What Should I Write Next?

Many times throughout my life (including this weekend at my writing conference), I’ve heard people ask what book they should write next. What genre should they pursue? Should they chase the latest trend? Should they write this idea or another? My reply is always the same: Which idea do you care about most?

If you don’t care about a book, if it doesn’t mean anything to you, there is no point in writing it. This past weekend, I heard the wonderful Katherine Center advising people to write a book they would want to read. Excellent. Why write an idea or genre you don’t care about? Don’t tell me you’re doing it for money. That book will not turn out well, so you’re not going to get rich off it. Of my forty-three published books, only one was based on someone else’s idea–and it’s by far the worst book I ever wrote. (No, I will not tell you which one that was.)

Chasing the latest trend is even stupider–because by the time you get a book written, the trend will probably be over. Fads come and go (legal thrillers, chick lit, dystopian YA, you name it). How long they last is impossible to predict, but imagine your poor agent being stuck with a book that he or she can’t sell because the fad has passed. Worse if you spent a year writing it, never liked it, didn’t care about it–and now no one will ever read it. A year gone for no good reason.

The marvelous David Morrell always advises people to write the book that matters to them most. (That’s the one that will likely turn out best, too). David’s theory is that even if the market turns against you and you can’t sell it, it was still worth doing, because it was important to you. David only rarely has written a non-thriller, but when he did, you can be assured it was for a good personal reason.

Which brings me to my most recent novel, Challengers of the Dust. I am aware that some of my readers would much rather have another Ben Kincaid novel, or at least a thriller. But the truth is, I’ve written eighteen Ben books and they no longer represent a challenge. I hit a round-number birthday and started to envision a tombstone that only said: HE WROTE A BUNCH OF BEN BOOKS. I wanted to do more, so I left the series behind and focused on other characters and other forms. I don’t regret this decision in the least.

I love my two poetry books and the reviews they have received are the best I’ve seen in my entire life. These books will not put my children through college, but I am very glad I wrote them. This most recent novel was a shot from the heart, a chance to bring some Oklahoma history to life with two eccentric characters unburdened by thriller elements. It’s not boring, but don’t ask me what genre it fits into, because I don’t think it does.

I also think it’s the best book I’ve ever written. Thank goodness I took time to write it while I could.  I wouldn’t trade the praise I’ve received for these last three books for all the royalty checks on earth.

Are you planning a book? Heed my words. Write from the heart.

Link to Challengers of the Dust

Myth #4: Writing is the Loneliest Profession

True, when you’re actually writing, it’s pretty much just you and your imagination. The most productive writing spurts typically occur when you’re “in the zone,” when you’re experiencing “flow.” Time passes unnoticed because you’re in another world, creating each moment keystroke by keystroke. But the actual writing is only part of what writers do. Does it have to be the loneliest profession?

Speaking for myself, I’ve never been much of a joiner, mixer, or party animal. Most writers are introverts. I can force myself to speak and spent a decade as a trial attorney, but it does not come easily or naturally. I never speak off-the-cuff. I prepare in advance. So I suspect that, but for publishing books, I might never meet people at all. Writing has given me the opportunity to travel from coast to coast and all around the world.  Teaching seminars and speaking at conferences has given me a marvelous chance to meet people who share the same interests and concerns. Many of my best friends have emerged from these opportunities–and none of those would have happened but for the time I spent alone “in the zone.”

Do you have to write in solitude? Probably at first. Many years of working at home with three children in the house gave me the ability to block out almost anything. The rule supposedly was, “Don’t disturb Daddy unless you’re bleeding or on fire,” but in actual practice, the standard was significantly lower. I learned to focus. I’ve written in shopping malls, hospitals, sports arenas, parked cars. When you’ve got work to do, you take whatever time you have to get it done.

The internet has given us more opportunities to connect–assuming you consider social media to be connecting. Homebodies can Skype and post and share–almost too easily. I hope I don’t have to tell you to shut off those notifications that appear on your computer desktop or to stop checking your phone or email every ten seconds–otherwise you’ll never get much accomplished. Instead of battling solitude, too often today we’re battling constant interruption in a world where messaging is far too easy.

