A Tale of Two Indie Authors

Numbers are hard to come by in publishing. However, I have come across two indie authors who have put their numbers out for everyone to see, in the hope that their their experiences will help other indie authors succeed. Neither of the authors are at the extreme limits of either pole, success or failure, but they represent good examples of the common experience towards either of those poles.

Let’s start with Ron Vital. I’ve updated this post with a link to his 2022 blog post. He has a full time job and writes on the side. Ron has been an indie author since 2011. He writes fairy tale and adventure fantasy with female leads. To date I believe he has 14 works of fiction and 5 non-fiction books. Each year since 2013 (save for 2019) he has posted on his blog, his experiences in self-publishing during that year. You can find his 2022 blog post here: https://www.ronvitale.com/blog/2022/12/22/what-i-learned-about-indie-publishing-in-2022-full-sales-figures It includes links to his other year end reports, all of which are well worth reading since he is an author who has tried all the different strategies that have been proposed to sell books over the years – mailing lists, advertising, free promotions, perma-free first books, you name it. He goes over how each of them worked, or didn’t work for him. He also reports his sales numbers, which I have collected below.

However, here are the numbers he has reported;

2011 – sales $295 expenses $200 3 fiction book

2012 – sales $295 expenses $500 lost $205 4 fiction

2013 – sales $295 expenses $500 lost $205 4 fiction

2014 – sales $607 expenses $1,055 lost $448 6 fiction

2015 – sales $1,002 expenses $1,729 lost $727 8 fiction

2016 – sales $1,188 expenses $2,842 lost $1,654 9 fiction 1 non-fiction

2017 – sales $854 expenses $4,856 lost $4,002 10 fiction 2 non-fiction

2018 – sales $611 expenses $3,121 lost $2,510 12 fiction 2 non-fiction

2019 – sales $1,047 expenses $2,542 lost $1,495 13 fiction 2 non-fiction

2020 – sales $1,596 expenses $2,173 lost $577 13 fiction 4 non-fiction

2021 – sales $2,258 expenses $4,256 lost $1,998 14 fiction 5 non-fiction

To sum them up, he has lost $13,494 in 10 years of self publishing.

As a business, losing $13,494 in ten years is not the type of result you’d want to see. But that’s looking at the glass half empty. Looking at it half full, as he does, he would argue that he’s in it for the long term. He’s building his intellectual property and learning skills that are laying the groundwork for a long career. To put that loss in perspective, someone might be able to pick up a second hand pop-up camper for that amount – and spend several weekends a year using it – it’s matter of priorities.

If we look a little closer at his numbers for 2021, he gave away 24,819 books as perma-free first books in his various series, advertising them in Book Barbarian, Fussy Librarian, and Freebooksy. But even giving away these first books for free only resulted in 523 books sold at full price. Plus, in his early indie publishing years, he’s given away at least 30,000 copies of his books as well via various promotions.

Given all the effort he has put into his publishing venture, I have to say that it seems that the stories he wants to write are not the stories an economically viable group of Amazon readers want to read. There are readers for every type of book. But if you are writing to make money, you need to focus your efforts on bestselling genres, and write books that deliver what those readers expect. And then spend a ton of money promoting them.

Speaking of a ton of money, we now turn to the indie author of science fiction, space fantasy, and writing advice non-fiction, Chris Fox. Chris Fox has been a full time indie publisher since at last 2016. Since 2016 he has posted an annual video on YouTube showing his results and analyzing them. You can find all these year end videos here: https://www.youtube.com/c/ChrisFoxWrites/videos For most years, he reports his sales numbers plus his expense. From his gross sales he pays himself a salary, and charges his healthcare costs and various book related expenses, like editing, advertising, covers, taxes etc. against his gross income, with any balance going into savings or into future projects. Below are his gross sales numbers on Amazon – on which he sells exclusively.

2016 – $170,000 9 fiction 5 non-fiction books on writing and marketing books.

2017 – $180,050 14 fiction 6 non-fiction

2018 – $194,900 17 fiction 7 non-fiction

2019 – $354,620 20 fiction 8 non-fiction

2020 – $272,288 29 fiction 8 non-fiction

2021 – $189,978 35 fiction 8 non-fiction

To achieve and maintain this level of sales, Chris spends upwards of $20,000 a year on advertising. He has written books on how to advertise, as well as how to write 5,000 words a day, and on various other aspects of indie publishing. They are in fact, some of his best selling books. In addition to spending a great deal of money promoting his books, he spends a great deal of time writing and managing his sales – the 12 to 15 hours per day type of time. However, in the last two years he’s had a young child in the house and not only has had to cut back a little, but hasn’t had 8 hours of sleep since his son was born.

