The Hardest Kind of Writing

alien with swordI may be biased — since I write science fiction exclusively — but I honestly believe sci-fi is the hardest type of fiction to write.

The reason say this is because in sci-fi nearly everything one writes about needs to be created from scratch. Sure, in some stories you can place normal humans in a very normal setting and throw in some aliens. But in the sci-fi I write, where the humans are far away in space and living within alien societies, I have to make up almost everything. This ranges from languages, to buildings, to construction methods, to food, to mannerisms, to physical descriptions … and so much more.

Let’s do a comparison. Imagine you have to write a scene that takes place in Paris, and the main character needs to walk down so-and-so street, go into this particular restaurant and order a special food dish. If you haven’t already been there, it’s very easy to pull up a walking tour of Paris on the internet and describe, down to the smallest detail, the exact scene. And even if it’s not exact, then any fictional restaurant serving a fictional steak dinner wouldn’t be very difficult to conjure up.

Now put the character on an alien planet. First of all, it has to be alien, so it can’t be too familiar. In addition, it can’t be overly alien either, where the reader stops and says, “What?” So there is a balancing act you go through when creating your alien street, alien restaurant and alien cuisine.

And now you’re writing; you have to make up a street scene with alien architecture, alien atmosphere and alien smells. You need to create a public eating establishment that makes sense, even on an alien world. Then you have to develop a menu that can accommodate human palates while also allowing the main character’s alien companion to feast upon the local specialties … which are what? You have to make this up, too.

The reason I’m telling you this is that sci-fi is often thought of as the easiest to write. After all, you can just make everything up! You don’t have to have intimate knowledge of foreign cities or the operating manual for an M1-A4 assault rifle. What you don’t know in sci-fi, you just make up. Easy. Right?

For some of us the creative process does come easy. I don’t find this kind of writing particularly difficult, just time-consuming. I can sit for three hours straight working on my current WIP (Work-in-Progress) and find that I’ve only completed 1,500 words. This is because I’ve had to continually stop and create while writing. Constructing the most-readable sentences in the story-telling process is a time-consuming endeavor in and of itself. Now add to that the fact that 90% of what you’re describing has to be created from your imagination alone. It really bogs things down.

I know when I’m writing just normal fiction, containing everyday items found here on Earth, I can crank out 1,500 words or so per hour. Not so with sci-fi, no matter how into the story I am. In an effort to always make things fresh, exciting and unique, I have to utilize every ounce of creative juice I have, which after three hours straight of making stuff up, can be mentally draining.

Of course, this is both the bane and the lure of writing sci-fi. It’s a challenge to see how unique a universe one can create out of thin air while not going overboard. It’s a test of one’s vision and insight, along with all the creepy-crawly things one can imagine.

Here’s a tip for those who do write sci-fi and fantasy. It’s not original, but it makes all the sense in the world.

Don’t make the names — of your characters, their titles and their worlds — unpronounceable. There is no greater story-killer than having your readers stop every few sentences to try and figure out how something is pronounced. It’s not necessary to jumble a bunch of mismatched letters together thinking this will make the names sound more exotic. Julicmon’cree L’on’minn, Liknormic-high of the Dormmonwed clan, pulled his omploosni sword from its sheath and …. What? See what I mean? Completely stops the flow dead it its tracks. Keep it simple. It will improve the pace of your story and keep the reader engaged. Don’t do anything that will cause the reader to break concentration and get frustrated.

Until next time … Write On!

T.R (Tom) Harris  

Misconceptions of Self-Publishing

50 dollars rooled upI golfed yesterday at a near-by country club and struck up a conversation with a nice young lady who ran the beverage cart. A recent college grad, she’s now contemplating which direction to take her working career.

The thing that really impressed me about her was that she was like a twenty-something — and female — version of myself! She was thinking about either a career in real estate (I spent twenty-five years as a real estate and mortgage broker) … or what she really wants to do is WRITE!

Of course this immediately got my attention, since writing is how I make my living these days. So I spent as much time as was possible while waiting to tee-off talking with this young lady, and I was surprised that for a young, tech-savvy person, she was woefully uninformed about the revolution in publishing that’s taken place over the past five or six years.

Since I don’t have a lot of time to post today — I do have another book to get out soon — let me just do a brief summary of what is possible today in the realm of self-publishing. (I’m sure I’ll expand on this subject when I have more time.)

1) Anyone can self-publish.

At this time, I’m exclusively using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing platform (KDP) to publish and market all my books. Amazon does not screen authors, and they do very little screening of content. Since I don’t write erotica, I do understand they are cracking down on some of the racy covers, which is understandable. But as far as content, not so much. And for authors, you don’t need to submit a resume or tear-sheets or … well, anything. Just your book, novella, short story or article. That’s right, they have all these things on their site.

2) You don’t have to be an expert at marketing.

Some of us have been fortunate to have found success with very little marketing. However, if you consider that Amazon is the largest marketer of books (ebooks and traditional) in the world, just making your book available on their site is like getting your retail product into Walmart. As I’ve noticed, all the outside marketing you can do to gain exposure for your book — outside of Amazon — is just playing around on the edges. If your product can’t make it on Amazon, then no amount of outside promotion is going to make much of a difference.

