How to Make A Living As A Professional Fiction Writer
Larry Correia: Writing Class–Week 3
So, here is the third installment of the notes for the class Larry gave at Weber State University at the end of May. There is one more part to go, and the length of time it will take to get up is dependent on a number of indefinable elements, the most important of which is “When will he get up off his ass and do something?” As before, I have placed links to the various portions of the lecture to help you navigate more easily. Have fun and hopefully, this will help you become a better writer.
The Editing Process
For someone self-publishing, there is the question of whether they should pay someone to edit their book or not, and how much should they pay their editor. I don’t know what the going rate is, but the best advice I can give you is to shop around. You might be surprised who will do it for you, who has the professional expertise to edit the book, and how much they will charge you. I would strongly recommend that you check out someone’s resume before you hire them to edit your work.
So, let’s say that you are self-publishing and you want your book edited by a professional editor. That’s great, it’s good that you’re doing that. Before you hire someone and pay them your own money, get a list of stuff they’ve edited and read those books. That way, you can tell whether or not they are going to be editing in your style.
If you get a professional editor and are paying them a bunch of money to edit your book and you go on Amazon and read some of the stuff they’ve edited and it’s garbage, that’s a clue that you want to skip that person.
Before you hire and editor, though, don’t be afraid to exhaust your own contacts. On my first, self-published book, I did not pay for editing. I know that it shows at times, but what I did on that was I put out feelers to my friends who I knew worked in various literary capacities. I had written articles before for gun magazines, so one of the original editors of my first book was a gun magazine editor, Kathy Jackson, who is the editor of Concealed Carry magazine.
So, she was one of the original editors on my manuscript and actually explained to me a bunch of helpful grammar rules that I didn’t know because I paid absolutely no attention during high school English. I took the bare minimum of English to graduate high school and then got a business degree in college. English 101 was it, and English 101 didn’t cover dialog.
My main proofreader was a guy named Bob Westover who used to work for Brigham Young University (BYU) as an editor for scholarly articles and theses. So Bob’s background was reading 500 page papers on the book of Isaiah from the Old Testament. So, this guy was a master and I gave him my manuscript and he came back with like 200 Post-It notes stuck in it of various grammar violations.
So these were two professional quality people who I had going through my manuscript. They were able to help my self-published book be way better than it would have been if I had just done it on my own.
So, should you have a professional editor look at your work? That depends entirely on you. Some people’s writing is very clean. They’re really solid first draft writers. They’re really good at grammar, and it’s actually not that sort of thing that is going to cause them trouble. However, grammar and spelling aren’t the only issue. You need someone to read your book and give you honest-to-goodness feedback. Editing is a super important part of the process because, as authors, we are too close to the work to give it an honest appraisal.
What will an editor cost? I don’t know the going rate. Look around, you might be surprised at what some people charge for editing. As I said, the important thing when looking for an editor is to shop around and vet their work.
When I finish the rough draft of a manuscript, the first thing that I do is to step away from it for a couple of weeks and work on something else. If I try and go back and edit my story immediately, what’s going to happen is that I’m too close. I don’t have a big-picture view of it, it’s still fresh in my mind, I think it’s awesome, I’ve just finished it, I’m super happy, and it’s brilliant. So I don’t want to edit then.
I want to take a break, step back, clear my head, and work on something else. Then, I can go back and read what I wrote. This is for going from rough draft to first draft to second draft, that process. What happens then is that I can be clear-headed. I’ve got some mental distance, it’s not so fresh and amazing in my head.
A lot of times a trap we will fall into as writers, we all do it, is we will fail to put stuff into the book because it’s in our brain. It never actually makes it to the page because we thought it was there. Or, even worse, we put it in then took it out while editing, then left it out of the book.
So what happens when you take a break and then come back with fresh eyes and then edit is you catch that sort of mistake. Plus, with fresh eyes, you’ve forgotten some of the stuff that you’ve done and it enables you to actually read the story and be a little bit more of a reader than a writer.
For your first book, if you are making the plunge into self-publishing, I would definitely recommend that you get some readers. As far as paying for editing, that is entirely up to you. It is entirely up to your budget as to whether you can afford it. If you have a professional editor that you trust, that you like, then go for it. There really isn’t a “yes” or “no” answer to that question.
Now, we’ve been talking about self-publishing. In traditional publishing, you’re going to have an editor. There’s going to be a professional editor at the publishing house in charge of your work. You still want to get it as nice as possible before you get it in front of that person.
Editors are basically the final arbiter of what is and is not good in the book. Their job is to be the third-party that goes in and judges the work and tell you what you screwed up.
Now, an alpha reader is someone who gets to read the early manuscript and give you feedback on it. There are pros and cons to alpha readers. I personally have what I call Reader Force Alpha because it sounds cool. This is a group of people and for any given book, it’s going to be maybe ten or twelve folks. What I do is I get a first draft, in other words, I’ve taken the rough draft and gone through a couple of passes, getting it cleaned it up as much as possible. However, before I send it off to my publishing house, I send it off to my alpha readers. My alpha readers are going to read the book, and I am looking for feedback.
Now, never pay too much attention to what any single alpha reader tells you because, and this is the danger, they’re not giving you advice on how your book should be, they’re giving you advice on how they’d do it if they were the author. But, they’re not you. If you find that they are trying to rewrite your book, that’s bad.
What I’m actually looking for from my alpha readers is consensus. So, if I’ve got ten alpha readers and I put it out there and seven of them think it’s awesome and three think it’s crap, then maybe it’s crap and maybe it’s not. If I’ve got eight or nine people that think that one scene is garbage, then I know I need to go back and fix that scene.
Two questions you ask your alpha readers (these are from Orson Scott Card, and I think they are fantastic advice) are “Were you ever confused?” and “Were you ever bored?” Because remember, the cardinal sin of writing is boring your readers. That is the thing you can’t afford to do, you can’t bore your readers.
So, I ask my alpha readers, “Were you bored?” or “Were you confused?” and “If you were, where were you bored or where were you confused?” If they started to skim because a particular chapter was too much info-dumping, then that is sign I need to go back and fix it.
The other reason I’m looking for consensus is that you guys are going to choose your alpha readers based upon your friends, especially when you’re starting out, and you don’t necessarily know who’s a good alpha reader. Just because someone is your buddy doesn’t mean they’re a good alpha reader. For example, your mom may not be a good alpha reader for you. Your mom loves you, but your mom may not be your target audience. So, if your mom reads your book and says, “You know, there’s just too much violence and profanity? Why can’t everyone just be nice?” Your mom is not your target audience. If you are writing erotica, I can’t imagine putting that in front of your mom.
So, pick your alpha readers based on who is in your target audience. If I’m writing action-adventure, I need to pick people who read action-adventure. That being said, some of my alpha readers may actually be people who aren’t part of my narrow target audience because I want to get their opinions, I trust their opinions.
Over the years you will learn how to develop your own Reader Force Alpha, which is what I call my alpha reading group. One of the things I’ve tried to do over the years is to bring in technical experts. If I’m writing a book that has certain specific technical things that I want to make sure that I get right, I will make sure that one of my alpha readers is somebody who is an expert on that topic. I spoke about gun nuts and how they hate authors who get simple things wrong. I often end up as an alpha reader for friends because the book has guns in it. They know if there is a gun problem, I’m going to flip out, because that’s a subject I’m an expert in. Either guns, or accounting, or painting lead miniatures, because those are the subjects I’m an expert in.
When you have technical experts in your alpha readers, the only thing you are going to want to pay attention to their opinion on is the technical aspects of your book. I brought in one guy that was a technical expert on aviation, specifically the C–130, because I had a couple of scenes that took place on a C–130. This guy was a C–130 crew member in the Marines for a long time. The thing is, he came back at the end of the book with a lot of really good ideas about the rest of the book, not just the parts about the C–130 stuff.
So, if your alpha reader surprises you and comes back with, “You know, this scene is awesome, but what about this and this?” and you realize, “Wow, that’s awesome! Great suggestions.” That’s great. Put that person in your list of permanent alpha readers. People like that are gold. If someone just criticizes you and they think what you do is crap and it’s garbage and they hurt your feelings? Probably not the best person to be an alpha reader, unless you need that, because everyone is different, and sometimes we need to be told when stuff is crap. Choose your alpha readers carefully.
My wife reads a novel or two a week. She’s one of those voracious super-readers who will just sit down and blow through a paperback novel in a matter of hours. That’s how she is. My wife is not an alpha reader of mine. That would be the biggest mistake in our marriage. She doesn’t alpha read for me even though she knows books and she knows reading and she knows writing and she loves this stuff, she’s not my target audience, she doesn’t read this stuff for fun and she gets her fill of Larry Correia humor from living with me. So, for the good of my marriage, I don’t bug her to read my stuff. Every once in a while, she surprises me by reading one of my books, and that’s awesome, but I never bug her.
So, pick your alpha readers carefully. Now places like writing classes and conventions, events like that, are a great place to meet other authors. Another way to meet authors is writing groups. A writing group is a group of friends that meets once a month or once a week, whatever, they talk about their writing, they read each other’s writing, they critique each other, and they give advice. Here’s what I’ve seen in writing groups. I personally am not the kind of person that would ever belong to a writing group. That doesn’t fit my personality. The way I write, I lone-wolf it. Now, that sounds way cooler that it is. Basically I sit at a desk by myself eating chips and drinking Coke.
