Sunday, February 25, 2018

Hey Novelists, If Ken Follett Does It, We Better Do It, Too

Hey Writers,

Here's a New Years goal worth putting on your bathroom mirror. "I will put life-or-death trouble in my first sentence."

Don't just tape it up on a piece of paper. Write it in RED LIPSTICK.

I know, I know. How cheap. How trashy. How melodramatic. How difficult.

How necessary. Oh, my, how necessary. Your role model today is no less than Ken Follett.

I've talked about this for a long time - and written about in this blog - and talked about in my workshops and other events - that the world is awash - AWASH - with new books, and your only hope to get noticed is to put major, serious, knock-me-over trouble right up front in your novel.

This tidal wave of new books is, of course, a good thing for readers. It is the direct result of self-publishing taking over the business. I don't need to trot out the statistics here. But there is lots of data that shows that self-published authors now control much of the market. And they represent a huge chunk of the bestsellers, including places on the New York Times list, which is diminishing in importance daily compared with the real action, which is, of course, at the 'Zon.  (Yes, the top New York-published authors still kill in the earnings category - although most of the top tier still don't make nearly as much as self-published authors like Bella Andre. And most New York-published authors don't even crack poverty-level income.)

In a world that is drowning in new books, a new, unknown author has only a minuscule chance of getting their book noticed. And the best way is probably to put life-or-death trouble in the first sentence.

Authors always resist. First, because they don't know how to do it. Second, because they suspect it is too melodramatic. Third, because their favorite authors don't usually do it. (But of course, their favorite authors already have an audience who will buy anything they write, and new authors don't have that luxury!)

I've said before that even the most famous authors regularly go back to this guaranteed approach to grabbing a reader.

In December I did a signing at Barn Owl Books in Quincy, California - a really nice book store, by the way - and I happened to pick up the latest Ken Follett blockbuster, A Column Of Fire. As so many browsers do, I opened it to the first page.

Talk about life-or-death trouble. Not just on the first page. Not just in the first paragraph.


So this is our challenge, writers. Get rid of the stage setting. Get rid of the exposition. Get rid of the preparation. Get rid of the stuff that leads up to the stuff that leads up to the part of the story where something serious happens. If Ken Follett doesn't need it, you don't, either!

Ken Follett can tell any kind of story and do it any way he wants. He knows that millions of readers will stick with him through any passage that isn't a rush of tension and excitement. All it takes is his name on the cover to sell books.

His new book is over 900 pages long. Yet he puts life-or-death trouble in the first three words.

'nuff said.

Here's the link to Follett's new book: A Column Of Fire

Click on the "Look Inside The Book" feature and read that first, killer sentence.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Success At Writing - Part Two

Last week's post began my thoughts about how writing/publishing has changed. It paused at the thought that one of the few ways for new writers to stand out from the crowd of writers is to write more books

I'll put some companion thoughts here.

I've gotten to know quite a few successful writers. Not one of them did it part time. Not one of them wrote just one book. Just as a doctor knows she can't gain traction in the doctor world without 12+ years of school and residency and brutally long hours, successful writers know they have to write many, many books, work the business double time, and do it for a dozen or twenty years before they develop sufficient chops and build an audience.

Periodically, the press keeps the unrealistic dream alive by writing about one of those exceptions, someone who struck gold with her first mystery. Except, oops, a little deeper research reveals that she previously wrote 24 romances under a different name

Want success as a writer? It's just like any other skilled occupation. You gotta go all in.

I've used the restaurant metaphor several times. Almost no successful restaurant can imagine drawing a crowd with only one entree on the menu. You need a broad range of choices. (Even if it's a series that should be read in order.)

Before I go further, I should insert a disclaimer or qualifier. I do not have the one true vision. I only have my experience and my observation. This is what I've learned. It may not apply to anyone else.

Is needing to go all in depressing news? I don't think so unless you are one of the dreamers who wrote a book and imagined you'd be the next Harper Lee.

