Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Problem of Writers Writing About Writing to Get Readers

Oh, man, guys. Bookshelfbattle just put it perfectly.

Sometimes with all of the blogging, twittering, and social media-ing, I just wonder if all writers are doing are talking to other writers. It’s like we’re all door-to-door salesmen, knocking on a door, “Wanna buy my book?” And the person answers, “No, but do YOU wanna buy MY book?” [link]

This made me so happy! It’s exactly right, with a brilliant mental image thrown in. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially as I’m getting into blogging properly for the first time in a while. I’m already slipping into writing as a writer for writers to attract writers to my writing blog so they’ll read… my… stories? Well, that’s no good.

My real goal is to find a huge band of brilliant friends and fans who love reading what I write and talking about things I’m into and doing cool stuff to make the world a better place. So I start writing about whatever I’m currently obsessed with to draw the people that will align with it. And I’m obsessed with writing, self-publishing, generous marketing, etc. And other stuff, but it’s taking a strange degree and style of discipline to get into other headspaces in the context of blogging.

So I end up writing a blog for writers rather than readers. Which might work out, because writers are mostly thinking people who love great stories and read a ton, so that’s cool. But even so I’m engaging them as writers trying to get better at writing, not as readers looking for a good story.

So then I figure I need to be writing stuff my (potential and actual) readers would enjoy. Not content about creating content. Just…you know, content. Except I write novels, and that’s not great in blog format. So I can write supporting bonus materials and behind-the-scenes stuff.

Tricky bit there is that only a few dozen people are familiar with my work at the moment, so if I give excerpts, backstories, fun tidbits about the story world, character profiles, and that sort of thing, nobody will know what I’m talking about, and if I talk about other stuff it’s a different form of the original problem. I’m just talking to game-lovers about games or communal people about living in community or spiritual people about our invisible friends, and I can occasionally tack on a mention of my books and people might read them, but it’s still not really engaging with readers as readers.

I’m still figuring this out. The easy first steps are to be very generous and to actively be a reader, not just a writer. At minimum this opens up a dicey little quid-pro-quo with you other aspiring writers where I’ll try out your story and read/buy/love/recommend it if I like it, and maybe in a few cases you’ll try mine out too. But I don’t really enjoy that arrangement. Setting aside the fairly low readership numbers it’s likely to garner, it also just feels a little fakey and weird. I love reading peoples’ stories, but I don’t want it to be so they’ll read mine and I don’t want to feel pressure to respond a certain way because I want them to like me and I don’t want them to feel obligations and all. At best, it’s a strange and roundabout way to find one of the aforementioned brilliant friends.

More fundamentally, I want to get better at providing all kinds of cool things that I like and that my aforementioned brilliant friends would like. Sometimes writing, sometimes game design, sometimes kerning or sea monsters or metaphysics. And sometimes my actual stories, either bonus materials or just actual chunks of story. And sometimes exciting announcements that the next book is out or that I have a cool bundle of fun available. (Speaking of which…)

What’s scary about that is it means constantly re-breaking the mold. I’m theoretically all for losing readers rather than redirecting my writing to cater to a perceived audience’s perceived expectations. But already, a few posts in, I find myself hesitant to write posts that are much shorter or longer than what I have, or in a different format, or about a different kind of thing, because I’m already finding really cool people who like what I write about writing, and if I write about sea monsters maybe it will break the spell and you’ll all leave. (Which is irrational, of course, because who doesn’t love sea monsters?)

So all that to say, this blog isn’t going to just be writing tips. Might be a little while before I get it out of my system because the art and business of writing are what I think about for dozens of hours a week. But there might also be tea and mythical beasts at some point. Some of you find that exciting, not disappointing, and I’m really, really excited that you’re here.

Thank you, bookshelfbattle. Really great phrasing of an important situation. Everyone else, do you want to buy bookshelfbattle’s book? I think you should buy bookshelfbattle’s book. (Bookshelfbattle, do you have a book? Blast. Should have thought this through.)

