The Business Rusch: Reality Check
The beginning of November marks the start of the holiday season here in the United States. Right after Halloween, retailers pretend that they’re helping everyone decide what to buy for Thanksgiving meals, but in reality, they’re trying to get customers into the stores for the day after Thanksgiving or Black Friday.
For writers, November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. It’s become a mighty big thing, with writers supporting writers, and helping each other finish a project as large as a novel in 30 days. I can’t tell you how many of my professional writer friends on Facebook made the same comment on November 1—Write a novel in a month? Welcome to my world, kiddies.
Other established writers are much more supportive. They published tricks for making it through the month. Kevin J. Anderson wrote a blog with tips on how to avoid the empty page. Dean Wesley Smith did an online lecture on increasing productivity.
Me, I watch from a distance, like I have since NaNoWriMo started in 1999. Reporters, who generally write thousands of words per day at their jobs, seem in awe of novelists who can complete a book in a month, expressing great surprise that New York Times bestsellers like Water For Elephants and The Night Circus got their start as NaNoWriMo books. Of course they got their start as a book written fast. The writers got out of their own way.
Okay. That was a bit snide on my part. I love the fact that NaNoWriMo has brought hundreds of novels into print that wouldn’t otherwise have been finished. The more books, the better, no matter how overwhelmed I am as a reader.
But because NaNoWriMo is an established event, it has also become a marker, the way the holiday season is a marker of a year about to end. For some writers, it marks the day they “became serious.” For others, it marks the day they proved to themselves that they can finish something.
This year, though, NaNoWriMo is reminding a bunch of writers that their dreams are harder to achieve than they thought.
Four years ago, self-publishing became both easy and inexpensive. And three years ago, bloggers made it sound like everyone who hit a “publish” button could make a small fortune as a writer. What most beginners missed about J.A. Konrath’s publishing blogs (for example) was that he was always talking to established writers—midlisters, like he was—and not to beginners. He assumed that writers had already learned the basics of good storytelling before they hit that “publish” button.
But writers are writers are writers, and the one thing we do really, really well is make stuff up. For some reason, writers believe that if they finish something, it should not only sell but sell millions of copies.
Musicians aren’t that delusional. Just because they learn a piece of music doesn’t mean they can play it well. Just because they’ve managed to give a concert doesn’t mean the audience enjoyed said concert—or even showed up to hear it.
Maybe because musicians have ears, they realize that learning their craft is hard. Even if the musician got As in school in music, even if the musician was the best singer in his class, he knows he’s still not good enough for the regional, let alone the national, let alone the international stage. Yet writers believe that if they got As in school in writing (or in English, having written only one or two essays), then they’re good enough to sell as many copies of their novels as Stephen King. Or maybe their ego isn’t that big. Maybe they believe that they’re good enough to be rich, just not buy-a-small-country rich.
I don’t know.
But I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years now, and I’ve learned that beginning writers, for the most part, are the most delusional of all artists. Ninety percent of all beginning writers believe they should sell the very first thing they finish.
This has not changed. What has changed is the delivery method.
Once upon a time, these writers would send their novel (or their two novels or their five short stories) to New York editors to get the books published. Then New York editors got smart and told writers they couldn’t sell a book without an agent (and yes, those editors lied). So the writers trundled off en masse to agents, and those agents had to field the same damn slush pile that editors once dealt with.
Then self-publishing became easy. It not only became easy, it also became easy to reach readers. In the early days, those folks with e-readers didn’t have a lot of choice, and what choice they had was pretty similar. Even e-books out of traditional publishers had formatting issues, not to mention proofing and copy editing issues from bad scans. The crap beginning writers put up wasn’t that different in look to a traditionally published book, although, once you got past the bad covers and the crappy formatting to the story, the difference became apparently pretty quickly.
Most traditionally published writers knew what they were doing—or at least had some things right. The gatekeepers guaranteed good sentence by sentence writing or good characters or a good story and sometimes, if the reader was lucky, all three.
Very few beginning writers could say the same. Those that did succeed were natural storytellers, whose formatting and grammatical flaws got overlooked because of the story itself.
The writers who had the most success in the early days of self-publishing were the midlist writers whom traditional publishing had abandoned. Those folks already knew storytelling and how to write good prose and the importance of character. Midlist writers are still the backbone of the self-publishing movement, just like they were the backbone of traditional publishing before traditional publishing started to implode on its own blockbuster mentality.
But let’s return to the beginners, those folks who finished their NaNoWriMo book in 2010 and thought, What the hell. I’ll put it up for sale on Kindle and get rich. Those writers started watching their numbers. They started promoting and giving their one book away for free—and magically, they had downloads.
Free books “sold” thousands of copies way back in 2010. That didn’t mean thousands of readers. Just thousands of potential readers who someday might open all the free books they got in the early days of e-reader ownership.
Eventually e-readers became ubiquitous and everyone gave books away for free and free lost its magic appeal. Traditional publishers actually hired staff to design e-books and improve quality and their books got better. A lot more midlisters joined the ranks of self-published authors, and wanted better covers and good proofing. Some beginners wrote more than one book and got better and better and better, publishing a lot of titles, and continuing to improve as well as improve the product they put out (good covers, good cover blurbs, copy edits, y’know, actually competing on the quality level). The result? That one-book writer who promoted the hell out of her one book saw her five sales dwindle to zero sales.
Then NaNoWriMo came around again, and those writers finished a second book. (Magic!) They published that too, and thought maybe now lightning would strike. Maybe they sold some copies. Maybe they got beer and pizza money. But they didn’t make millions.
The tough writers, they entered NaNoWriMo in 2012, and finished a third novel. That’s hard. Honestly, most writers never make it past the first book. But a third novel does not a novelist make. It simply means that the writer had enough stamina to finish three stories. It doesn’t mean the writer learned anything about what makes good stories. It doesn’t mean that the writer learned how to write anything unique to them. It just means they had a little more practice under their belts.
Some of these writers did what they could to improve their craft. They started to write more, and they learned how to publish. They got a clue that they were in business, not in a get-rich-quick scheme.
Other writers just tried to find shortcuts to sell their deathless prose.
But many of them believed that they should have seen millions by now. Or, if they were honest with themselves, at least six-figures annually. But the most successful of the one-book-per-year beginners were only getting a thousand or two a month (I hate adding only there, but that’s what I’ve seen; whiners complaining that they were “only” making a few thousand a month). Those writers who had middling success might’ve made a few hundred per month. Some were only making beer and pizza money, and many not even that.
They didn’t realize that writing is a craft. That it takes ten years or more to learn the craft well enough to hit a level that readers will remember the stories. If the years don’t discourage them, then the word count will. Mystery writer John D. MacDonald said that writers had one million words of crap in them before they wrote work that was original to them. With their voice, and with their attitude, and with their passion.
One million words of crap.
My thirty years of experience has shown me that MacDonald was right. In that million words were some pretty good stories—stories that simply regurgitated the stories the writers had read in their childhood. Some writers are good enough to sell those regurgitations, but most aren’t.
And now the beginners of 2010, those who entered the writing sweepstakes with so much hope, are getting discouraged. Hell, they’re not getting discouraged. They are discouraged. They’re quitting.
This year, they’re not participating in NaNoWriMo because they have to take a vacation with the family or they need a year off or November snuck up on them. In reality, though, they’re reassessing. Or worse, they’re giving up on their writing dreams because they thought being a writer was easy, and they learned that it was hard.
Not everyone is quitting. A lot of writers have accepted the hard task in front of them and are soldiering on, figuring out how to have a career at writing, even if they’re still not selling a lot of copies of their books.
And this split is going to cause problems, because it always does, with each generation of writers.
One afternoon, I was at a workshop at Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm’s house. We were discussing beginning writers and Kate said that writers who can be discouraged should be discouraged. She said something along the lines of this is a hard business and they’ll just quit later on, so best to get it out of the way now.
I was so shocked back then. I had just crested my ten-year mark, and I was selling regularly. I thought Kate was unduly harsh.
Now, I understand. Writers come and writers go. Beginning writers fade away. They stop talking about their dreams. They realize that writing is too hard, that it’ll take more effort than showing up for the day job every morning, and they figure they’ll pay attention to writing when they retire. When the family doesn’t take all their time. When they have a chance to “focus” on it.
