Getting Serious About Your Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Kris had some great advice this week on becoming a smarter writer. I thought I’d weigh in (oops, wrong post-holiday idiom, but so it goes) with a few thoughts on how to get serious about making writing a career, be it full or part time.

Because everybody wants to be a writer. Your ficus tree wants to be a writer. I’ve lost count of the times someone has uttered to me a variation on “I think I have a book inside me” and I choke back the urge to say, “That’s a great place to keep it.”

Then there are those who take a real step. They actually write a novel. Huzzah! I’m all for it, though most first novels are like first waffles. A good beginning, a great learning experience, but not yet ready to be served. Many writers drop out at this point, disappointed that their initial effort was not met with universal acclaim.

The serious writer makes a second attempt, and a third, and determines to keep on going. This writer wants to make a legit run at a) getting signed by an agent and gaining entry into the Forbidden City of traditional publishing; or b) going indie and creating a real income stream (for more on such choices, see this post).

If you have made the decision to be this kind of writer, let me give you ten pieces of advice forged over a quarter century of getting paid for my work.

  1. Make production your priority

I’ve long advised the following: Figure out how many words you can comfortably write in a week, considering your “real life” situation. Then up that number by 10% and divide that number into the writing days available to you. I write six days a week, and take one day off to recharge. If I have to miss a day, I don’t beat myself up. I simply try to make up the word count by doing a little extra on the other days.

And if I botch a week, or have something interrupt it—sickness, crisis, the running of the bulls in Pamplona—I forget it and start the next week afresh.

Now, I know there are some writers who find a quota onerous and claim it’s a hindrance to creativity. I don’t buy it. Creativity is a muscle that gets stronger when it works out. Try my method for six months and see for yourself.

If, after that time, you feel stifled by your quota, don’t give it up. Just reduce the number to something easy. Like 250 words. Your ficus tree can write 250 words in a day. Don’t be shown up by your ficus tree.

  1. Be intentional about learning your craft

A guy who wants to play golf doesn’t get better by going out with a bad grip, terrible stance, and an ugly swing, and chopping holes in perfectly fine grass. At some point he’s got to learn fundamentals and practice to embed them in his muscle memory.

Same for writers. You can keep writing and writing and chopping holes in your stories. You can repeat things that put readers off or don’t allow them to fully engage with what’s in your imagination.

Or you can determine to learn techniques that make your writing better. 

Dedicate some time each week to studying the craft, and putting into practice what you learn. At least once, go to a good writers conference. Invest in a great course.

  1. Set up a system of quality feedback

When I was under contract with a publishing house, I was answerable to an editor. I was lucky to work with some good ones. One in particular would send his authors multi-page, single-spaced letters. When I got one of these in the mail I’d set it on my desk and pace around it for a couple of days before opening it, because I knew there was going to be a lot of work involved.

Which was good, because it made me a better writer.

Hiring a freelance developmental editor can be expensive, though if you connect with the right one it becomes a good investment rather than an expense.

An alternative is a trusted set of beta readers. Here are some tips from TKZ emeritus Joe Moore in that regard.

You might also benefit from a good critique group, with good as the operative word. Here are some tips from Jordan.

Every serious writer needs other sets of eyes on their work. Which reminds me: you do need to pay a good proofreader if you’re publishing on your own. Nothing screams amateur to a reader like a stream of typos.

  1. Set aside time for pure creativity

As I mentioned above, creativity is a muscle that gets stronger with use. I try to take an hour a week just to do wild, creative exercises.

Two of my favorites:

The What If? Game — Write down as many one line premises as you can. Base it on what you observe around you. What if that woman sipping a latte by the window is a serial killer? What if my phone is actually an alien taking notes on everything I do and say?

The First-Line Game — Just make up first lines, not knowing how any of them will turn out! I once wrote: It’s not every day you bleed to death. I came back to it and the plot for Framed started to come to me. I have a ton of these in a file. Do the same and you’ll never run out of story sparkers.

  1. Detox from social media

Everybody knows that social media addiction is real. Hopping onto Twitter or Facebook or Instagram gives your brain an instant dopamine hit. It’s like digital crack. And it’s really doing damage our ability to concentrate and focus.

