As the best writer you’ve never heard of, at least when it comes to my novels (my own fault, I love the writing, hate the marketing), I am a keen reader of what other authors write which often inspires my own writing. I have heard that some authors never read anyone else’s writing, too afraid it may somehow influence their own writing, implying for the worse but having found my own “voice” (one of those “writer’s expressions”), I have no fear of that and admire without guilt or envy other writers who capture the perfect turn of phrase, just the right word or combination of words. So, I offer the following passage from one of my favorite writers, Dean Koontz from his novel Innocence in which his protagonist defines love. It is one of the best definitions I’ve ever read. And yes, I wish I had written it. “Love is absorbing, related to affection but stronger, full of appreciation for–and delight in–the other person, marked by a desire always to please and benefit her or him, always to smooth the loved one’s way through the roughness of the days and to do everything possible to make her or him profoundly valued.” Amen.


Writer’s Block

Since I started writing my novels a few years ago, I’ve probably written close to a million words.

Procedurally, for Kismet, my first novel, I planned and thought about the basic story line for over ten years. Eventually, I conceptualized the story right down to how I would start the book. Therefore, when I sat down and faced that blank computer screen one night, I knew how the book would begin, exactly what the first chapter would look like.

My fingers flew over the keys and I wrote the initial chapter in maybe an hour. Of course, that first chapter ended up being revised many times but that’s a different story. The point is, I wasn’t intimidated by starting the novel, actually sitting there and writing those first words.

Stop and think about it. If you know what you’re going to write about, you’ll either start with description or dialogue. You will either describe a scene or you’ll have someone speaking. Remember that all you’re doing is telling a story. If you’re sitting with your child and he or she asks you to tell them a story, how would you begin?

If you remember that, getting started will never be a problem. So getting started has never been a problem for me from first sentences to first paragraphs to first chapters. One of my favorite first sentences started my second book in the series, The Manse: “It was going to be a long and lonesome day, Charlie was gone.”

So, to be honest with you, I’m probably not the best person to discuss writer’s block because I’ve never experienced it.

Apparently, I’m told, writer’s block occurs when you either can’t begin or you’re writing and you suddenly can’t go on because you can’t think of what to write next. This seems to be the holy grail of writers’ fears.

Beyond the compulsion to write, so important, there are really four things you do as a writer that will prevent problems with either getting started with your writing or continuing with your writing. They may be described as conceptualizing, executing, revising and remaining flexible during the process.

One of the joys of writing are the challenges that arise during the process of writing. For the third book in the series, I had been thinking I wanted to write a flat out noirish action piece, very hard boiled. I thought about the basic outline of the plot which would revolve around the kidnapping of Anon’s youngest daughter and then I sat down and whipped out the whole book in about 48 hours of uninterrupted writing.

And it was great! I loved it. To date, it remains Kathy’s favorite in the series. The only problem was, in word count, it was a novella, not a novel. Hmm. What to do? I didn’t panic. I didn’t experience writer’s block. I simply thought, well, what if the story continued? What would happen next?

I ended up utilizing the convention of doing a book one, book two format within the longer novel, two separate but related stories that all grew out of the same plot line and became The Feral Pistillate.

The late Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spencer series, noted that when he wrote his novels, one chapter seemed to flow into the next. James Lee Burke, the author of his own P.I. series, indicates he never knows where his story is going beyond the next chapter or so.

After I wrote the first four or five Anonymous Man novels, I found I no longer do much conceptualizing anymore. In fact, for one of the novels, Obsessions, I purposefully sat down with absolutely no idea what I was going to write except that it was going to involve sexual abuse and obsession. And I found Parker was right, one chapter seemed to flow into the next.

Another reason writer’s block should not be a problem is because your characters will often give you your story or change how you thought the story would unfold. Don’t ever say that to a non-writer because they’ll think you’re crazy but for those of us who write, we know that is true.

It first happened to me writing Feral. Charlie and Anon, Penny, Anon’s daughter and her husband Sean and the ever faithful side kick Mike had all gathered in the library parlor of the manse to decide how to respond to a death threat against them. As the author, I had a plan, of course, but what did I know? As I started writing the dialogue, the exchange between these characters, Charlie took over and changed my whole plan. The whole second half of the book changed when her plan was adopted.

So, you’ll experience an inability to start or continue, I’m convinced, when you’re really not ready, at any particular time, for whatever reason, to write. I suppose, as has been suggested in writing classes, you can grab a couple of key phrases from your narrative and do some sort of written free associating that will supposedly get you back on track or you can simply forget it for the moment and go get a taco and a beer. You’ll come back to it when your addiction, that compulsion to continue writing, rears its ugly head.

