I recently reviewed Lawrence Block’s new iteration of his novel writing guide, and after finishing my WIP yesterday, was inspired enough by that book to share what passes for my approach for producing a page-turner novel.
After creating a rough outline that fleshes out my story with all the basic elements and characters (as detailed in my blog on outlining), and satisfying myself that the arcs work, I look at each chapter as a developmental editor might, and ask myself how I can make it the best in the book. While impossible to achieve, that’s a good starting point, and forces me to focus at the chapter level so there’s no filler or fluff.
When I’m evaluating a chapter, I try to ensure it contains either an action beat, a surprise, a revelation that’s key to the story, a reversal, or frames a question to which the reader is compelled to know the answer.
I often try to work in more than one of these elements. As an example, I might have the protag learn that her best friend was murdered, which posits the unspoken question, who’s the killer? I might have her make the discovery after she’s chased by a mysterious figure (action beat), demanding another few questions be answered: who’s after her, and why? And I might finally have her turn the tables on the pursuer, and have her shadow him to discover more, only to have him disappear into an unexpected location – a church, or a whorehouse, or the governor’s mansion – whatever. That would be an action beat, two burning overt questions and a subtle one (who’s the killer?), a reversal (hunted becomes hunter), ending on a surprise that frames yet more questions (why that location? What does it mean?), all in the same few pages.
For a real world example, let’s look at JET, which was written three years ago, so the technique wasn’t refined – I was basically flying by the seat of my pants, but in hindsight, I applied my process instinctively. In the prologue, we’re introduced to a bureaucrat in Belize who is walking across a plaza. He’s assassinated by a rooftop sniper, who then rushes to a waiting car. It’s obvious he’s a pro, and the only line of dialogue in the couple of pages, closes the chapter: “One down.” So what do we have there? An action beat (assassination) that raises several questions: who was the bureaucrat and what’s his significance to the story? Who is the shooter, and why did he kill the bureaucrat? Why Belize? And finally, who are the others who are targeted – as foreshadowed by that final line? That’s at least five questions in a few paragraphs, set up by a brutal execution that lets you know there’s going to be some unexpected twists ahead. The reader is compelled to keep reading if they want to learn more. Mission accomplished. The action gets their attention, but it’s the questions that drive them forward.
Now let’s take a more macro view of the story’s design. I have each act (I usually write three or four act structures) end with a major beat, where a big question is framed that’s answered in subsequent chapters. I tend to think of them as big, bigger, and biggee, on a three act structure, with the answer to the final one something the reader won’t see coming. I don’t always accomplish that lofty goal, but I shoot for it, and if possible, manage a couple of twists at the end. The more the merrier, as long as it doesn’t feel contrived. Readers are delighted by twists, but only if they’re honest, meaning if they go back and reread, it all hangs together logically and was arrived at fairly.
As I’ve written more I’ve become increasingly mindful of structure, and am convinced it’s well worth taking the time to require all chapters do as much heavy lifting as possible. If you think each through with this logic, you’ll find yourself cutting quite a few scenes that should really only be sentences , or modifying sections to increase their urgency.
Once I’ve concluded this process with the outline, I then review all the sections a final time and ask myself why anyone would have to continue after each, rather than going to bed at a sensible hour on a work night.
Note that I’m not offering suggestions on story arc, character development, description, or any of that. All are important, but this assumes you’ve already mastered sufficient craft to have those nailed. You could also use my approach when pantsing, asking yourself how to heighten the tension and raise the ante at every turn. For me, more time-consuming than outlining, but whatever works for you.
Also note that this is not a process to write a better novel, but rather how to structure a better novel so that when you write it, you do so with no meandering, the objective of each chapter clear in your mind, fleshed out with suitable hooks to keep the reader wanting to plow on with it rather than putting it aside.
I find the more I follow this process, the better my work. I’d rather know up front if I don’t have sufficient story and create a secondary or tertiary plot, than have to fluff up the page count with endless accounts of what the trees stirring in the morning breeze reminded the protag of, or spend paragraphs on the scent of jasmine on the summer wind, etc. That’s not to say you want to eliminate any lyricism to your prose, but rather you want it to be maximally engaging – a page turner. You can balance lyricism against that objective, and optimize the effectiveness of both.
