When Your Job Is Not A Day Job

Ever since I published my first novel in 2011, business colleagues have asked if they could give my number to other professionals who are writing novels. Others have contacted me because they've recently started or finished a book and want to hear from someone like them about the writing and publishing process.

Having another career in addition to writing is wonderful in many ways. It can mean we're doing work that's mentally engaging where we meet interesting people and, hopefully, earn a fairly good living. But that same career can also make it a challenge to write, publish, and–if that's part of your goal–sell your work.

If you sometimes feel it will take forever to finish your novel or you can't imagine when you can squeeze in time to send out query letters or go through the self-publishing process once you do finish it, you're not alone. Advice to “write during your lunch hour” doesn’t help if your typical lunch is 10 minutes eating at your desk while reading trade publications or answering email.

So you know it's not just you, below are some of the downsides for writers who also have another career or profession. But I've also listed the upsides. Yes, there are upsides!

The Challenges

If you write as a second or additional career, you're more likely than other writers to:

  • Experience significant demands from your first profession, including ethical obligations. One advantage of a traditional day job, such as working as a data processor, telemarketer, or waiter, is that generally when you punch out for the day, you’re done. When I worked as a cashier, if I didn’t want overtime, usually someone else did. As a lawyer, if a client calls last minute or a court enters a ruling that requires a quick response, I need to take care of it. Any plans I had to spend that evening or weekend polishing my chapters for an editor, researching where to schedule ads for an upcoming promotion, or being with family or friends, need to be put aside.

While that’s part of what makes a career more interesting than a day job, it also makes it much harder to set a firm date by which to finish or publish a novel, to send out a certain number of query letters a week, or to regularly post on social media.

  • Have an unpredictable schedule from day to day, week to week, and month to month. This makes it harder to write at the same time each day or the same day or days each week, which in turn makes it harder to get into a writing habit or to make time for marketing or publishing. (In future posts, I'll address some ways to track your progress and establish a writing a habit, despite that writing every day at a certain time may not be possible.)
  • Think of “books” only as printed books and focus on bookstores as the best sales outlets. While a love for and familiarity with paper books can mean you’ll be more motivated to sell paperbacks when many other writers are ignoring them, it also means you may overlook the sales potential of ebooks and audiobooks, as well as overlook the necessity of an on-line presence. I sell the most novels in ebook format, then in Audiobook format, than in paperback. If I'd kept my view of books as paper books, I doubt I'd have sold 10,000 copies of The Awakening to date.
  • Have a limited view of what “professional” means and how it looks. Conforming with certain standards for appearing professional is great when it comes to presenting yourself. You know how to dress and behave in a professional way and you understand why you should have well-written marketing materials free of typographical errors.

As I talked about in Is This Blog For You?, though, unfortunately, this view also may cause you to dismiss advice from those who don’t fit your image of a successful business person. I almost skipped a free on-line seminar I’d signed up for when I saw the first two minutes of the initial video presentation. The presenter wore jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt, and he was sitting at a computer desk in his bedroom, his electric guitar leaned against the bed behind him. (The presentation was not about music.) The decor also suggested the bedroom was in his parents’ house. As someone who takes a lot of care in what I wear to court, to teach, or to meet with a client, my gut reaction was that this wasn’t someone who took himself or his presentation seriously, so why should I devote time to his talk or to any part of a seminar that would use him as the headliner?

To my surprise, I learned quite a bit from him about writing good advertising copy, and I learned from the other presenters, too. All of which I would have missed had I rejected him based on my view of how a professional looks and acts.

The Pluses

As a writer with another career, you're also more likely to:

  • Have a professional network from your first career or profession. Knowing about another career from first-hand experience and interacting with professionals in other careers gives you a wealth of plot material. It also gives you a lot of information about various types of jobs. Other writers can get that by researching or interviewing people, but you already have it in your head. Which means you won't ever need to be that writer whose main characters are always writers. (Something that always annoys me, unless it's Stephen Kind doing it. Somehow, he makes it work.) That network also expands the number of people who might help you spread the word when you publish.
  • Have extensive knowledge of your field and/or technical expertise. Knowledge gained through your first career can also provide a foundation for your novels. Readers love getting the inside view of a profession or industry. Authors like Scott Turow and John Grisham used their experiences as lawyers to create exciting novels and sparked a new genre, the legal thriller.

Even if you don't write about your profession, the skills you learn with it can be helpful. When I started writing The Awakening series, I was working so many hours as a lawyer that the last thing I wanted to was to write about law. But my research, writing, grammar, time-management, and client service skills aided me in plotting, finishing, and marketing the books. I also tapped into professional contacts who were medical doctors, probate lawyers, and former police detectives to flesh out details of the obstacles my main character faced.

  • Have more money than time. While not everyone with a first career or profession makes a lot of money, odds are you earn more than someone working retail or punching a clock. This can also be a challenge (see above), as you're probably working more than 40 hours a week. But it does give you a certain flexibility. You can buy time by paying others to do things that otherwise take up your writing time, such as housecleaning. You can also pay for a class run by a skilled, published author or pay a reputable story editor to go through your manuscript. If you choose to self-publish, you'll probably be able to afford a professionally-designed cover, which will increase the chances of readers buying your book.
 The Big Picture

Of course there are differences among those of us who juggle multiple careers, and no advice is one-size-fits-all. What worked for one author, regardless of her or his background or other career, to sell a thousand copies may do nothing for another writer, and may not even work for the same author a year later.