I don’t like to show my stuff to anybody until it’s done because I tweak it a lot. I don’t want critiques while I’m working on it because that actually messes me up. For me personally, I wouldn’t do a writing group. However, I’ve known a lot of people that are into it. They like the social aspect of it, they like people giving feedback. The best thing I’ve seen about a writing group is that people encourage each other so then they write more. They work harder. They will purposely find the time during the week to write so they have something for the others to read on Thursday night when they meet.
That said, some writing groups are the worst thing ever for the individuals involved. Some writing groups are amazing. It all depends on the people in your group and how you personally work. The ones I’ve seen that are poisonous are the ones where you have someone in there who’s really super extra critical of everyone’s work and he kind of hurts everyone’s feelings and makes them not want to write anymore. That’s bad, it’s poisonous. An author needs all the enthusiasm he can get because remember, this is a tough business, so you want to be enthusiastic, you want to be happy. So, if someone’s dragging you down, this isn’t someone you want to be in a writing group with.
Some writing groups are amazing and the people in them support each other and help each other. Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Rob Wells, and a couple other members of this one writing group all became successful published authors. This was just a group of authors down at BYU. Apparently the writing group there is a really good writing group. Other writing groups I’ve seen are like the kiss of death. You have to play it by ear and see if your writing group is working for you.
Another thing about alpha groups that is a big thing for everybody is that we tend to become very insular and cliquish thinking about who they want to read their book. We tend to think that other people don’t think the same way about the book, but a lot of times you would be surprised at their reaction. A lot of the stuff we write about, the emotional stuff especially, it’s kind of human universal and you might be surprised how people react to it. That is why I try to diversify my alpha readers, because I want to get a wide range of opinions. Most of my alpha readers tend to be people who would read my kind of stuff, but I have people from their early twenties to their seventies reading it, because I want to get that different vibe from my readers.
Editors are special. When I say don’t pay too much attention to any one alpha reader, that’s because he is just some dude with an opinion, and everybody’s got an opinion. Your editor is the boss. If you’re in traditional publishing, your editor is the person who knows what’s up and, in my case, my editor signs the paychecks. She signs the advances. She’s the publisher, so when she tells me a scene is screwed up, I need to fix that scene. Some editors are more hands-on than others, and it also depends on what you turn in.
I have heard some real horror stories from friends of mine at major publishing houses who’ve had nightmare relationships with their editors. That’s one of the dangers of any human interaction where you’ve got two conflicting egos. It is not just in writing, it’s in all forms of business, you’re going to have this. So, you want a good relationship with your editor, that’s a huge deal.
Now, if you are in a situation with your editor where you have a horror story with your editor at a big publishing house, all I can say there is do the best you can to satisfy your contractual obligations and then sell your next book to somebody else.
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had several different editors, but I apparently do OK. I’ve never been asked to do any major revisions on my manuscript. So I’ve never had an ego clash with my editors. They’ve all been pretty easygoing.
One of the nice things about being a professional is you’ve got to know where to draw your lines in the sand; you’ve got to know what hills you’re prepared to die on. Remember, a lot of times, your professional editor knows a lot more about this business than you do and they know about your audience, because they’ve been selling books to them for a long time. So, if my editor tells me, “This part sucks. Fix it,” I’m going to listen to them. I’m going to swallow my pride even though I’m like, “I’m Mr. Brilliant Artist and I totally know what’s up.” I’m going to shut up and I’m going to fix that part, I’m going to listen to them and change it. Editors are human, they’re not infallible, they’re going to make mistakes, but so far, I’ve been lucky.
That said, do your best to make your editor happy. He’s your main interface in your professional relationship. Also, if you have a reputation of being easy to work with an editor, that goes a long way in traditional publishing to sell other books to other places because you will have a reputation of being a professional.
There are a lot of people who don’t like me in publishing, but there are a lot of people who do like me because they know I deliver on time, I will write to spec, they know I will change stuff if it’s screwed up and they know I am easy to work with. If you are professional in your dealings with your editors, that will go a long way to brand you as a professional.
Editing is a really interesting and weird process. Some editors are a little more nitpicky than others, they really like to get in there with the nuts and bolts of the book. All I can say with a traditional editor is that it’s really a crap shoot because it’s not just up to you, it’s up to the publishing house that’s handling your book.
If you are going traditional publishing with a small press, you may not get a choice, because there is only one editor there. When I started out, I didn’t get any choice in the matter, I was just told, “This person is going to edit your book.”
Since then, I’ve had different series edited by different editors because they just decided to do it that way. Toni Weisskopf is my boss, she’s the publisher, she says “The Grimnoir Chronicles is going to be edited by Jim Mintz.” My Monster Hunter series has been edited by both Toni Weisskopf and Jim Mintz. My Dead Six series was edited by Tony Daniel. They go through, they put you together with who they think is the best fit and you just have to work with them.
That’s about it for editors. I wish there was an easy answer as to how to avoid bad editors in traditional publishing but I’m sorry, no such thing exists. There is no way around getting a bad editor, you just have to do the best you can. All you can do is market the crap out of your book and then, if you can, try to sell it somewhere else afterwards.
Services and Costs for Self-Publishing
As a self-published author, you can pay someone to do your editing for you. The issue is that there are various levels of editing on a manuscript. A line editor will fix your commas and spelling and grammatical mistakes on a sentence by sentence basis. A copy editor will fix problems with inter-sentence connections and move sentences and even paragraphs around to make things flow better. A content editor will look at the manuscript as a whole and help you make decisions like “This romance subplot would really work better here in act one and you should delay this plot point until the last third of the book.” Each type of editing will cost different amounts of money and will demand a differing amount of effort from the editor involved.
Someone asked me, “How much should I spend on a self-published book cover?” That’s kind of an open-ended question, because I don’t think anyone knows what’s the going rate for a self-published book cover. So, unfortunately, there isn’t a good answer. That is like asking, “How much should I spend on a car.” It depends completely on you. Do you want the McLaren supercar? Or the Ford Focus? If you are trying to sell your book, get at least a Ford Focus, don’t go for the moped. That being said, there are lot of moped covers out there. If you want to see bad covers, just start scrolling through the self-published books on Amazon.
If you are going to self-publish your book, you owe it to yourself to do this. The most important thing for self-published books now is, “How does the cover look as a thumbnail? Does it make you want to click on that little picture?” That is the single most important thing about your cover for indie works. For a normal book, the most important feature of a cover is, “If someone is looking at this in Barnes & Noble, does it intrigue the person enough to pick it up and read the back?” That’s what covers come down to.
Go to Amazon, scroll through the covers, and look at the ones that you are drawn to. See what they have in common. One of the problems with self-published covers is that they seem to look really really amateurish. The look BAD. They look like crap.
Other covers look well-done. They look really professional. It is not just the art, either. It is the typeface, the title, your name, how all that is presented. If you are good at that kind of thing, awesome, do it yourself. If you aren’t good at that kind of thing, find someone who is a graphic arts person and have them do it for you.
As for actually picking artwork, one of the best places to find art is on the website DeviantArt.
It’s a giant webpage for artists to post their work. The art there ranges in quality from “Amazing!” to total garbage. Go there and surf through the literally thousands of artists that have their work on display there. There are a lot of really talented artists there who will sell you their artwork to use as your cover for super-cheap. Why? Because they’re not professional artists yet. They’re students or they’re only making a little bit of money as an artist and are glad to find someone to buy their work. So, some of this really great art you can pick up for very reasonable amounts of money.
DeviantArt can be tricky to navigate. There is so much stuff up there that, even if you find an incredible piece of art, you may never be able to find it again. So, if you want to use DeviantArt, then the first thing you should do is to make an account. An account will allow you to save individual pieces of art and allow you to save the names of artists whose work you really like, even if they don’t have anything you can use on display. Also, you can always ask an artist you like if they do commissions. Depending where they are in their career, they may do it for surprisingly cheap.
I have a friend who is doing a role-playing game and he is getting all the artwork from folks on DeviantArt, and he is getting some really stunning artwork for around $100 a picture. You have here someone who has done some artwork for their personal gratification, and they are really proud of it, and they put it up on the internet for other people to see and admire. Then, someone comes along and says, “Hey, I’ll give you $100 for the rights to use your artwork,” and the artist says, “Wow, that’s awesome! Money for something that I never expected to sell!”
Of course, there are a lot of professional artists on DeviantArt, too. If you contact one of them and offer them $100 to use their art in your self-published book, they’ll probably be insulted, because the professionals are charging a lot more than that. Now, professional cover art, the artists there get less money than you might expect. A professional cover artists is going to get, I would say, between $2000 and $5000 for a work of art that is going to show up on a book with national distribution. Some artists can demand a whole lot more. If you are Michael Whelan (http://michealwhelan.com), Vincent Chong, or Larry Elmore, then you get way more. I got Larry Elmore to do the cover of my next book, Son of the Black Sword, in fact, he came out of cover retirement to do my cover, and he doesn’t work cheap, because he’s LARRY ELMORE. If you’re about my age, you had posters of art that he drew on your wall, and it was great to get him for Son of the Black Sword.
