Thursday, January 29, 2015

Epic Writing

How big are our novels supposed to be?  Has anyone ever written what might be called an Epic?

I ask because I'm currently in the process of writing my largest novel ever.  Once complete, I expect it to be around 240,000 words.  Yes, that sounds like a lot, but it's easily digestible when broken into bite sized chunks.

What I'm writing is the prequel to Homecoming.  That novel detailed humanity returning to Earth after millennia away to reclaim our world, while this new novel details why we left in the first place.  More specifically, it details the account of David Morton, the man credited in Homecoming with saving the human race.

The book is essentially three stories - the initial alien invasion, the escape from Earth by those surviving, and our establishment of a new world.  So why then don't I just write each act as a separate book?  After all, each one will be about 80,000 words on its own, so why not release each on its own?

That's certainly doable, but I'd rather the reader get the entire story at once.  If readers decide to only read an act at a time and come back to the rest later, that's their business.  However, I would personally find it maddening to read an interesting story and have to wait to find out its continuance, or to purchase those pieces separately.  By getting it all at once, you can enjoy it for one price...and that price won't be any greater than my other releases.

I like stories that try to tell epic tales that span entire lifetimes.  I think it can be satisfying to see how a set of events affects history, and this book will do that for the fictional history laid out.  All three acts will cover about 75 years, and the reader should know exactly what led into Homecoming once he or she is done.

Aren't we always holding up epics as...well...epic?  From Lord of the Rings to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to The Stand, don't we see these works as tales that stay with us like old companions?  No, I'm not saying I'm the equal of Stephen King, CS Lewis, or JRR Tolkien, but aren't their works the ones we say we all want?  Why not try and extend yourself into an area previously unexplored, and stay there until you've produced something you've always wanted?

I think readers will stick with you so long as you're telling them a good story, but despite repeated claims about audience attention span, I think good stories can go beyond a thin paperback.  If nothing else, it'll be fun to write.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Saying What You Mean

Since getting back into the basics of writing, I've rediscovered the joy I originally took in writing.  We've all heard the meme that you should "show, don't tell."  And for a lot of what we write, this is a perfectly fine piece of advice.  However, if we take this as gospel to never be violated, we find ourselves paralyzed by trying to always adhere to it.

This was my problem for a long time.  I'd become obsessed with showing, to the point where I meandered around everything but the actual meaning of what I wanted to say.  So when I re-read my favorite authors and remembered that they often forewent the showing for actually telling, I was flabbergasted.  Instead of always describing the pain in the belly or the fire in the eyes, they often said their characters were depressed or angry.  It was freeing.

Of course, they don't always do this, but they don't obsess over the description to the detriment of moving the story along.  There are plenty of times when you need a more nuanced description so that the reader feels what you want them to, but sometimes you just need to briefly set the mood so that you can get back into the action.

This was where I went wrong.  Now that I'm back to writing the prequel to Homecoming, I'm using this old news with new vigor.  The main character deals with indescribable loss at the beginning of the book, and it springboards him into becoming the iconic figure he later grows into.  Showing his pain is an essential part of the story, but I've found that I don't always have to have him re-live it to advance the plot.  In fact, doing so all the time often slows the pace to an unacceptable level.

Therefore, I've concentrated on showing the depths of his pain only when necessary to set the overall mood.  As he moves along, there are some fleeting references to it, but it's much less flowery and more into "he still feels grief."  There was a time I spoke of his newfound fire in the belly and thirst for revenge, but now that such a thing has been established, I only refer to his rage, and even though only sparingly.

Showing is essential to what we need to do as writers, but overly obsessing about it shows readers all scene and no action.  It leads to exactly the kind of elitism most folks despise in arteests, so it must be carefully avoided.  Now that I'm back to helping such things set the mood rather than become the story, I can advance at a pace I enjoy, rather than one haute culture demands.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Newsletter Madness

I lecture people constantly about how writing is a business, but I'm not always very good at following through on that myself.  The biggest case in point is the newsletter I send out to those on my email distro list.  I'm supposed to use it to keep people up to date on what's going on...after I send them an initial email confirming that they're on my list.  Of course, I haven't sent out one of these emails for at least six months.

It's not because I haven't had people sign up.  Although not on the breakneck pace I achieved in the first months I started marketing my work, I still get a steady trickle of people asking to be on the early purchase list that saves about 25-ish% off the hardcover price.  Unfortunately, I'm not very fastidious in sticking to sending out notes.  I justified this at first by rationalizing that there weren't a bunch of new people on the list, so I needed to wait until I get a decent number of folks.  That way, I wouldn't be sending out new emails every week to just a handful of people.  Well, this is no longer a plausible explanation since it's been a long time.