I’m pretty sure this process can work for any commercial fiction, regardless of genre. Tension, suspense, urgency, reversals, all are staples in a writer’s toolkit.
Obviously, the better your craft, the less noticeable the bones of the technique are, but it’s one of the things I wish someone had explained to me when I started writing – it would have spared me a whole lot of fumbling around trying to grasp what really works. It sounds obvious, but if you write stories the reader can’t put down, your odds of making a living go up exponentially.
So there are the keys to the kingdom, free of charge. I can’t stress the difference this approach can make in crafting an un-putdownable read. Try it and see. It’s more work, but by demanding more out of every chapter, and putting each through these hoops with no exceptions, you’ll find you write a better book.
And that’s never a bad thing.
I got a lot of feedback on my appearance with Joanna Penn on her blog, The Creative Penn. Mostly, from authors who were either unclear on my take on speed vs. quality, or who were defending a slow approach, saying that it took longer to generate literary fiction than commercial (with the inference being that literary fiction was more elevated, superior in some way, and thus worth it).
Which may be true, but misses the point. If you want to make a nice living writing, you probably shouldn’t be looking at the handful of authors who put out a Goldfinch every five years and get seven figure advances, because the chances of that being you are about the chances of the Olsen twins showing up at my door for a tequila-soaked pillow party.
But it does raise a question: why does literary fiction take so damned long to write, compared to genre, or commercial, fiction (in general)?
Alas, there’s no real answer. Many classic pieces of literary fiction were written fairly quickly, so it’s not that it’s impossible to do. It’s just that most take forever, and every word is agonized over, every comma second and third guessed. One particularly vociferous defender of that approach said, and I paraphrase, that literary fiction delves into the subtleties of why things happen, whereas commercial fiction sticks to the hows, so it’s more complex to write literary, thus requiring more time.
Which is right, unless, of course, it isn’t. I can think of plentiful examples where it’s just not so. I’m sure you can too. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner comes to mind, knocked out in six weeks. Or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, in a month. Or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler. And on and on.
I think those who take a long time writing literary fiction probably spend weeks per chapter on rewrite, trying to polish every word like a diamond. Which is fine. If you have a nice day job, or a trust fund, I say good on you. Maybe it will get picked up by an agent after numerous submissions, and then maybe a publisher will recognize all the effort that went into it and reward you handsomely. And then an eager reading public will line up for the hard cover, and soon you’ll be telling Neil Gaimen to suck it and dismissing Faulkner as a hack.
Alternatively, you could spend years trying to transmute lead into gold. The odds aren’t that different.
Somewhere, there’s a balance between quality prose where something happens, and self-indulgent prose that takes forever to generate, often where nothing much happens at all. I think that’s one of the distinctions I make: literary fiction is certainly self-indulgent, and when it works, the reader shares the author’s indulgence and appreciation of the nuance in the prose and emotional buffet, assuming there is one. Good commercial fiction can’t be self-indulgent, because it’s consumed as entertainment, and you get too navel-gazing, you lose your reader.
Another way of saying it is that literary fiction requires the reader to work, to develop an appreciation for nuance and subtlety, to gasp at the breathtaking cleverness of the author and nod along with his/her command of the language, whereas commercial fiction strives to keep the reader turning pages.
I have no problem with either type of fiction as a reader. I enjoy literary when I want to engage my brain. I enjoy commercial when I want to pass time in a pleasant, if perhaps, vacant, manner.
They both have their place. But not really in earning a decent living on Amazon from writing. Because, like it or not, Amazon readers are largely commercial fiction readers, not scholarly types looking for the next Blood Meridian.
My counsel is not to write fast to generate dross, but rather to apply yourself many hours per day to generate the most polished possible example of what you’re trying to create. Fast does not necessarily equate to bad, just as slow doesn’t equate to good. As with all things, it depends.
