Wednesday, November 30, 2016

So you think you lost NaNoWriMo?

Didn't make 50,000 words? That’s fine. It doesn’t matter. I swear to you it does not matter one iota. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you a loser. It doesn’t make you a hopeless writer.

One NaNo win is not the end point of your journey--not nearly so. The month of NaNo is one tool of a million tools that might help you become a selling writer one day. Just that. Nothing more. One tool.

So what if you skip it one year? So what if you “only” wrote 37000 words this year? That’s a great total! Keep writing. NaNo, remember, is just a game. You don’t want to be a game winner more than you want to be a writer, do you? So ...  go be a writer, including on December 1 and 10 and January 14.

At its best, NaNoWriMo helps people learn for the first time that it’s possible to draft a novel in a month. And then they go on and do that again, independently of any game, on months other than November, over and over again. If you wrote over 1000 words a day on average, you still learned the lesson, whether or not you hit the arbitrary 50,000 word total or not. If you wrote six days out of seven despite having a job and kids, you still did well. Keep up those good habits--write at least 1,000 or revise at least 2,000 every day--and you’ll be able to write at least two books per year. Keep doing it, year after year, and your writing will improve over the years. Keep improving, and one day strangers will be anxious to read the next book you’ve written.

If NaNo makes you feel bad, if it doesn’t match your personal production habits, don’t do it again. You’ll get beat up enough over a lifetime of writing, and a lifetime is what a writing career entails; don’t beat yourself up by adding another burden or sense of failure that you can avoid.

If you won, hey, great! Congratulations! But if you didn’t win but learned something, or wrote a third of a novel that didn’t exist in October, congratulations to you, too. You have every reason to feel proud.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Inventing characters

I thought I’d talk a little about craft, about two of the ways I develop characters.

My novels are realistic books about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. (Time travel is not so realistic, I admit, but the rest of what I write is.) And so most of my characters come from watching and listening to ordinary people.

Here’s an excerpt from my journal:
“As I left the grocery store this morning, a white couple, obviously working poor folks, walked up to the door. I had emptied my cart and left it just in front of the jammed-together stack, and the guy was going to yank one of the entangled carts out instead. His girlfriend said, “Hon, there’s one right there that person just left.” And the guy says, petulant, “I don’t want that one.”

And in a moment, I knew how awful that relationship was, how abusive he likely is--perhaps not physically, but a moral, spiritual drain, a critical jerk, like a black hole in her life that drains out all her happiness and peace. Her tone of voice and cringing posture told me that too. And I wondered ... why be with him? What sex, no matter how great, what help with the chores, what brief comfort of waking up next to a breathing body is worth that cost? It’s a puzzle.”

And it is, in the working out of that puzzle over some time, that I might come up with a character. Or, I might challenge myself about my assumptions, and turn that guy into a nice guy who is having a bad morning because _________ (brainstorm a list of why). Or maybe they weren’t a couple, maybe they were brother and sister, tending to a dying parent, and his refusal to accept the easier and available cart that didn’t require a wrestling match to free was a sort of symbolic act of frustration at the vagaries of disease, a rail against the inevitable march of the parent toward death. Maybe I'd focus on her and try to sincerely answer my why question. Give her a rational reason to stay with a draining man.

As I think about them today, I can see the woman--who I caught but a glimpse of--literally wringing her hands, not a thing done often in real life, but I think she might. I wonder if I can get away with that gesture in a book set today, and think, possibly, if I lampshade it.

I make up stories about strangers all the time, and a moment like that might spin off a dozen characters. They might fade from my conscious mind, or I might be in the midst of plotting a novel in two years, and there is that character, right when I need her. I don’t describe the person I saw that started the thinking--any looks will do, I probably don't remember the trigger person's looks, and I seldom describe my story people in detail anyway, trusting that my readers are smart enough to imagine characters on their own.

