Yesterday, Chuck Wendig wrote a post called Ten Things I’d Like To Say To Young Writers (the man likes his lists) and I think it’s good, solid advice. Me, I’d like to add two more things. Here goes:
Really study text that works.
Have a favorite short story? Retype it. A favorite novel? Type out that first chapter. There really is no substitute for retyping a whole mess of text–just reading it, even aloud, doesn’t bring the same focus. Then read it through with a yellow legal pad next to you and, every five pages, jot a line describing what happened.
How quickly does the book get to dialog? To the main characters? How quickly does the book describe what the main character is searching for, if it does at all? How much space on the page is given to description of people or places? How soon does the conflict start? Depending on the genre and the style of book, the answers can be quite different.
Best of all is to choose a successful book that is very like the one you hope to write. Study it. Try to get a feel for it, because:
Understanding how a piece of writing makes readers feel is the real prize
The universe is full of writers who crap on a keyboard and call it gold. Those people do not understand the way readers respond to their text; they know what’s in their head, they’re sure that’s what they put on the page, what’s wrong with readers/editors/agents/the world that they can’t see the awesome?
But, in fact, it can be very difficult to judge your own writing the way a reader will. We might hope the scene we just finished will be scary, or funny, or sad, but until we show it to complete strangers we’ll never really be sure.
What move people never say is that the ability to accurately understand the effect your own words will have on the reader is the first (and most difficult) step to becoming successful. So try to get a feel for your own books the way you do when you read the ones written by other people. Revisit stories you wrote the year before. Invite readers to tell you how they reacted to the story (but never what they think you should do.) Understanding those feelings are the way to mastery.
You guys know about Kindleworlds, right? It’s a system that Amazon set up some months ago to let people write, publish, and sell fanfiction based on established properties like The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, GI Joe (not the movies) or “The World of Kurt Vonnegut” (and so on). All you have to do is follow the content guidelines and not suck. Complicated, right?
Well, today I discovered that there’s a Kindleworld license for Veronica Mars, but only for the years covered by the TV series. The content guidelines make it clear that anything taking place after the end of season three is verboten.
Yet again, I wish I could be prolific. It would be tremendous fun to tear off a quick VM whodunnit, preferably hammering at the class warfare aspects and digging into the private lives of some of the supporting characters. (Like Cliff! “These are my people, V.” I love that dude.)
Alas, I do not have the time for it. Even as a novella or something, it would take too much time.
Posting an audiobook segment to YouTube is a great idea. Give it a listen.
I’m supposed to be working right now but I’m not, and the reason is simple. Work is hard.
While The Great Way is getting an editorial working over, I’m putting together the game supplement for it. (For those who don’t know, I promised Kickstarter backers a Fate game supplement for the setting of those books.) Currently, it’s almost 10,000 words long, and not even half way done. Turns out that explaining your world-building takes time.
What’s more, writing game stuff is giving me major decision fatigue. With fiction, putting the sentences together is comparatively easy: There are characters who want things, places for them to pursue their desires, obstacles to overcome. That talk. They look at stuff. Maybe there’s a smell. It’s pretty straightforward.
In contrast, game material is all summarizing and making careful decisions on how stuff should work. What invokable aspects suit the capital city of this empire? How best to describe this sort of magic? What’s the best way to portray non-human intelligences without doing the xenophobe thing of giving them all a single personality? What if a player wants to play one of those non-humans?
Everything is as spare as possible, while trying to be as interesting as possible, while being as balanced as possible, while not contradicting anything I put in the trilogy, much of which I made up on the fly because shit sounded cool.
What the hell was I thinking?
making books The outside world: people publishing scientification
by Harry Connolly
There was a great piece on Morning Edition yesterday about art that becomes popular versus art that doesn’t. Is there some quality that makes some art successful and preserved forever or is it all just random chance?
Obviously, the big problem with a question like that is that you can look at only one timeline; there’s no way to look at an alternate world where the Potter books never took off (or they did, inevitably).
For those who haven’t clicked the link (you can listen to the short news piece or you can read a transcript of it) a Princeton professor decided to create a number of alternate virtual worlds to test the hypothesis that popular art becomes popular because of its inherent qualities rather than random chance. He created a database of music by unknown, unsigned bands and invited thousands of teenagers to listen and download their songs for free.
