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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.


Are Flashbacks Allowed in Your Novel?

So you’re writing a novel and you really, desperately need to put some flashbacks in. But all the experts tell you that writing a flashback is a greater crime than torturing puppies. So what do you do?

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

I am attempting to write an historical novel in which half of it is flashback – I know, that is just not done. It is a true bit of history; 2 set of fascinating characters interact for the current time with plenty of drama; One of the characters is trying to impress the others (and has their interest) with the story of his adventurous past (flashback) – both the current and the flashback scenes are equal in length and importance in the story I want to tell. Any thoughts?

Randy sez: Let’s be clear on why the experts create “rules” for writing fiction. It’s because the rules generally work. Not always, but generally. Those pesky “rules” have an element of truth in them. They guide us in our main goal, which is to give our reader a Powerful Emotional Experience. (If you need convincing that this is the main purpose of fiction, then please read my book Writing Fiction For Dummies.)

But let’s also be clear that the “rules” of fiction writing are much like the Pirate’s Code (in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.) They’re not rules, they’re guidelines.

The fact is that if the story works better by breaking a rule than by following a rule, then you must break the rule. (This is Randy’s Rule For Resisting Rules. And technically, it’s a meta-rule.)

Now the reason all the experts caution you about flashbacks is because it stops the main story cold in order to tell some backstory.

But if the backstory is just as important as the front story, then this rule just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of plenty of stories that skip all around in time.

One of my favorites is The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. This is a brilliant novel, and it’s hard to know where the backstory ends and the front story begins.

Another example is Neal Stephenson’s ubergeeky novel Cryptonomicon, which takes place partly during World War II, and partly in the late 1990s. The story skips between the two time periods and the reader is never confused. The reader wonders what the devil is the point of all the skipping until quite late in the story, but the payoff at the end is huge, and the story works. Technically, Stephenson isn’t using flashbacks here, but he’s most definitely mixing backstory and front story in a wild and happy mix.

If you must tell backstory, I would argue that flashbacks are the best way to do it, because flashbacks are shown, rather than told. They just interrupt the normal time sequence to do that. But nonlinear time sequences are fine. Readers are smart. They can handle it.

So Paul, the bottom line is this. If it works to have your story skip around wildly in time, then do it. If it doesn’t work, then don’t do it.

If somebody tells you that you aren’t allowed to do that, ask them why. And if their reason doesn’t ultimately come down to giving the reader a Powerful Emotional Experience, then my opinion is that they’re wrong.

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.


Publishing Your Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

So you’ve finished your novel and it’s a heart-breaking work of staggering genius. You’ve revised it several times, polished it, perfected it. Now you want to unleash it on the world. How do you do that?

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

How do you get started in the marketing end of things? I understand writing, but when it comes to finding an editor and getting published, I’m hopelessly confused. Thanks in advance.

Randy sez: McKenna, you’re not alone. Hundreds of thousands of novelists every year face this same question. It’s a big question, and a full answer would take a book. So I’ll give you the big picture and then try to point you in the right direction.

You have four basic options in publishing your novel:

  • Big or mid-size traditional publisher: you get an advance and they cover the costs
  • Small publisher: you get very little advance and they cover the costs
  • Vanity publisher: you get no advance and you cover the costs
  • Indie publishing: you are the publisher

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

Big or Mid-size Traditional Publisher

These publishers will publish dozens or hundreds or maybe even thousands of books per year. They have many employees, including editors, marketers, publicity people, sales people.

If you’re looking for a large advance, these publishers are the only game in town. That isn’t to say you’ll actually get a large advance. You’re more likely to get an advance well south of $10,000. But you will get an advance and it’ll represent the publisher’s estimate of what your book will earn in roughly the first year. The publisher will pay you royalties—a percentage of each book sold—and the advance is basically a loan against those royalties. After the advance “earns out,” you’ll continue to get royalties for the lifetime of the book.

Generally, these publishers will do a print run of at least a few thousand copies, as well as producing an e-book edition. They’ll do all the work. You just provide the manuscript and then do whatever revisions they ask for.

The advantages of working with a largish traditional publisher are that you get some money up front (although rarely as much as you imagined) and that you don’t have to hassle with production.

The disadvantages are that you are giving up quite a lot of control of your work (the publisher will own the rights to your novel for as long as they choose to keep it in print). Publishers are not in business to hold your hand. They’re in business to make money, and the contract they give you will be written to favor them heavily. You can shift things in your favor by hiring a literary agent to negotiate the deal, but agents rarely get everything they want.

In fact, if you go with one of these publishers, the odds are very high that you must have an agent even to have your manuscript considered. Publishers just don’t have the manpower to read all submissions, so they rely on agents to deal with the flood. If a manuscript comes to them from a trusted agent, then they’ll make time to look at it. Otherwise, probably not.