Some authors revise as they go. Dean Koontz talks on his web site about spending hours laboring over one paragraph. Most writers though will plow through the story and when it’s finished, go back and revise it. I do both. Whether I revise as I go or afterwards depends on how fast the story is flowing from my brain to the computer screen. Sometimes I’m on such a roll, I literally can’t stop to take the time to revise. Other times, if I’m writing at a more leisurely pace, I may revise more as I’m writing. So, do what works best for you.

In our writing class last month, a lady talked about writing to a point and then stopping when she said she lost control of her characters. I had the impression that it scared her so bad, she hasn’t gone back to them, she hasn’t continued writing their story. In fact, she went to a psychiatrist friend of hers and had the characters analyzed! She was appalled to find one of her principal characters was suicidal and she didn’t even know it.

What she was experiencing was a fear of letting her characters take her along for the ride, where ever that might lead her. She was afraid of who her characters might turn out to be. She was afraid that if her characters turned out to be too far removed from how she thought of herself, she would be ashamed she had created them. And she fell into that trap because she hadn’t conceptualized and because she didn’t realize that creating compelling characters means creating characters who will often be nothing like you, the author.

Writing a novel will definitely take time. You’ll be interrupted. Sometimes, you may not be able to get back to your key board for a period of time. I’ve had that happen. I’ll sit down and suddenly realize, I’ve lost the thread of the story. Now, what was Charlie doing when I left her? The answer is to go back and read what you’ve written. Oh, that’s right, she just took out two hit men and she and Anon are fleeing on the subway. So next they need to link up with Mike at the safe house.

One last point before we leave writer’s block. Writing involves creativity but it also involves dedication and discipline. Most professional authors will tell you they faithfully write so many words each day. John Grisham used to get up very early in the morning and write for two hours before he went off to his office to practice law. Stephen King writes 2000 words a day. Janet Evanovich writes each morning and then does her business related activities each afternoon.

I’ve found I’ve had to become much more disciplined with books in print since I have to spend time promoting the books, preparing the future books for publication while still finding time to write. By becoming a structured writer, you’ll also be creating an atmosphere in which you lessen any possibility of ever experiencing writer’s block.

The Wonderful World of Publishing

There are four ways to get your book in print: your book can be trade published, subsidy published, self published, or electronically published.

Trade Publishing. Traditionally, you wrote your masterpiece, sent query letters, found an agent who shopped your book to one or more big publishing houses in New York, signed a contract after receiving your six figure advance and went back to your typewriter to write the sequel while waiting for your royalty checks to arrive at your cottage in the Adirondacks.

Uh huh. Well, surprise, if it ever worked that way, those days are long gone. There are hundreds of thousands of books published in the U.S. alone each year. You will spend years trying to find an agent and years more trying to find a publisher. That is the reality of the situation. While the number of published books is rising, thanks in large part to electronic publishing which is now some 20% of the market, the number of trade published books is declining.

The big publishing houses are feeling the squeeze from increased competition from self and subsidy publishing as well as from the burgeoning electronically published books. They’re laying off people which decreases you’re already slim chances of even having your manuscript read as opposed to ending up in what trade publishers call their ‘slush pile’ of unread manuscripts.

When you complete your novel and you begin comparing what you’ve written with what has been written and published in your genre, you quickly realize that what you’ve written is as good or even better than what is being trade published. Frustrated, you ask yourself, “how can this writer get published when I can’t?”

The answer lies in understanding that while writing can be considered a creative art, publishing is strictly a business. Books are published by trade publishers solely on the basis of some editor’s judgment (often wrong) that this or that book will be commercially viable, that is, make a profit for the house, the publisher.

Therefore, understand that how well a book is written has nothing to do, despite the trade’s protestations to the contrary, with whether it will ever find a trade publisher. History is replete with stories about great books that almost never saw print or even started out being self published.  History is replete, as well, with an endless parade of forgettable books, some even “best sellers”, a disingenuous term, that stunk.

“Don’t quit your day job” if you plan to pursue finding an agent and a publisher in the traditional manner. Lightning does strike occasionally but most often, it will take years to interest an agent, let alone a trade publisher unless you have special credentials such as the name ‘Laura Bush’ or ‘Oprah Winfrey’.

You find an agent by the ‘query letter’ in which you put your best foot forward touting yourself and your book or you do the same if you’re trying the even harder task of contacting a publisher directly.

In this regard, some publishers will allow you to query them directly; some will not.

There are whole books on how to write a query letter and examples on the web, so if you’re going that route, you’ll find lots of info and resources, so I’m not going to waste time on how to write a query letter.

