Tag Archives: readership

Unlike fiction, numbers don’t lie

For a “word guy,” I sure geek out on numbers.

This left-brained gravitation came in handy when putting together my 2016 business plan. And now, more than a full year later, I’m in a position to evaluate how close reality aligned to the strategy.

Because when it comes to collecting data, I err on the side of ridiculous.

Maybe it’s because the craft—the art of writing—is largely subjective. Sure, there are rules for composition and standards for publication, but (ahem) renegade books still may rise to the top. Other than word counts and number of pages, there just isn’t much room for figures.

But other aspects of my writing—the business of writing—are easy to quantify. For example:

Number of Books Published in 2016

  • Projected: 4-5
  • Actual: 5

Going into 2016, I knew I would publish all three novels of The Renegade Chronicles in both paperback and e-book versions as well as a digital-only complete collection. Back in late 2015, I had included publishing Magic’s Daughter, a standalone fantasy novel set in the same world as the trilogy (Altaerra), as a stretch goal.

While that didn’t happen, I did produce a free e-book companion to The Renegade Chronicles, Capricon and Beyond, bringing my total to five.

As a goal, this turned out to be a pretty straightforward success. But sales are another story.

Sales of Individual Books

Rebels and Fools (paperback)

  • Projected: 60
  • Actual: 47

Rebels and Fools (e-book)

  • Projected: 110
  • Actual: 14

Heroes and Liars (paperback)

  • Projected: 45
  • Actual: 35

Heroes and Liars (e-book)

  • Projected: 85
  • Actual: 13

Martyrs and Monsters (paperback)

  • Projected: 30
  • Actual: 36

Martyrs and Monsters (e-book)

  • Projected: 60
  • Actual: 7

The Renegade Chronicles (Collection)

  • Projected: 80
  • Actual: 15

Clearly, I fell short of my goals here. The only milestone I met—and surpassed—was the sale of Martyrs and Monsters in paperback. Not so surprisingly, the deficit in sales directly impacted income.

Total income

  • Projected: $1,355.40
  • Actual: $786.45

Ouch. And the shortfall in paperbacks wasn’t nearly as bad as the disappointing number of e-book sales because I earn far more royalties for an e-book than I do for a printed version. (No printing costs mean more money in my pocket.)

And then there’s the money coming out of my pocket…

Total expenditures

  • Projected: $1,225.01
  • Actual: $1,857.73

Double ouch. For the record, many of these expenses were a result of setting up my business (One Million Words LLC), not necessarily the publishing of my novels, though there were costs associated with that as well.

Moreover, I ended up ordering more copies of the book to sell at events than I had thought I would. Some of that I recouped, but I have a couple hundred dollars in inventory on hand at the moment, thanks to a certain snowstorm that won’t be named. (OK, it was Bailey.)

You don’t have to be a mathematician to calculate how the above numbers affect profit.

Total profit

  • Projected: $130.39
  • Actual: -$1,142.25

Fact: most new businesses don’t make a profit their first year, so maybe breaking even (or coming out just above that) was too optimistic. Yet I ended up much farther afield than I would have liked.

So what went wrong? Perhaps I just didn’t work hard enough?

Total hours worked

  • Projected: 12.00 hours/week for a total of 624 hours
  • Actual: 13.29 hours/week for a total of 691 hours

Nope, I wasn’t slacking. Maybe I didn’t put enough time into what matters, such as marketing.

Total hours spent on marketing

  • Projected: 1.00 hour/week for a total of 52 hours
  • Actual: 3.56 hours/week for a total of 185 hours

It became obvious early on that a single hour of marketing per week wasn’t going to accomplish much. And even a novice entrepreneur understands that marketing directly impacts sales. Yet after investing more than three times what I had originally allocated to marketing, why weren’t readers finding—and buying—my book?

What did I miss?

Breakdown of total marketing hours

  • Blog: 32.25
  • Events: 34.25
  • Media relations: 13.75
  • Newsletter: 7.50
  • Seeking reviews: 20.00
  • Social media: 18.25
  • Website updates: 8.50
  • Phase 2: 20.75
  • Everything else: 29.75

You may be wondering, “What’s Phase 2?” Well, when I saw that sales were sluggish, I did a bunch of research and came up with a plan to boost them. That’s when I decided to put out the free compendium e-book.

For the record, here is how the rest of my time shook out:

Non-marketing hours

  • Planning/writing the first draft of If Dreams Can Die: 190.00
  • Publishing The Renegade Chronicles: 183.00*
  • Donated hours: 35.00**
  • Business planning: 28.25
  • Creating/publishing the free e-book compendium: 27.00
  • Random tasks: 20.25
  • Business administration: 13.25
  • Miscellaneous research: 5.25
  • Trying to publish short stories: 4.00

* Additional hours for this project were expended in 2015.

