Tag Archives: writer’s block

A blueprint for becoming a well-paid, respected fiction author

No, really.

You might not like some parts of it, but it would work. It would also, if I were a participant, make me less money–just in case one is tempted to imagine that this is a purely self-promotional notion.

It also involves marketing. Yes, marketing is icky and you hate it. I get it. It is also what separates the moneymaking writer, even if mediocre, from the impoverished writer even if superb. You either embrace marketing and decide to do it, or you pay to work rather than being paid to work.

If you’re still interested, you at least asked, “What marketing would that be?” That’s a start.

First: learn to write and tell a story. Do this by writing a short story, say 5K words, and hiring a competent editor for at least one developmental edit. Might need more than one. The logic here is that if you hire the right person, you basically get an intensive writing class. You would also get that if you wrote novellas or novels, the difference being that this will achieve it cheaper and faster. You will overcome all the tyro mistakes: stop using italics as substitutes for good writing, learn differences between dialogue and narrative, get over your adverbs and ellipses and em dashes.

Once your short story doesn’t suck, publish it on Amazon as a free giveaway. Yes. Free. No, I am not joking, and no, I am not nuts. If you can’t make it free, charge the minimum, which I think is $0.99. The idea here is to build up a following. Your first five short stories should be free. Keep writing them. Continue to engage editing support as needed, but your editor will cost you far less because s/he will have less mechanical stuff to do and will have moved you on to more advanced thinking as you shape your storytelling abilities.

You want reviews and people interested in more from you. You are building up your promotional base while making sure that you don’t charge people much for your earlier, less polished efforts. You are getting reviews, one hopes, feedback as to what readers like and dislike. You can compare public opinion to your editor’s impressions, ask for guidance relative to them. That’s part of what we do, evaluate review comments for validity or bogusness (bogosity?).

After you’ve got five up there that you are willing to make free as often as possible, start charging $0.99 for those going forward. Your base will take chances on you, because most people do not recognize $0.99 as actual money. It’s about the price of their coke with fast food. They will gladly pay that for a lunch read by an author they know they like. Word will spread. You will start to earn. You might not yet be breaking even, but neither will you just be pouring money down a sinkhole.

What you are doing here is creating a pool of passive income and marketing that keeps working for you after you have already paid for it, like rent-free billboards with your name on them. By using short stories, you are doing this as cheaply as possible. Editing and proofreading cost less. They do add up over the course of about twenty-five short stories, but each is a spend-once-benefit-longtime cost. If you think you are pretty badass, you can always try releasing a story without editing guidance and see how it’s received.

Yeah. I just told you it was okay to try skipping hiring an editor. If you have started to believe that you are special, and you want to test your theory, just try it without one and see how the reviews are. Do I think you should do this? Fundamentally, no; but if you are starting to ask yourself whether you want to keep spending that money, this is the only way you will obtain an answer you can believe. If it doesn’t seem to matter, then at least you’ll make informed choices. If it gets lousy reviews and people wonder what the hell went wrong with you, then you’ll have a metric for what good the editor was doing you.

Once you’ve got a couple dozen shorts out there that people can use for discoverability, come up with a novella. Maybe it’s based upon situations and characters that the readers liked; by now you have ample feedback on that. Have a developmental edit on the novella, because the issues facing longer work differ from shorter work, and you now need to learn these. It will be far, far less expensive than if you’d just busted out a debut novel and had to go back and forth three times while your editor taught you to get rid of passive voice and write decent dialogue.

If you stall out, and think that you have “writer’s block,” you’re incorrect because there is no such thing. If you are tired of writing, tell yourself the truth. If you just need a break, tell yourself the truth. If you can’t figure out what to write, tell yourself the truth. Deep down, you either do or do not want to keep doing this. If you don’t want to, stop; it was worth a try. If you want to continue, write something, anything, every day. Write naughty limericks, journal, send letters to the newspaper editor, do a blog, even write about how old this is getting. Doesn’t matter. People who want to and have the time and means to write are writing; people who do not want to write are not. Right now I want to write this blog post. Never, ever externalize your desire to write and assign it to the completely invented, non-recognized, self-sabotaging syndrome/disorder/dysfunction that goes by W.B.