3) I’ll cover this in more detail in future posts, but let me tell you now what the four most-important elements of your book’s early success are in respect to Amazon.

A) The Title. Every genre has its group of specific buzzwords which attract readers. Whether it’s science fiction, romance, action/adventure or erotica, fans of these genres react to certain words or phrases. It’s important that you know what these are and that your title contains as many of these as possible — without having a ten-word title, of course!

B) The Cover Design. With readers on Amazon normally browsing through the genre bestsellers — which are displayed as twenty-book thumbnails per page — it’s important that your cover and title are prominent and READABLE! Too often I see flowery, italicized titles that can barely be read on the full-size image of the cover, let alone as a thumbnail. They may be pretty and cute, but they’re going to get lost in thumbnail size, and therefore possibly skipped over by the shopping browser. Make your cover brilliant, clean and with titles that can be seen across the room on a computer screen, even in thumbnail size.

C) The Blurb. This is the description of your book that’s on your Amazon product page. Don’t skimp here. I see too many one- or two-paragraph descriptions, when this is your first opportunity to interact with potential readers … your first chance to sell them on your book. There are ways to put boldface and italic type in your blurb, as well as larger type, even in Amazon-orange. (This involves some tricky HTML coding which Amazon doesn’t really want a lot of people to know about, but I’ll show you in future posts!) For the blurb, put in a bold, teaser headline, do the most intriguing copy you can (not, “This is the story of young love gone bad. And in the end, they all live happily ever-after.” Give me a break!) Put in excepts, synopsis … even how the story is unique from everything else on the market. Just look at what’s on Amazon today, and then analyze why you’re attracted to some and not to others. And then copy the format of the ones you like.

D) The Look Inside Feature (LIF). This is the sample amount of your book that readers get when they click on the cover of your book on the product page. Here’s the little secret: the LIF contains the first ten-percent of your book. Why is this important? Because, like every other kind of trailer (which this is), you try to leave the previewer wanting more. If your LIF ends with some downer or boring exposition, then the potential reader is going to likely sigh deeply … and move on to something else. Yet if you start your LIF with a real story-hook and then end it with a cliffhanger or in the middle of some exciting action, then the reader is going to want to see what happens next — and they’ll buy your book. So if you have a 90,000-word novel, see where 9,000 words carries you. This isn’t completely accurate by the way because the ten-percent includes the title, legal blurb, testimonials, as well as other things you put in before the actual first word of your novel, so take that into consideration.

So there are the four-basic elements of marketing ON AMAZON. If you do this right — and your story is interesting and well-written — this should give you a really good start at selling your book and building your fan base.

4) Editing & Cover Design.

The lady I was speaking with said she didn’t have an editor or very much money to pay for one. Honestly, I have a very good editor, and depending on the length of my books, he charges between $250 to $350. That’s not bad. You may also need a proofreader and a cover designer. Proofreaders should run a little less than editors, and you can get  covers designed for less than a hundred bucks. And by the way, the total cost of producing your book and getting it ready for publication shouldn’t run you more than between $500 to $1,000.

Here’s a sample breakdown: Editor: $300; Proofreader: $150; Cover Designer (with image included): $200; Cost to upload to Amazon: FREE!; Cost for Amazon exposing your book to all their millions of visitors worldwide: FREE.* Total Cost: $650.00. (Could be less if you design your own cover and use free beta-readers to do your proofreading.)

*Amazon makes their money by taking a split of the royalties. For books priced below $2.99, it’s 65% and you get 35% of the cover price. If the book is priced $2.99 to $9.99, you get 70% (minus a few cents for file size) and Amazon gets 30% of the selling price. Not bad at all. Example: My books sell for $4.98 and I net out about $3.20 in royalities. I know, this isn’t 70%, but with some Amazon foreign markets, I only get 35%. When this is factored into the total, it’s still about 64% to me.

You only make $3.20 per book, you say? Man, you have to sell a lot of books to make any money. That’s right, but like I said earlier, you have your book listed through the equivalent of the Walmart of book selling. In my first two years of self-publishing, I’ve sold close to 150,000 copies of my books (starting with one book, until now I have six). With the variations in pricing I’ve done through the years — they haven’t always been at $4.98 — this still has me close to $400,000 in paid royalties in twenty-four months.

Having disclosed this (da money!), my advice to the young beverage-cart lady would be this: Keep your day job, but in your spare time crank out your first book. (By the way, it’s always best to do a series. This way you can build an ever-growing fan-base while having readers always anxiously awaiting the next installment.).

I write fun, light-hearted science fiction novels, and you can see what I’ve made. Even if my cart-lady realized even a fraction of what I’ve done, this is way more than she could make selling real estate as a rookie agent. Believe me … I know!

And one last thing: How does Amazon pay royalties?

Amazon pays every sixty days after the completed month of sales. For example, for October, you will receive a royalty check (or direct deposit) at the end of December. This is incredible, not only for the speed in which they pay — as compared to traditional publishing — but also because you will always know to the penny how much you’ll be receiving two months in advance. This does wonders for your financial planning — as well as your piece of mind!

So … WRITE-ON!

T.R. (Tom) Harris