Anthony Trollope on Speed Writing

At every turn, indie writers are encouraged and urged and pressured to write faster. Quality seems to be a second thought. Just as long as thousands of words are written every day, the indie writer is told he or she is on the first step to success.

Books abound telling us how to write faster. The following appeared on the first page of an Amazon search: 2K to 10K, Fast Fiction, Write Fast, 5000 Words Per Hour. And of course the authors of these books are making money hand over fist by telling us how to write faster. But none of the authors of those books are in the same league as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Stephen King, Sandra Brown or Dean Koontz. Generally speaking the writers of how-to books don’t make their living by writing fiction. They make their money telling wannabe writers how to write. And that should be a warning to us all.

There is no secret to writing fast. To put it bluntly, all one needs to do is to park one’s butt in a chair for a set amount of time, cut the distractions, and write. As Australian science fiction and fantasy writer Patty Jansen has said, 1000 finished words each day will produce at least four novels per year. At the end of three years a writer could have four three-book series for sale. That is a solid step in the direction of writing for a living.

Four weeks ago I mentioned Anthony Trollope’s method for producing three-quarters of a million words per year. In his own day, the Victorian novelist was known as The Writing Machine. In an era when artists were supposed to work by inspiration, Trollope quite baldly and boldly showed that successful artists work by perspiration. Let’s expand a bit on Trollope’s method.

Anthony Trollope viewed writing just like any other business. To be successful, one had to have goals and then set up a plan to meet those goals.

In several different chapters of his Autobiography, Trollope gives us a window into his working life as a successful author. I recommend that every writer read Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography. It’s available for free at Project Gutenberg.

Goals

Trollope’s overall goal was to be a successful author, which by his definition meant he had to earn a livable wage from writing.

The first step in achieving that goal was to write books. For each novel, Trollope set a date for the novel to be completed and submitted to a publisher.

To hold himself accountable, he kept a writing diary and recorded his progress in it. In that way he didn’t have to guess if he was making progress towards his goal. He knew how much he had written every day. He also knew if he was slacking off. The diary was his production manager.

By setting a goal, Trollope had made a commitment. We all know the benefit of setting goals. We also know the benefit of being held accountable to reach those goals. Trollope held himself accountable by means of his writing diary and his desire to earn a livable wage from his writing.

In the end, we are the ones who are responsible for our own success.

Write Every Morning

To achieve his greater goal, Anthony Trollope set smaller goals. Goals that could be achieved every day, and thereby be an encouragement to him.

He set aside three hours every morning as his writing time. This was a daily goal.

He got up at 5:30 AM, spent the first half-hour reviewing the previous day’s production, then wrote for the remaining 2 1/2 hours. Afterwards, he dressed, ate breakfast, and went to his day job at the post office.

Why write in the morning? Why not in the evening? Trollope doesn’t specifically tell us. However, he was a very busy man. He had a family and a full-time job. He was a social person and, after a day at the post office, he’d go to the club, visit with friends, play whist, and two or more times a week he’d go fox hunting.

Practically speaking, that only left mornings in which to write — and early mornings at that.

Psychologically, though, writing first thing in the morning says something else. It says we value it above everything else in our day. It’s so valuable that we make sure we get it done before we do anything else. Even eating breakfast. Whether Trollope realized it or not he was telling himself that writing was the most important thing in his life.

Lawrence Block noted he was fresher first thing in the morning. The issues of the day hadn’t filled up his mind yet. So in addition to the psychological value, writing first thing in the morning means we get to start with a clean slate — and thereby hopefully produce our best work.

Write To The Clock

It’s one thing to get up at 5:30 AM to write and it’s another thing entirely to produce something in the three hours you’ve set aside to write.

Trollope left nothing to chance. To sit and stare at the wall or out the window, waiting for inspiration to strike, was not the Trollope way. He was a busy man. He had to make the most of his time. And make the most of it, he did.

After reviewing the previous day’s work, Trollope took out his watch and set it on the table. He took out a sheet of paper, dipped his steel dip pen into the ink pot, and commenced writing.

Writing 250 words per page, he turned out one page of his novel every 15 minutes. One thousand words per hour. Two thousand five hundred words, or 10 manuscript pages, by the time his morning writing session was over.

By setting both a daily goal and an hourly goal, Trollope could gauge his progress. And we all know how exhilarating even small successes can be.

By writing to the clock, Trollope produced 47 novels, 17 works of nonfiction, 2 plays, 44 short stories, in addition to numerous articles, lectures, and letters. And all that in the span of 35 years, from 1847 (when his first novel was published) to December 1882 (when he died).