One day, their writing friends—the folks who’ve stuck it out—will look around and wonder where that other friend went. Why isn’t he coming to NaNoWriMo meetings for the second year in a row? Why isn’t she forwarding writing news? They’ll worry, vaguely, and then slowly accept that he’s too busy to write.
But, some beginning writers who aren’t successful immediately get angry. They tell those of us who’ve succeeded that we did it because we were lucky or we had friends in the right places. They accuse us of lying to them about how easy it all is, when we never lied. We just tried hard not to discourage them.
We don’t discourage because it’s impossible to know which writers will succeed and which ones won’t. Dean and I have worked out a good formula for it, but it’s only a formula, with all the flaws that formulas have.
When we do our in-person workshops on the Oregon Coast, we only accept driven writers. The writers we teach in person must exhibit drive, not that elusive thing everyone else calls “talent.” Over the years, we’ve learned how to tell the difference. The driven writers can learn the craft; the so-called “talented” writer believe the world owes them adulation.
Believe me, we’ve had a few “talented” writers at the Coast Workshops in the early years, and those writers got angry at the amount of work we assigned. They got even angrier when we didn’t bow down in front of their God-given abilities. They got furious when we told them they’d have to work hard to succeed in this business.
We have since weeded out the so-called “talented” writers, and you know what? Those writers from the early years have vanished, while the writers with less so-called “talent” and a lot more drive succeeded. The driven writers had a work ethic. They learned the craft, one hard lesson at a time. Most of those writers are still learning. They come to other workshops or study from writers who are farther down the road than they are. They read novels by their favorite writers and try to figure out how those writers achieved such amazing things.
The driven writers practice, all the damn time.
Most of the NaNoWriMo Class of 2010 are leaving the business right now. Most never realized it was a business at all. They searched for the gimmick; they believed the hype. Most are going away quietly, but a few are getting furious. They’re lashing out—some of them at their driven writer friends who might not have more success (yet) but who aren’t giving up.
The driven writers are just as impatient as the friends who are giving up right now, but the driven writers recognize that they’re reaching for the stars. They’re not people who bought a toy rocket ship and expect it to take them to the Moon. They’re learning to build their own rocket ship and they’ll figure out a way to escape Earth’s gravity well soon.
This culling of the NaNoWriMo Class of 2010 is right on time. It usually takes about three years for the writers who aren’t going to work hard enough to make it to give up. It was that way thirty years ago, and it’s that way now.
Some of the writers, the talented stars of my college creative writing classes, are professors of English now. Others are doctors, lawyers, engineers. None of them are professional writers. The only professional writer I met in those classes wasn’t the professor (who at the time had published one short story for copies). The professional writer was Kevin J. Anderson who, at 18, had already sold a bunch of semi-professional short stories and was taking the class, like I was, to improve what skills we already had.
Stan Schmidt, the editor of Analog, started watching Kevin’s work when Kevin was twelve. He was that good a storyteller that early. But he was in his million words of crap phase. Stan was waiting until Kev had worked his way out of those million words.
I was—and am—impressed that Stan noticed him that fast. A lot of million-words-of-crap workers don’t get noticed until their one-million-and-one word. Yes, it takes that much work. Yes, it’s that hard.
Kev still hadn’t sold to Analog or any other professional market by the time he graduated from college. He was 21 or 22 when he made his first professional sale which was, if I remember right, to the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, not to Analog. Y’know. About ten years after Stan Schmidt first noticed him.
Writing is a craft, folks. If you have trouble remembering that, then do this. It’s the season of the holiday concert at every school in the Western world. Go listen to the best kids in their grade school/middle school/high school perform for parents and teachers. And realized that those good kids are getting As for music. Then ask yourself if they’re ready to perform alongside Tony Bennett or Blake Shelton or Beyoncé. Ask yourself if those kids belong on an international stage.
Maybe one in a million might be ready. But I’m probably overestimating.
Those kids have years of practice ahead of them, years of learning the craft of music before learning the art of music.
Just like writers have years of learning the craft of writing before learning the art of writing.
If you don’t understand what I mean by that, well, then, you got some practicing and reading and listening to do.
Three successful NaNoWriMos is worth celebrating. Most writers never make it that far. Hell, most writers never make it through one NaNoWriMo.
But most professional writers smile a little when they think about NaNoWriMo. Because we’re writing all the time. And improving our craft. And when our books don’t sell well, we wonder if we might be at fault—if we told a flawed story or if we chose a difficult subject matter. If we self-publish, we worry that we might have a bad cover (and we fix it).
But mostly, we shrug off the unsuccessful novels and move on to the next novel. Because we’re not artists. We’re professionals.
Most people don’t expect a gold star for showing up at their day job every day. They just expect a paycheck.
The same with professional writers. Just because we wrote 50,000 words in a month doesn’t mean we get a gold star or a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Hell, it doesn’t even mean we get a paycheck. It means that we better get ready to write another book next month.
Because that’s what we do. We write.
It’s our job. Yes, we love our job (most of the time). But we also work at it.
It’s reality check time, folks. If you’re thinking of giving up because you’ve written three NaNoWriMo novels and none of them are making you rich, then figure out what you can do differently. You can improve your craft. You can write more.
And you can remember that writing is a career, not a God-given path to fame and fortune. You can remember that you’re three years down a road that takes a minimum of ten years. Or you can give up.
Writers with drive don’t give up.
Writers with drive eventually succeed.
So ditch the idea that talent is all you need. Figure out how to stay in this for the long haul.
Because November is National Novel Writing Month. And December is another novel-writing month, and so are January and February and March.
Join the ranks of professional writers. Stop treating writing like an event, and make it a part of your daily life.
Use NaNoWriMo as your jumping off point, and keep those habits into the new year. And eventually, with enough practice, you’ll find that your novels are selling and your attitudes have switched. You won’t notice the arrival of NaNoWriMo. You’ll simply see it as November. Another month, another novel, another step forward in your career.
That’s when you’ll realize you’ve become a professional writer. I’ll wager you probably won’t even notice the date when you made the transition.
It took years of work for me to make writing my day job. Some days I still struggle to be productive. Sometimes I use any excuse I can not to show up at my computer. Yet I get it all done.
And getting it done includes working on this blog every week. As long as you all are willing to support it financially, I’m going to keep doing it. Provided, of course, I still believe I have something useful to say.
So if you’ve learned something or you enjoyed something or you’ve been coming here for a while, please leave a tip on the way out. I appreciate it.
“The Business Rusch: Reality Check” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
SPECIAL NOTICE: I’d like to put out a call to those of you who are traditionally published. I need to update my Deal Breakers book for 2014. I have quite a bit of material, but I would like to see what I’ve missed.
So if you received a traditional publishing contract from a major publishing house and/or an agency agreement from an agent, please black out all the personal information and send it to me. I’m particularly interested in the contract clauses you negotiated away and/or that you walked away from.
I also would like to see the clauses you’re proud of getting. The ones where you feel you triumphed in your negotiation.
I need the entire contract, because a contract is a living document, and what it says on page 13 has an impact on what it says on page 2. Please black out your name, the name of your agent, the advances, etc., and send me the file.
I promise, I will not use your name or any personal information, except that I might say something like “a first-time author” or “an author who has published novels for fifteen years” or “a bestselling author.” I won’t even use a personal pronoun to give your secret away. And I’ll be the only one who looks at this.
If you want to see how I do this, look at the Addendums post from earlier this year. (And yes, that will be in Deal Breakers 2014.)
Thank you! I appreciate all of the help.
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Do you differentiate between drive and persistence?
I’ve been writing ten years plus. Until about six years ago, I treated it like golf. I had a helluva lot of fun, and if I got better great, but I didn’t take it seriously. I was a great weekend duffer.
But I didn’t stop. Persistence, but not much drive.
So now that I’m more serious (and ironically have less butt in seat time), I often wonder if the (very) slow and steady slog will be enough to make a second career viable some day….
If people can’t discourage you, Big Ed, then it’s drive. It might be slow, but we all know that slow/steady/race cliche. 🙂 Sounds good to me.
Great post, Kris!
I did my million words writing TV. Artists need not apply. Folks (craftspersons) who can meet a deadline and can get er done welcomed.
Stephen Cannell once told me he never had a day of block because he couldn’t afford it–he had to get the job done. He was an inspiration.
