Writing success: There are no shortcuts

Let’s repeat that: there are no shortcuts to writing success.

You will often see people recommending that when you want to sell well, you have to copy what the bestsellers do.

Yes, you do, but there is a genuine way and a misguided way to go about it.

Misguided? Well…

Bestsellers have books with lots of reviews, so people will do all sorts of things to get lots of reviews. Make no mistake, it’s not a bad thing to give out copies to your fans to get a few reviews immediately when the book is published. But large-scale review-gathering? What’s the point? The successful books got those reviews because they sold a lot, not the other way around.

Bestsellers may have quotes from reviews in the description. Sure, if you have a quote that looks good, use it, but if you have to put “Amazon reviewer” in your quote, then it looks a bit silly, doesn’t it? Again, those quotes came about because people read the book. If you pay for quotes or reviews (Kirkus!) then you probably end up looking a bit desperate if the book doesn’t sell.

Bestsellers may have (emphasis on may) have made bestseller lists. While publishers have gamed these lists for many years, gaming by self-published writers has reached epic proportions, which is why the NYT bestseller list has combined some categories, making it harder to get on those lists.

But why would you want to, if you haven’t actually written books that have anywhere near earned their place? If readers go to a page of a touted whatever-list-bestselling author and all they can see there are books that don’t look in the slightest like they could have earned that listing, what are they going to think? It just devalues the list, if readers actually took notice in the first place.

So what does matter?

When you look at the pages of successful writers, you will see either of these things:

  • One or two books that sell an insane number of copies a month
  • Lots of books, most of which sell a decent number of copies each month

All of them sell books that people want to read. They get reviews because those readers love the books, and the writers occasionally make lists because people buy the books when they’re on special.

Goosing reviews or bestseller lists is putting the cart before the horse.

Write books first, work on your craft, produce material regularly. The rest will follow by itself. Yes, it’s likely to take a while.

You can toss any amount of money at tricks that will make you look better, but ultimately it is about the books. People are not dumb. Social proof comes about because people read the books, not the other way around. Therefore, make your books the best and spend your energy on doing that.

There are no shortcuts. You can’t buy long-term, viable success.

Sorry, probably not what you wanted to hear.

Writing: writer’s block.

Listening to another podcast by Joanna Penn this morning. I found this one particularly inspiring. Both Joanna and Michaelbrent Collings, who was interviewed in the podcast, appear to have the attitude towards writing and publishing that I happen to share:

When you write a book, this adds to an inventory. It’s that inventory, or creative capital, as I have heard people call it, that earns you a consistent and growing income. It’s not about one bestseller. It’s not about a flash-in-the-pan success (although I wouldn’t say no to it). It’s about having a large backlist for people to buy in a genre that is popular.

Anyway, I also liked his opinion on writer’s block. I’m not even sure what it is supposed to be. I don’t think I have ever had writer’s block.

Is it not knowing what to write? There are solutions for that.

There are days when I work that I don’t add much to the manuscript, but instead I think about how I will move forward with the plot. That’s useful time, even if I don’t put words on the page.

Personally, I am not much for writing crap for the sake of writing, but it works for some to get ideas coming. If I don’t know what to write, I don’t write until I do have an idea what I want with a scene. But the thinking, the planning and the reading are still working on the manuscript.

I also find daily word counts counter-productive, because I tend to start looking at the wordcount rather than at the scenes that need to be written.

I’m a pantser.

I write a scene.
I edit the scene until at least it’s clear to me how it ends and what the characters want in that scene.
Then I think about what is logical for them to do next, with the overall planned story ending in mind.
Then I write the next scene.
I make sure that what the characters are doing makes sense, and I build from that to the next scene.

I guess writer’s block would happen where you lose connection with your characters’ motivations and underpinning aims and you’re just writing by wordcount or by instructions from an outline.

To me, it always helps to go back to why the characters were there and what makes sense for them to do next.

If you do that, you will always know what to write.

Writing advice: what I wish someone would have told me when I started

Starting as a writer can be very bewildering, and books, blogs, workshops and classes are full of advice. It can be really hard to figure out what is important. Here are some things I wished someone had told me in 2005.

1. DO finish your story. If you have no finished story, you have nothing. When you finish it, start another one. DON’T be precious about the first story. Most likely, it’s severely lacking in the genius department. That’s OK. Just finish it. Write another one.

2. DO learn craft and continue learning. Listen to people further up the slippery pole than you are, especially if they’re in a place where you would like to be.

3. DON’T, like, EVER, pay someone to publish your work. Money flows TO THE WRITER, except when you decide it doesn’t, like when you hire an editor for self-publishing, and when the boundaries of their service to you are clear.

4. DO learn “the rules”. Learn why they exist, and what the reason is behind them. Mostly, those reasons fall into two groups: 1. Reader engagement. You want your work to be vivid and pack an emotional punch, 2. Clarity. You want the reader to understand what you’ve written.

5. Then, after having done 4 for a year or so, DO forget about all those rules. Because they’re not rules, they are tools to help new writers understand. “Show, not tell” is about making your writing more vivid. “One POV character per scene” or “No head-hopping” is about clarity. “Don’t use the word ‘that'” is about not stuffing sentences with unnecessary words (except don’t get rid of the word “that” too often. You need it).

6. Having done 4. and 5., DON’T fall down the “must use interesting prose” rabbithole. Seriously, I’m still undoing the damage done to some of my earlier fiction by this BS. If someone remarks on your use of the word “was” or “that” or “something” or “and”, signs are that you’re probably doing something that’s repetitive. But getting rid of all of these offending terms does not make your writing as dynamic and varied as getting rid of half of them. This should be the most easy half. When you need to twist a sentence around to make it more “interesting”, you’ve lost the plot, and probably a good number of readers.

7. Talking about plot, DO learn about plot and character. This is MUCH more important than micro-editing your prose. Do I need to shout how much more important this is?

8. DO declare a work finished (even if you decide it’s no good) and move on. DON’T dwell on a single story. At this point, your career will be much better served by your writing another story.

9. DON’T shit on other writers, no matter how famous. Yup, Fifty Shades wasn’t my cuppa, nor was the Da Vinci Code, but those writers did something right. If you’re interested in learning, find out what it is, and stop whinging about their terrible prose. If anything, there is the proof that prose really doesn’t matter one iota as long as people can understand what’s being said. Besides, whinging makes you look like a dick.

10. DON’T take advice from someone who has a financial interest in the subject matter of their advice. Or at least don’t do so without extensive checking of that advice.

11. DO connect with other writers. Who you know is important. No, not for schmoozing, but for networking and finding out about opportunities. It is extremely unlikely that you will live close to any genre writers who are at the same career stage as you. You meet them online. This is what social media is for, and it can be very beneficial and very important.