(Indie) writing is NOT a lottery

I see this meme perpetuated even by some big-name indie writers: somehow all writing is a lottery and participants (authors) are just playing the odds.

This is so fundamentally wrong on so many levels it’s laughable.

First of all, anyone who took and comprehended basic introductory statistics in college will know that they cannot be applied to the individual. It is simply not accurate to say that if 1 in 10,000 books makes money (I have no idea what the statistic is, I’m just pulling that number out of my ass for illustration purposes) then my (or your, or anyone’s) “odds” of writing a book which makes money are 1/10,000–i.e., miniscule. This is a false conclusion. Statistics in the aggregate cannot be applied to any individual because they only represent the aggregate behavior. They don’t account for individual variation and the very real fact that there are often specific reasons why one book sells and another does not; Or why one author succeeds in making enough money to quit his day job and write full-time where others do not. A statistic simply tells you about the whole: i.e., the whole sample exhibited whatever characteristics. Even if you’re part of the sample, the overall results don’t say anything about your future–only your past. They are based on historical data–and while historical data can be helpful for predicting the future of the whole, it is not robust at the individual level. Which is to say that if the statistic is that the indie ebook market is growing 30% year over year, that tells you that the overall ebook market is growing at that rate–not necessarily your own sales as an author. The rest of the market might be moving that way while your specific sales fall…or the opposite could occur. In a few years perhaps we’ll hear about declining ebook sales (I have not idea if this is the truth but hey, what goes up must come down, right?). Such a thing could occur while your individual sales continue to increase.

This is why the aggregate statistics are only useful for illuminating generalities: the indie ebook market is growing; some indie authors make a lot of money; indie authors sell a lot of books. They are not useful for telling YOU–an individual–how many ebook sales you’ll generate when you publish your first, second, or twentieth book; They are not useful for telling you how much you can expect to make as an author; They cannot tell you whether you have what it takes to make a living as an indie (or traditionally published) author. They can only provide hints as to what SOME authors are accomplishing.

There is simply no randomness to who wins and loses as an indie writer. That should be an empowering and very scary realization. If you have not yet succeeded, you have a choice: keep trying new things and forge onward until you achieve success, or quit.

Also, keep in mind that the statistics don’t reveal what makes one author successful and another unsuccessful. They simply reveal the (typically) median or average between the two (or more).

So we’ve covered the statistics. Now let’s talk about why making it as an indie writer is NOT a lottery.

A lottery is simply a game of chance where the odds are completely independent of the actor’s (in this case, the indie author’s) skill level, persistence, experience, etc. A lottery is one where the payout and odds are established and independent–i.e., where the actor/player/author cannot change the odds no matter what they do. You buy one lottery ticket and your odds are X, you buy another lottery ticket and your odds for the second ticket remain X. Granted, if you buy more lottery tickets your odds increase from infinitesimally small to slightly less infinitesimally small, but even so beyond buying more tickets there’s nothing you can do to increase the odds in your favor.

Traditional publishing is much more like a lottery, but still isn’t a *true* lottery, because the “odds” (i.e., the statistics) in your favor aren’t good. But even so, while the statistics are often referred to as “odds” they aren’t–in the strictest sense. They are simply statistics. Just because your chance of becoming the next J. K. Rowling is (I have no idea if this is the statistic or not) 1 in 10,000,000 (maybe worse) does not mean that you won’t be the next J.K. Rowling. Perhaps you will be. The statistic doesn’t apply to you. It only postulates that 1 in 10 Million writers will be the next J.K. Rowling. It has nothing to say about whether that will be you or not.

Even with traditional publishing–where the statistics about how many books are rejected versus accepted and the average size of advance are abysmal–there is still a great deal an author can do to succeed. They can stop blogging and start writing their first book, for example. They can write another book after they finish their first. And they can write books, one after the other, until they start writing books which are good enough to be accepted. They can try different genres, different voices, different approaches until they find what works. Maybe they’ll be a wildly successful traditionally published author, maybe not. But the truth of the matter is that no lottery occurred. You are responsible for a great deal of your success.

Most writers fail in both traditional publishing and indie publishing because they simply write a book or two or three and then wonder why the world isn’t knocking down their door check in hand. The truth is it takes many books written to really master the art. I’ve written five full-length screenplays–no small feat–and they were all abysmally bad. If you manage to write a first novel which is reasonably entertaining than you should congratulate yourself, because most first novels will be horrid. This is not an indication of talent; but merely the first careening steps of an infant. You’ll hit your head many times, fall down the stairs, and spend a lot of time on the floor in agony before you figure it out.

Stick with the writing and you will improve. Perhaps you’ll never be a word smith, but perhaps you’ll be able to tell an engaging riveting tale none-the-less. It doesn’t take big words, or complex ideas to entertain readers. My wife and I enjoy Clive Cussler’s books. Anyone who’s ever read them will tell you that they’re a lot of fun as long as you don’t take them too seriously. They’re like big budget action movies. You come for the well-executed thrills, action, and CG–not the acting and thoughtful plot line.