** I donated some of my One Million Words time helping a friend publish his memoirs. More on that in the days ahead…

Pie chart showing how I spent 2016

Analysis

I spent more than a quarter of my time (26.77%) on marketing communications, including a gamut of channels to try to connect to my target demographic. That’s only slightly less time than I spent on actual writing! Only publishing (The Renegade Chronicles novels and the compendium) consumed more hours in 2016.

Which means I must be one lousy book marketer, huh?

Maybe. But in my defense, I also took a grassroots (read: cheap) approach to marketing. Sure, a business needs to spend money to make money, but there are entirely too many ways for an author to flush away what little startup capital he has. If I’m going to invest a penny in a service, I demand demonstrated ROI.

To date, I have yet to find a surefire method for rising above the noise—er, competition—to reach with the right readers. And yet if I don’t do something to draw attention to my books, they’ll remained buried beneath Amazon’s algorithm along with hundreds, if not thousands, of similar products.

But wait, sales don’t reflect the total number of people who have read my book…

Free downloads

Rebels and Fools (e-book)

  • Projected: 0
  • Actual: 508

Capricon and Beyond (e-book)

  • Projected: 0
  • Actual: 84

The idea was this: If I made Book 1 free to download, folks who enjoyed it would pay actual money to read the rest of the series. One can come to a number of conclusions as to why this didn’t happen. Maybe they didn’t like Rebels and Fools very much.

Or maybe people who like free books like them because they don’t have to pay for them…and with so many complimentary promos going on any given time, they’ll be elbow deep in free reads for eternity.

What’s next?

Examining the time and money I put into marketing and then making informed decisions based on the data is my priority. But I started One Million Words not only to sell books, but also to write new ones.

Learning that I could crank out a book in 190 hours was very eye-opening. Granted, it’s the third book in a series (The Soul Sleep Cycle), so some of the heavy lifting had already been done prior to plotting out If Dreams Can Die. But it does raise a series of interesting questions:

  1. Am I better off focusing my energy on finishing and publishing The Soul Sleep Cycle through One Million Words in hopes that sales from that series will drive The Renegade Chronicles’ sales?
  2. Or am I just going to face the same obstacle as before—struggling to be heard in an oversaturated market?
  3. Or am I better off being more proactive in finding a different publisher for The Soul Sleep Cycle, such as a mid-sized or small press, so that I’ll have a partner in marketing that series?
  4. And what about other revenue streams? (Would anyone really pay for a pun-a-day calendar?)

One thing is for certain. I have plenty to ponder as I close the books, so to speak, on 2016.

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Looking for literary love?

Blind dates are the worst. Maybe it’s human nature to want to know as much as we can before we commit—even if only for an evening.

The same can be said for books.

Our time is precious. We’ve all romanced read wonderful books before, novels that grab us by the heart and won’t let go. But there’s no guarantee the next plot you pick up will be a keeper. And if you’re judging a book by its cover alone, you’re bound to stumble onto dull, infuriating, or otherwise awful stories.

Banner ads and back-of-the-book synopses give only a glimpse at a novel’s personality. Often we crave more. Reviews help, though in some cases, that can be like asking the ex’s opinion of a prospective partner. Beware of bias.

Fortunately, we live in the 21st century. We have the internet. If you’re looking for a book to pal along with at the beach, a companion for your next weekend at the cabin, or someone with whom to share a rainy night, you’d better do a little research.

I can’t promise 29 dimensions of compatibility, but the following “dating profile” for my fantasy series is as earnest and true as anything on the web.

Fun-loving fantasy trilogy seeks loyal reader

The Renegade Chronicles print and ebook covers

As with most dating profile pics, this image has been Photoshopped.

Name:

The Renegade Chronicles

Nicknames:

I’m sometimes called TRC for short. I also go by #Renegades on social media.

Physical description:

Some days, I compartmentalize and take the form of three individual paperback or e-book novels (Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters). Other times, I put all of myself out there as a three-in-one e-book collection.

Passions:

I’m sword-and-sword fantasy, through and through. With me you get knights, wizards, pirates, priests, assassins, thieves, and monsters.

I’m a sucker for imagination, the supernatural, suspense, life-and-death situations, politics, battle, and acts of bravery. (But perfect heroes bore me. Everyone has flaws.)

Also, I love me some plot twists.

Quirks:

I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, which can be scary for some. Maybe I’m a bit of an excitement junky because I prefer high stakes.

Having said all that, I also have a healthy sense of humor. I try not to take myself too seriously, and I’m not afraid to throw out a joke every now and then.

Strengths:

I have a lot to say, so if you like sprawling narratives that encompass many people and places, I’m the fantasy story for you. Not to boast, but my battle scenes are pretty thrilling (though not too vivid), and dialogue with me always comes off as natural.

At the end of the day, I bring the fun. Setting, pathos, narrative arc—these things are important, but I want you to enjoy the adventure, every step of the way. Pacing is important. I prefer the right level of “epic”—not as academic as Tolkien or exhaustive as George R.R. Martin. I’ll make you think…but not too hard.

I promise I won’t spend an entire page describing a leafy glen.