Even worse is that I haven't sent anything out to the people already on my list.  I need to do this so that they're updated about current events on my writing, most notably that the release date for my first novel, Akeldama, has been delayed for a year while I spend time on business in another country.  It's almost to the point of neglect, and it's unacceptable.

The reason is sheer laziness...something I intend to rectify this week.  If I can't even keep touch with the loyal few who've trusted me with their email addresses in the hopes they'd get a book, I don't really deserve the customers I seek.  There's simply too much variety out there for me to not be on top of my game.  Best to get back into it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Muse Back On Her Feet

She was still weak, but my Muse now sat without assistance on the end of the bed.  Her frail arms braced herself against the mattress as stringy hair fell into her face.  It wasn't a full fledged recovery just yet, but it was loads better than she'd been in over a year.

"So, he's killed his first alien," I offered.  "Does that satiate his bloodlust?"

"No.  He still feels empty.  Just like his life since burying Jen and Tyler, his first kill was more going through the motions than it was a conscious act.  He's going to need a lot more before he has control."

Turning back to my keyboard, I started typing again.  "He can't just go around killing them all with a knife.  Readers can accept a fluky first strike, but the entire planet has been overrun.  It'll take more next time."

"Think for just a moment - what was David's profession when this all began?"

"He was in the Army," I said without hesitation.

"What does that give him knowledge of?"

It was as if she struck a match in front of my face.  "Weapons!  He'll know how to get his hands on some and modify them appropriately.  How could I be so stupid?"

"I can think of a few reasons," my Muse murmured.

Spinning in my chair, I looked at her.  Her skin was pale and clammy, but there was a fire in her eyes I hadn't seen in a while.

"You're still upset I ignored you."

"Turn back around and look at what you're writing," she snapped.  "I'm getting better, but the only way I can ever fully recover is for you to keep writing.  You know, the whole habit forming thing."

She was right.  I felt ashamed of how I'd ignored her the past 16 months.  That neglect nearly killed her, and it certainly led to her not coming the rare times I called.  So I spun back and started typing again.

"What else can you give me?" I asked.

I sensed the sigh more than I heard it.  She said, "I can't just tell you.  This is about self-discovery, not dictation.  I whisper the ideas, and you give them form.  Are you really so much out of practice that you've forgotten this?"

I didn't answer, but she had a point.  Other life events had gotten in the way, so my edge had dulled.  It would take me a while to remember how this all works.  Hopefully, with greater back and forth, she'd get better and our interaction wouldn't be so contentious.

To keep her interested(and talking), I spoke as I typed.  "You can fill M203 shells with a napalm like gel to make them ignite on impact.  The formula isn't that hard to discern."

She stared at me, offering suggestions and prodding as I wrote.  All the while, her vigor grew ever stronger...

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Emotional Writing

I've spoken in the past about the emotional connection you need to make with your readers in order to get them begging for more.  However, have you ever had an emotional reaction to something you were in the middle of writing?

I'd have written this off as artsy-fartsy nonsense only a few years ago.  However, I've recently re-discovered this phenomenon while writing my latest novel.  I first encountered it when I wrote Salvation Day because of the connection I had to parts of the story(my family situation greatly played into the development of the main character), but it came upon me again while writing the prequel to Homecoming.

The story, indeed the entire world of the books set in that universe, revolves around a man named David Morton and his motivation for doing what he did.  In the beginning of the story, he loses his wife and son in an alien attack.  I don't mean he comes home and can't find them - I mean he watches them blown apart in front of him.  This spurs the rage he has to defeat the foe.

In describing both his family's death scene and the subsequent burial, I found myself getting a little choked up.  No, it's not because I'm egotistical enough to think my writing is awesome like that, but rather because, as we all do, I'm picturing the scene while writing it.  I see him fall to his knees when he comes to and sees their broken bodies.  I hear his thoughts of loss in never seeing his son grow up.  I watch as he sleeps next to the bodies for two days because he can't bring himself to leave.

Anyone with children can, I think, relate.  Anyone who has that special someone in their life that they've devoted themselves to can, I think, relate.  Even when you're describing a character far removed from your current situation, it's hard not to picture your loved ones.  Having to imagine them in that scenario, as well as your own grief in the ensuing days, can be enough to get a reaction out of most people.

