“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” I love that quote by Kurt Vonnegut, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was a writer. To set out to write a novel for the first time is a cliff-jump. Anytime you set out to try something you’ve never done before it’s like jumping off a cliff. With no parachute and no wings. Except the ones you grow on the way down.
When I talk to friends and acquaintances about the fact that I’ve written a book and that it’s getting published, most of them seem impressed or astonished that I’ve been able to make it this far. And don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of the time and effort I’ve put into my writing career, but I also don’t see it as that extraordinary. I decided what I wanted to do, and I did it. Is that so unusual?
But…I guess…it is. All of us have dreams that end up ditched in the gutter. Why? Why don’t we even try to achieve them? Sometimes circumstances outside of our control get in the way: financial hardship, health issues, obligations. But more often, we get in our own way. We are afraid. Afraid to take the leap of faith, to trust in ourselves, to risk failure or vulnerability. It’s safer to stay in our comfort zone where we know that we can handle what comes our way.
What else gets in the way? Self-doubt. Feeling we aren’t good enough/smart enough/rich enough/productive enough/etc. to accomplish our dreams. That we don’t measure up to the people around us, or worse, to who we want to be. That we can’t start working on our dreams until we are _________ enough.
Right now, I am close to publication. Close to the point where my work will be out there for the world to see, to judge as a success or failure, to love or hate, to debate, critique, and pick apart. And so I feel those things—fear and self-doubt. They are there and ever present. But they also aren’t crippling me. And it makes me wonder why. Why was I able to overcome them?
First, perhaps, it was a gut thing. A feeling, a passion, that I could do this. I was recently listening to a podcast interview with Joanna Penn, who is a wildly successful fiction and non-fiction author. She was joking about how new authors come with what she called a “heavy dose of over-confidence.” It’s true. I have it. You have to have it to dare to dream.
But more importantly, I think it was because though my goals were measurable in an external way my main goal was an internal one: don’t be satisfied with the status quo if it isn’t fulfilling. Inside me was desire to set aside fear and self-doubt and try to develop a life that makes me more happy and more fulfilled. Perhaps try and fail, but perhaps try and succeed. Without the try, there only ever could be failure. (Sorry Yoda, but I think you sold the try a little short). Isn’t the chance to achieve your dream worth the risk of failure? For me, it was. And even though I’m just on the path, and who knows where it will take me, it feels damn good. It feels like a win.
I also think I’ve been able to overcome fear and self-doubt because my external goals were generally things that I had control over. They weren’t totally dependent on what other people think or other people’s acceptance.
First, what was my short term goal? To sell a million copies? Nope. To write and publish a book. I could accomplish that even if I self-published and never sold a copy. I will hold it in my hands knowing I created it. Selling more than 10 copies to my immediate family will be just icing on the cake. Do I want to sell a million copies? Of course. Will part of me be disappointed if I don’t? Yup. But it’s made better by the fact that I’ve already accomplished my goal.
Second, I have a long-term perspective. I’m not chasing instant gratification; I’m playing the long game. It takes the pressure off tremendously. If I could write and publish a book every year, by the time I retire from lawyering, I will have thirty books! That’s pretty awesome. Even if they weren’t all runaway hits, if I’m doing things right and improving my craft as I go along, I should have some sales to show for my efforts. And how cool to have a legacy of writing as a part of my life. To leave that behind. So even if my first book doesn’t find much success, maybe my second will. Or my seventh. Or twelfth. You get the picture.
And so there is is. I love being on this journey. Even if I’m like Edison who takes a thousand tries to figure out how to build a light bulb, it’s ok. I’m still gonna try.
You can reach for it too. Your dream. You know what it is. What you really wish you could be doing when you are typing away in your office, or rushing out of the house, or stuck in traffic. It feels so good to step through fear and self-doubt and walk on a path you create for yourself. Even if it’s just the first step, try.
In preparation for launching Moonburner in a few months, I am drafting a short e-novella to accompany it. It will be a story that takes place in the same world as Moonburner and features a few of the same characters, and I plan to give it away for free to folks who sign up for my email list.
I’m about 5,000 words in and hit a bump in the road. I’ve never attempted to write short stories or novellas, so I wasn’t sure what the typical structure looked like. Time for some research!
What is a Novella?
A novella is a short novel, typically between 15,000-30,000 words. (To put that in perspective, the industry estimates 250 words per page, so a novella might come in at 60-120 pages).
