Don’t take anyone else’s monkey as your own! We all are on our unique yellow brick roads to Oz, whatever Oz might be for each of us.
Lately I’ve run into some new writers at conferences who eventually whisper to me they’ve signed a traditional deal, but they’re afraid to mention it to anyone because they get castigated. The attitude seems to be that if the book is good enough to get a book deal, then self-publishing makes more sense.
What a change in just a few years when people would break open a bottle of champagne upon getting a book deal. Now one almost dares not mention it for fear of being ridiculed for not taking the indie route. There are some indie authors saying they will never go back to traditional publishing; the key phrase is “go back”. It’s curious that a lot of us who have been successful as indies actually started in traditional publishing, giving us a distinct leg up; along with a thing called backlist.
I’m a big believer in being flexible and keeping options open. I’ve changed my view on things over the years and will continue to do so. Part of that is my Special Forces background, part of it is having experienced the spectrum of publishing. And part of it is having learned to never say never.
For a new writer, with no backlist, it’s an entirely different event with the first book. It’s easy for me to say “Well, it would be hard for me to go trad now,” when I’ve been traditionally published 42 times. I definitely understand the ups and downs of it. Actually, with the right deal, I would do it. But the odds of that ‘right’ deal happening are iffy at this point in my career—the key being MY career with my particular monkeys, which aren’t anyone else’s (mine are cute). And the other key is I know what would make it right. Or wrong. And I would be realistic about it, not starry-eyed. Actually, I am a hybrid author in that I publish books with 47North, Amazon’s science fiction imprint. I do that for various reasons, giving up a percentage of possible royalties as an indie in exchange for other benefits. I feel it’s the right monkey for me.
I used the term ‘hybrid’ author back in 2011 in a blog post here. It’s probably the most successful way to go, unless you are a top 1% author. But you can’t be hybrid unless you are published traditionally eventually. An interesting thing few talk about is the successful indies who end up going trad.
For a brand new writer, I believe the odds of initial success going the traditional route, if one can successfully negotiate it, are better than going the indie route. Unless, of course, that new writer has mastered all the aspects of indie publishing, which is a Catch-22 right there. How can they master something when they don’t even understand, or have experience in, the basics?
The reality is that there is a reason all these people are employed by publishers: editors, cover designers, publicists, sales force, etc. And agents play a vital role for a new author, helping them negotiate this confusing path. As a small publisher, I understand that because we have to do all this at Cool Gus for an author; on their own they quickly get overwhelmed, which is the reason they want us to handle most of it, while keeping them informed. Would an unpublished author know how to do it, and not just to do it, but do it correctly? And how would they gain an audience in an eBook market that is drowning in content? Most importantly, there is definitely a place for print, and that market is not anywhere near as crowded simply because there is limited shelf space. Right there, the trad author is ahead of the power curve. A trad publisher getting a new author’s book into the bookstore is a very, very important thing.
A caveat is that a book deal is just the start, but for a previously unpublished author, it can be a solid start if they recognize the positive and the pitfalls and use the internet to study the wealth of information about how they should be planning for the future. I’ve gotten several emails from authors who have their first book coming out in the next year from a trad publisher, asking what they should be doing. That’s worrisome because although I have definitely seen a large improvement in marketing by trad publishers, I go back to my question from years ago of how many agents and publishers have an SOP they give to brand new authors, informing them on the process and what they can be doing? I’m sure there are those who do in this technical age, but probably not as many as should. An author needs to develop a career plan, not fall into the ‘sell the next book’ syndrome. It’s one of the reasons I wrote Write It Forward. I took what we did in Special Forces and applied it to making a living as an author. Regardless of path, successful authors must have a career plan!
On the flip side, I do think successful traditional authors should really consider indie publishing some titles. Keep options open for the future. Because the one constant in publishing is there is no constant. The creative freedom of being part-indie can be incredibly freeing for an author who has only experienced traditional publishing. At Cool Gus, authors have the final say on everything to do with the book, from content, to cover, to pub date, to marketing. We advise; they decide.
Bottom line: long-term success on any path of publishing (including the infamous hybrid) is extraordinarily rare and difficult.
It’s like anything else: educate oneself. Be flexible. Take what you need and leave the rest. But there are many, many roads to Oz. And Oz is different for each of us. Each of us must find our own Yellow Brick Road; and we must deal with our particular group of flying monkeys.
There’s always a but.
Not long ago an author loop I am on had a thread titled: “Quitting My Day Job.” Lots of people posted. I found it weird, since the content flood is leveling out sales, but then I thought about it. Most on the loop are indie authors. And indie authors make much more per sale than trad authors (although most of the bigger name trad authors live off advances, thus the relative lack of concern over paltry eBook royalty rates). But for the midlist author, making so much per copy sold equals greater income.