Flaws:

I’ve been told that getting to know me can be a little challenging at first, but with a little patience (a handful of chapters, say), you’ll see I have a lot to offer. Chances are you won’t want to let me go.

Oh, and while I put a lot about myself out there over the course of three novels, there are some secrets I’m just not willing to share up front. I’m hoping to find someone who wants to get to know me for the long haul—in which case, I’ll be more than happy to provide future stories to fill in the blanks.

Deal breakers:

Readers who love invincible protagonists should look elsewhere. This is a rebellion, people. Dashed dreams, injuries, and fatalities come with the territory. I’m kind of complicated that way; while some characters will find happy endings, others…well…won’t.

I’m thankful for:

Folks who can appreciate a layered story with a large cast of characters in a world filled with shades of gray. (I’m speaking of morality, not the best-selling erotica novel. I’m not at all kinky; I prefer romance to be understated.)

Qualities of an ideal partner reader:

Did you grow up with Harry Potter? Are you ready to take the next step in the fantasy genre with a more mature match? If so, I think we’d be magical together.

Or maybe you’ve never looked twice at a book with a dragon on the cover. Maybe you’ve always thought fantasy seemed a little childish. I’m here to tell you that you’re never too old for a fun, action-packed story populated with relatable characters. If you’re a fantasy virgin, don’t worry. We’ll take it slow.

If you’ve strayed away from fantasy over the years, I won’t judge. I’m a great rebound series.

Share the love…

Another fun fact about blind dates: it’s a lot of fun to set up a friend on one. So why not forward a link to this dating profile blog post to anyone you know who might be a good match. The first book is currently free!

Adventure—and, hopefully, some literary love—await!

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Finally, some feedback!

Reader comments really make my day—even more so than new sales.

Don’t get me wrong. When I receive a notification telling me someone purchased one or more of The Renegade Chronicles, I grin like an idiot.

But digesting a reader’s genuine reaction to one of my novels, well, my soul does a little happy dance every time.

As I’ve mentioned before, copious online reviews can lead to fiscal benefits for an author. Even better, reader feedback lets me know what “worked” in the story, what didn’t, my strengths as a writer, and my weaknesses. All of which will help make my future books stronger.

For The Renegade Chronicles specifically, here are a few things I learned. Some of it came as a surprise, while other observations reinforced what I always hoped to be true:

  • The bad news: Rebels and Fools (Vol. 1) is a slow starter. I thought I jump into the action relatively quickly, but apparently the pacing wasn’t as brisk as I had hoped. Lesson learned.
  • The good news: Once they make it a handful of chapters into Vol. 1, readers tend to get hooked—and then go on to Vols. 2 and 3. Few things sound as sweet to an author’s ears as “I couldn’t put it down.”
  • The series features strong female characters. To be blunt, most of my characters are dudes. But I’m happy to hear that ladies who do get “screen time”—including Leslie Beryl, Lilac Zephyr, and Opal—hold their own!
  • It’s OK to kill off characters. This can be controversial, but fortunately there are those who (like me) appreciate high stakes. While I’m no George R. R. Martin, I don’t shy away from the deadly consequences of battle. (See also: “The problem with invincible protagonists”)
  • Vol. 3 has some unanswered questions. There’s a fine line between leaving the reader wanting more and leaving the reader unsatisfied. The feedback leads me to believe most readers fall into the former camp.

At the risk of tooting my own horn, here are excerpts of comments compiled from Amazon.com and Goodreads.com:

Rebels and Fools

“This book is a great big step into a world that keeps you pleasantly off balance by feeling uncannily familiar and strange at the same time.”

Screen capture of customer reviews of "Rebels and Fools"“Williams’ characters are an unlikely unity of the honorable, criminal, and the witless… Their travels are filled with battles, rescues, victories, and losses. I’m looking forward to the next installment in Heroes and Liars.”

“Fantastic! The boy and I are reading this series together before bed. He’s eleven, and he loves it. I’m quite fascinated by it myself.”

“A compelling start to the series.”

“My favorite of the three. A great fantasy trilogy.”

Heroes and Liars

“In this second installment of Williams’ epic yarn, he makes good on the adventure, camaraderie, and intrigue promised at the end of the series opener Rebels and Fools.”

“I could not stop reading! The second volume in this trilogy is action-packed from start to finish.”

“Just a very enjoyable read with another very nerve-wracking ending.”

“Excellent follow up to the first book.”

“…enough questions linger as to the characters’ true motives to keep my interest into the third book. Bring on Martyrs and Monsters!”

Martyrs and Monsters

“…The Renegade Chronicles is a very solid introduction into (the fantasy genre).”

“The last volume in the trilogy is nearly as full of action and intrigue as the second book. Secrets are revealed, and the battle between humans and monsters gets vicious.”

“Many questions answers. Many new questions raised. Great closure to many plot lines without feeling too tidy.”

“While this isn’t my usual genre, I couldn’t put it down. The books are action packed and full of mystery, magic, and a dash of romance.”