I hope the beginners hear you. It’s a message worth listening to. Read, write, listen, learn, rinse and repeat.
I think at least some people give up not because they have so little drive, but because they have responsibilities they can’t ignore and that’s where they have to put that drive, no matter how much they would rather put it into fiction. It simply doesn’t pay well enough, fast enough, to justify continuing to sink time, money and effort into it. They don’t want to leave, but the kids need to eat, the mortgage has to be paid, and they don’t have a spouse who’s willing to support them until they’re established enough to transition from the day job to the pros. Of the fiction writers I personally know of who have made that leap, who were still fiscally and otherwise responsible for young kids, not one did it without having someone supporting them financially. Not one. Having that support means having the time to write more than one book a year (or decade). Not having ithat support means going to work for ten hours, coming home to feed the kids, clean the house, do the shopping, do the laundry, and then dropping into bed to wake up at 5:30 and do it again, every day, and trying to squeeze in five minutes of writing time whenever one of the kids isn’t having a crisis at that rare and beautiful moment.
I don’t know many established pros who could write a book a month under those conditions. I’m sure they’re out there, distant relatives of Khan Noonian Singh, but I suspect that they, too, are one in a million.
While the pros may be perfectly justified with judging a large percentage of newbies out there for being too limp-spined to write a novel a month (or at least bother to learn their craft), please know that some of us, at least, would love to experience the sheer luxury of having that kind of time to write…and would take full career-building advantage of it.
I admit it: I whined when my first novel didn’t hit the kind of career-hopping numbers I hoped for when it published–but not because I thought I deserved a gold star just for writing a novel. I just knew that if that novel, which had taken me four years of sneaking off on a very occasional writing weekend to finish, didn’t hit a certain mark, my window for making that transition would effectively close….and that would be it. And it was. I am facing the very bleak reality that if I get there at all, I will do it by slogging up a very steep hill, because I am going to do it while working two full-time jobs. I will do what I can. I may never become the kind of pro who writes at least a book a month, but it will not be arrogance, a lack of drive or a refusal to learn my craft that stops me. It may be the mortgage, though–in all fairness, that much, I have to admit.
This is my third NaNo. I like the annual kick-in-the-pants sit and write reminder. Just having so many professionals tell me to turn off the internal editor is invaluable. I tend to have a problem that way.
Tough words, but true words, and words that run through my head every day in this crazy profession. I wish it was simply a matter of putting in the time and working at one’s craft, even if one does have to do it for many years. Unfortunately, I think there is also an element of luck to success in writing. Of course persistence is required – persistence and drive beyond that which is required in many other professions. But I don’t think persistence and drive are enough. And I am not even sure if it is talent that allows a writer to break through – although I am sure it doesn’t hurt :-). Anyway, I agree. If you hope to succeed, and have some staying power, every month has to be novel writing month.
You can quit?
Seriously, I didn’t know that until I read you write about how writers quit. Of course, I’ve noticed some writers don’t get published anymore, but I assumed they weren’t selling. I have many years of experience at writing without being published.
True, I’m guilty of “pausing” my writing career for years at a time. My fingers did stop writing. My mind, my identity — never.
I think I probably needed this nudge to the posterior. Just a little.
People can stop writing for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with their drive. Losing your job and having to take two or three part time jobs to make it by, for example. Having a child with some severe disability pretty much erases the concept of free time. Any number of things can happen that force people to choose, or put them in so much distress that they can’t turn their thoughts to the page.
A lot of the most successful people in the world first emerged from adversity, it’s true. A lot more people never escape.
I don’t necessarily agree with you on the musician front – I come from a family of professional musicians and can assure you that the way they talk about beginners is very similar to the way you are talking about beginning writers.
You see the delusional musicians on Britain has got talent every year. (Actually, you see the talented delusional – the vast majority of delusional musicians aren’t even good enough to get onto the show as a bad audition. They’re just boring).
Maybe the difference is that the music industry has a much better teaching system, and people don’t expect most beginning musicians to become professionals.
That’s one of the main gripes I have about this article, btw. I don’t think the vast majority of people who start Nanowrimo want to become professional writers. So some of your criticism seems too sharp to me. Most of the people who do Nanowrimo just enjoy writing and socialising with other writers and I think that is okay. They are the Sunday church choir of writing.
The path to becoming a professional writer is different, and harder.
I’m in the 2011 class at Nanowrimo (I’m always a slow beginner!) and I wrote my 50,000 words then went on to write a cool million words in the two years following that. I don’t really agree with the million words thing either… at least in my case it’s going to be quite a lot more than that since I’m still not of professional quality and I know it.
As for reassessing, I think I did that a little early. I tried to give up, and most of the people around me didn’t like it. I’m still soldering on. Sometimes ‘Addiction’ is better than ‘Driven’.
Great honest post Kris.
Something that’s worth mentioning though, which you alluded to but I’d like to highlight, is that 1 million words doesn’t guarantee anything either.
I’m at over 1.2 million words of fiction, not counting poetry and another 1 million words of non-fiction and I still don’t make a hundred bucks a month yet.
But you gots to keep truckin’ 🙂
Thanks for the encouraging post, Kris, and for the encouraging stories in the comments, everyone else. I’ve been writing about the same dysfunctional family in their dysfunctional fantasy world for the past twenty years, and for some reason, I keep forgetting how hard and discouraging the first seventeen of those twenty years could be sometimes. Lots of almost-there rejections, a novel manuscript I finished when I was eighteen and thought was the most brilliant thing ever, then realized six months later it was absolute dreck (that was the one I burned and invited friends to roast marshmallows over its smoldering corpse), my family thinking my writing was strange, well-meaning critique partners marking out the swear words with red ink so that my book looked slashed and bleeding, a basement full of moldering manuscripts I don’t remember writing and sure as h*** don’t want anyone reading . . .
Then I self-published in 2010, and the last three years have been amazing. I have READERS who pay $$$$ for my books. I have control over my work in ways I never dreamed I would or could under the old system. However, for some reason I keep forgetting how wonderful all this is because my definition of success gets so easily and quickly skewed in this new world of no rules. So I appreciate your post for reminding me that even though I can’t support myself fully with my writing income yet, that it’s a huge deal I have some money in the bank every month from my book sales, it’s a huge deal I have a mailing list of folks waiting for the next book, it’s a huge deal readers contact me about their good experiences with my stories. That wasn’t possible four short years ago. Your blog serves as an excellent compass on the high seas of the publishing world.
Wow. From what you wrote above, we have had a very similar trajectory in a lot of ways…and it sounds like we’re in a similar place now. Thanks for sharing! I found it vastly reassuring to read, if only because I haven’t come across anyone else with that particular pathway to the indie and career writing.
I really enjoyed this post and agreed with most of it. I’ve been published since 2005 and I think looking ahead at my current contracts I’ll still be published in 2015. I’ve seen writers who are far more brilliant than me never finish a book or just give up, so I do agree that drive is essential. I would however, ally that with a some talent and some good luck. 🙂
Great post. I’m smiling a little because I just got back from RI a week ago at Marie Force’s Indie Author Symposium and her message was all about craft. The book is king. I’m a very young author and have a lot to learn. I know that the book I write today won’t be as good as the book I write tomorrow. I’m ok with that. If I’m not growing, learning, and excited about the story then I might as well quit. Do something that doesn’t absorb so much time. I never told my husband this. He’d be a little appalled. One day I was on a roll. I went to get up from my computer chair only to discover that one of my kids had tied me to it using my bathrobe. Then I discovered that it was 10 a.m. and I was still in my bathrobe. But I had written 1,500 words. I don’t miss television. I still catch some of my favorites like the Walking Dead but never when they’re actually on. I do miss gardening some days but let’s face it… I’m a brown thumb and apparently plants need water. Who knew.
Great post Kris; one of those times I feel as if you’re reading my mind. I did my first NaNoWriMo in 2009, the year I started writing my first novel. This year, I did not do NaNo; simply because I don’t need it anymore. I added up my annual word counts for the last 5 years and sometime in January, I’ll hit a million words. I write about 28 days a month; not because of NaNoWritMo or a quota, but because I can’t NOT write anymore. I am driven to create; to tell stories. It’s not just my job, it’s who I am. I made my first pro sale this year and self-published my first titles. NaNoWriMo didn’t make me a writer, but it showed me I would write a lot of words. The craft workshops and classes I take (and keep taking) and my own desire to constantly improve, and of course the discipline to do the work, each and every day are self-motivating; they’re what drive me and keep me going. Those are the things which have made me a story teller. I love the constant learning curve; the continual challenge. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
This is my third year of NaWriNoMo. First year, I made a choice to work on a short story for an anthology that was coming out in a couple of months. I exceeded 50,000 words last year, but never finished the story. This year, I intend on not only exceeding 50,000, I intend on finishing the novel before the end of the month.
