Thursday, November 30, 2017

Advice to those who would like to be full-time writers

One final word this NaNoWriMo month to newer writers.

If I could give you one piece of advice only, I'd skip over the craft advice and the excellent advice about writing every day and the advice about persevering in the face of rejection and say only one thing:

Get rid of your TV.

donating it would be better than doing this, I suppose

What? Why? Because it wastes time?

Not primarily that (though you are right!--it does waste time.) It will try and sell you crap you don't need, and that will cost you money you should be saving. And why should you be careful with your money? Money is freedom. Freedom is time to write. Time to write is the sine qua non of first getting good enough at your craft to have a shot at being a full-time writer, and then, once you start selling, of producing more stories or books to sell.

Time is like gold--more than gold. It's like air to a writer.

Every single shiny object which is advertised to you, that you fall prey to the lure of, that you buy? That's a piece of a book you tossed away. Convincing yourself you need a Mac and iPhone? Sorry to be blunt, but that's at least a full book you just wasted--because you had to earn a living at some straight job to buy that, even if you don't lose more time to playing around with their time-wasting apps.

Maybe you came from money. Hey, congrats, then buy all the Apple products and Lamborghinis your heart desires.

But if you're working class or close to it and if you want to be a writer--really and truly want it; it's the most important goal you have, and you're not just playing at this--that's my advice. Get rid of your TV.

Live simply. Quit acquiring things you don't need. Quit believing the lie that you need to acquire more things than would fit in a panel van. Things take up your time and then they take more time at a day job to pay them off and if they are expensive things, now you have to work more to insure them.

Use your time like the precious, finite resource it is.  Every object you buy is flushing that time down the toilet. It's therefore flushing the books you'll never have time to write down the toilet. I promise you that as arrive at my age, you'll wish you had more precious time ahead of you to finish writing all those book ideas in your file. Guard your time sooner--rather than regretting the spending of it later.

And then, for a bonus, when you do quit your day job and go full-time as a writer, you'll have learned the lessons of frugal, simple living, and when there is a lean year (and there will be lean years. If you're so new you're still thinking everyone who writes ends up King or Rowling, and swims through money right into the grave, you're probably not in the audience for this post), you'll know how to cut back when the income drops and be able to stay full-time as a writer.

If you say that writing is important to you, act as if it is. Make it important. Prioritize it. Don't throw away your time on shiny objects. You're not a magpie. You're a warrior of words. Remember your goal of being a full-time writer one day. Stay strong and focused.

Remember: you don't need more things. You need more time.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

What is success to you as a writer?

Someone on Twitter asked this question several weeks ago, and I couldn’t answer it because my answer, I believed, was too complex for 140 characters.

The thing is, when you’ve been a writer as long as I have, you have had many goals over the years, but some of them fell away as you realized they were naive or unlikely to ever be achieved, and others fell away because you met them, and yet others fell away because you grew or changed and old goals bore you now.

So, to cite one example, a newer writer, reading the book pages in a newspaper or magazine, might think “I want to get a good review in X paper!” and much later, when he’s a professional and has access to daily sales figures and see those reviews don’t help sales one bit, and he needs sales to pay his bills because he quit his day job, he really doesn’t care one way or the other about newspaper reviews.

I once thought, I want a trade publishing deal for a novel with a big house. When I thought that at first, there was no Kindle or ebooks, there were 20 big houses, and you could contact the editors directly. Boy, those were the good old days in tradpub! I like editors. But as the industry changed, and as I had every other form of traditional/gatekeeper success a person could want, and I realized I hated the agent system, I cared less and less about this goal. It no longer was the box to check off. It was a box. It kept slipping lower and lower on my list.

And when I heard about how well people were doing in indie publishing--well, honestly, at first I couldn’t believe it, and then I did, and then I started wondering, and it began to appeal more and more. I did a lot of research about doing this in 2012 and didn’t begin until 2013. At that point, I thought, “Any stranger buying my book is a great thing.” And it happened and it was a great thing! Long term, I thought, “Okay, my eventual goal is, in three years, have six books out and be selling a hundred books per week over all titles in Year Four.”

As it turned out--and with little effort from me beyond writing--I blew that goal out of the water within a year. I had many days that I sold more than a hundred books in a day, which stunned me. I knew I was extremely fortunate. So…goal achieved, right?

