Finding Success in Fiction Writing In Spite of — Everything
Finding Success in Fiction Writing In Spite of — Everything
Of course, after acid-testing everything you know to be “true” for a year — occasionally some of these things slap you upside your head. Because you should have started with these.
The reply of course is: “The next best time to start is — Now.”
I started the Great Fiction Writing Challenge on January 1st, 2018. This was an “eat your own dog food” approach to what I’d boiled down as necessary to succeed as a fiction writer. I hadn’t written much fiction before that, and published little of that.
The point to the challenge is/was to test all this data, conventional or not, that were common to real successes in the industry. Studying the back-trail of authors who had gotten into 6-figure incomes starting off as a fiction writer — and continued to write.
What slapped me upside the face were a few things:
Building Your Audience is First
This is simply returning to Content Inc as a solid base for fiction writers. Sure, you have to be writing fiction daily and publishing weekly (not weakly.) But the first thing is to find your audience.
To do that, it’s key also to find yourself — they go hand in hand. Many author-guru’s tell you to write to that one person in front of you. Imagine their expression as you read your story aloud (or in your mind.) Do you lose their interest? Do you lose where you are at in a sentence? Does your own mind start wandering as you read the page? That is really the main reason for reading your own book out loud — as part of proofing.
The formula I found and have repeated for several years now:
- Write like you talk.
- Talk like you’re presenting.
- Present like a TED talk (rivet your audience in their chairs.)
Your text should be normal sounding to you. While you don’t have to be great at public speaking, start by reading your own stuff out loud in the quietude of your own room. Does it sound like you talking?
To be sure, read some books where the whole thing is written in some dialect (like Heinlein’s “Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.) But start your own writing by simply getting the words out like you say it. Then build on that. If you talk stuffy, write stuffy. If you talk in bits and pieces of sentences. Write like that. Listen to your own dialog and write your characters like that.
That person you visualize in front of you expects you to talk to them like yourself. And if you are boring them, then maybe leave that part out.
Drama is life with the dull bits cut out. — Alfred Hitchcock
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. — Elmore Leonard.
Rachel Aaron (From 2K to 10K) said something to the effect that “if you don’t like what you are writing, neither will your readers.” Her point was to always find fun at what you are writing and it will go faster. This can also tell you what audience you are going to attract — the ones that like your writing. And if you like your own writing, then you are on the right track.
Reversely, your best-loved books should be the ones you had the most fun writing — because you are attracting an audience that likes the things you like.
The other point in finding your audience is to try all the various genres, and let your inspiration find things for you that you’d like to write — and then write them. As you do, you’ll find the genre(s) where you most like to write. Because (as in my case) Romances become romance-paranormal. Mystery-Detective becomes amateur-detective-paranormal. Action-adventure becomes paranormal-thriller.
You want to master all the physical plot structures by writing specifically in each one. Romance, Mystery, Adventure. Blockbuster books have all three in them. (Like “The DaVinci Code”.) But they are three different ways to tell the same story. Rolling them together gives you the best of all worlds. Always a love interest in there, always suspense and a mystery to solve, while the action gets more intense right up to the end.
And you want to start off writing short stories to master the essentials in each plot structure. Then build these up into anthologies, filling in the gaps of those story arcs with more short stories. Where the short story always winds up with a twist, and each of the four acts in a book have a plot twist in between — it’s just logical to write a serial with the same characters, making each part of it a short story. By the end of those four pieces, you can have a novella, at least.
TIP: Also, you can and should incorporate the modern hour TV drama (44 minutes, actually) into your writing: hook, four acts, teaser. Introduce the main characters in trouble, raise the tension with three pieces separated by plot-twists, then finish it off with a great ending — and then put in a teaser that is unresolved and leaves the reader wanting more (like a new character development.) People are now trained to expect that in all their fiction stories, so incorporate watching some long-running TV series into your daily fiction reading. But only watch the ones you love. Because you need to love every part of your fiction writing in order to do your best work.
(I’ve had some TV series absolutely ruined by stupid writers forced into creating a new story arc — Buffy’s last two years were bad, as were Angel’s last year and a half. And then there’s the last season of Andromeda to cringe over.) Meanwhile, spin-off’s aren’t always worth watching. Stargate was great, Stargate Atlantis wasn’t bad, Stargate Universe was a dead zone. The various Star Trek spin-off’s aren’t always worth watching just because they have that brand name on them and lasted a few years.)
Only read and watch what you like, and be ready to turn away at a moment’s notice. Re-read and re-watch the ones that really moved you.
And always, always write each book better than your last one.
The SLAP: Once you have your book pre-scheduled on Amazon (always pre-schedule everything) then publish it on Wattpad and Medium (as paid) in serials and series. Do this from your first book — and always link back to that book in your intro and outro for each part. Too simple. These two sites should be syndicated to, and will build your audience base. Also get your backlist up there as well, particularly the longer pieces. Your audience won’t like everything the same amount. What they do like, they should be able to buy — so put your links everywhere. (Publish wide and use books2read.com links on everything.)