This leads us to the fundamental difference between indie publishing and traditional publishing. In indie publishing YOU are empowered. Your books are exactly as crappy or as excellent as you can make them. You can put out the first draft and hope you’ll sell a few copies before readers catch on and leave scathing reviews, or you can write a few drafts, hire an editor, hire a cover designer, and really make the book shine. You control how long you take to write the book, how much you spend on getting the book ready for publication, when you release the book, and how you promote it. You can manage your web presence wisely and cultivate readership effectively and track your expenses and keep a tight set of books, or not. You, and you alone, are responsible for your success.

Let’s put it this way: if you write great books, they will find an audience. Period. As they say in Hollywood, there is an unlimited appetite for a great script. Same goes for novels. If you’re not selling well then you need to put on your introspective thinking cap. Are you books truly as good as they can be? Are you still improving as an author? Are you doing all you can to find and develop your reader/customer base? Are you spending too much or too little on editing, covers, promotion, etc.? Always be willing to go back to the drawing board.

The truth is, as a writer, you’re never at a set skill level. You are always either improving or declining. Even Steven King isn’t above getting sloppy (I don’t read his books, but I’ve heard that recently he’s lost his touch for some readers). Writing is a skill which must be honed over a long time, with many words typed, and constantly attended to. Like a garden, if you get lazy the weeds will grow up, the sun will scorch your fledgling carrots into the ground, and your crop simply won’t grow–no matter how long you’ve been gardening. But a good gardener doesn’t let those things happen: They not only know how to plant a garden, they also know how to tend a garden…and they do until the crop is harvested.

This leads me to my next point: Indie writing is small business. Yes, yes, I know writers hate to think about “business” and I suspect this is what separates the successful from the less so. But I think that applying the small business mindset to writing will assist many writers in establishing accurate and helpful expectations. Most small businesses fail (9 out of 10–at least) but some succeed. Before we proceed, remember that the statistic that most small businesses fail does not in any way mean that YOUR small business will fail. It simply represents the performance of the aggregate. If that particular statistic applied to every small business, do you think banks would loan small businesses money? Would they loan your small business money? Not on your life. They loan small businesses money, at slim margins, because they’re pretty skilled (though not perfect) at determining which small businesses are likely to succeed. They do this by looking at the experience level of the management, what differentiates the products and services the business offers, how robust their accounting is, how well capitalized they are, whether they have a real business plan, and their past performance. In other words, they look at the individual because they know the individual matters, not the statistic.

So most small businesses fail, but some succeed. How do some succeed and others fail? For many of the reasons banks attempt to filter for: poor accounting, not capitalized sufficiently, the owner ran off with the $500,000 loan to Jamaica, poor product differentiation, lack of experience, poor location, etc. Some small businesses are launched in the worst possible location, with the most generic commodity products, no marketing, inexperienced owners and staff, no capital, no plan, and no accountant. How likely are they to succeed? Similarly, if you write your first book and publish it to Amazon and wait, how likely are you to succeed? You need to have a plan. You need to be able to track expenses and income and manage both effectively. You need to be smart about marketing. And you need to work on your products until you’re selling what the market is buying. In the book world, you need to have more than one product, ahem, book, too. If you discovered a neat little small business in a great location with a great staff which was well run but they only sold one excellent product, how likely would they be to succeed? Not very likely. Even those Batteries-Only style stores these days carry more than just batteries, and they don’t just carry one battery–they carry every shape, size, and type of battery.

An excellent anecdotal story to illustrate my point: my dad started a seat cover shop forty-ish years ago in Bozeman, Montana. Bozeman is a small town–probably around 20,000 in population at the time, and not tremendously bigger now. This was in the 70’s. He had one sewing machine (purchased with a loan from his parents), a few yards of fabric, and a really cheap but well exposed location (a derelict gas station on main street). He didn’t make much money the first year, or the second, or the third. We didn’t have much to eat in those days and our housing was extremely humble. But somehow he and my mom survived on his hard work and the kindness of strangers.

Gradually his business grew. Eventually he was making $12,000 a year, then a few years later $20,000. After nearly twenty years of being in business–with many costly mistakes (including an attempt to franchise the operation) behind him–he was bringing home, perhaps, $40,000 a year. In the 90’s the internet arrived. One of the things that set my dad apart from others (and still does) is that he was willing to try new things. Though the internet was a new thing, he saw opportunity and worked hard to get his seat cover shop online. Initially the website was crude but effective and it didn’t take long before his high-quality custom seat covers where generating more sales in other countries and states than in Bozeman, Montana. The local market became a sideline to the internet market. All along this time he kept experimenting with different fabrics, products, and approaches to efficiency, he improved the website and experimented with different marketing approaches. He kept track of data–constantly measuring ROI and cost effectiveness of every aspect of the business. Finally, nearly 25 (or so) years in, he was bringing home around $64,000/year. Not bad, but not jet-buying money considering the time invested. Then one day an idea struck. And because of all of his prior experience and ability he was able to capitalize on it. An employee made the offhand remark that they should make and sell camouflage seat covers. Strangely my dad thought, why not? So they did.

