Monday, March 21, 2011

Writing is Like Fixing the Toaster

Last week I was asked to help update another blog I post to. We were trying to add a couple of new features to the sidebar and the person who set up the blog template has a really busy schedule and didn’t have time to update it. Unfortunately, the blog was not a standard out of the box template. It was written in straight HTML so I couldn’t just find the widget and add it.

The good news is that the code was done by a professional coder, so it was neatly laid out and well documented. The bad news is that I am not a programmer. So I did what I usually do when I’m trying to fix something. I dug around inside and started playing with stuff (being careful not to permanently change anything until I’d figured it out.)

First, I found what appeared to be a complete section of code for one of the existing sidebar boxes, and deleted it. Then I looked at a preview version to see what I had done. Turns out I hadn’t gotten all the code for that box. I tried it again, and appeared to have succeeded. Next I reset the code to its original form and pasted in the code I had deleted before—creating a second copy of that box. With a little more messing around, I was able to create a new box, add the spacing images above and below it, and eventually paste in the new code for the widget I was adding.

My wife likes that I can fix most things around the house. Again, I follow a pretty standard procedure. Poke around, being careful not to break anything, see if I can figure out how it works, then determine, whether or not it is something I should try to fix myself or hand off to a professional. I recently saved about $500 by replacing the circuit board in our furnace myself. (While being EXTREMELY careful to make sure I wasn’t doing anything that could explode, suffocate, burst into flames, etc.)

Partly I’m telling you this to brag a little. I mean seriously, when you find something that’s broken and fix it to like new (or better than new) status, you want to get all the applause you can. Am I right?

Mostly though, I’m telling you this because I think it relates to writing. The curse of many writers (especially those that are new to the craft) is that we want everything to come from our imagination to the paper perfectly the first time. We read a book we like, and in our minds we imagine our favorite author penning those words exactly the way we read them on the first try.

In reality, writing is a lot more like dabbling in programming code or fixing an appliance. Let’s divide writing into a couple of sections.

1) Before You Open the Hood—When fixing an appliance, the first thing you do is a little research. Any information available on-line? It’s much easier if you can find instructions (and warnings) from people who do this a lot and know what you are about to try. When I added my widgets, I Googled the issue I was looking at and got some good help. 

In writing, this is the part where you play with the story in your head. Do you know what is going to happen? What if you did this? What if you tried that? Recently you read a great book where the author did a, b, and c. Any chance you could use that kind of set up in your story? Do a little freestyle internet research, where you start with one thing and follow various links to see what you can find. I can’t stress enough the value of thinking before writing.

2) Dig In—This is the part that scares most people off. Both in writing and fixing things. Do I really know what I’m doing"? What if I screw something up?

In fixing something, the first and foremost goal is not to screw it up any worse than it already is. So a little caution is a good thing.

In writing, you have no such worries. You started with a blank screen or piece of paper. At the end of the day, the worst thing you will have is a blank screen or paper. As long as you put down words, you have something to work with. To quote some editor, “You can’t edit nothing.” But you can always improve what you have written, Will it be perfect? Not if you’re like me and 99% of the rest of the writers out there. Will it even make it into the final version? Maybe not. Will it take you a step closer to the final version absolutely.

The beginning of a story can be one of the most daunting things for a writer. Until you put a word down on paper, the story can be perfect inside your head. As soon as you start writing, problems arise. What makes it even worse is that often you don’t know your characters, voice, or even exactly where the story is going until you’re well into it.

A good friend of mine, and fellow critique group member, Annette Lyon, doesn’t put chapter numbers on her first few chapters for this very reason. It lets her dive into the story without the anxiety of thinking, “This is the first word, sentence, page, that my reader will see.” Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. You can figure that out later. The key is to get writing.

3) Figure Out How It Works—This is actually my favorite part of writing. You are not finalizing anything. You are not committed to any course of direction. You are just fiddling. The other day, the door that goes from our garage to our house stopped swinging closed by itself. My wife pointed this out to me, and after a week or two of complaining every time someone forgot and didn’t close the door all the way, I examined the mechanism. It turns out there are two spring-loaded hinges. So are they broken now and need to be replaced or can I fix them? Well first I have to figure out how they work. There has to be some way to loosen and tighten them or you would never be able to get them on an open door in the first place. Hmmm, a hex bolt. What’s this little pin do? Sproing! Ahh, it holds the spring in place.

