Writing

Kindle Scout

A tweet from Damien Walter led me to Amazon’s Kindle Scout page, which I hadn’t heard about before. It looks to me like an Amazonian hybrid approach to publishing.

Basically, you submit your unpublished book of 50K words or more. After a short review period (to make sure your book is acceptable), you get a Kindle Scout “Campaign Page,” that includes the first 5000 or so words of the book. Readers nominate their favorites, and at the end of the 30-day campaign, the Kindle Scout team selects books to publish. From the FAQs:

“Nominations give us an idea of which books readers think are great; the rest is up to the Kindle Scout team who then reviews books for potential publication.”

If a book you nominated gets a Kindle Scout contract, you receive a free copy of the ebook. But you can only nominate up to three books at a time. Basically, Amazon is crowdsourcing their slush pile. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Baen does something similar at the Baen Bar, as I understand it. But I wince to think of the campaigning and clumsy self-promotion Amazon’s approach will likely create.

The publishing contract is for five years, and includes a $1500 advance and 50% ebook royalties. No indication of whether or not the terms are negotiable. For that $1500 advance, Amazon gets “the exclusive, irrevocable, worldwide right to publish e-book and audio editions of your Work, in whole and in part, in all languages, along with those rights reasonably necessary to effectuate those rights” for the duration of the contract.

(Data points: $1500 isn’t a bad advance for a small press, though I’d want to negotiate the rights grab. However, $1500 would be unacceptably low from a major publisher. Also, it’s not at all unusual to get a $1500 advance for a book’s English language audio rights alone.)

I find it curious that the ebook royalty rate is 50% for direct sales, lower than the 70% rate most self-published authors get for their e-books on Amazon. That royalty rate is definitely better than most traditional publishers offer. However, Kindle Scout royalties for third party sales are 75% of net, which is less desirable.

Clause 13 makes me rather nervous. “You acknowledge that we have no obligation to publish, market, distribute or offer for sale your Work, or continue publishing, marketing, distributing or selling your Work after we have started doing so. We may stop publishing your Work and cease further exploitation of the rights granted in this Agreement at any time in our sole discretion without notice to you.”

So the author gets a small advance with a good royalty rate for direct sales (though not as good as you’d get by publishing it yourself). You may receive some Amazon marketing, which is potentially helpful and important. But then again, you may not. Amazon also has the right to give up on you at any time, per clause 13. The author is stuck with the contract for at least two years, at which point you can request the reversion of your rights.

What I don’t see is any indication of what Amazon provides when they publish the book. Do you get an editor? A copy-editor? How much will they invest in cover art, if anything? What sort of publicity might they offer, and will that publicity extend beyond the borders of Amazon?

That makes me very uncomfortable. The whole thing feels a bit like a chimera of traditional and vanity publishing, combined with a manuscript display service.

I could be wrong. It looks like they’re just rolling this sucker out, so it’s possible the terms will be revised, or that more information will be forthcoming. But right now, I definitely wouldn’t recommend this as a top choice for new writers looking to get published.

ETA: Author Beth Bernobich contacted Amazon, and passed along the following information: “The book and cover must be ready to publish when you submit. So, they do not provide any editing, copyediting, or proofreading. Nor any cover art or design. And that contract? Non-negotiable. If you submit, it means you agree to the contract as is, and you cannot back out.”

The Gospels of Publishing

We start this service with a reading from The Book of Maass:

“…because some authors are now—voluntarily!—willing to bear the expense and undertake the effort of building an audience by themselves, print publishers have the luxury of culling the prize cattle from the herd. Even print-only distribution deals with a handful of successful e-published authors are terrific: easy pickings and effortless profit. Most authors are still knocking at the gate, too, since after all seventy percent of trade book sales are of print editions. In many ways these are good times for print publishers.”

