Anthony Trollope: The Writer’s Writer, Part 2

Last week I wrote that the Victorian writer Anthony Trollope is my writing mentor. He is the one who keeps my feet on the ground when it comes to writing and advice and writing fads.

This week I would like to continue exploring what today’s indie authors can learn from Anthony Trollope. Let’s look at a few more areas where he can teach us valuable lessons.

Gadgets

Lots of writers spend lots of money on all manner of gadgets and software to help them write. I think it is an age thing. Those who grew up with computers are more likely to be attracted to gadgets to help them write.

But gadgets do not make the writer.

Trollope wrote with a steel dip pen, ink, and paper. That’s it. No Scrivener. No Dragon. No Hemingway Editor. No classes to learn how to use Scrivener. And certainly no computer.

We don’t need gadgets to write well. We might think we do because we live in an age filled with gadgets. What we really need to write well, is to know how to tell a story. And sad to say, gadgets can’t help us with that.

There is plenty of evidence that shows writing by hand will produce a superior product. And Trollope has shown us that we can produce 10 books a year simply by using pen and paper.

We don’t need gadgets and we don’t need to spend the money to buy the gadgets or learn how to use them. Writers write.

Beats, Structure, and Formulae

Many of my fellow writers obsess over how to tell the story. They get all wrapped up in making sure they have all of the story beats that somebody told them they needed. Or they struggle to fit their story into three-act structure or five-act structure. Or they slavishly follow Lester Dent’s formula or Freitag’s Pyramid.

To my mind this is all crazy. It’s a waste of time. Most of it anyway. We all know conflict drives a story. The conflict can be external or internal. The conflict can be subtle or violent. We know we have to batter our protagonist until he or she reaches down deep to draw on that inner strength that enables him or her to triumph.

So do it. Just tell the doggone story.

Once again, Trollope shows us how to do it. In his Autobiography, Chapter 5, he wrote:

“[The Warden] has a merit of its own,—a merit by my own perception of which I was enabled to see wherein lay whatever strength I did possess. The characters of the bishop, of the archdeacon, of the archdeacon’s wife, and especially of the warden, are all well and clearly drawn. I had realised to myself a series of portraits, and had been able so to put them on the canvas that my readers should see that which I meant them to see. There is no gift which an author can have more useful to him than this.”

Characters. Well drawn and believable characters. That’s what it’s all about. They’re the secret to telling your story. Not beats or formulae. Ray Bradbury put it this way: create your characters, let them do their thing, and there’s your story.

We can spend all the time we want making sure X happens at the one fifth mark of the book and that Y happens at the one third mark of the book. That the mirror point happens precisely at the 50% mark. Etc. etc.

None of that makes for a good story unless one has good characters. As Trollope noted in the seventh chapter of his Autobiography:

“A novel should give a picture of common life enlivened by humour and sweetened by pathos. To make that picture worthy of attention, the canvas should be crowded with real portraits, not of individuals known to the world or to the author, but of created personages impregnated with traits of character which are known. To my thinking, the plot is but the vehicle for all this; and when you have the vehicle without the passengers, a story of mystery in which the agents never spring to life, you have but a wooden show.”

Sure there has to be a story, and Trollope admits this, but the story, the plot, is secondary to the characters. Plot exists in order to bring out the characters of the story. Characters that come across as real. Characters that make us laugh and tug at our heartstrings.

Therefore, create good characters, throw problems at them, and let them do their thing. Letting a story unfold organically will always lead to a better story then one forced into some kind of mold.

Reviews

Writers today obsess about reviews. If they get one bad review, their world seems to fall apart.

Let’s face facts. There are going to be people who don’t like what we write. There are going to be people who love what we write. And there are going to be people who think our writing is okay but no great shakes.

That’s the name of the game. And to top it off, the public is a very fickle creature. What’s hot today will be cold tomorrow.

Trollope had his share of adverse publisher and reader reactions. His first three books sold nothing. As in zero copies. At least that Trollope was aware of. In fact, he didn’t even get paid for the first two because apparently the publisher didn’t make any money. For his third book he received a £20 advance. And that was all the money he ever saw for it. Again, because the publisher didn’t make any money on it.

After those debacles, Trollope didn’t doubt that he should try to be a writer. He accepted the public’s opinion that they didn’t like those books and decided to try his hand at a play. When his friends told him to go back to novel writing he accepted that too. But he never doubted that he could be a writer. And that’s important. He had self-confidence. He just had to identify what the problem was that other people were signifying that he had.

And the problem for Trollope turned out to be subject matter. Apparently the English public wasn’t ready for Irish novels, or historical novels (at least how Trollope wrote them).

So Trollope turned to writing a contemporary novel set in a fictional English cathedral city. With The Warden, his fourth novel, Anthony Trollope finally made some money. In two years, he made a little over £20 from royalties. Or about $2700 in today’s money. Two years later, Barchester Towers was published, for which he received an advance of £100.

Trollope had finally achieved success. He hit on a subject the English reading public liked. His strength was in writing contemporary novels about the people in his own class. And he did it well. Mostly because his characters are so delightful.

The lesson for us is if we wish to make money writing, then we need to write what we know and write what resonates with the market.

Many writers eschew writing to market. They somehow think that sullies their reputation or the literary quality of what they write. But stop and think about this for a moment. Shakespeare wrote to market. Dickens wrote to market. Longfellow, about the only poet who ever made a living from poetry, wrote to market. There is nothing wrong with writing to market, unless one does a very bad job of it. And unfortunately there are writers who do.

Writing to market simply means you’re writing books or short stories that people want to read. Trollope’s Irish novels are very good, but no one in the 1840s wanted to read them. Trollope loved Ireland and could have written lots more Irish novels, but he wanted to make a living from writing and knew that if he persisted in writing Irish novels he would not be able to accomplish his goal. So he eventually turned to writing about the other thing he knew — his own class, and the reading public devoured his books.

