Looking Behind, Looking Ahead

Back in 2011, when I published my first book, things were easier. There were fewer books competing for readers’ attention. The Kindle was still pretty new to readers; they were hungry for new books from authors they’d never read. I had a couple of books out and they sold extremely well; better than they should have given my talent level at the time. Even better, I had to do nothing to promote them; Amazon did it for me. I sold thousands of books, positive reviews flowed in, and life was pretty good for a part-time writer.

Then, in January 2013, that all came to a screeching halt.

Literally, overnight, sales dried up. The same books that had been moving nicely through the system for the past two years suddenly went dormant. It was as if a switched had been flipped and the lights just went out. And for all I know about the black box that is Amazon, maybe that’s exactly what happened.

The era collectively known as the Kindle Gold Rush was over.

Many writers quit. I didn’t. Since the end of the Gold Rush, I’ve written an additional eight novels, another five novellas, and fourteen short stories. But no matter how many books I’ve released since the “good ol’ days”, it hasn’t had much effect. My Badlands series sells okay (for which I’m truly grateful), but the other books don’t move much, if at all.

The reasons for this are myriad and anecdotal. The market is saturated with boatloads of books for sale in the Kindle store. Kindle Unlimited has had a negative impact too, cannibalizing sales and driving down payments to authors. And those of us who opt out of exclusivity with Amazon pay dearly; KU books rank higher than non-KU books and are much more visible to customers. In other words, if a writer wants to diversify his risk and reach more readers on more platforms, then he’s gonna get dinged for it.

And don’t get me started on the scammers currently infecting Kindle Unlimited.

Since 2011, most of Amazon’s competition hasn’t really gained much ground. Sony has gotten out of the game. Diesel is gone. Barnes and Noble has pretty much dropped the ball with their Nook effort. Apple still doesn’t seem to care about selling ebooks, despite having their iBooks app on literally hundreds of millions of devices. Google doesn’t seem to care about selling ebooks any more than Apple does.

At least Kobo has upped their game a little. They at least seem like they care and are trying to sell more books and reach more readers. It seems to be working because they’re now my number one sales channel.

There’s also a lot more competition within the Kindle store; Amazon has their own publishing imprints to push now and New York publishing houses have finally digitized much of their backlist books, adding thousands more titles to the Kindle store. Last count I remember, there are something like two or three million books in the Kindle store.

To cut through the noise, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money. Advertising on platforms like Facebook and Amazon are pretty much required now if you want to sell books. And now the latest tactic is “writing to market”, an approach I’m not too keen on. Feels too much like a popularity contest, and pandering isn’t really in my veins.

The good news is that royalty rates for ebooks are still at 70% at most of the major retailers. And the gatekeepers are gone, so we’re still free to write and publish whatever we like. These two factors alone are reason enough to celebrate. If one can still manage to sell books that people want to read, the profit margin continues to favor writers. That’s a big deal.

This is just the state of publishing today, for better or worse. Some writers are killing it in this new market, many are not. It’s always been a lottery to some extent. The world doesn’t owe anybody a living, myself included. And while things might not be easy, I find it’s much better to face reality for what it truly is, not what we’d like it to be.

Every year I reassess my writing business and writing life. Since 2015 I’ve been focused primarily on production. Writing more books. Writing better books. Streamlining the revision, editing, and proofreading processes. Reducing production costs so that I can actually afford to release the books I write without losing my ass on them.

Two years later, that effort has born fruit. My writing is better. I’m WAY more productive now. My books turn a profit, albeit small. I’ve experimented with a new series and I’ve grown my most lucrative series (with more growth planned). I’ve written whatever the hell I want, depending solely on my mood at the time. That’s allowed me to try new genres and to write some books I’m pretty proud of.

But high production takes its toll. Waking up at 4:30 every weekday morning to write ain’t easy, not with a full-time career, a wife and two kids, and all the normal crap that comes with being an adult. Then working weekends on editing, proofreading, covers, and promotion…it all adds up.