Novellas are popular because they are easy and quick to write, and easy and quick to read! For traditionally published authors, writing a novella might give fans an opportunity to get another little taste of the world they enjoy while waiting for the next book in a series. For self-published authors, they are an easy entry-point for readers, as a new reader might be more likely to give $.99 and a few hours to a new author, while they wouldn’t commit to the time and price of a full-sized book. Novellas also are a great way for writers to share interesting characters and stories that didn’t make it past the editing round in the main novel.
How to Write a Novella?
A novella still needs a story-line and story arc, but it is just a miniature version of the novel. This great article by Paul Alan Fahey explains the three-act structure as follows:
- Act I, Set Up: Introduces setting, characters and the main story conflict or the inciting incident.
- Plot Point 1: The first major turning point or event that closes the first act and moves the characters into…
- Act II, Confrontation: The main character struggles to achieve his/her goal amid ever increasing obstacles.
- Midpoint: A subtle turning point in the plot midway through the story.
- Plot Point 2: A devastating setback or reversal in the main character’s fortune that leads to…
- Act III, Resolution: The final confrontation and highest point of action (climax) before the character reaches goal.
Alright, that’s pretty do-able. It’s the direction I was headed, but it helps to have some confirmation! It’s actually kind of refreshing to write a novella, I can focus in a straightforward way on the main plot without all of those pesky sub-plots and side characters to distract me. I’m shooting to getting this one done by the end of the month. We’ll see how it goes!
Featured photo: Scott Akerman, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Thanks to Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine for this great article that applies to so much more than book marketing…
Anyone will tell you marketing is hard. Your odds of writing a best-seller are tiny. In any given year, more than a million books get published. A handful of those, sometimes as many as ten, will sell more than a million copies. Most books sell far fewer copies.
It’s very hard to predict all the books that’ll be the big winners, because every year, a few blockbuster books come out of nowhere. But some of the winners are very easy to predict. Certain authors write best-sellers time after time. Any book by Stephen King or Nora Roberts is going to do very well.
What this means is that the real trick is not to predict which BOOKS will be big winners. It’s to predict which AUTHORS will be big winners.
There are hundreds of thousands of authors. Only a few hundred of them are very successful. So the odds of being very successful, even if you get published, are about one in a thousand.
Only a few thousand writers earn their living as a writer. So the odds of earning a living as a writer, once you get published, are about one in a hundred.
And let’s remember that not all writers get published, although indie publishing makes it a lot easer than it used to be. To get indie-published, you have to at least finish your book, and not all writers do that. To get traditionally published, you also have to run a long gauntlet of rejection by agents and editors, and very few writers do that.
How can you improve your odds? I came across an idea recently that I think has some merit. I was reading Scott Adams’s book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.
Adams is the creator of the blockbuster comic strip Dilbert. He’s made a huge success as a cartoonist and he’s also made a success as an author and public speaker. But he’s failed at a lot of other things, which he details in his book.
Why did he succeed with Dilbert? You can read his book if you want his opinion on that. Luck is involved, but luck is not the only factor. Many people will tell you that you make your own luck. What surprised me is that Adams offers a plausible explanation of how to increase your luck.
In chapter 20 of his book, one of the section headings is titled “The Success Formula: Every Skill You Acquire Doubles Your Odds of Success.”
That caught my attention. Could that possibly be true? If so, then why? Is that automatically true about any skill, or are certain skills better than others?
Let’s start with the brute fact that your odds of success are very low. Why should that be? It isn’t just that there are a lot of authors out there. There are also a lot of plumbers out there, and a lot of dentists, and a lot of accountants. I’d be willing to bet that more than one in a hundred plumbers earn a living as a plumber. Ditto for dentists and accountants.
If you’re an author, there are a number of things you need to do, and their effects MULTIPLY each other.
That’s the key thing—the multiplication.
In January of last year, I wrote an article in this e-zine on my “Success Equation.” It goes like this:
Success = (Target Audience Size) x Quality x Discoverability x Production
So if you doubled your target audience size, doubled your quality, doubled your discoverability, and doubled your production, you’d earn 16 times as much money.
And discoverability is itself the product of several factors.
So the reason your odds against success are long is because you need to be good in each of these success factors. If any of them is zero, then your results are zero.
Assuming my Success Equation is true, then by changing any one factor, you could double your odds of success.
So what Scott Adams claims could conceivably be true: By adding a new skill, you double your odds of success. And the reason it could be true is that your success is the result of multiplying a number of factors.
