Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Bad News/Good News

Bad news: It’s more difficult than ever to make a living as a writer.

There aren’t many writers bringing home big wads of cash. As in many creative industries, there are a few big earners at the top, outnumbered a thousand to one by people at the bottom who earn very little. With so many writers at the bottom eager to see their book in a book store, publishers can pay relatively trivial amounts to new authors. Many give up on traditional publishing and try self-publishing. Unfortunately, so many are desperate to find readers that they often give away their work. The ease of self-publishing creates a huge pool of new books competing for the attention of a limited pool of readers, and we’ve trained many of those readers to think a fair price to pay for a book is nothing.

Good news: It’s easier than ever to make a living as a writer!

There are two key revolutions in the publishing world that make it easier to pursue either a traditional publishing path or a self-publishing career. Traditional publishers used to be concentrated in a few major cities, and New York is still home to many big name publishers. Meeting the editors for these publisher or the agents who worked with them meant travelling to conventions and hoping to schmooze at a party or introduce oneself on an elevator. Social media has changed all this. I’m acquainted online with dozens of professionals in the industry and we respond to each other’s posts all the time. If I send an editor I have a relationship with online something to take a look at, they’ll probably read it in a more positive light than something from a complete stranger. Also, social media has revolutionized the spread of publishing information. There was a time you had to subscribe to trade magazines to get news about new imprints at publishing houses, or get the names of newly hired editors, or learn what anthologies were open to submissions. Now, this information is freely available to anyone who cares to look for it.

But an even bigger transformation in the industry is the self-publishing revolution. It used to be that getting your book into print meant getting past the gatekeepers at the big publishing houses. Today, Amazon has thrown the gate wide open. As a self-publisher you have free access to the digital shelves of the largest bookstore that’s ever existed. And Amazon isn’t the only platform. Google, Apple, Nook, Kobo, and other stores are also open to your content. Ebooks have a low initial cost to take live, and even print books are easy to print and sell thanks to print on demand platforms like Createspace. Turning your book into an audio book isn’t terribly difficult and expands your potential audience. On many of these platforms, your audience isn’t limited to America. Each month, I see revenue from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, India, and even occasional sales from places where English isn’t the primary language, like Japan and Germany. A great thing about these online sales is that most of the platforms pay generous royalties, have easy to follow accounting that lets you see your sales data updated each day, and direct deposit the income you’ve earned on a monthly basis. With traditional publishing, you often go six months between paychecks, assuming you ever earn out your advances. Unless your electric bill only comes every six months, the monthly revenue stream is a welcome change from the traditional model.

Finally, with self-publishing, you never need to let a book go out of print. There’s a concept known as the long tail. For a newly released book, you make most of your money in the first few months it’s in print, then sales start to decline. With traditional publishers, once your book falls below a certain threshold of sales, they’ll remainder what books they have less and take the book out of print. Your revenue for that book comes to an end. With self-publishing, your books keep earning small amounts of money year after year. It adds up. It might not sound impressive that I have some old titles that only earn me ten or twenty dollars a month, but I can look at my sales data and see that some of these books have earned a thousand dollars or more long after the point where a traditional publisher would have taken it out of print. With enough titles in print, a self-published author can cobble together something approaching a steady income. Not a flamboyant, extravagant income, but long before I was earning enough to leave behind my day job I passed through years where I was earning at least a hundred bucks each month. If you’re in an economic class where an extra hundred bucks a month won’t make a difference in your life, congratulations! For many struggling writers, though, that hundred bucks a month makes them hungry for more.

Bad news: The world is full of far more talented writers than you can ever hope to be.

