Archive | May, 2011

What If You Think You Might Be a Mediocre Fiction Writer?

Every novelist hits the point, sooner or later, where they think they just might not actually have any talent. What do you do in that case? Should you just throw in the towel? Or muddle forward? How do you know if you’re any good?

Camille posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve decided a novelist must produce amazing writing AND an interesting story to continue pursuing novel publication with any real, honest hope of succeeding. Even amazing writing must be interesting or it’s not all that amazing.

If a wannabe novelist can be very honest with herself and accepts that she may be a good writer but a mediocre story-teller, and can perfectly picture the finished product she desires but realizes her execution of that goal falls painfully short, and she is beginning to tire in her efforts to improve, what do you suggest she do at this point in her life? I can make it easy on you and give you some multiple choice answers.

  1. Take a vacation to somewhere other than Boring, Oregon.
  2. Take more workshops and read more craft books. While setting your toenails on fire.
  3. Take another vacation but don’t start making a habit of it.
  4. Grit your teeth and keep working on the wretched novel.
  5. Put noveling aside and write something that makes you smile and gets lots of positive feedback from people because beneath the fiction fatigue, you know you were created to communicate something of value and encouragement to others and you miss that.
  6. Get some cheap c-4 and blow your computer to Jupiter. Pop some corn and invite the neighbors to watch, but make room for the S.W.A.T. trucks.

Randy sez: Well, Camille, you’re about due for some angst. You’ve been writing now for three years or so (or is it four?) And you still haven’t sold your novel, and you’re thinking it’s maybe all just some sort of pipe dream that you’ve been smoking for the last few years and maybe you’re a no-talent wannabe that ain’t never going to make it to the gonnabe stage.

This is a valid question. I’ve been writing fiction for 23 years now, and I’ve seen plenty of writers who just didn’t get published. Loads of them. I’ve also seen plenty of writers who did. Some of them went on to win awards, hit best-seller lists, and all that good stuff.

If you’re a discouraged writer, how can you tell whether you’re mediocre or destined for glory?

The bottom line is that you probably can’t. You’re too close to your own career, and you can’t see what’s obvious to other people.

I had this problem for a long time, and I solved it, ultimately, by just slogging through and getting published. But it meant that I spent about eight years in misery.

There’s really an easier way. Ask an experienced published author (one who knows your work) if you’ve got the talent to make the grade. After you’ve been writing for a few years, you either have it or you don’t, and anyone with some experience in the publishing world can tell if you do or don’t.

I happen to know Camille and her work pretty well, since she’s in my local critique group. So I’ll make this Xtremely easy.

Camille is going to get published. I don’t know when. Not sure if it’ll be that first novel she finished awhile back that’s been making the rounds. Not sure if it’ll be the one she’s working on now. I think either of them could sell. Or maybe her third book will be the winner. But I know for sure that Camille’s got the goods. So I just plain don’t see how she can fail.

Oh yeah, sure, there’s one way. She could quit. But Camille’s not a quitter, so she’s not going to.

I’ll bet a number of my Loyal Blog Readers are in the same seat Camille’s in right now. You’ve been writing for a few years. You’ve had some near misses and plenty of kudos but no contract yet. You’re frustrated and tired and angry.

I’ve been there. It wasn’t any fun. I spent 10 years writing fiction and the only thing I sold in that time was one short story to a local computer magazine for $150. That’s $15 per year. I worked it out once–it was three cents an hour. And I didn’t get paid a dime until Year Ten. That really sucks.

Then in the eleventh year, I sold a nonfiction book. And a novel. Yes, both in the same year. Funny how that worked out.

My story is pretty common. A lot of writers took years and years to break in. I know plenty of novelists who took longer than I did. And of course I know a few writers who sold the first thing they wrote with what looked like hardly any effort. I don’t feel superior to the ones who took longer and I don’t hate the ones who got there quicker. The publishing life is one dice throw after another.

If you want a safe, easy career, then you’re going to have to go into something that safer and easier. Try lion taming. That looks safer to me than fiction writing. Or try brain surgery. That takes about the same amount of training as writing a novel, but I have this weird hunch that it’s easier.

Nothing I can do will change the fact that fiction writing is hard and unsafe. I wouldn’t change that if I could.

Because maybe that’s part of what makes it fun.

Camille, you’re going to get published. If I turn out to be wrong by some unlucky chance, and you don’t get published in the next ten years or so, then you can come and slap me silly. But I have a good track record of spotting winners, and I know you’re a winner, so I’m just not worried.

What’s a writer to do when she’s in this boat? Carry on. There are three basic things that every novelist has to do to keep improving:

  • Keep writing.
  • Keep getting critiqued.
  • Keep learning by reading those pesky how-to-write-fiction books.

I don’t know ANY writers who are improving who don’t do all of these things.

Carry on, Camille. When you sell your first book, we’ll do an interview here on this blog. Remind me when that happens.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Is Publishing Turning Into the Wild West?

