Category Archives: Writing Stuff

Intentional and Unintentional

So I’ve been struggling writing what I guess is the second-to-last part of Valkyrie Project 3 (as yet untitled). This sort of fear of the unknown has significantly dampened my enthusiasm for writing this story. So, this morning I said “Suck it up!” and just sat down and pushed my way through a scene for almost an hour, doing a lot of internal character “thinky” stuff while in my mind I did my own “thinky” stuff about what Ana was going to do when she was done lamenting her circumstances. (That’s a whole different story) I had to go through a ton of iterations (just mentally) but I finally hit on something that I really like. Now when I think about it, I’m acutally excited to go back and fill in some foreshadowing and write a couple other scenes I’d been putting off!

Also, in searching for an appropriate image to go with this post, I kind of realized that I’m unintentionally writing an Urban Fantasy novel. I think in some sense, that’s what I’ve been doing all along… Just writing really techy urban fantasy. Which also makes sense since Shadowrun was one of my favorite settings growing up (even though I only actually played the game like once).

For a more quantitative update, I’m up to 61,000 words, which means I’ve done 11,000 words for VP3 since my May 2nd post at 50,0000. Only 2,444/month, but that’s better than the 926 I averaged in the 6 months before that. My rough goal based on what I know I need to write is 83,000, so if I continue at 2,444, that’s 9 months. Yikes. Luckily, the next 3.5 months include NaNoWriMo and a generally higher overall output (yes, I track this on a spreadsheet). I’ve been averaging 6,000+ so far this year; just haven’t dedicated all that to VP3. Now that I’m in a better headspace about it, I should be able to crank out 22,000 words in the next 2 months. Does that mean it’ll be ready for revisions? I don’t know. I might find a bunch of scenes that I’ve left out once I read through it. TVP and WTP were both closer to 100,000 words, and VP3 feels like a bigger book than either of those, so I have this nagging feeling like I’m missing some connective tissue around all the bones of the story.

Okay, that was a lot more than I initially intended to write, so I’m going to stop there. Back to the words that matter. 😀

PS: Sorry for the lame blog post title. This started as a Facebook post where you don’t need a title… Which is probably what led to the scattershot braindump.

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Amazon is changing the Goodreads game

A couple months ago, I tweeted:

Well, the changes are moving from mostly aesthetic, user experience enhancements to actual new features. A couple weeks ago, I got one of the usual emails from Goodreads notifying me there was a Giveaway for a book on my To Read list. That happens regularly, but when I clicked through to enter the Giveaway, I saw this:

Goodreads Kindle Giveaway

Now, if I were still blogging about fantasy basketball, this would be like the equivalent of Hassan Whiteside’s free agency decision coming up this summer (ie: a big deal to people involved in the game, but fairly meaningless to the general population). I would have been all over it, reporting it as soon as I saw the alert on my phone. But here it’s been a month since the official Goodreads blog post about it, and 2 weeks since I first got the email… It’s probably been reported all over the writing/marketing/self-publishing blogs and KBoards, but I don’t really hawk those like I used to. Plus, this way I get to provide my own, unbiased opinion and analysis. Yay?

What’s the big deal?

That little image nestled in there next to the word Format. It says Amazon Kindle.

Who cares?

Well, author’s (and publishers) have always been able to give away hard copies of books on Goodreads. It’s a great marketing tool, since Goodreads promotes the Giveaway for you on the site and there are plenty of people who enter giveaways for books in genres they like without knowing anything about the book beforehand. But creating a paperback version (even using Amazon’s Creatspace) is a lot of extra work compared to making an ebook available for Kindle.

Not only that, but giving away ebooks is a lot cheaper. Giving away a paperback (or other hard copy) costs the base price of the book (printing and shipping). For The Valkyrie Project, that means about $7 per copy given away. In contrast, the Kindle giveaway costs a fixed price of $119 and you can give away up to 100 copies. I’m not sure why you’d do less than 100 if your goal is to get copies into the hands of as many people as possible (which is usually the goal with any indie marketing effort). So obviously, that’s only $1.19 per copy – almost 6 times cheaper.

So that’s huge by itself, but I also believe that giving away ebooks on Goodreads is much more likely to yield reviews (the lifeblood of books and authors) than making the same ebook free on Amazon via KDP Select. I don’t have any actual proof, but it’s logical because people who join Goodreads do so to keep track of books they’re reading and review them. There’s really nothing else to do there. People on Amazon generally want many other things in addition to books.