And then came a strange turn, one I never expected of myself, because I’m a pretty Zen sort of person most days, and about most things, and particularly about money and possessions. In a flash, X amount of money wasn’t success enough. I wanted 2X. 3X. 5X. I met people making a million as indies! If they could, why not me? Me-me-me-me-me! Even though I couldn’t figure out how to spend 1X, to tell you the truth, I saw these magical numbers out there and suddenly lusted for them. And that was weird, to be caught up in that acquisitive “it’s never enough!” mindset. I was only caught for four or five months, but caught I was. For people who get this disease, I can’t help notice, the goal keeps receding, the goal number becomes bigger, and they drive themselves harder and yet it is never hard enough! Relationships and health suffer as they chase after that goal that, like the line of the horizon, is unreachable.

Sad. Nerve-wracking. Self-defeating. I snapped myself out of it.

But in the wake of that temporary insanity, I was left with no definition of “success” in writing that seemed meaningful to me.

I suppose my gauge of success could be graphed as a double curve, like a two-humped camel. When I was young and naïve, I dreamed of awards and recognition. Those thoughts were knocked out of me by the reality of both how hard writing is to do well and how competitive a field it is and, worst of all, that to get some awards you have to kiss a lot of butt, which is not my talent at all. For a long time after that phase had passed, I had smaller goals that I met, one after the other.

I quit dreaming. I started seeing dreaming as useless. Work is good. Work is useful. Realistic goals that you set for yourself (not the marketplace or anything outside yourself) can be worked diligently for and met. That's not success exactly; it's how I live my writing life.

Today, I suppose my definition of success is in being able to answer this question in the affirmative.

Am I Happy when I’m writing?

So maybe that would have fit in 140 characters at Twitter after all. But it has taken a lifetime to simplify my definition of success to the one-word answer to that one question.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

How one full-time writer was made

I’ve been a writer for thirty years, and a full-time writer earning my living from novels for three years.

When I began writing for publication, I was already friends with a number of mid-list genre writers, so from the beginning I understood that becoming the next Stephen King in fame or income was unlikely in the extreme, and I understood what the life of the typical paperback writer was: another day job, income from writing under $10,000/year, and needing to write evenings and weekends when you were tired from a normal job. Somehow you had to do so without making your spouse or children hate you for ignoring them several hours per week when you should have been with them instead or doing your share of the household chores. You really had to want to do it to accept those terms!

I did want it that much. I wrote, studied hard on my own, took a few courses, and in very short time was placing poetry in magazines. Not long after that, I began selling stories to national magazines. I drifted from F/SF into literary writing for a time, had several stories published of that sort, won an fellowship to an MFA program (an experience which I hated, quite frankly. MFA programs in writing definitely aren’t for a person who was raised working class, prefers reading thrillers, and thinks Salem’s Lot and Lord of the Rings are good books!)

I realized lit-fic was not my true interest, retreated from that world, gave up what position I had earned there, and went back to my genre roots as a writer, where I felt much more at home. I wrote Gray back in 2003 or 2004, when post-apocalyptic wasn’t a big genre, and several agents rejected it. Digging through the stacks of used ten cent novels at a tag sale, I found Airport and The Glass Inferno and Jaws and a few other books of that time period and fell in love with them. Why doesn’t anyone write books like that any more? I wondered.

It wasn’t a huge leap from that thought to writing my own novels in that genre, mine being about natural disasters. I’m a sucker for a disaster movie. Even the worst TV disaster flicks make me happy. Show me a farm family in a tornado shelter or hurricane winds whipping the palm trees while dramatic music plays, and I want to settle in, munch popcorn, and watch until the end. I wrote the first disaster novel and started the second but again could not get most agents to even glance my way.

As no agent wanted to represent either Gray in 2004 or those books in 2012 or another book I wrote in between, indie was clearly the way to go if I wanted readers, and I did. I began the self-publishing journey in 2014, a bit late to the game, but at least I showed up! Admittedly, I made errors at first (you would not believe how difficult it is to find an excellent proofreader and a cover artist who “gets you,” and you waste a whole lot of money and patience kissing some frogs before your prince arrives), but in less than a year I had the basics down and Gray was gaining a following. (This has since swelled to over 40,000 readers for that series alone, and I am grateful for each one.)

I continued to write as I learned the ropes of indie as a business, and I’ve published most of what I’d written before and eight new novels I’ve written since entering self-publishing, including the Dawn of Mammals series, which has its own fans. I’ve unpublished a couple of pen name novels since.

I signed with an audio book publisher, and lately with a second audio book publisher, but otherwise I’m very happy with indie publishing my ebooks. I’ve been given a chance to reach the readers who agree with me about what constitutes a good story.

