#2 ORIA’S GAMBIT August 16
#2 ORIA’S GAMBIT August 16
This week at the SFF Seven we’re MYOB – Minding your own business!
Seriously, we’re taking a long look at how we manage the financial side of being an author. There tends to be a wide range of strategies for managing author finances. As all authors are primarily creatives (with the small exception of the widget-makers who hire ghost writers to write for them, which is another kettle of stinky fish), not all possess the inclination to crunch numbers and balance accounts.
In truth, while I think all authors should have a thorough understanding of what they should be earning, not everyone needs to be a financial guru of their own writing career. In truth, the most comfortable place for an author – or perhaps any creative – to be is independent of the need to make money doing it. This, of course, requires either family money (marrying money counts) or a spouse with a great salary and benefits. In these cases, writing money is all “gravy” and I know many authors in this position who don’t really track that income.
The major downside of this model is it means traditional publishing has favored those with this privilege and also takes shameless advantage of these authors. There can be a lot of funky tickling of the financials, both from publishing houses and literary agencies. Believe me: I’ve seen it.
Learn to read your royalty statements and hold those who handle your earnings accountable.
The flip side is if you’re like me – someone who is supporting their household with writing income. This is the other extreme, where ALL finances are author finances. I track everything scrupulously, to the point of using mathematical models to predict my future income. That’s the thing about writing income: it’s super unpredictable. Sales wax and wane, often due to reasons beyond anyone’s control. Traditional publishing pays quarterly if you’re lucky and semi-annually otherwise. There’s almost no way to predict what those checks will look like, so I end up behaving like the privileged writer as above – I treat my trad income as gravy.
Self-publishing income is what allows me to pay the bills with writing. That money comes in monthly and, because I can access my sales dashboards in real time, I can reasonably predict how much money will come in. The downside of self-publishing is that the author fronts the investment. KAK covered a lot of the nitty-gritty of self-publishing costs yesterday. Most self-publishing authors can implement the simple math of outflow vs. inflow. That is, what you pay to produce and market the book should be less than the money you make from it. Where it gets into higher math is managing that income so that you can cover the costs of being alive.
With a salaried job, or even hourly income, the basic budgeting model is to figure your monthly income, subtract your expenses, and the rest is “disposable,” meaning you can spend it on stuff you want vs. the stuff you need. But with a fluctuating monthly income, this simply isn’t possible.
So, my basic model is to try to keep enough money in savings to pay for two months of expenses should I have zero income in any given month. (Which hopefully will never happen, knock on wood. My backlist is substantial at this point, so the baseline backlist income is relatively steady.) Once I have that in place, I can pay for some of the things that make us happy. This is VERY important. It’s tempting to confine oneself only to needs and funnel any “extra” money back into growing the business. This works okay for a while, but it gets soul-crushing over time. We work hard; we must also play hard. Anything else is unsustainable.
As a creative, maintaining your joy in the work is key!
From my initial announcement, you’ll see I’m also republishing some of my trad-pubbed books. I did ten books with Carina Press and now have the rights back to all of them. Those royalties came in quarterly, so I’m eager to see how my income on those books changes for me. So far I only have ROGUE’S PAWN up again. Republishing meant paying for covers and formatting, so a bit of investment on my part. Hopefully it will pay off.
As with all businesses, writing for a living requires a lot of hoping for that pay off. Being smart about crunching those numbers provides the reality. A balance of both is best.
Monsoon rains in New Mexico bring green green green!
Our topic at the SFF Seven this week concerns Author Drama. We’re asking specifically if we think it’s idiocy or a PR campaign.
So far the opinions this week have run to proclaiming it unwise at best and idiocy at the baseline. I don’t disagree. I’m not much for drama in any aspect of my life, so I go to lengths to avoid it. Those of you who’ve followed me for a long time know I’m all about balance, that – as a practicing Taoist – I’m forever seeking the middle path and a place of equanimity.
That said, sometimes the drama finds you.
As with all of life, we are walking a fine line with author promotion. We put our books out there, and we put our SELVES out there, because the author is the brand that readers follow. When we post photos of our lives, our likes, our pithy observations, and so forth, we are doing it because we WANT attention, right? If nothing else, we’ve been trained by social media to court those clicks and likes and followers, in the hopes that they translate to book sales and readers.
But we only want positive attention! you might say. Well, yes. Still, there’s always the chance that a bid for attention can go too far and tip over into negative attention. These things aren’t always controllable. When I see the latest kerfuffle and readers lining up on sides, it’s easy for me to sit back and feel smug that they’re not yelling about ME. I also have to be honest about myself and realize that they’re not talking about me either. It’s easy to declaim drama when you’re not noticed at all.
What’ most important to remember is: most authors who find themselves mid-drama did not intend to incite that level of reaction. What’s happened is they handled it badly. They don’t have the professionalism, the emotional maturity, the support network, the sheer ability to control themselves, to back away.
