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 #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

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.

Should You Pay for Reviews?

I’m guessing your first-glance response was, Of course not. I don’t even need to read this. I would never do such a thing.

But then again…everything else pertaining to publishing has changed in the past few years. And we all know some shoppers will only consider a book if it has 4+ stars. And it’s hard to get people to review your books…

You’ve probably read about Amazon’s discovery that some entrepreneurs had multiple Amazon accounts and were using them to upload positive reviews bought and paid for. Amazon tried to crack down on that, as well as reviews from spouses, close friends, etc., whenever detectible. But a lot of perfectly legal review sales still take place–from respected and venerable sources.

Publishers Weekly has a program called PW Select. For $149, PW will run the cover, a synopsis, and will consider the book for a full review. Blue Ink Review specializes in self-published titles, reviewed for $395. Kirkus Reviews will offer “professional, unbiased book reviews for self-publishers” in 7-9 weeks for $425. And if you’ve spent much time on Amazon book pages, you know that Kirkus reviews are often pulled out and featured prominently above all the other reviews as if they were official editorial content.

None of these sources promises glowing reviews, but of course, they wouldn’t be in business long if they were selling lousy ones. Quoting successful self-published writer Tamara Linse, “I actually have done paid reviews for all three books with PW Select, Kirkus, and IndieReader. I’ve definitely gotten some good publicity from it. I got a starred review from Publishers Weekly…” Linse essentially writes literary short fiction, and the success of the book that got the starred review led to her getting an offer of representation from a major literary agency. Another author credited his paid-for Kirkus review with getting him a film option.

As always, when self-publishing you must make your decisions for yourself. But with about half a million self-published titles coming out each year, you must seriously consider any option that will draw attention to yours. Blue Ink has now published over 5000 reviews of self-published titles since they started in 2009. They must be doing something people find valuable.

 

To Outline or Not to Outline

I just learned that the first book in my Red Sneaker Writers series, Story Structure, is highly recommended in another writing book (Structuring Your Novel, by KM Weiland). Praise from your peers is always pleasing…and causes me to think about structure. One of the biggest debates on the writing-conference circuit these days is whether to be a planner or a “pantser,” that is, someone who outlines or someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

Those who have read my books, especially Structure and the new one, Excellent Editing, know that I advocate planning, specifically pre-writing and outlining, if your goal is to produce something of publishable quality. (If you’re just writing for fun or therapy, I suppose you can do whatever you want). I think the reality is, many people are not outlining, not because they believe this will produce better work but because outlining is a lot of work and they’d rather start writing on this brilliant idea they’ve had. The problem is that the idea peters out in a hundred pages or so, and then they have no idea what to write next.

Outlining does take time, but it isn’t really that hard. Here’s a streamlined version of how to do it (the more detailed version is in Story Structure):

Purchase 60 index cards.  Break them up into (3) acts, approximately: Act 1 – 15 cards, Act 2 – 30 cards, Act 3 – 15 cards. Each card should contain one scene.  Each scene should contain 5-6 beats.

Notes about Act 1:  The inciting incident takes place early in Act 1.  The protagonist must be introduced.  The antagonist should probably be introduced.  All viewpoint characters typically will be introduced.  Perhaps a subplot or two will be introduced.  Supporting characters may be introduced.  The Act will end with the first major Turning Point, which sets the protagonist decisively on his or her journey.

Notes about Act 2:  A character turning point (a glimmer of an indication that the character might change) should appear mid-Act 2.  Plot twists are recommended to keep the story from losing energy and sagging in the middle.  The main plot and subplots should be advanced.  Viewpoint characters should be carried forward, as well as any other important supporting characters.  The protagonist should be faced with progressively more difficult obstacles or challenges.  Act 2 ends with the second major Turning Point, the ‘dark moment” or “crisis,” when the conflict has escalated to its highest point–often by becoming more personal to the protagonist.

Notes about Act 3:  The protagonist undertakes difficult steps to overcome the obstacles or challenges.  The climax is a large sequence, the largest and most dramatic in the book, and appears toward the end of Act 3.  Denouement follows to wrap up any loose ends or character business and give the book emotional resonance.

Finally: Once you have all the scenes mapped out and in the correct order, type up your outline from the cards, or pin them to a bulletin board.  Save it in a safe place. You will undoubtedly add to or subtract from it as you actually write the book.

Pretty simple, right? Give it a try next time you start a writing project. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Story Structure: http://www.amazon.com/Story-Structure-Successful-Fiction-Sneaker/dp/1484024893/

Excellent Editing: http://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker/dp/0692703225/


Excellent Editing: The Writing Process

You will probably not be shocked to hear that today’s blog is an excerpt from my new Red Sneaker book, just released, titled Excellent Editing: The Writing Process. The book discusses how to edit, revise, and proofread your books to perfection (or as close to perfection as we humans can ever aspire). But the book also emphasizes that editing is a part of the entire writing process, so it covers the steps for taking a book from the initial idea to the final product. Too often people have terrific ideas but can’t convert them into a polished book, or they start books but run out of steam and never finish. This book is designed to prevent that from happening, to help you create a book that is successful and published, a book you’re proud to see bearing your name.