I will note that the defenders of literary fiction are almost entirely folks who don’t earn their livings writing. Perhaps that says something about its commercial appeal. Or perhaps that’s just the folks who email me. Or both. I see no reason to defend either type of literature – they’re both valid, depending on the desired outcome. Perhaps if one feels the need to defend their approach, they’re more emotionally invested in their approach than they are satisfied with its outcome? I don’t defend outlining, as an example. I recommend it as a way to save time where you’re staring out the window trying to determine what comes next as the story progresses. Some love that part of the writing experience, and that’s fine – but it’s also self-indulgent, in that it’s because the author loves the sensation, rather than because it makes for a more efficient novel writing experience. I’ve seen no evidence that my plotted novels are any worse or better than my pantsed novels – but I know the pantsed novels took three times as long to draft.
So when I recommend something, I’m doing so from experience, coming from the perspective of someone who is interested in efficiency of content creation, not how content creators feel about content creation. I could certainly argue I feel better writing 500 words a day than writing 5000, but nobody really cares when it comes time to cash the checks at the end of the month.
I approach content creation pragmatically. I want to generate the highest quality work I can within the commercial range, and do so with as little inefficiency as possible. So my advice is directed at those who wish to do the same. Not at those who wish to write To Kill a Mockingbird. For those whose hearts lie down the literary path, perhaps taking years on a draft is a worthwhile expenditure of their time. I have no truck with that. But it’s not a recipe for midlist authors to earn a good living. As long as one’s comfortable with that, no worries. But many aren’t, hence the frustration and the desire to defend.
You won’t find me writing any literary fiction authors defending my fast, commercial approach to genre fiction writing. It would be silly. I say write what you like, be realistic about the outcome you’re likely to achieve with your approach, and do it for the love of the work, because that’s likely all you’re going to get out of it besides carpal tunnel syndrome and a fat ass.
Or so I’ve heard.
Another way of looking at it from a pragmatic sense is to calculate what your time is worth, and ask yourself whether that extra 100 hours on fourth draft is likely to produce anything appreciably different than what you have on third. Perhaps it will, and perhaps, if your time is worth $50 an hour, you’ll see $5K extra in revenue for your effort. But at some point, there are diminishing returns, and only you know what those are.
Be nice to each other in the new year, and remember that it’s all good. There’s no one right way to write anything. Or if there is, nobody can agree on it, which is the same thing.
It’s Xmas, and today, JET volume X – Incarceration, releases, which is a sort of miracle in itself, in that I’d decided to end the series with installment nine. But readers guilt tripped me into continuing it, so you have nobody but yourselves to blame.
Having said that, it’s a barn burner of a book that follows Jet on another adventure, running from ruthless adversaries while seeking to turn the tables and bring the pain. Fans of the series should find everything they love about it in this volume, which is one of my faves, now that I’ve had a chance to reread it with fresh eyes.
To all my readers, thanks for supporting me yet another year. I have some pretty cool surprises in store for 2016, none of which I can talk about just yet, but all of which are as unexpected as a Kardashian doing charity work. Be nice to each other over the holidays, and remember that the liver is the most forgiving organ in the body, mostly.
Happy Holidays, one and all. Be nice to each other.
Actually, two days ago makes 54 months. But still.
*** NEWS *** I just did a podcast with Joanna Penn for The Creative Penn, wherein I was philosophical and pragmatic about this crazy writing business. Authors might find it of interest. Interview starts at about the 18 minute mark. ***
I published my first tome four and a half years ago. Little did I know that writing would become my full time gig. For which I’m enormously grateful to my readership, which seems willing to humor me and consume my books at the rate I produce them.
If it gets much better than that, I don’t know how.
I mean, sure, I can imagine better. Twins. A big boat paid for by a recently deceased uncle. More money than the Vatican. Eternal life. My enemies and detractors crushed beneath my boots as I mock their misfortune. I can dream pretty big.
But this ain’t half bad.
