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Smashing The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

So you’re writing about six different novels all at the same time and none of them are getting done and you just can’t decide which to work on next. What do you do?

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

I am 22 year old college student. I am immensely in love with creating my own characters and worlds. Currently I have six projects, most of them more than one novel. The trouble I am having is picking the right one to work on. Sometimes I work a bit on this one, a bit on that one, but that does not help me finish any of my projects. I want to sit down and just finish one crappy first draft so I can polish it and be proud of finally finishing my first novel.

Do you have any tips when you are stuck with several projects and do not know which one to go with?

Thank you for your time,


Randy sez:  Katya, the good news is that a lot of writers would pay to have your problem, which is that you have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to ideas.

The bad news is that you have a bottleneck in your writing process. That bottleneck is strangling your production. You are spinning your wheels and getting nowhere.

The good news is that you can break that bottleneck right now.

But first you have to identify it. 

Let’s start by identifying what you’re doing well. You’re generating ideas. Lots of ideas. So many that they’re competing for your attention, and you’re afraid that if you don’t work on them all right now, you’ll never work on them.

That’s an illusion. The reality is that by paying attention to all of them all at once, you are preventing ANY of them from ever getting published.

The Fiction Writing Bottleneck

That creates the biggest problem most novelists have: the fiction writing bottleneck.

What’s the solution?

Let me tell you a little story. About 15 years ago, my buddy John Olson had that same problem. I asked him what he was working on and he gave me a list of 10 different books he was working on. All at the same time.

I pointed out that he was working a full-time job and writing in his spare time. Even if he had 40 hours per week to write, he’d only be able to spend 4 hours per week on each book, and he was competing with professional writers who had 40 hours per week to commit to a single book. So John didn’t have a chance.

So I told John he had to pick one, any one of the ten, and commit to it. He picked one and agreed to make a firm commitment to write it, but only if I’d coauthor it with him. As it turned out, I really liked that idea, so I agreed to work on it. The result was our award-winning novel Oxygen.

Breaking the Bottleneck

Now how do you commit, Katya? There are two things you need to do, and these have to be firm decisions that you won’t back down from under any conditions:

  1. Pick one novel–any one of them. If you can’t decide, then flip a coin. Seriously. It truly doesn’t matter which you choose now, because ultimately you will choose all of them.
  2. Join the 500 Club. That means you commit to writing at least 500 words on that novel EVERY DAY until it’s done. No excuses. No rollover words from yesterday. Every day you have to put down 500 new words on that novel. You can write more words, but under no circumstances are you allowed to write fewer. You can edit some words from previous days, but that editing time doesn’t count. The only thing that counts is new words.

How does this solve your problem?

The answer is simple. At 500 words per day, minimum, you will finish that novel in just a few months. You can afford to set aside everything else temporarily because you are guaranteed to be done in a few months and then you can pick up the next project. And the next, and the next.

The fact is that just about every commercially successful novelist on the planet has a word count quota. Some of them have a time quota, but word count seems to me to be better, because you can waste 30 minutes staring at the screen, but you can’t write 500 words staring at the screen.

The Magic of the 500 Club

There is nothing magic about 500 words, by the way. Maybe you want to join the 250 Club instead. Maybe you can join the 1000 Club. Or even the 2000 Club. But whatever club you decide to join, make it a hard commitment. Absolutely no excuses unless you’re unconscious or giving birth or at the top of Mount Everest. And even in those cases, some writers would drill out their 500 words.

The magic comes from being totally committed. The bottleneck for most writers is the actual production of first draft copy. They don’t spend enough time on that. Which means they don’t have enough to edit or sell or promote.

Stephen King used to tell interviewers that he writes every day except Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. But he notes in his book On Writing that this was a lie. Because he writes every day including Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. And he’s in the 2000 Club. That is part of the reason he’s successful.

First draft copy is your number one priority as a writer. If you get that habit right, everything else will tend to fall into place.

The Fiction Writing Challenge For You

Katya, I challenge you to join the 500 Club for one month and then report back to me. Leave a comment here on this blog.

And the rest of my Loyal Blog Readers, I’ll give you the same challenge. Try the 500 Club for 30 days and report back to me in a comment here.

If you do that, one month from now you’ll have AT LEAST 15,000 words, and possibly much more. And 15,000 words per month, every month, is two full-length standard-size novels per year. Every year, for the rest of your life.

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.


The Big Marketing Hatchet Man

So you published your novel and now you’re trying to market it and it’s going slow and you suddenly realized that you hate marketing. How do you get the word out when you don’t know anything about marketing fiction?

