Daniel Darcy 1: The Exardo Invasion (Spring 2014)
d. The Slender Man Massacre (Summer 2014)
e. Novelette/novella that comprises the 2nd part of my Dark Power series (Fall 2014)

4. The most effective marketing efforts take time to build –

a. Followers
b. Email list
c. Spreadsheet of bloggers

I don’t know if my first novel is going to sell one copy or a hundred or a thousand in its first year. From the numbers I’ve seen, if it hits 300, I should be happy. My efforts probably aren’t going to take it past that quantity, but I have to try.

The Two Conflicting Principles of Book Marketing for Self Published Authors

The most important thing you can do to market your book is come up with a comprehensive plan, and doing so requires consideration of two principles. Before we get to those, however, it’s important to understand two concepts:

Concept 1: The key to social media is that it’s social, not selling.

If your idea of using social media for book marketing is to tweet, “Buy My Book #mybookisawesome,” you’re not going to get many sales. In fact, you’re probably going to gain a bad reputation and, perhaps, see a backlash.

Social media is about building relationships with your potential customer base.

If your sole motivation for blogging is to sell your book, nobody is going to read your blog. If your purpose of being on a forum is to sell your book, no one is going to pay attention to your posts. If your main focus of Facebook updates is telling people about your book, you’re not going to get many likes or reach many people.

If, however, you interact with people, all these places can be great sources of both help and potential customers. Find a purpose for your blog. Contribute meaningful content to the forum. Use Facebook to connect with people.

The problem is that using social media correctly takes time. Not only do you have to learn the technical ins and outs, you have to understand the etiquette for each medium.

Concept 2: Cost means more than just literal dollars spent.

When I spend an hour creating a blog post, that’s an hour I didn’t spend writing or editing or even learning more about my craft. This concept is called opportunity cost, and, when I mention dollar figures in this post, that’s what I’m referring to in lieu of actually opening up a wallet.

So, with those ideas out of the way, let’s consider the creation of your marketing plan. The good news is that, in terms of deciding what resources to spend on marketing, there are only two principles you need to consider. The bad news is that those fundamentals are in direct conflict with each other.

Principle 1: The more products you have available as an author, the more cost effective your marketing efforts become.

Let’s consider the opportunity cost of marketing. I spend an hour creating a blog post or going on a forum or researching effective use of Facebook. At least a portion of that hour, I could have been writing or editing or learning more about storytelling or technique. That time I would have spent doing authorly things would have directly resulted in some portion of a product being created.

Envision me surrounded by charts and graphs. Assume I have projections and hard data. Picture a differential equation that I use a numerical method to solve. (Note that I don’t say I actually did any of this stuff, just that I want you to think of me doing it instead of just choosing random numbers.)

If I have a single book out, it costs $10 to generate one sale. Each sale generates $4 of revenue. Therefore, I’m losing $6 per sale.

I add a second book, and the fundamental math changes. I still only sell one copy of the book I’m advertising, but, now, half my customers go and buy my first novel as well. I’m still spending $10, but, instead of generating only $4 of revenue, I’m getting $6. I’m only losing $4 per sale! Whoohoo!

When I add my third book, some of my customers now buy one previous work and some both. My revenue on the same outlay increases to $7.50.

As you can see, eventually I’ll actually start making a profit. Based on anecdotal evidence, this tipping point comes around the 5th or 6th book.

The implication is clear: It makes no sense to market your book when you only have one out. You’re losing money on each hour you spend. Once you have five or six books, start marketing.

Principle 2: Each additional hour you spend on social media marketing increases your efficiency for future efforts.

There are two factors at work behind this principle.

1. There’s an initial outlay of learning the medium, setting up accounts, becoming proficient with the software, understanding the etiquette, etc. Once that learning is out of the way, creating content takes less time.
2. Your influence grows with time. One follower becomes a hundred becomes a thousand. Given a set conversion rate of followers to sales, sending notices to more people generates more sales for the same amount of effort.

In this manner, the longer you’ve been a user of a particular social medium, the more efficient you are at reaching customers. My first experiences tweeting will cost me $10 to make a sale. By the time I’ve been doing it a year, maybe I’m down to only $7 worth of effort for the same result.

The implication of this principle is also quite clear: You need to market as early as possible. Basically, as soon as you think you might become an author, you should start building a platform.

See the problem?

An author needs to:

1. Wait to market until he has 5 to 6 books out.
2. Begin marketing as soon as possible.

What’s the solution?

As with everything in life, the answer is balance. Either extreme is likely to result in failure.

If you do no marketing at all from the start, your book is not going to sell at all. You run the risk of becoming discouraged and giving up. Also, self publishing involves real cost. Editing and cover art adds up quickly. If you’re not selling anything, where does that money come from?

On the other hand, if you spend all your time blogging and on forums and connecting on Facebook, how are you going to ever produce even that first novel, much less five or six?

I think the balance point is different for each person. The important point is to consider each principle carefully and make wise decisions.