Wow. That’s a bummer. But it’s something you’ll need to learn to live with. I write epic fantasy, but I don’t have a lot of hope that one day I’ll be praised as better than Tolkien or George R.R. Martin. I also write humorous science fiction, but have yet to read a review saying how much funnier my stuff is than Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I don’t know that I’ll ever write a book as tight and disturbing as Jim Thomson’s The Grifters, or as full of madness and truth and poetry as Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I can list you a hundred classic novels that fill me both with admiration and despair. It’s not just classics. Every year, great books by new authors win awards and critical acclaim and turn their authors into legends in literary circles. I admire great books. I cherish them as the highest art form mankind has yet created. But that same love of literature often leaves me feeling like I’m coming up short. Maybe I’m never going to write a book that changes the world. Maybe I’m always going to be a pale shadow compared to these towering titans of literature. Maybe my chosen genres of dragons and superheroes keep me from my full potential, and make me more of an entertainer than a true author.

More bad news: The world is full of writers who are much worse than you. Many produce best-sellers, sign movie deals, and fill auditoriums with fans when they go on tour.

For me, this is even harder to deal with than seeing great writers getting the attention they deserve. Seeing hacks win acclaim and earn fortunes leaves me wondering if success isn’t all luck, or, if it’s not luck, if I’m just so isolated from my own culture that I’ll never understand what it takes to write a popular book.

Good News: You’re more than talented enough to write stories people will find important.

After my novel Bitterwood was released, I got a fan letter. It was from a twelve year old boy who loved my book but was wondering whether or not I believed in God. He could see all the religious imagery I was drawing into my work. Some of my characters quote the Bible outright, and others make allusions to Biblical tales. But, the book also features a prophet named Hezekiah who is something of a monster who preaches a very violent, dark, Old Testament ideology that allows him to kill in the name of the Lord. I could sense a subtext in his letter. Since he was young but familiar with the Bible, he was probably from a religious family. But the way he asked the question made me think he had doubt, and my book had likely contributed to those doubts. And that one fan letter to this day does more to keep me writing than anything else. I have no idea where that young fan arrived at philosophically, but it was plain that my book was something he’d actually thought about. I can point to books I read when I was young that changed my whole world view. Not all of these were classics. I had a taste for cheesy science fiction novels that would now be dismissed as pulp. I don’t even recall the many of the titles or the authors. But these books still changed me, opening up a love of science and a love of adventure, and not just the adventures you find on a page. Stories about people travelling to other planets inspired me to want to go out and explore my own planet. And many of these stories made heroes of smart, knowledgeable people. Engineers, chemists, historians, linguists… they all have their roles to play in the spread of human civilization among the stars and it made me admire such people. I can assure you, a lot of these books were dreadful. To take a well-known example, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a beloved classic still widely read. I think it’s about as poorly written as a novel can get. The characters are wooden, the plot meandering, the pacing atrocious, the dialogue stiff and inhuman. But, despite my dislike of the book, I have many well-read, intelligent friends I respect who count it among their favorite novels.

Ultimately, believing in the worthiness of your fiction is going to take a little faith. Strive to write the best book you can. Brace yourself to the indifference of roughly seven billion fellow inhabitants of the planet. Trust that somewhere out there is your reader, the one person who is going to pick up your book at the right moment in her life and absolutely cherish every word.

Bad news: Learning to write well takes years of practice.

No one expects to sit down at a piano the first time and play a beautiful melody. Learning any musical instrument is going to require years of plinking and clunking and off-tempo faltering that will only in the most superficial way resemble a song.

The same is true of writing a novel. You’re going to have false starts. You’re going to write characters no one has any reason to like, pursuing goals no one understands, across pages filled with prose that not everyone will be able to untangle. Maybe a few geniuses escape this harsh reality, but the vast majority of mankind must write a lot of crap before they become merely competent at writing a book. And, like a musical instrument, you can’t learn just how to write that one book. A pianist can’t learn to press the keys for just one song. There are scales to learn, musical theory to absorb, and a whole separate written language of musical notation that must be mastered. 

To write a novel well, you’ve got to learn to craft realistic characters. You’ve got to engineer a compelling plot. You’ll need to ground your characters in a specific setting. Your writing style needs to be comprehensible. And you’ll need something worth saying, some theme or moral that breathes life into the piece and elevates it above a rote reporting of the events of your character’s life. All of these things take work to master. Sometimes you’ll need years to finally figure out how to handle all of these elements.