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

So I’ve written two books. And most of the readers who own the books have liked them. (Not all of course, none of us will write a book that every reader falls in love with.)

But still the big marketing hatchet man hovers over my head. Why does marketing have to cost more than book sales? Or does it?

And Jonna posted a similar question on the same day:

I have indie published the first three novels in a series, all available in print and for Kindle, and have gotten good reviews from readers, but my marketing skills are pretty bad. You recommend sending out review copies. I’ve seen some sites offering reviews for a fee. That seems a bit dodgy to me. My question is, to whom should I be sending review copies and should these always be print copies or can I submit digital files for review?

Thanks for all your great advice, Randy.

Randy sez: Sharon, I love that phrase, “big marketing hatchet man.” It conjures up an image that resonates with just about all fiction writers.

Jonna, your specific question is about review copies, and I can answer that very quickly. Don’t pay for reviews. Indie authors will do best by getting reviews on the online retailers–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc., along with reviews on Goodreads and other social media for book-lovers. But the more general question that you’re really asking is the same as Sharon’s: How do you market fiction?

Let’s be clear, right up front, that this is a very hard question. A very big question.

It’s a little bit like asking, “How do you play chess?”

Sure, I can show you what moves each of the chess pieces is allowed to make, and once you know those, you technically know “how to play chess.” But you will play like a beginner.

This is the way people usually teach marketing. They show you how to do a tweet or how to post on Facebook or how to pin on Pinterest or how to post a blog entry or whatever. And technically, now you know how to market. But you will market like a beginner.

If you really want to learn to play chess well, then you need to get some training from somebody who knows how to play chess. Either you find a mentor or you learn from books or from software. But you need to get training.

And then you need to play chess. Lots of it. If you want to become a grandmaster, you need to put in about 10,000 hours playing chess. That’s 5 years, playing chess 8 hours per day, with a couple of weeks vacation per year. That’s a lot of chess!

Do you have to become a “marketing grandmaster?”


No, no, no, no, no.

You can do that if you want, but very few novelists ever do. I would say that James Patterson is a marketing grandmaster. And he gets the kind of results you expect from a marketing grandmaster.

But you don’t have to be a grandmaster to play a mean game of chess. You just need to master a few tactics, such as the pin, the knight fork, the skewer, the double-attack. And you also need to learn basic chess strategy, including king-side attacks, queen-side attacks, defense, and the end-game. Each time you add one of these to your arsenal, you become a strikingly better player.

Likewise, you don’t have to be a marketing grandmaster to do well as a novelist. You need to master a few basic marketing tactics. And you need a marketing strategy.

I could write a whole book on this. In fact, I am writing a whole  book on this.

I can’t possibly put everything into one blog post.

But I can tell you the essentials, and they’re pretty simple.

Let’s start by asking why you need marketing. Then we’ll ask what marketing is.

The reason you need marketing is because most people on the planet have never heard of you. (There are seven billion people on earth, and none of them knows everybody.)

Marketing means taking people through three distinct phases:

  1. Attraction–they learn that you exist
  2. Engagement–they learn that you write the kind of fiction they want
  3. Conversion–they pull out their wallet and buy your book

Each phase is essential. Nobody will buy your book unless they want it. Nobody will want it unless they know it exists.

So you need a marketing strategy that will first attract people (to your web site or to the sales page on Amazon or some other retailer); then you need to engage those same people long enough to figure out whether they like your kind of fiction; finally, you need to persuade those same people to buy RIGHT NOW.

If your marketing strategy fails in any of these points, then almost nobody will buy your book.

If your marketing strategy is designed to attract one kind of person, engage a completely different kind of person, and convert a completely different kind of person, then almost nobody will buy your book.

If your marketing strategy succeeds in all three points, then a growing number of people will buy your book. Then if it’s good, they’ll talk about it and word-of-mouth will take off and your sales will grow exponentially.

Those are the essentials.

That is the big picture.

Filling in the details will take a whole book. I can’t change that fact. Marketing is complicated. The best I can do is to break it down into a series of simple tasks, and I’m working on that right now.

I don’t want to discourage either of you, Sharon and Jonna.

So let’s end on a happy note. This is critical for your long-term success, so start with this key principle:

The best marketing tool for any book is another book by the same author.

If you’ve got only one book on the market, then it’s one book out of ten million on Amazon. A few people will find it by chance and buy it, but if they like it, they’ve got nothing else to read. They might tell a friend, but that’s it.