Long story short, this type of sales involves spending both a lot of money and a lot of time to build and maintain the business. And even so, you will note the decline in sales over the last two years. despite the fact that he released 15 new books in that period, as well as a number of boxed sets that I didn’t include in my book total numbers.

He has responded to this downturn like all businesses, by cutting expenses. He now does things that he used to farm out to others. He claims he’s doing better than ever, but, like Ron Vital, he’s a glass is half full sort of person, so I take that with a grain of salt.

In 2021 he started releasing to books in his 10 volume fantasy series, in which he writes longer books, but fewer of them. He spent something like $15,000 on the first book to launch this new series, and it hadn’t earned back that investment in March 2022. However he launched two sequels with almost no advertising, so that the series as a whole was in the black to the tune of some $8,000 plus, in March, with more sequels on the way.

However, what I think what we’re seeing here is what happens when you burnout your readers with too many books released in too short of time – which paradoxically you have to do in the fast lane of indie-publishing just to stay on the radar of the avid, book or two a week (or more) readers. Such a pace may well burn out authors as well. Indeed, Chris, in his 2021 report talks about cutting back to two, and perhaps even one book a year going forward, as well as the need to develop other income streams.

Pick your poison. Be careful what you wish for. Be happy with what you are doing.

Draft2Digital (Part 2)

Great minds think alike. I was planning on posting this later this week, but since Mark has posted about his experiences with Draft2Digital in the post below, I’ll post mine now as a companion piece to his.

Ebook publisher Draft2Digital purchased Smashwords earlier this year. While the merger won’t be completed for something like another year, I was curious to see what D2D was all about, especially their beta program for print on demand books. I’d like to not only change the size of my paperback books, but offer them to selected bookshops. And since I know that bookshops don’t look favorably on Amazon, I’m looking for a (cheap) alternative POD service.

However, before I get to print books, I’ll give you an overview of D2D’s ebook process. They offer a series of videos on how to do things on their platform. I watched most of one, but being an old hand at ebook production, I figured I knew what I was doing. And mostly, I did. If you have set up your book with either Amazon or Smashwords the process will be familiar – up to a point. You start by supplying all the usual information about your book. All that is different here is the graphics, and the fact that they accept a wider variety of formats, including LibreOffice, which is the free program I use to write my books, so that I don’t have to convert them to Word like I do on Smashwords and Amazon.

But when it comes to downloading your manuscript, things change. You should only download the body of your book – chapter one to the end – because D2D will give you the option to add a title page, a copyright page, a dedication page, an “also by” page, an email signup page, a teaser page, and a bio pager and a publisher pages. You choose what extra pages you want, and add the necessary data, like the text of the dedication, your bio, etc. The “also by” page automatically includes the books published by D2D – but not others.

One issue I had was that the copyright page defaults for new books, so that if you bring an older book into the system it will show that it was copyrighted in 2022, with no option to change it. It is my understanding that you cannot copyright a work again unless there are very significant changes to it. While I doubt that the copyright police will pounce on you for this, it is an issue. The work around is fairly simple, do not include a dedicated copyright page, but add the copyright info to the dedication page.

As for the look of ebooks, they offer various artwork for chapter headings, that are related to the type of story the book is, if that’s your jam. The preview showed the text ragged right, but I believe that is handled by the ebook reader software, so it would probably appear justified on the reader.

As for distribution – they offer the usual suspects, plus a German and a French ebook store. They also offer expanded service to libraries. They did not let me price my books for free, at least on pre-order. I only signed up for those two stores that Smashwords doesn’t serve, and have zero expectations. I assume Smashwords titles will just seamlessly merge into D2D’s system when the time comes.

Now, on to paper books. Their system works much the same way as the ebook version. There are two ways to make a paper book; you can download your formatted book as a document or a PDF or you can use your ebook text and cover for the print on demand paper book.

I tried the first way, using both the LibreOffice and PDF versions of a paperback book that I worked up for Amazon in the new size. In both cases, the program messed up the title pages, which in turn, threw off the interior, so that the book started on the left hand page. I could find no way to fix the problem.

Next, I tried their ebook to paperback method. It worked as advertised. The default look is that the spine and back cover are a solid color, with your blurb on the top of the back cover. You can then add more stuff to fill it up. Stuff like your photo, bio, or some other images. You can also arrange the spine as you like; with either your name on the top of the spine or the title of the book, Plus you can add a publisher’s icon to the spine as well. They also allow you to use your own wrap-around cover. I tried this method using the cover I had made according to Amazon’s requirements, and it worked, even though the page count was different.