Succeeding at anything requires sacrifice, and with that sacrifice, one expects to see some return. So here I am at the end of 2017, looking for a way to quantify that success. Goal-oriented people like myself are always looking for ways to measure success, to show gains, to show progress. In terms of sales, it ain’t looking good for me. But after thinking on this for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been going about the notion of success all wrong.

High sales equals popularity and people tend to gauge success through popularity. Anybody who’s been to high school knows that. And anybody who’s picked up a book and seen “New York Times Bestseller!” stamped across the cover knows it too. If something is popular, it must be good, right? And if not, it must be bad. Right?

I’m not so sure of that.

For years, I bought into using popularity as a measuring stick for my own work. I got caught up in the rat race, in the idea that validation comes from outside.

I was wrong.

As I wind down 2017, I’ve been reassessing things. Over the past six years I’ve proven a lot. I’ve proven that I can produce consistently. I’ve proven that I can write books that folks tend to like (for whatever that’s worth). I’ve proven that I can work full-time as a programmer and still crank out books at a faster rate than the pros who do nothing else but write. And while I’ve gained a lot proving all this, I’ve lost sight of why I write in the first place: to have fun.

So I’ve decided to take back control. I determine success. Nobody else. And to me, success is defined by setting goals and accomplishing them while having as much fun as I can. Success is writing books I care about, books that I think are worthwhile. Books I’d like to read myself.

And to hell with the numbers and what anybody else thinks.

2018 is gonna look a lot different for me than the past couple of years. 2018 will be all about me writing for the love of the story and nothing else. If that resonates with people, great. If not, who cares? Read it or don’t. I have a lucrative day job that I really like, and that affords me the luxury of writing whatever the hell I want, whenever I want to write it. And that truly is a luxury. I don’t have to write something I hate for money and I don’t have to chase numbers for validation. And I don’t have to crank out a novel per month unless I want to.

I’m looking forward to next year more than I have any before it. It’s a wide open road for me.

And that’s just the way I like it.

2016 Year End Wrap-Up

Well, it’s that time of year again, the time to look back on what’s done and look forward to the year to come. Poetic enough, I suppose, although 2016 was anything but pretty.

Looking back at my year-end post from 2015, I had high hopes for 2016. I’d planned on writing a half-million words, but instead I came up short at just over a quarter million. All in all, not a bad way to fail, but that’s still only 50% of my goal.

What happened? The first distraction came with my day job. The company I worked for was sold and that didn’t work out well for me, so I found myself back on the job market for the first time in nine years. It was a lot of stress and a big distraction. I have a new job now that’s going pretty well, so that distraction is gone.

The second problem was not having a good system in place to edit and proofread the work after I completed a first draft. After adopting Chris Fox’s sprinting technique, I started producing new words faster than I could proof them. As a result, I got way behind and sacrificed a lot of time writing new words in order to get caught up. I now have a good end-to-end system in place for proofing and publishing those manuscripts, so that bottleneck is gone too.

And thirdly, I let self-doubt cloud my creativity and I floundered for a while trying to get inspired to work on projects. Combined with the work problems, this stopped me cold.

Combined, these distractions cost me about a quarter million words.

That said, I did use this down time to work on other book-related tasks. I created paperback editions for all my novels, something I’d been way behind on. Now all my novels in eBook format also have paperback counterparts. In doing so, I streamlined the process, allowing me to release books in both paper and eBook at the same time going forward.

I also revamped my website, brianjjarrett.com, improving the aesthetics, simplifying the navigation, and reorganizing the content. It’s much improved now and I’m very proud of it.

So while I might have missed out on getting a few new books to market, at least I didn’t let the time go to to waste. I have something tangible to show for those hours and my business is further ahead than it was last year.

I published five new books this year so far, with one more coming out at the end of this month. I’m ecstatic about that. I completed all the major projects I’d planned on. So while a lot of bad things happened in 2016, I still came out of it with something to show for it.

