Conversations with George (tips for self-publishing success)

50 dollars rooled upAt the beginning of May, I received an email from a guy named George. He had read my 2013 income report and was impressed. He said he was at work on his first novel and had a question for me and if I’d take the time to answer him.

Well one thing lead to another, and nine questions and answers later, I have a new column for my blog entitled: Conversations with George. This new column is designed to help aspiring writers new to the field of ebook publishing and story construction … at least what I can contribute from the limited experience I have.

George may be a novice at fiction writing, but not to the field in general. He has working in the journalism side of the business — as have I — so I felt a kinship to him. Honestly, I get requests for advice nearly everyday, and although it’s flattering, I just don’t have the time to offer such advice on an individual basis.

Conversations with George will solve that problem by assuming that if George is asking a question, then there must be hundreds of others with the same question.

For the next nine days, beginning May 23, I will be posting one George Question and one T.R. Answer per day. (The newest question will be listed first. )

I hope you find this information useful.

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June 4, 2014

GEORGE:

Ok, here’s another question for you. How about story revision, rewrites and structure? When you finish your first draft do you go back and rewrite sections, or add sections, or move things around? Or does the book look pretty close to the first draft?

Thanks,

 George

 

T.R. (TOM):

Good Morning George,

Revisions:

When I finish a book, it’s more-or-less in its final form. Sure, there are some minor tweaks, but as far as flow and the overall storyline goes, this is it. Most of the changes come from typos and grammar issues.

I reread everything I write over and over as I’m writing, and I’m always adding and subtracting things as I go, so the process is fluid and constantly changing.   Some writers just blast through a story without regard to spelling, plot or structure, and then go back and do a second and even a third draft. I don’t do that. I usually only have one draft of the book when I done.

One thing that’s great about working with Microsoft Word is the ability to cut and paste. Sometimes when I hit a writers block or just a boring passage, I’ll skip around and write the sections that are more fleshed out or that I’m more excited about. This keeps the writing process going. I then go back and place them in the story at the appropriate places. with the proper transitions.

When I wrote The Apex Predator, I tried this to the extreme. I had three different story lines, one involving Adam and Sherri, and other with Riyad and a third with Nigel McCarthy. I wrote each of these separately and then cut and pasted them together in the proper order. This made for an easier write, yet a much harder editing job. Continuity was the problem. I had to make sure timelines fit and that I didn’t have things happening before or after when they should.

I probably won’t do that again, at least not to such a degree. Writing parts of you novel that are more exciting to you at the time is perfectly acceptable and is a great way to overcome writer’s block. But writing three separate stories and then having to shuffle them together may have sounded like a good idea at the beginning, but in reality it was very difficult to get everything in the right order afterwards.

Switching perspective as you write is one of the things that keep you interested in the writing process. At least it does for me, I discovered. I still take the parts I’m most interested in and write those whenever I like. I would suggest this for anyone. It keeps the word count up, as well as your interest in the story.

In the past, I was so anxious to get a book on the market that I seldom sent them out to editors. I figured I’m pretty good at editing other people’s work, that I can surely do it for myself. Boy, was I wrong!   It turns out I’m a lazy reader, especially when it comes to my own work. My mind’s eye sees what it want to see, and I can read a passage a dozen times and miss the same typo repeatedly. That’s why all the writing advice you see says you should set your finished book aside for a couple of weeks before starting the edit — even if you’re still going to send it to an editor. Then you’ll be looking at it with fresh eyes.

I can’t do that. Usually — because of my procrastination — I’m so far behind my self-imposed deadlines that I can’t afford to wait another two weeks before starting the editing process, so I end up rushing the book out before doing a proper edit.   These days I try to be more professional and I do send the books out to editors. A Galaxy to Conquer was sent to two of them. And then I also have a number of fans who have volunteered to read my books, looking for typos and other inconsistencies (beta readers). These people are invaluable. First of all, they don’t charge me for their services, and secondly, many of them are very good and very precise. In the past — and even now to some degree — I send the books to the beta readers even after the book has been published. I also get emails from other, just random fans who point out my mistakes as well.

