Writer, Meter Thyself

Do yourself a favor, writers, and start a wordcount spreadsheet. Fill it in every day. If you wrote nothing today, type 0 into the cell. There are two benefits to this that I’ve seen in my writing.

First, numbers have an interesting effect on our psychology. On a day where you write little or nothing you’ve probably got a list of excuses prepared for yourself. You see, we humans are good at telling ourselves why we don’t suck. But when you enter a “0″ onto a spreadsheet and your “daily average” count updates, the sharp drop in your productivity hurts. That number won’t comfort you, it won’t make excuses for you or be understanding. It merely is. Most people react to this by vowing to make up for lost time and do better the next day, rather than accepting that it was out of their control. Likewise, when your stats improve you get a nice little drip of dopamine.

The second benefit is that you can build a real understanding of your productivity. On a day you record a horrible wordcount, your natural instict is probably to figure out why it happened. You’ll look back at that day and analyze it more objectively than if you were looking for excuses, and you’ll do it that day rather than later when the details are fuzzy.

Once you keep a spreadsheet (and writing journal), you’ll begin to notice patterns and uncover what causes you to do better or worse. One last bit of advice: don’t hold yourself to the wordcounts that other people put out, whether better or worse than yours. That’s them, and you are you. Knowing yourself, however, can only help you improve.

Adverbs, and When to Use Them

Adverbs are evil, or so they say. Literature has benefited a lot from that advice, but as with all rules for writing it can go too far. There are proper times to use adverbs, and you can apply another common bit of writing advice to tell yourself when to do so.

“Show, don’t tell.”

Huh? How does that relate to adverbs? Because the role of adverbs is the same as the role of narrative: to gloss over, make abstract, generalize, or summarize. Consider this sentence:

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Lennil said carefully.

For the moment, ignore the question of whether to attach adverbs to a speaker attribution. What does the word “carefully” mean in this sentence? It means that Lennel spoke in a careful manner. Dig deeper and ask yourself what it means to speak in a careful manner. My answer would be: “to speak in a controlled, conscious way, making sure not to be tricked into saying something incriminating or give away certain information or make mistakes, possibly speaking with a hesitating rhythm or some difficulty of speech.”

Wow. All of that contained in one word, with at least three reasons someone could be speaking “carefully”. This is what adverbs do. They package a whole slew of descriptions into one word. While this can be a boon for making your prose brief, you always sacrifice something when using an adverb. Consider these passages as replacements for the above.

#1 What was she getting at? He’d already told her when he’d been at the liquor store. And why connect that with the shooting?

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

#2 He tried to remember the story he’d fed her earlier but the booze was making it all fuzzy. He stalled.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

#3 “So that means you were there right at the time of the shooting.”

She watched his face for a reaction and, sure enough, he narrowed his eyes for a fraction of a second.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

#4 He surprised her by going stiff all over and avoiding her eyes.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Now, critique of my prose aside, what can you notice about how I changed things? The dialogue itself does a pretty good job of telling us that he is being careful. I also set up each example with a motive or observation. When you get to the dialogue, you’ve already got a feeling for how he’s going to say it. One more thing you should notice is that I’ve taken the opportunity to add characterization to the scene rather than wrap up the dialogue with a one-size-fits-all adverb.

You’ll find other benefits to replacing adverbs. Drawbacks? It’s harder and takes more words. Of course, there are times where you just want to throw in an adverb anyway. In general you should observe the surrounding text and ask if an adverb will help the pacing. If so, go ahead and drop an adv-bomb. Otherwise you’re probably missing out on a richer text.

Prodding the Alpha

A great advantage to self-publishing is being able to work on your own schedule, right? Except there’s also the cover designer’s schedule, editors’ schedules, alpha readers’ schedules…

I can’t do anything about most of those. I can do something about my alpha reader, though. Any time an alpha reader drags their heels, I strongly recommend this three step plan:

Bribery

Do them a favor of some kind first. Casually mention your story project and how it’s going. This gives them a reminder that you need them to finish reading the story before you can continue, and also gives them a reason to feel obligated to you. If they still don’t pick up the pace then apply the next step.

Guilt

Now that the alpha owes you something, you have leverage. If they don’t finish reading your manuscript soon enough, make them feel bad about it. Bad enough to question whether their word or, yes, even they themselves have worth if they don’t finish marking up your hard copy.