Surprises like this make me wonder what else I'm in store for as this story moves along.  Part of me is a little reticent, but most of me can't wait to enjoy the ride.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

To Make A Living

Most know my feelings regarding traditional publishing versus indie publishing.  I think the odds are far better to make a living through indie - profit margins are better, control over content is total, and you design the marketing strategy.  You could sell 50,000 books a year in traditional publishing - a number few authors, especially new authors, reach - and still not make enough to put food on the table and keep yourself warm during the winter.

However one thing I've never really discussed is just how much you need to sell in order to make a decent living as an indie author.  The answer to that really depends on what you want your lifestyle to be.

First and foremost, be realistic.  Yes, awesome writers like Hugh Howey and Joe Konrath make exorbitant sums of money and can live the life we all dream, but that's the top tier.  That's not to discourage you from shooting for that - after all, someone has to hit that level - but just to help you create expectations for yourself that don't result in suicidal thoughts if you don't reach them.

Two thirds of American households earn less than $75,000 per year, and the median income per US household is just a shade north of $51,000.  Therefore, let's assume that you want to make at least that much.  To do so, your income minus your expenses much come to $51,000 per year, so you first need to figure how much you will sink into the business each time the calendar flips.  Extravagantly, let's say that you will spend $6,000 per year on getting published through covers, copy editors, free copies for giveaways, etc.  Yes, I know just how much that sounds like, but when coming up with how you plan to live in a place not made of cardboard, it's best to be as high as possible/realistic when determining expenses.

So you need a book generating revenue of $57,000 per year, and there are a few ways to get here.  I've discussed previously that you need to spend some time figuring out what to charge.  For the sake of this analysis, let's just say that you will charge $3.99 per ebook on Amazon's KDP Select.  Since you get to keep 70% of what you sell this way, your income realization after sales is $2.793 per ebook, and if you sell 14,000 per year, you earn just north of $39,000.

Some folks like to go ebook pure, and so their sales range has to go higher in ebooks(20,409 to get to $57,000).  Others, however, like a mix of hardcovers using services like Lightning Source or CreateSpace.  Depending on extras, you can charge about $11.99 and earn a $5 per book profit margin.  At this rate, you'd have to sell about 3,500 copies to reach your goal of $57,000, or about a 4:1 ratio of ebooks to hardcovers(not an unrealistic ratio if this is your full time job).  Depending on how you want to live, adjust your goals upward appropriately.

Numbers like this might sound daunting, but they're really not, especially in the age of the ebook.  People are far more likely to download an ebook than to pick up a hardcover, and the lower price makes it worth the risk.  Most folks figure that if it wasn't worth the time, then they're out less than four bucks(of course, you can't do this long term and get away with it - readers don't become repeat customers if your work stinks).  And given the number of people in the US alone, some hard work makes this goal easily achievable.  Sure, you won't be a household name, but you can earn a living doing what you love - writing.  Even those making an exceptionally lucrative living at this, like Amanda Hocking, aren't known by most of the public.

Few reach the stratospheric levels of folks like JK Rowling, but you can make a damn fine living in indie by grabbing a small portion of the market.  It'll take work, as well as an understanding of the business world, but it's doable.  How much you devote to getting there depends on how serious you are about making this your career.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Beta Problems

As I previously noted, I've recently started soliciting beta readers for my new novel.  I need to hear from folks if I'm striking the right tone, as well as learning any glaring errors before I get too deep into the story.  Alas, this has been more challenging than I envisioned.

I've gotten plenty of people who've told me they're interested in reading it, so I've sent the first few chapters to many of them.  The problem is that no one is getting back to me.  There has been nothing but silence on the far end.

I wonder if this is because these people are busy(I'd prefer to say that instead of lazy), or if because my stuff stinks and they're afraid of hurting my feelings.  If it's the latter, I really wish they'd get over that.  Not only am I a big boy who can handle criticism, I also know that reading tastes are subjective, so I look more for trends in critiques than I do an overall "YOU SUCK YOU RAT BASTARD" response.  Lots of people won't care for my stuff simply because tastes vary and what one may find interesting, another will loathe.  That doesn't mean I don't want the feedback.

Anyone out there know how to counter this tendency or overcome this apathy?  If it's apathy, I'd like to know that as well so that I can properly re-target towards other beta readers.  No response means I'm the only one looking at my work, and as objective as I'd like to be, none of us is truly objective about our own work.  We need others to see things we can't, as well as let us know if we're having the effect we are seeking.  Otherwise, time spent looking for beta readers could be spent looking for other...beta readers.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Distance Of Time

There has only been one book that, in the instant I completed it, I was satisfied with - Salvation Day.  Everything else, from Akeldama to Wrongful Death, I've looked at with some degree of, "Geez, I really could've done better."  They felt shallow, but compared to Salvation Day, anything would look shallow.