Same deal with your writing. So often we stop because we are afraid of drawing our character wrong. But remember, there is nothing to break here. The worst that happens is that you erase and start over. Character boring? Try a new voice or angle or gender or age. Give her a twitch or a have him be starting a new diet. Play with your story until you figure out how it works and where it’s going. Stuck on a scene? I have the perfect fix for you. Add this note. “Something cool happens here.” Then continue writing the part you know. The magic is that later in the story you will discover precisely what should go there.

In a nutshell, give yourself permission to make mistakes.

4) Fix It—If you have made it to this point, hurray! You are well on your way to success. As long as you actually have written an entire story to fix. If you have written three pages and are now going back to edit those pages, stop it!!! Didn’t you read anything I just said? How can you fix your story when you haven’t put in the blood, sweat and tears to discover how it works?

Get as much of it done as you can before going back and fixing. One you do start fixing, the the key is to view your story like a house full of furniture. Move it around. Try a new look. Keep playing until it feels right to you. then move on to the next room. I tend to do a lot of this.

She peeked around the corner. Her feet kicked up a loose piece of carpet and a beetle scurried out from the dirt.

“Do you hear anything?” he asked.

What were they doing here anyway? If her mother knew what she’d been doing. She would be toast.

The ancient hotel creaked like a battleship in a rough sea.


Hmm, what if I build up to the bug, but make it even creepier?        

“Do you hear anything?” he asked.

The ancient hotel creaked like a battleship in a rough sea. “No.”

What were they doing here anyway? If her mother knew she’d returned to the abandoned building, she would be toast.

As she peeked around the corner, her foot kicked up a loose piece of carpet and a nest of tiny black spiders darted out of the darkness up the wall and across the floor. One climbed up her shoe and leaped onto her bare ankle.

Same basic story, but we move things around a little, fix some grammar, and add a nasty little detail to crank up the tension. You can do the same thing with entire chapters. What if the police chief doesn’t learn that his wife is missing until after he discovers the note?

Not everything I try to fix works out. Sometimes I have to give it up as a lost cause. That may happen to your stories on occasion too. But that’s okay. It’s part of the process. By getting rid of the junk it’s easier to discover the gems. The key is to not let the enormity of the project, your inexperience, or hiccups in the process stop you. The only book you don’t learn from is the one you never try to write.

And remember, it’s by giving yourself permission to fail that you allow yourself the opportunity to succeed.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Shortcut or Another Path

When I was about four, my family went camping. Shortly after setting up our tent, stove, obligatory giant thermos of Kool-Aid, etc, my Dad took my older sister and me down the road to the bathrooms. Camp ground bathrooms, shudder, but that’s another story. After we were done, he said, “You two take the road back to the campground and see if you can beat me.”

We ran like bats out of . . . a campground bathroom, only to discover our Dad waiting by the tent. He’d taken a shortcut. My sister, being the older and smarter of the two of us, quickly discovered the path that led directly from the facilities to our tent. I, being younger and dumber, watched enviously and when no one was looking, attempted to discover the great toilet trail myself.

Can you see this coming? If you close your eyes, can you see this kid wondering into the deep woods in search a shortcut to the potty?

Vicki  Jeff (2)   

Then can you imagine this mom going, “Wait, you told my baby there was a shortcut through the woods and then didn’t keep an eye on him?” Yeah, us dads are not always the sharpest tacks in the drawer.

Obviously I didn’t get eaten by a bear, washed away by a river, or stolen by a stranger of dubious intent. In fact when I was found a couple of hours later, my entire narrative of the harrowing events was, “I cried three time and I prayed four times.” Whew good thing it hadn’t gone the other way or I might have been blogging to the Heavenly Hosts.

Over the years, my storytelling has hopefully improved a little, but my love of shortcuts has only grown. I LOVE, I mean LOVE a good shortcut. It is so cool to know that you know a better way than most people. I’m always looking for an angle. I have learned to master the art of buying hotel rooms on Priceline, And you know what? William Shatner is right. It does feel great to check into the Atlanta Airport Westin knowing you only paid $40, when everyone else is paying $100 or more. A long time ago,I played World of Warcraft for about a year, until I realized how much time I was wasting on it. My favorite things were learning a trick that would let me earn a lot of gold more quickly than everyone else or an easy way to level up fast.