And how do you get an agent? That’s a big question. There are zillions of agents working, and not all of them are good. How do you know who’s good? You have to rely on their reputation. Word gets around on who’s good and who isn’t.

Most agents have a web site and you can find out exactly how to submit your manuscript to each one by checking his or her site for submission guidelines. Be prepared for a long wait. Agents often take months to make a decision.

One of my favorite places to meet agents is at writing conferences. You can make an appointment with an agent, spend 15 minutes pitching your novel, and the agent will tell you if she’s interested in seeing more. She probably isn’t, and even if she is, that’s no guarantee that she’ll take you on as a client.

If this sounds discouraging, it is, but the process is fair—in the sense that the odds are heavily stacked against everybody. Every writer starts out knowing nobody. It’s a horrible playing field, but it’s a level field. And if you’re one of the few who get published, you have a chance for glory. It’s not a big chance, but it’s a chance.

For more information on how to get an agent, see Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle is a very widely read blogger and literary agent and she’s also a friend of mine, so I know she’s honest and good.

All of my own books were originally published with large to mid-size publishers. It took me a long time to break in to this market, and I’ve had some ups and downs. But these publishers are the traditional way to go, and it’s possible to do very well with them. It’s much more likely that an author will have mediocre sales, but that’s the nature of publishing—there are a very few huge winners and then there’s everybody else.

Small Publisher

You may decide that it’s just too hard to get published in traditional big-corporate publishing. In that case, there are quite a number of small, specialized publishers who have sprung up. Typically, these have staffs with just a few employees. They may not pay much of an advance, but they may also offer somewhat higher royalties than a traditional large publisher.

This kind of publisher will pay all the costs of producing the book. This is critical. If a publisher asks you to pay any of the costs of publishing, then they are a vanity publisher (see my comments on these below) and you should be very wary. But a small publisher who bears the costs of publication themselves is usually honest.

A small publisher may do an initial print run or they may release your book as a “print-on-demand” issue, which means that books are printed only as they’re ordered. This costs more per book, but it means that there’s no big up-front cost to the publisher for doing a large print run of books that might never get sold. POD books aren’t printed until they’re sold, so there’s less risk.

You generally don’t need an agent to work with a small publisher. You can usually submit your work directly to the acquisition editor (who may also be the publisher, the typesetter, the mail boy, the marketing team, and the sales staff, all rolled into one.)

The contract for a small publisher is usually shorter and easier to read than the contract from a large publisher. If you have any doubts about it, you should ask somebody who really knows contracts. And you should most definitely find out the reputation of the small publisher. Many of them are honest and very competent, but you don’t want to risk your book on the possibility that they aren’t.

Most small publishers have a web site that will explain how you submit your book.

I would strongly advise you to check out the reputation of a small publisher first. Talk to authors. Talk to agents. Talk to anyone who actually knows the publishing industry. If somebody is a fraud, word gets out. If they’re first-rate, word also gets out.

My friend Jeff Gerke ran a small niche publisher like this until recently, and I worked with him to produce the paper editions of the revised second editions of my novels OXYGEN and THE FIFTH MAN. Jeff had worked at several large publishers as an editor, and I knew he’d do an honest job for me. Jeff very recently sold his publishing house to literary agent Steve Laube (also a friend of mine, and one I trust), and I expect that Steve will continue to do an excellent job of publishing in that particular niche.

Vanity Publisher

I’ll define a vanity publisher as any publisher whom you pay to publish your novel. Most often, there are absolutely no quality requirements to get published by a vanity publisher. No matter how horrible your novel, a vanity publisher will be happy to publish it for you.

And that’s the problem, because if your book is lousy, then nobody’s going to buy it. If you’ve fronted the costs for publishing, then it’s no skin off your publisher’s nose if the book doesn’t sell. The skin comes off your nose.

It’s possible for a vanity publisher to be honest, but the word on the street is that very few of them are. And how do you know which ones are honest?

An honest vanity publisher will team you up with a competent team of editors to do a macro edit, line edit, copy edit, and several rounds of proofreading. They will allow you to take the book out of print at any time. They will not charge you for spurious “marketing opportunities.” They will not charge you outrageous shipping fees when they mail you your books. They will not require you to buy a certain number of books from them.

The problem is that if you’re a novice to publishing, you’ll have a hard time knowing whether the editors you’ve been assigned are competent. And you may be confused by the legalese in the publishing contract. You may even be snookered by completely false claims on the publisher’s web site.

There just aren’t very many honest vanity publishers, from what I can see. If you’re considering a vanity publisher and if you know a good literary agent, you can ask him about the publisher’s reputation. Don’t be surprised if he says they’re crooks, because most agents think the great majority of vanity publishers are crooks.

Before you sign on with any vanity publisher, Google around to see what you can learn about them.