The correction process for ebooks — especially with Amazon — is very simple. I can correct my original Word doc, convert the file to Amazon’s version and upload a revision in about five minutes. Then it takes Amazon about one to five hours before the book is live again — with the corrections.

This brings up a point about reviews.   Many of the first reviews of a book mention all the typos and grammar issues. That’s all well and good, but what readers have to realize is that after a week or two of being live on Amazon, 99% of these mistakes have already been corrected. Anyone buying the most recent version of the book is getting the cleanest edition possible. And this process is on-going.

So if a new, potential reader sees a review mentioning typos, and then decides not to buy the book because of that, they’re making a mistake. When you have thousands of readers scouring your book — and with my email address in every one of them — I’ve usually been informed of every issue with a book within a very short time after publication.

Now back to your question about revisions, etc. At some point I have to stop editing and revising. Since there are almost infinite ways of writing anything, I’m constantly revising what I’ve already written. And with the way I write — jumping around to the most interesting parts of the story — I’m in constant need of transitions and other supporting material for passages already written. And then afterwards, I may see that a chapter needs more explanation, or more background leading up to this point.

Like I said, the process is fluid.   At one point, I went back and revised the entire books of The Fringe Worlds and Alien Assassin. These were my first two, and after seven or eight books, I’d learned a lot over the time it took to write them. I added some passages and cleaned up some awkward sections. I probably added close to 10,000 words to The Fringe Worlds.

As a sidebar, you may find this interesting.  Back in the summer of 2011, when I started writing The Fringe Worlds, I had a larger concept for the story, yet as I was writing I kept wondering if I was wasting my time. Was I good enough to write an entire novel? Was the story interesting? And would anyone be able to find me on Amazon and want to buy my book? You know, the normal insecurities of a writer.

So after about 45,000 words, I reached a logical breakpoint in the story. I stopped, did a little revision, and decided to publish what I had as The Fringe Worlds. — if anyone bought book one! If not, then why even bother with a second book?  (This second book became Alien Assassin).

On the evening of October 12, 2011, I converted The Fringe Worlds to Amazon’s format and uploaded the file. And then the agonizing wait began. Back then, it took 12 to 24 hours for a book to go live on Amazon, so during all that time I kept checking to see when the book would appear on their website.  When it finally did, I nearly fainted. I became so embarrassed with the thought that here the book was, in all it’s glory or shame, for all the world to see.

Now the real waiting began — would anyone buy my book?   The real shock came later the next day, on October 13 … when I sold three books. What made this so shocking was that the Look Inside feature was not even live at the time, just my main Amazon page, so readers had no way of sampling the story or checking out my writing style. And yet three people had already bought the book (three more than the one I bought, which you should always do yourself to test the conversion).

At that time, The Fringe Worlds was priced at $2.99, and by the end of October, with only a half-a-month of sales, I had sold 505 copies and earned $966 in royalties. Pretty cool, right? And for a first-time novelist with a little 45,000-word book … and with absolutely no promotion.

However, what was really cool was November, 2011. That month I sold 3,941 copies and earned $7,677 in royalties. From there on out I never looked back, and except for that first half-month, I haven’t earned less that $4,807.00 in royalties for a month.

Now again, back to your original question: Yes, revision is important and constant. You never feel your book is 100% ready, but at some point you have to bite-the-bullet and hit the ‘Publish’ button. Just remember, it doesn’t stop there. Keep reading your book, take the advice of others, make corrections as you notice them or are pointed out by others … and just be thankful for the opportunity that ebooks give us for making such on-going revisions.

If my books had to stand exclusively on that very first live version, I’m sure I would not be as successful as I’ve been. And now that I’m taking more time with editing and typo-discovery, my books are looking more professional and receiving better initial reviews.

Taking the time and effort to edit properly is crucial. If you do this, then you won’t be fighting the stigma left from those early negative reviews mentioning all the typos and editing flaws. There are no short cuts, I have found.