There are several drawbacks to this method, however. The first is simply a matter of personal preference. Using the ebook version of your story, the title page is page one. I don’t know how this strikes you, but for me it screams self-published/vanity press. A title page should be page 3 or page 5, if you have a frontispiece. The first page should be some type of blurb, the second; a “other books by this author” page, the third page, the title page, the fourth; the copyright page, the fifth; the dedication page, and the sixth, a map or a blank page facing the start of the story. That said, if you don’t mind opening the book to the title page, you’re good to go.

The second issue in using the ebook text for your paper version is that I believe it uses the font size of your ebook text. I use 12 pt text on the screen, and for a 5.25×8” book 12 pt seems a bit large. Because of this, my 2D2 version of my test book came in at 416 pages compared to 362 pages for the one I formatted myself with a slightly smaller font size.

The third concern I had was that D2D’s default price for this book was $19.99 which would pay you a royalty of about $2.35, compared to the book’s current Amazon price of $12.00. You can adjust the price, but cheapest I could price this book at was $14.99, yielding a $.20 royalty. Now, I don’t know how much I would make if my Amazon book was sold elsewhere, probably not much more than that. But I can certainly make a lot more money selling it on Amazon, where it is far more likely to sell. My other concern is how much an author’s copy would cost using this service, and how that system works. I didn’t dare to go that far into the system to find out.

Bottom line; if you are comfortable with a title page on page one, I think you could add enough info on the back cover to make it look halfway decent. Better yet would be creating your own wrap around cover if you’re comfortable doing that. I wonder if using a slightly smaller text for your ebook version would reduce the page count of the paper version. Ebook readers control the type size on their devices, so it shouldn’t matter.

I also explored their audiobook options. Basically, they have partnered with another company that will waive their usual set-up fees. It looks to be a company that will match your book with a narrator, but you can use your own existing audiobook as well. I can’t say too much more about this, as I didn’t go very deeply into it, as I didn’t feel like signing up for yet another service. But it is something I may look into at a later date.

So that’s my experience with D2D. They offer a lot of benefits and tie-ins with other companies that you might find helpful. But all in all, I don’ t think anyone with books on Smashwords is missing anything too important. Everything will come to those who wait.

Through Query Hell on a Lark

I am quite content to be an amateur author and self-publisher of speculative fiction stories. I enjoy everything I do as a writer and publisher, and avoid everything I don’t. And if I don’t make much money doing so, I don’t lose any either. So, I’m happy. But maybe a little bored.

Back when I published my first three novels, in 2015, there seemed to be the potential for something to happen. For lightning to strike. What did I know? In 2022 I do know. And what I know is that I’ll not be missing any buses to fame and fortune if I hold off self-publishing my new novel for a year while I try selling it to a traditional publisher.

A year and a half or so, ago Mark Paxson wrote about his efforts to get his novel The Dime traditionally published, You can read about his journey in these posts:

I’m embarking on that same journey through what is often called “Query Hell” more or less as a lark. Not having been hatched yesterday, I know that my odds of selling my novel are pretty close to zero. However, I think there is something to be said for simply having tried.

One motivating factor for me was that the British SFF publisher Gollancz had, in June, opened a one month long submission window for manuscripts by unagented authors. Since I wrapped up my novel in June, I researched how a manuscript should be formatted, and sent mine out to them, along with a cover letter and synopsis, as requested. I gather that they expected to receive 1,000 plus manuscripts during the month and hope to get back to everyone within 6 to 9 months. Which is fine, since it gives me a nice 6 to 9 month window to find an agent for my novel while I await word of its fate, with no temptation to fold early and self-publish the story.

For agents, I found a list of 141 agents accepting science fiction on the web site reedsy here: https://blog.reedsy.com/literary-agents/science-fiction/

I went down the list, copying only the info on agents who are accepting queries and open to the works of non-published writers. I then viewed the websites of their agencies to see their profiles to get a feel for what they were like and what type of stories they were looking to take on. I found 31 agents that I thought worth querying and rated each as to how promising they struck me. I also noted how they wanted the queries – letter only, letter & 5 pages of the manuscript, or letter and 10 pages, or if they used the query tracker web app instead. All this was the work of a few hours over two days.

Then I researched on how to write a query letter. There are plenty of guides online and on YouTube that tell you not only how to do it, but what not to do as well. Alexa Donna has a number of good YouTube videos that you can find here on the entire process: https://www.youtube.com/c/AlexaDonne/search?query=query%20letter

I wrote a hundred variations of it (just a guess) before settling on my current one.

