Why Write a Series?
I belong to several on-line writer’s groups. I find it helpful to interact with other authors, and their feedback on my stories is invaluable. Lately, I’ve noticed a rather interesting trend in the comments in these groups. There are a lot of writers out there who are writing not just a single book, but a series of books. Some even admit to writing them simultaneously. I found this perplexing.
At first, I simply wrote this trend off to either inexperience or greed, and in some cases, both. Being of an inquisitive mindset, I recently posted in one of these groups asking why so many, and in my perception, primarily youthful or inexperienced writers were taking this path.
I got some of the usual pithy responses like, “For the money” or “Because that’s what editors want”, but I also received a wide variety of answers. It seems, that the reasons for writing a series are as varied as the writers themselves. However, after rereading all the responses, it seems that they can be divided into roughly three groups.
The first group are those who set out to write a series simply because they see greater financial rewards. I certainly can’t argue with them, when they say that a backlist helps sell your front list. That is a truism. What I can and do argue with, is the total greed shown in some of the responses, and the rush to get that backlist written--today. These writers set out to write a series to have their name on a meter-long section of shelf-space instead of concentrating on the painstaking process of producing one high quality story. To paraphrase one of the worst responses I got in this category:
Because I earn more money, and they sell better. Splitting a 100,000-word book into four sections is cheaper to edit, and each section can be sold for 2.99 each versus 2.99 for the whole book. It's a great marketing strategy.
I’m sure that there will be those who disagree, but I see that as blatantly ripping-off the reader. Not what I would call a great career move.
The second group of answers I got were those I would deem either misinformed or inexperienced. I was told with authority, and by an author whom I truly respect, that agents and publishers prefer series over stand-alone books. Yet, another person who has worked for multiple Big-5 publishers said that absolutely wasn’t true. She said that publishers look for a well-written book that they believe will sell. Obviously, and what she didn’t say is, if your book is making them money, they will want more.
Others responded that their character’s story was simply too large to be contained in a single volume. As a short-story writer, I encounter this problem all the time. The solution is not to write a series of short stories, but rather to distill the idea down to a manageable size. My recent submission to A Haunting of Words anthology was a tale of a young soldier in Vietnam. I told it effectively in less than 2,000 words because I made no attempt to detail his pre-war life in Compton, who he was friends with in High School, how he came to join the Marines, or any background on why we were fighting that war in the first place. I didn’t take the reader on a complicated and boring march through the jungles to get to the scene. Nor did I bore the reader with description of what the tree-line looked like, how heavy his pack was or who all the other men in his squad and platoon were. I told a simple story of a single firefight and the immediate aftermath. In other words, I narrowed my focus to what was important in the story I wanted to tell. This is one reason that I feel short story writing to be invaluable training for the aspiring novelist.
The third group of answers were almost universally from professional or more experienced authors, some of whom have quite impressive resumes. I said almost universally, because there were a handful of admittedly green writers in this group as well. These authors stated that, although they had written or were working on a series, they only wrote a single book at a time. Some said that ideas for future books would come from the writing and be jotted down for future reference. Others said that they had spent years carefully planning the series they wanted to write and then sat down to write it one book at a time. One of the best of these responses generously gave me permission to quote her in this article, but asked that her name be withheld since she hadn’t taken the time to craft her response in what she felt to be a truly professional manner. Like I said, professional. Here’s what she had to say.
“Each book I write is a standalone, but one of the secondary characters becomes the main in the next. Each book is in excess of 125,000 words. I don't write them simultaneously as such, I'm working on one while another's being edited … But a lot of it is reader pressure. When people start clamoring for your next book, it does put pressure on you to keep going as fast as you can. But I do write full time.
What I hate, as a reader, is one book that's sold as a series in 5 parts. Now THAT is just … someone out to make a buck and I won't buy it.”
With over one hundred responses to my question, there were the inevitable repeats and pretty much every conceivable blend in between, but these three categories are a representative distillation of the whole.
Like any skill, writing takes time and effort to master. No matter the temptation or pressure to take short-cuts, there is no substitute for experience and craftsmanship. Each author will meet with success or failure, in large part, based on what time and effort they put into their writing. I hope that all will attain what they deserve, especially those who take the time to craft a riveting story that has their reader demanding more.
#mustread #read #booklovers
Choosing a Market
I finished White Buffalo Woman and sent it off to Saddlebag Dispatches, which brings up a point. When choosing markets for your work there are a number of things to consider.
Normally, I run a search with emphasis on pay scale and start at the top and work my way down. I do this because I really want to be paid for my work. I think that most authors do. This doesn't mean that I write to be paid. I write, because I have to. When a story is knocking around in my brain, I have to put it on paper (or hard drive as the case may be). Once that story is finished and has been through the usual rounds of Beta readers, editors and proofreaders, then I'd like to be paid for the time and effort I put into it. So, off it goes to a market that pays professional scale (above 5 cents per word).