Regardless of what he wrote, Trollope’s goal was to write the best book that he could. Shouldn’t that be our goal? And does the genre or subject matter truly matter that much?

If you like science fiction, and military science fiction is all the rage, then write the best military science fiction novel that you can. Trollope didn’t especially love English cathedral cities. But he knew the setting would enable him to write about the people he knew and from that produce good books. If we want to be successful, doesn’t Trollope’s attitude and approach make sense?

When we get bad reviews, we should look at what the people are really saying. Maybe they’re telling us something, and maybe we need to take heed of what they’re telling us. Trollope did, and went on to become a very successful author.

Anthony Trollope is a person who can show us how to triumph in adversity, set a dream for ourselves, and through perseverance and astute observation achieve that dream.

You can get Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography for free at Project Gutenberg. It’s a marvelous handbook for success.

As always comments are welcome, and until next time happy reading and writing!

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Anthony Trollope: The Writer’s Writer, Part 1

The Victorian writer Anthony Trollope is my writing mentor. He is the one who keeps my feet on the ground when it comes to writing and writing fads. For even though he lived in the 19th century (1815-1882), he was very much a 21st century indie author in sentiment.

In his own day, he was a popular novelist. Not on par with the likes of Dickens or Thackeray, nevertheless his name was more or less a household word. He wrote what would probably be called today slice-of-life mainstream fiction. Novels about the goings on of upper-class English society, for the most part. His books tend to be light, have plenty of humor, and a healthy dollop of social satire.

What can today’s indie authors learn from Anthony Trollope? Just about everything to guide and direct our attitude and to developing a methodology towards maintaining a writing career.

Let’s look at a few areas where I see my fellow authors struggling to come to grips with the writing life and where Trollope can teach us valuable lessons.

Quitting the Day Job

On Facebook group after Facebook group, I see my fellow writers in a frenzy to write and sell enough in order to quit the day job and write full-time. And in this frenzy they fall victim to all manner of hucksters selling (operative word here) services and advice. (NB: I don’t mean all the middlemen catering to writers are hucksters. Just remember, though, PT Barnum’s quip: a sucker is born every minute. We should strive to not be the suckers.)

Anthony Trollope, on the other hand, shows us we can write full time by writing part-time.

Anthony Trollope was a busy man. He worked full time at the post office (he invented the iconic British pillar mailbox). He was a social man. He went hunting at least twice a week, frequently played whist, visited with friends, and spent at least six weeks out of England on holiday. He was also married and had a family. He was a very busy man indeed! He did all of that and devoted three hours every day to writing, which he did in the morning before going to work.

And from those three hours each day of writing he produced a large body of work. In the course of a 35 year writing career he produced 47 novels, 44 short stories, 17 books of nonfiction, 20 articles, 2 plays, plus numerous letters.

Anthony Trollope proves one does not have to quit the day job to be a full-time writer. Because one can be a full-time writer writing only part-time.

Productivity

Go to any Facebook writer’s group and at some point a discussion will arise regarding writing speed and daily word production. One can find books on how to produce 5000 or 10,000 words a day. Of course those books are for sale, which gives us an idea as to how those authors earn their living. One of the latest fads on how to get more production is dictating one’s novel. And the fads keep on coming.

In the end, the only way to produce a high word count each day is to put your butt in your chair and write. Avoid distractions and write.

One hundred sixty years ago, Anthony Trollope showed us a very simple way to produce enough words in a year to be a prolific author. In his own day, Trollope was known as The Writing Machine.

He got up at 5:30 AM to began his three hour stint at writing. The first half-hour was spent reviewing the previous day’s work.

Then he put his watch on his desk and began writing for 2 1/2 hours. Trollope’s goal was to write one page, 250 words, every 15 minutes. At the end of his writing session, he’d have 10 pages or 2500 words.

If a writer today maintained Trollope’s pace every day for a year, he or she would have written 912,500 words. That’s very close to what Dean Wesley Smith calls “Pulp Speed” (which is writing over 1 million words per year). Those 912,500 words are enough for ten or eleven 80,000 word novels. Seriously folks, do we need to produce more than that in a year?

Trollope proves no writer needs to resort to Herculean efforts to produce a sizable body of fiction. Ten novels a year writing part-time is nothing to sneeze at.

Rewriting

Part of the key to high word counts is not rewriting and minimal editing.

Anthony Trollope did not rewrite. He also essentially did no editing. When he finished a manuscript he was for all intents and purposes finished with it. He sold it to the publisher as is. If the publisher did any editing after they got the manuscript, we don’t know. I doubt they did a lot, because mid-series in The Barchester Chronicles Trollope changed the name of one of his characters. He didn’t catch it and neither did the editor, if there was one.

As Dean Wesley Smith points out in his blog post on pulp speed writing, prolific authors don’t rewrite. They basically don’t have time to invest that much effort into any given manuscript. The prolific writer writes, it’s as simple as that. The goal isn’t perfection, the goal is production of decent and acceptable work.

I hear writers all the time talking about the number of edits they put a manuscript through, the number of beta reads, and how many professional editors they hire. Whereas, if they had gotten the manuscript right the first time they could’ve saved themselves a lot of time and money. And maybe even written another book.

Now I’m not advocating for sloppiness. I take pride in my work and while I don’t rewrite I do perform a modicum of editing. I make sure that I catch as many typos as I can and get rid of as many clunky sentences as I can. Which is basically what the pulp fiction writers did. And Anthony Trollope was setting the pattern long before the pulp fiction era.

Get in practice to write it right the first time. Academicians, who don’t make their living by writing, have spun the myth that the first draft is crap. There are scores of writers who made and make their living writing who say that advice is crap.

Write so your story is right when it goes on paper the first time. It saves time and money in the long run and time and money equals more books, which means more money — for you.

Next week we’ll continue our look at what Anthony Trollope can teach us writers in the 21st century.

Trollope is a person who can show us how to triumph in adversity, set a dream for ourselves, and through perseverance and astute observation achieve that dream.

You can get Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography for free at Project Gutenberg. It’s a marvelous handbook for success.