Destroy, Destroy, Destroy

Begin with everything the alpha holds dear, then move on to hopes and dreams, and only then proceed to their fingers and toes. I’m sorry bro, but I warned you about this. I HAVE A PUBLISHING SCHEDULE TO KEEP.

Finally through with all of the marketing baloney

I had an excellent time reading this article by Lindsay Buroker earlier in the evening late last night. It was an excellent time because 1. it confirms my own thinking on the matter (not a great reason) and because 2. it had excellent logic and proof to support it’s claims (great reason). The crux of the article was this, that marketing is not going to help anyone sell books, unless that person has a nice catalog to generate secondary sales.

Spamming Twitter and manicuring your Facebook and building a mailing list etc etc etc is all fine, except when it keeps you from putting more work up for sale. Blogging about writing: how does that help? It helps me vent, and that’s why I’ll continue to do it.

What this all means for me is cutting back on the writing activities I do that don’t involve actual writing. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole indie publishing movement and chat with others about it. That earns neither money nor readers. It’s also easy to feel guilty about ignoring what others are saying is the most vital thing for a writer to do so they can be discovered. I’ll worry about that when I have enough work to be discovered.

Did Stephanie Myers only get the crust of the bread?

Just read a thought-provoking analysis over at Mary Sisson’s blog. We don’t know the exact numbers, but it seems like Stephanie Myers was paid… well, less than she was worth.

When a talent like Mz. Myers comes out with a phenomenal bit of pop culture like the Twilight saga, you expect her to profit from it. And she has. But you would expect her to get a more equitable portion of the profits. If she had self-published the books, would she have met the craze that made her famous? Possibly. Amanda Hocking’s success can reasonably be said to come from following the road Mz. Myers paved.

If Mz. Myers had published through KDP, she would have gotten a much fatter profit per sale on a less expensive product. If her books were a craze before, imagine if they were priced at $4.99 and earned her over $3.50 per sale. According to Mary Sisson’s blog post, the market for her work was worth at least $180 million in one year.

A lower price point expands the market for a product. If Mz. Myers, as a self-pubbed author, could have captured at least a quarter of the same sized market over time, then she would have made twice the $21 million she made in the year between May 2010 – May 2011. That doesn’t take into consideration the royalties she will continue to earn from her book, but then that’s probably at the 17.5% rate most traditional publishers give, rather than 70% on a better-priced book.

The only thing I can say against self-pubbing for Mz. Myers is that she would have lost the appeal that rippling abs give a book aimed at teen girls (and apparently middle-aged women).

Thanks once more to Mary Sisson for the analysis.

Is he really suggesting a $0.00 advance?

“This might be too radical, but if a book hasn’t earned out, and isn’t earning much, the publisher could consider restructuring the contract with the author.  Erase the advance, and work out a profit sharing model that gives the author incentive to seriously promote.  Right now many authors are locked into contracts where they have a disincentive to promote in the vain hopes they might get their rights back.  Or offer the authors a chance at buying their rights back with reverse royalties.”

This is a quote from Bob Mayer, writing at the Digital Book World Expert Publishing Blog. You can find the article here. The quote is near the bottom of the article.

The reason I found this worth quoting is that Mr. Mayer proposes this move as an incentive for authors to promote their own books. The problem is, he recognizes that many authors with current contracts already have an incentive to get the rights reverted to them by refusing to promote their own book. Exactly how do authors benefit by having their rights reverted to them? By self-publishing and making four times the money per ebook sale and taking 100% of the profit for further print editions.

The question that isn’t being asked is: If publishers cut out the advance, what incentive is there for an author to go with a publisher rather than self-publishing? The skills needed to bring a book to market can be hired out. What does the publisher offer when they give no advance and then take the lion’s share of the profits forever after? They’re definitely not offering marketing, since this proposal is meant to be an incentive to get authors to do more of their own marketing.

This suggestion was offered as a solution to a problem that publishers have. It’s written from that perspective. The thing is, it would only end up convincing writers to go elsewhere. From the perspective of a writer it’s an entirely negative move. Do more work and we’ll pay you less, or maybe just far more slowly.

Hey, folks? Why not offer more money? More money has been a proven incentive for getting people to do things. It seems obvious to me that you could get authors to do a heck of a lot more marketing by raising their royalties.

I guess I just don’t know how to think like a publisher. This looks like more of the “we are a brand, therefore we have value” thinking.