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Traits of Successful Authors I— Craft Tuesday at Write on the River

Patience And Self-Discipline

It takes a long time to write a novel. No matter how fast you are, it takes a while. In fact, while some things like NANOWRIMO has people writing at a furious pace for a month and is a good way to get the writing down, it is also negative in that quantity is not necessarily quality.

The amount of time I spend writing a novel has actually increased the more I learn about the craft. Rather than making it easier, more knowledge makes it more difficult to write, as I try to make the book the best possible product I can.

Writers are often asked what their daily schedule is. I think it’s important to have the discipline to have a daily schedule and/or goal. It’s too easy to let the writing go and take care of everything else if you don’t force yourself to face that daily goal.

It’s different for many writers but here are some from writers I know:

5 pages a day; 2,000 words a day; 10 pages a day; six hours a day.

I think an external goal that can be measured is the best to go for. It’s a tangible goal and you know when you’ve accomplished it.

Beyond that tangible writing goal, I work seven days a week, anywhere from eight to fourteen hours a day. It’s hard for me to say how many hours a day I work because I am almost always ‘working’. If I’m not sitting in front of my computer, I’m researching or watching the news for interesting facts or simply thinking about my story, playing it out in my mind, watching my characters come alive. I have many of my best plot ideas while driving or riding my bike. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, which is why I have my iPhone with recorder next to my bed ready for instant use.

My cable bill is very high, with every channel, on-demand, and DVR. There are writers who say ‘kill your television’ but I disagree with that. There’s some very good writing in that medium. I watch movies and shows the same way I read books: analytically to see what the writers did and also what were the possibilities that weren’t explored. The #1 thing a writer must do other than write is read and watch movies and shows. It is work. It will take away some of your enjoyment of things as you can get good at predicting what will happen next under Chekhov’s rule of ‘don’t have a gun in act one unless you use it by act 3’. But note that I say ‘use it’ not ‘fire it’. That’s the key to great writing. To take what is expected and do the unexpected.

Thumb_Nail_Novel_WriterWriting is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. If you write only when excited or motivated you’ll never finish. You have to write even when it’s the last thing you want to do. Just put something down. You can always edit it later or throw it out (you’ll do a lot of throwing out and it hurts but it’s the sign of a mature writer; also, it’s one reason you don’t edit yourself to death on the first draft). I eventually average 500 to 550 pages of manuscript to produce 400 good pages in a final draft. A recent manuscript was 126,000 words long and then I cut it back to 90,000 words. To sweat over that many pages and then “lose” them hurts but not as much as getting the manuscript rejected or not sell if self-published. The longer I’ve written, the more I’ve become a fan of rewriting and editing. I’m also a fan of outlining and doing a lot of work before I write the first sentence of my manuscript, including doing extensive character development.

Overall, I’ve developed an inner “writing clock” that works in terms of weeks and months that lets me know how much I have to produce and how quickly. It varies its pace depending on the project at hand and it took years of experience to develop this inner clock. I force myself to put the time and effort in, even when I don’t feel like it. However, as I discuss in Write It Forward, almost every writer tends to underestimate the time it takes to complete a manuscript.

Experiment and find something that works for you in day-to-day writing. Maybe it will only be for one hour every morning before everyone else gets up—keep doing it. You’ll be amazed how much you can get done if you stick with it. One rule that’s hard for people is to TURN OFF THE INTERNET while writing.

All the thinking, talking, going to writer’s conferences, classes, etc. are not going to do you any good if you don’t do one basic thing: WRITE.

backgroundWhen I taught martial arts, I always found that the majority of the new students quit right after the first month. They came in and wanted to become Bruce Lee rolled into Chuck Norris all within a couple of weeks. When they realized it would take years of boring, repetitive, very hard work, the majority gave up. It doesn’t take any special skill to become a black belt; just a lot of time and effort to develop the special skills. The same is true of writing. If you are willing to do the work, you will put yourself ahead of the pack. You must have a long-term perspective on it. Under Write It Forward, your strategic plan, in essence, is where do you want to be in five years as a writer?

I think a hard part of being a writer is also knowing what exactly ‘work’ is. For me it was hard to accept that kicking back and reading a novel was work and I wasn’t being a slacker. Sitting in a coffee shop and talking with someone is work. Living is work for a writer in that you can only write what you know, so therefore experience is a key part of the creative process.

Ultimately, though, as the late Bryce Courtney said, you need a large dose of bum glue. Gluing yourself to that seat and writing.