Whereas if you’ve got 100 books on the market, then 100 times as many people will find them by chance and buy them, which means you’ve now got 100 times as many sales. If they like one, they’ll buy several, so now you’re getting several hundred times as many sales. And with each book, they’ll tell a friend, so you’re getting tons more word-of-mouth.

If you look at the successful authors, most of them have a lot of books published.

So it may very well be that the absolute best way to market your novel is to … write another novel. And another. And another.

Of course, people will tell you that you “must” be on Twitter. You “must” be on Facebook. You “must” be on Pinterest, on Goodreads, on the blogosphere. You “must” do this, that, and the other thing. You “must” be on the marketing treadmill ten hours per day.

Really? Seriously? These people know this for sure? Or do they just think it?

I’ll agree that it’s POSSIBLE that some of those things might help market your work.

But you should always ask whether they’ll help MORE than just writing another book.

If you don’t KNOW  that the answer is “yes,” then the answer is probably “no.”

There are certain things that I KNOW work. I know, because I’ve tried them and measured the results. I know when they work and why they work. I know when they don’t work.

Blogs can have value, under certain conditions. E-mail lists can have a lot of value, under certain conditions. Ditto for all the various things people do.

But here’s the thing that has the MOST value: Writing another great book.

Right now, I’m doing almost nothing to market my fiction. Instead, I’m putting my effort into getting my back-list of books back in print as e-books. That should be done fairly soon, and then I’ll have six books that I can market all together. And I’ve got another two books that are partially written–books that publishers had issues with, so they never got published traditionally. Books I believe in and plan to publish as an indie author.

My focus right now is on production, not on marketing. Most of the successful indie authors say that they started getting traction only after they had 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 books out. So that’s my goal.

Jonna and Sharon, go write some more books! This is an exciting time to be an author. Few of us will have success like James Patterson, but that’s OK.

Today, I read that there were 150 authors on Amazon’s KDP program this year who each had sales greater then 100,000 copies.

And thousands more indie authors sold thousands of copies apiece. (I was one of them, without doing much at all to market my books.)

You can too. Write more books. And stay tuned, because I’ll have more to say on how to market fiction effectively in the coming months. But I won’t be able to fit it all into a blog post.


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 Your First Novel Fails Miserably?

What if you finally get your novel published and then it fails miserably in the market? What if it crashes and burns? Will your fiction-writing career be over?

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

Hi, Randy. Something’s been bugging me for a while now, and people I asked have given me a bunch of different answers; I hope you’d be able to clear this thing for me and those with similar doubts.

Namely, what will it mean for my future fiction-writing career if my first published book ultimately fails (being of course my failure) to make a name for itself, or worse — is a total disaster. I assume (should I write another novel) that agents and editors would then look at my work with this presumption: “I shouldn’t even waste my time looking at a manuscript by someone who failed so gravely the last time.”

How is it? Is an author’s first failure their last? Or perhaps there is a way out to make yet a good name for oneself?

Thank you for your time.

Randy sez: Dale, your fear is every fiction writer’s fear. And with good reason.

Let’s be clear that everything I say here is my opinion only, it could be wrong, yada, yada. There will be some people who wildly disagree with me. But then, I wildly disagree with them, so that’s OK.

My opinion is that editors and agents care most about your most recent book. If it was a success, then that’s great and you’re everybody’s pal. But if it was a miserable failure, then that’s horrible and you’re damaged goods.

Generally, your agent won’t abandon you after a book crashes and burns. But he will be doing damage control when he goes to sell your next book. Your agent will make the case that your book failed because:

  • Your publisher gave it a lousy cover.
  • Your publisher failed to send out review copies.
  • Your publisher dropped the ball on distribution.
  • Your publisher screwed up on pre-sales.
  • Your book came out too early.
  • Your book came out too late.
  • Your publisher had a dispute with a major retailer and didn’t get copies into any of that retailer’s stores.
  • A thousand other excuses.

Any of these could be correct. I have seen books fail for each of these reasons. I’ve seen books fail spectacularly when several of these things happened together. I’ve seen really excellent, brilliant writers have a massive book failure because their publisher screwed up.

But none of that matters, because everybody knows it’s the author’s fault.

Yeah, that sucks, but that’s the way things are. If your book fails, you get the blame.

So what are you supposed to do about it?

I suppose you could quit the fiction writing game, but if writing is in your blood, then you’re not going to do that because you can’t. When fiction writing is in your blood, you’re going to write fiction because that’s just what you do and you can’t help yourself. Quitting is not an option.