In the subsequent years, business boomed. The new custom camouflage seat covers were, by far, their most popular product. At one point, my dad estimated that 20% of all trucks in Iowa had his seat covers on them–or was it Illinois? I can’t remember. Anyway, he sold them as fast as he could make them, often having a three-month waiting list for delivery (people who had paid but had to wait three months for delivery). He raised the price and still sales surged. Within several years the business became worth millions. And that’s when he sold it. For millions.

While one could take many lessons from that (true) story, the main point I want to make is this: success isn’t overnight and it takes a LOT of hard work, persistence, and willingness to adapt and try new things. Sometimes you’ll be trudging along, perhaps barely making a living (or not even), for year after year, decade after decade, until finally you hit upon the right combination. After years of trying, you NAIL IT. You slam it out of the park and run the bases. But if you’d turned tail and run, quit, or given up earlier, you’d simply think you’d never have made it, because you never give yourself the opportunity to. Like my dad. I’m sure there were many times when he thought about getting a “real” job, a nice, stable, decent paying corporate gig (not that Bozeman had many of those). And if he had no one would have given him any grief for doing it. Perhaps they all would have commiserated about his decision: “yeah, I just wasn’t making any money in the seat cover business, so I had to get a job.” “Yeah, that happens T, most small businesses fail. I guess you already knew that, eh?”

But the truth is, because he had the raw ability and willingness and persisted in constantly improving his business and sticking with it, he was able to get to that point when he was, essentially, an All Star Seat Cover Guru who could hit home runs. And it paid off. BIG.

For writers this means that we need to adapt the same mindset. We need to see ourselves as small business owners: our business is writing, books are our products, and we are our single greatest asset. We need to buckle up for the long-haul, overcome challenges, master the basics, and adapt when it’s clear our approach isn’t working. Eventually, we’ll write books which empirically ARE excellent, release them to a well-developed readership accumulated over years (who rely on us for our high-quality products, ahem, books), and reap the rewards of success. Keep in mind that this also entails keeping a handle on all the other details and running a tight business. If you’re your greatest enemy and constantly spending money you don’t have, you’re likely to put yourself out of business.

All the above is why it drives me crazy when I hear all the grousing about writing for a living being a lottery, or authors on the Kindle Boards complaining about how hard it is to develop a following, get any exposure, and make any money. If they truly considered themselves small business owners, they’d buckle down and do whatever was necessary. Try things. Fail. Try other things. Some things work, some things don’t. Keep trying. Keep writing. Keep improving. Success will come. Time spent complaining is not time spent succeeding.

Last point: another primary complain I hear is how hard it is to get find readers when there are so many books published every day, every month, every year. They complain that there’s so much content out there now that good books simply cannot be found. This is BS of the highest order. Because it’s really no different than a small business working with what it’s got: the location it’s in, the products they have, the marketing they can afford. And yeah, of course it takes time to build a small business (or readership) when you’re just starting out. You’re likely to have a less than optimal location (because it’s all you can afford), a few decent (but not stellar–not yet) products, a small or non-existent marketing budget, the whole shooting match. It’s an uphill battle both ways. So there’s that. But then there’s this: where a problem exists in the web space of sufficient magnitude, solutions appear. It is in Amazon’s best interest to ensure that quality books which will sell well find readers. I’d lay money they’re already working very hard on the book discovery problem. Solutions are coming that will likely do what they can to identify quality–even unreviewed–books. Those authors who have honed their skills and built out their backlist will be in prime position to take advantage.

That’s my soap box for the day. Get crack’in. Get writing. If you can take it, you can make it.

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Sitting in the mud

This is what happens when you get bucked off the darn horse. You sit in the mud, or dust, or dirt, or poop–if you happen to be having a really unlucky day.

You sit there for a while until you have sufficiently reviewed your options: 1) go home and put a heating pad on your back side, or 2) get back on the damn horse and try again.

This has been a week of sitting in the mud, nursing my wounded pride, and measuring the horse up. Just how ornery does the beast look? This week I just haven’t done it: gotten back up on the horse yet. This morning I was going to, but…then we had another miserable night. I was in bed shortly after 8 pm (my new goal) and lay there for a loooooonnnnnnggggg time. Like, an hour. About 9:30 I decided that I needed to do something to get myself tired so I left the bedroom and did some sit-ups and push-ups and side-crunches. Then I went back to bed and lay there for another half an hour. Finally, as I was beginning to drift off to sleep the baby broke out in a racking fit of painful coughing and continued coughing and screaming and crying and sobbing for a half hour.

Sometime around midnight we finally all went to sleep. I should also mention that yesterday morning, when my wife and I awoke, we both felt ill. Groggy, pounding heads; stuffed-up sinuses; sneezing…all the symptoms we observed in baby on the downswing into complete illness. In short, it looks like we’re on our way down the slippery slope to being *really* sick. So after a really rough night last night, when the alarm went off at 5 am I thought some variation of: I don’t want to wake the baby–she needs her sleep to help her recover; hell, I need my sleep if I’m going to fight this thing; and geez, I have to go to work and actually try to keep it together and get my typical mountain of work done. It wasn’t hard to stay in bed.