The publishing industry is changing rapidly, and it’s an exciting time to be part of it. You belong to a long tradition of writers with other careers that includes William Carlos Williams (doctor), Lewis Carrol (mathematician, photographer and teacher), and Virginia Woolf (publisher). Overall, in my view, your first career or profession on balance helps your writing, despite that you many not be able to maintain the same production schedule as someone who works a 9-5 job or writes full time.

As we go forward together, I hope some of what I’ve learned—and what I keep learning—as I juggle the roles of author, attorney, and adjunct professor will save you time and trouble and make your writing life happier and more successful.

Until Friday,

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 3: Money

Mary Higgins Clark was paid a $64 million advance for a five-book deal. The average advance for a first novel, however, is generally between $5,000 to $15,000. Most novelists, including published ones, don’t make a living writing. They supplement with other work, often as teachers of writing, speakers, editors, or non-fiction writers. Others write on the side and earn most of their money in another profession.

In Do You Need A Publisher (Part 1), I talked about the factors that might affect whether you pursue a traditional publishing deal or publish your work yourself. Those factors include:

  • a desire for prestige and recognition, which I talked about last week
  •  a desire to earn money
  • a desire for control over your work
  • a desire to run a business, and
  • what type of book you’re writing

You can make money no matter how you publish, but here are some differences in what you're likely to earn and how it may affect your career:

The Big 5 Publishers

The authors who make the most money up front are the household names, such as Mary Higgins Clark, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King. Most authors in this league have been writing and selling novels for decades, but sometimes a debut novel will be bought for a six or seven figure advance. The Big 5 are the publishers that can pay these types of advances. An advance means the author is paid before the book is published. If the book earns enough in royalties to repay the advance, the author is then paid royalties as well. The upsides of this type of deal are obvious. Before the book goes to press, you have a good chunk of money in your pocket.

On the downside, the need for the book to earn back the advance is a lot of pressure. If it doesn't happen, that may tank the chances of a contract for later books. More significant for most new writers is that the odds against landing a deal with a large publisher are near zero. First, you’ll need to spend time and effort trying to find a literary agent to represent you before the Big 5 will consider your work. Second, even through literary agents, the Big 5 most often enter contracts with established authors.

Given the potential large payoff, though, if you think your book will fit one of these publishers, don’t be dissuaded by the odds. Not only is there a shot at a large advance and the publicity and marketing that comes with it, much of what you do to pursue your goal will help you if you later decide to try another route. For instance, crafting a compelling query letter to agents can also help you write queries to publishers or write marketing copy if you self-publish.

Small and medium-sized publishers

Small to medium-sized publishers usually offer advances between a few thousand dollars and $45,000, though some very small presses may offer no advance. The financial upsides include possible up front money and the fact that the publisher pays the publishing costs, such as cover art and editing. The publisher also may help market and publicize the book, and most bookstores are more willing to carry a traditionally-published book than a self-published one.

The downsides include that the author has limited or no control over many factors that affect a book’s sales, such as the quality of cover art, editorial services, marketing copy, where and when the book is advertised, and the price. Also, the size of the advance usually matches the marketing budget. A $5,000 marketing budget won't go very far, and you'll likely have lost control of your work and rights that might help you earn more money.

One of my income streams is from the audiobook editions of the first three books in my Awakening series. I did a royalty-share deal with the producer/narrators, and the books were already written, so creating the audiobooks was a no brainer. If you sign a contract granting those rights to a publisher, though, you no longer have that option, and the publisher may not be obligated to produce audiobooks. Finally, royalties from a publisher range from 10-25% of the purchase price, while when you self-publish, your royalties range from 30-70% of the book's price.

Publishers that charge the author/vanity presses

If the fee is reasonable and you'd rather spend money than invest time in publishing your own work, you might be the lucky one-in-a-million author able to earn money by paying a company to publish. You need to consider, though, how much you're paying compared to how many books you're likely to sell, keeping in mind that these types of companies, no matter what they say about marketing or publicity, rarely do much to sell your book. Publishers that pay the author an advance and hope to earn it back and then some through book sales have an incentive to see that your book sells. Companies you pay do not. They are making money off of you.

For that reason, in my view, it's a very long shot that you'll make money paying a company to publish your work. You're also risking paying for services that will be inferior to what you could have contracted for yourself. The only time I suggest these types of companies is if:

(a) the fee is not that much more than you would spend if you found the services you need yourself;

(b) you get a referral from someone whose books are selling well and who is earning more than she or he spent;

(c) the person who referred you is selling the same type of book you wrote; and

(d) that author’s books are well-edited (no typos, good story arc) and have professional-looking covers that fit the books' genre.

Independent/Self-Publishing

Some authors earn an excellent living by publishing multiple books themselves, by self-publishing and later being picked up by traditional publishers (as happened with The Martian), or by some combination of the two. A few authors that appear to have done quite well self-publishing include Hugh Howey, J.F. Penn, and Melissa Foster. Others earn enough to write full-time or have a decent side stream of income. Others, usually those who publish only one or two books and devote little time or money to marketing, spend more on self-publishing than they earn.

