Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

44 thoughts on “Writers Need to be Amphibious

  1. Thank you very much for this article, Jim! Our human brains contemplate and worry too much about things we can’t influence. We often forget that we have a choice: to complain that our plans and preferences were not met to the last dot or to do what we can do (and have fun with it).
    Thank you for this beautiful reminder, for your wishes!
    And thank you and all contributors on TKZ for all you do. I am not a mystery writer, but I am still a huge fan of your blog and will remain such in 2018 as well!
    Merry Christmas and Happiest New Year to all at TKZ, both authors, and readers.

    • Thanks to your reminder, Jim, to continue reading and learning writing craft, I subscribed to Writer’s Digest on my Kindle just a few minutes ago. I wanted to do this for quite some time but put it off. Now I just did it. 🙂 Thank you!

    • Thanks for the good word, Victoria. I think the craft issues we discuss can be applied to writing of all kinds. And good on you for subscribing to WD. That mag has been a major part of my writing life. Cheers.

  2. Jim, you have a way of delivering the gift of great wisdom wrapped up with a humorous bow. Even the hardest lessons are easier to swallow b/c of your wit.

    Thanks to you and everyone at TKZ for the daily presents that arrive each morning by email.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all.

  3. Merry Christmas, Mr. Bell.

    Thanks for all your wisdom and advice this year.

    And Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all.

  4. I am continually amazed by the willingness of those in this industry to help and encourage others who are pursuing their writing goals. What a blessing you have all been to me since I discovered TKZ. Merry Christmas to you, and may your New Year overflow with blessings!

  5. Always love reading your posts! Merry Christmas to you and yours and all the TKZ group. Thanks for the wisdom you depart.

  6. James, thank you for your encouragement and advice on this blog. Merry Christmas to all KillZone writers and readers!

  7. Thank you Jim. I always look forward to spending my Sunday mornings with you through TKZ. Love the wisdom, wit and passion you bring through the power of the written word. Have a blessed Christmas!

  8. Thanks, Jim, for all your teaching and encouraging during the past year. I never cease to be amazed by your expertise and ability to convey important principles in a manner that is easily understood – the hallmark of a master teacher.

    Your thoughts today are a good way to end the year, and especially apropos for beginning a new one. It reminded me of the following quote:

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    the courage to change the things I can,
    and the wisdom to know the difference.
    Reinhold Niebuhr

    Merry Christmas to you and all the TKZ faculty, and the entire TKZ family.

    And may you have a Happy (and successful, amphibious) New Year

  9. Jim and TKZ,

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    Thanks for the reminder to chill! And the martini joke. Hehe. May need to use that one.

    Looking forward to a productive 2018. Thanks for your encouragement. And FYI, I love receiving TKZ letter.


  10. Thank you for the past year of uplifting, inspiring, and educational posts. Reading TKZ is my first thing in the morning must-do. It’s amazing how that connection to dedicated writers motivates me through the rest of my day. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and to all the writers and readers who read this. May your 2018 be the most creative and abundant ever.

  11. Thank you, Mr. Bell, (and the rest of the Zoners).

    Your martinus joke reminded me of the one in which an architect and an engineer are in a bar, discussing life.
    Says the architect, holding up his glass, “Half empty or half full? I prefer to see it as half full.”
    To which the engineer replies, “I see a liquid containment device twice as big as it needs to be.”

    With that, Merriest of Christmases to one and all, and a warm and welcoming New Year as well ~ be safe, and be kind.


  12. It was great to meet you and attend your sessions at the WDNWC17 in Pasadena this year. I look forward to another year of TKZ and learning from the master!

  13. Thanks for another year of your sage advice and insight, Mr. Bell. And a Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  14. What a fantastic inspirational post, Jim! Sound advice, as always. My husband and I kicked off our family time yesterday. The little ones had a blast decorating the house. I did sneak in a few hours of writing time today. Tomorrow is our anniversary, so that’ll be it for a week or so. Family trumps WIPs. Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season!

  15. Your post made me smile which, considering the editing on my plate for today, is quite an accomplishment. Have a wonderful break and holidays, and may your plate, your glass, and your life be filled with your favorite things!

  16. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of TKZ community, bloggers and readers! May 2018 be our best year ever. I am also stealing the Epictetus quote. It is a good reminder for me as a consummate worrier.

  17. So Caesar walks into a bar and holds up two fingers and says, “I’ll have five beers, please!”

    Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. See you on Jan. 2.

  18. I came late to the party, but I agree. I love the way The Kill Zone hones in on good advice in an entertaining manner, giving us a spoon full of sugar with our medicine. The blog alone has great examples of how to write better. Bless all of you for continuing to inform and teach in spite of your busy schedules. We do appreciate it.

    Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year surrounded with family, blessings, and good cheer.

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