Myth #5: I Fear I Can’t Write Because…

Since I’m posting this on Halloween, I thought it appropriate to continue the series on writing myths by specifically addressing the single factor that has prematurely ended more promising writing careers than anything else: Fear.

What are you afraid of? There must be something. Comes with the DNA. We have different fears, but there’s always something at the core creating insecurity or concern. And that’s a problem for a writer. Because a writer by definition has to, first, create something that never existed before and, second, put it out there for others to read. That requires a bit of ego–the assumption that you’ve written something worthy of another’s attention. Fear will prevent you from mustering the necessary ego to push forward.

Let me address a fear I’ve seen repeatedly in my writing retreats: fear about writing skills. Note I used the word “skills,” not “ability.” You can learn to write better–that’s the whole point of the retreats. But some people are better spellers, or better with grammar. Personally, I’ve never been a particularly brilliant speller. I’ve learned to check when unsure. And not to rely on SpellCheck, which at best tells me whether the letters I’ve typed make a word, not whether they make the word I intend. SpellCheck is useful, but there is no StupidCheck. When in doubt, look it up. Which you can do on that phone in your pocket in about five seconds.

Similarly, I’ve had students worry about their grammar or punctuation. “Do all writers have to be grammar Nazis?” No, I say, pointing out that the Nazis actually lost the war, and you want to win the battle to be published. You will have to acquire those grammar skills, though. GrammarCheck is better than it used to be, but far from perfect, and it will probably never understand that fiction writers sometimes deliberately use fragments, or write dialogue in colloquial language or slang.

Fortunately, there are many free tools online for improving your grammar, and if you take advantage of them on a daily basis, you will soon see your skills improve. There are many grammar blogs (Grammar Girl is the most popular), grammar email service (Word-of-the-Day), and even grammar games and apps. At the end of this blog I’ll post a list of excellent grammar-related websites. If need be, hire a tutor, which you can also find online or perhaps at the local community college. But do not let this readily fixable problem deter you from achieving your dreams.

The last fear I often hear is someone worrying that they haven’t read enough to be a writer. Look, it is not necessary to have an advanced degree in English Literature to write a book. It is not even necessary that you be “well read.” What is essential is that you be extremely familiar with the kind of lit you want to write. You can’t write romances if you don’t know how they go. You can’t write SF if you don’t know what’s already been done.

But reading the Great Books, while beneficial, is not essential. I have a good friend who is an extremely successful thriller writer who often laments that he hasn’t read the classics. So he can’t recite poetry or drop Shakespearean quotations or other pompous stuff I’m more likely to do at dinner. But he knows the world of thrillers inside out (much better than I do). It’s all he reads, all he’s ever read. And that gave him the background he needed to build the writing career he wanted.

Mark Twain said “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” So this year, celebrate Halloween by banishing fear and committing to the writing career you want. If necessary, start reading in your area or playing online grammar games. But the most important step is to start writing, regularly, every day. Commit to the future you want.

Grammar Websites: https://prowritingaid.com/art/111/10-Websites-to-Help-Improve-Your-Grammar.aspx

What’s New in Author Earnings?

I will return to the series on writing myths next week (probably) but I wanted to comment on the latest report from Author Earnings while the news was fresh. As many of you know, the people at AE have been using computerized data-gathering and number-crunching programs to collate book sales data, particularly at Amazon. Since Amazon never releases official sales figures, this data is invaluable. Every single time AE has released findings since it began over two years ago, it has shown indie publishing sales on the rise.

Until now.

It’s true. In the October report, for the first time ever, AE data indicates that the indie market share has declined. Not drastically, but significantly. Basically back to where it was in early 2015. Traditional publishers have gained some ground in the eBook arena, and Amazon’s publishing program continues to grow.

First, please note that these figures pertain to market share–not how much money is earned by authors. Authors at traditional houses take a much smaller royalty percentage, so the two are far from the same. Authors at small and medium-sized publishing houses take home about the same amount of money as authors at traditional houses (in the aggregate). This amazing. Two years ago it would have been inconceivable.

But it has declined since the last report.

How can this be? Everybody’s got a theory. Early speculation was that the decline was attributable to traditional publishers finally lowering their eBook prices, but this turns out to not be possible–because they haven’t. A more likely explanation is that the Big Five, and many small and medium-sized publishers as well–have started adopting the marketing strategies and tactics pioneered by indie authors. That would include price pulsing, discount newsletters, Facebook ads, retailer-specific metadata, and similar tricks. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose. Especially when it works.

I think this explanation may be correct. Do you get the Bookbub daily newsletter? I do. It has a huge distribution list and it offers deeply discounted books, usually 99 cents or perhaps $1.99. I’ve bought way too many books because of this newsletter. (AE says Bookbub may be responsible for 5-6% of Amazon’s total eBook sales.) But I’ve also noticed how its content has changed. Originally, the books promoted by Bookbub were mostly indie books. These days, books from traditional publishers, who are presumably willing and able to pay more, take up an increasingly large share of the newsletter. By stealing indie thunder, they’ve managed to halt their sales decline. At least for now.

This doesn’t change anything. We are still fortunate to live in an age in which authors have options, not only publishing options but sales venue options. Your decision about how and where to publish should be based upon your book, your goals, and your personality. Digitalization and online sales have been the great equalizer and a great friend to many indie authors. Since the Old Guard has learned to imitate the first batch of tricks, indies will have to develop new ones.

I’m betting they do.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/october-2016/

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

Are Ebook Sales Declining? Do Indie Titles Dominate the Market?

The publishing industry has always suffered from poor data control. Accurate sales information has been hard to come by, in part because no one is gathering it systematically, and in part because publishers and Amazon typically do not release raw sales data. As a result, we currently have a split of authority. The legacy publishers are claiming that ebook sales are declining, while independent publishers claim they dominate the market. Who’s right?

I will not pretend to be an expert data analyst. Rarely have I heard anyone wax nostalgically about their college Statistics class. Personally, I’d rather have a colonoscopy, or root canal, or watch Toddlers and Tiaras. But a few facts are clear: First, the traditional publishers’ claims are based upon AAP (Association of American Publishers) stats, meaning the data contributors are traditional print publishers, which of course skewers the outcome. Second, Authors Earnings has tried to fill the gap, using sophisticated computer analysis to divine Amazon sales, probably imperfectly, as they have a clear bias toward independent publishers. Third, Amazon is getting rich while Barnes & Noble is going broke, and most of Amazon’s sales do not relate to print books.

Here’s another fact: Amazon paid $140 million dollars in Kindle Unlimited (subscription book borrowing) payouts directly to authors in 2015, and not a penny of that is included in the AAP stats. Does that affect the bottom line? Obviously. Add in that plus traditional ebook sales and you have the tail wagging the publishing dog.

Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, so I don’t care who’s “winning.” If you can get a traditional publishing deal and you want to travel that path, go for it. But I’m pleased there are alternatives for entrepreneurial sorts who don’t want to wait or don’t want to work for someone else. Last year, ebook sales at Amazon generated $1,756,000 PER DAY in author earnings, and more than half of that went to independent authors. Self-publishing is not the only option, but for the first time ever, it is a viable option.

For those interested in delving deeper into the battling methodologies and earnings reports, here are a few links:

Authors Earnings: http://authorearnings.com

Publishing Industry Rebuttal: http://ow.ly/Yj670