“…the self-publishing movement has produced gold-rush hysteria in the writing community. While not exactly a mass delusion, questionable beliefs have been widely accepted. True believers sneer at doubters. So what is the real truth? High success at self-publishing has happened only for a few who have mastered the demanding business of online marketing. A larger, but still small, number of authors have achieved a modest replacement income from self-publishing. Growth from there will be hard for them, however, because wide print distribution still is needed.”

“…the position of the vast majority of self-publishing authors is no better than it ever was, though probably there are fewer cartons of books in their garages. Consultancy to self-publishers is a new job category, however, and that has to be good for the nation’s employment stats.”

And now, a reading from The Book of Konrath:

“…The royals vs. the peasants. The bourgeoisie vs. the proletariat. The establishment vs. the revolutionaries. The haves vs. the have-nots. The gatekeepers spouting bullshit vs. the new breed of writers calling them on their bullshit.

“…for those countless midlist authors stuck with unconscionable contracts because they had no choice, and the multitude of authors kept out of the industry by gatekeepers such as yourself, it didn’t work. It actually sucked wheelbarrows full of ass. Your industry f***ed the majority of writers it provided services for. And that same industry was built on the sweat, tears, toil, and blood of those very writers it exploited.”

“…we talk to each other. We read each others’ contracts. We know how much we can earn on our own. And more and more of us believe the publishers you work for are, indeed, evil f**ks.”

#

The emphasis in the above excerpts was added by  me. I recommend reading the full posts if this is a conversation you’re interested in.

Personally, I find it frustrating and tiresome. Look, I’ve been the author who got crapped on by a major publisher, and I’ve been the author who got book deals in the mid five figures. I’ve hung out with New York Times bestselling authors. I’ve hung out with self-published authors who have moved hundreds of thousands of books. I’ve watched friends move from self-publishing to traditional publishing, and I’ve seen traditionally published authors move into self-publishing.

This whole Us vs. Them thing? It’s bullshit. Traditional publishing isn’t Evil. (Certain individuals within that system, well, that’s another blog post…) Self-publishing and e-books aren’t asteroids coming to wipe out the Dinosaurs. And there’s no One True Path to success as an author.

I’m doing rather well as a mostly traditionally published author, but I’ve had people come along to tell me how stupid I am for not self-publishing. They lay out math full of ridiculously flawed assumptions and generalizations to “prove” how much more I’d be making if I published my own e-books. It’s possible they might be right — maybe I would do even better — but it’s in no way a sure thing. They assume everything my agent and publisher do for me, either I could do just as well myself, or else it isn’t really necessary.

You see it from the other side too, the idea that self-publishing doesn’t count. I haven’t personally seen as much of this side, but I suspect I’d see it a lot more if I was a primarily self-published author.

You want “the real truth”? Here’s some truth for you.

  • There are authors doing ridiculously, amazingly well with traditional publishing.
  • There are authors doing incredibly, mind-blowingly well with self-publishing.
  • There aren’t a hell of a lot of people in either category.
  • Being a writer is hard work, no matter what path you choose.

It’s that last bit I want to stress. There are plenty of paths out there, which is wonderful, but it’s also nerve-wracking. Which way is the right way for me? What if I make the wrong choice? What if those people are right, and I really would be doing better if I’d self-published all of my stuff instead of going through a traditional publisher? What if I self-publish my stuff and nobody ever finds it?

I wonder if that anxiety is part of why so many people are quick to cling to that false Us vs. Them framework. Personally, I think Maass’ view of writers as cattle is insulting and ridiculous, but if I tell myself that he’s representative of all of Them, then clearly I’m on the side of Right by self-publishing. When I see a self-published author repeatedly spamming people online and desperately shoving self-promotional material into people’s hands at conventions, all to promote a book with a cover that looks like it was done in MS Paint, a part of me wants to cling to that as proof that I’m better off with my publisher. I have to remind myself that this isn’t The Awful Truth of self-publishing.