That’s what it takes. The common wisdom holds, should you find yourself propelled into drama:
1) Step away
No matter what anyone says, you are not required to respond immediately. It’s almost always better if you don’t respond until things have cooled. This includes not looking at what people are saying.
Don’t entrench. Don’t argue. Don’t try to convince everyone that you really are a Good Person™. If you don’t know how to craft a good apology (which admits being wrong, makes no excuses, and includes real resolve to change), get help with it.
3) Don’t fan the flames
Resist the urge to respond further. Stick to your statement and apology. Don’t succumb to the lure of attention by stoking it just a little more. Actually do the work to correct what you did to upset people.
What happens with some Author Drama cases is that the person in question becomes so enticed by the attention that it all feels good. In extreme cases, it becomes their brand. It’s a choice, but not always one that serves the books and the storytelling.
This week at the SFF Seven we’re discussing what we were supposed to be – the vocational advice young writers get because writing doesn’t put food on the table™
I really loved KAK’s epic tale from yesterday (for some reason Google has decided I’m not allowed to comment anymore), in part because I am also not the author who Always Wanted to Be a Writer.
Not because I didn’t love reading and writing – I always, always did! – and I even won a poetry contest when I was eleven or twelve and I wrote poetry (really bad poetry) all through high school. I contributed them to the high school literary magazine, anonymously because I was a weenie. I took AP English and my teachers praised my stories and other writings.
But, dear reader, never did one person suggest that I become a writer. Nobody ever thinks that a career as a writer will put food on the table™. To be fair, it generally doesn’t, and it takes a long time to get there, unless you hit the literary equivalent of the lottery. Like all the pretty aspiring actors from the Midwest arriving in Hollywood on the bus, very few of us become superstars. Most of us get really good at waiting tables
Sometimes, though, I wish someone had suggested that as a career for me. Instead, like KAK, when I was told I could be or do anything, those suggestions shaded toward other careers. Science! Medicine! Biology! While I greatly appreciate that so many adults in my life recognized my strengths in the STEM areas and encouraged me to apply myself, I regret that I didn’t direct some of that application to writing.
See, when I was headed to college, there was a scholarship offered for someone in English/Literature. You had to write an essay and the winner got… I don’t even remember. Free ride? Fame? Glory? I can’t even remember, but I wanted it. I had this idea of surprising everyone with my sudden literary talent. So, even though I was enrolled as a pre-med student, I wrote an essay for this scholarship in the lit department.
Now, my mom and I had this back and forth then, where she HATED that I put off schoolwork until the night before. I was a terrible procrastinator – something I had to change about myself in becoming a novelist – and I’d gotten pretty good at gliding by on last-minute efforts. That’s what I did on this essay, whipping it out in a frenzy and I still thought it was brilliant.
And someone else – let’s call her Brienne Merritt – won the scholarship. You can Google her. She’s beautiful, blonde, athletic, intelligent, talented, and she won MY scholarship making her the ideal nemesis for a young me. I’m not tagging her because we aren’t friends and never were, though we have a lot of mutuals. I kind of doubt she even knows I exist. I was that gal at the party in Say Anything that comes up to Ione Skye and babbles on about how their competition made her work harder and Ione finally says, “me too!” just to be polite.
(I notice that Brienne is now a nurse, which makes for a funny reversal.)
Anyway, the advice I did get, that was the best vocational advice I received, came at the end of college from my Comparative Religious Studies advisor, Professor Hadas. I was trying to decide between many post-college paths and interests – medical school, it turns out, was not one of them – and he told me to stick with science.
I know, right? Basically the same as everyone had been telling me all along, but he had wise advice along with it. He advised me to pick a career (and post-graduate education) that would put food on the table™. He told me I was fortunate to have strengths in areas that people would pay me to work on. And that having that income security would give me a foundation to continue to learn and grow, to follow my more esoteric interests.
It was truly good advice.
This week at the SFF Seven, we’re offering tips for expanding your author platform.
Write more books!
Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is our favorite reader interaction.
Once we get past the fact that ANY AND ALL positive reader interactions are a balm to every writer, then we come to the inevitable truth that the more recent ones spring to mind first. I am so blessed to have each and every one of you out there sending me happy messages about my books. I treasure each and every one, I really do.
But I’m going to pick a recent one that really thrilled me because of the unusual source. You’ll see what I mean when you read it, but I can preface by saying this was from a new friend, a guy my age(ish), who bought DARK WIZARD to be nice. He was in town visiting and bought a hard copy to support me and my local indie bookstore. I seriously never expected him to read it.
Then I got this email:
I, at last, had time to read “Dark Wizard” over the weekend and I was so impressed!