I actually think it's freeing and almost exhilarating to a realist about writing. Because if you go all in as a writer and approach it the way a physicist wannabe approaches Caltech or the way an NBA wannabe approaches the neighborhood asphalt court, then you have a huge advantage over all the others.

While the people who are in love with the idea of being a writer plan how to spend the riches they probably won't ever see, you will be in love with the actual process of writing, building your technique and your audience. You won't just be considering a second possible book, you'll be plotting out your books through #10 or #20. You'll turn off your TV and spend that time writing. You'll know that your full time day occupation still leaves you with a nearly full-time avocation to be pursued in the morning and evening.

Here's a little thought experiment. No science or math informs this. It's just common sense based on my own experience.

Write 1 book, you have millions of comrades in the writing business.

Write 2 books, you cut your competition down to about 10% of all writers. Wow, that was easy. You just jumped ahead of 90% of all writers simply by writing a second book.

Write 3 books, you now are competing with only 5% of writers.

Get the picture? It's like one of those logarithmic curves. The more books you write, the smaller the number of writers in your crowd.

What if you were to write 10 books? There'd be almost no writers at your level.

What if you were a reader considering books by two writers, one with one book and one with ten books. Which would you think has a better book? Case in point. The writer with more books may not be any better. But as readers, we'd probably lean that way.

At my book exhibits over the last ten years I've noticed a clear trend. When I had 5 books out, readers would ask questions that were aimed at deciding whether or not my books were any good. Now, with 15 books out, there is a clear sense that they assume the books are at least pretty good. So the questions are more about which one to try first.

Back when I had 2 books out (I started by publishing the first two in the beginning) they probably thought I was just one more wannabe who was simply stubborn enough to put out two books before I gave up.

In speaking with the writers who came to my festival book exhibit, I've invoked a writer named Hugh Howey, who has done very well with his novels. I don't agree with everything Howey says, but I strongly agree with most.

Want an example?

Hugh Howey says that he planned to write twenty novels (two per year for ten years) before he decided if writing was the career for him. TWENTY! Talk about going all in. Howey also thinks writers should have a half-dozen novels completed before they even start doing anything with them. Hmmm. He's sold millions of books. Maybe he knows something...

Again, consider two writers. One has twenty books under her belt, the other one or two. Which would you bet on? Will the first one succeed? She probably already has. Can the second writer succeed? Of course. How? There might be several ways. But a logical answer would be for her to go all in, take Howey's advice and write two books a year for the next ten years.

A big commitment? Yeah. So is going to medical school. What else can you do with the time it takes to write twenty books? Watch TV. Play golf. Picnic at the beach. Go to parties or the local bar. You get the idea.

Looking back, I wish I'd had Hugh Howey's focus. I've now finished twenty books. Fifteen published, four in a drawer, one in the pipeline. If I'd done that in ten years instead of the much longer time I've used up, who knows how many more benefits would have accrued to me?

Yes, luck can make a difference. But like everything else in life, success usually comes to those who work hardest. Writers who go all in have a high success rate.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Success At Writing? You Gotta Go All In

No one ever thinks, 'I've never been a doctor, but I'm going to do a little bit of doctoring down at the local hospital and see how it works for me.'

No one ever thinks, 'I haven't had a career as an attorney, but I'd like to do some part time lawyer work, maybe defend a few clients in court, put together some corporate mergers and such."

And this doesn't only apply to the fancy professions. You can't build a significant audience being a DJ on the side. Nor can you be part time coal miner or part time diamond cutter. You can't just "try your hand" at flying airliners or attempt to get the lead in a Hollywood movie after your first audition. You can't start doing DNA research in your garage with a Walmart chemistry set.

Yet uncountable people write a book (and now they self-publish it - one million a year by many estimates!) and wonder how to make it sell. Or they have the wilder companion thought, Why isn't it selling?

As with years past, this past fall I exhibited my books at six festivals. Many times, writers talked to me about novels. Five people seemed very focused. One person was finishing her first novel. Three writers had written a novel and were in the early stages of figuring out what to do next. One writer had written two novels. They all were looking for  anything useful about publishing, marketing, selling. Aren't we all.