I love reading folks like Tobias Buckell and Chuck Wendig, or watching what the authors over at Book View Cafe have been up to. These are people who avoid the Us vs. Them trap, who admit there’s more than one way to succeed as a writer. They try different things, and they acknowledge different paths.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t read what Maass or Konrath have to say. Just don’t fall into the trap of believing there’s One True Path. We’re all figuring this out, and the path that’s worked for me might not be the right one for you. In fact, it probably isn’t, since mine started almost two decades ago.

Do your research. Learn about the different possibilities. And make your own path.

Writing Income in More Detail

My 2013 writing income post brought up a number of good questions in the comments. And one odd question about my bedroom habits and whether or not I was a first-rate lover … but that might have been spam. Either way, I’m not going to address that one here. But I did want to talk about the rest.

First off, some relevant links:

And now, on to the questions.

“I’d be curious to see how the income breaks down over time across income types too: advance, d&a, residual…”

A lot depends on the contracts. Advances are often broken into multiple payments. For books three and four of the Magic ex Libris series, I get part of the advance on signing (once DAW has received and processed the signed contracts), part upon the delivery and acceptance (D&A) of the final, revised manuscript, and part on publication. I’ve gotten the on-signing money for books three and four, but that’s all so far. I’ve turned in the manuscript for Unbound, and once my editor gets back to me, I’ll do another revision. When that’s accepted, I’ll get the second portion of the advance (D&A) for that book.

How everything breaks down depends on the size of the advance, too. Say Author X is getting 90% of their money as royalties and only 10% as advance money. This could mean they have a very small advance. It could mean a big advance but the book sold a lot more copies than expected. It could mean a large backlist of titles that have earned out and are generating royalties. If someone never earns out and gets any royalties, does that mean their books don’t sell, or does it mean they got huge advances?

With that said…

  • All of my books have earned out their advances, with the exception of Codex Born. (And since Codex Born came out in August 2013, I haven’t seen a royalties statement yet, so it’s possible that one has also earned out. But I doubt it.)
  • I signed contracts for three new books in 2013, which means there’s a higher-than-normal proportion of on-signing advance money.

Here’s how the $55,000 or so of U.S. novel income (before taxes) breaks down for 2013.

“Is any of the variation due to publishers paying irregularly?”

DAW operates on six-month royalty periods, 1/1 – 6/30 and 7/1 – 12/31. Since most of my books have earned out their advances, this means I get royalty checks on a fairly regular and predictable twice/year schedule (usually around April and October). The payment process isn’t quick, by any means, but I haven’t had trouble getting paid by the major publishers. I’ve occasionally had smaller checks get delayed or forgotten, but in general, a nudge from either my agent or myself has been enough to shake those loose.

You listed your self-published income. How many titles have you self-published vs. your traditionally published work?

I’m primarily a traditionally published author. My nine fantasy novels are all in print from DAW Books.

I’ve self-published three short collections, which you can see at the bottom of my Bookstore page. I also self-published my non-genre novel Goldfish Dreams.

Given that the majority of my work is published by DAW and other major publishers, it should come as no surprise that most of my income is from those same sources. When those books go out of print with DAW, I certainly plan on self-publishing them myself in order to keep my backlist available.

Personally, I think the whole Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing argument is rather silly, but that hasn’t stopped people from using my initial blog post to show why one side or the other is the Right way to publish. All I’ll say is that this way is working pretty well for me right now.

“How much of that upfront payment do you give away to taxes? If you were to make, say, $60K, would you lose 1/3? 1/2?”

The numbers I posted were pre-tax, which means a chunk of it will be going right back out.

Last year, I paid estimated quarterly taxes that totaled around $5000 (based on my 2012 income) against what I expected to make in 2013. I also have a pretty high deduction on my income from the day job, so some of that spills over to pay for taxes on the writing.

I honestly won’t know how much I’m paying in taxes until I get the rest of our W-2s. A bit of hunting around online for self-employment tax calculators suggests that for self-employment income of $60,000, I could expect to pay a total of about $8500 in federal taxes, and an unknown-but-smaller amount in state taxes. But so much depends on other factors, which means I honestly don’t know.

What about your agent’s cut?