So what’s in store for 2017?

I have a half-finished “creature feature” novel called Kryptos that should see the light of day next year.

I also have a completed Badlands novel manuscript written and in need of only an edit. I plan to release that one before 2017 year’s end. Speaking of Badlands, I think there’s more to come in this story world. I plan to flesh out some of those ideas by the end of next year. Stay tuned.

I started a few projects in 2016 that I plan to finish up next year: a crime novel, a short story collection, and a zombie book. Look for at least one more Tom Miller book too.

I have a vague idea for a book centered around dreams and perceptions of reality. I feel like that one will make it into the 2017 release schedule.

And then there’s a secret project that I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Ambitious? Sure, but doable, I think. Mostly because I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work and how to avoid the latter while focusing on the former. Will I hit a half-million words in 2017? Hard to say, but I feel more prepared this time around.

Either way, I’m glad 2016 is nearly behind me. I’m super excited about 2017. I feel like it’s going to be a fantastic year. I hope you guys come along for the ride.

November Has Promise

At the end of September, I thought I’d be super productive in October.

Turns out, not so much.

I suppose I might have been a little too optimistic. I hadn’t even really started the new job (meaning I hadn’t been deployed to the client site) and, frankly, I was still upset over what happened to cause me to leave my old job.

In other words, I wasn’t ready.

But now here I am, more than a month on-site at the client and a month further removed from the turmoil of work. The new gig isn’t bad so far and is starting to feel kinda familiar. It’s stable, so that’s helped me get into the right headspace, I think.

Toward the end of October, I buckled down and got myself back into the writing routine. My optimism is better and with the distractions mostly gone, I started pumping out some words. I found myself disinterested in the novel I was writing, so I put it on hold. I’ll finish Kryptos next year (I haven’t abandoned the novel and still want to finish it), but for now, I felt like I needed something different on which to focus my attention.

Around this time last year, I finished a book called Yesterday In Black. It was the first book in a planned novella series about a man who lost his family to a serial killer and sort of stumbles into a new line of work as a private eye, hunting down killers. Each book would feature Tom searching for a killer, all the while hunting for the man who killed his family.

I dug the book and it’s gotten good feedback from those who’ve read it, but sales were lackluster. I suppose I took that as a sign the series wasn’t worth my focus, so I put the second book on hold.

Now, however, I think that a series needs to have my buy-in before readers feel confident buying-in themselves. In other words, if I can’t write three or four of these then why is a reader going to think that I’ll ever finish the series? One of the worst things about a series is when it never resolves due to a premature end (remember Deadwood?)

So…I’ve been working every morning on the new book since the first of the month, and it’s coming along nicely (sitting at around 10% complete right now). It’s called I Am the Darkness and I’m on track to finish the manuscript by the end of November. That means it’s possible that I could publish it before Christmas. We’ll see how that goes. Either way, I’m planning on writing at least two or three more of these books to prove my commitment to the series and to give it a solid base on which to grow. Since these books are shorter (half the size of a novel), I can turn them around a lot faster than a novel. I can sell them a little cheaper too.

Now that I’m “back in the saddle”, so to speak, I have a lot of plans for 2017. More Tom Miller books, more horror, some crime thrillers, and possibly more Badlands books. Ambitious, maybe, but I’m looking forward to telling more stories. Stay tuned.

Renewed Focus

I’d hoped that September would see me getting back into the swing of things, but it seems that I’m not quite back in the saddle. I’m about halfway through my work in progress, but things have stalled due to my inability to focus on the fiction writing.

In my defense, it’s been a hell of a time this year for me. If you didn’t know, I’m a full-time programmer (that’s my day job) and a part-time fiction writer. That’s actually more common than many people think; most traditionally-published midlist writers with New York contracts are part-time writers too. Only the big names can do it full-time (or those with a working spouse). Aside from the best sellers, most midlisters get shitty contracts and if their books don’t break out, they’re soon forgotten.