In other situations, I sit down and quiz people. People love to talk about themselves. Example: I was sitting with a group of a half-dozen elderly women, and they had all been happily (or at least contentedly) married for decades, and it struck me to ask this question. “Was he the first real love you had, or was there one who got away?” And they all had one who got away, and the stories they told were fascinating, and filled with nostalgia, bittersweet longing, and humor.

Few of the stories people tell me get used exactly as told to me. They all go onto the character compost heap, fertilizing my fiction. The more I ask people about themselves, the more I learn about people in their infinite variety.

So those are two of the ways I invent and develop characters: by outright quizzing people, and by inventing imaginary lives for the folks I see in passing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"Why aren't my indie books selling?"

We're nearing the end of NaNoWriMo month, when I write about writing (craft and business) rather than about science, emergency preparation, and disasters.

My bad first cover for my give-away story. Don't do this in public!

I see this question asked often around the web. I'm speaking to fiction writers here, as I'm no expert on non-fiction books. None of the following answers is original to me, and most selling indie writers would offer you a list in answer that I suspect would 90% match this one.
  • you don’t have enough books out yet. Get six out there before you worry. Bonus: you’ll be a better writer by the time you’ve written your sixth
  • you’ve picked a genre that almost no one reads. Traditional publishing, with its higher profile, can afford to try to break out a new genre or promote a cross-genre book. Indies do better by sticking to established winning genres
  • you’ve picked the right genre but failed to meet its conventions. Romance, for instance, requires a happily every after; if you fail to deliver that, your books won’t sell. Or perhaps you’re trying to sell short stories in a genre that expects 100,000-word novels
  • you’re writing stand-alone books. In most genres, series sell more copies
  • your cover looks amateur (though I admit this didn’t stop me from selling books at first). Buy a pre-made cover to begin with. You can find them on sale for $15. I like because he’s prolific and reasonably priced. 41 Days' cover I got from you've made your first few thousand dollars, put that back into better covers if you wish
  • your product description isn't a good, grabby selling tool
  • your “read inside” section is full of editing errors
  • you can’t write very well (yet)
  • you can write well enough, but your books are slow and bogged down with description. I know your eleventh grade teacher praised your description of a sunset, but novel readers already know what a sunset is. Type “Night fell,” and move on to action or dialog
  • you overpriced your books. No one knows who you are, so they will not pay 6.99 for your novel. Try .99 for a while
  • you aren’t releasing books quickly enough to develop a following
  • you are doing all that above right but are having rotten luck (but this is only true for 1-5% of you, so look earlier in the list for the real answer before you cling to this thought). Hang in there, keep writing, and your luck should eventually turn
In order to fix whatever is wrong, you need time and effort and a willingness to learn better. A significant percentage of people slapping books up on Amazon are doing just that--slapping up a half-baked book. That won’t result in success. First, learn to write well. (Hint: if it’s your first book ever, you probably haven’t yet.) Second, pay or barter for proofreading.

Third, look at the best sellers in your subgenre and see what those authors are doing with covers and product descriptions. Then buy a similar pre-made cover and write your blurb in a similar style.

Fourth, now that the problem is fixed, ignore that book and write your next book and your next. A writing career spans a lifetime, so get on with yours.

I guarantee you that here is NOT what’s wrong: you don’t have enough reviews/you haven’t run enough ads. Forget about that stuff until you have a completed series out or your first six books. By then, reviews will have likely taken care of themselves anyway. And by then, you’ll have likely read sufficient articles and forum posts by successful indies to know the very few sites where it’s worth advertising.

I wish you the best in your journey as an author-publisher.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Dawn of Mammals 4 available for pre-order!

Time-travel adventure series Dawn of Mammals continues with Killer Pack. CLICK HERE to order for December 9 delivery to your Kindle or other device.

A time gate...
A team of teen scientists...
A desperate fight to survive....