The Ability To Organize

As those pages pile up, you’ll find yourself weeks, months, maybe years away from having written that opening chapter. That’s where your organizing skills come in. We’ll cover outlining later on, but in essence, the way you organize your life, is the way you will initially organize your book. So if your life is all over the place, you might have some problems. Yes, there are those natural talents who can just ‘stream’ a book, but they are few and far between. Most of us cannot keep an entire book in our head.

You have to keep track of your characters, your locales, and the action, to make sure it all fits. I’ve used many different tools to write a novel, but one thing I’ve done with every single manuscript is use what I call a story grid. This is an Excel spreadsheet where I can put the entire book on one page, scene by scene (for a really big book it might go to two pages). This spreadsheet is not an outline, but rather something I fill in with a pen each day as I write, to help me keep track of what has been done. Every day I then update the spreadsheet and print it out. It sits to the left of my keyboard (I’m left-handed). It helps when you need to go back and look up a specific part or change something.

I also keep numerous indexed binders with all my research material handy. I spend a considerable amount of time organizing my research material so I can find what I’m looking for. Details drive a story, and the more details you have accessible in terms of research, the more options you have in your plot. Right now I have two four-inch thick binders: one for people; one for events.

Some writers use programs like Scrivener or Onenote to keep track of their research, but I’m still old-fashioned and use Word and Excel and binders.

These practical tools are part of my process as a writer.

What practical tools are part of your process?

Indie & Trad Publishing & Flying Monkeys On The Yellow Brick Road!

Flying-monkey-with-wicked-witch-wizard-of-oz-416597As you negotiate your journey through the wonderful world of publishing, be careful of those flying monkeys as you gaze in the crystal ball of your career path.

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.

backgroundA 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.

The Content Flood & Authors Whining Part Deux

IMG_0819Some thought my last post at Digital Book World was aimed at Authors United, but it wasn’t. I mentioned them as simply the clearest example of a misguided business focus by authors. We all can be a bit, shall we say, unfocused. Some find me a bit bleary-eyed at times. But that’s Cool Gus waking me up too early in the morning.  Or is it Becca– she always seems to be on top.

It’s easy to blame Amazon for declining sales. While for Hachette authors, they have a legitimate hatchet to grind (couldn’t resist), it’s not the complete story. Also, they are focusing on an outlet, when they signed a contract with the distributor, which refuses to sign a contract with the outlet. Their real gripe is with the organization they are contractually obligated to.

Be that as it may be, and it is; we also have some indie authors who act like we all should link arms around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. That we all should help each other and that competition, ‘well, no, that’s not really an issue’. In fact, when I bring it up, I’m chastised like some mercenary from the now defunct Blackwater, resurrected as Academi (seriously, folks). But I was never a mercenary and served in Spec Ops out of deep sense of comradery with my fellow soldiers. I do these blog posts (and I’ve done a lot of them) sharing my thoughts and projections for fellow authors. Take ‘em or leave ‘em, but I submit if you look in the archives of this blog, I’ve got a lot more good stuff here in terms of craft and business for authors than 99% of others around ye old campfire. Let’s go back to my mention of ‘hybrid author’ in 2011? You know, when everyone was talking about it. Not. Now you can’t swing a dead duck without reading or hearing ‘hybrid’ mentioned.

I’ve got a new term: Diffusion.  It’s how our content is being diffused in the flood of total content.

But we can blame Amazon for declining sales since it opened the floodgates; just not in the way Authors United believes. Because I submit many of those non-Hachette authors who signed the letter are also losing sales. Yes, they believe Jeff Bezos and Russ Grandinetti sit in the dark playing with their algorithm blocks, occasionally throwing one at Jon Fine, and are screwing authors.

Nope.

It’s the content flood and diffusion. And sorry, Jon Fine, tsunami sounds cool, but I’m telling ya’ it’s Biblical, dude.

Let’s look at some indicators that have been very telling.

Harlequin’s revenue has gone down every single quarter for over three years now. Every quarter. I’ve watched that. I used to think HQ was the perfect business model for the new digital world with readers willing to buy specific lines of books regardless of author. However, HQ is a direct casualty, let’s call it a center of mass shot with a sucking chest wound, of the indie author movement. So many of their successful authors jumped ship quickly for higher royalties, it’s taken its toll.