On the upside, as noted, indies earn a much larger share of royalties, particularly on ebooks, than do traditionally-published authors. That means you can generally price your books lower to gain readers while earning the same amount in royalties or more per book than traditional authors do. Indies also retain all their rights and have control over the covers, marketing, editing, etc.

The downside of indie publishing is that the indie must pay the publication costs, which range anywhere from zero (as all aspects can be handled by the author) to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars. In addition, if you plan to market your book through paid advertising, you pay for that as well.

The Short Version

To pull this all together, the Big 5 offer the biggest potential for large advances and stellar advertising and marketing, indie/self-publishing offers great potential earnings if you’re in it for the long haul, and the likely financial rewards of publishing with small/medium publishers vary widely depending upon the advance offered and the publisher’s marketing budget. If you publish with a small or medium-sized publisher or you self-publish, a lot of your success will depend on how much time, effort, and sometimes money you are personally willing to invest. As for publishers who charge you, there may be some authors out there who made money that way, but in my opinion, it’s a buyer-beware proposition.

Stay tuned for posts on the other factors that go into choosing a publishing path.

Until then, best wishes for a productive, peaceful week.

L. M. Lilly

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 2: Prestige And Recognition

One factor, maybe the most important one, in deciding whether to seek a publisher or to self-publish is what you want out of writing. (For a discussion of types of publishers, see last week’s post.) If your goal is to make a living writing, how much money each method is likely to generate might matter most. But even if that is your goal, prestige or recognition is almost always part of the motivation.

Most of us who write, especially if we’re over forty, dreamed when we started out about book signings, being interviewed on Oprah or C-SPAN, or winning awards. It’s a great feeling to publish a book and be recognized for it or simply be able to see it on a bookshelf. So let’s start with talking about prestige and recognition. Don’t worry, I’ll get to money next week.

Prestige and Mahogany Desks

John Gardner once said, in his book On Becoming A Novelist, that there’s nothing less prestigious than being an unpublished novelist. Today he might substitute “self-published” or “independently-published.” While publishing your own work is becoming more accepted, if you opt to do so, you’ll still need to be prepared for the people—whether or not they’ve ever written a word of fiction—who will look down their noses at you.

Others simply won’t see you as a “real” writer. A colleague once told me how much she’d liked The Awakening, which she’d borrowed from a friend. When my second book in the series came out, she couldn’t make it to the book release party, but she asked me to bring a copy to her office. When I handed it to her, she said, “I don’t have to pay for this, do I?” Had I been published by Random House, my guess is she wouldn’t have asked that.

This view that a traditionally-published novel has more value or that it’s more impressive to be a traditionally-published author is known in the indie world as the Mahogany Desk Syndrome. Many see it as nothing more than a form of snobbishness. It also reflects the fact that when a company unrelated to you chooses to publish your work, it shows the world that someone other than you is willing to put money, time, and effort behind your writing.

My own mahogany desk and bulletin board–the old fashioned kind.

I understand those who feel that way, but I personally am more impressed by people who stand behind their own work. When I left a large law firm to start my own practice, people congratulated me on being an entrepreneur and having great confidence. I view publishing my own work the same way.

Awards and Best Seller Lists

Many literary awards, including some for genre fiction, are open only to novels published by traditional publishers. For instance, self-published books are not eligible for the Edgar Award, which recognizes mysteries. The Man Booker award, a literary fiction prize, also is not open to self-published books. This is starting to change, however. The Deep, a self-published novel by Michaelbrent Collings, was nominated for a Bram Stoker award in 2015. And in researching this article, I learned that self-published books, so long as they are available in print, can be nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.

Many awards exist that are specifically-targeted to indie/self-published authors. (A few are listed in this Publishers Weekly article. ) Being able to say your book is award-winning is a plus, but there is definitely a Buyer Beware factor, as some indie awards have hefty entry fees.

As to Best Seller lists, both the USA Today and New York Times best seller lists are open to both traditionally and independently published works. In addition, Amazon continuously lists the Top 100 books overall and in numerous categories regardless of publisher. The Top 100 lists update hourly. Getting your book into the Top 20 of any category helps sales because it means people see your book. Being in the Top 100 of all the books is a huge sales boost. As far as prestige, though, because the lists update hourly and it takes fewer sales to qualify, they don’t have the cache of the USA Today or New York Times list.

Speaking Engagements

One novelist I met at a conference, who was also a former attorney, said in-person events were the main plus of having had his novel published by a small publisher. While he didn’t have much of a marketing budget, his publicist got him onto panels of traditionally-published authors at fan and reader conferences.

Most speaking opportunities I’ve seen that are open to indie authors are limited to conferences specifically directed at writers interested in self-publishing, not at readers. Likewise, when I joined other self-published authors at a local book expo, the traditional publishers were on the first floor and the indie authors were relegated to the twelfth. There were no signs posted telling attendees that there were more books on the twelfth floor, so there was almost no foot traffic.

There are exceptions, of course. The Martian started as self-published, and I’m certain Andy Weir is welcome to speak anywhere he likes.