Still, part of me realizes that things aren’t going to get easier. We have kids. Kids get sick. And we have another one on the way. *We* get sick. Work must be done. If I turn tail and run every time that I don’t get a decent night’s sleep or feel ill or the kids are sick…it will significantly deter progress on my plan to become an indie writer who makes enough to quit my day job. This is an ambitious goal, but very doable if I treat it like a job (a job I enjoy and find meaningful…i.e., I work as hard at it as I would at an actual “job.”) and show up every day rain or shine. I suppose that’s it, isn’t it?

Would I not show up to work after a hard night of little or no sleep? Would I stay home in bed with the sniffles? Of course not. I’m balls-to-the-wall. Unless I’m truly laid flat by an illness, I suck it up and keep going. Even when our first daughter was born and there were nights when I got, maybe, four hours of sleep in 30 minute increments, I still went to work the next morning. And yeah, my head hurt like crazy, and I couldn’t think straight, but I did it.

I need to treat writing with the same fierce commitment. Why am I so determined when it comes to work? Two reasons: I have a deep desire and need to pull my own weight; and two, I need to keep putting food on the table, a roof over our heads, pay our bills, and put clothes on our backs. Granted, I do have paid sick days I could take. But I like to keep those for a time when I’m so ill I literally cannot get out of bed.

Writing, for me, is the same thing–something which I intend to do to meet all our material needs, and also feed my soul. If anything, I should approach it with a level of ferocity exceeding the level I apply to my day job.

It’s time to get out of the mud, brush myself off, and show this horse who’s the boss.

 

Author’s note: It’s early in the game yet, but I’m writing these posts charting my progress from the beginning in hope that it proves inspirational and useful to others who are, or will be, attempting to same path. Hopefully, years from now, when I’m achieving my definition of success (making $80,000+ a year as a full-time writer) and people look at me and assume that, somehow, I just had whatever magical ability they weren’t born with, this blog will help set the story straight. While I have always enjoyed writing, and done a fair bit of it over the last 30-ish years, I did not write my first novel when I was 8–or do anything really remarkable as a writer. I fiddled with writing books and screenplays, but never finished a book, and the 5 full-length screenplays I finished were atrocious (frankly) and never went anywhere. So let the record show that as of today I have written five banal screenplays (I kept some of them just for kicks–but wouldn’t recommend reading any of them), and no books. But I have done well in the English classes I’ve taken. In college, I wrote a piece which the professor (a published author) told me was “publishable.” Hearing that was way better reward than the A+ she gave me on it. Okay, we straight? Good. Let’s roll sound, and….Action!

Derailed

Argh!!! It happened again. I feel so weak, so embarrassed, so ashamed.

This week has been very trying for my new routine. Our daughter recently turned two and has become very worried about us. My wife tells me this is totally normal for the age, but it’s still hard to deal with. Our daughter will try to keep track of us throughout the night–one hand on my wife, a foot on me (or vice versa)–and after our alarms go off at 5 am she becomes even more aggressive about not being left alone in bed. She becomes hyper sensitive to movement and sound and will wake, seemingly prescient that we’re trying to “rise and shine.” So this week my wife would slip out of bed and leave me with this bouncing betty of a baby who woke whenever I’d try to get up. Consequently there were a number of mornings where I didn’t make it out of bed until 6:30 or so and then, after making my coffee, she’d awake. Or I’d get out of bed by 6 am but then she’d wake up shortly after. It’s been hell. So there were a number of mornings where I didn’t get much, or any, writing done. Those days were angsty ones for me. I get super angsty if either the writing is going poorly or I’m not getting much/any writing done. Ugh.

So it’s been a hard week, and then on Thursday I arrived home pretty worn out and just craving some quality TV-vegging time. Normally I resist the urge to watch TV during the week, but Thursday night I decided to catch up on The Blacklist. I told myself that I’d just watch one. But one turned into two turned into three. Before I knew it it was at least 11 pm. When my alarm went off at 5 am I didn’t even hear it. I woke up after 7 am. Thankfully, I did manage to get some writing done that morning after awakening. Our daughter was more willing to entertain herself that morning than usual so I took advantage of the opportunity to write. Later that day, over my lunch, I wrote another page or so (500 words-ish). So for Thursday I ended up doing pretty well. I hit around 1,800 words. But on Friday after dinner and after my wife and daughter went to bed, I decided I really wanted to watch Ender’s Game. So I did. And it didn’t end until nearly 11 pm. I wasn’t in bed until after 11 pm and didn’t fall asleep until probably at least Midnight. Needless to say, I didn’t get up between 5 am and 6 am Saturday. I didn’t do any writing on Saturday and it didn’t feel good. On Saturday night, I decided to watch a new TV show I heard about, The Tomorrow People. It was/is awesome. But one episode led to two, two to three, until it was 5 am and I’d just finished the 11th episode. I finally went to bed because I was finally falling asleep. I woke up after 10 am (totally dead to the world until then) and have made it through the day, angsty that I haven’t done any writing.

And tonight, I wanted to watch the second Hunger Game’s movie: Catching Fire. But I managed to get my wife hooked on The Tomorrow People today when she saw the end of the 13th episode (I watched the last two episodes after waking up this morning) so she spent the day watching the show. It’s now 9 pm and she’s on the…9th (or is it the 11th?) episode. It looks like she’ll be monopolizing the TV for the next couple of hours until she’s caught up so no Catching Fire for me.