Those teenagers were randomly sorted into nine different “worlds.” In one control group, the teens did not get the chance to see which songs other teens selected. In the other eight, they did.
Try not to be wildly surprised, but different songs became popular in different virtual worlds. A song that was number 1 in one setting was 40th (out of 48) in another. Further experimentation established that there was a minimum level of quality below which popularity was not possible, but after that there was no predicting what would be successful and what would not. Read it yourself if you’re curious.
My problem with this is not the assertion that popularity does not come solely from quality, and that a piece of art that is well-known is not inherently better than something obscure. It’s always been perfectly obvious to me that wonderful and excellent books could/should have been popular but weren’t (I’m not talking about me, now).
My objection here is that the good professor chalks popularity up to “chance.” In fact, he (or at least the reporter covering his work) hits the idea of chance very hard. But that’s a black box.
I’ve talked about this sort of thing before, but there are a lot of effects that people attribute to chance simply because they are not well understood. What I would like to see is an experiment that examines the way those songs became popular in each virtual world. Was it an early surge? Was there an early surge that faced a backlash, with the more popular work getting a secondary surge? I’d like to know, and by that I mean that I’d really really like to know.
In Spring 2013, I was invited to take part in the Walk The Fire 2 shared-world anthology and I thought writers write and they sell stuff i should say yes and make money. After confirming that this anthology would have more gender parity in the table of contents, I accepted. The Kickstarter made goal, I wrote the story, boom.
Except there was a problem. The editor explained that the story broke the guidelines. It took me a while to figure out why, but the speculative element in the setting was that people would step into a special sort of fire here and emerge from another fire elsewhere. Essentially, teleportation.
However, somehow I got it into my head that this was like a wormhole through spacetime, and that not only could they travel through space, they could travel through time, too.
Oops. I apologized, obviously, and offered to write a new story. The editor thought it might be best for me to hold off for the third antho, but I’d helped pitch the Kickstarter and I didn’t want readers to back a book I wouldn’t be in.
So I sat down and wrote an honest-to-god science fiction story (if you don’t count the teleporting fire thing) set in the far future. Last night I got a note from the editor saying they wanted to accept it without asking for changes.
That feels good. After spending two years on this stinking trilogy–not to mention KEY/EGG, which has languished on my hard drive since the dawn of time–it’s nice to have a short-term goal and payoff.
making books The outside world: people publishing
by Harry Connolly
As a followup to the post I put together linking critical analyses of Hugh Howey’s Author Earnings report, I have something brief to say: It’s clear that Howey’s data isn’t all that great, which he knows. It’s also clear that the conclusions he’s jumping to–even before he gets to analyzing B&N or whatever he’s doing next–are not supported by the data.
That’s too bad because this could have been the data I’m looking for. The book I published before last was self-published, and this year I expect to self-publish five more times. As I consider small press offers to put out the books, it would be really helpful to have numbers to look out.
Sadly, despite Mr. Howey’s bold conclusions, I don’t. Yeah okay the guy keeps talking about the limits of the data he’s collected, but he also talks as though the data has proved him right. Actually, he’s claiming to be proved righter than ever.
As the links in that previous post demonstrate, that’s not the case. It’s pretty clear that, once Howey got the data, he didn’t really know how best to use it, nor did he know what was absolutely not allowed. The enthusiasm and certitude behind his conclusions are textbook Dunning-Kruger Effect.
We’re all prone to confirmation bias. How many people dismissed what he said without really looking at it? How many people really looked at the report, recognized the flaws, then decided to believe it all anyway? It’s easy to believe flattery. It’s easy to stand in the mirror in just the right way to catch yourself at a good angle. We exert that sort of unconscious control all the time; that’s why we need smart knowledgeable people who know the rules. Howey may know how to write a bestseller but when it comes to data analysis he’s just another thriller writer. Also, it seems that his “Data Guy” is really just “Coder Guy.”
It’s too bad. I could have used expert advice. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any to offer and he doesn’t even know it.