What Readers Think

Most readers don’t care how a book is published. Few people check the publisher when they buy a book on-line or in the bookstore. They look at the cover, the summary, and the first page or so. Also, the more books you publish, the less people scoff. Those indie authors who hit the USA Today or New York Times best seller lists also add a stamp of approval to their books and careers.

At the same time, if a book is free or 99 cents–both strategies indie authors employ to boost visibility and sales of other books in their catalogues–or the cover looks unprofessional, a reader may hesitate. A book from almost any traditional publisher has been edited and proofread by professionals, which is not true of all self-published books, so readers may have had a bad experience and be skeptical of indie publishing. I’m convinced that’s why one 5-star review of The Awakening after I started offering it free said, “I actually liked this book,” as if the reader were quite surprised. A professional cover and well written and edited book summaries and sample chapters will usually override any reader concern about your work, though.

In short, my view is that if what matters most to you is prestige and being recognized by peers as an author, some type of publisher, be it small, medium, or Big 5, is at least somewhat more likely to provide that. All the same, if you prefer to self-publish, fear not. The world is changing quickly, many awards are open to indie authors, and many people no longer make a distinction between one type of publishing and another. In fact, I predict that in another five years, how you publish will make no difference at all.

Best wishes for a productive and not-too-stressful week.

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Please share your views in the comments, as a reader or writer, of indie versus traditional publishing.

Do You Need A Publisher, Part 1: 5 Types Of Publishing

If you’re writing or have written a book, one of your first questions probably is whether you need to find a publisher to sell it. Fifteen or twenty years ago, most writers never asked this question. The only workable way to sell was if an established print publisher accepted your work.

That's because there were no ereaders or tablets, and a lot of people (including me) had a PC, not a laptop. No one wanted to curl up with a PC to read by the fire. While you could pay a printer to print your book, you usually had to buy hundreds or thousands of copies, which was expensive, and most of them sat in your basement and/or ended in a landfill.

Also, there simply was no good way to let people know your book was for sale. After you sold five copies to friends and family—or a hundred copies if you had a lot of friends and family—that was it. That’s why this type of publishing was often referred to as vanity publishing. You spent a lot of money so you could say you’d written and published a book, but you were lucky if a handful of people read it.

Now, with e-readers and print-on-demand paperbacks, there’s no need to order a thousand copies, or any copies, in advance. Once the initial costs, such as cover and editing, are paid for, an ebook costs you nothing to deliver. For print-on-demand, the book is printed when the reader buys it, and the author and printer share the dollars earned, so there’s no need spend a lot up front. More important, the Internet, social media, email, and other forms of communication allow authors to reach and sell to readers directly.

So the question is not so much Do you need a publisher—you don’t—but Are you better off with a publisher rather than publishing yourself? That depends on a lot of factors, including:

  • What you want out of writing (money? prestige?)
  • How much control you want over your work
  • Whether you like running a business
  • What type of book you're writing

I’ll talk about each of these points in future posts. First, a little about each path to publication.

  • Large Publishers: A year after college, I finished my first novel—a young adult novel at a time when young adult, due to demographics, wasn’t a big genre. Back then, there were a lot of different publishing companies of all sizes. Since then, the publishing industry, at least at the big money end, has contracted. By July, 2013, there were only six major trade publishers.

Now, there are only the Big 5:

(1) Hachette Book Group

(2) HarperCollins

(3) Macmillan Publishers

(4) Penguin Random House and

(5) Simon and Schuster

Each has imprints. For instance, HarperCollins includes Avon Books, William Morrow, Harper Business, HarperCollinsChildrens, and many others. Getting a publishing contract with one of the Big 5 almost always requires having literary agent. Most of the books the Big 5 publish are by authors who have previously been published, often by that particular publisher, whose books have sold well.

If you get a contract with one of these publishers, you will be paid an advance on royalties, and it will probably be significant. If your book earns back the advance through sales, you’ll then be paid additional amounts for most of your book sales. If your first book doesn’t earn back the advance, you’ll probably have a  hard time getting another publishing contract.

  • Small and medium-sized publishers:  These are publishing companies that are not gigantic but that publish print books and sometimes ebooks as well. They offer a better chance at publication for a new author or for an author who has loyal readers, but who hasn’t become a household name. Some have a substantial list of authors, others publish only a handful.

Like large publishers, medium-sized and small publishers pay you an advance, though it may be $1,000 or less for small publishers. I’ve been told that the size of the advance generally equals the size of the marketing budget. So if you get a $15,000 advance, the publisher will likely put $15,000 into a marketing and sales campaign. (This is supposedly true with large publishers as well, which is a good argument for trying to obtain an agent and a contract with a publisher who is willing to pay an advance of $100,000 or more.)

One element indie/self-published authors control and are responsible for is the book cover. To the left is an audiobook cover for The Conflagration, Book 3 in my Awakening series. I just had this cover redesigned after feedback that my first cover didn't look good in thumbnail size on Amazon. 

 

 

  • Publishing services: Some companies coordinate for an author the services needed to self-publish, such as cover design, editing, and marketing copy. The companies then charge the author a flat fee up front for the package.

There also are companies that provide those services and rather than charging, take a percentage of royalties. I distinguish both these types of companies from vanity publishers because while they presumably need to make a profit or they wouldn’t be in business, they are not significantly ratcheting up the pricing over what you would spend if you contracted these services yourself.