So, the bottom line for the cost of a book cover is “It depends,” but almost more important than the cover is the typography, the design and the layout. When I originally did my self-published book, Monster Hunter International, I was really proud of the cover. I thought it was better than the first edition of the traditionally published version. We took the Monster Hunter International patch, and it was superimposed over a gun. The photography was done by a friend of mine and the graphic design was done by another friend of mine who was a professional graphic artist. We got a lot of compliments on the self-published cover, because it didn’t look self-published.
Make sure that the cover looks good as a thumbnail like they display on Amazon. As time goes on and you get a following, your name will become recognized and you will put the name on the cover bigger than the title of the book, because that will be the main selling point of the book. The Larry Elmore cover I told you about, I’m actually disappointed, because we are going to be doing it as an interior cover. The marketing people decided that for the outside cover, we were going to do a black cover with a symbol and then my name all big and the title underneath, because we want to make it look more “grown-up”. They are aiming this more at a national market, so they think kind of cover will appeal to a larger demographic. As an author with a traditional publisher, you have basically ZERO say in what happens with your covers. There is a bunch of inside politics when picking covers, and you are going to do what they tell you to do. They have their own marketing department, and that is who decides these things.
I have been asked about Amazon versus Barnes and Noble for self-publishing. I don’t know exactly, but I think that Amazon is the 800 lbs. gorilla in the self-publishing arena for a reason. I have seen estimates that Amazon sells 80%–90% of all the self-published books sold in the United States. Self-published authors have said that they make hundreds and thousands of dollars on Amazon while getting five or six individual sales from Barnes and Noble. When I was self-publishing, we had $25 print-on-demand paperbacks. Completely different from the situation today.
Time, Space, and Copyrights
I talked about contractions and making sure that the contractions matched the personality of the person speaking. Some people took that to mean that they shouldn’t use contractions in dialog. That is completely wrong. Contractions give your dialog a natural sound and feel. In fact, in my original book, I didn’t use enough contractions, which gave the dialog a stilted and unnatural tone. Just make sure that the contractions you use in dialog match the style of whoever’s talking. If you are writing a six-year old, then you don’t want him saying “cannot,” he’s going to be using “can’t.”
We spoke about using real people in your books, and the legal dos and don’ts when including historical figures. So, we covered people, but what about brand names? Can you use actual, real products and company names in your book? If you can, what do you need to watch out for?
Yes, you can use real products. You can say that someone in your book is drinking a Coca-Cola™. They can drive a Ford Taurus™. They can shop at the Extra-Large Casual Male Outlet, or whatever it is called, that is the place that I get all my clothes. All of that is fine.
What you have to be careful to do is to avoid writing anything that is going to libel a company or anybody’s brands. If you do that, they are going to get mad at you and sic their lawyers on you. Don’t write as if you speak for a company, and don’t claim their intellectual property as your own.
So, if you are writing in an imaginary world and the people there are using products that in our real world, that is perfectly ok. The odds of anyone getting upset about that are very slim. Now, if someone is drinking Coca-Cola™ and they die because the company is producing poisoned soda, or they are killed because the Coca-Cola™ drinks are possessed by demons, then that is bad. At that point, Coca-Cola™/Taco Bell™/Pizza Hut™ or whatever the corporate conglomerate is this week, is going to come get you. If you say that the Gordito Burrito Supreme is going to cause people to die, Taco Bell™ is going to be upset.
However, it is rare for a company to get upset at an author over things like this. Some companies are jumpier than others, but it’s really going to come down to protection of their intellectual property. If it’s just your characters using the product as someone would use the product in normal life, that’s going to be fine.
Obviously, in my books, you have a lot of people getting shot and killed by real guns. Gun companies love that. In fact, a lot of places go ahead and give me lots of free stuff.
Tread carefully using products in your writing, but as long as you are treating it in a normal business manner, you are going to be fine.
We talked about using other companies’ characters in your work and how that is bad, but if you are writing about our world and you have a character who likes comic books, there is nothing wrong with having them discuss Spider-Man, for example. Marvel Comics isn’t going to sue you for that. On the other hand, if you have Spider-Man walk off the page of a comic book or the screen of a movie and become a character in your world, then they are coming for you.
So, that is the rule. If it is normal usage, then go for it. I like to include tons of pop-culture references in my books. If there is any way that the company might think that I am libeling a badmouthing a product, I’m going to tweak it so that is no longer clearly that brand.
Now, parody is protected, but you often see on TV things like on the program Parks and Recreation, it is clear that they are making fun of Google the entire time, but they call it GryzzlTech instead. They have their army of robots and meddling in everything and reading your email. They are obviously just Google-bashing right and left the whole season, but they changed it to Gryzzl so they couldn’t get in trouble. Plus, the name Gryzzl is funnier.
I like pop-culture references, but one of the problems with those is that you can date yourself and your work. Now, if your book is set in a definite time period, for example, it occurs in 1993, then if you talk about the rock band Nirvana, that is fine, since Nirvana was big in 1993. On the other hand, if the book is written as if it is occurring “right now,” especially if you are writing a series, try not to include anything that will pin down the time period too much and lock down the time-frame of your series.
When I was doing Monster Hunter International, I didn’t know any of this, so I made some mistakes. I put in some scenes with some hard dates, something like, “this amount of time from 1995.” That was great when I wrote the first book in 2007. Now, I’m writing book six, which will come out in 2016, and only three or four years have passed in the universe, and more than double that time has passed in the real world, and it’s starting to get skewed. So far, not too many people have noticed, but there are some people who have. So, I’ll bring in something modern, and sharp-eyed readers will say, “Wait a minute, that gun wasn’t invented in 2010.” Not that I have said that it is 2010, but anyone paying close attention to the chronology knows that.
Obviously, when I was writing an alternate history set in 1932, I didn’t use anything invented after 1932, I didn’t use any people who weren’t around in that era, I limited myself to 1932 and earlier. Plus, anyone who was alive and paying attention in 1932 is either dead or really really really old now.
The point is, be careful not to date yourself unless you want your work to be something that takes place in a definite time period, and then, make sure that you don’t have any anachronistic elements.
More on Contracts and Authorial Rights
We talked about contracts and ancillary rights like foreign publishing and audiobook rights and keeping as many of those for yourself as you can. Now some people would like to know what specifically should you watch out for in a contract? I can’t really answer that, because each company is different. That is why you need to read the contract carefully. Make sure you look at each clause and probably, you should go over it with a lawyer.
Still people want to know, what rights should I try and keep? At what point should I say, no, this is too much? That depends on you. I gave away stuff on my first book that people thought I shouldn’t have, but it actually worked out really really well for me. It really depends on what you personally are willing to give up. If you have someone in traditional publishing offering you a contract and they are asking for rights that you don’t want to give up, the question that you need to ask yourself is, “Is this a hill I want to die on? Am I willing to walk away from the contract in order to keep this?” That’s what it really comes down to, there’s no really hard and fast answer to this, it is up to the person. If you don’t have an agent or someone to sell those ancillary rights to someone else, then you might be better off selling those rights to the publishing house and see what they do with it. If you do have an agent, then they are going to be representing you and they are going to know what they can sell to other markets, so listen to the advice of the agent.
Now, the agent is supposed to be your advocate with the publisher, but, at the end of the day, it is all on you. So, don’t rely on any one person too much, except yourself. Make sure that you make your own decisions.
Possibly the single most important right in a contract is the “right of reversion.” This is the point at which the rights to your works come back to you. It is very important that you get a concrete commitment on this from the publisher. It used to be that when the book was no longer in print for some period of time, typically three to five years, the rights would revert to the author and they could do with the book whatever they wanted, shop it around to another publisher, self-publish, whatever. There are a number of older authors now who are making a ton of money because they have been writing books for thirty or forty years. Their older books are no longer in print, so they aren’t making any money off them, they aren’t getting the author any royalties. But, they had the proviso in their contract that, once the book was out of print for a certain amount of time, they get the rights back. Once they got them back, they self-published their older books that they wrote years and years ago, and now they have a brand-new income stream. They weren’t making any money off of them, now they’re getting paid. Why? Because they got the rights back, which let them do things with the books that the traditional publishers didn’t want to try.
Now, this is before ebooks. The ebook revolution changed everything. Something that is in ebook with your publisher is technically in print forever, because ebooks are always there. They never go out of print, because it is there, available for purchase.
Now, let’s say that there is something else that you would rather be doing with that book. It would be great to be able to get it back, wouldn’t it? Let’s say that your publisher isn’t doing anything to market your book, no one knows it exists and it’s just sitting out there and you’re not getting paid for it and you’d like to get those rights back. Make sure that this thing is in your contract, specifically, with respect to both in-print and ebooks, at what point you get the rights back.
When you’re new and hot and they’re selling all your books, obviously, this isn’t a problem, but if you have a bad experience with your publisher and editor and you hate them and you never want to do business with them again, it’s important that there is something in your contract to ensure that you get your rights back from them. That way, if you don’t want to do business with this publishing house again, then, if you get the rights back after a year or so and you can self-publish, that’s awesome. But, if it’s tied up in legal and contractural limbo forever, that is now a wasted book.