I’ve been in this business almost thirty years now, but I distinctly remember when I first started trying to market my first book. I eventually became aware that there were writing groups in the area. Tulsa Nightwriters was a group of friendly folk who met once a month. The speakers were often terrific, but what I liked most was the chance to hang with other writers.  Nightwriters hosted an annual conference back then, and I never missed it.

Almost everything I do now, outside of writing itself, is based upon my memory of those early years, desperately wanting the information I needed to break into the world of publishing. I knew of no one-on-one retreats where experienced pros worked over manuscripts and gave people one-on-one advice on how to improve their writing. How much time I might’ve saved! Now I spend a great deal of the summer providing those opportunities to aspiring writers, hoping I can shorten the time they wait for success. I host the annual conference at Rose State for the same reason. If someone is serious about being a writer, a small fee and a weekend is all they need to give up to obtain access to top-flight professionals. Knowledge and opportunity, all in one building over one weekend. Many people have jumpstarted their careers with a connection made at these conferences.

I don’t think writing is the loneliest profession. I think I would’ve been far lonelier if I had done anything else–in no small part because I would’ve always rather been a writer. Writers can make all the social connections I’ve just mentioned, but most importantly, they can reach out to readers–hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of readers. Reading is a communion between author and reader, two people who probably have never met, but still have a profound shared experience. I don’t know of any other profession that gives people anything like that. I think we are truly fortunate.

Click here for more information about the Rose State Writers Conference.

 

The ABCs of Editing

Everyone needs an editor, even experienced, multi-published writers. At some point in the process you become too close to your work. Glaring flaws, immediately obvious to others, may elude your notice. Experience won’t cure this. And don’t imagine that because you read a lot and got good grades in English, you’ll never make a mistake. You will. We all do.

The sad truth is that no book ever published was ever perfect (at least not in the first edition). No matter how many eyes proofread the manuscript, something will slip through. Your job as a writer is to keep that to an absolute minimum, because every little boo-boo erodes confidence and draws the reader out of the story. If they occur too frequently, your reader will likely stop reading.

That said, a good editor is hard to find. I’ve had far too many people come to my retreats after spending thousands of dollars getting some of the worst editing and poorest advice I’ve ever heard. Don’t let that be you. Don’t hire anyone based on an ad or a conference appearance. Here’s what you should be looking for:

  • Actual Publishing Experience—If the editor has never published anything or worked in a publishing house, why would you imagine they know what publishers want? You’re not looking for a grammar nerd. You’re looking for someone to help your book succeed. That requires a knowledge of what agents and editors want, what makes a book read professionally.
  • Past Successes—There are some people who can’t create anything original but are still good editors, so if they haven’t written anything themselves, they should at least be able to tell you what books they’ve worked on in the past. Have any of those books attained any level of success? If the editor speaks in vague generalities about past work, that’s a red flag.
  • References—Similarly, if the editor has worked on books or with authors with a successful track record, they should be able to produce references. If the editor can’t give you a name, don’t part with your money. If the editor has any real experience, there will be testimonials on their webpage.
  • Professional Organizations—Another measure of professionalism is affiliation. Is the editor a member of Publishers Marketplace or the Editorial Freelancers Association? Both of these groups charge dues, so that factor alone will weed out many amateurs. Also look for affiliations relevant to your work, genre-specific groups like Mystery Writers of America.
  • Terms—Make sure you are absolutely clear on what you will get and when you will get it before you part with your money. Your editor should be able to provide a sample edit. A contract may give you even more peace of mind.

If you’ve evaluated the editor based on these factors and still feel unsure—don’t do it. Trust your instincts. And yes, I’ll edit your book if I have time, and if I don’t, I’ll refer you to someone I know is good and won’t charge an exorbitant fee. Just email me (willbern@gmail.com).

FYI—Kindle Scout has become a terrific opportunity for forging alliances with Amazon, the shop that sells more than 50% of all books sold in the US. My wife Lara’s book, The Wantland Files, is currently on Scout. Would you please take a moment to nominate her book? It’s free. All you need is an Amazon account (and if you don’t have one, you can set it up in a few seconds). If Lara’s book is chosen, you’ll receive a free copy. The writing community is all about helping one another. Please follow this link and nominate.