Summary

How did Anthony Trollope produce a full-time writer’s output only writing part-time?

He made efficient use of his time. In a nutshell, this is his method:

  • Write at a set time every day.
  • Write for a set amount of time every day.
  • Write a set amount of words in that time every day.
  • Set a deadline for the work to be completed.
  • Keep a diary of your progress to inspire you or chastise you.

Two thousand five hundred words each day will give you 912,500 words a year. That’s seven 120,000 novels. Or eleven 80,000 word novels. Or eighteen 50,000 word novels.

Honestly, does anyone need to produce more than that in one year?

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

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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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Fast Writing: Additional Thoughts

Last week we talked about fast writing. This week I want to riff on some of those points we made.

For years now, I’ve maintained “The First Draft” is a myth. There’s no need for it or the accompanying second, third, fourth, fifth, etc drafts. The multiple draft approach is an Academic Belief System all wannabe writers are taught to believe by people who don’t write for a living. It has no basis in reality. At least the reality of those who write fiction for a living.

The belief system of Academia and the editors in the traditional publishing world believe this formula:

Slow Writing = Good Writing.

Or conversely, Fast Writing = Bad Writing.

This is a belief system. A religion. It is not The Truth. It has no basis in reality. It’s no different than belief in God. No one can prove there is or isn’t a God. One either believes there is a God or believes there isn’t one. Simple as that.

We writers can choose to believe the myth about fast and slow writing or we can choose not to believe it. For myself, I don’t believe it.

In high school and college, as a matter of course, mostly due to time pressure is my guess, I wrote out my papers and essays by hand. Then I typed them, editing as I went along. When I was done, I submitted. No first draft, second draft baloney. There was no time. And I’m pleased to say, I never got poor marks on my papers.

But for some odd reason, I didn’t apply that intuitive course of action to my fiction writing. I struggled trying to make it perfect. To do all of the “right” things. And consequently, I got nothing written.

Nearly 40 years ago now, I read a book on writing advice. I don’t remember the title, author, or anything about it except the summary of how Isaac Asimov wrote and his advice for writers. It went something like this:

  • Write every day — whether or not you feel like it.
  • Write simply.
  • Forget the critics.
  • Don’t rewrite. That’s what editors are for. This point was Asimov’s restatement of Robert Heinlein’s 3rd Rule of Writing, something I learned later. Asimov didn’t rewrite unless his editor demanded it. Asimov followed what, in business, is called the OHIO rule: Only Handle It Once. And it does work for writers. I practiced it with my essays for school.
  • Don’t use an agent. Because you make more money if you don’t. I.E., you aren’t paying the agent his or her commission.

That book and the brief bit of information from Isaac Asimov was my first introduction to prolific writing. And I loved the concept!

But for some reason, I still didn’t apply it to my fiction. And nothing got written.

Later on, I learned about the Victorian speed demon, Anthony Trollope. I learned Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing. I was awed by the fabulous production of Robert E Howard in his very short writing career. And I learned one thing about myself: I needed to be like them. I needed to be a fast writer.

In 1989, I wrote a novel. The process took me a year. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I did get it written while working full time and learning the ins and outs of raising a very young child. After a few rejections of my query, I set the work aside. I decided it wasn’t up to standard. And in truth, it wasn’t. I didn’t quite have down how to write a good story. I also came to the decision, I couldn’t write longer works of fiction. They took up too much time. So I turned to poetry. And that worked.

For a span of fifteen or so years I wrote thousands of poems, following Asimov’s advice. I was a prolific poet and got hundreds of poems published. But I tired of poetry and wanted to write what I’d always wanted to write and that was fiction. So once again I turned to novel writing. And once again I stubbed my toe on another myth — that of the outline. And no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get an outline to work. Every time I took my wonderful character or story idea and tried to outline the book, I suddenly lost all inspiration. It vanished.

Then I stumbled upon Kazuo Ishiguro and Yasujirō Ozu and the plotless novel and movie. To be fair, their books and movies aren’t without plot. The storyline, though, is minor. What is important are the character studies taking place on the page and screen. That was what broke the ice. I liked reading about characters. I could not care less about the story. I want interesting characters.

Suddenly, I felt free. There were no restrictions. Just write. Do what Ray Bradbury advised: create your characters, have them do their thing, and that’s your story. Simple as that. The words have been flowing like a flood from my pen ever since.

But getting back to Asimov, there was one “rule” he didn’t articulate but is clearly implied in his methodology — and which I follow. Namely, write it right the first time.

How does one write it right the first time? Confidence. You must be confident you know the basics of good writing. You must be confident you can tell a reasonably good story.

