Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Keep writing

A couple of months ago I decided to get serious about writing. I'd just finished another day of talks for primary school kids, where I told them you only had to write 250 words per day (less than 10 minutes typing) to complete a 90,000-word first draft every 12 months.

That got me thinking about my own pitiful output over the past 12 years. I completed the first Hal Spacejock book in 2000, and the fourth in 2008. I had plenty of time for writing, and yet I managed just four novels?

Granted, when my series was picked up by a publisher in 2004, I rewrote the first three books. Even so, it's always taken me a year or two per title, and eventually I accepted I was a slow, steady writer.

Then came Hal 5, which took me almost five years to write, with four false starts along the way. I wasn't slow and steady at all, I was just slow. (Let's just ignore the fact I finished NanoWrimo six times. Each of those efforts was another Hal 5 in the making.)

So, after my talk, in which I told everyone else how to write a book a year in ten minutes a day, I thought it was about time I started listening to my own advice. I started with 250 words a day, and quickly upped it to 500. (Hey, two novels a year. Can't beat that!)

After a couple more weeks I upped it to 1000 words per day, and in that mode I started - and finished - the Hal Junior 3 first draft in the month of June. A 31,000-word novel in a month, which only needed a light edit for publication? It was like the curtains had been drawn back.

As we entered July I decided to write 1500 words per day. It was a bit tougher this month, because I was in the middle of a large programming job, I went on a week's holiday with the family in the second week of July, and I also prepared and published two novels and a short story collection in ebook and print editions - including doing all the layouts, jackets, etc.

Despite that, after 24 days my word count sits at 30,370 for the month, which is just under 1300 per day. That's almost eight Hal Spacejock novels per year, or fifteen Hal Juniors. That's not so slow, and could almost be called 'steady'.

In the old days I'd have said sure, but what about the three months of editing for each book? Fortunately, the faster I write the easier it is to keep the plot and characters fresh in my mind, and I've become ruthless about ignoring 'better ideas' and 'yes, buts ...' which involve rewriting half the novel. If it's that clever I'll save it for the next book, or the one after. I'm also writing a shorter length, which means fewer subplots to clutter things up.

So, what prompted the renewed vigour, apart from heeding my own advice? The speed of ebook publishing, that's what.

For two-three years I suspected Hal Spacejock 5 would be released, and it would sell a handful of copies to people who vaguely remembered Hal 4 from 2008. With that gloomy prognosis in mind it was hard to stay motivated. However, as sales of Hal Spacejock 1-4 continued to rise on Amazon and Smashwords, I began to realise Hal 5 might find an audience after all.

And it has - I've no idea whether it will last, but Hal 5 has pulled in $250-$300 a week in royalties since its release. A midlist author with a publishing contract and a $10,000 advance would laugh at that, until they multiplied $250 by 52. And they'd probably cry real tears when they realise I get paid monthly.

"Oh sure," you say. "But Hal 5 has just been released. Sales will drop off."

Actually, no. That's how trade publishing works - you release a title, make a splash, and a couple of months later your book has disappeared from stores. With ebooks, you go the other way. An ebook is released and sales climb as time goes by and the book makes it onto 'also bought' lists.With trade published books if you don't get buzz and instant success on release, you're almost certainly a goner. With ebooks you can take a much longer view, slowly building a career over several releases. It's a bit like bookselling used to be, before mega-chains and computerised box shufflers took over.

Can I prove the sales won't fall? No, but I have data on another of my titles. Hal 2 is outselling 'new release' Hal 5 by 10-20%, and Hal 2 has been out on Kindle for almost 12 months. Sales are still climbing, too, and all my books got a nice boost after the new release. Even if Hal 5 drops back to the sales of Hal 4 (Approx $100/week), by then I should have Hal 6 out and it all starts over again.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I'm no longer trade published? Stores weren't interested in carrying the earlier Hal books. They would have put Hal 5 on their shelves without any of the earlier titles, an insane move driven by accounting rather than smart business sense.

That's why I'm a new writer. I'm this close to being able to support my family and write full time. I can see a future, maybe just one or two years down the track, when I'll be able to sit at my computer and type my silly novels, and I'll know I'm not just chasing an impossible dream.

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)


NewGuyDave said...

250 a day. I can do that with this damnable day job. Thanks, Simon. I'm going to make that myu new goal.

Simon Haynes said...

At 60 words per minute that's just over 4 minutes typing. And since I ditched the whole 'must have a plot outline' idea, it's just a case of plotting one or two scenes ahead. Even my lousy chess game can handle that.

I suggest sticking to 250 words a day for as long as possible, until it's ingrained. Then move it up a notch. I found it became as natural as getting a cup of coffee.

Vero said...

This is so exciting!

Congrats on the steady output -- that alone puts you way ahead of 80% of all writers. Not to mention the quality content. Keep up the good work! :)

Simon Haynes said...

I'll celebrate even more if I keep this pace up for a whole year. One of the things which keeps me going is having several different projects on the go. When I need a break from one novel I just pick up another.

JamesO said...

Your last point is so true. I can't count the number of times I've not bought an interesting-looking book in a store because it's part three of a series and they haven't got the earlier ones. They could have sold three books, instead sold none.

Congratulations on the success of Hal. It's well-deserved and has been too long coming. My own little detective series is making a few waves over here, too. Long live self-publishing, I say.

Simon Haynes said...

Thanks James - and best of luck with your novels. Feel free to post the titles/links/etc.

I expanded on the 'ongoing series death spiral' in this guest post, and I've also spoken about it on my own blog before now:

Unfortunately trade publishing (or more accurately, the bookselling trade) isn't a nurturing environment for a new series. It usually takes 3 or 4 books before anything has a chance to take off, and yet one or two slow starters are enough to kill off most series.

Ted Witham said...

Hi Simon, I've been reluctant to self-publish in ebook format. I keep hearing that will diminish my chances of being "really" published by my short stories winning prizes or being picked up for an anthology... and I've also seen some poor results of others self-publishing (no editing, no plot, etc.)

But you're encouraging me to post some of them on Smashwords and build an audience that way. Thanks.

Simon Haynes said...

Hi Ted

Yes, short fiction is a different ball game. About half of the shorts I have online are reprints - each was published beforehand, although most of them were years ago now.

The lack of quality and decent editing can be offputting, but I have to say that not one of my published shorts was edited. They were taken and printed as-is, and nobody complained after publication.

Yes, sites like Amazon and Smashwords are flooded with material which reads like unpolished first drafts, but that just means readers appreciate the gems even more when they find them. A few good reviews and 4- or 5- star ratings immediately lift an ebook out of the featureless plain.

I did a blog post recently (a couple of posts before this one) titled 'Should you self-publish short fiction' - might be worth a read?