Nominate The Wantland Files on Kindle Scout

Myth #3: Writing is Easy if You’re Any Good at It

Alternately, I could have titled this post something like, If you think writing is hard, you must not have any talent–because that’s how I often hear people phrase this idea at conferences and retreats. Either way, it’s completely untrue, though I can see how people might come to believe it.

It’s easy to become discouraged when the words aren’t flowing right, when you’re stuck in a fictional morass, when you know there’s something wrong but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is. It’s particularly easy to become discouraged early in your writing career, because until you’ve got some practice under your belt, the work is never as good as you want it to be. I’ve read wonderful books all my life, you think. Why can’t I write one?

Here’s the reality: Writing is hard. I’m not sure why, but it is. Like all acts of artistic endeavor, creating something out of nothing is challenging. There may be other things that are as hard, but I don’t think there’s anything harder. We rarely have any trouble expressing ourselves verbally. So why is it so hard to put words down on paper? Perhaps a neurologist could explain it. I can’t, but I know it’s true. My next novel (Challengers of the Dust, out September 9) will be my 43rd book. So at this point, you might imagine I have this writing thing down, right? Wrong. It’s still a struggle. The first draft is always a fight to wrestle onto paper, and even then I’m typically so dissatisfied with it that I bury my face in my hands and think, When did I forget how to write?

Of course, the secret is to not stop there. Take a brief break, and then start on the next draft. Each time, if you’re putting in your maximum effort and working consistently, you should begin to see improvement. This is what writing is all about (and also the subject of my most recent Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing). Your first draft will never be publishable. Writing is a process–and no steps in that process can be skipped without diminishing the final product. Good writing is the result of relentless editing and revision and reconsideration.

I will say this–I do believe that with practice you may find writing getting, not easier, but a bit faster. That is, once you have your writing process down cold, you may find the time it takes to produce a first-rate book decreasing. It will never be fast, but it may become faster. What causes some experienced authors to be labeled “prolific” is not that they find writing easy but rather that they’ve made writing a daily habit and they’ve got their process down.

So if you’re out there thinking, writing is so hard for me, I must be a terrible writer–you’re wrong. Writing is hard for everyone. You may need more practice. The more you do, the quicker it will get. Just don’t give up. Don’t become discouraged. And whenever you have an opportunity to learn more about this challenging quest you’ve undertaken, go for it.

One more note about the forthcoming Rose State Writers Conference: This year, for the first time ever, a VIP Dinner will precede the Friday night program. This will give you a chance to dine with and have photos taken with the Guests of Honor. Since there’s food involved, there’s an additional charge, but I encourage you to take this opportunity to rub shoulders with the people you hope to emulate. You might even have some fun!

Excellent Editing link

Rose State Writers Conference link

Myth #2: Writers Are Born, Not Made

This is one I still hear a lot, more often than not from people who don’t write and never will, usually as a prelude to an opinion about who the “truly great writers” are, which will be a long list of highbrow names that the speaker may or may not have ever actually read. As I have said before, there’s a great deal more snobbery among those who want to be perceived as literary than there is among actual writers.

Do I sound like I’m ranting? Perhaps. But as a person who has devoted a great deal of time to writing instruction, and someone who has seen literally dozens of my students later publish, I find this myth not only offensive, not only stupid, but actually destructive. Because it can only lead the person struggling to write wondering if they weren’t “born” to this endeavor, since the words don’t come easily and their early work isn’t nearly as good as they would like it to be.

I personally don’t believe there is a “writing gene,” a special brain synapse, something encoded in the DNA, or even a specialized form of intelligence. I think writing is both an art and a skill, and you learn both by: 1) reading the best material you can lay your hands upon, 2) practicing, practicing, practicing, and 3) getting useful instruction and advice.

Reading is how you feed the muse. Every time you read something of value, your brain absorbs the rhythms, the flow, the style. You’re teaching yourself how to write. No one is born understanding grammar or punctuation, much less mechanics and style. You get that by reading. You cannot write if you don’t read. It’s simply not possible.