Good News: You've already had years of practice. 
You started learning to write before you were born. There is strong evidence that during the last two months of gestation babies can hear their mother’s voice in the womb and learn to recognize the patterns of language. You mastered your native tongue at a very early age, and while you might not have understood all the subtleties and niceties of language, you knew it well enough to laugh at puns, understand riddles, and grasp metaphorical speech. If your mother ever told you your room looked like a pig sty, odds are you didn’t take her literally. It’s quite likely you had never even seen an actual pig sty, but still grasped her meaning.

You have a long term fluency with metaphorical and symbolic language. You also likely were learning stories before you could even read, and making up your own stories well before you went to school.

As far as characters go, well, you know people. And, you know yourself. While there are a few tips and tricks I’ll get to in a different essay about how to create interesting characters, the heart and soul of character creation is simply knowing yourself, understanding your own wants and desires, your strengths and weaknesses, and the origins of these traits. You also need empathy, the ability and desire to not just understand other people, but to feel like they feel. You likely mastered this at a very early age.

As for setting, you have never spent a moment of your life separated from one. You’re always somewhere. Even if you don’t want to set your story where you are at this moment, you’ll be surprised at how much fictional detail you can draw from your immediate surroundings and your own travels.

As for having something important to say, you’ve been on the planet for a while. You’ve learned stuff. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve gotten angry at some injustice or other, and wonder why the rest of the world isn’t equally angry. And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve discovered beautiful things, and want to tell everyone about this beauty.

You’ve been training to be a writer from the day you were born. All those boring writing assignments you did in school… you were a pianist practicing your scales. You’ve got every skill you need to write a good book simply by virtue of having lived a life. What makes writing a novel hard is the difference between knowing how to catch a ball and knowing how to juggle chainsaws. You have to take simple skills and use them all at once, in a way that looks effortless. Sometimes, you’ll gaze at a chainsaw juggler and feel envious that he’s only keeping three chainsaws in the air, while you’re trying to juggle ten major characters, three plot thread, and five different settings. It’s not the easiest thing in the world. On the positive side, there’s very little risk of having your fingers chopped off. You’ve chosen wisely in pursuing novel writing over chainsaw juggling, I think. That choice was first step toward greatness! 

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Clarity & Focus

Good writing is primarily a result of knowing what words to leave off the page.

A good analogy can be found in the composition of a photograph. Below are two photos of the same shell:

In the first photo, I haven’t really taken the time to frame the shell properly. I didn’t even get my finger out of the frame! Your eyes are drawn to the shell since it’s in the center of the frame, but the image is cluttered by the presence of the second shell, and the background is cluttered. The oddly askew chair and the big yellow pool float are out of focus, but this somehow only makes them more distracting as your eye tries to piece together what it’s seeing. Finally, there’s not a lot of contrast between the shell and the background. It’s pretty much the same color as the fence behind it. 

In the second photo, I’ve changed the angle of the shot and have a vastly simplified background. I’ve gotten closer and cropped the image to remove unwanted objects. The new angle means most of the background is lightly colored, making the darker shell stand out. I’ve done some manipulation of the image to oversaturate the colors, making a shell that looked gray at first glance into something far more complex, with tones of blue, brown, and ivory.

 Of course, this isn’t an article about taking photos. It’s an article about writing well. When you’re working on a novel, the sheer amount of information you need to convey to the reader can feel overwhelming. You might be balancing a dozen important characters, all with backstories, their own goals, and distinct personalities.  You’ve got a setting to convey. There’s the characters immediate location, but there’s also a larger world and a place in the history of that world. You’re also conveying motion. Even if your characters aren’t moving, hopefully your plot is moving forward. Every paragraph needs to feel like it’s bringing the story a little bit closer to a conclusion.

Given all the things you need to convey, the real art of writing is to treat every page as a carefully composed photograph. What are you wanting the readers to see? Of all the different story elements present, which one do you want them to focus on? What on this page do you want them to remember so that the next page makes sense?

Simplicity is the secret of clarity, and clarity is the key to readers engaging with your book. 

