By D. John Watson
“To know is nothing, to imagine is everything.” Albert Einstein.
Someone I know once asked me for advice on writing a book. He was stuck and was having a hard getting his story out. His story just wasn’t working for him but he knew he wanted to write. I asked what kinds of topics he was interested in, what kinds of books he read and what sorts of movies and television shows he watched. I got some answers and made few general suggestions but it got me thinking, is it really that easy? I mean I was offering advice based on a few question and answer messages. So where am I going with this?
Whether you’re an artist, a musician or a writer, there’s a voice inside you that urges you to do things. Sometimes it’s soft and suggestive and other times it’s loud and demanding but it’s there all the same. It wakes us at night, talks to us while we’re driving or mowing the lawn. Now before anyone suggests I might have missed bed check somewhere, stop and think about all of the times you’ve suddenly had that spark of an idea, whether it’s a few notes of music, a phrase or a mental picture. Maybe you write it down or pick up a guitar and the voice is happy for a time.
But that voice isn’t about to be silenced for long and what started out as a bit of tune or a few words on paper has to be finished. The Greeks had a word for this, The Muse. Originally there were nine of them and they were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. They were the goddesses of all creative expression and each of them had their own area of influence. That word is still used today and it has a wide range of meanings from speaking thoughtfully to artistic inspiration. In fact, the Greek word for music is mousike, art of the muse.
So where does that inspiration come form? I guess the short answer, is the world around us. That’s also the easy answer but it’s the truth. We’re sponges, we take in the things we see, hear and read and keep them in mental vaults where they wait for us to use them. And when they come out, they do so in their own time. They can’t be forced out, they arrive unbidden and if we don’t do something they might not return. And unfortunately, they don’t always come out when we’re able to act, even if it’s just to jot down a few notes.
And when those hints of inspiration hit, we take them and mix them with our own imaginations and pour all of that into whatever artistic channel we inhabit. At the same time, we are influenced by others, whether it‘s a favorite author or artist, remember what I said about being sponges. We take our inspiration, combine it with imagination and subliminal influences and put it down on paper or canvas. Because we’re sponges, we can’t help filtering our ideas through a filter of things we’ve read and seen before. And in so doing, we make them uniquely ours. None us exists in a vacuum, our unique voices have a soft whisper of other voices that aren’t ours.
So how do we decided what to create? In the beginning of this, I mentioned a talk I had with someone who wanted advice on what to write. When he told me what he liked to read and watch, I suggested that he start with what he knew. This wasn’t a patronization by any means, it was a simple truth. In his case he was trying to write a book with main characters who were in high school. His trouble was that he was stuck. He had an idea but he didn’t now how to turn them into real characters. I told him to talk with his own children, his nieces and nephews who might be in that age who could give him insights into their world. But he didn’t have any so that made his choice a little more difficult. But he had other interests, which would have made finding inspiration easier and that‘s where I suggested he go.
One of the things that allows us to connect with viewers, listeners or readers is authenticity. We have to be able to make it real for them, and that comes largely from creating within genres we spend time in. I know that sounds simplistic but it’s true. I read science fiction, fantasy and action adventure, plus I’m a political junkie, so these are where I write from. Now I might write in either a science fiction or a fantasy genre with political elements I’ve culled from recent news stories but I’d have a hard time writing poetry or a book on medieval history. I also have experience in martial arts and know others with more so when that is introduced, I hope the reader sees it real. I have a comfort zone and for the moment, I’m happy to work from that and I think that that makes me more effective because I can write from areas of interest.
Now that’s not to suggest that it’s a mistake to branch out, explore new genres, after all, if Stephen King wrote a cookbook, I sure it would end up a best seller just because his name was on it. And it would be as well written as anything else he’s done but it’s his name that would draw readers. But again, it helps to write from a place of interest. And if you’re lucky and have a large enough following, you can cross genres easily. But you have to find the right voice, blend it with inspiration and your influences.
Our Muses are fickle creatures, they speak to us when we least expect and they refuse to be forced. They demand out attention whether we can give it to them or not and offer us gifts whether we’re able to take them or not. They will ignore us if we ignore them for too long and come back only when they’re satisfied we’ve learned our lesson. But in the end, they are what we need to be who we are. Remember the quote from above? “… Imagination is everything.”
Is 2014 The Year of the Indie?
D. John WatsonSometimes it seems like I spend a lot of my non-writing time on line, networking and marketing, hunting through blogs and other websites to find any venue to generate sales. The options are boundless and it really depends on what you need and what you can afford. I do interviews and look for special marketing opportunities like free listings and quest postings. I belong to tweet teams and book clubs. It really is a second full time job. It's an exhaustive process but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Not just for myself but for everyone who calls themselves an Indie.