So don’t give your novella away free, but don’t make it too spendy. Most of your readers, being readers, can do a little thumbnail math. If it’s 35K, and you charge a buck for short stories averaging about 5K, and you hit them up for $4.99 for it, that won’t seem unfair. Its audience will overlap with that of your short stories, but not completely; you may want to have occasional giveaway weekends if Amazon will let you. Depends how it’s doing. The idea is to leverage your past following to break into a different market segment.

If you want to do full-length novels, make a similar step up from novellas as you did from stort stories.

While you are doing all of this, build a marketing plan. Yes. The first conversation I have with most prospective clients goes this way:

“So. Is it a vanity book or a commercial book?”

“Oh, it’s definitely commercial. Absolutely. It is many adverbs commercial.”

“Great. What’s your marketing plan?”

“What do you mean, ‘marketing plan’?”

“That’s what makes it commercial. A ms without a marketing plan is a vanity project–and that’s not a putdown. Vanity projects are just fine and I am happy to help with them. I run off half my prospective customers just by being honest with them about how this world really works. I would rather do that than take money under deceptive pretenses. You can surely find someone desperate enough to resort to deceptive flattery, but that’s not me. So: you don’t have a marketing plan, and right now it’s a vanity project. But if you develop a marketing plan, you will have a method in mind to get your money back and then some. Either way, that’s my first guidance to you: examine your goals and be honest with yourself about them.”

Any whom that approach sends fleeing for an editor who “believes in my work” or otherwise makes them feel warm and fuzzy, did the right thing. If they aren’t comfortable with blunt honesty even when it acts against its own financial interests, they aren’t the clients I want. If I’m going to make less money out of principle, I damn sure want to like my work and feel good about my clients.

At any rate, if you spent that year or two developing and executing and refining a marketing plan, you should have significant residual income coming in from the shorts. With a little luck, some of them will have broken even or better, and their income streams might help you fund editing, covers, etc. for future work.

Now and then it might make sense for you to put out a new short story even if you’ve mostly gone to longer works. Might even make it a new freebie, depending on your marketing plan. There is even the outside, bizarre, fantastic possibility you might have made your peace with marketing by now, even if it is the same sort of peace you have made with your toothbrush: “I either do this, or I have really bad dental days.” Believe me, that’s about as far as I have gotten with it.

So. Easy? No. Workable? More than ever before. Requires time and money? Yes, somewhat, but if I could imagine a quicker and cheaper method, I would be recommending that.

TWYHAE (That’s why you have an editor)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Aspiring writer transforms into actual writer by authoring partial ms. This happens in fits and starts, with numerous backtracks to rethink, proofread, self-edit, and self-doubt. Eventually:

  • loses motivation
  • ascribes loss of motivation to mythical ailment called “writer’s block”
  • joins writers’ group in order to overcome mythical ailment
  • finds that entire group has also elected to blame loss of motivation on mythical ailment
  • realizes that no one in group has any solution for this
  • gets sick of attempting to critique screenplays, so-called “young adult” (kid) lit, and elfy/dwarfy/vampy/wolfy urban paranormal without collapsing in apathy
  • realizes also that writers’ group is mainly an emotional support group
  • fades away from writers’ group
  • lets ms sit for months or years
  • realizes one should one day return to ms
  • dreads returning to ms
  • castigates oneself for not completing ms
  • sits down and reads existing ms
  • overwhelmed with despair and futility, bawls
  • tries to think how to fix all the problems
  • bawls some more
  • says screw this and bakes cookies, or pounds nails, whatever s/he finds cathartic

Is this a hobby or avocation, or is this autoneurosis?

If one does not have an editor–and I mean a true advisor, sounding board, guide, and helper, rather than the glorified fascist proofreader that many writers imagine all editors to be–I can understand this. If you’re in it alone, you wander alone in the wilderness. If you find a way out, great; many do not.

If one does have an editor, the real deal, one has a solution to nearly ever failure point on that list: TWIHAE. One says to oneself: “That’s why I have an editor.” One either continues to create, confident that any problems will be resolved later with assistance, or one contacts said editor for help getting past the sticking point.