I should have probably tried to soft-sell the world of being a novelist. True, some things are better. Some are worse. Publishing and selling books has changed a lot in the last ten years. It's never been easy. It still ain't easy.

Here are the main points:

1) Self-publishing has made it so much simpler. It is now relatively easy to bring your book to print or ebook. You can make your book available to readers over the entire world. It is now possible to proceed with no agent and no publishing gauntlet to navigate. And if all the stars line up - not the luck type, although that helps, too, but the moves you make as a writer/publisher - you can make money at this writing/publishing business. A good line up of stars translates to good money. A great line up, you can get wealthy. Throw in some luck, and you can do better self-publishing than all but the very top tier of New York-published writers. (Self-publisher Bella Andre reportedly does better than the top tier of New York-published writers.)

2) Self-publishing has also made it so much harder. How? Because we now have a million new books being self-published every year. In the old days, if you survived the treacherous waters of New York publishing, your book only had to compete with maybe 50,000 new books each year. Much better odds for getting attention. Today, it's very hard for your book to get seen in an ocean of a million new books plus the ten million older books still looking for readers. There simply aren't enough readers to read all these new books.

Having outlined the difficulty, I still strongly think that self-publishing is your default choice for bringing your book to the world. Another way of saying it is that you should have a really good reason to choose another publisher, give up all control over your book and, worse, possibly make it so you can't do any other books on the side in order to satisfy the "no compete" clauses in your contract. Talk to any successful self-published writer who's making 25 or 50 or 100 or 250 thousand dollars a year, and they will all tell you that you're nuts to give up control, to give up the rights to your book, to turn your future over to strangers who have many other authors - maybe hundreds, maybe thousands - to focus on.

Remember what the Author's Guild survey revealed: The average New York-published author makes $17,000 a year. Poverty. Writers still fall for the myth. "But New York will sell my books." No, all they do is make your books available for sale. "But New York will promote me as an author." No, in fact many times they will not only not promote you, they will forbid you from promoting yourself because it costs them more money than the average author will earn them. (Check out co-op payment contracts that some publishers have with Barnes & Noble. Every signing you do at B & N costs the publisher money, even if you handle everything yourself. So your publisher doesn't want you to try to do signings at B & N. Yes, you read that right. Many publishers don't want you to try to hustle your books at B & N.)

The simple truth is that authors always have to sell their books. If you do it for another publisher, they sometimes think you are a pain in the ass. If you do it as a self-publisher, at least you'll get the money from your efforts. (Having said that, bookstore signings are, by and large, not very worthwhile. They flatter your ego, but not your pocketbook.)

In talking to these writers at festivals, I came to think about the way things have changed in the writing/publishing business. And I found myself revisiting some aspects about writing that I've thought for some time. As an example, I've come to realize that writing numerous books - while always important - is becoming even more important as a way to set yourself apart from those million new books and authors every year. (Try to imagine what else could set yourself apart from the million new books each year.)

So I'm going to do a post or three about these changes to the business. These things won't be something for most writers to celebrate and get excited about unless you are one of the few who want writing success very much. If you are one of those writers who won't be denied a career of making up stories for a living, then you can get excited.

Check in for next week's post...

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Can You Speak Killer Whale?

Love the news about the Orca (killer whale) that is mimicking human speech. It's not very easy for the uninitiated to understand. And it certainly doesn't sound accurate the way parrots can talk.

But a whale??? Wow.

Just to help, they've made sound graphs of people saying "Hello" and "Goodbye" and counting to three. Then they make a sound graph of the whale doing the same thing. The whale's speech is sometimes much higher pitch and screechier. (I'm a writer so I can make up words like screechier.) And sometimes it's low and gravely. But the sound graph, adjusted for pitch, is very similar.

Watch this youtube video.

If you doubt just how amazing this is, consider how well people say hello and goodbye in whale language.

Once again, animals are smarter than we think.