Tom Harris

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May 26, 2014

GEORGE:

I feel like I need a few things to improve my productivity. First, I need to finish my first book, then finish the second, then the third, etc. I know that by writing more I will get faster.

When I was in school there was a big difference between what I could do my first year, and what I could do in my fourth. I also wrote for a community newspaper and that helped improve my speed. But in all those instances I knew what I was writing. The facts and arguments were already figured out and I just had to structure it and put it down on paper.

Which leads to my other problem, one you pointed out on your blog. I am creating as I’m writing … so that slows things down a lot. I wish I could outline, but so far I can’t. I’m hoping this will change as I write more books.

The other thing that slows me down is my schedule. I think if I could do as you say and get 3,000 words a day — every day — that would be ideal. I just need to find a good mix of time and environment to get things done. And there is also procrastination that I am guilty of from time to time. Sometimes the creativity part is draining and I find myself finding other things that need to get done.

Anyway, I don’t mean to bore you with my writing challenges. It helps to see how successful people do things so that you can model after them and find your own system in the process.

I did have another question for you though. I noticed a lot of your books are on the 30-day Hot New Release listings again. How did you manage to do that?

Cheers,

 George

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T.R. (TOM):

Morning George,

The Hot New Release (HNR) lists on Amazon are based solely on ranking and date of publication. I get on the HNR lists mainly because of the email list I have, plus the popularity of my books. My list is a little over 1,000 loyal fans and my conversion rate from an email announcement of a new book is usually very high, high enough to get me on the lists initially. After that, momentum takes over.

It’s extremely important to be on the HNR lists, and ideally within the top three positions. If you can sell enough books so that your rankings place you within the top three, then your book will be displayed to the right on every page of the Top 100 for that category. This is incredible exposure.

Unfortunately, a book’s position on the HNR lists is completely out of the author’s control and based strictly on sales rankings.

As to your writing schedule, let me help put that into perspective.  A Galaxy to Conquer went live on Amazon at around 9pm on April 19, 2014, and during the writing of the book, I kept pretty detailed notes on my writing production.

On March 13 — a little over a month away from final publication — I only had 25,000 words written on the book, which end up at 87,000 words total. I had published book seven — The Apex Predator — on December 14, 2013, so from that date until March 13, I had only written 25,000 words.  And this isn’t even counting all the time I could have been working on the book after finishing the actual writing of The Apex Predator and prior to the book’s publication. But forgetting about all that other wasted time, I wrote 25,000 words in three months. That’s a paltry 277 words per day! Pitiful. Anyone can do that; hell, most people probably write that many words per day in emails and Facebook posts!

Yet this is the difference from being and aspiring author to be a published one: From March 13 to April 2 when I completed the final draft of A Galaxy to Conquer, I wrote another 62,000 words over those 21 days. In reality, it was actually only 16 days because five of those 21 days I had no production. So 62,000 words in 16 days (half a month). That’s 3,875 words per day, and that’s just the average. I see I had production days of 6,126, 5,928, 6,972 and 9,913 words thrown in there. In fact, the final writing day of April 2, I wrote 9,913 words.

Then from April 2 to April 19, I reread the book, sent it to the editor and had my beta readers (free proofreaders) check over the book for typos. Once the book came back and the corrections were made — which only takes a day to do — I uploaded the book to Amazon around 8pm on April 19, and as I mentioned above, the book went live in record time an hour later.

The point I’m trying to make is that even though I procrastinated for three months and didn’t get a lot done on the book, I was still able to get nearly three-quarters of the book written in only 16 days when it came to crunch time. (Yet, even if I had no words written at the beginning of March, I could have still completed the first 25,000 words in the 12 days before I began writing in earnest on March 13 — and I would have only had to write 2,083 words per day for those 12 days to do it.)