I’ve written a ms of my own; I’ve had my writing published. I understand compulsive self-editing that leaves the first third of the book rather refined and the last two-thirds fairly raw. I understand halting halfway through and saying to myself: “This is such crap. No way would anyone pay for this.” I understand trying writers’ groups. The only part I don’t understand, except from an academic standpoint, is writer’s block. I truly don’t understand lying to oneself. Sometimes one doesn’t want to write, or life means one can’t. There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

There is no such thing as writer’s block.

Everyone who has the time and physical means to write, does so. Everyone else doesn’t want to write that badly, or they would be doing it, even if it was to write a lament on how painful it is to have this writer’s block thing, and how convenient it is to have an imaginary condition to help avoid facing facts.

But that’s one reason why you have an editor: to give you another take on facts. The main reason is to allow you to create. To create, rather than backtrack over and over; get hung up on plot points; feel overwhelmed; rush back to rethink Chapter 1; have other crises that mean you don’t write.

If you have an editor, when you notice your first craterous plot hole, you give it some thought for the afternoon. If you still don’t solve it, you either contact your editor, or you drop a reminder comment in the margin and move on. That’s why you have an editor. If you have an editor, when you find yourself tempted to go back and smooth all your prose, you realize that someone else will help you with that and there is no point messing with it now; you say TWIHAE, and you move on. You return to creating. Your back is had.

And if you feel temptation to smoke the opium of blaming lack of motivation on a mythical ailment, seeking to take comfort in the community of futility, you have an editor to cut through all that self-defeating baloney.

Not that having an editor can help everyone past everything. Some people’s emotional and life issues overwhelm them. That isn’t writer’s block (because that’s non-existent), that’s life happening. All one needs to do is admit that one is overwhelmed by issues that impair one’s ability to focus and create. There are some people who can’t write because the potential trauma of feedback has them in paralysis, and who may have past issues to process. (An editor is not a suitable stand-in for a qualified professional therapist, for example.) And there are writers who grow so proud of their flaws, or who are so emotionally needy, that an editor will recognize them as setups to failure.

We can’t help everyone. And that’s okay, because one of the pervasive parrotings of our time is “everyone deserves…” followed by some benefit or fundamental. It’s one of those Bullshits One Is Not Supposed To Call Out As Bullshits. Not everyone deserves help with writing, and it makes no sense to think so. Not everyone is cut out for any given activity. I’m not cut out for parenting, acting, basketball, veganism, teaching special ed, renovating crawl spaces, or any number of other things at which I am or would be incompetent. Writing is no different. Heretical truth: some people shouldn’t. It’s worth trying, we try and fail at some things. Some we try, fail at, and return to later on in light of new wisdom. Writing isn’t an exception to the list of Stuff Not Everyone Can Do.

But if you can, and you find yourself continually sidetracked by self-doubt and self-editing and self-questioning, an editor can be your guide out of the wilderness.

That’s why people have us.

I don’t believe in ‘writer’s block’

Honestly.  I do not believe in it, and I believe giving it a name makes it a bugaboo, like a syndrome or disorder that comes to be the attribution for counterproductive behaviors.  “Why I can’t I write? Augh!  I have ‘writer’s block!'”

If you truly want to write, you will.  About something, anything.  Why am I currently writing this blog entry? Because I want to write.  When I am not writing, it’s because I am doing something I want or need to do other than writing.  Might be mowing the yard, might be playing Alpha Centauri, might be watching Looney Tunes DVDs, might be making something to eat.  Right now I want to write, and I’m doing so.

“But what do you do when you sit down to write and nothing comes?” I so often hear.  Well, here’s the usual dialogue:

“Here’s what I do.  I go to my filing cabinet.”

“Your filing cabinet? Is that where you keep your file of ideas?”

“No, it’s where I keep my file copies of contracts.  I pull out the most recent one and skip down to the part where the para begins ‘You will write…’  I read that paragraph carefully, as it delineates what I agreed to do.  Then I skip down to the paragraph that says ‘You will be compensated…’  I take careful note of the parts that point out, in short, that if I don’t do my work I won’t get paid, and if it sucks, I also won’t get paid.”

