Successful Fiction Writing: How Good Is Good Enough?
The first commonly-agreed advice I’d ever run across was “Write a Damn Good Book.” And in five years of researching, taking courses, and reading books (plus a decade of writing and publishing) that’s never been defined by anyone.
What they do tell you is how to get your book published, all the mechanics.
And that doesn’t mean your book was written well enough to sell decently.
Success is typically being defined in these many books and courses as earning a living online, which to many means earning 6-figures (except out here in the boonies. Cost of living in cities is quite insane.)
Earl Nightingale said that income is a result of success. You don’t “make money” unless you work at the government presses. You earn money. Once you’re successful, the money rolls in.
Authors earn money by writing the best they can. The better they are are writers, the higher income they earn.
The worst courses and books out there push money in their marketing. Saying how much you can make or earn is usually the sign of a scam.
The next scam sign to look out for is if they claim you can become a “bestseller.” It can be done on Amazon for a few minutes in a category where there are no sales. And with a big enough mailing list, any book can become momentarily a bestseller. But having a “bestseller” title and being a routinely bestselling author are light-years part. (And why an “Amazon bestseller” title is becoming worthless.)
The writers who concentrate on improving their craft with every story they produce are the ones who ultimately earn the big bucks.
It takes lots of written stories. Lots. It takes lots of years of routine writing and publishing. Maybe decades. The good point is that it’s easier than ever to publish, and in a year or so (with prolific output all published) you can possibly be earning 6-figures.
You still won’t be very good as an author, though. A lot better than most. For what that’s worth.
Almost no authors achieve a decent income from writing. For the millions of authors on Amazon, only a tenth of a percent even get to five figures in income.
And you can reject this all you want. That’s not what you’ve been told. I’m just telling you the results of recent research.
.04 percent (4 out of 10,000) actually make a living from publishing on Amazon. (per Author Earnings report.)
Studying Truly Successful Authors
To achieve success, you should study the successful.
When you study successful authors, they do two things:
- Prolific writing and publishing. An average of hundreds of stories.
- Decades working at it. And they never quit.
This data comes from the Wikipedia, the million-book sellers.
The cross reference on this is from Dean Wesley Smith and his blog posts/book about Stages of A Fiction Writer. (http://books2read.com/u/mBMyJN And that book was entirely blogged, so you might want to visit his blog as it’s quite short.)
Anyway, the first two stages are writers who are learning to write at all. Smith’s work in this area is to get people to just simply write and not go through multiple drafts of rewriting. (And letting go of what their “English” teachers crammed into their heads as Gospel.)
The core idea is that writers get better by writing. Lots of writing. Re-writing doesn’t count. Re-writing only feeds your “editor mind” which isn’t the mind that creates the book.
Smith’s approach: Write the book, edit as you go. Get is as best as you can. You’ll improve by simply writing more.
Now, Smith also says that you need to get the book proofed and line-edited. But you never re-write. If the book turns out lousy (the line-editor didn’t think it was worth reading) then you don’t re-write, you throw it away. Then get onto your next project and make it better.
For those of you who are just starting out and can’t afford a line-editor, my suggestion is ProWritingAid.com, which is far more affordable.
That’s how I’ve worked up my four-proof system.
- Write it out and complete it. A story is as long as it takes.
- Go back through and repair the obvious errors, mis-spellings, missing stuff. (Links and footnotes for non-fiction.)
- Get it line-edited. Then fix your sentences if those changes screwed up any flow/pacing/etc.
- Read it out loud and record what you say. Edit the text as you go. Edit that recording into shape for your audiobook.
Then publish it in all possible formats to all possible outlets.
And then get started on your next story, unless you already have. The key is to get a steady flow of stories being produced. This is one-half of how you improve as an author.
The second half is reading. The breakthrough is in what you are reading.
If you want success, you study success. You read the books of people who are exceptional successes in their field.
Studying other beginning authors won’t help you as much as studying authors who have written successfully for decades and are routinely hitting the bestsellers lists just on the basis of their quality.
Smith defines the top-quality authors this way:
Stage four writers are writers who have been producing for twenty or more years and who are bestsellers and write more than one book every few years.
When you go to Wikipedia (their List of Best-selling Fiction Authors) you can then find a long list of authors to read. Smith prefers you pick a living author, or one who died in the last few years. Sort that list by citizenship and you’ll have a good list of authors to study for the language you speak.
Let’s pull the summaries for Smith’s first three fiction writing stages from his blog:
Stage one writers have a focus only on the sentences, the grammar, the polish of a manuscript.
They give lip service to better characters, endings, and so on, but will spend ten drafts getting that “perfect” first line because they heard somewhere that was important.