A rock slide at a fossil site uncovers a portal through time. Park Ranger Hannah and a team of fossil hunters are caught in it and whisked back to an era when giant predator mammals roamed the earth. Before they can find their way home, they must survive the Dawn of Mammals.

In book 4's adventure, The Miocene epoch places them nearer to home, but can they make it back home without a lost team member's knowledge about the timegate? After Hannah abdicates as leader, relationships shift. Ancient canids hunting in a pack bring down another human. Who will survive this epoch, and who will fall?

Gray 1, post apocalyptic e-book, on sale for .99 in US

The exciting post-apocalyptic novel series begins.

A dense black cloud boiled up in the southeastern sky. It rose high and fast, like a time-lapse movie of the birth of a thunderhead. But it was no rain cloud. Wholly black, it reached up and loomed over her, blocking out the sun. Somehow she knew it was Death coming at her.

Pre-med student Coral is on a vacation in Idaho when something terrible happens. The black cloud is followed by a wildfire and searing heat that lasts for days. She survives deep in a cave but emerges days later to find the world transformed, a world of blackened trees, an ash-filled sky, and no living creatures except her.

So begins her desperate journey: to find water, and food, and other survivors...and the answer to the mystery of what happened.

Post apocalyptic three-book series, exclusive to Amazon. Sale for US (.com) only.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I do believe in luck

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I post about writing issues, craft and business, rather than my typical posting on science, natural disasters, and emergency preparation.

I believe that luck plays a part in commercial writing success. Many other writers--some making a good living and others with brilliant plans laid out which they are certain will catapult them to fame any day now--do not, and I understand why. So let me explain why I do.
my guess at what contributes to writers' success
I don’t think writing success is only about luck, mind you, nor primarily about luck. And today is perhaps the first time in history that you can succeed without connections; sales and ranking are no longer about whether or not some New Yorker wearing shoes more expensive than your entire wardrobe bopped you on the head with the fairy godmother wand or not, thank the great demigod Jeff Bezos.

So there is good news: what you do alone at the keyboard matters much more today than it has ever mattered before. With self-publishing, the relationship between hard work and success is getting cozier, and that’s one hell of a comfort to those of us who work hard.

I also know this: wishing won’t manufacture luck. Only hard work will. There’s a famous quote out there ( tried to figure out who said it first and that’s so complicated, I won’t even try to attribute it): “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Believe it.

Still... I have witnessed three writers, just as skilled as one another, working just as hard in the same genre, coming up with varied incomes. One is making $250K/year, and one $72K and a third not quite $20K. Even with the same number of books out, about the same number of years in the business, and the same number of releases this year, their results vary. So, to my mind, this suggests that there must be some luck involved. Start comparing writers across genres, and you can find even more wildly disparate results. Hard work in writing (or in sculpting, acting, or playing in a rock band) does not necessarily win you a living wage. Chances are, because of how many people are vying for the top spots, you won’t grab one.

Nor does success last year mean you are guaranteed it again next year. A lot of skilled, hardworking people in the arts have a five- or ten-year reign at their top level, and then it slips away despite their best efforts. They were good, yes, and they still are...but their luck turns. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

Without hard work, you can’t position yourself to get lucky. Don’t do the work, and you’ll certainly fail. Do the work and get a dose of luck, and you might soon be paying the bills with your writing.

So do I believe that hard work is required to succeed? Absolutely. But do I also believe there’s such a thing as luck for writers? I do. This does not excuse me or you from doing our work. If we want to make a living as novelists, we can’t do it by dawdling around online during our writing hours or practicing the award acceptance speech in the mirror or making excuses or feeling jealous and resentful of people who work harder than we do. As I have often reminded myself: Quit yer daydreaming, quit yer whining, and write today’s words.

Then do it tomorrow and for all the tomorrows to come. If you don’t, you’ll never get lucky.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Dawn of Mammals 4 update

This book is in the hands of a pro proofreader right now, and I'm planning to release it on or before December 15. If I can get it up before then, I will!