When I got into writing and publishing, I felt exactly the same. I figured there had to be a way to jump to the top of the list. Let me clarify. I wasn’t looking to avoid hard work. Quite the opposite. Often shortcuts require as much or more work than the normal path, they are just faster. I tried contests and blogs. I was one of the first people I’d ever heard of doing a  blog tour and I did it with over 200 blogs. I soon became recognized as a  guy to come to if you had marketing questions.

Along the way, I learned things. Again this is pretty normal in my opinion. In order to find a shortcut, you often have to try a number of paths that either dead end or turn out to be longer than the path most people take. The nice thing about the world of writing is that there are many, many people who have tried different paths and are willing to share their stories of success and failure. The bad thing is that what works perfectly for one person doesn’t necessarily work the same way for another. She met an agent at a conference, struck up a friendship and sold her her vampire trilogy. He self-published a Christmas book and parlayed into a multimillion dollar career. Just because you sold a gazillion books by e-publishing, doesn’t mean that will work for me. And just because I got an agent through the slush pile doesn’t mean that will work for you.

Which leads us (in a very non shortcutty fashion) to my topic today. Are e-books a shortcut to success? Have we reached an age where hundreds of queries, hundreds of rejections, negative editors, and over-budget publishers are no longer necessary?


Wait, what? Not what you were expecting me to say? I know. Over the years I’ve kind of build up a reputation as being dubious about the whole “radical publishing paradigm shift” thing. I’m a huge proponent of e-books. Anything that lets people carry and read more books and buy them whenever they want and wherever they are is a great thing in my opinion. I’m just not sure that changing the medium automatically changes the process as much as most people think.

But Amanda Hocking and many other authors have clearly proved that you can be a successful author without an agent, editor, the marketing of big publishers, or even a tangible book. The words can pour directly from your brain, through a keyboard, to the internet, and into a readers e-book device without needing the approval of a single person other than you and your readers. So, yes, agents, editors, and publishers are no longer necessary. There is a path you can take that has led others to success which is much quicker and possibly less painful than the traditional one most authors have followed for over a hundred years.

The question in my mind is not so much can this process work as whether we are seeing a shortcut to success or an alternate route. Is that ambiguous enough for you? Let me try and clarify my question with part of an e-mail I recently received from my good friend Dave Cebrowski.

“Can a writer - one that is unpublished make a living selling e-books - think about it - if you could sell 100,000 books a year, couldn't you live on that? Sure you have other marketing costs to promote the book - so figure 20% so maybe you sell 200k books a year as ebooks and make the rest of your living from speaking engagements and consulting work to other up-and-coming authors.”

Obviously, as we just discussed, the answer is yes. It can and does happen. But does it happen enough that we could call it a shortcut? Imagine that you and your neighbor drive to work at the same time each day. You live next door to each other. You work in the same office building. You leave at exactly the same time. The only difference is that he takes the freeway and you take the side roads. If one of you always gets there faster that would be a shortcut. Even if the faster path was occasionally longer due to traffic, weather, or other conditions, it would still be a shortcut. But if one day route A was faster, and the next day route B was faster, and you couldn’t count on either way constantly saving you time, what you would have is not a shortcut, but an alternate route.

So let’s examine e-book publishing in that light. Is e-book publishing a faster route to publications? Yes, hands down no brainer. If you know your stuff, you can turn an unpublished manuscript into a work for sale in less than 24 hours. You could potentially sell your first book before you could get your first rejection going the traditional route. Is it easier? Once you learn the basics of layout, find someone to do your cover, etc, it is generally much easier to publish your own book than to convince someone to publish your book for you. 

Is it more profitable? Here’s where things start to get a little less clear. First of all, profit may not mean anything to you. Very few of us started writing with the goal of making a living at it. And even fewer of us kept that dream once we realized how incredibly difficult it is to make a living. But for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that you do still have the dream, as I do, to make a living writing fulltime, and move on to how an author makes money.

In its most simple terms profit equals number of books sold x royalty earned. The great thing about self-publishing an e-book is that the royalty you earn is awesome. If you sell a book for even $2.99 on Amazon, you can earn $2 per book. Double the price and you get double the royalty and so on and so on. Theoretically, you could get to the point of the kid who has a lemonade stand selling one glass for a million dollars and thinking, “All I have to do is sell one glass.” But obviously price point has an impact.