The bottom line is that a 90,000-word novel is actually very easy to write in a month — if that’s all you did. When fully-engaged, cranking out 4,000 to 5,000 words per day is not that difficult. In fact, during those four crazy writing days in March I mentioned above, I averaged 7,234 words per day.

I usually work in sessions when I’m in the zone, writing about 2,000 words per session, with about an hour or two break in between. On average days, I can get in two sessions without a problem. On good days, three sessions, and rarely, four. A session usually revolves around a scene or chapter, and if I have it pretty well fleshed out visually, it can go really fast.

As I’ve mentioned in another email, I know people who are cranking out a book almost every month. I’ve done eight in two-and-a-half years — from October 12, 2011 to April 19, 2014. That really not a lot. I should be double that by now.  Success can sometimes dampen production, as the financial need to put out another book in order to pay the bills isn’t a primary motivator anymore. That’s where fighting the demon of procrastination becomes paramount.

Good luck, George.  Keep up the dialogue.

Tom Harris

P.S.  Just to let you know, I will probably take my replies to you and post them to my website. There are a lot of people like you out there with the same questions; however, not all authors work the same, so this is just a snapshot of how I do it.

*************

May 25, 2014

GEORGE:

Did you have to work up to that word count? I’m at 1,000 – 2,000 words a day right now. Your blog post about word count really hit home because that is exactly my problem. I have to come up with things while I write and that really slows me down. I want to believe that I will get faster with more experience.

Thanks for sharing all this info by the way. It really helps.

Cheers,

George

####

T.R. (TOM):

George,

I’ve always been a fast writer — when I know what I’m writing about. But I take it you have a full-time job other than writing, so 1,000 to 2,000 is very respectable.

I’m more of a deadline worker rather than the slow and steady type. That’s what I’m trying to change. For instance, I put out my last book on April 19th and I’m already working on the new series. This is unusual for me, but it’s the only way I’m going to be able to step up my production. As a matter of fact, by the ideal schedule, I should already have a book done and in the editing stage by this time after a new release. But I have to be realistic. I think six books per year will be max for me. So far I’ve been doing three to four.

As a way to speed up your own writing, it might help to realize that most readers these days are extremely visual, having grown up with TV and the internet. So visualizing a scene before you write it will help frame it for your audience.

And don’t get bogged down in too much detail. It will slow down the writing and bore the reader. Leave something for the reader’s imagination. I made a mistake once of putting a graphic of a blond-haired man firing a ray gun on the cover of Cain’s Crusaders. It was supposed to represent Adam Cain, but I got so much negative feedback, saying that that was not how the readers pictured Adam, that I changed the cover after only a day. So again, let the readers form their own images of certain things. They’ll do it, especially sci-fi readers, and save you a lot of time in the process.

Tom
*************

May 24, 2014

GEORGE:

Thanks Tom,

That is awesome advice and very encouraging. I can see that volume is the key. Can I ask you how many words you hit per day?

Thanks,

George

####

T.R. (TOM):

Hi George,

When I’m heavy into a book I get between 5,000 and 7,000 words done per day. I’ve done as many at 11,000, but that’s a killer.   Actually, I’m trying to get away from a writing schedule like this and go for a steadier pace. What I’d like to do consistently is 3,000 words per day. That would take me about two to three hours — if I have a pretty good idea what I’m writing about that session.

(In one of the other articles on my website, I mention how I like to visualize scenes/chapters before writing them. If I’ve been good about the visualization, then the writing becomes very simple and quick. But if I have to sit and pull everything out of thin air, that can take a while.)

Three thousand words per day — everyday — is a 90,000-word novel completed in only 30 days. Then figure in another month for proofing and editing, during which you’re still cranking out your 3,000 words per day, only this time you’re working on your next book. Of course, you also have to allow for plotting time, as well as all those hours visualizing the story. But still, it’s very possible to get the first draft of a 90,000-word novel done in a month.

Even for the part-time writer, getting 1,000 to 2,000 words out five days a week should be possible. That would be around 30,000+ words per month. So while a full-timer may take a month to complete a draft, the part-timer could do it in three. And then if the editing and formatting took three times longer as well, you could still produce that 90,000-word novel — complete — in six month.