Short Story Tidbits
So, that is the issue with reversion rights. Make sure that your contract has something about that in it, and make sure you read it carefully and make sure that you understand it. This is especially important on short stories, because with a short story, you usually get it published in a magazine or on a website or in an anthology, and it’s done. You get paid one time and it’s over. What you want to do is to make sure that you get the rights back after a certain period of time because after that period, you have a short story that you can sell again. The only short stories that I’ve made a lot of money on are short stories that I have sold multiple times.
So, in your short story contracts—which are usually a lot simpler than a novel contract, they are maybe one or two pages—make sure that you know when you get those rights back. That’s very important.
Someone asked me about the possibility of selling short story collections through traditional publishers. As a no-name, unproven author, the chances of you being able to get a short story anthology through traditional publishing are slim to none. Pretty much your only chance is to self-publish.
However, once you start making a name for yourself, then the situation changes. I have a Monster Hunter anthology coming out in 2016, that has a bunch of stories from other authors, and I have a Larry Correia anthology of just my short stories after that. This is happening because I have enough fans and my name is well-known enough that I can actually sell those.
So, you sell your short stories into a variety of markets, but after they come out, make sure that you get the rights back after the magazine hits the stands or after the anthology comes out or after that anthology goes out of print.
When selling short stories, the best way to discover buyers is to become an expert on the publications in your genre. In my case, I write science fiction and fantasy. There aren’t that many places to go that are buying short stories in those genres. Best thing to do is to go out on the internet and see who is buying stories and who is selling anthologies. Usually, for anthologies, there will be an editor who is putting together an anthology and you will submit to that editor. Sometimes, such an editor will put out a call for submissions. Of course, a call to submissions to the general authorial world is pretty rare. Usually, the editor will have a list of authors in mind and will contact them privately in advance before the anthology is finalized. When we did the Monster Hunter anthology, we had a list of twenty authors we asked if they wanted to do a story for the anthology and Boom! they said yes, until we were full. Done. Send this in when it’s done. Rarely they won’t have that for a anthology and there will be a public call for submissions.
In science fiction, there are only about five magazines buying stories, and a couple of websites. You have Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and some others. The website tor.com buys short stories. Go to those places and read their submission guidelines. It’s just like submitting a novel to a publishing house. Read their guidelines, follow the guidelines, then submit your work.
That being said, the short fiction market is hard, it’s very hard. There is a lot of competition and not many venues to get published and there’s not much money in it. The best advice I can give you is to determine which periodical buys stories that are the closest to what you are trying to sell, and start there.
One thing to do to get a jump start on selling your work is to find a new magazine that is just starting up. They are going to have an immediate need for stories to fill their issues, so they will probably not be as discriminating as older publications. For science fiction, there is a new publication called Sci Phi Journal. They are only on their fifth issue as this is written. They specialize in science fiction with a philosophical bent.
There is a book you can buy called The Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. They put out a new edition every year, and it purports to list all the venues where you can submit your writing. My suggestion would be to see if there is an online version, since the printed version is probably out-of-date as soon as it hits the shelves.
How To Avoid Jail Time as an Author
Now that you are working as a professional writer, how do you structure your business? An author is going to get paid as an independent contractor, IRS form 1099. As an accountant, this used to drive me crazy. When you work for someone else, you have that withholding for Social Security and Medicare and income taxes coming out of your paycheck before you ever see it. When you are self-employed, you don’t have anyone doing that for you, you need to do it for yourself. Anyone who has been in business for themselves understands this, but you would be shocked at how many authors don’t understand this.
An amazing number of authors get their first royalty check and think, “Yeah! I have all this money and I can go and spend it,” not realizing that there have been no taxes withheld. You would be amazed at how many famous authors basically are working for the IRS, because they failed to pay their taxes. The IRS loves to audit authors because they know that authors often forget to pay their taxes.
When you are first starting out, it is probably not worth the effort to set up a corporation. At the start, you are just an independent contractor, but you still need to make sure that you pay your taxes. In fact, as soon as you start getting actual cash money, you should go talk to a CPA. They will help you set this up and they will walk you through the process of paying your state and federal taxes and how to do your quarterly withholdings, which you have to do as an independent contractor.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this. One of the very first conversations I ever had with my publisher was about this. She asked me, “Do you understand taxes?” I answered, “I’m an accountant.” She said, “OK, you’re fine.”
I understood taxes, but many authors do not. It’s also kind of funny how many authors become anti-taxation the first time they have to pay their quarterly withholdings. When you become successful and you realize that your quarterly withholdings are enough to buy a nice care, it really sucks. It’s a great problem to have, but man, it sucks.
After you are making enough money, and the cut-off is different for different people, but probably when you’re making about $30,000 a year is probably the turnover point when it is worth the time and hassle of forming a corporation, because it will save you money on your taxes. I am an S-Corp, a small business corporation called CorreiaTech. It’s not just my imaginary interdimensional insurance agency business with Wendell the Manatee as the CFO, it’s my real business.
I incorporated a few years ago, just for tax purposes. I am a professional accountant and I still pay a CPA to take care of my taxes. Unless you are up on all your tax information, you are better off paying a CPA to take of that sort of thing for you. As far as bookkeeping and other business stuff like that goes, unless you really enjoy doing it, hire a CPA. Unless you have horrendously complicated finances, it won’t take much time to do, so it will only cost you a few hundred dollars a year. Even if your finances are really simple, it’s still worth it, because it will give you peace of mind and keep you from getting in trouble with the IRS. If you live in Layton, UT, contact me and I’ll send you to my accountant, she’s awesome. I’m a retired accountant and I don’t do my own because, if you don’t keep up on tax law, you will get hosed.
It was actually a point of shame for me when, one year, I realized that even though I was an accountant, I could no longer keep up and it was time to get someone else to do the taxes. As an accountant, you have to realize, that is a real blow to your self-esteem.
Putting the “Professional” into “Professional Novelist” or The Writing Process
Being professional writers means finding the time and the dedication to be a professional so you can actually get your writing done. As I’ve said, there is a 99.9% failure rate in this business. You can’t let that dissuade you. What gets most people, where that 99.9% failure rate comes from is people who aren’t professional. They don’t stick with it. They write something, they throw it out there, it fails for whatever reason, then they give it up. Or, they start and they never finish. Those people aren’t even in the failure statistics, because they never make it that far.
You see people all the time who want to be writers. They are kind of in love with the idea of being a writer. They like the romance and the mystique of being writers. But the problem is that writing is work. It’s a job, and it’s a hard job. It’s not easy, and it’s the kind of thing that you have to put in time and effort to improve yourself. Time and effort are really super-hard when you’ve got another job, you’ve got family, you’ve got children, you’ve got commitments, and you’ve got other things you have to do.
So writing becomes a challenge. Squeezing in the time becomes a challenge. It takes time to become good. Very few people can sit down and write something that is publishable right out of the gate. Most people, their very first thing is usually crap, because you have to learn how to write.
Think about what your choice of career is. I don’t know what you do, but think about your chosen profession. I’m not talking about people just starting out in that career, but people who are really good at it. How long did it take them to get good at your job? For any kind of skilled profession, it usually takes a few years. You have to put a few years of time in to master whatever it is you do. Some jobs are hard to master, some are easier. Writing is one of those jobs that some people have a natural gift, a natural flair, a knack for it, and that’s fine, good for them. But most of us, it’s going to be through practice, it’s going to be through training our brains to do this stuff. That takes time.
So, when you’re starting out, you need to make time to write. The more often you can write, the more consistently you can write, the better off you are going to be. It’s like if you are going to exercise, to lose weight. The key to exercise is to make the time for it. It doesn’t matter how hard your job is or how busy you are, if you are serious about becoming a writer, you’re going to squeeze the time in and find a way to write. Here’s the thing—if it’s fun and you are enjoying yourself and you have taught yourself to like it, you are going to want to do it more.
There are many different ways to do this. Here are some suggestions, things I’ve seen, things I’ve heard, things that I’ve personally done. When I started out, I had a regular job and I worked a lot of hours. That was because I worked full-time as an internal auditor at a Fortune 500 company and I also started my own business on the side. So, I had two jobs when I was first trying to make it as an author.
The time that I found to write was usually really late at night. That was the way that Monster Hunter International was written. My kids would go to bed, my wife would go to bed about 10 p.m., then I would go to this little unfinished room in my basement that was really really cold and my desk was an old wooden door sitting on cinderblocks and I would sit there on my computer and I would type until 1 a.m. in the morning. Then I’d get up at 6 a.m. and go back to his corporate job.
Some nights I would get fired up and I’d be on a roll and I’d write until about 3 a.m. What I discovered, though, was that everything I wrote from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. was complete garbage and I had to throw it away because I was completely incoherent. At the time, it seemed really brilliant, and I’m thinking, “Holy Crap! I’m a genius!” and then the next day I would look at it and go, “What the hell was I thinking?” The problem, of course, was that I was really tired.
In any case, I would squeeze the writing in whenever I could. That is the key to success, squeeze the writing in. But set a time, make the time to write. I know people who get up early and write before they go in to work. I couldn’t do that, I’m not a morning person. At 5 a.m., if you ask me to write a scene, then you are going to get “aragladerbanim,” and that is going to be the most coherent bit. Other people I know get up and write, then go on and commute in to their job.
