Baking Time: Giving Your Story Time to Breathe

When the indie author revolution started several years ago, there was a lot of advice about how authors must do things in order to be successful. One piece of sage advice still making the rounds is how authors must write and publish books as fast as they can—story-time assembly line writing, if you will. The rationale behind this is simple: the more books you have to sell, the more money you’ll make. Makes sense, right? As a result, I felt bad about myself for not writing faster. I kept hearing about these authors who write, edit, and publish a book every few months, sometimes every few weeks, and I thought I should do that too. I felt like I worked at a snail’s pace compared to others. Then, just as I had to do with social media and marketing, I had to find what works for me, not what works for others.

I write and publish exactly one book a year. I’m not writing the entire year, mind you. I find that my stories need time to bake. I need time to roll them, knead them, push them this way and make them round, press them there while they roll. I always start out with a general idea of what the story is about, who the characters are, what happens to them, that sort of thing. First, I write a general outline of what I think will happen in the story. Then I write my first draft, which is always a painful experience for me (you can see my thoughts on writing a first draft here). As I’ve said before, I love Anne Lamott for many reasons, but mainly I love her for introducing me to the phrase “shitty first drafts” since mine are the shittiest shitty first drafts anywhere. I know that most of what I write in the first draft will either be changed, rearranged, or deleted. When I’m writing a first draft I write the story in its most basic form with hardly any description, not much dialogue, and no thought to theme or foreshadowing. I’ve been writing long enough to understand my writing process, and for whatever reason the shitty first draft is my brain’s way of working through the first layer of the story so that when I’m done I can dig a little deeper to see what’s really tasty there. When I can write “The End” on my first draft I sigh with relief because I know the hardest part is over.

After I finish my first draft, I put it aside, usually for 2-3 months—sometimes more, sometimes less. That might seem like a long time to some people, especially those of the “write as many books as you can, as fast as you can” variety, but I find that time between drafts, what I call the baking time, is important for me. Even though I’m not working on the manuscript during this time, this is when I let my mind wander through different scenes, putting the characters in different situations, playing the “What will happen if…” game that fiction writers are so fond of.

I’m not only imagining my way through the story during this time. I read, a lot, particularly books written during or about the time my story takes place. My latest project is set in Victorian England, so you’ve already guessed that I’ve reread a number of Dickens’ novels—most recently Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend, both of which touch on the same themes I want to address. I’ve also read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which is set in New York, but since one of my main characters is a young American woman from New York, the novel has been a great read, giving me insight into New York society. If I’ve got you thinking of Wharton’s The Buccaneers or Lady Grantham from Downton Abbey, no, my book isn’t about American heiresses in London—not quite, anyway. In addition to my reading, I’ve been watching a lot of television about the Victorian period. The BBC is a master at recreating classic works of literature, many of which are set in the Victorian era. I’ve also been watching a number of documentaries about the period. The journey back to the Victorian era is mainly review for me since I studied that period for my Master’s degree (my thesis was on Dickens, the Big D himself). One thing I’m doing this time that I haven’t done before is I created a board on Pinterest where I’m pinning clothing from the Victorian era, as well as furniture, houses, art, gardens, books—anything I can find to give me a feel for the period. Right now the board is private because I don’t want to bombard people with the 40 pins a day I put on my research board, but soon I’ll make a public version so others can see what I’ve found.

This is where the fun of writing fiction begins for me—immersing myself in the time period. Reading other authors, learning new information, seeing the clothing and the furniture, listening to the music, watching the movies and documentaries, it all gives me an abundance of ideas to use in my own story. Of course, not everything I read or see will end up in the novel, but it doesn’t matter. It gives me a framework from which to build the world in which my characters inhabit. If it takes time for the ideas to meld together to form a cohesive story, that’s fine. I’ve learned to be content with my writing process.

How do I know it’s time to start writing again? It hits me out of the blue, like an oven timer letting me know the baking is done and my story is ready. This happened to me just last week. Suddenly, I saw a new opening scene for my novel playing before me as though it were on a movie reel behind my eyes. As an opening chapter it works better than the one I had before because it introduces us to the main characters, to the main setting of the story, and yet there’s enough action in it so it isn’t all exposition. So far so good. As I continued thinking about it, I realized that I could see the story through to its new conclusion, along with a few twists and turns I hadn’t thought of when I was writing the first draft. I wrote a new outline, and now I can begin writing the second draft, which is where all the pieces of the puzzle start to fit together. Really, I know it’s time to start writing again when the pain from not getting back to the story is stronger than the pain of writing—though, to be fair, this second draft isn’t painful the way the first draft is. In fact, the second draft isn’t painful at all. This break between first and second draft costs me a few months, but I find it’s a fun time for me and it’s time well spent.