The only thing I don’t like about indie publishing is the self-promotion. I’d rather write, and I don’t like putting myself forward (or revealing much about myself). Because I don’t like promoting myself, I do almost none of it. People tell me I could sell four times as many books if I ran ads all the time and hired a savvy assistant to “be” me on Facebook and really work on PR over there, if I handed over the identity of my fans to Facebook as most authors do and let them pinpoint market and spam them and others who demographically match them, and pushed myself forward to be on podcasts and so on. This all sounds perfectly horrid to me, so all I do for promoting my books is this: about twice a year I run a few inexpensive ads, and I don’t even like doing that much. I’m a writer, and that’s the part I love to do. So that’s where I focus, and I trust that the rest will somehow take care of itself.

To be clear, I don’t repudiate my traditional publishing years (despite having abandoned that pen name and not being interested in going back to that world) nor do I dislike editors in the least. I always got along with editors well. There was a good deal of value to me in having to reach a certain standard of writing skill with short stories before being accepted for publication, and there was a value to competing for awards anonymously and seeing where I stacked up. It made me work harder, study harder, and up my game in order to be published in better and better magazines, and I’m glad I began my career that way.

I characterize my novels like this: I write science-based novels starring ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances, people with flaws and surprising resilience both. I aim to write page-turners, and when I get fan mail or reviews that say I’ve succeeded at that, I smile in contentment. If I made you stay up until the wee hours needing to know what happened next to my characters, I’ve done what I set out to do.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On being a full-time writer

During November, National Novel Writing Month, I blog about writing. In past years, I’ve focused on craft or business. This year, I’ll be more autobiographical.

I have worked very hard to become a full-time novelist. For thirty years I’ve been working at writing, writing for years only in the mornings or nights in addition to a day job, and now I'm full-time as a writer.

And so it seems that after all that work, I should be 100% thrilled with having finally won my way through to success. (No, not Janet Evanovich/Hugh Howey levels of success, but I pay the bills with writing, which not a lot of novelists can say). And yet, here is what this looks like to me:

Is that image of a well-dressed lady from the back? Or of an old hag’s face? Youth? Or age? How you read the drawing depends on your perspective. And how I view my full-time writing status depends on my mood, what I still have to get done that day, what pressures I’m feeling, and how hard they press upon me.

If I simply detail my day for you, it sounds no worse than any work day at an office:

  • Check email, respond to fans (who are the most important people other than me in the whole deal!)
  • Do the heart of the work (about three hours): writing or revising or outlining the next
  • Deal with non-fan and complicated emails
  • Do other administrative tasks--uploading the books, dealing with covers, proofreading, and formatting, updating the web page, learning something new about the business, checking sales, accounting, advertising, and so on
  • Interact on social media or IRL with other writers
  • Read/research for future novels
  • Check emails again, clear inbox one last time, and done

I often work from 6:30 a.m. until 11 a.m., take a break, and then finish up by 2:00. That’s seven days a week, not five days. I try to take weekends between phases of a project (as between finishing a draft and starting revision) and an “easy week” while my proofreader has a book. But I can’t always relax because there are always administrative tasks piling up, so sometimes my “weekend off” is more like an afternoon off.

In a sense, the work is never done. When you run your own business, you can’t just shut off your brain and relax. If a good idea--or an item to add to the to-do list--pops to mind, you need to go deal with that, at least to write it down. If a crucial email comes in, you have to answer it. And writers are always thinking about books and characters, even in our “off” hours. We don’t watch a movie but that we take notes on how it did a dramatic thing well, noting a technique we might be able to adapt. We go to a picnic and while other people are having fun, we take mental notes on gestures, arguments overheard, what a tree limb looks like in the breeze, the games the kids are playing, and all sorts of things that might go into our novels.

A confession about my to-do list. I used to have a huge one. Produce audio books, get started on translations, transfer author site to wordpress with a snazzier design, figure out how to do X kind of advertising, and so on. But that list really started weighing on me. I added to it often but seldom crossed a line out. I finally gave up on it except for a post-it note sized to-do list, which usually is only of things to do this week.  I would not have done audio books ever had audio book companies not contacted me, for it was far too much work to do myself.

I know that if you’re not a pro writer, and you think you want to be one, that you’ll doubt this: but it’s harder work once you’re full-time than it ever was before. It’s hard work to stay where you are once you’ve arrived at a certain level of success. You must run as fast as you can up the down escalator, or it will dump you ignominiously on the ground while other, hungrier, harder-working writers pass you by.

Some days, you think, “I’m going to quit. This is too much work. Too much pressure.” Some days you look at yourself in the mirror and say “What the hell was I thinking?!?”