As always comments are welcome, and until next time happy reading and writing!

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The Mars-Venus Thing, Part 1

                            Mars vs Venus

 

Quite honestly, I don’t know if women are from Venus and men, Mars. What I do know is that men and women look at the world differently. We can argue why this is until and even after the car is in the garage. The fact remains, the sexes see life from different perspectives. And in the end, that’s all that matters.

As a reader, as a male reader, I find I tend to gravitate towards certain types of books. And I am not just referring to genres here. I’m talking about characteristics. Such things as pacing, the amount of action, humor, violence, and sex.

A few months ago I referenced an article by Kate Summers, “Adult Reading Habits And Preferences In Relation To Gender Differences”. The article is informative and I think for the most part right on.

So I thought I’d revisit Ms Summer’s article and answer the questions she gave her survey participants. I dropped one of her questions and replaced it with one of my own. Here are the results (my answers are italicized):

1. How many books do you read in a year?

About two dozen or more.

2. Do you generally prefer fiction or nonfiction?

Fiction.

3. What nonfiction topics interest you?

Airships, history, philosophy, cooking, ships.

4. Do you have any favorite genres you like to read?

Mysteries, science fiction, adventure, sea stories.

5. Do you read series books or do you prefer standalone books?

Series.

6. What are a few of your favorite books?

An Artist Of The Floating World, The Remains Of The Day, Seneca’s Letters, Earth Abides, Day Of The Triffids, On The Beach, Wingman.

7. Do you have any favorite magazines?

No.

8. Who are a few of your favorite authors?

Kazuo Ishiguro, Daniel Pinkwater, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, H. Rider Haggard.

9. Do you typically prefer male authors or female authors?

Male authors.

10. Do you typically read books that feature male protagonists or female protagonists?

Male.

11. Were you encouraged to read when growing up?

Yes.

12. How do you choose books to read?

Subject, word of mouth, reviews.

13. Do you belong to a bookclub?

No.

14. Do you discuss books with your friends?

Not usually.

15. Are you an active member of any book related social networking sites?

No.

16. Do you own an ereader?

Yes.

17. In what format do you prefer to read, print or digital?

Doesn’t matter.

18. What kind of reading do you do online?

Nonfiction and research.

19. Do you become interested in reading a particular book if it is adapted into a movie or a TV series?

Not especially.

What I discovered is that my answers more or less fit in with those of fiction reading men. Good to know I’m normal, at least as far as reading is concerned.

In Kate Summers’s survey, women overwhelmingly preferred fiction to nonfiction. This may account for the perception amongst males that fiction reading is for “sissies”. And most males would rather die than be accused of being a sissy. Which may also account for men publicly declaring a preference for nonfiction.

I grew up in a family where reading was encouraged and my father read fiction. Consequently, fiction has always been part of my life and was nothing I was ashamed of. And I’m very glad for that.

Summers’s survey revealed women tend to be eclectic readers, having no preference overall for male or female protagonists or authors. On the other hand, a strong majority of men prefer male authors and male protagonists. This preference may be due to males more than females needing to identify with the characters. This was clearly seen in a survey of 11th grade boys and girls, where 43% of the boys compared to 35% of the girls cited needed to identify with the characters in a book.

Reading habits of men and women are important to writers — if the writer desires to write to a target audience.

Males tend to prefer action and humor. I discovered I’m a bit of an oddball in this regard as I don’t care for unrelenting and fast-paced action. I like action, but keep it to a few action scenes. I prefer plenty of non-action or little action and a whole lot of character development. Slowburn fiction is more my speed.

Females, on the other hand, tend to like romance and realistic fiction dealing with relationships.

As a writer, I find these preferences very interesting. It seems men tend to prefer plot-driven stories, with women preferring character-driven stories. Maybe that’s why men, for example, prefer thrillers (lots of action), whereas women prefer mysteries (especially cozies) where relationships and the characters’s personalities play a much larger role.

Every individual is, of course, unique. But generally speaking, it seems men and women form two different reader groups. What I see going on today amongst writers, both indie and traditionally published, is a catering to women readers at the expense of men. And this is taking place among both men and women writers.

The key to success, so we writers are told, no matter the genre or target audience (such as YA), is to have a kick-ass heroine. I think the underlying reason for this is the notion that in general men don’t read fiction. Which is, of course, not true. Men do read fiction. But men tend not to be social about their reading habits and therefore their reading choices generally don’t show up in surveys.

But we’ll save this part for next week, where we will examine the bias against men.

And if you are a man reading this post, please consider answering the questionnaire above that I took and put your answers in the comments.

Until next next time, happy reading!

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To the Stars

Astounding Science Fiction August 1940 cover for Lester Del Rey’s “The Stars Look Down”

Non est ad astra mollis e terris via.

The sentence translates to “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars.” It is line 437 of Seneca’s play Hercules Furens, and is spoken by Megara, the wife of Hercules, to Lycus, the tyrant who usurped her father’s throne.

The meaning is clear: there is no easy path to fame, to glory.

Recently Jackson Dean Chase posted a link to a blog article, “Stop ‘trying hard’ and produce more if you want to smash it as a writer”. The article could not have come at a more appropriate time for me.

In brief, the article notes that creative people have no concept of the quality or value of their own work. In fact, a creative’s own estimation is often at odds with that of the public.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s hatred of Sherlock Holmes immediately comes to mind. He thought the great detective frivolous and the stories not at all great literature. Yet history has proven him wrong. Of the vast number of novels and stories that Doyle wrote, it is Holmes who is associated with Doyle’s name and by which he’s remembered.

George Frederic Handel loved Italian opera and continued to write and produce operas for a London audience that no longer wanted them. He ended up bankrupt and in ill health. Forced by circumstances, he turned to English oratorio and wrote Messiah. Which by the way was hated by the librettist because Handel produced the sacred drama in concert halls!

Handel did learn his lesson and milked Messiah for every shilling and pound he could get from it.