Anyway, the company for whom I worked almost nine years was sold back in December of last year. We were in a state of limbo while the company that bought us planned for their next acquisition, but we stayed busy on stuff and my writing wasn’t really affected.

And then in June of this year, the company made their next acquisition.

That’s when everything fell apart.

I won’t drag out the dirty laundry here, but suffice to say that things didn’t go as I’d hoped they would. We lost control of everything we’d worked so hard over the years to build. It took only a few months to destroy what we’d spent years creating, but during those few months, I just didn’t have the ability to focus on the fiction. I had my future to sort out, and that just sucked away all my attention and sapped my creative energy.

Eventually, I decided I had to find a new job, which also sucked away my time and energy.  Summer rolled in, so that meant doing a ton of stuff with my family. And once I found the new job, there’s the adjustment period to contend with (which is where I am now). Plus, we spent almost a week in Chicago this month, further taking me out of “the zone”.

So here I am now, the turmoil of the old job and having to leave some of my favorite people in the world behind me, the first week of my new job behind me, and the start of a new life chapter in front of me. That’s put me in a great position, however, because with all that job crap in the past, I can start to settle into a new norm. I’ve been writing long enough now to know that I’m the type of person who creates better when life is stable, and with this new stability will come the opportunity to put my focus back on the fiction.

What does that mean to you? First off, it means that I’ll be finishing the current work in progress soon. I figure it’ll be done by the end of October, should life continue to cooperate. The new book, Kryptos, should be published before Christmas.

Second, I’ll have the opportunity to start a new project on the heels of Kryptos. Not sure what that’s gonna be just yet, but I have some ideas in mind. Once I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

The good news is that I’ve published five new books already this year, so it’s not like I haven’t done anything. Hopefully, that’s enough to tide you over until the next book comes out.

I’m looking forward to getting back to the fiction again. Maybe the time away will turn out to be beneficial, allowing me to come back fresh and ready. Either way, I should have a much different update by the end of next month. Stay tuned.

A Year of Sprinting

I’ve been using Chris Fox’s technique of sprints for about a year now, and the results are pretty impressive. Since August of last year, I’ve published five books with another unpublished manuscript waiting in the wings. I’m a quarter of the way through a new manuscript that I’ll publish before year’s end too. Plus I have a bunch of finished short stories that I’m gathering up for release sometime down the road; once I have enough to put into a collection.

I’ve written more than 380,000 new words since I started. Compare that with my old rate of production, which netted me around 80,000 words annually. Maybe 100,000 words on a good year.

That’s a huge productivity increase.

But sprints are only half of the story. I also adopted Dean Wesley Smith’s method of “cycling” and not rewriting which allowed me time to edit, proofread, and publish all those words.

I’ve had a ton of fun writing all these books this year, and I’ve learned a lot by doing. I even crossed the million word written mark, a huge achievement for me.

I’m looking forward to another great year of writing even more books. Hopefully, you’ll come along with me for the ride.

Self-Doubt

 

We all know that self-doubt will kill your creativity and your productivity faster than just about anything else. To get books finished and launched into the world, writers need to get past their self-doubt.

One technique that some writers use is to imagine their self-doubt like a troll that sits in the corner and says awful things. This troll can’t die, and it can’t escape your head. The idea is to beat that troll down until he’s barely a whisper, or withhold food and keep him on the brink of starvation; too weak and tired to talk shit. In other words, don’t feed the troll.

I subscribed to this philosophy for a long time, until I started to think about it differently. I still see the nagging self-doubt troll in the corner, no doubt, but I began digging into why he says the shit that he says. Nobody does anything without a reason; not even imaginary trolls trapped in your head.

Eventually, I figured it out. The troll isn’t your enemy.

He’s your friend.

He tells you that you’re not good enough. He says you’ll fail. He says that you’re not smart enough. He says you’re a hack.

He does this because he’s afraid for you.