But seriously, at least check out the blog. I’m enjoying it a ton. Finally someone who’s putting out engaging ideas for discussion, not just writing writing tips for writers writing for writers.

Cheers!
—Ben

Non-Evil Marketing for Authors

I sense a deep tension in many of the writers I talk with, particularly those who aspire to make a living from their writing. You may be one of them.

Perhaps the idea of marketing your work seems distasteful, maybe even unethical. It’s not that you’re afraid of hard work or shy about telling people about your stories. It goes deeper than that. Marketing feels inherently un-artistic, maybe even anti-artistic. It’s like once you take the dive into marketing strategies and “building your author platform” and (ick) “growing your personal brand,” you’re going to shrivel into a soulless SEO linkbaiter and everything will be ruined forever.

I have a different way of looking at marketing, and it has pretty much changed my life. It has made me more generous, more excited, and more sincere. It gives me a filter for when and how and where to spread the word about my stories, so that I can get great readers without just being an annoying self-promoter. Best of all, it has aligned my goals so that I can throw all of my energy unhesitantly in one direction rather than feeling like I have to flip-flop between doing the good work of writing my stories and making the necessary compromise of marketing them.

From now on, when I say ‘marketing,’ I mean telling people a thing exists or helping them get it more easily or cheaply. (I think I may have stolen this from Write. Publish. Repeat. Maybe not. Either way, I recommend it.)

This gets really cool really fast. Here are three of my favorite angles on it.

No Tricking People

You’ll notice one part I left out of my marketing definition: making people think they want or need something. I think this is the heart of why so much traditional advertising feels so soulless. It’s intentionally planting dissatisfaction in people so that they’ll buy something they don’t need so that other people make money.

My job is to find the people who do want or would want my stories and get the word out to them.

Create and Spread Real Value

So if we’re not tricking people into wanting it, it has to be something genuinely valuable to them. (For the record, that also means valuable enough to make it worth paying what’s being asked.) This is the part that helps me align my energy, effort, and enthusiasm. If my book is going to make peoples’ lives better, it’s worth helping them get their hands on it. If it’s valuable to some people but not to others, I’ll tell the some but not bother the others. If it’s not going to make peoples’ lives better, I shouldn’t be writing it in the first place, much less marketing it.

This all seems simple in retrospect, but it’s been absolutely revolutionary for me. If I genuinely believe my stories are great and will make peoples’ lives better—and I do—I have permission to be truly enthusiastic about marketing my stories to them. You could even argue I have a duty to spread the word. If I have something that would make peoples’ lives better and I don’t exert my full energy, intelligence, and persistence in getting it to them, I’m not living as I should.

Generous Marketing

Now here’s where it gets especially cool. If someone would genuinely enjoy my stories, telling her they exist is doing her a favor. If my story will make her life better, helping her get it is a generous act.

Think about the books that have changed your life, that you’ve gone back to over and over. What if nobody had ever told you about them? Sad, right? But you did hear about it. Does it matter whether it was a friend or the author or a library sale that first drew your attention to it? Not at all. It’s not being creepy to help someone find or get something they’ll love.

So that’s it. Make sure you’re creating something valuable, find the people whose lives it would improve, and help them get their hands on it.

In that vein, I’d like to offer you a gift. The Dream World Collective is a novel about chasing what you love. It’s quirky and geeky and silly and sweet, and I think a lot of you will love it. It’s due for publication later this year, but in the meantime I’d like to give it to you for free. I’m pre-releasing it in sections as I work through the final edits.

1. Click here to download the first section. I’ll keep posting more at bit.ly/latestdwc.

2. I’d love your help getting the word out. Details here.

3. If you’re not into it, no worries. I’m grateful you read this far and I wish you all the best.

Cheers!

—Ben

Measuring Success as an Indie Author

Figuring out when you’ve “made it” as an author can be tricky. Perhaps the easiest measure of success is signing a publishing deal, though in reality that’s far from indicating any lasting literary or financial success. Still, it’s a convenient benchmark.

