How a New Author Starts From Nothing in Writing Fiction
We’ve all been there. You want to write, and you know something about it. But the advice you are reading doesn’t make much sense. And they all want you to pay money, but will only tell you part of the puzzle. One says “Use Social Media!” Another says, “Learn to Launch Your Book!” Still another says, “Pay Us and We’ll Do It All For You!”
Actually, it’s none of the above.
Because you need only two things:
- A strong desire to write, plus the know-how to publish it.
- A way to keep track of your fans, plus keep in touch with them.
That, in short hand, is your platform:
- A backlist of books, and
- People who want to buy them and want more.
One of the weirdest lies around is that social media is your platform. Tim Grahl and others punctured this balloon years ago. I’ve seen it recently as an Instafreebie giveaway organizer. Mailing lists of interested people are far more effective than leaving hopeful notices on Twitter, FB, etc. And the effectiveness is about 50-to-one on lists being more effective than social posts.
Chicken and Egg
Go back to Joe Pulizzi’s “Content Inc.” The number one priority you want to acquire is a list of email addresses for interested people.
And to do that, you have to write some books and put them up for people to find, preferably so they can buy them.
Meaning, that writing books comes first. It doesn’t mean you have to finish them before you start getting subscribers. There are lots of places (podcasts, radio/TV shows) that want someone on who wants to talk about their upcoming book. And if you have a email service (like Mailerlite, Mailchimp, etc.) that will build landing pages for you, that’s all you need to get started.
Right after that, you’ll probably want to start a blog (like Blogger) so you can write little notices to your subscribers telling them about what you’ve written lately.
And yes, you want to finish what you start and get it on the market (Heinlein’s Rules.)
The idea is to build a backlist where people can find more by that author.
After 6 Months of Testing, Here’s Some Changes
The reason I started this “Great Fiction Writing Challenge” was to simple acid-test everything I’d figured out and to build a track record of publishing fiction. Because I’d read that writing fiction was making far more income than non-fiction, and despite the ridiculous claims, you could still earn a decent income from original writing.
The challenge is also to be able to make a quick income from fiction writing. So far, that has eluded me, but today I can see finally how it’s all coming together – and the reason for writing this.
What I’ve learned and refined is mainly this:
Write and publish every thing you write – everywhere possible, every time you finish anything.
“Finish” is obviously edited and proofed until you can’t find anymore mistakes or ways to improve it towards a better reader experience. Otherwise, when you’re mostly happy with it, get it out there. Learn what your books are like when they are 80- and 90-percent ready. That’s the point you ship.
Don’t endlessly tweak and refine.
And I write books like I write blog posts – straight from the shoulder, backing up and fixing things before I push publish. But none of this endless plotting and drafts. Trust your inspiration/intuition to bring you the story you need, in the order you need it. Then always make the next story better than the ones you wrote before.
That just goes back to the point that 90% out of everything you write will be “crud” as Sturgeon’s Law holds. But you won’t get to the 10% gold until you get 100% of your stuff published. Meanwhile, people who like the way you write and subjects you write on will go ahead and suffer through your earlier stuff to find the great stuff. And also – gold is in the eye of the beholder. No two readers (or reviewers/critics) will think the same about any given piece you’ve written.
Here’s the essentials of what I’ve found to be true:
Have and Keep your Day Job
Something will keep bringing in the income while you can chase your dream of writing. If you’ve only got one story in you, then you’ll still have some way to make a living once you get that done.
And many people (most) only see their success after they have gotten their fifth novel written. Novels are bears to write, I’ve written a couple (via NaNoWriMo challenges.) But like Rowling and others, it isn’t until at least the fifth novel that their stories start to take off. Sure “The Martian” and “50 Shades of Gray” are exceptions – but you don’t see the years of blogging those two authors did before they had those “big successes.” Look up Amanda Hocking. She had something like 8 or 9 full books self-published before she hit her big time. Adam Croft, Mark Dawson – same thing.
During this challenge, my previous non-fiction book sales have been covering my costs of living, which are few. (Called “financial freedom.”)