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I don't believe in talent

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I post about writing issues, rather than my typical posting on science, natural disasters, and emergency preparation.

“You're so talented as a writer.”

I hear this from time to time in emails, and before you think this is just bragging and quit reading this article before this sentence ends, let me assure you, I am NOT talented.

And neither is any other novelist.

That's because writing isn't a talent. Language is learned. Writing skill is learned. No two-year-old child sits down and pens a perfectly structured screenplay or novel, proving to me it’s not an innate skill. In the past five years there have been a number of articles and books written on the concept of how much work it takes to get to achieve competence in a field. There's the 10,000 rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell . There's Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice and his book, Peak, which also debunks the concept of “innate talent.” Before that, SF writer David Gerrold reminded us that it takes a million words of practicing fiction writing before we'll write a novel anyone will want to read.

A lot of people think they want to write a book, but they don't understand that they'll probably have to write three to five bad ones (or a hundred bad short stories) before they can write a decent one, and three decent ones before they write a good one. It takes years of work to achieve skill, and some of those years are frustrating. Few people seem to be able to stick through them.

I don't know why I was, why I was willing to sink 25,000 hours into learning the craft and the business when it rewarded me hardly at all, before indie publishing and my lovely readers gave me the chance to be a full-time writer. Beyond having parents who worked hard at jobs and community service and provided excellent role models without ever lecturing us on the topic, I believe that people like me are congenitally stubborn. We don't quit because we're a little mad. We bang our heads against the brick wall until we see cracks in the mortar. Or we just bang our heads until we die.

Before 10,000 hours was a catchphrase and before Ericsson’s research, in 1989 western novelist Jack Bickham wrote, “Talent is something people attribute to a successful person after years of hard, hidden, agonizing work.” Amen to that.

So thank you for the “talent” compliment, and I'm not a complete ingrate; I did take it how you intended it. But I hope you forgive me if I correct you: if you like my novels: I’m not talented. Talent would be a fairy godmother hitting me on the head with a wand. Skill is earned. I put in my hours, and if I have any skill to speak of, effort built it.

And this is good news to beginning writers struggling to figure out how to make it all come together. It means with enough effort, you can become skilled, too.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Writers, consider the source

A vast community of online writers now exists, with many people giving advice to other writers for free, sometimes when asked, sometimes just blurting it out on forum or blog. ;)  Some of the advice-givers have even written how-to books about craft or business and put them on Amazon for 2.99, and despite all the good free advice out there, lots of people buy those books.

Whenever you read advice from a writer, before you begin to believe it, do this for yourself: CHECK THE AUTHOR'S BOOK RANKINGS AT AMAZON. If you are published, indie or traditionally, and they have a book or two ranked higher than you, sure, give the advice some consideration and decide if it sounds like a fit for you. If they are ranked lower than you, or if they are ranked (as is shockingly common), lower than 300,000 at Amazon's book store, you can safely ignore that advice. To be blunt, if the advice was good, they'd have more readers.

Subject me to this test, too. Either my proof is in my pudding, or it ain't. (This year, I'm mostly talking about me rather than giving direct advice, but if you see implied advice in my posts, it counts.) My newest book's link is always next to the top "gadget" in the right-hand column of my blog. Usually, though not always, an author's newest book is his top ranked book.

And for heaven's sake, don't buy some book or service from the advice-giver unless he's a top seller! That's being the "sucker born every minute." And none of us wants to be that.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Writing a million words of fiction in 2016

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I post about writing issues, rather than my typical posting on science, natural disasters, and emergency preparation.

One million new words of fiction per year?

I know there are a few people out there who write a million new words of fiction a year, but I worked my hardest in 2016 and discovered that I’m not going to be one of them.