The numbers I posted are after my agent takes his commission.

Why are your expenses so low? Are you forgetting to take some tax deductions?

I messed up a bit on this part, and I apologize for that. The expenses I listed were only those that I had dollar amounts for in my annual writing budget spreadsheet: hotel costs, postage, etc. They omitted things I don’t calculate until I start doing my taxes, like mileage or meal allowances. And I was indeed missing a few deductions — thank you to folks who pointed those out. I’ve always been a bit conservative about taking deductions, though I’m moving away from that.

Having started working on taxes, here’s a better accounting of my writing expenses for 2013, which come to a total of $6,861. Yeah, I really messed up the initial estimate there.

  • Mileage: 4,290, which comes to a mileage deduction of $2,424.
  • Meal Allowance: $2,517, of which I get to deduct half.
  • Parking, tolls, taxi, etc: $684
  • Website-related costs: $146
  • Postage: $241
  • Internet/wireless: $766
  • Other: $83

What exactly do you mean by foreign sales? Does your UK deal for Magic ex Libris count?

Good question. I was not counting the UK deal, in part because of how my contracts work. My agent negotiated a deal with DAW wherein DAW gets the rights to publish the books in English in the U.S. and Canada. DAW also gets certain other rights that they can sublicense, including things like putting them out in audio, selling them to a book club (in English), or licensing the UK edition to a UK publisher. I get paid when any of these things happen. As I understand it, these payments are usually applied against the advance, but since Libriomancer earned out pretty quickly, money for the book club, audio books, and UK deal just got bundled in to the royalties payment from DAW.

DAW did not get non-English rights, which means when we sold the Magic ex Libris books to Germany, for example, that deal was directly with me and my agent. When I get paid for those, the money comes from the German publisher to my agent and then to me, instead of going through DAW.

“Do you think your writing income would rise meaningfully if it were your sole job?”

Yes. I don’t know how much, but my hope is that I’d be able to consistently produce at least two books a year, as opposed to the one/year schedule I’ve been on for so long. If I could do that — especially if I could branch out a bit with some of those books — I think it would lead to a significant increase in the writing income.

Or maybe I’d just spend more time blogging and posting on Twitter.

Hopefully someday I’ll be able to put that to the test.

Chasing the Market

I was a guest speaker at the Write on the Red Cedar workshop last weekend, talking to other writers about fantasy and publishing and different aspects of the writing career … it was a fairly small group, so I ran it as more of an open Q&A. A lot of the questions were about what was hot in the market. What’s popular right now? What’s the next Big New Thing? What are agents and editors looking for? What do the kids want to read?

These are valid questions. Heck, the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency just posted an article about what sixteen American editors are looking for in 2014. It’s worth reading this sort of thing and learning what editors and agents are seeing too much of, and what they’re particularly interested in acquiring. But I think we place far too much weight on this sort of question, especially when we’re starting out.

What do publishers and agents and readers want? They want good, interesting stories.

That’s a total cop-out answer, I know. What does “good” or “interesting” mean? Was The Hunger Games the most interesting book to come out in its year? Was Twilight the best? Come on, Hines. Tell us the truth. Aren’t YA and Middle Grade hot right now, so shouldn’t we all be writing in those genres?

Okay, fine. You asked for it.

Remember, my opinion is obviously THE RIGHTEST, SMARTEST, COOLEST OPINION ON THE WHOLE INTERNET. However, I’m forced to acknowledge that plenty of authors with WRONG and UNCOOL opinions on how to build a career seem to have somehow succeeded as well, despite not doing everything exactly the way I think they should.

With that said, particularly for new writers, trying to write what’s hot probably isn’t the best way to go. For one thing, publishing is slow. For most people, it takes time to write a good book. If you publish traditionally, you’re looking at an additional few years of submitting your stuff, getting it edited and marketed, and so on, before it finally hits the bookstores. By which time you’ve totally missed the Sexy YA Were-Jaguar boat, which has now been replaced by Goblin/Leprechaun Romance. And sure, you could self-publish the book to try to speed things up a little, but you still need to write the thing. And if you’re trying to do it right, you still need to get it edited, get your cover art created, etc.

