Friday, May 23, 2014

Q&A: HOW DO I DEAL WITH WRITER'S BLOCK?

Calvin takes the idea too literally
Writer's block.  Anyone who has written for any length of time has faced this at one point or another.  Sure, some claim it never happened, but it does, to all of us.  Some just find it easier to deal with than others.
Essentially writer's block is made up of two parts, I believe.  First is the lack of motivation; you just don't feel like writing, that excitement or interest isn't there; it seems miserable drudgery to even sit down and start.  The second is a lack of what people generally call "inspiration" where you cannot feel any sort of natural flow of ideas.  Its like you have to force something on to the page where before it was so easy and just poured out of you on to the paper.
Facing this can be horrible.  Some very famous people's writing careers were essentially ended by writer's block.  C.S. Lewis stopped writing because he was a very visual person.  When he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he started with an image of a faun in the snow carrying packages by a lamppost in the forest.  From there, Lewis created one of the most beloved and masterful children's fantasy book series in human history.  When he couldn't see those images, Lewis couldn't write and was done.
Lets see a yogi walk on this
The thing is, "writer's block" is not one thing.  its not a single event or issue, its usually a lot of stuff like a pile of lego you step on.  It all hurts but it comes in the form of lots of different pieces and from different causes.  Writer's block, it seems to me, is a combination of all kinds of things, usually including but not exclusive to these elements:
  • Perfectionism (I won't get it right, why start?)
  • Fatigue (OK I finished dinner and washed the clothes, put the kids to sleep, now for my novel... ugh)
  • Fear (this is gonna suck, it will never be published, why am I wasting time?)
  • Comparison (this isn't as good as I imagined/I'll never be as good as [insert author here])
  • Illness (I just don't feel like writing now, I need to lie down)
  • Depression (What's the point?)
  • Dislike of the text (I wrote something I didn't care for and now it all feels just wrong)
Some even suggest (pdf) that writer's block can be at least partially physiological, with a mental shift going on from conscious thought to limbic.  This argument suggests that you're approaching the work from your innate "fight or flight" mindset rather than your rational mindset, and its keeping you from getting anything productive done.
However you come around to it, writer's block sucks.  And there are only a few ways to deal with it.  Here's how I've managed to do it in the past, perhaps it might help you as well.
DISCIPLINE
The key to getting past any delays in writing is to form patterns in your life that help you deal with delays and productivity.  The truth is, writing is self-employment, and the only way to remotely be successful at any form of self-employment is to be disciplined and focused.  Its too easy to find something else to do, whether work or the oceans of entertainment possibilities we're surrounded by.
Forming those habits of regular, disciplined work, set time periods to focus on the job, getting something done each day, setting goals and meeting them etc are all very helpful for avoiding or breaking writer's block.If you just work when you feel like it, just about any excuse will stop you from working.  If you work unless you absolutely cannot and don't have it in you, then very little will.  Discipline will deal with nearly every form of writer's block, because you just keep going anyway.  Discipline means doing what you must or know you should anyway, because its part of you.
PROFESSIONALISM
Now, if its just a hobby, writer's block is no particular cause for concern.  Go do something else instead.  But if you want to make money at this, if you want to finish a book and publish, then that's another issue entirely.
If you are working for yourself, there's nobody you are accountable to but you.  You're not on the clock, you don't go to work and check in, there's no boss watching you.  So its all up to you, and the only way to get that to work is to form habits and disciplines which lead to regular, steady work all day.  If it was truly just up to whether you felt like working that day, how many days would you actually show up if you didn't have to at your job?  You must treat writing the same as you do any other job, if you mean to do it professionally.
Treating your writing as a job means you show up and do your job every day because its your job.  Like any job, you show up and work however you feel unless it is really a dire problem.  Depressed?  Some of us deal with that nearly every day, but you can push past it and keep going anyway - at any job.  Tired?  Yeah, lots of times you drag into work tired from a late night before or too much the last week, but you get in there and do it, to get your 8 hours in.  Treating your writing as work will get you through that as well.
Like the joke goes: 
hate your job?  Great, there's a club for that, and the membership is everybody.  We meet at the bar every night.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