And here is that light. In 2012, according Digital Book World, self-publishing produced 9 best sellers. Not a huge number by any means but it is a big deal. Just one year later, an article in Forbs ranked indies in the #3 spot when it came to best sellers with 99 appearances. We were solidly sandwiched between major publishers like Random House at #1 and Simon and Schuster at #5. This didn't change from the previous year, but gone was Scholastic from its #3 spot. The icing is that we managed 4 #1 spots in 2013, up from 0 the year before. And for self-published authors, this is fantastic news, because it means that we are finally having a real presence in the publishing world. We are a growing power in what was a very exclusive club. Now the disclaimer, this only applies to eBooks but think about what that means for the writer who's gone to defy convention and take all of the risks. It means that we now have a greater chance of hitting that lottery.
However, to really appreciate that number, it helps to understand what authors like me have to do just to get our names out there. It really is a full time job. The easiest part is the book itself. It takes weeks and months, sometimes years to get it. There are revisions and the edits, the proofing and reproofing. It actually is a grueling process and it doesn't end when we type that last word and hit the save button. That's when the real work begins.
First we have to get the edits done and for the best results, we need another set or sets of eyes. We do love our words, and we're not always the most objective. And sometimes it's little things like, using the wrong form of the word to or using at instead of as. Things your program might not pick up because they're not misspelled, just misplaced. So we enlist our family and friends, anyone who might be able to give us that fresh perspective because after spending so much time with your characters, you might not have it. And there are some very reasonable editing services out there to help us become the best we can be. It just takes a little research
You also need a cover and here again you might have to turn to friends if you don't have the money but if you do, there are so many talented graphic artists out there. I took the do it yourself approach because I was convinced I knew my book better than anyone else. I had some very definite ideas of the look I was after. However, I got impatient and went in another, easier direction. That old adage about a book by its cover is wrong. We all look at the covers first, it's part of what makes us pick it up and flip it over to read the back. I recently got lucky and discovered a friend who had a talent I didn't know about and he helped me rediscover my original idea and really brought it to life.
But here's where the real work begins and why these numbers are so important and so telling. While we're doing all of the above, we have to find our audience and that comes down to marketing. I could be the next J.K. Rowling or Norman Mailer but if I don't get my books in the hands of readers, no one will ever know it. This is all about building your brand and the landscape is an ever changing one. In this, the indie has a real job. Against the weight of the established publishing houses, with readily built markets and in the case of sellers like Barnes and Noble, a massive chain of retail book stores, ours is an uphill battle. Currently I run two Facebook pages, a blog, a twitter account, I'm on LinkedIn and I have a website. That doesn't include four sales outlets and a couple of book clubs for good measure. And a recently added a second blog and I'm now writing for an ezine. Anyone tired yet? Remember what I said about spending so much time not writing? Each one of us is our own miniature publishing house.
One of the most important steps and one that I failed to take advantage of is the ARC, the Advanced Review Copy. This is a risky step because now you're putting yourself out there before the book goes live on whatever publishing site you're using. This is where you get your real feedback from reviewers, which will be put up when you're in electronic print. These can either help or hurt but they're essential to building sales. Most readers read the reviews, especially when you're the new kid on the block. If you have a name like Stephen King, your name sells for you because you're established; you have a public that waits for the next title like a starving man at a buffet. Your name alone sells books but you're not as well-known as Stephen King. At least not yet. It's kind of like speed dating; let's see how many reviews we can get before we put ourselves out there for the entire world to see.
So what do we do? There are plenty of options, we do interviews and blog tours, post excepts on sites like Wattpad or on our FB pages and blogs. There are countless thousands of sites that offer author services and marketing tips that range from the pricey to the free. We post in groups through social media networks like Facebook and LinkedIn and each of these wonderful sites has groups tailored for us, ranging from tweet groups to groups where we can offer and receive help. There's no magic formula here, it really is a combination of hard work and luck. Where you promote and whether your book timely, are important ingredients in the recipe for success. After all, the right book at the wrong time is kind of like wearing shorts and sandals in a snowstorm.
It's easy to get in over your head and spend every free moment in the marketing end of the business because it's important for getting our work in the hands of readers. In the end, we pick our paths toward one goal; to get that seal of approval. Ten years ago that was an impossible dream, we were called vanity publishers, desk top publishers and self-publishers, each had its own distinction but they all meant the same thing. Now the mainstream publishers are taking notice of us. Since 2006, the number of self-published books has risen at a remarkable rate and it's prompted traditional brick and mortar publishers to invest in self-publishing. One example of this was Penguin's purchase in 2011 of Author Solutions, which is a major vendor for self-publishers. The following year Penguin bought Random House. Other companies have seen the trend and have taken the leap and in 2012, the New York Times reported that Simon and Schuster had added self-publishing to its services, by teaming up with Author Solutions to create its own indie press called Archway Publishing. This is blurring the lines between the indie and the traditional but it's a sign that our challenge is being met and our power is being recognized. The numbers don't lie. According to a May 2013 Wikipedia entry, the sole U.S. issuer of ISBNs, R. R. Bowker reported that Author Solutions alone, from its founding in 2007, issued 290,000 to indie authors.