I’ve navel-gazed about the question of whether or not I was just being whiny (something 99% of writers are tremendously skilled at, so I try to monitor myself for this), but I don’t think I am this time. People who write a million a year generally:

  1. Write every day or nearly so
  2. Sometimes dictate into Dragon Naturally Speaking
  3. Often write in a genre where there’s a formula, and they stick to it with each book
  4. Hire out all editing and proofreading
  5. Are capable of revising Book A in the afternoons while writing the first draft of Book B in the mornings
  1. I do write every day or nearly so, though I have a limit of three hours of creative work. After that, my creative brain just shuts off, and I seem capable of writing only the equivalent of “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” If I push it past four hours, I get a headache and might lose the following day to that. After this many years at it, periodically pushing myself for more production, I’m fairly certain this is a real limit of my imperfect brain.
  2. I’ve tried dictation, and even after training the VR program for weeks, it still introduced 70 new typos into every 1000 words, and about once every 1000 words I couldn’t even discern what I had meant, it had typed something so far away from what I’d said. As proofreading is difficult to trade for and/or expensive from a pro, I had to say “no, thanks,” as it seemed to me that I’d only bought myself more unpleasant hours of proofreading work later on.
  3. Every one of my stand-alone novels is a new creature altogether, and even the three novels of the Gray series are very much different from one another. I’ve tried coming up with a reusable outline, but it’s impossible for me and my genres. The best I can do for myself is a twelve point plan, but it’s vague and it doesn’t get me very far. (One bullet point is “a reversal,” as an example. Not a whole lot of help.) 
  4. I have proofreaders lined up, some volunteer and some paid, but I would feel bad about turning it over to them without doing any revision or proofing myself first. I have tried to talk myself into a lazier mindset, but I. Just. Can’t. It’s a mental quirk, I suppose, wanting to do the best work I can manage on my own, and I’m stuck with it. The most I’ve been able to do in this realm is write an editing macro for myself to speed up revision and trade in my former three revisions for the macro plus one this year. (Mumbling “the perfect is the enemy of the good” the whole while to force myself to not obsessively rewrite.)
  5. The eight-hour work day, divided into new words in the morning and revising/proofing a different novel in the afternoon, is something I tried, but it didn’t work for me. Seven days a week, eight hours a day of writing/revising work is exhausting, and then there’s a business to run, too. It’s also confusing to me to jump back and forth between projects every day.

And so I now work for my three hours every morning, but it is either new words or revision or proofreading, not all three. I also do an hour or two of business work daily: mailing list, blog, emails, social media, accounting, etc. And every day includes a couple hours of research/non-fiction reading for the next book in line. Seven hours a day, seven days a week, and very few days off: 49 hours of work per week. It’ll just have to do.

Because the other thing I fear million-word writers must do can be seen by looking at it through the lens of David Sedaris’s “four burners theory.” A friend of his says there are four burners in a life: work, friends, family, and health. Unlike on a stove, where you can crank them all up to high for a long while, in real life, you cannot. If you turn work up to high, friends, family, and health will suffer. To be really successful, she said, you have to turn off two burners.

I think she has a point. For any one person, there is no such thing as infinite time. Or infinite energy. Or an infinite number of days functioning on three hours sleep. We have limits, and if we don’t respect them--if we don’t keep an eye on all four burners--we might find ourselves with fifteen novels written this year, but have no friends, high blood pressure, and are being served with divorce papers or bailing a kid out of jail because he acted out just to get our attention for a few minutes.

I tried as hard as I can, and I turned friend and health burners down too low, but I don’t think I’ll quite crest a half-million new words by December 31. (If I get to count blog posts, yes, I will). Other people can write a million, and my hat is off to them. I did my best, yet I found I am not in that group.

Next year, I’ll aim for about 333,000 new words...and I will reconnect with some friends whose invitations I turned down too often in 2016.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

2/3 of the way through revising Dawn of Mammals 4

Here's a word cloud from an action scene in the novel coming out in December. (mild spoiler alert!)