I also wrote a 1,000 word synopsis of the novel for Gollancz and any agents wanting to see one.

In short, I think I did my homework. Or as much of it as necessary. I was never a lad for homework.

While there is no reason not to send queries out to everyone on the list all at once, I’m only sending out four a month. Sent out the first four yesterday. Better to savor the joy of the journey. And, with having to wait on Gollancz before I could self-publish the book anyway, I figure that I might as well spread out the query process, renewing my hope every month with a new batch of query letters. We’ll see how that goes…

Though I read Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness in high school, half a century ago, one image remains…

The edge of a colossal jungle, so dark-green as to be almost black, fringed with white surf, ran straight, like a ruled line… we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush… In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.”

I am quite sure Conrad was thinking about querying when he created this image.. Ah, the romance!

All that remains is for me to mutter, “The horror. The horror” six months from now.

I know that readers of this blog have gone through the same process, and no doubt some have succeeded in finding publishers. And there are probably others who are considering giving it a try. So how did you find the experience? Do you have any suggestions for others who would follow you down this path?

Audiobook Follow Up Report

Last month I posted about Google’s offer to convert the ebooks published in their Play Store into audiobooks for free. Unlike most audio books that use human narrators, these books would be generated using Google’s AI technology to convert the text into the spoken word. Google suggested that it would best for non-fiction books, but I decided to convert my fiction books anyway, since I don’t think my style of writing demands a lot of dramatic reading. And it was likely the only way I could enter the popular audiobook market. It has now been a month; so how has this experiment fared?

I offer my ebook catalog of 11 titles for free, and since Google was offering to create my audiobooks for free, I was happy to offer my audiobooks for free as well. In May 2022, the first month of their availability, with 11 titles available, I sold 434 audiobooks, in addition to 293 ebooks.

Ebooks first. My peak sales of ebooks to date on Google was 836 copies in October 2021 and they have been declining since then – 643, 633, 459, 409, 303, 390, so that May’s 293 sales total is more or less in line with that gradual decline. The audiobooks didn’t seem to have affected ebook sales one way or another.

As for audiobooks, well, with 434 books sold in one month with no advertising – I only posted their availability on my seldom visited blog two weeks ago – I have to believe that I’ve tapped into a whole new market. Only one audiobook has a rating, and though it is a 5 star rating, the jury is still out on how the AI generated narration fares with audiobook listeners. However, from my own listening, I am optimistic that they are good enough now, and will only get better as time goes on, since Google said that they will update the files automatically as their technology improves.

My standard is “Good Enough,” which is to say that all things considered, something is indeed good enough, even if it may be a couple percentage points short of perfection. If you hold yourself to a higher standard, then perhaps Google’s AI generated audiobooks may not be up to your standard. That said, I have listened to samples of audiobooks with a voice actor who uses different voices for different characters, and found it annoying. It seems that my golden standard for audiobooks is my dad reading bedtime stories to us as kids. I do know that the AI does a better job of reading books than I did with my own kids. So I think my audiobooks are good enough.

To take advantage of this technology, you have to offer your ebooks on the Google Play Store, though of course, you can charge money for them, and for the audiobooks as well, if that is your policy. Selling books for free is a magnitude or two easier than selling them for money, so your results will vary.

Create Audiobooks… For Free?

The audio book market continues to expand. I’ve read recently that while print and ebook sales rose 5% in 2021, audio books rose 18%. No doubt most self published authors have at least considered offering an audio version of their work. I must confess that I’ve never researched how to go about doing so, or how much it costs to create an audiobook, even though Smashwords offers links to audiobook narrators. Until now. Why now? Now, because the price has fallen to the point where I feel that I can afford it. Which is to say, I can convert my books to audiobooks for free.

Create audiobook versions of your ebooks for free? There must be a catch, you say. And you would be right. Several of them.

The first catch is that you have to publish your books on the Google Play Store. And the second is that this is a limited time beta program. I’ve had my books in the Google ebook store for a number of years now, and I was sent an email announcing this program. I don’t know how widely available it is, or whether or not if you put your books into the Google store now, if you would be eligible to take advantage of this beta version offer. The email implies that the program might not be a free service once it is out of beta. Still, it might be worth looking into, if you are comfortable with the big catch.