And, as they point out in the blog post, when someone reviews your book on Goodreads (or even most of the time if they just add it to their To Read list), it will show up in the feed that all of their friends will then see on the site.

Once this rolls out to the general author population on Goodreads, Amazon will have provided authors with yet another fantastic marketing tool. And now is the part where you can chime in with your worries that by giving away only Kindle copies, authors and readers are locking themselves into Amazon’s platform. I am well aware that is exactly what Amazon is trying to get everyone to do. But it’s not any different from, as one of thousands of examples, Apple Music giving away 3 months free to try to get people to join that service, or Tidal music getting Kanye’s album exclusively for 2 weeks before everyone else to try to get people to join that service. I don’t want Amazon to gain a monopoly on ebook sales, for sure, but I also hope that people who worry that Amazon is going to begin acting like a monopolist and exploiting authors remember that without Amazon, there likely wouldn’t even be a market for ebooks big enough to sustain the careers of as many authors as now make a full-time living from their writing. (I’m certainly not one of them, nor do I ever think I will be, but I am happy that writers now have that option and can actually earn a comfortable living as a midlist author instead of living on ramen until striking gold and then eating only cavier)

Really, this is just another step in the evolution of Goodreads, Kindle Unlimited, and Amazon as a whole, an iterative process in which Amazon figures out (or guesses) what customers want and gives it to them. And while it may not be exactly what authors want (for example – you don’t get the contact info for winners of the Giveaway), smart authors will use it to get what they want (by putting email list signups links in their ebooks, or perhaps making note of the winners on Goodreads and following up to see if they leave reviews on the site).

Bonus New Feature

Something else Amazon/Goodreads added in May was Goodreads Deals. I’m hesitant to say that this feature will be much less important/impactful than Kindle Giveaways because I feel like it could turn out to be just as big a deal in the right circumstances (and in the perfect circumstances, even more so). But, it isn’t clear — even from the blog post aimed at authors and publishers — how books get listed as Goodreads Deals in the first place… Indie authors can’t discount prices on ebooks. They can only price their ebook relative to their paperback version to make it look like a better deal than getting the hard copy.

If the Goodreads Deal becomes something that can be sent out when an author makes use of their Kindle Countdown days on KDP Select, then it will be a useful way to contact potential readers (especially if you get a lot of people to add your book to their To Read lists by chaining it with the Giveaway feature above).

The more likely option, when beta testing is complete, is that Goodreads Deals will be similar to rental lists from sites like Bookbub or Freebooksy, where authors can apply to be part of an email blast (and probably give Amazon some money for the favor). One clear advantage that Amazon has over the other free and discount book lists is that it gets a 30 or 70% direct cut from all of the books sold, rather than just an affiliate fee. In order to appear somewhat more impartial, they do allow for deals on the other major ebook retailers, but Amazon certainly knows that they have 60-80% of the ebook market, so they can afford to include the other companies. It’s a small price to pay to please Goodreads users and continue to have the opportunity to eventually move them into the Kindle and Amazon ecosystem (through the Kindle Giveaways, of course).

monopoly

Judging A Book By It’s Cover [Independent/Self-Publishing]

One of the first things that any independent publisher giving advice to other independent publishers says is: Write a good book, have it professionally edited, and get a good cover for it.

Those are the three central tenants of self-publishing. I’m not going to even bother looking up and linking to references because I’ve seen it on just about every site I’ve ever read about self-publishing (sometimes multiple times).

The other thing I see on most of the sites dispensing that advice is a lack of supporting evidence. By that, I mean: How does anyone know that these are the most important things to publishing a book? Is there an experiment that can prove it?

Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way to quantify whether you’ve written a good book or not. I suppose you could write a book, throw it up on Amazon and watch your numbers for some amount of time… then somehow “make it better” and upload the new, better version and see if you sell more copies. Theoretically, if you did end up selling more without changing anything else you’re doing, then you could attribute the increase in sales to the fact that people reading it are recommending it more to friends who then buy it. That’s a tenuous connection, and it assumes, as stated, that you don’t change anything else you’re doing. Not only that, but you’d have to make sure you don’t get any new reviews on Amazon (or Goodreads) because those negative or positive reviews will certainly influence whether or not someone discovering the book will buy it. (Since that’s exactly what the rating system is designed to do)

There are a lot of other outside factors that would have to be controlled, but even if you could plausibly eliminate some external variables as causes for an increase in sales, it’s going to be a pretty painful experiment and one that I’m pretty sure no author would willingly take on unless it was under a pen name. The same thing applies to professional editing. You could put up a book that hasn’t been professionally edited, and see how it sells, then have someone edit it and see if your numbers go up. The same restrictions and caveats apply to this case.

