Fiction Writing: What I Learned From A Year of Self Publishing
(With apologies for not linking all the multitude of posts for this past year. But you’re weleome to wade through the hundreds I posted – here.)
I set out with the purpose of doing a full year writing challenge – to test what I was recommending new and existing writers do. All the advice and recommendations about fiction writing had to be tested. I had over a decade of non-fiction publishing (starting before ebooks became a “thing.”)
Of course, even with open eyes, things seldom turn out as you expect.
The general consensus was that you can make more income from self-publishing fiction than anything else. That turned out to be a big “yes, but…” And mostly showed that you had to do certain steps to get discovered by your fans, first.
What I mainly accomplished was to prove the model of “pulp method” writing-publishing. Not that it will make you any more income than “just” publishing a novel per month (Amazon beast-feeding) but it can bring you considerable more joy.
The bottom line summation: Authors are in the content- business, and have to learn how to run a content-business. And that becomes the next year-long challenge. Because the “big names” in this industry have simply said to “write a big backbench of books, and then invest in advertising.”
Where they miss is in how to get that backbench of books. (There are many courses, such as Dawson’s, about advertising.)
This years production genned in my now life-long habits of writing. And the ability to now generate new fiction from an endless supply of inspiration. I’ve shown by example that anyone who can arrange their lives to support their art can be as prolific as they want to. Writing is work, but it doesn’t have to be hard, slogging work. And its more fun if you do it for yourself – and your audience.
At 47 weeks, the product list shows:
- 125 original books written and published.
- 27 of these were anthologies
- 2 were full novels
- 96 were individual short stories
- 637,533 words in single books
- an average of 3400 subscribers to my active list (starting from 0)
- 513 blog posts in addition – at an average of 2K per post, this is nearly 2 posts a week, and about 280K additional words.
Influences (not “Influencers”)
The main influences I had at the outset were:
- Tim Grahl
- Chris Fox
- Mark Dawson
- Nick Stephenson
- Geoff Shaw
- Joe Pulizzi
- Dean Wesley Smith
None have all the pieces to this puzzle, each have only parts. They all have their own string of success stories and testimonials. Only by discarding those recommendations, and boring straight down into what actually made their successes, actually helped find the workable principles behind their success.
Out of this, a real underlying principle showed up: You can only compare yourself to yourself. Take everything else “under advisement” until you have thoroughly tested it for yourself. But you’ll only use those things that work for you. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t achieve other people’s results. (A reminder from my scam-free materials is that the “outrageous successes” are usually 1 in 10,000. And this is backed up by how very many authors are on Amazon and the small number who even break into 5-figure annual incomes there.)
The top five people in that list above are devoted to self-publishing – and they all promote using ads to get their 6-figure incomes.
Pulizzi sold his Content Marketing Institute and is now working on his charity foundation, that I can tell. Smith owns his own publishing house and generates most of his income from running and selling courses, also as near as I can tell.
Additionally, I’ve done a lot of studies into reverse-engineering the business plans of many authors with long-term success, especially those who wrote during the “Golden Age” of pulp magazines.
Along the line, I sieved through some 227 books about the craft of writing, and selected less than 20 that gave evergreen advice. The rest were mostly also-rans, and repeated what others said with their own slants and special terms.
(“Influencers” are useless – like trying to use Twitter or Facebook in the real world. Another stupid human trick invented in this most recent, decadent decade. You want to ignore the claims and especially the celebrities, and find what principles they use that you can prove as workable to yourself, and your own production. The hard-fact world we live in isn’t made simpler by the fictional copywriting we have to wade through before we reach a solid shore.)
A Couple Key How-To Books on Writing Itself
“On Writing” by Stephen King, “Becoming a Writer” by Dorothea Brande.
Elsewhere, I’ve listed several more – by Ray Bradbury, Ben Bova, and others. Pick authors who incidentally wrote books on writing – not the ones who work as a professor or course-producer and have incidentally written fiction as well.
I already published many books in this area, each when I wrapped up a particular line of research.
One white paper I wrote, “How to Publish 76 Books in a Year.” Which I though was a bit of a stretch at that point. (And by test have blown straight past that – by nearly double.)
A book I finished and published early in 2018 was “How to Quit Feeding the Beast.” This talks about being Amazon-centric in your publishing and trying to beat their algorithms.
Both of these basically point to the idea of writing between one and two short stories every week. Plus self-publishing them – immediately.
That doesn’t mean anyone is going to discover them, especially starting from the gutters of Amazon with the other 6 million books there.