A lot’s changed for me over that four and a half years. I’ve appeared on The NY Times and USA Today lists at least a dozen times. I’ve penned close to 50 novels, a few of which are even readable, depending upon whom you ask. I still enjoy getting up in the morning and getting to work. All except the getting up part. Why lie?
A new year is coming up fast, and it’s sure to be filled with surprises. The business will probably get even tougher. New names will hit big and will spawn a host of imitators. Trads will release hundreds of thousands of books that do zip. Indies will do the same. Nobody will see the next big thing coming until it hits, and then will nod sagely and assure everyone they completely understand why it went parabolic. The world will keep turning, and much ado will be made about what, in retrospect, will turn out to be nothing.
In other words, not much different than usual.
I’m slowing my production to 5 or 6 novels in 2016, taking more time to smell a few roses (code for problem drinking and helping women of loose morals see the error of their ways). Whether I manage to do so is unknown, but it would be a pretty frigging boring trip if we knew the outcome to anything in advance. Except the lottery. That would be totally metal.
So that’s the state of my union as we near egg nog season. I keep pounding the keys, and my joy at turning a phrase or plotting a twist has never been greater.
Which is one of the best rewards I can imagine.
Except, maybe, the twins. Or the lottery.
Somewhere, there are anonymous men gathered in a room, behind closed doors, figuring out how to keep people terrified so they can more easily fleece and control them.
Somewhere, there are big brains calculating how to convince people that they must kill aggressively to avoid danger, even as they must abdicate their rights in order to be safe, and that this time is different than all the other times when the identical dogma turned out to be false.
Somewhere, there are teams deciding what will get reported, and how, in order to achieve agendas that are 100% devoted to eliminating the population’s freedom in order to better profit.
Somewhere, there are people working to convince everyone that ignorance is strength, that war is peace, that entities designed to do nothing but be ruthlessly profitable and powerful, at the direct expense of the population, are acting in our best interests, and not their own.
Somewhere, there are men strategizing the best way to make everyone feel separate from everyone else, and to ignore the common material we are all made of lest it be harder for them to foment hate.
Somewhere, there are teams discussing how best to convince us that “they” don’t love their kids and want better lives for them, and that “they” hate us because we do.
Somewhere, there are bright fellows chartered with excusing our atrocities, because when we perform them, it’s good, but when others do the same it’s inexcusable.
Somewhere, someone is devoted to convincing zealots that their fairy tales are the truth, and everyone else’s fairy tales are ludicrous and hateful.
Somewhere, there is an active push to make questioning government narratives with any skepticism a kind of lunacy, which ignores the countless times government has lied in order to protect its power, manipulate the population, and protect the interests of rich elites.
Somewhere, there is a group whose sole function is to create a myth of a glorious past where we were virtuous and good and prosperous because of our natural superiority, and that all we need to do is return to that mythical past to become great again. This has always been a popular way to convince the masses to do the unthinkable and submit to a distorted vision that’s pure invention.
Somewhere, there are people who honestly believe that the answers to nuanced, complicated questions are simple, and can be explained in seconds, and that they, who struggle to work their TV remote, know the answers.
Somewhere, there are think tanks coming up with palatable excuses to kill millions while making the public feel their manipulated blood lust is justified and reasonable.
Somewhere, men are working to convince us that the rampant abuses of power documented in the past were an aberration, and that they can be trusted not to abuse their power yet again.
Somewhere, people are plotting to convince us that eating toxic food, living in deterministic wage slavery, and marching in lockstep behind the dictator du jour is patriotic and good, not craziness.
Somewhere, the idea that the police, military, and political apparatus work for us, and don’t dictate terms like masters to serfs, got badly mangled.
Somewhere, there is a group devoted to assuring us that our air, water, land, and property, really belong to them, and we’re lucky we’re allowed to use it at all.
Somewhere, there is a team that’s decided who is expendable, who must obey the laws they write but don’t themselves care about, and who must be silenced in order for them to prevail.
Somewhere, there is someone reading this whose vision is clouded with rage at the ideas expressed.
Somewhere, there is someone nodding their head in agreement.
Somewhere, there is a group devoted to convincing us that it’s best not to get involved, that change is impossible, and that striving to be better is pointless.
Somewhere along the way the idea that “we” are more important than “them” transitioned from madness to undisputed fact.
Somewhere, someone decided that it matters more how we appear, than how we behave.
Somewhere in the process we decided that being rich and powerful were more important than being compassionate and just.
Somewhere, someone is pretending to give a shit, but couldn’t care less.
Somewhere, a group of powerful men are laughing because they have convinced most that they don’t, that they can’t, exist, that none of this could never happen, and that the world is a benign place where evil men cannot do evil in the name of good – which requires us to ignore all history recorded since the dawn of time.
I’ve been seeing a lot of blogs and FB posts about crummy sales, how hard it is to get traction any more, how the market’s changed, how pricing power is a thing of the past and prices continue to spiral down, how even romance is seeing a 40-60% drop in sales.
This is, as predicted, the new normal.
All markets change. They get better for some, worse for others. Nothing’s static.
And last month’s gimmick likely won’t work next month. Gimmicks tend to be like fad curves – they’re steep, sucking in a certain number, and then they lose effectiveness and drop off a cliff.
What does that mean for authors, moving forward?
Same as ever, it will continue to get tougher to build a readership as the market matures. The voracious readers of yesterday are now mostly borrowers, not buyers or free downloaders, due to the subscription model. Whether that’s good or bad depends on whether you’re Amazon, a trad pubbed author who doesn’t participate, or an indie who is hoping that folks conditioned to read free content will decide they’re worth paying for.
I personally don’t see that happening. As with music, once a crowd associates content with free, it is valueless to them – the entitlement kicks in, or alternatively, they simply don’t understand why anyone would buy something when they can get so much nearly identical content for free.
These are largely readers for whom all content is fungible, all books roughly equivalent. Hardest hit are the genres where the writing quality is average, and the books are largely interchangeable. That’s not to say, you’ve read one shifter SEAL UFC billionaire stepbrother BDSM book, you’ve read them all, but for voracious readers who will be on to another book tomorrow, it’s hardly surprising they might view it that way, just as readers who viewed all Harlequin books as largely interchangeable aren’t a shocker. I believe that’s why we’re seeing the dip, for example, in romance – for authors who haven’t built a distinctive and recognizable brand, a franchise perceived as being different and special, you can swap out one tattooed hunk for another, and the tropes are largely the same. I use that as an example only – it’s happening in other genres, too, although the ones that are dominated by trad pubbed authors are getting hit the least, far as I can tell, either because reader behavior is different, or because most of the quality product isn’t available via subscription.
What this means is that authors who have honed their craft, package professionally, push the envelope on quality, and publish with clock-like regularity, will have the best chance. Those that don’t will fall by the wayside, whether in their third year, or third month, of publishing.
I believe we can expect royalties from subscriptions to shrink (safe bet based on the trend), and pricing power to disappear in many of the most popular genres. That means that those whose strategy is to depend on the subscription model will earn less money as the months go by.
And before I hear the usual arguments about how Amazon’s program increases visibility, and thus, discoverability, by treating borrows as sales for the purposes of rank, consider this simple test of that theory: If higher rank = greater visibility with folks who buy, vs. borrow, and those buyers use rank (whether on POP lists or not) as their new author discovery mechanism, you’d expect your sales (not overall revenue, unit SALES) to increase once you go into Select. That’s testable. If sales remain flat, or decline, then you have discovered that the ones using rank as a discovery mechanism are borrowers, not buyers. That runs counter to the established wisdom that higher rank equates to greater sales due to enhanced discoverability, but like most theories, when tested, it might just fall apart (it certainly does in my case – sales go down, borrows increase, and revenue increases due to increased borrows, but the type of reader I’m getting isn’t one that’s willing to pay for my work, as evidenced by the decreased sales).
What does it all mean? Strap in – I believe 2016-2018 are going to be very difficult years for the U.S. economy, as the chickens of fiscal recklessness come home to roost and it becomes painfully clear that the country’s in a recession, if not depression, and that’s going to translate into a tougher business environment for all.
Sorry to be such a bummer, but I know too many authors who were thinking they could quit their jobs three years ago, who have just thrown in the towel as the market’s gotten tougher. To expect it to get anything but harder is magical thinking, unsupported by any of the evidence I’m seeing. I’d love to be proved wrong. The irony being that indies will continue to command a larger chunk of the ebook sales, but those sales will be concentrated in fewer authors. Which is neither good, nor bad. It just is.
Will there be lightning strikes – books that come out of nowhere and become fads that everyone just has to read? Sure. Although if you look at trad sales, there haven’t been any must-read blockbusters everyone on the bus or plane just has to read for a little while now. I’m talking The Firm, Da Vinci, GWTDT, Harry Potter, 50 Shades level blockbusters. Reader behavior may be changing in that regard, too. Shrug. Wish it was my problem…
That’s my state of the union observations as we watch another year pass under our bow. Good luck to one and all, and most importantly…
Buy. My. Crap.
Thrills, spills, betrayal, deceit, a race against the clock, murder, mayhem, thousands of lives hanging in the balance…
In other words, all the usual elements you’ve come to expect from the Assassin series in this final installment – Rage of the Assassin.
El Rey is on the run, battling insurmountable odds as his body begins to betray him, the neuro-toxin in his veins a silent killer intent on silencing him forever. Meanwhile, a diabolical plot unfolds, threatening countless innocents at the hands of a madman that Captain Romero Cruz must stop – before the unthinkable can occur.
Rage of the Assassin was a hoot to write, and blazes along at breakneck pace, with enough twists to keep one guessing and a climax that tops any of the previous Assassin efforts.
It can be read as a standalone, but is probably most satisfying as the final in the series, which has proved popular over its lifetime, and is certainly a reader favorite. I’ll miss the exploits of El Rey and Captain Cruz, but this is a fitting end to their story, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. I mean, I hope you first buy it, and then enjoy it, because even expat malingerers have to eat.
Which is my seamless transition into the subliminal message to buy my crap. Which you should, early and often.
See what I did there?
After over a year of waiting, at long last, the fifth in the BLACK series makes its way into bookstores. Or at least Amazon, for now.
In this latest opus, we find our hero broke, beat, and with Xmas only days away, scrambling for some holiday cheer. When he gets a call to investigate a grisly murder at a big box store in suburban hell, it sounds like easy money and the solution to his short term problems.
As with all BLACK novels, nothing’s ever that easy.
This installment differs from earlier efforts in that it’s more of a locked room mystery, where Black must unmask a vicious killer in a compressed time frame with little cooperation and even fewer clues. Add a portly feline gone missing and an ever-truculent Roxie, and you have the worst 12 hours in our hero’s life.
For a live audio interview with yours truly about BLACK In The Box, try this brand new one from Stephen Campbell!
Here’s the cover. At the giveaway price of only $4.99, makes the perfect holiday gift. Including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Xmas, or Hanukkah. Hint, hint.
I bowed to the collective will of my awesome readership and have penned a new JET novel, now on pre-order and scheduled for release on Xmas day, as seems fitting. The title is JET – Incarceration, and is a different approach than the last couple were, in that it is self-contained with a full story arc between the covers.
Don’t get me wrong about thinking I’d wind down the series – I love writing JET novels. But I was fearful that she might have worn out her welcome with readers and it was time to move on. Judging by the hundreds of outraged emails and PMs demanding more JET, that was, er, mistaken, as are many of my bright ideas.
JET – Incarceration picks up with Jet and company nine months after the last JET left off, in the relative tranquility of Kosovo, which unfortunately, doesn’t stay calm for long. Then again, if it did, I could title it “JET – Goes Shopping!” or “JET – Mocha Frappuchino!” and then there wouldn’t be much runway for the series moving forward. Likewise, the folks who leave concerned reviews because they’re outraged that Hannah is in peril should realize that, A) It’s fiction, and B) If she was safe, it would be all about playdates or whatever, not action and adventure.