So that leaves the book’s cover.

I imagine it’s hard (especially for those authors who are writing and promoting a lot more than me) to devise an experiment where the only variable is the cover. But as someone selling in the single digits per year with only one book out (last year, this was), and doing basically 0 promotion, it was actually pretty easy for me.

The numbers below will probably make people laugh, but I’m posting them so you can see the actual values and not just a hand-waving conclusion to my bold experiment. I’m also posting them just to be honest with other indie/self-publishers who will (hopefully) end up on this page at some point. This can be the reality of it if you’re not good at marketing (or if I’m really being honest, just don’t want to put the time into it) and you only have one book out. (My reading on the subject tells me that the 4th rule of self-publishing is: Don’t bother promoting if you only have 1 book. It’s much better to hit it big when you have a bunch of books out.) Lucky for me, I have a day job with health insurance that pays well enough that I’m not a starving artist. In fact, I usually have more calories available to me than I could possibly consume on a regular basis, so I have to work out and eat right or I’ll end up as the opposite of a starving artist. Now, perhaps if I were a starving artist, and writing books to sell was the best option I had for making money, then I’d skip the extra hours that I put in at work and spend more time marketing. But that’s kind of a whole different blog post… so let’s proceed.

Book Cover Experiment

From 2012 when The Valkyrie Project was originally published until November of 2015, I had this cover:

valkyrie-project-cover-200w267h

I thought it was pretty decent considering I had done it myself. I still think it is decent considering I did it myself, but decent doesn’t sell books in this day and age.

And as proof, with that cover:

January 2015 – October 2015 sales (before cover change): 3

There’s no missing 0 there. It’s just 3.

I uploaded a new cover – no other changes – at the start of November 2015. It looked like this:

The Valkyrie Project final ebook cover

November 2015 – December 2015 sales (after cover change): 12

Yes, I went from 0.3 books per month to 6 books per month simply by changing the cover image.

Now, with only 15 total sales, I’m sure some statistician will say that I don’t have a big enough sample size, but I think the dramatic increase in sales makes up for that fact. Especially considering I did nothing different in those two months.

“But wait!” the astute among you will say, “Didn’t you release another book at the end of 2015? Certainly that had some effect on the sales numbers! Your experiment is not as flawless as you claim!”

Yes, I did in fact release a book at the end of 2015, but the 12 sales from November to December all took place before I announced that book and even before it was available on Amazon. So while you steely-eyed bean counters are correct in part, the addition of that book to my inventory did not have an effect on the 12 sales of the Valkyrie Project.

Weathering The Past has done pretty well since it’s release, most of which I attribute to the cover:

Weathering The Past Final

I am sure it’s harder to sell the second book in series (and I have heard/seen anecdotal evidence to support that), so the fact that I’ve sold more copies (15) of Weathering The Past in the first 2 months than I did in 3 years (up to October 2015) with The Valkyrie Project makes me happy (even though it has no bearing on nor relevance to the above experiment). And honestly, now that the book(s) is(are) actually selling a bit, it has inspired me to increase my output and stay focused instead of bouncing around between projects as I have been doing probably a bit too much recently. But that also could fill a whole other blog post.

Yet Another NaNoWriMo Recap: A Writer’s Season Never Ends

NaNo-2015-Participant-Badge-Large-Square

I still haven’t “won” NaNoWriMo, but every time I do it, I get a little bit closer. And even though I never win, I learn a lot, which is what allows me to get even closer on the next try.

That said, let me share my “tips” such as they are, which in this case are intended mostly to encourage fellow writers who might be perennial “losers” like me.

For me, it’s NeWriMoMo

It’s a subtle difference. I am sure there are plenty of NaNoWriMo purists out there. “You must start at the beginning of a novel and write 50,000 words of that novel.” Sure, that’s cool. If you don’t write during the rest of the year and you haven’t developed a more customized, personalized approach. For me, NaNoWriMo is just a time when I put aside pretty much everything else and just focus on writing. NeWriMoMo: “Ne”ls “wri”tes “mo”re than he does in other “mo”nths. If you can crank out a book in November, then go on to revise and publish it and have a one book per year output, more power to you. There’s no way I can do that. First off, I’ve only ever gotten 35,000 words in a single month, which is barely half of a short novel. Second, I’ve found that I like to bounce around between books when I get stuck. I know that this is anathema to a lot of writers, and most especially to writers who like to give advice. They want to write a book straight through and finish and have it published, and I understand that. But this is about me writing more than I usually do. It’s about trying to get 50,000 words. I don’t expect anything from NeWriMoMo to be even close to publishable (after revision, sure, but not in any relatively short time frame).