So this past year, we saw a huge increase in best sellers produced by indie authors, This is a fantastic event and it shows that we are not only proving ourselves to the public but we're changing the landscape of the publishing world by leaps and bounds. Established publishers are now forced to recognize our influence and I'm sure that they have to see the numbers with a mix of concern and wonder. Once we were called vanity press, before that it was desktop publisher, now we're standing on our own. I have to admit, that suddenly the idea of reaching that exalted status of #1 Best Seller isn't so far-fetched, no longer the unattainable dream because we're doing it.
So what does this year hold? We saw an increase over the past year, a rise of four positions in the ranks and 99 additional appearances. To bring that number home, Penguin Random House had 478 and Hachette had 258. With numbers like this, I have to look at the upcoming year with a great deal of optimism. Imagine the advertising budget of a publisher like Harper and Row or Random House and the avenues they have at their disposal. Yet we've gone from a glimmer to a bright star in just a year.
Yes, 2014 could be the year we hit #2 on the rankings. And then what? Could the top spot be ours for the taking in another year or two? I see great things for the indie author.
D John WatsonI have to admit, when I was asked to write an article, I wasn't really sure what to write. I had a partial blog article that I'd written stored away in my laptop along with a dozen story ideas I hope will become books so I said, sure, I know just what to use. And off I went, and then I stopped. Keep it under 3,000 words, I can do that but how far under? If I went with what I had, trimmed off a number on the list I'd made for the article, added a conclusion, maybe 1,200. It was really a work in progress. But I'm a writer, so this should have been easy. At least that's what I told myself.
I'm not one to wade in slowly or outline my work before I start. I'm a deep ender, a seat of the pants writer. Oh I always intend to write an outline, and each story-folder has a file for notes and I'm finding out that as a writer, when you write a single, stand-alone book, you might be able to do that. However, I've written a trilogy, with a lot more details to remember and keep straight from one book to the next. I guess that was my first lesson as a writer, sometimes the deep end is very deep and it helps to go the Y and have had a few lessons first. I wish I had done that and now I'm a little more experienced, a few lessons under my belt as it were, and it's been an interesting ride so far. But somehow, the outline never seems to work the way I plan. The story takes on a life of its own, and carefully laid plans go asunder
For as long as I can remember, I've been an artist, drawing and painting my way through life. When I wasn't creating pictures, I was reading someone else's. I was helped along in my love of reading by the fact that I also suffered from asthma, which meant I had a lot of free time on my hands. Not to date myself but this was before video games, the internet and cable. Yes back then, you had three channels and occasionally PBS if the gods of T.V. were feeling generous. I guess the two just came together and I started making my own stories, which I showed everyone. I submitted some and turned others in as English projects, and for me, this was an extension of my world.
A few years ago, I had a mental picture, which was where all my projects start. Sometimes with a blank page and sometimes, (although not so much so right now), a blank sketchpad. I did what I always did, I drew it, and then I did a colored sketch. There was a story there, I just had to see it and eventually I did and The Chronicles of Irindia was officially born in 2012. Now I'd love to be able to say I was a New York Times Best Selling author, that's every writer's dream. It's like winning the mega-bucks lottery and marrying a super model all in the same day. I'm part of a growing breed of author, the ones that throw away convention and have become pioneers in what is still a brave new world, and it is a new world, the world of the Indie. It can happen but first you have to sell A LOT of books, get your name out there so that everyone knows your name. I don't know all of the rules but I have to assume one of them has something to do with on-line sales through the primary retailers and the amount of copies sold by the publishers themselves. Against the mainstream publishing industry, Indies have a hard time making it to the vaunted listing in the NY Times. Though as my karate instructor is fond of saying, “you can't finish the journey until you take the first step.”
I was reminded of this the other day when my wife was on the phone with my mother-in-law. She asked how my one book was selling and it's not, not right now anyway.
I guess this is where I finally realized I hadn't done my homework. You see, as a newbie, a fresh off the presses writer, I was counting on my friends and family to help me spread the word. All of the friends that said they couldn't wait, waited. Most are still waiting. Oh, I belonged to some groups but I didn't really prepare myself for the world that lay ahead. Mostly what I wasn't prepared for was all of the marketing that went into it. Not after but before the book came out. Now I put up a twitter page, a couple for face book, made some friends, started a blog and hoped "the Gods of Social Media bless me." It's all of the pre-release work that I neglected. I mean, ARCs and Beta Readers? What were those?