It took some time, but I did finally realize that I’m not on anyone’s time frame but my own. For authors who write more quickly than I do, that’s great. My point is only to say that it’s up to authors to find out what works for them, and everyone’s process is different. Don’t fall into the trap, as I nearly did, of being dictated to about how often you should write or publish books. If you can write more quickly, go for it. If you need a year, two years, take it. Do your own thing. Write your own way. I would rather publish one book a year and put out something I was happy with, something I was proud to have my name on, than put out something I wasn’t satisfied with because I felt like I had to publish something. Over the years, I’ve come to terms with my “baking time.” Bringing stories to life is what I love most about writing, and the baking time allows me to do that in a richer, fuller way.

In Praise of Day Jobs

A cute picture of a cat proofreading a manuscript.

I know, I know… this is the opposite of what everyone else talks about. I’ve talked before about how most posts about publishing are directed toward one goal: leaving behind that dreadful day job (Bad day job! Bad job!) and making a living as a writer. It doesn’t surprise me that quitting the day job is the focus for so many authors. We like to judge things by their dollar value (or pound value, or yen value, or whatever you use where you live). The general belief is that when you quit your day job because you make enough money selling books, then and only then have you conquered that elusive mountain called Success, leaving the rest of us to dream of the Success that eludes us.

There are a lot of authors out there—both traditional and indie—who are doing brilliantly with their books. They’re making a lot of money, and some of them do leave their day jobs. And it’s true that most authors want to sell as many books as they can. I know I do. However, like with everything else in life, it’s important for each of us to decide for ourselves what we really want, not what we’re told to want by others. For a long time I felt like a failure for holding onto my day job. I need to be braver and quit. Just do it! But when I’m being honest I’ll admit that what I really want is financial security. I don’t mean financial security as in having millions in the bank; I mean I want to know I have enough to pay my rent and my bills, put gas in my car, go grocery shopping, you know, usual life stuff. I love the idea of making a living from my books, but I also love my steady paycheck.

Blame it on my childhood (I do). I love Dickens for his novels, but my attachment to him also stems from the similarities in our early lives. Dickens’ father John spent money faster than he made it, finally ending up in a debtors’ prison when Dickens was 12. While I was never sent to work at a blacking factory like Dickens (that I can recall), I, too, was raised by parents who never grew up when it came to money.

My parents were 16 and 20 when they met, and two kids later they remained teenagers in the lack of maturity they displayed when it came to financial matters. If there were such things as debtors’ prisons in the 1970s and 80s, the Allards would have been permanent residents. There was never enough money. Ever. My father was fired from every job he ever had for reasons ranging from being late to stealing money to stealing goods from the automobile parts departments where he worked. My mother worked occasionally, part time jobs here and there, but mainly she yelled and screamed about my father not being able to hold a job, and I became anxiety-ridden with her worries. We were evicted from every place we ever lived. Ever. The electricity was turned off too many times to count. I don’t know how many cars were repossessed, leading to the mornings when we’d go outside for my mom to drive my brother and me to school and the car wasn’t there, vanished to Repo Man Heaven. I remember a family friend sending my mother home with bags of groceries because there wasn’t enough money for food. I don’t remember being hungry, but I do remember the sickening feeling that comes with moneylessness. As a child, I couldn’t do anything about it, but as an adult I can and I do. Like I said, in praise of day jobs.

A few years ago I allowed myself to be convinced that I wasn’t a real writer unless I made my living writing so I tried my hand at freelancing. I hated it. I mean I really, really hated it. I hated that every job paid differently, and I hated that though I always had my work in before the deadline, the magazines or newspapers paid me whenever they got around to it. Sometimes the check they sent me wasn’t the right amount (Did we agree to $400? I have here $250…), and sometimes my payment was “lost in the mail” (Are you sure you didn’t get it? It says here it was sent last Tuesday…). Sometimes there wasn’t as much work in July as there was in June and I felt like a child again, worrying about whether or not the bills would be paid. At the end of the summer I raced back to my usual day job without looking back, and I’ve held on ever since.