Practice is essential. Writing is no different from anything else–the more you do, the better you’ll get at it. Kurt Vonnegut suggested that we all have about a million words of garbage we have to get out of our systems–then we start writing well. I think there’s some truth to this. Even if you don’t ultimately publish what you’ve written, you haven’t wasted your time. I spent about twenty years sending in stuff that was uniformly rejected, for a good reason–it wasn’t very good. Was I wasting my time? No. I was teaching myself how to write.

Good advice and instruction is essential. Yes, there are a few genius writers who did it all themselves, but there are far more who benefitted from a mentor, teacher, or writing program. Maxwell Perkins mentored most of the great writers of his era. Unfortunately, you’re not likely to find that level of mentoring at a large publishing house today–they’re too busy taking meetings. Find a program or person that has a track record of success and learn what you can. I’ve had far too many students come to my writing retreats after spending thousands of dollars on “book doctors” or “writing coaches” who gave them some of the worst advice I’ve heard in my life. Check the resume. If the person hasn’t published anything themselves, why would you imagine they can help you publish anything?

I do think some people develop a love for books and stories at an early age, and that may be the greatest impetus to wanting to write yourself. But don’t despair if it doesn’t come easily. It never comes easily. Writing is hard and always will be. But it is so worthwhile when you do write something wonderful, when you hear that your work has made a difference in someone’s life. And you can make that happen. Just keep writing. And never quit.

By the way, Rose State has extended the early registration discount for our writers conference to August 26. Save yourself some money and give yourself the push toward publication you need. Join us for the Rose State Writers Conference, September 23-25, 2016.

Rose State Writers Conference Info and Registration 

The Ten Most Common Myths About Writing

I think I’ve written enough about the publishing world and not enough about writing in this blog lately, so I’m going to take a break and address the ten major myths, the cliches I hear spouted most frequently at conferences and workshops despite the fact that they are completely and demonstrably wrong. At least in my opinion. I’ll do the first five, take a break, then get back to the others later.

Today’s myth: Writers wait for inspiration to write.

It will probably come as no surprise to you that I think this is nonsense. If we all waited for inspiration to write, there would be a lot less writing, and probably nothing longer than a short story. In my experience, creativity flows when you’re writing. Often the best ideas come unexpectedly when you’re writing a scene and immersed in the characters and the situation. If you write every day, the ideas will come more frequently and purposefully. The smart writer will chase creativity by committing to a regular working schedule, rather than sitting around idly waiting for lightning bolts from heaven.

In Excellent Editing, I discussed the growing “pantser” phenomenon, that is, those who prefer to write from the seat of their pants rather than planning their books in advance. This approach may seem like more fun, but is far less likely to result in a polished (or even finished) book. At conferences I’ve asked self-professed pantsers if they’ve produced work they were able to publish, and the answer has never been yes. I think sometimes people are misled by author interviews. Authors in the spotlight never admit to planning or outlining. They’re afraid that will make it seem too mechanical, less creative, and subject them to abuse from snob critics. But don’t confuse what people say in interviews with reality. Most professional writers outline, because they’ve learned it results in a better book with less time wasted.

I like the answer attributed to Somerset Maugham when asked if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspiration struck. Answer: “I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”

I have often wished I had a magic formula I could give my writing students that would make writing easier, but I don’t. Writing is hard work. You write and rewrite and rewrite and hope that in the end you get something worthy of your time and talent. But there are no easy paths or quick fixes. I can give you tools, ideas, and suggestions, but you still have to put in the effort. If you think your first book will be easy (or easier than your current job), you’re probably wrong. The next one might be a little easier because you’re more experienced, but it still won’t be easy. It never will.

That’s why it’s so important to work through all the steps in the writing process (detailed in Excellent Editing). And most importantly, don’t shy away from the outline just because you’re anxious to start the book or it doesn’t sound fun. If you write a solid 60-scene outline, your chances of finishing a first-rate book increase exponentially. It’s worth the time, and it won’t stifle your creativity. To the contrary, it will give you a useful framework within which your creativity can be most productive.

Next Week, Myth Two. Wanna guess what it will be?

Have you considered attending the Rose State Writer’s Conference in OKC, September 23-25? I organize the conference, which this year features over thirty presenters, including top writers and literary agents. It’s the lowest price and best value you’ll find anywhere. Take a look at the website and see if it might help you take your work to the next level.