What I Did Accomplish
A habit and confidence of writing at almost any time and being able to publish a 6-8K book (on average) in a little under two days. Four books is pretty much my max-out point. (I did write five books a couple of times, and one week did six. But the total words per week was seldom over 24k. Meaning, the stories tended to shorten instead of lengthen.
20K is doable, but for me it was always dropping everything else to just write. That is who Erle Stanley Gardener and H. Bedford-Jones produced a volume of one million newly-written words per year. Consistently.
Looking backward over both non-fiction and fiction writing, I found that I was already consistently writing at the 20K per week range. It just wasn’t all fiction. And if I wanted to make my fiction book publishing targets, I simply shortened or eliminated my non-fiction work to do so.
And I have enough non-fiction articles this year that I can create new books from them. Also courses. (You’ll see these show up this coming year, most likely.)
Publishing doesn’t have the same word-count as writing, since this includes the many anthologies and combined flash fiction short reads. Anything more than 2500 words is a book, according to Apple and Amazon.
That said, a spreadsheet generated today by my Calibre program showed that I’ve published 2,057,564 words this year so far. As each short story was probably published twice or more (first as itself, and second as at least one anthology), this then brings us back to the point of writing around a million words this year.
More comfortable for me is two 6-8K short stories per week. And I’ve nearly done this – and intend to finish keeping this average for the last few weeks of this year. That alone would be 100 books.
Per Wikipedia, “prolific” is anyone who’s published over a hundred books in a lifetime. (And a discussion of that metric is available here.)
So you can see we have a difference of opinion. Especially where Apple and Amazon set the bar at only 2500 words to publish an ebook. (Ample room for the tut-tutting looking-down-their-nosers.)
You’ll note on their list is that the top writer of all time wrote and published nothing but short stories and novellas. And single-author anthologies are also counted.
Again, the points are two: 1) Do you enjoy your own writing? 2) Are you trying to compare yourself to someone else (and who cares about critics and trolls, anyway?)
What Worked – What I Recommend
Overall: writing is learned by writing. And there is no substitute. Really great writers wrote for decades – most of their life, usually. And always worked to make each book better than their last. Sure, read a lot of books you love. Always and only write what you love. Then move on and read/write some more. It’s a continuing process. A spiritual adventure.
Key was doing a lot of prior/concurrent study of many great craft books. And lots of DW Smith courses (particularly his “classic” ones on Teachable.) Until I finished learning what I could from each of these mentors.
And then testing everything – and throwing it all away. Having the books and lessons to review as needed, but otherwise just to use what you’ve internalized into your own writing habits.
No one school has all the teachers. And you’ll wind up where you’ve learned all you can from someone. Sure, go back and re-study all you want. And write your own books about what you learned, (See my Really Simple Writing-Publishing series. As a note: there are four traditional way to learn – read/listen/watch, practice, teach, write texts.)
No two writers write the same way – thank god. So don’t bother comparing yourself to someone else’s success. Love what you write, as you write, or your readers won’t either.
I found out that editing is over-rated. The authors I’ve studied up learned almost exclusively by writing a lot. Lots and lots. Some now recommend developmental editors as a good idea, but then admit that they didn’t learn that way and now don’t need one.
That said, try ProWritingAid.com as an inexpensive self-editing resource. Again, learn what you need to improve your style. But write your own style, not anyone elses.
Follow perennial sellers and chase up their back trail. Louis L’Amour was told after 10 years of writing that his books had never gone out of print. You can find the same scene with Max Brand, Shakespeare, Robert E. Howard, Jack London, Mary Rinehart, and many others. Their common attributes were writing for decades and all starting out with shorter works, typically writing 50 short stories in their first year.
Just forget the “bestsellers” these days. You can buy these NY Times positions, as well as the rest. “Amazon bestseller” is a tawdry joke. I’ve had several. They come, they go. If you throw enough advertising at your book, then you can keep it up there pretty much indefinitely.
The perennial sellers like Shakespeare aren’t running ads. So you can start by looking up dead authors who still consistently sell well. Start with the top 100 downloads on Gutenburg.org to give you an idea.
Inspiration is unlimited. While every possible plot has already been written, there are infinite combinations of actions, themes, characters, settings. Exponential.
Stories are alive – they only want to be told. Try to keep out of their way and do the best you can at translating them into words. (See Stephen King’s quote on this, and Chris Vogler’s “Writer’s Journey” appendix.)
Start off by rounding up all the unpublished fiction work you have and getting it published – preferably under a pen name. This gets that out of your system and then you can simply get on with improving your craft. (Don’t worry about how good it is – focus on whether you’ve ever published it as its own book.)