Chad Orzel, (the scientist blogger who wrote How to Teach Physics to Your Dog) wrote a response to my own post about persistence, which was itself… actually, let’s just say there’s a conversation going on and leave it there. One thing I should point out: Chad has no reason for feeling guilty about “breaking in” the way he did. Blogging is writing, and he clearly put in the hours to do what he does well.
That said, not everyone kicks off their career in “ridiculously unlikely” ways. I mailed cold queries to the agents, which is the most boring way to start off in the whole world. It’s only after breaking in that things got weird. So, that’s a method anyone can try deliberately.
Yeah, I’m aware of the website http://www.authorearnings.com/, which supposedly contains the results of a big data-crunching project instigated by Hugh Howey. Apparently, a coder/analyst/whatever approached Howey with the idea of taking self-reported sales to Amazon sales rankings and using them to analyze Amazon’s bestsellers list to see which types of books (self/other/small press) do best for authors.
I say “supposedly” above because as I write this, high traffic has crashed the site. [Update: I accessed it a few minutes ago.] The only place to find the data at the moment is on Joe K*nr*th’s blog, and he’s added long exchanges with a straw man figure “Legacy John”.
Which… ugh. So. Much Smug.
As a so-called hybrid author who has self-published before and will self-publish again this year (thank you, Kickstarter backers) I’m interested in this analysis. Unfortunately, Howey and K*nr*th are not exactly the most trustworthy of sources. If confirmation bias were a medical condition, both men would have to be kept alive by a machine in some ICU somewhere. Anyway, the numbers are interesting but I’m reserving judgement on them until someone with more time and expertise picks them apart.
Apparently there are companies you can hire to create infographics now? I mean, it makes sense, but I didn’t realize it was a thing. Anyway, people love stats about books and reading, so these guys have put together an infographic called “The DNA of a Successful Novel.”
It’s the usual bullshit. “Books priced at $3.99 earn the most revenue!” “Ninety nine cent books sell the most copies!” I also seriously doubt that science fiction earns more than romance, even if you combine it with fantasy.
And of course it doesn’t touch on the actual content of the books at all: voice, character, plot, none of that. It’s page counts, prices and genres.
Still, if you’re wondering if more people will finish a short book or a long one, they got that covered.
“Part of the problem is that the major publishers ignore the genres that sell the best. This is a head-scratcher, and it nearly caused a bald spot when I was working in a bookstore. I knew where the demand was, and I wasn’t seeing it in the catalogs. Readers wanted romance, science fiction, mystery/thrillers, and young adult. We had catalogs full of literary fiction. Just the sort of thing acquiring editors are looking for and hoping people will read more of, but not what customers were asking me for.”
You know what? The last time I walked into a Barnes & Noble, I stood looking at all those shelves full of books and thought “Jeez! If only I could find books that I want to read!” Too bad those multi-million dollar corporations don’t have a sharp guy like Howey around to explain to them how their business works. All you have to do to get bestselling authors to renegotiate their contracts en masse is to put them on a mailing list with struggling midlisters! Gosh, it’s so simple! Amazing that no one realized this before.
And yeah, get out of New York City, publishing! Why would you want your business in a hub full of smart, creative people who share your interests and might have the skills your company needs. Telecommuting! Email! The car-centric hell-hole that is Houston! Because efficiencies are less important than an easily understood number like “rent in Manhattan.”
(Actually, most of that post is pretty embarrassing. h/t Mr. Hornswoggler) #sfwapro
The process of setting up my book in Lightning Source is now complete. That means you can buy it from Barnes & Noble or any other brick and mortar store that sells books. If you like buying from indies, swing by your local shop and ask them to check the computer for you.
They might ask you to pay ahead of time, because the discount is thin and I made them non-returnable (to keep the price low) but the books are finished and ready.
One thing: a friend offered to do the interior design for this one, and she matched the book design of the other books in the series beautifully. Seriously, I’m not sure if she wants credit for this, but she did a fantastic job; the inside of the book looks fabulous.
Any complaints about the cover are on me.
In other news, I have a lot I want to blog about and no time to write it. My life is consumed by homeschooling, revision, and trying to get enough steps every day to satisfy the FitBit parasite attached to my wrist. More on that another time.