YOUR GARDEN SHELF

As an author I know well the frustration and concern that comes from having finished a work the best you can and putting it on the shelf only to see it collect spiderwebs.  Sure, you sell some books, but so few it feels like it was all a waste of time.
Some people even begin to suspect they are terrible at their work, that no one reads their book because its just not any good.  The lack of sales and interest is simply proof that I'm a lousy writer and should just go bury myself in a hole somewhere and eat worms!
Its hard not to compulsively check your sales data, since its so easy online these days.  Every day at least, did any sell?  That flat line on your Amazon Kindle sales can be pretty depressing:

No Sales
A month of peaceful lack of variation


I've been studying a lot on publishing and the business side of writing and its changing my perspective on sales. Instead of constantly looking at your published work desperate for sales, you should be looking at your present work and growing your "platform."
I have read from several very successful and insightful people online that you need to see your work as a garden rather than a race. Yes your first book or first couple of books might not sell much, but that's fine.
The idea goes like this: you are establishing a body of work, and that's the beginning. Do the best, most professional job you can, put your work up, and then start on the next one. Does it sell or not? That's not really the concern at this point: your garden is growing. Tend it with the proper level of promotion and effort, but don't fret how fast its selling; focus on your real job of writing.
The first book you put out there might take off, or it might not - chances are it will not, even if you have a lot of friends and family who want to buy it.  The thing to remember about books is that they're a finite product; once someone buys your book, they have one and they have no reason to buy themselves another.  This is different than most products.
When you buy a car, eventually it will wear out and you'll want or need a new one.  You might even need a second one, or grow in your family and need a bigger one.  If you buy a sandwich, eventually you'll get hungry again.  When you buy a book, unless you are really sloppy or careless, its a lifetime purchase.
So once all those people you know have your book... they're done buying.  And that can be pretty depressing too: a big spike at first, then it fades, like the profile of a dinosaur:  
But without that uptick at the end
The thing is, your book is like a seed, its in the soil of that shelf and it won't grow by you looking at it and chewing your nails.  Your bookshelf of published works is a garden; treat it as one.  Do the best work you can planting that seed on the shelf - that means well edited, well written, well plotted, well characterized, and well-formatted, with a great cover and blurb.  Get it on the shelf and let it grow.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

P-O-D WARS

I am an independent writer, which means I publish my own work instead of going through a publishing house.  That's as opposed to a vanity writer, who pays a publisher to print their own work; the distinction might seem obscure but its significant: I get paid for my work, instead of paying someone else.  Not much mind you, but paid.
Because I'm not a printing house, I have to rely on someone else to print my work.  At first, when I came out with my first book (The Fantasy Codex) in 2006, I used LazerQuik printers in town here.  It was a matter of giving them the files on a disc and they printed me a box of Codices.  Eventually I managed to sell most of them, but it was a major expense up front and difficult to reach out to more distant buyers.
Then  I found Lulu.com.  This company is an online print-on-demand (POD) business that lets you upload the files you desire and build a book, then print as many as you wish.  Even more handy is that they have a store so other people can print and buy your books as you wish; Lulu takes the lion's share of the money and give you some based on how you price your book.
Now, they take more than I wish, but the convenience and ease of sales make up for a lot of that.  Personally I'd prefer making more than about 10% off each book, but that's the best I can do right now and reasonably expect sales.
I've used Lulu for a while now and they have been pretty solid in terms of quality.  However, Lulu isn't the only game in town.  Amazon has partnered with (or perhaps owns, I'm not sure) a company called CreateSpace.  This company is set up to help people print their own books and materials as well, a POD company.  However, CreateSpace is tied to Amazon, so once you get a book set up and ready to sell on there, it goes on the world's largest book seller's website automatically.
This is, I admit, a major advantage, and one I'm looking into.  There are several other different POD companies out there of varying quality and validity, such as Lightning Source, but these are the top two.  I'm trying out CreateSpace but as I started working on it, I noticed some interesting things.
For example, Lulu allows you now to print books in proper paperback form, rather than "trade" which is larger and less popular with readers.  Book readers are strangely conservative and traditional, so they don't care for oddly sized and shaped fiction, and they want things the way they've always had it, even without realizing it consciously.  Having books printed in the right size makes Lulu's POD service very attractive, since nobody else offers it that I can find on the internet.
What's the difference?  Here's a photo showing both sizes: "pocket" and trade paperback size.  The smaller one is the same size as your basic paperback you have nearby:
Now I'm able to offer both Snowberry's Veil and Old Habits in regular paperback book size, which is a big help in promoting my work - and get this, the smaller book size is cheaper, a lot cheaper, so I don't have to charge 15 bucks for a book to get any profit.
However, there are drawbacks.  First, the paper.  This isn't something I remember ever paying attention to, but take a look at a sheet of paper from your printer and a page from a paperback (go ahead and grab them both, I'll wait).
See the difference in color and texture?  Printer paper is crisp white stuff and the pages of your paperback are softer and more cream colored.  There's historical reason for this: Paperbacks were the red headed stepchild of printing, the cheap crappy version of a book that was knocked off on cheap paper and printed quick and dirty for wider distribution.  They cost a lot less than hardbound books and are more disposable - you can cram one in your pocket and carry it around without feeling too badly about it.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