Write and Publish, Repeat, Forever
I’m a fan of the short story. Because anything over 2500 is an ebook on Kindle and can be sold. And I recommend highly that you round up 2500 words you’ve written, build a free cover on Canva, and then put it up via a free account on KDP with some 50 words of description and a pen name. Once that’s done, you’re now a published author and you can (almost) only get better after that.
Short stories are easier to write, easier to edit, and just as easy to publish.
And then you can build them up in to anthologies where you can publish to existing niches and market them for sale. Write once, publish twice (at least.)
Ray Bradbury, Louis L’Amour, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Jack London, and many more authors all started from nothing with writing short stories. And here’s their common goal: 50 short stories written and sold to publishers in the first year.
You just have to write – and publish – every week, preferably every day.
Read that last line again. Write and publish every week. And then, at the end of a year, you’ll have your 50 stories.
It gets easier, it gets faster.
Once You Find Your Niche, Figure Out How to Make a Living At It.
Writing to market is frustrating. Because it’s like another job. You’re just squeezing yourself into another shoe that someone else made for you. Sure, there are reader expectations (“tropes”) in every genre. Those don’t matter as much as your being happy with what you’ve written and published it somewhere that people can find it – and maybe pay you for the opportunity.
The other school of thought than writing to market, is to write the story you always wanted to write, and then find out where the market is for it. Most authors do this. But you might write a romance one week, a detective-mystery the next, and fast-paced action-adventure/thriller the week after that. All as a matter of learning your craft. Try new approaches, learn as you go.
With self-publishing, you can publish these anywhere, because you can say what category/genre you suggest the book outlets sell your book in. And you can always come back and change these later. Everything in an ebook (or Print On Demand paperback version) can be updated at any time.
But you’ll find that you like to write in certain areas, against certain backgrounds or self-created worlds. Eventually, you’ll see where you should look to find markets where people are really looking for what you are producing.
Most of the homework has been done on KDP/Amazon. While the other book outlets aren’t as well developed, but are “also-ran” the same way.
Write Short, Publish Wide, then Publish Long
When you’ve written a vast army of short stories, you can then assemble these by battalions into larger works (called “anthologies”) that will sell better (in slightly different categories) in addition to your short ones. Because most short stories (on KDP) sell best at .99 each and your royalties are a niggling 34 cents. Selling an anthology of 200-300 pages can go for $2.99 and $3.99 where you make just around $2 and $3 respectively. Either way, you have to make a lot of sales to get a decent living at it.
Let’s face it – for most authors, KDP/Amazon just sucks. A tiny few (something like .4 percent) actually earn $50K or better from Amazon every year and, depending on where they live (which leaves out most big cities), can make a living at just writing.
That’s worse than throwing your needle in a haystack and expecting anyone to find ever it.
KDP Select or not, it doesn’t make much difference. Your book competes for eyeballs with over 6 million other titles out there on KDP. Simple math.
Meanwhile, you’ll get sales from other outlets if you publish wide. Internationally, KDP-Amazon “only” has about 30% of the ebook market. In the US, they have about 70%. Elsewhere, not so much. Using Draft2Digital can get you into the major ones, and then both PublishDrive and StreetLib will get you into other distributors internationally that most authors ignore. Less books mean more chance to get seen.
You have to learn to love your writing. And get into a habit of writing. And the habit of publishing. And then, the habit of marketing.
Love What You Read, Write What You Love
That’s the real secret. Writers read – a lot. And if you don’t like what you write, your reader won’t either.
Whatever your schedule, read other people’s books daily. This also includes watching TV series that you enjoy. Different completely from watching TV like a sack of potatoes. Get the DVD’s so you can watch them over and over. Stop, start, rewind, review. The ones you really like – either books or videos – are the ones you should dissect and make notes over. Even take their plot, change the characters and setting, and write a new one from it.
This again brings up why you should be writing short stories.
The rough rule of thumb is that one minute of screen time is one page of screenplay. Half-hour shows are about 20 pages (a short read of about 5,000 words.) Hour shows are 44 minutes – and so, about 44 pages (11K words.) Full two-hour movies are about 120 pages (30K words.)