So, cool beans.
Then this past month, a new thread appeared: “Going Back to the Day Job.” How fickle is fate? And how fast the changes in the marketplace. Lot of people are blaming it on Kindle Unlimited. Which knocks down royalty per copy earned. But then you’ve got Authors United (Not) blaming Amazon for everything wrong in the world (yet still selling their books there). But I think the reality is that the content flood is really taking sales away from pretty much everyone as readers have so many more choices. Over 300,000 books uploaded to Kindle last year. Yes, most are schlock, but you know some are pretty good. Your hard core readers who pay our bills, thank you very much, have so many more choices.
So what’s a writer to do in order to keep making a living?
- Study craft so you can become a better writer
- Have mule-like stupidity, aka Terry Gilliam’s advice to film makers
- Understand that everyone else isn’t doing as great as they pretend they’re doing, so stop comparing yourself. You control your career, not anyone else’s
- Stay ahead of changes by studying the business and extrapolating
- Have a catastrophe plan (separate blog post)
- Accept that there will be ups and downs in all aspects; don’t get bogged in the downs; don’t go overboard on the ups
- Listen to, factor in whatever truths might be there, then ignore the naysayers
- Never, ever, think you have it made; the second you do, it’s over
You have to start somewhere.
Have you ever listened to a writer who just recently started a new project? They are practically jumping out of their pants with excitement. Their eyes light up and oddly enough, they break out of that introverted shell and start babbling away about their latest novel.
This is at the core of the Kernel Idea. The spark of inspiration. That one thing that made you believe you could sit alone in a room and write 100,000 words. However, when the writer hits the 50k mark they often forget what excited them in the first place. As you go through Nanowrimo, are you starting to sputter out? The flame flickering low?
The kernel idea is the Alpha and the Omega of your book. By that I mean it starts your creative process and it completes it. It’s what you begin with and at the end of the manuscript, everything in the book points toward it.
The kernel idea is the foundation of your novel. When I say idea, I don’t necessarily mean the theme, although it can be. Or the most important incident, although it can be. But it can also be a setting. It can be a scene. It can be a character.
It is simply the first idea you had that was the seed of your novel. All else can change, but the idea can’t. It might be a place; a person; an event; a moral; whatever. But you did have it before you began writing and you must remember it as you write. If you don’t, your story and style will suffer terribly. You should be able to tell your idea in one sentence. And repeat it to yourself every morning when you wake up and prior to writing. Knowing it will keep you on track. (Nanowrimo Survival Kit)
Every new book I begin, I write out this one sentence on a word document as the very first writing I do. I print it out and put it where I can constantly see it.
Can you clearly state what your book is about in 25 words or less? This is a key, essential ingredient of writing a good book. This idea keeps you focused and on track. It is important to:
- Write The Kernel Idea down.
- Ask yourself what emotional reaction does it bring about.
Good writing and strong characters are the key to great writing and knowing what excited you to write the book in the first place will bleed onto the page. However, if you don’t write it down, you might forget and get lost along the way.
What Is Your Kernel Idea?
- Good news is you had one.
- Bad news is you probably forgot it.
- It is usually the first thought you had (the spark of inspiration)
- It is the foundation of your book, the seed.
KERNAL IDEA EXERCISE
Write down the idea behind your current project.
If you can’t do it, then you need to backtrack through your thought process to find it, because you had it at one point. Everything starts from something. While idea is not story (something I will talk about later) idea is the only thing in your manuscript that won’t change. Your story can, but your idea won’t.
In one of my early novels, the original idea was an action: What if Special Forces soldiers had to destroy an enemy pipeline? That’s it for Dragon Sim-13. Not very elaborate, you say. True. Not exactly a great moral theme. Right. But with that original idea there was a lot I could do and eventually had to do. I had to change the target country after the first draft. But that was all right because I still had the idea. I had to change characters, but that was fine too, because it didn’t change my idea. I had to change the reason why they were attacking a pipeline, but again, the original idea was the same.
You will have plenty of latitude for story after you come up with your kernel idea; in fact, I sometimes find the finished manuscript turns out to be different from what I had originally envisioned, but one thing is always true: that kernel idea is still there at the end as the Omega.
For my first kernel idea, I made it as simple as possible to enable me to focus on the writing because when I was in the Special Forces my A-Team had run a similar mission on a pipeline. Since I had a good idea what would happen in the story, I could concentrate on the actual writing of the novel.
I’ve sat in graduate literature classes and heard students say: “The author had to have a moral point in mind when they wrote that book.” I agree, but sometimes it is not at the forefront of the story. Many authors write simply to tell a story started by that kernel idea, which indeed might be a moral point, but sometimes is a story that they wanted to tell and the theme developed subsequently.