Scott lists 13 skills that he considers critical for success. My thinking is that those are all fine skills to have, but not all of them matter for success as an author. (They might be very important in some other career.) Here are his 13 skills, as listed in chapter 21 of his book:
- Public speaking
- Business writing
- Overcoming shyness
- Second language
- Proper grammar
- Proper voice technique
He makes a case for each of these. My opinion is that some of these are highly useful to the novelist and some are irrelevant. I can’t see that golf matters at all to the novelist, for example. Or having a second language. Those are invaluable for certain career paths, but novelists get a pass on those.
After thinking a bit, I’ve come up with my own list of essential novelist skills, based on Scott’s list, with some additions and some deletions:
- Fiction writing craft
- Accounting/business thinking
If your marketing strategy depends on public speaking, then you can add that to your list. But you can do very well as a novelist without ever giving a speech or going on radio or TV or doing a book-signing at a bookstore, so I don’t consider it essential.
There are 8 items on my list above, and let’s pretend that you tackled each skill in turn and improved just enough to double your odds of success. After doing that for all 8 skills, your overall odds would increase by a factor of 256.
If your skills were “typical” before, then that would boost you up into the ranks of authors earning a living as a writer. You’d need more of a boost if you wanted to reach the super-achieving authors.
Yes, in theory all this sounds great, but is it really practical? Could you really get twice as effective by learning technology better, or persuasion, or life-management?
A writer on a modern computer can type a lot faster than a writer on an old manual typewriter. But I’ve noticed that most writers don’t use their tools nearly as effectively as they could. Many writers don’t use Microsoft Word effectively. There are any number of software tools that could make a writer more effective. Very few writers come anywhere close to their potential in using technology.
As for persuasion, I’ve also noticed that writing ad copy is an area where most writers are weak. One good course on copywriting could boost your effectiveness by a factor of ten.
And as for life-management, my observation is that most writers are overwhelmed by life. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with. Modern life is massively more complicated than it was even twenty years ago, much less a thousand years ago. We aren’t evolved to handle modern life. If we don’t study how it’s done, we’re almost certain to be overwhelmed.
Here’s the thing. You don’t have to become world-class in order to double your effectiveness at most of these skills. For most of them, one good course or book would be enough. If you’re “typical” in a given skill, then you’re at the 50th percentile, which means half of all people are better at the skill and half are worse. One good course would get you ahead of most of those people. If you got to the 90th percentile, then you’d be ahead of 9 out of every 10 people.
Let’s suppose you work hard at each of the critical skills and you reach the 90thpercentile in each one. You won’t be amazing at any one thing, but you’ll be amazing as an overall writer. Because success is the multiplication of all those skills.
Remember that you have natural talents and abilities, and you also have natural weaknesses. Everybody does. There are some skills you may never be able to do even as well as the average person. There are some skills you might have the talent to become world champion at. The key thing to remember is that you can almost always improve in any skill, so the question is which skills will give you the most bang for the buck.
How good would you rate yourself at the 8 critical skills I listed above? And how good would you rate your favorite famous author at those skills?
Which skill are you weakest in? (This is probably due to some natural weakness in you, which means you could never be world-class in this skill. But it’s entirely possibly you could get better if you worked at it.) Is your weakness in that skill causing you serious problems in your life? Is there a book you could read or a course you could take that would boost your skills in that? Is there somebody you could hire to help make up your deficit? What value would you get from hiring out that skill? How does that compare to the cost?
Which skill are you strongest in? (This is probably due to some natural talent you have, which means you might possibly be able to reach world-class status in that one skill.) If you made that skill a key part of your strategy and worked hard, could you become amazing in that one area? How hard would you have to work? Would you love working hard on that skill? Would it make a difference in your life?
Balance is critical here. You only have so much time, energy, and money, so you can’t do everything at once. The key questions to ask about any skill are:
- How much is it worth to improve in that skill?
- What would it cost you in time, energy, and money?
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 14,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.
Featured photo by iamthealphamale, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/
A little over two months ago, I set out to write a 90,000 word first draft of Sunburner, my second novel. Well, I am happy to say I actually did it! It came in at 83,000 words, but wow, that feels good.
Would I ever do this again? I don’t know… maybe it’s like having a baby, you need to wait a few years to forget the pain. 1500 words a day for two months was… challenging. It was like NaNoWriMo on steroids. I didn’t always make my daily goal on the weekdays, so I had to make it up on the weekend, often writing 3,000 words a day on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. I was pretty darn sick of it all by the end.
But, I did it! So who cares! No one makes it as an author without being a little crazy, right?