  • Look at the list of recent books they’ve published. How well are they selling on Amazon? (Amazon shows the “sales rank” for any book. The best-selling book on Amazon is ranked #1, the second-best is ranked #2. If a book is ranked in the top 10,000 then it’s selling pretty well. If it’s ranked 50,000 then it’s selling two or three copies per day. If it’s ranked 1,000,000, then it hardly ever sells a copy.)
  • Have the publisher’s books won any awards? Are those awards prestigious awards?
  • Are there lawsuits filed against the publishing company? If so, do the lawsuits look like they have any merit?

If you’re satisfied that a given vanity publisher is not a crook, go to your local bookstore and ask them if they’ve ever ordered any books at all from the publisher you’re interested in. If the store tells you they would NEVER order a book from that publisher, that tells you a lot about your chances of ever seeing your book in actual stores.

I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to avoid vanity publishers if you are trying to earn money from your book. (If you are just trying to write up your family history so you can make a few dozen copies to give away to family members, that’s a different story.)

But the fact is that you can get published much cheaper and easier by being your own independent (“indie”) publisher. We’ll talk about that next.

Indie Publishing

Indie publishing has become huge in the last few years, and it’s going to get bigger. Here’s how it works:

  • You write your book and edit it yourself (or hire an editor).
  • You create the cover art for your book (or better, hire a professional graphic artist who understands book covers).
  • You format the book as an e-book (or hire somebody to do this for you).
  • You create an account on Amazon  and at Barnes & Noble and maybe also at Smashwords and maybe at Kobo  and possibly also at the Apple iTunes store.
  • You upload your e-book to Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple. (They aren’t exclusive, so you can upload to as many as you like.)
  • They sell your e-book for you and they give you most of the money. (Amazon pays you 35% to 70% of the sale price, and the other online retailers give you similar royalties.)
  • If you want your book in paper, Amazon also provides its CreateSpace service to create Print-On-Demand copies for you.

Of course, this is going to take some work, but the benefits are huge. You control the entire process. If you want to remove your book from any of these online retailers, you can do it whenever you want. You set the price. You get most of the money. The online retailers give you worldwide distribution with no upfront cost.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of indie authors have published e-books on Amazon and/or the other online retailers. Most of them don’t make much money—that’s just the reality of publishing. There are a few big winners and then there’s everyone else.

The important point is that the online retailers are not going to cheat you. They won’t hit you with huge upfront charges. They’ll pay you monthly. They’ll give you an accounting of your earnings anytime you want it.

And the remarkable thing is that some authors are doing incredibly well as indie authors. Earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. In some cases, millions of dollars per year. Some well-known indie authors are Barbara Freethy, Bella Andre, Bob Mayer, Joe Konrath, Hugh Howey, Colleen Hoover, and Russell Blake.

Will you earn millions per year as an indie author? The odds against it are long. You’re more likely to earn hundreds per year, or maybe thousands. But that would be hundreds or thousands more than you’re likely to earn anywhere else.

If you go with a traditional publisher, you may spend five or ten years learning the craft before you earn a single dime, and you may never find a publisher willing to publish you.

If you go with a small publisher, it’s the same story.

If you go with a vanity publisher, the most likely case is that you’ll spend thousands of dollars upfront which you will never recoup.

So indie publishing is a good deal. And it’s no secret that I went indie a couple of years ago.

You may be thinking that indie publishing sounds too good to be true. Please be aware that if you write crap, then it will sell like crap. But if you write good stuff and if you promote it intelligently, readers will discover you and you can reasonably expect to earn at least a few hundred dollars.

And possibly much more.

This week, indie author Hugh Howey released some data on how well indie authors do financially, as compared to authors who publish with large publishers (the “Big 5”). The results have shocked the publishing establishment.
Hugh teamed up with a web programmer to extract large amounts of data automatically from Amazon. You can read their results on Hugh’s new site about author earnings.

Prepare to be stunned. Indie authors are doing well. Incredibly well.

You Have Options

The great news here is that authors have options.

  • You can go with the large, traditional publishers and hope to become a famous author like James Patterson, Nora Roberts, John Grisham, or Sue Grafton.
  • You can go with a smaller publisher that gives you more personal attention and may be a bit easier to break in at. Tom Clancy published his first novel with the Naval Institute Press, a small publisher who had never done fiction.
  • You can be an indie author and take your shot at glory.

Any of these might conceivably be a good option for you.

What is almost always a bad option is to go with a vanity publisher.

Well, McKenna, I’ve only begun to answer your question, and I’m all out of words for the day. I hope this will get you rolling in the right direction.

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 Friends Don’t Support Your Fiction Writing?

What if your friends don’t support your fiction writing? What if they sorta kinda vaguely support your fiction writing? What if they hate your writing? Does that mean you’re lousy?

