Archive | June, 2011

Is There a Magic Pill To Make You Finish Your Novel?

If you’re a good starter, but a bad finisher, how are you ever going to get your novel written? That’s a question many fiction writers face.

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

Is there a magic pill for someone like me?

I can’t seem to complete my first ever “bad” first draft. I’ve berated myself to no end as I struggle to complete just one of the many novels I’ve started and stopped writing over the last couple years, never able to get past the first couple hundred pages, which is when I tend to hit a block, usually seconding guess my story. And yes, I admit, am a chapter-one-aholic (Re-reading and re-writing chapter one . . . a lot!)

Writing classes, workshops, and conferences; critique groups; following blogs like Randy’s; reading a ton of craft books (including “Writing Fiction For Dummies); reading specific genre novels; writing every day for hours . . . Snowflaking, outlining, pantsing, storyboarding . . . I feel like I’ve done it all in hopes of gaining the willpower to keep moving forward. And I continue to do each these things, all the while trying to reach my goal to finally type the words “The End” on the blank last page of my completed novel.

I love writing, and I’ve been writing every day since I fell in love with the art a little over two years ago. I have so many stories I’m interested in writing, filed away — on my computer, on many sticky notes, in stacks of notebooks, in my ever-buzzing brain . . . Is there something out there I haven’t tried to cure me of this so-called hitting-a-wall illness?

One thing I haven’t tried is a writing mentor. Would someone like me benefit from a personal writing mentor to guide me, coach me, push me along the way? Could that be the magic pill I need to get me off the starting block and finish a first draft so I can move on to the next steps?

Any advice — or a magic pill! — you have to offer is greatly appreciated, Randy! Your blog has so many wonderful articles with great advice and interesting tidbits. Thank you for that!

Randy sez: If I had a magic pill to help people finish what they start, I’d be Xtremely rich. I started working on a magic pill like that once, but . . . then I got interested in something else.

I plead guilty to the same sin. I start more things than I finish. My only consolation is that it’s probably impossible to do the reverse. (How could you finish more things than you start?)

A mentor might be the answer. When you go to the gym, you probably work out a lot harder if you have a personal trainer there to crack the whip or urge you on.

I’d love to have a mentor, but I don’t. Instead, I have my writing buddies, and when I need help in getting things done, I turn to them.

Rebecca, do you have a writing buddy? Somebody to whom you can be accountable?

There are two basic kinds of accountability: carrots and sticks.

A carrot is a reward for good behavior; a stick is a penalty.

I tend to respond better to sticks. When I start having motivational problems, I talk to my writing buddy John, and we set up specific behaviors that I have to meet, on pain of paying a $10 fine. I can afford the fine, but I’d rather eat broken glass than pay a fine for something as stupid as not getting out of bed on time. So this works well for me.

Rebecca, for you, the desired behavior is to produce a certain quota of pages per day for your novel. (You probably want to exclude weekends.) Or possibly you might want to produce a certain quota per week. The rule is that the pages have to be on one particular novel and you’re not allowed to quit until the novel is finished. No excuses allowed. You either put out the pages, or you pay up the fine.

See if this works for you. Find a writing buddy and set up an accountability system. You’ll be amazed what you can do when you have to. And you’ll be amazed at how small a fine it takes to produce the right behavior.

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.

What If Those Pesky Agents Don’t Bite?

What do you do when you’ve got a decent manuscript but the agents just aren’t biting?

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

I have a manuscript for which I am seeking representation. I have been told by editors of major publishing houses, during conference critiques, that it is “intriguing, well written, and very good”. I’ve been shopping it around to agents and can’t seem to get anywhere. I get great comments from them but no ‘bites’. How do I determine if the book is unsellable or I haven’t connected with the right agent for it?

Randy sez: Publishing is a subjective business, so there isn’t any infallible way to to know if your book is unsellable.

There is an infallible way to know if your book is sellable, of course. If you sell your book, then it was sellable. But there’s no way to determine that in advance.

However, there are indicators: How many editors have said the manuscript was “intriguing, well written, and very good?” What was their level of enthusiasm? Have you shown the manuscript to agents at conferences? What was their response? Have you studied up on how to write a query letter? How much research on agents did you do before sending them queries? How many agents have you queried? Did you get personalized rejections or were they form-letters? Do you have any friends who are published novelists and who are familiar with your work? If so, what is their opinion of the novel?