I find this “drug” calling to me whenever I’m struggling with a scene. Rather than stick it out, I’m tempted to do a little traipsing through Twitter. It’s a cop out, and I have to tell myself—sometimes out loud—to keep writing. Deciding how much time to spend on social media and creating an actual schedule for it (as opposed to haphazard hopping) is a very wise thing to do.

And when you do engage socially, follow Clare’s sage advice by sticking to positive and kind give-and-take.

  1. Be thinking two projects ahead

One of the worst things you can do is work, re-work, and keep re-working a book without getting ready to write the next … and the next. I’ve been to writers conferences several years in a row where I’ve seen conferees returning with the exact same manuscript.

Think like a movie studio. You have a project that is in production, one that is “green lit” as your next, and at least one “in development.” Spend part of your creativity time jotting ideas and scenes for these works to come.

  1. Write when you’re not writing

Keep training your mind to be observant and curious when you’re away from the keyboard. Carry a notebook, or use your phone, to record things that occur to you. If you overhear some intriguing dialogue in a coffee house or other venue, write it down.

The benefit of this practice is that the “boys in the basement” will work for you, even as you sleep. I’m slogging through a first draft right now, and over the last few weeks I’ve awakened several times with an insight that’s helped me, or a reminder about something I’d written a month ago that needs revisiting. Love those boys. I send them extra donuts.

  1. Read widely

Of course you should read authors you admire and can learn from. Copy passages that move you (the best way is by using a pen and paper, to really capture the rhythm). You’re not doing this to use the words in your own work—that’s called plagiarism. You’re doing this to stretch your writing muscles and expand your style.

When I read a page or paragraph I love, I sticky note it, or highlight it on my Kindle. I go back to these and read them out loud from time to time.

Don’t neglect non-fiction. Learn more about the world, dig into areas you might use someday in your fiction. Become the kind of autodidact who is welcome at social gatherings.

  1. Nurture your motivation

All writers face moments when they think, Sheesh, should I still be doing this? Why keep beating my head against the door of the Forbidden City? Why self-publish books that languish in the Amazon basement?

The answer, of course, is that you’re a writer. There’s something in you that wants—needs—to put words on paper (or screen) and transfer a story you feel deeply to readers, so they will feel it, too.

That’s your motivation, and you should nurture it regularly, not just when you want to drown your sorrows.

Make a shelf of your ultra-favorite novels and novelists. I’ve found that reading some pages from a book that has moved me gets my writing juices flowing again.

Collect some quotations for reflection. Here are two of my favorites:

“If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid.” – Leonard Bishop, Dare to be a Great Writer

“For me, that is the secret to a successful, prolific career as a writer: Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you’ll most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you’ll have a happy life.” — Dean Koontz, Strange Highways

  1. Be businesslike

This could also be #1 for the serious writer. In a way, everything else in this post can be viewed as “best practices for writers” advice. If you do such things regularly, you are systematizing, which is what good businesses do.

A good businessperson also looks at the world through clear (not rose-colored) lenses.

Clear lenses recognize that a publisher is not your friend or your mama; it is a money-making enterprise. Make them money and they will keep you around. Cost them money and they won’t. So you’d better understand publishing contracts, the concept of leverage, and what you are prepared to give up in order to have a shot at traditional success.

For indies, clear lenses see that this is not a get-rich-quick pathway. It’s going to take years of production and quality control to build a readership. You’ll need to make informed judgments about things like “going wide” or being exclusive with Amazon; about producing audio versions; about where to concentrate your marketing; and much more.

This is a lot to take in, I know, but then again getting serious about anything takes time and effort. Your brain surgeon doesn’t say, “I think I have a brain surgery inside me!”

So don’t ask if you have a book inside you. Ask if you have a writer inside you. Then get to work.

So where are you on your writing journey?

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How to Build a Long-Term Writing Career

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I’m going to assume arguendo (every now and then I trot out my legalese, especially if it’s Latin, because it makes me sound so authoritative) that you want to be in the writing game for the long haul. Further assumption: you would like your fiction to create a river—or at least a stream—of income. You nod your head in agreement with blogmate Laura Benedict when she describes success as, “I’m still here. Readers still read my stories—often paying for them—and I still write them.”