The best way to evaluate whether you are paying mainly for coordination of services as opposed to paying a premium to say you have a publisher is to compare the total fee to what the services would cost if you contracted directly with freelancers for the same work. Also, a good place to check out companies that want to charge you to publish your work are the Watchdog Reports from the Alliance of Independent Authors.  

  • Vanity presses: These are presses and publishers who charge you significantly more to publish your work than you would pay if you contracted the services yourself. Some people in the traditional literary world view any type of self-publishing or use of publishing services as “vanity.” I think that’s a mistake, but they have a right to their view that the only “real” publishing is traditional publishing where the author pays nothing and the control is in the hands of the publisher.

Often a vanity press will make a lot of claims about how much publicity they will provide for your work. This frequently amounts to little more than posting your book on their own websites and writing a press release that will blast out to various news outlets and websites that generally have no interest in your book. Tons of people are publishing books now, so the news about that is that it's not news. Don't pay someone to send press releases.

Remember, you can publish your own work through various ebook and print platforms with no up front cost to you at all if you are willing to put in the effort to learn how. Based on that, in my view, any charge to you for a publishing package that gets into thousands of dollars is far too much.

  • Independent/Self-Publishing: A self-published or independent author handles all publishing tasks and the business of publishing either by personally undertaking these efforts or finding and paying freelancers to do them. Platforms like Kindle Direct Publishing and Kobo Writing Life allow authors to post and sell their work and do not charge anything up front for doing so. The platform makes money by taking a cut of the sales price — generally far less than a traditional publisher takes. As an indie/self-published author, you make all the decisions. The title, the cover art, the editing, and where to sell are all up to you.

Now we have a common language when talking about publishing. In future posts, I’ll talk about the pluses and minuses of each of these approaches. In the meantime, please feel free to share your experiences with any of these types of publishing in the comments section.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful new year.

L. M. Lilly

Self-Publishing Overview

This week I'm recommending the tips and news portion of the year end Sell More Books Show. It's an overview of what's been happening in publishing and self publishing over the last year. If you're new to marketing your own work or thinking of self publishing at some point, it also serves as a great introduction to both.

The Sell More Books Show podcast issues every Wednesday. Between the two of them, the hosts write and sell fiction and have extensive experience in copywriting and digital commerce. The show typically starts with listeners' answers to the previous question of the week and some ad reads for patrons of the show. I like hearing the ads because it helps me evaluate what sorts of tag lines for books do and don't catch my interest.

The meat of the show comes it two parts — tips of the week and news of the week. The former are tips from various authors and self publishers, culled from blogs and other shows, on writing and marketing. The news portion covers developments in the publishing industry as a whole, both indie and traditional publishing. The word “news” is interpreted fairly broadly, as it sometimes includes musings from authors in on-line communities that strike me more as commentary and conjecture than fact (okay, I admit it, I'm old enough to still think of news as information that's vetted and fact-checked and separate from commentary).

On my first listen of this podcast, some of the sound effects (such as burbling when there's what's called a lab segment) and the hosts' nicknames (“Jazzy Jim Kukral” and the “Bad Man Bryan Cohen”) put me off, as I thought there might not be much substance. But I find I typically listen to the entire show when I tune in, though it's often almost an hour, as there is plenty of helpful information with just enough chatting and joking to get a feel for who the hosts are.

Click here for the episode. (Scroll down half a page or so to get to the Play button.) If you want to skip the preliminaries, move the counter to 9:50 to start with the tips.

Best wishes for a good weekend and a happy, safe, and peaceful New Year.

L. M. Lilly

Three By Three: Creating A Writing Space

Whatever it looks like and however it fits with the rest of your life, it's important to have a space where you feel good and where you can write. This is especially so if you have another demanding career or profession. If you don't have a physical space set aside in your life for writing, it will be hard to make space in a figurative sense.

Two years ago I got rid of the pull-out sofa in my second bedroom and created a home office. Before that, I had a nice antique desk in that room, but it was too high for comfortable keyboarding, and the overall space was cramped. That desk is still there with a monitor on it, and my law firm laptop sits on a tray below it. (You can see it on the left side of the photo.) I have a standing writing area for my fiction writing. I also have a third desk that I moved home from my law office. That is where I sit when I'm hand-revising printed manuscripts or am grading my law students' papers.

This is the first time in my life I have had such a large area devoted to my writing. But there were pluses to my other writing spaces over the years, however small. I have had anything from one corner of the dining table, to a drafting table, to a spare room at my parents’ house.

Below are some things to think about when choosing your writing space. There are basically three choices for location: somewhere in your home, somewhere in your “other” workspace, or somewhere in public. And there are three major factors that affect how well those spaces work for you: what else you do there, who else is there, and your fiction writing work style.

What else do you do there?

If you are someone who feels the need to do laundry if it's in front of you, load the dishwasher as soon as you finished eating, or sweep the floor after every meal, first, come to my house. I will write while you do those things. Second, working at home might pose challenges for you. It's all too easy to decide to throw in a load of laundry before you start writing. It seems like it won’t take much time. But in about half an hour, you’ll need to switch it to the dryer. In another hour, you’ll need to take it out and fold it. Now if you were lucky enough to set aside two hours to write, you’ve spent about twenty minutes of it on laundry. With a little practice, you can get past this, but if you find that chores at home interrupt your writing every time, you should probably find a writing space somewhere else.