The only thing that saves me at such times, that keeps me marching forward, is the writing itself.

I love to write. I love to invent characters who seem as real to me as the people walking down the street outside my window. That’s the thing that makes me keep doing it, that the work is its own reward.

I also love to make readers feel something--especially to feel nervous and worried about my characters’ safety.

Still, back to my original thesis from last week: Being a full-time writer is not easy. It’s a real job, with a lot of dull and tedious chores. It isn’t much like your earliest, most naïve dreams of it. For me, it takes up about 330 days a year. You never really “arrive” at a destination. You just keep working harder and harder.

To my readers, thank you so much for reading.

To my fellow writers, I'm betting that one day (even if you doubt me now), you'll know what I'm saying. There's a whole lot of boring work to being a full-time writer.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Opting out of Kindle Unlimited for now

I am not going to release my next book into Kindle Unlimited this coming week, and I've been taking my existing books out as their 90-day terms in the program expire. By December 31 of 2017, I will not be in the program at all.
I apologize to readers who have come to expect my books will be there, but there are several problems with the program that Amazon has had years to fix and has chosen to ignore. It's a mess, and for now, I'm staying safely away.

4 of 6 are blatantly obvious KU scam books

and one Chinese click farm that scams Kindle Unlimited

Problem 1 is that if you read in "page read" mode, which many people do on their phones, we get paid nothing for a borrow and read of our book. Problem 2 is that many writers have discovered via testing even regular reads in normal reading mode aren't being counted fairly. Problem 3 is that we are getting paid less and less for a full read. When I began in KU, I received 75% of a normal royalty for a KU read; as I canceled my participation, that rate had dropped to 35%.

I don't like to talk about money or make my readers think about me as a money-grubbing person, but I'm afraid I must address an ugly fact here: I do need to eat and pay rent. It's hard to write books living out of a cardboard box in a viaduct with no electricity to run the computer. It's also hard to write books period, and counted over my lifetime of learning how and my hours of producing each book, I'm not making minimum wage at it. To make minimum wage for the work I have done before I die of old age is my fond desire.

But beyond my selfish need for an occasional meal and new 99-cent Walmart flip-flops and falling payments, the KU system is broken because of scammers. Anyone with half a brain can point to many scam books in the store in a moment (I bet you saw them in the image above!!), but somehow, Amazon cannot. Payouts for KU books come from pooled money, and perhaps as much as a third of that pool is going to scammers who pay click farms, usually based in China, companies that automatically run tablets or phones that flip book pages while being signed up for the free month of KU using stolen credit card numbers. A lot of these scam books aren't even in English. Some are English but are gibberish or random pages from Wikipedia or one sentence repeated for 1,000 pages. Some are real books, badly written, not selling on their merits. Or worst of all, they are books stolen from real authors like me.

Not that anyone is reading them. Huge rooms full of knock-off tablets or $5 phones are "reading" them, as in the other image above. It's out of control, and for reasons no one understands, Amazon does not care enough to stop it. Several of these books have been in the top 100 overall, or hit their "movers and shakers" list, and they still don't stop it! A single full-time staff person actually checking top-selling books could deal with a lot of it, and there is every indication they can tell when the read is happening in China or India or Indonesia, where these things are, but it's apparently not that important to Amazon.

It is important to writers, who feel they are being stolen from...who in fact ARE being stolen from. This has driven a lot of good writers out of Kindle Unlimited and thus here I am, hating feeling I must, but joining those ranks.

There are yet more problems with KU for authors, which are boring and sometimes technical and I've wasted too much writing time learning about them and understanding them, and I won't waste more writing time explaining them here. Believe me: they exist.

So again, I apologize. I love the idea of KU, but it's a broken thing, and until it gets fixed, I will hesitate long before rejoining.

What I think Amazon should do (not that they are asking me or likely to) is re-design KU so that authors get invited into it, indie writers who have proven themselves, who write good enough books that people want to read them and finish them. (They do this with Prime Reading, so I know they could also do it with Kindle Unlimited.) Then the overall quality would go up and everybody but the scammers would win. But I don't run Amazon. I'm just one of a million third-party vendors there, with no power at all except to opt out of a broken system. So that is what I'm doing, hoping (though it may be a useless hope) that if enough of the good indie writers do this, they'll start caring over at Amazon.

Again, if it causes you a problem, I apologize. If you stick with me and buy my books where you once borrowed, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you give up on me, I understand that. You can complain to me in comments, and I'll listen, but I'm impotent to change things. You can complain to Amazon, the only entity that can change this situation.  If enough fans do, maybe they'll fix what is broken.