The point of all this whining? Well, I’ve been trying to figure out where I got derailed. It doesn’t seem like it was any one thing, but a combination. It was a combination of our daughter being extra needy and making it difficult to maintain the routine (either because I’d get out of bed and she’d wake up early demanding food and reading/playing, or because I’d stay in bed trying to help her get the sleep she needs), coupled with several days of less writing success, coupled with getting addicted to a new TV show, and breaking my rules about watching stuff after dinner. It makes me feel weak and pathetic to not have the willpower to control my desire to watch “just” another episode. In all fairness to myself, I think I’m probably not alone. I suspect with the success of the hyper-serialized nature of modern TV we’ll see TV addiction (for real) become a substantial social issue. Sometimes I wish I could deny myself, completely, access to movies and TV. The problem is that these days we already watch all our movies and TV via the internet. Unless we get rid of the internet, we can’t completely deny ourselves access to this sort of content. Plus, I don’t want to deny ourselves all the benefits of the internet just because it brings some things that are dangerous or time wasters. It’d be like refusing to use a stove just because the burners get hot. I also really enjoy some of the stories which are being told on TV–other than the fact that it often annoys me that a cancelled show means that you never find out the resolution to the story the series intended to tell. In that regard, books and movies are superior. That single aspect could prevent either movies or books from being completely overtaken by TV. People desire resolution in the stories they invest in, which is why canceling shows can incur economic costs to the Networks–even if it’s not a line item on a balance sheet. Cancel too many shows (I’m looking at you Fox) and viewers will be less apt to invest in any future shows your network releases because they’re leery of investing in characters and a story just to have it cancelled before they can achieve resolution. These days, when I discover a show I’ve heard about is backed by Fox, I don’t even bother because I’ve been burned too many times before by their willy nilly canceling of shows.

The truth is I don’t want to completely give up TV and movies just because there’s some danger there. Maybe that’s foolish. Maybe it’s like an alcoholic who goes into a bar, “just to use the restroom.” Not a good move. We’ll see. Perhaps a future post will find me filtering the internet, or canceling it, or other drastic measures. I hope though that I can learn to manage my humanity so that I can enjoy the best in movies and TV without having to hide under a rock afraid of the world and myself.

That’s all beside the point. Where am I at with my writing and my process? I’m debating about whether I should just try to continue on as is: no TV after dinner, bedtime by 9 pm, wake up at 5 am, write until 7 am. Or if I should try to make some changes. Should I try to be really radical and go to bed earlier and getting up earlier? Would that solve the issues I’m dealing with? If I got up at 4 am, would our daughter be asleep enough to seamlessly transition into sleeping the next three hours by herself? Or would she still wake up between 6-6:45 am? I suppose it wouldn’t matter then if she woke up earlier than 7 am because if I got up at 4 am, over the long haul I’d get at least 2 hours of writing (sometimes 3 hours, when she’d sleep until 7 am) in. But that means a very aggressive bedtime schedule. Being in bed by 8 pm would really be pushing it. I normally don’t get home until 6-6:30 pm which would basically leave an hour and a half for dinner, dishes, playing with baby, connecting with my wife, and getting ready for bed. It’s just a very tight timeline.

This, too, could be contributing to the writing malaise I’ve been struggling with this week. It’s hard being to bed before 9 pm, and hard getting up at (or around) 5 am. When I don’t feel like it might be worth it on any given morning (or the prior night), it’s hard to push myself enough to actually master myself and make it happen. There are also some auxiliary issues that have been rocking the overall boat this week. Namely just that with my wife pregnant with our second and tired frequently and our daughter being extra needy the house has kind of fallen apart. By which I mean that it has been a disaster: piles of dishes, clutter all over, and we haven’t been getting our regular groceries. I.e., I suspect that all these rhythms are tied together. It’s hard for me, early in the game, to be resilient yet in the face of assaults on all my/our rhythms. If it was one assault at a time it would be different. But it’s been kind of a perfect storm of disruption. We were getting in a good groove there for a while but now everything is temporarily derailed: laundry undone, laundry which needs to be put away, dishes to wash, dishes to put away, a floor badly in need of vacuuming and carpet cleaning, etc.. I don’t blame my wife for this: it’s mostly just a function of her exhaustion between being tired (from being pregnant) and trying to keep up with our daughter. And I don’t really have the time to lend much a hand–what with trying to eat, play with our daughter, connect with my wife, and getting ready for bed. Basically 5 days a week I don’t have any time to contribute to keeping the rest of the rhythms on track. And maybe that’s something I just need to build into my writing rhythms. Either that or I just need to stick with it and count on the resilience to grow as I stay the course.

I do also think that if we weren’t both trying to get up at the same time it would help. If I got up even at 4:30 am I think it would help reduce the impact of both of our alarms going off at 5 am. It might just be enough to make it work.