There used to be only one way to go about this: get a contract from a publishing house and sell enough books so you get another contract.

Now, of course, there is the viable alternative called indie publishing.

Jane Friedman recently interviewed two literary agents on the topic of establishing a career as a traditionally-published author. Two takeaways:

1. Many writers crave a large advance for a first novel.

2. That may not be a good thing to crave:

Maybe that big-advance book doesn’t get as many pre-sales as the publisher wanted, or gets mediocre reviews, or underperforms in its first quarter. A publisher at that point might re-strategize, or they might cut their losses, and the author ends up never earning out that big advance. That can hurt in the long-term. When it comes time to sell the next book, a publisher may use those figures against them by offering a lower advance or passing entirely. Publishers want to see that an author will make them money.

Thus, a modest advance is not a bad thing:

Depending on the publisher’s budget, the house might want to keep the advance lower to give the author an opportunity to earn out and also apply some of those funds to marketing. The biggest advantage to a smaller advance is that it’s easier to earn out. If your first book/contract earns out, that gives you a much better chance at a second contract.

But what if you fall well short of earning out? The publishing world is littered with the bleached bones of careers that didn’t make enough green for the house and were cast outside the gates of the Forbidden City.

Now, of course, dem bones can get up and walk around (now hear the word of the Lord) via indie publishing. If these authors can get the rights back to their published books, so much the better. [Though publishers have wised up to the asset value of backlists. So get wise yourself, trad authors: huddle with your agent and negotiate a realistic reversion clause tied to a minimum of royalty income.]

My advice for authors seeking a long-term traditional career is as follows:

  • Don’t expect a big advance.
  • Don’t expect the publisher to give you a big marketing push.
  • Get to know the basics of a book contract, but also know that your leverage in negotiating a first-book deal is about the same as Shirley Temple on a seesaw with Oliver Hardy. But even a Shirley should stamp her feet in seeking fair reversion and non-compete clauses.
  • The key to your career is not your first novel. It’s your second. You’ve labored long, and in love, on that first manuscript. You’d better be ready with a second book that’s just as good. And get it in by the deadline! Publishers have to schedule releases long in advance. If you’re late with a book you’ll gum up he works.
  • Ditto books 3 and 4. If you’re making good money by book 5, you can call yourself “established.”
  • If your subsequent books don’t earn enough (or, as sometimes happens, your editor leaves and you are left an “orphan” inside the house) you could get dropped by the publisher. That sucks. It also sucks that dismal sales numbers follow you around as you knock on other doors inside the Forbidden City. If this is the case, you may need to consider indie resuscitation, thus:

My advice for authors seeking a long-term independent career:

Finally, for all writers looking to make this gig a career: be patient and resilient. Success rarely happens right out of the gate. It takes years to get established. Setbacks are more frequent than bestsellers. But the only true defeat happens when you stop writing.

So don’t stop.

Other advice is welcome in the comments.

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Let’s Help a New Writer Out

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Got an email from a reader of my craft books, who is finally ready (he says) to complete a novel. He wanted some career advice before taking the plunge. Below are his questions and my answers. Let’s put our heads together and help him out. We can continue the discussion in the comments!

[NOTE: I am assuming the writer is going the self-publishing route, based on question #2. If so, my opening advice is this—put your novel through the same grinding process you would if you were going to submit it to an agent or editor. Being indie is no allowance for being skimpy when it comes to prepping for publication.]

1. You mention learning to love a marketable genre. I’m a mystery and crime fan, but I realize the old school historical noir pieces may not sell. Here’s my plan: write the following sub-genres under a single pen name: (a) Hard-Boiled Police Procedural series a la Michael Connelly, (b) humorous detective/cozy a la Carl Hiaasen/Big Lebowski, and (c) romantic suspense because romance is huge but the crime element makes it interesting for me to write. Does this make sense? Would I spread myself too thin? Am I too far off the commercial mark? For example, should I go whole-hog into Romance and leave crime behind just for the money?

Establish yourself first in a single genre. You need to build up a readership and fan base, and that’s best done when you a) write a crackerjack book in a genre; and b) follow that up with another crackerjack book in the same genre.