Let’s say you’re writing a story in which your character is going to shoot someone. In the first chapter, you show your protagonist loading her gun and putting it into her purse. You go into a crazy amount of detail on the gun to make sure it’s memorable, since it’s important to the plot, and wind up spending three pages telling us the manufacturer of the gun, where she bought it, why she likes this particular gun, and close with a brief history of gunpowder. Then, in every following chapter, you have moments where she looks into her purse and contemplates the gun. Most readers will find this annoying, heavy-handed, and won’t be terribly surprised by your plot twist seventeen chapters later when she shoots her boss.

On the flip side, let’s say you devote a single mention of her putting a gun into her purse in the first chapter. Then she never thinks about the gun again until she pulls it out and shoots her boss seventeen chapters later. Most readers will have forgotten the gun and feel like its appearance in the story is completely random.

Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot, where you’ve given enough detail that the reader will sense that the gun is important but not so much detail that they grow frustrated at how obvious you’re being.

Let’s go back to your protagonist’s purse: When she opens her purse, you might be tempted to describe the entire contents of her purse, or you might be tempted to just tell us she has a purse and not say another word about it. Personally, I think it would be a wasted opportunity not to describe a few things in her purse, since you might be telling us a lot about her character and backstory with just a few choice details. If we see a key to a BMW, it might hint at her economic status. A wad of coupons for basic stuff like peanut butter might point us in a different direction for her finances. A pacifier could clue us in that she’s a mother. If there’s a can of pepper spray next to the gun, we might deduce she’s really worried about her self-defense. Perhaps she’s been a crime victim in the past. Or, maybe she’s got three clips of bullets. Self-defense no longer seems to be her primary plan for the gun. Not tossing in telling details is a wasted opportunity. Describing every last scrap of clutter in her purse would bore the readers.

If you aren’t confident how much detail to include in a scene, my advice is to err on the side of over-telling, especially during a first draft. If an editor or someone in your critique group reads your story and you’ve overexplained something, they can tell you what to cut. If you leave out too much, they’ll just feel lost and unsure of what you’re trying to say. It’s much easier to tell a reader what he needs to cut than to tell him what he needs to add.

A final thought: If you’re a person who admires literature enough to want to try your hand writing a novel, you very likely have a broad vocabulary and an appreciation for ambitious prose that tells a story full of subtlety and nuance. It may be that you only want people with similar vocabularies and the same appreciation of nuance to enjoy your work. This is admirable. But I will also say there is a pretty large audience of people who enjoy books written in a simple, straightforward style, with stories that make them feel clear emotions. They want to feel your hero’s heartbreak, loss, and worries, and rally around your characters courage, cleverness, and triumphs. I spent far too many years afraid to write an obvious emotion. It took time for me to be comfortable writing that being in love feels swell, that being cheated on by a lover feels lousy, and that losing a friend to death feels like the end of the world. These sentiments didn’t strike me as original or fresh. Some truths will never get worn out. You might be worried that what you’ve written isn’t complicated or complex enough. As long as you’re writing from a place of honesty and experience, readers will respond to it. There’s no idea so simple that there’s no longer a market of people willing to listen to it.  If you doubt this, tune into any radio station and see how many songs in an hour use the world “love.”  

Friday, August 3, 2018

How do you find time to write?

Some of the most common questions I hear when I’m doing events are about time management. I’m frequently asked how many hours a day I write. Another common question is how long it takes me to write a book. Perhaps the most common obstacle new writers worry about is that they just can’t find time to write.

I get it. You probably have a job that you work forty hours a week. Assuming you care about your health, you’re likely sleeping fifty-six hours a week and exercising at least three or four. If you care about your mental health, you have relationships. Your family deserves your time and attention, and life without friends would be unbearable. All these people demand a slice of your time, and deserve it far more than a computer screen opened to a blank page. Finally, it’s important to relax and to be entertained. An evening set aside to read a book, a night spent going out to dinner, a movie marathon on the weekends, or taking a few minutes here and there to play a game on your phone are good ways to relieve stress. You can’t be “on” all the time.