I’m not referring here to deeply profound writing. Or writing that is symbolic or “literary”, whatever that means. Or writing that is approved by Academia. I’m not referring here to writing that will win you the Pulitzer or Nobel or Booker awards. I’m referring here to good writing that will hopefully earn you a few bucks and maybe a lot of bucks. Straightforward writing that tells a good story.

Shakespeare did not set out to become the doyen of English literature. He was writing to make a buck. He used prefab storylines and created memorable characters and wrote some doggone good dialogue. But his main goal was to make a buck to support his family, mistress, and keep his theatre afloat. Shakespeare had confidence he could tell a good story.

The critics hated Isaac Asimov and ridiculed his very simple and straightforward writing style. However, the readers loved him and Asimov himself undoubtedly laughed at his critics all the way to the bank. Why? Because he told a good story. Was it a perfect story? No. And he would have been the first to admit it. But the story was good. In fact, Asimov wrote once that he tried to follow the multiple draft method and couldn’t. He liked what he wrote on the first draft and didn’t see any way he could improve it. Besides, it was a waste of time — if he wanted to be prolific and make a buck. Asimov had confidence.

Dean Wesley Smith tells an interesting anecdote from back when he was part of the traditional publisher world. He wrote a novel and his editor sent it back with a list of rewrites. Smith agreed with most of them and spent a day making the fixes. He was getting ready to send the typescript back when his wife told him to wait 3 weeks. Why? Because if Smith sent it back right away, following the “Slow Writing = Good Writing” myth, the editor would reject his work. He’d done the rewrites too quickly. So Smith waited. After 3 weeks he sent the typescript back and the editor praised his work and how quickly he’d made the fixes. Smith laughed. In those three weeks he’d almost finished another novel!

So what’s my point here? Here it is in a nutshell:

  • Learn the writing craft. Know your grammar and know the basics of good storytelling. If you don’t know those basics, you will not be able to tell good stories no matter how many rewrites you grind out.
  • Write every day — even if you don’t feel like it. Routine is good. Stick to it.
  • Don’t pot around worrying about outline and plot twists and all the other hoopla. Just write the story. Create your characters, put them in a fix or give them a problem to solve and then start writing. You will learn in the course of writing. We are writers. Not rewriters. When I read of writers who LOVE editing and rewriting… Well, there is something wrong there. IMO.
  • When done, reread to make sure your story is coherent and to catch typos, grammar issues, and any clunky sentences you may have written. But the sake of everything that is of value to you, don’t rewrite the thing. IMO, if you have to rewrite then you don’t know how to tell a story. Yeah, I know, that’s harsh. But it is just my opinion. The choice is yours: pot around rewriting, or get it right the first time and try to make a buck.

I’ve written and/or published in the span of 2 years, 11 novels, 6 novellas, 16 short stories, and a weekly blog. Are there better writers out there than me? Certainly. Are there worse writers? Sure are. But am I a good writer? Like Asimov, when I look at a story or novel I’ve just completed I like it. Do I tweak it? Usually. But I don’t rewrite. I just fix the little things like typos and grammar mistakes and maybe reword a sentence or two if they come off sounding clunky. That’s it. If the beta readers spot a big issue, I’ll fix that. Following Asimov and Heinlein, I only rewrite if my “editors” insist on it. And the so called rewrite is usually only a paragraph or so.

That’s the secret to fast writing. Go out there and tell your stories. Because only YOU can tell YOUR stories.

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

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Writing Fast: To Go Where Few Of Today’s Writers Have Gone Before

If you are a writer, I’m going to save you at least a buck today. A buck might not be much, but save enough of them and you can retire.

The other day I ran across a podcast interviewing Rachel Aaron, “Miss 10K Words A Day”. After reading through the transcript of the interview I decided to check out her blog. I found the original post from 2011 in which she outlined her system for writing 10,000 words a day. After reading it, I came away singularly unimpressed. There was nothing new there. Which is so often the case with writing advice. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”.

Now my intention is not to put down Ms Aaron. After all she’s radically increased her word count per day — and tossed onto the rubbish heap the myth that fast writing is bad writing. And I say, Good for her! But what’s apparent to me is that she’s young and has little knowledge of the fact high word counts for writers used to be very much the norm. They had to be. Those writers of the pulp era wrote for a living. Every word they wrote was money in their pocket. No words on the page, no money. It was that simple.

Ms Aaron also writes for a living and she too has discovered fast writing is one of the keys to making a livable wage from the writing of fiction. But fast writing is nothing new, although I get the impression she seems to think so.