You could accept a smaller advance from a smaller publisher and hope that your next book does well and you can rebuild your career. That’s a live option, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you have another miserable failure, then you’d have to step down to an even smaller publisher and an even smaller advance. In principle, you could circle the drain two or three times before you finally go out.

You could adopt a pseudonym and start your publishing career over, either in a new category or in the same category. There is nothing wrong with this option. In fact, you can make a case that even if your career is going great guns, you should use a pseudonym if you radically change brands. That way, you don’t confuse your readers. If you’ve been publishing serial-killer novels under the name Hack Slade, and you switch gears to writing sweet Amish romances under that same name, expect a wee little bit of astonishment and confusion from your fans.

You could bail out of the traditional publishing game altogether  and become an indie author. Then you aren’t beholden to any publisher. You don’t have to convince the gatekeepers that you’re worthy of being published. You just publish. You become your own boss. You make the decisions. You get the money and the glory if it succeeds. This is a viable option, and plenty of authors have done this. I know authors who’ve gone indie precisely for this reason.

There are people who will tell you not to worry about all this. If you’re good, then your books will just magically sell well and you’ll do just fine.

I don’t believe this, for a couple of reasons:

  1. The publishing industry is the opposite of Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average). In the publishing industry, MOST books sell worse than average. You might think this is statistically impossible, but it’s true, because book sales don’t follow a bell-shaped curve. If book sales followed a bell-shaped curve, then about half the books would sell better than average and half would sell worse. But the actual sales curve is horribly lopsided. The James Pattersons and Dan Browns of the world pull the average up massively. MOST books sell far below average.
  2. Publishers are made up of humans, and humans make mistakes, and sometimes they totally screw up a book. I’ve seen it happen to brilliant authors. Odds are good that if you write more than a dozen books, one of them will tank because the publisher dropped the ball.

Let’s be clear that I’m not anti-publisher. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met in the publishing industry are smart and decent and hard-working (with a few exceptions).

I’m not anti-publisher. I’m pro-author. And the fact is that authors have a tough time in this industry. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s a subject for another day, but it’s possible to write a good, solid book and have it sell poorly.

When that happens, the author always gets the blame. Always. Always. Always.

Write that down: “Always.”

Oh, did I mention that the author always gets the blame?

The solution is NOT for us to fall down weeping incoherently or to wring our hands helplessly.

Authors are not children. We don’t have complete control of our situation, but we have three things under our control:

  1. Develop your craft as well as you can.
  2. Develop your marketing skills as well as you can.
  3. Take complete responsibility for your writing career.

We can’t afford to complain when things go bad. And things are almost guaranteed to go bad. Crap happens. A lot.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: There has never been a better time to be an author. We are living in the Golden Age For Authors.

We authors have more options than ever. We can work with a traditional publisher. We can go indie. We can be hybrid authors. We can do what we want, write what we want, sell to a world-wide market at little cost and little effort.

Yes, when things go wrong, we get the blame.

But when things go right, we get the credit.

Don’t worry about what can go wrong.

Dream about what can go right.

And then go make it happen.

Dale, I hope you feel a bit better about your future. Just saying it out loud has been good for me. It’s reminded me that yeah, I’m the person driving the bus. I’m in control of my career. And you’re in control of yours.

Go to it.

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.

Should You Self-publish Your Novel?

Writers these days have two roads to fame and glory — self-publish or go with a traditional publisher. How do you decide which road to take? Will self-publishing ruin your reputation? Will traditional publishers cheat you out of your hard-earned money?

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

I need help and advise.

I was planning to self publish, hoping to evaluate the performance of the book in terms of sales and readership before trying to use the traditional publishers. then while i was doing my research, i realised that you have traveled both routes – published by traditional publishers – Zondervan and also by Bookbaby (self-publishing.) I would like to be advised on the best route for a beginner like me.

I would be happy to be assisted please.

Thank you and God bless you and your team

Randy sez: You’ve put your finger on the question that many writers are asking these days, Despan.

I should clarify one point, however. I’ve published with several traditional publishers, but my self-publishing has been with Amazon/Barnes&Noble/Smashwords/Apple, rather than with Book Baby. I have nothing against Book Baby, but I haven’t worked with them. The two books that I’ve self-published have been second editions of books that were originally published with traditional publishers.

A large number of my published author friends have done exactly what I’ve done with their out-of-print novels — they’ve edited them, paid a graphic designer to create cover art, packaged it up as an e-book, and posted it for sale on the major online retailers.