This is where writing in public is particularly helpful. The barista at Starbucks is not going to ask you to clean the cappuccino machine, and the librarian will not expect you to reshelve books. Put your phone on silent, leave books and ear buds at home, and don't connect to the Internet. There will be nothing for you to do but write.

If you have an office for your other career or profession, you may want to try writing there. (More on that below.) A few recommendations if you try it:

  • Set aside some small space in that office where you put your notes on your writing project and anything else that relates to writing. That way you won’t waste time digging it out or organizing it.
  • Unless it's impossible to do for your profession, turn off email notifications, forward your phone to voicemail, and block off the time on your calendar. (If the only way you can find time to write is to be available for emails or telephone calls, try ignoring them for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, then checking in. Odds are, you can be away for that amount of time, and if there’s no emergency, proceed for another 15 or 20 minutes.)
  • Even if you’re paid for results or tasks, not by the hour, it's probably best not to tell people at work that you are writing while you're there. They will view you as “not working” and feel free to interrupt you to chat. They also may start to imagine you’re not as attentive as you should be even if you are.
Who else is there?

If you live with other people or pets, give some thought to how that affects your writing. The obvious answer might be that you should have complete isolation and quiet. But I found that now that I have that, at least once a week or so I take my laptop or a notebook and go to a local Starbucks to write. I like the energy and noise around me. Sometimes, it actually helps me focus. There also are times when I want to write in my living room with the television on or my parakeet chirping away in his cage. (I rarely let him out while I write, as he usually jumps on the keys or bites the tip of the pen.)

Joss gives me a rare moment of peace.

Despite what I said above, if you have children, a significant other, or pets whom you’ll feel as if you are wrong to ignore no matter how much you want to write, it's better to make arrangements to be away so you can write somewhere else. Asking others to carve out writing space and time for you almost never works. It has to be a priority for you first, equal with your other work, or it will never be one for anyone else. This is why I simply don’t answer email or phone calls when I’m writing unless I have a break scheduled already.

What if your spouse also is a writer or also has work to do at home? Some couples I know both work from home. This arrangement seems most successful when the workspaces are in two separate rooms. This makes sense to me. If you like each other and enjoy each other's company, there will be a lot of temptation to pause what you're doing and chat. If you're not getting along, the negative energy will likely make it difficult to concentrate.

You may also choose to write in the workspace for your other career or profession if that’s an option. If you have an office and can shut your door when you choose and be undisturbed, and it's compatible with your work schedule, you might write for a set time, say 30 minutes a day twice a week, during your usual workday. What probably will work better, though, is to come in early or leave late. Then even if you don’t have an office, if no one else is around, you may be able to write at your desk, in an open conference room, or in the work kitchen. These types of spaces can be wonderful if they are deserted.

Public spaces can also be a great option if, as I sometimes do, you like the bustle of people around you, but you don’t want to interact. Depending upon where you live, the following can be good places:

  • a coffee shop
  • a library
  • a restaurant in off hours
  • open seating areas in a college or university
  • a park in good weather
  • the back room of a friend who owns a business
When and how do you do your best writing?

I am most productive, and feel the best, when I can set aside large chunks of time to work on a single fiction project in peace and quiet. I take periodic breaks, but I love to immerse myself in the fictional world and focus on it to the exclusion of everything else. Sometimes I do that with a lot of noise around me, and that's fine, but what I don't want are interruptions. Other people like to shift from task to task and feel antsy or frustrated when they spend hours on one project.

Temperature, sleep, and food also matter. I need to be physically warm. If I am shivering, I find it too hard to think. I also work best when I have had a lot of rest and have eaten. Some people get an edge from pushing themselves beyond fatigue and from working through meals. I just get edgy. And angry, and irritable. (So you probably don't want to come hang out with me if I have just put in a 12-hour work day.)

All of these types of factors affect where your best writing space is. If you prefer not to be interrupted, choose the place where that is least likely. As I mentioned, that may be at a public place, or it could be at your workplace before anyone else comes in or after they leave. If noise bothers you, you might need to write when you're alone, or buy a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

It also matters whether it helps you or makes it harder for you to need to go to a different place to write. It’s a lot like exercise. If you are someone who exercises more if you must go to a specific place to do so, a health club membership is a great deal. For me, a 10-minute walk to the gym means I never get there, but I roll out my yoga mat every morning at home. Likewise, I write the most when I have a nice writing space at home, despite occasionally liking to write elsewhere.

Don't worry

Whatever space you choose to write in, every once in a while, try something different. For one thing, you may not know for sure yet where you do your best work or where you feel happiest writing. It may take some experimenting. Also, as your life changes, where you prefer to write will change as well. So if you can't find the ideal place right now, don't worry about it. Pick the best place out of your options, and keep in mind that change always happens.

If you'd like to email me a photo of your writing space, send it to [email protected] and let me know if it's okay to share it.

Best wishes for a productive, not-too-stressful week.