All too often, the story will eventually elicit a rejection. When that happens, I read through it again, making any corrections and improvements that I can and send it to the next market on the list. When I run out of markets which pay professional scale, I go to secondary markets which pay semi-professional scale (1to 5 cents per word) and finally I get to non-paying markets. These are markets which do not pay at all. Some will offer one or more free copies of the issue in which the story appears. Some offer nothing at all, except the opportunity for your story to be read.
Occasionally, I will deviate from this process, as I did with White Buffalo Woman. The market I sent it to first, Saddlebag Dispatches, is a non-paying market. However, it is one of the few markets out there right now which print ONLY westerns, meaning my story, if accepted, will be read by many members of my target audience. Saddlebag is also operated and edited by a couple of members of Western Writers of America, an organization which I would like to someday be a member of, so it doesn't hurt to put my work in front of them, even if it gets rejected. Instead of this being a profitable piece, I am trying to use it as a promotional piece.
I can't afford the targeted advertising required to get my name and author page/website in front of so many western readers, so having my story published in this magazine can be far more valuable than a PayPal credit. If a thousand western fans read my story and only ten percent bother to follow the link to my page and click “Follow”, I've still picked up a hundred new followers who like my work and want more. That translates to future sales and word of mouth advertising that just can't be bought.
You have to think of your writing as a business. Your readers, your back stock of stories, and your publishing credits are your business assets. Your office supplies, subscriptions to Writer's Digest or Duotrope, and things like postage and advertising are your costs of doing business. Sometimes, you have to make a choice between a shot at a cash payment, or building your assets through gaining readers or adding a publishing credit.
If you take the time and spend the effort to think through what you hope to achieve when you send a story out, you will be far more successful in your writing career.
January 23rd, 2017
The Importance of Reading, Part 2
A few weeks back, I wrote a blog on why it was important for us to read, both in our own field of endeavor and a wide range of other topics. Today, I want to discuss another type of reading. Please, bear with me while I plod my circuitous route around the subject, and, I promise, I'll make my point clear.
So you are a writer. You have given much time and thought to the story you want to write. If you are a pantser, you finally sat down and wrote it. If you are an out-liner, you carefully wrote out all of your major plot points, moved them around on whatever surface you work on until you were satisfied that you had them just right. At this point, you probably thought that you had put in a good day's work on your project, and trotted off to work on something else, chat with friends on Facebook, read a book, watch TV or just go to bed. The next morning, you pull out your plotting board and … nothing looks right. You go through the whole process again, second-guessing every decision you made yesterday, until if finally looks right. Quickly, before anything else can go wrong, you sit down to begin getting it on paper.
Are you with me so far? Good. Now, for our purposes, let's assume that the piece you are writing is a short story of a couple thousand words. It's nothing major like a novel or even a novelette, just a simple short story. You whip it out in a single afternoon, morning, evening or whenever you do your writing.
Like a seasoned professional, you set it aside for a few days to ferment. Then you whip out your trusty red pen and attack. You run spellcheck. You put it through Grammarly. You run searches for every passive voice word you can imagine. You hack and slash at your “little darlings” like Don Quixote charging a windmill, until you are certain that you have cut all of the fat, and that what remains is your very best work. Then, you run all of your searches again. You imagine a publisher falling in love with this story, and writing to tell you that they lust for more.
You're too much the pro, to fall for that. You contact two or three of your favorite Beta Readers and inquire if they can find the time. When they agree, you fire off your baby and wait for the admiring oohs and ahhs. Instead, after a few hours … or days, they send your baby back with these horrid red scratches all over it. It looks like it's been clawed by a bobcat, and is rapidly bleeding to death. You are horrified. You bang your head on the wall, don your best burlap and rub ashes on your face in mourning the death of your fine little jewel.
After an appropriate time, and the equally appropriate amount of your favorite beverage, sanity returns, and you begin the arduous task of reading the scarred pieces of your dream. Some of this sage advice you have been given, you will discard. Most, hopefully, will astound you with its incisive merit and you will make the appropriate changes. Now, you do the right thing. You send it to one or two of those very special Beta Readers whose judgment you trust the most.
You no longer wait for the accolades. That part has been bled out of you. Now, you can only hope that their judgment will not be too harsh. Just in case, you drop by the store for a fresh bottle. In due course, your story comes back to you, and with trembling fingers, you open it up. Wonder of wonders, it is hardly bleeding at all. You haven't felt this kind of joy since you escaped from High School, or when you finished your last piece, whichever the case might be.
But wait, there's one more step here. You put the final polishing changes to your manuscript and fire it off to a professional editor (with the appropriate fees), and wait some more. Now, the nerves kick in. What if he/she finds a major plot hole? What if they tell you it needs a complete rewrite? They wouldn't tell you that your ending sucks – would they? What about your hook? Could it be better?
Calm down. Have another drink (People wonder why so many writers drink). I'll give you a hint. It isn't because we're trying to be just like Papa Hemingway. You pull out another old project or start a new one just to take your mind off of it. That works. Before you know it, you get a response.