The biggest catch is, as you might suspect for the price, that the narration is being done by our AI overlords, not humans. So the question is, is it good enough? And that is one question that I am not equipped to answer, since I’ve listened only to a few parts of audio books – they are not my thing – so I’m not the person to judge whether or not the quality is acceptable or not.

Google suggests that it would be fine for non-fiction books without a lot of illustrations. But is it good enough for fiction? I think it might be, but not for the $20-$30 cost of a professionally produced audiobook. But as a low cost alternative… They might be acceptable.

You have your choice of 22 English speaking voices – 7 different American female voices, 5 American male voices, 1 female and 2 male Australian voices, 2 female and 2 male British voices, and 2 female and 3 male Indian voices of different age groups. Which gives you a good variety of narrators, though, of course, none of them are likely to match the narrator or character in your head. But that might be said for human narrators as well.

Here is a link to sample the various voices for English, as well as Spanish: https://support.google.com/books/partner/table/10957334?p=narrator_library

From the sample that I have listened to, the AI voice is aware of the context of what it is reading. And while it will not match the narration of a good voice actor, it is far from the robotic voices of some years ago. I have been expecting this – AI generated audio books – to happen for some time, and I am sure the process will only get better over time. So while the voice sounds quite human, the biggest downside I see – or rather hear – is that the AI narrates the story in a single voice. I believe that good narrators will narrate characters in different voices, so that you have a better sense of who is saying what. Without that change in voice, it can be sometimes hard to follow who is speaking. Though that will depend, in part, on how you use dialog tags and your writing style.

But when you consider the current price – and the fact that you can download the files and sell them on platforms other than Google – as long as you continue to sell them on Google – it seems like a pretty good deal. A deal that I found that I could not pass up, if only to see what type of sales and feedback I get with them. They can always be unpublished, should I find a strong negative reaction to them. Still, the way I see it is that these would, at the very least, be a way of getting my foot into the audio book door. And, since I can publish them at the cost of my ebooks – which is to say, free – I believe that my customers will get their money’s worth, no matter what.

If you are curious to hear how they sound, you can download one of my free books to sample by going to the Google App Store Book, Audio Books and search for C. Litka.

Pick-up Lines

People have a lot to say about pickup lines, which is to say, first lines, but the purpose is the same – to engage the interest of someone. In the case of a story’s first lines, it’s the reader. So what do they say? Here’s just a tiny sample:

“Beginning a novel starts with crafting its very first sentence, which should grab your reader’s attention and lead them right into your story.” – MasterClass https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-great-first-line-for-your-novel

“Great first lines have that power, the power to entice your reader enough that it would be unthinkable to set the book down.” – The Write Practice https://thewritepractice.com/first-line/

“The first line of a story should create a sense of character, conflict, setting, mood, theme, or style — or any combination thereof. Most importantly, it should make the reader ask questions.” Diane Callahan How to Write a Good First Line https://medium.com/swlh/how-to-write-a-good-first-line-9bfef4399b9d

“No matter what genre you write, your first sentence is a seduction. It can be in the form of an invitation. A declaration. A tease. A promise. A jolt. A shock.

You must be shameless and your first sentence must be irresistible. It must induce curiosity and promise the answer to an urgent question.” Ruth Harris in Anne R Allen’s Blog https://annerallen.com/2018/04/how-to-write-a-great-first-sentence/

When the reader opens the book to that first line, it’s as if they’re opening up a line of credit with the author. But the tricky thing about that credit is that it has no substance right from the start. The reader could just give you one line and, if they don’t like it, they can close the book and move on to something else to read. Hence why writing a first line is so important.” The power of first lines in fiction by Josh Sippie https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/the-power-of-first-lines-in-fiction/

And so it goes. Anyone who knows about writing will tell you just how important the first line of your story or novel is.

And many of them will offer you from seven to a dozen different ways to craft a first line. To pick some random ones: begin by stating your theme, or with a strange detail. You can establish your character’s voice, convey the stakes, or set the scene.

Bridge McNulty at Now Novel https://www.nownovel.com/blog/great-first-lines-of-novels/ sets out five types of novel openings: The Teaser, The Autobiographer, The Talker, The Announcer, and The Scene Setter. In short, there is a ton of advice on how to write your first lines that is readily available to every new and old author.

Now, take off your writer’s hat and put on your reader’s cap. How many books have you put down after reading the first line? How many first lines do you recall? I am rather curious because for me, after six decades of reading, I don’t think a first line ever meant anything to me. And I’m a ruthless reader – if a book doesn’t engage my interest in the first couple of pages, or chapters, I have no problem putting it down. I’ve got better things to do with my life than spend it reading a book I am not enjoying. But even so, I’ll give a book more than a line or two to engage me.