Think about it. What if you try and fail? What if people write bad reviews about you? What if people think you’re stupid or untalented? What if people don’t like you? All these things are risks when you put yourself out there for others to see–and judge.

He’s trying to protect you by dissuading you from taking risks that might cause harm. Remember, he’s stuck in your head with nowhere to go. He can’t die, not until you die. So whatever you go through, he does too. He takes the punches right alongside you.

He’s not your enemy. He’s actually your best friend, but his communication skills are lacking. He’s blunt. He’s rude. He’s childish. He’s impudent. He’s crass.

Hell, he’s scared all the time; what else do you expect?

So instead of beating him down the next time he starts his shit, maybe you should console him. Pat him on his bumpy little troll head and tell him that everything is okay. Tell him that you appreciate his concern, but you got this. Tell him that if he just chills out and sits quietly, the storm will pass and everything will be okay again. You’ll take the risks and keep him safe.

Like a fussy baby, once he’s calm he’ll shut up. He’ll go back to whispering in the corner, a soft murmur that you’ll ignore while you get things done.

Once you empathize with him, you’ll understand that his words are a misguided effort to keep the both of you safe. Ultimately, instead of feeling resentment toward him, you’ll feel pity.

And as far as feelings go, resentment is a whole lot more expensive to maintain than pity.

Productivity Boost

Now that I seem to have gotten my mojo back, the words are flowing again and I’m back on track with my quotas. While I’m happy to be back in the saddle, I’ve been thinking about my current rate of production.

Currently, I produce about 40,000 words per month and I’ve been doing it for almost a year. I write for two, thirty-minute sprints each day. That nets me about 1,400 words per day, on average.

I started thinking about how I might improve upon that while still avoiding burnout. I landed on the idea of adding a half-sprint (15 minutes) to each day.

Look at the numbers: Take 1,400 words per hour, divide it by 4 and you get 350 words. Now, take 350 words and multiply that by 365 days; that’s more than 127k words per year, just by adding a single 15-minute sprint to the daily quota.

Even adjusting it down to say, 250 extra words then multiplying that by 300 days (assuming I have some off days) that’s more than 100k words by year’s end.

That’s more than enough words for an entire novel.

Do the math…it’s not about speed. It’s about consistency. Fifteen minutes a day nets me an extra novel per year and without so much extra work that it’ll burn me out (I’m a full-time programmer with a wife and kids, so I have to watch my time closely). But fifteen minutes? It’s a no-brainer. I started today and I got my extra sprint in easily.

So if you like my books, you’re in luck; there’ll now be an extra one for you each year.

Short Stories, Distractions, and More

Summer has been anything but relaxing for me. I thought I’d be able to keep up my writing streak and maintain my high levels of productivity, but I’ve dwindled down to about half of where I was during the winter months. So instead of 40,000 words per month, I’m writing about 20,000 words per month. I suppose some might still consider that a success, but in context, well…not so much.

But life intrudes. My day job hasn’t been so stable for me these days and that seems to have intruded on the serene little writing happy place I’d carved out for myself late last year/early this year. I think we all need to remember that life isn’t going to cooperate with our wishes and desires all the time and that distractions and tumult just has to be weathered like a storm. You batten down the hatches, hunker down and do the best you can until it passes.

That said, I have still made some progress. I finished Devil Breed a couple of weeks back. It clocked in around at around 200 pages or so and I like where it went. It still needs some editing and a final read, but I’m going to try to get it out before the end of August. Looking back, in the last ten months I’ve published five novels, so I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. 🙂

Outside of Devil Breed, I’m now caught up on all but one of my completed manuscripts. They’ve gone through their edits and have been released out into the wild to fend for themselves. Only a single book remains; a little novel called Vengeance In the Badlands, which I’m still trying to figure out what to do with. I’m not sure that I’m happy with it, so I’ve been sitting on it until I make some time to read it again and make a decision as to its fate. It’d be nice to have another book for sale, but I don’t want to rush it or publish something that’s not up to standards. I’ll probably make a decision by the end of the year, one way or another, but for now I’m just going to let it sit.