I suppose the truth is that when I get home from work I need to remain focused on getting to bed. Target 8 pm but tolerate up till 9 pm. Mostly, I just need to get back on the horse. Keep trying. Keep trying. Keep trying. As the saying goes, there is no such thing as failure, only succeed or quit. Since I won’t quit, I will succeed.

The other factor which I think undermined me this particular week was that this was supposed to be the week I wrapped up my story search phase. But when I hit this week, I didn’t feel any closer to knowing the contents of my story. I’ve got a number of the pieces and characters, but not enough to see the whole of the story yet. It’s kind of amazing, but I’ve already written 70,000+ words of story search alone…almost a novel’s length just in story search. That’s also kind of depressing. To have written that much without having yet gotten a grip on the story. But honestly, I’d rather write a shit-ton of words in a loose, free roaming format in search of my story, rather than try to write a shit-ton of cohesive drafts in search of story. I suppose it will become easier and faster the more I do it. I suppose even in story search there is expertise that the masters apply, which I’m still learning. We’ll see.

When I got to this week, after anticipating it for a month, it was pretty depressing to realize that I don’t yet have my story locked down. I still need another couple weeks or a month to get it dialed in, and yes, that frustrates me. But I suppose the point isn’t to hit my milestones, it’s to succeed in each phase of the writing process and successfully write my first then second then third (and so on) books. That’s what matters. Honestly, while I would love to write four books this year, even if I “only” managed to write two it would still be a big accomplishment. I suppose this is why they say that goals can be really ineffective–because you’re never measuring up to them. You’re constantly behind the ball and that’s really hard on morale. That’s why the recommendation is to focus on process, not goals. I suppose if I’d done so, I wouldn’t be feeling like a failure right now. So is there a nice medium? A compromise? Is there a way to adopt a much looser “goal” structure without the judgmental feeling which occurs when you don’t achieve them? A way to make the process king, but still have structure to adhere to? It would be nice to to have an idea when the various phases will be complete…and how many books I’ll write in a year. Otherwise I fear I could spend forever in, say, the story search phase…never quite getting to the point that I felt ready to proceed to the story design phase.

Maybe I need to turn myself over to the process entirely: trust the process. Perhaps I’ll discover that as the story search phase progresses, I’ll find the story I’m telling, and I’ll naturally determine the structural/design elements and transition into the story design phase–until finally I have all the pieces and a complete outline.

Coming up this next week–and beyond–I’ll focus on getting back in the saddle: going to bed early, getting up early, and stop focusing on the goals I had for this year. Instead, I’ll focus on the process, recognizing that it will yield the results I desire inevitably. I’ll also stop trying to identify an end date or point for the story search phase and instead focus on using the story search process to identify the necessary pieces of the story needed for the story design phase–transitioning into it at an organic pace.

 

Never ever share with your wife

Unless she’ll tell you what you want to hear; Unless she immediately sees your genius and raves about every little word that rolls off your tongue; Unless she’s the really honest sort and you’re actually interested in feedback.

I made this, ahem, mistake (Hi, Darling!) when I shared all that stuff that’s been percolating in my head for The Unchosen over the last two weeks of 5 am mornings. She began to get upset. Finally when she could talk about it–it took awhile–she said, and I quote, “I don’t know. I just don’t like where you’re going with the story. It…it turns me off.” Yeah, uber downer. I was crushed. And I sulked. And stewed. I was mad and hurt and frustrated and confused and depressed. But then I realized that in her shoes, I might’ve felt the same way. I gave her highlights without all the filler that I imagined falling between them. The filler that makes everything make sense. That makes it not sound like the crazy babbling of just another weird ass writer. She especially didn’t like my inclusion of, uh, uh, well, rape. It really turned her stomach (as it was intended to) that our precious protagonist gets pulled into the muck and mire of the world, dragged into the dark and shadowy places, and gets raped. The way I imagine it–as someone who has been sexually assaulted (even as a man, yes)–was that it wasn’t (as it never is) her fault, and that it would be this soul-rending moment (as it is) where she feels such deep anger at herself and at the perpetrator and at the world and she hurts and hurts and hurts and she feels deeply ashamed and afraid and embarrassed…and it drives her to act out in other bad ways because she’s hurting so much and is so angry. Anyway, none of that mattered to my wife. She was bothered by the feeling that I was just mining the horribleness of rape for sheer dramatic value. That I wasn’t treating the topic with respect. Her most pointed criticism was that she felt like the story had meandered away from the core that she really liked and found appealing into some Days of Our Lives soap with murder, rape, and all manner of evil deeds going on.

Initially I was, like, hey now. You just don’t understand. I’m building conflict, and–as someone who has been assaulted–I feel like it’s important to not be embarrassed about it, but to open the topic up. If that makes sense. I feel like rape is this big thing in our society which we don’t talk about and yet millions of women and men, boys and girls, are raped every year. Literally MILLIONS. And it becomes this horrible secret which tears them apart–that they feel they have to hide. And yeah, I wanted to build all that into my character, to let it motivate her actions, and hopefully to make her triumph all the greater for overcoming her shame (and it does feel like shame in my experience…somehow, even though you know it’s not your fault, a rape victim often feels like, somehow, it is).