I suspect that the perceived importance of first lines in a story is a writer’s thing. A kind of a writer’s in-game to see who can come up with the most perfect first line. And I guess, I’m not immune from that game myself. I must admit that I do spend some time on my first lines – though I do not obsess over them. In fact, I put more time into crafting my closing lines, as I think they might be more important than the opening lines. They are the “landing” that you need to stick, if a book is to work. I often have them set along with my first lines before I start writing the story, serving as my target ending.

What got me to thinking about first lines was a blog post from Mark Lawrence where he listed the first lines from his novels and short stories. You can find that blog post here. I found a number that I thought were very clever (but I like clever writing.) I’ve posted my first lines on my blog from my published and from some of unpublished scraps here. Looking over my first lines, I find that they can be divided into three categories: boring scene setting ones, “The Scene Setter”, ones that open with dialog, “The Talker”, and the ones where I make some attempt at cleverness and foreshadowing, the “The Teaser.”

There are many memorable, pithy, clever, or shocking first lines in literature. So, as a bonus, here are several lists of famous first lines:


https://www.boredpanda.com/famous-books-first-lines/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic https://www.considerable.com/entertainment/books/compelling-opening-lines-books/

So, how important are first lines to you, as both a writer, and as a reader? And as a writer, why not post some of your first lines in the comment section. Or post a link to your collection of first lines. As I suggested, it’s something of a game, dare to play?

Writing on the Edge

How close to the edge do you write? How far ahead in your story could you put into words and sentences, if you could type like Superman, before you’d have to stop and figure out what to do next?

Maybe we should think of a story in the process of being written as having two sections. The first section is the part of the story where you can – and must – find the concrete words and sentences to draw your ideas out and onto the glowing screen or the sheet of paper on your desk. The second section is further out. It’s the part of the story that you know you’re heading towards, but do not know enough yet to put it into concrete sentences.

How wide this first section is probably varies by the type of writer you are. Planners who have outlined, bullet pointed, and profiled their characters down to the minutiae could, if they were Superman, type the whole book without pausing. Pantsers, on the other hand, Superman or not, might only know enough about their story to speed type to the next paragraph, or the end of the chapter. I suppose most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes. I know I do – I do all my story outlining and choreographing of the scenes in my head, save for timelines which I put on paper to better keep track of those important details.

Anyway, while writing this week, I got to thinking about the concept of having scenes and dialog fixed so clearly in your head that you could hammer them out as fast as you can type. There were a number of days this week that I typed two to three thousand plus words in the course of four or five hours of writing. I could do this only because I had spent two months thinking about those scenes over and over again. My original plan was to hold off writing the story until I had the whole of it in my head like that, but I came to fear that, three or four months down the road, many of these early story details would have been forgotten by then. So I set them down now, and the words flowed. However, having done so, I now have to stop writing to dream up a similar set of details for what comes next. (I’ll edit what I’ve written while I do that dreaming.)

So, how do you write? How much do you know when you start writing, and how much is still vague or even unknown?

The Path to Fame and Fortune

We have been known to offer unsolicited advice on this site. In this case, it’s advice on writing fiction for fame and fortune.


Yah, I realize that you’re not going to take this advice. Didn’t expect you to. I mention it only so that you don’t blame me if fame and fortune eludes you. The credit if you do make money writing fiction is entirely yours.

Still, there are thousands of authors making a significant amount of money from writing fiction, so it’s not an impossible dream. The thing is that there are tens of thousands who aren’t, not to mention thousands who are spending a significant amount of money in indie publishing chasing that dream and not making the money back. The odds of finding fame and fortune in writing fiction have never been good, and they’re no better today, no matter what path you take.

There may’ve been a time, early in the ebook revolution, when a writer had a better chance of making significant money in indie publishing than in traditional publishing, but those days are long gone. Self publishing has its own gatekeepers now – Amazon’s algorithms that reward the best sellers with visibility, and the best selling authors who protect their turf by spending thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars, promoting their books to potential readers on Amazon and Facebook. You have to be able and willing to pay to play in indie publishing these days for even the chance to make money writing.

The long and short of writing is that you have two equally daunting paths to fame and fortune. This suggests that the path you choose might be best chosen by determining the type of writer you are. Are you a novelist, or a pulpster?