Since finishing Devil Breed, I’ve started two novels and ended up stalled out after only a few chapters. I think the stress of my day job and the distractions of summer have taken their toll. I also let self-doubt catch up to me again, which slowed me down a lot. And if I’m being honest, I also made the mistake of focusing too much on sales and not enough on the fun of telling stories. When it becomes about the money, I know I’ve gone off the rails somewhere.

That said, it’s time to refocus. June is gone. July is now upon us, bringing with it a blank slate and ample opportunity to get back in the saddle. With summer distractions and day job instability, it’s going to continue to be difficult to focus on a novel. So I’ve decided that instead of spending the next two months on a new novel, I’ll instead spend it writing short stories. By their very nature, they don’t require marathon-like focus and dedication, allowing me some latitude to deal with the other stuff going on for me right now. I just don’t want to lose momentum and this keeps me writing. And at the end of the summer, I’ll have another book for you once I gather all these stories into a single collection.

So with renewed focus and dedication, I should have a novel out to you by summer’s end, followed by a whole bunch of short stories. After that, who knows? I choose projects on a whim, so I couldn’t tell you what kind of mood I’ll be in after summer is over. I do, however, plan to be working on something. Until then, I’ve given you plenty to read, so check out my stuff and see if you find something you like.

A Milestone Day

I had a milestone day yesterday:

 

 

  • 100,000 new words written in 2016
  • 300,000 new words written since adopting Chris Fox’s “sprinting” method
  • 1,000,000 new words written since I started writing in 1992

That last number is 1 million, by the way; total word count since my very first short story ever written.

Time to get started on the next million words. 🙂

Weekly Digest, Episode 6

  • 1/31: 179 words
  • 2/1: 675 words
  • 2/2: 1,172 words
  • 2/3: 1,643 words
  • 2/4: 1,627 words
  • 2/5: 1,513 words
  • 2/6: 552 words
  • Weekly Total: 7,361 words

I’ll add in some other stats that might be useful if you’re looking for some inspiration to get your word counts up. Since the beginning of the year, I’ve written 45,191 words. Since I started using Chris Fox’s sprinting method back in August, I’ve written 245,446 words.

And as of 2/6, my total lifetime fiction words written sits at 946,065.

That last number is important because a million words is typically touted as kind of a magic number. In other words, many writers claim they started to really hit their stride at this point. As I approach my tenth novel and a million words, I’m feeling it too. I think I’m telling some of the best stories I ever have, in my own voice and with a confidence I didn’t have before.

As of 2/6 I’ve written for 81 days without a miss. You’ll notice above that on 1/31 I only wrote 179 words; that’s the day I spent nine hours revising Badlands #3. I did a fifteen-minute sprint that day on new words solely to keep the streak going. Streaks are like that; once you get one started you don’t want to break it.

Lately, I’m averaging about 1,500 words per hour and roughly 1,400 words per day. My weird western brought my average down since it seemed to take longer to write. Not sure why. My average speed is coming back up again on this new book, even without an outline. No two books are ever the same experience, so I suppose there’ll be some variance across them.

Familiar Lies, the new murder mystery I’m currently writing, is chugging right along. I’ve been working on it for 29 days now and expect to finish on time. And now that I’m proofreading as I go, I won’t have to revise the entire manuscript after the last scene is written. That’s been another game changer for me. Most I’ll do is read it one time through, full speed, before it goes off to the editor. That’s easy.

I’m still working without an outline and learning exactly what happened right alongside the protagonist. Will I go back to using outlines on future books? I don’t know. I think maybe I needed them earlier in the game, when I wasn’t confident I could finish a story. I don’t know that I need an outline as a crutch anymore. I suppose I think of outlines these days as tools that I might use, but don’t have to use.

Good week. I’ll be back after this week is over to tell you how it went.