So I steamed and stewed and eventually realized that perhaps my wife was not completely wrong. Maybe, just maybe, she was–again–mostly right. Not that I was going to treat the topic with disrespect, but just that I was getting off the rails and losing sight of the story I wanted to tell. The story I wanted to tell was being subsumed by all the other darker elements I was throwing at all my characters. Yeah, there would have been lots of excellent, and meaningful dramatic conflict that would have motivated the characters to act, but it also wouldn’t be The Unchosen.

The Unchosen is a very theme-oriented book. It is about one girl who–in a society where you have to be Chosen to be anything at all–isn’t. And how she finds her way, her own path, and makes her own choices in spite of the odds set against her. It is also about how even the Chosen–who theoretically have it all, who have been supposedly been Chosen by God and told what they should do with their lives–are unfulfilled, how they have these deep confusing longings for a place they belong which causes them a lot of angst and heartache because they’re not supposed to need to feel that way. After all, they all have God-given missions and callings. They are told exactly what they’re expected to do, and in doing it their immediate needs are taken care of. They have all of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but they are still missing something…something that gnaws at them. Veda (the protagonist) over the course of the series is instrumental in lighting the way through finding it herself.

I realized that I’m struggling to create drama and conflict and tension without the obvious answers: death, rape, murder, drugs, etc. It’s tricky to imbue a story with all the more nuanced threats and fears and engines of conflict. Mostly because I’m having a difficult time thinking of them. But I suppose it may just be a simple matter of asking myself what people–what I–am afraid of. Maybe the answers to that question are the means to infuse conflict and drama without having to reach the easy, and overused, dramatic elements. I aspire to be more nuanced. I do. I’d love to write stories where I never have to kill a character (or otherwise) because I’ve creatively come up with other threats that are even more terrifying to the character–even more motivating.

I don’t have a lot of answers at this point–mostly just musings. I’ve decided that it’s not that it’s not appropriate to have rape in some stories (where appropriate), or killing, or murder, or drugs, or whatever…but just that we writers need to work harder, be more creative, and really come up with creative conflict…conflict which is surprising and unexpected and, in that way, utterly genuine. Think about it. Most of us don’t worry about being raped or murdered on a daily basis. If you do, you should probably relocate or make new friends. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us aren’t frequently subject to our fair share of worry and anxiety though. We worry about losing our loved ones in accidents, or to illness. We worry about getting cancer and dying before we can afford life insurance. We worry about whether we’ll be able to keep our job and earn enough money to keep our kids in clothes and food in their tummies. We worry about whether we’re good enough spouses, lovers, friends… We feel ashamed when our dogs look at is with that judgmental stares that says we haven’t loved on them enough. We worry about our dwindling food supplies, and the wobble in the steering wheel that seems to be getting worse. We worry worry worry. And sometimes we’re right. We get sick. The car breaks down. We run out of food.

In short, even without murder and rape, there’s a lot of conflict in our lives which motivates us. My point for myself–and others–as a writer is that I think my wife was right on two points (even if she didn’t explicitly make them–I read between the lines): 1) stay true to the core of your story (or at least make sure you’re aware if you’re going to start telling a different story, and that you’re okay with doing so), 2) be more creative in terms of thinking of what will challenge your characters. Don’t automatically go for the big guns. Save them for big game–for big moments–and use them sparingly so the reader takes you seriously. It’s like magic. A little magic is, well, magical. Even a moderate amount of magic can work if managed carefully and restrained. But a lot of magic being cast by anyone and everyone is just boring. As they say in The Incredibles, “when everyone is special, no one will be special.”

It’s my bedtime. Seeyah!

Lost in Search of Story

A number of the writing books I’ve read in the course of my “Writerly Education” have directly, or indirectly, recommended approaching the writing of a book through a three stage process: story search, story design, and story drafting. Several of the books I’ve read which have discussed this approach are Outlining Your Novel (K.M. Weiland), Story Physics (Larry Brooks), Writing the Breakout Novel (Donald Maass). The idea is that in the first phase you hold every idea loosely and spill everything that comes to you onto the page. You dash down (as edit free as possible) all snippets of dialogue, scenes, characters, ideas, images, etc. that come to you. You just spill and spill and spill until a story has emerged. In the second phase–story design–you organize everything you came up with (and probably a few new ideas) into a beat sheet, or outline, which contains, at a minimum, the beginning, middle, and end. Ideally it also contains a breakdown of what happens in every scene–a sentence which describes the single narrative goal of the scene. With your blueprints in hand, you then set to work filling in the wholes and filling out your scenes. Once you’ve done so for every scene, you have a book. Then you return and iron out transitions, and all the other stuff that needs to flow together and remain consistent.

I’m currently in the story search phase for my work in progress–The Unchosen. I started it several weeks ago and really put out a ton of material. Pages upon pages of material. And yet, I’m depressed today because I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. I’m still following my process–going to bed by 9 pm and waking up at 5:30 am, but I don’t feel like I’m really making much progress on discovering my story. This is an issue because I don’t yet *have* a story. I still have bits and pieces and good ideas, but not the whole enchilada. What I have doesn’t even make sense thematically yet. I know, I know, the pantsers among you would just tell me to get writing and fix it in a few drafts. Eventually the story will make sense…after an immense amount of effort, complete page 1 rewrites and such. No thanks. I’d rather suffer right now in search of story then suffer through draft after draft. Eventually I’ll figure out what lies within and the story will emerge, and until then I just need to stay the course. As the War of Art would argue, this is probably Resistance trying to get me to back down–get me to blink, quit, settle, give up. My angst could be the vast majority of the problem.