It’s not possible for me to trouble-shoot things from here, since I’ve not seen the manuscript and I don’t have the 8 hours it would take to evaluate it. (And I don’t do full manuscript evaluations, ever. There are many people who would do a manuscript evaluation for a lot less money than I would charge, and I see no reason to compete with them when I have so many billions of other tasks on my plate.)

Here are some possible explanations of what’s going on:

Maybe your manuscript really isn’t all that good. Ouch! That’s a painful and frightening possibility, isn’t it? This is why I asked what the level of enthusiasm was of the editors who looked at it. Your answer to that will tell you whether this is a live option.

Maybe there’s something in your pitch to the agents which is a show-stopper. Agents generally won’t tell you this when they reject you, because they’re too busy. They figure that if you can’t be bothered to learn how to pitch your manuscript correctly, they aren’t going to be bothered to teach you. (If you were an agent getting 100 pitches per week, you’d probably feel exactly the same way.) But if you were to pitch your novel to an agent at a conference, you’d have his undivided attention for 15 minutes, and if there was some major show-stopper in your presentation, he’d be very likely to tell you. Maybe nicely, maybe bluntly.

Maybe you aren’t querying the right agents. Agents have different likes and dislikes. If they don’t do your kind of fiction, they aren’t going to want to represent it. I don’t know how well you’ve researched agents before sending them queries, so I have no way to know if you’re trying to sell ice cream to Eskimos. But my agent friends tell me all the time that they get queries for projects that are OBVIOUSLY the wrong sort of project for them, and anyone who had done their homework would know this.

Maybe you just haven’t sent out enough queries. Good agents often have full lists and just aren’t looking for new authors. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are plenty of agents out there, and if your manuscript is any good, and if your query letter is any good, you’ll eventually hook up with the right agent. But it may take some time to find him. This is one reason I asked about whether you’ve got any published novelist friends who could give you an opinion.

Querying agents is not a full time job, so you should be spending the bulk of your time working on your next manuscript.

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.

Writing Conferences and Your Allies

Later today, I’ll be sending out my e-zine with an article on the importance of having Allies.

What are Allies? Allies are your writing buddies. They are your equals or near-equals. They are the people who understand you better than anybody except your closest family members. (And they understand some things about you better than even your closest family members.)

You can’t succeed in publishing these days without Allies. You need them to bounce ideas off of. You need them to weather the storms of rejection. You need them (probably most of all) when you get successful, because a real friend can tell you when you’re starting to get full of yourself.

Where do you get Allies? You get them wherever you can find them. I made a list just now of my nine closest Allies. Of these, I met seven at writing conferences. The other two I met online, but I really only became Allies with them after meeting them in person at conferences.

I’ve often blogged about the importance of conferences, but usually I’ve talked about the fact that you meet editors and agents there, you learn how to behave like a professional, you get great training, and eventually you meet exactly the right agent or editor and make exactly the right pitch at the right time and you get the break you need and suddenly you get published.

But the unspoken secret that most professional writers know is that writing conferences are where you meet Allies. Allies are combinations of friends, professional colleagues, mentors, and shoulders to cry on. All in one.

Allies are typically writing in the same general niche that you are. The writing world has many niches. Romance writers. Mystery writers. Science fiction and fantasy writers. Etc.

Not everyone has exactly one perfect niche that they could fit into, but most writers do find one where they can belong. And most of their allies will also identify with that niche.

My own niche for most of the time I’ve been a writer has been the world of Christian fiction. It’s not the perfect fit for me. Given how weird I am, nothing could be the perfect niche. But Christian fiction has a lot going for it (including double-digit growth in market share for most of the last two decades).

It’s been a good place for me in many ways. My most recent book (WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES) doesn’t fit that niche, and I have some novels planned for the future that also won’t fit that niche, but that’s OK.

Most of the teaching that I do is still at Christian writing conferences (although this has also been changing in the last few years).

I have two favorite conferences, the two places where I’ve consistently met with my Allies and found new ones: The Mount Hermon conference (in the spring of every year) and the American Christian Fiction Writers conference (in September of every year).

I taught again at Mount Hermon this year and it was incredible, as always. Mount Hermon is where I met my coauthor John Olson, and it’s where some of my happiest memories in writing have happened. I had a great time this year, teaching a mentoring track with five students, hanging out with friends, meeting many new people.

I’m already gearing up mentally for this September, when I’ll be teaching a major track (on that pesky Snowflake Method of writing a novel) at the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference.