Think about the mathematics of it (because that’s what I do). Say I write 10,000 to 20,000 words across 2 books in an average month (20,000 being on the very high side). If, in November, I write 10,000 words across 5 different books, then it’s still 10,000 more words than I would have had on 2-3 of those books and about what I would have done on the other 2-3, so it’s still a net positive. I’m not hurting myself compared to my normal output.

Perhaps it’s a poor analogy, but it’s kind of like when people talk about the “Fat Burning Zone.” I’ve seen advice that people should run slower when working out to keep their heart rate in the “fat burning zone.” That’s great for people who are just getting started running because it allows them to actually get into it and do it. But for people who have been running a while and want to really burn the fat, running faster will burn more calories. Even if that means you’re burning more calories which are stored in carbohydrates and protein, you’re burning more calories overall, so you typically end up burning more fat calories as well. (Of course, then it also helps if you eat a higher proportion of carbs and protein so that you don’t just get back all the fat calories you worked so hard to burn, but still, like my writing, it’s a net positive)

And besides: I prefer Christine Carter’s approach of “The Easiest Thing” (from her book The Sweet Spot). The idea is: in order to get yourself to start doing a new habit, start with whatever is the easiest possible thing. I believe one of her examples was, if you want to start running, put on your running clothes and go outside. If you don’t feel like running, you’re already in your clothes and outside, so maybe you’ll just go for a walk? Or maybe you’ll just go back inside. (I may be totally mangling that example, but it’s the idea I’m going for) Same thing with my writing. What’s the easiest thing in writing? Sit down at my computer and look at Scrivener (I leave the app open so I don’t even have to click to open it because that would make the easiest thing a little bit harder). Once I’ve gotten that far, I know the next easiest thing is to write a sentence. And once I write a sentence, the next sentences start to come. And sometimes they don’t. If that happens, I’ve got other projects to look at. I’ll flip through open projects until one of them strikes me.

Okay. Yes. I know this is not the best way. But it’s only during NaNoWriMo that I allow myself more than 2 (or 3) projects. During my normal writing I’ve usually got 2 fiction projects (usually similar in genre so I don’t have to context switch as much), and 1 sort of non-fiction. During NaNoWriMo, I’ll usually add another fiction project from a previous NaNoWriMo that I only work on during NaNoWriMo, and another fiction project which is brand new so I’ve got plenty of open road ahead of me.

I know this works for me. It’s not just a whim. It’s a defined method/process I’ve created to increase my output in a systematic way. So besides allowing yourself to just break the rules of NaNoWriMo by working on a novel that’s already in progress and/or working on several different novels, my advice is to be aware of how you work and don’t restrict yourself to working one way just because you think that’s how writers are supposed to do it. Writers are artists, but at the same time, they have to produce something if they want to sell it. So the ability to create that balance between the creative and logical sides of your brain is important to develop.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas, your process, and your life. When I first started drinking protein shakes, I tried making them by – as the name suggests – shaking them. It didn’t work. They came out all clumpy and borderline undrinkable. So I switched to using a blender and they turned out much better. “Great story Nels,” I can hear you saying, but that’s not the end. Not much later, I found a better tasting and even healthier protein powder. But I continued using the blender and didn’t even think to go back and try the shake method with the new powder until my wife final got lazy smart enough to just be like “I’m just going to shake one and see if it works.” Lo and behold! It worked like a charm bracelet on the horn of a unicorn. Now, imagine that your books are different kinds of protein power and your writing process is shaking them up. The process that makes an unreadable word soup out of one book might make something smooth and delicious for your reader’s brains with that same process. But you won’t know unless you try.

A Writer’s Season Never Ends

At the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m still trying to write 800+ words/day to reach my goal for the year. Part of that is because I spent a lot of time earlier in the year revising Weathering The Past (Book 2 of The Valkyrie Project series), and part of it is because I was tired after all the revising and let myself off the hook a little too much.