All it takes is one book to get you started. If it’s a bestseller, that could be your ticket to self-publishing independence. If not such a big seller, it’s just one more step towards the time when you can quit your day job and become a full-time novelist.

It can be done; I know others who are doing it right now, and they’re putting out six to eight new books per year. Just treat it like any other job; put in the hours, and pretty soon you’ll have a huge body of work. And once you have enough books out, whether they’re bestsellers or not, you should have enough money coming so you can write full-time. Once you can do that, then the sky’s the limit.

Tom

*************

May 23, 2013

GEORGE:

Hi Tom. I just read your 2013 sales figures post. Amazing stuff. I wonder if I can ask you a question? I am writing my first book. It is a space opera and I’m about 50,000 words in and hope to have it finished in the next month or so. I’m trying to make it fast-paced with lots of action. So here is my question: What is it in your opinion that people are most looking for when it comes to science fiction?

I know its a broad question, but I figure after all your books you might have a good read on it. Thanks a lot.

George

####

T.R. (TOM):

Hey George!

Yeah, that’s kind of a nebulous question. I would say readers want a unique perspective on things. What’s made my books so popular is the flip on the aliens-as-supermen thing. They really seem to like the idea that Humans are the baddest guys around.  Yet if you can’t find something truly unique, then military space opera is the way to go. You need space battles and other clashes between aliens and Humans. I know a number of very successful sci-fi writers who use this same formula in every book. Also, larger-than-life heroes.

But, again, I’d say the number one factor is to take a standard theme and look at it from a unique perspective. It’s hard to do, especially finding that perfect balance between being unique while not being too far out there that your story can’t find an audience. You have to be different — but not too different.

Also, ask yourself if the book you’re writing is something you would read, and whether it’s the kind of book you’ve been looking for but can’t find? That’s what I did, and I was fortunate to be enough of your typical reader that what I was looking for was also what thousands of others had also been seeking.

And remember this is space opera sci-fi. Action, action, action! Don’t give your readers time to breathe. Start off fast and strong … and then never let up.

AND DO A SERIES! That’s the key to success in selling ebooks, especially sci-fi. Make it sequential, where your fans have to keep reading to get the complete story. But do not overdo the ‘cliffhanger’ ending. In fact, don’t do that at all. It’s a cheap way of supposedly gaining interest in the next book, but it reality, all it does is upset the reader. End the book on a high note, and then allude to the next chapter in the story. End the book with a resolution, and yet also give the reader a reason to continue. And always have the first couple of chapters done on the next book and include those at the end of your current book.

Bottom line: Unless you’re extremely good and extremely lucky, remember this is a long-distance race and not a sprint. You need a lot of books out and all selling a little to make a decent living. That’s the surest way of being a successful author in today’s environment. Maybe you’ll hit it big with your very first book, but the odds are far against that happening. Just do your series, and then another, and then another. I know people who have written thirty books in three years — and they’re now making a killing.

I’m one of the in-betweens. My books are more popular on an individual basis, so I’ve been able to make it on fewer books. But I’m still not in the top echelon of people who can write two or three books and make a million. I’m going to need about twenty to do that, and right now I’m at eight.

I hope this helps. And good luck with your book. The key to anything is finishing, and with Amazon and ebooks, that’s about seventy-five percent of the battle. You’ve picked the right genre. Sci-fi readers are voracious readers, and consume more books per capita than any other genre with the exception of romance. You have to keep the beast fed. Which just means more sales for us.

Keep me informed as to your progress.

Thanks,

T.R. (Tom) Harris

P.S. And George, do not even contemplate going the traditional-publisher route. First of all, you’ll make less money, and secondly, once you’ve proven yourself with self-published ebooks, they’ll come to you. Yet even as this has happened to me, as well as several others I know, the economics don’t always make sense. Self-publishing is the way to go if you want to make a living at writing — immediately —

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