HG Wells thought his greatest work was the world history he wrote. Today, no one knows he wrote one.

I observe my fellow writers frantically following one success guru after another in the attempt to become bestselling authors. They look like sheep in search of a shepherd. Like parrots, they repeat the supposed mantras of success over and over. Usually without giving them any thoughtful consideration.

Every now and then, I find myself caught up in the stampede until a friend graciously pulls me back to reality. It’s easy to follow the crowd. After all that’s what lemmings do when they run over the cliff into the sea.

Seneca is right. The path to the stars is not an easy one. Why? Because there is no easy formula to follow. There is no one how-to manual that works for everyone.

No one knows how a bestseller is born. No one.

What does that mean for us writers? Quite simply, it means we must write. And write a lot. Write until that bestseller is discovered.

Margaret Mitchell is very much the exception and not the rule. In spite of us writers wanting to make her the rule.

Shakespeare wrote 37 plays and probably had a hand in at least 10 others. But how many can we even name? Let alone the number that are regularly produced?

Because there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success, there is no external help for us writers. As Rainer Maria Rilke noted, there is no one outside of ourselves who can give us strength, encouragement, and support. It is all inside. We must look inside ourselves for what we need to succeed.

Of all that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote (and he wrote a lot), the one character that stands out is Tarzan. The same for Lester Dent. He wrote hundreds of books and stories. His name, however, is forever tied to Doc Savage.

Handel wrote 42 operas and 29 oratorios (amongst many other works). Mention his name and everyone says, Messiah.

Burroughs did not set out to become famous by writing Tarzan. Nor Dent, Doc Savage. Nor Handel, Messiah. It was the public who decided what would be their claim to fame.

Because we writers, and creatives in general, are very bad at predicting our own greatest work, our only recourse is to write lots and give it to the public and let them decide.

In my own case, I expected Festival Of Death, with my private detective Justinia Wright (who I dearly love), to be my “bestseller”. Imagine my surprise when The Morning Star, the initial book in my post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe series, has to date, outsold Festival of Death by an almost 5 to 1 margin.

Never in a million years would I have guessed that to have happened. So my writer friends, keep writing. The public will find your best book for you. That is one thing you don’t have to worry about. Just write and trust your public.

Comments are always welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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The Parasitic Middleman

During a Gold Rush, Sell Shovels.

In 1848, Samuel Brannan ran through the streets of San Francisco with a glass bottle filled with gold dust, yelling gold had been discovered out at Sutter’s Mill.

He is generally credited with starting the California Gold Rush. And became California’s first millionaire. Yet he never panned or mined for gold.

A few days prior to his hype with the bottle of gold, having learned gold had indeed been discovered by the American River, he’d bought every pickax, pan, and shovel he could find. In nine weeks, by selling his goods at exorbitant prices, he made $36,000. That’s equivalent to the economic status 18.5 million dollars would bring someone today.

Many icons of American business got rich in the Gold Rush and never touched any gold, except to take it from the miners.

Levi Strauss had a dry goods business by which he did quite well for himself. He also sold miners the forerunners of what became Levi jeans. He eventually left California, went home, and became exceedingly wealthy selling jeans.

Phillip Armour opened a meat market in Placerville, then took his profits back to Chicago and founded Armour Meats. And increased his wealth many times over.

John Studebaker sold wagons, made money, and returned home to make wagons for pioneers and later on Studebaker automobiles. I remember those cars and I still love them.

Henry Wells and William Fargo started a bank for miners, at least the ones who made some money. Today, Wells Fargo is a leading American bank.

During the California Gold Rush, the middleman, the merchant, the one who offered services, that’s the person who really made the money. Not the prospectors.

Fast forward to today and a different kind of Gold Rush. The indie author/publisher revolution. There are thousands of writers and hopefuls and wannabes all clamoring for the dream of writing and publishing the Great American Novel. That one book that will let them quit the day job and retire to the Bahamas.

Sounds a little bit like the Gold Rush, doesn’t it?

Today’s indie authors are the prospectors and an army of service providers are making money hand over fist off of these poor and sometimes naïve dreamers.

So who are these service providers who’ve convinced so many, many writers they can’t live without their services? Let’s name a few of them.

Sellers of Writing Software Programs. Seriously? I need software to write my book? Whatever happened to pencil and paper? Or the keyboard and the word processing program on my computer?

Now I’m not going to say Dragon, Story Mill, Easy Writer, or Story Weaver can’t help you write. But before you spend money, maybe money you don’t really have, ask yourself if you really need a software programmer and his toy to help you write your book. Just think of the thousands of writers before you who didn’t use such programs and got along just fine. Some using an ink pot and a steel dip pen or a quill even. Maybe you can too.

Grammar, Spelling, and Editing Software. I see some value to this. But honestly, can’t people do a better job? Give me one serious beta reader with an ear for cadence and a knowledge of grammar and who can spell. I’ll pit that person against an army of programmers and software running simply on rules.

Formatting Services. When I started in the indie writing business. I’ll admit I was loathe to spend money. First off, I’m not rich. Secondly, I already had the California Gold Rush scenario in the back of my mind. So I spent $25 for Legend Maker to make my ebooks. It’s a simple program and requires only simple formatting of my typescript. In less than an hour I can format my text and in less then 10 seconds get an epub and mobi file. Now if I had to pay a formatter for my 20 books… Hm, probably a lot more than $25.

Cover Artists. Yes, we all need covers. But seriously, have you taken a look at indie book covers lately? They are so genre similar, they all look just the same. Like the ticky-tacky houses and people in Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes”. It is no wonder Mark Dawson’s readers said the incentive to buy his books didn’t come from the covers — but from the blurb! By a 5 to 1 margin! The lesson here is simple: don’t spend big bucks on a cover. Spend time crafting your blurb.

Professional Editors. Recently I’ve heard all manner of arguments as to why I need a professional editor to edit my book. It’s as though the editor is going to teach me how to be a better writer. But editors aren’t writers. They’re essentially critics. They served a need for traditional publishing to make sure a manuscript, if accepted, was salable. In other words, that it met the publishing house’s criteria for salability.