Unless you have no interest in getting a traditional publishing deal. My goal is to make a full-time living as an author, and, in broad strokes, I’m convinced self-publishing is the best route for that. So I don’t have the convenience of a literary establishment to give legitimacy to my work.

So maybe it’s about sales numbers. But what’s enough? 100 sales per month? 1,000? 10,000? It feels totally arbitrary. There’s always going to be someone selling more than you, and as soon as you’ve sold any books at all you’re in a pretty high percentile among aspiring authors. And there’s such a smooth gradation in between that I don’t think I’d be satisfied by reaching any particular number; it would just be time to bump the number up and start again.

Same goes for income. I do have a specific target income in mind that would allow me to quit my day job and write full time, but even there, how long do I need to sustain that income before it’s justified to make the leap? And who says that means I’ve made it? If I give in and write crappy 30,000-word self-help books with SEO’d titles that will sell like hotcakes and get me there faster have I really won at writing?

Is it enough for my family to barely scrape by on my writing income, or do we have to be marginally comfortable and secure before I’m really successful? Or do I need to be able to buy nice things or rent an office or something? Past a certain point, income is just another number. No, my financial goal just marks when I get to go full-time, not whether I’m succeeding as a writer.

In the end, I have settled on two measures of success. To measure my success as a writer, I always turn back to this:

1. Am I crafting worthwhile stories and ideas that only I can put into the world?

2. Did I substantially add to my word count today?

“A game of incredible speed and periodic violence”

I have a puzzle for you.

Or rather, I have a puzzle for myself, and I’m hoping to find the sort of people that can help me. You might be one of them. Ideally you’re smart, silly, and into card games. (If you’re just here for the writing tips, I respectfully direct you to this recent gem.)

So here’s the thing. In The Dream World Collective, I got a glimpse of the characters playing a game called Ickleback. It’s just a fleeting glimpse, but the game looks really fun and I want to play it, which means I need to invent it, and I want your ideas. For starters, here’s the entire canonical reference to Ickleback:

“I’m feeling like a breakfast contest,” said Zen suddenly, looking up from his book. “Anyone interested in a breakfast contest? A breakfast-off, if you will.”

The five housemates were gathered in the sitting room, ensconced in a variety of blankets, quilts, and fleeces. Summer was absorbed in a battered paperback and Alex was making his way though the newspaper, occasionally giving it a shake as he turned the page. Otto and Sushi were fiercely engaged in a card game that seemed to require incredible speed and periodic violence.

“I already had breakfast,” Alex checked the time. “Three hours ago.”

“A brunch-off, then,” Zen corrected himself.

“No,” Sushi shook her head briskly and slapped a card onto a pile. “That doesn’t have the same ring. It’s a breakfast-off.” In a blur of motion, Otto rapidly slapped a series of cards onto different piles and then poked Sushi.

“Ickleback!” he cried. “That makes three gambits. I win by means of ickle.”

“Hey!” Sushi poked him back.

“That’s a false ickle,” gloated Otto. He rummaged through the deck for the queen of clubs. “I choose the Termite Queen.”

“Game’s over, dork. Come on, we’re Team Dachshund in the breakfast-off. What’s your team name?” She looked pointedly at Summer and Alex.

“Who said we’re on a team together?” asked Summer, a touch of panic in her eyes.

I’m picturing a game that requires very quick thinking, quick reflexes, and precision of language, in the vein of Egyptian Ratscrew or Dutch Blitz, with a bit of Silent Football thrown in.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Four suits: Termites (Clubs), Onions (Spades), Speckles (Diamonds), and Pecks (Hearts)
  • Jacks are called Pickpockets, threes are called Pickles, aces are called Pips. Cards are named by suit then rank, e.g. the Peck Eight, the Termite Queen, the Speckle Pickle, the Onion Pip.
    • Advanced players may require any/all of the following names (Ace to King): Pip, Pair, Pickle, Court, Cross, Hex, Prickle, Cot, Mews, Deckle, Pickpocket, Quintessence, Pendragon

There’s more, but I’ve realized this is one of those things that gets really boring really fast in text format. There’s nothing quite as disheartening as sitting and reading the detailed rules of a game that’s hilarious and action-packed in real life.