There are a million ways to do this. There are no “right” ways to be an author. The more you make the time, the more you schedule the time to write, the better you’re going to do.
I was serious about the comparison with exercise. Think about the people that are successful with their exercise. They commit to it, they make the time to do it, they stick with it, and they succeed.
As time goes on and you make this your job, it’s going to become increasingly important for you to find the time. When I only had one job, I was able to do more writing. I eventually went full-time at my company I started, and unfortunately, I was working about eighty hours a week. I had one employee and he could tell you, I about killed myself there. Towards the end there where I had that little aneurysm thing, I decided that it was time to scale back. I actually went and sold my company after a few years and I was unemployed for four months while I was looking for another job.
At this point, my first professionally published book hadn’t come out yet. So, you know what I did in those four months when I was unemployed? I wrote a book. I wrote the novel Hard Magic, the first novel in the Grimnoir Chronicles. So, at the time, I was unemployed and not making any money, but those four months have since turned out to be one of the most lucrative four month periods of my life. Because I had some downtime and, by golly, I used it. I would go and look for work, check the want-ads, look on the internet, then I would write the rest of the day. Then, I would write all night and I would avoid my family, because I was unemployed and ashamed.
It kept me busy. I did all the research for Hard Magic, I wrote Hard Magic, and then I went on and wrote a lot of the book that would go on to be Swords of Exodus. When you can find the time, you need to put the time in to write.
For those of you that don’t have two jobs, many of you will have weekends. I hate to tell you, but most authors who make it give up their weekends for quite awhile. I spent the first four or five years of my career before I was allowed to have a weekend.
As a personal thing, as part of my religion, I try not to work on Sunday. For many years, I wrote on Sunday. A few years ago, I made a commitment to my family to stop working on Sundays. It has actually worked out better for me because I have been able to spend more time with my family.
Then about two years ago, I was doing well enough that I could stop working on Saturday. My family had no idea what to do. It had been so long since Dad had not worked on a Saturday that they freaked out. “Dad, what are you doing?” “I’m just chilling out here.” “Mom!”
But for many years, Saturdays and Sundays were for writing. Late at night was for writing. If I was really tired at night, I would edit, because I can edit tired better than I can write tired. That’s just the way that my brain works. The more days that you can do this consistently, the easier it is to stay in that creative zone. The longer the times between your writing sessions, the longer it’s going to take you to get back into it.
That’s one of the hardest things for people who are just starting out, is that you do most of your writing on weekends. The problem with that is that you are going to write on Saturday and Sunday, and you are going to have an awesome Sunday, but then you take five days off. Then Saturday rolls around again and what happens? You spend the first couple of hours diddling around trying to get back into it. That’s the problem, so the closer you can stay to that creative energy, the better you’re going to do.
This next tip I heard a long time ago. I think it comes from Ernest Hemingway. What he liked to do was, he would spend all day writing, then, the next day, he would read what he had written, just a little bit, a page or two, editing as he went, and then when he was finished with that portion, he would get right back into writing from where he left off. What happened was that the time reading gave his brain time to get back into it and when he was done then, boom, he was ready to go. I don’t remember the exact quote which, since it was Hemingway, it was all short and pithy and, as many people have commented, I don’t do pithy.
[The actual quote (I think) is: The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece. – Ed]
Everybody is different in their writing. Hemingway had a treehouse that he would retreat to and sit on the floor and write for a few hours before he went out and got loaded. You may not need that much isolation, but if you need the treehouse, go out and get the treehouse. Do whatever it is that you need to do to write. I have four kids. I had three when I started doing this, then we had a surprise kid a couple of years ago. There is a seven year difference between my third kid and my youngest. Having a little kid in the house has been really weird for my writing because I trained the older three that “when Dad is working, don’t mess with him. When Dad is in the zone, that is money-making time.” On the other hand, I have two teenage daughters. When my teenage daughters come in to tell me about their day, I stop writing, because as David O. McKay, one of the leaders of my church, said, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” So, if my teenage daughters want to come and tell me about something that happened to them that day in high school, I am going to stop working.
Don’t neglect your family. Don’t do that thing that writers do where they drive away everyone around them and then sink into massive depression. You’ve still got to have fun, you still have to take care of your loved ones, you still have to take care of your family. Don’t be that jerk, that kind of writer, you all know what I am talking about, the kind of people who go down to the coffee shop and do their freebase poetry. Don’t be that person. Be a professional, which means balance in your personal life, too.
Unfortunately, if you are going to squeeze writing in, you are going to have to give up a lot of stuff. A lot of writers I know give up television. Very few writers I know that want to make it starting out are going to spend hours watching TV every night, because it’s time, it just cuts into your time for writing.
I ended up playing a lot less video games. I never completely gave video games up because that was one of the things I needed to do to recharge my creative juices. All writers are going to need to recharge their creative juices. However that is, there is something that you do for fun that makes it so your brain can work. And it is usually going to be something that is not writing.
I’ve talked about this with a lot of writers, and one of the unfortunate things about most writers is that we read a lot less than we used to. I love to read. You probably love to read. That is why you want to be a writer, I’ll bet. Unfortunately, when you write all day, it is using that creative part of your brain that is the same part you use when you read. When you edit your stuff, you’re using that same part of your brain. So what happens to a lot of us is that, unless the book is really good and immerses us immediately, we start to edit. We can’t help it. Even if the book is good, we’re going “Oh, I see what you did there. That was clever.”
When I read, I try and set my reading time aside. I still read, I love reading books. But now, I read late at night so I am not tempted to edit. Actually now, a lot of the reading I do for fun is game books. I’m a gamer, I love to do pen and paper roleplaying games. I read these game books for fun. I read these more than fiction. Why? Because it is different than what I write. You know what I watch on TV now? I watch cop shows. Why? Because it’s different than what I write. If my entertainment is too close to what I write, it kind of sucks, because I start to analyze it too much.
I went and saw Avengers: Age of Ultron recently, and I spent the entire movie analyzing it. I was saying to myself, “Ooh, that was good. I saw what you did there, you brought it full circle. Oh, and that’s great, because it reinforces that theme and that, oh yeah, it fulfills that foreshadowing that you had there.” That’s an unfortunate side effect of being a writer, it’s part of your job. When you see something that’s part of your job, you’re going to analyze it, right? Storytelling is now your job, so you are going to start analyzing stories you see.
You need to find what uncorks your creative juices. It might be video games. It might be golfing. It might be sewing. It might be knitting. I know a lot of authors that knit, that seems to be popular one. Whatever it is, do something that gets those creative juices going.
Because if you try and work straight through and you beat yourself up until it’s no longer fun? Once you lose that fun and it becomes a chore and you no longer have that creative awesomeness going, then you’re not going to stick with it. A note on sticking with it. You need to finish whatever you’re working on. Finish whatever project you’re working on. Many many authors, when they are starting out, the hardest thing for them to do is to finish the project. Then what happens is that you have all these unfinished projects, and then you get stuck, and you get frustrated, then you beat yourself up and feel like a failure. Right? And there’s no fun in that.
If you can’t finish your novel, then finish some short stories, just so you can finish something. Once you’ve finished something, then, you’re a finisher! You’ve written stuff that has been completed. You’ve finished a whole story or novel or whatever. Good! Now, write the next one.
What happens if you bounce around between projects? What happens if you’re working on a book, but it’s become tedious and you’re kind of bored and you really want to write this other thing? That’s fine. That’s ok. If you’re really enthusiastic about the other thing, then work on the thing you’re enthusiastic about. But the important thing is that you have to finish something so you can feel like you can actually be a writer. If you’re just bouncing among projects, then that tells me that you’re lacking focus. You need to focus long enough to get something done.
Writer’s Block Or “No, you are not a special unique snowflake”
Let’s talk about writer’s block. Everyone has heard of writer’s block, novelists talk about it all the time. It’s like this mystical thing. “Oh, I’m stuck. I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t do it.” My opinion on writer’s block? It’s crap.
There’s no such thing as writer’s block, it’s a lie. It’s a filthy lie. It exists for one reason. As writers. we like to feel special. We like to think we’re creative, and we stand up in front of people and like to talk about how awesome we are. We’re talking in front of audiences that have scientists and firemen and policemen and soldiers and doctors and astronauts and other people who do awesome stuff.
We want to sound awesome, too. But what do we really do? I sit at a desk, eat chips, drink coke and make up stories. I’m not pulling people out of a burning building. So, writers tend to get a little artsy-fartsy when we describe our job. We describe our creative processes, and that’s when people say “Oh, I write as my muse moves me. And it came to me in this artistic blah blah blah.” or “The artistic vision of blah-blabla-blahh-blabla and the poetry of the blahblah,” “Oh, shut up.”
For me, my creative process is that I crack open another Coke Zero™ sit down at the monitor, and make crap up. That’s my job. Don’t overthink it. This whole “writer’s block” thing is kind of an excuse. In reality, writer’s block means that you’re bored, or you’re stuck, or you’re lazy, or you’re at a part when you don’t know what happens next or you just really don’t want to write just now.