Which means, an editor is not primarily a teacher of writing — but a fixer for the publisher.

Now I’m not saying an editor can’t be helpful. But if you need a content editor to massage your manuscript into something that is genre and reader acceptable, maybe what you really need is time spent learning the craft of writing.

Stephen King shows us the path to becoming a writer: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I don’t see the word editor anywhere in there.

The indie movement is direct from writer to reader. The reader will tell you what he or she likes. So recruit them to be your “editors”. Not some academic or someone the Big 5 laid off. Trust your readers. If they don’t like your book, no amount of work from an editor is going to help it.

And I can’t see spending money on a line editor. Find a beta who will do that for you. Preferably someone older who knows how to spell.

We indies broke free from the tyranny of the corporate publisher. Why do we want to saddle ourselves with all the crap the corporations imposed on us? Makes no sense to me.

Review Services. Kirkus is making money off indies to the tune of $500 per review. Wow. That’s incredible. So are outfits like Reader’s Favorites. Pay them money and get a review. They won’t guarantee a 5 star review. But honestly, you think they want to give less than 5 stars and have disgruntled writers bad mouthing them?

I’m not saying these services can’t help sell books. But are they truly any different than the now discredited practice of buying 5 star reviews? Organic and honest reviews by readers are what really sink or float a book. And to get them takes time.

Discount Book Marketers. These outfits are more prolific than mushrooms after a rain. For a fee, they will tweet your book and post about it on Facebook and send it out to their mailing list (along with scores of other books). The problem I see with these outfits is that they encourage indies to constantly offer their books for free or 99¢. And in the long run that trains readers to expect from indies nothing but free or 99¢ books. Very bad for business that mindset.

I’ve come back to the position that if I don’t value my work, who will? If I offer everything I write on the cheap, what does that tell readers? If I barrage my mailing list with free offer after free offer, how can I expect them to buy my books? I’m competing with myself by offering them free books! Not a good business practice at all. Save your money and stay away from these folks. This writing business is really about building a reader base. Not selling books.

Writing Courses. Writing courses have been offered since ever. Everyone who thinks he or she can write has at one time offered one. There are good courses and bad courses. Just like everything else.

However, I do think you are better off taking a good writing course than resorting to an editor for every book you write. Learn the craft of writing. If you don’t know the basics of storytelling, a writing course can help you with that. And that’s about all it can do. The rest of it is back to Stephen King. Read lots. Pay attention to what you like and don’t like about what you read. And write lots. Putting into practice what you’ve learned from reading.

Writing is hard work. Fun work, but hard work. Writing is not a get rich quick scheme. It takes time to develop the craft. A potter doesn’t throw a perfect pot the first time on the wheel. Take the time to learn the craft.

Marketing Courses. These are legion now. Many, many successful indies are putting together courses to teach their fellows the path to success. And charging big bucks to do so. And, as with anything else, some are good and some are bad.

One so called expert got her claim to fame by being a New York Times bestseller. The problem is, the book that did it for her was in a multi-author box set and her name wasn’t even in the advertising! Cheating if you ask me. Yet, she is a respected expert on marketing. Go figure.

Another novelist wrote a few books that apparently sold well or made number one on some list. Now he no longer writes fiction, just sells his course on fiction writing success. Ugh.

So be careful. Vet the person you are going to take a course from or buy books from or get advice from.

The best advice for the money I’ve gotten to date was free. A blogpost by Australian indie novelist Patty Jansen. Wish I’d had that information 3 years ago. You can read it here.

Not everything that shines is gold. Not everything of value costs big bucks, although sometimes you do get what you pay for. We indies are the prospectors. So remember this: the worst time to buy a shovel is on your way to the gold field. Get it before you leave home and take it with you.

As always, comments are welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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Professional Editing — Is It Necessary?

From the New Yorker on Charles Dickens’s 200th Birthday

Is professional editing necessary? The short answer is no. The long answer is maybe.

But before we get into this subject, we need to define what is meant by “professional editing” and what is meant by “necessary”.

What is Professional Editing?

A professional is one who does something for a living. An editor, in our context, is a person who “corrects” a typescript for a novel or story.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of editors: content editors and line editors, or proofreaders.

Content editors edit a book’s content. They look for continuity issues, plot holes, structure issues, character defects, and the like. This is high level editing.

Line editors, or proofreaders, look for typos, misspellings, grammar issues, punctuation problems, and the like.

The purpose of an editor is to alert the author to problems with the book so the author can fix them and supposedly improve the book. However, a professional editor isn’t the only person who can do this. As we’ll see.

Necessary

Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, defines necessary, in our context, as something “that must be done; mandatory; not voluntary; required.”

Is an indie author required to use the services of a professional editor? Obviously not, since they are voluntarily hired in the first place. Therefore a professional editor is not necessary. Is one recommended? Maybe.

The Problem with Editors

The problem with editors is the same problem with any professional: they’re human. They’re people like you and me and that’s the problem with them.

Professionals charge money for their services — but in the end can really guarantee nothing. When I hire an editor, I’m simply hiring one person’s opinion. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

This goes for any professional. Whether your doctor or your mechanic. We all know there are doctors who make bad decisions (I was the victim of one) and mechanics who are unscrupulous. We who are the non-professional need to be as informed as possible, so we aren’t taken for a ride.

Every editor I know, puts his or her pants on the same way I do. Sure he or she may have gone to school to learn the craft of writing. But I know of few editors who make a successful living from writing fiction. If they can’t make a living from writing fiction, then how valuable is their advice?

“But so-and-so — an award winning author — has John Doe for an editor. So John Doe must be good.” That’s assuming the writer’s success can be directly attributed to the editor. And if it can, then I question the writer’s ability to write. If a writer can’t succeed without an editor, then in effect the editor has become a co-author.

