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.

But what is this book about?

Often, when I consider a novel before I start writing, and especially if it’s meant to be a reasonably complete story within the novel even if it’s in a series, I think I know what the book is about. You know,

This book is about these character and they go there and do this thing which is going to be REALLY AWESOME and EXCITING!

And yes, that’s often what happens in the book. The characters do these things and exciting things happen. But often, and this usually happens not too long after I start writing, I discover what the book is really ABOUT.

For example for The Sahara Conspiracy, I thought it was going to be about desert bashing and the future Earth, and in a way it is, but it’s actually about the barbaric situation on Indrahui, a world many lightyears away. The book is about that in preference all the Earth stuff (it’s set 100% on Earth), because this is what drives the characters.

Similarly, I have now started writing Blue Diamond Sky. There will be a fair bit of jungle-tromping and shoot-outs and stuff. I thought it was going to revolve around the beauty of the wilderness around Barresh, and about the tribal Pengali. Yes, those are in it, but it’s actually about humans in Barresh, and why they live there. It’s about pioneers and why they left for a place that is not terribly accessible.

But what is this book about? was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Writers, especially when they don’t see immediate success, often get told “It’s a marathon, not a sprint!” and this statement often leads to a discussion at least as heated as whether quality and speed are mutually exclusive or whether there needs to be one or two spaces after a full stop (Note: it’s ONE space, people!)

Anyway, the marathon vs sprint analogy is quite interesting.

What people often seem to *think* “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” means it that you can do things at a plodding pace and short term failures don’t really matter in the long run, and that it’s all about some nebulous future goal.

Well you know what?

These people couldn’t be more wrong!

For one, have you ever seen a marathon runner PLODDING? Sure it might look like it from the outside, but the runner is going at the maximum speed. When there is a hill, the runner will put in extra effort to keep pace, and at the end, the runner will sprint. In the long term, it matters a lot whether the runner takes the corners wide or makes them tight, or if the runner needs to go for a leak, time spent will be kept to the absolute minimum.

Marathon runners don’t plod. They don’t shuffle. They don’t look at the scenery and they don’t casually chat to other runners. They don’t think “hey, I’m tired now, let’s do the rest of this race tomorrow”.

THAT is the meaning of “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

As a writer, you keep going at a pace that you know you can sustain long-term. You speed up the hills. You go for little sprints, Tour de France-like, because there are little temporary rewards that will make you achieve your goal more quickly. And you don’t slack off and keep going until the job is done.

Note: the comment function on this blog has been fixed!

It’s a marathon, not a sprint was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Writing: Secrets of the World’s Bestselling Writer

I bought this book a few months ago, recommended by people at the Kindleboards, and finally started reading it last week.

The book deals with the work of Erle Stanley Gardner, and the fact that he was called “The World’s Bestselling Writer” on the cover made me curious, because I’d never heard of the man. The fact that I don’t read a lot of crime detective stories doesn’t help, neither does it help that these were stories and books that my grandparents enjoyed. The book itself was written in 1980, and I strongly suspect that the author lost the Bestselling Writer crown to one blond-haired female writer who writes, amongst other things, about a boy wizard. But we’ll leave that for statisticians to bicker over.

Perry Mason, I’d heard of the stories about him, but also only as something the generation of my grandparents and parents enjoyed.

What then, in this day of the internet and computers, can be learned from a writer who learned to write in seriousness almost 100 years ago, and whose writerly biography is so peppered with implied sexism (merely reflecting the day and age of course, but FFS, was there any purpose for women, in real life and fiction, other than to bring the tea or to be rescued?) that I almost gave up reading several times, were it not that the book is quite pricey for an ebook, and the people who recommended it are people I respect.

Anyway. Putting aside the fact that women didn’t exist back then, the book goes on to reveal a most interesting lifestyle with meticulous detail to fact and study. Also with incredible work ethic and how he went about using the latest technology to achieve his incredible output.

It was an interesting and inspiring read.

I didn’t learn anything major that I didn’t already know–watching people with this kind of inventory this make a killing on Amazon–but I found the book inspiring, because it illustrates so well how a dedicated work ethic pays off big time. Many writers wait around for the muse to strike, whittling away time while they could be writing something. Anything, really. Many writers revise endlessly, and quite possibly revise the death out a story.

As I’ve come to realise, as a writer, you’re not selling stories. You’re selling your ability to produce more stories.

Writing: Secrets of the World’s Bestselling Writer was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why you should write contemporary romance, even if you never publish it


Anyone who knows me will also know that I’m not a great fan of romance. I’ve read a good deal of it (eons ago) and while I don’t hate reading it, I find other genres much more interesting.

But I think to be able to write contemporary romance is a great skill. Genre books often have romantic subplots, and it’s not unusual that the romance feels forced. Moreover, it’s likely that genre books have characters, and that you’d like the characters to be full and well-developed.

Writing contemporary romance can help immensely with both.

In contemporary romance, you strip away everything that makes a setting cool. You take away the space ships, the magic, the historical context, and you’re left with just characters and an everyday setting that’s well-known to all readers and needs no explanation…

Leaving the author to craft a story solely based on the characters and the developing of their relationship.