Excellent Editing: http://ow.ly/tLZX3032C3G

Rose State Writer’s Conference: http://ow.ly/BK4n3032Ca0

Create Your Own Audiobooks

Last week, I blogged about the dramatic rise in audiobook sales. This week, I’m going to tell you how to make one yourself.

The simplest, least expensive, most cost-effective approach (though not the only approach) is to use ACX, which is a subsidiary of Amazon. ACX is basically a platform for pairing authors with narrators (what ACX calls “producers”), uploading the work, and listing it for sale on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.

You’ll sign up as an author, then search for your book. (If it’s on sale at Amazon, it will be there). Claim it as your own. Then you can choose to read it yourself (complicated) or find a professional audiobook narrator to read it (less complicated, but you will share your profits). You post a script of about ten minutes of your book, and invite interested narrators to record the sample and send it to you. If you like what you hear, you can hire them. If not, you don’t.

Or you can be more proactive about it. The narrators all have pages with samples of their work. Listen around, and if you hear someone who sounds perfect for your book, send an email inviting them to audition. If they’re interested, you may save yourself a lot of time and get someone you really like.

Once you have your narrator, you have two choices. You can pay them an agreed-upon sum up front, or you can split the royalties 50-50. Most people choose the later. Partner up with your narrator. Make it a joint enterprise.

Some of you may be tempted to record your books yourself (as I have done with the Red Sneaker books). I will warn you–this will not work unless you have a studio and professional recording equipment. You might be able to reserve time in a recording studio, but this is expensive. When you consider recording, editing, and post-production work, you will likely have an hourly bill three to four times the actual length of the book.

You can set up your own studio at home, but again, you need professional equipment which is not cheap. I had it easy–my wife is professional audiobook narrator and already had a studio I could borrow–but if you’re setting one up from scratch, you will have to invest both money to buy the equipment and time to learn how to use it. Even then, unless you are a professional sound engineer or experienced narrator, you will have to send your work out for post-production work.

ACX does have specific and high recording standards. They will not accept anything that is not of first-rate quality. So if you’re thinking you can do this on the microphone built into your computer, forget it. Not gonna happen. Believe me, unless you have a pro in the house, the simpler approach is to seek out a narrator. Let the pros do it and split the profits.

And then the work you did on that book starts earning money in an entirely different realm, one that is growing by leaps and bounds. You’ve done the hardest work. Make the most of it.

ACX: http://www.acx.com

What’s the Fastest Growing Format in Publishing?

Audiobooks.

If you’ve been to one of my writing retreats in the last three years, you’ve heard me say that audiobooks are huge and getting huger. It’s still true. In fact, despite the huge growth of recent years, audiobook sales jumped another 21% last year, while most publishing sectors declined. Audio revenues increased by 36%. As a result, publishing houses are increasing audio budgets and hiring big-name talent. Reese Witherspoon recorded the audio for Go Set a Watchman. Stephen King released “Drunken Fireworks” in audio format four months before it was released in print.

But the fact that the Big Five are producing audiobooks doesn’t mean you can’t too.

Once upon a time, audiobooks were impossible for self- or small publishers. No longer. Now anyone can do it. I won’t say it’s easy. But I will say it’s possible. And if you don’t do it, you’re not giving your book its maximum possible exposure. To put it in Hollywood terms: You’re leaving money on the table.

The reason for this surge in sales is digital downloads. Audio is no longer dependent upon bulky and fragile physical media like CDs and cassette tapes. Listeners can download audio directly to their phones or iPods in seconds. They can listen while they drive, exercise, run, watch a kid’s softball game, even while they swim (waterproof iPod). Listeners often switch between media–listen with the phone in the car, listen from a tablet while they eat, then switch to actual reading (eBook) when they’re at home. WhisperSync allows them to pick up reading right where they stopped listening to the audiobook.

The largest producer of audiobooks is Audible (now owned by Amazon). Their membership increased by 40% last year. And the stats indicate that Audible members also buy 40% more books in all formats after they become members. They read with their eyes, too, when they can.