See? 200-300 page novels are tougher to write.
I’ve found that between writing and editing and publishing, I produce about 1,000 words of published content in an hour. (That’s not 1K of text written per hour, but few “high speed” authors will also include the time they have to spend re-writing and editing and proofing – and the amount of time they pay others to spend on their work – into their speed rates.)
So an 8-thousand-word story will take me about 8 hours to get finished and published. (And I do my own covers and descriptions in that time, as well. Say what you want…) 8K words will give you approximately 30 pages (at 250 words/page.) And so can be published as a paperback, as 32 pages is the typical minimum for Print On Demand (and you’ll have more than that with your title page, reader magnet ad, “also by” book list, etc.)
Now, you’ll need 10 of these stories to make it to 300 pages. But now you have a “big novel” you can publish – again, an anthology collection. That’s 10 weeks of work – all part time.
Figure that you are writing a couple of hours each night and more on the weekends. So probably one of these every week, maybe two, or the story is 12K – doesn’t matter. You publish one of these every week without fail.
After 10 weeks, you have your first novel-length book. And you’ve published all the shorter works and, if lucky, have made a few sales out of them. Now you can compile them all into an anthology with a new title, new cover, and new description. And you have a book that can make enough to afford some Facebook advertising to make it a “hit” or an “overnight success.”
But spend that much time on a novel and you have one book. Now, go ahead and write the next five and you’ll be ready to start selling them, as you’ll have your backlist people can find. It will take you a year, at least.
With short reads, readers can inexpensively buy your short works at 99-cents and sample your style before they plunk down the “big bucks” at $3.99 – a bit sarcastic, but let’s be real. Most books sell only 250 copies, and those are to friends and family.
FB ads enable many more people to find your books and buy them. But they are only affordable at $3.99 or higher. You are paying Facebook to put your ads in front of the people they’ve stolen personal data from, so FB can show them stuff they apparently want to see. (That’s the only real use I see for Facebook. I use adblockers always, and never visit social media. So there.)
What Six Months of Writing Has Produced
I’ve been doing this for a solid six months now, cranking out an average of two stories per week through this. (OK, really seven months – it’s the end of July as I write this.)
Last night I assembled them all into a massive, rough ebook, just to get an idea of where I stand:
338,710 words, 1229 pages.
So I have at least four 300-page novels-worth in there, or five 250-page books, six 200-page books.
My total published-book count is 57. Of these, there are two novels (from NaNoWriMo days – just published now) and nine collections. Leaving out the novels and the collections gave me that word and page count above.
In six months, I created my backlist. A big one, by most counts. And I’ve passed up all those big names above in sheer production, in about half the time.
Now – to get them selling.
How I Plan to Sell 5 Novels at Once
At this point, I pretty much know my areas I like to write in.
So I looked up K-lytics.com to get Alex Newton’s outstanding research on KDP to see where I should be selling them. (Affiliate link alert…)
Those are all sales pages, but you can see the amount of data he stuffs into each one. I get all the descriptions for the top 100 of each sub-genre. Each of these are already worked up to be profitable from his research. I also get the keywords being used and various categories where you find these – not always where you think.
And since KDP has more recently told us how we can put as many as 10 categories for each ebook (see Kindlepreneur.com) this then gives me the leverage to build a “written for market” book to sell. Or, actually, five of them.
Now I’ll dust off Dawson’s course on FB ads and we’ll be set.
And I have some 46 short stories out there they can find as samples. All mostly at 99-cents on Amazon, $2.99 everywhere else.
Does This Mean Anything?
Not that I’m going to quit writing, by any means. It actually is only half of the test of How to Get Started From Nothing in Writing Fiction.
All this shows is proof that the writing can be done, because I did it – and am doing it.
I just had to get this particular piece of work out of my head so I could get back to my fiction again.
If I can get 300K words out in 7 months, then I should be able to get 600K out in a year, or about a hundred short stories, or about 10 big books people want to shell out big bucks for – or that will support being advertised.
Meaning: The Real Show Is About To Start.
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Also published on Medium.