I did sell a few, and right away, I got my first thrill, someone wanted to do an interview. It was great that someone wanted to know about me and sent me some questions. I must have posted that everywhere, still do when they happen. It was right after that that I got my first review: 3stars. My child that I had loved and nurtured like any good parent wasn't as good as I thought. Bad reviews are a fact, we all get them and I was encouraged by later four and five stars but they all pointed to the same flaw. So I went back into it and took a pretty close look, or so I thought. You see, writers fall in love with their words, we nurture and shape them in ways that are nearly parental, and the result is a child that is as unique to us as our real children. Sometimes, like any parent, we don't see the flaws. Our little "Jimmy" is perfect. Oh, he might still have the matches and a couple firecrackers left but it couldn't be him. And, like any proud parent, I remember the day my child came into the world, it arrived in a cardboard box and I lovingly took it out and held it for the first time. I took it everywhere and pretend to read at restaurants or while doing laundry. A few weeks later, I was walking by a table at a restaurant and this girl had a kindle and my book. I so wanted to ask what she thought but I was afraid that would have been weird. Still, I smiled the rest of the day. Because it's one thing to see a sales figure on a tally sheet and another to see the item being used.
Now I have to give credit to my wife who acted as editor, web designer, cover artist, etc., and I admit, I might have been a little impatient at times I think the comments about the divorce lawyer were a joke, so far there haven't been any papers and we still get our mail delivered to the address. So far, and so far I haven't gotten that boat I tease about getting and naming it the "Yes Dear."
No journey is without a few lessons, and this one has been no different. I used to think that all writers hung out at coffee shops, worked out of book-filled offices or hung out with other writers. I spend all of my time at my kitchen table with a small dog in my lap and a cup of coffee (sometimes hot) close at hand and occasionally a bag of fretoes. Writing is often a solitary experience, I'm sure there are writers who haunt cafes and Starbucks but I don't know any. Now that I think of it, I only know one writer from the standpoint of saying "Hello" if we met but then I'm still a new kid as it were. Oh, I have made a ton of friends doing this and I've learned a lot from them but I'm still not hanging out at Starbucks with others bouncing plot points off one another. I have a friend who really does work out of a Starbucks but she's a lawyer in California and they might have different rules.
Mostly you spend more time with the people in your head than real ones. However, they are real people, we get to know them, what they like and what they don't, their favorite things and when we're done with them, we can do what we want. You created a world, and you populated and controlled it. For a few hundred pages, you're God. You can bring together long lost loves, build and raze empires and create utopian societies. But mostly, we tell the stories no one else can and if anyone saw what goes on inside our heads, well, the term case study comes to mind. But it's still a journey that only the writer can take and, mostly, it's a solo one.
I saw a Facebook post that said, "Writers don't get vacations, they're either writing or they're thinking about writing." Unless you're really successful, you have zero free time because you also have a real job to pay the bills. You write when you can, while others are watching bad T.V., or even good T.V., while the children are doing homework and in my case, while I'm eating. It's a good thing because I hate eating hot food. Then there's the brand building, getting reviews, interviews on different blogs and managing the wonderland of social media which has so many facets I could spend three days just listing them and it seems like there's more all the time. Yep, nothing like having too much free time on my hands.
As a matter of fact, even if you are successful, free time = zero. The more successful you are, the more your readers want of you, the book signings, public appearances, meetings with publishers and agents. Sure, you can afford the nicer vacations, restaurants, and trade in the Honda for a BMW but those are perks of a lot of hard work and like I said, I didn't really do my homework.
Now, nearly two years later, I'm putting the finishing touches on my second book, and yes, I'm using beta readers and then there will be ARCs. I have the contact info for the reviewers who wanted to read the next one and I've made a ton of friends over the last couple years, become a part of groups and most of all, read a lot more on how this business works. Will I make the same mistakes? Probably not but there will be new ones.
So why do we write? Why spend all of our free time and extra money to do something that may or may not sell? I've heard that question in one form or another since this all started and the answer is clear, I have to tell the story. I think that's it right there, the need to tell the story. It doesn't get any more simple than that, and whether you start with "What if...." or "Wouldn't it be funny if...." behind that is the story and the need to rid ourselves of some of the extra voices.
"If I have done my job right, then I have accomplished my goal. All writers write for one person first, themselves. A good writer writes the kind of book they would want to read if they were wandering in a local book store or library. This is what I have tried to do. Enjoy the ride." D. John Watson