All writers live for a time in stage one, or live in it while studying in other areas such as plays or nonfiction.
Stage two is a transition stage.
It is when a writer takes the focus only on the words and polishing the words and moves that focus slowly to learning story and characters and setting and the thousand other basic details that go into being a great storyteller.
The writer is moving from someone who only pays attention to typing to paying attention to story.
In stage three writers, the awareness has expanded out.
Now the awareness is on telling a good story, on having an interesting plot, on doing great openings, on writing great characters, on getting a reader into a story and holding them in the story.
Words now are still important, but only in the service of the story and nothing more.
Here’s a checklist Smith uses for you to check to see if you’ve move into Stage Three:
— Are you focused on learning story, learning character, learning depth, and on and on and on?
— Are you starting to have some success selling? Either indie or traditional.
— Do you have more than one or two books out?
— Have you cut down the number of rewrites, or found a better way, and want to get to the next story before you are almost done with the last one?
Frankly, if you follow Smith’s other books (and his numerous video’s and workshops) you can be into Stage Three in a year or less. This is backed up by the courses that Geoff Shaw has produced. You simply have to drop-kick the conventional wisdom which is keeping other people down and out.
Then do this:
- Write, edit, proof, publish. No rewrites, no endless drafts.
- Do lots of writing. Train yourself to be prolific.
- Learn from your mistakes about what sells and what doesn’t.
- Meanwhile, keep improving your craft. Every story better than the earlier ones.
When you are more concerned with telling story instead of story length or word use, then you’ve arrived.
After some years/decades of writing, you’ll find yourself at Stage Four.
Stage Four – (just to round it out):
— A writer in complete control of the art of storytelling.
— A writer who is still learning.
— A writer who is using techniques, often without knowing, that are advanced.
— A writer that is balanced in skills.
— A writer that has no giant weak areas in their storytelling.
— A writer who can handle any kind of storytelling technique a story demands.
— A writer who is a bestseller and has been for many, many years, if not decades.
— A writer who knows when a reader needs something before a reader knows they need it.
Using Your Reading To Move From Four to Three
Bottom Line: you have to let your body tell you what to study.
First, you have to read daily. Become as prolific at reading as you do in writing (or vice-versa.)
Next, get a pile of books to read. Start with short stories, just as where you should start as an author.
Stack them up. Collections, singles, all of them.
Make sure you have an ereader that enables notes or some way to signify the books you thought were exceptional.
Main rule: if you bounce out of a story, delete it from your stack. If the short story is in a collection, then note which one it was. If you find the author’s style is boring or tedious, then go ahead and toss that book.
The point here is that books (per Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey”) create a glandular response. This is what most people mistake for emotions. Your body will tell you if a book is good or lousy. A book keeping you up at night is great. A book putting you to sleep means you delete it.
At some point during your business slot, you can go back through those books to study how that author made it work.
At this point, you don’t need to watch out so much whether an author is a neophyte, a Stage Three or a Stage Four. If you are delighted with the book, then study it to see how that author created that effect. If you are bounced out of a book for any reason, delete it from your reader.
You can watch movies and TV shows all you want. But there is that caveat: if you get bored, it’s not worth it. Turn it off and start another, or just go to sleep. Better, pick up a book.
You won’t learn sentence structure, vocabulary, or many writing skills from a movie. Usually just plots, in addition to music scores and camera angles. Maybe dialog.
Reading lots and lots of books are the key. Drop them when they don’t interest you. Study the ones that take you right to the end and leave you wanting more.
At this level, I think this fills in the cracks of what your courses teach. Courses are an overview from that teacher’s perspective – what he or she has found to be workable for them. And as “no school has all the teachers”, each course should be taken with a grain of salt. Each course should be tested in your own writing.
I’m diving into Dean Wesley Smith’s courses right now, after having gone through all of Geoff Shaw’s courses. Again, I reached the end of needing to study any more of the “how-to” courses that only taught mechanics. Now I’m studying to learn the craft. And that takes me full circle, back to where I started.
The first thing I learned, and was repeated constantly: write a damn good book. The trouble with all those other courses were that they either said to hire an expensive editor or, worse, said nothing at all.
Now you and I both know:
- Read for pleasure.
- Study the books that have the greatest effect on you.
Warning: There Be Dragons
Most writers never make it out of stage three. Mainly because they quit. Other things become more interesting. Various conventional wisdom data can contribute to quitting. Essentially, it turned out that writing isn’t giving them the joy they want.
But it’s the stuff they’ve swallowed that makes them quit. They can’t digest it. So they pick up something that gives them more joy. Nothing wrong with that. This article is here to give you warning that there are “fake dragons” which have been set up to keep you from succeeding. (Just like the warnings inscribed on the edges of old maps in Columbus’ time, say the legends.)