“And how the hell does that help you feel inspired to write?”

“It doesn’t help me feel inspired.  Inspiration is for creating art, and my writing is my job, not my art.  It does help me feel motivated.  As in, ‘you better sit your butt down there and get it done.’  I rarely even need this, because I like to write.  Nearly all the time when I have work to do, I like it and want to do it.  And when I don’t, tough; it’s a job.  I accepted it.  Time to knock it out, get ‘er done.”

“Okay, fine, but I’m working on my science fiction novel and I don’t have any contract at all to read, and I’m not getting paid any time soon.  I’m stuck!  How do I get unstuck?”

This part is hard.  “If you can’t figure out where to take your story, you need to do some thinking.  But if you know where you want it to go, and can’t put it on paper, then you don’t want to write badly enough right then.  If you did, you’d just start writing whatever part of it you thought of first, and fix it later.”

“Uh…but….” They taper off into silence.  I just dropped a bomb.  I said the thing you can’t say.  I may just have blown their supposed ‘writer’s block’ to gravel (I was certainly trying my level best), but it’ll take time to process that.  I just challenged their basic desire to write, the unchallengeable.  They look at me like I’m the kind of cold S.O.B. that just isn’t supposed to exist in the “Oh, for a muse…” world of Writer’s Digest.  Well, yeah.  I’m a freelancer, a literary mercenary.  If you want feelgood advice that will reinforce all your existing perceptions, I’m the worst person to ask.  However, I don’t get jollies from the fact of jolting eager psyches, so I soften it…

“It’s true.  If you think about it, you aren’t sure where to start with what you want to say, and you don’t want to redo it all later.  Sorry, more bad news:  you will anyway, so just embrace that.  Start with something, anything, even if you have to throw 90% of it away later.  Any writing at all is progress, and not writing is zero progress.  If you clearly understood and absorbed this, you will now desire to go immediately to your computer and begin banging keys.”

“(various confused and noncommittal responses)”

Now, none of this bothers me.  I’m used to it, it’s part of what I do, like a hardware store owner being asked by his brother-in-law about caulking.  Only two things bother me:

  • Arguing with me, trying to tell me how wrong I am.  Maybe I am, but you aren’t paying me for this advice, so if you don’t like it, or find it an annoyance, debating me is useless to you.  You gain nothing except that you can be sure that you’ll never have to worry about getting free advice from me again.  Do I mind healthy disagreement? Not at all–but something I am doing is working, so what I say can’t be too totally incredible.  And if what someone is doing is not working, then where is the knowledge basis for debating me? This blog began purely because my favorite author gave me some stern, kind, wise advice:  “You must start a blog.  People who like your writing want more of it, often, and you need to learn to think in terms of giving it to them.  They want to know the mundane stuff you can’t imagine anyone would care about.  You must have your own domain.  You must learn to present yourself in your profession.”  Did I argue with her? Hell’s bells, no.  I went and did it, within two days.
  • Ignoring what I said, and continuing to seek approval for the dysfunctional methods they’re currently using.  If you wanted to know, why did you just ignore everything I said? Surely you can understand that if I think you’re doing it wrong, I gain no happiness from having to break that to you.  It’s a service.  Freely given, but please think of what it’s like to be simply ignored and have the same thing thrown back at you.  It feels ineffectual for me.  It makes me want to stop.  I don’t fundamentally want to stop.  I like to help people.  I hope what I say will help them write more productively and happily.  If I’m not perceived as an authority, why ever ask me?

This has wandered afield from the topic a bit, I acknowledge, but it does all pertain (if tangentially) to the busting of this mythical ‘writer’s block.’  If you stopped believing in the concept, and started writing–something–anything–even a piece on abuse of the em dash, like someone on Salon recently did–the concept would go away.  Bang out 300 words about how frustrated you are.  Describe your beer can opener.  Rhapsodize about five hairs on your arm.  Write a scathing rebuttal to this, telling me I’m full of baloney.  You will be writing.  That’s the idea, is it not?

Writers want to write.  Non-writers want to talk about how cool it would be to write, or why they can’t write.

And if writers know they should blog, and have no idea at all what to write about some night, you can see what happens.