Then again last year I flirted with the idea of leaving my day job after the release of Her Loving Husband’s Return, the third book in the Loving Husband Trilogy. Her Loving Husband’s Return landed on the Amazon best seller list the day it was released and it stayed there for months. Awesome, right?

Here’s the thing about book sales: they fluctuate. Daily. Hourly if you’re keeping track on KDP. After a while, sales of even the best best-selling books slow down. If you make enough money while the sales are hot to feel confident depending on that as your income, then by all means do so. My point is never to say that my way is the right way. If you have a more adventurous spirit than I do, then do what feels right for you (remember Leo Babauta’s #11). I’m simply showing why leaving the day job isn’t the ultimate goal for every single writer in the world. Book sales are part of the ebb and flow of life—sometimes books sell well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.

If I had depended on the sales of the Loving Husband Trilogy as my sole income, I would have done well for a few months, maybe about six months, but then what would I have done when the sales slowed down? Common wisdom says to write more books so readers have more to buy from you. Okay, I’m doing that, but I can’t churn out several books a year (also common wisdom), especially since my next novel is historical fiction and there’s a fair amount of research involved. Common wisdom also says to try different marketing strategies to get more sales. I agree with that, too, but no matter how much marketing I do I can’t predict sales or make anyone buy my books. If I knew the formula for forcing readers to buy my books I’d bottle it and sell it.

If you’re a genre novelist and you write quickly and develop a loyal audience, you may very well be able to make a living selling books. Erotic novels sell very well. Look at the Fifty Shades Trilogy. That author won’t have to work another day in her life. Bella Andre has become a publishing rock star with the success she’s had with her erotic romance novels, and she has a legion of loyal fans who snatch up her new books as they come out. For me, book sales provide a second income. I don’t have the stress of worrying about sales since I have my steady paycheck to depend on. After I do what I can, the books sell what they sell. I’ve learned to become very zen about the whole book sales thing. My life is a lot less stressful that way.

One of the things I love about Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn is her honesty about her journey as an author entrepreneur. She admits that since she quit working in IT she now makes about 55% of what she made when she had her day job. Kudos to Joanna for saying so since most authors won’t admit this. As a source of pride they’ll say they quit their day jobs, trying to prove they’ve made it as an author, but they won’t say what they’re making in comparison to what they made at their previous jobs. True, there are a lot of authors doing extremely well financially, but I bet there are a lot of authors like Joanna who are living on less since they quit their day jobs. Married authors may have an easier time with this since they might have another income to depend on whereas us singletons have only our solitary selves to pay the bills. Joanna also wins points because she admits that not all of her income comes from selling books. She sells courses in indie publishing and she does speaking engagements. Crafting a career for herself as an author entrepreneur helped her out of a job she hated and into something she loves. She makes less money doing it, but she’s happy, and heavens knows she’s good at it. She’s helped many authors with indie publishing, myself included.

Unlike Joanna, I don’t hate my day job. Sure, some days are better than others. Hell, some years are better than others, but that would be true of any job, yes, even writing. Writing isn’t rainbows and roses every day, and then there’s the stress of worrying from one day to the next how many books you’ve sold and struggling to find the magic formula to drive more sales. For someone from my background where there was never enough money, constantly worrying about paying the rent doesn’t work for me. I did enough of that when I was a kid.

True, I have less time to write than I would if I quit my day job, but you know what? The writing gets done. Writing is a priority in my life—it’s the only time I understand my place in the world—and I make time for it. Many writers, sometimes even the most respected and beloved authors, don’t make as much money writing as we think they do. I just reread Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and she spent part of her career struggling financially, and she’s Anne Freakin’ Lamott—the goddess of all things writing as far as I’m concerned. My man Dickens also struggled financially for the first part of his career, and he’s Charles Freakin’ Dickens! He complained he was being robbed by his publishers—sound familiar?—while he tried to raise his large family in London (even then London was too damn expensive). He didn’t do well financially until he started his reading engagements where he acted out passages from his novels to enraptured audiences all across Britain and once or twice in America. Some scholars say the exhaustion from the readings destroyed Dickens’ health and ultimately killed him, so maybe that’s not the best example. My point, and I do have one, is that even great writers don’t always make a living from their books.