The last two years, I had an idea, the time and the drive. I wrote by the seat of my pants, as I’ve done for years. It worked somewhat, but I could see the story problems. I’ll be going back and reworking them.
But I took a different tack this year. This year, I went and ploted the entire novel out ahead of time, wrote capsules of every scene, made notes on plot lines and who was in which scene, so I know what was happening in chapter Four, Seven and Twelve and where the story was going. The result was a thirty-two chapter novel, plotted out and ready to go on November 1.
The result? As of this minute, I’ve written 15,300+ words of the novel, and it’s going well. I left enough room to do some free writing within each scene, but I know where the scene starts, where it ends, and what’s suppose to happen in the middle. I makuing changes on the fly, but their minor ones (One scene become two, one character disappearing from one scene they were penciled into, and appearing in another they weren’t originally in, ect.)
I just have to keep going….
I have always liked to write…but I never pushed myself…except when I worked at the LA Times and deadlines had to be met. But when I wrote for myself..I was very lacakadaisical about it.
But I did it. mostly in a vacuum…no writing groups, or organizations.
When I found out about NaNoWriMo…it was Halloween and my girlfriend told me about National Novel Writing Month and said “you have to start tomorrow write about 1800 words a day and not worry about rewriting, etc.
So I did.
And she says (wincing slightly) I have uploaded that first effort for sale on Amazon……but it took me several years before the manuscript was ready.
I am not doing NaNoWriMo this year because I am working on a second novel in the series.
A deadline is a wonderfully focusing thing. I work really well with deadlines!
And now I realize I can set my own.
And one interesting thing I found out about NaNoWriMo…at least in my region. I have gone to several write-ins and get togethers. I was really surprised to find out that most of these people writing furiously for a month were simply doing it. Most had no intentions of publishing..
They were just doing it.
So, though I wanted to do it again this year for the fourth time, I realized…I have to set my deadlines…any month will do and keep shoving those words up hill until finally they don’t slide past me In a heap but stand firm enough to move on!
A very passionate piece!
I find this very very encouraging! Man, I need to get down to Oregon just to keep your voice alive in my head. You have a knack for saying what I need to hear right when I need to hear it. Thanks!
I just counted up my fiction words and I’m at 330,000 words. I’m 1/3 there! That’s exciting to know what’s going to happen in the next few years. It makes me want to write more so I can reach the goal of 1mill faster. Reckon if I can stay on pace I’ll be there in another 2 or 3 years. But even if it takes five, that’s nothing. Very doable.
Love this reality check, personally for me it makes it more inspiring that I’m on the right road. I love tangible goals.
Okay, so I’ve been working at this pretty regularly/seriously for over thirteen years. I came to a Lincoln City workshop back when to learn what I was missing in my toolbox. I had hit a plateau, where I was getting these great rejections, but not a lot of sales. I learned a ton at that workshop and all the others since. I’ve done NanoWriMo a few times, won a few times. I am still getting the great rejections with a fair number of “Send me something else” notes. Some days I rail about the lack of sales and how frustrating it is to be teetering like this, but then I shut up and get back to work and try to figure out how to get better. Which means sitting in the chair, putting the fingers to the keys, and producing. Thanks, Kris and Dean, for all the reminders and all the helpful workshops.
I like the harsh realities you point out in this blog. I grew up with no knowledge of writing as a profession except what I would read in magazine interviews, usually of literary authors from well-connected backgrounds. I was one of those who, as Laura mentions above, wrote a novel and submitted it and lost hope when it was rejected.
Since discovering Konrath, and Dean’s blog, and yours, and a bundle of others, late in 2010, I’ve seen a more realistic view of a writer’s life – one I can understand. You’ve helped knock the halo off the angel statue, to show the craft underneath which comes from hard work, the right tools, and good material.
Thank you, Kris.
P.S. One result is that 2013 is set to be my Year Of Three Novels. I’m hoping it will merely be the first…
Excellent, Kris. As always.
Hm…I wonder if NaNo is affecting college classes. HOW it’s affecting college classes.
I noticed something at my daughter’s parent-teacher meeting: all of the teachers were at least my age or younger (it’s a district infamous for not keeping people around), and all but one of them (the science teacher) is a geek of the Dr. Who/Minecraft type. One’s in SCA.
You guys fight the good fight, but I wonder if teens and college kids doing NaNo will eventually do more good for changing the way courses are taught than anything else.
English 205: NaNoWriMo.
You know, I’d probably listen to anything you said, or read anything you write, because I admire you so much–even when it feels like I’m getting poked in the forehead. So, uh, thanks.
I couldn’t agree with you more, but I do have two questions. One, what do you make of the first novel phenomenon and the sophomore slump? So often, a writer’s only really good book is his first one. And two, do you think the same observations apply to non-fiction books? I definitely think the best non-fiction tells stories as well, but quite often, the subject and the material available to use in the writing matters just as much. I’m almost done with my third book in the WHO WOn?!? series. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I went through a pile of rejections on fiction before I realized three years ago that I just might be a better non-fiction writer. And no, I’m not making more than “a beer” money right now, but then, I’m not quitting the day job any time soon. I love teaching too much. But I’ve managed three 200,000+ word books in three years, so it is possible to do both. My kids and wife are still speaking to me too…
Not everyone’s cut out to be a writer. And Get Rich Quick schemes of any sort don’t work.
Personally, I think it ought to be called “National Oversized Novella Writing Month” b/c 50K is pretty damn short for a novel. Sure, it technically fits (at least by Hugo rules) but that’s barely category-romance length, right?
Also, if you only write during NaNo, it’s going to take you 20 years to get through your million words of crap. So good luck with that, newbies.
50K is pretty damn short for a novel.
Only by recent ‘more is better’ standards. Many of my favourite novels as a teenager were in the 50-60k range, while many of the recent 100k+ novels I’ve read feel horribly padded or completely self-indulgent.
Personally, I find big books a turn-off now there are so many more novels to read than I have time available. I’d rather read two good 40-60k novels than one good 100k novel.
I used NaNo last year to see if I could write a novel quickly from an old proposal. I don’t normally write from outline, so it was a double challenge. I met the challenges, but man, did writing that way feel stifling!
This year I’m using NaNo to write a novel I kept putting on the back burner. I’m using NaNo’s word counts like little external deadlines. So far it’s working well.
I did my first NaNo in 2008 or 2009, when I first decided I wanted to write. I had a lot of misconceptions back then, but the one thing I learned from NaNo was the writing part was easy and I was fast at it. I remember looking down at my PC and discovering I had written 700 words in 15 minutes.
The book itself was terrible. I don’t even remember half of it. I’ve since redrafted it and put it online.
I haven’t done a NaNo since, mainly because I realized I don’t need it. For me, NaNo is all year round. I don’t write as much as I should, but I get it done. I think NaNo is a great way for new writers to face their fears and get that first book done. Beyond that, I’m not sure. To each their own.
I spent about 15 minutes adding up all the writing I’ve done in the last 10 or so years. My writing started getting readable at about the point I hit my one million words of crap. I did my first NaNoWriMo in 2011 and that book was the first one I thought might actually have a chance of being successful. I then put it away because, really, who would want to read a book I wrote in a month? (I got over that eventually, I promise) I finally took it back out a few months ago and couldn’t figure out where the rest of it was. Yes, I’d written 52,000ish words of a story but it certainly wasn’t finished. So, it’s going on the docket to finish in January. If I’d just thrown it up when I finished it, I don’t know that I ever would have revisited it and made it into a book that I would be proud of. Even worse, I might have been so discouraged at the lack of success that I can now see it having at that stage that I might have stopped before I got to the good stuff.
I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year and I just passed 30,000 words. I’m pushing myself to finish my NaNo project so I can get on to all the other things I want to write this month. I’m making a career of this, thankyouverymuch, and 50,000 words a month just isn’t going to cut it to get to where I want to be.