ACFW is an exceptional organization. It’s roughly modeled on RWA (Romance Writers of America) in its organizational structure. ACFW now has about 2500 members, many of whom are published novelists.

Last year, the ACFW conference had about 600 attendees, and we expect more this year. It was terrific last year and it looks to be even better this year. You can make appointments with any of 26 different fiction editors. Or with any of 17 different agents. Just about every Christian publisher and every Christian literary agency tries to send somebody to ACFW.

If you happen to fit into the niche of Christian fiction, there is simply no better conference on the planet than ACFW. And yes, I’m biased. I’ve been on the Advisory Board of ACFW since 2004. I’ve watched it grow from a small cadre of mostly romance writers into a massive organization of writers of every kind of Christian fiction you can imagine.

One of the high points of the ACFW conference is the awards banquet. ACFW runs two major kinds of awards, the Genesis award (for unpublished writers) and the Carol award (for traditionally published books).

These awards have grown amazingly in prestige in the last few years. Winning in one of the Genesis categories is now considered one of the best ways for an unpublished novelist to get noticed by the publishers. And winning a Carol award is now considered roughly equal in prestige to winning a Christy award.

But for me, the highest of the high points at ACFW has consistently been the time I spend hanging out with my Allies. Writing is a lonely business. It’s also a tough business, where you are only as good as your last book. Editors and agents come and go, but Allies accumulate.

As I noted earlier, my own career is trending more toward the general market. That’s just because no one niche is perfect for me. I’ll always be a multi-niche guy. The publishing world is changing and so am I. I expect that I’ll always have one foot in the niche of Christian fiction, where so many of my friends and Allies live. (I should note that some of my Allies are also trending toward the general market, so no matter where I go, I’ll never be without Allies.)

For the foreseeable future, I just plain can’t imagine missing the ACFW conference every September. Which means I’ll continue to see many of my Loyal Blog Readers there.

And for those Loyal Blog Readers who live in a different niche, it also means that there’s a good chance that I’ll see some of you as I continue to expand my footprint into other niches.

It’s a big world out there. The more Allies you have, the happier you’ll be and the better you’ll do.

You can get more info on the ACFW conference on the ACFW web site.

What’s a Newbie Novelist to Do?

The publishing world is changing so fast that a newbie novelist can’t help feeling confused by all the options out there. Now that e-books are hot, hot, hot, should an unpublished writer try to self-publish herself or should she go with a traditional publisher?

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

Randy I want you to pretend you are a new author and would have your first book completed and ready to submit in six months to a year from today. Would you go the traditional route of getting an agent/publisher or would you self publish as an ebook and why would you choose that route?

This is the timeframe I am looking at and since the market is changing so rapidly I am concerned about going one way or the other and having it be the wrong decision. If I go the traditional route and ebooks take an even larger chunk of the market I may waste precious time marketing a book that no publisher will take because I am not a proven comodity.

If I go the ebook route and am not able to market it effectively my book could fail due to my lack of marketing abilities.

Lastly most of us dream of getting one of our creations turned into a movie, if don’t go the traditional route have we made this dream impossible?

I love your ezine and like so many have writen my novel using the snowflake method and can’t thank you enough!

Randy sez: Wow, Lisa, that’s a tough decision. Two years ago, I’d have automatically said, “Go with the traditional, royalty-paying publisher, because your odds of making it big as a self-published novelist are roughly one in ten million. Whereas your odds of making it big with a traditional publisher are roughly one in a hundred thousand.”

That was then. This is now. Now I’d say that your odds of making it big are about the same, either way: About one in a hundred thousand.

Of course, it’s not necessary to “make it big” to be a happy, successful author. I define “making it big” to be this: Your first novel earns you more than $250,000.

A disclaimer is in order here. I don’t know the real odds of making it big. One in a hundred thousand seems to be about the right order of magnitude. It’s a guess. Might be high. Might be low.

What about if you lower your sights just a bit and think about earning, say, $5000 on your first novel? That’s a lot easier, but it’s still no cakewalk. Hundreds of novelists are going to be able to hit that level of success this year. Probably more than 1000. If we assume that there are 300,000 wannabe writers out there who want to publish their novel, then your odds of earning a $5k advance are probably one in a few hundred. It’s doable.

Now the big question: What if those writers avoided the traditional publishers and went the e-book route? How would they do?

