Last week I went to my alma mater twice to talk about writing and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. I also did an audio interview for a friend’s website. So, since I did all this talking about writing, I had a lot of notes and points I naturally forgot. Here’s the gist of everything I’ve been thinking about writing lately.
A sum-up of my writer’s journey:
I self-published my first book, The Kota, my senior year of college. I had no idea what I was doing, really, I just had this story in my head that I’d been working on since I was 9 and I wanted it in book form. That was 2004, before eBooks had really taken off and certainly before Kindle Direct Publishing was even a thing. I didn’t care about being traditionally published, and I knew I’d want to get a lot better before the public read my stuff, so really I just wanted a tangible BOOK of this story in my head. So, when I opened my first box with my book inside, it was a great feeling – it’s so far the closest thing I’ve experienced to having a kid. I hear that comparison from tons of authors, and it’s completely true.
After graduation, I was busy with “real life.” I’d basically set myself up to get a degree for my hobby, so I had to make some pragmatic decisions about what to do with myself. BUT, I had 4 books planned at the time, so over the next couple of years I followed the same pattern – wrote in my spare time, self-published with the only company familiar to me at the time, and in the end I had 4 books that I could hold and sell/share with people, and I had the fulfillment of knowing I’d written a series.
Again, real life took over. But if you like writing, you find an outlet. So I blogged, I started a book reviewing service, I tried for the zillionth time to like poetry and published a few but still hated it (sorry, Professor Stevens). Basically I was just writing to continue growing and get better and keep myself entertained, plus the bonus of entertaining anyone else.
Then came the social media boom of Goodreads and Facebook and Twitter. (To any students reading this, this is the world you live in AND WRITE in now, so I’m kind of jealous you get to start your writing journey with all these resources for writers, authors, poets, etc.) One day on Goodreads, I “met” an author guy who was just starting out, and he was like, “Why haven’t you made your books eBooks?” That re-started everything for me, and I started doing more research on what it meant to be an author nowadays… I sound old.
So, basically I’ve spent the past decade or so learning how to be an author. I re-published my first 4 books so that they’re now suitable for public consumption, I made eBook versions, an eBook box set of The Kota Series, I have 2 short stories with several more in the works, and I have 1 audiobook with 1 on the way. I have a website, blog, Facebook Page – in total I have a decent 4,000+ followers. I’ve won some awards and special honors, and I sell at least enough books every month to cover my HBO bill – which is a weird goal to set and a low bar certainly, but it keeps me optimistic and elated when I sell 100+ books a month.
How do I stay focused on writing?
I write as a second job, which is how I’ve learned to treat it. It’s not just a hobby anymore. If I think of it as a hobby, I just go, “Meh, when I get to it.” But if I want to have any success as an author, I have to treat it more like a business. And if it’s a business, writing is the product. If you don’t WRITE, there’s obviously no point.
I’m not a person who can schedule x-amount of time at x-time every day to write. I can’t force it. I write when the mood and muses strike. And I’ve learned to listen to that pull – if I’m in the zone, I let myself write and write until it’s all out. Sometimes this means 8 hours of nonstop writing. For me, that’s just how it works. It might not be healthy and sometimes I forget to eat, but I think when you’re doing what you love time flies, and I never experience that more than when I’m writing.
If you write, it might be completely different. You’ll always have people tell you how you “should” write, but that’s kind of crap. Everybody works differently. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction or whatever, writing is a creative process. Take advice and instruction and apply what rules work for you, but you have to find what works for YOU.
(That was a tricky thing to say in front of professors who taught me how to write, btw. Again speaking to students here – I’m not about to definitively counter anything they’ve told you. But I’d bet even they don’t want you to write like everyone else has always written. For fiction writers in particular, the whole fun is finding some new way to say something new. And YOUR voice and YOUR originality can only come from you.)
What DID I learn at college?
I honestly don’t know if you CAN teach creativity, but you can be taught where to look to get ideas. You can be taught ways to use those ideas. While at college, I definitely benefited from professors’ guidance as I experimented with my writing. I always knew how to put a sentence together and I come from a family of Grammar Nazis, but professors made me get better and sharper and sometimes forced me out of my writing comfort zone so that I grew and wasn’t just regurgitating my old writing style.