Key Lessons – What I Did and How I Would Do It Over
- Build audience first though Medium and Wattpad. The simple way to do this is to go ahead and publish everything wide through Draft2Digital, StreetLib, PublishDrive, and (directly to) Amazon. And publish them all 90 days as pre-order. But then set these up as individual 2K chapters on Medium and Wattpad and link (using books2read.com) to your book – although you may have to set your book up on your own site and give out the other links there. (And if StreetLib and PublishDrive ever generate a link service like Draft2Digital does, you can bet I’ll post them as well.)
- This means daily writing, weekly publishing. That I did most successfully.
- This builds your backlist. And you add to this by compiling anthologies – people like value of big collections. In series. Writing short works will build into larger ones. And writing short stories will enable you to learn your craft and try new approaches without the major expense of 300-page first/second/third drafts.
- Giving away free books to get subscribers doesn’t mean you have true fans. I invested heavily in Instafreebie (now Prolific Works) in terms of time and money. That’s a short cut to having a list. But then you have to train that list to buy your books. Get your writing habits in first before you worry (much) about subscribers. Or, like me, you’ll be paying for mailing lists and Prolific Works subscriptions with nothing coming in to pay for them via book sales.
- All this points to building your content-business on the side. But taking a year just to build your writing habits is/has been invaluable. This next year will build on what I’ve done already.
Any Other Key Breakthroughs
The structural model that works for Western audiences is both traditional and modern: story hook, three acts in four parts, teaser for next in series. That is the modern TV series, and longer movies. Shakespeare also used most of this. He had to write for the “penny-farthing” crowd in front so they’d quiet down to allow the box seats to hear. (Like Macbeth’s three witches intro.)
Serials are just having the first part of your next book show up in the last bit of the one you’re now working on. Cliffhangers are simply ending the chapter in the middle of an action or emotional scene. Then you conclude that action or scene somewhere else, later. Again, study the long-running TV series. (Cliffhangers aren’t just a list of gimmick endings. Above is the principle that explains all the “gimmicks.”)
My own best system was to get inspired by great cover art. I’m graphic-oriented. Build that cover (or commission it), write the marketing hook, then write your story hook – and keep going until you’re done. Then revise, proof, publish. I do that straight through instead of writing a bit each day. Just simpler for me.
Writing short stories as serials, publishing each one, then allows you to turn right around and publish the collected anthology the next day – because they are all individually proofed already. It’s then just a formatting job – that doesn’t have to take more than a few hours.
The top producing authors are/were all straight-ahead writers. (“Pantsers” is a diminutive term that is more a meme than useful description.) Pulp-method writers like L’Amour would finish one book, then put in a fresh sheet into his typewriter to start the next. H. Bedford-Jones, who pulled down $50K per year in the middle of the depression (which would mean 6- and possibly 7-figures today) even said in his “Fiction Business” book, that plot might not even be necessary to have a good, entertaining story.
Heinlein’s Rules can simply be updated to today’s market as:
2) Finish what you write.
3) Revise/edit/proof until you’re happy with it.
4) (Self-)Publish it.
5) Keep it in front of people so they can find and buy it.
That last line is interpreted by many as running ads, but doesn’t have to be.
Draft2Digital is huge asset. Saves you a lot of time by automating the formatting process. Even a nice PDF for your print version – along with a free ISBN.
I used four pen-names to study the four main genres I wanted to write in. And while I didn’t/don’t write Romances, each of the pen names ended up writing a romance in their respective genre (even a satirical one.) As covered, pen names can be disposable if spectacular failures.
I dropped audio proofing as too time intensive. This next year, I’m getting back into audio by cutting back on fiction to “just” one book per week (while intending to be working on three books every week, although that fiction book will complete on it’s own and the others may only publish as chapters. (The other two being non-fiction works.) That one fiction work will be published as an audio book as well, though. Look for lots of podcasts from me.
Packaging two or more short stories (flash fiction) that are otherwise too short (under 2500 words) can give you the equivalent of a 45RPM record – both sides are great art.
“Amazon works as well as you send traffic to it.” A paraphrase from affiliate-marketer-turned-author Steve Scott.
Copywriting is another form of fiction writing.
Will I write a book from all this material? Probably not. There is tons of data already available through this blog, and my earlier books. A collection of blot posts is just that. Look for books-to-course in the future though. Leanpub has an interesting experiment down this line of generating a course directly from your non-fiction book…
As laid out earlier, I have an unusual skill set, that took me over 5 decades of polishing to finally point at fiction writing.
Very few people can do what I did, but many authors knew little more than how to write and have been just as prolific.
All this write-up – and this years-worth of work – is just to give you the invitation to go ahead and try. (And my next years challenge will pick up where these one left off. So stay tuned.)
Luck to all of us.
Also published on Medium.