Indie publishing is the pulp market of the 21st century. To be financially successful in indie publishing, you need to be a pulp writer. You need to be a very prolific writer, someone with more story ideas than you’ve time to write them down. And you need to be able to turn those story ideas into stories at 2,000 words, or more, a day, in order to produce three or more novels a year. You will also need to be an entrepreneur. You’ll need to spend money to hire cover artists and editors before your book ever has a chance to earn any of it back. You’ll need to learn the arcane art of efficiently promoting your books and be willing to spend folding money to do so. If you’re good enough, you can find fortune in indie publishing, though probably not fame.

If you’re not a pulp writer and/or an entrepreneur, if you need a year or more to write a novel, then you might be wise to pursue a career in traditional publishing – along with ten thousand other aspiring authors. Traditional publishing has its own arcane knowledge that you’ll need to master – how to do an elevator pitch, write a query letter, and compose a concise synopsis. You need to research agents, and maybe enter pitch contests and the like. Plus, it may well take several novels, hundreds of rejections or no replies, and a decade or more of your life in querying hell to sell a novel, if you’re lucky. On the upside, you don’t have to spend money on postage these days to send out your letters and manuscripts, though you can spend money on coaches and seminars, if you choose to. Both fame and fortune await your success. And there’s always indie publishing if all else fails.

Writing fiction has never been a smart way of making money, though that hasn’t stopped writers from trying their hand at it. And it probably won’t stop you either. But I believe that odds of financial success are pretty even between traditional and indie publishing these days, so that you can confidently pursue the publishing path you’re most comfortable with without looking back over your shoulder at the path not taken.

Looking Back

Have you ever gone back and reread your earliest published stories – not with the intention of revising them, but simply as a reader? If you have, I’d be curious to compare notes with you, since I’ve done just that. I enjoy rereading my favorite books, so rereading my own books wasn’t something unusual for me, though it did take a little courage.

If you did go back and reread them, what would you hope to find? On one hand, we’d like to find that our newest stories are better written than our earliest ones. That we have, indeed, learned something in the intervening years and tens of thousands of words we’ve written. But how much better? A lot? Or a little? If our newer stories seem too much better, what does that say about our first works? Would they be embarrassing? Of course, if we’re writing marvelous books these days, our early books could still be wonderful and we could still say that we’ve made significant progress. We’d have our cake and eat it too. But if our current work is not quite marvelous, how much “progress” would we be comfortable with, without being embarrassed to be found dead in a ditch with our first works? I suppose that the best case scenario is that we’d find that our first books are good and our most recent books are better. Kinda splitting the difference.

Well, as I mentioned at the start, I, with some trepidation, decided to go back and reread some of my early books. What I found, somewhat to my surprise, was that they were still good. Darn good, in fact, defying my expectations. Oh, I found a few typos, (imagine that!) and a few sentences that I’d like to rewrite, but on the whole, despite my efforts to write crisper, shorter sentences, these first books read remarkably well. Viewed one way, this result can be seen as rather alarming – suggesting little or no progress in a decade and several million words typed. But on reflection, I found several explanations for this phenomenon.

The first one is that my earliest self-published works are not my first written works. Prior to writing my self-published books, I’d written a fantasy novel, a SF novella, and a short story all of which I shopped around in the late 1970’s without success. After that, I’d spent a year planning another novel, wrote a YA novel, and puttered around on other stories for several decades. Thus, I already had my earliest works tucked away in the drawer, just like they say you should, before embarking on writing the books I eventually self-published.

Secondly, setting out to write seriously at age 60, after half a century of reading books, I feel that I had absorbed the art of storytelling, at least for the type of stories I wanted to write. I could write them more or less “by ear.” I knew what I wanted to write and wrote those stories, just as I’m doing now.

The third factor is that, as I’ve mentioned in other essays, I wrote these stories to my specifications, just to please myself. They’re custom-designed to please me, so it’s not surprising that I, at least, still find them very enjoyable.

The last, and perhaps the most telling factor, is that I am writing within the narrow limits of my talent. I write episodic novels. I don’t have amazing, mind-blowing science fiction concepts to explore. I have nothing profound to say about anything. And my range of narrators and characters is very limited. My characters are like old time movie actors, where you can still see the “movie star” in whatever character he or she plays in my stories. This is just as true of the stories I wrote ten years ago, as it is for my most recent stories. They haven’t changed significantly because they remain the type of stories I can write. My talent won’t take me any further. Nor, to be honest, have I any motivation to push beyond these stories, since I write what I like to read. Oh, I’d like to write them better – shorter sentences, fewer “and”(s) – that sort of stuff. But I have no ambition beyond that. I’m comfortable with my limits. I must have been standing behind the door when ambition was being handed out.