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

Dear Randy,

My friends are always really supportive of my writing. One of my friends in particular, let’s call her Juliet, always loves my books and writing in general, but lately hasn’t been showing the enthusiasm she had before.

My other friends seem to like my work, but they aren’t as experienced with writing and I really appreciate Juliet’s opinion because she’s blunt and would tell me if my work sucks. I’m not some sort of I-Think-I-Am-Perfect or I-Can’t-Take-Criticism type of person, I’m open to it. She’s not bashing not praising my work, which confuses me and makes me leave my work after the first chapter. Granted, I sometimes send her fragments that are only a page long and don’t entirely make sense.

~Please help me on what to do, I don’t want to keep hating my books and never finish one. My writing has started to look so awful to myself.


Randy sez: Your letter was anonymous, so I’m going to call you Miss No-Name in this blog post. From the context and from your e-mail signature, I’m going to guess you’re in high school.

If that’s the case, then it’s very likely that none of your friends are capable of giving you a useful critique of your work.

Please, let’s be clear what I’m NOT saying here:

  • I’m not saying that high school students are stupid.
  • I’m not saying that high school students have unimportant opinions.
  • I’m not saying that high school students don’t know what they like.

By the time a person hits high school, their intelligence is right at the peak of what it’ll ever be. And many high school students are voracious readers, so of course their opinions are important. Furthermore, by the time a person reaches high school, they know very definitely what they like.

The problem is that it takes years of full-time effort to become an expert in anything, and high school students simply haven’t lived  long enough to become an expert in critiquing fiction.

Miss No-Name, what you need at this point is an expert opinion. You need someone who can tell you whether your writing is good, even if it’s not the kind of writing she likes.

Some of your friends like what you write. Your friend Juliet seems to be neutral about your writing.

But you really shouldn’t care what any of them think.

This is a lesson that every fiction writer needs to learn. I had to learn it. Every professional novelist I know had to learn it. Stephen King and John Grisham and Nora Roberts had to learn it:

Be careful whom you listen to.

If you want to know whether a car is any good, you shouldn’t care whether your friends think it’s cute. You should care whether an expert mechanic says it’s in good shape.

Let’s remember one key thing. When you’re writing fiction, you are writing for a certain “target audience.” Your target audience is the set of people who would love your book, if only they knew it existed.

When you’re writing fiction, the ONLY people you need to please are the people in your target audience. Nobody else matters. Nobody.

Maybe there are a thousand people in your target audience. Maybe a million.

But there are seven billion people on the planet.

This means that the odds are low that your friends happen to be in your target audience.

So there’s no reason to think that your friends will love your book.

If they’re kind, they’ll say nice things about your fiction writing. If they’re snarky, they’ll say mean things.

But either way, their opinion isn’t really all that useful. Their opinion tells you more about whether they’re naughty or nice than it tells you about whether your writing is excellent or horrible.

This is true, whether your friends are in high school are middle-aged or live in an old-folks home. Most people don’t know enough about the mechanics of writing to tell you whether your work is at a professional level. How could they? Most people know what they like. But they don’t know what your target audience will like.

Professional writers and editors and agents have studied writing enough to guess how a novel will fly with its target audience. And even with all their years of experience, they sometimes guess wrong, so it’s usually a good idea to get several professional opinions.

So Miss No-Name, you asked me what you should do. Here’s what to do:

Keep writing, but stop showing your work to your friends. That’s just asking for trouble. They might like it. They might hate it. But they almost certainly won’t know how it’s going to work with your target audience. You can’t hold your fiction writing career hostage to the whims of your friends.

To whom should you show your work?

Your English teacher, possibly. A lot of English teachers studied English literature in college. The only problem is that English literature majors may like the classics more than they like the kind of fiction that’s selling NOW. So even your English teacher might not be qualified to give you a useful opinion. (Again, this is not to imply that they’re stupid. The problem is just that they probably haven’t been trained well enough in modern creative writing. Five years of full-time training is about what it takes.)

So it’s better if you can get an opinion from a professional novelist or an editor or an agent. Better yet if you can get more than one opinion.

Please remember that nobody writes great fiction when they just start. You might have a few athletes in your high school who are good enough to play college football, but it’s almost certain that they’re not good enough to play for the NFL. But give them a few years and they might.

Give yourself time to learn the craft. Write a lot. Study the craft of writing. Get a critique from an expert.

But don’t worry about what your friends think.

And this is true for writers of any age, so I’ll say it again:

Don’t worry what your friends think about your fiction writing.

If you do that, then you risk letting them kill your dream.

For Further Reading

Here are some recent blog posts on related topics:

How To Find Your Novel’s Target Audience

What If You Hate Your Own Writing?

My #1 Tip For Teen Novelists

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.