However, I've also put each of these away for a while and waited before going back in.  What this has created is professional distance in relation to time, and it has shown me that I'm nearly incapable to objectively examining my own work in the immediate aftermath of its completion.  The most recent example of this has been my science fiction work, Homecoming.

I've recently begun working on that novel's prequel, so I've had to go back and regain perspective so that the books would maintain consistency.  I actually dreaded going back into Homecoming because I thought it lacked flow and that I'd have to rewrite large portions of it before publication.  I still have some editing to do, but it's nowhere near what I was worried about.

Re-reading the entire book recently, I was surprised at how well it held up.  Yes, this sounds like bragging, and maybe it is, but it's a pretty coherent story that maintained my interest.  I found that the plot proceeded logically from one point to the next, and it created legitimate tension.  That surprised me because I thought it felt rushed when I was done writing it, so I put it away for a while, thinking that it wasn't up to snuff.

Of course, that was when I remembered that I had the exact same reaction to everything I've written except my first book.  Once the story has had some time to breath, it's always better than I remembered.  It's as if time itself allows me to look at it new again, and that my emotional immersion while writing makes me overly critical in the moment.

This has reinforced the lesson that everything needs to rest.  If I can remember this in the future, it'll keep me from panicking when I'm done with the first draft.  I almost always think my writing is for losers as soon as it's done; giving myself time and space to go back later lets me gain perspective that might otherwise prevent me from ever publishing anything new again.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Knowing Your Audience(AKA - Marketing Stupidity)

I recently got what I can only assume was an automated marketing email from a website I regularly visit, and for reasons that will soon become apparent, I will leave this site nameless.  The email in and of itself isn't an issue - writers have to market themselves, so if someone subscribes to the site, they make a perfect target for marketing ploys.

However, the person sending this out doesn't seem to know his audience.  The email in question touted this person's work in the area of indie publishing.  No, not a story this person indie published, but rather about the process itself.  There were many platitudes about "knowing the reader" and "subscribing to the process," none of which were specific, but all of which sounded nice.

Then came a monumental blunder.

It's no secret that the indie community as a whole is...well...independent.  Highly distrustful of traditional publishers, we tend to regard anything from the traditional camp with a large grain of salt.  Why in the world, then, would anyone targeting an audience of indie writers include, as a main part of his pitch, an endorsement from a traditional publisher?

This traditional publisher telling me that this person's book on indie publishing being the closest you can get to hitting the market as a traditional publisher not only made me stop listening, but it also made me regard anything else in the email as suspect at best.  Yes, some poor saps may have gone indie out of no other choice, but most of us who've done the research have chosen indie precisely because it isn't traditional publishing.

Trying to talk to me about the dynamics of business in the traditional world not only makes no sense, but it's also counterproductive.  Maybe I'm unique, but I have a Master's Degree in Business.  I understand contract law and the fundamentals of marketing, so touting an endorsement from a traditional source, especially to those of us who know just how badly the traditional world is doing, shows little common sense.  This plea might work with a newbie who is desperate for a big house in New York to notice him, but those who've consciously chosen indie are the wrong folks to tout this to.

Do some preliminary research, or at least exercise some intelligence when you market your work.  If you wouldn't use Monsanto to tell you about an organic product, or Jar Jar Binks to promote the next Star Wars movie, why on Earth would you go so far off the reservation here?  Sheesh...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Cross Blogging

Is anyone out there interested in cross blogging?  I'd like to add a diversity of voices every once in a while, and I view this as an opportunity to cross pollinate between our audiences.  Although not required for an appearance, I'd like the opportunity to provide you with a blog post as well.  I don't have any preference on topics, so long as it's writing related(however, I do retain the right of rejection if I feel the post isn't quite right for this blog, and I expect that you'd retain the same if I was invited to yours).

Anyone who is interested, please either email me or post in the comments.  I do require that anyone wanting to cross blog have a blog of their own so that I can look at it and get a feel.

This provides the ability to reach a wider audience than perhaps you currently do - I'm sure both of my readers would appreciate seeing something new - so let me know if you'd like to participate.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


A lot of people have asked me how I know I've hit on a winning idea when I start to write a book.  Although it will sound contradictory, the answer is simple - how many times have I restarted writing the same book?