Of course, by the time you’ve done your work, given time to friends and family, relaxed and entertained yourself, you find that, hmm, another week has gone by and you haven’t written a single page.

When I was in my twenties, I was working on a novel and progress was slow. I used to daydream about how much I could write if writing was my whole job. I fantasized that I’d publish a single book, it would make me financially secure enough to quit my day job, and after that it would be smooth sailing as I cranked out book after book. In other words, I was caught in a fantasy that seduces a lot of beginning authors: One day, when I’m a writer, I’ll have time to write.

And that’s bullshit. Take my word on this: Right now, you have the same amount of time available to write a book as everyone else. All those demands on your time are demands every other writer faces. What’s more, fantasizing that at some future date you’ll have more time to write is a rather feeble hope. I felt so busy and rushed in my twenties, but when I got into my thirties I wondered where all my free time had gone, and felt like all my new responsibilities were overwhelming. In my forties, I could look back and see just how few responsibilities I really had when I was thirty. As I’m writing this I’m in my fifties, and I’ve got demands on my time I didn’t even imagine a decade ago. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’ll never have more time available to you than you have at this moment. This is self-evidently true. Your life is an hourglass. The sand grains are pouring through, and there’s no way of turning the glass back over. Demands on your time will increase each year, especially if you’re a smart, capable, and responsible person. The more you’ve done, the more you get asked to do. You will never, ever, reaching that mythical state of finding time to write.

The solution: Make time to write. It’s that simple. There are things you need to give up so you can keep your butt in your chair and type. There are other things you need to stop doing so you can daydream and let your imagination run wild.

I obviously can’t address your life specifics, but a few of the things I gave up in order to write were gaming and television. Like a lot of young men, I used to have a pretty extensive collection of video games. And, because I’m a geek, I loved games that didn’t require a screen, stuff like D&D, Warhammer, Magic the Gathering, and just plain old spades and rummy and hearts. I ran weekly game nights and spent a lot of time designing campaigns and painting miniature armies. All the time, I kept thinking of myself as a writer, even though I really was piddling along and writing maybe a chapter a month. It took me two or three years to write a book, but speed isn’t everything, is it? I mean, taking time to get stuff right is a good thing.

But I wasn’t taking time to get stuff right. I was taking time to second guess myself. When I would go a week or more between sitting down to write, I’d lose momentum. Passion for my project would diminish. Worse, I’d change my mind about what I’d already written because I was giving the ideas time to grow and mutate. This isn’t always a bad thing, but it meant I kept restarting the same projects again and again to incorporate new ideas for characters, settings, and plot points.

Good writing requires momentum. A first draft should be a project of weeks, not years, if it’s to feel coherent and whole. My first book took me three years to finish and it was a mess. My second I worked on for two years, and my third took about the same time. None were ready for publication, and with my glacial pace of writing, I was constantly wondering whether I should put them aside and start with a new, better idea, or keep slogging away at a manuscript I no longer cared about. Then, I stumbled into something that changed my writing forever: A deadline. A completely arbitrary one. It was November of 2000. I was one of those calendar snobs who insisted that the new millennium didn’t actually being until January 1, 2001. And as part of a conversation with some other novice writers, we decided to challenge ourselves with writing the first new novel of the millennium. We’d start books on November 15, and type “the end” at midnight on December 31. I thought it was a pretty crazy goal. At that point I seldom finished short stories in a month and a half, let alone a whole book. But, I agreed to the challenge and just started writing. I knew I needed 1500 words a day to finish a novel by the deadline, which meant I needed about two hours each night. Two hours each night is about what I spent watching television. So, no television until I finished my words for the night. When weekends came around I normally met up with friends and gamed. Since I was working on my book, I went to hang out with my friends but took my laptop. I sat in the corner and wrote while they played video games, and from time to time we’d all take breaks and talk. I gave up gaming without giving up my friends.