Don’t make it all magical, don’t make it all mystical because when you make it magical and mystical, you’re giving it power. You’re giving it this hold over you like “I can only write when the creative muse comes upon me.” Bullcrap. Whatever your job is now think about that job block. When I was an accountant, and my boss came to me and said, “Hey, I need this data analyzed and a spreadsheet showing the differentials among the orders,” and I answered “I can’t right now, I have accountant’s block. I don’t have my muse, I just can’t do Excel right now, because I’m not feeling it.” Just like that, fired. Bye-bye accounting job. “Pack your stuff, get out.”
Whatever job you are in, it’s the same. If you are a paramedic, you can’t have paramedic’s block. “Hey, I know this guy is bleeding all over, but I’m just not feeling it today.” You just can’t do that. You know why? Because every other job in the world expects you to perform. Writing is the same. If you want to make a career as a writer, you have to perform. You’re an entertainer, it’s your job to entertain. And yes, we have a more creative job than many, but don’t underestimate the creativity required for other jobs. Engineers have to be very creative. Accountants have to be creative. Especially when you’re being audited, you get all kinds of creative up there.
Yes, we have a creative job, but, it’s a job. It’s a job, and the more you train yourself to perform on demand, the more you’ll be able to do it. The more you practice telling a story, the better you’ll be at telling a story.
Here’s the thing. If you’re experiencing writer’s block, be honest with yourself. Ask yourself, “Why am I experiencing writer’s block? Why can I not perform today?” A lot of the time for me, if I’m brutally honest with myself, it because I don’t feel like it. It’s because I’m lazy. I really just want to go play Call of Duty. I want to sit on the couch and watch TV. I want to go paint a lead miniature. I want to do something other than work.
That’s fine. Every human being who has a job feels the same way at times. That’s fine. The other day, I took the day off to take my kids to a movie. Why? It was fun, I got to spend some time with my family, recharge my creative juices. But you know what? The next day, I had to be back in that seat writing. Why? Because if I don’t write and I don’t produce, I don’t get paid.
Don’t get too hung up on that artsy-fartsy stuff. I was arguing with someone once who was hung up on the wordsmithing and beauty of the blahblahblah, but you know, this person was a terrible writer and could never finish anything and if he did, it was really horrible. Anyway, he got all indignant when I pooh-poohed his obsession with perfection, and he asked, “What was the best line you’ve ever written?” My response was, “The best line I’ve ever written is the one I just finished, because it’s the next one I’m getting paid for.” It sounds crass and it sounds crude, but it’s true. Yes, we have an artistic job, but if you look at the greats, the people in our craft who you look at and think, “Wow, I want to be like that. I want to write like that author.” Odds are, if you’ve read a lot of their stuff, it’s because they treat it like a job, the put their butts in the seat, their hands on the keyboard, they produce and they make art.
The more writing you produce, the more likely you are to produce something truly brilliant. That’s the key. I have said it before, but people claim that quantity doesn’t equal quality. That is not true. The more quantity you produce, the more likely you are to produce something of true quality. First, because you have more opportunity to do so and second because the more you write, the better at it you become. So, just get it out there and then work on more.
More About “The Process”
Thus, don’t buy into the myth of “writer’s block.” Certainly, different authors work in different ways. We all are different human beings, each of us has a unique psychology. A couple of examples. Everyone reading this should know who John Ringo is. He is one of the most successful authors in all of science fiction. John is a very creative, kind of manic author. So, how John writes, and he has like forty books out and started late nineties or early two-thousands, but he has exploded since then. John is the kind of guy who won’t write anything for three or four months. Why? Because he’s just not feeling it. Then he will get an idea stuck in his head and it will eat at him and he’s like, “I have to write this. This is something I must write.” Then, he will write 50,000 words a week until it’s done. That’s how he performs and it works for him.
There is no one right way to do it. John, and I kid you not here, will write four books in three months, just because the idea was upon him. Now, John is an outlier. I am the kind of guy that just sits in his chair, normal business hours, from nine a.m. to three or four in the afternoon and I will sit in my chair and type. Or I will stare at the screen. That’s what I do and how my writing technique works.
The weirdest one I know is Kevin Anderson. Kevin J. Anderson has 125 or so books out. The guy is one of the most prolific authors alive. You know what his secret is? This is amazing. Kevin has a tape recorder and he lives up in Colorado in the mountains. He carries this tape recorder and he goes up into the mountains and he hikes all day long, climbs mountains all day long, and he talks into the tape recorder the entire time and just tells the story.
Then, he takes that tape and he gives it to a typist—he employs a typist, he’s written enough books that he can do that—that typist then goes and inputs everything that Kevin said onto a computer. Kevin takes that and edits it, then boom, he has another book done. He’s trained himself to do this. He also has better cardio than anyone else in this business and will outlive us all. The rest of us, with each book that comes out, we get a little bigger.
Seriously, if you were to track my weight against the number of books I’ve sold, the more books, the bigger I get. Of course, my doctor doesn’t think it’s very funny.
Do whatever works for you. There are as many methods as there are authors, but the key is to discover what works for you so you can tap into those creative juices. Get that contagious enthusiasm, that spark, and then, whatever you do to capture that, work it, then sit down and produce. If it is talking into a tape recorder, fine. Some people use that voice-to-text capability like Dragon Dictation and they use that. I was never able to get into that. I am not a verbal storyteller. It doesn’t work that way for me.
My personal style is that I will write one, two, or three paragraphs, then I will go back, move things around and tweak them, maybe delete one, put another one over here, then go on and write the next three or four paragraphs. It works pretty well for me and I average about 2500 words a day. On a really good day, I can do 5,000 words. I have done 10,000 word days either because I was really enthusiastic or because deadlines demanded it.
My record is 16,000 words, but that was a sixteen hour day. That was from before dawn until late at night. Why? That was Monster Hunter Alpha, and the deadline was upon me. You do what you have to do to finish things when you are a professional.
Some of the most successful writers out there, who are of the “sit in the chair and crank away” persuasion, average about 10,000 words a week. Which means, if you are doing this full-time, that comes out to about half-a-million words a year, on average. That many words is three full books and a bunch of short stories or some novellas, four books if you are doing nothing but novels, and five or six books if you are doing YA. In any case, that is a decent output by anyone’s standards.
Before you are making enough money so that you can quit your day job, you squeeze it in anytime you can, and you come up with a schedule that works for you. So, if you can get in 2,000 words on Saturday and Sunday, run with it. 2,000 words a week doesn’t sound like much, but what does that get you after a year? That comes out to around 100,000 words a year, and a 100,000 word story is a novel in just about any genre. It sounds hard, but if you can squeeze in eight hours of writing over a Saturday and Sunday, 2,000 words is not that much. It adds up over time.
If, during the week, you can fit in another 1,000 or 2,000 words by working at night or at lunch, that’s even better. I know people who get an hour off for lunch at work, and they write over that lunch hour. Or they edit during that time, if they feel too pressured for time to write. If you can up your output to 3,000 words a week, then you will have 160,000 words over the course of a year, and that is a long novel.
Some writers can jump right in and start off on their writing without any warmup or preparation. Others have to ease in to the process with a warm-up period. I like to do the thing that Hemingway talked about, where I read what I wrote the day before I jump in and start writing. Obviously, it’s hard for me doing that to write at lunch. However, I could work on a scene, I could edit. Editing is great for when I’m tired or I only have a little bit of time. Bottom line, if you can get to where you are writing 2,000 words a week, that is a novel a year. That is great to start. If you are writing 3,000 to 4,000 words a week, then you are writing three novels every two years or two novels a year. That is huge. So, being a writer and producing novels is totally doable, even for those that can’t afford to pursue it full-time.
When I’m writing, I don’t worry about formatting or chapters or anything like that. When I started out, I wrote things in chapters, but then I found that chapter one was 3,000 words, chapter two was 1,200 words, chapter three was 9,000 words, and chapter four was 6,000 words which made for a really disjointed reading experience. I like shorter chapters and prefer my chapters to be a little more uniform in length, so now, I just write all the scenes, then, when I am editing, I move scenes around, “Wow, this would be cooler if it happened here!” Then, I look at the entire book and I analyze it and say, “All right, this makes sense as a chapter and this other thing makes sense as a chapter.” Then I put my chapters in.
For the Grimnoir Chronicles, I had the “chapter bumps,” the fake quotes at the beginning of every chapter, which was one of the most popular parts of the books. What I did there was I wrote the quotes ahead of time and had them in a separate file on the computer. Then, when I finished deciding what the chapters would look like, I would go through the quotes and pick the ones that worked best for each chapter. I would look at the quotes, and then I would see something and I would say to myself, “Yeah, this bump explains perfectly about this aspect of the world just as we’re about to cover that here in this chapter.” It didn’t do me any good to have these cheater world-building quotes if I got into the chapter about it before I had the quote about it, so I would go through that way and plug them all in. Sometimes, I would then fabricate new ones, because I needed to and I didn’t have anything appropriate. The whole chapter and formatting thing is the least important part. It’s not even like icing on the cake, it’s like decorating the icing. It doesn’t change the taste of the cake, it only makes it pretty at the end. In the same way, the formatting and chapter division don’t really affect the content of the novel, just how it is presented. I wouldn’t stress too much about it.
The first writing I ever did was fiction on the internet to show people that I could write. Of course, on a web page, paragraphs are separated by line returns, and you don’t indent. So, when I did my first book, the paragraphs were all block paragraphs with no indentation. My first work, I had to go through by hand and “space, space, tab” for four thousand paragraphs, to give them the indentation they needed. Do you have any idea how long that took. That was one formatting rule I learned really well.