Nevertheless, she’s come up with a system, a good system by the way, and is willing to sell it to you for 99¢. Which is very generous on her part. Some writing gurus charge a whole lot more for a whole lot less.

But everything she has to say can be gotten for FREE on the Internet. Starting with her own blog post in 2011.

Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock, that prodigious writer of science fiction and fantasy, used to write novels in three days. Karen Woodward outlines how he did it in a blog post from 2014. And you can find another article at wetasphalt.com.

The Guardian, in 2010, presented Moorcock’s “Ten Rules For Writers”. Wonderful advice from a master.

The articles above are all free, just click on the links, and if you follow the advice you will increase your daily word count substantially.

Lester Dent

But Moorcock didn’t come up with his method all by himself. He got it from Lester Dent, a pulp era writer with a fantastic output. Dent was the creator of Doc Savage. If you’ve never read Doc Savage, you are missing out on a classic.

Karen Woodward has a fabulous series of blog posts on Lester Dent’s method of fast writing. The first one is “Lester Dent’s Short Story Master Formula”. The links to the other four articles are at the bottom of the initial post. And note, the formula works equally well for novels. A shorter version of Dent’s formula can be found at Dirty 30s! on paper-dragon.com. And once again, this information is all free!

Anthony Trollope

But fast writing didn’t originate during the pulp fiction era either. It began much earlier. Alexandre Dumas (1802 – 1870) made frequent use of assistants and collaborators to increase his production. Which is, of course, a time honored method of doing so. James Patterson does it today.

One of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope (1815 – 1882), in a writing career that spanned 37 years, produced 35 standalone novels, two 6-novel series, 42 short stories, 2 plays, 18 works of non-fiction, and 3 articles, as well as keeping up a voluminous correspondence. Without the help of assistants or collaborators. How did he do it? Quite simple, really.

For most of his writing career, Trollope worked a full-time job at the post office. Which meant he had to make the most of his time. He’d get up 2 1/2 hours before he had to leave for his day job in order to have time to write. The first half-hour he reviewed what he wrote the previous day. For the next two hours, he wrote.

He wrote by the clock. Literally. There was a clock on his desk. He wrote, by hand, with a dip pen, 250 words every 15 minutes. Or 2000 words in those two hours. He did that every day.

If during the two hours he completed the novel he was working on, he took out a fresh sheet of paper and began the next one. What that tells me is he had the story idea already in his head or written down somewhere. The key is he didn’t have to think about it. It was already there.

Trollope also kept a journal in which he recorded his daily word count. The purpose was to catch himself if he started slacking off.

Let’s summarize Trollope’s method:

  1. Have the storyline in your head, at the very least. Jot a few notes, if you need to. Moorcock and Dent did the same thing by writing in fictional universes they’d already created in detail. They didn’t have to figure out stuff on the fly.
  2. Set aside a regular time and place to write EVERY DAY. This is one of the secrets Rachel Aaron discovered and used to increase her word count.
  3. Review the previous day’s work to prime the pump and get the juices flowing. This is akin to warming up exercises before a person goes jogging.
  4. Don’t dawdle. Write quickly and get the words down. If you need notes or an outline in order to do so, then take a few minutes to jot them down. Writers often get bogged down when they have to spend time thinking about what they are going to write instead of writing it. Another secret Ms Aaron discovered.
  5. Record your progress. That way, if you find you are falling behind, you can easily pinpoint why and correct the problem. This is another one of the secrets Ms Aaron discovered, which I am passing along to you.

There you have it, Anthony Trollope’s secret to speedy writing. The granddaddy of speedy writers. You also now know Michael Moorcock’s method, Lester Dent’s method, and Rachel Aaron’s method of speedy writing. And all for FREE! You’ve just saved yourself a buck.

The secret to fast writing is no secret. Writers have been writing quickly for many, many decades. As Dean Wesley Smith has pointed out, it is the traditional publishing world and academia that has made us think fast writing equals hack writing. I am very glad Rachel Aaron has discovered the secret to fast writing and is popularizing it. But it has never been a secret. It’s just been demonized by those who didn’t and don’t write for a living.

So get out your pencil, pen, or keyboard and start writing. You’ve nothing to lose but those doggone low word counts.

As always, comments are welcome. Until next time, happy reading! And happy fast writing!

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Being Indie

In 2014 I made the decision to become an independent writer/publisher, or indie for short. Two factors weighed heavily in my decision. One was the difficulty of going the traditional route. The other being freedom.