If you have a positive response from an agent, be careful. One of the maxims is never pay an agent up front. The reputable ones are paid by the publisher if they find a publisher for your book. Also, of even greater importance, don’t waste time writing or seeking representation by the wrong agent or agency. Be sure your agent can adequately shop your book. If you’ve written a mystery, an agent who specializes in finding publishers for cook books is not going to be of much help to you.

There are workshops who pitch the opportunity to meet with a real agent for a few minutes to hawk your book. Even if you have such an opportunity, is it worth the cost of flying to New York or San Fran, spending two or three days, at additional cost for hotels, meals and conference fees to spend five to fifteen minutes with an agent? You be the judge.

Securing a contract to be published with a trade publisher guarantees nothing. I’ve read many stories where an editor accepts a book proposal or even the finished manuscript and then abandons the author during the process after the editor decides that his or her talents would be better spent on a new project that promises a greater profit. In such a case, the author may retain any advance paid but in the end, fails to publish or have his book properly promoted.

Advances are generally not going to be paid to new authors by trade publishers or the size of the advance will be minimal, at best. Once you sign the contract with the trade publisher, your book is gone. The good news is that you can rely on the trade publisher to do everything to get the book into print; the bad news is that you will have little, or no say, in how the book gets into print or when or what it finally looks like. In fact, it will generally take 18 to 24 months before your book hits the book shelves at the book store.

If you don’t like the printing, the format, the cover design: tough. As for your contract, don’t expect to negotiate a contract with a trade publisher. These are largely what the law calls ‘contracts of adhesion’ meaning you accept what the publisher offers or forget it. As a first time author, you’ll have no control over the agreement with the publisher and even less input. If you have an agent, they will make sure you probably don’t get screwed, meaning you’ll at least get the standard contract but that’s about it.

The exception is if you’re Stephen King or Dean Koontz, then you will have the clout to actually negotiate a contract. But I’m not one of those guys and neither are you.

After everyone takes their piece of the action, then you’ll get your royalties which usually range in the seven percent area based on sometimes creative book keeping by the trade publisher.

Small Presses. Another word for small presses is small trade publishers. These are smaller presses, usually regional, who specialize and are seldom helpful to fiction writers since they usually do limited runs of non-fiction books with a regional interest. While the big trades may print thousands of books, the print run for a small press is usually 15,000 to 30,000. If you’re writing a series of mysteries that take place in a small town in Wisconsin, you might find a regional trade publisher that would be interested in printing your book. But probably not for the reasons discussed above.

Subsidy Publishers. Back in the day, so-called ‘vanity’ presses would print virtually anything an author was willing to pay them to print. Obviously, such presses earned the universal disdain of legitimate publishers and authors quickly learned that publishing with a vanity press was the ‘kiss of death’ in terms of establishing any legitimacy for their tome. There are still vanity type presses out there but a new breed of publisher, called a ‘subsidy’ publisher has grown out of the ashes of the vanity press movement.

In subsidy publishing, the author can do as much or as little as he or she chooses on his own or pay the publisher on a cafeteria plan to performthe necessary steps to get the book in print. We’ll talk about those steps in a bit. The better subsidy publishers will require that certain minimum standards are met before they agree to publish your book. The time required to bring the book into print? About a quarter to half the time required to trade publish your book.

The biggest problem with subsidy publishing is the stigma that is still attached to having your book published in this manner. Although the major book chains will carry a subsidy published book on their web sites, they will absolutely not stock your book on their shelves. They have exclusive agreements with the major trade publishers and will only stock a major trade published book. Or, in some cases, a small press book.

Another problem is cost. On a cafeteria plan, you can end up spending thousands of dollars publishing and promoting your book through a subsidy publisher. A trade publisher, of course, pays for whatever these costs may be, costs for publishing and promotion.

Self-Publishing. This is a good point to comment on what you’ll have to do to get your book in print. Because if you self-publish, you’ll be doing it all, you’ll be performing each of the steps necessary to get your book in final form to be read.

First, you write the book of course. When you finish the book and you’ve done your own editing, you’ll need to have the book professionally edited. This is absolutely essential. Period. Do not even think of publishing your book without having it professionally edited.

Why is this so important? For the simple reason that you want your book to be favorably compared to the best trade published books. You want your readers to come back to you telling you how much they enjoyed the story and the characters, not telling you about all the disconcerting errors that distracted them as they tried to read the story.