THE ARGUMENT FOR SELF PUBLISHING

"You do not pay a royalty to anyone who is doing day-labor. All book production should be done for a flat fee." 
-Michael Stackpole

So you finished a book, and you're proud of your new masterpiece.  Good for you, and I hope you outsell Steven King and E. L. James combined. But now you have it all done, what do you do with it? It seems like every new author faces two main choices today for their work: do I look for a publisher to print and distribute my book, or do I do it myself?  The alleged third choice - go through a vanity press that charges you to publish - isn't a choice at all.  No, not ever.
Every time someone brings up this question, I always answer the same way: I always encourage everyone to self publish.  Its not that I think getting a publisher is some sort of moral wrong, or that you are a fool for going that route, it still is a valid choice, for now.  Its that I believe the advantages of self publishing greatly outweigh its disadvantages, and the advantages of going the traditional publishing route are greatly outweighed by its disadvantages.
So why self publish?  Why, I'm glad you asked.
First off, you have to understand the economics involved, and what you're facing when you get a book published.  In essence, if you go through a publisher, you're hiring someone to take the effort and do the market work so you can be the talent.
Doing so means you're going to have to pay these people.  And while you might think this means giving a percentage of your profits, what it actually ends up with is you getting a percentage of the profits instead.  Here's how it works.  Publishers do a little bit of editing, come up with a cover, bind and print your book, distribute it, and do a small amount of publicity.  For that, they want a pretty big slice of the pie. You get 25% of the net (so about 17% in real life), the book sellers (stores, etc) get about 30%, and the publisher gets 55%.  Forever.  Your agent gets 15%-25% of what's left.
In other words, when all's said and done, you get about a dollar for each book that's sold.  That's the basic amount you should expect, $1 per book, according to every single writer and publisher I've ever spoken to and read.  That seems a bit... backward to me. Its like having someone build your house, then paying them rent until the house falls down.
Then there's also this little tidbit from J Konrath, who is doing very well in self-publishing:
Advance = $100,000. But the agent takes $15k, and the advance is broken up into payments of $57,000 each over three years
Five years of sales = $0 (a $100,000 advance, in today's market, with bookstores closing all around and ebook royalties at 17.5%, will never earn out)
Most people don't understand what an advance means.  Advance means "we're paying in advance for what we believe your royalties will work out to."  Until your payment for book sales exceeds your advance, you get paid nothing past that advance.
So, with that basic economic introduction in mind, here's my list of reasons to self publish, in summary:

Monday, May 19, 2014

OLD NEW WRITERS

"Writing is the only art where a ‘prodigy’ can be anyone under 40."

author
*UPDATE: This was written 5 years and 2 books ago, and now I have more experience under my belt.  I tried an online publisher (PublishAmerica) for my first book and was not pleased with the results, so I'm going self-publish now.  However the ideas and themes in this post still are quite valid and useful.