It feels almost like I used my first NaNoWriMo experience to finish up my million words of crap and get to the good stuff.
I LOVE Nano time, and have since I first participated in 2007. I love the creative energy and the meeting of other writers, both in person and virtual. I regularly write 50k in a month, so for me, it isn’t that part of the event. It’s about a month I can be a total overachiever and go insane with the word count to the exclusion of most everything else. I give myself the option of playing with genres or silly stories I wouldn’t write at other times (This year’s is just plain… weird. And fun. Lots of fun).
Come January? Oh yeah, more writing. And the month after that, and the month after that. Because writing is what writers do, and I love it, even when it’s hard. Count me as one of those who is being annoyingly persistent at this writing thing.
Thank you for those links, above! 🙂
Hmmm. Quiet. Too quiet.
Everyone must be busy scriveling.
That or my browser doesn’t update properly.
Excellent post, Kris!
Thank you for putting into words all the things I’ve thought, for years, about writing as an event and NaNoWriMo: both the fantasy it encourages and the reality it tries to elide.
I do think it’s good, Ilsa. I think a lot of writers get their start in NaNo, as folks have said on this thread. That’s very worthwhile, and shouldn’t be missed. It’s the expectations of instant success that can be the problem.
And it’s good for those who need that kick in the pants to just finish something! I write tons of short fiction, but this year I’m using Nano to make myself finish the full draft of a novel without getting sidetracked by more shorts. Some of us need an occasional outside discipline to help.
I agree, but I guess my major take-away from your blog is the notion that writing isn’t–or shouldn’t be, if you expect to sell–a once-a-year event. I don’t know if I ever thought of NaNo as fostering dreams of millions of sales. I think my primary beef was/is that it fosters bad habits.
Although, it can foster good habits. It’s thanks to Nano that I learned how to shut down the internal editor and let the creative side have control. To learn how to let the story be told without my fears, doubts, and bad writing habits stopping me.
My writing and ability to tell a story took a huge step forward when I learned how to do that.
I find NaNo brilliant. I do well with with deadlines, and with having the ability to check in with friends. It’s helped me generate several plots, all though I have not “won.” And it got me writing again after a nine-year period of giving up on fiction entirely. It gets me to focus on the big picture instead of tweaking the same damn paragraph over and over, or not setting down the words in my head because I’m afraid of them — the adrenalin of making word count trumps the fear of not being Moliere enough to impress the hypothetical people (also in my head) who are going to read my hypothetical stuff and immediately lose all hypothetical respect for me. It’s exhilarating.
I just wish it wasn’t in November — I have never, ever made it past the holiday/family visiting and travel bits without getting a huge crimp in my momentum. But there are wordcount tools and things (I like Write or Die) that can help recreate that atmosphere at other times of year.
Ugh, I want to edit that last post. Cellphone spellcheck and I have different ideas about how English should work…
Sounds like you have a lot of imaginary voices running through your head! 😛 I hope this November’s worth of writing goes well for you. By the way, I love “Written? Kitten!” for writing motivation now (I used to use Write or Die) – http://writtenkitten.net
For Nano, there is the Camp Nanos in the summer. I don’t like the set-up, so I go with July Novel Writing Month (Julno) as I love their statistics board and how like a regular Nano it is – http://julnowrimo.com
I thought one of the lessons of the self publishing revolution was that we shouldn’t judge what is and isn’t crap for the readers. The readers should be able to make those judgements themselves.
Also, I’ve interacted with a pretty large amount of beginning writers on the internet and I can’t think of a single one of them that wasn’t aware that writing was a craft, or who thought their first work deserved to be published and earn big money right away. I see a lot of bloggers claim that there are thousands of writers out there who think this way but I don’t see it in any of the areas I’ve been active. (The beginning writer blogopshere, a forum for aspiring fantasy writers, NaNo forums, and other places.) Are there some of those people out there? I’m sure there are. But I don’t think that most aspiring writers should be characterized that way. I don’t think it’s accurate. And I don’t think it benefits anyone to lecture aspiring writers this way.
Once again, Sarah, you should put everything in print (whatever that means–ebook, audio, whatever). I’ve said that repeatedly on this blog. But expecting it to sell immediately? Expecting to make millions? Expecting success after two years? That’s unrealistic. As I said in the post, some writers hit the mark in their million words of crap and things sell. Other writers don’t sell much until after their million words or sell nothing until more than a million words. That’s normal. And that’s what I’m saying.
And beginners do go away. So do midlisters. I’ve blogged on that all the time. As Laura Resnick says elsewhere in this thread, the writers who last longer than ten years after first publication are rare. I suppose in today’s market, that would be after the first self-published book that makes more than beer and pizza money. So yes, this career will take time. It always does. And as Kate Wilhelm said, if that discourages writers, so be it.
Bravo for saying this, Sarah.
I too have wondered where this myth of writers who expect to make millions from their first Nanowrimo comes from. Almost every writer I’ve talked to knows this is hard work, and is in it for the long term.
I guess if you keep repeating a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.
You should check out the KDP forums. There are loads of new writers there who expect to have huge sales within days of publishing, and wonder why they don’t get them.
Just because you personally haven’t run across writers like Kris describes, doesn’t mean it’s a myth or a lie.
I’ve seen it. On writing forums, in writing mailing lists, in blogs. They put out their first book (or two or three) and aren’t selling thousands of copies. Oh no! What’s wrong! They tear their hair out, looking for the magical answer, going from one thing to the next instead of working on craft and the next book. They view that book (or those few books) as big events, and their event fell flat. Yes, some of those people are disappearing now.
Actually, I *do* run into this attitude quite a bit with new writers. No, I don’t hear writers saying that they think their first book should be a masterpiece…they’re never that blatant about it. But have I seen dozens and dozens of indie writers complaining (as Kris said above) that they “only” make 2-3K a month off their first or second books? Heck, yeah…all the time! I’ve seen a ton of comments to this effect among certain segments in indie publishing for the past 2 years now. In fact, I saw a number of writers discussing this in relation to going exclusive on kindle recently, and one was saying they “only” sold around 100 books a month on Nook, so it was a “waste of their time” to have their books up there (that statement has more problems than I even want to go into here). My point is, there seems to be a significant number of new or newish writers who think they are going to get rich off 1-2 books and who get very frustrated when they don’t.
Moreover, I’ve seen this attitude for over 20 years at writing conventions, where authors brought their first book to sell/pitch to agents and editors and were in total disbelief when it didn’t sell…and often angry about it.
Maybe you aren’t reading between the lines of some of their complaints?
I’m not saying I’m better than these people, either…I think it’s a typical newbie mistake. At 23 or whatever when I brought my first novel to market (not the first I’d written, but the first I tried to sell), I’d already written my 1 million words, but I still wasn’t very good at writing novels, and I was really upset and discouraged when that book didn’t sell. I think most newbie writers engage in a certain amount of magical thinking when it comes to this. In some ways, that’s not a terrible thing…if you constantly tell yourself, “maybe the next book!” then at least you’re still writing and not letting that stuff discourage you. But the truth is, even the 1 million words isn’t a guarantee. You might write stuff that is just weird and/or off-market…or you might be tackling a book that is really hard to write (like I did) and redraft six or seven different versions of the same story for 15 years (like I did) and sell not a single one. That might take you 500K words, or it might take you 3 million words.
Bottom line is, I think this is a terrible profession for anyone to get into that likes to be able to predict their success. You have to have a pretty solid sense of who you are apart from the accolades and money, or you should probably do something else. You’re just going to get pissed off, otherwise…even if you have early success for one reason or another. I know a number of writers who were “early stars” who don’t write at all now, so even if you get what you think you want/deserve, you still won’t have a career unless you get over it at some point and then just get on with it.
I have to interject that as an editor for 12 years, I’ve interacted with a great many aspiring writers off the Internet, and some of them are delusional, and this is the type of person who gets sucked into vanity presses, and they need to be warned.(For example, I find a great many of them writing inspirational/Christian literature — they have the one message or memoir they want to share with the world, they believe their message is inspired, and that God will therefore help it find its way or what have you.)
I think Kristine’s warning here is an important one — stern but encouraging, and as a writer with no fiction published as of yet, I did not feel condescended to.