If you are the kind of person who likes to print out their book so they have a physical copy to work with as they edit, then you are going to obviously have page numbers. If you are going to submit to an editor, they are going to want a header with your name and the name of the book and a footer with the page numbers. That is because editors move these stacks of papers around and shuffle them up and down, and without page numbers, they wouldn’t be able to follow anything.
Time Management And “When can I quit my day job?”
More about time management as an author. Many new authors beat themselves up about how long it takes them to finish their books. If it takes you a year, eighteen months, two years to finish your first book, don’t beat yourself up about it. That is not unusual. It will be harder for you to make a living if you only put out a book every couple of years or so, though. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from Kevin J Anderson. We were on a panel together at a convention. It a panel on how to write and it was one of those nuggets of advice that people drop on you now and then. It has stayed with me. The advice that other people on the panel were giving was fine, but what Kevin said struck a chord. Asked if he could give one piece of advice to a new author, what would it be, he answered, “Be prolific.” His advice to aspiring authors was just that, “Be prolific, write more stuff.” Because more authors just don’t and that’s where they fall short. Just keep working, keep writing, keep producing, you can totally do it.
There are authors that can survive producing only one book every four or five years, but they are few and far between. Usually, they had a incredibly successful first book and cruise along after that just on reputation, or they have major media tie-ins like their book was made into a motion picture, or they have been writing forever and have enough of a backlist that they can live off their royalties while they write. The rest of us don’t have that luck and can’t afford to be off the market for four or five years.
What happens is that when my book sells out at Barnes and Nobles, I need them to order more. When you are at the point where you are selling your books to publishing houses, you need to have trained yourself to be able to consistently produce more books.
The next question is “When do I quit my day job?” That depends on how much it costs you to live. That is why I never understood why an aspiring author would live in Manhattan, where you need $200,000 a year to rent space under an overpass. Utah is a great place to live as an aspiring author. Rural Idaho in a shack growing a Unabomber beard? Even better. The thing that I can’t emphasize enough is that there is not that much money in this business for authors. You have to work really hard to actually achieve a high enough level of success that you’re earning good money. As I have said, the average mid-list author only makes about $30,000 a year. That’s really hard to live off of. That’s why most traditionally published authors don’t quit their day jobs until they have about five books out and more in the pipeline. If you are self-published, it is the same way, you have to wait until you have a large enough income stream to live off of.
Some of you have a spouse that works. That is awesome. Others of you can’t become full-time authors until your spouse gives you permission. I wasn’t allowed to become a full-time writer until I could show my wife that I had enough books under contract, we had plenty of money in the bank, and two years of food storage. Then, I was allowed to quit my day job.
Now, putting my accountant’s hat on, it really comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. I have a friend of mine, who is a newer writer, Brad Torgeson, but he is a really super-good writer. The man has amazing skills and he is producing. His first novel, Chaplain’s War, just came out and it’s done pretty well. So, I’m having a conversation with him and his wife. He’s actually in the military and he was being deployed and we were having some barbecue before he left, and we were having a long conversation about this exact subject. His wife had laid down a bunch of rules, “Brad, you can’t quit your day job to become a writer until you can do this, this, and this.” And I said, “That’s great, but what you need to consider is the opportunity costs here?” In accounting terms, that means, what are you missing out on by not being a full-time writer. That benefits do you forego by not pursuing the writing full-time?
If you’ve got enough customers that they are willing to give you money for two novels a year, but you only have enough time to write one novel a year because of your day job, and you say, “OK, my book is out there and it is making me $X and my day job is making me $Y, am I losing money by having a job?” That’s what you have to ask yourself. Once you cross that threshold, and it’s a great threshold to cross, and you realize, “Wow, I’m making less money with a real job than I could if I spent that same amount of time writing books,” that’s when you jump. Not before that.
There are a lot of people that have these delusions that they’re going to quit their day job and go be brilliant and awesome, and it just doesn’t work that way. This is a tough business to make it in. Once again, it comes down to establishing that fan-base. If you have 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 loyal fans who love you and want to give you money for everything you write, then you’re there. You’ve arrived. That is what it requires, though. You need a core group of fans that will proselytize and tell their friends about your new books. That’s when to make the jump. If you try to make the jump before then, it is going to be really hard, unless you have trust fund money. If you do, then good for you, is all I can say.
Awesome Author Job Benefits (Hint: There Aren’t Any)
Other nuts and bolts aspects of being a writer. You’re going to need health insurance, right? This is not as scary as people make it out to be. Being self-employed and living without these benefits is not a big deal. Honestly, a lot of writers I’ve talked to about making that jump, they’re terrified about that. It’s not as bad as you think. As long as you’re not in terrible health, you can get an individual plan that’s not horribly expensive, you just need to go talk to an insurance agent. It’s going to be more expensive than that gold-plated policy you get from your awesome corporate job with the Fortune 500 company with 100,000 employees around the world. It won’t be that, take my word on that. I went from working at an awesome defense contractor to being self-employed, and it is not quite the same. Honestly, it’s not that terrifying and I’ve talked to a lot of people in this business who are selling books, but they are scared to quit their day job because of benefits. I have told them, “Go check out your options, it’s not that horrible. I’m a pretty fat guy and for me, a wife and four kids only runs me about $600 a month.”
Don’t worry about that too much, that’s not the big thing that’s going to get you. The thing that’s going to get you is the fact that if you’re a traditionally published author, you’re probably getting paid only once every six months. So, even if your paychecks are huge, you’re still living paycheck to paycheck. So authors do need to learn how to make a budget and how to live within that budget. Another thing is, I don’t know how much my next royalty check’s going to be. So, what I recommend for authors who get to that “quit my day job” point in their careers is to make a budget and find out how much money do you require to live for a year. Realistically, how much money do you need to live for a full year. Make sure that you have at least that much money in the bank before you quit your day job.
What it comes down to is that you are only going to get paid once every six months plus bad things happen. The car’s going to die, your daughter needs braces, whatever. The point is, you need to budget for this stuff before you make the jump. Don’t be stupid and unprepared when these things occur. That’s what it boils down to for being a full-time author.
One issue you will run into is that you are going to have a terrible time trying to get a bank loan, because it will be nearly impossible to explain to financial professionals how you get paid. They ask you, “Can you bring in copies of your paycheck.” “OK, here is my two for the year.” They get suspicious about that. You’re going to make financial professionals nervous. You’re living paycheck to paycheck, but the nice thing is that your paychecks have two or three extra zeros over the two week paychecks that most people get. Self-published is actually better for these purposes, because they are a lot nicer. Amazon, for example, pays monthly. It’s almost like a normal job. Which is crazy. It’s almost unheard of in the publishing industry.
Whatever you do, be adults, be professionals. A lot of authors, we tend to be artistic, the whole left-brain/right-brain argument. To make it as a professional, you need both. It’s hard to succeed being a butterfly, floating about on the winds of life. Being super-creative and stuff is brilliant, but it can get you into trouble.
Harness Your Enthusiasm
Going back to projects and finishing things, it is important to produce finished works, but don’t ever underestimate the value of your enthusiasm. You do have to temper that enthusiasm, you can’t be like a puppy, bouncing around from thing to thing. You have to get things done, but if you are really super-excited about a project, your brain is telling you something, there is a reason you’re so excited about that project.
So, if there is a novel you are just dying to write, if you have that John Ringo thing going on, or you’ve got this brilliant spark and you want to write four zombie novels in two months, then run with it. Get that out of your system, whatever it is that’s just obsessing you.
When I was just starting out, I was doing really well with Monster Hunter International and I had the first one out and it was very popular, and people wanted more and I had written a sequel, and it was time to do a third book. At that point in my career, this was a very big deal. However, I specifically didn’t want to write another Monster Hunter book. Not that I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but, career-wise, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as just the Monster Hunter guy. I didn’t want to be the guy that just writes Monster Hunter and that’s it, if you see what I mean.
So, I went to my publisher and I pitched her Hard Magic. I said, “I have this series, and there are these other things I want to do.” She didn’t like it at all. She wanted me to write Monster Hunter books. Why? Because they were selling really well.
I heard the same thing from Brandon Sanderson. Brandon did Elantris, and the same thing. It was doing very well, it was popular and it was a good first novel and people really liked it. His publisher said, “You’re doing great, give us the sequel to Elantris.” He gave them Mistborn, which was the first book in an entirely different series. Why did he give them Mistborn instead of Elantris II? Mistborn was what he was excited about, it was what he was enthusiastic to write, but that’s not why he did it. He did it for the same reason I did. He didn’t want to be the Elantris guy for the rest of his life. He wanted to be seen as a writer who could produce different things.
So, if you have something that you’re enthusiastic about, there’s nothing wrong with stepping out of your pigeonhole, even if it’s a whole new genre, even. Don’t be too afraid, ok? Don’t be artificially limiting yourself.
It worked out really well for me. I sold Hard Magic and it went on to do really well. Since then I’ve gone on to do military thrillers, I’ve done steampunk tie-ins for a game, and I have an epic fantasy series coming out soon. So, that’s five different genres that I’ve done and I will do others. Why? Because I have more fun bouncing around and as long as I’m enthusiastic, I can keep doing this.