Each morning when I wake up, make my coffee, and sit down to write, I’m wracked by fear. Fear my ideas aren’t good enough, that I don’t have what it takes, that I’m delusional. Out of my mind. Who am I to think that I can be a writer? That I have anything worth saying? Who am I to believe I, too (there *are* others already doing it), make a living as a writer? Who am I to be so ungrateful for a good, stable, corporate job and side-line consulting gig? I should be grateful to have a good job, a good life. Who am I to think I can do better? Underneath it all there’s the fear that I will succeed. That my ideas are excellent. That I will write immensely entertaining, thought provoking books which will sell exceedingly well. And in doing so, I will face expulsion from the tribe…that after a life time of doing my damnedest to fit in, I won’t. I’ll become one of those people living the dream, allegedly blessed by the Gods and specially designated for the life of the Chosen few. Which is kind of ironic in contrast to my first book being called The Unchosen–and being all about these themes of what it means to belong, fit in, to have a place, to be Chosen…and yet how much more meaningful the road can be when we march to our own drum. But even that isn’t quite right. The last part is, but the first part doesn’t quite nail what I’m shooting for. I’m trying to write about the idiocy of it all…how we all want to feel financially stable, and secure, and like we have a place within God’s eyes and on earth…the sense that we are called and Chosen to something greater than ourselves. What’s the common refrain? People wondering what they should do with their lives. They do everything they’re supposed to and still don’t feel satisfied. They feel like it would be nice if someone just told them what they should do. It would be nice if they didn’t have to figure it out. Didn’t have to deal with all the uncertainty and mystery of life. We live lives of work, sleep, eat, TV/movies/sports/etc. but we never truly live. On our death beds that’s when we realize we regret all that we didn’t do, and a lot of what we did–because we recognize the trade-offs. We recognize then that if we would have done less of X and more of Y we would have been happier. But then it’s too late.

So The Unchosen is a story about a society in which people are called by God and Country and Chosen. They are given a life, desires, the whole thing. It doesn’t matter what they want, because they don’t have a choice. They are Chosen for. Told what will make them happy. Told what should make them happy. In that society someone is nothing is they are not Chosen. They have no life. No calling. In the eyes of God and country they are dead. I can’t decide if the society literally kills them–those who are Unchosen–or if their death is more figurative. Like they lose their family, their name, and become Nameless. I feel like death is too often thrown around in books, movies, and television to the extent that it has lost its meaning, its impact. Something more nuanced often seems to provide a lot more power in a story. But on the other hand, at least in this book I’m drawn to blood and death and misery of all kinds. Is it just the beginner in me, reaching for the broadest brush possible? Or is it something more primal about the story itself? Perhaps so. Perhaps I’ll stop worrying about all the death and mayhem I’m tempted to throw around and just dive right in. Perhaps nuance will emerge as I cover the page in broad strokes and move to finer points. But that aside then I’m faced with questions about how they’re Chosen, what the ceremony entails and why, and how does the society police its laws against socializing with the Nameless. Or if they kill them, why? Or is their a combination ceremony where those who are Unchosen may die or may become Nameless depending on the outcome. Some die rather than being Nameless. After all it’s a hairs width of difference between the two. Also, how does the Choosing work? Does it make people automatons? Override all their impulses? Or just specific ones? Does it make someone chosen to be a baker some stereotypical baker? Or does it simply give them baker-ish abilities like heightened sense of smell, taste, and an ability to put ingredients together–but doesn’t make them characteristically any different. I.e., they will still be lazy, or motivated, honest, or dishonest, or a cheat, or a jerk, or whatever. I.e., just having traits that may make them a master baker doesn’t mean that they will all be master bakers because some will keep crappy books, some won’t get out of bed in the morning, some don’t have any social skills. And either way, they still feel (or do they) the unease we all feel when we’re not pursuing our dreams–living for something more than the paycheck, the big house, the perfect family, all the toys, or whatever drives people in First World countries. We pursue a lot of things, but so many things which ultimately don’t make us happy.

Anyway, so that’s a piece of what story search mode is like. It’s hard and scary to wander amidst the jungle, trying to ferret out treasures. But I will continue to splash around until I uncover them. One day at a time. One day at a time.

p.s. I also realized that part of my issue was that my main character has a similar name to my daughter. This makes me loathe to really throw the kitchen sink at her–you know, because I’m protective of her in real life. I initially chose to have things that way because I am writing about a girl who I hope serves as an inspiration to my own little girl, and all the girls out there who read my book. But the problem is that I’m protective of the character even more than usual because of the similarity of the name. I’ve got to find a new name so that I can feel less horrible about the path the character will walk on the series of books beginning with The Unchosen.