(Caveat — I am not an acquiring/book editor; I’m a line- and copyeditor, full-time and freelance. People have tried to use me as a shortcut — this is one of the avenues through which I hear this stuff. I hope I’ve been able to steer at least few of them onto a more useful and less exploitative path.)
Well, perhaps I’m just lucky in not running into these people. Still, what actual good does this post do?
It still, in my opinion, comes off as characterizing ALL beginning writers the same negative way, including thousands who don’t deserve it.
And I’ll be blunt, in my opinion, it comes off as the veteran talking down to the noobs. I see posts like this in gaming forums all the time. “Unless you’re willing to go through what I went through you just aren’t good enough” is the general vibe. Veterans tend to hate anything that they feel undermines they own effort. They don’t like it when the system changes enough to allow other players to achieve the same things they did with less effort.
I’m not accusing Kris of all that. I greatly respect her knowledge and experience and generally view her as the most rational person blogging about writing these days. But I am getting similar vibes from this post. (Not to mention that her reply to my first comment didn’t address anything my comment actually said.)
If there really are a lot of these people out there then this blog is pointless because they aren’t going to listen anyway. They’re already basing their expectations on delusions. But blogs like this lead to a general attitude that all beginning writers have ridiculous expectations. Beginners don’t deserve that.
There have been a bunch of posts lately all about how people shouldn’t publish their books because for whatever reason they aren’t good enough. These people come across to this beginner as bitter and elitist and self serving for the most part. I was very surprised to see Kris adding her voice to that throng. And disappointed. I don’t think there’s any real justification for that attitude. We should be letting the readers decide who’s good enough and who isn’t.
“There have been a bunch of posts lately all about how people shouldn’t publish their books because for whatever reason they aren’t good enough. These people come across to this beginner as bitter and elitist and self serving for the most part. I was very surprised to see Kris adding her voice to that throng. And disappointed. I don’t think there’s any real justification for that attitude. We should be letting the readers decide who’s good enough and who isn’t.”
Once again, Sarah, I did not say don’t publish. Reread my blog post. Never once did I say don’t publish. I said don’t expect to sell the books you do publish just because you wrote them. That’s a huge difference. The readers will find good work and buy it. They will be the ones who decide.
But if you believe that a writer doesn’t have to learn craft, that a writer can’t turn out bad work as she’s learning craft, then you have some issues of your own.
Maybe you should read my post again. I’m saying that writers who don’t have the drive will disappear; let them go. I’m not saying you should let all beginners go. I’m saying that if you’re a writer who is losing friends/colleagues right now because they can’t make it work in their own minds, let them make their own decisions. They tried and failed. The ones who try, fail, and try again are going to be successful. The ones who give up won’t. It’s really that simple.
And please note that the header of this column has always had the word “business” in it. I don’t handhold here. Writers can go many, many, many other places for that.
I just read Holly Lisle’s book in which she mentions that some of her writer friends only wanted to be friends if she was failing. When she started to succeed…well, she doesn’t say what they did, but the friendships ended.
This was reassuring to read, since it happened to me across the last 2 years.
Not that I characterize myself as a dazzling success at this point. But I continue to write and publish. While my friend continues (as far as I know – haven’t seen him in over a year) to write and put the manuscripts in a drawer.
Reading your post and reading Lisle’s book, I realize that this is normal. Just part of a writer’s life. Okay. I can handle that.
Well — the blog is useful to me, because I can quote it or forward it or what have you. Or I can apply it as a nudge to myself. (Granted, I’m not a beginner in the usual sense. I’m well past my million words, and at least when it comes to fiction, I’m more of a self-saboteur than a newbie! We won’t discuss that. 😉 )
(And I don’t understand why a veteran advising neophytes is a bad thing? If one is not a neophyte, or if one is not in possession of the mindset the post is addressing, then one could go and find advice more suited to one’s level of expertise or mindset on another post?)
It’s natural for beginners to have wild dreams. This isn’t bad. This is what makes them fearless and free and willing to just write, and turn off the internal editor and just put the next sentence down on paper, to experiment without being constrained by years of rules and myths. But beginners also need to have access to the information, to the fact that they can dream of magic, and that they should aspire to magic, but they can’t just expect magic to come. This is a thing that needs to be said. It doesn’t mean anyone is terrible or dumb or irresponsible. It’s just a view of the other side.
Creativity is dreaming, imagining, pulling worlds out of your head — it’s not insulting to imagine that amongst those dreams might be dreams of one’s own spectacular success. It’s in a lot of people’s heads — or sometimes buried in their subconscious hearts, even when we are grownups and talk strict realism, at least out loud. 🙂
I see this as encouragement, and admonishment that if the magic doesn’t happen immediately, the proper response is to press on, work harder and not give up. Even when you feel discouraged or crappy or tired.
I guess I’m seeing it as a boost, not a smack. Non-sugar-coated, but ultimately a message from someone who’s on your side.
I read this with just the biggest grin. Stern but encouraging, exactly what was needed.
I attempted NaNo one year (I forget if it was 2009 or 2010), got about a third of the way through, and stressed myself into getting sick. Since then, I don’t bother. I just plug along at my slow but steady pace. (I’m back writing again after my mental-health vacation. Twelve days straight so far. Feels good, like I never left.) I think a really important part of becoming a professional at anything is figuring out how to balance your life. People rearrange their whole lives around NaNo–but only for one month. Yeah, if I wanted to completely give up my social and family life, I could probably hit 1670 words a day every day too and keep my day job, but that’s not how I want to live my life. So instead I have made room for writing every day–along with family time, day job time, chores time, fitness time (finally, that one was hard!), and social time. But this is a balance I can sustain, whereas I’ve never been able to keep NaNo going for an entire month, and trying was proving unhealthy.
What I do like about NaNo though is the freedom it gives some of my other writing friends, especially the traditionally published ones. November is when a lot of books of the heart get written. I like those books.
Great post. I was just on a message board for writers yesterday and saw a thread where a woman who’s been sef publishing for a year and a half was lamenting the fact that she wasn’t selling after writing and publishing a handful of novels and is now thinking of quitting. My first thought was, “Really? You’re throwing in the towel already?” If it was twenty years later and she still hadn’t made a single sale, I could see taking a step back and re-evaluating things (though I would hope she’d be re-assessing her work long before then). But after only two years? Most small businesses don’t start making a profit that soon.
I understand the frustration of low sales when you’ve been working hard – I’ve been there. But I would never forgive myself if I stopped chasing my dreams just because they didn’t materialize immediately for me. For all I know, I could quit today, and the next book I would have written could have been the one to break out. You just never know so you have to keep trying. As J.A. Konrath was fond of saying: If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
Perfect, Elle. Thank you. And thanks for Konrath’s quote. I hadn’t seen it before and I agree.
You’re welcome! It really is a great, and inspiring, quote. This is a guy who got over 500 rejections for his early work (some which went on to be bestsellers on Amazon) – if he had stopped writing after those rejections, he never would have gotten his deal with Hyperion and everything that’s happened to him since wouldn’t have happened. Great example of perseverance right there.
Now, back to my NaNo novellas….
NaNo is interesting.
It’s been good for friends who said ‘I’d like to write a novel one day’ but didn’t care about selling it. They wrote one, they got it out of their system, and they don’t need to worry about it any more.
Others who took writing more seriously did it for a few years, decided they were never going to produce something people would pay to read, and stopped.
I’m on my seventh year, and use it as an excuse to write 50,000 words of a novel that’s been on my ideas list for a long time. With a day job that requires thinking all day, I’ve mostly been writing shorts the rest of the year.
But I agree about how bad the first novels are likely to be. I recently revised and released my first NaNo novel from 2006, which I hadn’t even read since 2007, and I’d clearly learned an awful lot since. It’s probably never going to make millions, but it’s sold a few copies here and there, and looks good on my book shelf.
Now I just need to get the other six finished and out there.
Exactly, Edward. The book is out there, and people can buy it. Writers are never the best judge of their own work. But you’re doing something else right: you’re moving forward and writing other books. They need to be out in the world as well. You never know when one of your books will take off.
C’mon, Kris, tell us how you *really* feel! 😉
I’m struck by the similarity of your advice to that of endurance motorcycling cognoscente:
“Sit here (on the bike seat), do this (twist the throttle).”
IOW, it’s all about persistance and focus. Keeping at it, not speeding.