But a Writer’s Season Never Ends. As much as I’d like the revision of a book to be the playoffs and the publication to be winning the championship, I don’t yet have the rhythm to make that analogy work. And while it might actually be a decent analogy if you stretch it a bit, writers don’t really have a regular season either. The off-season and the regular season are pretty much the same. You don’t get to take a break. I read an article in Chicago Magazine about Jimmy Butler’s off-season and his schedule of waking up at 5am every day and practicing three times a day sounds a lot like my writing schedule. I’m writing this post at 5am, and I write on the train or at lunch and – especially during NaNoWriMo – I force myself to write more after work even when my brain is dead and my words/hour rate slows to about 100. There’s no part where you show off in front of an audience (certainly not while traveling the country). If that sounds like a book tour, then it means the regular season comes after the playoffs and the championship and so the analogy is fundamentally broken. In which case, I’ll repeat it again: A Writer’s Season Never Ends.

But don’t worry too much. Because if you attempted NaNoWriMo – even if you didn’t win – it will be much easier to keep writing now. After reaching for 1,667 words per day, trying for 800 seems almost pedestrian. It’s like playing ball against Jimmy Butler for a month and then going back to play at your local gym.

easy_button

Bonus Tip

Get Hulu Unlimited. During November, I had to try to keep up with Blindspot and Agents of SHIELD (pretty much the only two shows I watch anymore). With Hulu Unlimited (aka No Commercials), I was able to crank out an episode in less than 45 minutes while I did elliptical; multi-tasking which allowed me to get back to writing that much faster. Before the no commercials option, I would be there for at least 50 minutes, which is a long time on the elliptical, believe me. Or I’d have a show with 5 more minutes that I needed to watch. (I had to watch them in November because even with Unlimited, the episodes still expire so you have to keep up within the last 5 episodes). Outside of working out, it’s totally worth the $4/month for the time savings on watching shows with my wife. I haven’t actually calculated the ROI in terms of amount paid for time saved, but at about 13 cents a day, it doesn’t take much. And no, I don’t work for Hulu or any TV networks or anything else affiliated with Hulu. I just happen to like TV as well as being efficient.

Writing Playlists – Valkyrie Project

Writing Playlist Covers

As Weathering The Past nears readiness for publication, I’m trying to figure out ways to market it without just pimping the book directly; to say something besides just “buy my book!”

So, to give you an idea of the different aspects that went into writing the second book in the The Valkyrie Project series and, honestly, just to share some music that I really like, I’ve made the playlists that I used when writing Weathering The Past public on Spotify. (Since Spotify is free, I believe anyone should be able to listen just by giving them your email address – or a fake email if you really want)

I think (okay, I know) most writers have playlists that they use when writing to get them in the right mood or mindset. I don’t remember seeing any post more than just a single album, artist, or playlist for their writing, though. I’m guessing they have them, but they’re just trying to be concise. Since the scenes in my books vary in tone and emotion (I hope!), it definitely helps me to have a particular playlist to help with the kind of scene I’m writing.

For Weathering The Past, there were three main types of feelings that I wanted to get. Not all of the scenes match up to one of these three exactly, but for the most part, I found that three lists was a good number to work with. The first… well, there is a lot of action in the book. So, I needed a playlist that would get me psyched up. I considered using Barney’s Get Psyched Mix from How I Met Your Mother, but it’s a bit heavy on the 80’s and I like to stay current on my music. So, I seeded a playlist with some classic Get Psyched songs and then slowly evolved it, adding new songs to replace ones that I got tired of, to end up with the current Valkyrie Project – Amped mix. You’re lucky because I went through a bit of an EDM phase in the middle, most of which has been culled, replaced with songs that I think are generally more palatable.

The next most prevalent emotion was ‘tension’ or ‘drama’. This generally meant slower, quieter, and mostly instrumental tracks. Selections from a lot of movie and video game scores. Some of these were used for action scenes as well, but the kind of action scenes where something very dramatic is culminating or coming to a head. I think you’ll get a good idea of what I mean when you hear it… Valkyrie Project – Dramatic.

Finally, there is the Valkyrie Project – Emotion list. This was used for scenes where I was trying to rip tears from the eyes of readers. I don’t think there’s as many of those in Weathering The Past as compared to The Valkyrie Project, though. That was a conscious effort on my part to make it a bit lighter, include more ‘fun’, and go with more of the scenes that would fit into the ‘Dramatic’ playlist rather than ‘Emotion.’ Based on feedback from the early readers who have finished both books, I don’t think I did as as good a job of that as I wanted, but the overall feedback was very positive for the second book, so I’m not going beat myself up too much.

As I begin work on the third book in the series, I will continue to listen to and to evolve these playlists, so go ahead and ‘Follow’ them to take advantage of Spotify’s excellent notification system.