A moral or theme (screenwriters call it intent) always does appear in a book by the time it’s done. No matter what conscious expectations or thoughts an author has when they start writing, a lot more appears in the manuscript than they consciously anticipated.
After you have that kernel idea, you should spend a lot of time wrestling with it and consciously uncover your feelings and thoughts about it. I try to look at my main characters and determine what will happen to them emotionally, physically and spiritually as they go through the story. Who are they at the beginning of the story and who are they at the end?
This is an example of being aware of what you are doing. Not all authors have a conscious theme when they write a novel, but experience has taught me that it is better to have your theme in your conscious mind before you start writing. It might not be your original idea, but it will definitely affect your characters and story.
The reason it is important to have a theme in mind is because people want to care about what they read and the characters. If there is some moral or emotional relevance to the story they read, they will become more involved in the story and enjoy it more. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously see it either.
Writers balk at the Kernel or one-sentence idea. How can you be expected to write the entire essence of your epic novel in one sentence? You are told that every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every scene must have purpose, so how can any writer sum up their work in twenty-five words or less?
It’s simple. Your story started with an idea. The idea wasn’t much. If you write it down when you think of it, then summarizing your story in one-sentence is just that much easier.
One way to work on understanding the Kernel Idea is to take your favorite movie or book and try to figure out the Kernel Idea. This will help you narrow the focus and see how it is the foundation of everything in the story.
Do you know what your kernel idea is?
(In the next post, I’ll give examples of Kernel Ideas)
WRITE IT FORWARD
So how much actually applies and is useful?
I recently taught at a conference that forced me to get back to basics. Both in terms of the craft of writing and the business. Like many agents and editors, successful authors, after years in the trenches, become a bit jaded, and we also tend to forget what it was like to be on the outside looking in.
Looking at many conferences and conventions we see the same names presenting, again and again. Normally, they are very successful authors, whether indie or trad, who indeed have a lot of great information to impart. Still, the same person saying the same thing at a lot of conferences the same year might be overkill. The same is true of popular blogs where the same party line is touted, without considering the nuanced sides to every issue. After all, I’ve never seen a business event in publishing to be all good or all bad. Every thing has shades to it that every writer has to factor into their own personal situation.
But, after all, we want to hear from success stories, not failures. Still, if it were easy to replicate those successes, then everyone would be doing it. Plus, many success stories feel their path is the path, and don’t take into account not only other paths, but the changes in the business and even in story telling since they started.
For decades the spiel was pretty much the same: write a great novel following a traditional form of narrative structure (I still teach the five part structure) and then query an agent, hope the agent takes you on, then the agent pitches an editor, etc. etc. etc.
That’s somewhat true now, but there are so many more options, if I were new to publishing I’d be completely confused, as many writers I’ve met at conferences are.
First—does what the 1% say regarding their career path even apply any more? Things are different now than they were just six months ago. For trad authors issues like rights granted, reversion clauses, and non-compete clauses are growing more and more important. For indie authors, the market is saturated, so how do you get a toehold in it and leverage your way up, especially if you don’t have backlist, which is the conundrum for the new author?
When I was listening to an agent present I felt like I was in a time warp going back five years or more. Much of what she said was applicable but some of it had cobwebs hanging all over it. In fact, the success story she touted was a couple of years out of date and no longer applicable. But in a similar manner, I’ve heard some on the indie side speak and while what they say is often cutting edge, the cut is often very much slanted toward indie, while disparaging to trad publishing. I tend to believe for a new author, trad is probably the better option simply because the learning curve in publishing is so steep, that to learn it and break in while publishing yourself (while still writing, being a parent, working a job, etc.) might be more a cliff than a curve. I think it all co-exists, much like Cool Gus & Sassy Becca above.
Second—does narrative structure even hold true in a different story-telling market? I turn to TV for this as my wife and I spend an inordinate amount of time watching it (she always controls the remote and she’s always right about what to watch). Shows like Orange Is The New Black do things to story (time hops, protagonist really not being part of climactic scene, etc) that are non-traditional but fascinating.
While I teach the basic narrative structure, I do so as part of craft, always reminding writers that to be true artists they have to learn the rules, then break them.
The same is true of the business. We hear “This is the way to do it!” shouted, but is it for you? Actually, the true entrepreneur blazes a new path. One reason I’ve stayed alive in publishing for a quarter century is I never thought I had it made. Every author I know who thought they had it made, ended their career the second they thought that. I’ve constantly reinvented myself and still am. I’m doing things differently now, both creatively and business-wise, than I was six months ago.
I want to hear from you—the writers getting all this great advice from so many sources. What have you heard that you liked, didn’t like and what do you want to hear that hasn’t been spoken yet?