I'm 43 years old and I'm in the process of getting my first novel published. As it turns out, most people take a while to get their first book done, for a lot of reasons. At the Whatever blog, John Scalzi took this question:
Whenever I hear about a “new” novelist, they turn out to be in their 30s. Why is that? It seems like you hear about new musicians and actors and other creative people in when they are in their 20s.
His answer was in depth and worth reading, but in essence he says this: because it takes time to perfect your skill to the point of being worth publication, because it takes a while to find a publisher, because the process of publication takes a while (years in some cases), and because it takes time to write a novel. To that I would add that it takes time to be ready to even begin writing. You can have all the skill in the world but no story to tell, and young people are full of energy and creativity, but rarely are they full of life experience and the travails of existence that drive wisdom and the ability to tell a good story.

Of the last ten Campbell "Best New Novelist" awards, 8 were within 3 years of being 37, and there's a lot of good reasons for that. It just takes time to get to where you can even write, let alone be published. The only way to become good at writing is to write, even the finest, most talented genius in the world takes time to get skilled at their craft. You have to read a lot too, read many different things, different genres, different writers, from different ages. That input tends to stay in your memory even if you don't consciously dredge it up: the way words are used, how phrases are crafted, what techniques are used to craft a scene, how to build drama, how to write different characters, and many more intangibles.

Another thing to consider is that, while I wrote my book (around 80,000 words) in about a month, it took me over a year of just pondering ideas and letting them sit in the back of my mind, gathering scenes to put into place, and letting the log gather barnacles, as C. S. Forrester put it. He likened the process to a log being dropped to the bottom of a lake, the log being his ideas. He'd think of some things, then let them lay in his mind a while, dredging it up later to look it over and see how it had grown and enhanced over time. So while the actual writing (and re-writing) process isn't necessarily a lengthy exercise, writing in a real sense takes a long time to develop.

Here are a few authors and their age at first publication courtesy commenters at Whatever:
Steve Erickson was 35 when Days Between Stations was published.

Lucius Shepard’s first novel,
Green Eyes, was published when he was 37.

William S. Burroughs was 39 when
Junky was first published.

James M. Cain was 42 when
The Postman Always Rings Twice was published.

L. Frank Baum was 44 when
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published.

Raymond Chandler was 51 when
The Big Sleep was published.

And Charles Bukowski was 51 when his first novel,
Post Office, was published.
I write several thousand words a day on this blog, in comment sections around the internet and in my personal work. By doing so I'm practicing not just typing but spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and presenting ideas. Much of what I write is more essay-form, such as on my blogs, but it still helps me be a better writer. And I have many, many miles and years to go before I can consider myself a great writer. I'm good enough to put out a little print-on-demand adventure tale, I'll probably never be good enough to write something like Treason's Harbor (by Patrick O'Brian).

The trick is to understand the difference between being not the finest writer on earth and being no writer at all. It is possible that you can go through all the steps, work very hard at your craft, hone your skills and write a book that is just awful because you aren't a writer. That is no indication of some special weakness in yourself, each of us has some talents and some weaknesses; it takes wisdom and courage to recognize where they lay and admit where they do not.

At the same time, You don't have to be the best writer on earth. You just have to be the best writer you can be. I'll never measure up to giants like C.S. Lewis and Patrick O'Brian, or even greats like Raymond Chandler. That doesn't mean I'm a lousy writer, it means I'm not the absolute best. You don't have to be the best, you just have to be good enough to be published, and good enough to look at yourself in the mirror and be proud of your work. It's good to be humble enough to recognize you aren't the next Steinbeck. Just don't let it grind you down

If you want to write a book, the time to start is now. Start writing, and write every day. Set aside time and take that time to write, and it doesn't even matter what you write. Get something down each day, and fill that time with writing. Here is my advice on how to do it well: