The Everyday Author

For authors who can't quit their day jobs...yet

Like an Olympian

Note: Hat tip goes to Joanna Penn, who often talks about this concept and inspired this post.

Watching the Summer Games this week gave me pause to reflect on the awesome and inspiring competition between Olympic athletes. These men and women have trained all of their lives for what can amount to a single defining performance. It doesn’t get much better than that.

There are many lessons we authors can learn from these athletes but the perhaps the most important are discipline and perseverance.

The day-to-day life on an Olympian athletes involves a constant grind of training, training and more training. When you’re competing against the best of the best, all those hours, weeks and months add up to small but vital dividends: you’re a fraction of a second faster, you can jump a half inch farther or higher — tiny little improvements that make the difference between a gold medal and last place.

For Olympians (and authors) it can be extremely discouraging to be trapped in a daily grind, working for such small changes without any immediate results. To keep their sanity, Olympians plan, prepare and measure their progress in four-year intervals.

As authors, it’s easy to get discouraged when our week-to-week book sales aren’t improving, when we’re not producing more and when our newsletter subscribers crawl up by one person every other month. At times like this, it’s vital to look at the big picture, at the change that’s taking place over the long term, not in the short run.

Four years ago, during the 2012 London Games, I was entering my senior year of college. I had a book I’d tinkered with since I was a teenager, writing and re-writing whenever the mood struck me. In August 2012 I made a goal: come hell or high water, I would finish the rough draft of that book before I graduated.

Out of Exile - Store Cover finalOut of Exile was finished in November 2012 and published in 2013. Four years later I’ve published three books in the Teutevar Saga series, a couple of short stories and a multi-author anthology. I’ve also started a hybrid publishing group and launched a service to help authors get reviews for their books. By the end of the year, we’ll be release another anthology and I’ll have outlined and started another trilogy.

Big change in four years, huh?

I don’t share this to brag or one-up anybody. There are hundreds — maybe thousands — of authors who’ve done 10x more than me in the last four years. In the same span, these men and women have become New York Times bestsellers, gathered thousands of fans and made writing their full-time occupations.

Most months, I still sell less than a dozen copies of books a month (although that number is climbing) and feel like I’m closer to the moon than becoming an author full-time. Until I look back on where I’ve come from, that is.

We’re each on our own journey, working at our own pace according to our own individual time lines. Day-to-day, it can feel like we’re spinning our wheels in the mud: like no one is reading our work, like the words we type up flow worse than a bowl of alphabet soup.

During the next two weeks, as the world celebrates Olympian achievement, take a moment to reflect on your own journey. Appreciate where you’ve come from and what you’ve accomplished in the last four years. You’ve probably come further than you realize.

Then make a plan and get to work. 2020 will be here before you know it.

Book Review: Sizzling Synopsis by Bryan Cohen

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced review copy of Sizzling Synopsis in exchange for this review.

There are more writing craft books out there than you can shake a stick at and almost as many covering a myriad of other topics like writing faster, outlining better, building an author business, selling your books in Tijuana…well, you get my point.

One topic lacking resources, however,  is synopsis writing. I’m talking about the hard-hitting, grab-readers-by-the-seat-of-their-pants-and-steal-their-wallet descriptions you need to sell books.

I was fortunate enough in my budding career to have bestselling author Michael Sullivan take me by my young noobish hand and guide me through my first synopsis — an act of mercy for which I’ll be forever in debt to him. You don’t want to know how bad my first dozen attempts were. A year or so down the line, I discovered Gotta Read It! by Libbie Hawker, a book I refer to every time I write a new synopsis.

But as good as Gotta Read It! is, it really only skims the surface of synopsis writing. You get the how-to, but not so much inner workings. In my experience, not knowing why things work will only get you so far. Luckily, that’s where Bryan Cohen’s Sizzling Synopsis comes in.

5136lZOX2ILHow to Write a Sizzling Synopsis: A Step-by-Step System for Enticing New Readers, Selling More Fiction, and Making Your Books Sound Good is the book that pulls back the covers and show the moving parts of a killer synopsis that drives sales. Bryan’s made a career out of copyrighting and last year also brought his talents to the author world with a book description service called Best Page Forward that’s saved countless authors from rambling, boring blurbs.

The skinny:

Why you need it: If you’re an author you need to know how to distill your book down to its most potent form (just like a jug of moonshine), for both readers and potential publishers. Sizzling Synopsis not only shows you the how of writing a great synopsis of your book, it shows the why behind a variety of sales copy writing tricks.

An inside peak (three tips from Sizzling Synopsis):

  • “When in doubt, save it for the book.”
  • “You want your blurb to have momentum throughout the short piece, taking your daredevil reader up the ramp, all the way across the chasm, and safely to the other side where they can start reading your book.”
  • “You’re not the one buying your book. Practice the art of selflessness and think about your reader.”

The bottom line: Nobody wants to suck at any part of their author business yet tons of authors out there write long, abhorrent descriptions of their book like they’re being paid by the word. Do yourself a favor and do it right.

Make hay while the sun shines

It’s a calm night around the first of July. The sun’s just gone down, leaving a grey gloam over the fields of fresh-cut hay. Off in the distance, however, a wave of storm clouds threaten on the horizon. But instead of kicking back on the proch to watch the ensuing thunderstorm, I’m sitting on a tractor, raking hay and hoping the storm passes by.

Putting up hay, like many other aspects of farming, isn’t an endeavor that respects a schedule. You irrigate the fields nonstop until the water’s gone and then, when the hay’s ready, you put it up. Doesn’t matter if its your birthday or the Fourth of July — you’ve got about a four day window to rake, bale and stack the hay before it gets rained on. Hence the expression: make hay while the sun shines.

This same urgency would serve many lackadaisical authors as well. It’s easy (waaaaayyyy to easy) to give in to a thousand different excuses and procrastinate the writing. Here’s a sampling

  • It’s too early to write
  • It’s too late to write
  •  I don’t have enough time
  • I can only write at home on my couch
  • I can only write when no one’s around

And so on and so forth.

I’ve been there — I’ve found myself crippled in the past when, for one reason or another, I missed my “writing window” for the day or told myself I shouldn’t write at all because I couldn’t hit my word count. Sometimes it’s a roller coaster. In the winter, life slows down and I can stick to a balanced schedule better. Summertime, on the other hand, is an insane ride at hyperspeed with a thousands different things (including — you guessed it — putting up hay) going on. It’s easy to allow resistance to talk you out of doing something when your ideal conditions aren’t met. So what are we to do?

We make hay while the sun shines.

We do what we can when we can, because something is always better than nothing.

Sometimes (read: most of the time) if you’re balancing out a day job, a family and a million other things, it’s easy to get discouraged at the lack of progress on your latest project. Instead of getting down, however, you’ve got to attack it. By attack, I mean writing whenever you get a spare moment, pounding out a hundred words here and there whenever you can wrestle away a few minutes for yourself.

You’ve got to do what you can when you can with what you have.

It’s easy to convince yourself you need ideal conditions to write: a 67.5 degree room temperature, 38 minutes of quiet meditation beforehand, the sound of two gophers mating outside your window — whatever it is kick this crap to the curve and just do the work. Fifty words a day is better than nothing. ONE word a day is better than nothing.

Conditions and results will vary. You’ll likely get frustrated. But as time progresses you’ll learn to plan ahead for these crazy times and take advantage of what you’ve got, when you’ve got it.

Forget the notion that writing can only occur under ideal circumstances. It doesn’t. It happens whenever you make it happen. If JK Rowling could start Harry Potter on a napkin, you can make ten minutes.

As the saying goes. Make hay while the sun shines.

Author Origins: Ben Hale

Ben Hale author photo

An avid snowboarder from Utah, Ben Hale grew up with a passion for learning. This thirst for knowledge led him to sports, music, and academic endeavors. After a year of college, he did volunteer work in Brazil and became fluent in three languages. Graduating from the University of Central Florida, he started and ran several successful businesses before publishing his first novel in June of 2012. By the end of the year he’d sold almost ten thousand copies of The Second Draeken War, and he began writing full-time. Now spanning 10,000 years, ten titles, and two series, The Chronicles of Lumineia represents a sprawling YA series that has sold over 100,000 copies, and continues to expand its readership across all ages. Each of his books has been inspired by his wonderful wife and five beautiful children.

Introduction: Tell us who you are, why you decided to be an author and where you’re at right now in your career.

I am an author of a sprawling fictional fantasy world that spans 10,000 years, 13 books, and 3 series. Unlike most writers I didn’t set out to be a writer. Instead I had a story I thought about as I would fall asleep at night. One evening my wife asked me why I could fall asleep so fast and I told her about my story. She asked me to tell it to her thinking it would help her fall asleep. It took me four days to tell her the entire thing, and it didn’t help her sleep. Her prompting is what drove me to write it. Four years later I was publishing the first and soon after it became my full-time job. Now I’ve sold over 100,000 copies and am preparing to publish my 14th, 15th, and 16th books this year. I also have an audio firm that bought my audio rights, and have done incredibly well with them.

What was the hardest thing about balancing writing with a day job? What is the hardest thing about writing for a living now?

Discipline on both counts. Writing when you have a day job requires discipline to stay consistent. Writing when it’s your job requires even more discipline because there is no immediate consequence for not writing. To be successful as a writer at any point requires daily discipline.

Tell us about your schedule and habits back before you made the move to full-time (or what you’re doing now if it hasn’t changed).

I dedicated an hour a day to write. Owning a business gave me the flexibility to do that, and I stayed consistent except during the busy season. I didn’t worry about publishing or marketing, I just focused on the story and learning how to write. I also did a lot of drafts. My first book I published the 24th draft, and I still think there are errors.

Now I write 3,000 words a day, or edit 60-80 pages a day when I’m editing. This year I wrote my first book in 7 weeks and edited it in 6. (13 drafts) I hope to write 4 books next year. Regardless of where you are in your writing career consistency is key.

If you don’t mind, would you tell us how your sales first started out? How many books did you have out before you started seeing traction?

My sales on my first book averaged about 2 per day. Over three months they crept up until they were selling 20 per day. Then I published my second book and they both averaged 25 per day. Two months later I published my third and they took off, averaging 350 sales a day between all three. Keep in mind I had already written the three books, so publishing them was easier.

At what point in time did you make the decision to support yourself/your family as an author? What was that decision like and how did you feel afterward?

I took the plunge when my books were earning more than my business was. I also set aside about $10,000 dollars in case sales went down before I could publish more books. I ended up using every cent of the reserve before I managed to stabilize my sales.

Do you support yourself completely from writing books or through a variety of work? If so, what else do you do to pay the bills?

I’m fortunate to be able to write full-time while my wife is a stay-at-home mom. We have five kids so she works a lot harder than I do.

Was there ever a point when you felt like quitting writing or didn’t think you’d ever become a full-time author?

More times than I can count. At one point my sales dropped so low I earned less than $600 for the month. Without my reserve I would have been sunk, but I persevered and kept writing, putting out a new book that helped things bounce back. As much as some might think a great book will make you set for life, that is rarely the case. Most writers that are successful write and keep writing. For most writing a career because they made it one, not because one book took off and it was given to them.

Starting out, what were some misconceptions you had of life as a full-time author? Were there any unexpected challenges you never realized before you got to that point in your career?

I’m sure I had the same image that most people do, that a writer gets to do whatever they want. The truth is that it requires just as much work as any other job. Fortunately I came into it with a background as an entrepreneur, so I viewed by books as products and my series as a product line. I managed to avoid most of the major pitfalls that new authors often face, but caution and courage were my watchwords.

What’s one thing about your author career that not many people know?

What I do for research. I rock climb, play sports, video games, and snowboard, all in the name of research. I can’t perform magic, but I try to do things that create sense of the magical. It’s where I get a lot of my ideas from.

What’s the single best piece of advice you have for authors who can’t support themselves with their writing yet? What should they be focusing on?

Don’t get too attached to your work. Your writing is a medium to convey emotion and ideas. It is not you, or your child. It’s merely a tool to convey what you want. Critiques, reviews, and opinions about your writing is not a referendum on you, it merely helps you know how your medium is being perceived. Never grow so attached to your writing that you ignore editors, friends, and readers.

Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to touch on?

Take courage and be patient. Writing is a long game, and few are able to make it a financial success in a year. Your success in that time has very little to do with your success ten years from now. Remember, you didn’t become a writer to market and do business. You became a writer to write, so do what you love.

Author Origins: Kevin Tumlinson

Kevin TumlinsonKevin Tumlinson is speculative fiction author writing thrillers, science fiction, and contemporary fantasy. His latest thriller, The Coelho Medallion, is available on Amazon and has already thrilled readers and reviewers. You can learn more about Kevin from his website—kevintumlinson.com.

Introduction: Tell us who you are, why you decided to be an author and where you’re at right now in your career.

Who I am is kind of straightforward—I’m a guy with a laptop. Which is quite an accomplishment by the standards of my pre-teen self, who longed for a computer more than super powers or owning his own personal monkey. Both of these things were high on his list.

I tell everyone that I wrote my first book when I was five years old, and that isn’t a lie. Maybe a slight exaggeration. I was five years old. And I did write a book. It was scrawled out in pencil on five pages of notebook paper—front and back—with a hand-drawn cover (even then I designed all my own covers) and some very nicely written copy on the back cover.

Tragically that first book was thrown away by my stepfather after an ill-fated bout of personal modesty. He had asked if I wanted him to type it up for me at work, and I had said, “Oh, it’s not that important. Do whatever you want with it.” Apparently he’d wanted to toss it in the wastebasket.

Thus began a long-standing fear of publishers, and an aversion to modesty.

I’ve written short stories and ‘first thirds’ of books my whole life, and I even managed to finish a manuscript or two early on. One of these got the attention of an agent, who turned out to be a scam, and a publisher, who turned out to be real.

The publishing deal didn’t end well, mostly because I can do basic math. Keeping the advance and the contract they gave me was going to end up costing me out of pocket, and the odds of the book selling well and earning back the advance were long.

So I paid it back—including having to dip into my savings to pay back the bit I’d already spent—and ended the contract. Ownership of the book stayed with the publisher for the next few years, and it’s never seen the light of day. I think I could publish it now, but it’s awful, and needs a lot of editing. Also, it’s a relic of a bygone way of thinking about publishing. So I think it’s good where it is for now.

At this point in my career I’ve published more than 25 books, and I have at least five more already on the board for the rest of the year. My newest book, ‘The Coelho Medallion,’ is kind of a departure for me—my first full-on thriller. I’ve written thrillers before, but they largely relied on a heavy science fiction influence. This is the first that stands all on its own merit, and judging by reader reaction it’s living up to its Dan Brown/James Rollins roots.

I’ve always been a fan of contemporary fiction, putting relatable and modern-feeling characters in extraordinary circumstances. Thrillers are a great way to explore stories of all types. So it’s my belief that ‘The Coelho Medallion’ sets a new tone for the rest of my writing career. I’ll still write scifi and fantasy and anything else that attracts me, but I’ll return to this particular well for years to come.

What was the hardest thing about balancing writing with a day job? What is the hardest thing about writing for a living now?

I worked for years as a copywriter, and as a media producer (documentary television, talk radio, etc.). Those are jobs with a very heavy writing and editing focus. So for me, the toughest part about writing fiction while keeping a day job was just getting myself to sit down again after 10-12 hours of writing and editing, and write and edit more. At least this stuff was more fun.

I taught for a few years, and I wish I could say that I spent summers writing novels and short stories. But the truth was, I spent most of my down time playing video games and going to the movies. I think I was burned out. Or bored. I was single at the time—maybe that has an effect on your ambition. But most likely, I was just being lazy.

These days, now that I’m a full-time author, my biggest challenge is keeping income steady. I still take the occasional copywriting job to fill in the gaps between book income. This is an ocean, and it has waves.

The good news is that those gaps are getting more and more narrow as the days go by, so that I expect book income will be a lot steadier and more reliable. I’m counting on that, actually, as my wife and I just purchased an RV and we intend to travel full time, living off of my book income while I do a sort of roaming and roving book tour, and while we enjoy everything this country has to offer.

Tell us about your schedule and habits back before you made the move to full-time (or what you’re doing now if it hasn’t changed).

Before going full time, my schedule was to get up around 4 AM every morning and write for about three hours before going to my day job.

When my work day was done, I generally crashed. I’m not much of an evening or night person. I get up early, and write when my energy is high, then spend the rest of the day sort of fighting the urge the fall forward and sleep on my keyboard.

That hasn’t really changed much, since going full time. I still get up early. I still write all morning. And I still spend the rest of the day doing something else. I use the afternoons for marketing, or producing podcasts (I host four of them now). And I run the more mundane errands of life. If I have client work (which I’m starting to trim down) I do a lot of it during that time.

In the evenings I tend to do something that doesn’t require the same mental muscles. When I’ve finished a draft of a book, I usually sit in my recliner with the TV going and my laptop resting on a small lap desk, and I tinker with the cover. I design all my own covers—something I don’t necessarily advise others to do—because it relaxes me, and helps me feel that the book is finished. Once I see the cover, I feel like I finally have a book.

But over all, my best and most basic habit is this: Get up and write every single day.

I have a minimum daily word count. It has changed periodically since my day job days, but it’s still there. I went from a minimum of 1,500 words per day to a minimum of 5,000 words per day. That’s about two hours of writing, all told. And I divide that on most days, between work on a book and work on a short story.

I had no idea, early on, how much I could leverage short fiction in my business. But it’s been amazing, and it’s something I highly recommend. I try to write a short story every single day.

If you don’t mind, would you tell us how your sales first stared out? How many books did you have out before you started seeing traction?

I’ll be completely honest here—my sales were complete and total garbage for the first six years of my author career.

I haven’t gone back to tally it up, because I think it would break my heart, but I’d be willing to bet that out of all the sales I’ve made over the entire span of my career, 95% of them were made between 2014 and today. I started publishing in 2008, so for six years I had a pretty stagnant pool.

In 2014 I had only four books published—the first two ‘Citadel’ books, a crappy collection of short stories with no common theme, and a non-fiction book aimed at college students. Of these, the Citadel books were selling the best, but those figures were in the single digits.

That’s because I was one of those guys who thought, “If I write a book, the world will beat down my door to get it!” I had dreams of über fame, off of the first book in an unfinished trilogy, from an author no one had ever heard of. I’m sure there are readers here who can relate.

In 2014 I got serious, though. Actually, technically, I got serious in 2013, toward the end of the year. I realized that if I was going to accomplish this dream of writing books full time, I actually needed to write books. And I needed to market those books. And I basically needed to put out a book more than once every two years.

That’s when I developed my ’30-Day Author’ formula. I figured out exactly what I would need to do to write a book in 30 days, and I did it. Then, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I did it two more times, back to back. And that was that.

Eventually I actually wrote ’30 Day Author’ so I could share the stupid-simple method I use to do this, with people who may feel overwhelmed by the idea of developing a daily writing habit.

At what point in time did you make the decision to support yourself/your family as an author? What was that decision like and how did it feel afterward?

This is a tough question to answer, because the timeline on this is kind of vague. Birth, maybe?

Kidding.

Actually, I think that like a lot of full-time writers I never actually came to that decision, it’s more like it came to me.

I was working as a Creative Director for a $100M software company, and I actually really loved the job. I wasn’t planning to leave, if I’m being completely honest—not unless my books suddenly started selling like crazy. But the company merged with one of it’s subsidiaries, and brought in a more senior-level marketing person who took over the department I’d been running. The new VP of Marketing didn’t think there was much need for a Creative Director. Or copywriters. Or me, really. So I was let go, with a nice severance and some stock options, which paid well later on.

So that decision was kind of made for me, at the time. By that point I had already started getting serious about my writing and about the business of being an author, so getting let go from a full-time job, and having a big hunk of money to go with me, made it kind of easy to get started. I took a chance, rolled the dice, and started writing more books.

I wish I could say that from that point on I was full-time, never looking back. But I still had to take copywriting and marketing work to help pay the bills. I’ve had a very eclectic career, and most of it was spent as a freelancer and contractor, so I had those skills to fall back on when the severance and stock money started to run out. But book income has steadily increased over the past couple of years, and I’m closer than ever to the point where I can support two fully grown adults with stories about super powers and spaceships.

Joke’s on you, college career counselor who told me to go into air conditioning repair. (shakes fist in air)

Do you support yourself completely from writing books or through a variety of work? If so, what else do you do to pay the bills?

I’m close. Getting closer. But I bring income in the doors with a variety of services on top of the the books. I still do copywriting, for example—recently I’ve started writing cover blurbs and website copy for authors. I’ve done some ghostwriting. I’ve edited books for authors. I had a bit of income from podcasts. I get paid for speaking engagements. I do cover design and other design work.

The truth is, a lot of that will still go on even after the books can more than pay for our living. I’m too much of an entrepreneur to just ignore opportunities. What will happen, however, is that I’ll be even more picky about what tasks I take on than I already am. And I’ll be more expensive. I’m already one of the most expensive copywriters around, but I still get people who want to pay for me to do the work, because of the work I deliver. People will pay more when they know you have a proven track record for increasing revenue. Go figure.

I’d love for the books to be 100% of both my income and my retirement fund. But I’d still do a few other things not the side. We’ll call that additional income “gravy.” And I’ll do that because the explorer in me demands that I do it. Everything is a learning opportunity, and it all ends up filtered into the books.

Also, I get bored easy, so I’ll do these things because they can be fun.

Was there ever a point when you felt like quitting writing or didn’t think you’d ever become a full-time author?

Hell yes. In fact, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about that than I’ve actually spent writing for the past 30 years. But I’d never do it. I couldn’t quit if I wanted to. If someone paid me to quit, I’d end up being fired.

Because people who do this aren’t people who can do anything else.

Seriously, look at all the authors you know. Especially look at the authors who have day jobs. Why in the world would you put yourself through all of this? You go to a job every day, bust your hump, take lip from the boss, deal with the stress and anxiety and constant edge-of-disaster of it all, and then you go sit down and write?

Authors—seriously, I mean this about all authors—are the bravest and hardest working people I know. They’re obsessed. And they’re insane. Nobody spends the kind of time and energy we spend, doing work that could just be obscure and thankless at best, without that obsession and insanity.

But we also think about quitting all the time. Because this is thankless, work. It’s the kind of work you love, that you’re passionate about, but it’s so intimately tied to your feeling of self worth that if no one reads it, if no one tells you it’s good, you start to wonder if you’d be better off frying chicken nuggets for a living.

So yeah, I think about quitting. I think about it when the money gets tight (it still does, from time to time). And I think about it when I get crappy reviews (hoo boy). But I’ll never actually quit. I can’t.

I live by Jim Rohn’s philosophy of ambition: “I can do this. I will do this. Or I will die trying.”

Once you start feeling like that, you’re not quitting anything, ever.

Starting out, what were some misconceptions you had of life as a full-time author? Were there any unexpected challenges you never realized before you got to that point in your career?

I honestly thought, early on, that just writing a book would bring readers.

Stupid, right?

Even more stupid: I knew that no one buys books from authors they’ve never heard of, but I somehow believed that I would be different. I would write a book so amazing that people would just be pulled into its gravitational field, and read it because it demanded to be read.

What a dunce.

I had misconceptions about the author life in general, too. I had visions of rolling out of bed any time I felt like it each morning, flush with rest and eager to sit with the page. I imagined I’d pen a book a year, and that a publisher would give me a big, fat advance for that book, so that all my needs were met, and my only worry in life would be, “What trouble should my zany characters get into today?”

I thought I’d have enough money from advances and royalties to buy a multi-acre farm, with a giant house and a lake and an old barn. I guess I figured I could pay someone to maintain all that, too, because I’m not a farmer.

Basically, if you’ve ever seen an author in a film or on television, that’s the life I figured I’d have. That’s what I’d been trained to believe my whole life, after all.

The reality was this: No one cared. No one was going to pay me anything for my work. No one was even going to read my work.

Unless I made them.

And you make them by doing the real work of being an author. You get out there and meet people. You make connections. You build a list of loyal readers who will buy anything you sell. You connect with other authors, editors, agents, publishers, and anyone who knows anything about the industry, and you learn everything you can from them.

And repeat.

Being an author is about being in business. You’re building a brand, you’re creating a product, and you’re marketing both. Sometimes you get lucky and someone wants to help you—a traditional publisher fronts you some cash, takes on some of the overhead, and provides you with some resources. Even then, you’d better get it in your head early that this business is about you, not them. You will still need to think in terms of marketing and promotion, and building relationships with readers, and building relationships with people in the industry. Because if you can’t pay back the advance, and your book isn’t pulling in sales naturally, the publisher will ditch you, and they’ll keep your book, too.

Sorry—I kind of went on a tirade there. But the point is, when I started out I didn’t think of being an author as being in business. And now I do. And coming to that realization is what allowed me to transition to full time.

What’s one thing about your author career that not many people know?

Most of my books started as fantasies I crafted in my head while going about life as a kid, a college student, and eventually as an adult. There are characters, events, and abilities in my books that were born as fantasies I envisioned at night to put myself to sleep when my mind was racing.

Basically, most of my books are bedtime stories I’ve told myself for years.

It’s kind of like cheating.

What’s the single best piece of advice you have for authors who can’t support themselves with their writing yet? What should they be focusing on?

The best possible advice is the same advice I was given, though not in so many words: Write anyway, and write every day.

Write anyway, because sometimes things suck. Sometimes you’re tired, and sometimes you have no idea what to put on the page. It sounds trite, but the truth is if you just force yourself to start writing anyway, you’ll break through ‘writer’s block.’ And you can always go back and edit what you wrote to make it better.

Write every day, because that’s how you produce a book in a timely way. Rather than spend two years sipping cognac and sucking on a pipe while wearing a smoker’s jacket contemplating the complexities of life so that you can boil them down into their purest, most concentrated essence, just friggin’ write.

Most of the books on the market right now could have been written in 30 days or less, and I’m not even exaggerating. If you write every single day, you will produce more books, faster. Period.

Also there’s this advice I paraphrase from Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’—Don’t put pressure on your art to make your living.

That one’s tough, because that’s exactly what authors hope to do.

But the gist is that you should think of the art first, not the income. Find a way to balance a day job with doing your art, and if you hate the day job find another source of income you like better. Your art—these stories you’re compelled to tell—is a gift to you and to your readers. If it comes down to it, choose the art over the income. Go make a living making coffee for people and write on your lunch breaks. Go take a job arranging flowers or folding clothes or making sandwiches—as long as you can keep writing.

If your day job is keeping you from writing, don’t wait for the writing to take you away from your day job. Go get a better day job that makes it possible for you to spend more time on writing, and then write every chance you get.

If writing is really going to be your full-time career some day, then it doesn’t matter what jobs you take in the meantime, right?

People hate when I give them this advice, and I totally understand why. I would have hated me for it too, honestly. But it’s the truth.

Look at your reasons for doing this, and ask yourself if you really want to write books because you love telling stories, or do you want it because you think it’s an ‘easy and fun way to make a living?’ Because if it’s the former you’ll write even if you work for someone else, and if it’s the latter you’ll quit the second the work gets too hard. And it will get too hard.

But really, the best advice is to write a book, and then write another, and then repeat until you’re incapable of writing any more.

Is there anything we haven’t asked that you’d like to touch on?

You never asked me where my ideas come from. Or how I craft characters. Or whether I prefer to plot my books or just pants the writing.

Thank you.

I get those questions all the time, and they’re the toughest to answer, because there’s nothing clever about them.

I get my ideas where everyone gets their ideas—I steal them. And I craft characters exactly the same way. And I prefer to pants a book, because plotting seems sinister.

But I think there’s a general question at the heart of this interview, and it’s one that everyone reading this is really asking every single day: How do I do this?

And the answer to that meta-question is so simple it’s disgusting: You just do.

Write every single day. Commit to a word count and hit it, every day. Meet as many authors and editors and publishers and agents as you can, take them to coffee if you can, and ask them every question that you can (do not ask them to read your book, help you get a contract, or help you sell it—just ask them to share what they know, and thank them with coffee and a nice hand-written note).

Read a lot. Write a lot. Learn a lot. And grow.

Share all of what you learn with everyone you meet, and hold nothing at all back.

And don’t wait for anyone else to tell you it’s ok to publish, or it’s ok to pursue your dream.

Just do it. Warts and all. Typos and all. Publish, fix the gaffs when you find them, and republish. And do that over and over again until you have so many books that if a handful of readers discover one, they have a vast forest to explore afterward.

Just be sure you’re writing for the love of it, and the full-time income of this business will be a lot easier to reach.

Amazon: Cut the crap in the Kindle Store

Thanks to Amazon, the chain-link gate around the playground that is publishing has been knocked to the ground. Anyone can come play! Unfortunately, some people are pooping in the sandbox. As a result, the Amazon Kindle Store is dealing with an ebook health crisis and honest, hard-working authors are paying the price.

By sandy fecal matter, I’m talking about the tens of thousands of garbage books out there, stinking up the Kindle store. Scammers are making the headlines yes, but lazy, half-assed authors are the culprits as well. Something needs to be done before our playground is a landfill. Amazon needs to clean out the crap.

Granted, the whole Scamazon issue has caused them to start chuck books, but that should only be the tip of the iceberg (if you want to get an excellent rundown of this issue, check out this post from David Gaughran). Even if Amazon could somehow stamp out every scam, there’s still a metric ton of honest to goodness (let’s call it what it is) shit out there.

The solution is simple: more books in the Kindle Store need to be de-listed.

By incorporating the following system, I believe Amazon could make the Kindle Store better for both readers and authors (many of whom are writing great books that struggle to be seen through the trash). If a book meets all three of the following criteria, it shouldn’t be cluttering up the Amazon store. It should be chucked.

Here’s what I’m proposing: books without an average of one sale per month after two years will be flagged and put on a watch list. If they meet either of the following requirements by year three, they’re gone.

  • Books that have less than one review for every year they’ve been out will be removed. (As I mentioned above, only books that have been published on Kindle for three years or longer will be eligible)
  • There is one exception: if a book has been out 3+ years and has less than a two-star review average, the first rule doesn’t apply. Throw it out!

Obviously, there’s much more that could be done, but this is a start. Before you accuse me of being elitist, this is coming from someone whose first book has been out almost two and a half years with only 12 total reviews. I’m very much (for the time-being, at least) a struggling indie, not some bestseller trying to crap on everyone below me.

The point of this system isn’t to punish good authors who are trying, but to weed out those who are looking to make a quick buck or are simply publishing garbage that no one is reading anyway. Come on Amazon, do your authors a solid here. Cut the crap.

Guest Post: 7 tips for killer book cover design

Intro from D_Sidd: Like it or not, readers judge books by their covers. A cover is the first thing a reader sees and if yours isn’t up to snuff, odds are they’re going to pass your book by. Quality book cover design doesn’t come cheap and the last thing you want to do is write a check for a cover that’s less than stellar. Here’s a few tips to keep in mind from Domi at Inspired Cover Designs.

Right fit for the genre

A lot of authors want to make their cover different from others in the genre, they want something unique. But there are major reasons to stick with genre conventions. If your potential readers don’t immediately recognize the genre of your book by looking at your cover, they will just look somewhere else. This doesn’t mean that your cover can‘t stand out. Take a look at the most successful books on Amazon in your category – what do they have in common, what makes them the right fit for the genre? If you are working with a graphic designer, he will be able to help identify these elements, and work them into your cover. Your cover can still be unique and there are plenty of ways to work with these graphic elements to create an interesting cover.

Less is more

A book cover is packaging, and just like any other packaging, it’s there to grab a potential customer’s attention and tell them what they are buying. Some authors want their cover to show the exact places, objects and characters they created in their book. This can result in a cluttered design which is not effective. Everything which is not necessary to make your customers buy your book must go.

Focus on people

If you don’t know where to start, try focusing on some basic graphic elements which are proven to work. People are drawn to the images of people, which is why they are so often present on book covers. A popular design choice is to leave readers some room for imagination and show characters as silhouettes, or with their faces partially cut out.

Fonts

When deciding the right fonts for your cover, you should consider what is common in your genre. Generally, you can combine one complicated font with one simple font and you should avoid using more than three different fonts on one cover. Contrasting color between the text and the background helps your text stand out.

You may also be unsure about the sizing of the title and your author name. This is a controversial topic. If you are not recognized as an author yet, you will probably want to emphasize the title of your book rather than your author name. However, some authors argue that you should make your author name large anyway, because it gives the impression that you are already successful, and must be worth reading.

Stock photos

You might sometimes see that somebody has used the same stock image as someone else (you might even see many appearances of the same stock image). Don’t worry about using this image if it’s perfect for your book. All you need to do in this situation is to make sure that your book cover looks better and more professional than the other ones using the same stock photo. That way everyone will assume that you were the first one using the image… even if you weren’t.

Productive collaboration with your graphic designer

It’s definitely worth it to spend some time thinking about your book cover before you ask your designer to start working. You should be able to answer questions like:

  • What are the dominant themes of my book?
  • Who is my ideal reader?
  • What is the mood of my book?
  • What existing covers do I like in this genre and why?

These are questions similar to those that a designer will ask when you start working with them. Being able to confidently answer these questions will ensure that your designer is going the same direction as you are.

Promotion

You should think about other ways you can use your book cover to promote the book. You might promote your book on social media, on your personal website, or somewhere else entirely. In all these cases the consistency is the key. The banners you use for promotion should include graphic elements from your cover. That way the readers will know exactly what they’re looking for when they visit your author page on Amazon or elsewhere.

Domi lives in Prague where beer is cheaper than water. She is a graphic designer who spends her days reading, drinking coffee and designing book covers. She enjoys the creative collaboration with authors that creates a beautiful book cover. Domi has her Masters degree in economics and has previously worked in marketing. She also understands the need for solid book promotion and offers promotional graphics to help authors grow their businesses on her website: http://inspiredcoverdesigns.com.

Author Origins: Mark Lawrence

Mark_Lawrence_bioMark Lawrence is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. He now writes full-time. Formerly he was a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’.

Between writing and caring for his disabled child, Mark spends his time playing computer games, tending an allotment, brewing beer, and avoiding DIY.

He has two trilogies in print, The Broken Empire, starting with Prince of Thorns, and The Red Queen’s War starting with Prince of Fools, concluding in June with The Wheel of Osheim. The first book in the Red Sister trilogy is due for publication in 2017.

Introduction: Tell us who you are, why you decided to be an author and where you’re at right now in your career.

I’m Mark Lawrence, fantasy author. I never really decided to be an author, I just wrote books for fun, and when I got ‘bullied’ into sending one to an agent I rapidly got a publishing deal. Currently I’m finishing off my eighth book and I stopped having a day-job a year ago.

What was the hardest thing about balancing writing with a day job? What is the hardest thing about writing for a living now?

Without wishing to sound obnoxious, I didn’t find anything hard about writing while having a day job. If they hadn’t closed down the entire research department I would probably still be there. To write a 100,000 word book in a year you only need to write 300 words a day. I can easily write 300 words in half an hour.

Writing while not having a day job is even easier. I guess the hardest thing is not letting Facebook and twitter eat my day. Weep for me.

Tell us about your schedule and habits back before you made the move to full-time (or what you’re doing now if it hasn’t changed).

I don’t really have a schedule or habits other than those imposed on me. Most of my time was taken up with work and looking after my very disabled youngest daughter. I did my writing when she went to bed. If I don’t feel like writing then I don’t. Fortunately, most of the time I opt for writing over the alternatives.

I’ve always been very relaxed about writing – it’s something I did for enjoyment, and I still enjoy doing it. I’ve never sweated over a piece of fiction.

If you don’t mind, would you tell us how your sales first started out? How many books did you have out before you started seeing traction?

I was lucky enough to be published by big six (five) publishers (Penguin and Harper Collins) and by imprints that focus on a small number of authors (Ace and Voyager. Their releases tend to generate a decent amount of buzz and they have the clout to get their titles in bookshops. Additionally some elements in the online genre community did me the enormous favour of getting outraged by my first book and writing the sort of scathing reviews that generate great interest (I don’t think anyone ever believes they will sink someone’s career with outrage). So I had traction from day 1.

At what point in time did you make the decision to support yourself/your family as an author?

I had enough income to quit my day job but no great inclination to do so. The entire 200-strong advanced research department at the aerospace giant I worked for was axed out of the blue in an internal political move. So now I’m full time.

Do you support yourself completely from writing books or through a variety of work? If so, what else do you do to pay the bills?

Just writing. A great many authors on the shelves of any high street bookshop will need a day-job to keep the lights on. I’m very lucky that my decent sales (a million books in five years) and modest life-style mean that I can support my family on my writing income.

Was there ever a point when you felt like quitting writing or didn’t think you’d ever become a full-time author?

I never did think I would become a full-time author and it was never my goal. I never thought about writing in terms of quitting or not quitting because I wasn’t writing to achieve some goal – I was writing because I enjoyed it. If I stopped enjoying it I would have stopped doing it, with no sense of guilt or failure. I would have called it starting whatever replaced it rather than quitting writing.

What’s one thing about your author career that not many people know?

Some people seem surprised that I don’t listen to my audio books … it’s a medium that doesn’t work for me, so I’ve never listened to more than the first couple of minutes of the first book.

What’s the single best piece of advice you have for authors who can’t support themselves with their writing yet? What should they be focusing on?

Again this question feels odd to me because it’s coming from a very different mind-set. I had the luxury of a job I enjoyed. As a child I wanted to be a research scientist. As an adult I was one. Making money from writing wasn’t a goal.

I could say to write for its own sake. If you enjoy writing then whether you’re published, or sell widely is just a bonus. The truth is that the vast majority of people who write will make very little money from it, so to me it’s sensible to only do what makes you happy writing-wise and if you luck out, great. Other people have very different approaches.

The epic post on how to succeed as an author

Disclaimer: As you may have guessed from the title, this post is humongous, so here’s the short version: Want to know how to succeed as an author? Write more, better books.

There. You can leave now. Go write a book. Get to work. But if you’ve got a few minutes to kill, proceed to the epicness below.

How to succeed as an author

It seems that as publishing continues to grow and evolve in our modern day, everyone is looking for (or selling) courses, books and services to help you shortcut your way to the top. The problem is compounded by the fact that what worked for Author A today might not work for Author B tomorrow. Let’s face it: growing your writing and authorness into a full-time or even decent part-time paycheck isn’t easy. There’s no straight, proven shot to success. Or is there?

Marketing strategies and tactics will continue to change and evolve, but as time goes on, I’m more convinced than ever that there’s really only one thing that matters. Are you ready? Lean in close and pretend you didn’t read the answer in the disclaimer.

Write more, better books.

I’ve just divided everyone reading this. Half of you are nodding your heads and the other half are probably ready to leave something in the comments about “getting discovered and increasing visibility” or something like that. I confess, I’ve hopped back and forth over that fence myself. But three months into my journey as a self-published author, I realized I was going to have to write A LOT of books (thanks to the Write. Publish. Repeat guys and Hugh Howey for this epiphany). The aforementioned sources made one thing clear: I couldn’t take another five/six years dabbling on my next manuscript if I was serious about making a living as an author.

Hugh Howey famously advocates sitting your rear in a chair and writing for ten years before you determine if this is for you or not. I see this as sort of a trial by fire. If you spend ten years writing books and making each of those books better, you can’t help but improve. And, if you spend ten years chasing this crazy dream, it’s a pretty safe bet to say you’ve got the willpower to spend the rest of your life producing. If you want to make sure you know what you’re getting into, check out this post by Howey: So you want to be a writer?

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some numbers

What are successful authors doing: the study

Last month, Written Word Media released a study of over 19,000 authors. They wanted to know what separates the “emerging authors” making > $500/month from the “financially successful authors” making < $5000/month. I recommend checking out their full report but for our purposes here, I’m going to touch on just one of the three findings they published. What do you think it as?

That’s right. Financially successful authors write more.

One more time. FINANCIALLY SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS WRITE MORE.

How much more? Almost twice as many books on the financially successful authors’ backlist (an average of 13.75 vs. 7.4 with the emerging group) and almost twice as many hours spent per week writing (16 for emerging authors and 31 for the financially successful). Not only do they write more, but the successful authors have been doing it longer (greater than three years vs. emerging who were all less than three years). At the end of the day, production is king. Scratch that. Production is emperor. If you’ve only got an hour each day to work on your author business, I’d argue that you should squeeze out every last second of it writing. Not just any writing will do, though.

That’s not writing — that’s typing

Excuse the Truman Capote reference, but you can’t just spend years banging on a keyboard with no thought about upping the ante with your prose, your plotting, your characterization or anything else. You can’t just write MORE books you have to write more BETTER books.

Last week, I read a great post from James Clear about staying the course and being consistent in your efforts. He also touches on Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,00 hours rule with one important distinction.

As Clear points out in his article, hundreds of thousands of people have likely put in 10,000 hours of writing through email. What’s the difference between them and a brilliant novelist whose prose drops your jaw and transports you into his story? Clear calls it re-work: “Average employees write emails once. Elite novelists re-write chapters again and again,” he says.

Re-work in our case is rewriting and revising. Taking that pile of first draft crap and shining it until it’s a diamond. To quote Clear again: “A lot of people put in 10,000 hours. Very few people put in 10,000 hours of revision.”

A lot of authors write a couple of “meh” books. Very few authors consistently produce books year after year all the while improving their craft. More from Howey:

“You’ll revise it to perfection and delete the bad parts. The key is to have something down to work with. So learn to fail. Keep going. Ignore the sales of existing works. Ignore the bad reviews. Keep reading, writing, practicing, and daydreaming.”

This isn’t just for self-published authors, either. If you’re going the traditional route, you might have to crank out ten books before you even get one that is picked up by a publisher. Sitting around shopping that first book for years on end doesn’t really help your writing skill. Sure, that book might get a little better and you might improve a bit, but it’s nothing compared to completing the process all over again from start to finish. Kameron Hurley sums this up perfectly in a post on her site called Finish your Sh*t. Here’s an excerpt:

“I’m constantly aware of my own mortality, and I have so many, many stories left to write before I go. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to keep learning, and keep leveling up. I’m never content to stay in one place.”

Staying in one place doesn’t just mean not writing. It can also mean writing at the same level over and over. You’ve got to push your boundaries. More BETTER books.

In a post called the Calculus of Grit (hat tip James Clear for including this reference in his article above), Venkatesh Rao talks about a theory he calls the Three Rs. They go as follows: reworking (in our case, revising), referencing, and releasing. We’ve already discussed reworking and, for the sake of time, I’m going to skip referencing and go straight into releasing. Here’s what Rao has to say about that:

“If the environment is so murky and chaotic that you cannot strategically figure out clever moves and timing, the next best thing you can do is just periodically release bits of your developing work in the form of gambles in the external world. I think there’s a justifiable leap of faith here: if your work admits significant reworking and internally-referencing, you’re probably on to something that is of value to others.

“If a post happens to say the right thing at the right time, it will go viral. If not, it won’t. All I need to do is to keep releasing. This realization incidentally, has changed my understanding of phenomena like iteration in lean startups and serial entrepreneurs who succeed on their fifth attempt. It’s mostly about averaging across risk/opportunity exposure events, in an environment that you cannot model well.”

This applies directly to writing books too. When it comes down to it, the publishing environment today is “murky and chaotic.” Realizing there are thousands of factors you have to figure into author success, producing a bigger, better catalog is the one thing you have within your control. Marketing and advertising will change and evolve but having lots of good writing available for readers is your ace in the hole if you’re shooting for full-time.

There’s a reason Hugh Howey and countless others didn’t find success until they had several books published. Keep on keeping on, writers. Keep writing more better books.

Guest Post: There and Back Again — Michael Fletcher

It’s the oldest story in the world, boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy gets a book published with a Big-5 publisher, publisher decides to pass on the sequel, girl tells boy maybe it’s time he got a job.

Maybe I should back up.

Back in 2014 Harper Voyager bought my dark fantasy novel, Beyond Redemption . It came with a fairly sweet advance (at least for an unknown author) and the book went on to sell translation rights to German, Polish, and Russian publishers. While I certainly wasn’t rolling in money, the book made enough that I could afford to work part-time and focus on my writing. As Beyond Redemption was bringing in amazing reviews (starred and boxed review from Publishers Weekly, rave reviews from BookList, the Library Journal, and a host of indie book reviewers) I decided to gamble and write the sequel.

In a twelve month period I wrote and edited two novels totalling over 270,000 words. The first was a direct sequel to Beyond Redemption, the second an unrelated story taking place in the same world. With all the amazing reviews I was confident the publisher would pick up both novels and I looked forward to another year of part-time work and more writing. In fact, if the advances on these two novels were the same as the first and both sold translation rights, it was entirely possible I wouldn’t need a day job at all. Things were tight but I had a plan and my amazing wife supported me chasing my dreams.

And then in late October I heard from the publisher that sales of Beyond Redemption were far lower than expected and at that time they were unwilling to make an offer on the next books.

F@*!

Let’s talk numbers. The book was published June 16th, 2015. Between then and late October the book sold ~750 copies. The publisher wanted to see sales closer to 2,500 copies. Clearly I was well short of that. Harper Voyager suggested we reconvene in the new year and see how sales were then. At that point I went on a mad publicity drive doing guest posts, interviews, and Q&As anywhere that would have me. I’ve talked about this elsewhere so I’ll cut it short. When we talked again in January the sales were sitting around 1,700. While my publicity push had definitely helped, the sales were still well below what HV wanted. They passed on the two books I’d spent the last year writing, wished me the best of luck, and said they would be very interested in seeing more work from me (unrelated to Beyond Redemption) in the future.

It was a kick in the gut. All of a sudden I was sitting there with two written books and no income beyond a part-time job that wasn’t making nearly enough to live off.

The first thing I did was get extremely drunk. For about a week. Maybe longer. I just know that there was an empty 40 oz Jameson bottle in the recycling box every week for a while alongside all the usual wine and beer empties. Ok. It might have been a month.

I might be ‘new’ at this, but what that means is that I’ve only been writing for seven years. And in seven years any serious writer amasses a truly staggering amount of rejection. I collected over one hundred rejection letters before I sold my first short story. It was two years of chasing agents and publishers before I landed a small Canadian publisher for my first novel, 88. Was I really going to let this stop me? Hell, I’d sold a book to a big-5 publisher! Beyond Redemption wound up on fifteen best-of-2015 lists! Apparently I could write at a professional level!

Putting away the whiskey I had a chat with my agent. She said that while the other big-5 publishers would pass on my novels for the same reason Harper Voyager passed, there were a number of excellent mid-level publishers who might be interested in a sequel to book that had by this point sold over 2,000 copies. We spent a two months writing and tweaking proposals, and now we’re shopping both books to a list of about a dozen publishers. It’s early days (it’s only been two weeks) so it’s too early to know if there will be interest. In the meantime I’ve begun work on another fantasy novel that has nothing to do with Beyond Redemption.

Things didn’t go the way I wanted, but no one ever said this was going to be easy. If you’re going to fold the first time shit goes sideways, you’re in the wrong biz. If the mid-level publishers don’t bite, I’ll self-publish which will be a whole new adventure, one I must say both terrifies and excites me.

If I may be so bold as to offer one piece of advice: Don’t write your sequel until there’s demand.

If you’re curious to hear the next chapter, I can check back in a few months with an update.

Cheers, folks!

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