To the non-romance writer, it might seem that the daily tasks of the characters are full of “mundane, trivial shit” that we do ourselves day in day out. You know, cook, eat, go shopping, catch the bus to work. Stuff like that. Bo-ho-ring!

Yes, if you look at it that way, it is boring.

But. Big but.

Every action the characters perform, every choice they make, builds their personality. Don’t believe me? Look at these three guys:

1. Goes to the gym regularly.
2. Hates gyms with a passion.
3. Goes to the gym no matter what come hell or high water and gets upset if he can’t.

Can you see character types form in your mind from just these three life choices?

These little, insignificant, boring life choices shape the supposedly “mundane shit” that your characters do. Every. Single. Step. If they see someone trip, do they help? How often do they ring their partner during the working day? Do they perform well in their job or do they hate it? Add up all these things, and you have a fully-formed character. It requires a lot of disciple (no, you can’t throw in a gun chase if a scene gets boring) and makes you really think about how to portray characters, what makes them likable or what makes people go “eew, no” in a nuanced way that’s not over the top.

Characters acting way over the top is one of the ways to tell a new writer from a more experienced one. Writing contemporary romance, even if you never sell a single word of it, is a great way of learning how the environment shapes the character.

Why you should write contemporary romance, even if you never publish it was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

What is your biggest fear?

jumping-spider-300444_640In many books or movies, the main character has an irrational fear of something, and during the story, ends up facing that fear.

I’m always up for finding interesting fears to pester my characters with. I’ve never really understood the fear of spiders and snakes, because if you leave them alone, spiders and snakes will leave you alone, too.

Leeches, on the other hand, won’t. *shudders*

In Ambassador, the Coldi people come from a world where there is a lot of desert, and many are afraid of large bodies of water. There are also few vertebrate animals, so they’d be uncomfortable with them, too. Not so much for worms, snails and slugs, which are a large part of their diet.

This brings up interesting conflicts for when they interact with Earth humans.

Cory is also not too great with heights.

In other books, I’ve done fear of medical procedures and the fear of small spaces.

What fears have you used in books, or what things creep you out?

What is your biggest fear? was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Image and writer question

The weather was crap today, with uniform grey skies. Pretty boring for photos, so today’s picture is brought to you courtesy of my flute.


I’m working very hard to get Trader’s Honour to a stage where it needs one more editing pass. Got just a few more chapters to go, and as usual, I’m dithering over action scenes. I just don’t like writing them, although it’s kinda OK once I get going.

What type of scenes do you hate writing?

The power of the prophecy

Crystal ball. Image snarfed from Dreamstime free

Forgive me for being a little grumpy.

You see, today I started a book that had been sitting in my TBR pile for a long time. I’d thoroughly enjoyed the previous book by this author and had been looking forward to reading the book. No, I’m not going to tell you who the author is because that is beside the point of this post.

The book started in an interesting way, but then it all went south. You see, the author introduced a prophecy. Not just any prophecy, but one of the heavy-handed ZOMG the prophecy tells me I have to do this, so I do it type, no matter that the story itself didn’t support any reasons for the course of action. In fact, the prophecy was the only thing guiding all characters throughout the first third of the book. I don’t know what happened in the rest of the book. I’m not sure that I want to find out.

Am I the only one who finds this type of handling of prophecies cliché, tiresome and naïve? Those are the type of stories we wrote when we just started writing and didn’t know any better. They’re not the type of books I expect from a mature writer.

What is it about prophecies and fantasy?

Prophecies can be handled in a number of different ways.

At its most basic, there is the plot that takes a known prophecy at face value, without question of its authenticity or its predicting value. This type of dealing with prophecy is what I would call heavy-handed or naïve, because it takes all deciding power away from the character, and negates the need for the character’s actions to make sense. When “the prophecy said so” is the reason for something to happen, a flag should go up that you’ve entered this territory.

Alternately, a prophecy could be considered “true” in the fantasy society, but the character affected by it could resist the implications. This becomes more interesting, because now we’ve entered a personal conflict into the mix. Apart from the fact that the character must do X or something terrible will happen, the character doesn’t believe that the prophecy has value.

Or the other way around: the character believes the prophecy has value, but society doesn’t.

The history of the prophecy and its reach. A lot of fantasy prophecies tend to be well-known in the affected society. They’re part of some older legend, which, magically, everyone in the country knows even though they’ve to invent the internet or similar means of communication.

Or the prophecy could be not so well-known or only partially known–see Harry Potter. In this type of plot, a prophecy becomes part of the main plot device. Rather than handing the characters the prophecy at the start of the book, the characters must first discover the prophecy, then decide whether or not they’ll want to believe it, and then solve it. This type of plot becomes a mystery. The prophecy doesn’t drive the plot, discovering the prophecy does. Thus, the content of the prophecy becomes less important than the process of discovering it.

Alternately, there could be a prophecy that is proven to be complete bunk in the progress of the plot. But there had better be something even better (a conspiracy, and even worse prophecy) hiding behind the wreckage, or you’ll have some dissatisfied readers.

I don’t know what else you could do with prophecies. The prophecy as a plot device bores me to death. That said, I would love to write something that looks at prophecies from an unexpected angle, just to prove that you can breathe life into this tired plot device.

Any thoughts?