“I hope we haven’t heard the last from these characters…I’m craving more!!!”

Vol. 4?

I’d love to write more about the people and places of Altaerra. Truly, I would!

As a matter of fact, I have years—yes, years—of these characters’ lives mapped out beyond what has been published so far. Which is why there were so many unanswered questions at the end of Martyrs and Monsters; these heroes’ (and anti-heroes’) tales are far from over.

The Renegade War foreshadows a continents-spanning conflict that will prove to be much more catastrophic than anything the cast has faced before…

But in order to justify the writing and publishing future fantasy novels, I must sell a heck of a lot more editions of the first three volumes. In the interest of building my readership, I’ll include a list of handy links for those interested in reading, referring, and/or reviewing The Renegade Chronicles.

I can’t wait to hear from you!

Amazon

Goodreads

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Milestones from my book marketing marathon

What do you call a race without a finish line?

That’s not really a riddle. Or if it is, I don’t pretend to know the answer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about book marketing lately…because I’ve been doing a lot of book marketing lately. I keep coming back to that cliché about how (fill in the blank) is a marathon, not a sprint. As much as I want to quickly plow through my list of marketing tactics so that I can wrap up this project and begin planning my next novel, progress is unavoidably slow.

And pushing myself harder will only cause me to burn out faster.

Maybe the whole marathon metaphor is flawed in this case because publishing The Renegade Chronicles felt a lot like crossing a finish line. Leading up to that achievement was a series of tasks that required sustained pacing and a “keep your eye on the prize” mentality.

But even with Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters displayed on my bookshelf, trophy-like, a new endurance test lies before me—the next leg of the never-ending race.

In the spirit of celebrating small successes along the way, I submit the following 10 marketing and sales milestones:

1. Last month, I got a bit of press thanks to Action Publications.

2. Over the past couple of weeks, I sent requests to roughly 80 book bloggers. Three of them have expressed interest in reading and reviewing Rebels and Fools.

3. I’m on deck to be included in a “Newly Released” list on one website and the subject of an author spotlight on another site.

4. My professional Facebook page recently reached 100 likes.

5. The Fond du Lac Public Library now carries all three volumes of The Renegade Chronicles.

6. I’ve sold 75 “units” over the past six weeks. This includes paperbacks, individual e-book downloads, as well as the three-in-one digital collection.

The flag of Denmark

Right now, someone in Denmark might be reading my book. How cool is that? | Photo by US CIA via Wikimedia Commons

7. Three of those e-book sales were from readers in Denmark.

8. Last week, I received some very positive feedback from someone who doesn’t typically read fantasy: “I wasn’t sure if I would (like it). This isn’t my normal genre. I struggled just a little in the beginning trying to keep track of who all the characters were, but after that I was hooked. … I love the number of strong female characters, the bit of romance, all the adventure and plot twists. … I’ll be sure to post a great review when I finish.”

9. I will be the featured speaker at a Fond du Lac Area Writers’ meeting in June.

10. On June 17, I will be the featured artist at Cujak’s Wine and Coffee Bar during the Tour the Town Art Walk in Fond du Lac. (I’ll provide more information closer to the event.)

On second thought, writing, publishing, and book marketing are not so different from actual marathon running. The finish line is simply a measure of progress, not a true end—because there’s always the next race and another opportunity to improve.

Thanks for reading my blog and for your ongoing encouragement. I’m convinced “word of mouth” is the most effective form of marketing, so if you know anyone who likes fantasy adventure, please tell them about The Renegade Chronicles!

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5 ways to support the writer in your life

Do you know someone who is committed to the craft of writing? Congratulations!

Maybe this writer is a relative, in which case you have destiny to thank. Or maybe you’ve befriended someone who has been bewitched by the notion that stacking words one atop another to build a story can be fun and profitable.

Either way, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a writer, you’ve probably already learned a few things about this admittedly strange species:

She might have told you how she came up with the idea for her story and why it’s awesome.

He probably dished on the details about his creative habits or writing schedule or preferred typeface.

Perhaps she shared her protagonist’s astrological sign.

(On second thought, maybe condolences are in order.)

Here’s the thing about writers. We spend a lot of time alone, populating a private world with imaginary friends—er, people—and thinking about topics reserved solely for storytellers and serial killers (e.g., how much midazolam would it take to knock out an average adult male?).

Eventually, we need to come up for air and share some of our “head happenings” with the wider world…or, at least, with our most-trusted loved ones. (That’s you.) And that means his success as a writer depends, at least in part, on you.

So whether they are still in the planning phase, frantically pounding out the first draft, or up to their elbows in edits, here are a handful of ways you can support any writers who cross your path:

1. Encourage them

In addition to a killer concept and mad composition skillz (i.e., the two sides to every story), thick skina strong spine, and enough patience to fill a Buddhist monastery, a writer needs encouragement to survive.