If you do all of Geoff Shaw’s courses, you’ll wind up on the verge of, or well into, stage three. His courses and books teach the mechanics of getting started writing books that sell.
Once you have these mechanics down, then you see that there is more to this than just making a living. You start seeing writing as a craft. And you start seeing that you can help the readers more if you simply learn this craft so well that you cease thinking about the tools and more about the finished product and how well the reader is going to like it.
Dragons you are going to have to slay:
- Drafts and multiple editors.
- Needing reviews.
- Depending on Amazon for everything.
- Spending more time marketing than writing.
All of those are simply garbage. Test everything by this: does (what you’ve been told, or read, or heard) help you write more?
Remember, freelance editors sell editing. Freelance proofreaders sell proofing. One-stop-shop book publishers sell all of these. Ask them: does what you’re selling or providing help me write more or faster? Or are you simply delaying what I am doing so it takes longer to go to press?
The bulk of my books on this subject have addressed all the points that Stage One and Stage Two authors have as problems. This is where I’ve been as an author. Now that the last scales have fallen from my eyes, I can see that only writing makes writers. Publishing (and reading only the three star reviews) helps authors learn to become better authors. (No, you never respond to reviews. Not worth getting worked up over haters or suck-ups.)
Sure, there’s a business to writing. You have to run a business. Or hire someone to do it for you (and pay them based on results, not an hourly rate or salary.)
Without books to publish, you have no business income. Without words written, you have no books to publish.
The better you write, the better your books sell. Even the ones which are marketed poorly. Crappy books can be expertly marketed and sell well. Great books can be marketed poorly and not sell. You want the middle line. Write decent books and give them decent marketing. You’ll earn your decent income.
Meanwhile, improve the quality of your writing.
The first step is to start publishing everything you write from here on out. Use pen names.
Work out a study schedule of writing basics you are weak on.
But your main tutors will be Stage Four authors. They routinely have bestsellers and have been writing for decades.
And you’ll need to master all the main structures of plots: mysteries, adventures, romances. Then combine these into page-turning books.
After a few decades, it will be easy for you. Still work, but you will have trained yourself (and keep training yourself) to that you hit a line of production that pays well to keep you writing.
Your Bliss and “Writing to Market”
I’ve read and recommended books on “writing to market.” I’ve also invested in courses and services which tell me all the mechanics of where to pick the best categories to sell the most copies of your books. And services/programs which pick out the best keywords.
While these are a necessary part of the business, they are the mechanics.
You have to separate the mechanics from the bliss.
The primary reason to keep writing is because of the inherent joy in it. That joy is another reason to read the truly gifted writers. They give you books you can get lost in. And those books are the ones to dissect and learn from.
Writers who never get beyond the mechanics are finding themselves distracted by other fluff. They quit writing after a few years, regardless of whether they had a bestseller or not. Because they think (and bought into the idea that) writing is mechanical.
Writing doesn’t give them bliss. It’s a means to the end. Usually that end is a certain income goal.
So after awhile, they quit writing and concentrate on mechanics of earning income by selling products and services. There are many of these around. People who had “bestsellers” but their main drive is selling courses about writing and publishing. They quit writing.
And that is the core disagreement I have with the bulk of the books and material out there. They sell mechanics, usually overpriced. They don’t make authors, they only profit from wannabe authors. (Impolitely: leeches.)
One of the bigger lies is that you have to “write to market”. You have to know the market and include what that market demands in its books.
The second biggest lie authors tell themselves is that they can write anything they want and then find somewhere to sell it.
The middle ground is told as writing what you like to read, but realizing that certain genre’s (like Westerns) don’t earn much income. So you tweak what you write in order to publish these in genres/categories that sell better. (Hint: read titles in those genres, and find the ones you really like, then adjust your writing style slightly.)
Then I ran across a Stage Four short story author who was right back at recommending “writing what you want and selling where it fits.” The difference between the advice given to (and by) Stage 1 and 2 authors is that they don’t know their plot structures and reader expectations (and “conventions” as well as “obligatory scenes”) to actually pull it off.
Once you get well into Stage Three, you’ll have figured out enough so you can simply write and sell. You’ll be writing from your bliss. The better you get, the more bliss you’ll have.
You’ll only really get there by writing prolifically. Most writers are known for only a few really good books. True Stage Four authors are known for several. But in all cases, it still doesn’t amount to more than a small percentage of their total output.
Again, study the true “top guns.” You have a list of them from that Wikipedia article. Read and immerse yourself in these authors. Internalize their use of language and structures.
Writing is joy. If it isn’t, go find something that is.
That’s the bottom line. Enjoy yourself thoroughly.
Also published on Medium.