Another problem is that for most of us, the stories we write when we’re starting out are pretty derivative. We haven’t found our own voice and style. Which means if I see that Blue-Green Love: When Jig the Goblin got Lucky made the bestseller lists and decide to chase that trend, I’m a lot more likely to try to end up writing a weak imitation of that story instead of coming up with a truly new and original twist on hot goblin/leprechaun love.

My advice, for whatever it is or isn’t worth, is to write what you love. Write the kind of stories you want to read. Write things that excite you. Write what you’re passionate about. Chasing trends and writing stories you don’t care about just because you think they’re hot seems like a quick path to depression and burnout.

Goblin Quest [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] was the fourth book I ever wrote, but it was one of the first times I said screw it, I don’t care about the market, I’m just going to write something fun, something that makes me happy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Goblin Quest is in many ways the book that launched my career.

And as it turned out, monster-themed books were the Hot Trend in Germany when my goblin books came out. If I’d added David Hasselhoff to the story, I could have retired a millionaire. But even without the Hoff, I was able to ride that trend, not because of anything I had planned, but because I happened to have the right books at the right time, with an agent who could make that deal happen. It was awesome, and I’d love to catch another wave like that, but I don’t think that’s something I have a lot of control over.

My advice on writing for the market? Know what’s out there. Read what’s come before, and read what’s selling right now. Then go and write your own stories. Write something new. Tell stories that make you laugh and cry. Write the scenes that make you want to call up your best friend and say, “Holy shit, you won’t believe what I just did in this story!!!”

Those are the stories that will make you and your work stand out.

I’d love to hear other writers’ opinions on this one … even if those opinions are WRONG ;-)

2013 Writing Income

ETA: I did a follow-up post addressing some of the questions people asked about how the income breaks down, expenses, etc.

#

I’ve been blogging about my writing income since 2007. It’s an odd thing, and feels tacky at times, but I also think it’s important. There’s very little data out there about how much money writers make, and a lot of folks — both new writers and muggles — have unrealistic ideas about the authorial lifestyle. I blame Castle.

My income posts from previous years are here: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.

From a financial perspective, 2013 has been the best year I’ve ever had as a writer. I sold three novels — books three and four in the Magic ex Libris series to DAW, and another project I can’t talk about yet. All total, before taxes and expenses, I earned about $60,800 — enough that I was able to pay off my wife’s student loans and put a little bigger dent in our mortgage.

While the year-to-year income is much more erratic than what I’ve made at my day job, the overall trend makes me happy. I expect I’ll probably make less in 2014 than I did last year, in part because I’ll be busy writing those novels I sold last year, and I highly doubt I’ll sell three more before the end of this one. On the other hand, there will be the D&A (delivery & acceptance) for at least two of those books, along with the on-publication payment … I have no idea what 2014 will look like, but it shouldn’t be too bad.

The writing expenses for the year actually dropped to a little over $1000, thanks to a number of Guest of Honor and Toastmaster invites, which reduced my convention costs. (Thank you!!!) My income tax payments are going to take a much bigger chunk out of things, but that’s to be expected.

The income breakdown is a bit different this year.

  • Novels (U.S.): $55,350
  • Novels (Foreign Editions): $1,000
  • Self-Published: $1,650
  • Short fiction and Nonfiction: $1,500
  • Miscellaneous: $1,300

This is by far the least I’ve ever made from foreign language sales. (I’m not including the U.K. deals for Magic ex Libris here, because while U.K. English is indeed a foreign and confusing tongue, that deal was done as a sublicensing thing through my U.S. publisher, and I’ve only ever included non-English income in that category in prior years.) I honestly have no idea what happened here. It’s the second year in a row I’ve seen a significant dropoff in foreign income, and it’s something I’ll be following up with my agent about.