Oh sure, we might be able to sustain ourselves for stretches on ego alone, but eventually our confidence fizzles, and refueling is necessary. We need to be told that we aren’t wasting our time. These proverbial pats on the back can take the form of compliments. For instance, if an idea they share sounds cool, tell them. If nothing else, praise their dedication to what so often can feel like a hopeless pursuit.

Face-to-face chats are great, but don’t forget about Facebook and Twitter and wherever else in cyberspace your writer roams. Follow their author accounts. Like and share their posts. Comment on their blogs. If you engage them online, others might also!

(Yes, I actually wrote the word “cyberspace.” Apologies.)

2. Read their stories

Every writer needs readers. This is true even before a book or short story is published. Alpha readers, beta readers, pre-readers—whatever you want to call the role, you are a prime candidate for being the first eyes on a story.

You aren’t obligated to give a thorough appraisal of the piece, and no one should expect you to play the part of proofreader, but some feedback is appropriate. What did you like? What felt a bit off? Praise is always appreciated, and depending on your rapport, constructive criticism can be very helpful too—emphasis on “constructive.”

But never leave a writer hanging. You gotta give ’em something. And if you don’t make it to the end of the novel—or even the end of the first chapter—let the writer know. You can soften the blow by saying something like, “I don’t think I’m your target reader because this part didn’t work for me…”

3. Buy their books

Encouragement can come in a variety of forms, including financial support. In fact, one surefire way to show the writer in your life that you approve of their writing is by sponsoring them. Just ask my wife! (Insert rimshot here.)

Sure, there actually are donation/sponsorship websites like Patreon, but the most forthright way you can support your writer is by buying her book. Even if you still have an early draft on your e-reader from back when you served as a beta reader. And even if you don’t plan to read the thing cover to cover. Owning a copy of your writer’s book proves, definitively, that you give a damn.

It’s not just about the money, either (though that helps). The more sales a book receives on a site like Amazon.com, the better its ranking becomes; the higher the rank, the greater the visibility—and, therefore, the greater the opportunities for additional sales.

4. Review their books

five out of five starsHere’s where support starts to feel an awful lot like work: After you’ve read the book, write a review and post it on Amazon and as many other sites you can find that carry the book.

Actually, this isn’t as onerous as it sounds. No one expects you to write a college-essay style literary criticism piece that compares your writer’s story to Great Expectations. A few sentences will suffice, and if you have more to say, great! Be honest, but if there’s a lot you don’t like, maybe focus on the stuff that shined. Then copy and paste copiously around the web.

Why are book reviews important? People tend not to trust a book until it has 100 or so reviews. Sadly, it’s the quantity of book reviews—more so than the quality of what’s written in them—that prompts customers to put a book in their cart. Ten 5-star reviews just seem less trustworthy than dozens of reviews that average to 3.5 stars. Strange but true.

5. Spread the word

Whether self-published or traditionally published, any writer worth his carpal tunnel will spend time and money on promoting and marketing his book.

But a single writer can cover only so much ground. Even Jesus saw the value of sending His followers far and wide to share the Good News, thus increasing His geographical footprint. I’m not saying you have to quit your job and become a full-time missionary for your writer’s fiction, but if you come across folks who might like the novel, tell them about it.

Or, better yet, lend them a copy of the book.

Bottom line: Successful writers need readers, and as the friend or relative of a writer, you can make a significant impact on whether her attempt to “make it” as an author turns out to be a nightmare or a dream come true.

(Besides, haven’t you always wanted your name to appear on an acknowledgements page?)

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What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1)

Let’s forget about the craft of writing for a moment.

It should go without saying that a serious writer must have some measure of creativity and a solid grasp of language to avoid the proverbial pitfalls of syntax and semantics (such as these).

Anyway, there are countless resources dedicated to helping dabblers step up their game and plenty of places where professional writers can learn to improve in such areas as concept development, composition, publishing, and so forth.

Elephants have thick skins. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

Elephants have thick skin. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

We live in a DIY era, where a million (or more) websites will happily walk you down the path of getting an idea out of your head, into a computer, and, ultimately, in front of the eyes of other people.  And while I know I’m not the first to tackle this topic, there seems to be a dearth of articles pertaining to some of the more intangible qualities that, in my experience, benefit someone who wants to succeed—or simply survive—the sometimes schizophrenic lifestyle of an artist.

So without further ado, here is the first character trait of a well-adjusted writer:

Thick skin

Blame it on the prevailing mentality that we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes worthy our own reality TV series.  Social media gives us the ability to broadcast every inane detail of our lives.  We must be important, right?  I mean, these days even the losing team gets trophies just for trying.

Our collective self-worth has never been higher.  Or more precarious.

I suspect writers have always carried a certain measure of sensitivity when it comes to their work.  While we often hear the analogy of a book being an author’s “baby,” the relationship between the creator and the created becomes even more intimate than that when we see our work not as an extension of ourselves, but as the prevailing piece of our identity.

Not good.