Use the Stephen King Approach of Writing | Business | Reading
He has these three parts to his life at the time he wrote “On Writing”.
- writing in the morning
- emails in the afternoon
- reading in the evening
Emails can translate to business activities of marketing and self-publishing. And this is for a full-time writer. If you only have a bit of time each day, do like James Blish and others, where you simply arrange to write every day for a certain time. King wrote to a specific word count as a minimum. Blish wrote to the clock, one hour per day for most of his writing career — with a full time day job. Other authors have written to a type-written page count. (One of the most prolific — Max Brand/Frederick S. Faust would type 14 pages of double-spaced text (as much as 20K words) then stop for the day — but not until then.)
I like to write to the end of the story, whether it is 12K, 8K, or 1.4K. Tell the complete story, then proof and publish. (TIP: If you have to marry up two flash fiction to make a book, have one take the lead in its book, then the other as lead in its own. Two books, two covers, two descriptions — because every 45 RPM record has a flip-side, and that might be the one that is more popular than the other.)
Ignore the naysayers about short stories. This is where Louis L’Amour, Ray Bradbury, and Mary Rinehart all started. You’ll be able to tell if your character has enough story there to wind out a whole novel. And proofing is much simpler and faster on shorter works. One short story written (and published) each week will give you 50 stories by the end of the year, and at least one anthology, if not more. 12k of stories each week then gives you 600K words at the end of a year — or about 2400 pages — eight 300-page novels. “Instant” backlist. Why arduously spend years writing a series of novels that you don’t know will be popular enough to keep selling? Build your audience as you write, by including them piece by piece. Write short as serials and in series, publish long (as anthologies). This is where Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Illustrated Man came from.
Meanwhile, you are improving your craft, one story at a time.
Rachel Aaron points out about keeping track of where and when you are writing to find your most productive times (also how much and what subjects you are writing about.) Those records can help you make your writing more efficient. One author found that it wasn’t just getting her kids off to school, but also moving to a local coffee shop (or laundromat). Other authors recommend having a completely different computer and workspace for writing — separate from your business, so that you sit down and are instantly into the creative space. For me, this is simply minimizing all the other windows, and putting a copy of the cover and description visible in one monitor, while a plain text editor is open in the other. (If I have to look something up, I’ll bring back the browser, but minimize it immediately.) No alerts on the screen, cell phone ringer is off. A minimalist approach.
Bottom line — Write while you’re writing, do business in its own time, read/watch in its own time-span — don’t mix these. If you take all day writing (because you’re on a roll) then feel free to spend the next day revising, proofing and publishing. Read at night, though, last thing — it fuels your “unconscious” to give you inspiration for the next day. Keep things balanced.
TIP: Calibre is a great tool for this, as it holds your cover and marketing hook that you use as the first part of the description. And that link to the “txt” file what will open up in your plain-text editor.
SLAP: About half-way through, I found that my best work was in minimizing the screens (as I talked about above) as well as having the cover and marketing hooks written before I started writing the book. Sometimes I don’t do cover and hook (like just this last week.) But in those cases, I already have the concept so concrete that I’m in a rush to catch up — just to get the story out.
I’m a visual person (and a trained graphic artist) so I can go to Pixabay where there is some truly great art, get instant inspiration about the story it’s telling, and then create the cover and title based on it. About half the time, the title will change. Sometimes the image is wrong when I get into the story. Fix them as I go, if needed.
After the cover, I next write the marketing hook, as that is what will make the book worth reading. (And that’s different from the story’s own starting hook.) Having both cover and marketing hook to view then reminds me what details are to be in the book — or where the cover or hook need revising if the story finished without them otherwise.
SLAP: Read authors that really engage you. Who transport you to other worlds and keep you there. This is what you want to emulate. Just translate long works into short stories if that is what you are writing. Meanwhile, look for collections and anthologies of short stories that you really like. Read (and keep reading) only what you really love. Write only what you really love. Publish only your best work — that was a joy to read and proof. And find engaging works that are in the area you are writing about. Heinlein’s “Moon-Mistress” book above was a great background to a series I’m about to write about a moon colony — and reading about shifters (particularly werewolves) is giving me new concepts (although I actually write about were-humans.)
TIP: Earlier short stories may fill a plot hole somewhere else. I wrote a story about a good outcome for a tragic beginning, where people with a destructive biological ability learned to master it. I’d somehow assumed that main character had passed on in that story. But later, I got a “what if?” where she had traded her healing skills for a beater truck that she used to travel in. And wound up saving someone else in another city — a chronically-ill detective. However, that “author” co-wrote this with another pen-name and so merged the idea of healers into that post-dystopian universe that the other “author” was busy creating. And started to explain where the “elementals” appeared from in that other universe.