In other words, if you still have the audio rights to a book and you haven’t produced an audiobook yet, you’re making a mistake. My wife Lara records audiobooks, and what she has seen time and again is that the existence of an audiobook increases the visibility and spurs sales of both the audio, print, and eBook editions. She has also seen books that have middling print or eBook sales but surge in audio. Sometimes, publishing is just not predictable. You want your book to be available to as many people in as many places as possible.

Have I convinced you that you need to produce an audiobook yet? Good. In the next blog, I’ll tell you how to do it.

When Do You Get Your Rights Back? Never?

For a law student studying contracts law, this principle is axiomatic: You don’t give away your rights unless you get something of value in return. Sadly, though, writers historically have done that all too often. Because they hunger to be published, preferably by a large corporate publisher, they sign contracts with poor terms and pitifully low royalty rates. In the past, however, they at least knew that if the book went out of print, those publishing rights would revert to them.

Not any more.

When does an eBook go out of print? Never. When does a print book go out of print? If the publisher sets it up for print-on-demand, never. So today, writers face the possibility of granting licenses that will never revert.

The Authors Guild and other organizations have proposed various contract provisions to alleviate this situation, but the sad truth is the Authors Guild has little to no clout. The Big Five publishers are cogs within large corporations and large corporations do not give up anything of value if they can avoid it. Why would they?

Some have advocated contract clauses providing that if a book doesn’t sell a certain number of books, say, 200 copies a year, the rights revert. But a publisher can easily circumvent that. Make the book available online for 99 cents (or less) and it will cross that threshold. Some have advocated clauses providing that if an author doesn’t earn a minimal amount, say, $200 a year, the rights revert. But the publisher can easily circumvent that. Even if the publisher has to pay a small fee to an author, it might be willing to do so to hold onto the rights. Bottom line, I don’t think clauses based on sales or money are the solution.

Here’s what I recommend: whenever possible, limit the term of your licenses to a number of years. License the rights for five years, or ten years, long enough to make it worthwhile for the publisher. But when the term is over, the rights revert, or the publisher may request an extension based upon the same or better terms. Something like this:

The Author grants and assigns the Publisher the following rights (insert rights)The period of this license shall be for five years, at which point, the contract may be renewed on the same or better terms, provided both parties agree.

You may be thinking, no publisher would agree to that. But I’ve gotten it and I know other writers who have as well. If you’re a first-time writer dealing with a Big Five publisher, it may not happen. But you can still ask, or tell your agent to do so. And if you can’t get it, you might think twice about signing that contract. Are you getting enough value to justify giving those rights away forever?

And just so you know, Amazon Publishing traditionally offers contracts with term clauses.

Is Social Media the Key to Publishing Success?

If you would much rather spend time writing your book than posting on social media–you’re not alone. But there’s no denying that social media has become an indispensible tool for spurring book sales.

In the early days (my first novel was published by Random House in 1991), publicity was primarily print ads (ineffectual), book tours (largely ineffectual), and book signings (boring and largely ineffectual). At least social media can work–and doesn’t cost anything, except of course the precious hours of your life.

Here’s a startling statistic: According to Statista, 78% of all Americans have a social media profile. You would think that just eliminating the elderly and children under ten would make 78% impossible–but it doesn’t. And 2.72 billion people worldwide will be social media users by 2019. Internet users have an average of five social media accounts.

But that doesn’t mean they use all five equally. As I’ve written before, Facebook seems to me to be the most effective for promoting books, book events, and authors. But you have to find the platform that works best for you, the one that allows you to engage readers most effectively. I like Facebook, but my pal Mel Odom swears by Google Groups, and Instagram has created the most popular poets writing today. So don’t try to do everything. Do what works best for you. That means you must:

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Know where they hang out, and
  3. Build your outpost there–and work it regularly.

One final thought you may not have considered. According to Technorati’s Digital Influence Report, blogs are the third-most-influential digital  information source for consumers making purchases, following only retail sites (like Amazon) and name-brand sites (like a publisher’s webpage). Are you blogging? Are you guest-blogging? A simple Google search would turn up fifty potential blogs that might be a good fit for your book, and most of the blog hosts would welcome a guest columnist with something interesting to say. Send them a short query and you may find yourself selling books in an unexpected way.