At the end of the day a professional editor has biases, prejudices, agendas (just like everyone else) that have nothing to do with my writing or me as an author. Yet those biases, prejudices, and agendas can adversely affect me as author.

The Problem with Writers

We writers, as many in the creative arts, are plagued with a host of self-defeating problems. They seem to go with the territory. I know I’ve had my share. Here are a few:

  • Insecurity issues
  • Inferiority complex
  • Low self-esteem
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Procrastination
  • Perfectionism
  • The need of approval by others and from those in authority

These problems open writers up to be easy marks for the unscrupulous.

Writers fall victim to people who provide them with approval. Writers who seek approval from authority figures lose their sense of self.

I think that’s one reason why we still have traditional publishing today. Because the insecure writers need to get “approval” from the “authorities” in order to shore up their self-esteem. Getting a publishing contract makes them feel worthy. And let’s them look down their noses at the indie author “who just couldn’t make it”.

Traditional publishing is an ego trip. My agent. My editor. My publisher. And many writers want that ego drug.

And many indie authors seek the same high. “I couldn’t have done it without my editor.” Or my cover artist. Or my formatter. Or what have you. These people sound just like their traditionally published counterparts.

The point of being an indie is independence. Freedom from all that crap. The indie movement is about the producer marketing directly to consumer. Cutting out the middleman. Kind of like the farmer’s market versus the grocery store.

Solution

Are indie authors therefore free from the task of editing? Heavens no! Not if they’re concerned about putting out a quality product. The question is, do they need to hire a professional editor? And the answer is, no they don’t.

If a writer knows how to tell a good story, there is little need for a high-level edit. The content editor has little to offer. If a writer is concerned about the craft of storytelling and is in the lifelong process of honing his or her craft, then a content editor will have little to offer.

Now that same writer might benefit from a proofreader. But one doesn’t need to hire a line editor to get those services.

If a writer is not very good at telling a story, then a high-level edit may be of great help. But what may be of even greater help is simply more writing. If you’re going to an auto mechanic, do you want the one who is fresh out of school with little to no experience? Or do you want the guy who’s been doing it for 20 years?

It’s the same with writing. Practice makes perfect. It’s why Edgar Rice Burroughs advised writers to write lots. One story has little chance of getting published (in a magazine). But write a hundred and one or more will probably be accepted.

Robert Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing operate on the same principle: lots of writing and the constant submission to market of that writing.

Writers can only improve their writing by writing. No amount of academic learning or professional editing can improve a writer’s work. Bad writing can’t be edited into good writing. It’s just well edited bad writing.

The first novel I wrote, Festival of Death, way back in 1989, was not ready for publication when I finished writing it. I was honest with myself. I read the manuscript and it just did not compare with the novels I was reading. I put it away, also realizing I didn’t have the stuff to rewrite it and make it better. Twenty-five years later, I had that stuff, rewrote it, and was pleased with the finished product. I didn’t need an editor to tell me all that. In the interim I did lots of writing. I gained confidence. I became a better writer.

We writers don’t need to spend any money to edit our own work. There are many tools available to help us and even without all those tools, there are people who won’t charge anything to proof our work and offer constructive suggestions for improvement. And I heartily recommend the people approach.

Here are a few suggestions based on my own practice:

  • Read your story with a critical eye. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes.
  • If your characters don’t make you laugh or cry, they won’t make the reader laugh or cry.
  • Read your story aloud for flow. It’s a great way to catch clunky sentences and sections that are confusing.
  • Have the computer read to you while you follow along. The computer reads exactly what’s there. A great way to catch typos and misspellings.
  • Have someone read the text to you. This combines reading the story aloud and having the computer read to you — with the added advantage of the reader being a human other than you.
  • Use the spell checker and grammar checker in your word processing program or something like Hemingway or Grammarly.
  • Use good beta readers to catch issues you didn’t catch. A good beta reader is worth his or her weight in gold. What is a good beta? One who likes your genre and ideally your writing, who has a good understanding of what makes a story work, is someone you can trust will be honest with you, understands grammar, and knows how to spell. These people exist. Go find them.

That’s all you need, and none of it costs money. Unless you choose to buy some editing software — which isn’t at all necessary. But a nice little luxury.

One other caveat: don’t be in a rush to publish. We’re indie authors. We set our own schedules. There’s no one to tell us what to do except ourselves.

We indie authors are independent authors. Don’t become a victim of the Should Mentality or the You Have To Mentality.

We write for readers, not editors.

Enjoy your freedom from the man. I do.

Comments are always welcome. Tell me what you think. And until next time, happy reading!

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Writer TS Paul – Does He Really Break The Rules?

This past Friday, I listened to Mark Dawson’s podcast which was an interview with indie sci-fi and paranormal writer TS Paul. You can catch the podcast on the SPF website and I’d encourage you to listen to it.

The initial hype was that Paul is a short story writer who’s crushing it with sales. Sorry, folks, that’s false advertising. Paul primarily writes sci-fi novellas and shorter paranormal novels. The visions of waltzing to the bank on my short stories quickly vanished.

The interview then went on to show all the things Paul did that were “wrong” and yet he still managed to reach a point where he’s seeing a half-million a year in sales.

Obviously, TS Paul is doing something right. So what is it?

Last week I wrote about The Writer’s Magic Marketing Machine and presented indie sci-fi and fantasy author Patty Jansen’s road map to success. Very simply, it is:

  • Write well
  • Write lots
  • Write in series
  • Publish often
  • Build a mailing list

As I noted last week, this is standard indie advice. Virtually all the successful indie authors do the 5 points above.

Dawson and his cohort, James Blatch, were dumbfounded by Paul’s success. They couldn’t explain it. On reflection, I think Paul’s success is very easy to understand — and, in fact, I’d say he’s doing most everything right.

First of all, TS Paul writes lots. A short story a week and 31 books in a couple years. Writing lots is crucial for every indie author who even hopes of being successful. It’s the key to not being forgotten.

Secondly, he writes in series. This is also critical for indie authors. Because indie readers are series readers.