Best,

L. M. Lilly

Self-Editing For Fiction Writers

Whether you plan to submit your writing to a publisher or agent or to publish it yourself, you need to know how to line edit your work. That goes beyond basics such as correct spelling and grammar. For your writing to be clear and strong, you'll need to use active voice most of the time, avoid repeating the same words, and replace weak verbs with strong ones, among other things.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is the best book I've ever read on how to review and edit your own writing to make it shine. It's easy to read and easy to apply the points the authors make.

Have a peaceful, wonderful weekend (and holiday if you're celebrating one).

Best,

L. M. Lilly

P.S. Even if you plan to hire an editor and proofreader to review your manuscript, you still need to know what a properly edited piece of fiction looks like. If you don't, you'll run the risk of paying a significant amount to a poor editor, only to find out after you hit publish and see reader reviews that your novel is filled with typos and grammar mistakes.

Six Ways To Get Beyond The Myth of Writer’s Block

I don't believe in writer's block. Before you tell me I'm wrong because you're suffering from it right now, let me explain.

Most of what gets labelled as “writer's block” isn't what's actually stopping you from writing.

Barring physical or mental illness or injury (which I talk about more in Writing When Injured Or Not Well), if someone pointed a gun at you and insisted you write something, anything, unless you have a death wish you'd write.

Beyond that, if ordered to at gunpoint, you'd write a short story, even if you've never written one before. It might not be a good short story. It might lack conflict, or have a cardboard cut out for a main character, or have a terrible ending or no ending at all, but you'd write it.

Likewise, if you've ever had a job you didn't like (and if you haven't, kudos to you), my guess is most workdays when you were well enough (and possibly sometimes when you weren't) you got up and went to that job anyway. You worked whether you felt like it or not, whether you were inspired or not, and whether you wished you were doing anything but going to work or not. Because you couldn't call in sick with bricklayer's block or office clerk's block or middle manager's block.

If you're reading this blog, you like writing more than you liked that job. If you could do that job despite everything else, you can write.

Dealing With The Issues Behind The Label

So what is writer's block?

It's a label that can be used for a variety of issues, making them sound insurmountable when most of them are not.

Here are six issues that once you've identified you can address so you can start (or continue) writing:

Generating an idea

You want to write a novel or a short story, but you don't know what to write about. So you sit in front of a screen or page and do nothing.

The problem here is not inability to output or write.

It's lacking enough input. You likely need to feed or nourish your creative mind or spirit.

Listen to music that you love or hate, either live or in person. Visit a museum and stare at the most compelling paintings. Walk in nature if you're usually in the city or take a train from a rural area to a city and watch the landscape change along the way. Read novels of a type you don't normally read or read a non-fiction book that catches your interest. All these things stimulate your mind. While you do any of them, don't search your mind for ideas. Just immerse yourself in the experience.

Once you've done that for a while, ideas will form.

If you still need a jumpstart, use specific writing prompts. Buy a deck of Tarot cards, choose one at random, set a timer for 15 minutes, and write about the card, or any thought that card sparks, until the time ends. Sit in silence for 10 minutes (set the timer again). Listen to every sound and let your mind wander and imagine what or who caused the sound. Make up a story to go with it. When the 10 minutes ends, write down what you imagined. You can similarly use magazine pictures, travel guides, or Instagram posts to prompt your writing. Or choose the first line from a favorite book and write your own story with that start.

Too many ideas

Sometimes we have so many ideas it's hard to pick one, which again leads to staring blankly at a screen.

Make a list of your ideas. If there are several you already think would make good stories, pick one at random, set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes (yes, I love timers), and write about it. That timer frees your mind because if it turns out you don't like this idea or it doesn't work, you've “wasted,” at most, 30 minutes. If you feel pretty good about this idea when you're done, next time you write, continue with it. If not, pick another and repeat.

If you have several ideas but are not sure which one will make a good story, choose the one that involves the most conflict.

As I talk about in Super Simple Story Structure: A Quick Guide To Plotting And Writing Your Novel, stories need conflict. If you main character gets everything she wants and has a lovely day, there's no story there. Your main character must want something, even if it's only a glass of lemonade, and need to overcome obstacles to get it.

If your ideas all lack conflict, try this:

Write down one of these four words: man, woman, boy, or girl. Write down an active verb like run, jump, hit, play, touch, throw, or swim. Again write down man, woman, boy, or girl. Add any necessary prepositions to create a sentence. You'll be left with a basic sentence such as “Woman slaps girl.” or “Boy runs into man.” These are almost guaranteed to generate conflict. Write for 30 minutes about that. (Remember, you don't have to love the story or the idea. This is all about getting words on a page.)

Where to start

If you have an idea for a story or novel and you can't get yourself to start writing, you're probably unsure where your story starts.

The good news is pretty much all first drafts are bad, so you can start anywhere and fix it later.

If it raises too much anxiety to do that, start wherever your main character first wants something and can't get it, even if it's as simple as wanting that glass of lemonade when the refrigerator is empty and the grocery store is closed.

Don't worry about whether there are other scenes that should come first, you can always add those in later.

Also don't worry if the lemonade turns out not to matter because the real story is about her dad never coming home from the war. The lemonade issue might stay to draw us into the piece or you might drop it. Again, the point is to get rolling. Later you can decide what you need and what you don't.