It’s totally not my sub-genre, and would never consider reading the book if someone gave me a plot summary, but it is so well executed and such a page-turner – I was really sucked in. And, despite myself, I want to read the rest of the trilogy. What really amazes me, is that you have such an extensive bibliography – you must be writing very fast – but the quality is so high – no idea how you do it.
Ah, the much-discussed, celebrated, and labored over first line… Is it that important?
(See what I did there?)
Many in the writing and publishing world will go on at length on the critical importance of the opening line of any work, long or short. There are long-standing contests for opening lines – brilliant or cringingly terrible. Writers are expected to trot our their favorite first lines (which I notice is also part of this week’s assignment at the SFF Seven). But do those opening lines deserve the significance they’re given?
Yes and no. The thing is, first lines are low-hanging fruit. They’re easy to pick on. They require very little reading and it’s easy to analyze a single line of text. For the teachers, coaches, and advice-givers of all stripes, an opening line is a simple aspect of a work to assess. In that way, they’re probably given far more emphasis than they deserve.
Unfortunately, a whole lot of the advice out there – not unlike a lot of writing advice – isn’t terribly helpful. Writers are told that their opening line must “hook” the reader, who is presumably like a fish in this analogy, and reel them in to keep reading more. And hopefully buy the work in question.
And people rhapsodize over favorite opening lines, analyzing brilliance, but – again – this rarely yields useful advice on how to write them.
I spent a lot of years not sure what made an opening line a good one or not. Only recently, with a bunch of published works behind me, have I come across actually useful advice on how to craft an opening line: It needs to establish the sort of story it is, and pose some sort of question. It doesn’t have to be a literal question, but it should invite the reader to wonder about something of interest to them.
A famous example of this is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem How Do I Love Thee. (Those who listen to my podcast, First Cup of Coffee, know I’ve been going down an Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Robert Browning rabbit hole lately. I blame Connie Willis.) Almost anyone can quote the opening line, even if they don’t know the rest of the poem:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
What does this line do? It establishes that the work is a love poem, and invites the reader to wonder about what those ways are.
Thus, my opening line above: I established what sort of writing this is – an informational article on first lines – and I posed a literal question that I’d be addressing.
Once I figured out this was all I needed to do, it made crafting that opening line much easier! Here’s one of the first ones that I used this technique to write, from DARK WIZARD.
Gabriel Phel crested the last ridge of the notorious Knifeblade Mountains that guarded Elal lands on nearly three sides, and faced the final barrier.
This first line isn’t brilliant by any stretch. What it does, however, is inform the reader that this is an alternate fantasy world, and it invites them to wonder about who Gabriel Phel is, why he’s in this inhospitable land, and what this final barrier is. That’s it. And you know what? It works. That book has done a better job of hooking new readers than anything else of mine. I think there are other reasons for that book’s success, but I think that opening helps.
What’s most important to remember is: just because the first line comes first, that doesn’t mean it has to be written first. Certainly not perfected first. A lot of writers spend forever crafting that opening, trying to get it perfect – possibly because of this emphasis on first lines – and can circle that effort endlessly. That’s my second piece of advice. Craft the opening once the work is finished, or at least drafted. It will wait. And that gives that low-hanging fruit time to ripen.
This is my first (and possibly last!) real test of whether my books can be successful in KU. I’ve run A/B tests before and I’ve always made 2-3x as much money in sales on Amazon alone than via page reads in KU. But we shall see! Tell your KU-loving friends. 😀
Our topic this week at the SFF Seven is The Write Stuff: What five effective work habits make a professional writer the most successful? I can only tell you mine and that’s defining “success” as being productive. The other kind of success – fame, money, adulation, awards – depends hugely on timing and serendipity. But we’re focusing on work habits, so here are mine:
You don’t have to write every day, at the same time every day – though I do extoll that as THE single most effective method for building a consistent writing habit – but consistency is key. I build my schedule around protecting my writing time and that habit carries me through all sorts of difficulties.
The other piece of building a writing habit is keeping it going. So many writers give up without finishing a book – or finishing multiple books! – or they give up after a few books. Or, when attempting to write consistently, they take time off, change their minds, prioritize something else. Persistence is what gets words on the page.
Shut out the world, ignore the new shinies and frolicking plot bunnies. Close the office door, put in the noise-cancelling ear buds, disconnect the internet and silence the phone. Focus on the writing and only on the writing for the time that you’re doing it. Think about the story and only that. All other considerations come later.
Write what you believe in and write it your way. Don’t chase trends or try to make your stories a clone of someone else’s. This may not seem like an effective work habit, but it is! Keeping to the integrity of the story YOU are telling allows you to focus on that and not the market, or whatever the loud voices are currently shouting about.
The previous four have all been about ritual and drawing firm lines, but with those come a need for flexibility. Be ready to change up what you’re doing if you have to. Reinvent yourself regularly. Try rebranding series and putting it in Kindle Unlimited. (See what I did there?) The world changes, sometimes rapidly, and we have to be ready to change with it.