I was worried about whether I’d be able to keep up the pace for a month and a half, but made an interesting discovery. Since I was writing every day, when I’d sit down to write the previous session’s work was still fresh in my mind. I developed a habit of stopping my chapters a line or two before they reached the end. That way, when I sat down the next day, I already knew the first hundred words or so I’d be typing, and once you’ve typed  your first hundred, your second hundred flows more easily, and after a half hour or so you’re so absorbed you’ll just keep writing without effort. Momentum mattered!

I know writers who have built a career out of writing 1000 words of first draft a day, every day. I’m not one of those writers. I still spend a lot of weeks and months between projects when I’m not writing first drafts. I also tend to binge on first drafts, going a few days producing nothing then sitting down for an eight hour word-a-thon where I crank out several chapters in a row.

Where do I find eight hours in a row? For years, I made the time by only working four days a week at my day job. Where I worked, there were certain shifts that were hard to keep filled. I told my boss I’d work these hard to fill spots on the schedule permanently, but in exchange I’d only be working four days. He took the deal. So, I’d work Sunday and Monday, have Tuesday and Wednesday off, then work Thursday and Friday. This cut my income, but on my mid-week days I was home when all my friends and family were working, so I could really focus on producing work. My goal with this schedule was to get out 10,000 words a week, and for the most part I met that goal. 10,000 words a week seems to be my most comfortable pace. I write a lot of epic fantasy novels about 120,000 words long. So, it takes me about three months to produce a first draft, two months to polish a second draft, and another month to finish a third draft. All further drafts are normally stuff I squeeze in here and there because I’ve already moved on to another project.

These days, I no longer have a day job. I’ve got over fifteen books in print and it’s enough of a back catalogue to keep revenue trickling in while I’m working on new stuff. I still find it hard to write much more than ten hours each week. Part of it is due to my transition to self-publishing. As I’ll discuss in later posts, the publishing aspect of being an indy author can easily devour every moment you choose to put into it. This isn’t wasted time, and in fact it’s essential if you want to have a career, but every moment you spend on the business side is a moment that gets stolen from the creative side. Another reason I only write ten hours a week is that, every now and then, I’ve attempted more and found it unsustainable.

I once walked into my day job and was told I didn’t need to show up for work the follow week. They’d discovered a code violation in the building and had to shut down to rewire the whole workplace. I went home wondering if I could write a book in a week. It turns out, yes. That book was Burn Baby Burn, and I consider it one of my best novels. It required very little rewriting because it flowed out so coherently and there was very little I needed to revise. I would get up each morning at 7 and write until 7 in the evening. A week later, I had a book. I also had back aches, sore hands, and memory problems. Writing so much so quickly almost literally emptied out my brain. I felt like I was in a mental fog for weeks afterward. Then, I did it to myself again! I took a new job, and had a week off between my old job and my new one. This time, I wanted to try a new strategy. I spent four alternating days writing, with a daily goal of 15,000 words. And it worked! A complete manuscript in four working days. And … it wasn’t as good as Burn Baby Burn. It wasn’t terrible, it just needed a lot of rewriting. Because of the pace I was writing, I didn’t have time to second guess my choices at certain moments where the plot could go one way or another. That had worked out well with Burn Baby Burn, but with the new novel, I reached the end and realized that the book I finished wasn’t the book I’d begun. It was actually a better book than my initial vision, but the second draft required me tossing out easily half of the original manuscript and starting fresh. And, again, I finished that writing marathon with the same physical symptoms. My back hurt, my legs were numb, and my hands took a month to feel normal again. A mental fog once more descended over me and made it hard to concentrate for a long time. I’ve heard other writers complain about “writer’s brain,” where the ability to concentrate on things in the real world is difficult after you’ve spent a lot of time deep in your imagination. You wind up going through the paces of your ordinary life like a zombie, not quite all there. It doesn’t affect everyone, but for me it’s a serious obstacle.

I’m not saying I’ll never attempt another week long writing marathon, but I’m also comfortable just plodding along with my 10,000 words a week.