The income for my self-published stuff remained pretty constant. I don’t make a lot of money there, but considering I do zero work, I’m not going to complain!

Looking at the last few years, if it was just me, I’d be giving serious thought to quitting my day job, signing up for insurance through the ACA, and writing full time. But with a family of four to support, all of whom have health issues of one form or another, I’m not ready to make that jump quite yet.

For a little more background, I’m a U.S.-based author, and I started trying to write back in 1995, so realistically, it’s taken me 18 years to get to this point. I have nine fantasy novels in print with DAW. The first came out from DAW in 2006. The last two were published in hardcover. Most of my books have made the Locus bestseller lists, though I don’t hit the NYT or USA Today lists. (Yet.) I’m primarily — almost exclusively — a “traditionally” published author.

As always, please keep in mind that I’m a sample size of one. Trying to draw any broad, sweeping conclusions from such a sample would be … illogical.

With that said, I hope this is helpful, and as always, I’m happy to answer any questions folks might have.

An Apology to The Write Agenda

The other day, I wrote that my candidacy appeared to have annoyed the folks over at The Write Agenda. They’ve written to explain that no, not only have I not annoyed them, they’re actually pleased with my candidacy, wishing me the best of luck and describing me as “a potential Moses.”

Okay, I admit this was not what I was expecting, and even threw me off-balance a bit. So I went back and checked the comments that referenced my “bad reputation” at TWA.

First of all, I was shocked to discover that, despite having three different names, those comments appeared to have come from the same person! What a shocking twist. And the IP address puts this individual on a computer at Matawan Aberdeen Library–

HOLY CRAP, IT’S ANOTHER TWIST!!! By an incredible coincidence, Matawan also happens to be the home of “literary agent” Barbara Bauer:

Barbara Bauer Literary Agency, Inc.
[Street Address Removed]
Matawan, NJ 07747-2944

Some of you might recall Ms. Bauer from such blog posts as Making Light’s Dumbest of the Twenty Worst, the discussion at Absolute Write, alerts from Writer Beware, and more.

Now, according to a great deal of research by Writer Beware, The Write Agenda appears to be associated with Robert Fletcher and Strategic Book Publishing, a.k.a. Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Agency, along with a number of sockpuppets.

While the Write Agenda seems to have a fairly cozy relationship with Ms. Bauer, it’s also true that The Write Agenda have their own sockpuppets, like “Nick Caruso” and “Lizzy Greenberg” and “Michael Sigvagni.”

Ms. Bauer–or whoever from Mattawan, NJ happened to be posting those comments–seems to have adopted a different approach, using the names of authors and others she feels have wronged her for her sockpuppetry.

I’ve watched enough Criminal Minds to realize what this meant. The signatures didn’t match, and I was accusing the wrong unsub!

Man, do I have egg on my face or what? I MIXED UP THE SOCKPUPPETS! Mea culpa, and I apologize to Robert and everyone else at The Write Agenda for getting their sockpuppets confused with those of Ms. Ba–I mean, the “anonymous” commenter from New Jersey.

2012 Writing Income

Ever since 2007, I’ve been doing my best to talk openly about my income as an author. It’s occasionally awkward, but I also believe it’s helpful to new and aspiring writers. If nothing else, it lets me play Mythbuster with the fairy tale that writers are all fabulously wealthy with their own built-in laser tag arena and fleet of customized DeLoreans…

My income posts from previous years are here: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011.

2012 was an odd year. In many ways, it’s the best year I’ve ever had as an author. My eighth book with DAW came out in hardcover, and went through four printings in the first few months. I won a Hugo award. I saw some of my books come out in audio format for the first time ever. The goblin books were re-released as a trade paperback omnibus, and also sold to the Science Fiction Book Club.

So it was a little weird at first to realize that I made significantly less money in 2012 than I did in the prior year. The grand total for 2012 was $33,598.19 before expenses and taxes and all the rest. Compare that to almost $43,000 from 2011.