Here’s the cover. Available now wherever fine ebooks are sold. Tell me the kids’ little eyes won’t light up when they get a pre-order of the latest JET epic on their Kindle Christmas morning! “Mom, she just killed another pony, and it’s only page three!” Some things are priceless, n’est ce pas?
Four years, four months into this, and I’ve learned a lot.
Someone asked the other day what the number one thing I would pass on to myself as a newbie. It may surprise you. After much thought, what I came up with was this:
If you’re successful, you’ve bought yourself a job. Just like buying a liquor store, or a clothing outlet. A job can be rewarding, both economically and emotionally, but it’s very different than a lottery win, in that you are signing up for a long haul of showing up every day and doing the work.
That’s different than I thought when I started out. I kind of hoped that the old canard that you wrote a great novel, sold it to NY, and then sat back and got rich, was true. That you only needed to produce a little work over the years, and could devote lots of time to thinking great thoughts, traveling the world, observing, etc.
Maybe for a few of the very top earners who’ve been doing this for decades and can command seven and eight figure advances. Of which there are fewer than 100, by my estimation. But for the rest, and certainly for the self-published, it’s a job, just like showing up to work at Pixar or Disney and creating content is a job. If you don’t put in the time, your slot goes to someone else, and the world keeps turning, only without you getting paid as a writer.
That’s a harsh truth, because it basically says that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not the equivalent of an annuity that pays out year after year, but more like a nice business where you still have to work nine to whenever, five to six days a week. Don’t punch your time card, your sales fade, you’re forgotten by all but a few die-hards, and someone steps in to fill the gap.
Which all implies that you’re successful. Your odds of being successful are lousy. Better than trad pub, but still, terrible. Just as your odds of being a pro musician are terrible if that’s what you aspire to, or a pro dancer, or a pro anything in the arts. Which brings me to another point: while it’s important to have a positive support group, delusion doesn’t help you succeed. Cheerleaders, assurances that you can do it, all that nonsense, doesn’t improve your odds. What does is no-nonsense counsel from those who have taken some bullets and learned lessons that might translate, and your own inner ability to motivate yourself – because like all jobs, there are plenty of days where you just don’t want to get out of bed to do the work.
Knowing all this, would I have done anything differently? Probably not. I’d already learned these harsh truths in other businesses. Those past experiences might have actually been one of the reasons I was able to break at the time I did. I didn’t bemoan the fact that I needed to create a compelling backlist to be taken seriously. I didn’t resent that it would take 12-14 hours a day. I didn’t insist that I was doing the best I could, as though that should earn me some reward. I come from a school of hard knocks where just showing up doesn’t get you a treat – nobody hands out A’s for effort in the real world. That shit stops at high school.
But it would have been nice to hear it going in. Would have confirmed I was approaching things correctly.
I got an email last night that made me think about this. An author bud of mine who has been struggling to get a toehold in his/her preferred genre took my advice and wrote a couple of books in a different genre, and saw his/her first four figure day yesterday. He/she asked me whether there was any secret that could take it to the next level. I responded that the secret was to put out a new volume every sixty days so your name appears on the hot new releases list with regularity and momentum is built with readers, and never forget that you’re there to entertain your readership – not to get too clever, or if you’re bored, change things up for your amusement. It’s a job. Do the work, do it well, and maybe you get paid for a while. That’s the secret.
I’ve given that advice to plenty of authors: pick a genre that can support your aspirations, write to reasonable quality for the genre’s expectations and publish with astonishing regularity, put forth a pro package, and pay attention to what’s working. Some now earn seven figures. That’s gratifying. Many don’t. That’s life.
So those are my ruminations on the biz. My new one, Emerald Buddha, is selling briskly, which is all good. Later this month BLACK in the Box releases, and next month, Rage of the Assassin, so a busy Fall for me.
Oh, and in the spirit of writing what your audience wants, I’ve caved in and am penning another in the JET series, tentatively titled JET – Incarcerated, which with any luck will be available by the end of the year. We’ll see. So far it’s a good one. But then again, I say that about all of ’em, so I can’t be trusted.