So while my exploration of my early works resulted in spending some enjoyable evenings rereading some of my favorite books, your experience may differ. You are likely more ambitious than me, and may’ve written increasingly challenging stories over the years. Or perhaps stories in different genres that might make going back to your earliest books more of a leap. Without a doubt, you were younger when you started writing and have matured along with your writing, which may also color your perception of your early work as well. And yet, skill in writing is not always the final arbitrator of enjoyment. Enthusiasm and originality may compensate for less polished prose. I would hope that when all is said and done, you too would find pleasure in your early works, should you decide to revisit them. And that with all the work and worry that went into them now years behind you, you can approach them simply as a reader and fully enjoy the worlds and characters that you, somehow, created.

In any event, I am certain we would all be curious to hear about your experiences in rereading your early work, or what you would expect to find if you did so.

World Building 101

One of the readers of this blog wondered how much time and detail one should put into description in a fantasy or science fiction story. I am sure every writer would answer that question differently, and there is no one way, or right way, to do it. However, because I’m a firm believer that you should write the books that you’d enjoy reading yourself, I’d suggest that you look to see how the authors of your favorite books use description in their stories. Thus, if you study how your favorite authors tell their stories, noting both the parts you like and those that you don’t, you may get an insight on how you might want to do it in your stories. In my case I didn’t so much study the books I read and liked, as I sort of absorbed what I liked in them over the decades of reading.

For a more concrete answer I’d propose that one of the most important elements in world building is the voice of the narrator. The voice of the narration sets the whole tone and mood of the setting and story. The point of view of the narrator(s), the choice of words, the length and type of sentences, and the “attitude” of the narrator(s) paint the world you’re creating in broad strokes. And it is the narrator(s), be it third person, or first, who determines what gets described and how.

In my case, I write first person narratives, and I must admit that the narrators of all my stories sound very similar because they share, in part, my attitude and outlook on life. This is one of the limitations of my talent. I can’t get into some other mind, nor do I care to. That said, they’re certainly not me – you’d never catch me doing anything my characters do – but I’m certain that my attitude towards life colors the worlds I create. This is both a limit to the imaginary worlds I create, and a strength, in that it defines the “brand” of my stories.

As for actual world-building, well, I write science fiction and fantasy stories, so world building is important. However, I have one small handicap in that regard; I don’t have a visual mind. I can’t see the worlds I create, at least not clearly. They’re an impression of a place rather than a vision of it. Perhaps, if you can picture your imaginary worlds in great detail, you would not only be able to describe them in great detail, but want to do so as well. In my case, my primary purpose in descriptions is to either create a mood, or describe a stage setting in order to accommodate the action that I have in mind. I might begin with an idea of the mood I want, and a vague, impressionist picture in my mind of the setting, and then begin to flesh out the details, all the concrete, mundane items that I would expect to find in the setting and work these little things into the narration to imply the broader world beyond the immediate setting. Some of these things I’ll invent and describe, others I borrow from the familiar world, and thus they’ll be familiar to the reader without much or any description.

I’ll conclude with a concrete example of how I use description. I’m certainly not saying that this is how it should be done. It’s just my approach to building an imaginary world.

I have a couple stories set on tropical islands. In one story my narrator is returning to his island home after seven years abroad. He has to walk up a hill from the harbor to report his arrival. The office that he needs to report to is high above the harbor because there are many volcanic islands in the sea and tsunamis are common. The fact that the office is set high on a hill to avoid being carried away by a tsunami is a little element of world building. The path up to the office is made of crushed seashells which crunch beneath his footfalls is another little detail focusing on the island and the sea — and sounds. As are the seagulls weaving overhead, calling to each other. He stops to catch his breath halfway up, because he is not yet used to the moist heat of the islands. It’s getting near dusk, so the sun is low in the sky and its golden light gilds the masts and sails of the ships in the harbor, all of which is designed to create a mellow atmosphere. He looks around. All is familiar, but after his long absence, he’s looking at it with different eyes, which allows me to have him recall the past and note the differences, giving me an excuse to toss in more description than if he had seen it just yesterday. Basically, I use little details that the narrator can reasonably take note of, and find a reason to comment on without getting too much out of the head of the in-story narrator. Still, there are times when I will need to cheat a little and describe or explain things that everyone in the imaginary world would otherwise know, but the reader won’t. Hopefully I’ll find a place and an excuse to do this — and do it entertainingly — so that it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

I know that we have many accomplished authors looking in on this blog. I, and I suspect many other readers, would be interested to learn how all of you approach world building. We would welcome your ideas and suggestions.