Let’s just say my prototype has thrones, gambles, quarks, and gambits; you can ickle (poke) or spackle (slap) your opponents; you have to declare what you’re doing and if you say it wrong there are penalties; and there are multiple paths to victory but you can’t take them all. And it’s looking like there’s room for some pretty sneaky treacheries.

It’s Friday, and Fridays should be fun, so I’ll leave you with silly mental images instead of rules. Imagine a living room where friends, amid a flurry of card slaps, are shouting things like:

“Speckle Pickle Quint Quark!”

<slap> “Spackleback!”

“False spackleback – I choose the Peck Pickpocket.”

“Onion Odd Flush Quark!”

“The Throne of Four reigns! Long live the Onion King!”

If you have ideas about dynamics that could make a game like this fun, let me know in the comments. And if you really want more of the (as yet untested and unconfirmed) rules, just say the word.

If you’d like to read more of the story, here’s a free download to get you started.

Happy Friday, everyone!

—Ben

Writing in Bursts: Quick Progress for Busy Writers

I’m starting to enjoy a new writing strategy: writing in three-minute bursts. Three minutes feels like almost nothing, so it’s completely non-threatening and makes no real disruption to your day. Once you’ve done a handful of them, though, the word count starts building up. If you don’t have large patches of free time to give to your writing, this is one way to keep making progress each day.

I use the Session Target tool in Scrivener to make this even more fun and productive. Session Target is a progress bar that fills as you approach a word count target you get to set. I set it for my three-minute word count record and see if I can beat it in the next burst.

[Edit: Bursts also pair well with this new motivational tool I made for myself: Writing Mission Generator]

Yesterday I peaked at 157 words on my second burst, which is pretty crazy. My usual rate for composing new prose is 10-25 words per minute, so I doubled the high end. I never quite reached that rate again over several more bursts, but it pushed me hard and several bursts hit 120 words or more. Best of all, the quality was comparable to what I usually create.

Short version: I wrote over 1,500 words yesterday without setting aside any major writing time.

Your numbers may be higher or lower than mine; that’s not really the point. A page a day is a book a year. A page is 250-350 words. Even if you only manage 30 or 40 words per burst, that’s 6 or 8 bursts. Three-minute bursts.

You can do one instead of checking Facebook one time. You can do one while you wait for your Pop-Tarts to pop or your tea to brew. Shave 3 minutes off each break you take. Squeeze in a burst between phone calls. Three minutes is nothing. There’s three-minutes-es all over the place. And if you’re pushing yourself to go faster with each one, you’ll be pushing your upper limit. It’s not hard to sustain ridiculous speed for a measly three minutes.

Two things to bear in mind:

1. For this method to work, it needs to be frictionless. Have your writing up with the cursor in the right place, ready to pick back up immediately. Have a three-minute timer easily accessible. I like e.ggtimer.com/3min. Have some idea what’s next in the story; using your first burst to quickly sketch out what you’ll write today may be a good plan if you’re having trouble with this. And being a fast typist is a big help.

2. This method is for busy writers who don’t have the time (or, as the case may be, discipline) to set aside large chunks of writing time. If there’s any way you can manage uninterrupted chunks of an hour or more, do that instead. You’ll build writing momentum and have less overhead to deal with in the form of remembering where you left off and getting your head in the right space.

If you really want to supercharge your writing, I highly recommend Rachel Aaron’s incredible post, How I Went from Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day. Part of her strategy is to set aside longer chunks of time for writing. If you want to dig deeper into her method, she’s expanded it into a book as well: 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron.

That said, if you’re not free to go write for hours in a coffee shop, three-minute bursts will keep you limber and, more importantly, keep your word count rising. Making writing bursts a regular habit will also help reduce friction in your writing overall. The more I scatter quick bursts of writing through my day, the more I find myself able to pick up and make useful progress on a moment’s notice, which is an incredibly useful skill for a writer with a busy life.