So, to answer the questions succinctly:

How many hours a week do I write? Between zero and sixty, but my goal is ten. There is no one correct answer for how many hours a week you need to write if you want to be a writer. Write as much as you can, always try to write a little more, and never be content. The haunting, nagging fear that you aren’t doing enough is great motivation.

How long does it take to write the first draft of a book? Between several years and a few days. Don’t get discouraged if you’ve been working on a project for what feels like forever. Once it’s in the hands of the reader, they’ll read the book in a matter of hours. The length of time you took to create the book will be invisible to them. Working on a book for years might mean you’ve taken the time to craft a timeless masterwork, or it might mean you’re just flailing around on something that never feels finished because of underlying flaws. Banging out a book in under a month might mean you’re a hack throwing valueless words on a page in desperate attempt to grab a few dollars, or it might mean you’ve captured lightning in a bottle and are writing the most important story you’ll ever tell.

How do I find the time to write? By cutting back on entertainment, like gaming and television. I often have to choose between consuming art and creating it. Since a person can’t live without art, focus on consuming the art you’re trying to perfect, and read widely. When the universe throws time at you, like my unexpected week off, pounce.

Finally, one thing I haven’t talked about yet is writing time that doesn’t involve putting your butt in the chair and typing. Carve out time in your life to daydream. On your drive back and forth to work, turn off your car radio and let your mind wander. I had the benefit of being really bored at my day job a lot of the time, and was able to imagine whole scenes that went into my books while I was being paid for pretending to focus on something else. Now that I work from home, I spend a fair amount of time exercising. I go out kayaking for hours, and do 20+ mile bike rides a few times a week. Both require only a moderate amount of attention once I’m in motion, giving me time to think about my books. Or, if I’ve been writing a lot and am lost in a writer’s fog, being out in nature helps pull be back to reality. Even just going out for a walk alone is good for the body and the mind. Time you set aside to exercise doesn’t have to subtract from time you spend writing novels. If anything, it can be the time you’re devoting to mining your imagination, hunting for the precious words that will finally make it to the page.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Do you have what it takes to be a writer?

I meet a lot of people who want to be writers.

I also meet a lot of people who’ve written a few things and would like to see them published.

And, I meet writers who’ve actually published a few things, but feel lost on how to get anyone to read their work or, more importantly, how to make money from their books.

For the next few articles I’ll be blogging about these things, moving from the general to the specific.

First, the big, usually unspoken question that haunts many, many authors: Am I a real writer?

I’ve never met a writer at any stage of their career that wasn’t haunted by self-doubt. If you’ve never written a novel, you wonder how you can possibly call yourself a writer when you haven’t produced a finished manuscript. You can’t finish the novel unless you write it, but how can you write it if you aren’t a real writer?

Or, you’ve written your novel. Maybe even a few novels. No one outside your circle of friends has read them. You polish and polish, but never feel like the book you’ve written is good enough to get sent out to a publisher. A real writer would already have their manuscript in the mail, right? (And, yes, I know that “in the mail” is something of an archaic phrase. When I started in this business you still sent paper manuscripts via postage.)

So, maybe you’ve actually hit the “send” button and submitted your manuscript to publishers, only to get silence and form letters in return. Sure, you’ve strung together 80,000 words in a more or less coherent fashion. But does that really make you a writer? If you’re not good enough to interest an editor maybe you’re not good enough, period. You’ve seen horrible, unoriginal, poorly written books make it into bookstores. What are you lacking? Why are these hacks selling books and getting reviews on Amazon while you’re watching the pages of your calendar fly away, movie style, as each unpublished year brings you and your work closer to oblivion.

Then, success! You’ve published a book! And nobody reads it. You have three friends who review it on Amazon, your sales ranking is a seven digit number, and now, finally, you have the evidence to prove what you’ve always secretly suspected: You’re no good at this. If you were any good at all, word of mouth and positive reviews would have driven you to at least moderate success. The silence that greets your book is the final nail in the coffin of your dream of being a writer. You suck at this. Time to give up.