Your editor, almost certainly, has a few final changes and corrections for you to make. Thank God, you took all the previous steps to make his/her job easier rather than be told, his rates have increased or he is suddenly too busy to take on your jobs anymore. You make the changes and corrections, check one last time to be sure that your story is in proper short-story format.
Now, for a market. You open up Duotrope, Writer's Market, or whatever source you use to find a market for your work. You whip out a targeted cover letter and include your short, humorous bio, and you fire your baby off to the best paying market it would fit. A few moments later, you receive a confirmation email that they have it. At last, you can pour yourself a drink and relax.
A day or two, or sometimes a month or two later, you have an email back from them. You eagerly open it.
Thank you for sending us your story, XXXXXX. We did not read it. As indicated in the submission guidelines, all identifying information must be included ONLY in your cover letter.
Thank you for thinking of us.
The editorial staff
A friend of mine received a letter very similar to this one a while back. It happens. The story she sent in was amazing. It was perfect for the contest she sent it to and had a great shot a winning. It wasn't even read.
This is where we get into the reading that this has all been about. Every contest, magazine, agent and book publisher you will deal with throughout your career has guidelines. These guidelines are invariably unique in one way or another. It is imperative that you read them carefully and follow them TO THE LETTER. They have these guidelines for a reason. Do you know what that reason is? It is to cut their workload. Sure, it is helpful to them if all of the entries are in the same format, with the same headers, the same typeface and size. But that is not why they publish guidelines. The guidelines are so that they can quite literally throw away a large portion of their workload.
Look at it from their point of view. Some of these publications and contests get over 1,000 submissions/entries a day. That's right, A DAY. No one has the staff to read that many. I repeat, no one has the staff to read that many. The cost would be prohibitive. Besides, they don't have to. That's why they have Guidelines. If you can't follow their guidelines or don't care enough to even read them, and believe me, there are thousands of “writers” out there who don't, then they don't want to work with you.
Surprise. Why would they? At best, it tells them that your work will be sloppy, probably not on deadline or even conforming to the requested theme. After all, you go your own way. You write what you want, when you want, and you will probably be difficult to work with in any number of other ways as well.
Now, don't get me wrong. My friend who received the above response is a consummate professional and takes her craft very seriously. She simply made a mistake and forgot to remove the offending information before she hit send. The publisher she sent it to had no way of knowing that, nor should they have taken it into consideration if they had. That would be unfair to the hundreds of other writers who had taken just a minute to double check everything, and as a result, had gotten it right the first time. Trust me. She will NEVER make that mistake again.
I spend a fair amount of time in on-line writer's groups. I presume that the vast majority view their craft seriously. Yet, daily I see a writer post a question, various other writers give responses, and about ten to twenty responses down the thread, the answers begin to repeat themselves. Why? Because, serious, professional writers are not taking the time to read the entire thread before they respond. As a result, the threads which should only have 10-20 responses, end up with dozens and hundreds and stay active for days beyond their useful life cycle. The same thing would happen at an agent's or publisher's office if it weren't for guidelines. With guidelines, they can cut out all of the non-responsive, irrelevant and redundant responses without bothering to even read them.
You may have the most beautiful baby in the world, but if they don't have the proper dress on, they aren't going to win the Baby Beauty Contest. Make sure this doesn't happen to your baby.
How Much is Too Much?
Here I am, late again. I'm really not planning to make a habit of this. I've been involved with a new story for the last three days. Just sent it out to a second round of Beta Readers.
For those of you who want to know what I've been working on, the story is called White Buffalo Woman. It's the story of the Battle of the Washita or the Massacre on the Lodge Pole depending on which side you were on.
I struggled some with this one. I've never written anything graphically violent before, but this story could be told no other way. I hope that I did it justice.
So that brings up another topic of discussion. How much violence, sex, and coarse language is too much? The answer will vary from writer to writer. I know of some where any is too much. I feel that may be fine for them, but they have to realize that they do severely limit the stories they can tell. I mean, even the bible is full of sex and violence.
Other writers deliberately go for the shock-value of graphic depictions. If that's what they want to do, and the name they want to make for themselves, that's okay by me. Personally, I feel that it is too often a cheap devise to make poor writing saleable. It rarely works except for pornography.
So what is the right amount? My answer is just what the story demands and not a bit more. Most folks find lingerie sexier than full frontal nudity and the same can be said for violence. A little goes a long way. In the case of the story I just finished, I needed it to convey a sense of horror and revulsion, but telling it exactly as it happened would have been far too much for all but the sociopaths among us. So I tried to walk that fine line. My readers will determine if I was successful or not.
Strong language is another area where just the right amount is sometimes called for. A cowboy on a cattle drive or a frontier marshal is going to let go with the occasional expletive. That doesn't mean that they should "curse like a sailor". For the average western (about 70,000 words), three or four expletives should add enough realism without overdoing it. Much beyond that, and we risk needlessly losing readers.
I'm sure that there are writers out there who will take exception to my thoughts on this matter and that is their right. They get to tell their stories their way.