The traditional publishers know this. It’s called branding, and they want to keep their money-making authors on brand because that keeps their bottom line in the black. When you start to sell gazillions of copies per book you can convince your publisher to let you try an off-brand novel…before getting back to your basics. See, e.g., John Grisham, James Patterson.

As an “authorpreneur,” you can make the call when you want to try something different. One of the benefits of indie is that you can branch out in short form as an experiment. For example, I write full-length contemporary thrillers, but have a comedic series of novelettes about a vigilante nun. I did some boxing stories for the love of it. But I always return to full-length suspense.

As for going “just for the money,” my advice is that you find the sweet spot where a marketable genre meets your love for the material. As you rightly point out, I believe you can learn to love a genre if you give yourself to the characters and make the stakes death (as explained in my craft books). At this point, ask yourself where you would find the most joy. Joy has a way of translating onto the page in a way that takes competent fiction up another level.

2. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to become discoverable, but is that a long-term solution? Do you plan to eventually “go wide”?

There’s an ongoing debate about this. To boil it down, those indies who favor “going wide” have concerns about the future of Amazon and possible digital disruption to same. Those who are Amazon exclusive are looking at what’s working now.

This is my personal view: since the future is unknowable, I opt for present-moment lettuce. I was wide with my fiction during the first seven or so years of the indie boom. My income via Kobo, Nook and iBooks was steady but not exciting. When I moved to KU, my income experienced a sharp increase. An added bonus is when I land a BookBub deal, my “pages read” (the way an author gets paid in the KU program) go way up for several weeks.

I know many folks have an issue with Amazon’s dominance, but betting against the company has not proved a winning strategy in the past. I recall in the late 90s when Barron’s dubbed the company “Amazon Dot Bomb.” I only wish I’d bought my shares then.

3. I used to be a pantser and, to show for it, as mentioned above, I’ve finished precisely 0 novels. Your books convinced me to outline, but I find some of the beats and plot points vague. Should I start building from the vague outline and drill down in detail until I have a card per specific scene?

Taking your question as a whole, by “vague” you mean you don’t have a sufficient idea in your mind of what the scenes would actually look like, not what the scene should accomplish within structure. That said, the beauty of the “signpost scenes” idea is that you don’t have to “drill down” before you write—unless you want to! As a pantser, you’re not used to summarizing all scenes ahead of time. In the alternative, you can start with the first couple of beats, and when you’ve gone that far look ahead to the next beat or two. You are driving at night with the headlights on, as E. L. Doctorow put it. You can always see ahead to the next signpost.

For both my plotting and pantsing students, I prescribe the “killer scene” brainstorming exercise. Go to your favorite local coffee house with a stack of index cards and start brainstorming scene ideas, not worrying about structure or where they might fit. Come up with 30-40 cards. Go back the next day and shuffle the cards and go through them, selecting the most promising. Figure out in which act—1, 2, or 3–those would logically fit. You’ll be amazed and happy.

4. When do you know to abandon a series or subgenre experiment and move to something more commercially viable?

There is an easy answer to this in the traditional publishing world: when your publisher does not offer you another contract.

Being indie, my view is that after three books in a series you should have a pretty good idea of how it’s going. Look at sales trajectory and reviews. Then ask yourself how wedded you are to the series. It may be that your next book is the one that brings attention to the others.

Or not. Erle Stanley Gardner developed several series characters for the pulps, including Speed Dash, Sidney Zoom and his police dog, and Ed “The Phantom Crook” Jenkins. But when he felt his writing had stalled he tried out a character he named Perry Mason. The rest is publishing history.

5. You studied under Raymond Carver. I’ve read each of his collections and am a huge fan. I’ve loved minimalist prose since I started reading Hemingway as a kid, and Carver’s style to me is a joy to read. Did he share anything specifically with you or your class you could pass on to me as to writing lean?

The main thing I picked up from Carver was his use of the “telling detail.” He was a master at putting a simple image into a scene that illuminated the emotional moment and often blew you away. Hemingway, at his best, did the same.

When a genre writer pulls this off, the effect is glorious. So glorious, in fact, that I am going to make this the subject of my next TKZ post.

Onward, writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

Over to you, TKZ community. Help this new writer out.

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