Absolutely nobody knows the answer to that question. My best guess is that some would do better, some would do worse, but on average, they’d probably average about $5k. With $2 royalty per book, they’d only have to sell 2500 copies in a year to do that. That’s a couple of hundred copies per month. Maybe 7 per day. It’s doable. A lot depends on their willingness to market themselves. Those willing to work hard could do Xtremely well.

What about the rest? What about the hundreds of thousands of wannabe writers who aren’t yet writing well enough to sell to a traditional publisher? Would they do better by e-publishing?

That’s easy. Of course they would. For these authors, the traditional route would earn them $0, and you can’t do worse than that. Whereas by e-publishing, they could easily earn dozens of dollars.

So if your writing is not yet up to snuff, you can get in the game by e-publishing and you can earn a few bucks. You will almost certainly not earn very many bucks. But you will earn something.

Should you go that route? Here’s my opinion: If you’re not yet good enough to get published by a traditional publisher, then self-publishing won’t hurt you, but it won’t noticeably help you either. Your best bet is to put your energy into improving your craft.

In my view, self-publishing is most advantageous for the A-list authors. Authors whose name alone sells zillions of copies of their books. An author like that who self-pubbed at a price point of $2.99 would (I believe) see much higher sales than he would by publishing with a traditional publisher (who would want to price the hardcover at $26.99 and the e-book at $14.99.)

I’m guessing here, since I don’t have hard numbers. Very few people have hard numbers. We’ll know more when Barry Eisler’s next novel comes out. (Barry recently turned down a 2-book deal for half a million dollars in order to self-publish.)

Self-publishing would also be a big advantage for a midlist author whose publishers haven’t ever quite figured out how to market her. (There are tens of thousands of these authors out there.) Publishers do their best, but they have a lot of authors, and if they can’t get a handle on how to market them all, you can hardly blame them.

A midlist author who took the time to market herself well would very likely do much better by self-publishing. How do I know that? Because there are a fair number of midlist authors who are very quietly doing exactly that RIGHT NOW. Read the last several months of Joe Konrath’s blog to see interviews with a number of them, and references to many more.

Now finally, I’ll answer Lisa’s question, which was intensely personal. What would I, Randy, do if I were just starting out as a novelist? I’m going to assume Lisa means, what would I do if I had my current set of skills, which include the ability to write an award-winning novel and the ability to market myself online.

See, the answer to that is easy: I’d self-publish myself. Every publisher I’ve worked with has had a hard time figuring out how to market me. (Except for the publishers of WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, who had no trouble at all figuring out how to market me, because I told them how.) I can’t blame my other publishers. I didn’t know how to market myself either, so I could hardly expect them to know. I’m a weirdo, and weirdos are hard to figure out how to market.

But now I do know how to market my work. Here, my weirdness actually helps. Weirdos are Xtremely easy to market, once you’ve figured out exactly what they are and why they’re different from everybody else on the planet. So it makes perfect sense to e-publish myself in the current climate.

What do I mean by the “current climate?” I mean simply this. Currently, traditional publishers are paying no more than 25% royalties on e-books. (That’s 25% of the money received from retailers, not 25% of the retail price of the book.)

Most authors consider that 25% rate to be unfairly low. Insanely low. I know that the publishers have their reasons for keeping the royalties at that level. But I still don’t think it’s a remotely fair royalty rate, and I don’t know a single published author who thinks it’s fair.

Eventually, I believe that publishers are going to raise their royalty rates on e-books. I have no idea when, but I think it’ll happen. I don’t know if they’ll raise it to a fair level (which I would define to be somewhere north of 50% of what they receive.)

In the meantime, I think a midlist author can simply do better by e-publishing herself (if she has any marketing sense at all). That’s the “current climate” in the publishing world. That could change tomorrow, or it might take ten years.

Here’s something you probably learned in kindergarten which is still true: You can’t make people play fair, but you can choose to play in a different sandbox.

So if you think you’ll do better by not going the traditional publishing route, then you can try riding the e-ticket. And if you think you’ll do better with a traditional publisher, then do so. You have options. Act in your own best interest, whatever that is.

Lisa also asked about movies. The fact is that your book has a vastly better chance of being made into a movie if it sells a lot of copies. So if you can sell a zillion copies of your book with a traditional publisher, then that’s your route to moviedom. If you can sell a zillion copies by self-publishing, then that’s your ticket. Either way, let’s be brutally honest, a movie is a long-shot. Probably won’t happen. Try not to have an aneurysm if it does.

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.