I also find that it seeds my thinking. The quick dips back into the world of my story leave me attuned to the next story decision, the next scene or moment or action. My brain works on it in the background because it knows that any moment it may need to dive back in and produce at breakneck speed for a few minutes.

Best of all, it’s really fun. It adds a bit of excitement and challenge to my day, and it feels awesome to recapture bits of time I would have just been spacing out or transitioning between activities and turning those useless moments into cold, hard word count.

If you try this out I’d love to hear how it worked for you. Any similar writing strategies you’ve used in the past? Drop me a comment below and let me know.

Cheers!

—Ben

A Writer’s Credo

I really don’t want to write today. I’m doing everything I can to avoid it. If I were a hobbyist or an amateur that would be fine, but I am not, so I am going to take a few moments to restore my vision and put the fire back in myself, and then I am going to write. I hope this helps you too.

1. I write kick-ass stories. I make worlds of wonder and delight, with crooked, clever, funny little people and unexpected alleys and mechanisms that inspire the real world to become better. Every word I write is worth it because every word gets me closer to the revelation of a beautiful, fascinating world full of life and growth and beauty and brilliance. Each of those worlds can make many lives better.

2. I write because I care about the craft. If I want my story to be perfect, the solution is to write faster and truer, not to hold back and slow down. Word count is my raw material. A high-intensity distillation takes a high quantity of raw materials. As a writer, I have the luxury of freely creating as much material as I need. All it takes is time and will.

3. I write because stories last. Once my story is done it can spread to countless people around the world over many generations. Once the quality is there, my story can do what it does for as many people as find it. Every hour I put in now has the potential to multiply its impact by the thousands.

4. Writing is fun. I get to write what I want, the way I want, because it’s what I enjoy. Nobody is telling me what tone I have to use or what content to cover or making me fit in links or keywords. I can run free and go wild. I can try new things, hide in-jokes, build worlds, tweak societies, create new customs and creatures, and send my people into hilarious and gripping and heart-warming moments, exactly however I want to. Yes, the story builds its own constraints, but even that is just the manifestation of the world I’ve chosen to work and play in.

5. I write because ideas are important. I don’t rehash dead plots and I don’t ask questions just to preach an answer I already know. Stories are the best and richest way to deeply explore the questions that cut deep into me, to test out the theories I’m not brave enough to speak in real life, to build whole worlds that work on beautiful or interesting principles and play them out to the end. My stories are laboratories where I can experiment with all kinds of what-ifs, where person doesn’t have to mean human and moving doesn’t have to mean living and magic can be part of science and definitions can visibly matter to practical life and decisions. There is nowhere else in my life that I have total freedom to ask the deep questions and trace the answers out wherever they may go.

6. I write because I care about people. I don’t know why I get to have such a good life when so many people are so sad and alone and afraid, but I have this one chance to write stories that will lead people into worlds that show that a different life is possible. It’s not just about escapism and it’s not just about distracting people from their troubles for a little while. It’s about realigning our views of how the world should work and how the world can work. It’s about helping people care about people again and spreading great ideas about things worth trying and cracking open the possibility that even the real world is different than you thought it was. A good story sends ripples into the real world. It’s not just a dream; it’s a warcry.

7. I write hard because I only have this lifetime to get my stories out into this world. This time next year I’ll wish I’d written twice as much today as I did. Five years out I’ll either still be dithering with a novel draft or I’ll have lots of stories in the world and lots of people finding them and real momentum on the next ones. Decades from now I’ll regret all the times I spent surfing the web and frittering time instead of writing more words. Better a poor showing and a few dozen words than a failure to even show up.

8. I write fast because it’s a rush. I can keep the flow going by refusing to slow down and refusing to worry about how it’s coming out, and once the flow gets going there’s nothing like it. There’s always time to edit later, but in this moment, my one job is to write.