As long as you can keep your enthusiasm up and you’re enjoying what you do, you’re going to keep creating new stuff. So, if you want to be bold and break out of science fiction and write a romance novel, go for it. Except, you might need to use a pen-name.
Marketing and Self-Promotion
Marketing yourself is a really hard thing. Marketing is kind of a nebulous concept for writers and it is kind of like how the public views you. The thing is, most people who buy books don’t know anything about the author. Which is actually a good thing, because a lot of us writers are screwed up. Nothing to worry about, if we weren’t screwed up, we wouldn’t be writers.
So, a couple things to think about. How do you portray your books to the world and how do you portray yourself. One thing I will say, don’t lie about yourself. Don’t make yourself out to be something you aren’t, because lies will always come back to bite you in the butt. There are a couple of authors I know, not going to name any names, but I have zero respect for them because they are liars. They told lies about themselves to puff up their street cred. There’s one guy in particular I’m thinking about that was talking some trash about an author friend of mine and I was looking at his bio and that makes him sound like a bad mamba-jamba. I was thinking, “Wow, this guy has been there and done that, global war on terror tip of the spear perched like a falcon to keep America safe.” It was that kind of bio. So, ok, that’s interesting. The thing is, I used to be a paper-pushing number-cruncher. However, I was part of the evil Military-Industrial complex branch of the War on Terror. I never did anything interesting, but I worked with really awesome people. I was interested, so I asked around a little bit about this guy from some friends. Turns out that this guy is totally full of crap. He was a number-crunching paper-shuffler like me, but he has made out like he is “Mr. Badass.”
Well, now the fact that he faked his biography is out there and people know that he is exaggerating who he is. You don’t need to lie, you don’t ever need to portray yourself as something you’re not. You don’t need to put on some kind of act, because any time you do something like that, it’s going to come back to bite you. Just be cool an be yourself.
A smart man once said, “Be yourself, be your better self.” That is hard for a lot of us. I am well-known on the internet for having anger-management issues. I have Adult Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I don’t know if that is a real thing, but I have it. Sometimes you have to tread kind of carefully. It’s really hard because it all comes down to what you, personally, are comfortable with. Some authors are more opinionated than others, some authors come off as jerks. That’s really common in our business because you pretty much have to have an ego to write. You’re making up stories, you’re making up stuff, so you have to be confident enough in the stuff you’re making up that you think people are going to like it. You can do that and still be professional, though. Moderate what you say, but never moderate who you are, you understand? Be true to yourself.
Be confident. There are people out there who are going to try and cow you into never sharing your opinion on anything, because your opinion is different from theirs or different than the herd. That, to me, is just wrong and I can’t do that. I can’t shut up, so I’m going to argue with these people. If you’re not an argumentative person and you don’t want to pick fights in publishing, avoid this. If you don’t want people to get mad at you and certain publishers to hate your guts, then be careful. Be careful what you say, because there are people in this industry who will hose you.
I have a bunch of examples I don’t want to share, but there is a lot of bias in this business. The vast majority of the publishing industry is in Manhattan. Think about the island of Manhattan. It is entirely paved, and there aren’t a lot of gun ranges in Manhattan. Not many Republican National Conventions held in Manhattan. So, when you’re sharing your personal beliefs, just keep in mind that you might hurt some people’s feelings and they might get mad at you.
When you’re marketing yourself and you’re just starting out, it’s probably a good idea to avoid really controversial opinions or subjects. That wasn’t an option for me. I was a political blogger before I was a novelist. I did lobbying for gun rights stuff and I owned a machine-gun store, so I was sort of out of the closet. I offended a lot of people from the first.
If you don’t have to hobble yourself with that, don’t. Just play it cool. You can have opinions but be nice, be professional and tread carefully around things that might hurt people’s feelings or that might offend them. That’s all I can really tell you about that.
After you’re beyond the “be careful and don’t hurt people’s feelings” stage of the game, there are a million ways to actually market yourself. The key is putting together a group of 4,000 or 5,000 people who really like you and who will buy all your stuff sight unseen. If you can get that to 10,000 or 20,000 or 100,000 people, then you are going to be doing amazing amounts of business with your books. The key, then, is how do you get yourself in front of this crowd? What you need to ask yourself is “Where is my crowd? Where is my target audience? How do I reach that target audience?” The first thing is to think about what you write and how it relates to them. Think about what they read and how do they get that reading material.
I started out in internet gun forums. That was my target audience. As another example, I don’t about historical fiction. I don’t know where people who like that gather or what their interests are. If I were going to do historical fiction, I would ask myself, “Where do these people go? Where do they congregate? Where do they get what they read? What websites do they go to? What interests them? What conventions do they go to? Who are the big people, the movers and shakers, the opinion makers in that crowd?” In any community, you are going to have the big bloggers. The ones who have the blog that everybody reads in that target audience. If you can get in with them and get yourself in front of that crowd and have them reviewing your books, then that’s huge.
For people self-publishing, once you have your book out there, you have it in the store or at Amazon, make sure that you have people review your book. If you can ask your friends to review your book, do it. If you do give out some sample copies to a blog or something, ask those people to give you an honest review, but make sure it’s honest. It is easy to pick out the dishonest reviews. Don’t ever pay for reviews, that’s just a scam. There are people who will sell you reviews, and that’s crap. That’s like getting an email message about a Nigerian prince who will send you his fortune, if you’ll just send him $10,000. Ask for honest reviews, and if people give you honest reviews, it will bump your book higher in the searches.
As far as marketing, we talked about covers. Covers are huge. The cover is the first interaction someone has with your book. The first impression of the book is going to be determined by whatever the visual of that thumbnail is. Get a good author photo. Don’t look like a doofus in your author photo. If you look like a doofus in your author photo on Amazon, people will say you’re a doofus.
Clean up and get someone with a good camera to take the picture. You don’t have to spend a fortune. My author photo, the one that is on the back cover of every hardcover I sell and has been used for every one of the marketing efforts for any of my books is a picture my wife took of me sitting on the front steps of our house. But, it is a really good photo from a really good camera and it has totally done the job.
Once your career gets going a little bit, you are going to get invited to be a panelist at conventions. I would recommend going to these conventions. It’s a great experience and it’s a great way to get in front of people. You’ll get up in front of these audiences and talk about yourself and your work. Act like a professional. Don’t be a doofus on a panel, especially when you’re first starting out. Everybody who has been to a con has seen “that guy” on a panel who won’t shut up about his books. He won’t stop yammering about his personal stuff and he keeps talking over the other three people. If you were in the audience, what do you suppose you remember about that guy? You remember him as a jerk and an asshole. Are you inclined to purchase his books? Probably not, because the guy made a negative first impression on you.
So, if you get out there in a convention, know your place when you are interacting with other authors and you are in these social venues and book signings. Know your place and don’t be an outspoken jerk. Once again, I am giving you advice that I, myself, don’t actually manage to follow. Remember no rules for writing. I am the guy that would flip the table over and yell, “No, you’re all wrong.” Then security would escort me from the building. Don’t do that.
More about marketing. When I was starting out in traditional publishing, I financed my own book signings and travel, because my publisher wasn’t going to pay for a brand new author to go gallivanting all over the country. I would team up with other authors so that we could split hotel costs and rental car costs. We would fly to some city where we had called various bookstores and gotten the event set up. We would go out and we would meet people and shake hands and talk to bookstore employees, the clerks and cashiers and such. If you can get fans at a bookstore to point people to your books, you are going to sell 100x the number of books at that store, and that is not an exaggeration. If no one at that bookstore has ever head of you, then your books will just languish in obscurity.
If you have fans on staff, though, they are going to talk you up. So, the important thing at these events, particularly when you’re starting out, is not to meet your fans, the three or four people who come out to see you even though that is really cool. The important thing is getting to know the staff. If the staff think you’re cool, they’re more likely to support you.
At my local Barnes and Nobles here where I live, I have a bunch of fans on staff. I sell more books at that bookstore than at any other bookstore in the country. Why? Because they’re fans and so when people come in, they tell them, “Hey, you should check this out, it’s really cool!”
Marketing-wise, if you can get your books in front of people who do book reviews online, that is excellent. But keep in mind, reviewers vary in quality and they vary in how many people read their reviews. A lot of the internet reviewers aren’t as important as they’d like you to think they are. Also, the more successful ones are less likely to review self-published works because they get hundreds and hundreds of requests.
The key, if you’re self-published, to get reviewed at good review sites is to have some sort of in or contact or personal experience where you schmoozed with the reviewer at a convention or something of that nature. That will help you get a review from one of these sites. Even word-of-mouth helps. If you know somebody and they know somebody at one of these sites, get in contact with them.
Anything you can do as marketing to stay out of that slush pile is good. If you have a friend of a friend who knows a guy, then contact that friend to put you in touch with his friend to see if you can contact that guy. Whatever you have to do to get your stuff in front of the right people, do it.
There are all kinds of marketing schemes, but not all of them are equally effective. I know an author here in Utah that bought radio advertising for his books. I asked him what he got off of that, and he said, “As far as I can tell, nothing. Nothing at all.” It was pretty expensive, too.