As I embark on my second book, I have naturally been thinking about lessons learned. Am I better equipped to write the second book than my first, which I started a little over one year ago? I think so…I certainly hope so. Discovering my process, though somewhat painful, has been worthwhile. Here are some thoughts about what I’ll be doing differently this time around.
- Don’t plot too much. I learned the hard way that I am not a plotter. Before I start, I have to the basic framework in place. Protagonist, antagonist, world, conflict, what’s going to happen at the end. That’s about it. The rest kinda just goes with the flow.
- Post-its. For some reason, they work for me. I do some plotting along the way. When I come to a point where I don’t know what happens next, or where several storylines intersect but I don’t know what order they should go in, I use post-its. One for each plot point, event, important tidbit, etc. And then I move them around until they are in an order I like. Then I stack them into a neat stack, and use them when I write. Write one scene, tear off the post-it, see what comes next.
- Down time. I don’t skip around a lot when I write, but I will skip a scene or two if my imagination is not cooperating. I like to give myself some time away from my computer to mull things over. There are few things so satisfying as a good mull. A lot of time this happens on the bus on the way to or from wor. I’ll be standing, packed in like a little sardine, but my mind will be hard at work, turning the problem over and examining it from different angles. What should this character’s memorable quirk be? Where should this showdown happen? What clue should I drop to lead the protagonist one step closer to the answers she seeks? Somehow, I find that separation is more effective than trying to hash these details out while staring angrily at my laptop.
- Don’t look back. It’s so hard. You want to look back. Re-work, second guess. No! Writing is writing. Editing can come later.
- No chapters. When I wrote my first novel, I spent a lot of time dividing things into chapters, and then later when editing changed those divisions, and then changed them again, and I’m still not totally satisfied. This time around, I am going to do my divisions by scene. This way, if I add or subtract scenes in editing, it won’t screw everything up. I can add chapters in a later edit when things are more solidified.
- Know thyself. After a hard day of lawyering where I used a lot of brainpower, there ain’t a lot left. I am going to try to write either in the morning or at lunchtime, recognizing that I’m pretty useless after work. I’m also going to try to get ahead on the weekends, writing more like 2000-2500 words (instead of my target 1500), in recognition of the fact that some nights, 1500 words just ain’t gonna happen.
- Write with purpose. I spent a lot of my last novel adding scenes, tidbits and conversations which served only to reveal some bit of information to the reader. I wanted to get this cool point across, but it served no real purpose in the story. Or at least, not enough of a purpose to make the cut. I am going to try to be more proactive about writing only scenes that further the story. I am just finishing the book on writing Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain, which I thought was really phenomenal. It has a million practical tips that I am applying to my writing, not in the least how to write in motivation-reaction units, where you present a motivating stimulus for your protagonist, followed by their reaction, emotionally, physically, and through dialogue. I am hoping that by borrowing this approach, I can take strides towards tightly tying all my scenes into the storyline.
- Organize and add. Once all that beautiful writing is said and done, I plan to organize myself, essentially doing all the plotting I should have done at the beginning. I will write one sentence summaries of each chapter, so I can get a thousand-foot view of the story. I tried to do this in Excel last time, and wasted a lot of time. I guess my brain doesn’t like Excel. Plain old Microsoft word works for me. This is where I will examine character arcs, pacing, plot holes, whether I should add or delete scenes. Then I will make those changes, add or delete those scenes, adjust those details, all before starting traditional editing. I spent months line editing my first novel before really addressing the big changes I had to make, because it was just so darn tempting to jump right into it. Not this time! I will do everything in my power to perform each edit with a distinct and unique purpose.
- Beta read earlier. I edited my last book to death before I let anyone read it, because it was my first book and I didn’t want anyone to think my writing sucked. But I see value in earlier beta reading, more at a developmental edit stage. I ended up having to perform a complete edit after my beta readers gave me feedback, because I modified certain parts and I wanted to make sure it all flowed. I am thinking instead of the process I took last time (Line edit, Line edit, Developmental edit, Line edit, Line edit, Beta readers, Developmental edit, Line edit), my process should look like this: Developmental edit, Line edit, Beta readers, Developmental edit, Line edit. Yes, that seems much preferable.
Sure, my process may not work for everyone. Hey, it might not end up working for me! But it is nice to know that I do have a few more tools this time around than last time. It’s a process, and it’s one that I am enjoying. 25,000 words down so far!
Photo credit Darwin Bell , cc license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/