I don’t write much on the writing life, because I don’t have much, if anything, to add to the veritable mountain of information that’s out already. Nor is my personal journey all that unique. I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I am slowly correcting them. I’ve also done a few things right.

Today, I’d like to put out into the aether a few thoughts about being an author/publisher. These are my own reflections. For the writers in my audience, I hope you find something of use or encouragement. For the non-writers, hopefully you’ll find applications to your own lives.

Traditional Publishing

Sometime in the middle 1960s I got my first copies of The Writer and Writer’s Digest. Let me be frank here, nothing much has changed in the traditional publishing world during these past 50 years. The most noticeable differences between then and now are these:

  • There are fewer publishers
  • An agent is virtually mandatory
  • The wannabe author has to secure his/her own editorial services
  • There is the internet

Everything else is the same. The same advice on how to write. The same adulation of critics, pundits, and publishers. The same narrow gate whereby only the few may enter. And once within the hallowed walls of authordom, the same lousy contracts and all the same self-marketing if you want to sell books.

My late friend and author, John J. Koblas, used to have his van filled with boxes of his books to sell at every speaking engagement and signing event. And to whoever might happen by. He made an okay living—but had to hustle to do it.

In truth, very little has changed in 50 years. For all of the perceived change, so much has stayed the same.

Freedom

I value freedom. Robert E. Howard, in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, confessed the reason he wanted to be a writer was because of the freedom it gave a person. I couldn’t agree more.

A writer is a self-employed artist. A creator and a business person all rolled into one. Unfortunately, the business piece of the partnership usually gets forgotten. The writer leaves that to the agent; or, if self published, too often to magic. When Weird Tales had trouble paying Howard for his stories, Howard followed the money and moved on to the western and fight magazines. He was a businessman as well as an artist.

Any writer can tell you, if he or she is actually writing stories and books, the act of writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. It’s work. It might be fun work, but it’s work nonetheless.

So why do so many writers—myself included—simply toss their books onto Amazon and then conduct tweet barrages to try to sell them? Or think blogging will get them noticed? Or hope that those 10,000 downloads of their free book will automatically turn into book buying fans? Because we want to believe in magic.

After being in indie author for over a year and a half, I’m here to tell you magic doesn’t work.

The freedom of being an independent author/publisher comes with a boatload of responsibility. The responsibility of being your own business person. Of being the one who directs your career, not some money-grubbing middleman (aka publisher) directing it for you.

The Black Hole

I read somewhere 3,000 books a day are published. I don’t know if that is true or not. But I’d hazard a guess it’s at least close to the truth.

Recently I went through a free course on book marketing with Nick Stephenson. Several times he mentioned writing into the black hole. In other words if you’re unknown, just writing books won’t bring you fame. They’re going into the black hole. Because no one knows you exist.

Marketing on social media is kind of doing the same thing. So is offering your book for free. There are lots of people out there who will grab anything for free and that includes books. They may never read those free books. Which means downloads of free books don’t necessarily mean readers, much less fans.

Dumping into the black hole isn’t going to do much to get you noticed. Remember, 3,000 books a day are being published.

Becoming a name, a recognizable name, is the struggle every author has had since authors first stepped onto the career playing field. And we are talking millennia here, folks. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides weren’t always famous. How many more classical Greek playwrights never became famous? We don’t know. Their names are dust. Anthony Trollope got the attention of a few critics with his fourth novel. He made some money and got a name with his fifth. It was Hugh Howey’s eighth book, Wool, that gave readers cause to sit up and take notice. Very few authors ever hit the big time coming out of the gate.

When I look at Twitter or Facebook or Google Plus or Goodreads, I see writers grouping together primarily with other writers. And that is not all bad. But it won’t necessarily get you out of the black hole. Why? Because we writers want readers to buy our books. There are more readers out there than writers. Somewhere along the line I think we forget that. Although, I do keep hoping Marcia Muller or S J Rozan will discover and plug my Justinia Wright mystery series and I will rake in the dough on the Oprah Effect. I do keep hoping. Magic is alive and well.

The sad fact of the matter is most of us will be swallowed up by the black hole. Why? Because name recognition is much more difficult to obtain then writing a book—and writing a book is difficult enough.

Marketing

To climb out of the black hole, we need to be business people. We need to plan our work and work our plan. We need to become proficient at marketing and self-promotion. And because many of us are introverts and shy, we see self-promotion as something akin to torture. And who wants to willingly lie on the rack or step into the Iron Maiden?

Nevertheless, we need to learn how to sell our books and ourselves—if we want to make a career of writing.

For myself, I’m 63 and retired. I don’t need to replace the dreaded day job. But I would like to supplement my income and get that Rolls Royce I’ve always wanted.

So how does one learn marketing? There are lots of ways:

  • Business courses at college
  • Observation of successful indies
  • Getting personal advice from successful indies
  • Reading marketing blogs
  • Reading books on marketing
  • Taking courses offered by indie writers who are successful or marketers who cater to indie authors
  • Trial and error
  • Paying a marketing firm (making sure you observe what they do so you don’t have to hire them ongoing)

I’ve observed successful indies, read a few of the marketing blogs, read a few books on marketing, have tried and erred, and am now taking a course.

What I’ve Learned

What have I learned over the past 20 months of being an indie author that I can pass on to you? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Write. For indie authors, less is not more. More is more. Readers of indie authors expect a lot of product. All of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  2. Write in series. Readers of indie works expect a series or at the very least related books in a universe or series characters. All of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  3. Have at least 3 books written before you start seriously thinking of marketing.
  4. Write in an identifiable genre. This makes it easy for indie readers to identify you. The genre doesn’t have to be large. It could be, for example, romantic space opera. While small, that subgenre is identifiable. Once again, all of the experienced indie authors agree on this.
  5. Write well/Edit well. This should go without saying. Unfortunately it can’t. Pay someone to help you if you have to. Investing in yourself is always worth the money.
  6. Use social media to make connections with your peers. Don’t use it to sell. It’s a poor sales channel—unless you are paying for ads on the channel.
  7. Learn marketing. If you’re going to be an author/publisher, then you’re going to have to know marketing if you want to sell books. I wish someone had told me this 2 or 3 years before I started. This is critical. Marketing sells books. Wishful thinking and magic do not.
  8. Live by Heinlein’s Five Rules. If you are a writer, then you write. You don’t do anything else. Unless you’re an author/publisher and then you are going to have to also do the business end of things, like marketing, as well. But first and foremost, you write. Robert J Sawyer sums up the Five Rules very well. Do read them. Do follow them.

I hope this has been of value. Comments are welcome. Until next time, happy reading!

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The Literary Sketch

The literary sketch was very popular with Victorian readers. Today, however, the form has largely disappeared. I suppose our dislike, as readers, for long narrative passages is primarily the reason. We seem to crave action and dialogue. Perhaps our shortening attention spans are also part of the problem. In this era of Tweets and sound bites, a page of descriptive prose is too much for us to digest. Perhaps.

Yet we also live in an age where we’re encouraged to be in touch with our feelings, where the more reserved amongst us are pejoratively characterized as being robots or ice maidens. In such an era as this, one would think the sketch, with its appeal to emotion, would be back in vogue. Sadly, though, it is not.

The sketch isn’t just an emotive piece, for it appeals to all of the senses. In that sense it is a sensual piece of writing and by appealing to the senses, it moves one subtly. And the nice thing about the sketch is that it is not a propaganda piece. It’s point is not to persuade, but to enlighten. Although an author can certainly shade one’s feelings and sensibilities into certain directions. By means of the sketch, we see a scene through the narrator, as it were. The narrator’s senses become our own.

I’ve been fond of the sketch as a form of entertainment for many years now. To hopefully whet your appetite for the form, you may find “A fluttering on the floor” a perfect introduction to the form. I know I loved it the moment I read it.

There are many collections of sketches and since they’re generally no longer under copyright, you can obtain them for free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Sketches from Memory is well worth reading and may be obtained for free from Project Gutenberg. Anthony Trollope’s Traveling Sketches and Hunting Sketches are also available for free from Project Gutenberg and are fine examples of the form.

As one reader to another, I encourage you to give the sketch a try. It’s something old, yet it fits very well with our graphics oriented culture. For a good sketch is a picture in words.

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Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing for Indies

The other day I was wandering around Dean Wesley Smith’s website and noticed he has an online workshop covering Robert Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Writing. It had been quite a while since I’d read them (we’re talking decades here), so I refreshed my memory. I found a discussion on Robert J Sawyer’s website.

Both Heinlein and Sawyer direct the rules to those who want to be traditionally published. For Heinlein, he had no option. For Sawyer, he is entrenched in the traditional world and has no need to change them. However, I have little desire to pursue the traditional publishing route and thought I’d adapt them for indie authors. So here they are:

Heinlein’s 5 Rules for Indie Writers

#1-You must write

This should go without saying and yet so many writers don’t ever actually write anything. They talk about writing, take courses, frequent writing forums, or dream of the writer’s life. But when it comes to putting pen to paper or fingers to the keys — they don’t do it. Or if they do, and actually finish something, they are forever rewriting it because it isn’t quite good enough.

To be a writer, YOU MUST WRITE.

#2-Finish what you start

You can’t be a writer or even learn the writing process unless you finish what you start. Weak beginning? Flabby middle? Dull ending? Unless the work is a completed whole, you can’t see what works and what doesn’t.

In my forth coming novel, But Jesus Never Wept, I knew I was having problems in the middle. I resisted the urge to stop and fix them and bulldogged to the end — and then went back and fixed the problem areas, which were fewer than I had thought.

#3-Don’t rewrite, unless your editor says so

Rewriting is not writing. Writing is writing.

When I was submitting and getting my poetry published on a regular basis, I’d watch many poets on various forums rewrite the originality right out of their work. They’d end up with a flabby, lifeless thing done to death by committee.

Resist tinkering. We can tinker endlessly. There is always something that can be improved. But at some point you must resist the urge and say, “It is good enough.” And then move on.

However, if your editor (and all indie writers need an editor, whether paid or volunteer) says something needs to be fixed — pay attention. Ultimately, you are the publisher and may decide to reject your editor’s advice. But if he or she is saying something needs to be fixed, there is a good chance it does. Only then, do you rewrite.

Remember, rewriting is not writing. It’s rewriting. And we are writers, not rewriters.

#4-Put your work up for sale

In the old days, this was submitting your work to editors and gathering rejection slips. Thank God we don’t need to go that route anymore.

Today, the indie version of Heinlein’s point is to offer your work for sale and see if the reading public likes it or not. This is the publishing part of being a writer/publisher. Get the work out there. Promote it. Let the reader decide. Not some biased editor.

And if the public is not enthralled, listen to what they’re saying. But don’t automatically kowtow to their whim. Not everything we write will appeal to everyone. Sometimes you have to go with your gut. If your gut is telling you the work is good, then go with it. Realizing your audience on that particular work may be a small one. Leave the work up for sale and move on. The worst thing you can do is to remove work from sale. Build your backlist.

Which brings us to

#5-Leave your work up for sale

Maybe your book or story isn’t selling today. Or maybe the sales have fallen off. Don’t give in to the temptation to take the work down. That’s the beauty of being a writer/publisher. You can leave your book or story available forever. There is no publisher who is going to remainder it on you. No publisher telling you it isn’t selling enough copies. No editor rejecting your current work because your past work didn’t sell enough.

We can leave our work up for sale for as long as we want. We can market on our own schedule. We are writers and publishers. Our writing career is in our own hands.

Just remember: what isn’t selling today, may very well sell tomorrow.

#6-Start your next work

This is Robert Sawyer’s addition to Heinlein’s rules. And it’s a good one.

You can’t be a writer if you aren’t writing. And rewriting doesn’t count. Because it isn’t writing. It’s rewriting. The prolific authors of the past and those of today, the one’s who are writing to make money from their writing, start a new project upon completion of the old.

Write, publish, and start writing your next work. It is what Anthony Trollope did. When he finished one book, if there was still time left in his morning writing session, he took out a new sheet of paper and started the next book.

Like a mother robin, kick those babies out of the nest to make room for the new ones.

Writer’s write. If you’re stuck on a book or story, start a new one. A writer can always write about something. Don’t let writer’s block be an excuse not to write. I always have several books in progress. If one is giving me trouble, I put it aside and work on a different project. I am always writing. No day goes by that I haven’t written something.

Your mission

Follow these six rules and you will have a steady stream of work coming off our pen and hitting the virtual bookshelves. And with a little bit of luck and marketing handiwork, you may end up earning more money writing than from your day job. That’s my goal.

Happy writing!

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Being Prolific

Some writers are naturally prolific and others aren’t. It is not an issue of good or bad, it just is. One of my favorite authors, Kazuo Ishiguro, sometimes has years go by before a novel comes out. But are they ever good. Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee certainly wasn’t/isn’t prolific. Yet Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird are such tours de force why write a second? Could a second be anywhere near as good?

Beginning in 1847 with his first published work, Anthony Trollope, in a span of 35 years, produced 35 novels, 2 plays, 44 short stories, and 18 volumes of sketches and non-fiction. That is nearly 3 works a year.

From 1939 until his death in 1992, Isaac Asimov wrote or edited over 500 books. That is over 9 a year. Pretty incredible.

What’s their secret?

For Trollope, it was writing 10 pages a day (2500 words). A practice Stephen King also follows. Trollope also used standard plots so he could focus on his characters.

For Asimov, it was simply to write. Leave editing to the editors, he once wrote, that’s what they’re there for. Of course, in today’s world there is no slush pile and no editors to edit. Victims of bottom lines and shrinking profit margins. Agents, beta readers, and editors for hire have taken over what the Big Publishers discarded. Nevertheless, even though the publishing world is different today than in Asimov’s day, he had a point.

Writers write and editors edit. For today’s author, who wishes to be prolific, obtaining the services of a good editor could go a long way towards obtaining that goal of prolificity.

Also key to Asimov’s tremendous output was he wrote fast in a simple and straightforward style. He focused on the story, got it on paper, and let the editor edit so he could write the next story. His stories are also rather formulaic. Writing to formula helps to eliminate plot angst.

Think about this: a 1,000 words a day (that is 4 double-spaced typed pages) will, in 50 days, produce a 50,000 word novel. At that pace, you can turn out 6 novels a year. Want a fatter novel? 75,000 words? You can still turn out 4 or 5 novels a year writing only 1,000 words a day.

Being prolific is within your grasp.

    • Write every day
    • Write to a goal. At least 1,000 words a day.
    • Don’t be fancy. Write simply.
    • If you’re a plotter, use a formula genre plot. If you’re a pantser, keep those simple formula plots in mind to help corral your characters and keep some order.
    • And let the editor edit.

Let me know what you think. Do you have any special tricks up your sleeve? If so, please share!

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The Fabulous Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope stands as one of my favorite authors. A Victorian giant. In some ways larger than life. If one had his novels on that proverbial desert island, one would need no other entertainment.

What is it about Trollope that is so appealing? For me, it is his characters. They are real people, dealing with real life issues. Unlike Dickens, who dealt in fantasy and tear-jerker scenes, Trollope simply presented middle-class Victorian life. The few times he deviated from a middle-class setting, he did not stray from a straight forward presentation and let life itself speak.

His first novel, The MacDermotts of Ballycloran, gives us a picture of the horror that was Irish poverty with no fanfare or editorializing. How can one read The MacDermotts and not weep at the plight of the poor? The inhumanity to which they were reduced? Or read his short story “The Spotted Dog” and not be moved by the power of alcoholism to destroy lives? Or feel for Archdeacon Grantly as he wrestles with his guilt over wishing his dying father would die sooner so he’d be appointed bishop to replace him?

These are real people with real problems drawn from Trollope’s personal observations. Nathaniel Hawthorne noted Trollope’s novels were “as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting they were being made a show of.”

Trollope loved his characters and lived with them constantly. Probably why he could write 250 words every 15 minutes, non-stop, for 2 1/2 hours every day. He was a character author and had little use for plot, other than to show off his characters. Which is another reason I so like Trollope. For me, a story is about its characters. The plot, if there is one (and I do think plot is overrated), is only there to make the characters shine — to make them real for us.

In his personal life, Trollope was a driven man. For most of his writing career he also worked full-time at the post office. He is generally credited with inventing the British post box. He was disdained by his mother, who openly favored his brother. His mentally ill father could not support the family, which lived in near poverty. Writing was a means by which Trollope could get the attention and money he craved. And in his case, it provided him both.

Over the years, Anthony’s star has somewhat faded. Although there is a current revival of interest. I heartily encourage you to check out Mr Trollope. His Barchester novels are a good starting point.

Oh, one other thing, if you like reading or writing a series, you can thank Trollope. He invented the novel series.

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The Literary Sketch

My love affair with the sketch goes back many years to my reading of Adventures in Contentment by David Grayson. At first puzzled by the seeming lack of direction the author took, I suddenly realized the “novel” was a collection of vignettes, or sketches, and each one produced a mood of contentment. I was enthralled with the skill of the author in making each chapter a haven of contentment. From the Adventures, I went on to discover other writers of sketches: Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Anthony Trollope to name three.

A sketch is at base a mood evoking descriptive piece of writing. Perhaps the verbal equivalent of the tone poem. A painting in words. One of the best discussions of the form I’ve found is in a blog post from 2007 on the Siris blog, simply entitled “Literary Sketch”. Do check it out.

The sketch has no plot to it, although there may be movement in the piece. Through the description of the scene, a mood is evoked and that is its strength: to use the power of words to evoke feeling and to perhaps stir us to our very core.

There is a Japanese literary form developed by Basho called haibun, a linking form of prose and haiku, which is very similar to the sketch. Basho composed his travel journals in haibun, as well as writing stand alone atmospheric pieces and essays in the form. I love haibun. It is a brilliant dance of prose and poetry.

If you haven’t tried the sketch, either writing one or reading one, I encourage you to do so. A well written sketch is prose poetry at its finest.

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