All of the novels I've finished are on at least their third iterations.  No, I don't mean that I've edited them three times, but rather that I've started them, abandoned them, and then completely rewritten them from scratch at least three times.  Some books have even more starts.

That's because the idea for a new novel rarely comes out formed the first time.  I'll write the first 20 or so pages, and then I'll figure out it isn't working.  Either the characters are too generic or the pacing feels rushed, but whatever the case, I'll just stop.  And by stop, I don't mean "put in a desk drawer and come back to it with some tweaks later."  I mean I totally start over from the first line.

A book that keeps me coming back after so many restarts is one where I like the idea.  Yes, the first or second tries at writing it may have been idiocy in motion, but the underlying idea has strength.  It holds my attention enough for me to play around with, so that means I care enough to get it right.

If you find yourself going back to something you once thought was a cool idea, don't get discouraged if you have to scrap everything you wrote and start again.  The idea still works, and tackling it from a different angle shows that you've grown enough as a writer to recognize when the first stuff sucked.  Press forward and don't be afraid to keep restarting.  Maybe your writing required patience or a change of characters, but it has obviously occupied your thoughts enough to be worth trying.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Writing Contests

In my inbox lies another Writers Digest short story contest invitation.  The due date on it is January 16th.  If I want to enter, I need to get moving.

The contest itself isn't very involved - 1500 words.  I can do that in a single sitting one afternoon.  In fact, that's how I produced my entries that placed back in 2011 and 2012.  What it represents, however, is so much more.

I think the draw behind such contests for writers isn't the prize money, although that's nice, but rather the validation that comes with even placing.  Let's face it - for all of our fragile egos, most of us still think we're pretty darn good at this writing thing, even when others dispute that.  But when an outside source, especially one as credentialed as Writers Digest, confirms that we have a modicum of talent, it makes what we're doing seem more worthwhile.

That's because, at the heart of it, we're afraid that people won't like what we write.  Yes, we all write for the joy of it, we write because we're compelled to, blah, blah, blah.  However, most of us are terrified that someone will tell us we stink.

A writing contest, on the other hand, is kind of like a no-risk investment.  We send in our stuff, and if we place, then YIPPEE!  If we don't place, we never hear about it, and we certainly don't receive personal feedback on how awful our entry was.  We can assuage ourselves with empty platitudes that we didn't hit the right note with the judges, or that somehow our entry never even made it in(some snafu with the form).  When we place or win, though, it lets us know that others think we have talent as well.

Sometimes these contests are a little bothersome.  Entering them takes us away from our "real" efforts, and the restrictions can limit us(I like longer stories that take way more than 1500 words to tell), but that doesn't make the thrill of entering without the risk of ego-shattering criticism any less of a lure.

I'll have to write something this week and send it in.  I don't yet know what that'll be(and I hope I figure it out before too much longer), but I hope it sparks me to get more into this.  After all, my ego could sure use it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Writing Resolutions

As we begin the New Year, I've got several goals I want to accomplish as a writer:
1.  Finish two novels.  This will be easy, especially as my summer begins abroad(that's because I'm not very adventurous and will be spending a lot of my free time writing).  I already know which two they will be - my Homecoming prequel, and my weirdo dystopian novel Onyx.  I hope to finish the Homecoming prequel prior to leaving in June, and if I can finish Onyx prior to the end of the year, I can write a third novel before coming home and starting the stretch to release Akeldama.

2.  Find my short story groove again.  I've lost enthusiasm for short stories.  I think this was more about the grueling schedule to release than about the work.  Short stories help me write more concisely, thus improving me as a writer.  I hope to get back into them before the year is out.

3.  Read, read, read.  I've got over $200 in the Amazon store waiting to be purchased.  To be a good writer, you need to know what good writing looks like.  I aim to plunge back into reading with a passion.  My tendency is to absorb lessons almost osmotically, so the more I can read, the more I should be able to apply what I learn.

4.  Keep up blog consistency.  I've slipped on occasion, and it bugs me when that happens.  Getting ahead of the game is key, especially as I begin my trek in June.  It'll be real easy to miss a bunch of posts if I don't plan things out in advance.

5.  Finish final editing on three books.  I've begun with Akeldama, but Salvation Day and Schism require oversight.  There are commercial products in there that I need to get permission to use, or I need to find a way to alter them without changing the substance of the novel.  Again, I'll have time starting in June, so this should be doable.

That's enough for the moment.  These goals will keep me busy as I travel abroad, and I hope to return to the US ready to begin the final push to release my first work.  If nothing else, it'll be an eventful year.