Aesop’s “The Hare and the Tortise” makes this same point.
This is such great stuff, I couldn’t agree more. Having been in the industry myself for many years as both a journalist and ghostwriter, I can relate. I have often found it far more challenging to write a book than to meet my endless deadlines as a journo, especially as a ghost. You are responsible for someone else’s baby and it can be a heavy weight sometimes.
Anything that encourages more people to write is a positive thing to me.
I have actually been in that class. XD
I started writing my first novel in Nanowrimo 2010. And I saved it. Just in case years later somebody accuses me of having God-given talent.
Thank you for writing this article!
I’ve won NaNoWriMo six years in a row, and I’m going for a seventh win. I’m lucky to live in a very active region with lots of write-ins and a busy forum. I love NaNoWriMo and the energy that comes with sharing a frantic novel writing month with so many other people. I plan to do it for as long as I can.
But I also write in the “off season”. I finished two novels this year before November 1. Two of my NaNo novels are up on Kindle with another one coming out shortly. I have so many books published or in various stages that people have to specify what book they’re talking about when they ask me, “How’s your book going?” I had one beta reader apologize that she couldn’t read my book because of a major life issue, and I read that email thinking “What book did I give her?” I couldn’t remember until I looked back at the original message with the attachment! 😉
So yes, I’ve already seen a lot of people give up, or people who do NaNoWriMo every year but never do anything with the book. I’ve seen people whine that self publishing doesn’t work because their one book didn’t make them a million dollars. I don’t even make pizza money, I make fast food meal money. But I’m not giving up because this is what I want to do. Eventually people will start buying my books and I’ll be able to make a living.
You make fast food money?! Damn – I’m still hoping for enough to buy a pack of gum *fingers crossed*
I have seen all the hand-wringing over quality and seen it attached to this idea that revising produces it rather than writing. But it’s not true. I learned this lesson when I wrote something like a half million words in fandom in a year and discovered that it was the year I was past my million. I learned then that you have to be in it for the long haul, you have to experiment, and you have to be patient. It really does take ten titles to gain much traction. I have three pen names (for very good reasons) plus my fandom handle and I still write a ton of words, but I don’t have a lot of books out on every single name. All four of my channels react to the same rules:
• At least ten items to gain visibility and traction
• Longer fiction gets a whole LOT more traction
• Quality comes after practice
• Challenging myself to new writing techniques improves my fiction
And I’m willing to wait for the “accolades” and admit that I don’t care if people know what I do or what results it brings me. I’m willing to lay the blame for my low sales on a pen name for my low output instead of blaming marketing or the market, and most of all, I’m willing to keep writing, no matter what.
Great list, Liana. Thank you!
Yeah, people discovering after a book–or a handful of books–that writing isn’t for them, after all, is what’s NOT new about the e-volution. I sold my first book in 1988 (I was a zygote, obviously). And if I had a dollar for every writer–I mean, every PUBLISHED writer–I’ve met over the years since then who disappeared from the biz… I’d be so rich I wouldn’t need to write for a living anymore.
And the attrition rate has always been much higher among aspiring writers. Many never even finished a book. Many others finished a book, never finished another, and lost interest in writing when their sole completed novel didn’t sell within a year or two–indeed, many lost interest when their sole complete novel didn’t sell to the first editor or two they sent it to, or didn’t get snapped up by the first agent or two whom they queried.
The career novelist, the writer who produces book after book, year after year, and who keeps finding publisher after publisher after publisher (as the publisher’s she’s already found either dump her or fold under her), is rare. We’re the exception, the skewed stat, the mutants. Very few people stick with writing for long–let alone for decades and dozens of books. And, nope, THAT hasn’t changed, despite how much else HAS changed in the past 2-3-4 years.
P.S. I sometimes wonder if that’s why the question that all self-supporting, full-time, experienced career novelists hear over and over and over and OVER (even bestsellers hear it) is: “Are you still writing?”
(Gosh, no, I decided to quit working and fall back on my independent wealth… Oh… wait a minute, I’m NOT an heiress. Damn!)
There are all sorts of possible reasons for that question–but one may be that far more writers quit than stick with it over the long haul.
There’s a weird dichotomy there. On the one hand, people think of writers as these sophisticated higher beings who spend their time sipping wine with the cream of society at snobby parties. (And if you become a bestseller, forget about it. You’re obviously set for life.) On the other hand, most people feel like they have a story in them, and that they could write a book no problem if they just took the time to put it on a hard drive.
Laura – I keep hearing Bill Murray’s speech from STRIPES – “We’re mutants!”
Still true, however.
Reality check indeed. Thanks, this is important to understand if one really wants to make a career out of it.
I have never took part in the November writing month. I did try to one time write a short story in November but it turned into a novel. I didn’t know how to write a short story until this past summer. I wrote two of them along with two novellas. Before I wrote novels only. Since I’m starting out writing romance I’m glad I learned how to write the shorter works. I’ve only written ten novels, all around the 70-85,000 word range. A few over a hundred. I am finally getting around to publishing. Hopefully one of the Novellas I wrote.
It is indeed a profession that you never stop learning about and I find other writers are the greatest teachers. I just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchel. I was really curious to how he weaved these short stories together. I still don’t get it but I will go over it again and maybe I will get a clue. Any writer who does something different always gets my attention.
Anyway, great post as usual!
I’m a long time reader of your blog, and Dean’s as well. I often quote and link to both yours. I often defend you and Dean on writers forums. Normally, I agree with everything you say.
So let me ask this straight up: Did I detect a hint of condescension in your blog?
I am one of those Nanoowrimo kids. I finished my book last year. Since then, have written and self published 2 more books. No, they didn’t sell much. Yes, they are crap.
But I thought that Dean said we should publish our stories anyway, even if they are crap, and let the market decide.
And now, it seems to me, you are saying that I’m delusional, and that I should quit.
Forgive me, but from where I’m standing, you come across as extremely arrogant. Don’t say I misunderstood you: You are a writer, it is your job to communicate.
I will take one message from this blog: I will not quit, no matter how much “established” writers try to humiliate me.
I’m not saying you should quit. Publish them anyway. Just don’t expect to sell them and be happy if you do. In fact, all writers should have that attitude.
She’s saying that less than 1% of people that do NaNo have the drive to turn it into a career. She’s saying that if you want to make it, you have to push through to the point that you’ve developed the skill of a professional. She’s saying that no one has the skill of a professional by natural talent or just by writing two or three novels.
If anything, she’s encouraging you to not give up, despite that your very first stuff might not be doing well, despite that you’ve found it to be harder than you thought, despite that a million things seem to want to get in the way.
That’s how I interpreted Kris’s post also. It was a good kick in the pants when I needed one. Thanks, Kris!
As another new writer who reads Dean and Kris, I think you’re reading insult where none is intended. And although it is a writer’s job to communicate, we also have responsibilities as readers or listeners. And in a shout-it-to-the-world medium like this one of those responsibilities is to figure out whether a message is intended for us or not. If you’re hearing an undeserved rebuke, maybe she’s not talking to you. Maybe she’s talking to people who (unlike you) are doing very little to advance their writing careers but expect fame and riches anyway. That’s how I read it, anyway. Just my two cents.
I’m nearing 700,000 words of fiction. Four novels (including my first, a 118,000 words novel that will never see the light), a collection of short stories and a second collection I’m writing.
I can see what you say about stories regurgitated. It’s not easy to find your original voice. I had an author who commented one of my novels. He made many remarks. I didn’t disagree, even if the author was on his first novel, at a much earlier stage than me. I told him most of his remarks just showed I was not a mature enough writer. We have to be patient, and I’m confident I’m improving with each new novel.
I’m amazed at how many people think it’s easy write a good story or novel. I think the addition of computers has only contributed to the problem. When I started writing with the idea of publication, I did it on an electric typewriter, which was a labor intensive process. I’d type a page and find twenty typos. I’d retype the page and make different typos. I’d cut and paste sections and make typos in those. That part of the process would be enough to screen out people who thought it would be easy. But computers takes that away (more or less; I still make all those typos!).