Interesting thing: I still have a folder of old notes from Colonial Lit and Intro to Philosophy and World Lit, etc. They’re covered in side notes about The Kota, the book I published my senior year. Those classes should NOT have given me ideas for Science Fiction novels, but they did! It’s amazing where ideas come from.
So, even more than learning how to write, college benefited me because of all the reading. Writers who only read in their genres are doing themselves a disservice, I think. I still look back on my time at college as invaluable for the exposure that I got to different writers and perspectives. I know the variety of books I read made me a better writer.
Everyone always quotes Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” That’s absolutely true.
Obviously reading good writing can sharpen your brain. Alternatively, any BAD writing can do the same thing, I think. I know some people think reading bad writing will rub off on you, but when I read crap books I take note of the things that are bad and make sure I DON’T DO THEM. Or – this might be bad to share – when I’m in editing mode with my own writing, I read books I know are crap because it keeps me critical, and that carries over to my own work.
But in general, reading stirs your “writer brain” more than anything else I can think of.
Oh, and writers who don’t read IN their genre are seriously missing out. I recently did an interview with an author who said that he knew a science fiction writer who boasts that he never reads books or watches cinema in the genre. He claims that this allows him to “be original.” That’s horrifying and disrespectful, in my opinion. First of all, if you don’t read or watch science fiction, why would you even like science fiction? Same goes for Romance or Thrillers – if you’re going to be a part of a genre, know the history of the genre and writers who paved your way. The author I interviewed brought up the point that “Literature is a conversation, a dialogue between the reader and writer. If you haven’t been listening to the conversation, how can you contribute anything?”
I think that applies to all writing – you need to read what’s out there to be a part of it.
And as far as being a part of the literary community, if you want to write, you need to find people (whether in real life or online) who GET IT. Your mom might love your writing, but she probably doesn’t get it if you want to talk about publishing opportunities. You need to find a community of like-passioned people to help you grow and offer objective feedback on your work. Via Facebook I’m part of an international group of authors, the #Awethors, and engaging with that community is the single best thing I’ve done as an author.
For those of you in college now, you’re never going to be more surrounded by physical, real life people who share your interest in writing. You might never again have direct access to people literally TEACHING you how to write. Take advantage of that and write now if you have any interest at all.
About the current state of publishing:
(This was the most interesting thing to talk about, considering I’m not sure students had heard it before. And it was surprising and exciting that they had so many questions specifically about this topic.)
Here’s a thing to remember: At the end of the day, publishing is a business, and traditional publishers – even ones who genuinely love literature for the pure sake of loving literature – sometimes have to prioritize potential sales over even quality. I mean, Snooki has a book published by a Big 5 Publisher…let’s all think about that for a second. Does that mean her book is better than yours? God, I hope not. YOUR book could be absolutely amazing but still get rejected by publishers simply because they don’t have a place for it in their marketing system. They might not think it will sell to their audience. Does that mean your book is crap? No. Just keep trying.
Or, publish it yourself! How you publish these days is a choice. There’s still this lingering, outdated, elitist perception that people self-publish because their books aren’t good enough to be traditionally published. That is simply not the case anymore. My favorite book that I read last year was self-published (Jason Greenside’s The Distant Sound of Violence). Some big name authors have even gone the self-publishing route because – believe it or not – there are benefits to self-publishing over traditional publishing. Royalties and percentages and all of that are highly speculative depending on what study you look at, but it’s no longer necessarily true that being traditionally published will sell more books or make you more money.
Side note: Really, any good English Major knows that if you’re getting into writing for the money, you’ve made a huge mistake. It’s a shit-ton of work and luck if you want to make it big. But, as I talked about in my interview, we don’t do this creative thing for the money – we do it because creating is what fulfills us. I think the approach of writing on the side or as a second job is a very healthy way to go. If you HAVE to make money off your writing, that puts a lot of pressure on this thing that is supposed to be enjoyable. When you HAVE to do it for $$ to survive, it might not be fun anymore. (This is why I’m marrying for money. Just kidding! …Mostly kidding. My fiancé jokes that we’re retiring on my royalties.)
Of course, some students raised valid criticisms against all the self-publishing out there, no doubt echoing at least one professor I can think of.
Don’t all these free and $0.99 books out there cheapen Literature?