I can’t help but marvel when I hear writers whine about negative reviews or, worse, when they go on the warpath to defend their precious child/ego.  Oh, I’m not immune to the impulse.  But having weathered college workshops populated by (fellow) know-it-alls, attended countless critique sessions with the brilliant Allied Authors of Wisconsin, and dissected many a manuscript alongside my biggest fan and harshest critic (my wife), I’ve learned how to keep my mouth shut—and my ears open.

Let’s get one thing straight: The reader owes you nothing beyond the price of your book—not their time and certainly not a positive review on Goodreads.  Your ideas and delivery thereof might earn you those things, but they are not to be taken for granted.  It’s a huge mistake to assume that the reader will share your emotional bond with a story, especially before they even crack the cover.

No, it’s your job to make them feel a fraction of what you feel about your characters, setting, and plot.  If they stop reading after a page or even the first paragraph, it could be for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to a lack of connection between story and reader.  Hence, your book is always partially to blame.

Let’s get another thing straight: Even if your novel is better than anything written by Shakespeare or Suzanne Collins, you won’t please everyone.  The playwright has never been universally adored, and despite record-breaking sales, some folks simply can’t stomach The Hunger Games.

If you can’t please everyone, the logical conclusion is that some people will have some not-so-nice things to say about your work.

That’s OK.

Even if you end up writing something terrible, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.  It might mean you need more practice with the nuts and bolts of the craft.  Or it could be you didn’t do a very good job translating what’s in your head to the page.  Or maybe you just haven’t reached the right audience.

Every writer needs an audience.  And because technology is a two-edged sword—giving a writer not only multiple channels through which to distribute his or her work, but also instant access to readers’ reactions—we writers have to get better at separating ourselves from our work and letting the story speak for itself.

How writers engage their readers is a topic (or an entire series) for another day.  Meanwhile, here is my recommendation for contending with criticism:

  • Step 1 — Solicit feedback from those whose opinions you trust, particularly those who are well-read in your genre.  Wherever the criticism comes from, keep it in context.  It’s just one opinion among billions.
  • Step 2 — Tell yourself, “Even if they don’t like the story, it doesn’t mean they don’t like me.”  (And if necessary, add, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)
  • Step 3 — Listen carefully and take notes.
  • Step 4 — Defy the urge to defend.
  • Step 5 — Seriously, keep your mouth shut!
  • Step 6 — Once the critique is over, you can speak, but only to seek clarification.
  • Step 7 — Show appreciation for the feedback, even if your ego has withered to the size of a prune.
  • Step 8 — Give yourself the distance of a day or two, and then go back to your notes and decide which points have merit.
  • Step 9 — Edit the manuscript, keeping what works and fixing what doesn’t.
  • Step 10 — When your baby goes out into the world, wish it well and resist the urge to hover and embarrass it by coming to its defense every time someone says something unkind.

Bottom line: Constructive criticism is a gift, not a curse.  But before a writer can benefit from it, he or she might need to grow a few more layers of skin.

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In defense of the dabbler…or…why getting published might not be all it’s cracked up to be

In an earlier post, I defined a dabbler as someone who has yet to write one million words while simultaneously implying that the one million words benchmark might be less of a milestone than a state of mind.

Undoubtedly, there are dabblers out there who have surpassed two million words, and there are days that I envy them.

Back in my dabbler days—while a high school student, specifically—I had the great fortune to not only meet, but also hang out with a slew of successful sword-and-sorcery authors, including Margaret Weis, Don Perrin, Jeff Grubb, Kate Novak and others.  As an avid fan of the Dragonlance novels, it was more than a little surreal to spend time with the talented writers whose books were being enjoyed by millions of readers around the world.

I’m not sure what those established authors thought of the boy with no shortage of questions about the craft and business of writing, and, sadly, I don’t recall much of the conversations.  However, one sentiment has remained in my gray matter these past sixteen or so years.

At some point in the afternoon, one of the writer said the downside to being a published author is that she always felt compelled to put forth her best effort and that she could no longer write “just for fun” anymore.

I remember thinking, “Now there’s a problem I’d like to have.”  Even then, as a dabbler whose narratives took the form of an endless series of scenes featuring hundreds of characters storylines, I recognized that when one decided to buckle down and craft a true novel with actual chapters, a limited cast of characters, a grand story arc, and maybe a subplot or two, the professional novelist needed to consider every word’s impact on the audience.

Transitioning from a dabbler to the next stage—a would-be professional writer or a not-yet-published novelist or, let’s be frank, a wannabe—requires a fundamental shift in attitude and behavior.  If a hobby is to become a vocation, one needs discipline and dedication, a big step beyond simply answering to your own literary whims.

In that instance, a stress-reliever becomes a source of stress.

According to psychology, there are two types of stress: eustress and distress.  The former is a positive force that can motivate an individual to achieve.  It brings with it a sense of satisfaction.  The latter, of course, is a destructive power that takes a toll.  As a young wannabe, I eagerly tapped into eustress, channeling it and letting it fuel me as I wrote my first novel.

And the next one.

And the next one.

And, possibly, the one after that.