Third, he publishes frequently. Publishing often keeps your name in front of readers and helps to pump up the Amazon algorithms.

Fourthly, he knows his audience. He targets the YA crowd. There is no sex or bad language in his books and the covers appeal to the eye of a young audience. I’d also hazard a guess that the shorter lengths of his books appeals to the YA folk, who primarily read on their phones.

So what does he do that is actually controversial? In the big picture, not much. He doesn’t believe in freebies. So he doesn’t give away his books. But he’s not the only writer in that camp.

He doesn’t do a lot of advertising, although he does more now than when he first began. About a $1000/month on Facebook.

He doesn’t have a mailing list. However, he’s not alone here either. What he does have is an active blog and Facebook page. Effectively, they are taking the place of a mailing list. Through his blog and Facebook page he keeps in touch with his readers and lets them know of new books.

The most controversial thing, in my opinion, about Mr Paul is his cavalier attitude towards the quality of his writing and the physical product.

He doesn’t give a fig about typos or bad grammar or lousy formatting. He says so in the interview. And the critical reviews testify to his devil may care attitude. It also appears his writing style is not all that stellar, according to the reviews.

I noticed in looking at his offerings, quite a few book blurbs note the book is newly re-edited and formatted. So maybe Mr Paul cares more about what readers think than he’s willing to admit.

The mystery for me is how a brand new nobody writer can go from $150/month in sales to over a $1000/month in the span of a few months — with no advertising. Paul didn’t say. Blatch didn’t ask. Too bad.

Based on what Mr Paul did say, my thought is that his friend, the popular author Michael Anderle, who encouraged Mr Paul to start writing in the first place, gave him a boost. Just a guess, but if correct it shows that who you know is still a very powerful means to success.

The bottom line is, TS Paul is doing everything he should be doing — except writing well and producing a quality product. But in spite of all the criticism he’s received, and there is a lot on Amazon, he’s laughing his way to the bank.

Comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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The Writer’s Magic Marketing Machine

We writers are constantly looking for the magic formula for success. We want to quit our day jobs and live off of the bucks flowing from our pens or keyboards. The success of J K Rowling, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, and others, fuels our imagination and dreams.

But what is the key to success? What is that magic formula? Is it social media? Or Facebook ads? Or maybe Amazon ads? Perhaps it’s paid reviews, such as Kirkus.

Or maybe indie success story Hugh Howey is right: there is no magic formula and success is just dumb luck. Keep writing and hopefully you’ll sell something.

I jumped into the self-publishing pond in 2014. Mostly because I’d read too many horror stories of writers getting screwed by publishers and agents. But also because being 64 I don’t have time to wait around for someone else to decide if I’m good enough or not. Let the public decide.

So in November 2014 I published 4 books and 2 more in December and waited for the money to roll in. It didn’t. It dribbled in and the dribble gradually turned into the occasional drip.

I looked for the magic formula to jumpstart sales. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered magic doesn’t exist.

However, amongst all the noise pretending to be magic, the successful indie authors continued to be of one accord. To have any hope for success, writers need to:

  • write well
  • write lots, preferably in series
  • publish often

What wasn’t said was how to put those things into a coherent plan and they didn’t mention anything about a mailing list. In the early days, I don’t think a mailing list was necessary. Today it is. The independent author/publisher is basically no different than a mail order company. And they succeed or fail on their mailing list. I spent $700 to learn that tidbit. Now I just saved you some money.

Nevertheless, how to do what the successful writers did remained a mystery.

About a month ago, I discovered author Patty Jansen’s key to success. It is the best formula I’ve found in the couple of years I’ve spent looking for the magic marketing machine. Her post — The Three-Year, No-Bestseller Plan To A Sustainable Income From Self-Publishing — is a must read for any writer who wants to make a living from writing.

There is no magic wand, my writer friends. There is only hard work and maybe, possibly, hopefully success. What I found encouraging — supremely encouraging — in Patty’s post was she has never had a bestseller. Yet, she makes 3K-5K/month (2016) and noted that her income has doubled every year. I have lived comfortably on 60K/year.

I don’t want to rehash her post here because it’s best if you read if for yourself and contemplate on it. However, I do want to emphasize a few points. Patty wrote that in order to succeed writers need to

  • write well
  • write lots
  • write in series
  • publish often
  • build a mailing list

It goes without saying writers need to write well, and the only way to learn how to write is by writing. Not rewriting, not editing, but writing. Edgar Rice Burroughs (the guy who created Tarzan) supposedly said if you write one story you have an almost 100% chance of failure and if you write 100 stories you have an almost 100% chance of having at least one success.

An indie writer needs to write lots. We are the 21st century’s version of the pulp fiction writers of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. Those writers had to write lots if they wanted to pay the rent and put food on their table. They didn’t have time for oodles of rewrites and edits. Robert Heinlein noted that one should never edit unless the editor makes you. Writers write.

Indie authors need to write in series. Doing so generates traction and keeps one’s name in front of the reader. As does publishing often.

And we need to build a mailing list. After all, what would we do if Amazon suddenly changed the rules and was no longer indie friendly? Most of us would be in a world of hurt. But not so much if we had a mailing list of devoted fans.

Patty’s post gives more detail and you, my writer friends, need to read it and embrace it.

In fact, her post completely revolutionized my thinking. Suddenly I had a workable game plan to follow. Where I had been wandering in the wilderness, I now had a GPS with destination keyed in. Hopefully, by 2020 I’ll be making some bucks from my writing.

I’m lucky. Being retired I have a lot of time in which to write and work on marketing. Being retired also means I have an income coming in that I don’t have to work to get. Which means I can get by very nicely with 20K or 30K from my writing. It would make a super supplement. I won’t turn down more by any means. After all, my dream car is a Rolls Royce.

Read Patty’s post and follow it. Save yourself some time and a pile of money. It’s a super simple solution to the question ‘What do I need to do to make a living from my writing.’