The publishing world has changed radically in the last couple of years, thanks to those pesky e-books. Do the old rules still apply? Does chaos rule? Or are there ways to survive and thrive in the new environment?

Jonathan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’ve been reading what you have been posting regarding self e-publishing with a lot of interest lately. It seems like it’s almost creating a “wild west frontier” type aspect in literature, in which a lot of the traditional “rules” are being thrown out because there are simply better ways to do things.

My question regards the writing itself- with this new freedom for authors to publish what they want, how they want, do you see any trends towards fiction that might have been considered “unmarketable” in a more traditional situation? In this new system that seems to be developing, are there any forces besides market that will dictate what fiction is now? For instance, if I want to write something crazy and experimental (but hopefully entertaining) is there a better chance that I will find a market willing to read it in an e-publishing situation where I am taking most of the marketing onus upon myself?

Randy sez: It’s an exciting time to be alive, if you’re an author.

For the last five hundred years or so, the process of publishing a book was a very expensive process. (In today’s world, despite massive improvements in personal productivity for editors and their colleagues, it can still cost more than $50,000 to produce and publish a book, and that’s not counting the advance that must be paid to the author.)

That meant that large corporations needed to underwrite most books. Corporations who had a high priority to not lose money.

Big corporations aren’t bad people. They aren’t people at all, at least not people who bleed when you poke them. They’re organizations. Their goals are different from yours. When you go to a big corporate publisher to get your book published, you have to take their interests into account, or there’s no deal.

Furthermore, even if you do find a publisher to publish your book, typically you sell it rights to publish in a limited geographic area, such as North America. Getting a book with North American rights into the hands of Australian readers means either an expensive mailing of the printed book from North America to Australia, or selling the Australian rights to an Australian publisher, where it may not have the same economies of scale that it does in the larger US market.

E-publishing changes all that. For a few hundred bucks, you can get a graphic artist to make you a decent cover. For a few thousand dollars, you can get a full-service edit by a really good freelance editor. For a few hundred more dollars, you can find somebody to convert the book to the usual e-book formats. Everything else is free in the e-book publication process. Many e-book authors prefer to do it all themselves, so it’s possible to do the entire book at no cost (other than the cost of a computer, which is a one-time expense.)

So now just about anybody can e-publish their novel. But that doesn’t mean that anybody is going to buy it.

Certain of the old rules still apply.

Quality matters, just as it always has. Excellent writing is more likely to sell than crummy writing.

Marketing matters, just as it always has. If nobody knows about your great novel, nobody is going to buy it.

Luck matters, just as it always has. The nice thing now is that there are more ways to get lucky.

In the old days (before last year), getting lucky meant finding the right agent and the right editor at the right publisher at the right time with the right book, the right title, the right cover, and the right marketing.

If you screwed up on any of those, then your luck wasn’t likely to be all that great. And not all of those were under your control. If your publisher screwed up any of the things that it controlled, your luck was just as bad as if you, personally, had screwed up. Authors didn’t control their own destiny.

That road to nirvana is still open, and a few authors are getting lucky all the time. Hooray for them! We should all wish to get lucky that way.

But there’s a new road to nirvana, e-publishing. Now you need the right e-book at the right time with the right title, the right cover, and the right marketing. And all of those are under your control.

You have fewer things that you must get right with e-publishing, and if any of them get screwed up, it’ll be your fault. Which can make you long for the bad old days when you had “Big Corporate” to blame.

It’s interesting to see how many disaffected authors are out there, eager to “stick it to The Man” by doing an end-run on big corporate publishers. I’m not one of those disaffected authors. I have many editor friends who work for big publishers (although it’s been disconcerting to see so many of them lose their jobs in the last couple of years). I don’t hate big publishers. They’ve produced great books over the years. They’re now trying to drive an aircraft carrier through the rapids, and if they’re slow to react, that’s the nature of the beast.

In the old days, big publishers had numerous editors, sales-people, and marketing folks who functioned as “gatekeepers.” Their job was to make sure that a book didn’t lose money. Most of the time, they succeeded, although in most cases, the book in question didn’t actually earn much either. The few big winners paid for the entire party.

That is one of the things now changing with e-publishing. There is no gatekeeper. Not really. (Unless you’re writing something so irredeemably evil that the online publishers refuse your book.) Only market forces determine what will sell.

In the old days, every publisher had its own rules for its gatekeepers. Part of the hassle of getting published was finding a publisher whose gatekeepers would sign off on you.

So yes, Jonathan, if you’ve got something wacky and experimental and you want to try it, go right ahead. The categories are blending. If you want to write an Amish werewolf erotic western with Zen overtones, go right ahead. No gatekeeper will stop you, and the market will tell you if that’s a viable category.

But remember that you still need the Big Three: quality, marketing, and luck. Without those, your books won’t sell.

I teach quality and I teach marketing, but I’ve not yet figured out how to teach luck. So all I can do is wish you well, along with everyone else who sits down to write the next great Amish werewolf erotic western with Zen overtones.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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