TIP: Earlier short stories can take on a life of their own. These “Lazurai elementals” stories above then started up a whole series, involving four pen-names and crossing their various genres into a single anthology. Satire, Mystery, Romance, Adventure — all in one book (that insists on growing.) I haven’t broken these out into their own series — yet. They were all written as standalone stories, but take on a new aspect when you organize them by a time-line of events, filling in introductions as needed — and finding places where you can write a new story to fill in an obvious gap.
If You’re Not Making Enough to Live On From Your Writing…
…you’re probably got a mixed-up mindset.
This was the SLAP that happened to me this week, 9 months into this challenge.
I said that fundamental stuff about that Content Inc book way back in 2016 and only recently started to actually realize that I’d skipped over it.
Because I was refusing to run my life the way I was forced to for 20 years in a corporate cult — where weekly numbers were everything, and that opened the door regularly to padded numbers and “corrections”. They didn’t align those metrics to their vision.
When I picked up Pulizzi’s book newly — mainly as I wasn’t getting the results I should have been — I saw that he really said the same thing, but with a different flavor. He read his mission statement (his vision) every day, set goals for the week, and then set daily goals to make those weekly ones. Same procedure on the back end, but their cult had no such thing as a mission statement. Pulizzi’s concept was essentially that having and following a mission statement was more fun, as you were more personally in control — the opposite of any cult, where control is only top-down.
That cult didn’t have mission statements created by the people in each area from the overall mission statement for that specific organization right down to the individual mission statement for a person’s job. They had top-down cutative statements that were generic for every organization, every post, and not personalized to that location, that group, that person. So they got boilerplate results.
You need to understand Covey’s “7 Habits” to really “grok” mission statements. Essentially, the short hand to it is the “Burning Desire” first chapter from Nap Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich”, and the fourth chapter of J. B. Jones’ “If You Can Count to Four.” Both the Summary and Chapter 4 of “Science of Getting Rich” apply — even if a bit metaphysical.
An executable vision (mission statement) is the key point —along with the planning how to get this, which includes weekly and daily To-Do goals. In Pulizzi’s book, he says this is simply by reviewing the top-to-bottom scene every single day.
Every. Single. Day.
I’m still working through the rest of this book. (And note that Pulizzi has “monetization” dead last on this list, even thought the steps overlap.)
This will be the subject of next year’s challenge, as I apply it to several content-based publishing areas.
TIP: Getting a hardcopy (paperback is OK) version of Think and Grow Rich so you can dog-ear and underline and tab it is a great start. Note that I have set up a repeating podcast on my site, so you can download and replay one chapter per week of Nap Hill’s classic and so internalize it. Then start over — keeping this up all year long.
LINK: I’ve found this link (from Mike Shreeve) today, although I’m still studying it out. This tends to align with both Geoff Shaw and Mark Dawson data — write short, publish long, and advertise custom-created anthologies that fit the market.
SLAP: As much as you or I hate ads, somewhere around 99% of Internet users don’t, and will respond to advertising. Amazon, in turn, responds to sales raised by advertising and will promote your book to that degree. I’ve consistently put off learning the skill of advertising because of that intense dislike and because I have to spend time on that daily (a la Mark Dawson) to ensure it’s always maintained (but only as long as it gets positive ROI.) In my chosen model, it’s writing short stories and compiling anthologies from them. Per that link, the author recommends getting off the free model as soon as you can — which is by building up your mailing list for each pen name.
Separately, I’ve been working up the conversion for the lowest-cost and most effective way to get subscribers — at Prolific Works (formerly Instafreebie.) Still a work in progress, like this challenge itself.
Key Slaps in Short:
- Publish Wide and Publish Free to start — Building audience and a subscriber list is your main emphasis (as well as improving your craft and learning to build prolific output.) Sure, put it on Amazon and when approved, publish it in serial and series to Wattpad and Medium — linking back to your paid version (books2read.com link.)
- Do one thing at a time. Turn everything off and only write when you are writing. Follow Heinlein’s advice and finish what you start, put it on sale, keep it on sale.
- Read only what you like, write only what you like. Use other’s stories to both inspire you and improve your craft. Also watch long-running TV series to follow plot arcs and character development — but only the ones you like. Drop the ones you don’t.
- Follow Content Inc model. Period. Means getting your mission statement worked out and doing weekly and daily goal lists (to-do’s) that move you toward your mission statement. Have a vision, refer to it regularly, implement your planning and revise it as necessary.
- It’s OK to advertise — even if Facebook and Google are simply ripping off and monetizing their users’ personal (private) data. Oh, sure — use Brave browser and DuckDuckGo search engine for your own surfing. But don’t throw your babies out with the bathwater and then wonder why your children aren’t supporting you in your old age…
Originally published at Living Sensical.