Let’s stick with our lemonade stand analogy for a minute. Traditionally the problem with self publishing was the same problem you had with owning a lemonade stand. You make all the profit, but you also have all the overhead. E-books took away the overhead. You can now publish a book without paying a cent. The other problem you had was that you had limited distribution. Unless your lemonade stand was in a shopping mall or along the side of a busy road, you couldn’t get a lot of potential customers. Same with self-publishing. It was next to impossible to get into book stores. With e-books you can immediately get yourself into the largest bookstores.


You have now addressed two of the biggest problems with self-publishing: start-up costs and distribution. But there is still another big hurdle that even e-books can’t get you over. You have distribution, but how do you generate demand? Let’s imagine that now every kid who opens a lemonade stand can instantly sell virtual lemonade to anyone in the world. The good news is that anyone can buy a glass from you. And since you have no overhead at all, you can sell your lemonade pretty darn cheaply. But how do you separate your lemonade from everyone else’s? If you get there early you won’t have as much competition. And if your lemonade is already well known from selling lemonade traditionally, so much the better. And hopefully your lemonade is so good people will give it great on-line reviews.

Still there are more lemonade makers coming on-line every day. And some of them are owned by big companies who can do lots of marketing. Or people who are already well known from their other ventures. You start to despair until you read about another person just like you who opened a virtual lemonade stand last year and is now making money hand over fist. If she can do it anyone can. Perfect! Nothing can stand in your way.

But let’s leave our lemonade analogy and go back to our drive to work analogy. Amanda Hocking and others got to work much quicker. In fact they not only got there quicker, but their experience was better than the vast majority of even the authors who succeeded in the traditional route. The e-book route worked for them. Are they representative of most e-books authors though? Do more authors who publish e-books succeed more than authors who take the traditional route?

Defining success as selling enough books to make a living (which is what has gotten Hocking and others this sudden national exposure) the answer is definitely not. Most authors who are making a living writing fiction are doing it through traditional publishers. And the numbers aren’t even close. That’s what makes authors like Hocking and JA Konrath such big news. They are the huge exceptions. They are the lottery winners, and they know it. Using them as examples of why you should go straight to self-published e-book is like using JK Rowling and other hugely successful authors as examples of why you should quit your job and write books. they are what R&D departments call outliers.If you want to make a living as an author, your chances are much, much better if you are published with a traditional publisher than if you self-publish.

There’s one last thing we need to consider in this scenario though. How many people try to get published with traditional publishers but don’t make it? That definitely affects the odds. If a million people all go the traditional route and only a few thousand  are accepted, the vast majority of people who write books never even have a chance at success. Whereas if those million people all publish e-books, most of them won’t make much money, but all of them will at least have a chance to. Is that a good thing? It is if you are one of those authors. So while your odds of success are much better if you get a national agent and a big publisher, your odds of at least being in the game are better if you self-publish.

This post is not to say you should or shouldn’t self-publish e-books. Just like the gold rush, this is an exciting time for authors. You write the best book you can, stick it out in the big world and hope to hit the mother load. And if your book is good enough, and you work hard enough, and the dice roll your way, you may be the next Amanda Hocking.

But knowing that most people selling enough books to make a living are doing with the backing of traditional publishers (either currently or before they started self-publishing) doesn’t it make sense to at least try the traditional route with your book before going straight to e-book?

Marion Jensen and I were having a discussion recently at the LTUE conference. He said something to the effect of if your options were going with a publisher that could only sell a thousand books or so, or self-publishing an e-book, which route would you choose? For me, that question is a no brainer. If I sell a thousand books with a small publisher, I make at most $1,000. And they keep the e-book rights to my title forever. If I self-publish, I may only sell a hundred books, but I have the potential to sell many, many more, and I keep getting the royalties forever. Therefore if my goal is to make more money, I go the e-book route. If my goal is to sell more books, I probably still go the e-book route.

That being said, for me personally, I could never convince myself to self-publish a book without at least trying to get it published nationally first. Even Amanda Hocking tried to get an agent and a national publisher publisher before going her own route. I think Brandon Mull said it best when we were at a conference together and he was asked if he preferred working with big publishers or small publishers.

He said, “Big publishers can ignore you and small publishers can ignore you. Big publisher can promote you and small publishers can promote you. The difference is that when a big publisher decides to promote you they can have a much bigger impact.”

I think self-pubbed e-books are a great way to go. They offer many benefits that the traditional route does not. But if your goal is to make make enough money to earn a living writing, self-publishing is simply another route. Not a shortcut.