But not so much anymore.  Even though I promised myself that I wouldn’t let the road to becoming a professional writer leech the fun out of writing, I realize now that that is exactly what has been happening over the years.  It’s not simply because I hold myself to very high standard when it comes to my fiction (though that plays a big part).  As a matter of fact, I make it a point to engage in “nonproductive” writing when I’m in between novels—short stories that I write just for the joy of creation and with no intention of publishing or even editing them.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still take a lot of satisfaction out of the craft of writing.  Yet somewhere along the journey, I’ve succumbed to the most sobering aspects of professional writing without the bright side of seeing any of my projects in print.  I tackled my latest manuscripts with all of the seriousness of a professional writer, taking every step I can think of to ensure artistic integrity and commercial appeal of the work.  In a sense, I’ve become a slave to my fiction, sacrificing countless hours of sleep, family time, and time I could have been pursuing other pastimes.

In short, I’ve done everything imaginable to get to the finish line, and yet publication remains ever out of the reach.

I’m sure the other wannabes out there can empathize with my plight.  Perhaps it’s only natural that a certain amount of bitterness will creep in after a writer pens five novels only to realize that the first four aren’t good enough to attract an agent and the fifth novel, while good enough to be represented by an agent and good enough to be considered by a major publishing house, still hasn’t been purchased after going on two years because of so much uncertainty in the industry.

I might even sound ungrateful to the dabblers and other wannabes out there.  After all, I’m fortune enough to have a regular writing gig as a freelance columnist for the local newspaper.  I have a fulltime job at an ad agency and get paid to write marketing copy, commercial scripts, blog posts and so forth.  And I have a great agent and an editor, both of whom are pushing for the sale in spite of the current quagmire.  I could get a phone call tomorrow with the good news.

Or the bad news.

And where would that leave me?  Back at square one as far as my fiction goes.  I am a writer.  But I want to be a novelist—a published novelist.  Fiction is my first love, and while I’ve been very blessed to find other outlets for my writing skills, I can’t help but feel like a failure when I consider how much time and energy I’ve invested in fiction without any return on investment up to this point.  Arguably, too much of my identity is tied into my fiction writing.  It’s not enough for me to know that I’m a good writer; I crave the validation in the form of a signed contract by a publishing house.

It occurs to me that my preoccupation with getting published is unhealthy—not only because I’ve lost some enjoyment and enthusiasm for the process of writing itself, but also because there’s this other area of my existence called Real Life, and it, too, has paid a price while I’ve been on this decades-long quest.

Setting the actual fiction writing and editing commitment aside for a moment, consider that while this publisher has been pondering the purchase of my MS (If Souls Can Sleep), I have pursued other avenues in support of my dream, including setting up this author’s website and updating the blog herein.  I have three distinct venues for writing creative nonfiction: this blog, the ad agency website blog, and my lifestyle column.  When working solely on fiction, I would routinely have thoughts that sparked a “what if” storyline; I’d file it away somewhere for a future project.  When I started my newspaper column, I began doing the same thing, thinking, “That might make a good column topic.”

Now that I contribute to two blogs as well, it’s gotten much, much worse.  Just about any thought I have now passes through a filter:

  • Could this be used in my fiction somehow?
  • Could I write a column about it?
  • Is it writing-related and suitable for my author’s blog?
  • Is it marketing/communications/website-related and suitable for the agency blog?

As if planning for and then plotting out these different forms of writing weren’t exhausting enough, there’s still another step before all is said and done: promoting it.  With a background in public relations and marketing, I am well aware of the myriad delivery systems and channels available.  I’ve started following other blogs so that I can network and, when it’s not too tacky, link back to one of my posts.  I started a Facebook and Twitter account for One Million Words, which is in itself a form of personal branding.  My agent lent me a book about guerilla marketing for writers, and I’m scared to open it up because I can’t keep up with all of the tactics I’m tentatively trying, let alone new ones.

The insanely aggressive writing-related schedule I came up with is unsustainable in no small part because even when I step away from my writing and am in Real Life, I can’t stop thinking about what I am going blog about next, what I should be doing to get more readers for this blog, and how on God’s green earth am I going to fit fiction back into the mix when I start working on the editing my current MS.

And didn’t I decide against self-publishing and to work through an agent with a publishing house instead so that I didn’t have to get bogged down in the business side of writing?

In case it’s not already obvious, I tend to be an overachiever.  I’m not just a Type A personality; I’m Type A+.  Though I’m a recovering perfectionist, I still suffer from a chronic addiction to measurable progress.  If there’s something else I can do to ensure my success, I’ll do it…even begrudgingly.

R.A. Salvatore, another fantasy author I’ve had the good fortune to meet (though our conversation lasted only as long as it took him to sign an autograph), claims the only way a person can know if he or she is a writer is to quit.  If you can quit, then you’re not a writer.  If you can’t quit, congratulations…you’re a true writer.

That sounds an awful lot like an addiction to me.