I figured the reason for the drop was pretty straightforward: I didn’t sell any new books to my U.S. publisher last year. The deal for Libriomancer and Codex Born was made in 2011, and while I have ideas for book three in the series, I haven’t pitched it yet. So while 2012 saw some money for delivering the final manuscript for Libriomancer and the on-publication payment, it wasn’t as much as the on-signing advance for those two books last year.

At least, that’s what I had assumed … and then I started looking at the numbers more closely. Thanks to royalties and subrights sales (audio and SFBC), my U.S. novels actually made more than they did last year. Turns out it was the foreign sales that saw the real drop, and I’m not sure why.

The income from my self-published titles jumped a bit, probably in part because I put another collection out midway through the year. I didn’t write or sell much short fiction last year, which is part of why the miscellaneous income (from speaking fees, a few nonfiction pieces, and reprint sales) is the smallest category.

  • Novels (U.S.): $25,800
  • Novels (Foreign): $5,020
  • Self-Published: $1,950
  • Miscellaneous: $820

I’m still sorting out expenses for the year, but it looks like that’s going to come in around $2000 or so, mostly for conventions. That’s been fairly steady for several years now. I actually made it to a few more conventions, and did a little more traveling last year, but several of those were Guest of Honor gigs, which helped balance things out.

The other interesting thing (to me) is how erratic the checks were. I made a total of $115 in the month of January, but February was an awesome month, with more than $6000 showing up in the mail. March and April went the same way. The fact that I have a full time day job means I’ve got a steady income I can count on for most of our day-to-day needs, but if I’m ever able to go full time as a writer, I’m going to have to be a lot more careful about budgeting for the long term.

That was my 2012. Please remember I’m just one author, and you can’t make sweeping generalizations from a sample size of one. But I hope the information is useful, and as always, I’m happy to answer any questions.

2011 Writing Income

Quick Announcement: I came across the German cover art for Snow Queen’s Shadow yesterday. Click the thumbnail to check that out.

Quick Thanks: My Fantasy Poses post has now been viewed well over 100,000 times, which is awesome. But I’ve noticed that as this continues to spread, I’m seeing a larger number of comments that … well, let’s just say I sometimes take for granted the mostly thoughtful, respectful, and fun comments and discussions from people here on the blog. Glancing at these other sites has been a reminder to 1) STOP READING COMMENTS ON UNMODERATED SITES! and 2) thank everyone here for being generally excellent people.

#

It always feels weird to talk about money. Partly this is because we’re taught not to do so. It also feels uncomfortably like boasting. I know a lot of people are struggling right now, and the last thing I want to do is rub their noses in the fact that I had a good year.

At the same time, there are so many misconceptions about writers and how much they make… I continue to run into people who assume I’m rich because I’ve got some books out, people who expect me to live in a mansion with solid gold robokittens and nuclear powered toothbrushes and so on. And I think it’s important to bust some of the myths about writing and writers.

I’ll put this behind a cut tag. If you’re interested, then read on…

More

The Right Way to Write

One of the unusual things about Sanchin-Ryu is that the class meets only once a week, through the local community ed. program (which helps keep the cost down). But you’re allowed to visit other classes, which I’ve tried to do on a fairly regular basis. Last week, I was at the Lansing class, where Master Barnes was working us through the basics, presenting them in a way I hadn’t seen before.

The first punch was slightly higher. The second and third extended out further. The heel-palm strike was targeted more to the center. I’ve been doing these moves for four years … but not like that.

This has been an ongoing thing with Sanchin-Ryu, the idea that there’s no single way to do a technique or a form. Throwing basic ten with a chop to the shoulder and a heel-palm to the ribs is totally valid … but so is throwing the chop to the temple and following up with a heel-palm to the eye socket.

We talked about that some last week, and this time I got a new answer. Instead of talking about how there isn’t a single right way, Master Barnes suggested that there is in fact a right way to perform a technique: the right way is the way that works, that allows you to get out of the situation alive.