I do not, however, recommend that people try to edit themselves while trying to get a first draft down on paper. Here’s an excerpt from the book on that subject:

It’s important that you don’t try to revise while writing the first draft. The time for revision will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. Don’t lose your momentum. I’ve heard one writer compare premature revision to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep the pages flowing! George Miller wrote, “Polishing at an early stage is usually a complete waste of time.”

 

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are or how much research you’ve done, you never really know what you have till you’ve completed and read your first draft. After that, you can read the whole thing and understand what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what are the strengths and weaknesses. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled across your theme as you wrote and realized that it required a scene to be added or subtracted, a character to be added or given a gender change, a motivation to be altered. Only after you’ve finished the first draft can you see the big picture.

To put it more succinctly, I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say that writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if you’ve composed a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely, it calls attention to itself. And if it calls attention to itself, you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in the story, not thinking about how ingenious the writer is. Similarly, if you get to the end of the first draft and realize the tone or direction or focus of the book has altered, you’ll have to do some cutting and revision, perhaps more than you anticipated. That’s fine—do the work that needs to be done. But I don’t want you to waste a lot of time during the first draft beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor. Save the revising for later.

Here’s a link to my new book, Excellent Editing: https://www.amazon.com/Excellent-Editing-Writing-Process-Sneaker-ebook/dp/B01FHYK3N2

Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing? The Definitive Answer

The next book in the Red Sneaker Writers Series, Excellent Editing, goes on sale Friday (May 13). Toward the end of the book, I discuss the possible avenues for publishing your perfectly edited work. I review the pros and cons of each route and how ultimately your decision must be based upon your goals, your personality, and the book itself. I’m not going to repeat here what I wrote in the book, but I will augment it in light of two interesting perspectives that arose this week.

For the first time ever, the most popular American financial publication, Forbes, has weighed in on this question. Unsurprisingly, the analysis centers around money. What did surprise me was how the article made the decision contingent upon whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction.

Forbes author Nick Morgan argued that the bottom line is: “Fiction writers should probably self-publish, since they’re going to have to market the book themselves,” because the odds of a traditional publisher putting any significant marketing muscle behind your book is minuscule. If you self-publish, your royalty rate will be 70-80%, whereas in traditional publishing it will be 4-15%, perhaps rising to 20% for eBooks. Do the math.

Nonfiction authors approaching traditional publishers will be asked if they have a “platform,” which is just a fancy way of asking if you have a way of selling a lot of books, like a cult following or students required to buy your textbook. If you have that, you might think you don’t need a publisher. But Forbes argues that you do need a traditional publisher if you want to use the book as “a calling card to do something else.” If you’re trying to establish your expertise in a field, or want speaking gigs on the professional circuit, the imprimatur of a publishing house increases your prestige and credibility. Speaking bureaus typically aren’t interested in self-published authors.

Of course, you’ll still make more money per unit self-publishing.

Also this week, Hugh Howey, perhaps America’s best-known self-published author, titled his blog “Self-Publishing Has Never Been Easier.” Of late, some have argued that self-publishing was only profitable if you got in early, during the “gold-rush” phase. He argues just the opposite. It’s easier now and more potentially profitable than ever.

Helpful? Okay, perhaps I exaggerated when I called this the “definitive solution.” But it’s always good to have the best data when you’re making a difficult decision.

Did I mention that Excellent Editing comes out on Friday?

Hugh Howey’s Blog: http://www.hughhowey.com/it-has-never-been-easier/

Forbes Magazine article: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2016/05/05/which-is-better-self-publishing-or-traditional-publishing/#502f172f29dc

 

Reading Your Work Aloud

Here’s another excerpt from the next book in the Red Sneaker series (soon to be released), Excellent Editing, in which I address the controversial topic of whether you should proofread your work by reading it aloud:

Remember that the point of proofreading is to catch errors and to improve your use of language. It is not meant to be fun. It is not meant to be entertaining. It is not meant to give you another opportunity to glory in the magic of your prose, which I suspect is sometimes the true reason people read their work to themselves. You’re not supposed to be rehearsing for your first book reading. You’re supposed to be perfecting your work.

In his book on writing, David Morrill, a writer I respect enormously, argues strongly against reading your work aloud when proofing or editing. His argument is that when you read work aloud, you can “improve” it subtly or subconsciously by using vocal inflection, speeding or slowing your pace, perhaps even adding facial expressions you see with your mind’s eye. These are all ways of sweetening the text that do not exist on the printed page.

I agree with David. Your readers will not have the benefit of your vocal mastery. They must read it silently to themselves based upon what is actually on the page. Therefore, the only reliable way to edit is to attempt to reproduce the experience of your future readers—by reading it silently to yourself. Try to forget all your authorial insight into who these characters are and where the plot is headed. Read it remembering only what has actually appeared on the page so far—and see if it works.

Now if we were talking about poetry, that might be a little different…