I’m pretty sure I was an addict even back in my dabbler days, but it’s only gotten worse while in the wannabe stage.  These past 20 months, while waiting for an answer from a publisher, I’ve overcompensated for having no control by trying to assume as much control over my fate as a hopefully-soon-to-be-published author as possible.  Apparently, getting a book published is no longer enough; I need to get everything in place so that when my novel hits store shelves, I’ll have the groundwork for having everything a real author needs to be successful.

All of which has me yearning for those simpler times when I wrote just because telling stories was fun.

Once I took pride in being a fiction writing addict.  It meant I had “the stuff.”  These days, however, I’m starting to wonder if any addiction—including something that started out as being constructive—can be healthy.  With my head filled with a frenzied miasma of thoughts about writing (i.e., obsession) and my free time crammed with writing and writer-related activities (i.e., compulsion), the whole shebang starts to feel like a big withdrawal from Real Life.  When I’m productive, I’m happy.  When I feel as though I’m making progress, I’m happy.  When Real Life gets in my way?  Not so much.

Since something has to give (and hopefully not my sanity), my thoughts drift back to the dabbler days, about the motivation that spurred me on this road to wannabe and, God willing, to the real deal eventually.  Back then, I wrote because I had stories in me that I had to get on paper, and I had one loyal reader: a good friend who today is my wife.  (And without her early support, I might not be in this pickle now!  Just kidding…)

My freshman year of college, I took the blind leap from dabbler to wannabe.  I started my first novel, writing a chapter a week and working with an English professor, who helped me avoid the types of mistakes that seem so obvious now.  But why did I become an English major?  What made me decide to dream of becoming a published author?

It wasn’t the money, though who wouldn’t want to get compensated for doing what he loves?  It wasn’t fame because at heart I’m an introvert.  Yes, I’d like to have a small following—fans who look forward to the release of a new David Michael Williams novel—but more than anything, I wanted more than just one other person on this planet who appreciates the work I put into my fiction.

In my naïveté, I made a goal to be published by the age of twenty-three.  (Are you done laughing yet?  OK, I’ll wait.)

Ten years after that deadline has come and gone, I still have zero books published.  A lot has changed in that time.  Vanity presses, once the tacky badge of an amateur (a wannabe who wants to be published so badly he or she is willing to pay for it), have evolved into e-publishing.  Anyone can get his or her fiction uploaded to a website in a matter of minutes.  If my sole goal was to get my novels into the hands of readers, there’s really nothing stopping me.

Which means that prestige is more important to me than I care to believe or I need an objective expert in the industry to confirm my desperate hope that my writing is worthy of publishing.  Maybe it’s a little of both.

Yes, I want to be “discovered.”  I want those with keen eyes (and a healthy budget) to reward me for my endeavors.  Even though I live in a DIY era, I don’t want to have to figure everything out for myself.  I don’t want to hunt for cover art or peddle my wares like a desperate blog-to-blog salesman.  All that takes time away from what I really want to be doing: the writing.  And gosh darn it, I want people to be able to flip through the pages of my novel, not just download a digital copy.

So, yeah, I guess I’m kind of picky.

The good news is there’s a decent chance a major publisher will buy If Souls Can Sleep.  Then the dream becomes a reality.  Then I’ll be happy.  Right?

Probably not—at least not if I let my personality (A+, remember) have its way.  Clearly, I’ve lost my way from the optimistic dabbler…that dope who was happy with just churning out stories.  My motivations need a readjustment.  Writing, in moderation, should be enough.  Getting published should be a happy coincident.  It’s about the art, not adoring fans; the creative thrill, not the cash.

So I’m tossing out my writing schedule.  I will continue to set aside time to write and edit fiction regularly.  My newspaper column has been rewarding, not to mention the only legit publishing credit I have.  I’d be an idiot to abandon it.  I plan to contribute as the spirit moves me.  That has served me well in the past.

For now, I’m done tinkering with this website.  I’m unsubscribing to the various and sundry blogs I’ve been reading (some people post daily?!).  No offense intended, fellow writers.  As for Facebook and Twitter, I’ve had enough.

I rescind the promise I made to myself to update this blog weekly.  The sad thing is I really enjoy writing about writing.  I just don’t have the time.  It’s beyond the focus of my dream.  And there’s too much pressure (self-imposed stress) to write something profound, something of value to the greater world, and something that will somehow give me “street cred” in the arena of fiction writing.

Starting with this post—with its unwieldy headline, dull lead, lack of subheads, and a length that any strategic marketer would have chopped into eight distinct installments—I’m not going to waste time shaping an image or paving the way for professional networking.  If I feel the need to write about writing, I might post it here.  Or not.  I won’t commit to anything.

Fewer nonfiction obligations will mean fewer distractions from my fiction and fewer intrusions into Real Life.  Filling my time with more and more activity hasn’t made me a better writer or a happier person.  I’m ready to set aside my quixotic quest for “publication or bust” and embrace moderation and balance.

No one wants to be a wannabe.  But I’d rather be a content wannabe than a published author who has lost sight of what’s truly important.

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