I’ve been writing short stories for a long time, and scratching out story ideas for even longer. Long before I started writing the things you’ve read. Given that experience, you might think that I knew a lot about writing.
In some ways I did, but in others I’d been sheltering from some harsh realities that have become clear over time.
None of these ‘lessons’ are particularly unexpected, but experience isn’t the discovery of new information, it’s the calibration of the information you already have, as you discover what really matters.
Here’s some of what I’ve learned in about a year of writing and trying to publish my work.
There’s a reason things are done a certain way.
I’ve given my current work (the Emily Voss series), an unorthodox structure.
Novels are traditionally over 40k words long, and typically a lot longer than that. The market evolved that way because that’s what people like to read. It’s long enough for full immersion, provides value in return for the cost and effort of choosing a story, and it’s short enough that you’re not committing to a month of struggle if it doesn’t work for you.
I love the structure I’ve given my Emily Voss stories. Episodic, with bite-sized chunks of 10k words each that you can purchase in sets of three. It makes it easy and convenient to give the first episode away for free. It’s like a TV series, fits a shortened attention span, and gives me the satisfaction of seeing the story proceed in discrete, publishable sections.
However: I would definitely not do it this way a second time. For a whole host of reasons.
- It’s not perceived as a full-length novel by people who buy it, even though it’s much longer than a short story and 3 episodes (30k words) is long even for a novella. Each volume of 3 stories sits uncomfortably between novella and novel length.
- It will be longer than an average novel when it’s finished, but each bit is individually shorter than a traditional novel, so it misses the target on both the short and the long end.
- It made investing in cover design a difficult decision. Do I need one, four or twelve covers for 12 episodes published in 4 volumes? That can add up to a lot of money. Reusing the same cover damages the marketing.
- I get the piecemeal satisfaction of publishing regularly, but I’ve diluted the satisfaction of finishing a novel.
Writing is work.
You know this when you start writing, because everyone tells you as much. But it gets lost in the enthusiasm you have for the newness of your story idea. “Sure,” you say, “it’s work”. But doesn’t feel like work at the beginning because you’re having too much fun writing the unconstrained first pages of your new novel idea.
The real struggle begins somewhere after your first 10k words, when you need to pick up the characters and move them, and the story, on from there. Gradually, certain aspects of the writing exercise begin to feel like going to the gym on a cold day. You don’t want to do it. You have to force yourself.
Then, a bit later, you realize that you’ve written something you really like despite the difficulty of the process, and your enthusiasm comes rushing back, after a period in which you put one word in front of the next absent that sense of wonder that accompanied the first few chapters.
Treating it like work helps defuse this difficulty, by managing expectations. But since I actually have a job, it’s very difficult to turn to my writing in my spare time when it feels like more of the same. I write partly as an escape from my job, not an extension of it.
Pick a process. Stick with it.
There are two ways you can write fiction. You can imagine your characters and an inciting incident, and then see where the events take them as you progress. Alternatively, you can plan your novel out with all the beats and acts prepared in advance, and a clear sense of how you get from milestone to milestone, then join the dots.
Both approaches work. One is not superior to the other.
What doesn’t work is when you move from one to the other and back again, breaking the structure you set out because you’ve had a ‘better idea’, only to realize you’ve now written things that make it impossible to return to the original storyline. It is for this reason that I’ve had to tear up episode 5 twice, and start again.
You’re in it for the long haul. Your dreams of quick wins are exactly that: Dreams.
Like most things in life, momentum is built up incrementally. You can’t expect to start something today and compete with the best in your industry in six months. Nobody hits racing pace two steps into their journey.
Unfortunately, society keeps showing us examples of people who did just that. Overnight successes. That’s because we’re inspired by outliers, not people like us, and we all see ourselves as outliers. Our expectations can get a little distorted. The truth: that overnight success was several years in the making, and most of the greatest success stories got there after years of effort.
You write a book one chapter at a time, and it takes a lot of chapters to make a book. You make money in publishing one book at a time, and it’s only when you have several published books that readers can go buy more of your work when they enjoyed something you wrote. My commercial portfolio is all short stories and novellas, which doesn’t really attract that kind of following, and doesn’t have much potential for cross-selling as it stands today. I need to complete longer novels, and more than one of them.
It’s also easy to get distracted by the marketing. I have a website, this newsletter, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Patreon page. These are not frivolous luxuries I do for fun, they’re essential to the effort of getting your book(s) in front of readers. That all takes time to monitor, update, refresh and maintain. The better you get at doing that efficiently, the more time you can dedicate to the heart of the job: writing.
Unfortunately, you get a more reliable dopamine rush from interations with your readers on social media than you do from a day spent at the coal face, so your brain’s reward circuit works against you. You have to be aware of this and counteract it consciously.
Becoming aware of all the above has been key to restoring my own productivity after an initial burst of enthusiasm that produced Episode 1 of Emily Voss. The key lesson is ‘just keep going’, because even a book is built one word, one page, one chapter and one rewrite at a time. It’s all progress, even the phrases and chapters you discard later on, because it’s all part of the process of getting to a finished product.