But, wait! You’ve actually had a few people buy your book. You’ve got reviews from total strangers on Amazon. Some were glowing, some were harsh. You’re a real writer! But, wow, you’re not selling nearly enough books to be a real, real writer. You can’t break the top 10,000 on Amazon. Your name has never been on a New York Times bestseller list. For that matter, you’ve never been reviewed in any publication you actually read. No daytime TV shows have invited you on. NPR hasn’t booked you for Fresh Air. Oprah’s people aren't speaking to your people, if you have people. When you tell people you’re a writer you confront again and again the reality that they’ve never heard of you or your book.

Then: Success! You actually do creep onto a bestseller list. You’ve been interviewed by newspapers! You’ve talked about your book on the radio! Your book is popular! For maybe two months. Then it’s forgotten, swept aside by the deluge of new books demanding space and attention. To keep feeling like a writer, you need a new book, but what if your last book was your best book? What if lightning is never going to strike again? Good thing you didn’t quit your day job. Sure, you’re a writer, but you just don’t have what it takes to make a career out of it. Maybe you think your work is good, but you don’t have the type of personality that you need to promote yourself aggressively. You don’t have time to keep up with all the social media platforms. And you wrote your first book because you believed in it. Now you think you can maybe make a little money writing a sequel, but is it right to do it just for the money? Doesn’t that make you a hack instead of a real writer?

I promise you that the most successful writer you’ve ever heard of was haunted by these same self-doubts. Success only raises the bar. I’ve met plenty of authors who had one giant bestseller twenty years ago. They’ve put out a dozen other books since then, but it’s still that one book that everyone talks about.  All their hard work and experience have never duplicated that first beloved hit, even though, by their own judgment, some of their later books were better written. Maybe it wasn’t talent or hard work or superior quality that made that early book break out. Maybe it was just luck, the right book at the right time, and the same level of success might never come again.

Self-doubt is an author’s most valuable asset. If you ever vanquished it, you would have no need to ever learn anything new. You would have no reason to work harder to improve your writing, and no reason to work on any of the other skills you need to be a professional writer, the marketing, the accounting, the networking, and the never-ending struggle to keep abreast of a publishing world in constant turmoil.

The key is that this self-doubt needs to be matched with an almost equal measure of self-confidence, even arrogance. You have to believe that your words and your stories are important. You have to be able to read your own books and think, wow, I love this author! I can’t wait to read more by them! You have to be eager to encounter the potential reader who’s never heard of you and who couldn’t care less about your book and explain why your book is worth their time and energy.

Now some hard truth. The odds of making a really good living as a fiction writer are kind of low. All art is difficult to make a living at, in some ways because we undervalue art, but also because it’s not truly a rare commodity. The month you’re ready to release your book to the world, 10,000 other writers are going to take their shot as well. It’s hard to rise above the noise of so many voices crying for attention at once. On the plus side, the sheer number of books in this world can be taken as a reassurance. People write books all the time. You can too. This ain’t rocket surgery. It’s daydreaming, typing, and a tiny measure of organizational skills. I promise you can write all the books you’d like.

But if you are doing it to make money, sorry. Your odds of making a living that can provide you not just food, clothing, and shelter, but also healthcare and retirement funds are fairly low. But not everyone who can play guitar is going to wind up a Nashville superstar. They can still play songs they enjoy playing. And the fact that there are a million other people with guitars who can play just as well or better is no reason to put the guitar in the closet. The same is true with writing. I’ve written some books that have sold well. I’ve written others that might has well have been printed in invisible ink given how few people read them. In the end, though, the true measure of a novelist is this: Are you writing books you enjoy reading? If you are, you’re a writer. You are your most important audience.

And if you still hold out hope of making some money, I’ll let you in on the secret. That can be done as well, but it’s not guaranteed and it’s not easy. Still, the good news about those 10,000 other writers who released their first book the same day you did is that 9,900 aren’t going to write a second book. An even smaller number is going to write their tenth book. With patience, persistence, hard work and, yes, a bit of luck, you can beat the odds and make a reasonable income from writing.

In future posts, I’ll provide more specifics, and a path to slog toward success. Until then, go write something!