About six years ago, I ran into a writing crisis. I’m visual spatial and don’t see details, and it’s created some really bizarre writing problems that were very hard to identify. I got into a cowriter relationship because I thought it would fix these problems, and then the relationship blew apart. I jumped back on to wrote a novel, and submitted it to agent who was kind enough to give me a few comments. I realized then how bad the problems were and how much I’d been doing work arounds to try to fix them — so much so, I wasn’t even aware of the workarounds any more. I wasn’t sure if I could even fix them. At that point, I was thinking that though I wanted to write novels, I might have to give that up because the length seemed to work against me. Was I only going to write short stories? I didn’t like that answer either.
Then I ran across Holly Lisle’s revision workshop and figured if it could help me identify what the problems were it would be worth the money. I spent the next 10 weeks pulling out my hair and ready to quit because all the lessons did was keep screaming at me that I had a problem with details. I found out that I couldn’t tell when I’d added too many details, and later found I couldn’t tell when I’d added too little.
I looked at that, even then, and thought most writers would have given up. But writing is what I do and have always done. Unlike the other writers jumping in to make a quick best seller, I knew it was never going to be easy. Maybe those early stories on the typewriter taught me that!
Your persistence is exactly what I’m talking about, Linda. Well done.
I always think about that when I learned that many, many stage performers have such severe stage fright that they throw up before and after going on stage. I was very musical, and never had the drive to a) practice (I can sight read and “hear” music, so I often don’t learn it beyond the technical parts) and b) get on stage even though it terrifies me. As a writer, I learned how to speak in public, because I needed to back in the old days of writing. But I saw that as “different” somehow. The difference is that I’m a driven writer and a lazy musician. And even though I went back to music in my 40s, those habits never transferred one to the other. I want writing; music is something I noodle at.
So does this mean I have to wait 10 years from when I wrote my first ever novel in 2009, or when I published my first novel in 2011?
I’m going with 2009 so that way I subconsciously feel like I’ve less years ahead of me to strike it rich! Hah hah.
Thanks for this shouty blog post. Sometimes us newbie writers need a right telling to!
It also depends on how much you’re writing, Suz. If you’re writing a lot, then you’ll hit your million words in less than ten years. And probably start selling along the way. 🙂
Just to clarify: a million words in ten years is one hundred thousand words per year or, if you write at a semi-normal pace of 1,000 words/hour, one hundred hours per year (roughly 2 hours/week).
No one has the time to write. Ha!
NaNoWriMo = 1 month of 40,000 words (being conservative)
=> 12 months = 12 * 40,000 = 480,000 words
=> 1,000,000 words will take a bit over 2 years at that rate
Thanks. I needed to be reminded of these things. Life has thrown some curves in regard to writing, but staying driven is the key, no matter the obstacles. But I must be getting close to that one million mark. I don’t exactly keep track.
It’s taken a long time for me to admit it, but you’re right — drive is more important than talent. In almost every field. (Except maybe astrophysics.)
The growth of an artist — sorry, a professional — looks like a series of plateaus. This past year, my own work hoisted itself to the next level. My sales are utility money, but I’m not concerned about that right now. I’m only ten books in.
Okay, enough navel-gazing. Superb post, Kris.
(drops head, back to work)
Some of my best friends are astrophysicists (I’m an ionospheric physicist myself), and I can assure you that drive is more important that talent. Much of what is mistaken in the sciences for talent is simply the product of years of drive. Many of the “talented” scientists learned their “talent” through drive and commitment to their field. It’s just no one noticed until the drive started paying off.
Just like writing. Congratulations on making money with your writing, even if it’s only utility money at the moment.
Huh. I’ve been told that physics is the one field of science in which we pretty much have to depend on whatever synapses we’ve been born with. But I stand corrected?
Good post, Kris.
I’m one of those writers who proved to himself that he could make a go at writing because of NaNoWriMo. I’d been struggling with accomplishing anything for years and decided that I had to fish or cut bait. I chose NaNo 2007 as my trial by fire.
The plan was to sit down and write with no outline, no advance character questionnaires, no idea what would come out. Just put my fingers on the keys and tell the first story that came to mind. But I was no fool. I set up a training regimen for months beforehand and stuck to it.
So when November 1st came around, I came up with a character and a problem and twenty-two days later I had a 55,000 word manuscript.
That was six years ago. I wasted at least a year trying to “fix” that MS through revision before I figured out that I needed to learn more about the craft.
Since then I joined Holly Lisle’s inaugural How To Think Sideways class, read a lot of craft books, got an MFA, and more. In all that time, I haven’t bothered with NaNo again because I’ve been too busy writing.
I did sign up for it again this year, not for the writing push but for social reasons. I know about a dozen other writers doing it. But I’m ignoring their rules and using it as an excuse to track my word count for a month. I’ll be finishing the novel I was already 48K words into, then writing a pack of short stories and moving on to the next novel.
Oh, and that first NaNoWriMo novel? I looked at it last year and realized that I was trying to tell two stories in one book. So I redrafted one of those stories from scratch. (It’s available now. The title is Surviving Telepathy.) I’ll be redrafting the other as the next novel in my queue.
Perfect, Stefon. You showed the true benefit of NaNo here.
Yeah, same, Stefon. I’m pretty much using NaNoWriMo as a fun way to socialize with other writers this year. I already track words, just because I like to get an idea of my day/monthly averages now that I’m doing this more or less full time, but it’s kind of fun to have another excuse to bug my writer pals, too. Anyway, I usually do try to beat my “best month” with NaNo, just to stay in the spirit of things…but yeah, that’s kind of different than having it be my “one big writing month” of the year, which is how I’m reading Kris’s interpretation of it for a lot of people (which seems pretty accurate to me, when I see other people posting about it).
Heck, JC (is it safe to use your first name here?), you’re the one who gave me the final prompt that got me to sign up again. 🙂
It’s that “one big writing month” thing that still amazes me. I know people who self-identify as writers, and actively work on their craft, but feel daunted by 50,000 words in a month. Makes me wonder how and when they write.
Now Dean’s monthly 120K, *that* is a total that impresses me.
My reasons are similar to JC’s, but I also like to treat it the way RWA treats their 1 extra book a year, only it’s 1 extra book a month. I have a set pace. But 3 days into November I thought, let’s see if I can squeeze out an EXTRA book cause I’m already butt-deep into 2 books and more.
Let’s do Dean Math!
50,000 wrd novel @ 29 days (starting late) = about 2,000 wrds a day. I can usually hit 2,500 in a single session. So… just add in an extra session by getting up earlier and presto!
And if the method I’m trying actually works? HUZZAH! Then I gets 1 more book than projected and the fun of applying that ethic to my production schedule.
And I have a lot of friends on this side of the pond who do it every year as a lark, and they never even consider publishing. I have 1 friend who wins every year and has since she started back in…I think 2004. 9 books, burned to a disk. No desire to publish. For her it’s a personal challenge.
God I’m so glad I started learning with you guys way over a decade ago.
I’ve never ‘finished’ NaNoWriMo, but I’ve gotten some interesting learning experiences from it. Last year, I managed 25,000 words on a singular project (not including outlines and brainstorming and alternate plot potentials). Most of my million-words-of-crap have been short stories (a little poetry), so this was a big step for me. I struggled, I discovered my weak spots and a lot about my journey as a writer.
I learned where my ‘talent’ reached its limits and where the true art/craft of it began, and that I had some gaps between the two that were in need of bridges. (Still are, but now I know it and I can pursue it – not that I didn’t think there was before, but it was much more nebulous.)
This year (and probably any other year), I’m not using it for a novel, but to motivate me in a group-activity to 1) be social and supportive with other writers and 2) write new material every day for a month.
Like Stefon, I chose NANO to prove to myself that I could do it.
I can thank Kris and Dean for letting a newbie semi-stalk them around Vikingcon in Bellingham in the early 1990s, then sign up for a writing workshop at Rustycon where they asked how many of you want to be novelists. Every hand in the room, 30 or so. K&D said, well, 2 or 3 of you might have some success and one of you might make it. That was 20 years ago.
Found Holly along the way through a friend I met on Prodigy’s Heinlein Forum. She let me into her Schrodinger’s Workshop online and eventually took some courses from her.
I hope to have some success with my first NANO novel from 2012. But it was my third novel and I have a trunk (filing cabinet actually) of short stories, plays, screenplays, novel starts, songs, poems and articles.
Thanks for not discouraging me and also for cautiously encouraging me.
And someday I need to find another copy of Gallery of his Dreams for you to sign as first got loaned out perpetually.
Thanks, thanks thanks.