I found this article from Fast Company about famous writers—and Dustin Hoffman—and their day jobs. Here’s another one from the Huffington Post. After reading them, I don’t feel so bad. Maybe I am cautious in the way I approach money, but my life has taught me that caution, especially when it comes to financial matters, is a good thing. I can write my books, market them to the best of my ability, and then I can relax knowing that, at the beginning of the month, the rent will be paid and whatever I sell becomes extra income. Don’t use a day job as an excuse not to write. If you’re an artist, the art will happen, even if you work a nine-to-five. It has to. That’s what makes you an artist.

The Business of Being an Author: What is Success?

Most articles about publishing focus on selling a ton of books with the ultimate goal of leaving behind the lousy day job to make a living as an author. That’s a great job if you can get it, and I’m thrilled whenever I hear of authors–indie or traditional–who find fantastic success. I would never argue with success for any author because it means more success for others. Fifty Shades of Grey sold 30 million copies? Awesome. Now there are a lot of readers out there looking for more books to read.

The more I read about e-book sales, the more I realized that the books that sell the most are genre fiction such as erotic romance, mystery, thrillers, and science fiction. That’s not what I write. The most accurate genre for what I write is literary fiction, and based on this graph I saw on The Creative Penn, fiction and literature make up 5% of e-book sales where genre fiction is 69%. For Amazon’s sake, I classify my books in more popular genres like paranormal romance (for the Loving Husband Trilogy) or gay romance (for That You Are Here), but they’re not romances in the traditional sense, and they’re definitely not erotic, so they don’t sell as well as, for example, Bella Andre’s books. I read an article that defined literary fiction by saying genre fiction is an escape from reality where literary fiction makes the reader deal with reality. That’s why genre fiction sells more. People want an escape from a long day dealing with work and family. I get that. That’s why I write fiction—to escape reality, my own reality at least.

So…if I don’t write the kind of books that sell a ton, then what? I’ve thought a lot about that over the last three years. When I began writing Her Dear & Loving Husband, my initial idea was to write a traditional romance about a vampire who rediscovers his one true love. As I wrote it, it evolved into what it is…a look into the good and the bad of human nature. When I had Her Dear & Loving Husband critiqued, the reader suggested I turn it into a more traditional romance by adding some steamy sex scenes and deleting the flights of literary fancy. She wanted me to turn James into an alpha male. I could have done it. I was tempted to do it. But when push came to shove, I realized that’s not the book that was in my heart to write. I made the decision to write the novel the way I was drawn to write it, not the novel that would fit more easily into an Amazon category, thereby finding a larger audience and selling more copies. I knew my choices could cost me readers, but I decided I was all right with that. Success for me no longer came in the form of huge numbers (though I certainly won’t argue with huge numbers if they happen). I believed that if I wrote the book that was in my heart, readers could relate to it on that level. I believed there was an audience out there for my Loving Husband stories, maybe not as large as the Fifty Shades trilogy, but my gut told me there were readers out there.

I was right. I’ve had the most beautiful messages from readers all over the world who love the Loving Husband Trilogy and waited patiently for each book, and it was a year between books. Book Three in the series, Her Loving Husband’s Return, landed on the Amazon best seller list the day it was released when I had done exactly zero things to promote it, and it stayed there for months. Is that success? It is to me.

On The Creative Penn, Joanna wrote a wonderful post where she talks about authors defining success for themselves based on what they want from their writing careers. For some, they want to sell a lot of books and make a lot of money. For some, writing is more of a creative pursuit than a financial one. She talks about writers who want to create body of work over their lifetime that they’re proud of. That’s me. I even left a comment on her post to that effect.

I’ve noticed how whenever the topic turns to writers who write as a creative and artistic pursuit, some poor soul takes offence by saying, “Why can’t I write for money? Why do I have to defend myself because I want to make money writing?” The answer is, you don’t have to defend yourself. If you want to write to make money, then write to make money. No one is poo-pooing that idea, especially not me. But if I write because I want to share the stories that are in my heart without making changes to increase sales and profits, then I can make that choice too. In fact, I think it’s the other way around. The vast majority of posts I’ve read focus on selling as many books as possible and quitting the day job, as if that’s the holy grail for indies—when you make a living selling books, then you have arrived. Arrived where, I still don’t know. If anything, those of us who write for artistic expression are the ones who have to defend ourselves because we’re not focused on the same things everyone else is focused on. That, as Leo points out in his post, is scary. It’s always scary when you make your own way instead of following the pack.