The reason? Romance authors are by far the most business savvy of any genre (don’t even get me started on SFWA which apparently just learned women can write good books). Because RWA chapters do stand around the campfire and chat. Every month. Not like men chat. But like women chat. You know. That. They even ask directions. In the business. And they share. That’s not to say they wouldn’t pound a stiletto high heel into your brain if you crossed them, but they’ll smile when they do it. Their customer base, 56% of fiction, is so broad, the content surge is only beginning to lap at their high heels.  But com’n, some of ya are feeling it.  Eh?

And Harlequin was sold. I blogged about this when I talked about The #1 Thing Authors Need to Consider Ref Amazon-Hachette (28 May 2014). This caught me some flack from some trad authors who felt I’d overstepped my bounds. But if you don’t own your rights, you can be traded, down-sized, out-sourced, and disappeared.  Diffused into nothingness.

BOL(new_3a)Elloras Cave is on the ropes. The pioneer in digital. How can that be? They claim some vague Amazon campaign against them. Yeah, Bezos and Grandnetti decided to screw them because . . .? These guys are working on getting drones flying over China.  Of course, looking deeper, after reading The Everything Store, there is the issue about some types of erotica being submerged due to content and cover because of concerns about the wide range of customers on Amazon. After all, we can’t have a gun on the cover of one of our books and pay for advertising on Amazon (gun removed from cover on right).  Soooo . . .

I mentioned Cool Gus’ revenue is up 22% this year over last. There are several reasons why, but one is we did something counter-intuitive. By the end of this year we will be working with half the number of authors we started the year with (and that wasn’t many to start with). Our partings have been amiable, but we’re really honing our business model, which is to provide top service to a handful of authors.

There’s going against a prevalent business model, which I’ve seen agents and publishers pursue over the years: throw a lot of authors and books out there and make a little off each.

That model, as evidenced by the crash and burn of a number of companies, is not a forward looking one.

And another reason we’re ‘down-sizing’ while ‘up-earning’ (oh yeah, trademarking that along with diffusion) is we believe going forward that a couple of top authors, looking at the reality of their royalty statements, crunching the numbers on digital percentage, will realize they need to change their business model (it’s even a radical concept for many trad authors to understand they need their own business model and not be handcuffed to a publisher or, gasp, their agent!). But the concept of going from a model they’re comfortable with and has served them well for a long time, into the unknown frenzy of the indie world, has them understandably hesitant. The learning curve is incredibly steep. That’s where Cool Gus is focused. It takes Jen and I about an hour to walk an author through what exactly we provide and why it’s needed in a world where cover design, editing, formatting and upload can be outsourced on a one time fee basis. As if that were enough to be successful.

We’ve always believed an eBook is organic. Very much unlike print (which actually is getting more organic with POD, which is the future, and I have no doubt Jeff Bezos and Russ Grandnetti have sat in the dark and come up with a very specific plan for that– one reason Jen visited Createspace HQ last year, but I digress). Thus it requires an organic publisher able to adapt and change and operate swiftly.  Swiftness is revenue in the digital world. And slow is one of the chief adjectives for large organizations.  We also believe an author’s career is organic and needs to be adaptive to rapidly changing opportunities, not locked into long term contracts and archaic business models.  At the same time, we think an author has to focus on long term revenue, not the quick money up front.

Beretee KnifeThe reality is the Flood is going to get deeper and deeper and deeper and our content will suffer more and more diffusion. Many who are doing well now, won’t be doing so well in the future, both indie and trad and hybrid and Martian. That’s not being mean, it’s being realistic. The first step of change is to rip away denial. That’s the only way to not only survive but thrive.

My last two books released this month (on the 9th and next week on the 30th; another lesson learned, back to back releases) are titled Shit Doesn’t Just Happen (I and II): The Gift of Failure. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, and again in those books, that Special Forces are Masters of Chaos. Combat is chaos. Disasters are chaos. And publishing is getting increasingly chaotic.

Let’s master it.