Some of my author friends report no luck with these ventures. Some of them report very good results. I’d classify my results so far as fairly good. I think that as I release more e-books, they’ll all do better. One of the best ways to promote an e-book is with another e-book (since all your books should list all the others).

In the case of out-of-print novels, it’s a no-brainer to self-publish it. The cost is pretty minimal. The potential revenue is huge. Few traditional publishers are willing to republish your out-of-print novel, so that’s rarely an option.

But what if you’ve got a novel that has not yet been published? Should you self-publish it or go with a traditional publisher?

I suppose the answer to that depends on your goals.

If the main thing you want is to see your name on the cover of a book and you really don’t care if it earns any money, then your quickest way to get there is to self-publish it.

If the main thing you want is to get the ego boost that comes from being validated by a traditional publisher, then you can rule out self-publishing. You have to go with a traditional publisher.

Being a selfish guy, my main priority is to earn the most money for each book.

Let’s all remember, of course, that publishing a book is a very low-probability way to earn a lot of money. So let’s be clear on this — I didn’t decide to become a writer for the money. I became a writer because writing is in my blood and I can’t help myself. Having made that decision to become a writer, I want to maximize the money that I’ll earn. It just seems dumb to make decisions that would minimize my earnings.

I hope we’re clear on that, but just in case we’re not, I’ll repeat it. Writing will probably not make you rich. But if you know that and still want to be a writer, you should at least try to earn the most you can from it.

Here is my #1 piece of advice on self-publishing: Never self-publish a book unless you believe that it’s good enough that you could sell it to a traditional publisher.

Why? Because if your book is so bad that you couldn’t ever hope to sell it to any traditional publisher on the planet, that probably means that readers are going to hate it. Yes, there are a few rare exceptions to this, but mostly it’s true. Would you read a book that every traditional publisher thought was terrible? I didn’t think so. Treat readers the way you want to be treated.

So let’s assume that you’ve got a manuscript and you’re pretty sure it’s good enough to sell to a traditional publisher. How do you proceed?

That leads to my #2 piece of advice on self-publishing: Never self-publish a book unless you believe that you could market it at least 20% as well as a traditional publisher.

The reason for that rule is simple. Traditional publishers typically pay royalty rates of 25% of net revenues on e-books. Your agent will take 15% of that 25%, leaving you with about 21% of net revenues. I rounded that 21% down to 20% for simplicity. So if your publisher can sell 10,000 copies of your novel, then you only need to sell about 2,100 self-published copies at that same price point to generate the same amount of revenue. Of course, you might lower the price and then you’d need to move more copies, but you get the picture.

What if you know you’re horrible at marketing? I’d say in that case you’ve got no choice but to go with a traditional publisher. Of course, most traditional publishers these days expect their authors to do the lion’s share of the marketing. So being horrible at marketing is a bad idea these days. Don’t be horrible at marketing. Learn how to be an effective marketer.

What if you know your book could never sell to a traditional publisher? I’d say in that case you should work on your craft. Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard. Give yourself the time and training to become excellent. You wouldn’t try to become a brain surgeon with 50 hours of training. Nor a fighter pilot. Nor a chess grandmaster.

Learning to write fiction well takes hundreds or thousands of hours of work. That may sound like bad news, but the flip side is that it’s also bad news for all those other wannabes you’re competing with. If you put in the time and they don’t, then who’s going to win?

I have a few other bits of advice if you want to self-publish your novel:

  • Get your novel edited by a professional freelance editor. I believe that no novelist on the planet should be his own editor. You need an objective hard-eyed critique of your fiction. I don’t do freelance editing, by the way, so please nobody ask me what my rates are because I’m not available at any price. And yes, I follow this advice myself. I always hire talented editors to critique my work.
  • Pay a graphic designer to create the cover art for your book. Very few authors have graphic design skills. Find somebody who does.
  • Don’t spend massive amounts of time and money trying to do social marketing. This is merely my opinion. I’m aware that the vast majority of writers believe that social media will take us all to nirvana. Being a numbers guy, I’m skeptical. But I don’t have time to elaborate here. I often teach marketing at conferences, and it takes a few hours to lay out my vision of how to do marketing right. Social media is a small sliver of that, and should not suck huge amounts of time out of your life.

Well, Despan, I hope that helps. I talk to editors and agents all the time, and if I can distill what they tell me down to one thing, it’s this: “Be a brilliant writer.”

Easy to say. Horribly hard to do. But if you become a brilliant writer, you have a lot better chance of succeeding in the wild and crazy world of publishing. There is no certainty, ever. But brilliant writers have the odds in their favor.

Good luck!

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.