I like that. And writing, to me, is the same way. The right way is the way that works, the way that allows you to most effectively tell the story you want to tell.

Which isn’t to say there are no rules. If I try to throw a kick while standing on my head, it’s going to be pretty ineffective. Stances and techniques are taught that way for a reason. But the more you study, the more you learn how to take the idea of a certain stance and apply it to different situations. An “Open L” stance might be longer or shorter depending on where you are, what you intend to do, and so on.

Writing is the same. There are certain rules and techniques that pretty much every published author I’ve met has learned to use. But as you continue to study and grow as a writer, you learn to adapt those rules, when to take risks, and so on.

And you are taking risks. If I modify the throw in one form, maybe I can do a bit more damage, but I also open myself up to a strike to the ribs. Likewise, if I adjust the techniques of storytelling, I might produce a more effective scene … but I might also jar readers out of the story.

Writing has rules, but those rules are fluid. A white belt writer breaks the rules because s/he doesn’t know any better. A black belt writer adapts those rules deliberately, to achieve specific ends.

Discussion is welcome, as always.

Getting Past the Plateau

I received the following question by e-mail earlier this week:

It’s been a couple of years since I got serious about writing, and I feel a little stuck. I was wondering if you have any insights on how to improve as a writer. I write pretty much every day, as much as I can … But I feel like I’m not getting much better. I think at a certain point, I might need some guidance. Do you have any suggestions? What helped you? A class? A teacher? Any particular con that has great workshops? A book?

Yep, I’ve been there more than once. There were years I was writing away, submitting to every paying market I could find and getting nowhere. I felt stuck, like I had become a pretty good writer, just not good enough … whatever that meant.

It’s frustrating, it’s discouraging, and it’s normal. It’s not limited to writing, either. I’ve hit plateaus in everything from karate to yo-yo tricks. Here are a few of my thoughts on getting past them…

1. There’s a difference between “I feel like I’m not getting much better” and “I’m not getting better.” It’s hard to see improvement, especially when it’s gradual. But read one of your trunked stories from five years ago. You might be shocked at the contrast. (You might not, too. All of this is individual, and my experience is mine alone.)

2. Writing groups. In 2001, I started workshopping with four other local writers, and it helped a lot. I think the things that made the group work for me were:

  • We were all in roughly the same point in our careers, with one or two professional sales each.
  • We had similar goals: we wanted to sell fiction. (As opposed to wanting warm fuzzies or a mutual lovefest.)
  • We met regularly, giving me built-in deadlines.
  • I submitted work regularly, meaning they were able to see and point out trends in my writing.

The writing group eventually dissolved, and I don’t think a group would be as helpful to me today. But one way or another, most of us need feedback from people who know what they’re talking about.

2b. Other feedback. These days, I get that feedback from my agent, my editor, and a handful of other professionally published authors. It helps. How-to-write books can be useful (I started reading Maass’ book a while back), but I think in-person feedback helps more. And one-time feedback (such as a convention workshop) wasn’t as helpful to me as longer-term, ongoing feedback from someone who could see the patterns in my work.

3. Write something different. Challenge yourself. A few things I tried include:

  • Collaborating with a friend on a SF story
  • Writing a research-intensive historical fantasy
  • Trying to write tear-jerkers (I was most comfortable with humor)

The downside of these experiments is that sometimes you’re going to fail hard. But you’ll also learn from them.

4. Take risks. Avoid the “safe” stories. Write what scares you. Write what you’re passionate about. Write what you love. Rip open your heart and smear it all over the page. Heck, Goblin Quest might be humorous fantasy fluff, but I love that little goblin, and I’ve got an awful lot of empathy for the runt who gets tormented by the crowd. The story meant a lot to me, and I think that strengthened the book.

5. Other suggestions include reading widely, hanging out with other authors (for the energy, if nothing else), and remembering to think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. It can take ten years or more to sell that first novel. Be patient with yourself.

I hope this is helpful, and folks are more than welcome to chime in with other ideas and suggestions.