Getting Lost in NJ on the way to Thrillerfest in NYC

I had some interesting travels this past week.

womanwalkingIt started off with some issues flying out of Rochester to LGA. I had the right dates but somehow I had booked myself from LGA to ROC instead of ROC to LGA. It happens. Not often, but it does. Now this is why I heart Delta. Because I booked it through their site on my business AMEX CARD from Delta, Howard at the Delta counter worked his magic and got to NY and back without any extra charges. How awesome is that? But this was the start of a Planes, Trains and Walking movie. The emphasis on walking. Oh, and I broke my favorite black sandals that are insanely comfortable because off all the walking I ended up doing…

Bob and I decided that since I was heading to NJ to visit with one of our contract editors that it would be a good idea for me to head across the Hudson and spend a day at Thrillerfest, so instead of driving (I don’t drive in NYC) I flew. I managed to get from LGA to Penn Station via a bus, then walked two blocks to the Path and get on the train. Of course when I got to the Path I had to pick between two trains. Well, I had to make sure I got on the right train, which I did. I even got off at the right stop. All by myself. See, I don’t generally travel alone, anywhere. If its work, I’m with Bob. If its fun, I’m with Hubby. So, this is all their fault. Just saying.

Fast forward to Friday and I had to make my way back into NYC via the train. And walking. Well, not as much walking. I managed to take the Path to 33rd and transfer to the D train and then off at 42nd and then walked in the RIGHT direction to the Grand Hyatt where I was able to get into my hotel room at 10am! When does that happen? So perhaps the travel Gods are no longer frowning on me.

I didn’t actually attend Thrillerfest, so I can’t report back on any of the panels or workshops, because I didn’t attend any, but I did sit in the lobby and meet with authors as well as one of our contacts from Amazon and also got to meet face to face (even if for a moment) our contact at iBooks.

My first meeting was with Amy Shojai, one of our authors. It was nice to see her again and we discussed our plan with her future books. I then had lunch with Laura Benedict and Rebecca Cantrell and a couple other authors as well as agent Janet Reid. It was a great lunch, chatting about publishing and other topics.

But what struck me right off the bat this year at Thrillerfest was the feeling I got the moment I started to see people was an overwhelming positive sense. And, while I know the topic of Amazon and Hachette was discussed, it wasn’t THE topic of conversation. I talked with a lot of authors who are trying different things from Kickstarter to collaborations to shorts to switching genres to writing more, writing less. Many roads to OZ.

While it had a very positive vibe, Thrillerfest is still very grounded in Traditional Publishing. Even though many authors are dipping their fingers into other possibilities, the focus is on Traditional.

There is a danger in having roots too deep in any one camp. There are both positive and negatives to both indie publishing and trad publishing. I think the hardest part for an author today is sorting through all the information and making the right decision for themselves. This is especially hard when the top 1% on both sides who are well respected in the business are giving advice that is often times the complete opposite of one another. Many of the authors I talked to at Thrillerfest are intrigued by what Bob and I are doing and the Cool Gus Business Model, but, and this is a big but, they are either doing well enough with current publisher, or stuck in contractual obligations, or simply scared to make the leap in part because they do know its not “simple”. It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you sit on, or not sit on, publishing is still undergoing some major changes and there is more to come. We can fight it all we want, but that won’t change reality. Change is required to grow.

There is a lot of misinformation being passed around the internet. And a lot of slanted information for one side or the other. It’s very hard to wade through all the blogs, news articles, blogs and posts about any and all aspects of publishing. I had a long talk at Thrillerfest with Dan from Amazon, mostly about Cool Gus and our authors, since that is my business, and that is the point. It’s a business and we all have to make business decisions. Many roads to OZ and OZ means different things to different people. But we do all have to exist and often work together in this business. Sometimes ego just has to be checked at the door.

Now, how did I break my shoes?

Thrillerfest Dinner 2014Keith Raffel was gracious and invited me out to dinner with him, Laura Benedict, Shane Gericke, Janice Gable Bashman, Karen Dionne, Rebecca Cantrell, Kieran Crowley and Julie Kramer. The dinner was filled a lot of wonderful conversations about various aspects of publishing and different ways to go about it. Also, Rebecca was up for Best eBook Original and WON! Congrats Rebecca! Dinner was on 2nd Avenue near 77th and Keith, Laura and I got this bright idea we’d walk back. Very glad we did as Keith provided a great Fire Work show (thanks Keith!) for Laura and I and also let Laura and I window shop for shoes in some very nice little shops. But, it is a long walk from 77th and 2nd to 42nd and whatever intersection that is for the Grand Hyatt hotel. Not to mention we took a slight detour to see the fireworks. Unfortunately, these long leisurely walks weren’t meant for my very favorite black sandals and the straps broke on the way up to my room and oddly, these were the only shoes I brought with me. Thankfully, I didn’t have anymore walking and got a cab to the airport in duct tape sandals.

Nothing but Good Times.

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