Overcoming your fears

If you have another career or job, my guess is you had to write something at some point for work. A business email, a note to a supervisor, a schedule of days you can or can't work. You probably didn't freeze up at the keyboard, so why does it happen when you try to write fiction?

Fiction is more personal than most jobs. You also may have a lot invested not just in being a writer but in being a good writer. You may fear writing something bad, your writing being rejected, or other people looking down their noses at how you spend your time.

Here's the thing. All of that will happen.

You'll write something bad. I've written bad stories, bad poems, bad novels, bad blog posts. You'll have your writing rejected. No matter what you achieve or don't with your writing, someone–probably a friend or family member–will sniff at what you did and tell you a story about a friend of a friend who is a “real writer” because he won a Pulitzer Prize. The good news is, none of that will kill you and none of it needs to stop you from writing. Don't tell anyone what you're doing and give yourself permission to write a very bad first draft that you will never ever show anyone. That's all you need to get started.

Lack of inspiration

For many people, this is the easiest part of writer's block to get past because  you don't need to be inspired to write.

When I write first drafts, I write whether I'm inspired or not. At the end, I can't pick out the passages that flowed from my fingers easily from the ones where I felt like I was trudging through molasses. I enjoyed one more than the other, but there's no quality difference. And if there were, I'd revise to improve the quality.

The best way to write regularly and not depend on inspiration is to create a routine.

If your schedule is predictable and your physical and mental health allows, pick a regular time in your week when there are few other things to distract you. Choose a small amount of time to start.

For instance, rather than aspiring to write an hour three times a week at 8 p.m., you might decide to write for half an hour Friday morning before you go to work. Then sit down at your desk for half an hour every single Friday even if all you write is “I don't know what to write. I don't know why I am sitting here.”

Do that for half an hour every Friday and you'll get into a habit. Eventually you'll start to write something that you want to keep.

If a routine time is impossible due to your schedule or your health, you can try setting a routine through triggers.

Each time you sit down and write, you might burn a scented candle, or drink a particular type of tea, or wear your red socks. Those things can trigger in your mind and spirit that it's time to write and can help you make the transition to writing from other parts of your day.

If you otherwise are able to do the things you want or need to do in life (such as going to work, caring for loved ones, reading, going to movies, etc.) and you never feel like writing, if it always feels like trudging through molasses (uphill), consider why you want to write.

Do you enjoy having a finished story or novel enough to go through that? Does being a writer have its own rewords despite not loving the process? If yes, keep those rewards fixed in your mind and trudge.

Finding time to write

There are times in life that might not be the best ones for writing a short story or a novel, or at least not for finishing them in a defined time period.

When I was working full-time and attending law school at night, I didn't write fiction. I wrote poems and journal entries during the odd few minutes here and there.

If you have a two-year-old at home and you're working full-time or also caring for an aging parent, this might not be the time to set a six-month or one-year goal of finishing a novel.

But if novels are what you love to write, you can still do that by writing what you can when you can and letting yourself be okay with finishing some unspecified time down the road. (See Writing A Novel 15 Minutes At A Time for ways to fit in small bursts of writing.)

Aside from life circumstances like the above or physical or mental health challenges, for many writers it's about finding the time, not having time.

Nobody has extra hours in the day or the week, and nobody starts out getting paid to devote hours to writing. So notice what you do with each hour of your time for a week or two. Decide what activity or activities you could skip so that you can write instead.

For instance, if you can afford it, and you currently spend two hours a week cleaning your house, pay someone else to do that while you write. If you spend half an hour a night watching the news, make a deal with a well-informed friend to tell you anything you really need to know, turn off the news, and write for that half hour.

Once you figured out what you can miss, create a schedule or goal and stick to it.

Keep in mind that if you have a cyclical worklife or a chronic physical or mental condition that affects when you are well enough to write, that schedule/goal may need to be more flexible.

You might set a goal of hours per month or word count per month (or per six months) rather than per week or per day. Or you might simply set an overall goal of finishing a novel or poem or story without a timeframe so that you can leave room for stretches of time when writing's not possible.

That's okay. Even if you don't write as much as you hoped, you'll write something.

In closing

To sum up: (1) If you're stuck, don't worry about writing something good or what will happen after you finish, just go ahead and write something bad. (2) Stories are about conflict, so start with a main character who wants something and is having trouble getting it. (3) You can always fix it later. (4) Timers are your friend.

I hope these suggestions help you get started or move forward if you've been feeling stuck. Have other questions? Feel free to add a comment or email me at [email protected]

Best wishes for a happy, productive week.

L. M. Lilly

Do You Write/Love/Read Literary or Commercial Fiction?

If you’ve ever wondered why novels are classified as literary versus genre/commercial fiction, why you love a book your friend calls “trash” or vice versa, or whether you are writing literary or popular/commercial fiction, this 10-minute Journeyman Writer episode is for you.

In this episode, my favorite writing podcast covers—in the clearest fashion I’ve ever heard or read—the distinction between genre and literary fiction. As always, host Alastair Stephens sticks to the point, is thoughtful and entertaining, and has a voice you’ll love to listen to.

You can listen at the link below or follow the instructions to download to your phone or listen on iTunes (or whatever podcast app you use).

Episode 15: Genre vs. Literature

Have a wonderful weekend.

Best,

L. M. Lilly