I see this a couple different ways. As for the financial “worth” of art, I think expecting art for cheap/free is just how consumers are in the digital age – ask any musician. Yes, I wish our work was valued/rewarded financially at a level that makes it worth our time and effort. But, by making so many books cheap (in order to compete, but that’s a whole other thing), more people can afford to read, and that’s never a bad thing. More people can get our books whereas at higher prices those same people might not be able to afford it or might not “risk” it on us unknown artists.
As for suggesting that lower prices = cheap “bad” books, I again refer to Snooki’s book. Or a certain popular vampire series. Or dozens of other traditionally published works that I would argue cheapen literature and dumb it down. (However, this argument is an example of the elitism of “Literature” that I try to remind myself not to have. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying ANY book – art is subjective and I understand why some people enjoy the escapism of aforementioned popular vampire series.) All I’m saying is that the price tag does not necessarily reflect the quality of the writing.
Some say that having so many (“too many”) books out there cheapens Literature. They long for the days when the gatekeepers of traditional publishing held most of these books back. Honestly I don’t get this argument because I will never say that having MORE books out there is a bad thing. Having more stories to consume is never a bad thing. Even if it’s not a story you or I might enjoy, someone else probably will. And whereas a traditional publisher might think a story is too weird to sell and therefore tweak it to conform, self-publishing that same book means a whole new kind of story/writing might be introduced. That, for me, is exciting. It doesn’t cheapen “Literature” at all but just might evolve storytelling and take us in new directions.
Isn’t it true that a lot of self-published books ARE crap?
It’s true that some authors don’t know enough about what they’re doing and SHOULDN’T self-publish, yes. And believe me that the rest of us wish they wouldn’t because they make us look bad and validate this criticism. But, there’s also that saying about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To say that “all” or even “most” self-published books are crap is just plain wrong – and you might miss out on some amazing examples of writing.
This gets back to what I was saying about how you publish being a choice. With all the resources available to Indie authors now, there’s no reason anyone who takes writing seriously should make a bad book. If you care enough to write a book, you should care enough to do it right. And that CAN be done without a traditional publisher. You can get beta readers who’ll help you work out your book’s kinks, you can get edited by a professional, you can hire a professional cover artist, you can even properly format a book yourself very easily if you can follow instructions. Nowadays there’s Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, DraftToDigital, and crossbreed companies like Booktrope – there are a ton of resources available! I think that most writers are seeing the value of doing a book right, and that means fewer and fewer crap books being out there.
Isn’t it crazy hard to be an Indie author, so isn’t it better to be traditional?
I know other authors who’ve taken both routes – some love one way, some will never do the other. I know editors and publishers who’ve told me about the pros and cons from their perspective inside traditional publishing. Like I said earlier, there aren’t many differences anymore as far as what can be guaranteed – one way might have success for some, the other is more beneficial for others.
Traditional publishers often have to go by what they think will sell, and they know their markets. If you fit, great! But even then, sometimes you have to do a lot of marketing leg-work yourself if you want to really branch out to an audience. As an Indie, all that work is a given. BUT, as an Indie, you also reap all the royalties/rewards of your efforts, and you get to keep complete control over your work. (There’s a lot more involved here, but those are basic widely-acknowledge factors when considering this choice.)
I myself am sticking with the Indie route because, after over a decade of being at it, I know generally what I’m doing and what I would want. It helps that my genre of Sci-Fi/Fantasy is a bestselling genre and there’s an established audience for my books. I love having full control of my own work and being free to do whatever I want with it. I’ve been approached by a few traditional publishers, but none of them could offer me anything I couldn’t do for myself, so that doesn’t make sense FOR ME. (Granted, if I’m ever offered an Andy Weir kind of deal, I’ll jump on it. And that IS an option – you can always start Indie, prove your marketability, and then accept a deal with a traditional publisher. I know more than a few authors this has worked very, very well for.)
At the end of the day, you need to figure out what’s best for YOU. Either way you go, the #1 IMPORTANT THING is to write the best book you can. Then, good luck if you want to get an agent and/or go the traditional route. If you want to go Indie, PLEASE do the work of making your book the best product it can be. Then, good luck with marketing. Either way, there’s a lot of work involved. But if you love writing and want to be an author, just do it. You gotta start somewhere.