If you want to be taken seriously, your book needs to be seriously presented and that begins with proper editing. For Kismet, I edited it, Kathy edited it, my daughter, the professional publicist edited it and finally I had a professional editor edit it. Then, it was submitted to the publisher and they printed it and we corrected the proofs at least twice as I recall.

Despite that, I’ve seen at least one error and there may be more though I haven’t heard of any from my readers. If it’s any consolation, even trade published books have errors and I’ve noticed those errors are proliferating probably due to the cut backs I mentioned in personnel at the trade publishers.

Your book will have to be formatted in one of several standard formats. Kathy and Kae Cheatham, my professional editor, took care of that for me. If you have questions on that, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Kathy. All I know is it presented some frustrations.

You will have to decide what else you’ll include with the text. You’ll need the publishing history page, a title page, you may want a dedication page, pages about your last book or future books.

You’ll have to decide what to say about yourself as the author and where to put you’re bio. If you’ve gotten paid endorsements or other endorsements, where will you position those? Back cover? Inside somewhere?

For my part, I simply looked at innumerable layouts in many books and decided what I liked and proceeded accordingly.

Although you might think that the most critical part of your book is the text, you are only half right. Statistics show that potential readers will spend mere seconds looking at the cover of a book. If they’re intrigued, they might flip it over and look at the back cover. In those few seconds, they’ll decide if they’re going to purchase your book.

So, obviously, your cover is critical. We’ve all been to book stores and if you think about it, what I’ve just described is pretty accurate. It is certainly what I do if I’m looking at a work by an unfamiliar author. If I see the latest Lee Child or Michael Connelly, then I’m going to grab that book right away and I don’t care what the cover looks like. But remember, I’m not Lee Child or Mike Connelly and neither are you.

Just as it’s important to have your book professionally edited, it is equally important to have your cover professionally designed.

I suppose part of my mantra is best explained by that Frank Sinatra song about doing it your own way. One of the irritating things about publishing is that the very person who creates the product, the author, is the last one considered and the last one to profit. I’m a type A personality, trying to develop the patience to become a type B personality but being a type A, I’ve fallen prey to the illusion of the control freak that I can be in charge.

Eschewing my subsidy publisher’s cafeteria plan, I took responsibility for virtually everything in the production of Kismet. As noted, I engaged professionals to edit the book. I conceptualized the cover but had it designed and executed by a professional graphic’s designer. I decided exactly what would be included within the covers and what would appear on the covers. I told the publisher to do it my way and since I was paying the freight. I demanded rather than asked that my vision for the book be executed exactly as I envisioned it.

So, why not just find a printer and do it all myself? The publisher, beyond certain aspects of promo, produced a very good looking finished product or book in my opinion. Was it worth the cost and hassle of working with the publisher? Maybe and maybe not.

So, knowing the basic steps in putting a book together, many authors are self-publishing by doing the steps themselves. In addition to getting the book in print, however, there are other things you, as a self-publisher will have to do. First, are you going to form your own publication entity? For credibility sake alone, it might look better to have your book published by such and such publications rather than by John Doe, author. If you form a publishing entity, how do you do that? If you incorporate, you’ll have tax returns to file every year as a C corp or potentially added accounting fees on your normal return if you remain an S corp. You’ll have annual reports to file with your state’s corporation commission and fees to pay. You’ll have to keep corporate books and at least issue some stock.

You’ll have to obtain your own licenses, where required, your own ISBN’s and Library of Congress numbers, if applicable.

None of these steps are insurmountable but they all take time, a lot of time. If you’re working, raising a family, you won’t have a lot of time. What may suffer is what you really like to do in the little spare time you have: write!

Electronic Publishing. Forget all that stuff, just put it on the internet! People can bring your book up on the computer and read it. As noted, this is the new kid on the block and it is big. Your subsidy publisher should offer you that option or you can do it on your own. There are at least three competing services, the largest being Kindle from Amazon that will allow readers to read your book on line. Some authors are putting their books on line as loss leaders, no charge, for promo purposes, accessed through their own web sites.

This is new and its complicated and I don’t know much about it. Lest you think I’m an idiot, no one else has a handle on it right now either. The trade publishers are trying to figure out how to respond to it, competing services are in a war much like we saw with competing electronic media like tape versus CDs or LCDs versus LEDs.

I now have my first novel, Kismet, out as an ebook on Amazon. I’ll go into that process and its success in another article.

Books on Tape. As a form of early electronic publishing, books were put out on tape for people to listen to in their cars. They sort of faded away but they still occupy a niche for some readers. For you and I, forget it. You don’t have the money to hire Shirley Jones or Joe Mategna to read your book. You don’t have the money to hire the studio and do all the other stuff necessary to put your book on a CD.