As always, comments are welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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Spice In The Writer’s Life

Today, the Big 5 Publishers want writers to write one thing. If I write private detective murder mysteries, that’s all the Big 5 want me to write. Why? Because they want a known commodity in their stable. Especially if my mysteries sell.

For a very long time now, writers have gotten around that particular publisher restriction by using pen names. Or by going to a different publisher. Although as publishing houses merge, that option is vanishing.

Of course, the independent author/publisher has no such constraints and can publish whatever he or she wants. Although “conventional” wisdom argues that it’s easier to create a “brand” if one publishes only in one genre. I think branding is hogwash, but that’s a subject for another post.

The question is are there multi-genre authors? And the answer is a resounding — YES! In fact, there have pretty much always been multi-genre authors.

Who are some of these writers? Let’s name a few:

H.G. Wells, Georgette Heyer, Iain [M] Banks, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ken Follett, Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Arthur Ransome, Isaac Asimov, Dan Simmons, Anthony Trollope, Doris Lessing, George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Nora Roberts/JD Robb, John Updike, Walter Tevis, Jerome Charyn, Ardath Mayhar, Lucius Annaeus Seneca

And the list goes on.

So why do writers write in more than one genre? I can only answer for myself. The reason I write in more than one genre is so that I don’t get bored.

Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It shakes things up, it broadens our horizons, gives us a larger perspective on life.

I have a wide range of interests. My reading reflects that range and I talked about that last week. And so does my writing. Because I basically write what I like to read.

Currently, I write private detective mysteries, post-apocalyptic fiction, dieselpunk alternative history action/adventure, and horror (both psychological and supernatural). In the future, I have plans for writing space opera, historical science fiction novels, cozy mysteries, fantasy, and non-fiction, as well as more of the above.

Of course the rub comes when we talk about marketing, because not all readers are the same. Some just devour romances, or mysteries, or mainstream novels. Others do read more than one genre. So with readers having their expectations and writers wanting to do their thing, what’s the answer?

For myself, I have to write what I’m interested in and what I like to read. I also have to take into consideration that I rapidly lose interest if I have to do the same thing over and over again. I love Tina and Harry in the Justinia Wright mystery series, but if I only wrote about them I’d soon get bored.

And then there is the idea machine. It never stops and is constantly stimulated by everything going on around me. Just the other day, while preparing lunch, I got an idea for a post-apocalyptic novel and a forbidden love novel. That happens all the time. Do I throw those ideas away? No. I save them and often sketch out the idea so I don’t forget it. Because even though at present I have four projects I’m working on, I won’t always have those four projects and I’ll want to start a new one.

Hopefully my readers will like all that I write because they like my style and relate to my worldview. Hopefully. However, I realize a good many will not. And that’s okay.

Another reason writers might write in more than one genre is to capture a larger share of readers. If I write mysteries and horror and science fiction, I have three large reader audiences, as well as those who might cross over. More readers, potentially means more money. And most writers write because they want to tell stories for a living.

Please take a look at my novels page and see the range of what I write. Hopefully, if you haven’t already, you’ll find something to pique your interest. And hopefully in the next year or two some of the other ideas that are in the cooker will be ready to serve up for readers’s enjoyment.

Lawrence Block writes mysteries and thrillers. But over the years he’s begun and ended many series. He says all he can through a character and moves on to a new one. Frustrating as it is for me the reader, it’s what Block has to do to stay fresh in his chosen genre. Which really isn’t any different than a writer who writes in two or more genres or simply switches genres.

Let me know if you read more than one genre and know of authors who write in more than one. Your comments are always welcome! And until next time, happy reading!

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A Reader’s and Writer’s Life

I love to read. Give me a book any day. I’ll take it over TV, movies, and video games. Nothing can replace my imagination. TV, movies, and video games give me someone else’s imagination which may be truly fabulous, but it isn’t mine. With my imagination, I can interact with a book’s author in a way that’s impossible through other media.

My love of reading goes back to the beginning of my life. My mother was not a good reader, by her own admission. But she did think reading was important. She read to me before I could read and once I could read on my own, she did not stint on the books I could have.

And I had all manner of books: novels, books on science and technology, the World Book Encyclopedia, books on archeology and history and ships and the sea.

To this day, my choice of reading material is still broad. I read novels and short stories in a wide range of genres. Books of history and biography. Poetry. Philosophy. Science and technology, mostly online. Cookbooks. Travelogues. Art.

Currently I’m reading Zeppelin: The Story of Lighter-Than-Air Craft by Ernst Lehmann, who was an important figure in the history of the airship. But that’s not all I’m reading. Also on the pile of works in progress are 2 short story collections, a book on criminology, and one on the famous Route 66. And as if that wasn’t enough, also on the pile is a post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophe novel. And the occasional letter from my favorite philosopher, Seneca, might just start my day.

I almost always have a book with me. And the reason I so love my iPad is because at present it contains over 600 books and that’s a lot of books! And I can carry them all with me wherever I go. What a wonderful age we live in!

Most readers don’t have so many books going at once and that’s certainly okay. Everyone needs to read at the pace which is comfortable for them. Just as long as people read. Lots of people.

I think my love of reading played in to my desire to be a writer. Why not create the books I so loved to read? Pretty much ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. And now I am!

Being a multi-genre reader pretty much dictated I’d be a multi-genre writer. I write what I like to read. I read private detective novels and I write them. I read post-apocalyptic cozy catastrophes and I write them. I enjoy dieselpunk and I write it. I like a good psychological or supernatural horror story, and I write those too.

But that’s not all that I like. So sometime down the road, if I live long enough, I intend to add space opera, historical novels, fantasy, poetry collections, and philosophy to the mix.

Isaac Asimov wrote over 500 books on all but one of the major Dewey Decimal System divisions. I’ve always thought that to be a wonderful accomplishment. Something I’d like to do myself. After all, variety is the spice of life!

The reading life and the writing life are the best of lives, in my opinion. Only the imagination is the limit and the imagination is limitless.

Comments are always welcome and, until next time, happy reading!

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